The Parable of the Burning House is one of five main parables of the Lotus Sutra, a classic Mahayana Buddhist text. I go through the parable paragraph by paragraph, stopping to reflect on each part of the story along the way and encouraging you to imagine yourself within the story as if it were a dream. I finish up by discussing the relevance of this teaching for our everyday lives and practice.
Brief Intro to the Lotus Sutra
Thought to be composed/compiled over the course of about 150, 200 years (1st century BCE – 150 CE)
Talks a lot about itself and the amazing teaching it’s going to give! Many people describe reading it and wondering when it’s going to give the teachings it talks about… like it’s all preamble
So, it can be a little challenging, especially if you’re looking to see what it has to do with Zen or your everyday practice. But it has its own language and I’ve really come to appreciate it…
Five main parables, plus many other stories, imagery…
Approaching the Burning House Parable as a Dream
Now: Chapter 3: A Parable
Specifically, this is the famous parable of the burning house. There are quite a number of parables in the Lotus Sutra, most of them having to do with skillful means – how do you save sentient beings? Or, more accurately, how to you help them save themselves?
Just before parable of the burning house, the Buddha says, “Shariputra, let me once again make this meaning still more clear through a parable, for intelligent people can understand through parables.”[i]
Parables – A little like poetry: What does the story and imagery evoke?
Parables/involved significant stories – A lot like commonly held dreams: Not just a straight narrative telling a single story or conveying a single point or lesson. Imagine ourselves within all the parts of the story, not just the main protagonist. Dream our way into the story: What does it feel like? What are the implications? – Refraining at first from interpretation, absorbing the message from the story itself.
I’ll read part of the parable of the burning house, then pause for some reflection, then continue, sharing the whole thing. This is from the translation by Gene Reeves (The Lotus Sutra: A Contemporary Translation of a Buddhist Classic. Wisdom Publications. 2008)
A Dangerous, Decrepit House
“Shariputra, suppose in a village or city in a certain kingdom there was a great elder. He had many fields, houses, and servants. His house was large and spacious but had only one gateway. Many people lived in the house, one hundred, two hundred, or even five hundred in all. Its halls and rooms were old and decaying, its walls crumbling, its pillars rotting at the base, its beams and rafters falling down and dangerous.”[i]
Recommendation from my Dharma sister, Zen teacher Seido Martin: Dream your way in… imagine yourself in a dream, in this house, recognizing its features, what’s going on…
Even though the house is large and perhaps was once grand, it isn’t anymore
Not what you expect/deceiving appearances – decay means floor might break under you
Risky, dangerous, many people dependent on its shelter, trapped by only one entrance
Owner is great and wealthy but not taking care of his house – imagine yourself as the owner
Imagine yourself as the residents… as the house… as the decay…
Now It’s a Burning House
“All over the house, at the same moment, fire suddenly broke out, engulfing the house in flames. The children of the elder, say ten, twenty, or even thirty, were in this house. The elder, seeing this great fire spring up on every side, was very alarmed and thought: ‘Though I can get out safely through the flaming gateway, my children are in the burning house enjoying themselves engrossed in play, without awareness, knowledge, alarm, or fear. Fire is closing in on them. Pain and suffering threaten, but they do not care or become frightened, and have no thought of trying to escape.’”[i]
As if the house wasn’t dangerous enough, now the threat is imminent
Children caught up, oblivious – imagine ourselves as the children
Imagine ourselves as the father… as the house… as the fire…
The Children Will Not Heed Warnings
“Shariputra, this elder said to himself: ‘My body and arms are strong. I can wrap the children in some robes and put them on a palette or bench and carry them out of the house.’ But then he thought again: ‘This house has only one gateway, and it is narrow and small. My children are young. Knowing nothing as yet of the danger, they are absorbed in their play. Probably they will be burned up in the fire. I must tell them why I am alarmed, and warn them that the house is burning and that they must get out quickly or be burned up in the fire.’ In accord with this line of thought, he called to his children: ‘Get out quickly, all of you!’
“Although the father was sympathetic and tried to persuade them with kind words, the children, absorbed in their play, were unwilling to believe him and were neither alarmed nor frightened. They didn’t even think about trying to escape. What’s more, they did not understand what he meant by the fire, or the house, or losing their lives. They only kept running around playing, barely glancing at their father.”[i]
Imagine being inside this burning house, children all around you, too many to carry out one by one, and they’d probably just run back in the house anyway
You have to save them – letting them burn alive is unthinkable. What can you do?
You warn them, beg them, try to prove the fire is real…
Maybe you start to doubt yourself? You don’t want to abandon the children… start to smell smoke…
Now imagine you are one of the children… one of the playthings…
Doing What It Takes: Employing Skillful Means to Save the Children
“Then the elder thought: ‘This house is already going up in a great blaze. If my children and I do not get out at once, we will certainly be burned alive. Now I have to find some skillful means to get my children to escape from this disaster.’
“Knowing what his children always liked, and all the various rare and attractive playthings and curiosities that would please them, the father said to them: ‘The things you like to play with are rare and hard to find. If you do not get them when you can, you will be sorry later. A variety of goat carriages, deer carriages, and ox carriages are now outside the gate for you to play with. You must get out of this burning house quickly, and I will give you whatever ones you want.’
“When they heard about the rare and attractive playthings described by their father, which were just what they wanted, all of the children, eagerly pushing and racing with each other, came scrambling out of the burning house.”[i]
Translate this for ourselves – today, what would we say to a bunch of children to get them to pay attention? To come scrambling out in excitement? Free iphone 12’s? Meeting a famous sports figure or music star? Opportunity to be on a viral Tik Tok video? Your friends are out there having an awesome party?
What would we say to ourselves, to get ourselves to give up our current preoccupations?
Imagine once again you’re in the burning house, and this solution occurs to you, you see the children snap out of their reverie and go running out of the house?
Imagine you are one of the children, waking up… your immediate change of motivation…
Outside the Burning House: The True Reward of the Dharma, and Life
“Then the elder, seeing that his children had safely escaped and were all sitting in the open square and no longer in danger, was very relieved and ecstatic with joy. Then each of the children said to their father: ‘Those playthings you promised us, the goat carriages, deer carriages, and ox carriages, please give them to us now!’
“Shariputra, then the elder gave each of his children equally a great carriage. They were tall and spacious, and decorated with many jewels. They had railings around them, with bells hanging on all four sides. Each was covered with a canopy, which was also splendidly decorated with various rare and precious jewels. Around each was a string of precious stones and garlands of flowers. Inside were beautiful mats and rose-colored pillows. Pulling each of them was a handsome, very powerful white ox with a pure hide, capable of walking with a smooth gait and fast as the speed of the wind. Each also had many servants and followers to guard and take care of them.
“Why was this? Because this great elder’s wealth was so inexhaustible, his many storehouses so full of treasures, he thought: ‘There is no limit to my wealth. I should not give inferior carriages to my children. They are all my children and I cherish them equally. I have countless numbers of these large carriages with the seven precious materials. I should give one to each of the children without discrimination. I have so many large carriages I could give one to everyone in the land without running out. Surely I can give them to my own children.’
“Then the children rode on their great carriages, having received something they had never had before and never expected to have.”[i]
What is outside the house for real? What does it mean to come out of the house? What is the reward? How does the house look from the outside?
The Burning House Is the World of Samsara
Lotus Sutra goes on to be pretty explicit about what this all means…
“[The Buddha] sees how living beings are scorched by the fires of birth, old age, disease and death, anxiety, sorrow, suffering, and agony. Moreover, because of the five desires and the desire for wealth, they undergo all kinds of suffering. Because of attachment to desire and striving, they endure much suffering in this life and later will suffer in a purgatory, or as animals or hungry spirits. Even if they are born in a heaven, or among people, they will experience many kinds of suffering, such as the suffering of poverty and hardship, the suffering of separation from what they cherish, or the suffering from encountering what they hate.”[i]
Five desires = probably desires related to senses (touch, sounds, smells, tastes, sights), alternately desire for property, sex, food and drink, fame, sleep
“Absorbed in these things, living beings rejoice and amuse themselves, without knowing or seeing or being alarmed or frightened. And never being dissatisfied, they never try to liberate themselves. In the burning house of this threefold world they run about here and there, and, though they encounter great suffering, they are not disturbed by it.”[i]
Then the Buddha promises us all kinds of spiritual playthings/rewards to get us to give up our attachment to conditional pleasures and “come out of the house”:
“‘None of you should be happy dwelling in the burning house of the threefold world. Do not crave its crude forms, sounds, scents, tastes, and sensations. If you become attached to them and learn to cherish them, you will be burned up by them. You need to get out of this threefold world quickly so that you can have the three vehicles, the shravaka, pratyekabuddha, and the buddha vehicles. I now make this promise to you, and it will never turn out to be false. Just apply yourselves and make the effort! … Riding in these three vehicles you will gain flawless roots, powers, awareness, ways, meditations, liberation, concentration, and so forth. And then, enjoying yourselves, you will be able to delight in infinite peace and comfort.’”
Then, pursuing these spiritual rewards, we liberate ourselves and are capable of “producing pure, wonderful, supreme happiness.”[i]
Implications of the Burning House Parable for Our Lives
This can seem like a pretty negative view of our lives, perhaps. All the stuff we love about our lives, all the things we enjoy – family, pleasures, pastimes, good food, travel, gardening, entertainment, athletics, artistic expression, enjoying nature – are like playthings, and our attachment to them keeps us in a burning house, where we will inevitably end up suffering and dying. Yikes!
There’s no denying this is an aspect of the Buddhist message, but rather than go with a really literal interpretation and then react to it, perhaps we should explore the implications of the burning house parable with more curiosity, openness… as if this was a dream we had, what are we telling ourselves?
Are we missing something? As we take delight in our lives, do we forget how impermanent and ephemeral everything actually is? Are we so busy taking pleasure in our lives that we neglect spiritual work – preparing ourselves to face inevitable old age, disease, loss, and death with dignity and equanimity?
In the midst of enjoying our lives, do we miss the destruction and danger around us? Do we see only the aspects of our world we like, and ignore the decay? Are we caught up in concern for ourselves, like a child, instead of taking responsibility for the safety and welfare of other beings, like the father?
Is this world of pleasure really what we think it is? Or is it inherently a treacherous place? Think of the consumption of industrialized societies in pursuit of comfort, pleasure, and wealth, and how our planet is now literally heating up and, and many places, actually burning. And yet we continue as usual, as if we are oblivious to what’s going on.
And what does coming out of the burning house look like? We think it means renouncing all the pleasure in our lives and – what? Living a pleasureless, bland, joyless existence of strict privation and morally superior constipation? We think it means sacrifice, loss… like the children, who won’t listen to their father’s warnings because it just sounds like they have to give up what they want.
But then, part of our dream is also coming out of the house… finding an even greater reward that means we never look back. What is this greater reward?
It’s a completely different perspective. We don’t understand it until we have experienced it… and then our preoccupation with our own comfort, pleasure, and entertainment seems very limited. It’s not that we reject enjoyment of life, but we see that enjoyment within a largest context, including impermanence, and the trials, tribulations, and shortcomings of the world of desire.
Outside, reunited with our father and siblings… in the sun, breeze, an amazing ox carriage more grand than anything we could have imagined, everything we need… no longer surrounded by decay, threat…safe, able to travel, unconstrained by the house, no longer having to cling to our pleasures for happiness…