"Fire burns with clinging,
and not without clinging."
Although the compilers of the Pali Canon were not concerned with
teaching the physical sciences, there are frequent passages where they
cite the behavior of the physical universe, in similes or examples, to
illustrate points of doctrine. A number of these passages discuss
questions of heat, motion, meteorology, the etiology of diseases, and
so forth, in enough detail to show that a common theory underlies
their explanation. That theory centers around the concept of 'dhatu,'
property or potential. The physical properties presented in this
theory are four: those of earth (solidity), liquid, heat, & wind
(motion). Three of them--liquid, heat, & wind--are potentially
active. When they are aggravated, agitated or provoked--the Pali term
here, 'pakuppati', is used also on the psychological level, where it
means angered or upset--they act as the underlying cause for activity
in nature. Fire, for example, is said to occur when the heat property
There comes a time when the external heat property is
provoked, and consumes village, town & city, countryside &
rural area, and then, coming to the edge of a green
district, the edge of a road, the edge of a rocky district,
to the water's edge, or to a lush, well-watered area, goes
out from lack of sustenance.
Once a fire has been provoked, it needs 'upadana'--commonly
translated as fuel--to continue burning. Upadana has other meanings
besides fuel, though--one is the nourishment that sustains the life &
growth of a tree--and as we shall see below, wind can also function as
a fire's upadana. Thus, 'sustenance' would seem to be a more precise
translation for the term.
'How do you construe this, young man: Which fire would be
more brilliant, luminous, & dazzling--that which burned in
dependence on a sustenance of grass & timber, or that which
burned in dependence on having relinquished a sustenance of
grass & timber?'
'If it were possible, Gotama, for a fire to burn in
dependence on having relinquished a sustenance of grass &
timber, that fire would be the more brilliant, luminous, &
'It's impossible, young man, there is no way, that a fire
could burn in dependence on having relinquished a sustenance
of grass & timber, aside from a feat of psychic power....'
'Just as a fire, Vaccha, burns with sustenance, and not
without sustenance, even so I declare the rebirth of one who
has sustenance, and not of one without sustenance.'
'But, Venerable Gotama, at the moment a flame is being swept
on by the wind and goes a far distance, what do you say is
its sustenance then?'
'Vaccha, when a flame is being swept on by the wind and goes
a far distance, I say that it is wind-sustained. The wind,
Vaccha, is its sustenance at that time.'
'And at the moment when a being sets this body aside and has
not yet attained another body, what do you say is its
'Actually, Vaccha, when a being sets this body aside and has
not yet attained another body, I say that it is
craving-sustained. Craving, Vaccha, is its sustenance at
Another meaning for upadana is clinging, which suggests that, just
as a tree clings to the soil that provides its sustenance, fire clings
to its fuel. Thus the above passage could also read, 'fire burns with
clinging and not without clinging'--a characteristic of fire that was
observed in other ancient Asian traditions, such as the Chinese I
Ching, as well.
The clinging nature of fire is reflected in a number of other
idioms used by the Pali Canon to describe its workings. For one, an
object that catches fire is said to get 'stuck' (passive) or to
'stick' (active): Adherence is a two-way process.
Just as a wing bone or tendon parings, monks, thrown into a
fire don't catch fire (lit: 'stick' or 'get stuck'), keep
apart, turn aside, and are not drawn in; even so the heart
of a monk who spends time often with a mind accustomed to
focusing on the repulsive, doesn't stick to the (thought of
) engaging in the sexual act, keeps apart, turns aside and
is not drawn in, and remains either indifferent or repelled.
The second side of the attachment--that fire, in sticking to
something, gets stuck--is reflected in yet another idiom in the Pali
Canon: When it leaves a piece of fuel it has been clinging to, it is
said to be released.
Just as fire...after being released from a house of reeds or
a house of grass, burns even gabled houses, plastered,
latched, shut against the wind; even so, all dangers that
arise, arise from fools, and not from wise men; all
disasters...all troubles that arise, arise from fools and
not from wise men.
This sense of fire's being entrapped as it burns echoes the stanza
from the Svetasvatara Upanishad, quoted above (page 19), that refers
to fire as being 'seized' when ignited by the friction of fire sticks.
Apparently the Buddhists were not alone in their time in seeing
attachment & entrapment as they watched a fire burn. And this would
account for the way early Buddhist poetry tends to couple the image of
an extinguished fire with the notion of freedom:
like a flame's going out
was the liberation of awareness.
as a flame overthrown by the force of the wind...
so the sage freed from mental activity...
So, to summarize: The image of an extinguished fire carried no
connotations of annihilation for the early Buddhists. Rather, the
aspects of fire that to them had significance for the mind-fire
analogy are these: Fire, when burning, is in a state of agitation,
dependence, attachment, & entrapment--both clinging & being stuck to
its sustenance. Extinguished, it becomes calm, independent,
indeterminate, & unattached: It lets go of its sustenance and is
This same nexus of events, applied to the workings of the mind,
occurs repeatedly in Canonical passages describing the attainment of
One attached is unreleased; one unattached is released.
Should consciousness, when standing (still), stand attached
to (a physical) form, supported by form (as its object),
established on form, seeking enjoyment, it would exhibit
growth, increase, & proliferation. Should consciousness,
when standing (still), stand attached to feeling...to
perception... to mental processes...it would exhibit growth,
increase, & proliferation. Were someone to say, 'I will
describe a coming, a going, a passing away, an arising, a
growth, an increase or a proliferation of consciousness
apart from form, from feeling, from perception, from mental
processes,' that would be impossible.
If a monk abandons passion for the property of form...
then owing to the abandonment of passion, the support is cut
off, and there is no base for consciousness. Consciousness,
thus unestablished, not proliferating, not performing any
function, is released. Owing to its release, it stands
still. Owing to its stillness, it is contented. Owing to
its contentment, it is not agitated. Not agitated, he (the
monk) is totally 'nibbana-ed' right within himself. He
discerns that 'Birth is ended, the holy life fulfilled, the
task done. There is nothing further for this world.'
This being the set of events--stillness, independence,
unattachment--associated with the extinguishing of a fire and the
attainment of the goal, it would appear that, of all the etymologies
offered to explain the word 'nibbana,' the one closest to its original
connotations is that quoted by Buddhaghosa in The Path of Purification
(VIII, 247). There he derives the word from the negative prefix
'nir,' plus 'vana,' or binding*: 'Unbinding'.
Modern scholars have tended to scorn this derivation as fanciful,
and they favor such hypotheses as 'blowing out,' 'not blowing' or
'covering.' But although these hypotheses may make sense in terms of
modern Western ideas about fire, they are hardly relevant to the way
nibbana is used in the Canon. Freedom, on the other hand, is more
than relevant. It is central, both in the context of ancient Indian
theories of fire, and in the psychological context of attaining the
goal: 'Not agitated, he is totally unbound right within.'
So 'Unbinding' would seem to be the best equivalent for nibbana we
have in English. What kind of unbinding? We have already gained some
idea--liberation from dependency & limitations, from agitation &
death--but it turns out that nibbana is not the only term the Buddha
borrowed from the workings of fire to describe the workings of the
mind. Upadana is another, and a survey of how he applied it to the
mind will help to show what is loosed in the mind's unbinding and how.