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Two parables of a burning house: Both are

relevant and useful to Sri Lankans today

Object 1

December 29, 2014

Bertolt Brecht going viral in social media
At a recent political discussion on a private TV channel, a leading Sri Lankan author,
Gamini Viyangoda, concluded his presentation with the Sinhala rendering of a poem
by playwright Bertolt Brecht (available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?
v=zxkDp5PIcIE ).

A cave mural from China depicting the parable of the burning house while
the Buddha preaches the Saddharma Pundarika Sutra

It instantly became viral on social media, presumably for three reasons:

First, it had a reference to the Buddha, who is respected by many as a
master with the ability to see beyond what ordinary folk could see with their
naked eyes.
Second, it had been rendered into beautiful Sinhala, reported to be by Carlo
Fonseka, a reputed philosopher cum scientist cum lyricist himself. Third, it
has meaning for and relevance to the current political context of the
country where people are still debating whether a change is necessary in its
political landscape which has entered a decisive moment. The poem had
very cogently urged people to make a choice as fast as possible as any
delay would result in their own peril just like the people inside the burning
house described by Brecht in his poem.
Brecht has creatively interpreted the Buddhas parable
Brecht had based his poem on a parable used by the Buddha in the
Saddharma Pundarika Sutra, popularly known as the Lotus Sutra, a leading

Mahayana text of Buddhism.

The original poem
by Brecht had borrowed its core from the Buddha but it was a poetic
creation by Brecht as it should be.
Brecht is reported to have penned this poem in 1938 while he was in exile
from Hitlers Germany to avoid persecution by the Nazi regime. The
objective of the Buddha in narrating his parable was to morally justify the
skilful ways which wise people like the Buddha should use to help not-sowise counterparts attain liberation by coaxing them to the path even with
devious methods.
Thus, the Buddha sought to deliver a spiritual message through his parable.
But, Brecht, an anti-Nazi activist who upheld the freedom of people and
freedom of thought and expression, sought to deliver a political message
through his poem. This was clear from the last part of the poem which was
not recited by Viyangoda in the political discussion under reference.
Perhaps, the learned Carlo Fonseka may have omitted that part when he
chose it for rendering into Sinhala in 1971 in the belief that it would be
viewed as seditious at a time when Sri Lankas youth had rebelled against
the established social, political and economic order of the country.
Brechts original poem
An English translation of Brechts original poem is as follows (available at:
http://johnshaplin.blogspot.com/2011/12/poems-by-bertolt-brecht.html ).

The Buddhas Parable of the Burning House

Gautama, the Buddha taught
The doctrine of greeds wheel to which we are bound, and advised
That we shed all craving and thus
Undesiring enter the nothingness that he called Nirvana.
Then one day his pupils asked him:
What is it like, this nothingness, Master? Every one of us would

Shed all craving, as you advise, but tell us

Whether this nothingness which then we shall enter
Is perhaps like being at one with all creation,
When you lie in water, your body weightless, at noon,
Unthinking almost, lazily lie in the water, or drowse
Hardly knowing now that you straighten the blanket,
Going down fast whether this nothingness, then,
Is a happy one of this kind, a pleasant nothingness, or
Whether this nothingness of yours is more nothing, cold, senseless and
Long the Buddha was silent, then said nonchalantly:
There is no answer to your question.
But in the evening, when they had gone,
The Buddha still sat under the bread-fruit tree and to the others,
To those who had not asked, addressed this parable:
Lately I saw a house. It was burning. The flame
Licked at its roof. I went up close and observed
That there were people still inside. I entered the doorway and called
Out to them that the roof was ablaze, so exhorting them
To leave at once. But those people
Seemed in no hurry. One of them,
While the heat was already scorching his eyebrows,
Asked me what it was like outside, whether there was
Another house for them, and more of this kind. Without answering
I went out again. These people here, I thought,
Must burn to death before they stop asking questions.
And truly friends,
Whoever does not yet feel such heat in the floor that hell gladly
Exchange it for any other, rather than stay, to that man
I have nothing to say. So Gautama the Buddha.
But we too, no longer concerned with the art of submission,
Rather with that of non-submission, and offering
Various proposals of an earthly nature, and beseeching men
To shake off their human tormentors, we too believe that to those
Who in face of the rising bomber squadrons of Capital go on asking too long
How we propose to do this, and how we envisage that,

And what will become of their savings and Sunday trousers after a
We have nothing much to say.

Brecht has delivered a political message

Brecht has presented his political message in the form of a dialogue
between the Buddha and his disciples who have no wish to enter the path
shown by him to attain Nirvana and thereby end up suffering.

The disciples are postponing the decision by asking unnecessary questions

about the nature of Nirvana which has to be grasped, as the Buddha had
taught in many discourses, not by five senses but by experience.
Thus, it is unlikely that the Buddhas disciples would have got acceptable
answers to these questions in verbal form since no language is capable of
defining or describing Nirvana. Whatever the answer given will, therefore,
be further debated and disputed resulting in an unending stream of
arguments but no action on their part to enter the path and attain Nirvana.
They are like people who are inside a burning house and have no wish to
leave it unless they are assured of a better life outside. But the fire in the
house is engulfing them and soon they will all perish in the fire. The rising
heat under their feet alone should be sufficient for them to make a quick
choice and leave the burning house instantly. But they would not do so
having been engaged in unnecessary arguments and questions.
Brecht, the disappointed playwright
In the creative work of Brecht, the Buddha chooses not to coax them any
further for it is a waste of his labour. This is in perfect harmony with what
Brecht wants to communicate. Angered by people who have engaged in an
endless debate as to what they should do instead of taking quick action to
defeat the tormentors who bomb them incessantly, Brecht comes forward
and pronounces that he too, like the Buddha, has nothing much to say.
This is an expression of utmost disappointment of a creative mind about a
people who have no wish or intention to uplift their kind, art and culture
against imminent destruction by an authoritarian regime.
Buddhas parable is different from Brechts creative work
The Buddhas parable of a burning house in the Saddharma Pundarika Sutra
is different from Brechts creative interpretation. In Chapter 3 of this Sutra
(available at: http://www.sacred-texts.com/bud/lotus/index.htm ), the
Buddha presents the parable in the form of a dialogue between his disciple
Sriputra and him.
Sriputra announces to the Buddha that he had been a wandering hermit of
a different faith in the past, but now he has embraced the true teaching of
the Buddha which has enabled him to attain supreme Nirvana. He thanks
the Buddha for everything that the latter has done for him to escape

suffering in this long cycle of birth and rebirth. His worry is whether he will
be able to complete his attainment by becoming a Buddha, a concept
believed in Mahayana Buddhism that the process of Nirvana is completed
only after attaining the Buddhahood.
It is believed in Mahayana that everyone has the capability of attaining this
status. The Buddha responds by saying that Sriputra having got onto the
correct path will in future, after many years, will be destined to be a Buddha
himself. He pronounces that the beneficial wheel of destiny for Sriputra to
reach this goal has already been set in motion. Sriputra is then praised by
all those who are present in the audience, humans, non-humans, gods, nongods etc.
Having been satisfied with his own destiny, Sriputra then raises the issue
of 1200 disciples who are with him. What shall he do to get them also to
attain the supreme bliss of Nirvana? The Buddha relates the parable of the
burning house, explaining the skilful methods to be used to motivate them
to leave the present suffering in worldly living for Nirvana which is free from
Says the Buddha to Sriputra: Have I not told thee before, Sriputra, that
the Tathgata preaches the law by able devices, varying directions and
indications, fundamental ideas, interpretations, with due regard to the
different dispositions and inclinations of creatures whose temperaments are
so various? All his preachings of the law have no other end but supreme
and perfect enlightenment, for which he is rousing beings to the
Bodhisattva-course. But, Sriputra, to elucidate this matter more at large, I
will tell thee a parable, for men of good understanding will generally readily
enough catch the meaning of what is taught under the shape of a parable.
Skilful devices needed to motivate people into quick action
In the parable, there is a householder of means who one day returns to his
house to find that its roof is on fire. Inside the house, there are his children
of various ages, from five to 20, playing noisily and paying little attention to
the imminent danger.
The householder calls the children out saying that the house is on fire and
soon they will burn to death if they do not come out immediately. The
children, who are deeply engaged in their merry-making play, do not pay
heed to his calling. The householder then realises that time is passing

pretty fast and unless he does something to take them out, he will lose
them forever.
He designs a tactic which economists call an incentive system to draw their
attention and get them out taking into account the different tastes and
disposition of the children. He announces that those who come out of the
house immediately will get bullock-carts, goat-carts, deer-carts, which are
so pretty, nice, dear, and precious to play outside the house. And the
children on hearing the names mentioned of such playthings as they like
and desire, so agreeable to their taste, so pretty, dear, and delightful,
quickly rush out from the burning house, with eager effort and great
alacrity, one having no time to wait for the other, and pushing each other
on with the cry of Who shall arrive first, the very first? But they all get
disappointed after they come out of the burning house because they all get
only bullock-carts.
False promises can be made provided they arefor the benefit of people
The Buddha asks the question whether the householder has committed
something immoral by uttering a falsehood and misleading the children.
Sriputra answers in the negative by announcing that he uttered that
falsehood in order to save the children from death which was more
important at that particular point of time than looking at the morality of the
false promises he had made.
Economic takeaways from the Buddhas parable
There are several economic takeaways in the Buddhas parable. First,
incentives work to motivate people but they should be designed according
to the taste, disposition, temperament and desires of people.
Second, good governance sometimes permits somebody to lie, if and only if
that lie is uttered not for ones personal benefit but for the benefit of the
people for whom one works. For instance, a physician may lie to a
terminally ill patient simply to boost his morale and give him a last chance
to build his immunity system to fight the deadly disease. The physician
does not seek to gain a benefit from lying.
Third, having made a promise, one should deliver that promise for
otherwise he would not be trusted by people when he makes the same or a
different promise later.

Fourth, a person is credited for the delivery of promises and not for doing so
many other good things to people. Thus, claiming allegiance on the basis of
other good works done will not work unless the promises have been
Both parables are useful and relevant to Sri Lankans in the current context
Thus, there are two parables of a burning house. One is by the Buddha in
the Saddharma Pundarika Sutra and the other, a creative interpretation of
same by Brecht. Both are relevant and useful in the current context of Sri
Brechts parable asks Sri Lankan voters to make a decision as fast as
possible having taken into account the dangers, if any, they are facing
today. Postponing the decision by getting into unnecessary arguments and
raising irrelevant questions will only result in losing the valuable time.
The Buddhas parable dictates that those who lie in making promises to
people are justified if and only if they have lied to deliver a benefit to
people and not to accumulate gains for them. It also requires them to
deliver their promises promptly if they are to have the allegiance and trust
of the people. Without delivering promises but doing all other things will not
help them to regain the lost trust of the people.
(W.A Wijewardena, a former Deputy Governor of the Central Bank of Sri
Lanka, can be reached at waw1949@gmail.com )
Posted by Thavam