The title of this blog is taken from Thanissaro Bhikku’s book Mind Like Fire Unbound. His book is about the enlightened mind. (The book is available in its entirety on the Internet at http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/thanissaro/likefire/index.html.)
The Buddha famously refrained from describing enlightenment, or nibbana (nirvana in Sanskrit). But he did occasionally speak in metaphorical ways about what it means to be enlightened. One of those metaphors was what happens when a fire goes out.
To a Westerner, when a fire goes out it has simply disappeared. It no longer exists. But that is not how Indians of the Buddha’s time viewed it. Fire was seen to always exist in a latent state. When a fire was started, it “clung to” or became bound to its fuel. When the fuel was exhausted, the fire was freed from being bound to it, and the fire returned to its natural state.
When asked where a Buddha – an enlightened being – “goes” after death, the Buddha said that the question did not apply:
‘And suppose someone were to ask you, “This fire that has gone out in front of you, in which direction from here has it gone? East? West? North? Or south?” Thus asked, how would you reply?’
‘That doesn’t apply, Venerable Gotama. Any fire burning dependent on a sustenance of grass & timber, being unnourished — from having consumed that sustenance and not being offered any other — is classified simply as “out” [nibbuto].’
— Eric Van Horn, Colchester, Vermont, 8-Mar-2013