Keeping the Fire Lit

“Oh, the one who first taught you

the Buddha’s dhamma and his ways –

like brahmins keep a sacred fire lit

Ever give them thanks and praise!”

Dhammapada v.392

Winter is both here and not quite here yet. Evening temperatures dip below freezing and the first snow of the season threatens with every storm, but as yet the days are still warm. Managing heat inside the small space of the mobile temple during these shifts has become something of an art form. As anyone who has used a wood stove in such a space knows, getting the right heat is a constant balancing act: too much wood and the fire makes it a sauna; too little wood and the fire dies out.

Mastering constant heat is about coming to an understanding … it’s not about the fire. It’s about the embers, the glowing coals after a burn that keep the stove warm and ready. If the embers go out the stove has to be lit again from scratch, but if they are properly tended and nursed along restarting the fire is as easy as tossing on more fuel.

This is very much like our dhamma practice. There are times when we are on fire. We sit, we study, we go on retreats and burn with enthusiasm. But at other times, and sometimes as a consequence of overheating through our fervor, the fire goes out and we enter a period of drifting. We will struggle to sit and despite our best intentions we’ll neglect our practice. Days, weeks, months go by. When we finally do get back on track is almost like starting things from scratch.

As we go along, a wisdom arises: it’s not so much about the periods of intensity or periods of drifting as it is about nurturing the glowing coals of Faith and Wisdom through our day to day life. If we keep in contact with these – our reasons for practice, with the teaching, and with a community of dhamma friends – then whenever there is time and fuel our practice will light up again.

This is even more the case here in America, with many people practicing dhamma but living very separate and individual lives. The country is not one but a multitude of frontiers, with many practitioners dozens or even hundreds of miles from a temple or retreat center of their lineage. There might be a sitting or study group nearby, but these often meet too infrequently to keep us active by themselves.

We find here that we have to be diligent to stay the path. Continuity of practice is often more the case of nurturing daily expression – maintaining an altar, supporting a dhamma community, sitting, reading, chanting. Some little daily effort or reminder to keep the embers alive goes further than a few big exertions.

One of the best ways to stay the course, and know what we need to nurture, is to keep in touch with what inspired us to begin spiritual practice in the first place. Chances are we didn’t find that inspiration from reading a paperback or hearing about a temple somewhere or meeting someone who goes on meditation retreat every now and then. Even if that has become the content of our spiritual lives, it’s not where we started. If we look back to where we first developed our faith we will probably see a moment of intense personal growth, or a mind-altering teaching, or a meeting with a deeply devoted and inspiring practitioner.

We don’t keep the embers of Faith and Wisdom glowing through being content and coasting along. We have to look back to what originally lit a fire in our hearts and got us believing we could change for the better. This will be different from person to person, but what will be the same is that whenever a person keeps in touch with the things that inspired them, they will not lose their way. There will still be ups and downs, but the fire will no longer go out. Exertion won’t be a merciless sweat and tending to life’s other chores won’t leave one feeling cold.

So if you find yourself drifting, take a moment and ask yourself. Where did you start? What keeps you warm? When you figure it out, then keep it going in your life. Let it be its own art form.

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