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Everything Is On Fire – January 23, 2011

We human beings are storytelling animals. We tell stories to each other about the way things are, the way we wish they were, or that we fear they might yet be. We tell stories that have just happened, others that happened long ago, and some that never happened at all. There are some stories that we just love to tell, over and over again – the sort that are like comfort food. They taste good, they go down smoothly, and they leave us with a warming satisfaction when they’re done. This is not the kind of story that I have for you today. As people of faith we know that it is sometimes the difficult, challenging stories that we are most in need of hearing.

So I’d like to begin this morning with a story about Siddhartha, whom some call the Buddha. You may recall that this great religious figure was born more than 2000 years ago in the Northern part of Southern Asia. He was born a prince, a child of great wealth and privilege, and raised in such a way that he should want for nothing. In fact, his guardian was determined that Siddhartha should remain ignorant even of the possibility of hunger, or pain, or grief, or of being disabled or lonely or lost. Now that is a lot of life to keep someone from ever seeing or experiencing or knowing about. So nearly the entire world was kept hidden from Siddhartha, from shortly after he was born until his early adulthood.

When he finally discovered that there was pain and suffering in the world, that anything other than insulated contentment could be experienced by himself, or by other people, the young man became determined to overcome this suffering by renouncing the world and taking up the life of a spiritual ascetic. He gave up material possessions and subsisted by begging for food. He practiced aggressive self-denial, starving and harming his body in an attempt to surpass its limitations. He studied with great spiritual teachers of his place and time, learning new methods of meditation and self-mortification, but nothing seemed sufficient, and his goal of overcoming suffering eluded him.

Finally, he took a seat, under a tree and determined that he would not rise again until he had attained enlightenment – liberation from the cycle of suffering. The title “Buddha” means “the awakened one,” and according to the Buddhist tradition, after many days of sitting under that tree in meditation, Siddhartha ‘woke up,’ reaching the middle way between the indulgence of his youth and the strict temperance of his later years. The story that I want to talk about today happened just a little while after this awakening; the Buddha gave a sermon on his teachings to a thousand monks.

These monks had all been practitioners of agnihotra, a particular ritual involving building and praying over a sacred fire. So the Buddha addressed them through a subject he knew they were already familiar with. His address, the ‘Aditta Sutta’ or ‘Fire Sermon,’ begins like this:

Everything is on fire. What is on fire? The eyes are on fire, the ears, the nose, the tongue, the body and the mind – all are on fire. Everything that these organs can sense too, is on fire: sights and sounds, smells and tastes, the sensations of touch and all the thoughts of the mind – these are also on fire. The very capacities of the senses themselves: seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching and thinking – even these are on fire. They all are burning with the flames of desire, aversion and illusion. They are consumed by the fires of birth, old age, sickness and death, and scorched by the flames of pain, anxiety, frustration, worry, fear and despair. …Pleasure, pain, and the absence of both – these, too, burn with the fire of want, and fear, and delusion.[i]

With this opening, the teacher has just laid out a very hard line for his students. The world is burning. By seeing, or tasting or even just thinking about an object we innately come to desire or fear that thing, according to whether we expect from it pleasure, or pain. Our fears and desires distort these perceptions; we cannot understand what we see, trust the report of our own eyes or even appreciate what it means to see anything at all because each of these is shaped by the wants of the body and the mind. So what is the student to do? The sermon’s conclusion is that to overcome this predicament, the student must become aware of the fire. They must recognize it and so become disenchanted with all these burning things, letting passion for them die away. This is the only way to be released from the cycle of desire and fear.

As Unitarian Universalists, our inspiration and guiding wisdom as religious people comes from many sources, and it is the practice of our faith to entertain revelation from every corner, even when it is perplexing and challenging to do so. Perhaps, most especially then. But I want to confess to you today that I have struggled mightily with the central insight of Buddhism, as it is described in the Fire Sermon. I was brought up to be passionate in my faith; to feel a hunger for justice and a thirst for freedom. The faith to which I am called does burn in my heart and each day I hope that it will do so all the more. While there are passions in this world and in my own spirit which I would wish to drive out: greed and envy, hatred, contempt and empty zeal, it is by other more noble passions that I believe these are to be countered. By a driving determination for real and lasting peace; by a fierce loyalty to truth in the face of easy and convenient falsehood; and most of all, by the activity of a tireless and boundless love; only guided by such spiritual fires as these, may the world be transformed from what it is, into what it ought to be.

Yet when I first began to study the voice of Siddhartha, it seemed to argue for a cool restraint almost alien to me in its removal from the deep feelings that form my spiritual paradigm. I would be hard-pressed to suspend my emotions even for the length of the story I just told. You see, the epilogue to the story of the Fire Sermon is that, immediately after the Buddha had finished it, every one of the monks who had been listening became immediately enlightened. If there is a preacher alive on this Earth who does not covet, at least a little bit, that sort of rhetorical power, I do not believe I have met them. I am also yet to meet the preacher who has such a gift.

Which is too bad, in some ways; our world has enough problems that it seems like it could use a little easy enlightenment. It is one of these problems that I want us to focus on together. You see, friends: everything is on fire. What is on fire? The clothes we are wearing are on fire, the food we ate this morning, the cars that most of us drove here, the sound of my voice coming to you over the speaker system and the way of life of most of us living in the 21st century – all of these are on fire. They are burning with flames fed by natural gas and coal, by gasoline and other petroleums, and those all-too-literal fires are heating the planet we live on.

Human beings have always influenced the environments they’ve lived in – all animals do that. Over time, we have found greater ways to shape and change them. We have diverted rivers and leveled mountains, bred some animals to suit our tastes and hunted others out of existence. The Industrial Revolution just provided us with a new scale on which to change things: a global one. And so without particularly wanting or meaning to, we spent 250 years pumping half a trillion

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tons of carbon into the atmosphere, all the while building a global system of manufacturing, shipping and using things that depends on burning yet more fossil fuel to pump out yet more carbon. We’ve known for a long time that carbon, suspended in air, is a powerful insulator, and so our world gets warmer, and as it does it changes all sorts of things about the way that hot and cold water and air flow over the surface of the planet.

Somewhere out in the congregation right now, I can tell you without looking, that some of you are rolling your eyes. It may not be out of any intention or ill-will on your part, and I don’t blame you for it. I know you’ve heard all of this before. It is in the news frequently – this winter I’m sure you’ve already heard professionally opinionated people asking how we can be setting records for cold and snow on a planet that is supposed to be getting hotter. You may also have read the responses from actual climate scientists, explaining that as the Earth warms, all kinds of formerly dependable elements of our world are being disrupted, and so among other things, a dramatic increase in snowfall in Siberia can sending blasts of cold through a distorted jet stream into Europe and North America.[ii]

But the basic reality of global warming really isn’t news. You already know, intellectually, that the problem exists, and so you are probably steeling yourself now for the crashing of the second shoe: the message that we must end our addiction to fossil fuels and radically change the way we live our lives if we want to maintain the habitats that we have grown accustomed to living in. Knowing my audience as I do, I know that most of you already are doing things both big and small to try to reduce your ecological footprint.

There’s a story of the Desert Fathers, some of the earliest Christian monastics who lived in Egypt in the 3rd and 4th centuries, that I think might have some resonance here. One monk goes to another monk and says, “Father, according as I am able, I keep my little rule, and my little fast, my prayer, meditation and contemplative silence; and, according as I am able, I strive to cleanse my heart of thoughts: now what more should I do?” The senior monk stands up, throws his hands into the air, and his fingers become as bright as burning oil lamps as he responds, “Why not be changed into fire?”[iii] That is a bold statement about the power of religion not just to change us by degrees but to transform who and what we are, to exceed the limitations we have set for ourselves and remake everyone of us, and the world as well. But it has also always struck me as a little bit glib and unhelpful. As though the first monk should respond to the second, “Yeah, I know; I want to be changed into fire too. What do you think I spend all day praying in the desert for? I was just asking for a few tips on how to get there.”

Both in the quest for spiritual transformation, and the dire problem of climate change, it’s the getting there that’s the real challenge. The struggle is not that surprising when you consider how long it has taken our species to solve seemingly simpler matters. Fire itself has always been a dangerous thing, particularly for human beings clustered closely together in highly flammable buildings. Yet an organized system for putting out fires in cities came long, long after the first ones we built.

There was an early innovation in ancient Rome where Marcus Licinius Crassus organized a professional force of firefighters who would stop your house from burning down for a fee. The cost was negotiated after the fire started but before the team would get to work on putting it out, and if you couldn’t meet Crassus’ price before your place went up in smoke, he’d still hang around to offer to buy your heap of ashes and the land it sat on.[iv] In London, they had no organized system for battling fire until after the great one in 1666. Again, private companies were formed, this time selling insurance against a blaze. Initially, these teams would only put out fires in properties they insured, but eventually they started fighting the flames in any old place, collecting a tidy fee in return. These private companies grew so competitive that they would show up to a fire and start squabbling over who had the right to put it out. Sometimes, members of these brigades would get into fist-fights over who could draw water from city wells to fight a particular blaze. Eventually, civic leaders in London and elsewhere realized that unchecked fires were against the interests of just about everybody, which led to our modern, public firefighting services.[v]

It is this sort of shift that we need today: from a sense of individual interest, to an awareness of the collective good. Like the insights of the Buddha, the problem of climate change is staggering in its scope: the shape of our lifestyles, from our food system, to our homes, our jobs and the way we communicate with each other. All of these are built around unsustainable energy usage. To move towards a world that is sustainable, individual choices and changes do matter, but they matter most when they lead to collective action. The standards and goals we choose to set and be held accountable to as a nation, a city, or a congregation; these are the sorts of changes that are needed.

I said before that I had had a tough time in my study of Buddhism, and that is true. What I came to see after enough time though, was that the Buddhist idea of non-attachment and life no longer driven by passion, was not a formula for a passive existence. The enlightened figures of Buddhism, Siddhartha and others, are defined by their compassion – they are determined to help others in a way that guides them to the same sorts of actions that I would associate with a deep and abiding love. Similarly, living simply, and working with others to find new ways to live together so that we and our planet can endure cannot be summarized by the absence of stuff. It is rather, to be defined by a creative determination to break the cycle of burning to build to burn again. It does mean letting go of some wants, and that can be a very hard thing. As people of faith, we know that difficulty is often the sign that a thing is worth doing, just as the difficult stories are often the ones we need to hear. The prospect of changing the way we travel, and eat, where our clothes come from, and even how and how often we use electricity is a challenging prospect, and doing it collectively, rather than only by ourselves, will mean flexing some muscles that haven’t been getting much exercise in our age of dogmatic individualism.

In the early towns and cities of the United States, and particularly in New England, when someone caught sight of a fire and sounded the alarm, folks were expected to, and did, in fact, come out to fight it, together. Today we know that the fire warming the Earth is real – the smoke is already in the air. It is up to all of us, as a community, to grab our buckets, fall into line, and do everything we can to put it out.

[i] The Fire Sermon appears in both the Samyutta Nikaya and the Vinaya. The text given here is a composite rendered freely from several different English translations. Any errors are my own.


[iii] From The Wisdom of the Desert: Sayings from the Desert Fathers of the Fourth Century, by Thomas Merton

[iv] Described by Plutarch in his The Life of Crassus



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