From The Under 35 Project: “In the Fire”

Sarah Schneider explores how her 12 years of training conspired to override her survival instinct in a fire, revealing the tension between the context of the teachings and the personal narrative of how we make choices.

Do Khyentse Rinpoche, drunk as could be, stumbled upon his student, Patrul Rinpoche and just kicked the crap out of him, yelling “you old dog.” After the initial bewilderment in looking for what offense could have brought on such hostility, it is said that Patrul Rinpoche experienced his most definitive moment of awakening in those blows. From then on Patrul Rinpoche signed his erudite compositions, “This Old Dog.”

Chos zab bdud mang. In Tibetan this means the more profound the dharma, the more demons there are, or the brighter the light, the darker the shadow. Enduring hardships, as the masters of the past have done, yields the qualities of realization. And once you commit yourself to practice in order to become realized, obstacles appear.

That’s what they say, anyway. My retreat master always said, “It takes a long time to become a Buddha.” If I quit every time there was a discomfort, I’d never get anywhere. I’ve known my lama, Garchen Rinpoche, since 1999 when I was 21. When he spoke to the gathered sangha of about 70 people the day we got out of three-year retreat, he said, “They sat through heat and cold, hunger and thirst.” Part of why we practice is to have some control over our mind, and thereby not be ruled by our many desires.

But does this idea have a danger? If I whole-heartedly accept that I must suffer in order to give rise to qualities, how do I relate to my human desires for comfort and companionship? Or even the basic instinct to protect my physical body? How much is pain a necessary ingredient in awakening?

My friend’s been doing the cooking for us both in Garchen Rinpoche’s old retreat hut. The Institute’s since built Rinpoche a new, proper retreat hut, and his old one’s been moved down in to the valley. My friend’s up at the temple and I’m hungry. His camping stove runs on ethyl alcohol, not on propane as I’m used to. The fuel cup has a little bit of alcohol in it. I take the lighter to it and it ignites. It’s not enough fuel to cook my corn tortillas, so I lift the gallon jug of ethyl alcohol and pour on more fluid. Not a smart move. The floor of the entire hut bursts into flame. Whoosh.

Garchen Rinpoche was imprisoned by the Chinese for twenty years. He was rousted from the third year of his three-year retreat. He hid in the mountains surviving on his own urine for fluid. He was thrown in jail and witnessed suicides and murders. He tried to starve himself to death but was prevented from doing even that. Garchen Rinpoche describes his time in prison, his entire adult youth, as the time he learned about the nature of karma cause and effect, where he met his root lama and learned to overcome anger, where a prison guard became his first student.

Time turns to slow motion. My body says, “Get out!”  I listen and get out onto the piece of wood on the ground next to the door where you take your shoes off. It’s surreal. My lama’s retreat hut is on fire. Everything’s burning. My mind is blank. My mind is blank. I stand there watching. Slowly, my head turns left; my eyes scan the doorway, my bare-feet by my friend’s shoes, the brown dirt with iridescent granite chunks, and land on the dry bush of scrub-oak. At that moment I thought of a squirrel. What if a squirrel lives in that scrub-oak bush? It registers that it’s dry. It’s the end of April in Arizona and it hasn’t rained in a long time. Not only that, it’s the time of winds. Spring sees some fierce winds whipping up the valley. And I can hear the gasping sound of fire. My eyes return to the doorway. I feel alone. I don’t think there’s anyone else down here in the valley who can hear me, who can help me.

Since the beginning of my training, I’ve been taught to contemplate death. Before embarking on my first longer, solitary, 100-day retreat, I spent 15 days alone practicing phowa, the transference of consciousness, in case I die before I have stability in my mind. On 100-day retreat, I spent maybe 20 straight days contemplating impermanence and the uncertainty of the time of death. In three-year retreat, the yogas have in-depth phowa and bardo training to prepare the practitioner for the experience of the dissolution of the body at death.

The instinct is to leave. I want to leave. I want to run away. I want to run down the dirt path between the prickly pear and jutting rocks and run far, and then maybe I can call someone, someone else. I want someone else to fix this.

There are endless examples and stories of the crazy extent Tibetan masters have disregarded their physical bodies in pursuit of realization. Tilopa told Naropa to jump off a building. He did and he died and Tilopa brought him back to life. My retreat master stayed in lotus posture for two weeks until his legs turned blue.

My feet don’t move. Breathing is slow; everything is very slow. My eyes look right and land on the seven-gallon water jug. “Water! Water puts out fires,” I think. My feet stay put on the wood platform. My arms take up the jug and reach in to the heat and douse as much floor as I can reach with water. I wait. It does almost nothing. It’s getting worse. The gallon of ethyl alcohol ignites and adds to the flames.

My friend stayed in a damp, cramped cave in the high snow mountains of Lapchi, in Nepal. There were other drier caves she could have resided in. When someone asked her later why she didn’t move earlier, she responded that she doesn’t practice to be comfortable. How else would she be motivated to become enlightened?

I could have gotten away. I could have been safe.

In three-year retreat, we don’t have a stupa to circumambulate within our retreat boundary. But we do have Garchen Rinpoche’s retreat hut. It’s up the hill from my hut, through the squat junipers and scrub oak, up and over the pine needles. It’s small. It’s maybe six by eight with a large south-facing window covered in white doily drapes. It has prayer flags hanging under the A-frame ceiling and a large life-like White Tara thangka on one wall. The screen door is flimsy and bent. There’s a big bulletin board looming over the altar. It has a large picture of Khenpo Munsel Rinpoche , when he’s young, staring straight and square into the camera. There’s a picture of Drubwang Rinpoche when he still had his enormous crown of dreadlocks tied up in red string, in the union mudra with bell and vajra. There’s a red paper heart that a child gave Garchen Rinpoche on Valentine’s Day. On the altar sits a Milarepa statue holding a pin I gave Garchen Rinpoche a long time ago. The pin has a red heart in the middle of two links of a chain. I got it at my first punk concert in Arcata, Californi,a with my best friend. “Love breaks the chains,” we said. The bed is low and bumpy. There’s a square cheap rug on the floor. At first I just sneak up to his hut on session breaks, especially between third and fourth session, in the low afternoon light. As retreat wears on, I go inside the hut a few times. Sometimes I sit inside on breaks and just look at my lama’s stuff, trying to imbibe his meditation. I’m not the only one. Another retreatant brings flowers in a vase. Another one sleeps in the hut to watch his dreams. When Garchen Rinpoche stays at the Institute, he walks up to his hut after dinner and walks back down in the morning. Occasionally he walks by my large south-facing window and makes a face at me sitting there. Or walks right in to my hut in the morning and makes a Yoda groan that hits me like a cat purring. And when he’s there, he’s right there, just up the hill, in that hut.

It’s what happens now that interests me. It’s this moment, this decision, this override of instinct. “You have to go in.” I hear that, I know it’s true. That’s all. It’s quiet, it’s decided. I walk in barefoot to the burning hut to put out the fire.

My trauma therapist says in these survival moments, physical, biological instinct takes over. She says it’s extremely rare to make a mental decision that surpasses the instinct to survive.

Garchen Rinpoche’s a tummo master. That’s the practice of inner heat. Rinpoche walks around in the winter in a tank top. Whatever’s cold, or painful becomes a source of heat and bliss.

In the hut flames are all around me. I hear them. But I don’t feel my body. My body is crying; it’s yelling for help. It tamps out the fire with blankets. It lies down.

But my mind is elsewhere. My mind is above, or in space. In that space, it’s okay if I die. It won’t really matter. The longer I’m in there, the more in space the mind becomes. It’s okay if I die because it’s just a body. It’s really just a body.

My exercise pants are on fire. The body wants to live. “If you don’t get out, you will die,” the voice says. I walk out shaking and in shock. I am on fire. Stop drop and roll is a mantra a little far away. Too many heartbeats later, “Take them off!” I take off my pants and throw them in the dirt. They smolder a little away from me; the hut smolders a little away from me. I fall to my hands and knees. I can see the bone of my left wrist. I’m in my underwear. Though the valley is little populated, a man hears me. I tell him to be calm and that he has to get his truck. He stops at his house and wets a white sheet and puts it on my legs. The Chino Valley Medical Clinic takes one look at me and says I’m getting helivaced to Phoenix. They cut the ring Garchen Rinpoche gave me off my finger in anticipation of the swelling. They ask if I remember my name.

Is suffering that which yields fruit? Is there something inherent in the path, if one is truly on it, that you have to get cut down in the most intimate of ways until some knot of solidity unravels?

I got third degree burns on 17% of my body. I stayed in the Phoenix burn unit for five weeks and had four surgeries. They grafted skin from my thighs to the entirety of my lower legs. I saved the hut, though.

I didn’t have to. It was my choice. I chose something over my own body.

I go to the Los Angeles County Hospital for on-going treatment with homeless people and immigrants. I feel like an immigrant too. I’m an ancient seed transplanted into modernity. At least I’ve had a lot of teachings about taking obstacles onto the path. I know what to do with my mind. I wonder what the other people in the burn clinic think. I wonder how it affects their relationship with God.

Patrul Rinpoche wandered around looking like a beggar. He is reported to have never kept provisions, but to have been content to subsist on barley flour. I don’t suppose he cared how attractive he was, or if he would lose his chance to have kids. If his tooth hurt, he probably just pulled it out.

At home I watch the trees in the backyard from my room through the long open French doors. The bottlebrush tree has lost most of its red blossoms and I think these are the last of the hummingbirds. The tree my cat climbs has grown over the summer and the new tender pale leaves have turned darker green. The mockingbirds have returned on their way south.

I cry. I cry a lot. I cry at how they treated me in the hospital, like a burned body, not a person. I cry at how much it still hurts. I cry at how gruesome I look now and how smooth my skin was before.

But there’s a deeper cry that’s more mysterious. Maybe that lovely assurance the teachings provide is also tenuous. Maybe it’s the cry that led me to this path of practice in the first place. It’s the edge of the fabric where the visible meets the invisible. It’s how real this is, and unreal.

Sarah Schneider has been practicing Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism since 1999 when she met her Root Lama, Garchen Rinpoche. She lived at the Garchen Institute for five years, practicing in many retreats, including three-year retreat. After leaving three-year retreat, Sarah lived in Nepal for two years studying and translating Tibetan language. She currently lives in Santa Monica, CA, where she works as a Tibetan translator. This is her first public work of writing.

To see the rest of our Under 35 Project posts, click here. To read more and submit your own work, visit the project’s website.


  1. Bob
    Posted January 4, 2013 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

    I'm sorry but the suggestion that a person would knowingly allow themselves to be badly burned in order to prove some kind of spiritual point is deeply disturbing.

  2. darcy mackenzie
    Posted January 4, 2013 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

    I think the article is more complex than about how a person wanted to prove a spiritual point. My interpretation is that the writer is exploring her own understanding of and relationship to her body, her practice and her beliefs, and the history of her practice community. In a sense in writing this article she is practicing a kind of mindfulness meditation, observing and reporting on how her own mind, given a set of conditions (her history of practice, the history of practices in her tradition, her current practice, her human relationship to her body) responded to an external situation which produced pain and destruction. I don't get a sense from the article of whether she felt she did the "right" or "wrong" thing in letting her body become injured, nor a clear sense that she believed that allowing herself to be injured was somehow "more" or "less" spiritual. To me she appears as a very real person exploring deep and often mysterious teachings. I also know that a reader with much less meditation and insight experience than she has, there are elements of this story that I don't fully understand at this time.

  3. darcy mackenzie
    Posted January 4, 2013 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

    Above – the last sentence meant to say: "I also know that AS reader with much less meditation and insight experience than she has, there are elements of this story that I don't fully understand at this time."

  4. josh
    Posted January 4, 2013 at 3:59 pm | Permalink

    Justification and rationalization can lead to horrible atrocities, on a personal scale as well as a national or global scale. The path of martyrdom is much more complex than simply "virtuous" or "sinful", especially in the public forum – since public recognition is a key element to that phenomena. But this is all after the fact. Its an interpretation, meant to give some sort of meaning to a very confusing situation.

    I seriously doubt her choice to remain in a burning hut was a conscious one. The fragmented nature of the recollection interspersed with excuses helps to attest that. It seems much more likely that a fear of displeasing the guru was the overriding motivation, along with some very deep feelings of guilt. Hypnosis can often override bodily impulses – one should not assume they are heroic or spiritual simply because they dont listen to their own body. And like it or not, hypnosis is a very real possibility when it comes to bhakti and satsang.

    Guatama himself already gave the lesson on ignorance of the body, and it is a very well known one. In fact, it is a key turning point in his origin story.

    What I find to be most deeply disturbing is the potential glorification of this woman's story… and the agreements that can be made here, like the idea that suffering = realization. That is an incredibly dangerous farce. A very wise man once said:

    "I have already said before that sacrifice is necessary. Without sacrifice, nothing can be attained. But if there is anything in the world that people do not understand it is the idea of sacrifice. They think they have to sacrifice something that they have. For example, I once said that they must sacrifice "faith", "tranquility", or "health." All these words must be taken in quotation marks. In actual fact, they have to sacrifice only what they imagine they have, and which in reality they do not have. They must sacrifice their fantasies. This is difficult for them, very difficult. It is much easier to sacrifice real things.

    Another thing that people must give up is their suffering. It is very difficult also to sacrifice one's suffering. A man will renounce any pleasure you like but he will not give up his suffering. Man is made in such a way that he is never so attached to anything as he is to his suffering. And it is necessary to be free from suffering. No one who is not free from suffering, who has not sacrificed his suffering, can work. Nothing can be attained without suffering but at the same time, one must begin by sacrificing suffering. Now, decipher what this means."

  5. Carol
    Posted January 4, 2013 at 6:35 pm | Permalink

    This sort of extreme disassociation from the body sounds like a form of mental illness to me. The story reminds me of others discussed in this article:

  6. Aufbach
    Posted January 4, 2013 at 6:53 pm | Permalink

    The author of this article, Sarah Schneider, aptly describes the suffering that she is continuing to experience as a result of her experience, and I am sorry for that. I do not feel sorry for her, I feel compassion because she is in physical and emotional pain. And I agree with Darcy that this article is about more than just proving a spiritual point.

    Sarah clearly states that there was concern the fire would spread, because it occurred during the dry season, and there were strong winds. To me, this seemed to be the ultimate motivation for her actions; she then relied on her spiritual training to carry-out her actions. This is an article about how spiritual training can take you places that your mind and/or survival instinct might not. It also describes the results of going to those places, in this case, lingering pain and suffering — but, also the extinguishing of a potentially dangerous fire.

    Sarah, maybe your skin hasn't changed at all, maybe it's exactly the same.

  7. Don
    Posted January 4, 2013 at 10:57 pm | Permalink

    I think she's just recounting her experience in this extraordinary situation. I don't think it's meant to prove a point. One can surmise that she made a bad decision, and I think she's learned a great deal from this. I would hope that no one would be foolish enough to duplicate her actions. People can do unusual things in stressful situations. None of us knows how we might handle it.

    I'm glad you're okay, Sarah. May your practice flourish.

  8. Dorje Tröllö
    Posted January 6, 2013 at 7:28 pm | Permalink

    "When self-oriented spiritual conceit attempts to appropriate spiritual involvement as part of its manipulative strategy, the yeshé ’cholwa Lama encourages the disciple to increase the volume of his or her neurosis until it implodes. The yeshé ’cholwa Lama often destroys conventional spiritual reference points in order to move the disciple beyond fixed habit patterns. The tigress displays unrestrained ferocity. The tigress purveys the terror of the unknown and unknowable. She is ruthlessly playful and playfully ruthless – she is the ground experience of yeshé ’cholwa. Yeshé ’cholwa is not easily understood in the West even by those who espouse Vajrayana Buddhism. There are few people who are actually open to forgoing emotional anaesthetic in respect of the advice and guidance of a Lama. There is often great interest in Dorje Tröllö and yeshé ’cholwa – but the pragmatics of ‘wisdom gone wild’ often offend the aspect of narcissism which likes to hide behind logic and mundane reasonability. As long as the Lama is subject to the tyranny of logical analysis and coherent accountability – yeshé cholwa is non-functional."

    - Ngak’chang Rinpoche

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