Noticing When Heat Arises

Ajahn Amaro • December 2008

It often strikes me how the Fire Sermon is the shortest of the three cardinal discourses of the Buddha, taking less than fifteen minutes to chant. Yet during the course of the Buddha’s teaching it, a thousand bhikkhus became arahants, enlightened beings no longer subject to rebirth. In the Pāli Canon that’s the largest number of people who were completely liberated during the course of listening to a single Dhamma talk. It’s a powerful teaching, although it can seem unremarkable in certain ways.

In the sutta, the Buddha goes through a list explaining how all of the aspects of the senses are burning with greed, hatred, and delusion. The eye, eye consciousness, eye contact, the feeling that arises with eye contact, visual objects, everything to do with the process of vision—and the same with the processes of hearing, smelling, tasting, touching, and mental activities—they’re all burning with passion, aversion, and delusion. He then says, “Evaṃ passaṃ bhikkhave sutvā ariyasāvako cakkhusmiṃ pi nibbindati . . .—Seeing thus, bhikkhus, the wise noble disciple becomes dispassionate toward the eye, toward visual objects, toward eye consciousness, toward eye contact, and the feeling that arises with eye contact,” and so on through the remaining five senses.

It’s extraordinarily simple and direct. First, seeing that the senses are on fire; second, recognizing that they’re on fire, agitated, heated; and then third, responding with coolness, nibbindati, dispassion. Nibbidā is related to Nibbāna, coolness—there’s a cooling in relationship to the senses. And with that cooling down, that dispassion, the hearts of those thousand bhikkhus were liberated. It’s extraordinarily simple. In the sutta, it almost seems as if nothing has happened, as if very little instruction was given. But like many other Buddhist teachings, particularly in the Pāli tradition, if we blink, we miss it. The teachings can be quite subtle. They’re not very demonstrative or highly elaborate. This particular teaching is like that. We can easily miss the key piece: having the mindfulness to recognize—to recognize the quality of burning, to recognize that things are agitated and heated, to recognize the friction around what we see, smell, taste, hear, touch, and think.

During the course of the day, it’s helpful to recognize with mindfulness that quality of friction or tension—what the Buddha calls heat, āditta, burning. The feeling can be one of ownership regarding some tool, the interest in a particular task, or the irritation with an exceptionally obstructive piece of rock that won’t move out of the way. Whatever it might be—some computer program or printer that won’t obey—whether aversion, delusion, or passion, it can be extremely subtle and thus hard to recognize. It can also be obvious, gross, and clearly visible—but even so, there’s no guarantee we’ll recognize it. Recognition requires mindfulness.

As we bring mindfulness to the course of our days, we can observe the sense world and how we respond to what we see, hear, smell, taste, touch, and think—the mental realms of moods, memories, ideas, and plans. We can notice when that heat arises. We notice the heat of rāga, of passion, wanting, and desiring; the heat of dosa, of aversion, being irritated, upset, obstructed; the heat of moha, delusion, caught up in reactions, opinions, assumptions, projections, and other deluded states. These are all aspects of heat in the context of this teaching.

By practicing with that quality of mindfulness—evaṃ passaṃ, seeing thus—we’re able to recognize a feeling of ownership, for example. We can recognize the heat that the mind generates out of simple things. Oh look, I’m getting upset with this machine, I’m getting excited about this plan I have, I’m claiming this painting project as mine. A task we didn’t even know existed before it was assigned to us, suddenly becomes “mine.” I hope no one sees that awful wood cut I made. “Look, that cut’s not square and we all know who did it!” That would be so embarrassing. By owning something, it can become our great achievement or our terrible crime—the heat of pride or the heat of shame. So again, “Evaṃ passaṃ bhikkhave sutvā ariyasāvako . . . pi nibbindati—Seeing thus, bhikkhus, the wise noble disciple becomes dispassionate . . .”

We can see how the mind creates these stupid, absurd reactions and projections about the world, and at the same time, what an amazing, wonderful capacity we have to cool down, let go, and not create heat around these things. “The wise, noble disciple becomes dispassionate toward the eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind.” Even though that’s a subtle teaching in some ways, it’s also incredibly essential and helpful. When we take the opportunity to cool down, to let the fire go out, then lo and behold, life becomes much easier, more pleasant, and open. There’s less heat, friction, and abrasion in our world.