05 December 2012

Lotus Sutra Study Questions 3

Chapter 3

(All references are to the Senchu Murano translation)

 This chapter follows logically from Chapter Two.  If the Buddha's teaching has been characterized by tricks, ruses, and expedients from the start--the Buddha says what he says in any given situation not because it is absolutely and always true necessarily, but because it achieves a certain result in that situation--then does it not follow that the Buddha might be a liar or at least a trickster?

Chapter Three tackles this question on the gap between the content of the Buddha's various and particular teachings on one side, and their impact on people on the other side.  In my opinion, in this chapter seems to say that while the Buddha does use ruses and expedients, and is willing to stretch the truth or roll out a convenient fiction from time to time, the purpose behind these acts is to lead his listeners to an experience that is directly truthful:  a snap-out-of-it, see-for-yourself moment is made possible  by these methods.  This can be seen in the Parable of the Burning House in Chapter Three.

This is the situation:  children have foolishly wandered away from home and are playing in an enormous, rotting, and dangerous mansion.  And it is collapsing and burning.  Their father recognizes this as a desperate moment and resolves to save them, first by telling them the truth:  you kids are in danger, so get out of there and come home!  Predictably, this fails.  He considers another option or two before resolving on a ruse:  he promises them three different kinds of wagons (he knows this is exactly what they want to hear) if they just get out of the burning house already.

It works.  They vacate the house.  And what do they find waiting for them?  What appear to be carts; the father had, by magic, conjured these.  But do these carts correspond to the ones he had promised his children?  Or is there a subtle difference?

Assume that the children recognize the danger they had been in at this point.  They see clearly just what the problem was, and why the father took the action he did.  Is the father a liar for spinning such a yarn, when the truth comes out in the end anyway?

The parable is an allegory for our situation.  We live in a phantasmagoric situation, fascinated by and identified with all kinds of temporary things that seem important at the time:  the he-said, she-said world we call samsara.  This is the burning house.  We--you and I and everyone else--are the children.  The "wagons" promised by the father are the different Buddhist vehicles.  Try to connect the rest of the dots from this parable to our everyday lives. 

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