In accounts of the Buddha’s life, the Buddha was known for giving sermons. Once, he spoke about burning and desire in a talk we now know as “the Fire Sermon”. In this sermon, the Buddha said, “Bhikkhus, all is burning.”
“The ear is burning, sounds are burning…
The nose is burning, odors are burning…
The tongue is burning, flavors are burning…
The body is burning, tangibles are burning…”
Last, the Buddha says, “the mind is burning.”
What did the Buddha mean by this? Why is all burning?
Burning is the consequence of our desires, our passions, our ambitions. Our senses burn as we seek to fulfill them. Our ear burns with the desire to hear beautiful music. Our nose burns with the want to smell colorful flowers. Our tongue burns with the craving to taste delicious food. Our body burns with lust.
Our mind burns with the passion for knowledge.
All is burning in our bodies and our minds. The burning causes prohibition from liberation. Simply: the burning of desire controls us, it does not make us free.
This burning has gone beyond our bodies. This burning has taken over our communities and our nation. My friends: today, this Veteran’s Day, we remember those who have sacrificed their time and their lives for the fulfillment of our own freedom. They have served. They have seen the burning, and they want to extinguish the flames. Our freedom, though, is unreachable, set apart from us by a ring of fire.
Our own nation is on fire. Our own nation is burning.
Just as the ear burns, our houses burn.
Just as the nose burns, our streets burn.
Just as the tongue burns, our schools burn.
Just as the body burns, our churches, mosques, synagogues, Gurdwaras, and temples burn. Our sacred places are on fire, and the flames grow and emit black smoke as the walls are incinerated, falling, crumbling to the earth, dragging the bodies with them.
All is burning. This Veteran’s Day, people are giving their lives around the world and next door to us, to extinguish the flames that prohibit the path to liberation. In our own communities- on college campuses, at political rallies and debates, in the streets, our liberation melts away. The fires of injustice rage, and the firefighters are sprayed with tear gas.
Last night, I read something that set my own mind ablaze. Pastor Shaun King posted on his Facebook page: “If you EVER wondered who you would be or what you would do if you lived during the Civil Rights Movement, stop. You are living in that time, RIGHT NOW.”
We are living in the year that saw the deadliest hate crime against Black Americans in the part 75 years in Charleston, South Carolina. We are living in the year that saw more Black Americans killed by police than were lynched since 1923. We are living in the year in which every day, the Council on American Islamic Relations posts a story online of at least one hate crime against a Muslim American. We are living in a year in which Sikh people are targeted for wearing turbans and beards, mistaken for people of another faith, both deeply misunderstood. We are living in a year that sees a constant conflict between freedom of speech and marginalization, between exploring new ideas across cultures and deepening divides between people. We are living in a year in which colored cups seem more important than colored lives. We are living in a moment when we might finally have to admit that our country is on fire, and the ashes are growing taller and taller.
Indeed, we are living in a time of upheaval, movement, and for some, a clinging to maintain “order”, the “order” that suppresses, quiets, and locks out the external flames of progress and motion. Perhaps this can go on for a while- the flames can protect. But the Buddha is right to say that the burning prohibits all of us from liberation. Only when we have extinguished the flames in our own mind and bodies can we embark on the path toward liberation together. The fires in our schools, sacred places, homes, and streets will burn and destroy until we quench our own desires for power and influence, causing our inability to listen. Love quenches these flames. Love is a flame that does not destroy us but burns the distractions from our own liberation. The path to liberation is found separately, but traveled together. Fire can sustain us, and can also annihilate us.
Every day, I look for an example of someone feeding the flames of love while extinguishing the burning of desire that inhibits justice, that walls off liberation. My students, sometimes loudly, sometimes subtly, are working for justice. They are taking the love in their hearts for each other and for the earth and seeking to make change. I hope they do not give up. I hope they can alleviate the burning with the flames of love, the flames that illuminate the blood and sweat on their faces as they face the teargas. All is burning.