Parable of the burning house
The parable of the burning house is presented in the Lotus Sutra and other sutras as a metaphor to illustrate how the three vehicles of the Sravakayana, Pratyekabuddhayana and Bodhisattvayana are in reality different skillful means within the one vehicle of the Mahayana.
As presented in the Lotus Sutra, the parable tells the story of a wealthy man with many children who are playing inside of his house. The house catches on fire, but the children are distracted by their games and they are unaware that the house is burning. In fact, they do not understand what fire is or even what a house is. Thus, in order to lure his children from the house, the wealthy man promises his children that he has three different types of carts waiting for them outside of the house for them to play in: a goat-cart, a deer-cart, and a bullock-cart. When the children rush out of the house to play with their new carts, the three different carts promised by their father are not there. Instead, their father presents them with a single jeweled carriage drawn by a pure white ox.
In this parable, the three carts that were promised were skillful means to lure the children out of the house.
- The goat-cart represents the Sravaka vehicle (Sravakayana)
- The deer-cart represents the Pratyekabuddha vehicle (Pratyekabuddhayana)
- The bullock-cart represents the Bodhisattva vehicle (Bodhisattvayana)
The jeweled carriage represents the one vehicle of the Mahayana.
Excerpt from the Lotus Sutra
"Shariputra, suppose that in a certain town in a certain country there was a very rich man. He was far along in years and his wealth was beyond measure. He had many fields, houses and menservants. His own house was big and rambling, but it had only one gate. A great many people—a hundred, two hundred, perhaps as many as five hundred—lived in the house. The halls and rooms were old and decaying, the walls crumbling, the pillars rotten at their base, and the beams and rafters crooked and aslant. At that time a fire suddenly broke out on all sides, spreading through the rooms of the house. The sons of the rich man, ten, twenty perhaps thirty, were inside the house. When the rich man saw the huge flames leaping up on every side, he was greatly alarmed and fearful and thought to himself, I can escape to safety through the flaming gate, but my sons are inside the burning house enjoying themselves and playing games, unaware, unknowing, without alarm or fear. The fire is closing in on them, suffering and pain threaten them, yet their minds have no sense of loathing or peril and they do not think of trying to escape!
"Shariputra, this rich man thought to himself, I have strength in my body and arms. I can wrap them in a robe or place them on a bench and carry them out of the house. And then again he thought, this house has only one gate, and moreover it is narrow and small. My sons are very young, they have no understanding, and they love their games, being so engrossed in them that they are likely to be burned in the fire. I must explain to them why I am fearful and alarmed. The house is already in flames and I must get them out quickly and not let them be burned up in the fire! Having thought in this way, he followed his plan and called to all his sons, saying, 'You must come out at once!" But though the father was moved by pity and gave good words of instruction, the sons were absorbed in their games and unwilling to heed them. They had no alarm, no fright, and in the end no mind to leave the house. Moreover, they did not understand what the fire was, what the house was, what the danger was. They merely raced about this way and that in play and looked at their father without heeding him.
"At that time the rich man had this thought: the house is already in flames from this huge fire. If I and my sons do not get out at once, we are certain to be burned. I must now invent some expedient means that will make it possible for the children to escape harm. The father understood his sons and knew what various toys and curious objects each child customarily liked and what would delight them. And so he said to them, 'The kind of playthings you like are rare and hard to find. If you do not take them when you can, you will surely regret it later. For example, things like these goat-carts, deer-carts and ox-carts. They are outside the gate now where you can play with them. So you must come out of this burning house at once. Then whatever ones you want, I will give them all to you!' "At that time, when the sons heard their father telling them about these rare playthings, because such things were just what they had wanted, each felt emboldened in heart and, pushing and shoving one another, they all came wildly dashing out of the burning house.
The father subsequently presents each of his sons with a large bejeweled carriage drawn by a pure white ox. When the Buddha asks Shariputra whether the father was guilty of falsehood, he answers.
"No, World-Honored One. This rich man simply made it possible for his sons to escape the peril of fire and preserve their lives. He did not commit a falsehood. Why do I say this? Because if they were able to preserve their lives, then they had already obtained a plaything of sorts. And how much more so when, through an expedient means, they are rescued from that burning house!"
The Buddha explains his similes of the father representing a compassionate Tathāgata who is like "a father to all the world", and the sons representing humans who are "born into the threefold world, a burning house, rotten, and old".
"Shariputra, that rich man first used three types of carriages to entice his sons, but later he gave them just the large carriage adorned with jewels, the safest, most comfortable kind of all. Despite this, that rich man was not guilty of falsehood. The Tathagata does the same, and he is without falsehood. First he preaches the three vehicles to attract and guide living beings, but later he employs just the Great Vehicle to save them. Why? The Tathagata possesses measureless wisdom, power, freedom from fear, the storehouse of the Dharma. He is capable of giving to all living beings the Dharma of the Great Vehicle. But not all of them are capable of receiving it. Shariputra, for this reason you should understand that the Buddhas employ the power of expedient means. And because they do so, they make distinctions in the one Buddha vehicle and preach it as three."
- Buswell & Lopez 2014, s.v. ekayana
- Watson, Burton, tr. (1993). The Lotus Sutra. Columbia University Press, New York. Translations from the Asian Classics. ISBN 0231081618, pp. 56-57.
- Watson, Burton, tr. (1993). The Lotus Sutra. Columbia University Press, New York. Translations from the Asian Classics. ISBN 0231081618, p. 58.
- Watson, Burton, tr. (1993). The Lotus Sutra. Columbia University Press, New York. Translations from the Asian Classics. ISBN 0231081618, p. 60.