The Adittapariyaya Sutta – The overwhelming world we live in

I was trying to think about what Pāḷi word to introduce today, and I realized I’ve neglected a really basic term: bhikkhu, which means “monk.”

The Adittapariyaya Sutta is the last of the three recorded discourses that the Buddha supposedly gave right after his Enlightenment, and it begins with what has to be one of the starkest opening lines in the history of public speaking:

Bhikkhus, all is burning.

This is the first appearance of a  fire motif that recurs throughout the whole body of Theravada Buddhist scriptures. He elaborates on this theme in the passage that follows:

And what is the all that is burning?

“The eye is burning, forms are burning, eye-consciousness is burning, eye-contact is burning…whatever is felt as pleasant or painful or neither-painful-nor-pleasant that arises with eye-contact…is burning.

He then says the same thing about the ear, and sounds; of the nose, and smells; of the tongue, and tastes; of the body, and tactile sensations; and finally of the mind itself, and of ideas. All these together are referred to in Buddhist parlance as “the six sense bases,” the sense organs that we use to receive and process information (in those days the mind was considered a sense organ, too.) And they’re all burning “… with the fire of lust, with the fire of hate, with the fire of delusion.

This would probably be a good time to mention that the Adittapariyaya Sutta is known to most English speakers by another name: “The Fire Sermon.” Yeah, I’ll bet you totally didn’t see that one coming.

Of course, the Buddha is never just a bearer of bad news. As always, he provides a solution to the problem: knowledge. Once you realize what all this sensory stuff really is — just fuel for the fire — it loses its charm, you let it go, and  then…enlightenment!

There’s really a lot to say about this discourse. As the last in the “trilogy” of early suttas, it reflects and compliments both the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta and the Anatta-lakkhana Sutta in really interesting ways. I could take this as an opportunity to wax poetic on the aggregates, the Four Noble Truths, dependent co-arising…but instead, I’m just gonna talk about fire.

Every day, from the moment we wake up to the moment we fall asleep (if we fall asleep,) our brains and our bodies are dealing with stimulus. A LOT of stimulus. Even without an actual job, I still spend the majority of my weekday out of the house, driving to and from lessons and doctor’s appointments. When I AM at home, I’m usually doing language exchanges via Skype or practicing music. Other folks are at school or work from nine to five, and all of us, regardless of occupation, need time to eat and sleep, and time to socialize and maintain relationships. With modern technology, even our free time isn’t free; we’re slaves to our phones and our e-mail inboxes. When we do “relax,” we rarely do something restful — instead, we force our brains to process even more data while we surf the net, or bombard them with the chatter of radios and the harsh artificial light of television sets. Sometimes, it really feels like our senses are on fire.

Interestingly enough, the term for the cumulative effect of this constant over-stimulation is “burnout.” When this happens, some people cope with it by just continuing to do whatever it is they’ve always done, hoping that they can power through it. Some people do impulsive things in an attempt to comfort themselves — they start going out every night, they buy a fancy new car, whatever they think might sooth the senses, and give them some pleasure. What they don’t realize is that their senses are the problem. When they see that most of the fuel in the fireplace has been burned up, their first response is to toss on some more kindling and fan the flames. You don’t have to do that, though; in fact, it might actually cause you long-term harm. Buddhism taught me that you can make a totally different choice: you can disengage, even if it’s only for a while.

I know a lot of people who are convinced that they need stimulation and excitement, even a certain level of stress or anxiety, to function. A lot of them are actually uncomfortable with, or outright afraid of, silence. I know; I was one of those kids. They feel safer with what they’ve always done, and their excuse for not giving up all the distractions goes something like, “Yeah, maybe I should do that, but I just can’t do [x] unless I have music playing/the TV on. I need to be multitasking. It helps me avoid such-and-such a problem. If I had to sit totally still or in total quiet, I would go CRAZY.” What they don’t realize is that what they’re doing is ALREADY CRAZY. They’re unwilling to try a little simplicity because they’re used to being in a sensory war zone all the time, and change is scary. They simply don’t know how to be any other way. And I get that. I used to think that I was just made that way, too…until I found out that I’m not.

Throughout my life, there have always been days when I wake up and it seems like every single noise or sensation is splitting my skull open. My concentration is so weak that my decision-making capability almost completely shuts down. I have no interest in interacting with other people. People might tell me I need to relax by watching some TV, playing a game, seeing a movie, listening to music…but somewhere deep down, I know that it won’t help. I used to make myself do something “fun,” thinking that I just needed to loosen up, or distract myself…but no matter how much fun I had, I always woke up the next day feeling just as strung-out as before. Not long ago, while I was going through one of these times, I decided to take a different tack: when I took a day off, I literally took a day “off.” I didn’t have the phone on, so I couldn’t even receive calls or text messages; I hardly used the computer, and when I did, I stayed off of social networks like Facebook; I allowed myself to do things in quiet, without music or TV on in the background; and I meditated. And it felt REALLY GOOD, so I did it again.

When I give myself these days off the grid, I’m not bored to tears; instead, the quiet allows me to find a kind of tranquility that gets drowned out when I fling my sense-doors wide open. Instead of feeling exhausted at the end of the day, I’m full of energy, because I haven’t worn myself out constantly coping with sensory assault. I no longer feel like I need to spend the night recovering from what happened in the afternoon and morning. Unfortunately, I haven’t given myself as much of this kind of time lately — my schedule has gotten intense, and it’ll stay that way for about five more weeks  — and I can feel the difference. But even though I may not have many free days to give myself a full retreat, this experience has still changed the way I do certain things even on normal days. I’ve given up things like having the radio blasting while I shower or trying to sleep with the TV on. More and more often while working on the computer, I’m doing it without having something playing in the background. I’ve also adopted what I think is a really important personal policy: I do not answer the phone between the hours of 9 and 5, except for emergencies. They’re small changes, and they don’t benefit me nearly as a whole day of quiet and reflection would, but I can honestly say that my life is a little calmer and a little happier because of them.

For a long time I felt like there was something wrong with me, that I was either a.) too fragile to handle the stress of the “real world;” or b.) totally unable to let loose and relieve that stress like regular people do. It turns out that the problem actually lies in the way we’ve set up our lives, and the tricks we’ve had to come up with to give us some temporary relief from all the huge mess we’ve made. Thank goodness that my practice has finally led me to a coping strategy that actually works: whenever I’m so fed up with the noise of the world that I just want to flip the board over and quit the game altogether, all I have to do is take refuge in a little silence — it’s maybe the only place where the heart really has time to heal.


One thought on “The Adittapariyaya Sutta – The overwhelming world we live in

  1. As a Trappist monk once told me, much of the compulsive business and activity in today’s world is driven by a fear of silence. The monk told me that silence is like a cave, and in that cave is the most terrifying thing imaginable: yourself! To allow silence is to go into that dark cave. I wonder what the monk would have thought of this post.

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