Articles June 26, 2024

Monthly Dharma: All is Burning

Sean Oakes

When the Buddha looked for an image to describe the force of grasping and the intensity of suffering, he chose fire. In our moment of accelerating planetary warming and a climate crisis brought on by the burning of fossil fuels, fire as a metaphor for greed, endless consumption, and the cycle of pain they create feels all too apt. As we explore the Buddha’s teachings on fire, we find the core insight of the first two Noble Truths—that grasping is the cause of suffering—relevant both for personal awakening and the collective challenge we face as a culture trying to rein in the ancient forces of greed, hatred, and delusion.

“All is burning”

Shortly after the Buddha’s awakening, he and his initial disciples encountered three brothers, each of whom was a powerful spiritual teacher and led a community of ascetic practitioners. The three Kassapa brothers were all part of a fire-worshiping lineage of ascetic practice, and the Buddha spent his entire first Rains Retreat living near them, performing fire-based miracles and slowly convincing them of his superior path. When all three teachers finally convert and become monastics, along with their 1000 followers, the Buddha preaches a discourse to them called “Burning” (SN 35.28) that uses fire as the primary metaphor. It is the third of the Buddha’s recorded talks, after “Setting in Motion the Wheel of the Dhamma” (SN 56.11) and “The Characteristic of Not-Self” (SN 22.59). Conventionally called the “Fire Sermon,” the Buddha begins with the dramatic statement that “all is burning,” and then describes the burning caused by grasping at the objects of the senses.

“Mendicants, all is burning. And what is the all that is burning? The eye is burning. Sights are burning. Eye consciousness is burning. Eye contact is burning. The painful, pleasant, or neutral feeling that arises conditioned by eye contact is also burning. Burning with what? Burning with the fires of greed, hate, and delusion. Burning with rebirth, old age, and death, with sorrow, lamentation, pain, sadness, and distress.” (SN 35.28)

Our senses are understood in Buddhist thought as having three aspects: the sense organ, the consciousness of sensing, and contact with the object that is sensed. All of these aspects of the eye (and the passage is repeated for all of the six senses) are burning. Then there is vedanā, the “feeling tone” of pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral that follows sensory contact, also burning. What are these aspects of our experience burning with? The great defilements of greed, hatred, and delusion, and with the many painful aspects of embodied life that make up the classic definition of suffering (dukkha).

The fire of craving

“Burning” holds a particular set of implications in Buddhist thought. In the ancient South Asian conception, fire was latent in the atmosphere, appearing when conditions brought it into contact with fuel, and consuming available fuel the way bodies digest food. The words used for “craving” (taṇhā) and “clinging” (upādāna) literally mean “thirst” and “feeding,” so there is the sense of both hunger and consumption, and that sensory contact is what “fuels” the burning. We can think of sense consciousness as a kind of fire, burning as greed, hatred, and delusion keep it bound to sensory experience.

The metaphor of fire runs through the teachings all the way from this initial depiction of the heat of craving through to the image used for liberation itself. Nibbāna (Sanskrit: Nirvāṇa) literally means “extinguished,” and in the fire metaphor it refers to the going out of the fire of craving and the end of the suffering it causes. In “The Image of Nirvāṇa,” Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu connects the image of fire returning to its latent form in the atmosphere, rather than being destroyed, with the awakened mind being “unbound” from suffering the way fire can be unbound from its fuel and stop burning.

The fire in the mind is put out by separating it from its fuel through the cultivation of disenchantment (nibbidā) with sensory contact. The Buddha is teaching these fire-worshipers in language they already use about desire and attachment, and when they hear this, their hearts let go, and they all become fully awakened.

Disenchantment & letting go

How do we find this disenchanted state, when the life of the senses is so compelling, and is part of what makes human life so beautiful and rich? The image of fire unbound may give us a hint. If fire stops burning when it no longer clings to fuel, we can feel how our suffering eases when we are no longer obsessed with and attached to things and experiences. This does not mean we reject the many beauties and compelling dramas of the world or cease engaging with them, but it does ask us to find equanimity around them. We can engage with the world of the senses without being enchanted by it, the teaching suggests. Without getting burned.

One core practice for finding disenchantment and letting go is the ethical discipline of restraint. When we hold back from actions that break the precepts or set up the conditions for harm for ourselves or others, we train ourselves to experience the sensory world without giving in to craving and clinging. In “Two Brahmins” (AN 3.52), the Buddha teaches this to two elderly men who admit that they haven’t made great decisions in their lives and ask how they should practice now that they are facing death. And in “With Hatthaka” (AN 3.35), the Buddha talks with a householder who thinks that material wealth and comfort are protection from winter weather and dissatisfaction, and shows him that “a fever born of greed, hate, or delusion” can still “burn” the one who is not liberated. Only the liberation of the heart can fully provide the peace and ease we seek.

Since it is not sensory experience itself that burns, but rather the painful reactive states of greed, hatred, and delusion, another pathway is taught to shift our experience of the world. Appreciation of beauty is a form of the brahmavihāra of sympathetic joy (muditā), and suggests that appreciation without grasping is a way to be present with the sensory world without suffering. In the Visuddhimagga, there is an image of the image of a king riding through a marketplace, observing various artisans practicing their crafts (Vsm 10.46). The king appreciates and delights in the art of the craftspeople without feeling the need to practice their arts himself, because he is content with the greater joys of kingship. In the same way, the joys of insight and liberation are greater than the joys of sense pleasures, and even greater than the joys of blissful meditative states. As the liberated states of muditā and equanimity (upekkhā) become stronger, we find joy and peace of mind alongside engagement with the world, and let go of the craving to own or control that which is not ours.

For further exploration

Two books that explore the use of fire as a metaphor in the Buddha’s thought are Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu’s The Mind like Fire Unbound, and What the Buddha Thought by scholar Richard Gombrich.

Explore craving, compassion, and liberation in personal and collective practice in Dharma talks by Ayya Santacitta, Amana Brembry Johnson, DaRa Williams, Rick Hanson, Thanissara, and Heather Sundberg.