I will often listen to something while I’m eating breakfast. Lately, it’s been the Lotus Sutra. On the same day that there was a list of names in the daily reading for morning prayer, I heard this passage from the sutra from the parable of the burning house:
“40. The windows and balconies are partly ruined, the wall as well as its coverings and plaster decaying; the coping shows rents from age; the thatch is everywhere pierced with holes.
41. It is inhabited by no less than five hundred beings; containing many cells and closets filled with excrements and disgusting.
42. Its roof-rafters are wholly ruined; the walls and partitions crumbling away; kotis of vultures nestle in it, as well as doves, owls, and other birds.
43. There are in every corner dreadful snakes, most venomous and horrible; scorpions and mice of all sorts; it is the abode of very wicked creatures of every description.
44. Further, one may meet in it here and there beings not belonging to the human race. It is defiled with excrement and urine, and teeming with worms, insects, and fire-flies; it resounds from the howling of dogs and jackals.
45. In it are horrible hyenas that are wont to devour human carcasses; many dogs and jackals greedily seeking the matter of corpses.
46. Those animals weak from perpetual hunger go about in several places to feed upon their prey, and quarrelling fill the spot with their cries. Such is that most horrible house.
47. There are also very malign goblins, who violate human corpses; in several spots there are centipedes, huge snakes, and vipers.
48. Those animals creep into all corners, where they make nests to deposit their brood, which is often devoured by the goblins.
49. And when those cruel-minded goblins are satiated with feeding upon the flesh of other creatures, so that their bodies are big, then they commence sharply fighting on the spot.
50. In the wasted retreats are dreadful, malign urchins, some of them measuring one span, others one cubit or two cubits, all nimble in their movements.
51. They are in the habit of seizing dogs by the feet, throwing them upside down upon the floor, pinching their necks and using them ill.
52. There also live yelling ghosts naked, black, wan, tall, and high, who, hungry and in quest of food, are here and there emitting cries of distress.
53. Some have a mouth like a needle, others have a face like a cow’s; they are of the size of men or dogs, go with entangled hair, and utter plaintive cries from want of food.
54. Those goblins, ghosts, imps, like vultures, are always looking out through the windows and loopholes, in all directions in search of food.
55. Such is that dreadful house, spacious and high, but very infirm, full of holes, frail and dreary. (Let us suppose that) it is the property of a certain man,
56. And that while he is out of doors the house is reached by a conflagration, so that on a sudden it is wrapt in a blazing mass of fire on every side.
57. The beams and rafters consumed by the fire, the columns and partitions in flame are crackling most dreadfully, whilst goblins and ghosts are yelling.
58. Vultures are driven out by hundreds; urchins withdraw with parched faces; hundreds of mischievous beasts of prey I run, scorched, on every side, crying and shouting.
59. Many poor devils move about, burnt by the fire; while burning they tear one another with the teeth, and bespatter each other with their blood.
60. Hyenas also perish there, in the act of eating one another. The excrements burn, and a loathsome stench spreads in all directions.
61. The centipedes, trying to fly, are devoured by the urchins. The ghosts, with burning hair, hover about, equally vexed with hunger and heat.
I’m sure part of their patience with lists has to do with the magic of writing things down in a culture that was primarily non-literary. Even still, writing everything out is some kind of testimony of a slower time. It’s children sitting around waiting to hear the scary part about hungry ghosts. It’s grandchildren whose parents say, “When they read the list, the third name will be your great-grandfather.”