Months after he attained enlightenment, the Buddha delivered what came to be called his Fire Sermon on a hilltop in India. He spoke to a thousand ascetics who, he knew, were used to performing daily fire sacrifices. The Buddha set out to blow their minds. Everything in this world is on fire, he told these newly converted monks. Including us. Our eyes, ears, noses, tongues, touch, and finally, our conscious minds—all of our faculties burn with craving or aversion or illusion for things and experiences that are impermanent.
Detachment is the way to peace and freedom, he taught. It is easy to picture that crowd of newly minted monastics nodding in rapt agreement. Even before they came to the Buddha, they were ascetics. Yes, of course they would be all too happy to escape this burning building of a life. But what about the rest of us?
Some who heard the Fire Sermon, it is said, became fully enlightened on the spot. This kind of thing was often reported to have happened after the Buddha spoke. Was this true? I could easily picture monk scribes adding these juicy little postscripts to the sermons to underscore the power of the Buddha’s teaching. I am sure that the Buddha moved those who came to see him by his presence as well as by his words. He is portrayed as radiant, noble in bearing, serene—the embodiment of freedom and compassion.
But human beings are human beings. As remote as those ascetics are from us, they had the same parts. They had hearts and bodies and minds, each with habits of their own. They had an enlightened moment, I am sure of it, letting go of painful old stories and limiting beliefs to bask in the emanation of a new kind of love and freedom. But down the road, inevitably, there was at least a little more work to do. Patterns to see. Wounds to let heal.
Seeing the deep truths of life takes time, and a certain willingness to be in the dark of not knowing. According to the ancient stories, the Buddha sat under the Bodhi tree for forty days and nights. Even though scholars believe that this number is not meant to be taken literally, it still indicates that it took a long time. It took a lot of calm seeing of past lives, old stories, and beliefs.
I’m not aware of anyone ever describing the Buddha’s vowing to sit in the forest alone until he awakened as an act of grieving, but grief had to be part of the experience. He had turned his back on his wife and his child and the life he knew. We can imagine how he felt by drawing on times that we have left places and relationships and jobs, or have been left. He, like us, had to have grieved for bonds that turned out not to be permanent, for certainties that turned out not to be true.
His willingness to sit there and know this suffering became the ground of his great insight. We suffer because we cling to things that are burning, changing, passing, he saw. But this suffering, too, passes. And darkness, as the Buddha saw, ultimately gives way to the light of the morning star.
Detachment doesn’t necessarily mean turning our backs on life. It can mean being with life as it is instead of staking our happiness on particular outcomes. Renunciation can mean loosening the grip of our attachments, opening the lens of our seeing so that our loved ones and our own lives can unfold in ways that can surprise us. In real life, I have learned, letting go doesn’t mean shutting down or giving up. It can mean vowing to be aware and present, guided not by a fixed goal but by an intention to be compassionate, caring, and curious moment by moment.
Nora Ephron offered an example of this in a book that few would label a spiritual book, I Feel Bad About My Neck. Back in the day, she observed, people took the attitude that babies were babies. They would each have their own tendencies and ways of unfolding. You did the best you could, throwing balls, reading stories. But you understood that babies would turn out the way they would turn out.
“Suddenly, one day, there was this thing called parenting. Parenting was serious. Parenting was fierce. Parenting was solemn. Parenting was a participle, like going and doing and crusading….Parenting was not simply about raising a child, it was about transforming a child….”
All beings are heirs to their own karma, taught the Buddha. We can love our children and the other people in our lives. We can love ourselves. Yet we can’t control how things will unfold for them or for us.
Unexpected things will happen at unexpected times. They and we will get burned. What can we do in such a world? We can pay attention and be kind, even when our hearts are breaking. Especially then.
T.S. Eliot titled the third section of his great poem The Wasteland, “The Fire Sermon.” The poem describes the moral and spiritual desolation of London after World War I.
“The wind crosses the brown land unheard,” the poet writes. “The nymphs are departed.” Eliot’s version of the burning world opens on the banks of the River Thames, strewn with trash, rats scurrying about. The party is over. Whether the nymphs are real women who were partying the night before or magical beings from a pagan England that is now past. The dream of England, for Eliot and so many others, was devastated by the war.
The Fire Sermon section of The Wasteland portrays the way sensual pleasures burn away, too, as do the illusions of happiness connected to those pleasures spun into stories by the mind. Detachment also means disillusionment, seeing through this endless process of grasping at the pleasures of the five senses and spinning stories of future happiness. But in the Buddha’s teaching disenchantment does not mean the end of magic, as it does in Western rationalism. Waking up from the trance of desire—seeing how we are caught—is the beginning of new possibilities, true aliveness. It is only as we awaken from our dreams of what life should be like that true love becomes possible. True love, it turns out, is not romantic attraction but a capacity and a willingness to be with life as it is.
The world is burning, but we can begin to see by that fiery light. Unclenching the fist of desire begins to open us to the ground of our being. The name “Adam” in Hebrew originally referred to a human being, to all of us, and it was derived from adamah, earth or ground. Our deepest, earliest inner voice is our wordless awareness of being alive here on earth. Sometimes it is accompanied by a feeling of our nothingness, which does not mean worthlessness but an awareness that we are not separate or exempt from the way things go here on earth.
Humble means lowly, from the Latin humus, earth or ground. We are of a nature to grow and age and die, just like all earthly things. But our innate earthiness or humility also means that we have a lot of company and support, including the earth herself. In one of his most famous gestures, the Buddha reached down and touched the earth, asking it to bear witness to his right to be here, alive, and waking up. Bringing the attention out of the spinning mind and back to the body, to the living experience of the present moment, grounds us and opens us to a greater awareness of life.
“People are somewhat gorgeous collections of chemical fires, aren’t they?” wrote Harold Brodkey. “We are towers of kinds of fires, down to the tiniest constituencies of ourselves, whatever they are.”
Those tiny constituencies include our mitochondria, the little engines in the center of our cells, and smaller still, the molecules and atoms inside, whirling, pulsing little fires. Even on our worst day, we are vessels for combustion on so many levels, all the way back to the Big Bang. When we pause in all our doing to be still and bring our attention home to the body, we are drawing close to the fire of life.
We can observe this deep truth in our own lives: things change. Life flows. When we dare to let go of thinking and trying to control our lives, when we dare to just experience the darkness of the unknown, we discover the light of another kind of awareness that is closer to the body and the heart, closer to life.
In Newgrange, in the east of Ireland, there is a mysterious Neolithic monument, a huge circular mound with a passageway and interior chambers. Tests reveal that it was built in 3,200 B.C., which makes it older than the pyramids in Giza and older than Stonehenge. No one can say exactly what it is for, a tomb perhaps, or a place of rituals. But this is what is extraordinary: it was built so that the light of the rising sun on the winter solstice floods the chamber. Just as the sun rises, sunlight pours through an opening above the main entrance, shining along the passage and illuminating a carving of a triple spiral on the front wall.
And here’s a new twist. In recent years, due to drought, new neolithic symbols have appeared around Newgrange, and new smaller but similar structures are being unearthed. It’s extraordinary to think of beings practicing a religion that was based on patience. The Latin root of the word is pati, to suffer. Being willing to just sit there and wait in the dark, quietly observing instead of jumping to mind-spun conclusions, they observed how darkness gives way to new light. Although those watchers wouldn’t use the word, that observation is dharma, the lawfulness or deeper truth of life.
The light that can guide us to this deeper understanding is not necessarily visible to the eye. On September 11, 2001, there were a couple of great guide dogs, Salty and Roselle, who helped their blind partners and others down the stairwells of the World Trade Center to safety. Both were calm and steady of heart in the midst of falling debris and unimaginable sounds and fear. Roselle, who led thirty people to safety besides her master, went home and immediately began playing with another dog. As if she had done nothing extraordinary.
Anything can happen at any time. Things and people, even huge skyscrapers, can disappear without warning. We recognize this great truth when terrible things happen: war, mass shootings, accidents, personal betrayals. We see the stunned look on the faces of those who lost loved ones without warning. We see the survivors who can’t fathom what happened. Nothing much can be said at such a time. But attentive presence helps, and sometimes dogs.
I once watched a video clip of a brigade of gentle, highly trained Golden Retrievers being led into a center full of survivors of the mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida. Those dogs came to help just by sitting down and being with these shattered people, just breathing, sharing their warm animal presence. The dogs wore little jackets, inviting people to pet them and hug them. Many of the dogs were veterans, having shown up at many places of national tragedy. Although you wouldn’t know it by looking at them.
Even when people seemed lost in pain, these gentle dogs leaned in, literally leaning on people and sitting on their feet. It’s easy to imagine how comforting that gentle presence would be, the sides of a soft, furry golden dog body rising and falling, soft dog eyes patiently looking at you, free of judgment and calculation. Just observing, responsive, present.
Our own body can be a guide dog or a comfort dog. In the midst of the great fire of life, it can be a refuge and support. Bringing our attention home to the living experience of the present moment grounds us and opens us to a greater attention. As silly as it may seem, we may even silently say to ourselves, “Good body, thank you for being there for me.” Think of all the burning buildings your body has come through: break ups and firings and stress of all kinds. Shut your eyes and register how loyal the body has been to you through it all, quietly breathing and pumping blood, and working away. Sense how eagerly it responds to the gift of your own attention, how it relaxes in the light of your kind attention. Take in the generosity and loyalty of this poor, sweet body, the way it wordlessly forgives you for not noticing it, and how happily it meets you when you do.
As long as it breathes, the body comes when you call. Even when it’s tired or doesn’t feel particularly good, it responds to the touch of the attention. Imagine how you would treat an actual dog that was this good and loyal. You wouldn’t dream of criticizing its hair or pointing out that it could stand to lose a few pounds. You would express simple love and gratitude. You would be attentive and kind, bringing fresh water, taking it out to play from time to time
Everything in this world is on fire, including our own lives. There will be changes and losses and devastation. And yet, in the midst of it, we learn to loosen the grip of our grasping and dreaming, and turn our attention to the body. We can touch the earth of our present moment experience and remember that we are part of a greater wholeness, that we are supported and accompanied by forces and resources beyond the reckoning of the thinking mind. We can touch the truth that even on our worst days, we belong to something greater than our spinning minds. In the midst of darkness, we see that there is also light. ◆
This piece is from the Winter 2022-2023 issue of Parabola, DARKNESS & LIGHT. The full issue is available to purchase on our online store.