An Introduction to the Buddha’s Fire Sermon
We owe the translation of the title of the discourse known as ‘The Fire Sermon’ to the American translator Henry Clark Warren, whose Buddhism in Translations was one of those pioneering Victorian works that brought the spirit of Buddhism into the west. Someone who read Warren’s translation was the poet T.S. Eliot, who studied Sanskrit from 1911–14, at Harvard. And Eliot’s reading of Warren’s translation resulted in his naming the third section of his 1922 poem The Waste Land ‘The Fire Sermon’. I’m sure the Buddha could never have guessed that he would get quoted in modernist literature.
The title ‘The Fire Sermon’ has a great ring to it. More literally, the title (āditta-sutta) is ‘The Discourse about What is on Fire’, or simply, ‘Burning’. And, while the so-called ‘second sermon’ is more like a Socratic dialogue than a sermon, this ‘Discourse on Burning’, is more rightly called the ‘third sermon’ – the third teaching of the Buddha. A problem of course with the English word ‘sermon’ is its connotation of a tedious long talk in a church. But all of the Buddha’s discourses were delivered out-of-doors, and they are all records of the Buddha’s attempt to directly get across his awakening experience, to the extent that it can be put into words. The Pāli canon gives us a vivid sense of how the Buddha’s teaching was always delivered to a specific person or group, always tailored to his audience’s interests and expectations. The Dharma was never primarily a set of lists or doctrines, but rather the familiar ways in which the Dharma came to be expressed were the result of the Buddha’s teaching experience to specific people over a long period.
Once again I invite you to consider the early Buddhist discourses as literature – not as any kind of more-or-less accurate record of what the Buddha said in ancient India, but as the way that the early Buddhists, after the time of the Buddha, tried to re-create in a literary form the style and impact of their teacher. This involved the development of stories, which have the look of historical accounts, but are really later reconstructions of events. One these stories is that of what the Buddha did after his awakening experience, under the Bodhi tree. It is a long and detailed story, and is preserved in the Vinaya (the book of monastic discipline). Two episodes of this story are the Buddha’s ‘first sermon’ to his former five companions, given at the Deer Park at Sarnath, and then the ‘second sermon’, which brings them all to awakening. Let me give a summary version of what happens next.
We hear about a spoiled young man called Yasa, who becomes disgusted with his superficial lifestyle, whom the Buddha converts, in a story that later is switched to the Buddha himself. Then we hear that, once there are sixty arahants, the Buddha sends them out in all directions, exhorting them to ‘wander for the well-being and happiness of the many, out of compassion for the world, for the benefit, well-being and happiness of gods and human beings’.
The Buddha then wanders eastward, towards Uruvelā (where he had gained awakening). On the way he meets a group of thirty young men with their twenty-nine wives. The girlfriend of the unmarried man has stolen their things and they are looking for her. ‘Which is better for you?’ the Buddha asks them; ‘seeking a woman or seeking for your self?’, and he converts them too. Arriving at Uruvelā, the Buddha meets three fire-worshipping dreadlocked ascetics, each called Kassapa, with their thousand followers. By performing a series of miracles, starting with the taming of a fierce nāga (python) living in one of the fire-huts, the Buddha converts the ascetics. Now follows the Buddha’s third sermon, to the former fire-worshipping ascetics (my translation can be found here).
The later Theravādin commentary adds that the Buddha thought, ‘What might be an appropriate dharma talk for these people, who tend the sacred fire in the mornings?’ And he came to the conclusion, ‘I will teach them about the six senses and their objects, comparing them to what is burning and blazing, and in this way they will be able to obtain arahantship.’ Then he spoke this formulation of the Dharma in order to teach the Dharma to these people.
The commentary can be a bit dry and literal in its interpretations of early Buddhism, but in this case it is very helpful. It points out that this particular discourse was delivered to a particular group of people, fire-worshippers, so that the Buddha tailored what he said to meet their interests and preoccupations. This is an example of what the later tradition called the Buddha’s ‘skilful means’ (upaya-kauśalya), his ability to teach people appropriately. The fire-worshipping ascetics believed that tending the sacred fire, performing fire-rituals every morning, pouring ghee into the flames to feed the gods, was the way to salvation. The Buddha gets their attention by saying, everything is burning, everything is on fire. One might imagine that they would have responded by saying, or at least thinking, no it isn’t. But nevertheless he has their attention.
What is supposedly burning and on fire? What follows is another analysis of the whole of experience. In the second sermon the Buddha used the framework of the five constituents of experience (khandhas, ‘aggregates’). In this discourse, he uses a different framework:
- The five senses-organs plus the mind.
- The five sense-objects plus the contents of mental experience – ideas.
- The contact between the senses, including the mind, and the world.
- Experience arising from contact.
I find this a fascinating analysis. Elsewhere, having used this same framework, he asks, is there anything else in experience apart from this all this? Of course, it is a quite reasonable and sensible belief that there is a world independent of our sense-experience, but all we ever have to go on is the experience of our senses. This is it – what is seen, heard, smelled, tasted, touched and thought – this is the whole world. Anything else is an idea in our minds. And ideas are already included.
So everything, the whole of our experience, the whole world, is burning. Now comes the twist. Burning with what? With the fires of compulsion (rāga, ‘greed’), hostility (dosa, ‘hate’) and confusion (moha, ‘delusion’). This group of three bad guys is very common in early Buddhist discourses. It is a way of characterising our basic psychological afflictions. Compulsion and hostility are emotional – they characterise attraction and aversion reactions to experience – while confusion is intellectual – characterising basic lack of understanding of what is happening. The early Buddhist teachings stress that awakening or nirvāna is the ending of compulsion, hostility and confusion. In a way, you can say, that’s all awakening is. But it’s perhaps preferable to say that the ending of compulsion, hostility and confusion is a way of describing awakening in negative psychological terms. More positively, we could add that awakening can also be described in terms of contentment, love and wisdom.
Everything is burning. It’s a way of putting the Dharma – a dharma-pariyāya, a formulation of the Dharma. Does this speak to us? I once lived in a community of men (four of us, in a half-renovated house, with two cats and a dog, and a lot of dope-smoking), and one of the men was obsessed with sex. Whatever one might say, he brought it round to sex. Beds, beaches, lawns, woods, floors, bicycles, breakfast, dinner, tea – it all triggered compelling ideas of various sorts in my friend’s mind. Everything was burning for him – burning with a specific kind of compulsion. Then there was the mother of a dear friend. Any topic of conversation one might bring up was an opportunity to be gloomy. I was once visiting with my friend, and we’d been to the park. So I said, ‘the park here in town is big, isn’t it?’; to which the response came, ‘oh, the parking in town is terrible, so terrible’. Everything was burning for her – burning with a particular kind of gloom, of negativity.
Now we can make sense of the links between the Buddha’s Fire Sermon and T.S. Eliot’s poem The Waste Land. Eliot quotes the Fire Sermon like this:
To Carthage then I came
Burning burning burning burning
O Lord Thou pluckest me out
O Lord Thou pluckest
The allusion to the Fire Sermon (‘Burning burning burning burning’) is sandwiched between allusions to the Confessions of St. Augustine, who went to Carthage as a teenager and was embroiled in ‘unholy loves’ – Augustine was burning too. Earlier in section III of The Waste Land, we read:
On Margate Sands.
I can connect
Nothing with nothing…
These lines allude to Eliot’s own recuperation from a nervous breakdown in the seaside town of Margate in Kent. Perhaps Eliot evokes another way in which the whole of our experience might be ‘burning’ – or tingling or hurting – with the inability to connect with, or find meaning in, what is happening; a symptom of the dissociated modern sensibility, one that perhaps many of us can relate to, at least occasionally.
But the Buddha’s Fire Sermon is an invitation to overcome burning, obsession, gloominess or dissociation, by identifying it as such. The truth is that sense-experience isn’t just what happens to us – it is how the world appears as a result of our active involvement with it. The world shows up according to what we want, what we care about, what we believe, according to the quality of our attention. It strikes me that these days not many of us might be fire-worshippers, but a lot of us pay attention to the news as it is represented on the internet. In fact, it is rather easy to pay a great deal of attention, not only to the news, but to the opinions people have about the news, and then to think about our own opinions about those other people’s opinions. It’s not so much that the world is burning, but that the world is a drama. The world of our experience is a constant drama, driven by the plot-lines of compulsion, hostility and confusion.
But what happens when we notice this, and begin to pay attention, not to the contents of our experience, but to how it shows up for us? The first thing we might notice is that we ourselves are largely responsible for how the world appears and shows up. If everything reminds you of sex, or everything is terrible, or the world going to the dogs, that tells you something about your own psychological tendencies. After all, it is we ourselves who choose what to pay attention to, and how to respond or react. Of course, we are talking here about deep-rooted habitual tendencies. But they can change, and that is the point of engaging in Buddhist practice. Hence the discourse goes on to identify three stages of positive change – disenchantment, self-possession and liberation. These summarise an insight process.
In another discourse (Itivuttaka 93), the Buddha teaches the overcoming or quenching of the three fires of compulsion, hostility and confusion through three distinct methods. Compulsion is quenched by attending to the unattractive qualities of our experience. Hostility is quenched by developing kindness (mettā). Confusion is quenched by developing wisdom. If we can imagine our experience as being on fire, in terms of a metaphor of burning, then to practice the Dharma is to quench the flames:
Those who practice, day and night,
the teaching of the perfectly awakened one:
they put out the fire of compulsion,
constantly noticing unattractiveness.
Those excellent people put out
the fire of hostility through kindness,
and the fire of confusion through the wisdom
that leads to piercing through.
Those mature beings, having put out the fires,
indefatigable day and night,
are completely quenched, remainderless;
they have entirely overcome suffering.
Based on a talk given at Bristol Buddhist Centre, 14 November 2017.