The Mind like Fire Unbound-the Fire Metaphor for Nirvana

In an earlier post, The Aggi-Vacchagotta Sutta-the Buddha on the Nature of Existence and Nirvana, the Buddha explains how nirvana is like the extinction of a flame.

The ascetic wanderer Vacchagotta can’t understand what happens after death to one who attains nirvana, or complete Unbinding. Does he still exist? Does he not exist? Does he neither exist or not exist?

Does he reappear? Does he not reappear? Does he both appear and not reappear? To Vaccha’s puzzlement, the Buddha says that none of these statements apply:

“Of course you’re befuddled, Vaccha. Of course you’re confused. Deep, Vaccha, is this phenomenon, hard to see, hard to realize, tranquil, refined, beyond the scope of conjecture, subtle, to-be-experienced by the wise. For those with other views, other practices, other satisfactions, other aims, other teachers, it is difficult to know. That being the case, I will now put some questions to you. Answer as you see fit. What do you think, Vaccha: If a fire were burning in front of you, would you know that, ‘This fire is burning in front of me’?”


“And suppose someone were to ask you, Vaccha, ‘This fire burning in front of you, dependent on what is it burning?’ Thus asked, how would you reply?”

“…I would reply, ‘This fire burning in front of me is burning dependent on grass & timber as its sustenance.’”

“If the fire burning in front of you were to go out, would you know that, ‘This fire burning in front of me has gone out’?”


“And suppose someone were to ask you, ‘This fire that has gone out in front of you, in which direction from here has it gone? East? West? North? Or south?’ Thus asked, how would you reply?”

“That doesn’t apply, Master Gotama. Any fire burning dependent on a sustenance of grass and timber, being unnourished — from having consumed that sustenance and not being offered any other — is classified simply as ‘out’ (unbound).”

In his essay “The Mind Like Fire Unbound—An Image in the Early Buddhist Discourses” Thanissaro Bhikkhu notes:

“Attempts to work out the implications of this metaphor have all too often taken it out of context. Some writers, drawing on modern, every-day notions of fire, come to the conclusion that nibbana implies extinction, inasmuch as we feel that a fire goes out of existence when extinguished. Others, however, note that the Vedas—ancient Indian religious texts that predate Buddhism by many thousands of years—describe fire as immortal: Even when extinguished it simply goes into hiding, in a latent, diffused state, only to be reborn when a new fire is lit. These writers then assume that the Buddha accepted the Vedic theory in its entirety, and so maintain that nibbana implies eternal existence.

The weakness of both these interpretations is that they do not take into account the way the Pali Canon describes (1) the workings of fire, (2) the limits beyond which no phenomenon may be described, and (3) the precise implications that the Buddha himself drew from his metaphor in light of (1) & (2). The purpose of this essay is to place this metaphor in its original context, so as to show what it was and was not meant to imply.

If you are interested in understanding more of the cultural and philosophical background of the Buddha’s metaphor, then “The Mind Like Fire Unbound” is a terrific aid and support for deepening and clarifying one’s understand of this “subtle” and “hard to see, hard to realize” teaching and practice.

(click to download complete document in PDF format)

The Mind Like Fire Unbound—An Image in the Early Buddhist Discourses

Related Posts:

Nirvana is a verb, not a place

Samsara-It’s a Verb, Not a Place

The Problem of Egolessness


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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