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The Mind Like Fire Unbound

An Image in the Early Buddhist Discourses

Thanissaro Bhikkhu
(Geoffrey DeGraff)

Copyright © Thanissaro Bhikkhu 1993

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Revised: Mon 10 September 2001

A printed copy of this book is available from Dhamma Dana Publications, c/o Barre Center for Buddhist Studies, 149 Lockwood Road, Barre, MA 01005, USA. Due to the limitations of HTML in rendering free-verse, this HTML edition lacks the clarity and crispness of the original print version.

Very well then, my friend, I will give you an analogy; for there are cases where it is through the use of an analogy that intelligent people can understand the meaning of what is being said.

M 24

Contents [go to top]

Abbreviations [go to top]

Vedic Texts:

AV ..... Atharva Veda
BAU ..... Brhadaranyaka Upanisad
ChU ..... Chandogya Upanisad
KathU ..... Katha Upanisad
KauU ..... Kausitaki Upanisad
MaiU ..... Maitri Upanisad
RV ..... Rg Veda
SvU ..... Svetasvatara Upanisad

Pali Buddhist Texts:

A ..... Anguttara Nikaya
D ..... Digha Nikaya
Iti ..... Itivuttaka
Khp ..... Khuddaka Patha
M ..... Majjhima Nikaya
Mv ..... Mahavagga
S ..... Samyutta Nikaya
Sn ..... Sutta Nipata
Thag ..... Theragatha
Thig ..... Therigatha
Ud ..... Udana

References to D, Iti, Khp, M are to discourse (sutta). The reference to Mv is to chapter, section, and sub-section. References to other Pali texts are to section (samyutta, nipata or vagga) & discourse.

All translations are the author's own. Those from the Pali Canon are from the Royal Thai Edition (Bangkok: Mahamakut Rajavidyalaya, 1982).

Terms marked in the text with an asterisk (*) are explained in the End Notes.

Because Pali has many ways of expressing the word 'and,' I have -- to avoid monotony -- used the ampersand (&) to join lists of words & short phrases, and the word 'and' to join long phrases & clauses.

Preface [go to top]

To study ancient texts is like visiting a foreign city: Time & inclination determine whether you want a quick, pre-packaged tour of the highlights, a less structured opportunity for personal exploration, or both. This book on the connotations of the words nibbana (nirvana) & upadana in the early Buddhist texts is organized on the assumption that both approaches to the topic have their merits, and so it consists of two separate but related parts. Part I, The Abstract, is the quick tour -- a brief survey to highlight the main points of the argument. Part II, The Essay, is a chance to make friends with the natives, soak up the local atmosphere, and gain your own insights. It takes a more oblique approach to the argument, letting the texts themselves point the way with a minimum of interference, so that you may explore & ponder them at leisure. Part I is for those who need their bearings and who might get impatient with the seeming indirection of Part II; Part II is for those who are interested in contemplating the nuances, the tangential connections, & the sense of context that usually get lost in a more structured approach.

Either part may be read on its own, but I would like to recommend that anyone seriously interested in the Buddha's teachings take the time to read reflectively the translations that form the main body of Part II. People in the West, even committed Buddhists, are often remarkably ignorant of the Buddha's original teachings as presented in the early texts. Much of what they know has been filtered for them, at second or third hand, without their realizing what was added or lost in the filtration. Although the quotations in Part II, by their sheer length & numbers, may at times seem like overkill, they are important for the context they give to the teachings. Once the teachings have context, you can have a surer sense of what is true Buddha Dhamma and what are filtration products.

This book has been many years in preparation. It began from a casual remark made one evening by my meditation teacher -- Phra Ajaan Fuang Jotiko -- to the effect that the mind released is like fire that has gone out: The fire is not annihilated, he said, but is still there, diffused in the air; it simply no longer latches on to any fuel. This remark gave me food for thought for a long time afterwards. When I came to learn Pali, my first interest was to explore the early texts to learn what views they contained about the workings of fire and how these influenced the meaning of nibbana -- literally, 'extinguishing' -- as a name for the Buddhist goal. The result of my research is this book.

Many people have helped in this project, directly or indirectly, and I would like to acknowledge my debts to them. First of all, Phra Ajaan Fuang Jotiko, in addition to being the original inspiration for the research, provided me with the training that has formed the basis for many of the insights presented here. The example of his life & teachings was what originally convinced me of Buddhism's worth. A. K. Warder's excellent Introduction to Pali made learning Pali a joy. Marcia Colish & J. D. Lewis, two of my professors at Oberlin College, taught me -- with no small amount of patience -- how to read & interpret ancient texts. Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi, Donald Swearer, John Bullitt, Margaret Dornish, Robert Ebert, Michael Grossi, Lawrence Howard, & Doris Weir all read earlier incarnations of the manuscript and made valuable suggestions for improvements. I, of course, am responsible for any mistakes that may still remain.

Finally, I would like to dedicate this book in gratitude to my father, Henry Lewis DeGraff, and to the memory of my mother, Esther Penny Boutcher DeGraff, who taught me the value of truth, inner beauty, & goodness from an early age.

Thanissaro Bhikkhu
(Geoffrey DeGraff)
Metta Forest Monastery
August, 1993

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Revised: Mon 10 September 2001