Let go of Fire
An article by the Venerable Ajahn Sumedho, reproduced by kind permission of the author and of the Buddhist Publishing Group
The Buddha’s teaching is all about understanding suffering — its origin, its cessation, and the path to its cessation. When we contemplate suffering, we find we are contemplating desire, because desire and suffering are the same thing.
Desire can be compared to fire. If we grasp fire, what happens? Does it lead to happiness? If we say: ‘Oh, look at that beautiful fire! Look at the beautiful colours! I love red and orange; they’re my favourite colours,’ and then grasp it, we would find a certain amount of suffering entering the body. And then if we were to contemplate the cause of that suffering we would discover it was the result of having grasped the fire. On that information, we would, hopefully, then let the fire go. Once we let fire go, then we know that it is something not to be attached to. This does not mean we have to hate it or put it out. We can enjoy fire, can’t we? It is nice having a fire, it keeps the room warm, but we do not have to burn ourselves in it.
When we really contemplate suffering, we no longer incline towards grasping hold of desire, because it hurts, is painful, there is no point in doing it. So, from that time on, we understand: ‘Oh! That’s why I’m suffering; that’s its origin. Ah! Now I understand. It’s that grasping hold of desire that causes me all this misery and suffering, all this fear, worry, expectation, despair, hatred, greed, delusion. All the problems of life come from grasping and clinging to the fire of desire.’
The human habit of clinging to desire is ingrained. We in the West think of ourselves as sophisticated and educated, but when we really begin to see what is going on in our minds, it is rather frightening — most of us are horribly ignorant. We do not have an inkling of who we are, or what the cause of suffering is, or how to live rightly — not an inkling. Many people want to take drugs, drink, and do all kinds of thing to escape suffering — but their suffering increases. How conceited and arrogant we Western people can be, thinking of ourselves as civilised! We are educated, it is true, we can read and write, and we have wonderful machines and inventions. In comparison the tribal peoples in Africa, for example, seem primitive, superstitious, don’t they? But we are all in exactly the same boat! It is just that our superstitions are different. We actually believe in all kinds of things.
For instance, we try to explain our universe through concepts, thinking that concepts are reality. We believe in reason, in logic — which is to say we believe in things we do not know. We have not really understood how it all begins and ends. If we read a book and believe what it tells us, believe what the scientists say, we are just believing. We think: ‘We’re sophisticated. We believe in what the scientists say. People have PhDs — we believe in what they say. We don’t believe in what witch-doctors say; they’re stupid and ignorant.’ But it is all belief, isn’t it? We still do not know — it just sounds good. The Buddha said we should find out for ourselves and then we do not have to believe others.
We contemplate the universe as impermanent; we can see the impermanent nature of all conditions. From this contemplation, wisdom arises. There is nothing we can find in changing conditions that has any kind of self-continuity. All things begin and end; they arise out of the void and they go back into the void. And wherever we look we are not going to find any kind of permanent personality, or self. The only reason we think we have a personality is because we have memories, ideas and opinions about ourselves. If we are intellectual, we are always up in the head, thinking about everything. Emotionally we might not be developed at all — throw temper tantrums, scream and yell when we do not get our own way. We can talk about Sophocles and Aristotle, have magnificent discussions about the great German philosophers and about Ramakrishna, Aurobindo, and Buddha, and then somebody does not give us what we want and we throw a tantrum! It is all up in the head; there is no emotional stability.
There was a monk I knew once who was quite sophisticated compared to some of the other monks. He had lived in Bangkok for many years, been in the Thai navy, could speak pidgin English. He was quite intelligent and rather impressive. But he had this terrible health problem and felt he could no longer exist on one meal a day. In fact his health was so bad that he had to disrobe (leave the Buddhist Order). After that he became an alcoholic! He could give brilliant talks whilst being smashed out of his mind. He had the intellect, but no morality or concentration.
On the other hand, we can have very strict morality and not have any wisdom. Then we are moral snobs, or bigots. Or we can become attached to concentration and not have any wisdom. ‘I’m on a meditation retreat and I’ve developed some concentration, some insight, but when I go home, oorh! I don’t know if I’ll be able to practise any more, or even if I’ll have the time. I have so many duties, so many responsibilities.’ But how we live in our ordinary lives is the real practice. Retreats are opportunities for getting away from all those responsibilities and things that press in on us, so as to be able to get a better perspective on them. But if the retreats are just used to escape for a few days and that is all, then they are of no great value. If, on the other hand they are used for investigating suffering — ‘Why do I suffer? Why am I confused? Why do I have problems? Why is the world as it is?’ — then we shall find out if there is anything we can do about suffering. We shall find out by investigating this body and this mind.
Ignorance is only the scum on the surface, it does not go deep; there is no vast amount of ignorance to break through. That ignorance here and now, that attachment to the fire here and now — we can let it go. There is no need to attach to fire any more — that is all there is to it.
It is not a question of putting out the fire. But if we grasp it, we should let it go. Once we have let the fire go, then we should not grasp it again.