We Are All on Fire-But There’s a Way to Put Out the Flames

Steven Goodheart Essay

Steven Goodheart Essay

The Buddha’s insight into the human condition is both immensely hopeful and immensely sobering.  Hopeful, because he sees the potential of every human being to be set free by skillful means that can liberate one from all suffering and bring true freedom and happiness.  And sobering, because as a good doctor, the compassionate Buddha understood just how serious the disease of the human condition is.

The Buddha’s First Noble Truth, “there is suffering,” isn’t just a truism.  We all know there’s suffering in human life.  The Buddha’s unique insight is  just how deep and complete that suffering is when we are bound up in craving, attachment, delusion, and all the negative perceptions, feelings, and emotions that arise from them.

From the standpoint of his enlightened, unbound mind, the Buddha declares that the problem of suffering isn’t a once-in-a-while thing.  It’s an ever-present problem.  Even our happiness moments and joys are mixed with an underlying unsatisfactoriness, if only because human happiness and joys are so fleeting and impermanent.  They are dependent upon causes and conditions, and when those causes and conditions change, the “happiness” disappears or becomes unhappiness.

We Are All On Fire

Looking Into the Causes of the Fire of Suffering

If we are even a little awake, we have all noticed this lack of lasting satisfaction in all things human.  It’s like our minds can never fully be satisfied or happy with anything.  Something’s always missing. We always want more.  We crave.

Even when we take great joy in something, in the background there’s the sense that it will eventually pass away.  We want, and want, and want.  We are, in the Buddha’s words, “on fire.”

Starting with  the visual senses, he declares:

Bhikkhus, all is burning.

And what is all that is burning?  Bhikkhus, the eye is burning, visible forms are burning, visual consciousness is burning, visual impression is burning, also whatever sensation, pleasant or painful or neither painful, nor pleasant, arises on account of the visual impression, that too is burning.  Burning with what? Burning with the fire of craving, with the fire of hate, with the fire of delusion; I say it is burning with birth, aging and death, with sorrows, with lamentations, with pains, with grief’s, and with despairs…. 

The Adittapariyana Sutta – The Fire Sermon

The Buddha goes on to list how all of the physical sense, as well as our sense of body and our mind itself is “on fire” with craving, with clinging to that which cannot make us happy.

We look for happiness where there is no happiness.  We look for permanence where there is no permanence.  We look for self—for “me” and “mine”—where there is no actual or permanent self or “me” or “mine.”

The problem is, we are so used to this craving condition, we usually don’t even realize how complete the suffering is.  Often only when the more extreme forms of suffering appear do we becomes more conscious that we’ve been burning all along!  Maybe it’s a mercy that we can’t see the full depth of our suffering all the time. The human mind protects itself from what it can’t bear, and there’s both a kind of wisdom in this denial—and a great delusion and trap.

The trap is that we get so inured to our existential suffering, the suffering of just being, which John-Paul Satre wrote so movingly about, that we don’t ever get to the root of the problem.  Instead, we are always running around putting out the obvious big fires that break out in our lives.  We are so busy trying to fix this and that problem that we don’t see that we never going to be free of burning unless we understand the nature of the fire and the fuel that the fire of suffering feeds upon.

The Fuel the Fire Feeds On

The Buddha’s profound insight is that the human mind feeds upon what he called the five clinging skandhas—form, feeling, perception, thought processes, and consciousness. It’s not that there anything inherently wrong with these five aspects of the human mind; it’s our craving and attachment and hunger for them that causes the suffering.  The fuel itself is neutral.  Indeed, we’ll actually need to work skillfully with the skandhas in order to be free from being burned up by our misunderstanding of their true nature.

Hungry Ghosts – They Live to Consume

What “ignites” the skandhas is our insatiable craving—our insatiable hunger for form, for feeling, for perceptions, for thought processes, for consciousness itself. Rather than the skandhas serving us in our humanity, we become slaves to them.  We live to consume, and we end up being consumed!

At its extreme, this insatiable hunger makes us like the fabled Buddhist metaphor of pretas, or “hungry ghosts.”  These pathetic beings are supposed to live off of emotions.  They have small mouths and huge stomachs and no matter how many emotions they eat, they can never be satisfied, because consuming emotions can’t satisfy!

The Buddha showed that the only way out of this dilemma is to come into a new relationship with what he called the clinging skandhas—the skandhas we cling to in the mistaken belief that they can bring happiness.  The insatiable hunger for what the skandhas themselves can never supply has to be replaced by what the Buddha called dispassion. We stop burning up by letting go of what burns us—which is the clinging itself.

Dispassion is not Suicide of our Humanity!

As soon as Buddhism mentions dispassion, letting go, or non-attachment, people often start heading for the exits, so to speak.  What could be more unappealing than the idea of living a life without passion—without a love and joy for life, without zest and spirit?  Doesn’t passion give the “juice” to life?  Isn’t passion the “fire” of life?

Yes, “passion,” in the best sense of that word, can give a “fire” to life—a sense of exuberance and joy.  But haven’t we all also been terribly burned by the passions? Haven’t we all been burned by consuming or being consumed by our own or other people’s appetites and needs and wants?  Basically, it’s this second sense of the word “passion” that the Buddha is aiming to extinguish, not natural joy and happiness that comes from a liberated relationship with the good and normal things of life.

All Tangled Up IV – Tom Tavelli

In Buddhism, dispassion does not mean indifference.  Nor does it mean being “blissed out” or having emotional detachment and disassociation from life such as one finds in some forms of mental illness!  Rather, dispassion points to a freedom from the clinging, the “stickiness,” the grasping and insatiable hunger of our minds, which cause suffering in our relationship to all conditioned things.

Dispassion isn’t a state of mind we adopt vis a viz things so much as the peace that results from having liberated ourselves from believing that something that is impermanent, conditioned, or fabricated has the ability to make us truly happy or fulfilled.  To understand this kind of liberating dispassion, we have to get to know the human mind and how it really works.  We have to see how our clinging—our insatiable hunger to fill ourselves with form, feeling, perception, thought processes, and even consciousness itself—produces suffering.

Meditation in Buddhism enables us to look deeply into this process of clinging and  “burning” and to see how we can let go of what fuels our suffering.  As we see how our clinging and attachment produce suffering, and how clinging and attachment can be let go of to attain lasting happiness, we won’t see dispassion as a negative thing, a deprivation. Rather, we will see cultivating dispassion as the road to total freedom and  happiness that is not dependent on anything.

To Put Out the Fire, We Have to Understand How Fires Work

So, the Buddha said, “All is burning.”  Is this true?  Can you know that for yourself?  Do you feel it?  Much suffering is obvious, and perhaps the causes as well.  But many people “burn” without even knowing it, ignorant that they are on fire and burning up their lives and often the lives of others.

You might have to let your mind get very quiet and still to see the deeper and hidden causes of suffering.  What do you see if you look deeply into the causes of your own or another’s suffering?  What ignites the fire of suffering?  What fuels suffering? Is there a way to put out the fire?

Understanding How Fires Work, We Can Extinguish Them

Firefighters talk about the “fire triangle” or the “combustion triangle.” Every fire needs at least three element: heat, fuel, and an oxidizing agent, usually oxygen.  Remove any one of these, and a fire won’t start.  Alas, for us, for now, we can’t get rid of the “fuel” of suffering.  There’s always plenty of stuff around us that we could burn, or consume.  It’s everywhere we look.  Even how we look at things can be fuel!

Our world and sense of being are defined by form, feeling, perception, thought processes, and consciousness.  And as I said before, we really don’t want to eliminate these things,  because we have need of the right use of them on the path to the total and final freedom that finally drops even the skandhas.

But we can do something about removing the “heat” and the “oxygen” that sets the skandhas on fire.  We can begin to remove the “heat” of craving, of clinging, of mindless attachment.  We can create an atmosphere in our minds that isn’t so reactive with the things our mind desperately grasps at and overheats with burning desire. The Buddha invites you to demonstrate this for yourself. He’s not teaching a dogma, but offering insights we can test in the laboratory of our own meditation and loving-kindness practice.

Quenching the Fires to Find Lasting Happiness and Peace

An End to Burning is Possible

Speaking for myself, as someone who, like you, is still on fire, but who has been able to quench some major conflagrations in my life, I can attest that this path of insight and loving-kindness brings an incredible sense of ease, calm, and peace.  I don’t feel detached from life and my fellow human beings, but actually feel more present and more compassionate than ever.

Gaining equanimity and an unflappable peace of mind doesn’t mean we’ll never have problems or never experience pain and loss.  What fundamentally changes is how we experience these things.  The freer we are from self-made fires and suffering, the better able we are to deal with what comes our way with insight, wisdom, and loving-kindness.  We can care deeply about people and things without getting stuck to them and entangled by our own or their needfulness.  We are freer to give the kind of love that tenderly embraces others while also giving them space to be themselves.

Yes, we are all “on fire,” but there is a way to put the flames out and find a happiness that is real, indestructible, and that never passes away.


About Steven Goodheart

"I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, not to bewail, not to scorn human actions, but to understand them." Spinoza

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