Thus spoke the Buddha:
A great man had a great house. The house, since it was old, was in a state of collapse: the halls were lofty and precarious, the bases of the pillars crumbling and rotten, the beams and ridgepoles aslant, the stairways and landings disintegrating, the walls and partitions cracked, the clay and paint peeling off, the thatch worn thin and in disarray, the rafters and envelopes coming loose, totally misshapen, and full of assorted filth. Kites, owls, and eagles; crows, magpies, pigeons, and doves; newts, snakes, vipers, and gribbles; centipedes and millipedes; lizards and spiders; weasels, badgers, and mice milled back and forth in a crisscross. Places stinking of feces and urine overflowed with their filth, with may-bugs and maggots clustered on them. Here and there and all about were ghosts and demons, poisonous insects, and other malignant birds and beasts.
This old and decayed house belonged to one man. The man had gone a short distance from the house when, before he had been gone very long, in the rear rooms suddenly a fire broke out, from all four sides at once, raging in flame. The ridgepoles and beams, the rafters and pillars, shaking and cracking broke asunder and fell, while the walls and partitions collapsed. The ghosts and demons raised their voices in a scream. The malignant beasts and poisonous insects milled about in a panic, unable to get out. Stinking smoke, with its foul odor, filled the place on all four sides. In this way that house was extremely frightening, with calamities, conflagrations, and many other troubles occurring all at once.
At that time the householder, standing outside the door, heard someone say, "Your children a while ago, in play, entered this house. Being little and knowing nothing, they are enjoying themselves and clinging to their amusements."
Having heard this, the great man entered the burning house in alarm, to save them from the catastrophe of burning. He coaxed his children, explaining the many calamities: the demons, insects, snakes, foxes and dogs. "This is a woeful and troublesome place; how much the more so with a great fire!"
The children, knowing nothing, though they heard their father's admonitions, were still addicted as before to their pleasures and amused themselves ceaselessly. The great man thought to himself, "This house has not one pleasant feature, yet the children, steeped in their games, and not heeding my instructions, will surely be consumed by the fire."
Then straightaway, intentionally devising a lie, he announced to the children, "I have various precious playthings, one for each of you, here outside the door. For one, a goat-drawn cart. For one, a deer-drawn cart. For one, an ox-drawn cart. Come out, all of you! For your sakes I have made these carts, following the desire of your own thoughts."
When the children heard him tell of carts such as these, racing one another, they ran out of the house, reaching an open place, far from woes and troubles. The great man, seeing his children able to get out of the burning house, sat down and joyfully said to himself, "Now I am happy! These children were very hard to bring into the world and raise. Addicted to their games, they were in danger of great calamity. But now I have saved them, enabling them to escape trouble."
At that time the children went before their father and addressed him, saying, "We beg you to give us the three kinds of carts that your promised us a while ago, saying, 'Children, come out! I have three kinds of carts in accordance with your wishes.' Now is the right time. Please give them to us!"
The great man, being very rich, and having treasure houses filled with gold and silver, giant clam shells and agate, had a sumptuous carriage built, decked with ornaments, surrounded with handrails and shielding, with little bells hanging from all four sides and golden cords intertwined; with pearl-studded netting stretched out over the top, and gold-flowered tassels dangling here and there; with soft and fine silk and cotton made into cushions; with superbly fine mats, their value in the thousands, pure white and spotlessly clean; with great white oxen, fat, and in the prime of life, and endowed with great strength, their physical form lovely, yoked to the jeweled carriage.
The children danced for joy, and climbing up on the carriage, they cavorted in the four directions, playing and enjoying themselves, forgetting all about the carts their father had promised them to bring them from the burning house.
I tell you, I, too, am like this. All the living beings, all my children, are profoundly addicted to worldly pleasure and have no wise thoughts. The world is just like a house afire, being full of many woes most frightful, constantly marked by birth, old age, sickness, death, and cares -- fires such as these, raging without cease. But the Buddha, having already left the burning house, is quiet and unperturbed, dwelling securely in forest and field. Even though I teach and command, my children neither believe nor accept. So addicted are they to their tainting desires that I, by resort to expedient means, preach the three vehicles* to them, causing them to know the woes of the world, and demonstrating and setting forth the One Vehicle (eka-yana) of illumination.
By means of this parable, I have preached the One Buddha Vehicle. All of you, if you can believe and accept these words, shall without exception attain to the Buddha Path!
Is the Buddha in the carriage himself, or is the carriage just another step on the stairway?