In a small village one moonless night everyone was fast asleep when the sound of weeping and crying suddenly broke the stillness. It awakened everyone, and the villagers, confused and shaken, ran towards the small hut from which the shouting came. From within they heard, “Fire! I am on fire! My house has caught fire!”
Some of the villagers immediately ran to fetch buckets of water, but on closer examination and to their great amazement they could find no sign of fire anywhere in the vicinity of the hut. There did not even seem to be a lamp burning inside. Someone brought a lantern and they pushed open the door and crowded into the hut. They found the old woman there, still yelling, “Fire! I am on fire! My house has caught fire!”
“Have you gone mad?” they shouted back at her. “Where is the fire? Show us where it is and we’ll put it out.”
The old woman’s shouting stopped and she began to laugh instead. “I am not mad,” she said, “But you are. You have all gathered here to put out a fire that has broken out in your own houses. Go back to your own homes and look for the fire there. The fire I am shouting about has broken out within me and you will not be able to extinguish it. Only knowing myself can put out this fire. If the fire had been outside you could have doused it, but what I am shouting about is the inner fire.”
And once again she began weeping and wailing that her house had caught on fire and that she was burning up inside.
I was in that village on that particular night – and all of you were there too. You may have forgotten the incident, but I have not. I saw you all returning to your houses, upset by the old woman’s behavior, annoyed that she had disturbed your sleep. When you arose next morning you had forgotten all about it. Actually, one could say the whole world has forgotten that incident, since that village is also the dwelling place of the entire human race.
You all went back to sleep but I could not. That old woman shook me out of my sleep once and for all, because when I looked inside to find that invisible fire I found nothing at all. I did see, though, that my sleep had been only a dream, only an illusion, and that the illusion itself was the fire of which she spoke.
Most people’s lives are simply consumed in flames because of this illusion, because of this ignorance of the reality of life. But that ignorance itself is only an illusion, and it is this illusion that causes you pain, that makes you miserable. But you cannot see the fire, and so you go back to sleep, back to your dreams. Dreams are good companions of sleep, but they make it difficult for you to awaken. Dreams are, in fact, fuel for this fire of illusion.