By W.A. Wijewardena –
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.
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 Buddha’s 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 Hitler’s 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-so-wise 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 Lanka’s youth had rebelled against the established social, political and economic order of the country.
Brecht’s original poem
An English translation of Brecht’s original poem is as follows (available here ).
The Buddha’s Parable of the Burning House
Gautama, the Buddha taught
The doctrine of greed’s 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 void.”
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 he’ll 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 revolution
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 Buddha’s 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.
Buddha’s parable is different from Brecht’s creative work
The Buddha’s parable of a burning house in the Saddharma Pundarika Sutra is different from Brecht’s creative interpretation. In Chapter 3 of this Sutra (available here ), the Buddha presents the parable in the form of a dialogue between his disciple Sâriputra and him.
Sâriputra 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 Sâriputra 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 Sâriputra to reach this goal has already been set in motion. Sâriputra is then praised by all those who are present in the audience, humans, non-humans, gods, non-gods etc.
Having been satisfied with his own destiny, Sâriputra 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 suffering.
Says the Buddha to Sâriputra: “Have I not told thee before, Sâriputra, that the Tathâgata 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, Sâriputra, 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. Sâriputra 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 Buddha’s parable
There are several economic takeaways in the Buddha’s 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 one’s 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 delivered.
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 Lanka.
Brecht’s 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 Buddha’s 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 email@example.com