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The Fire Sermon

Referenced by T.S. Eliot in his poem The Waste Land, the Fire Sermon, as it is now called, was delivered by the Buddha, Siddartha Guatama, in the early 5th century B.C.  In this sermon, the Buddha teaches liberation from suffering upon liberation from the five senses.  According to the Buddha, suffering, delusion, and passion burn within an individual as results of sensory perception.  Thus, the one who detaches from the senses necessarily extinguishes the fires of passion, suffering, and the like.

In referencing the Fire Sermon, Eliot indicated that the correspondent Christian work was the Sermon on the Mount, delivered by Christ and recorded in Matthew 5-7 of the Holy Bible.  While some argue that Christ preaches the same thing as the Buddha, a close reading of the text will show that, in fact, Christ does not teach disassociation from the senses, but a mastering of the senses through belief in His person and work.  Also, Christ seeks to deal less with a deliverance from suffering than a deliverance from sin.

Both sermons, however, deal with the human condition and address the need for humanity to reconcile the passions, burnings, of life with the reality the pursuit of such passions brings.  Eliot makes such a point more clearly by appropriating St. Augustine in contrast/comparison to the Buddha.  This contrast/comparison is found more specifically in St. Augustine’s Confessions, a text similar to the Fire Sermon in purpose and aspiration.  In his own words of footnote, Eliot explains that, “the collocation of these two representatives of eastern and western asceticism, as the culmination of this part of the poem, is not an accident.”

The ultimate juxtaposition of these two teachers is that Augustine’s hope lies in God lifting him out of his passionate, sinful condition while the Buddha’s hope lies in complete disassociation with the senses, thus rendering the burning passion moot.  Eliot’s dissection of this process leads him to conclude that neither can transcend their earthly passions/senses on their own: thus the Buddha is left repeating the words “burning, burning, burning” while Augustine is left pleading with the Lord to pluck him out of the burning.

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