|Reflections on the Fire Sermon||| Print ||
From the window of my second-floor apartment at Chuang Yen Monastery, I see down below a pageant of colors celebrating the splendor of this mild October day in upstate New York. It’s nine in the morning. Leaves of red, yellow, orange, purple, and brown flare up like brilliant flames against a background that stubbornly insists on preserving the green shades of summer. Across the road the surface of the Seven Jewels Lake is lightly rippled by soft breezes, forming an exquisite background to the large statue of Guan Yin, the bodhisattva of compassion, which juts out above the water. Her elegant figure conveys a feeling of peace, harmony, and gentleness. The surrounding paths are empty, and the scene before me seems the epitome of beauty and tranquility. I could not imagine a more perfect world. How could the Buddha say that everything is burning?
Yet I don’t remain content admiring the splendid scenery. Before long, curiosity gets the better of me, and I feel compelled to find out what’s going on in the world beyond the gates of this monastery. With a few clicks of the mouse on my computer, I conjure up the morning’s news. The home page springs up and the headlines immediately jump off the screen: “Libyan fighters seize Bani Walid,” “Kenya sends troops to attack al-Shabab,” “Fighting erupts in Yemeni capital,” “UN rights head warns of ‘civil war’ in Syria.” I don’t need the internet to know what is taking place on Wall Street and in other cities around the world. I have visited the Occupy Wall Street and the Stop the Machine occupations in New York and Washington, respectively. I know that these campaigns were triggered by episodes of financial profligacy that have pushed millions into unemployment, home foreclosures, hunger, and escalating debt.
So while the scene outside my window bears testimony to the unspeakable beauty of the world, it does not tell the whole story. It does not tell the story of what happens when human beings, driven by very ordinary human motives, prey on one another and on the natural world. It does not reveal how the primal impulses of the undisciplined mind can wreak havoc on populations spread out across the planet, even rocking the foundations of civilization itself.
The most ominous threat we face is almost too pervasive to be discerned, too slow and gradual in its incremental growth to capture our attention, and thus it remains virtually imperceptible. The threat comes from the changes being wrought upon our climate, from the slow warming of the earth’s atmosphere and oceans. The danger posed by climate change consists not only in forests turned into tinder, nor in accelerating loss of biodiversity—the decimation of countless species of birds, animals, insects, and plants. The danger is not only the vanishing of the glaciers that supply water to the great rivers of China, South Asia, and South America, or more violent wild fires, droughts, floods, hurricanes, and cyclones. The biggest danger is a diminished food supply. At the same time that crop yields decline due to higher temperatures and the assaults of industrial agriculture, the world’s population is rising, driving up demand and pushing food prices beyond the reach of the poor. As the disparity between supply and demand widens, almost inevitably the result will be state failures and social unrest, exploding in regional conflict, violence, and war.
Yet how are we to address this formidable situation? The news outlets report on the flames and the fuel, not on the sparks that ignite the fires. Even the most penetrating analyses of the causes and possible consequences of our current dilemmas sometimes conceal as much as they reveal, leaving the underlying causation on the sidelines. Could a clearer diagnosis be found in an ancient sermon spoken by the Buddha to a group of monks five hundred years before the Common Era?
We shouldn’t be too quick to mock this suggestion. The Fire Sermon is one of the starkest, bluntest, and most powerful expressions of spiritual truth ever uttered. Though spoken long before the Industrial Revolution, before the rise of corporate capitalism and the global financial system, before modern technologies of war emerged, the discourse is astoundingly prescient in its diagnosis of the human condition. The text startles us, sounds a stern warning, wakes us up.
The Buddha begins straight off by declaring that everything is burning. And without any apologies he takes us straight to the heart of the matter: the world is burning with the fires of greed, hatred, and delusion. From the dawn of history, these primal motives have been at the root of all misery. Yet today they have acquired a potency that in the Buddha’s time would have been unthinkable. In earlier eras, greed, hatred, and delusion were viewed as dangerous because of their impact on the individual mind and on the people with whom one directly interacted. Today, however, these three “roots of the unwholesome” have acquired a global reach. They’ve taken on systemic embodiments—in organizations and institutions, in the formulation of policies, in the rules and protocols by which political and economic objectives are pursued. They exist not only as motives in individual minds but as forces that energize colossal social systems spread out over the world, touching virtually everyone. Thus they are now much more malignant than ever before.
The manifestation of greed that should concern us most is not the yearning for simple sensual pleasures but the lust for power, control, and domination. Greed drives the expansion of financial institutions to the point where they become “too big to fail.” It underlies the push for corporate dominance at the risk of people’s health and a viable environment. It widens the divide between the rich and the multitudes, who are pushed down into poverty without adequate social safety nets to catch them. Greed invades our political systems, turning those who should lead into accessories of the corporate interests that finance their campaigns. Greed propels a gargantuan economy that goes on devouring ever diminishing stocks of fossil fuels and other finite resources. Our collective greed blinds us to the future, so that we are willing to bequeath to later generations the task of revitalizing a planet that may be damaged beyond repair.
Hatred today still erupts in persistent wars and violence against those of different nationalities, ethnicities, and religious beliefs. But its most insidious manifestation is callous indifference, a disregard for everyone and everything beyond our own narrow interests. When our hearts are closed, we objectify others by reducing them to mere statistics. We turn a blind eye to the plight of the billion people afflicted with chronic hunger and malnutrition. We ignore the small-scale farmers who helplessly look on when their land is gobbled up by giant agro-industrial firms. We dismiss the killing of innocent civilians as “collateral damage.”
In a similar way, we commodify the natural world so that animals become machines whose sole function is to supply meat and dairy products. We regard forests as nothing more than stocks of wood and paper. We grab hold of land and treat it solely as a source of coal, precious metals, petroleum, and gems. We strip people of their personhood, so that they are no longer dignified bearers of a hidden divinity but mere customers and clients whose being is to be for us. Isn’t this, in a way, just a more polite and refined expression of hatred?
Delusion does not only mean sheer ignorance and wrong views. It also means distraction and self-deception. I often wonder whether we refuse to look at our global crises because they are too overwhelming or because other things with more glitter capture our attention. While I don’t discount the former explanation, I’m often amazed to observe, even in myself, how trivial matters deflect us from the critical questions with which we should be grappling, how they shield from view the challenges on which our very survival depends. Is it possible that we are literally “amusing ourselves to death,” letting a flood of hollow forms of entertainment sweep us toward a waterfall?
But distraction is not the only way that we succumb to delusion. We also engage in deliberate deception, and often we let ourselves be deceived. How do we account for the fact that, when 97% of climate scientists say that climate change is real and that it’s caused by human activity, almost 40% of the U.S. population refuses to believe them? Fires rage in California and Texas; tornados strike in the Midwest and deep in the South; fierce hurricanes sweep across the country. And still the commentators don’t connect the dots, don’t dare tell us that these are heralds of even greater calamities to come, that the planet is getting hotter and we’re the ones who have turned up the thermostat. While climate scientists almost unanimously warn us that global warming is real, their warnings are mocked and their motives slandered. Politicians beholden to the oil industry even hold a vote on the question whether climate change is genuine, and by majority opinion determine it’s a hoax. Can a thicker cataract of self-delusion be imagined?
In the Fire Sermon, the Buddha says that the way to win release from the fires that devour us is by extinguishing them at their point of origin. This means extinguishing them in the mind, by putting out the fires of greed, hatred, and delusion. The specific method the discourse recommends is inevitably framed against the spiritual backdrop of early Buddhism, which stresses personal responsibility for suffering and sees release as an individual attainment. Hence liberation comes about through meditative insight, disenchantment, and detachment. However, given the global and systemic embodiments of greed, hatred, and delusion that today jeopardize humanity’s future, I wonder whether a project aimed at individual emancipation alone is adequate for our needs.
As I see it, there are two trajectories along which human life is moving, and both need to be steered in a different direction. One is the moral trajectory, the other the trajectory of sustainability. The moral trajectory is currently being driven by lust for profit and power, which is ravaging the finite resources of the earth and filling its sinks with toxic waste. The trajectory of sustainability is being propelled by an expanding population expected to increase to nine billion by 2050. At the same time, rising living standards in developing countries like China, India, and Brazil increase the pressure on the planet to provide the resources needed to satisfy the expectations of their newly affluent elites. If these two trajectories continue on their present course, they are bound to converge and plunge us into calamity.
In my understanding, the only prospect for human flourishing lies in altering these trajectories, a task that requires collective action rather than merely a personal effort. To emerge intact, we have to work in unison to devise ways of mitigating the fires presently consuming our world. While rooted in the same essential insights enunciated in the Fire Sermon, the approach that I see as mandatory must match the global dimensions of our current crisis. If the fires that are burning up our world today are fueled by the systemic expressions of greed, hatred, and delusion, it seems that the imperative laid on us is to confront these collective expressions head on and curb the commanding roles they play in the systems they dominate. This would mean that our endeavor should not simply be to attain personal insight in order to break the bonds that individually tie us to suffering, but to reshape the structures themselves so that they provide everyone with opportunities for a more dignified and fulfilling life.
If we accept this imperative as our personal mission, it means that we apply the ideal of “the removal and abandoning of greed, hatred, and delusion” to the operation of collective systems. The solution becomes not merely a matter of economics and politics but a deeply moral and spiritual transformation that overturns our fundamental values. The moral trajectory must be bent in the direction of greater social and economic justice. The trajectory of sustainability must be bent away from infinite expansion toward a principle of sufficiency. This entails containing population growth, protecting biodiversity, expediting the transition to renewable sources of energy, and adopting effective strategies of climate mitigation and adaptation. But it also entails adopting new standards of the good life that emphasize contentment rather than consumption, expansion, and novelty.
Such a project would revisit the assumptions that underlie the prevailing model of a growth economy, which sees the increase of output as the principal rationale for economic policy. Instead of aiming at quantitative expansion, we must make our social institutions more equitable, generous, and compassionate, so that we can provide all the earth’s denizens with the material and social supports of a decent life. We must also learn to respect the rights of other sentient beings and acknowledge the inescapable finitude of the biosphere. At the deepest level, we are called upon to re-envisage life’s ultimate purpose, seeing it as the actualization of truth, goodness, and beauty rather than the achievement of wealth, power, and domination. This amounts to nothing less than a complete revaluation of our collective goals, but if we want to survive and flourish as a species, in the end we probably have no alternative.
It is mid-afternoon now. I look out my window and, apart from the interplay of light and shadow, I see that not much has changed since this morning. The sun now illuminates the colored leaves more brightly than it did in the morning. The sunlight shines on the front of the Guan Yin statue, accentuating its delicate features. The paths are still empty, and the same peace and quiet prevails. But I ask myself: “Does there have to be an irreconcilable duality between the quiet of the monastery and the commotion, upheaval, and turmoil I discover when I pass beyond its gates? Can’t we extinguish the grosser fires of greed, hatred, and delusion, so that the world need not be a blazing cauldron? Is it possible to persuade people to live together peacefully and harmoniously, to know simple joys, to treat one another with generosity and kindness?”
As long as life continues, inevitably the “fires of birth, old age, and death” will burn.Thus liberation from the cycle of repeated existence, the attainment of the deathless, still reigns as the final goal. But, I ask myself, can’t we draw a distinction between those fires that are intrinsic to life itself and those that are parasitic on the life process, the fires ignited and fueled by greed, hatred, and delusion? I myself draw such a distinction. Thus, in my own small way, I aspire to help reduce the global and systemic fires of greed, hatred, and delusion, to usher in a world in which justice, love, and generosity will finally prevail.
Photography Credits: Tibetan Hand, Brian English; Tibetan Bhodisttava, Brian English; Willie, Downtown L.A., Chuk Nguyen.
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