Wheels of Fire: The Buddha’s Radical Teaching on Process


Ādittapariyāya Sutta: The Fire Sermon, SN 35.28

“Monks, the All is aflame. What All is aflame? The eye is aflame. Forms are aflame. Consciousness at the eye is aflame. Contact at the eye is aflame. And whatever there is that arises in dependence on contact at the eye–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. Consciousness at the intellect is aflame. Contact at the intellect is aflame. And whatever there is that arises in dependence on contact at the intellect–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 say, with birth, aging & death, with sorrows, lamentations, pains, distresses, & despairs.

“Seeing thus, the well-instructed disciple of the noble ones grows disenchanted with the eye, disenchanted with forms, disenchanted with consciousness at the eye, disenchanted with contact at the eye. And whatever there is that arises in dependence on contact at the eye, experienced as pleasure, pain or neither-pleasure-nor-pain: With that, too, he grows disenchanted.”

–Trans.: Thanissaro


Just after his book When You’re Falling, Dive: Lessons in the Art of Living, came out in 2008, Mark Matousek said on Beliefnet, “When you’ve walked through whatever your fire is, it connects you to the human condition, in a way that you’ve probably spent most of your life avoiding and denying.” In more modern, Western terms, this is similar to what the Buddha is saying: “All is burning.” To see how our suffering in the moment reflects the human condition is a huge, wonderful insight. It deepens you as a person, humbles you, opens your heart, makes you grateful. People may think that is corny, but it changes everything. Life isn’t just blueberries, nor would you want a constant diet of blueberries. Almost everything that grows you is something you would have avoided if you could.

Learning from crisis

There’s something in us that wants everything to be easy, pleasant and sweet. But that keeps us from accepting that sometimes our life might be hard, and people we care about can have things happen to them. Within the reality of that, we discover the possibility of being more balanced. It’s an attitude of acknowledgement, so that “when you’re falling, dive,” is also allowing the feeling you’re having to be there.

Really opening our hearts to the fire of change means disenchantment from the idea that we can always make sense of it, and make everything work out–even the idea that spiritual practice might make you a totally peaceful human being. That idea can be the most refined level of grasping, to think you’re going to meditate and everything is going to become the way you wish it could be. The path is much different than that; we find peace, but we find it by going into the cauldron.

All-terrain meditation

The sense of the First Noble Truth of suffering, or this idea of fire, is not only to sensitize us to suffering but also a pumped-up, neon way of reminding us that it’s all in our experience; it’s not worshipping a fire outside ourselves. It’s really being very centered in our own moment-to-moment, real-time life. This is all-terrain meditation: meditation as my friend Josh Summers says, good for when it’s all smooth and going down hill, and for when there’s no pavement. That’s what presence of mind and heart is for.  This is what we are developing, this is what we call Dharma practice.

There is an instruction in the Tibetan tradition that closely echoes the second half of the Fire Sermon.  It is “Do this toward all that you see”–all that you see outside, all that you see inside, the environment, and living beings. All things, while seeing them, without grasping them, simply remain. This is freedom from the trap of duality. This is the body of enlightenment.

So “do this toward all that you see” is the same instruction, cultivating disenchantment. The Tibetans say, in addition to seeing the fire of suffering as a direct encouragement to disenchantment, we can also practice equanimity, being present without grasping. If we can’t get all the way there, it may mean we’re not fully present. We’re trying to get out of the frustration. Or maybe we’re caught in a desire.   “Do this toward all that you hear, all sounds, grasped as sweet or harsh. Whilst hearing them, without afterthought, remain. This empty sound, with no beginning or end, is the sound of enlightenment.”  When we open to what is, whether it’s easy or relatively difficult, the experience is liberated.

Can we be present with everything that stirs the mind-thoughts or emotions, inner poisons or sense of imbalance–without carrying the imbalance further? That’s the trick. Simply allowing it to settle in the face of its own arising is liberation.

Fire metaphors in the time of the Buddha

The book, The Mind Like Fire Unbound, by Ajahn Thanissaro, includes a lot about how fire was understood in the culture of the Buddha. For example, they believed that when a fire was on fire that it was dependent on the fuel, that it was clinging, unstable, and dependent–not separate from the burning piece of wood. They thought that that’s what we’re like when we’re dependent on the idea of something happening to make us happy. The body-mind process was viewed as the fuel. The word “clinging,” upadāna, has a pun in it: the word also means “fuel.” When people heard the Buddha say “clinging” they also would be hearing the words “firewood” and “fuel.” So when the body-mind process is no longer the fuel, when it’s no longer clung to, that’s liberation.

But they felt that when the fire went out, it doesn’t become extinct, but is released to go back and permeate and pervade all of existence. When consciousness ceases to cling, it moves into an unbounded sense of connection, recognizing the level of simply being, not locked into “I am here and that is there.”

The Buddha was, of course, embedded in his own culture and time. He would reverse metaphors, like the metaphor of the fire, which was a life-force worshipped by his contemporaries, the Brahmans. In another metaphor from the Brahman analysis, they would talk about the human life being like a chariot. Consciousness was the driver. There was a charioteer, and that was your inner essential soul. The Buddha said, no, there is not that one driver, there’s only a chariot, made of different parts. We put it together. We think there’s a charioteer, but that doesn’t really serve us. In fact, it becomes destructive; it causes pain.

It is worth contemplating and wondering how the Buddha felt.  He talked about his own experience of still living in a body but being liberated. He was living his life from a radically different point of view, where mind and body were no longer fuel for craving. Perhaps we can experience something similar.  For instance, when we notice our breathing, we can inquire, “Am I a man or a woman? Is breath male or female?”  I was asking one of my Tibetan teachers some questions about gender in Buddhism. He made a gesture [drawing a sexual organ] and said “Does your mind have one of these? Or does you mind have this [another gesture]?” I said, my mind doesn’t have either one, and he laughed, and said “See? Problem solved!”

It sounds glib but there’s real truth in the “beyond labels” thing. Quoting from the Buddha: “Where water, earth, fire and wind, have no footing, the stars do not shine, the sun is not visible. The moon does not appear, yet there’s no darkness found, either. When a sage knows this for himself, then from form and formlessness, pleasure and pain, he or she is freed.” [See Udāna 1.10]

Within experience there’s just this “is-ness,” and I think that is also part of the fire metaphor. When you see a fire, the flames–at least, within our perception–are there, but not there. We could feel the heat if we put our finger in the flames, but it’s an insubstantiality metaphor too. The flames are transparent, just as being extremely present and conscious creates a transparency in experience. You realize you’re making a fabrication, like “I really need to dip my comb in ammonia and get all this stuff off it.” You see “Yeah, my mind is telling me that, but I can do it later.” You can witness what’s going on in your body-mind process.

Buddha’s deconstruction project

So it is a subjective analysis that we’re meant to make, of the way we’re “en-worlded,” surrounded by this world of experience, apparently with a separate self at the center. The Buddha’s deconstruction project is to take away the sense of anyone solid who’s in charge.  Simply put, consciousness is a natural phenomenon, and as a result of the way–in modern Western terms–that our brain and nervous system are wired, it’s like a theater that’s constantly playing, with no audience.

One of the cartoons I found that fits this Fire Sermon shows a castle on fire, and all these attackers, with a voice like an answering-machine message coming out of the castle saying, “The King is not available to take your call…”.

The Buddha’s liberation happened because he sat down under the Bodhi tree and looked at exactly how his human organism functions. That is the purpose of the Fire Sutta. We tend to just take our experiences for granted, not recognizing them for what they are.

It’s convenient that we should each have a name. Otherwise it would be hard to charge us taxes. There’s a way that we are organized that seems to produce this phenomenon of “I” and a sense of possession. To practice doesn’t mean you cease to be able to function or that you need a lobotomy, or that you should not have a sense of whether the object that you’re looking at is aesthetically pleasing or not. But you have to understand the “how” of all of this. That’s the liberation. That’s why the Buddha is guarding all the sense doors, and that’s why it can be useful for us to look at the sense doors with this informed, accurate kind of vision.  If you look very closely, the simple experience comes first, and then liking or disliking.  Any sense of ownership comes later, on down the line.  Check and see if it’s true for you!

Science & the Buddha

Science and the Buddha are beginning to agree quite a lot about this lack of a CEO, that our neurological network is distributed. When you stub your toe, it’s not that your toe is hurting, it’s that there is a signal from your brain saying something’s wrong with your toe. When we look at this room, we think that we’re seeing “the room,” but what we’re actually seeing is the way that we perceive the room, and that’s very different. When we look at this Buddha statue, there are messages that seem to be coming from the statue. In the Tibetan tradition they would do a practice of taking apart the Buddha statue: “The metal came from a mine, was hammered into place by people; it has different parts.” I’ve met a monk, Ven. Rene Feuss, who did a month’s retreat  deconstructing a post that held up the roof. Seeing it as a construction was liberating.

Bring back disenchantment

I want to help bring back into popularity the term “disenchantment” (Pāli, nibbindati). Seeing our experiential process as it is brings freedom–seeing how everything is a construction, arising via Dependent Origination.  But we do need to see this deeply, experientially. The cognitive process of investigation that I’m suggesting can also become an interior, intuitive, direct process through mindfulness practice. When we are experiencing an emotion, we train to remember to feel it in the body. We can tell ourselves, “this emotion is a psycho-physical process, experienced in the body.” By taking our attention out of the story and placing it on direct, physical sensation, the construction begins to wobble, and a breath of air can come in.

Seeing the temporal sequence is also liberating–there’s moment after moment after moment of perception. This morning I had two pieces of toast; I had a piece of rice-flour toast and a piece of all-rye toast. Yesterday I ate the rye-toast first and the rice toast second, and today I went the other way. The rice toast is sweeter, so I finished the rice toast with great happiness, and then the rye toast came, and the sense of non-sweet was a little bit less pleasant, and then there was a strong aversion in my mind, resisting; “I don’t like this.” This sense of pushing away in the mind is a minor moment of suffering. Then the thought came up, “I ate these in the wrong order.” But then mindfulness arose and noticed the sequence–mindfulness can be almost retrospective–and it remembered all the way back to the beginning, and it said “OK, just be there for the actual flavor of this rye toast.” Then I was able to be present for the rye toast as if it were the first piece of toast I were eating, because it was just there for me in that moment. Then there’s happiness, simply connecting with the rye toast.

So this is why we have the investigation of pleasant, unpleasant and neutral (vedanā): It can be liberating, both investigating through the body and investigating feeling-tone. Many teachers will say that the transition from feeling-tone into reactivity is the best place to break what’s called “the chain of Dependent Origination,” because feeling-tone leads to pushing and pulling, which leads to conceptualization, which leads to more and more bondage, rigid attitudes, beliefs and prejudices.

Mindfulness: Being on time

It’s critical, in mindfulness, to be able to be on time, feel the actual footstep.  Then we can see our distractions, where the mind goes, and the difference between what happens in the mind and the body. We begin to recognize opinions and fabrications. If we hear a fire engine going by, one of us worries that our house is burning down, and the dog is locked inside the house; another one worries about being late to work because the fire engine is between here and where they’re trying to go; another one had a grandfather who was a firefighter, and remembers sitting in his lap in the open door of the fire station on a summer evening. One stimulus, many different responses. We, ourselves, may respond differently at different ages, too.  This is not to say we dismiss or repress all of our inner movements, but we understand their nature as they arise.

The mind-door is the most complex and difficult for us to discover because we get fascinated, drawn into its fabrications.

The Buddha talked a lot about taking things apart in this way. He said that taking the stimulus apart from the reactivity is like a butcher taking the skin off an animal. You remove that connective tissue–a bit of a gruesome image, but very precise. Afterwards, when you put the skin back on, there’s space between the skin and the flesh. It doesn’t really go back on. The psyche can breathe when these things are not in lock-step. [See, for example, Majjhima Nikāya 146.]

Neuroscience, perception & not-self

Nowadays science is our religion, at least for some of us. It is a basic element of our culture.  I suggest that if you are interested, you can continue this exploration by looking into some of the recent findings in neuroscience. For example, when you were in school were you ever shown a diagram where a tree was upside down at the back of an eyeball, and told that the brain has to flip it over?  Based on this simple education, we may imagine we’re seeing trees, and imagine we’re seeing each other.  But the “you” that I’m seeing is only a visual image, an image far more complex than a picture at the back of my eyeballs. In return you think that you’re seeing me–at least, if we are not examining the nature of experiencing itself. On this point science and Buddhism are in agreement.  Experience is a construct.  I don’t know the ultimate answer about what “me” actually is; humanity is still exploring that.

It’s important to know that the grass is not “out there” in the way we assume–or even believe–it to be. You might assume that a tuft of grass didn’t get mown because someone is neglectful. Or maybe there’s a rock under it, and a wise gardener mowed around that obstacle, knowing the mower would break.  One person looking at it might think “that tuft is messing up my view” and become grumpy about it.  Judgemental.  Isn’t this experience–of feelings arising in our minds, a mixture of reactions, views, interpretations–common to every single one of us?  We all have ways of interpreting things according to experience and predispositions. The Buddha was saying that certain predispositions bring us suffering. Greed, anger and delusion or fixation.

One of the ways that we cause suffering is because our perception is tied to the mechanism that allows us to make predictions about what’s going to happen. When we’re a baby, we learned not to put your hand on the hot stove, how to walk without falling. We get more sophisticated, start to predict “If I go over there and pick up that water bottle, there’s not very much water in it, I’m not going to get much out of it.” We keep refining our predictions, which become automatic, subconscious, and mixed with expectations. Have you ever noticed it’s a source of suffering when our predictions don’t prove true?

This ability to refine our thinking is important, of course, for survival and culture. And it also proves that our self is changed and modified by our own mental activity, which again contradicts our unexamined sense of a stable, solid “I.” We can easily get hooked, on our expectations because predictions are not immune from the First Noble Truth of imperfection, and the Second Noble Truth of clinging or craving. One way of breaking out is to realize when we start doing things for outcome. We start depending on the gratification we expect to get out of something. And that futurizing part of us gets to be very stiff.

Skillful Means, Tarthang Tulku’s book about work, notes that when we start a project, we may find ourselves thinking about nothing but obstacles and how we’re going to fail, or that other people are going to fail us. That anticipatory mechanism becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: we don’t show up at work, or we take a lot of breaks. We don’t see that we’re ruining it for ourselves, already constricting our experience, passion and engagement by forecasting that something isn’t going to work out. We’re holding back from engaging with a fuller energy and wholeheartedness. Also, when we do something only for positive outcome, this too has a constricting effect. I’m a writer, so I deal with a lot of that myself. I could go to the beach and there could be a lot of people lying around on towels, and no one would seemingly be affected by whether I’m writing my book or not. I can’t be in it for the praise!

Working in the moment, expectations, & true happiness

Anne Lamott says, “You’re going to have to give and give and give, or there’s no reason for you to be writing. You’re going to have to give from the deepest part of yourself, and your giving is going to have to be its own reward. There’s no cosmic importance in getting something published.” Many writers come to me, and say “You’re a writer; how can I get this published?” And I always say something like this: “There’s no cosmic importance in getting something published, but there is in learning to be a giver.”

That’s also true of any work: True happiness is the reward for doing things for their own sake, for the joy in being whole-hearted and present. So if we want ultimate liberation, ultimate deconstruction, and we also just want to be happier, being present when we’re doing something is critical. You may have heard about experiments in which they sent messages to people on their smart phones at random intervals asking how happy they were. Of 5,000 people involved, about 3,000 answered. They would ask them what they were doing, and to rate their happiness, 1-10. About 60 percent of people were totally distracted, and when distracted, the mind is not that happy. The upshot of this whole study would be if, when you’re ironing a shirt, you are present and mindful, you will be happier than if you’re ironing a shirt and fantasizing about being in the Caribbean.

Only you can do it

It is interesting that this seems to be how we’re built. That’s part of the Buddha’s message. Investigating this process about being here and now, being mindful and present, looking at the sense doors and deconstructing them, is what’s needed, rather than listening to me or taking it on authority. And no one else can do it but you.  We need to have enough trust in what we’re hearing to try it out ourselves. Somehow, because of the way our 3D holographic theater is constructed, no one else can do this for us.

It is very helpful to keep doing it every day, too, just like going to the gym. When we keep coming back to the breath, we simultaneously develop the ability to investigate other aspects of experience with the same mindfulness. Opening up and receiving the sensation of breathing, receiving the sensations of the body, is developing a brain pathway. The liberating, happiness-producing qualities of the examination are what matters.  It”s not our goal to become the best breath-watcher.

In the Buddhist canon we talk about right view, or about purification, decluttering our minds of all of the unhealthy ways we tend to inhabit this trance of experience. Instead of constantly evaluating, clinging, judging, rejecting, criticizing, and analyzing our experience we are simply with it, aware of it. Our mental elaborations just tend to get out of hand. Compassion for how our awareness gets covered over by all this mental content!

Dependent Origination: Showing the way out of the box

If I show you this cup, the shape and the color are perceived in two different parts of your brain. Your brain puts it together so that you think you’re seeing a cup, but actually what’s happening in your brain is something else. It’s a construction project. We think there’s really “a cup” here; it’s continuous and solid and we get upset when it breaks. But actually it’s never been true.  The cup is not there as we perceive it.

When the Buddha went into his investigation of Dependent Origination, he noted that consciousness and its content truly influence each other. Consciousness and content arise together. Say that you’re looking at a pillow; you see the pillow is red. Then you look at the floor and you see that the floor is brown. Is there a difference between the mind and the awareness that knows brownness and knows redness? Different colors seen side by side, the light from the window combined with incandescent light from a lamp–all these together can create the arising of a particular experience. Have you ever noticed when you take a photo of a friend, sometimes they have a shadow across their face your mind had edited out, but the literal camera shows it.

The Buddha managed, by studying “the box,” to get out of the box. By understanding completely the nature of our construction, he found a way to  freedom. Knowing that our beliefs, our desires, our forecasts–not just our eyeballs–combine to produce a very diverse, varied experience, he saw that it was really a kind of emptiness. It’s like the orchestra playing for nobody. When you get to the place where you sense that it’s a nobody, that’s the freedom that we feel. It becomes like the space between the animal’s hide and the skin, in the Buddha’s homely yet dramatic metaphor.

Consciousness: Who is knowing?

One of the things some scientists believe is that our consciousness is a by-product of matter. It’s what they call an emergent quality of the brain that depends on matter. The Buddha said matter and mind depend on each other. Religions might say that spirit is the cause of matter, that God, or some disembodied thing, caused, or became, all this. In the Brahman understanding, Prajapati made the earth so that there would be something for us to stand on. Dependent Origination says that you can’t really say; the Buddha said it’s not this way, it’s not that way, it’s not both, and it’s not neither. It’s something else. So if we look at this object, does the knowing of this come from the bowl we are holding, or does it come from ourselves? Or does the knowing fill up all the space between you and this? Does the knowing of this come toward you, or do you go toward it? Or is it something that isn’t quite susceptible to having that kind of a sense of direction? This is like a knot.

I’m asking the question to deconstruct the assumption. It’s a question for investigation. What’s important is to consistently investigate experience as it arises. Because what happens when you start to see Dependent Origination is that consciousness is freed. Most of the time we’re looking for outcome.  We’re very stuck in the qualities of the experience rather than taking apart its nature.  Consciousness doesn’t get a chance to see itself.  Often a teacher will say, “Our mind is going out and grasping, prehensile, grabbing and pulling.” Do we know what the teacher is talking about?  What’s very important is to look back, gently, into ourselves.  Not trying to take away the content, but coming to a kind of rest, just letting things come and go as they are, with a light inquiry: How is this being known, or who or what is knowing this? Where did this knowing come from? Does it have a direction? Take a look–but don’t look too hard, because I suggest you can’t actually find it.

Emily Dickinson wrote “The brain is wider than the sky. For put them side by side, the one the other will contain, with ease–and you, besides. The brain is deeper than the sea. For put them, blue to blue, and one, the other will absorb, as sponges, buckets do. The brain is just the weight of God, for heft them, pound for pound, and they will differ, if they do, as syllable from sound.”

Actually, in Dependent Origination, there’s nothing wrong with saying “the brain.” You could say that in the purified mode of perception, the body is enlightened, all phenomena are enlightened, and consciousness is enlightenment; it’s just that we don’t see them that way.

When is “I”?

Is the problem that the toaster doesn’t have enough voltage or is the problem that I’m impatient?

William James said, “If there were no passing states of consciousness, then indeed we might suppose an abiding principle that is absolutely one with itself, to be the ceaseless thinker in all of us. But if states of consciousness be accorded as realities, no such substantial identity in the thinker needs to be supposed.” It’s really amazing that he figured all this out himself, in 1860. “Yesterday’s and today’s states of consciousness have no substantial identity.” So they’re not the same. What happens with what we thought yesterday? Where does it go? “For when one is here, the other is dead and gone.” One of my teachers used to say you’re living in the graveyard if you believe there’s anything other than the present moment. Yet our states of consciousness aren’t that different from one another, either.  They have a kind of functional identity, because they keep doing the same thing; keep telling us there’s a “me;” keep processing information; keep creating this stream of experience that is what we call our self.

When we’re mindful, one of the reasons the sense of “I” is de-emphasized is because it’s the story based on the past. When we’re looking at the Buddha statue or at the window, the sense of me looking is not really that strong; it’s sort of there, but it’s a little fuzzy. We can actually almost step out of it, and just say, “there’s seeing going on.” That can be helpful, to talk to ourselves like that.

Notice that we get into big trouble and pain when we start to say “I am a bad person.” After I made some of my early presentations as a teacher, I had to watch out for that feeling “Well, was that good, or was it bad? Did I really suck, yes it really did.” The delusions come up, the afterthoughts about some party that you went to; you chop it up afterwards, and very often the analysis is quite distorted. Actually, I still look back at what I’ve done, but my self-examination is more balanced, not as heavily charged with anxiety and insecurity.

All stream, no boat

We think that there’s somebody in the boat rowing down the stream, but there’s really just the stream, and consciousness is part of it. We live in representations. Even what we call our internal process is actually a representation. What we call our inside is actually what you could call the outside. Do you see that?  Or you could just as well call everything inside. Is our mind inside our body, or is our body inside our mind? We tend to think there’s a me inside this room like an egg in a bowl. I’m in here, and all this is around me. But if we actually take apart our perception of the room, there’s no such thing as a room. You could say this room is in your knowing; the room is inside your consciousness, which seems more accurate than saying consciousness is inside the room.

So in a sense you could say that there’s nobody meditating, that this whole reality is like a hologram, like a lightshow, or something that’s being produced. Everything is being known by something that we can’t really get our fingers on. If you relax enough, and step back, this “I” we keep seeing is part of the show. It’s part of the parade. Your thoughts and feelings are things that are being known. Who’s listening to all that chatter in your head? Somehow we seem to be listening, very interested in it.

I asked one of my Burmese teachers, Sayadaw U Pandita, about global warming, and he said, well, the fire element is really out of control, and it’s related to the fire of greed in human beings. It’s absolutely true. We want more; we want more convenience. We’re unwilling to tackle the problem. We’re unwilling to renounce, in some collective way, until the easiest method is gone.  By then a lot more species will be dead, and Boston may be flooded, but apparently we’ll deal with that in the future, when it will be less easy but more urgent.

What we don’t always see is that we’re all participating in something much greater. When we’re trapped in the sense of being the one in the boat who has to push aside all the other boats to keep our own boat going, we don’t see that we need the environment for our support, and we need other people, and we are utterly interdependent.  Perhaps here in North America, we are afraid of the ‘dependent’ part of interdependent.  Instead we want to be independent.

Seeing baby kamma in the airport

Sylvia Boorstein writes, “I was walking through the airport terminal, when my eyes met those of a baby approaching me, strapped into a carrier on his mother’s chest. And I knew that that baby was me. But a thrill went through me; I knew in that moment that it didn’t matter that I was aging because that baby–me, in a newer and fresher guise–was on his way up in life. I recall laughing, maybe even out loud, as the baby and mother passed by. I knew that the others around me were all me, too. And the mother and baby, and each other was well, all of us coming and going in this airline terminal and life. I felt happy, and I said to myself, ‘Thinking about interconnection is one thing, but these moments of direct understanding are great.’ I sat in the boarding lounge feeling tremendous affection for my fellow travelers.”

So, I’ve been talking about this a little bit from the wisdom side, up until now, but there’s also the love side and it is highly relevant. In the Buddhist practice, like in every religious practice, kindness and love can also be a method of understanding, a method of recognizing our interconnection and interdependence with one another.

Kindness and gentleness are a whole road of practice. It’s not as if we say, “Because this ‘I’ is a construction, the thing to do is cut it out.” That’s not correct. There’s gentleness also, due to this being, whom we happen to become through no fault of our own. A sense of real inner and outer generosity, non-violence, tenderness, is very important toward all of the ways we are.

Tulku Thondup, one of my Tibetan teacher friends, gets tears in his eyes when he says, “The Buddha was a prince, and he became a beggar in order to allow people to experience generosity.” He stood in front of people and asked for food, not because he was lazy, but because he wanted people to understand the meaning of being able to give with joy–the joy of actually sharing and connecting, on that very basic, concrete level.  Caring for the needs of another being.

A positive ethics

Tenderness and generosity are the basis of the ethical part of the Buddha’s teaching. “Ethics” in this sense does not mean that we have to mortify ourselves and feel terrible, or follow a strict set of rules. This is an ethics of love and joy, and it’s very important for this internal investigation to take place in a loving atmosphere. From this understanding, there is a positive reason not to use a lot of drugs, not to lie or misrepresent something that we’re passing on to someone else, not to take what isn’t given. If we can rest in contentment with what we have and what we can get by our own legitimate endeavors, our mind is happier and we create a better world. We give our sīla as a gift to others, and receive the liberating benefits of generosity in return.

So what kind of theater is this, where we are the spectator? We do have some influence in this fiction about our life. As we become more sensitized, we can know what feels easeful and beautiful to our mind and what leads to more suffering. Maybe there can be some trust, letting a heartfelt compassion for ourselves and others inform our path.

From the book, Lightyears, a woman talking about her own practice process: “Today I began a new level of practice, seeing how my own cleansing cleanses all. Acknowledging my responsibility and capacity to transform energy for the entire planet. In each act of transformation I embody in my own small sphere, you are leading a rigorous apprenticeship, beloved, and I thank you. Beginning to recognize the work as training allows me to take responsibility for my own part. For a long time I thought of it as spiritual therapy, which perhaps it was, bringing me carefully to the point where I could become an active and informed participant in my own life and in the world.”

She goes on to say, “My own growth is service: When I experience peace in my heart, all the world, and all of being, receives it. Without a thought, I dive into the water’s surface like a sea animal, climb out onto the rocks, sit a moment to catch my breath, and then go, saying, innerly, ‘There’s more than one way to get there.’ That’s the message.”

When we engage in this deeper research inside ourselves, it is wonderful to sense that we’re doing our best with what we have in front of us. At the end of our life, we might say, “I was born into such-and-such a class, such-and-such a time, such-and-such a body. How did I do with the elements that I was given? Where did I learn to love better, within this resonant sort of experience I inhabit?”

Looking closely is the key

A. R. Ammons, the poet, said “Anything looked at closely becomes wonderful.” It’s true. True of things, and of our own self and of others around us, that as we pay more attention the possibility of the natural radiance of beings–and of being itself–unclouded, starts to shine more and more through all the forms it manifests in.

If what we’re born into is a sense of great pain and trauma, that’s what we need to heal, then that’s our task. Actually, it’s part of all of our tasks. When we can move through a little bit of inner pain and discover some degree of peace, then that’s something valuable that we can share with other people. The Buddha said “I know that you can do it, because I did.” That’s all he’s really saying: I learned how to do this myself and it’s repeatable.

Unfortunately, the way we’re built, no one else can do this for us. Different religious practices may invite the sense that salvation can be sort of done for us, but I think if we look closer, they suggest surrendering and trusting, and opening to a possibility of purity beyond the current state that we live in.

Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse in his vital advice from Voices of the Nyingma Masters: “Your mind is skilled in deception and manipulation, and very beguiling when it’s unexamined. Everything that we experience is a reflection of pure or unpure mind. In reality, nothing exists outside the process. The source of compassionate awareness is ungraspable.”

That’s not trivial, when we actually plumb the depths of the mystery in our experience.  Experience is not just a barren nothingness, but luminous and naturally present. Awakened awareness too–whatever is hearing the sounds of the words I’m saying can’t be captured by names and labels. “The endless unfolding of freedom and bondage pours forth out of its radiance.”

This is our deep looking at how things are. There is a possibility of awareness, free from grasping.  It is in us; a basic aspect of being that we can access. The way to discover it is to look directly into the way things are, the way that we are, moment by moment.

You can do it

The Buddha said to each of us, “You can do this. If it weren’t possible for you to do this, I wouldn’t suggest it. I wouldn’t ask you to do this.” I think that’s one of the most tender and beautiful of his thoughts, as Sharon Salzberg often mentions. When he was done taking care of himself, he tried to pass it on. When he reached completion there was nothing left that he needed to do for himself.

Here’s a poem by A. R. Ammons, called “Courson’s Inlet”:

“No arranged terror.

No forcing of images, plan or thought.

No propaganda.

No humbling of reality to precepts.”

(He’s talking about a walk that he’s taking in the sand, and the forms of the sand and the water and all the changes there.)

“Enjoying the freedom that the greatest scope eludes my grasp.

That there is no finality of vision.

That I have perceived nothing completely.

That tomorrow, a new walk is a new walk.”

Thank you for your attention, and I hope this brings the Fire Sermon somewhat together for you.

~    ~    ~

Lila Kate Wheeler began practicing mediation in 1977 and was briefly ordained as a nun in Burma in the late 1980s. She has been teaching retreats nationally since the 1990s. She is an accomplished writer of fiction, travel journalism, and personal essays. She has edited two books of talks by her Burmese teacher Sayadaw U Pandita.  This article is based on teaching she did at BCBS in June 2012.