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After Copenhagen -- ‘superficial questions end only with death':Buddha’s Parable of the Burning House




“Recently I saw a house on fire --
great flames coming out of the roof.
I went closer and saw people inside.
Opening the door I called out telling them
the roof was burning
and they should leave the house at once.
But they were in no mood to be hurried!
One of them in the heat had already scorched his eyebrows
yet he asked me what the weather was outside –
was it raining or was the wind blowing
and if they could find another house
and so on.”


“Saying nothing, I went out.
I thought,
‘superficial questions end only with death.’ ”

“Truly Friends,
for those who are so insensitive
the conflagration in the ground beneath their very feet cannot be felt --
what can I say…”


 I know this poem well and John Bellamy Foster references it by taking it up from Carolyn Marchant:" we cannot afford to sit in a burning house while the flames lick the rafters and singe our brows and question whether a new house is possible. We must abandon the old structure and seek to build a new one."


(from the original German by Bertolt Brecht)

The Buddha Taught

Liberation from bondage to the Wheel of Greed

requires we abandon all forms of seeking and desire.

This opens the door to Nothingness --

“Nirvana”.



On a certain occasion some monks asked:

“What is this ‘Nothingness’, Master ?”



“All of us would be willing to drop desire as you advise

yet tell us if this ‘Nothingness’ is similar to being One with Everything --

or the feeling of floating free of thought at noon in water --

or not knowing if one has arranged the blanket suddenly sinking deeply into sleep;

is this ‘Nothingness’ pleasant and pleasing

or is your ‘Nothingness’ more of an ‘Emptiness’ --

hollow, meaningless, and cold ?”



The Buddha sat in Noble Silence some time.

Then he said casually:

“There is no answer to this question.”


Later in the evening, the questioning monks left.

The Buddha sat under a Bread Fruit Tree together with the remaining monks

who had asked nothing.

He broke Noble Silence and said:


“Recently I saw a house on fire --

great flames coming out of the roof.

I went closer and saw people inside.

Opening the door I called out telling them

the roof was burning

and they should leave the house at once.

But they were in no mood to be hurried !

One of them in the heat had already scorched his eyebrows

yet he asked me what the weather was outside –

was it raining or was the wind blowing

and if they could find another house

and so on.”


“Saying nothing, I went out.

I thought,

‘superficial questions end only with death.’ ”



“Truly Friends,
for those who are so insensitive
the conflagration in the ground beneath their very feet cannot be felt --
what can I say…”

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