By Rev. Jon Turner
One of my favorite songs is entitled Putting Out Fire. It is by David Bowie. He wrote this song in 1982 for the movie Cat People. It was also used in the more recent 2009 movie Inglorious Bastards. The first verse starts out very slow, filled with sadness, and then suddenly the fourth line crescendos as if he has just realized something shocking.
See these eyes so green?
I can stare for a thousand years.
Colder than the moon, it's been so long.
And I've been putting out fire with gasoline.
Bowie also describes eyes so green – a traditional symbol for greed. Later in the song, he references red eyes of anger
See these eyes so red?
Red like jungle, burning bright.
Those who feel me near pull the blinds and change
their minds. It's been so long.
and blue eyes of ignorance.
See these tears so blue?
An ageless heart that can never mend.
These tears can never dry.
A judgment made can never bend.
Blue usually symbolizes sadness but in this song he clarifies this as ignorance in the last line of this verse.
It is not a coincidence that Greed, Anger and Ignorance, in that order, are also the three poisons in Buddhism. Initially, I had thought that I was good at finding Buddhist messages in popular culture but my thinking has changed. Instead, these are works of art made by artists who have been exposed to Buddhism and are using these ideas to transmit an emotional truth.
One of the reasons I like this song so much is that it can have two different interpretations. This is the power of lyrics as poetry and metaphor. The first interpretation is that we are constantly adding fuel to the fire. Whenever someone gets angry with us, we immediately respond in kind. Thus the anger grows and the argument gets increasingly more heated. We suffer because our emotions are not under control. This is the more obvious interpretation. Here we try to remove our greed and anger.
The second interpretation is that we are trying to put out the fire but what we think is water is actually gasoline. We are trying to do “good” but are mistakenly causing harm. Arguments overheat due to misunderstandings. We suffer because we lack insight. Here we try to remove our ignorance.
It is very interesting that these two interpretations are also represented as two different paths within the Buddhist tradition. One sees our passions as our main obstacle to realizing awakening and the other sees our views as the real barrier. This is basic Mahayana Buddhism. But the former resonates more effectively in the West. It has more of a moral flavor to it that is more in line with a Christian understanding of religion. In fact, this phenomenon is actually called Protestant Buddhism. This is a Buddhism that emphasizes doctrine and morals.
Focusing on attaining insight rather than removing passions is a bit more foreign. The claim is that our greed and anger are only symptoms while the cause is actually a lack of insight. Once one sees gasoline not as water but as gasoline then our fire of greed and anger are removed as a natural consequence.
The following line from the Shoshinge, written by Shinran Shonin, illustrates this second approach.
不 斷 煩 惱 得 涅 槃
FU DAN BON NO TOKU NE HAN
No Sever Afflicted Distress Obtain “NE” “HAN”
Without severing our blind passions, we shall realize Nirvana.
Shoshinge Verse 7 Line 2
This is one of my favorite lines. It is certainly the most bold. But how can a spiritual person make such a claim? How can we realize awakening without removing our passions first? It would seem much more sensible if Shinran had said that we will realize awakening only after we get control of our emotions and cravings. This alternate statement would be more in line with our common sense understanding of both religion and Buddhism. However, it is our common sense that actually gets us into trouble. Our normal way of thinking is just too common. Instead we need to listen to the Buddha’s teachings for an alternate approach. In this case, our common sense is betraying us.
Rev. Jon Turner