The scene and action of Chapter 3, ‘Parable’, continues from the conclusion of the previous chapter. Shakyamuni Buddha has just presented the teaching on Skillful Means and made a general prediction that all would become Buddhas in the future. At the opening of this new chapter, Shariputra, the Buddha’s foremost disciple, expresses his great joy at this news, recounting how he had previously grieved over his belief that he was to be denied the complete teachings that he saw being offered to the bodhisattvas—the followers of the Buddha Vehicle as described in the last chapter, whose culmination was complete Buddhahood. As a shravaka, a follower of the first vehicle, Shariputra believed the culmination of his own spiritual journey was limited to nirvana, which Shakyamuni has just said was incomplete. But now Shakyamuni reveals that he has led and inspired Shariputra, and by extension all the shravakas, for countless eons in previous lives using the method of skillful means to enable him to rid himself of desire and suffering. In fact, Shakyamuni reminds Shariputra that in the past he had already predicted Buddhahood for him, but that he had simply ‘forgotten it.’ When Shakyamuni says that he teaches only bodhisattvas and not shravakas, it is not because shravakas are to be denied because of their shravaka-status, but that the shravakas are bodhisattvas-in-fact who are merely unaware of their bodhisattva-status. Even as shravakas they have taught the Dharma and led others, so by definition they are bodhisattvas—one who practices not simply for one’s own well-being, but also for the well-being of others.
We need to step back for a moment and place the Lotus Sutra in its historical context to help to understand what is happening here. Without going into a complicated history of the development of the various Buddhist schools, which would be (and has been) the subject of volumes of work, let us say in a very simplified way, that the early versions of the teachings are focused upon the nature of the human condition, of sorrow and suffering and how one may liberate oneself from this sorrow and suffering and attain nirvana. By followers of these teachings it was considered that the only way to achieve liberation was by leaving everyday life of work and family to become a homeless monk. Laypeople and women, whether monastic or not, were not considered as candidates for liberation. The practice of these people was one of acquiring merit through living a good life by obeying the ethical precepts and by supporting the monastic community. By so doing, they would achieve a better rebirth in a future life, i.e. become a man who would then have the opportunity of becoming a monastic. Eventually there were eighteen different schools of Buddhism with varying interpretations of the teachings and practices, only one of which, Theravada, remains today, primarily in the countries of southern Asia.
Over the course of several hundred years after the death of Shakyamuni, there arose out of these earlier teachings, more expansive understandings that led to further developments in doctrine and practice, but most importantly, the understanding that awakening and liberation is not limited by one’s worldly status in any way. Anyone, whether man or woman, layperson or ordained monk, learned or illiterate, rich or poor, of any ethnic background with no qualification whatsoever all equally shared this opportunity.
Like all divisions between various groups of people who hold different understandings, labels and discord arises over who is ‘right’ and Buddhism has certainly not escaped this very human tendency. The followers of these later interpretations styled themselves ‘Mahayana’ meaning ‘great vehicle’ because their way left no one out of liberation from sorrow and suffering. And they styled the earlier teachings as ‘Hinayana’ meaning ‘lesser (or small) vehicle’ because in the view of the Mahayanists these people were only concerned in their own liberation and the early teachings were considered, by the followers of the Mahayana, as incomplete. They did not reject the early teachings, indeed they are incorporated fully into the Mahayana, but they were expanded upon and ideas that were implicit in them are more fully fleshed out. Of course, the followers of the early teachings considered the Mahayanists as heretics. This is a gross oversimplification, but this controversy appears frequently in Mahayana sutras such as the Lotus, and in later writings as well, where the followers of the Mahayana extolled their own views as ‘complete’ and belittled those of the followers of the early teachings.
There are two lessons here we can take advantage of. First, Buddhism is not a fundamentalist religion. Although the story holds that these are the discourses of Shakyamuni Buddha, it is quite obvious that they are not ‘historically true’ documents (which is so of all the world’s religious scriptures of all faiths). This is given away by the opening scene of the first chapter when the assembly on Vulture Peak is described as including incomprehensible numbers of all sorts of beings human and non-human in attendance. The sutra is written in the mythical poetic language of early India, which is not to say that it is therefore ‘untrue’. Twenty-first century man often disparages something as ‘only a myth’ which has become synonymous in our mind with ‘fiction’. Yet, the language of mythic poetry presents truths that are not fully comprehensible through ordinary thought. Part of practice is to tease out these truths and to come to some understanding, and more importantly, experience of them, a process that will lead to different insights by different people according to their history, culture and personal interests and capacities—which is, of course, what the teaching on ‘skillful means’ is all about. These later sutra arose in just this way: as people profoundly engaged the teachings they came to put down in writing their understandings.
The second lesson is that even though they are couched as the words of Shakyamuni the prejudices of those who put them down crept in. So even those of great spiritual insight and enlightenment were, and continue to be, capable of unenlightened thoughts, attitudes and actions. Since the Dharma transcends any of these words the truth is originally unsullied, and unskillful words can be acknowledged as unskillful without disparaging Shakyamuni, the Dharma or earlier commentators. It also means that we, too, need to remember that we are swimming in the ocean of our own place and time, its culture with all its beliefs and prejudices and can never really be free of them, just as a fish cannot be free from the water that surrounds it. We, too, hold incomplete or mistaken understandings of the nature of things and ourselves, so it is best to be mindful of that and to maintain some humility in regards to our own views and opinions. As a final thought, it should be remembered that words that appear such as ‘Hinayana’ and ‘lesser vehicle’ were created as pejorative terms based upon an oversimplification of their teachings, an oversimplification that served the purpose of the followers of the Mahayana at this time, to draw a line between their own beliefs and the beliefs of those who preceded them. As followers of the Mahayana ourselves, we no longer use these terms in our speech and writings or disparage them in any way, referring to these schools as ‘early Buddhism’ or ‘Theravada’, the last remaining school of that strand.
Now back to the sutra once again. Shakyamuni specifically predicts that Shariputra will be a fully enlightened Buddha in the distant future and goes on to tell what his name will be and to describe his land and its attributes. After this, Shariputra understanding that some in the assembly remain confused, asks Shakyamuni to further explain ‘skillful means’ so Shakyamuni goes on to relate the parable of the burning house from which the title of this chapter takes its name.
Briefly the story is that of a wealthy merchant who lives in a vast but decrepit house in which reside perhaps 500 people including as many as thirty of his own children. The decaying house, with only one door, is also filled with all sorts of horrors, filth, vermin, dangerous animals and demons, yet the inhabitants are unaware of these awful conditions and the children go on playing their games with no recognition of the seriousness of their plight. One day the merchant is outside and sees that the house has caught fire and the flames are rapidly spreading. Seeing the danger, he calls to his children to run out, but they are engaged in their games, indeed see the fire as yet another game, and continue to be unconcerned that they may be in danger, so ignore their father’s warnings. The father first thinks that since he has great strength he can gather them all up and carry them out, but he fears that some may be left behind or unable to fit through the one narrow door while in his arms, so he devises the ‘skillful means’ of enticing his children from the burning house by relying upon their own desires for games and toys. He calls into them,
The toys of which you are fond are rare and hard to obtain. If you do not take them you will certainly regret it later, Right now, outside the entrance, there are three kinds of carts. One is yoked with a sheep, one with a deer and one with an ox. Go play with them. Children! Run out of this burning house immediately and I will give you whatever you want!
Children being children, they were delighted to hear that their father was offering them these rare and magnificent toys and all made a mad dash to the door and safety. When all were outside, he presented them not with three different sorts of carts as he had promised, but gave each an identical magnificent jeweled cart hung with bells and luxurious fabrics drawn by a great white ox, more lavish than any of the children ever expected. They, of course, were thrilled and enjoyed playing in their great carts and driving them around the courtyard.
The symbolism here is pretty transparent. The wealthy merchant is of course the Buddha, the burning house with all its attendant dangers is the world of our everyday life, the children playing in the fire in danger of being burnt due to their attachment to their games are all ourselves, and the three different carts represents the three vehicles as taught in the last chapter. The house has one small door, not because there is ‘one way’ out (indeed ‘skillful means’ demonstrates there are infinite ways), but because each must leave through their own effort. That each child received an identical supremely magnificent ox cart tells that the three vehicles are in fact all a single vehicle and that all the children will attain the same great reward no matter what their aspirations had been. Shakyamuni goes on to draw out further the symbols of the burning house and the ease and pleasure to be experienced by those who escape saying,
Do not take pleasure in living in this burning house of the triple world. And do not thirst after inferior objects, sounds, smells, flavors and tangibles. If you are attached to these objects and have desires, then you will be burnt. Leave the triple world in haste, and you will obtain the three vehicles—the vehicles for the shravakas, pratyekabuddhas and Buddhas.
Shakyamuni goes on to relate the nature and causes of suffering and sorrow, drawing directly from the ‘Four Noble Truths’ which appears in the early teachings as his very first discourse after his own awakening.
Because people have little knowledge
And are deeply attached to pleasures,
I teach them the truth of suffering.
And those sentient beings rejoice,
Such an unprecedented experience.
The truth of suffering taught by the Buddha
Is nothing but the truth.
To those who do not know the origin of suffering,
Who are deeply attached to its causes
And unable to abandon them even for a while
I teach the truth about the path to its cessation
Using skillful means.
All the causes of suffering
Originate from excessive craving.
When this craving is extinguished,
The source is removed.
The cessation of suffering
Is called the third truth.
One practices the path leading to its cessation
In order to attain the truth of cessation.
This though is not the complete path, but only the entry as will be more fully explained in later chapters.
Shakyamuni then goes on to give a long warning to Shariputra that he should only teach this sutra to those who are prepared to accept it and have faith in it. Should it be presented to those who do not have faith and will disparage the sutra, its teachings and its followers, their hateful words and actions will bring upon them many lifetimes of troubles such as
They will be reborn as animals.
If born as dogs or vermin,
Their bodies will be emaciated, dark-spotted,
Devoid of hair, with scabies and leprosy….
If they are born as camels or mules,
They will always have heavy burdens to carry.
They will be whipped repeatedly
And think of nothing else but water and grass…
They will be reborn as giant snakes
With great bodies as long as five hundred yojanas [one yojana is a bit over a mile]
deaf, dumb, legless, slithering on their bellies
Eaten at by small insects…
and so on. Once again, it is important to keep in mind, as said earlier, that Buddhism is not a fundamentalist religion and the sutra are not to be taken as literally true, but spiritually true. What this passage means in that context is only that to turn away from the opportunity to study and practice the Dharma (in a Buddhist guise or any other) is to lose the opportunity to free oneself from sorrow and suffering but to instead continue to create more and more of the same.
Shakyamuni closes by extolling the qualities of those sorts of people who will readily accept and benefit from the teachings in the sutra and these present a catalog of the virtues that are both a manifestation of the Buddhist ideal and those same virtues that are cultivated by one endeavoring to follow the Buddhist path:
Teach it to those who strive,
Always practice compassion
And give unsparingly of their bodies and lives.
You should teach it to those who are respectful
And devoid of hypocrisy…
You should teach it
To those who are free of anger,
Honest, flexible, always sympathetic to everyone
And who honor all the Buddhas…