The Lotus Sutra is the most treasured text of East Asian Buddhism – in China, Japan and Korea it is central. It is an ur-text, regarded much as the bible is here, the literary roots of so much writing that would follow. One can trace themes, tropes, echoes back to this text. The Zen tradition in Japan admires the LS without making it central, but Zen’s koan practice and poetry are a way of carrying on its legacy.
It’s a frankly psychedelic text. There are millions of Buddhas, and it takes place across a stretch of time that runs millions of years back into the past, and forward into the future.
The lotus flower depends upon a stinking muddy pond. You might call this pond Manhattan or Toronto. The lotus needs this saha world, it is by being present to this world that gives the lotus its beauty.
But the question of this book is really: how is it helpful to you? Tonight I’d like to look at chapter three which offers the parable of the burning house. In the first couple of chapters there’s been a great gathering of folks who are waiting to hear the Buddha teach The Lotus Sutra. Shakyamuni Buddha is sitting in meditation, and from a tuft of hair in between his eyebrows a light is emitted that lights up all of the visible and invisible worlds. Shariputra, a dedicated student is there, a bit of a straight man, the slightly too perfect student. He asks the Buddha, “Why won’t you teach the Lotus Sutra?” And the Buddha replies, “Because people won’t understand. They’ll be doubtful.” Shariputra asks him three times to teach it, and if you ask three times, then the answer is usually yes. So the Buddha agrees. As soon as he agrees 5,000 monks leave. I think of this when people leave the Village Zendo in Manhattan. Sometimes there is a hair’s breadth of doubt, and that is enough to make people leave, instead of using the doubt as a tool. Sure, you might eventually leave, but your doubt could lead you to interesting places.
The Lotus Sutra says that the Buddha is presenting a new teaching, a revision of all the old teachings, the classical canon. It says that nirvana is not just for a special few, that everyone will become a Buddha eventually (if we practice). If you’ve invested your life in sitting facing a wall then this may not come as good news to you. Shariputra asks the Buddha: how can we understand this change in the teaching? The Buddha uses the parable of the burning house to explain.
A wealthy man lives in a great mansion filled with many rooms. In this mansion are many children, as well as poisonous vipers, rats and dogs, feces on the floor. The house is filled with dangerous and difficult things. But the kids don’t notice because they are absorbed in their games. No sooner has the father left through the single narrow door when a neighbour tells him there’s smoke coming from the windows. The house is on fire! He thinks, I have to go back and save my children. He runs inside but the kids are ignoring the flames. They can’t see the flames, they don’t notice the animals and demons screaming, they’re too involved in their amusements. Father begs them to go outside but they ignore him. He thinks: if only I had a big blanket I could gather them up… but the door is too small. Maybe I could put them all on this bench and carry them? But still the door is too small. He remembers their fave toys: deer carts, goat carts, ox carts. He promises these to them. He tells them: If you go out the narrow door and run outside to safety, you can have your fave carts. They run outside, and then ask: where are the carts?
The father is wealthy, so he decides to give each one a white ox cart. It’s a giant cart filled with musicians and wonders. The Buddha says: this is how I am now offering all of the arhats (people who have practiced all these years). I’m offering a much greater teaching, the ox cart of teaching, the mahayana (literally “greater vehicle”) of the Lotus Sutra.
Then the Buddha asks: was the father lying when he told his kids that their fave carts were waiting outside? Shariputra says no, it’s not a lie, because their lives were saved by leaving the burning house.
Even in the world of the dharma I can get caught up with play things and I forget that I’m living in a burning house. It looks like we’re living in a comfortable place, but half the world is starving. We might not notice because we’re so caught up with our games, with our wireless devices, for instance. It can be hard to see the suffering that is all around us. You can see this so clearly when working with addiction. There’s so little joy, no spiritual life, no generosity, no awareness of the interconnection of all life.
We all have to carry ourselves through the door. No one can do it for you. We all have to carry ourselves through the spiritual door. It’s narrow and hard to get through. Some of us have to go through many times, to develop via meditation practice a quality of endurance. To make practice a central piece in our life. Getting through the narrow door is not easy.
The question of betrayal interests me. Have the children betrayed the burning house by leaving it? Sometimes we have to betray a way of life in order to take on a new one. It’s not easy. In our cultural betrayal is usually characterized as abandoning, deserting. But in an essay for the London Review of Books called Judas’s Gift, Adam Phillips insists that “Betrayal is an uncanny form of intimacy… Betrayal is one of the forms revelation takes.” We think of betrayal as a violation of trust but sometimes we have to betray the old with the new. Sometimes innovation appears as betrayal.
Adam Phillips: “In 1965-66 the erstwhile folk singer Bob Dylan released a great trilogy of albums, Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde, and set off on a world tour that would change popular music. At a now famous concert at the Manchester Free Trade Hall, Dylan was playing his new electric and electrifying music when a disaffected folkie in the audience shouted ‘Judas.’ Dylan responded by instructing his band to ‘play fucking loud’ what turned out to be an extraordinary performance of ‘Like a Rolling Stone,’ a song about someone disillusioned by who they had become, a song about someone having to change. People had been wanting Dylan to be one thing when he turned out to be another, and they felt betrayed. By doing something new and unexpected, Dylan was Judas.”
Some theologians who have looked carefully at the story of Judas suggest that he was working with Jesus to help him do what he had to do. To produce the great innovation of Christianity, to help Jesus accomplish his task.
In my life, amongst the people I work with, we constantly betray our own certainties about how to do things. We try to let old ideas go, and abandon them, so that we can see reality as it is. Dharma is just being with reality as it truly is.
What is a burning house for you? We all have a burning house. A place of hellish surroundings which we call our amusements. Our places of addiction and distraction. The betrayal of the burning house is letting go of what keeps us from realizing our true nature, our responsibility to the world, our direct meeting of reality.
But first you have to recognize that you’re in a burning house. That what you’re clinging to is only your addictions, so that you can betray that burning house and let go. For some of you this might mean re-orienting your profession. Right profession is one of the eight folds of the eightfold path. A shift from wholesome to unwholesome work changes our whole being. How does your work serve? All the people I know who have made this difficult shift are so joyful. They work with joy, they are driven by joy. There have fewer toys, they’re anchored in life, they’re riding the big white ox cart.
Or the shift might need to occur in your relationships. We can go on for years without meeting the other person – whether it’s your partner or family or friends. Perhaps you’re not willing to go through the narrow door to arrive at a vibrant relationship with someone difficult or someone you love. Are you willing to betray the old roles and leave them behind?
We have this curious idea of spare time. If you are the time of your life, what is spare time? How can we spend our life in practice and service – not lost in trivialities or further addictions and unhealthy attractions – but instead experiencing the true joyful unfolding of this moment? For me, there’s nothing greater than service. Service as a way of giving your life. There’s so much to see, so much to experience, and you can only experience it when you’re engaged, when you’re involved in serving others in the ways that you are uniquely suited to do. You will work with joy when you enter the world of service.
I read about Zen for years, sipping a glass of wine, having a smoke, curled up with some old bit of understanding. I thought it was cool. But I didn’t understand anything until I got my butt on a cushion. I was in a burning house. Until you recognize that there’s something on the other side of the door that you really want, you won’t go through it. What’s on the other side? A life that has meaning. If you’re freezing or hot, tired and frustrated – all of that pales if you’re living a life that has meaning. Even when you’re suffering you’re dancing for joy. How to move towards something, instead of abandoning disastrous situations, forced to leave?
This sutra is about a lotus flower – how can we make it bloom for ourselves? Will you take the risk? Will you blossom into your true nature and experience the world just as it is? Will you betray your burning house?
A couple of poems, written centuries apart:
Although we heard there were three carts at the gate
It turned out to be something beyond our imagination
I know this is a splendid cart
I never thought of riding it.
What to do if you are in a room full of smoke? You can sense a door whose narrowness is a symbol that reminds us that only you can enter it. In moments of fear or depression there is an opportunity to take a breath, to trust. What does it mean that we’re all Buddhas? That we have the ability within ourselves to find the door. It comes from our own inner strength. Could the practice be simply the act of going through the door, again and again?
There was a prince of a wonderful little country in eastern Europe. One morning he took off all his clothes and got under the table and announced he was a rooster and started eating off the floor. The king was concerned that his son would never be wise enough to succeed him and rule the kingdom. A rabbi came by and assured the king that his son could be cured. Whereupon he took off his clothes, got down on the floor and started eating. After a few days the rabbi exclaimed over the cold and that it was necessary to wear pants. The prince protested but was eventually convinced. It WAS cold. A few days later ditto with the shirt. Then the rabbi said he was tired of eating off the floor, he preferred the table. The prince followed him there. Eventually he became a great prince.
The point of the parable is that the solution comes when the prince is joined, not when he is lectured or shouted at. We use these stories in ways that can help us. The forms of practice are useful, I uphold certain ritualistic forms at the Zendo, they are a way to hold us as a group that practices together, an expedient means. But even the most precious of these forms – meditation – is nothing. It just gets us out from under the table. The view that form is emptiness saves us from being fundamentalists. We hold form, but we hold it lightly.