Bertolt Brecht’s interpretation of “The Buddha’s Parable of the Burning House.”

Bertolt Brecht‘s poem, “The Buddha’s Parable of the Burning House,” relates a parable of the Buddha’s, found in the Lotus Sutra, to not fearing the changes which a revolution would involve.

Guatama 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.

This was published in 1949 in “Kalendergeschichten”, a collection of stories and poems which Brecht had written while in exile during the war. In English, “Tales from the Calendar,” translated by Ivonne Kapp and Michael Hamburger, London: Methuen, 1961.

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