The parable of the burning house is a teaching that is used to remind us that the precepts in Buddhism are suggestions. It is part of a long text called the Lotus Sutra. Although precepts are important, they aren’t airtight commandments that we can never break. They are a roadmap, not a set of laws.
This is how the story goes:
A man sees that his house is on fire with his children inside. The children are having so much fun playing a game that they don’t realize that the house is going to burn down.
So, the father yells, “Come out!”
And…the kids ignore him. A familiar experience to those of us that are parents.
The father thinks for a minute and comes up with an idea.
He yells, “Kids, I have three carts full of toys out here, come outside and play with them.”
And the kids come running out immediately.
So, he lied to save their lives. And because he lied they lived, although they were probably disappointed and perhaps angry at their father.
In Buddhism, honesty is valued very highly. It’s one of the five precepts. But, this goes to show that life happens and there are situations.
An example from modern times would be someone hiding Jews in their house during the World War 2. Of course if you’re trying to save lives in that way, you’re going to lie if someone comes to your door looking for the people you’re protecting.
This can be a dangerous teaching, because one could then think of all sorts of excuses to break precepts. But another important part of Buddhism is using common sense. If you use this teaching to get around the precepts, you know exactly what you’re doing and you aren’t helping anyone.
This is an important teaching because it sets Buddhism apart. The Buddha says these rules are a good idea, but he also says use your common sense.