01 May 2009

Everything is on fire!

agni2The discourse that I am going to explore today is, according to Therevāda tradition, the third spoken by the Buddha after his awakening. In it he establishes one of the fundamental metaphors of the whole Buddhist canon. The short title of the Sutta is the Āditta Sutta, but it is also known as the Āditta-pariyāya Sutta: The Discourse on the Way of Putting Things as Being on Fire, or we might say The Fire Metaphor. (SN 35.28, PTS iv.19). It is usually known in English as the Fire Sermon - a full translation is included at the end of this post. "The Fire Sermon" always makes me think of fire and brimstone, and as we will see the two are not so far apart!

The Buddha addresses the bhikkhus and says: "everything is ablaze" (sabbaṃ ādittaṃ). Although it is said to be early, this sutta is one of a series of texts (no.28 in fact) that explore sabbaṃ - 'everything, the whole, all'. There is a parallel here with a Vedic idiom. Sabbaṃ in Sanskrit is sarvam, often used in the phrase idaṃ sarvaṃ 'all this'. Compare this verse from the oldest parts of the Ṛgveda (RV 8.58.2):
éka evā́gnír bahudhā́ sámiddha
ékaḥ sū́ryo víśvam ánu prábhūtaḥ
ékaivóṣā́ḥ sárvam idáṃ ví bhāti
ékaṃ vā́ idáṃ ví babhūva sárvam

Only one fire kindles many times.
One sun is all penetrating.
Dawns as one, shine on all this.
From this one, unfolds the whole.
It may be that the Buddha was consciously using a Vedic idiom in the Fire Sermon - purposefully parodying this kind of religious view, especially as it coincides with a fire metaphor. However fire is probably a universal metaphor and it's appearance in any one text may not be significant. The 'sarvam' idiom is also common in the Upaniṣads.

Returning to the Pāli we find that sabbaṃ can be used in several different ways, each of are subtlety different aspects of totality: “whole, entire, all, every". Sabbaṃ is most typically 'the whole'. When used to mean 'all' it has colonised the semantic field of the Sanskrit word viśva - a similar process seems to happen in many Indo-European Languages. This sequence of suttas dealing with sabbaṃ uses all of the definitions of sabbaṃ. However here sabbaṃ as defined by the Buddha includes only the senses, and their objects - ear, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind; forms, sounds, smells, tastes, touches, mental activity (dharmas). Collectively these are known as the twelve 'āyatana' - the meeting places or bases; or if we include the respective sense consciousnesses the eighteen dhātu.

This might seem a narrow definition of 'everything', but it takes into account the perceptual situation. The Buddha doesn't deny the objective world (and therefore non-dualist interpretations of Buddhism seem to me to miss the mark) but he says that all we can know about that world comes through the senses and is processed by the mind. As such he is not a pure idealist, since he doesn't deny the objective per se. 'Everything' in this sense is everything that we can know, and is also what constitutes our 'world' (loka), that is our personal subjective world.

Everything - the senses and their objects, and the mind which perceives them; and what arises in the mind as a result of perception - are ablaze. They are the fuel of the fire. And with what are they ablaze? (kiñca sabbaṃ āditto). They are ablaze firstly with the fires (aggi) of greed (rāga), hatred (dosa), and ignorance (moha). This triad, known as kilesa (Sanskrit kleśa) are universally acknowledged in Buddhism as the roots of the problems of human beings. However the Buddha continues on to say that everything is ablaze with the fires of birth, old age and death (jātiyā jarāya maraṇena), and with all forms of unhappiness: grief, lamenting, misery, dejection, and trouble (soka-parideva-dukkha-domanass-upāyāsā). So the fire is the causes and effects of spiritual ignorance, the rounds of rebirth (and redeath) and the unsatisfactoriness of being ignorant of the nature of experience.

It is typical of the sutta form for the Buddha to first set out a problem and then show how it can be resolved. In this case it is through seeing this (evaṃ passaṃ). Seeing it one becomes weary of it (nibbindati). Nibbindati is often translated as revulsion (by Bhikkhu Bodhi for instance). This captures the intensity of the emotion, but gives it a far too negative a cast for my taste. The word can mean "is weary of, satiated, turns away" - in my own idiom I might say "fed-up". Seeing the fire and fuel burning away, one becomes thoroughly fed-up with being burned, and turns away from it. Turning away one detaches from it (virajjhati). Virāga (detachment) is the opposite of being caught up in the passions (rāga) - passions very much in the old fashion sense of something overtaking you, and taking you over against your will. Being free of passions one is liberated (vimuccati), and one knows that one is liberated.

Now the word is not used in this text, but it's clear that the metaphor finds it's apotheosis in the term nibbāṇa. The origin of this term is clearer in Sanskrit: nirvāna. Vāna is from the root √vā 'to blow', and nir- (actually nis- but sandhi changes it to nir- when followed by v) meaning "out, forth, away": nirvāṇa, then, means "to blow out". What is blown out is the fire described here - it is clearly not the blowing out of 'being' or of the person or personality or the ego. Nirvāṇa then is not at all nihilistic - unless the absence of greed, hatred and delusion is nihilistic! The ideas being expressed here owe a great deal to the work of Richard Gombrich - who has especially pointed out the ubiquity of the fire metaphor and some of the ways it is employed. I have already written about the fire metaphor and the nidāna chain before: Playing with Fire [16.05.08].

Clearly in terms of method this sutta is short on detail. Although one could say that the Buddhist program is just this: becoming fed-up with suffering and turning away from the causes of it; in practice we have to have a little more help than this. There are lots of methods that we can employ to help us along the way. What this sutta does do quite nicely is give us an overview of the problem and the solution, of what I have been calling the Buddhist program. Perhaps for this reason it is celebrated amongst Buddhists.

The Āditta Sutta (SN 35.28, PTS S iv.19) is translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi in The Connected Discourses of the Buddha, Wisdom Publications, 2000, p.1143. Bhikkhu Thanissaro's translation is available on Access to Insight. I used the Pāli text from www.tipitaka.org for my translations.

Ṛgveda quote from the online version of Thomson, Karen and Slocum, 2008. The Rigveda: Metrically Restored Text. Translation is mine.

Information on the sarvam idiom from essays by Jan Gonda
  • Gonda, J. 1955. ‘Reflections on Sarva- in Vedic Texts’. Indian Linguistics 16(Nov) : 53-71
  • Gonda, J. 1982. ‘All, Universe, and Totality in the Śatapatha-Brāhmana’. Journal of the Oriental Institute 32(1-2): 1-17

The Fire Sutta

Once the Blessed one was dwelling at Gaya, on Gaya’s Head, with one thousand monks. There the Blessed One addressed the monks:
Monks, everything is ablaze! And what is everything? The eye, forms, eye-consciousness, eye-contact, those sensations that arise from eye-contact whether pleasant or unpleasant or neutral. All these are ablaze. Ablaze with what? They are ablaze with the fires of craving, hatred, and ignorance; with the fires of birth, old-age and death; with the fires of grief, lamenting, misery, dejection, and trouble.

Similarly the ear, the nose, the tongue, the body and the mind; and sounds, smells, tastes, contact and thoughts, etc are ablaze.

When they see things in this way, the noble disciples are fed up with the senses, and their objects, and sense consciousness, and contact, and what arises from contact - whether pleasant or unpleasant or neutral. And being fed-up with it all they lose interest. Losing interest they are free from those influences, and they know themselves to be free. They understand: “birth is cut off, the spiritual life has been lived, what should be done has been done, this state of being is no more”.
This is what the Blessed One said.

Delighted, those monks rejoiced in what the Blessed One said. Moreover, during the exposition their minds were freed from the fires [1] by removing the fuel [2].

  1. Here I am translating āsava as ‘fires’ to link it to the fires of greed (raga), hatred (dosa) and ignorance (moha) mentioned earlier in the text. The āsavas are sensuality (kāma), becoming (bhava), ignorance (avijjā) and, sometimes, views (diṭṭha). The fires mentioned above are a different list known as the kilesā or defilements. Although the āsavas and the kilesas only partially overlap, they are clearly getting at the same kind of thing i.e. that our responses to the senses and their objects is what binds us to saṃsara.
  2. Anupādāya is more literally “not taken hold of” or “not appropriated”. With reference to the fire metaphor however upādā suggests the fuel which supports the fire. And anupādā would then be “not taking up any more fuel”. Pali-English Dictionary s.v. upādā, upādāna and upādāya.

image: by jayarava
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