Major Parables in the Lotus Sutra and Personal Enlightenment
(Notes from lecture given at Winthrop University, Rock Hill South Carolina on October 24, 2012)
Good evening, thank you all for being here tonight to learn about the Lotus Sutra, and to listen to the Dharma taught by the Buddha. I would especially like to thank Dr. Kiblinger for extending the invitation to me to present this information to you.
Now let us begin.
The Lotus Sutra is one of many, numbering in the thousands, of the Buddha’s teachings. The Buddha taught the Lotus Sutra over a period of eight years at the end of his life. It is unfortunate that in the Western world the Lotus Sutra comes to us devoid of its rich history and context among the many of the Buddha’s teachings. Because of this many people do not understand it’s relationship to the other teachings of the Buddha. For people in the East, especially China and Japan, this is not the case.
Throughout the ages virtually every person knew of the Lotus Sutra either through personal practice experience or through society. From at least 500 CE to roughly 800CE there was a large following of the Lotus Sutra in China, especially along the Silk Road. Knowledge of the Lotus Sutra penetrated all the way to areas now known as Afghanistan and Pakistan.
After roughly 800CE the Lotus Sutra was popular in China and beyond primarily through the practice and veneration of Kwan Yin, who is perhaps the most widely known character from the Lotus Sutra, even in the West. Sadly though most folks while admiring the vow of Kwan Yin to save all beings know nothing of the context or the origins of that vow, which occurs in the Lotus Sutra.
Outside of the worship and veneration of Kwan Yin, among the scholars of the ages the Lotus Sutra has been studied, even through today. It is the most widely read and known Sutra of all the Buddha’s Sutras in China and Japan, Korea and Vietnam.
When Buddhism spread to Japan from Korea many of the royalty and imperial family were devoted to the Lotus Sutra. The Lotus Sutra was especially popular among women because of the revolutionary concept of women becoming Buddha’s.
The Lotus Sutra by its own admission is one of the most difficult sutras to understand. In fact in numerous places the Buddha says that this is the most difficult of all his teachings. Perhaps that is why the Lotus Sutra is so rich in parables and images.
Previous to the Buddha preaching the Lotus Sutra his primary means of teaching the Dharma was by responding to questions of his disciples. Because various people would ask him questions and because of their differing understandings the Buddha at times seems to give conflicting messages. He might tell one group of people to do a certain practice because that is what would be best for them. Then he might go to another location meet with a different group of people and tell them something completely opposite. So for this reason we say that all the teachings before the Lotus Sutra are not teachings of the Buddha’s mind but of the minds of his listeners.
The Lotus Sutra begins with the Buddha in meditation, a mediation that actually is the ending of the Sutra of Innumerable Meanings. The second chapter begins with the Buddha speaking and no question had been directed to him. It was a startling event and it did not go unnoticed by his disciples. For this reason it is said that the Lotus Sutra is a teaching not of the mind of the listener but of the mind of the Buddha. The Buddha has something to say and he says it without being prompted.
The Lotus Sutra is difficult to understand for a variety of reasons. One reason is this teaching reveals the true purpose for the appearance of any Buddha in any time or place. That purpose is for no other reason than to enable all people to become enlightened exactly like all Buddhas. Another reason for the difficulty is that this teaching combines all of the other teachings the Buddha taught. So for the first time many of the contradictions that may have arisen because of teaching different people different things, all of those contradictions were now going to be addressed. So he presents one unifying teaching to groups of people who may not be fully prepared to take on this teaching. Another reason it is difficult to understand is because the Buddha places so much emphasis on faith and less on practice.
This faith is faith that all people are potentially Buddhas, all people can attain an enlightenment equal to the Buddha, and deep within the Lotus Sutra is faith in a relationship with the Sutra and with the concept of Buddha that spans space and time.
The Lotus Sutra is full of parables and grand images and stories of future enlightenment and past relationships with the Buddha and connections to Buddhas throughout the universe. All of these serve to not only send a message to the reader but to help to connect in a visceral and even transcendental way to the truth contained in the Lotus Sutra.
I once read an essay that said the Lotus Sutra was the longest sermon that never gets delivered. The Buddha starts delivering what is obviously a sermon in Chapter II and then it sort of peters out and it seems to be a sermon that is unfinished. Yet it is through all of the rich imagery that the sermon continues not so much through actual doctrine, though it is there in pieces, but through a life to life, heart to heart communication unfettered with words.
So Lets get into some of those images, shall we.
One of the most famous of the parables taught by the Buddha, which virtually every Buddhist has heard of originates in the Lotus Sutra; call the Parable of the Burning House. It is with this parable that I would like to begin tonight’s presentation.
As I mentioned, the Lotus Sutra was taught towards the end of the Buddha’s lifetime. During the life of the Buddha he taught many different teachings to a variety of people with differing capacities. Because of this it seems that there are many different teachings, some of which contradict each other. However what the Buddha did in the Lotus Sutra was to reveal that though there appear to be a variety of different teachings they all lead to the one overarching objective of revealing the fundamental truth of enlightenment of all beings.
So, unlike many of the Buddha’s previous teachings the Lotus Sutra, encompasses them all, assumes the reader/audience knows of them and then goes one step further while embracing them. So the Lotus Sutra does not abandon or deny any previous teaching, instead it gathers them all together and takes them one step further.
In the Parable of the Burning House we are presented with a very wealthy man who owns a very large house. Sadly though parts of this house were very run down and even inhabited by various animals and evil beings. In the center of the house are the many children of the rich man. These children are engrossed in playing with their toys and playing games, and are unaware of the condition of the house.
The wealthy homeowner notices a fire has begun around the outside of the house, and he become alarmed. He is immediately concerned for the safety of the children inside playing. He calls to them telling them of the fire. The children, though, are so engrossed in their playing that they either do not notice their father calling or they have no idea of the danger posed by the fire.
The wealthy man considers the situation thinking how can he save the children inside. He thinks that he could run in and carry the children out, but he is only one person and aged so he would only be able to carry a few out before the fire completely destroyed the house killing the remaining children.
He then considers constructing some sort of sled on which he could put the children and pull them to safety. But he realizes that there is only one gate to the grounds and while he could pull the children part of the way he could not get them through the single gate.
He then hits upon an idea of promising the children various carts decorated with shinny jewels and banners, each pulled by various different animals. All told he promises them three different types of carts. This excites the children and they all come running out of the burning house.
When they arrive outside they all want to receive their various carts. The father then tells them that instead of the different carts he promised them, he would give them each a cart even more splendid and special than what they thought they would receive.
The way we interpret this story is that we as humans are in this mundane world, which is represented by the great house. This world is a world full of sufferings; the sufferings of birth, old age, sickness, and death. The fires are all around us, but we are unaware of this because of our attachment to the fulfillment of desires. We do not realize that the sufferings we experience can be relieved, nor do we realize the most effective means to do so.
The Buddha has seen the way to the elimination of suffering through the attainment of enlightenment and has made a vow to teach all beings the path to liberation. He is like the wealthy man who sees the danger his children are in and wants to save them.
So the Buddha began his teaching by speaking to the different groups of people with their various capacities. He taught a variety of means, which enabled people to begin to walk the path to liberation. But now that many people were practicing according to the Buddha’s instructions he realized that their capacities had increased and now in the Lotus Sutra he reveals the ultimate teaching of all Buddhas.
So, like the wealthy man who offered various different carts to the children, the Buddha offered various ways of beginning along the path to enlightenment. But now that the people had improved their lives and increased their capacities they were ready to receive the ultimate truth of all the Buddhas, they were ready to receive the great cart just as the wealthy man gave each of his children the great special cart.
Worth noting here is the equality that is present. No longer are people offered different promises and different paths. With the Lotus Sutra we see a unification of teaching, a single path for all beings, and an equal promise of enlightenment.
The next parable I would like to introduce you to is also famous, though perhaps not so much as the Burning House; it is the Rich Man and the Poor Son. Occasionally folks will say this is the Buddhist version of the Prodigal Son story found in the Bible. However this is an inaccurate comparison.
The son in this story leaves home long before his father ever acquires his wealth, so the son knows nothing about the condition of his father. The son struggles for many years wandering from town to town trying to make a living. One day he comes into a new town looking for work, while wandering through the town his father who is now a rich merchant sees his lost son, whom he had been looking for, for years.
The rich man sends some of his helpers to go fetch his son, however the son was fearful that he would be taken as a slave so he begged and pleaded not to be taken. The father hearing of this devised a plan to hire his son, at first as a stable hand cleaning out the muck.
The son gladly takes up the offer and works very hard. His father is impressed with the work his son is doing, but realizes that his son considers himself inferior. His father, wishing to elevate the life condition of the son says nothing of their relationship and instead over many years elevates the young man into gradually more and more important positions.
Finally as the father is on his death bead he calls in all of his workers, including the son who is by now actually running the household and the business affairs of the merchant. On his death bed the father reveals his relationship to his son and says that everything he has now belongs to his son.
This story deals with our doubt of our own inherent Buddha potential. We may look at our lives and say, ‘there is no way I could become enlightened’, but the Buddha teaches in such a way that he gradually allows us to elevate our life condition so that we can see that we too can become enlightened. Just as the son is first brought to work for the merchant who is his father and then gradually over many years slowly elevates his life condition and his view of his self worth, so too does the Buddha gradually offer teachings that allow us to steadily improve our lives so that we can attain enlightenment.
The third parable I would like to talk about is actually called a simile and is titled The Simile of Herbs. This is a rather short story, though not the shortest found in the Lotus Sutra.
In this story we are told of a large rain cloud. This large cloud provides rain for a wide variety of plants, trees, bushes, and herbs. The rain falls evenly and nourishes each of the plants providing the necessary water to them all, even though their needs are different. The same rain falls on every plant but each plant takes what it needs according to its capacity and nature.
In this story the Buddha is the rain cloud and the rain is the teachings of the Buddha, or Dharma as we call it. Each of us has unique capacities and capabilities. Some of us are good in math, others in music or the arts, and still others may be good in history. Some of us are left-handed some are right-handed. Some of us come from families with good incomes, some from medium incomes, and still others may really struggle financially. Some of us English may be our first language, and others it may be their second language. You see there are a large variety of us and each of us has a unique set of circumstances, capabilities and natures.
Yet, what the Buddha is saying is that each of us can find in the Dharma of the Lotus Sutra, exactly what we need to enable us to attain enlightenment. For each of us the enlightened life we manifest will be different, but it will still be fundamentally at its core the same enlightenment of the Buddha.
I frequently say that we don’t become like the Buddha was, instead we become as the Buddha is. So, in other words, the Buddha sat under a tree, lived in the forest and monasteries of his time, he wandered around teaching the truth of enlightenment. For us it will look different. We will manifest our enlightenment as doctors, lawyers, electricians, artists and so forth. The Buddha could not program a computer, he wasn’t a policeman, he wasn’t a chef, he wasn’t a whole lot of things. If enlightenment looked the same, if everyone had to be exactly like the Buddha then we might all be in trouble. But we can be as the Buddha was, we can manifest enlightenment in our own unique ways, it will look different but at its core it will be the same.
Further on in the Lotus Sutra we are introduced to the Parable of a Magic City. This is a story of a group of people who have heard of a wonderful city, but in order to get there they need to travel a very dangerous road. They are afraid of going by themselves so they make arrangements with an experienced travel guide who will lead them through the dangers of the road.
They set out on their journey and travel a great distance. After a while they start to become discouraged and want to turn back. The guide knows however, that they are about halfway there and so if they turned back they would travel the same distance as they would if they only continued forward. So the guide conjures up a magic city so that the travelers can refresh themselves. The people enjoy this magic city so much they wish to stay there.
The guide tells them what he has done and encourages them to continue on their journey and in this way they can reach their desired objective.
There are two main lessons taught here. One lesson is in order to reach our desired destination of the elimination of suffering we need to find the right and appropriate leader. The Buddha, as the awakened one, and as our teacher who has endured many sufferings to defeat the influence of evil, is the most qualified person and provides the best teaching to guide us to enlightenment. The second lesson is that as we practice Buddhism our lives begin to change and we may be tempted to take our smaller gains as satisfactory and be tempted to give up or rest on our small achievements. This story tells us that while we may have accomplished much in our practice we should never give up until we fully attain complete indestructible enlightenment.
While there are many more parables in the Lotus Sutra, tonight I think that I will end with one of the shortest ones, Gem in the Robe. This parable is only one paragraph long.
One evening two old friends are gathered together having a nice party, eating, drinking and telling stories. The two men fall asleep finally after having a grand time together. Early the next morning the guest arises and realizes he needs to get on with his travels. So he finds the robe of his host and sews a priceless gem in the hem of the robe.
Upon awakening the next morning the host puts on his robe without realizing there was the gem sewn inside. Over the next few years the host suffers some financial difficulties and really struggles making ends meet. One day the two friend’s paths cross and the guest looks at his old friend in dismay. He says to his friend why have you suffered so much. Many years ago I sewed a priceless gem in your robe, why have you not used it to provide for yourself.
First let me say that it was a good thing the host kept that robe all those years and didn’t end up discarding or selling it. Any way, the lesson here is that we go through our lives enduring many hardships without knowing that we possess a priceless gem inside ourselves. We all possess the gem of Buddhahood in our lives, yet we fail to use it to overcome our difficulties and attain enlightenment.
Tonight I have shared with you some of the major parables, or stories found within the Lotus Sutra. Summing up what I have covered let me review these stories for you.
First we had the Burning House, which teaches us that there are not a variety of ways of practicing Buddhism as previously thought before the Lotus Sutra was taught. Instead there is just the single way, which is actually a combination of all the various independent ways. When all the ways are combined as a single Buddhist practice we learn that the enlightenment to be attained is actually the same enlightenment as the Buddha attained.
Second was the story of the Rich Man and his Poor Son in which we learn that we are all children of the Buddha, that we all possess inherently within us the potential to be enlightened, though we may not realize it. But what the Buddha has done is to provide a path whereby we can gradually elevate our life condition so that we can gladly and feely realize the truth of the teachings of the Buddha.
The story of the rain cloud providing nourishment to a variety of plants was the third story. In this we learn that each of us, regardless of our capacities is equally capable of attaining the wonderful enlightenment equal to the Buddha. Our enlightenment is less dependent on our capabilities and more on our consistent practice to the best of our ability.
In the story of the Magic City we learn the importance of finding the correct teacher and of perseverance. We first learn that there is such a thing as enlightenment and the complete elimination of suffering, then we develop a desire to accomplish enlightenment, then we find a teacher, then we stick with the practice no matter what until we attain that which we set out to accomplish.
The last story, that of the Gem in the Robe we learn that we already have within us all that we need to become Buddhas. What we are lacking is the ability to see it and to manifest it, but it is always there.
There are still a good number of parables in the remainder of the Lotus Sutra, and perhaps someday you might explore it further on your own or hopefully with a good teacher.
One of the important messages in the Lotus Sutra is for the first time the Buddha teaches the ultimate reason for the appearance of Buddhas in any lifetime or in any world. The ultimate purpose is to enable all living beings to attain enlightenment equal to that of the Buddha. For this reason the Lotus Sutra is sometimes called the teaching of equality.
In the Lotus Sutra, for the first time there is a lessening of the divisions of the various groups and individuals who have followed the Buddha around for most of his life. There is even the teaching of the enlightenment and equality of women, plants and animals. You see, from the perspective of the Lotus Sutra, life itself is fully endowed with all the characteristics of Buddhahood regardless of how life manifests itself.
So now I would like to tell you about a key part of the Lotus Sutra. As the sutra goes along, concurrent with some of the above parables the Buddha speaks to various groups of people and tells them of their future enlightenment. This is important for a number of reasons.
Previous to the teaching of the Lotus Sutra there was a group of practitioners whom the Buddha had continually said would never attain enlightenment. He had said in numerous sutras that those people who represented what we might simply call the intellectuals would never attain enlightenment. He said that they had scorched the seeds to their enlightenment.
The reason for his statement was that those people who approach Buddhism merely as an intellectual undertaking can not fully appreciate the depth of the religion, nor can they open their hearts and lives to experience the truth of Buddhism from the perspective of feelings deep in their lives. They are always trying to explain things rationally or have a clear scientific explanation for things.
Another group of practitioners who the Buddha singled out as facing extreme difficulty in attaining enlightenment were those who were so absorbed in their own personal enlightenment. These were the contemplatives or those people who practiced meditation solely for their own benefit.
With the teaching of the Lotus Sutra, as I have mentioned early we see a unification of all of the Buddha’s previous teachings. This unification brings the practices of the intellectuals and the contemplatives together along with those practitioners who devoted their lives to practicing for others into a single practice that incorporates all three ways. This is somewhat of an oversimplification but it is an easy way to grasp the concept of the unification of three vehicles or ways of practice into the single vehicle of Buddhahood.
As the parables that I have mentioned are being told there occurs predictions by the Buddha of various groups of people representing all the various conditions of human life. These predictions are of their future enlightenment. So it begins in Chapter III where the first of these groups of people, the intellectuals are told that they will indeed become enlightened.
The Buddha covers all the conditions of life including even the jealous cousin of the Buddha Devadatta. Even the most evil person in Buddhism, the person who tried to kill the Buddha several times, the person who tried to destroy the Sangha is predicted to attain enlightenment in the future.
The method by which all of these people are able to attain enlightenment is through the practice of faith, gratitude and praise of the Lotus Sutra.
Now I will tell you a little bit about our personal relationship to the Lotus Sutra. After these numerous predictions of enlightenment a great stupa or Buddhist structure appears hovering in the sky above the large congregation assembled to hear the Buddha teach.
Inside this structure a loud voice is heard saying “excellent, excellent. What you Shakyamuni Buddha have said is all true.” The folks in the congregation wish to know what they are seeing and have heard. The Buddha then tells them that long ago, there was an ancient Buddha who appeared in a universe far away who when he died pledged to cause his remains to go to the place wherever the Lotus Sutra is being taught. The Buddha tells the congregation that this Buddha was called Many Treasures Buddha and he now appears because the Lotus Sutra is being taught.
As would seem natural the folks in the congregation are curious and want to see this Many Treasures Buddha. Shakyamuni Buddha then purifies the world, and calls back all of his emanations. These emanations of the Buddha are all the many manifestations of Buddhas, you could think of this as qualities of the historical Shakyamuni Buddha who have been revealed in various other of the Buddha’s teachings.
Once this has been done the Buddha then opens the doors to this great stupa and he is invited to sit beside Many Treasures Buddha. At this point they are way up in the air and the congregation is way down below on the ground. So now a request is made by the folks asking if they can somehow be permitted to see inside the stupa. At this request the Buddha raises the congregation into the air so they can easily see both Many Treasures Buddha and Shakyamuni Buddha seated inside the stupa.
It is at this point that a significant turning point occurs in the Lotus Sutra. Up until this point the teachings have all been about those present. The Buddha has told them that there are not numerous ways to enlightenment and instead there is only one single way. The Buddha has told them that each category of people representing the ten major conditions of mind can all attain enlightenment, something they previously had been denied. The Buddha has told them that contained with each life, within every living being there exists the potential for Buddhahood. The Buddha has told them all these things.
Now he asks them who will teach the Lotus Sutra in the times after his death. This is noteworthy because up to this point the Lotus Sutra has only focused on the present. Here though the Buddha is looking forward to a time when he is no longer present, here he is looking forward to the spread of Buddhism long after he is dead.
Several groups make various pledges but in each case these promises came with conditions which did not meet with the Buddha’s request. There was none among the group who would promise to fulfill the Buddha’s request to teach this Lotus Sutra in ages after he has died in this world.
It is at this point that the Buddha says there is a group of people whom he has trained since the distant past who would fulfill his request. At this point countless golden hued beings arose from beneath the ground. We call these people the Bodhisattvas from beneath the earth.
When this group appears their leader approaches the Buddha and inquire as to his health and well being. It is noteworthy to point out that when the people in the original congregation spoke to the Buddha they made requests about their own lives, whereas this new group is curious not about themselves but about how the Buddha was doing.
The story goes on about how these new people have trained, studied, and practiced with the Buddha throughout time in every place in the universe. For Nichiren Buddhists we identify with this new group of Bodhisattvas. And that is the key to our practice.
Our practice is one that seeks to actually manifest in our lives the realization, not on a theoretical level but on a spiritual level our identity as the Bodhisattvas who arose from beneath the ground.
You could say that our life and practice is one of emerging from our life as ordinary humans to manifesting the life of the group of people who have an infinite connection with the Buddha and have promised to teach the Lotus Sutra in this time in which we live.
In other words we seek to move beyond practicing Buddhism as a 3000 year old teaching taught by the Buddha. We strive to actualize and manifest a practice that is not one of a historical connection but as one of a living evolving relationship. We are not merely practicing a historical practice from 3000 years ago but instead a practice that has and will span time and space.
As the Bodhisattvas emerged from the ground our aim is to emerge from our seemingly mundane lives and become Buddhas. Just as the plants and herbs who are nourished by the rain cloud have their own unique characteristics we too have our unique lives, though we are all equally endowed with the capability to become Buddhas as we are.
Now, in the remainder of the time we have together I welcome your questions. I will try to be brief in my answers but please forgive me if I get carried away. Sometimes my passion for the Lotus Sutra gets the best of me. This is really the subject of years and years of study and practice.