The world is burning, the Buddha said, with the fires of greed, hatred, and delusion. This is a medical diagnosis as much as a spiritual one. It describes the pain we suffer and its root cause in our own hearts. We are taught to blame either material conditions or people’s actions for the world’s miseries, but this teaching seeks a deeper cause, recognizing that harmful action comes from ourselves and others being burned from the inside.
This diagnosis of the Buddha’s is 2,600 years old, but it’s as accurate now as ever.
The three fires are all aspects of attachment. All the personal and systemic miseries we suffer—and they’re never separate—can be traced back to attachment. In one way or another, we try to nail down a better future by getting things the way we want them to be and hoping they stay that way. But we can’t. Stability slips from our grasp, and the grasping inevitably turns to disappointment, frustration, pain, and anger.
This diagnosis of the Buddha’s is 2,600 years old, but it’s as accurate now as ever. The fire of greed literally burns every corner of our planet. Why is it so hard for industrial societies to slow their own growth, when we can see the damage we’re doing? It’s the same for social crises like racism and nationalism. Why is it so hard to end identity-based violence? We might as well ask why it’s so hard for addicts to stop using. Attachment is the core organizing principle in our lives and societies, and as a form of addiction operates largely outside of conscious control.
The solution to both individual and systemic attachment is letting go: consuming less and sharing more. Sharing resources, sharing power, sharing space. Everyone, but particularly those who have more wealth, comfort, and power, must let go of some of what they want so that others can have more of what they need.
Letting go is rooted in the Buddhist practice of renunciation, where we learn to tolerate the discomfort of craving instead of habitually grasping at whatever shiny thing has caught our attention. The word “renunciation” is charged: it can conjure images of self-deprivation or seem anti-pleasure. But that’s attachment talking. Pleasure is fabulous and healthy, but the Buddha described grasping at pleasure as like being in debt. Attachment gives away our power to whatever fleeting experience we are craving in the moment, and is really the exact opposite of enjoyment. Renunciation takes our power back.
Renunciation unbinds the heart from the pain of attachment, but it is also the foundation of real care for others. As we learn to limit our consumption, both material and social, individually and collectively, we challenge our addiction to always getting what we want. In the open space that then appears is a peace that is fundamentally deeper than the satisfaction of getting our way for a few moments. Without this peace, the fire that burns our hearts and communities can never be put out.