The Burning House

There are many analogies to the phrase: “Samsara (the wandering-in-circles world, the world of life and death) is broken” from my previous blog. One that we are currently studying in the Lotus Sutra class at Clouds in Water Zen Center is the story of the Burning House from chapter 2 of that sutra. These stories in the Lotus Sutra are literary and teaching methods that encourage us to respond skillfully to each specific, unique situation. They are stories and yet they are also alive. They are alive with resonance in our psyches. The images stay alive as they vividly arise in our minds over and over within our practice and daily life. It’s very easy to remember a burning house, for example. These images are literary devices but, as the Lotus Sutra says, they are also the Buddha and the Dharma themselves. This alive quality is Buddha/Dharma.

Samsara is a burning house and, uninitiated into the Way, we play in the house, amuse and distract ourselves, without even noticing that it is burning. The Lotus Sutra describes this house in a lengthy 3-page verse with very vivid descriptions of decay. Let me use a few verses to give you a suggestion of the House of Samsara:

A lofty hall in dangerous conditions,
Pillar bases broken and rotten,
Beams and rooftree toppling and leaning,
Foundation and steps in a state of collapse,
Walls and partitions ruined and cracked,
Their plaster crumbling away……

Then the Sutra goes on to describe all the wild animals living there and:

All sorts of evil creatures,
Run about in every direction;
There are places stinking with excrement and urine,
Overflowing with uncleanliness……
In every direction there are
Goblins and ogres,
Yakshas and malign demons,
Who devour the flesh of men….
Evil birds and brutes
Hungrily hurry in all directions.
All of a sudden the whole house catches fire,
Its flames are in full blaze;
Rooftree, beams, rafters, pillars
With cracking sound burst open,
Break, split, and topple down.
All the animals, demons and others
Hurry about in alarm
Powerless to escape….
They are driven by the fire,
Cruelly hurting each other,
Supping and devouring each other’s flesh and blood.

There are three pages of this kind of description of the Burning house! Wow, it can’t be emphasized enough that the house of Samsara is, indeed, already broken and filled with suffering.

The master has left the house already, but his children are still inside. Getting the children to leave their distractions and games to come outside for the dharma teaching is very difficult. The children don’t want to leave, and the “father” has to try all sorts of skillful means to get the children to leave. He doesn’t want to carry them out or force them. He wants them to come out on their own power. In the end, he’ll use anything to get the children to come out, even bribery. He entices them out by three carts which are the three vehicles in the Dharma teaching. But in the end the Great Vehicle, the carriage pulled by a huge white oxen is the biggest prize. When the children finally leave behind their games and distractions, they find outside, a life that is unimaginably more “fun” and expansive than the games they were playing inside the burning house.

 The Buddha, is much like the father in the parable, attempting to save his children from the fires of birth, old age, disease, death, grief, sorrow, suffering and so on. We don’t understand enough to escape without instruction. We can’t even stop our obsession with our distractions, to realize that the house is actually burning. What the parable stresses is the urgency of the human condition, making it necessary for the Buddha to find some way to get people to leave their play and suffering behind in order to enter the Way.

This is not escaping the world but having a change of mind and heart in how you view the world. “Right View” in the Buddha’s teaching. We learn through the dharma teaching how to take care of our life even as we are not consumed by our life. As Joshu so succinctly said, “We use our 24 hours rather than being used by them.” By working and transmuting greed, anger and ignorance, we can play freely within the stories of our constructed lives.

Dogen emphasizes that practice is deporting oneself freely in this Buddha-world. Disporting is a translation of two characters that both mean to play or transform. To frolic, to be free. In Daigo,  another fascicle of the Shobogenzo, he writes that we should play freely with the mudballs of life. This is to realize great emancipation even while tended to the precise details of our daily life. This is when the dharma joy can really arise.