Monday, August 04, 2014

an old parable and its modern implication

A famous parable from the Lotus Sutra: the parable of the burning house. It says in part:

This old and decayed house belonged to one man. The man had gone a short distance from the house when, before he had been gone very long, in the rear rooms suddenly a fire broke out, from all four sides at once, raging in flame. The ridgepoles and beams, the rafters and pillars, shaking and cracking broke asunder and fell, while the walls and partitions collapsed. The ghosts and demons raised their voices in a scream. The malignant beasts and poisonous insects milled about in a panic, unable to get out. Stinking smoke, with its foul odor, filled the place on all four sides. In this way that house was extremely frightening, with calamities, conflagrations, and many other troubles occurring all at once.

At that time the householder, standing outside the door, heard someone say, "Your children a while ago, in play, entered this house. Being little and knowing nothing, they are enjoying themselves and clinging to their amusements."

Having heard this, the great man entered the burning house in alarm, to save them from the catastrophe of burning. He coaxed his children, explaining the many calamities: the demons, insects, snakes, foxes and dogs. "This is a woeful and troublesome place; how much the more so with a great fire!"

The children, knowing nothing, though they heard their father's admonitions, were still addicted as before to their pleasures and amused themselves ceaselessly.

That's not the end of the parable, of course. Many take the full story to be an illustration of upaya, or skillful/expedient means. Basically, to achieve salvation from this worldly condition, you do whatever works. The parable says the father saved his children essentially by lying to them, tempting them out of the burning house by promising them fancy little carts to ferry them about. The children are saved, and they demand of their father that he provide the promised carts. The father, being rich, builds a single huge, ornate carriage instead of the little carriages he had said he would have built, and the children are once again distracted from their original desires: they love their gift.

I can't say that I find the children in this parable to be savory characters. The point is that they're distracted—perhaps even distracted by their own attachments and desires—but if that's the case, then their rescue from the burning building taught them nothing, since they immediately clamored for more material gifts after escaping the fire. Selfish, ignorant little shits. I expect that a charitable interpretation of the parable would focus, rather, on the father, who lied in order to save his kids. The father broke a key Buddhist precept in favor of a higher principle: the saving of the lives of fellow sentient beings.

That said, I think the kids are a great example of young people in today's smartphone culture: addicts who stare into the abyss of their phones, constantly being fed infotainment, unable to look away or to participate in the reality in front of their noses. When the world actually does burn, will they look up from their phones to notice their predicament?

(Inspired by this post.)

ADDENDUM: One could ask why one should participate in reality if reality might one day burn. After all, it could be that the ersatz version is better.



King Baeksu said...

"When the world actually does burn, will they look up from their phones to notice their predicament?"

Why would they? They can just watch it burn on their screens.

Maven said...

I can totally envision videos of the world burning going viral on social networking sites. Totally.