In the Tipitaka some monks, the Buddha included, are described as being hot, really hot, although not in the way being hot is sometimes understood today. The Vinaya relates that a monk named Dabba was able to illuminate one of his fingers so that the light from it was enough to enable him to walk around at night, as one would with a torch (Vin.II,76). It is not specifically stated that flames came out of his finger but other descriptions of this ability suggest that this is the case. When this same monk decided that his demise was approaching, he rose into the air in a cross-legged posture and burst into flames “and his body was completely consumed and burned up so that not even a speck of ash or soot could be found” (Ud.92-3). Although not mentioned in the Pali Tipitaka or its commentaries, other later Savaka texts say that Venerable Ananda met his end in exactly the same way.
Even the Buddha is attributed in being able to do something like this. When he entered the fire shrine of the Kassapa brothers and was confronted by a fiery nāga he is said to have “countered its fire with fire” (tejasā tejaṃ) by shooting flames from his body and subduing the creature (Vin.I,25). On another occasion while on a visit to the Brahma world the Buddha rose into the air in a cross-legged posture and burst into flames, although his body remained unburned (S.I,144).
What are we to make of this fiery ability, called tejodhātuṃ samāpajjitvā in the suttas? Following the commentaries Bhikkhu Bodhi translates this term as “having entered into the meditation on the fire element” although the term itself makes no reference to meditation and none of the references to it in the texts suggest that the ability is a meditation or is developed through meditation. In fact, they all suggest that it can be ‘turned on’ immediately, without any preliminaries. Interesting also is that despite how spectacular this ability would appear to an observer, it is not included in the standard list of eight psychic powers developed through meditation (e.g. D.I,77-8). It seems that the belief that grave ascetics during the Buddha’s time were already being attributed with fiery powers and Hindu texts are full of stories of accomplished rishis and ascetics who were able to incinerate people who crossed them.
Before dismissing this curious ability as just a belief of the time which was included in the Tipitaka but which has no basis in reality, I would like to posit a few ideas. Several of the psychic powers (iddhi) mentioned in the Tipitaka might be within the realm of possibility, except for New Agers for who all of them are. I am thinking of being able to read the minds of others and hear or sense things over a long distance. Most of us have had the experience of suddenly thinking of someone we haven’t thought of for a long while and shortly after have the phone ring and find it is them, or receive a letter from them. I have never been able to do this at will but it has happened to me spontaneously, and quite a few times. Could it be that all of us have these powers but that they are usually smothered by the clutter of the ordinary mind and that disciplined meditation allows them to occur more frequently? And is it possible that with an enlightened mind one can do such things at will, or at least some people can?
Anyone with a ghoulish sense of curiosity will know at least something about spontaneous human combustion (SHC), a strange and creepy phenomena where individuals suddenly bursts into flames. Forensic scientists and psychic researchers have tried to give rational explanations for this phenomena although few of them are very convincing (see Wikipedia article Spontaneous Human Combustion). Could something like this become available to highly developed individuals so that they can manifest it at will? Or is it as I said above just one of several fanciful ideas that have made their way into the Tipitaka?