Showing posts with label Fire. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Fire. Show all posts

31 July 2009

What is Consciousness?

One time the Buddha was living in the Jeta Grove in Anāthapiṇḍika's Park just outside Sāvatthī. [1] At that time a bhikkhu named Sāti was insisting that consciousness (viññāna; Sanskrit: vijñāna) is what 'wanders through the rounds of rebirth'. The Buddha's response to Sāti tells us much about his understanding of what consciousness is.

Asked what he thinks consciousness is, Sāti says:
Yvāyaṃ, bhante, vado vedeyyo tatra tatra kalyāṇapāpakānaṃ kammānaṃ vipākaṃ paṭisaṃvedetī’’ti
It is that, sir, which speaks and feels, that which experiences the good and bad consequences of actions.
It seems that Sāti may have been a Brahmin of the progressive kind as he is describing something like an ātman. He is suggesting that there is some persistent entity which experiences the fruit (vipāka) of action from life to life. That entity he is calling viññāṇa. His view appears to be that the Buddha may be using the a different word, viññāṇa instead of ātman, but that he teaches more or less the same thing as Yājñavalkya in the Bṛhadāranyaka Upaniṣad. The Buddha is not pleased with Sāti and upbraids him for misrepresenting his teaching. Then addressing the other bhikkhus the Buddha says:

‘‘Yaṃ yadeva, bhikkhave, paccayaṃ paṭicca uppajjati viññāṇaṃ, tena teneva viññāṇaṃtveva saṅkhyaṃ gacchati. Cakkhuñca paṭicca rūpe ca uppajjati viññāṇaṃ, cakkhuviññāṇaṃtveva saṅkhyaṃ gacchati;
Bhikkhus from whatever condition consciousness arises, it is called that kind of consciousness. Consciousness arising with the eye and form as condition, is called eye-consciousness.
And so on for each of the senses in turn: ear-consciousness, nose-consciousness, tongue-consciousness, body-consciousness, and mind-consciousness. This is just like, he says, the way that there is a difference between a forest fire, a grass fire, a gas fire, and a house fire (to paraphrase a little). Each is fire and requires fuel to be sustained, but one can distinguish differences depending on what fuel is being consumed. We leave out oxygen because the role of oxygen in burning was not understood in any detail and is left out of traditional fire metaphors.

In the case of mind-consciousness the word for mind is 'manas'. Words for mind and consciousness are used quite loosely and interchangeably in the texts, with variations over time, so it's sometimes difficult to pin down what is meant (c.f. mind, consciousness, gnosis, psyche, nous, cognition, subjectivity etc). Manas here is the function of the mind that processes input from the five physical senses; as well as memories, thoughts, associations, speculations and the like which are generated by the mind itself. These mental objects are collectively known as dhammā (plural). What a dhamma is understood to 'be', its ontological status, is vague and changes over time. We may take them to be units of experience.

Here then is the basic Buddhist definition of consciousness - viññāṇa. Consciousness is functional, and always consciousness of some object (note the early Buddhist model of reality allows for a subject and object at least conventionally), there is no subjective consciousness if there is no object of consciousness. This can be difficult to grasp - that consciousness itself is dependent on conditions. I would argue that in fact this is the main point of the Buddha's teaching on dependent origination - the consciousness itself is conditioned.

But what is viññāṇa? Well, this is very difficult to spell out in terms that would satisfy modern criteria for evidence - the nature of consciousness is one of the perennial philosophical questions. Many books have been written on the subject with each contradicting all of the others. I think it is best to adopt a pragmatic approach and say that the Buddha is not trying to provide an absolute definition of consciousness, not trying to set up a philosophical system, but that he is drawing attention to those aspects of consciousness which are important for understanding his method of practice. That is why he defines consciousness in the way that he does, because anything else is irrelevant to Buddhist practice.

Having explained this the Buddha asks:
bhūtamidanti, bhikkhave, passathāti?
'this has come to be', Bhikkhus, do you see?
He asks them whether they understand that 'this' depends on food 'āhāra', and ceases when the food ceases. Bhūta is the past-participle of √bhū 'to be' and so means 'become' - it refers to something that has come into existence. This in turn is linked to the idea of yathābhūta - often translated as "things as they are", but means something more like simply "as become", and is said by the tradition to be the content of the Buddha's vision. So the Buddha is trying to get to the heart of the matter.

An interesting facet to this phrase was pointed out to me some years ago by Professor Richard Gombrich in his Numata Lectures in 2006. The form of pronoun used here 'idam' is known as deictic, and refers to something present to the speaker. Professor Gombrich thought that the Buddha might have been pointing to something while talking - perhaps a fire. Is this the first recorded use of a visual aide during a presentation? The fire only burns while there is fuel, and when the fuel runs out the fire goes out. Fire in fact is one of the most important metaphors that the Buddha uses. [2] Consciousness is like fire because without fuel (an object) it does not continue. Fire spreads and can be seen almost to seek out new fuel, like consciousness seeks out new objects. Sometimes the Buddha also describes 'desire' (taṇha) as the fuel (upadāna) for becoming (bhava); and with the extinguishing (nibbāṇa) of desire comes liberation (vimokkha).

Now the first part of this text can be read as the Buddha proposing paṭicca-samuppāda as an alternative to rebirth, however later he appears to confirm his belief rebirth when he talks about the 'gandhabba' which descends into the womb at conception. Gandhabba used in this sense is unusual and I don't want to get bogged down trying to figure out precisely what it means. It appears to be an entity which ensures the continuity of kamma and vipaka (action and consequence) beyond death. [3] As soon as one proposes or accepts a theory of rebirth one runs into a deep philosophical problem: what can possibly survive death? How can anything be transferred from a dead person into an embryo separated in time and space? How do the consequences of my actions transcend my own death? Buddhism seems confused on this point, or at best ambiguous and ambivalent. The Pāli texts are clearly contradictory at times: sometimes putting forward a rather deterministic version in which the same person does in fact appear in life after life, as in the Jātaka stories; or in the texts where the Bhikkhus ask after the 'destination' of someone who has died; or when the Buddha recalls his millions upon millions rebirths when he awakens, suggesting that not only consciousness but more specifically memory persists! At other times, as in the first part of this sutta, the idea of anything which persists from moment to moment, let alone life to life, is ruled out - there is only arising in dependence on conditions. It's not clear whether any given text is meant as literal truth, or as pedagogical rhetoric making a broader point, although the idea that even in death one does not escape the consequences of ones actions is ubiquitous. I think this confusion in the early texts is often mirrored by confusion in the present about rebirth. The waters are muddied in our time by the popular Tibetan notion of reincarnating 'tulkus'. [4] The result is not very intellectually satisfying. So what are we to make of it?

The main thing seems to me to be that consciousness itself arises from causes (eye, and eye object for instance) and it is therefore impermanent. There is not a stream of consciousness, but a series of moments arising in dependence on contact between organ and object. The sense of continuity is an illusion. It is this very strong sense of continuity that leads us towards views which support our continued existence in the future, and this is what, I think, attracts us to the myth of rebirth. The Buddha asks us to forego such speculation and focus on what our mind is like in the here and now - to understand how our minds consume and are sustained by sensory input, like a fire consumes and is sustained by wood, or grass or whatever.


  1. Mahātaṇhāsaṅkhaya Sutta. MN 38. PTS M i.259. Not translated on Access to Insight. Translated by Ñāṇamoli and Bodhi in The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha, p.394 ff. All translations in this article are my own.
  2. For more on the use of the metaphor of fire see: Jayarava Rave - Everything is on fire! and Playing with Fire.
  3. Ñāṇamoli and Bodhi (p.1233-4, note 411.) point out that the Pāli commentary on this passage suggests that the gandhabba is "a being due to be reborn because of their kamma". The word in this sense occurs only in this sutta (elsewhere it is a kind of celestial musician, often mentioned along with yakkhas and nāgas). The bhikkhus suggest that we think of gandhabba as a "stream of consciousness" but this seems to me to repeat Sāti's error because it posits a continuity of consciousness of the same kind. My opinion is that the section on the gandhabba is a folk belief of the time, and contradicts the early part of the sutta. Trying to explain the mechanics of rebirth almost inevitably leads to contradiction (like time travel in a science fiction story).
  4. The tulku system in my view is a primarily a political system. It is a unique system of governance in which precocious and promising youngsters are taken and rigorously educated for many years. They are then, if they have lived up to their promise and not all of them do, put in charge - not only spiritually, but politically. The tulku, crucially, inherits not only the charisma (in the Weberian sense) of his predecessor but all of his property and income. In Japan by contrast monks simply started having children and passing monastic property and resources to them. The Tibetans on the whole kept religious leaders celibate and therefore had to find a way of ensuring continuity. This has not entirely eliminated succession conflicts, and disputes over access to resources, but it must have smoothed things over to a great extent.

01 May 2009

Everything is on fire!

agni2The discourse that I am going to explore today is, according to Therevāda tradition, the third spoken by the Buddha after his awakening. In it he establishes one of the fundamental metaphors of the whole Buddhist canon. The short title of the Sutta is the Āditta Sutta, but it is also known as the Āditta-pariyāya Sutta: The Discourse on the Way of Putting Things as Being on Fire, or we might say The Fire Metaphor. (SN 35.28, PTS iv.19). It is usually known in English as the Fire Sermon - a full translation is included at the end of this post. "The Fire Sermon" always makes me think of fire and brimstone, and as we will see the two are not so far apart!

The Buddha addresses the bhikkhus and says: "everything is ablaze" (sabbaṃ ādittaṃ). Although it is said to be early, this sutta is one of a series of texts (no.28 in fact) that explore sabbaṃ - 'everything, the whole, all'. There is a parallel here with a Vedic idiom. Sabbaṃ in Sanskrit is sarvam, often used in the phrase idaṃ sarvaṃ 'all this'. Compare this verse from the oldest parts of the Ṛgveda (RV 8.58.2):
éka evā́gnír bahudhā́ sámiddha
ékaḥ sū́ryo víśvam ánu prábhūtaḥ
ékaivóṣā́ḥ sárvam idáṃ ví bhāti
ékaṃ vā́ idáṃ ví babhūva sárvam

Only one fire kindles many times.
One sun is all penetrating.
Dawns as one, shine on all this.
From this one, unfolds the whole.
It may be that the Buddha was consciously using a Vedic idiom in the Fire Sermon - purposefully parodying this kind of religious view, especially as it coincides with a fire metaphor. However fire is probably a universal metaphor and it's appearance in any one text may not be significant. The 'sarvam' idiom is also common in the Upaniṣads.

Returning to the Pāli we find that sabbaṃ can be used in several different ways, each of are subtlety different aspects of totality: “whole, entire, all, every". Sabbaṃ is most typically 'the whole'. When used to mean 'all' it has colonised the semantic field of the Sanskrit word viśva - a similar process seems to happen in many Indo-European Languages. This sequence of suttas dealing with sabbaṃ uses all of the definitions of sabbaṃ. However here sabbaṃ as defined by the Buddha includes only the senses, and their objects - ear, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind; forms, sounds, smells, tastes, touches, mental activity (dharmas). Collectively these are known as the twelve 'āyatana' - the meeting places or bases; or if we include the respective sense consciousnesses the eighteen dhātu.

This might seem a narrow definition of 'everything', but it takes into account the perceptual situation. The Buddha doesn't deny the objective world (and therefore non-dualist interpretations of Buddhism seem to me to miss the mark) but he says that all we can know about that world comes through the senses and is processed by the mind. As such he is not a pure idealist, since he doesn't deny the objective per se. 'Everything' in this sense is everything that we can know, and is also what constitutes our 'world' (loka), that is our personal subjective world.

Everything - the senses and their objects, and the mind which perceives them; and what arises in the mind as a result of perception - are ablaze. They are the fuel of the fire. And with what are they ablaze? (kiñca sabbaṃ āditto). They are ablaze firstly with the fires (aggi) of greed (rāga), hatred (dosa), and ignorance (moha). This triad, known as kilesa (Sanskrit kleśa) are universally acknowledged in Buddhism as the roots of the problems of human beings. However the Buddha continues on to say that everything is ablaze with the fires of birth, old age and death (jātiyā jarāya maraṇena), and with all forms of unhappiness: grief, lamenting, misery, dejection, and trouble (soka-parideva-dukkha-domanass-upāyāsā). So the fire is the causes and effects of spiritual ignorance, the rounds of rebirth (and redeath) and the unsatisfactoriness of being ignorant of the nature of experience.

It is typical of the sutta form for the Buddha to first set out a problem and then show how it can be resolved. In this case it is through seeing this (evaṃ passaṃ). Seeing it one becomes weary of it (nibbindati). Nibbindati is often translated as revulsion (by Bhikkhu Bodhi for instance). This captures the intensity of the emotion, but gives it a far too negative a cast for my taste. The word can mean "is weary of, satiated, turns away" - in my own idiom I might say "fed-up". Seeing the fire and fuel burning away, one becomes thoroughly fed-up with being burned, and turns away from it. Turning away one detaches from it (virajjhati). Virāga (detachment) is the opposite of being caught up in the passions (rāga) - passions very much in the old fashion sense of something overtaking you, and taking you over against your will. Being free of passions one is liberated (vimuccati), and one knows that one is liberated.

Now the word is not used in this text, but it's clear that the metaphor finds it's apotheosis in the term nibbāṇa. The origin of this term is clearer in Sanskrit: nirvāna. Vāna is from the root √vā 'to blow', and nir- (actually nis- but sandhi changes it to nir- when followed by v) meaning "out, forth, away": nirvāṇa, then, means "to blow out". What is blown out is the fire described here - it is clearly not the blowing out of 'being' or of the person or personality or the ego. Nirvāṇa then is not at all nihilistic - unless the absence of greed, hatred and delusion is nihilistic! The ideas being expressed here owe a great deal to the work of Richard Gombrich - who has especially pointed out the ubiquity of the fire metaphor and some of the ways it is employed. I have already written about the fire metaphor and the nidāna chain before: Playing with Fire [16.05.08].

Clearly in terms of method this sutta is short on detail. Although one could say that the Buddhist program is just this: becoming fed-up with suffering and turning away from the causes of it; in practice we have to have a little more help than this. There are lots of methods that we can employ to help us along the way. What this sutta does do quite nicely is give us an overview of the problem and the solution, of what I have been calling the Buddhist program. Perhaps for this reason it is celebrated amongst Buddhists.

The Āditta Sutta (SN 35.28, PTS S iv.19) is translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi in The Connected Discourses of the Buddha, Wisdom Publications, 2000, p.1143. Bhikkhu Thanissaro's translation is available on Access to Insight. I used the Pāli text from for my translations.

Ṛgveda quote from the online version of Thomson, Karen and Slocum, 2008. The Rigveda: Metrically Restored Text. Translation is mine.

Information on the sarvam idiom from essays by Jan Gonda
  • Gonda, J. 1955. ‘Reflections on Sarva- in Vedic Texts’. Indian Linguistics 16(Nov) : 53-71
  • Gonda, J. 1982. ‘All, Universe, and Totality in the Śatapatha-Brāhmana’. Journal of the Oriental Institute 32(1-2): 1-17

The Fire Sutta

Once the Blessed one was dwelling at Gaya, on Gaya’s Head, with one thousand monks. There the Blessed One addressed the monks:
Monks, everything is ablaze! And what is everything? The eye, forms, eye-consciousness, eye-contact, those sensations that arise from eye-contact whether pleasant or unpleasant or neutral. All these are ablaze. Ablaze with what? They are ablaze with the fires of craving, hatred, and ignorance; with the fires of birth, old-age and death; with the fires of grief, lamenting, misery, dejection, and trouble.

Similarly the ear, the nose, the tongue, the body and the mind; and sounds, smells, tastes, contact and thoughts, etc are ablaze.

When they see things in this way, the noble disciples are fed up with the senses, and their objects, and sense consciousness, and contact, and what arises from contact - whether pleasant or unpleasant or neutral. And being fed-up with it all they lose interest. Losing interest they are free from those influences, and they know themselves to be free. They understand: “birth is cut off, the spiritual life has been lived, what should be done has been done, this state of being is no more”.
This is what the Blessed One said.

Delighted, those monks rejoiced in what the Blessed One said. Moreover, during the exposition their minds were freed from the fires [1] by removing the fuel [2].

  1. Here I am translating āsava as ‘fires’ to link it to the fires of greed (raga), hatred (dosa) and ignorance (moha) mentioned earlier in the text. The āsavas are sensuality (kāma), becoming (bhava), ignorance (avijjā) and, sometimes, views (diṭṭha). The fires mentioned above are a different list known as the kilesā or defilements. Although the āsavas and the kilesas only partially overlap, they are clearly getting at the same kind of thing i.e. that our responses to the senses and their objects is what binds us to saṃsara.
  2. Anupādāya is more literally “not taken hold of” or “not appropriated”. With reference to the fire metaphor however upādā suggests the fuel which supports the fire. And anupādā would then be “not taking up any more fuel”. Pali-English Dictionary s.v. upādā, upādāna and upādāya.

image: by jayarava

16 May 2008

Playing with Fire

I've made several references over the last year and a half to the Numata lectures by Professor Richard Gombrich in 2006. These are in the process of being published as a book. I have been re-reading the notes from those lectures and wanted to highlight lecture seven which discussed the use of fire as a metaphor by the Buddha.

Anyone familiar with the discourses of the Buddha will most likely have clocked that the Buddha uses fire as a metaphor in several different ways. Most notably there is the fire sermon (Āditta-pariyāya, Vin i.34-5) in which the Buddha tells the monks that "everything is on fire". What the Buddha means by "everything" is the five sense faculties and the mind, the objects of our senses, and the whole psychological process of experience. What he means by "on fire" is that we our experience is burning with desire, with hatred, and with spiritual ignorance. The goal of the Buddhist path is nibbāna (Sanskrit nirvāṇa) which means quite literally the blowing out of a flame, or ceasing to burn.

This much is consonant with the received tradition. However Prof. Gombrich has investigated other aspects of this fire metaphor. One of the most interesting related to the nidāna chain - the 12 membered list of factors which condition each other and are said to describe the process of repeated becoming in saṃsara. As part of this list we find that desire (taṇhā) gives rise to "clinging" (upādāna), which in turn is what gives rise to becoming (bhavanā). Gombrich suggests that the word upādāna might well have originally been used in it's more concrete sense of "fuel". In this view clinging would be fuel for becoming, and in my opinion this works much better as an explanation of process. Thus the nidāna chain is a continuation of the fire metaphor into the process of dependent arising.

Upādāna is also used in describing the whole of our psycho-physical experience. The khandhas (Sanskrit skandha) are referred to at times as the five aggregates of clinging (pañca-upādāna-kkhandhā). This is an awkward phrase. It makes no more sense, apparently, in Pāli than the translation does in English. Gombrich notes that there is a common Pāli expression for a blazing fire: aggi-khandha. He suggests that upādāna-kkhandha should be read as a contraction of upādāna-aggi-kkhandha and be translated as blazing masses of fuel. The khandas in other words are an extension of the Buddha's use of the fire metaphor. They are the fuel for the burning desire that prolongs our existence.

The Vedic religion was one in which fire played a central role. There is evidence that fire worship goes back well beyond the entry of the Vedic speaking peoples into India. Fire was very much part of the religious imagination of India by the time of the Buddha, and Gombrich argues that it is from this source that the Buddha draws for his fire metaphor. The key evidence here is a difficult paper by Polish academic Joanna Jurewicz which draws parallels between the terms used in the nidāna chain and certain concepts central to the Vedic religion. Professor Jurewicz argues that the Pāli nidāna model can be seen as a polemic against the Vedic cosmogony. The paper is a not easy to follow: ideally one would be well versed in Vedic language and religion as well as Pāli, but it is very interesting, and Professor Gombrich considers the case to have been demonstrated for some kind of influence.

The primary metaphor for consciousness in the Vedic tradition is fire, hence the Buddha framed his understanding of consciousness in similar terms. But whereas the late Vedic tradition contained a notion of absolute consciousness, the Buddha claimed that there is only consciousness of something: like fire consciousness requires fuel to continue, but also crucially despite being a non-random process (i.e. without fuel there can be no fire) fire operates with no guiding "person" behind it.

This is a brief overview of a more technical and thorough discussion by Professor Gombrich. It continues the theme of looking at the way the Buddha drew on the traditions surrounding him, especially the Vedic tradition, of images and concepts with which to communicate his Insight. It also reassesses the way the received tradition explains some technical terms. What Professor Gombrich has shown on more than one occasion is that the received tradition is confused on some points of doctrine or linguistics. This is important for contemporary Buddhists. It emphasises that the Buddhist texts are not divine revelation, they are no infallible and we must be wary of an over literal interpretation of them. In particular where the Buddha used metaphors drawn from the Vedic traditions, there have often be misunderstood by later Buddhists, even in some cases before the canon was written down. Doctrines must be tested against experience.

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