The Burning House

burning globe


This week Goroshi continued his discussion on Dogen’s Shobogenzo which served as a commentary on the Lotus Sutra.  Last week Roshi talked about “Hokke Ten Hokke” which essentially reminds us about the infinite interplay between our lives and the Dharma.  


This week we continued this theme by examining Dogen’s interpretation of a classic parable from the Lotus Sutra – namely the story of the father and the burning house.  To reiterate, in this story, a father returns to his house to find it on fire with the children inside.  The kids are busy playing with toys and ignore the father calling for them to come outside.  The only way he can get them to come out is to “bribe” them by telling him he has brought really interesting animals like bulls, goats, and deer.  This piques the children’s interest and they come running out of the house only to find a single white ox.   This story is pretty easy to figure out on the surface.  The children playing with toys represent our deluded selves.  The father calling for his children to escape the “fire” of suffering represent all of our great teachers.  However, if the teacher simply states the case of suffering and how to eliminate it, we will probably ignore it as we are so deluded and conditioned to the relative everyday life.  So, the teacher uses whatever skillful means available to coax us out of the burning house of our delusions.  However, when we finally transcend our delusion, there is only really one Dharma represented by the white ox.


In some of the commentaries prior to Dogen this parable was used to show the progression of how one becomes enlightened.  We start in the state of being trapped by desires, delusions, and conditioning.  We progress out of this state by first opening up both our heart and mind to the truth of the Dharma.  This means not to study the Dharma but to manifest it in our every waking moment.  The second step is to quiet the mind by doing Zazen meditation.  In other words, once we believe in the Dharma we need to clear out the mental conditioning and noise so that the reality of the Dharma can fill our consciousness.  If we do this long enough, we break through our conditioning and have a “Kensho” moment.  This is nothing more than simply realizing what we knew all along.  However, again, it is a deep knowing, not an academic or “book” knowing.  Lastly, once we have true realization it is our obligation to share this with all sentient beings.  In other words, can you make your life as an example of deep realization and enlightenment.


Tesshin Roshi noted that by Dogen’s time there was already a deep and rich literature on all of the Lotus Sutra including the parable we just discussed.  However, Dogen “blows up” all of this commentary.  He notes that language is the real trap here.  What does it really mean that the children are in the house and the father is outside?  Who is deluded and who is enlightened?  This is all simply dualistic language.  The house, fire, animals, children, and father are, in the ultimate sense, part of the single suchness of “the now” and are thus perfect.  There are really no “steps” which we must do to become perfect.  Dogen is reminding us that we are already perfect.  Stop all this talk and simply realize the fact for what it is!


Roshi stopped here and asked us to consider what Dogen is getting at.  Think back to “Hokke Ten Hokke!”  We turn the wheel of karma and karma turns us!   We live our life and our life lives us.  Round and round this goes.  Could it be any other way?  We need to truly understand that there is nowhere to go and nothing to do.  There is no beginning, middle, and end to our practice or our life – which are really the exact same thing.  Yes, there is work to do, but we need to drop the idea of progression.  This is why the Heart Sutra states “No path, no wisdom and no gain. No gain – thus Bodhisattvas live this Prajna Paramita.”  Every Zazen session is perfect just as it is.  Every day in our life is perfect in and of itself.  Knowing this is our practice.  We need to escape the flames of the burning house of desire while at the same time realizing that the burning house is all there is.