The Lotus and the Fire

“Even as the drop of water on the lotus-leaf does not smear it, or as water smears not the lotus flower, so aloof is the sage who does not cling to whatever he has seen, heard or sensed.” — Jarā Sutta (Snp 4.6)

“Being detached from whatever views one wanders forth in this world, the perfect one does not enter into dispute grasping them; even as the white lotus sprung up in the water with its thorny stalk is not sullied by water and mud, even so the sage who professes peace and is free from avarice is not sullied by sense desires and by the world.” — Māgaṇḍiya Sutta (Snp 4.9)

This transformation, then, is the brighter side of the utter allayment of papañca. It marks the efflorescence of the personality composed of the five aggregates. The transmutation brought about through detachment is so ineffably sublime that it enables the sage to live in the world while not being of it. He is emotionally imperturbable (anejo) and intellectually incapable of being led astray (nippapañco). The data of the six senses, both pleasant and unpleasant, in the form of the eight worldly conditions (gain and loss, honor and dishonor, praise and blame, happiness and unhappiness), fall on him only to roll off with pearl-like grace, like the drops of water on the lotus petal or leaf, leaving the mind unsullied. No less significant are the implications of the metaphor as to the beauty and fragrance of the flower, which can be traced neither to the mud below it, nor to the water around it, nor to the roots and leaves of the plant itself. Neither can they arise without those factors—truly an incomprehensible position which defies language and logic. But the purity, the beauty, and the fragrance of the lotus are undeniable facts of experience for those around it, as much as is the aloofness of the flower. The wisdom and compassion of the sage, and his profound tranquillity, bear the same relation to our powers of understanding and expression.

See Dhammapada 58, 59 (Pupphavagga).

If the life of the emancipated sage is a puzzle for us, his death is even more puzzling. What becomes of him when he passes away—does he exist or does he not? Both conjunctively or neither disjunctively? This, as we saw earlier, was one of the problems which found expression in four of the ten indeterminates (avyākata). All the four alternative propositions of the quadrilemma were laid aside by the Buddha, and again the scholars were in a quandary. Various interpretations of the Buddha’s stand on this problem have been bandied back and forth. But the reasons for laying aside those four alternatives are sometimes explained in the Suttas, to the satisfaction of the respective interlocutors. The term Tathāgata in its wider sense of the Perfect Man (uttamapuriso paramapuriso paramapattipattoKutū­hala­sālā­ Sutta (SN 44.9) is applicable to the Buddha as well as to the emancipated monk (vimuttacitto bhikkhu Gilāna Sutta (SN 55.54), Silāyūpa Sutta (AN 9.26), Vappa Sutta (AN 4.195). The four alternatives seek to categorize him in terms of existence and nonexistence. We have already seen how in the Avyākata Sutta (AN 7.51) these four alternatives were described as products of craving (taṇhāgata), of sense perceptions (saññāgata), of imagination (maññita), of conceptual prolificacy (papañcita), and of delusion (vippañisāro). The implication, therefore, is that these four propositions are fallacious and misleading. This fact is clearly brought out in the Aggivacchagotta Sutta (MN 72). There the Buddha exposes their fallacy to Vacchagotta with the help of the following simile of fire.

“What do you think about this, Vaccha? If a fire were blazing in front of you, would you know: ‘This fire is blazing in front of me’?”

“Good Gotama, if a fire were blazing in front of me, I should know: ‘This fire is blazing in front of me’.”

“But if, Vaccha, someone were to question you thus: ‘This fire that is blazing in front of you—what is the reason that this is blazing?’ — what would you, Vaccha, reply when questioned thus?”

“If, good Gotama, someone were to question me thus: ‘This fire… is blazing?’ — I, good Gotama, on being questioned thus, would reply thus: ‘This fire that is blazing in front of me – this fire is blazing because of a supply of grass and sticks’.”

“If that fire that was in front of you, Vaccha, were to be quenched, would you know: ‘This fire that was in front of me has been quenched’?”

“If, good Gotama, that fire that was in front of me were to be quenched, I would know: ‘This fire… has been quenched’.”

“But if someone were to question you thus, Vaccha: ‘That fire that was in front of you and that has been quenched—to which direction has that fire gone from here: to the East or West or North or South?’ on being questioned thus, what would you, Vaccha, reply?”

“It does not apply, good Gotama. For, good Gotama, that fire blazed because of a supply of grass and sticks, yet from having totally consumed this and from the lack of other fuel, being without fuel it is reckoned to be quenched (nibbuto tveva saṃkhaṃ gacchati).”

Vaccha is made to admit the fact that the attempt to locate a fire that has ‘gone out’ is a ludicrous categorical mistake caused by enslavement to linguistic conventions. Fire, as one of the most volatile of elements, provides a homely illustration of the fact of dependent arising and cessation. When Vaccha had grasped this fact, the Buddha brings in the analogy of the Tathāgata.

“Even so, Vaccha, that material shape by which one designating the Tathāgata might designate him—that material shape has been got rid of by the Tathāgata, cut off at the root, made like unto a palm-tree stump, that can come to no further existence and is not liable to arise again in the future. Freed from the concept of material shape is the Tathāgata, Vaccha, he is deep, immeasurable, unfathomable as is the great ocean. ‘Arises’ does not apply; ‘does not arise’ does not apply; ‘both arises and does not arise’ does not apply; ‘neither arises nor does not arise’ does not apply. That feeling… That perception… Those preparations… That consciousness… does not apply.”

The Buddha points out that a Tathāgata has already got rid of each of the five aggregates of attachment whereby one might speak of a Tathāgata in the strict sense of the term. He is thus released from the concept (saṅkhā) of form, of feelings, of perceptions, of preparations and of consciousness. The egoistic clinging which justifies those concepts is extinct in him. Since the Tathāgata no longer identifies himself with any of those aggregates, to speak of a Tathāgata’s rebirth would be as meaningless as the attempt to locate the fire that has gone out, released from its fuel.

Compare the expression papañca-saṅkhā-pahāna with rūpasaṅkhāvimutto and its equivalents relating to the other aggregates. This is further proof of the fact that the word saṅkhā when used in connection with papañca conveys the sense of reckoning, concept or linguistic convention. 

In the Kutū­hala­sālā­ Sutta (SN 44.9) the Buddha is seen explaining to Vacchagotta the difference between the ordinary and the emancipated individual with the analogy of fire:

“Just as, Vaccha, a fire with fuel blazes up, but not without fuel, even so Vaccha, I declare rebirth to be for him who has grasping.”

“But Master Gotama, at the time when a flame flung by the wind goes a very long way, as to fuel, what says the master Gotama about this?”

“At the time when a flame, Vaccha, flung by the wind goes a very long way, I declare that flame to be supported by the wind. At that time, Vaccha, the wind is its fuel.”

“But Master Gotama, at the time when a being lays aside this body and rises up again in another body—what does master Gotama declare to be the fuel for that?”

“At that time, Vaccha, when a being lays aside this body and rises up again in another body, for that I declare craving to be the fuel. Indeed, Vaccha, craving is on that occasion the fuel.”

It is significant that the term Nibbāna, owing to its metaphorical connections with the going out of a fire, is itself suggestive enough to forestall the above quadrilemma. As in the case of the fire, it is a linguistic convention (nibbuto’ti saṃkhaṃ gacchati) which should not be transgressed or misconstrued. In addition to its psychological import as the allayment of the triple fires of lust, hatred and delusion, it also has this eschatological significance in the sense of the complete allayment of the conflagration that is saṃsāric suffering (dukkhanirodha). However, these metaphorical implications underlying the term Nibbāna seem to have become obscured in course of time due to far-fetched commentarial exegesis.

See Vism. XVI. 67 - 74; Vbh. A. 51f. 

In the Anurādha Sutta (SN 22.86) we find the monk Anurādha seeking the Buddha’s advice as to how he should meet the arguments of the heretics when they raise the quadrilemma relating to the Tathāgata. He confesses he had already faced such an unpleasant situation and that he took up the position that the state of the Tathāgata after death can be predicated in other than those four ways. The heretics concerned had then ridiculed him as an incompetent newcomer in the Order, and now he is at a loss to understand how he can put up a reasoned defense in any such future debate. Would the Lord please explain the correct position? Now the Buddha at once proceeds to catechize Anurādha, reminding him of the impermanence and suffering characteristic of the five aggregates, thus convincing him of the fact of anattā. He also points out that the appellation Tathāgata can neither be identified with any of the five aggregates, nor can it be distinguished from them. Thereby he disapproves of Anurādha’s view that the state of the Tathāgata can be predicated in other than those four ways, since the four alternatives exhaust the universe of discourse. Then the Buddha makes the strange revelation that the Tathāgata cannot be said to exist in the strict sense of the term even here and now, not to speak of his existence hereafter.

“Then, Anurādha, since in just this life a Tathāgata is not met with in truth, in reality, is it proper for you to pronounce this of him: ‘Friends, he who is a Tathāgata, a superman, one of the best of beings, a winner of the highest gain, is proclaimed in other than these four ways: ‘The Tathāgata exists after death’…’”

Anurādha confesses that his previous conclusion was wrong. Finally the Buddha sums up the correct position in these words:

“Both formerly and now also, Anurādha, it is just suffering and the cessation of suffering that I proclaim.”

This Sutta too thus makes it sufficiently plain that the four alternatives are laid aside because they are irrelevant and meaningless from the standpoint of the Dhamma. Once the misconceptions underlying that quadrilemma are cleared up analytically, the quadrilemma dissolves of itself. The solvent is none other than the law of Dependent Arising itself. The term Tathāgata, as much as any other concept, is a convenient linguistic symbol used to comprehend a complex process of conditionally arisen mental and material phenomena. It exists neither in the five aggregates nor outside of them. However, though he is composed of the five aggregates, the Tathāgata has this difference from the ordinary bundles of aggregates—the worldlings—that he no longer cherishes the illusion of an ego and as such, he does not cling to any of the five aggregates. As we have already mentioned, this makes him so incomprehensible from the worldling’s standpoint that he is regarded as “deep, immeasurable, unfathomable as is the great ocean.”

Since there is no more clinging there is no more rebirth, but this fact cannot be indicated through the second alternative, because there the term Tathāgata has the implicit prejudice of a soul. To do so would be to leave the door open for annihilationism. The charge of annihilationism does not arise when one grasps the law of Dependent Arising, and the fact that the Buddha merely preached about suffering and its cessation. There can be no annihilation since there is no soul to be annihilated. Hence the final cessation in Nibbāna is no more lamentable than is the death of an unborn son. There is no room for eternal entities in terms of Tathāgatas, for they are those who comprehend and proclaim the law of Dependent Arising, which is said to endure in the world whether Tathāgatas arise or not. Tathāgatas themselves are specific conflagrations of suffering which ‘go out’ after an incandescent flicker, as they no longer hanker after more and more fuel.

“What, O monks, is Dependent Arising? Conditioned by birth is decay and death —whether, O monks, there be an arising of Tathâgatas or whether there is no such arising, this nature of things just stands, this causal status, this causal orderliness, the relatedness of this to that.” — Paccaya Sutta (SN 12.20)

Although the standpoint of Buddhism is thus made clear, there is a general dislike for the metaphor of the fire for fear of arriving at the annihilationist view.

For example: “…The literal meaning of Nirvāna does not help us. It means ‘blowing out’, as of a lamp and the verb is used literally of the extinguishing of a light, but this is not a prominent notion in the treatment of the subject, and the meaning has been modified by its being connected with another verb, for the participle is formed from nir-vṛ or ni vṛ meaning tranquil, happy, ceased and parinirvṛta in its technical sense is ‘having attained nirvāna’. In any case it does not assert the annihilation of the individual.” E. J. Thomas, The History of Buddhist Thought, pp. 123 ff.

This fear, it must be said, is totally unfounded. On the other hand, there are some scholars who even exploit this metaphor in order to posit an absolute cosmic principle, or some noumenal essence from which beings come out and to which they finally return. Thus Keith presumes that the ancient Indian conception of fire admitted of such an underlying perduring essence.

Buddhist Philosophy, pp 65 f. 

Even if one is disinclined to state one’s deep-seated soul prejudice in such bold terms, one is sometimes tempted to demur between the possibilities of a positive and a negative answer regarding the eternalist and nihilist points or view. The inquirer is sought to be kept in a permanent state of suspense as to the correct position. This reluctance to countenance the force of the fire metaphor is due largely to the promptings of the egoistic child in man, which loves to “have his cake and eat it too.” The Buddha’s attitude, however, was quite different. Although he was not categorical as regards the four alternatives, he clarified the correct position by resorting to the law of Dependent Arising, which he illustrated with the fire metaphor:

“Lo Upasīva,” he replied,
“As flame flung on by force of wind
Flees to its end, reaches what none
Can sum; the silent sage, released
From name-and-form, goes to the goal,
Reaches the state that none can sum.

“And he who wins the goal, is he
No more, or truly ever well?
That to me, sage, in full explain,
For thine’s this Dharma, found and known.”

“Know, Upasīva,” then he said,
“There is no measuring of man
Won to the goal, whereby they’d say
His measure is so: that’s not for him;
When all conditions are removed,

All ways of telling are removed.” — Upasī­vamāṇa­vapuc­chā (Snp 5.7)

By some strange irony, these very verses are quoted by some scholars in support of their notion that the Tathāgata does not cease to exist after death though he is impredicable. This assertion contradicts itself since even by asserting the Tathāgata’s existence in some form or other, they are already predicating him. Besides, this is precisely the position adopted by Anurādha, for which he was upbraided, first by the heretics and then by the Buddha himself. It must be noted that the questions of Upasīva in vs. 1075 are in essence identical with those raised by Vaccha. Upasīva, too, is here trying to locate the extinguished fire. 

In the light of the foregoing discussion it would be no exaggeration to say that an evaluation of the significance of papañca and papañca-saññā-saṅkhā would greatly facilitate a deeper appreciation of some of the main teachings of Buddhism. It paves the way for a harmonious combination of psychology with ethics and of ethics with philosophy. It gives us the clue to the lotus philosophy behind the life of the enigmatic sage. The early Buddhist attitude to the problems of language and logic as well as the relationship between theory and practice can also be determined thereby to a great extent. Thus we have here a new angle of study which has immense potentialities for illuminating many a dim-lit passage in the Pāḷi Canon.