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Transcending the Human Predicament

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by Sangharakshita

... were fractured, and some of the walls were crumbling. It was a real old ruin, a sort of, if you like, stately home that hadn't been kept up very well by the present owner. And that's where he lived with his dependants. And the Buddha further said that in odd holes and corners of this old, crumbling, decayed mansion there lurked all sorts of ghosts and evil spirits. So this was the scene, this was the situation.

And the Buddha further said that one day it so happened that suddenly the whole building caught fire.

And because it was so old and the timbers were so dry in an instant it was all ablaze, all burning merrily, all on fire. Now the elder apparently was safe outside, he wasn't inside the building, but his children were. He had apparently - no wives or mothers are mentioned - but he had apparently a very large number of children indeed, the sutra says up to thirty. And they were all inside, and they were all quite small, quite young. So the children playing there in the midst that burning mansion were all in danger of being burned to death. But the children were not aware of this, they didn't realize this. They hadn't had that sort of experience before, apparently, they didn't realize that they were in great danger and might die, so they made no effort to escape at all. They just carried on playing.

So the elder was very very worried, and he wondered what he should do. And at first he reflected that he was strong and able and he might be able to catch the children in his arms and carry them out of the burning mansion by main force. But reflecting a bit more he sees that this isn't really very practicable.

So he eventually decides to call out to the children, to call out to them loudly and warn them of their great danger. So he does this, he calls out to the children that the mansion is on fire, you'll be burned, you'll die; come out quickly. But the children take no notice of him whatever; they're all absorbed in their games, their playing, and they don't take any notice at all of their father. They don't even know what he's talking about, what he means by the mansion being 'on fire' and their lives being in danger.

They just keep on running to and fro engaged in their various games; and they just glance at their father as they run past, they don't take any serious notice of him at all.

So the father sees that there is no time to be lost, otherwise the children will all be burned, they'll perish in the fire. The house is about to crash at any moment. So he decides in desperation to have recourse to an expedient. He knows the natures of these children; he knows what they dislike, what they like, what they're fond of, what they're attracted by. And he knows that especially they're all very very fond of different kinds of toys, and he knows that different children like toys of different kinds. So again he calls out, and he calls out this time saying that he's brought for them the best and most beautiful toys that they'd ever seen. Not ordinary toys - he's brought for them carts to play with, carriages to play with, some drawn by deer, some drawn by goats, some drawn by bullocks; and they're all standing just outside the gate. So he calls out to the children: Come quickly. The toys are all there at the gate, just come out and get them.

So when the children hear these words, they're overjoyed, they're delighted, they're very eager to get the toys, very eager to get the carts, to ride in them, to play with them. So they all come rushing and tumbling helterskelter out of the burning house. And they're all so eager to get out that they're pushing and shoving one another in their eagerness. So in this way the whole thirty of them, the whole tribe, they come out, and the elder sees that they're all outside the burning house. The sutra doesn't say so, but he probably counted them, he probably knew exactly how many he had. So having ascertained that they're all there, all out in the open, he sits down with a great sigh of relief; and he's very pleased, and very happy, that all the children are safe, they've all been rescued. So as he does that the children come clamouring round him, and they start demanding their toys, their carts of various kinds. So what does the elder do? He gives each of them a magnificent cart, a magnificent carriage drawn by bullocks. He doesn't give them different carriages, carriages of different kinds, he gives them, each one, the same kind of carriage, but bigger and better and more magnificent than they could possibly have imagined in all their wildest dreams. And the sutra asks, or the Buddha asks, why does he do this? He does it because his wealth is very great, tremendous, infinite, and because he wants to give his children, of whom he's very fond, the very best that he has. So he hasn't acted deceitfully in promising them one thing and giving them something else, because it was all motivated by his desire for the welfare, the happiness, the safety and the security of the children. So this is the parable, the Parable of the Burning House.

Now in a sense the parable carries its meaning on its surface. It means just what it says, and it therefore makes, to a great extent, its own impact, and therefore, again, no explanation is required, one just has to let it all sink in. But I'd like to underline just a few points, just a few incidents in the whole parable, and then proceed to a few general considerations.

Now the first thing that people usually want to know, of course, is: who is the elder? Well, the elder is the Buddha, the Enlightened One. And the mansion in which he lived with his servants and dependants, this mansion is the world, not just this world, this earth, but the whole universe, the whole of conditioned existence itself, the whole of mundane existence if you like, all worlds. And the mansion, that is to say this world, this universe, is inhabited by all kinds of living beings, not just human beings, but living beings of all kinds, some less developed than man, some, according to Buddhism, even more developed than man.

Now the mansion is old, and it is decayed, so what does this mean? It means that this world, this universe, is subject to all sorts of imperfections, it isn't perfect by any means. To begin with, it's impermanent, it's changing all the time, it's mutable, it's unreliable, you can't remain in it for long, you can't have any security in it. You're just a traveller. It's more like a hotel than a home. And then again the sutra mentions ghosts in the corners, and what does this mean? This means, we could say, that this world of ours, especially this world in which we live, is haunted. Haunted by what? Haunted by the past. We like to think we live in the present, but more often than not we live in the past, and the ghosts of the past are all around us. And these ghosts are our own projections from our own unconscious minds. We don't usually know that they're projections, we think that they're there, out there, that these projections are objectively existing beings, situations. But actually they all come from our own mind, all ghosts of the past that we're carrying along with us all the time, and by which only too often we are surrounded. So these are the ghosts lurking in the corners of this mansion of the world.

And then of course the mansion catches fire. It catches fire in the parable at a certain time, but in reality the mansion of the world is on fire all the time. All the time it's burning, all the time it's blazing. Now fire is a well-known symbol in Buddhism, in fact it's a symbol in Indian religion generally. Some of you may remember that not long after his Enlightenment the Buddha gave what is called the Fire Sermon, a sermon on fire. It is said that he led all his disciples to the top of a hill one night, and he addressed them, saying: The whole world is on fire. The whole world is ablaze. The whole world is burning. And with what is it ablaze, with what is it on fire, with what is it burning? And he said it's burning with the fire of craving, of neurotic desire; burning with the fire of anger, hatred, and aggression; burning with the fire of ignorance, delusion, bewilderment, confusion, unawareness. And this just wasn't an idea or a concept in the Buddha's mind. He surely saw it, as though in a vision, just like this. And it may well be that when he went to the top of this hill with his disciples, it may well be that before he spoke he had been looking out, looking down, maybe into the jungles, and it may well be that he saw there, as you can sometimes see nowadays, a forest fire burning and blazing in the distance. And then he may have seen, in his spiritual vision as it were, not just the forest burning, but the houses burning, the people burning, the mountains burning, the earth burning, the sun, the moon, the stars, everything burning, everything conditioned burning with these threefold fires of craving, of anger, and delusion.

Fire, we know, is not just even in Buddhism a negative, but also a positive symbol. Fire is associated with change; in fact fire is itself change, it's a process of combustion. And it's not just a process of change, not just a symbol of change; it's a process also of transformation, and fire is therefore in Indian thought, Indian religion, Indian spiritual life, Indian art, a symbol not just of destruction but also of renewal, of rebirth, spiritual rebirth.

Going back to Vedic times, times even before the Buddha, we know that fire was used in sacrifice. The ancient Indians, the ancient Hindus, offered sacrifice. They laid an offering, an oblation, on a specially constructed altar, an altar built of turfs or built of bricks, and that was burned, it was consumed by fire.

And being consumed by fire, what happened to that offering, to that oblation? - it was transformed into smoke, and as smoke it ascended into the heavens, into ...

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