The Simile of the Ember : Carrying Forth the Ember of Mindfulness

**This marks the first article I’ve written for this wordpress blog. I’ve posted a lot of articles this past half year, but they have been articles from my old tumblr that I felt were important enough to bring forward to the wordpress. I have decided that I will start writing articles on a somewhat regular basis, as upon examining my previous experience writing dhamma articles I noticed that not only did people tell me they benefited from the articles, but I did as well in reinforcing, codifying, and examining my own understanding of the Dhamma. I won’t set myself on a schedule, as this started to feel like work in the past and I lost my desire to write, but I will be attempting to make writing these small articles a regular habit** 

(starting a fire by blowing on an ember)

” Then I will give you a simile, for it is by means of a simile that some intelligent people understand what has been said”

The Simile is a very important aspect in learning, and learning the Dhamma is no exception. The near 5000 pages of Nikayas give us many dozens of similes, often with the same simile being used in various different situations.

I’ve found most often that when we come up with similes to explain complicated ideas in a more simple way, these similes almost always come directly from the day to day experience of the person who thought of it. The Buddha was a master at explaining deep concepts in ways that could be understood via people’s everyday experience.

In the past year a simile came to me, and I have been using it when explaining aspects of mindfulness to practitioners. As a student of history and anthropology, I have long been fascinated with all things ancient human, and the simile of the ember comes from ancient times. I’ve also started and tended to many camp fires, so you may now understand where this simile came from.

Unfortunately this simile requires a bit of explaining to the average modern person who has little experience with tending fires, and therefore would probably fit better in the Buddha’s day then today, non the less I present it here in a much more expanded form,  as people tell me they have found benefit from it.

So what is an Ember ?   – a small live piece of coal, wood, etc., as in a dying fire”. This is the last remnants of a dieing fire, as seen in the picture above, but with the potential to bring a fire back to life, like a phoenix rising from the ashes. This is a brief excerpt from an article : 

The iceman carried a fire-starting kit as well as a container for carrying embers. The fire-starting kit had tender consisting of pulp from a particular mushroom and pieces of flint. There was evidence in terms of dust that pyrite had been used with the fire starting kit but no pieces of pyrite were found.

There was a second birch-bark container that was for carrying embers. This fire-ember container contained some vegetable matter which included fragments and husks of grain

So when our ancestors were traveling across the land, in the morning they would take an ember from one dead fire, and keep it nourished as they traveled all day, only to use that same ember as the basis for rekindling a fire wherever they stopped for the night. Our ancestors mastered fire, which allows us now in more modern times to master mindfulness.

Fire is used as a simile in various ways throughout the teaching of the Buddha, from his proclamation that the world is aflame with the fire of craving, to the simile which equates a person’s head being on fire and their zeal to douse the flames with how diligent and zealous one should practice dhamma. Even within the roots of words related to meditation, we find fire :

Jhāyati : meditation, to burn, to be on fire – connected with the same root for Jhana (deep states of meditative concentration)

Samādahati : to put together, to kindle a fire – connected with the same root for Samādhī ( one pointedness of mind, absorption of mind on object of meditation)

So to meditate is to burn, to be on fire. It is said that this practice burns away the defilements, related to the cleansing aspect of fire, allowing the bright luminous mind to shine through.

With explanations out of the way let us get to the crux of the simile. The Buddha taught us that concentration is the best vehicle for the development of insight. It is the concentrative power of Jhana that allows us to “see things as they are” with the clarity only existing when the hindrances, pleasure and pain, like and dislike, have subsided.

“Bhikkhus, develop concentration. A bhikkhu who is concentrated understands things as they really are” – SN 56.1

Insight rests squarely on the shoulder of concentration, and concentration rests on mindfulness, as we can see by the 7th (right mindfulness) and the 8th(right concentration)  factors of the Noble Eightfold Path. So we see the importance of developing a mindfulness practice that follows us throughout all aspects of our daily lives.

In Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta, the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, the Buddha teaches us how to examine our experience through our body, feeling, and mind, as well as through the various frameworks he gave us such as the five aggregates, five hindrances, Six senses, etc. This is a complete tool box to investigate the reality of our psycho-physical experience, and it is meant to be done in everything that we do, not just while sitting on the cushion.

Developing this practice allows us to live heedfully, we enhance our Sīla(living by virtuous principles), and we see things with more clarity, allowing us to act more skillfully in the world. When we fully integrate Satipaṭṭhāna into our lives, we also set the groundwork for the development of concentration in our sitting practice.

So let us put this all together. Just as one can carry an ember from a dead fire, keeping it alive through activity, and later using said ember to ignite a new fire, so too we can keep the flame of meditation alive when we leave the cushion and go about our daily lives with mindfulness, and when returning to the cushion we do not have to start the fire from scratch, but use the ember we kept alive throughout the day to quickly ignite the new fire, helping to burn away the defilements.

Normally what do many mediators do? meditation is a thing they do for X amount of time per day once or twice sitting on a cushion. A practice like that means that as soon as you get off the cushion, your monkey mind easily comes back as you go through your day mindlessly on auto pilot. When you come home and try to meditate again, the monkey mind is there and your meditation practice suffers as you have to struggle to regain the calm and tranquility you lost throughout the day.

But when one has fully integrated mindfulness into their day, they continue the practice on and off the cushion, keeping that ember alive, and the monkey mind at bay, so that when they go to sit down, the mind more easily comes to peace and then concentration, just as the ember more easily ignites the new flame.

In this simile the ember is mindfulness, the flame is our meditation practice, in such a way we can understand the importance of living heedfully, practicing mindfulness in all we do. So do not be heedless my friends, practice carrying that ember around with you, just like our ancient ancestors did, and you will see the benefits of a practice fully integrated into all aspects of our lives.

Heedfulness is the path to the Deathless. Heedlessness is the path to death. The heedful die not. The heedless are as if dead already. – Dhp ii 21

 

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