Agni God of Fire

You wouldn’t know from the title of the sutta — “The Greater Discourse on the Destruction of Craving” — that this is one of the suttas that gives the most detail on dependent arising (aka dependent origination, interdependent co-arising, etc) but it is one in which the Buddha attempts to put across the concept that was the backbone of all his teachings. He describes it backwards (which is normal) and forwards (used almost as frequently). He covers arising, and he covers cessation (backwards and forwards). And then he describes it in terms of fire, in terms of nutriment, and in terms of one person’s life, as well as pointing out what we should and shouldn’t care about if we properly understand it (we would not, for example, have any reason to be wondering who we were in the past or who we will be in the future).(1)

The thing he avoids saying is what “it” is that arises and ceases. Certainly on one level “it” is fire, but we can infer from the title of the sutta that “it” is craving. We might also be justified in saying that “it” is consciousness, since the sutta is framed as an antidote to wrong views of consciousness espoused by one “Sati, the fisherman’s son” and consciousness is herein described as arising from craving. But if we remember that dependent arising is a chain of events, one thing arising from the next, it can equally be said that the “it” which arises — and ceases if we understand how to break the chain — is whatever follows from craving, which would include all forms of dukkha (the experiences we get when we don’t understand the chain and therefore fail to break it).


The translation (used in this post) by Thanissaro Bhikkhu is fairly accurate. Though I don’t agree with his take on what the Buddha means, and sometimes disagree with the words he uses in translation, I find this translator to be the one who most faithfully adheres (in all his translations) to the grammar in the underlying Pali. His opening defense of dependent origination as being about rebirth is (you’ll not be surprised to learn) something I disagree with from top to bottom, though I don’t always disagree with the way he interprets how it plays out in daily practice.


In my previous post I talked about the reason why “nutriment” was a difficult concept for us to understand — because we Westerners aren’t as close to the starvation years as the just-becoming agricultural society the Buddha grew up in, so we don’t have the same relationship to food as sustaining something that is extremely precarious — life in a delicate balance, life that can only continue as long as it is still getting “nutriment”. In the comments below that post, I asked Dana for a pointer to the sutta in which she had encountered nutriment, and it was this one, MN 38.

Just before nutriment is introduced, the Buddha is talking to his monks about how different kinds of fuel result in different sorts of fire. Any of us who have seen a wood fire blazing and, in some other moment, watched a candle burning, know that there is an evident difference:

“Just as fire is classified simply by whatever requisite condition in dependence on which it burns — a fire that burns in dependence on wood is classified simply as a wood-fire, a fire that burns in dependence on wood-chips is classified simply as a wood-chip-fire; a fire that burns in dependence on grass is classified simply as a grass-fire; a fire that burns in dependence on cow-dung is classified simply as a cow-dung-fire; a fire that burns in dependence on chaff is classified simply as a chaff-fire; a fire that burns in dependence on rubbish is classified simply as a rubbish-fire — in the same way, consciousness is classified simply by the requisite condition in dependence on which it arises.

After discussing the way consciousness arises similarly, in dependence on its particular fuel, the Buddha then asks:

“Monks, do you see, ‘This has come to be’?”
“Yes, lord.”
“Monks, do you see, ‘It comes into play from that nutriment’?”
“Yes, lord.”

In Bhikkhus Nanamoli’s and Bodhi’s notes on this part of the sutta(2) it is explained that the “this” is referring to the five aggregates. Richard Gombrich, in “What the Buddha Thought“(3) has a different take. After a good look at the Pali, he proposes that the Buddha is actually pointing to “this” when he is speaking — he is pointing to and still describing the fire. (Pali texts don’t come with stage directions — so there is no “He said, while pointing at the fire…”)

The Buddha is still comparing fire to consciousness, and pointing out that what kind of consciousness arises depends on the fuel it is burning — its nutriment.(4)

In the next section, the Buddha discusses nutriment from a different angle. He says:

“Monks, there are these four nutriments for the maintenance of beings who have come into being or for the support of those in search of a place to be born(5). Which four? Physical food, gross or refined; contact as the second, intellectual intention the third, and consciousness the fourth.

“Now, these four nutriments have what as their cause, what as their origination, through what are they born, through what are they brought into being? These four nutriments have craving as their cause, craving as their origination, are born from craving, are brought into being from craving.

So we have four nutriments:

  • food (āhāro)
  • contact (phasso)
  • intellectual intention (manosañcetanā)
  • consciousness (viññāṇaṃ)

and all of them have craving as their source.

The way to understand this bit on nutriment parallels what was just said about fire. On the obvious (gross) level, the Buddha is describing something that “everybody knows”. With fire, he is describing how people keep the fires burning (using fuel) and this is a desirable thing in a society in which pretty much everyone — not just the brahmin priests — kept fires in their homes. But the metaphor of the fire is used to point out something on a subtler (fine) level, something less desirable — the thing we are trying to put an end to — the consciousness that is described in dependent arising.

With nutriment the Buddha is here setting up the same sort of parallel. A body cannot continue to exist (in any healthy way) without food, without contact with the world, without the ability to make choices, and without consciousness. Everybody knows this, and so these four nutriments are desirable — on the gross level. But on the subtler metaphorical (fine) level, something else entirely is being described: there is a sort of “being” that exists that is not desirable. It requires its particular sort of food, a particular sort of contact, a particular kind of intention, and a particular sort of consciousness to go on existing.

As for craving, and how it can be the source of all four foods — on both levels — this goes back to the Prajapati myth mentioned in my last post. Prajapati comes into being through (a certain kind of) craving, and he is always hungry, always seeking to come into contact with knowledge of himself, that will simultaneously feed him and bring him into existence. So on a gross level, it is this craving for existence that brings us (as it brought Prajapati) into existence: we crave food, we crave contact, we crave the ability to make choices, we crave knowledge through our consciousness. On the fine (undesirable) level that the Buddha is discussing, we also crave the things that bring our not-self into existence: the different sort of food we feed our sense of self, which includes contact with that which supports our view of who we are (think of us as seeking out things that confirm our biases), our intellectual intentions are driven by that craving, and the sort of consciousness that causes trouble is the particular one that arises while it is seeking out — it craves — confirmation that our views are right.

Another way to look at the gross level of nutriment is to see it as “the field” in which the fine level of things grows. The Buddha uses the metaphor of fields and seeds, soil and water in this way in several suttas. Without the body that needs gross food, the sense of self (“the being”) that feeds on the subtle food of our conceptions would not come into being. That body is “the field” in which “the being” grows. Without contact with the world in general, contact that sought out confirmation of our sense-of-self would not be possible. Without having the ability to make choices, the choices driven by our sense-of-self could not happen. Without consciousness, we could not have the consciousness that seeks itself.

In a great many of the Buddha’s sermons (and those of his cleverest disciples like Sariputta and Dhammadina) it is the obvious, the “gross” that is being named and defined, but what is being addressed is much harder to see. Why did he not just come out and say what he meant? Who knows what all the factors might be! Perhaps he didn’t have the words; perhaps that is just the way people talked — it was a very different time from ours. It is certain that the Vedic religion of the time was built on correspondences between what was seen here on earth and “higher” conceptions of what was going on in “that other world” — the degree to which people in the day conceived of everything they saw as having a different and more significant hidden meaning is just about unimaginable to us now. That alone might be explanation enough.



(1) He also suggests that if we do not have direct and first-hand experience with what he is pointing out, we should not be talking about it — we shouldn’t even be repeating what the Buddha says about it if we don’t really understand it through direct (and not just intellectual) experience. This is my favorite part of the whole sutta because to me it says, -“If you think I am talking about rebirth in a future life in this lesson, and you have no direct experience with rebirth, you should just shut up please.”- Given that the sutta starts with Sati doing just that very thing — talking about rebirth though he is clueless — it seems an obvious conclusion that this was part of the Buddha’s point in giving this lesson.

(2) Note 405 on p. 1232 of the Wisdom Publications Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha.

(3) In the chapter “Everything Is Burning” on p 120-121.

(4) The Buddha then does a little riff making sure the monks understand how important it is to recognize how the “this” he is pointing to comes into being dependent on “that” — a phrasing often used elsewhere with no reference to fire, but instead pointing to dependent origination. At the end of this discussion of fire and its fuel he also points out that this part of the teaching is something they should not cling to — which can be seen as another way of saying, -“I am pointing this out as a metaphor. I am not teaching a fire doctrine. This description is just a raft to get you to the other shore of understanding. Once you get to that shore, you really don’t need to concern yourself with fire and its fuel anymore.”- (I enjoy imagining the monks sitting around picking apart the metaphor and trying to stretch it to fit *perfectly* — as so many of us modern folks do while overextending metaphors — and having it fall apart on them, and the ensuing arguments. I would not be surprised if that was part of the Buddha’s point about “the raft”.)

(5) āhārā bhūtānaṃ vā sattānaṃ ṭhitiyā, sambhavesīnaṃ vā anuggahāya.

āhārā – food, nutriment
bhūtānaṃ – become, existed
– or
sattānaṃ – a living being
ṭhitiyā – one who stays
sambhavesīnaṃ – “one who is seeking rebirth” is the usual translation, but “bhave” is “becoming” not “birth”.
anuggahāya – favor, help, assistance

The two Pali words for “being” – “bhūtā” and “sattā” are used interchangeably throughout the suttas, and “bhūtā” — which shares a root with “bhava” (“becoming”) — certainly captures the precarious and changeable nature of “who we are”. This can be interpreted as meaning “a living creature” from birth to death — “a life” — so that “one who is seeking “bhave” (becoming) would be the equivalent of someone wanting to be reborn — and this is the way traditional Buddhist translators tend to see it — or it can be interpreted as something less concrete, as saying that nutriment is needed for the continued support of “who we think we are” sort of “being” (as in “I am being an ass right now — can I have another beer?”) or to bring into being the sort of person we want to be (“I think I want to be wealthy — who can I step on to get there?”). It’s my contention that the Buddha is talking about a being as the more transient, rather than the concrete “life” — so he is not addressing a birth and a whole life sort of being — which is our modern conception of a being (as lasting) instead of the ancient conception of a being (as fragile and changeable).

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  1. […] to understand (it is general morality); nutriment we have covered in previous posts (here and here); and the four noble truths should be familiar to just about everyone (if not, they are the focus […]

  2. […] also: Food and Fire in Dependent Origination (on the subject of the importance of understanding the term ‘nutriment’ because it is […]

  3. Candol on September 30, 2012 at 7:43 am

    I think you might be in disagreement with John Peacock about DO. I’ve been listening to his talks again lately. Two things that he says that might interest you are: 1. That although its written in sequence, all these things are happening all at once. Yes of course one thing is the conditioning for another but they are all going on at the same time. Or may you would say that too later but i just read you say this is a sequence of events.

    I was also really surprised to hear him say that the earliest suttas are the sutta nipata and DO is not mentioned. Nor are the four noble truths. I found that really interesting. And wonder then if it wasn’t the monks who put these formulations together later one too.

    Which leaves us with the noble eightfold path and mindfulness. And actually that is not incredible to me.

    I haven’t tried to read this myself but it would be interesting to read it with this in mind. On the other hand, i think i did try to read it once and it seemed to be in pali so i don’t know. But i should try to find a translation.

    Also it occurred to me the other day that emptiness is none other than dependent origination. Personally i prefer Dependent Origination. Emptiness as a concept never appealed to me as a good word to encapsulate these ideas of the buddha. I think people must just love cause they like the sound of emptiness is form and form is emptiness blah blah blah.

    • Linda on September 30, 2012 at 12:10 pm

      So in the exact same moment one makes contact with the world, one becomes aware of whether that contact is pleasant or not, and one experiences the result of that contact in the form of dukkha (as represented by aging-and-death)? Does it actually make sense to you that the whole thing is instantaneous? Where does that leave room for intention to make any difference?

      I understand the reasoning behind seeing Sutta Nipata as “the earliest” but I disagree with the basis for that conclusion. I don’t see that we can as easily separate the strands as some think.

      • Candol on October 1, 2012 at 5:56 pm

        I think if you listen to john peacock talk about it, you would see it clearly. I can’t paraphrase him very well. All i know is that when i heard him say it, it was immediately sensible. And i have no reason to change my mind. I don’t think i said everything was instantaneous.

      • Linda on October 4, 2012 at 10:17 am

        The idea that DA is not in the Sutta Nipata is mistaken. The classic 12-step version may not be in there in the same formula we see it in other volumes, but it is there.

        Have a look at this:

        and start by searching for the phrase “From clinging as a requisite condition comes becoming.” (sound familiar?). Then look upward from that point, and you’ll find:

        * clinging
        * craving
        * feeling
        * contact
        * consciousness
        * “fabrications” (sankhara)
        * ignorance

        The Sutta Nipata certainly must have a different history than what brought us the other volumes, but the same things are being expressed just in slightly different ways. This could be because it is “earlier” but that’s not necessarily (or logically) on the scale of centuries, but could represent “earlier in the Buddha’s career” — perhaps sets of teachings that got carried to and preserved in a particular distant area for centuries and only later got picked up and added to the canon of the sect that had preserved the bulk of the canon we have.

        That it does have DA in it, just not in the classic form, tells me (1) DA was there all along and (2) it is essentially authentic because it fits with the larger whole.

  4. Candol on September 30, 2012 at 7:46 am

    Nutriment is not a difficult concept for us to understand either. It may be difficult for you but i wonder why you never could see clearly that nutriment is food and that satisfying the cravings is food for the continuation of dukkha. Its really not at all difficult Linda. I can’t understand why you would find it so.

    • Linda on September 30, 2012 at 12:13 pm

      I have no difficulty at all, myself, with the concept of nutriment — it was unclear to me at first why the Buddha mentioned it so often, but I can see, now, how it fits into the Vedic worldview, and into his teachings. What is difficult for me, Candol, is getting what I’m saying across to you.

      • Candol on October 1, 2012 at 6:04 pm

        But you say this above. “In my previous post I talked about the reason why “nutriment” was a difficult concept for us to understand” I’m just saying its not at all a difficult concept for “us” to understand. Feeding a cycle is a common idea. I don’t think its anything special to the vedic world. Feeding is a common metaphor. Nutriment, ie food is common. Food is one of the three essentials for life. What’s weird at all. The idea of giving in to our impulses or reactions as food that feeds a cycle is not very strange. I just think you’ve made more of it than is necessary.

        I find the way you write makes more of things than necessary. I guess i just don’t find your way of explaining things compelling. As you would have noticed i’ve always found your way of explaining things less than straightforward.

  5. Linda on October 4, 2012 at 11:15 am

    Candol, given that you’ve “always found [my] way of explaining things less than straightforward” I suspect the best answer to all of the above is that you should stop listening to me and stick with those whose writing does suit you. For myself, I’ve found the effort of reaching someone who has such difficulty understanding me — and who tends to frame her questions in a form that suggests that what I’m saying is just stupid and obvious and pointless or wrong — is so exhausting that I have, for the most part, retired from posting on this site. But I’ll give it one more try.

    I said: “Does it actually make sense to you that the whole thing is instantaneous?”
    You said: “I don’t think i said everything was instantaneous.”

    Earlier, you said: “That although its written in sequence, all these things are happening all at once. ”

    I guess I find your way of explaining things “less than straightforward” also, since the above “all happening all at once” indicates “instantaneous” to me. Perhaps you meant that the cycle of DA isn’t one step at a time to the end and then repeated, but that many cycles are going on at once — simultaneously instead of instantaneously? But that can’t be right either because you are denying that it is “a sequence” and simultaneous cycles still implies a sequence, actually several sequences. So I still have no idea what you mean by “all happening all at once” if not “instantaneously”.

    In my understanding, the whole of DA is not a cycle, or even, exactly, a sequence. The first part is a set of conditions — “givens” — that condition the way we behave. The middle portion *is* a sequence of events we can see in our lives, examine, and interrupt. The last portion describes the outcome if we don’t interrupt the middle sequence.

    You said: “Feeding is a common metaphor. Nutriment, ie food is common. Food is one of the three essentials for life. What’s weird at all. The idea of giving in to our impulses or reactions as food that feeds a cycle is not very strange. I just think you’ve made more of it than is necessary. ”

    It seems to me that your focus on the obvious (“food that feeds a cycle is not very strange”) stops you cold, so that you totally ignore the rest of what I said about “so we don’t have the same relationship to food as sustaining something that is extremely precarious” or my main point in the previous post (that you refer to) “This is where the nutriment and the attitude towards life comes in. Prajapati is never fully Prajapati unless he is actively being fed by those little bits of self…” and its parallel to “Only when I am being fed do I exist.” I would hope that you can see that “Only when I am fed do I exist” is *not* obvious because it is not the way we, in our times, look at life.

    That food is a good metaphor is not the point I was trying to make at all; it *is* obvious you’re right, so please try to understand the rest of what I said. I was making the point that in the Buddha’s day “food feeds a cycle” is NOT what’s being said but “I only exist while I am being fed” IS the point.

    To try to go beyond what I said in the articles and make it clearer, what the Vedic people saw was life on two levels — that there was desire-for and desire-fulfilled. There was a sort of “quasi-existence” (for example, of “self”) of “the unfulfilled”, but it wasn’t a true existence until it was being fed (in the case of “self” it needed to be fed knowledge of itself). Understanding that is actually critical to understanding why DA is expressed the way it is: it describes, at the outset, the conditions that create “desire-for-self” and then it goes on to describe how the self comes to know itself and bring itself into existence through that process.

    This is the answer to my question “Why does he talk about nutriment so much?” Because he is not talking about how craving for material food is what keeps us existing in body. He is not even, simply, talking about how continuing to feed a cycle keeps the cycle going (in that view, it continues to exist between feedings). He is talking about how craving for the nutriment of knowledge of the self keeps us seeing ourselves as having a self, and when we perceive that we get that confirmation-of-self then for that moment we (seem to) have that self — but if we aren’t (in any given moment) feeding it, then we don’t. He is showing us that we can be self-less in any moment when we are not actively “knowing self”.

    I was not trying to get all of the above into those two articles, though. I was just attempting to say, in the first article, that the mentions of food and nutriment in the suttas represented a different attitude than the one we have, and in the second show an example of why it matters — because it makes it easier to see what he’s doing in the sutta considered there. My intent was to begin laying a groundwork for the later series of articles on DA, and what I’m trying to show about why the Buddha explains things the way he does, in general.

    The difference I’m trying to explain is subtle, and that is perhaps why I’m not getting it through to you (and if I’m not getting it through to you, I’m probably not getting it through to others, which is why I am here again trying).

    • Rich on August 30, 2014 at 5:35 pm

      Wow, this is great and is appreciated.

  6. Candol on October 4, 2012 at 5:11 pm

    Thanks for your reply. I only replied this time because it popped up at the top of the page. And i tend to always check those posts.

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