In the Parable of the Burning House, a revered text in the Zen tradition, a grand but dilapidated mansion catches fire. At the time, the wealthy owner is standing outside the gate, but inside the mansion, his three sons are playing with their toys, oblivious of the encroaching conflagration. Rushing into the house, their father implores them to get out, but they ignore his admonitions. To entice them, he promises to give them jeweled, ox-drawn carts if they will leave. By these “expedient means” he achieves his purpose, and his sons escape “the burning house of the threefold world.” Soon afterward, their father presents them with magnificent carriages adorned with gold, silver, and pearls and drawn by stalwart, pure-white oxen. Released from the burning house and their former attachments, his sons enjoy safety and freedom.
I was reminded of this parable while reading Allan Lokos’s new book Through the Flames, which recounts Lokos’s experience of a horrific plane crash and his near-miraculous survival and recovery. In December, 2012, Lokos and his wife, Susanna Weiss, were enjoying a ten-day holiday in Mynanmar. On Christmas Day, they boarded a short flight from Mandalay to Inle Lake. As their low-flying plane approached its destination, it struck electrical wires, burst into flames, and crashed in a rice field. Susanna jumped to safety from a side exit, but Allan, who was just behind her, caught his foot on something and suffered burns to a third of his body before he could escape. In the anguished days that followed, doctors in Myanmar, Bangkok, and Singapore informed Susanna that her husband, whose burns were massive and bone-deep, could not possibly survive, let alone recover.
Yet recover he did, thanks in part to his meditative practice. Allan Lokos is the founder and guiding teacher of the Community Meditation Center in New York City. In telling his story, he gratefully acknowledges the roles of his supportive wife, his generous friends, and his compassionate surgeons in his recovery. He recalls the encouraging words of Dr. Tan Bien Keem of Singapore, who told Lokos that when he cut into his patient’s body he felt “an energy–a life-force–that was too powerful to die at that time.” But most of all, Lokos attributes his survival, his relatively swift recovery, and his present equanimity to the Buddhist teachings he had absorbed and practiced for many years prior to his trauma.
Prominent among those teachings is the principle of “dependent origination,” which holds that every event is the natural consequence of causes and conditions. “This is, because that is,” the teachings tell us. “This ceases to be, because that ceases to be.” Applying this principle to his own experience, Lokos describes it in this way:
A pilot brought a plane down short of a runway. The plane, flying low, cut through electrical wires and sparked a fire that engulfed the plane. The plane crashed. I tried to jump from the plane but my foot got caught on something and I was seriously burned before I could free myself. My mind/body immediately went into survival mode and I did survive.
Void of hyperbole, Lokos’s prose plainly states what happened. As he acknowledges, and as his book vividly demonstrates, his experience entailed “a great deal of physical, mental, and emotional pain,”and at times during his recovery, the insight of dependent origination was “not enough to fill the emotional emptiness.” But by focusing, as best he could, on the actual causes and conditions of the crash, rather than speculate on what might have been, he freed himself from the “infinite number of story lines, projections, and perceptions we can attach to such an event.” By eschewing “regrets, accusations, or blame,” and by refraining from asking unanswerable questions (“Why me?”), he allowed “the road to recovery to be unencumbered.” Primarily for that reason, he believes, he has healed more smoothly and rapidly than anyone had expected.
Standard interpretations of the Parable of the Burning House view the burning mansion as samsara–the realm of suffering, driven by greed, anger, and a fundamental ignorance of reality. The rescuing father is the Buddha, who guides resistant humanity toward wisdom and liberation. And the jeweled carriages represent the “vehicle,” the teachings and practices that convey the practitioner from suffering to happiness. In Allan Lokos’s case, those teachings and practices were already in place, and they allowed him “to stay grounded not only in the chaos and urgency of the crash but also in the dark days that followed.” Lokos believes that with patience and determination, “complete healing is possible, even when a cure is not.” And though his narrative is graphically detailed and often unsettling, it is also deeply inspiring. “Doctors said I would not live,” he recalls. “They meant well, but they were wrong. I am healing. You can too.”
The Parable of the Burning House appears in the third chapter of the Lotus Sutra. See The Lotus Sutra, tr. Burton Watson (Columbia University Press, 1993), 62-69.
Allan Lokos, Through the Flames: Overcoming Disaster through Compassion, Patience, and Determination, Penguin, 2015.
Photo: Allan Lokos
Listen to Allan Lokos speak about patience at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IIIm_bDAZ1E