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The Mind on Fire

Some highly developed monks go into isolated retreat and do not teach, so we don’t know very much about them. Then there are monks who are exceptional teachers. Monks who, motivated by kindness, wish to help others develop on the path—monks such as Thailand’s Ajahn Lee Dhammadharo (1907–61).

In an insightful Dhamma talk given in July 1959, and titled “The Mind Aflame,” Ajahn Lee made the analogy of the heart on fire with insatiable desire when it doesn’t get what it wants.

Here, the image of burning fire signifies how developing symptoms indicate mental disease; whereas, quenching and extinguishing the fire signifies a medical cure.

Ajahn Lee Dhammadharo. From

In my exposition, I shall follow the structure of Ajahn Lee’s analogy, but paraphrase in my own words to explicate the imagery:

A heart lacking proper nourishment becomes hungry and skinny, and sneaks about in back alleys, grabbing and consuming whatever food scraps it can find without ever receiving enough nourishment.

A hungry heart will feel discouraged and dissatisfied, while a well-fed heart that receives what it needs will feel happy and satisfied.

The Buddha, who was full of compassion and intentions of helpfulness, once said that he who goes around greedily swallowing sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and tactile sensations is swallowing a ball of fire.

The imagery may be further explained as follows:             

“The eye is burning” means that outward appearance, scientifically viewed, looks like solid form when in actual fact it only exists as low-level waves of vibrating energy frequencies. What appears to have an attractive shape and form is in reality nothing more than a collection of transient, empty phenomena consisting of fleeting, flashing waves.

This means that a desire to hold onto and enjoy such fleeting phenomena is delusive and vain, and the impossibility of satisfying the wish for solidity and permanency may so irritate and enflame the mind that it may slowly drive us mad.

“The ear is burning” means that since the sounds we yearn for are similarly impermanent and temporary, and cannot be held onto, so the impossibility of satisfying such desires for hearing pleasant sounds and avoiding unpleasant sounds may enflame the mind and slowly drive us mad.

“The nose is burning” means that since our liking pleasant smells and disliking unpleasant smells is always impermanent and temporary in nature—because they cannot be continued or ended through mind/body actions—the impossibility of satisfying such wishes may enflame the mind and slowly drive us mad.

“The tongue is burning” means that since tastes are only impermanent and temporary, if we become attached to liking or disliking them, the result will be burning frustration. So the impossibility of satisfying wishes to enjoy or avoid such tastes may enflame the mind and maybe slowly drive us mad.

“The sense of touch is burning” means that since the perception of impulses of each and every physical senses is merely impermanent and temporary and cannot be held onto or controlled in any way. If we become attached to liking or disliking them, the result will become a burning frustration of such desires, so the impossibility of satisfying our wishes to enjoy or avoid tastes may enflame the mind and slowly drive us mad.

“The mind is burning” means that if the mind wants anything within the mundane, conditioned world to continue or discontinue, said wish will similarly be frustrated, because when we become attached to liking or disliking anything which cannot be continued or discontinued, the impossibility of satisfying such wishes to enjoy or avoid such desired states may enflame the mind and slowly drive us mad.

When we allow ourselves to become firmly intent on perpetuating such impossible desires, it will be as if we had swallowed a big ball of fire which we are incapable of spitting out or vomiting up. We’ll then feel a ball of fire burning in our bellies; whereas, had we wisely known enough to detach and leave such desires alone—by simply letting them arise and disappear—then we’d finally find ourselves in a safe state, fully free from uncertainty, frustration, and suffering.

As long as we—whether sitting, standing, walking, or reclining—continue to foolishly suffer from flaming fire balls of excessive desire burning within, we’ll be loading ourselves down with selfish burdens, and we’ll never be able to feel calm and at peace. When we can’t stop being grasping and greedy, we we’ll find only bodily peace once the flame of life has been extinguished and we’ve gasped our last breath.

The destructive energy of greed, anger, and delusion similarly arise and develop like big, red-hot, glowing balls of molten iron, flowing into and filling the mind/body with ever-increasing internal pressure. When greed doesn’t get what it wants, the emotional energy urge turns into anger, and once anger becomes rage, we lose control of our heart and mind, and the deranged energy then becomes stark delusion and mindless madness.

When I use the word, “we” here, I am suggesting what we, as vulnerable members of the human race, might be capable of undergoing once we’re driven up to and pushed over the dizzy, disorienting edge of sanity, descending into deep, unfathomable depths of distraction and derangement, finally becoming fully lost and disoriented within the heart of darkness.

Once we lose balance, we lose sight of reality, and become so enraged and blinded that we forget everything, until we no longer care about good or bad, husbands or wives, parents or grandparents—not caring about anything or anybody to the point where we, with increasing heat, enflamed by uncontrollable rage, might even be driven to impulsively kill women and children and drink their blood.

Ungoverned greed, hate, and delusion can unexpectedly catapult the heart/mind into proverbial hell within moments, so this becomes an imminent danger.

But, if, when greed is starting to arise, instead of giving in to it we catch and block any impulsive urge; if we restrain it from doing what is harmful and doing what is harmless; the potential threat to moral purity will not be able to endanger or destroy us or those close to us. This is because we have wisely cultivated and taken out the necessary figurative fire insurance to protect us from risky intentions, thoughts, actions, and consequences.

When we within human society lack the figurative fire insurance to protect us from the effects of attachment to greed, hate, and delusion, we can easily become involved in lying, cheating, and false dealings—and much worse temptations—in such a way that these corruptions may, sooner or later, not only destroy us but may even become a threat to social order.

Instead of becoming resentful, vindictive, and violent, we can become kind, compassionate and generous by donating to temples and charities or giving our time and attention to others who are deserving and needy So instead of letting our brains burn up angrily, we will continue gaining merit and maintain our insurance payments.

Through renunciation, discernment, and the heedful practice of moral precepts, we can continue bandaging and soothing the burning infections of potential delusions. We can keep cleansing and washing away any unwise, unwholesome intentions, potentially arising within our thoughts, words, and deeds, as we gradually and step-by-step continue making our way on the Noble Path to ultimate liberation and enlightenment.

Related features from BDG

Perfections and Imperfections on the Noble Path
On the Seven Factors of Enlightenment, Part One
On the Seven Factors of Enlightenment, Part Two: Mindfulness and Keen Awareness
On the Seven Factors of Enlightenment, Part Three: Arousing Energy and Attaining Rapture
On the Seven Factors of Enlightenment, Part Four: Tranquility, Concentration, and Equanimity

More from Theravada Teachings by Prof. David Dale Holmes

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