Blazing Light of Life
By Doris & Quan Heng
The element of fire has always been essential to human life on Earth. Ever since early humans discovered fire, it has been used to cook food, shield us from cold weather, illuminate darkness, ward off predators, and conduct spiritual rituals. Whether staring into the flickering flame of a candle or standing before a dancing bonfire, people are fascinated by fire and have an innate desire to test its power.
Myths Around the Globe
Throughout the world, there have been myths and legends on the origins of fire. In Ancient Greek mythology, there was a thief of fire named Prometheus who stole fire from Mount Olympus and gave it to the people. The sacred fire brought light, warmth and strength to the world, but Prometheus was severely punished by Zeus, the king of the Olympian gods, for his act.
In China’s Sichuan Province, the Yi people of Liangshan Yi Autonomous Prefecture celebrate their most important Fire Festival with a three-day carnival. The festival’s blazing torches are an iconic part of their ancient culture. One famous poetic epic describes the origin of fire. A fireball descended from the Heavens onto a mountain and transformed into a raging inferno. For nine days and nine nights the fire burned, filling the day with smoke and illuminating the night with sparks. The Heavens and Earth burned on, and the inferno gave rise to humankind.
The famous social anthropologist Sir James George Frazer wrote Myths of the Origin of Fire, introducing readers to the various myths and legends from cultures all over the world concerning the discovery of fire. Throughout the ages and around the globe, fire has played a pivotal role in human life.
Fire confers immense benefits on humankind. It is a mighty force of Nature that can elicit both fear and awe. Primitive peoples viewed fire as a mysterious power beyond human control, a force deserving of great respect and even worship.
In the heart of every Ancient Greek city, there was an altar that kept a sacred fire burning. Every family and household also had their sacred flame that was believed to provide protection for as long as it was kept burning.
The Olympic flame originated from the worship of fire. To this day, the Olympic torch-lighting ceremony keeps to the age-old tradition of celebrating and respecting fire. The torch is kindled with concentrated rays of the sun through the use of a parabolic mirror. In the ensuing torch relay, if the flame is extinguished for whatever reason, it must be reignited with one of the backup sources of the Olympic flame from the lighting ceremony, ensuring the lineage continues to be pure and sacred.
Many of the ethnic groups in China also worship fire. The Yi, Bai, Naxi, Lahu, Hani, and Pumi ethnic groups celebrate the Fire Festival annually. On this day, incense, wine and food offerings are made to bonfires.
Every corner of the village and all households are lit up with torches. The Yi people believe that the household’s fortune and luck depend on fire, so the fire pits in their homes are never extinguished.
The Mongolians hold their Fire Festival on the 23rd of the 12th month of the lunar calendar, praying for protection and good fortune from the god of fire. The Manchus, in accordance with their ancient customs, burn firewood and offer salt, food and wine to fire.
Ward Off Negativities
Fire has the power to ward off evil spirits, purge defilements, and protect and purify. Traditionally in Ancient China, a fire ceremony was performed when people moved into a new house. A brazier of burning coals would be placed at the doorway. At an auspicious time, the family members would cross over the brazier into their new home while reciting auspicious phrases. Lamps were lit all around the house, symbolizing brightness, prosperity and safety.
This “crossing the brazier” custom is also an Ancient Chinese wedding ritual. When the bride arrived at the groom’s courtyard, she had to carefully cross over a hot brazier, signifying the cleansing of all ill-luck and celebrating the couple’s everlasting matrimony.
Setting off firecrackers is a Chinese custom still popular today. On Chinese New Year’s Eve, firecrackers are set off to usher in the New Year, drive away evil spirits and bring about auspicious luck. In some places, entire buildings are adorned with blazing lamps and bonfires crackle in the courtyards.
Red symbolizes fire and the warding off of evil. During Chinese New Year, children wear new red clothes; girls tie their hair with red headbands; and elders give red packets to children, wishing them an auspicious year ahead.
Fire is also widely used in Traditional Chinese Medicine, featuring in treatment methods such as cupping and fire therapy. In cupping, fire is used to create a vacuum inside cups and the cups are immediately placed on areas of the body where healing is needed. Cupping is believed to promote blood circulation, relieve muscle fatigue, reduce swelling, and remove wind and dampness from the body.
In fire therapy, which must be performed with great care and skill, parts of the body are first covered with a towel. Some alcohol is then applied to the towel and a fire is set. By using heat generated from the flame as well as massage techniques, fire therapy is believed to promote blood circulation, metabolism and the balance of internal cold and heat, helping
the recipient to attain good health and avoid illnesses.
Illuminating Every Corner
In humankind’s journey toward ultimate enlightenment, fire plays an important role. One of the Taoist traditions employs Neidan, or “internal alchemy,” an array of doctrines and practices that cultivate body, mind and spirit. In Neidan meditation, the body becomes a hot cauldron in which the spirit is cultivated in order for the practitioner to achieve health on all levels and reunite with the Tao.
In Grandmaster JinBodhi’s memoir of his spiritual path, he recalled how he once visualized his body as a furnace in which roared a fireball that was concentrated in his lower abdomen. After his meditation practice, he found that the clothing covering his lower abdomen was charred and crumbled upon contact.
Light-offering is a common practice in Buddhist traditions. In the Pali Canon, it is said that when one offers a light to the Buddha, one accumulates immeasurable merits and wisdom, eliminates ignorance, makes clear distinctions between good and evil, and is illuminated in body and mind.
Humankind’s reverence for fire has developed into a deep belief in the power of illumination in the Buddhist tradition. Amitabha Buddha is also known as the Buddha of Immeasurable Light and Life. Medicine Buddha, known as Medicine Buddha Lapis Lazuli Radiance Tathagata, together with Suryaprabha Bodhisattva (literally “sunlight”) and Candraprabha Bodhisattva (literally “moonlight”), brings infinite light to all sentient beings.
Among the Medicine Buddha’s Twelve Great Vows, one states that upon enlightenment, his body will emanate brillant radiance that will awaken the minds of all sentient beings dwelling in darkness. Bodhi Meditation pays homage to the Medicine Buddha and promotes its core practice, The Meditation of Greater Illumination, which involves the visualization of light. Practitioners visualize their translucent body illuminating every corner of the world with compassion and energy as a means ofachieving wisdom.
Fire is fundamental to life and health. And whether through a single candle flame or a mental image of light, it is a powerful means of connecting with the Divine. Having reverence and gratitude for the gifts of fire is part of living with wisdom and grace.