September 13, 2010

Whose hair is on fire? Mine, yours and everyone we know

Of course, I’d rather not take a taxi to work, but this morning was confusing. There were firemen running around, smoke flooding the L train at 1st Ave, and I was reading this book about sustainable food, feeling even more like “this body is a sacred temple” than I usually do. Then the train’s doors wouldn’t close and I had to hold my breath for forever, and in that split second before deeply inhaling, I ran out of the station and jumped into a taxi to complete my morning pilgrimage to the office. Rattled.

Exiting the station I thought about practicing like my hair was on fire. It was one of those special moments of confusion, urgent confusion, where I didn’t need any convincing that life is precious. My life probably wasn’t really in any serious danger, at least not any more so than in any other fragile moment, but, in a flash, this series of frightening fire images rushed through my mind. It was just 9-11 this weekend. San Bruno exploded. Everywhere fires that need to be put out.

Nirvana literally means the extinguishing of a fire. Pali poetry is full of images of extinguished fire as a metaphor for freedom. However, as Thanissaro Bhikkhu points out in his Tricycle piece “On Translation: Nirvana” (Fall 1995), the extinguishing of a fire didn’t mean the same thing to Indians during the Buddha’s time as it does for us today. When a fire was extinguished it wasn’t totally annihilated, but it went into a dormant state. For ancient Indians, fire was seen as agitated, dependent on fuel, trapped, and clinging. A fire entering a state of latency is meant to represent real freedom.

So, yeah, anyway I was late to work this morning and still feel rattled. But sometimes you need something to remind you that your hair is on fire, otherwise how will you remember to put it out?

Image: From the flikr photostream of sethrrt

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Meg's picture

indeed.