Image: Ephemeral Moments 06 4436, © David Gibson, archival pigment print on 100-percent rag paper, 24 x 16 inches
Image: Ephemeral Moments 06 4436, © David Gibson, archival pigment print on 100-percent rag paper, 24 x 16 inches
“Everything is burning!” said the Buddha almost 25 centuries ago. “Burning with what? Burning with the fires of greed, hatred and delusion.”(Samyutta Nikaya 35.28) These words seem prophetic today, as our planet is slowly warmed by the fires blazing in our furnaces and engines, by the explosion of our bullets and bombs, and by the raging delusions around which our entire world seems to be organized. There is not a single problem we face as human beings—other than the tectonic (earthquakes), the astronomical (meteor strikes), or the existential (aging and death)—that does not find its origin in greed, hatred, or delusion, whether of people or their institutions.

Like a fire, greed is more a process than a thing. It is the state of combustion, the activity of consumption, the procedure by means of which organic resources are quickly reduced to a heap of ash. It is insatiable by nature, since the moment one desire is gratified another flares up, demanding also to be sated. Greed drives an unquenchable compulsion to consume, and as the guiding hand of our economic system, its reach is rapidly becoming global. As it burns it throws off a compelling light, dazzling us with the pleasure of its shapes and colors. We delight in playing with this fire.

Hatred is a hotter, bluer, more sinister flame. It seethes among the coals, preserving its heat over time, until blasting forth suddenly with a surge of the bellows. It can simmer as discontent, smolder as suppressed rage, or lurk hot underground as a molten river of loathing. When it does flare up, the fire of hatred scorches all in its path indiscriminately, often searing the innocent bystander with the ferocity of its angry flames.

Delusion is subtler. Like the lamp behind the projector or a reflection in a mirror, delusion shines with a soft light and illuminates indirectly. It shows things as other than they are—as stable, satisfying, personal, and alluring. Its optical tricks are endearingly creative, so much so that sometimes we hardly know where the light leaves off and the darkness begins. Delusion leads us to revel in wielding the fires of greed and hatred, oblivious of the harm inflicted both on ourselves and on those around us.

The Buddha identifies these three fires as the origin of both individual and collective suffering. Things do not become the way they are by chance, for no reason, or because a deity makes them so. It is the quality of our intention that shapes the world we inhabit, and our world is burning up because of the fires smoldering in our hearts. Resources are being depleted because people greedily consume them and lust for the money produced thereby. People are being killed, raped, tortured, and exploited because they are hated, because other people do not regard them as worthy of respect or basic rights. And the world blindly, stupidly, deceptively plods along this path to destruction because people do not know—or do not want you to know—any better.

And you know what? This is good news. Why? Because the causes of all the trouble have been exposed, and by knowing them we stand a chance of overcoming them. Just think if our problems were due to continental drift, or to an approaching meteor—then we would really be cooked. Fire is actually a very fragile phenomenon. Diminish its heat, starve it of oxygen, or take away its fuel, and it cannot sustain itself. In fact, it is entirely dependent upon external conditions; change these conditions, and it will go out. The Buddha put out the fires of greed, hatred, and delusion in himself and showed us all how to do the same thing. Perhaps we can use this knowledge to quench the fires that are heating our planet and devouring our world.

Something empowering happens when we begin to see these problems as internal rather than external. We have access to ourselves. We have the ability to make internal changes when the mechanisms for change are within our reach. A slight shift of attitude, a minor adjustment of priorities, an occasional opening to a wider perspective, the glimpse of a good greater than the merely personal—these all contribute in a small way to turning down the heat. And since we are faced not with a single enormous fire but with billions of little fires, each one ablaze in one person, miniscule changes in one mind here and one heart there can add up to a dramatic reduction of greenhouse defilements.

All it would take is a gradual increase in generosity and an incremental reduction of the need for gratification to begin to turn down the heat of greed’s fire. Planting a tree rather than cutting one down engages a different quality of mind, an attitude of giving rather than of taking. Appreciating when we get what we need, instead of demanding always to get what we want, removes fuel from the fire instead of stoking it. The flames of hatred are banked when we shoot a picture instead of an animal, when we fight injustice rather than our neighbor, when we include someone different in our circle, or even when we relinquish our hold, ever so slightly, on something that annoys us in a mundane moment of daily life. Just as heat is pumped into the system each and every moment through inattention, so also can heat be consistently and inexorably extracted as we bring more mindfulness to what we think, say, and do. A tranquil mind is a cooler mind, and the Buddha has described the movement toward awakening as “becoming cool” (siti-bhuta).

The solution to all our (nonexistential) problems is very close at hand. Look within, reach within, each and every moment—and turn down the thermostat just a degree or two. The fires consuming our world are not sustainable. If we do not feed the fires, they will go out.

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