Thursday, October 12, 2006

Nirvana and Vedic fire physics

I just read the most amazing book entitled The Mind Like Fire Unbound by Thannisaro Bhikkhu. It's available free online here. It's an essay (about 115 pages in print) that explains what the Buddha meant when he described nirvana as the extinguishing of a fire.

Thannisaro argues that it is misleading to interpret the Buddha's fire analogy using modern ideas about the physics of fire (ignition, fuel, oxygen, etc.). Instead, we need to look at how people in India understood the physics of fire in Buddha's time. The Vedic theory of fire held that the essence of fire never actually dies, but rather is latent and omnipresent everywhere, becoming active and visible to us when it is "agitated" and "attaches" or "binds" to a fuel source (dried grass, oil, wood, fat, etc.). A fire goes out when the essence of fire unbinds or detaches from the fuel source.

Thanissaro points out that the very origin of the term nirvana points to this interpretation. In ancient Sanskrit, the prefix nir meant "not" or "un-" and the word vana meant "bound" or "attached." Consequently, nirvana should be understood as the unbinding of the mind, which causes the fires of passion, delusion and ignorance to flicker and die out.

A more abstract aspect of his argument goes to the idea that the state of nirvana is not unlike that of inactive fire, latent and omnipresent, undescribable and indeterminate. When asked to describe the nature of nirvana after death, the Buddha consistently described it as undescribable.

Anyways, I can't do justice to Thanissaro's argument in a short blog entry, but I highly recommend that you check it out. It's nothing short of brilliant and excellent fodder for contemplative meditation.


May we all be unbound from the fire of samsara.

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