Chapter 3 includes perhaps the most famous of all Buddhist Parables, The Burning House:
Then the Buddha said to Śāriputra: “Did I not previously tell you that all the Buddha Bhagavats explain the Dharma with various explanations and illustrations using skillful means, all for the sake of highest, complete enlightenment!? All of these teachings are for leading and inspiring the bodhisattvas.
“Moreover, Śāriputra, I will now clarify what I mean with illustrations. Those with wisdom will be able to understand through these illustrations.
“O Śāriputra! Suppose there were an aged and extremely affluent man, either in a town, city, or country, who has immeasurable wealth, abundant estates, mansions, and servants. He has a spacious house, yet it only has a single entrance. Suppose many people live there, as many as one, two, or even five hundred people. The buildings are in poor repair, the fences and walls are crumbling, the pillar bases are rotten, and the beams and framework are dangerously tilted.
“Suddenly and unexpectedly, fires break out everywhere, setting the house swiftly aflame. The children of this man, ten, twenty, or thirty in number are in the house.
“The affluent man, seeing the fire breaking out everywhere, becomes alarmed and terrified. He thinks:
I am capable of escaping through the burning entrance in safety, but my children are absorbed in play within the burning house and are not aware [of the fire], do not know, are not alarmed or terrified, and the fire is approaching them! They are not troubled about their suffering nor do they intend to leave the house.
“O Śāriputra, this affluent man thought:
Since I am still physically strong I could take the children out of the house in the folds of my garment or on top of a desk.
“He further thought:
There is only one entrance to this house and it is very narrow. The children, who are immature and still unaware, are attached to their place of play. They may fall into danger and be burned by the fire. I should now tell them of the danger; this house is already burning! They must escape as quickly as they can to avoid being burned by the fire!
“After considering this he urged the children according to his thought: Children! Run out immediately!
“Although their father in his concern has given them the proper advice, the children are immersed in their play and do not accept it; they are neither alarmed nor afraid and have no intention of leaving [the burning house]. Moreover, they do not even know what a fire is, the condition of the house, or what they may lose. They merely run about, back and forth, looking at their father.
“Thereupon the affluent man thought:
This house is already engulfed in flames. If my children and I do not get out, we shall perish in the fire. I will now use skillful means to help my children escape from this disaster.
“Since the father already knew that his children were attached to various rare toys and unusual things that each of them liked, he said to them: The toys you are fond of are rare and hard to obtain. If you do not take them you will certainly regret it later. Right now, outside the house, there are three kinds of carts. One is yoked to a sheep, one to a deer, and one to an ox. Go play with them. Children! Run out of this burning house immediately and I will give you whatever you want!
“The children, hearing what their father had said about the rare toys, became excited and, in their eagerness to get to them they pushed each other out of the way in a mad rush out of the burning house.
“Then the affluent man saw that his children had got out safely and were sitting unharmed in an open area at a crossroad. He was relieved, happy, and joyful. The children said to their father:
Father, please give us the toys you promised: those [three] carts, one yoked to a sheep, one to a deer, and one to an ox!
“O Śāriputra, the affluent man then gave each child the same kind of large cart. These carts were tall and spacious, adorned with various jewels, and encircled with railings full of hanging bells. On the tops of the carts were canopies also decorated with various kinds of jewels. These carts were draped with jeweled cords and hung with flower garlands. They were thickly piled with fabrics, and red pillows had been placed about. These carts were each yoked to an ox with a spotlessly white hide. These oxen had beautiful bodies with powerful muscles, even gaits, and were as swift as the wind; and there were many attendants guarding them. Why did the affluent man give these carts? Because the man had great and immeasurable wealth and his abundant storehouses were full. He thus thought further:
Since my treasure has no limit, I should not give my children inferior carts. These are my children and I love them all equally. I have an immeasurable number of large carts such as these, decorated with the seven treasures. I should equally distribute them to each child without discrimination. Why is this? Even if I gave carts like these to everyone in the country, their number would not be exhausted. Why should I not give them to my own children?
“At that time, the children each climbed into a great cart and had an unprecedented experience, one beyond their original expectations.”
The meaning behind the parable is as follows:
Fire: the triple world is like a decaying old house on fire, the fire being elements of birth, old age, illness, death, anxiety, sorrow, suffering, disease, delusion, blindness; and the three poisons of greed, hatred and ignorance.
Sentient beings: because of their attachment to all the characteristics of samsara, they still “play-about” completely oblivious to their predicament; and of course, are in danger of being reincarnated and suffering more of the same, perhaps under even worse circumstances like being reincarnated as the vilest of insects and all manner of creepy-crawly things. Reeves’ translates these verses like the following:
Five hundred people
Were staying in that house,
With kites, owls, hawks, and eagles,
Crows, magpies, pigeons, doves, Lizards, snakes, vipers, scorpions, centipedes and millipedes,
Newts and ground beetles, weasels, ferrets, rats, and mice.
All sorts of evil creatures
Scurried about everywhere.
There were places stinking with excrement,
Overflowing with filth,
Where dung beetles and worms
Unfortunately, it is the nature of those entrenched in their defiled body-consciousness to continue reveling in their vile existence, like poisonous insects just scurrying into their holes to avoid the encircling heat of samsara.
The Three Carriages: the three vehicles of shravaka, pratyekabuddha, and bodhisattva.
The Great Carriage: the best of all prizes afforded children of the Buddhadharma: “the” One Vehicle one’s own very vivifying Buddha-nature.
We next need to revisit an earlier question from n.yeti, as to whether or not the Lotus Sutra is a “final-teaching?” This chapter makes an emphatic-appeal to readers and students of this sutra, once again from Reeves’ fine translation from the verses:
It is for the sake of all beings,
That by means of this parable
I teach the One Buddha–Vehicle.
If all of you Can accept and believe these words,
You will all be able to enter
The Buddha way.
This vehicle is wonderful,
Supremely pure. In all the worlds
There is nothing greater…
The Blessed One continues by saying that no-one should ever slander this Sutra; if they do they will suffer horrible consequences like long periods of purgation and endless torments in fiery hells. That’s why it’s best, he says, to not even allow those of lesser abilities to read or hear the words of this Sutra to begin with, because they don’t have the necessary faith to comprehend its teaching:
Shariputra, If I described all the sins
Of those who slander this sutra,
In a whole eon I would not be able to finish.
For this reason
I tell you especially,
Do not teach this sutra
To people who have no wisdom.
But if there are any who are clever,
Understanding and wise,
Learned and of good memory,
Who seek the Buddha way,
To such people You may teach it.
I believe the Buddha’s point is perfectly clear: for those who develop the Noble Wisdom to be able to discern the One Vehicle—their own Buddha-nature—such ones ought to take heed; because once IT is recognized AS SUCH, there is no turning-back. This is final. If one shuns IT, then one will suffer the consequences. For those who don’t have the noble-abilities to begin with, then don’t even waste your time in trying to teach them. Of course, the full import of this greatest teaching in the Lotus Sutra is that all-of-this has been one Great Skillful Means in heightening people’s awareness of their own Buddha-nature.