Today we move on to the second of the four attitudes. We have already been exhorted and encouraged to live like the mountains are closing in. Now we are exhorted to practice like our head is on fire.
This is usually seen in relation to having a realization that you have unskillful or evil habits, mind-states, actions, etc. We find one of the prime examples of this in the “Mindfulness of Death (2nd)” , (an 8.74) Sutta:
The Buddha gives us a practice of reflecting that we may die in the hours to come, including reflecting on various ways we may die. Then comes the reflection :
And if I died from that it would be an obstacle to my progress.’ That mendicant should reflect: ‘Are there any bad, unskillful qualities that I haven’t given up, which might be an obstacle to my progress if I die tonight?’
This is again, like the previous attitude, a reflection and contemplation that brings up a sense of urgency in relation to the fact that you can die at any moment, a reflection that the mountains are closing in. An accounting of your progress and what work is left to be done.
Suppose that, upon checking, a mendicant knows that there are such bad, unskillful qualities. Then in order to give them up they should apply intense enthusiasm, effort, zeal, vigor, perseverance, mindfulness, and situational awareness.
Suppose your clothes or head were on fire. In order to extinguish it, you’d apply intense enthusiasm, effort, zeal, vigor, perseverance, mindfulness, and situational awareness. In the same way, in order to give up those bad, unskillful qualities, that mendicant should apply intense enthusiasm …
The Imagery is quite stark. I’m sure through videos of movies we have images of people on fire, running around, trying to put out the fire ASAP, to stop the extreme pain and possibility of death. Buddha is exhorting us to act in just such a way in our daily lives.
Zeal is a word that sticks out to me as the core requisite for the other qualities listed. Lets go to the dictionary :
Zeal – Enthusiastic devotion to a cause, ideal, or goal
It can be hard to practice like your head is on fire. It is easy to lose that mindfulness and zeal in the day to day business of life, even as a monastic. This is why we continually remind ourselves of the mountains, reflecting on the realities of life. Continually developing the Noble Eightfold Path, devoting ourselves to that goal.
At the end of the day it takes true insight into the nature of reality to be the fuel for that zeal. It generates naturally from the wisdom gained through the practice. Through continual reflection and meditation. It becomes a feedback loop where zeal maintains the practice and further insight fuels the zeal.
When we have zeal in abundance then the other qualities; effort, perseverance and vigor become easy to generate and the harder experiences easier to endure.
Besides the mountains closing in, there is another aspect to discuss that the Buddha used to bring up a sense of urgency and zeal. This is directly connected with kamma and rebirth and is summarized as “it would of been better had you died horribly now in this life then to do what you did because it will of created much greater suffering in future lives”
Going back up to the Mindfulness of death simile, we reflect that we still have unskillful habits and mind-states, and if we do not work on abandoning them, these habits and mind-states will be a strong influence on future bad behavior, which will lead to future suffering and bad destinations. The Buddha in this statement shows how even grievous physical pain and death can be less suffering then future results of bad actions.
Knowing this, and knowing that the causes and conditions for future suffering are still present ( our unskillful habits, tendencies, and mind-states), we should practice like our head is on fire, like there is no time to waste in this life. We should practice in such a way that minimizes and cuts short our suffering, not increases it. Until we are awakened we will suffer, so all we can do is put as much zeal , energy, and effort into the practice working towards that goal.
This is what it means to practice like your head is on fire. To be clear this does not mean you practice with no rest or consideration for mind and body, even the Buddha had to take care of his body and rest. The balance seen in Sona Sutta is important, but you should live with the practice very close, merging life and practice until you become an Avatar, a personification, of it.
The Buddha tells us to not be lazy, not to waste time, because time is not something we have in abundance, even though it may seem so as we get lost in the day to day of life. How many of us know the feeling of waking up one day and you feel the weight of 20 or more years passed and wonder where it went? Better to practice like our head is on fire, to end our suffering and attain peace.
I’ll end with this verse from sn 4.9 a conversation between Mara and Buddha:
Then Mara the Evil One approached the Blessed One and addressed him in verse:
“Long is the life span of human beings,
The good man should not disdain it.
One should live like a milk-sucking baby:
Death has not made its arrival.”
The Blessed One:
“Short is the life span of human beings,
The good man should disdain it.
One should live like one with head aflame:
There is no avoiding Death’s arrival.”
Then Mara the Evil One … disappeared right there.