Updated: Oct 27
One of my favourite discourses is the Ādittapariyāya Sutta, widely known as the 'Fire Sermon', and recognized as the third formal teaching of the Buddha.
This discourse is distinguished by the highest reported number of attainments: 1,000 bhikkhus, who used to be fire worshipping ascetics, attained Nibbāna, total release from suffering, while listening to the Buddha expounding this sutta.
Fully demonstrating his abilities as 'anuttaro purisa-damma-sārathī' ('incomparable teacher of those amiable to training'), we can see how sensitive the Buddha is in adjusting his similes and style of teaching to the audience. As the newly ordained monks are all Brahmins, who earlier lived the lifestyle of fire-worshipping ascetics for a long time, the Buddha uses a fire simile to appeal to them. He opens his exposition with the challenging statement that:
🔥 'The Universe is on Fire' ('Sabbaṃ Ādittaṃ') 🔥
Then the Buddha explains the nature of this burning universe, that's consuming us continuously:
The eye is burning.
Forms are burning.
Eye consciousness is burning.
Eye contact is burning.
And the feeling arising with eye contact as a condition, whether pleasent of painful or neutral, that too is burning.
What kind of fire is burning the whole world of our subjective conscious experience?
It's the fire of lust, the fire of hatred, the fire of delusion.
The whole world is burning with birth, decay and death, it's ablaze with the fire of grief, pain, frustration, depression and despair.
Next, the Buddha expands that same contemplation to the remaining five senses:
The ear is burning...
The nose is burning...
The tongue is burning...
The body is burning...
The mind is burning, ideas are burning, mind consciousness is burning, mind contact is burning, and the feeling that arises with mind contact as condition, whether pleasant of painful of neutral, that too is burning.
Burning with what: Burning with the fire of lust, the fire of hatred, the fire of delusion. Burning with birth, decay and death, ablaze with the fire of grief, frustration, pain, depression and despair.
We can see that the definition of 'world' in the discipline of the noble ones is radically different from the understanding the average wordly person is accustomed to. For the Buddha, the 'universe' is not so much a supposedly objectively existing external reality of material objects like continents, planets, stars, solar systems and galaxies. The 'All' from a deeper Dhamma perspective is our own individual, subjective, conscious experience. These six sense bases, their external objects, and the corresponding consciousness arising based on sense contact, as well as the feeling and other mental states caused by this process, is all we have ever experienced.
For countless lifetimes in Saṃsāra this process of conscious experience has burned us with unending disappointment and suffering, while we were driven on and consumed by the fire of the kilesā (defilements).
🔥 👀 🔥
🔥 👂 🔥
🔥 👃 🔥
🔥 👅 🔥
🔥 💭 🔥
Fortunately, the Buddha doesn't abandon us in this universal conflagration. In the second half of the discourse he comes to our help like a firefighter, so to speak, pointing out the emergency exit through which we can escape the burning flames.
⬅ 🚒 👨🚒 🔥
He shows that the only way to get out of the lethal blaze is via the complete letting go of the six external & internal senses, including the six classes of consciousness and corresponding sense contact, and the resulting feelings. This letting go can never be accomplished by denying the suffering inherent in conscious experience. It can only be achieved by fully acknowledging the direness of our existential dilemma. We have to see things as they really are, not coloured by rose tinted glasses. We need the courage and almost brutal honesty to look right into the abyss, however frightening or unpleasant it may appear.
If we do so bravely, if we observe reality as it truly is, the result will be that amazing emotion that can propel us out of Saṃsāra towards the state of total freedom.
This emotion is called 'nibbidā' (disenchantment).
Nibbidā is turning our mind away from the whole world of conditioned phenomena. We feel disinterested in all of conscious experience, the heart is pushed away from this whole mass of suffering. Nibbidā repels us from all the constantly changing, unstable sankharas, and gives us the energy and motivation to get out.
Therefore, in the second half of the sutta, the Buddha leads us in a guided meditation going through all six senses, contemplating each one thoroughly, in order to develop disenchantment with them all:
Seeing thus, the noble disciple becomes disenchanted with the eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind.
Disenchanted with forms, sounds, scents, flavours, sensations, ideas.
Disenchanted with eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind consciousness.
Disenchanted with eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind contact.
And with the feeling that arises with contact as a condition, whether pleasent of painful or neutral, he becomes disenchanted, too.
As he experiences disenchantment, all passion fades away.
From dispassion comes release.
Released, the knowledge of release arises:
"Birth is obliterated, the purpose of the holy live has been realized, the job is done, there's no more rebounding to this universe."
The 1,000 bhikkhus delighted in the Blessed One's words, and while listening to the discourse, through letting go of all clinging, their hearts were liberated from the āsavas.
(Saṃyutta Nikāya/Connected Discourses 35.28)
Here's the podcast with Ajahn Dhammasiha's reflections
on the Fire Sermonon the Full Moon Practice Day.
Just click image to go to the Spotify link
And here's the Youtube link:
However, we have to keep in mind that the Fire Sermon is concerned with very advanced Dhamma. It was told to disciples who had developed deep confidence in the Buddha, and who had very strong spiritual facalties due to pracitce in previous lives.
To be able to use such a profound teaching with its extremely challenging similes for our benefit, a couple of conditions need to be met:
1. We must have well established saddhā (faith / confidence / conviction) in the goal of Nibbāna. If someone believes the world of the senses is all there is, they will find this teaching of the Buddha discouraging, even depressing. But if we are convinced that an escape out of the fire exists, the teaching will not discourage us, instead it will provide us with the determined motivation required to escape the conflagration by means of vipassanā, insight.
2. We need the fearlessness and unbiased aloofness to observe reality as it truly is, without distortion or denial. Samādhi is the quality that can imbue our mind with sufficient mindfulness, equanimity and clarity to do so
3. We have to be aware of the danger of mistaking aversion for disenchantment. Any average person can easily experience aversion when reflecting on the evils of our world. But aversion is an unwholesome, unbeneficial mindstate based on defilements. Disenchantment (nibbidā) on the other hand is a result of seeing things as they truly are, based on wisdom and insight, and is extremely beneficial as it leads us on to the experience of dispassion and release, Nibbāna.
Ajahn Dhammasiha discusses some important preliminary conditions
to approach an advanced sutta like the Fire Sermon in this podcast:
You can find the full text of the Ādittapariyāya Sutta, both in English and Pāli, in the Amaravati Chanting Book Vol 2, page 25, at this link here:
(just click the little 'pdf' image under the picture of chanting book below)
Let us all diligently contemplate conscious experience in all six sense doors, until we develop nibbidā powerful enough to propel us to the emergency exit and finally escape the fire!