The Fire Sermon
Siddartha and his monks are gathered around the fire. The day’s begging is done, the meal is eaten; the moist evening air clamors with insects. The monks are squatting in their yellow robes. Even in the heat, they press close to the dying fire, trying to gain some protection from the insects with its smoke. There are nuns among them, too, staring into the flames, though it’s hard to distinguish them. They wear the same voluminous robes. Their heads are shaved and scabby. Their faces are deeply creased. It is mostly older women, the widows, the mothers who have lost children, who take refuge here, with the man with the long fingers and toes and earlobes. They watch him out of the corner of their eyes, wondering if he feels the hunger they feel after just one bowl of rice a day. They want to please him. He looks like all of the other monks, but the group has instinctively ringed him. They really, really want to please him.
Look at the fire. He points, and they all look.
Look at the way it burns. We’re like that. We’re all burning up.
Or maybe there wasn’t a fire at all. Why would there be a campfire in the elephant grasses of northern India? This isn’t fucking Little House in the Big Woods. Maybe they were burning grass fronds to smoke the mosquitoes away from their eyes. Maybe they were watching the body of a rich man getting cremated, the stacks and stacks of wood required to turn him to ash. Maybe Siddartha looked at the nuns then and said, We’re burning up even now, just like that guy.
Siddartha, certain that he is close to the truth of why people suffer and how to escape from it, sits under the bodhi tree through the night. Depending on which folk tale or epic poem you read, he defeats Mara the deceiver, or he sits by himself; he fights armies and conquers death, or he sees the light coming up through the leaves and finds himself alone and aware.
So he’s enlightened. What happens now? Does he look any different? Is there a serene smile on his lips? Does he feel triumphant, sorrowful, special, or is he now above all human emotion?
If you read the scriptures, they begin to betray a certain desperation to show his otherness, that he is different now. One sutra says that he makes fire and water erupt simultaneously from every pore. One says he fills the universe with multiple copies of himself, populating the gaps between every atom with Buddhas. Hyperbole is a fondly used device in Indian texts.
But maybe he feels thin and tired, as any forty-year-old who has sat on the hard ground all night would. Maybe he staggers a little as he walks down the hill, and goes unnoticed by the first few wanderers and mendicants on the road. Maybe when a girl gives him a bowl of rice, and asks him if he is a god or a man, he eats in silence, filled with his own loneliness, pregnant with speech that won’t come.
Siddartha and his monks are walking alongside the road to their retreat in Dharamsala. The rainy season is coming and they have to spend the time meditating; travel is impossible when the roads become mud and disease spreads from house to house.
A naked man runs up to them, his hair long and wild, his beard holding burrs and dead insects. He kneels for a blessing. His hair is alive with lice. “Save me, give me sanctuary, I take refuge with you,” he begs.
We can’t take this man, says one of the monks. I know him. He’s a murderer. He’s a bandit who’s killed people. Now he’s gone mad. The monks try to come between their leader and the murderer. The murderer clutches at them, bowing and scraping in the dirt.
Give him a robe, says Siddartha, and the murderer is allowed to join them.
An old man stops them on the road and bows deeply but will not touch anyone in the ragged group. He keeps his eyes on the ground and does not reach for the hands the way others reach out for blessings or good luck. Take me, please. Take me.
We can’t take this man, says one of the monks. He is an untouchable. He can’t share our robes or our bowls or our tents.
Oh, just give him a robe, says Siddartha, and the untouchable is allowed to join them.
The group of the devoted continues to grow. It passes by villages scarred with poverty, places where mudslides have destroyed homes. Madmen are living in the woods, refusing to wash, refusing to speak, letting small animals live in their beards. By petrifying the body, you conquer it, the teaching goes.
A young woman comes running out of a house and kneels before them. Please, take me, Blessed One. I take refuge with you.
We can’t take her, says one of the monks. She is the only daughter of that old couple that lives there. She takes care of them.
I’m sorry, says Siddartha.
Why can’t I go, when all of these monks have renounced their families? I heard you left your wife and son.
I’m sorry, says the Thus Come One. And does sound genuinely sorry. He’s a good guy. He says, You are their daughter. You have to take care of them.
Be a lay practitioner. Come and bring us rice on Sundays.
Why can’t I leave everything behind?
Karma. Be a good daughter; in your next life, maybe you’ll be born lucky.
In Japan, they are called Home-Leavers, and are granted a privileged place in society. They are doing the most difficult thing, breaking the scarlet cord, and this is the first and hardest step.
It is how the Buddha’s story begins too. In the tales, when he realizes he must go, he stands in the doorway of his wife’s bedroom, and watches her sleep with their newborn son in her arms. He does not approach. He knows that if he were to touch her, his resolve would break, and he would never leave. So he turns; lets the curtain fall; leaves.
So the story is about the world’s greatest deadbeat dad.
Did he come close to their sleeping bodies? Was he near enough to smell his baby’s milk breath? Did he think about his wife’s arms around him? Did he see all the items of their safe precious world — the ornaments and jewels, the baby blankets, the neat lines of shoes? Didn’t he think, once, my self is here — I cannot leave?
And when he returns — fifteen years later — his head shaved, his face now serene, his son grown — can he say, ‘I’m home?’
Of course not. There is no home for him. Every religion has its sacrifice. Jesus gives up his life; Abraham gives up his name; Muhammad gives up his pride; and for Buddhists, Siddartha gives up his home. It’s the only way we can prove we are good: we can give something up, the thing we love the most.
Inside the Temple
At the mouth of the Manhattan Bridge Overpass, where the roads of SoHo, Little Italy, and Chinatown converge in a mad rush hour mess, the Mahayana Buddhist Temple sits in the delta of commuters and looks out over the steel spires of the bridge to Brooklyn. It is a huge sandy concrete block, a former YMCA converted in the 1962, and its giant red capital letters, like the name of a restaurant or a real estate firm, stare out blankly onto the open air of the overpass, the sky crowded with steel. There is no other external decoration. Sometimes you can see monks entering or leaving in the saffron robes. They come and go along with the commuters. The windows are few. It is a black box at the mouth of the city.
Inside are red velvet rooms with Golden Buddhas, meditation halls, quiet visitors. There are school groups and a gift shop. For a dollar donation, you can choose your fortune from a basket of them wrapped like candy. Somewhere inside is a cast-iron bell the size of a car with a swinging battering ram to beat it. Several times a day a monk swings the ram and the bell rings.
The temple is the last building before the bridge. There are many beautiful things inside. But on the outside it’s just a gray box, ugly as sin.
The Tibetans are not vegetarian. This is because nothing will grow on the high arid mountain plains of Tibet. They live on Yak. On the other hand, the Japanese priests may drink wine, and the monks may marry.
As for the American practitioners, all bets are off.
Most drink; most are not celibate; some eat meat, some don’t. The rules are fluid; always have been. The Americans want to be what they’ve always been, just with a special extra sheen of wisdom. They want to sleep in on Sundays and drink red wine out of too-full glasses. They want bowling and television and sex. They want the thundering flavor of a cheeseburger. Just with a little extra Zen. It’s not a religion, it’s a way of life, it’s a philosophy, some say now. Are they right? It might be the only religion where there are no Gods, where there are no promises of heaven or righteousness or a benevolent consciousness evaluating your actions. The only promise, the teachers say, is the promise of change. The promise that the things you love will fade; the trees will crumble quietly to ash; the world itself will fall away, and emptiness will reign.
Duhka is the word. It’s the term for the feeling of agony when you realize your own nonbeing.
An old Hopi proverb says that a man with the red hat will bring wisdom from the East to the West. So in the 1950’s and 60’s, when Tibetan monks were fleeing the Cultural Revolution, burning monasteries behind them, it was natural to set up centers in the Western United States. There in the high dry mountains and deserts not so different from their homelands, they found new followers, the kinds of followers Buddhism had never seen.
They were young and angry. They were looking for answers as far and strange as possible, as distant as could be found from the little white churches, the fire and brimstone, the knee-length skirts of home. The timing was right. For people searching for Free Love, there was the Sutra on Universal Compassion; for people searching for an unbounded universe, there was the Buddhist world map, the timeline of eons instead of millennia. And for the people who hated themselves and wanted to be someone else, there was the simple, delicious fact of reincarnation, the idea that you already had been someone else, and you would be someone else again. You had another shot.
It was not what seemed most true that made you believe; it was what you wanted most to be true.
So they came in droves. They left their shoes, their jeans, their hair. The congregations swelled with losers, outcasts, refugees from other lives.
Some of the monks from old countries did not know what to do with all the women. The tradition of nuns in Sri Lanka, in Japan, in Korea, had all but died out. In Tibet, Chinese soldiers raped the nuns. Now you are not chaste, not you cannot keep your vows, they said.
But here, most of the new followers were women. They wore their Sunday best to meetings. They were young, desperate for worship. It probably didn’t surprise anyone when the monks and roshis began to see not a student, but the curve of a breast beneath a summer blouse. The monks cultivated their aura. The girl slides aside a rice paper door and bows deeply. She is a lay follower, so she does not wear the large red robe; her hair is long. She has renounced nothing of her sexuality; she has not taken any vow. She has only taken refuge in the three jewels, trusting in the sanctuary her master will provide.
Her master could tell her, “You want enlightenment? Then give me a blow job right now.” And she would bend to her work. Some did.
What happened to all those women, when the scandals finally broke? Did they change teachers? Change religions? Did they fumble their way back home? Did they disappear? Was that moment after the command — the surprise, doubt, betrayal — itself its own revelation? Where were you? Where did you go?
There are three objects before you: a robe, a bowl, and a pair of sandals. That’s all you get. Cast off everything else: your jewelry, your money, your underwear. These things are not so hard to shed. They go easily. Then go your drawer of wool socks, the house you grew up in, your period — you won’t be having that anymore, with one bowl of rice a day. Now let go of your books — that’s harder, isn’t it? — your relatives, your lovers. You won’t need any of them.
Make three vows. Take refuge in the Buddha. Take refuge in the dharma (the teaching). Take refuge in the sangha (the community). These will protect you. They are the three jewels. They are the only vows you need.
Now follow the five precepts. Refrain from stealing, from killing, from lying, from intoxicants, from sexual misconduct. That is a fluid one. Some say it means do not rape, do not philander. Some say it means, be chaste. Give yourself carefully, and only once. Some say it means, do not have sex. Sex leads to attachment, desire, and children, which after all is bringing another tiny bit of suffering into the world. You can only have sex, say the masters, if your detachment from it is absolute. The dalai lama says, if you can eat a fine meal and a plate of shit with equal enjoyment, then you can have sex.
Are you getting it now? Are you feeling free? Are you extinguishing desire?
That is Nirvana — a word in Sanskrit used to describe the extinguishing of a candle flame. Can you extinguish yourself ?