The World is On Fire: A Meditation on the Adittapariyaya Sutta as a Zen Koan

Fire (LA Times)

 

 

 

Burning burning burning burning
O Lord Thou Pluckest me out
O Lord thou pluckest

T. S. Eliot, the Waste Land

 

Jan and I live in the land of smog and dreams, also known as the Los Angles basin. After a quarter of a century out of state, mostly in New England, our retirement plan gradually became returning home to California. We ended up in Long Beach. But, we retired to SoCal specifically to be near Jan’s mom, who lives across the metroplex at its eastern edge. That distance, roughly forty-five minutes or an hour, or, okay, a bit more all depending, seemed a happy space allowing mom’s independence, and, well, ours.

And now my mother-in-law has found herself in a mandatory evacuation zone for one of the half dozen fires that as I write this are raging through the northern and north-eastern edges of Los Angeles. Tuesday we had quite the adventure getting out to the San Fernando Valley where we agreed to meet her at my sister-in-law’s home. Mom had her own rather more complicated and not entirely pleasant adventure blocked by the closed freeways and making her way along ferociously crowded secondary roads. There she was, surrounded with a ring of fire.

I’d been commenting on all this as it unfolded at my Facebook page. And as a comment on my comments my friend Margaret Rowan posted a link to the Adittapariyay Sutta, the so-called Fire Sermon. It really seemed just about perfect in our moment.

T. S. Eliot who echos part of the Fire Sermon in his magisterial poem the Waste Land famously opines how it can be counted as comparable in importance to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. With a caveat or two I think this is profoundly true. The Fire Sermon isn’t a long text. In Nanamoli Thera‘s English translation we get the entire thing in four hundred and twenty-five words:

Thus I heard. On one occasion the Blessed One was living at Gaya, at Gayasisa, together with a thousand bhikkhus. There he addressed the bhikkhus.

“Bhikkhus, all is burning. And what is the all that is burning?

“The eye is burning, forms are burning, eye-consciousness is burning, eye-contact is burning, also whatever is felt as pleasant or painful or neither-painful-nor-pleasant that arises with eye-contact for its indispensable condition, that too is burning. Burning with what? Burning with the fire of lust, 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 griefs, with despairs.

“The ear is burning, sounds are burning…
“The nose is burning, odors are burning…
“The tongue is burning, flavors are burning…
“The body is burning, tangibles are burning…

“The mind is burning, ideas are burning, mind-consciousness is burning, mind-contact is burning, also whatever is felt as pleasant or painful or neither-painful-nor-pleasant that arises with mind-contact for its indispensable condition, that too is burning. Burning with what? Burning with the fire of lust, 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 griefs, with despairs.

“Bhikkhus, when a noble follower who has heard (the truth) sees thus, he finds estrangement in the eye, finds estrangement in forms, finds estrangement in eye-consciousness, finds estrangement in eye-contact, and whatever is felt as pleasant or painful or neither-painful- nor-pleasant that arises with eye-contact for its indispensable condition, in that too he finds estrangement.

“He finds estrangement in the ear… in sounds…
“He finds estrangement in the nose… in odors…
“He finds estrangement in the tongue… in flavors…
“He finds estrangement in the body… in tangibles…

“He finds estrangement in the mind, finds estrangement in ideas, finds estrangement in mind-consciousness, finds estrangement in mind-contact, and whatever is felt as pleasant or painful or neither-painful-nor-pleasant that arises with mind-contact for its indispensable condition, in that too he finds estrangement.

“When he finds estrangement, passion fades out. With the fading of passion, he is liberated. When liberated, there is knowledge that he is liberated. He understands: ‘Birth is exhausted, the holy life has been lived out, what can be done is done, of this there is no more beyond.'”

That is what the Blessed One said. The bhikkhus were glad, and they approved his words.

Now during his utterance, the hearts of those thousand bhikkhus were liberated from taints through clinging no more.

Talk about a ring of fire.

And I think Eliot is right. The Adittapariyaya Sutta is an amazing summation of the Buddha’s wisdom. At least as significant in its way as Jesus’ famous sermon on that mount.

I suggest the Fire Sermon is a koan. Not as a thorny problem as that word “koan” has come to mean in our popular culture. But, in the sense of the authentic Zen tradition, where a koan is a pointer to a profound truth and with that an invitation into our own most intimate encounter.

Here with the Adittapariyaya Sutta we have a clear pointer to a fundamental truth about who and what we are, and a most intimate invitation. We have a koan. We have, in fact, the only koan.

With that here’s the secret pointing of the koan. Here’s the invitation of the koan. It is all passing, as a fire burns and leaves nothing but ash, and even that ash will blow away with the first breeze. Nothing is permanent. Nothing. Absolutely nothing.

However, that’s not quite it, either. It is easy to think the call is to put out the fire. And that’s it. Sadly, a common enough response among the Buddhist community, but also, sadly, missing the point.

It is actually a bit messier. And a bit more glorious.

Rather, as a way in, here’s a question. What if we step into the fire full on? What if we allow the fire to consume us completely? Without reservation? Without hesitation?

Without clinging?

Just the fire.

That’s the koan.

Burning burning burning burning
O Lord Thou Pluckest me out
O Lord thou pluckest

So, just a bit more.

In T. S Eliot’s poem the critical point begins with those four words: burning burning burning burning. I think everyone of us should be able to feel that. The pain. The anguish. The longing. All the things that mark our lives from the moment of birth to the moment of death. Just this.

And, there’s something more. Just a little bit. Like the Ox’s tail in that lovely koan. With it all, the loss and the pain, at the very same time, the very same time, every moment of passion, of joy, of happiness.

Burning. Burning. A ring of fire.

Now, in Eliot’s poem there is a turning to the divine, an appeal to the great other. But for me interestingly, deeply interestingly, that line quickly moves from a simple appeal to a greater power, to a higher power, to something rather more mysterious: to a simple call. Like that call to Amida. Like that call to Jesus. And beyond either name, to just a calling. Just a call. Something which in a moment loses any sense of self and other, where I am forgotten, where all is forget, where even the divine other is forgotten.

Instead just a call.

Just our heart revealed with no extra.

Maybe its just a surrender. Perhaps its just a letting go of any clinging to any particular thing. Whatever. Just this. Just the burning. Burning. Burning. Burning.

Just this.

A ring of fire.

Our suffering. And, our salvation. All of it. Just as it is. Just this. Just this.

The great invitation.

 

(The photograph is from the LA Times…)

"I propose passing a law making any further use of the noun or verb "dance" ..."

The Power of Things that Do ..."
"I am getting quite tired of accusations of cultural appropriation. By their nature, "things" are ..."

Recalling Shunryu Suzuki, American Soto Missionary

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!


What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment