The parable of the burning house is a teaching that is used to remind us that the precepts in Buddhism are suggestions.
It is part of a long text called the Lotus Sutra. Although precepts are important, they aren’t airtight commandments that we can never break. They are a road map, not a set of laws.
The parable also has a deeper meaning.
This is how the story goes:
A man sees that his house is on fire with his children inside. The children are having so much fun playing a game that they don’t realize that the house is going to burn down.
So, the father yells, “Come out!”
And…the kids ignore him. A familiar experience to those of us that are parents.
The father thinks for a minute and comes up with an idea.
He yells, “Kids, I have three carts full of toys out here, come outside and play with them.”
The kids run outside immediately and ask, “Where are the three carts?”
Instead, the man gives them one big cart drawn by a white ox. It’s fancy but it doesn’t have toys on it.
There are two things going on in this story.
One is of course, he lied to save their lives. And because he lied they lived, although they were probably disappointed and perhaps angry at their father.
In Buddhism, honesty is valued very highly. It’s one of the five precepts. But, this goes to show that life happens and there are situations.
This can be a dangerous teaching, because one could then think of all sorts of excuses to break precepts. But another important part of Buddhism is using common sense. If you use this teaching to get around the precepts, you know exactly what you’re doing and you aren’t helping anyone.
This is an important teaching because it sets Buddhism apart. The Buddha says these rules are a good idea, but he also says use your common sense.
And there is also a deeper meaning. The man can be a metaphor for the Buddha and the children for all people. The burning house represents the world of samsara; we are burning in endless suffering. The carts full of toys represent our attachment to worldly pleasures which are ultimately illusory and don’t bring lasting happiness.
The white ox cart represents the teachings of the Buddha. The real way to take us out of suffering isn’t worldly pleasure, it’s the Dharma.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Editor: Travis May
Photo: elephant archives