The discourses of the Pali Canon make a frequent analogy between the workings of fire and those of the mind: The mind unawakened to the supreme goal is like a burning fire; the awakened mind, like a fire gone out. The analogy is made both indirectly & directly: indirectly in the use of terminology borrowed from the physics of fire to describe mental events (the word nibbāna being the best-known example); directly in any number of metaphors:
I have heard that on one occasion the Blessed One — while staying at Uruvelā on the bank of the Nerañjarā River in the shade of the Bodhi tree, newly awakened — was sitting in the shade of the Bodhi tree for seven days in one session, sensitive to the bliss of release. After the passing of those seven days, on emerging from that concentration, he surveyed the world with the eye of an Awakened One. As he did so, he saw living beings burning with the many fevers and aflame with the many fires born of passion, aversion, & delusion.
— Ud 3.10
The All is aflame. Which All is aflame? The eye is aflame. Forms are aflame. Eye-consciousness is aflame. Eye-contact is aflame. And whatever there is that arises in dependence on eye-contact, experienced as pleasure, pain, or neither pleasure nor pain, that too is aflame. Aflame with what? Aflame with the fire of passion, the fire of aversion, the fire of delusion. Aflame, I tell you, with birth, aging, & death, with sorrows, lamentations, pains, distresses, & despairs.
The ear is aflame. Sounds are aflame...
The nose is aflame. Aromas are aflame...
The tongue is aflame. Flavors are aflame...
The body is aflame. Tactile sensations are aflame...
The intellect is aflame. Ideas are aflame. Intellect-consciousness is aflame. Intellect-contact is aflame. And whatever there is that arises in dependence on intellect-contact, experienced as pleasure, pain or neither pleasure nor pain, that too is aflame. Aflame with what? Aflame with the fire of passion, the fire of aversion, the fire of delusion. Aflame, I tell you, with birth, aging, & death, with sorrows, lamentations, pains, distresses, & despairs.
— SN 35.28
The fire of passion burns in a mortal excited, smitten, with sensuality; the fire of aversion, in a malevolent person taking life; the fire of delusion, in a bewildered person ignorant of the noble Dhamma. Not understanding these fires, people — fond of self-identity — unreleased from the shackles of death, swell the ranks of hell, the wombs of common animals, demons, the realm of the hungry shades. While those who, day & night, are devoted to the message of the One Rightly Self-awakened, put out the fire of passion, constantly perceiving the repulsive. They, superlative people, put out the fire of aversion with good will, and the fire of delusion with the discernment leading to penetration. They, masterful, untiring by night & day, having put out [the fires], having, without remainder, understood stress, go, without remainder, totally out. They, the wise, with an attainer-of-wisdom's noble vision with regard to right gnosis, directly knowing the ending of birth, return to no further becoming.*
Not only is the extinguishing of passion, aversion, & delusion compared to the extinguishing of a fire, but so is the passing away of a person in whom they are extinguished.
Ended the old, there is no new taking birth. Dispassioned their minds toward future becoming, they, with no seed, no desire for growth, the enlightened go out like this flame.
— Khp 6
This, without aging, this without death, this, the unaging, undying state with no sorrow, hostility, bonds, with no burning...
— Thig 16.1
When the Blessed One was totally gone out — simultaneously with the total going out — Ven. Anuruddha uttered these stanzas:
He had no in-&-out breathing, the one who was Such*, the firm-minded one. imperturbable & bent on peace: the sage completing his span. With heart unbowed he endured the pain. Like a flame's going out was the liberation of awareness.
— DN 16
The aim of this essay is to explore the implications of this imagery — to give a sense of what it was & was not intended to convey — by first making reference to the views concerning the physics of fire current in the Buddha's time. This, short of an actual experience of Awakening — something no book can provide — seems the most natural approach for drawing the proper inferences from this imagery. Otherwise, we are bound to interpret it in terms of our own views of how fire works, a mistake as misleading & anachronistic as that of painting a picture of the Buddha dressed as Albert Einstein or Isaac Newton.
The presentation here is more like a photo-mosaic than an exposition. Quotations have been aligned & overlapped so as to reflect & expand on one another. Comments have intentionally been kept to a bare minimum, so as to allow the quotations to speak for themselves. The weakness of this approach is that it covers several fronts at once and can make its points only incrementally. Its strength lies in its cumulative effect: revealing — beneath apparently disparate teachings — unifying patterns that might go unnoticed in a more linear narrative, much as satellite pictures can reveal buried archeological remains that would go unnoticed by a person standing on the ground.
One of the noteworthy features of the Pali Canon is that common patterns of thought & imagery shape the extemporaneous words of a wide variety of people reported within it. Here we will hear the voices not only of the Buddha — the speaker in all passages from the Canon where none is identified — but also of lay people such as Citta, monks such as Vens. Ānanda & MahāKaccāyana, and nuns such as Sisters Nandā, Sumedhā, & Pāṭācārā. Each has his or her own style of expression, both in poetry & in prose, but they all speak from a similarity of background & experience that makes it possible to view their message as a single whole, in structure as well as content.
The structure we are most concerned with here centers on the image of extinguished fire and its implications for the word 'nibbāna' (nirvāṇa) & related concepts. Used with reference to fire, nibbāna means 'being out' or 'going out.' Used with reference to the mind, it refers to the final goal and to the goal's attainment. Our essay into the cluster of meanings surrounding this word is meant to read like a journey of exploration, but a brief preview will help us keep track both of where we are in relation to the map provided by the Abstract, and of where we are going.
The first chapter surveys ancient Vedic ideas of fire as subsisting in a diffused state even when extinguished. It then shows how the Buddha took an original approach to those ideas to illustrate the concept of nibbāna after death as referring not to eternal existence, but rather to absolute freedom from all constraints of time, space, & being.
The remaining three chapters deal with the concept of nibbāna in the present life. Chapter II introduces a cluster of Buddhist ideas concerning the nature of burning fire — as agitated, clinging, bound, & dependent — and draws out the implications that these ideas have for what happens when a fire goes out and, in parallel fashion, when the mind attains nibbāna. In particular, it concludes that of all the etymologies traditionally offered for nibbāna, Buddhaghosa's 'unbinding' is probably closest to the original connotations of the term.
Chapter III takes up the notion of clinging as it applies to the mind — as sensuality, views, habits & practices, and doctrines of the self — to show in detail what is loosened in the mind's unbinding, whereas Chapter IV shows how, by detailing the way in which the practice of virtue, concentration, & discernment frees the mind from its fetters. This final chapter culminates in an array of passages from the texts that recapitulate the pattern of fire-&-freedom imagery covered in the preceding discussion. If read reflectively, they also serve as reminders that their perspectives on the concept of nibbāna can best be connected only in light of that pattern.
We should note at the outset, though, that nibbāna is only one of the Buddhist goal's many names. One section of the Canon lists 33, and the composite impression they convey is worth bearing in mind:
The unfashioned, the end, the effluent-less*, the true, the beyond, the subtle, the very-hard-to-see, the ageless, permanence, the undecaying, the surface-less, non-objectification, peace, the deathless, the exquisite, bliss, solace, the exhaustion of craving, the wonderful, the marvelous, the secure, security, nibbāna, the unafflicted, the passionless, the pure, release, non-attachment, the island, shelter, harbor, refuge, the ultimate.
— SN 42.1-44