What’s Burning in the Fire Sermon?

| February 27, 2012 | 16 Comments

Perhaps Gotama’s most famous discourse among Westerners is the one we call the Fire Sermon. It is included in most anthologies of “the Buddha’s sayings”; in that quintessential summary of Consensus Buddhism, the PBS documentary The Buddha, it’s one of the few discourses quoted at any length. On the show, professor of Asian cultures D. Max Moerman explicates it this way:



“We’re on fire. We may not know it but we’re on fire, and we have to put that fire out. We’re burning with desire. We’re burning with craving. Everything about us is out of control.”

That’s the way I always understood it, too. Gotama’s trying to tell us that our greed, hatred and delusion is like a raging fire incinerating our whole being. It’s a metaphor that fits comfortably with our Western view of things; we’re already primed to believe that we’re burning with lust, greed and anger, sins that lead us to the fires of Hell.

Recently, however, as I was listening to Stephen Batchelor analyze the text in one of his 2006 lectures on Gotama’s biography, it occurred to me that there was something much more subtle and profound going on here. What’s really burning in the Fire Sermon?

“Bhikkhus, all is burning. And what, bhikkhus, is the all that is burning? The eye is burning, forms are burning, eye-consciousness is burning, eye contact is burning, and whatever feeling arises with eye contact as condition — whether pleasant or painful or neither-painful-nor-pleasant– that too is burning. Burning with what? Burning with the fire of lust, with the fire of hatred, with the fire of delusion; with sorrow, lamentation, pain, displeasure, and despair, I say.”

S. 35:28

Gotama goes on to make the same statement about each of the sense bases, which include the body and the mind. He does mention inward states, which is consistent with our typical way of thinking about this text. But the third sentence here should alert us that Gotama has a more penetrating analysis in mind. We might recall another occasion on which Gotama uses the fire analogy in regard to the senses:

“Monks, consciousness is reckoned by the particular condition dependent upon which it arises. When consciousness arises dependent on eye and forms, it is reckoned as eye consciousness . . . Just as fire is reckoned by the particular condition dependent on which it burns . . . When fire depends on logs, it is reckoned as a log fire . . .”

M. 38

In other words, the Three Fires kindle themselves at a much more basic level than our thoughts and emotions. As soon as our senses engage with their objects, Gotama says, infatuation, aversion and confusion are already present. In this analysis, the fuel of the Three Fires is our fundamental perception of the world.

This is especially driven home if we read the Fire Sermon in its context in the Samyuta Nikaya, where it appears in a series of discourses on the theme of the Six Sense Bases. The message of these suttas is that our perceptions are “the All”, and that they are themselves the source of our suffering. Here, for instance, is a passage from the sutta that immediately precedes the Fire Sermon:

“Bhikkhus, without directly knowing and fully understanding the all, without developing dispassion toward it and abandoning it, one is incapable of destroying suffering. And what, bhikkhus, is the all? The eye and forms and things to be cognized by eye-consciousness, etc.”

S. 35:27

He seems to be calling on us to be able to recognize and let go of a grasp that is preconscious, that happens before we’re normally even aware of it.

To understand how this works, we need to look at how consciousness and craving are linked in Gotama’s analysis of Dependent Origination:

“. . . With consciousness as condition, name-and-form [come to be]; with name and form as condition, the six sense bases; with the six sense bases as condition, contact; with contact as condition, feeling; with feeling as condition, craving; with craving as condition, clinging . . .”

S. II, 1

At the base are consciousness and namarupa, translated here as “name-and-form.” The translation breaks a single concept into two, which makes it difficult to understand what the term means. It is derived from the Sanskrit of the Vedic Upanishads, where it is used to refer to the process by which the original unity of Brahman was differentiated into all of the recognizable identities of the universe. Namarupa essentially refers to the quality of perception that results in distinguishable forms. Without forms, we would have nothing to name; without names, we couldn’t identify forms. Form and our ability to identify it are inextricably linked; namarupa is therefore the condition for our sensory awareness, for without it there could not be distinguishable colors, shapes, sounds and smells.

In two related passages from the Samyutta Nikaya, Gotama makes it clear that namarupa is central to sensory awareness:

“And what, friends, is name-and-form? Feeling, perception, intention, contact, attention: this is called name. The four great elements and the form derived from the four great elements: this is called form. And what, monks, is consciousness? There are these six classes of consciousness: eye-consciousness, ear-consciousness, nose-consciousness, tongue-consciousness, body consciousness, mind consciousness. This is called consciousness.”

S. II, 3-4

“Then, monks, it occurred to me: “When what exists does consciousness come to be? By what is consciousness conditioned? “ Then, monks, through careful attention, there took place in me a breakthrough by wisdom: “When there is name-and-form, consciousness comes to be; consciousness has name and form as its condition.
Then, monks, it occurred to me: “This consciousness turns back; it does not go further back than name-and-form. It is to this extent that one may be born and age and die, pass away and be reborn, that is, when there is consciousness with name-and-form as its condition, and name-and-form with consciousness as its condition . . .”

S. II, 104

If we return to the chain of Dependent Origination we shared above, the meaning of this last statement becomes clear. There is no consciousness without namarupa; there is no namarupa without consciousness; and consciousness is always consciousness of the six sense bases. So when the Fire Sermon tells us that the senses and their objects burn with the Three Fires, Gotama is saying that our consciousness arises preconditioned by them. The craving and aversion we recognize in ourselves are conditioned by the very nature of our perceptual apparatus, which is primed to produce them. It appears that Gotama recognized, two and a half millennia ago, that what presents itself to our higher cognitive functions has already been filtered through a more primitive part of our psychophysical system, and is shaped by urges and repulsions of which we may normally be unaware — an observation a modern neurologist would confirm.

The implication here is that, if our psychophysical nature is where the fires are burning, that is where they need to be extinguished.   This is quite different from the traditions that teach that our basic nature is enlightened, that our minds are naturally radiant,  and if we only clear ourselves of the taints we will experience them that way.   As Gotama tells us in the Samana-Mundika Sutta (M. 78), if that were the case, any newborn infant would be the equal of a fully awakened contemplative.   Because the default mode of our sensory apparatus is craving, long and diligent practice is required to recognize the fires of infatuation, aversion and confusion and reform our habitual reactions to them.   This is why mindfulness of the body is the central dharma practice, for “without directly knowing and fully understanding the all, without developing dispassion toward it and abandoning it, one is incapable of destroying suffering.”

Tags: , , ,

Category: Articles

About the Author ()

Mark J. Knickelbine, MA, C-MI, is a writer, editor, political activist, and certified meditation instructor. "Buddhism Without Beliefs" and "The End of Faith" led him to seek out a dharma practice without the religious trappings of Buddhism. He found it at a local health clinic, where he learned mindfulness in the manner of Jon Kabat-Zinn. He has continued to study texts from the Pali, Chan and Zen traditions, and he is an active member of the mindfulness community at the UWHealth Department of Integrative Medicine. Mark is a member of the SBA board and serves as Practice Director.

Comments (16)

Trackback URL | Comments RSS Feed

  1. Linda Linda says:

    Spot on teaching on dependent arising, Mark, especially lucid on why name and form and consciousness are the two interdependent factors in what’s being described. I’m right with you all the way through until that last paragraph, where I would disagree.

    The reason the babies are not awakened is (not because they do not have within them that luminous mind but) because they have yet to become aware that they can be awakened — awakening is a choice we make and work toward only after becoming aware that we are asleep. The wriggling babes may be harmless but that doesn’t make them fully liberated because they still have the potential, the tendency in them, that will bloom into ill will &c. One has to grow up enough to meet those tendencies in bloom and learn the skills to overcome them before one can be considered awakened, by the Buddha’s standards.

    And not that you said this (but it seems to me it would have to be implied if we have no innate capacity for that luminous mind): The Buddha’s methods don’t create some other consciousness by getting rid of the one he is talking about in his fire sermon and dependent arising; nor are we left without any kind of consciousness. We humans *do* have that naturally radiant mind — I think this is supported by the way our pleasure centers light up not only at sensual pleasures but when we are generous to others — but its ability to work is hampered by the hungry consciousness that is, by default, at the forefront.

    The Buddha is pointing out what we are lately proving verifiable by science: that we are born with innate tendencies, both for greed and for generosity. The world we encounter growing up encourages greed — I yam what I yam, we say, and find nothing wrong with just following that nature. But the Buddha teaches us that if we can come to see — usually through the help of clear-speaking teachers like yourself — that the dominating urge for self-preservation is not actually necessary, and is in fact doing us and our world harm, then we can overcome that, and let our natural generosity take the lead for a change.

  2. Mark Knickelbine says:

    I wouldn’t say that we don’t have an innate capacity for transformation –call it neuroplasticity or “escape from the conditioned.” I just mean that enlightenment is not our “natural” state, as many people representing themselves as Buddhist teachers will suggest. It goes against the stream, as Gotama said, because it runs counter to the tendency to craving that we are hardwired for. Even our instinctive drives toward love, belonging and empathy tend to be colored in our experience by Inappropriate View, leading us to react in ways that often turn out wrong. Practice is hard work, and it doesn’t stop; but the good news is that it gets easier as our body/minds begin to recognize how to break that feeling-craving link and responding in a way becomes its own habit.

  3. Dana Nourie Dana Nourie says:

    My confusion is when I read some of these suttas, they talk about when eye consciousness ceases, then craving ceases, or desire ceases. Well consciousness arising from the sense doors aren’t going to stop arising until I’m dead. Definitely, craving will cease then.

    Mark, so how can we stop something that naturally arises from the body? Or is it simply our reaction to it? I think I have to read this again. I feel like I’m just slightly off understanding here, but when I read about consciousness ceasing, I think of death. I see no other way.

    Yet, I found by not thinking of not liking weed pulling, I cut off the experience of not liking weed pulling, and then there was just the experience of weeding pulling, without the blah, blah attached. Is that what you mean?

  4. Mark Knickelbine says:

    Dana —

    There are suttas that talk about Nibbana as the cessation of consciousness; but as I’ve discussed before, I think they are attempts to make Gotama’s teachings jive with Vedic soteriology. I don’t think our impulse to crave ever goes away, while we’re alive. What we can do, however, is to train ourselves to recognize that impulse as it arises, and to recognize how it triggers the habitual reactions that create fiction of self (“I lack something I must have; I must avoid what will injure me”)– to recognize what we perceive as dukkha, anicca, and anatta. I like John Peacock’s notion of “surfing” our feelings, observing them and riding them out until the urge to react to them has passed.

  5. Linda Linda says:

    Dana, the easiest way to understand it is this: Remember that the first cause is ignorance of the four noble truths — so ignorance of the meaning of dukkha, ignorance of its cause, ignorance of the possibility of its cessation, ignorance of how to go about that. I say that dependent arising explains all of these things, and what it explains is how the arising of our sense of self causes the suffering.

    So, with ignorance as the first condition, everything that follows can be understood to have that particular kind of ignorance as part of its definition. So the consciousness that ends, is consciousness conditioned by ignorance. Ignorant-consciousness. *educated* consciousness — the consciousness we develop as we practice — isn’t the problem and isn’t what we’re aiming to end. It isn’t *all forms of consciousness* that cease, it is just ignorant-consciousness.

  6. Dana Nourie Dana Nourie says:

    Ok, that makes a lot of sense. Thank you, Linda and Mark. This also concurs with my experience too, that craving is at the body level, and the cessation is at the level our misunderstanding. Seeing it as it is, and understanding the arising of craving and clinging from it’s root source is what brings about the cessation of our ignorance, and therefore the suffering need not arise as a response to ignorant understanding.

  7. Nausauket Nausauket says:

    Nice explanation. Thanks.

  8. Mark Knickelbine says:

    . . . although I try to avoid translating avidyā as “ignorance” because of its pejorative conotatation in English, especially as reinforced by the Theravadin ascetic tradition (with concepts like “revulsion” toward the senses). Part of the point I think the Fire Sermon is making is that the reason the Three Fires are so hard to perceive is that they are intrinsic to our perceptual apparatus. Peacock translates it as “confusion”, which I like better because it suggests a sense of bewilderment rather than moral failure. If you consider a creature stuck with a body/mind that is primed to produce craving, it’s easier to feel compassion for that creature. Our tendency to crave isn’t our fault.

  9. Candol says:

    Linda wrote above, – So the consciousness that ends, is consciousness conditioned by ignorance. Ignorant-consciousness. *educated* consciousness — the consciousness we develop as we practice — isn’t the problem and isn’t what we’re aiming to end. It isn’t *all forms of consciousness* that cease, it is just ignorant-consciousness.

    I’d like to believe this is what is meant but is there any evidence of it?

    Mark says – Our tendency to crave isn’t our fault.

    No that’s right. And its good to point that out. Nevertheless, i think most people can cope with use of the word ignorance. When ignorance is correctly noted as meaning “not knowing” then people should not feel insulted. I am not sure confusion is a good word since it implies an awareness of the state of being confused. But the thing is we are not aware, quite often. Ignorance more clearly reflects that one doesn’t know what one doesn’t know so i like it better.

    • Linda Linda says:

      What sort of evidence are you looking for, Candol? I’m not sure if you’re talking about scientific studies, or personal experience of putting it into practice, or sutta support — or something I haven’t even guessed you might mean.

  10. jps@texterity.com.au says:

    The implication here is that, if our psychophysical nature is where the fires are burning, that is where they need to be extinguished. This is quite different from the traditions that teach that our basic nature is enlightened, that our minds are naturally radiant, and if we only clear ourselves of the taints we will experience them that way.

    That idea is actually expressed in the Nikayas, in the Pabhassara Sutta:

    Luminous, monks, is the mind. And it is defiled by incoming defilements.”

    “Luminous, monks, is the mind. And it is freed from incoming defilements.”

    “Luminous, monks, is the mind. And it is defiled by incoming defilements. The uninstructed run-of-the-mill person doesn’t discern that as it actually is present, which is why I tell you that — for the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person — there is no development of the mind.”

    “Luminous, monks, is the mind. And it is freed from incoming defilements. The well-instructed disciple of the noble ones discerns that as it actually is present, which is why I tell you that — for the well-instructed disciple of the noble ones — there is development of the mind.”

    This formed the basis for the later development of the dharmadhātu

  11. Mark Knickelbine says:

    JPS, thanks for your comment. I think the key to understanding passages such as the one you cite is the emphasis on “development of the mind.” This is consistent with all the passages in which Gotama praises mindfulness of the body as the core practice — consciousness, he tells us, is always consciousness of namarupa as perceived by the senses. Mindfulness practice is a means of retraining our psychophysical nature — and neurobiologists are begining to point to evidence of how practice rewires and changes our brains. If our minds were naturally awakened, one would need to explain how we fall into delusion. As many have pointed out, grasping and aversion are aids to survival as well as sources of suffering, and delusion is virtually guaranteed by the limits of our sensory apparatus and the way the brain produces the representation of reality we perceive. These things are inherent in the human condition. I understand the development of the various “mind-only” trends within Mahayana traditions but I think they tend to lead away from the embodied perspective in the early teachings.

  12. U Thukha says:

    Hi Nama Rupa means mind and matter not name and form, maybe this will help

  13. Michael Finley Michael Finley says:


    I think you’ve got it just about right. I’d only add that “our fundamental perception of the world” which is “the fuel of the Three Fires” is closely connected to to the illusion of a permenent self. The “eye-consciousness” (etc.) that is burning , is the point of “contact” between the self and the external world, and also generates the existential pain we feel as finite beings in an impermanent world and which we try to deny by erecting fictions of various sorts.

    Your discussion reminds me of Rhys-Davids observations in “Early Buddhism,” written back in 1908, about the 4NT in the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta: He wrote:

    “The emancipation is found in a habit of mind, in the being free from a specified sort of craving that is said to be the origin of certain specified sorts of pain. In some European books this is
    completely spoiled by being represented as the doctrine that existence is misery, and that desire is to be suppressed. Nothing of the kind is said in the text. The description of suffering or
    pain is, in fact, a string of truisms quite plain and undisputable until the last clause. That clause declares that the five Updddna Skandhas, the five groups of bodily and mental qualities that
    make up an individual, involve pain.

    Pain and Individuality — One can express that in more modern language by saying that the conditions that make an individual are precisely the conditions that also give rise to pain. No sooner has an individual arisen, become separate, than disease and decay begin to act upon it. Individuality involves limitation, limitation involves ignorance, ignorance ends in sorrow. All the sorts and sources of pain here specified — birth, decay, death, union with the pleasant, separation from the pleasant, unsatisfied longings — are each simply a result of individuality. This is a deeper generalization than that which said : “ A man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upward.” But it is put forward as a mere statement of fact. And the previous history of religious belief in India would tend to show that emphasis was laid on the fact, not as an explanation of the origin of evil, but rather as a protest against the then current pessimistic idea that salvation could not be reached on earth, and must therefore be sought for in rebirth in heaven. For if the argument were admitted, it would follow that even in heaven the individual would still be subject to sorrow ; and by admitting this the five ascetics, to whom the words were addressed, would have to admit also all that followed.”
    T. W. Rhys Davids, Early Buddhism (1908

  14. Mark Knickelbine says:

    Michael and U Thukha, thanks for refreshing this blast from the past. Looking at it after reading the Rhys Davids, implicit in the concept of namarupa is the basic subject-object split that is the foundation of the self. If I ever get around to rewriting this, I think I would make that more explicit.

    I prefer “name-and-form” to “mind and matter” as a translation for namarupa, although they both get at the same thing. The latter plays to our prejudice of seeing “mind” as something non-material, and one of the strengths of DA for secular Buddhists is that it demonstrates that consciousness arises directly from the contact of sense objects with our perceptual apparatus.

Leave a Reply