The Lotus Flower of the Wonderful Law Sutra
Chapter 3: "A Parable"
Chapter Three of the Lotus Sutra sets in motion a change of pace. Up until this point, we have been dealing with chapters that act almost like encyclopaedias. They contain a large amount of information on a number of topics, and require us to unpack them piece by piece. As we have seen, this requires that we have a lot of previous knowledge and practice under our belt before we can even hope to unpack some of the complex passages. As we can see from the title, this chapter is a parable. Rather than containing a vast amount of knowledge about a vast number of topics, we are presented with a story which depicts something specific (although as always we will see how much that can entail).
The chapter opens with Sariputra still joyously excited by the teachings he received in the last chapter. Remember that in the last chapter the Buddha told us that he only teaches Bodhisattvas. Therefore, everyone who is listening/ reading these words is ipso facto a Bodhisattva, and destined to attain Anuttara-samyak-sambodhi (Complete Enlightenment). As we discussed, this was a big surprise to many of the Buddha’s disciples who were used to the Hinayanic teaching that Arhatship was the highest goal they could obtain.
Then the Buddha singles Sariputra out and gives him the best news he could hope for. He predicts Sariputra’s enlightenment. He tells Sariputra that in the distant future, he will become a Buddha named Flower Light Tathagata. The Buddha states that Sariputra’s Pure Land or domain will be named Undefiled, and this pure land is described in illustrious detail. In short, a Pure Land is the world around a Buddha which is made pure or perhaps is now finally seen to be pure by virtue of the purity of said Buddha’s Mind. It is said that these places, by virtue of the presence of a Buddha are particularly suited to practice, and attract beings seeking liberation to them. It might be wise to think of a simple example of thispurifying- when there is a good coach, the sports team becomes likewise good. The gym in which they train is invigorated by the enthusiasm and discipline of the good coach, and so, becomes a place conducive to train in. A Pure Land might be seen as something like this.
Shakyamuni Buddha continues that “though it is not an evil age, (you) will preach the three-vehicle Law because of (your) original vow.” To understand this, we need to understand what is meant by original vow. The original vow of all Buddha’s is to save all sentient beings. Therefore, in keeping with the capacities of beings, Sariputra, when he becomes the Buddha Flower Light, will teach the One Vehicle Dharma by skilful/ tactful means i.e. the three vehicles.
During the aeons of Sariputra’s Buddhahood many Bodhisattvas will exist in this pure land wishing to ferry beings to the other shore of enlightenment. One such Great Being (Mahasattva) by the name of Bodhisattva Full Of Firmness/ Perseverance, will become a Buddha at the end of Flower Light Tathagata’s lifespan.
At this great news, the assembly erupts in joy. Music is played, flowers rain from the sky, and offerings are made to Shakyamuni Buddha. There is something we need to think about here before moving on. When Shakyamuni Buddha told Sariputra that he would one day become a Buddha too, he suggested that it would be far off in the distant future. We also know from other sutra that the next Buddha will be Maitreya Buddha, and so it would have to be after this at least. And yet, the crowds erupts with joy and happiness, the way you would if someone told you you got into university, or that you got a great job. Why do they react like this? Their reactions are intricately tied up with how deeply they understand the relation of time, and rebirth. It’s one thing to pay lip service to rebirth and say ‘yeah, I believe in rebirth’. For many of us that may in fact be our relation to rebirth. But when we see the crowd and Sariputra react the way they do, with such joy, over something so far away, we see what it means to really have faith in these ideas. If you have genuine faith in rebirth, if you understand that time itself is an illusion, that in reality there is only this single pulsating now which flows ever onward, then aeons and kalpas into the future start to seem much more real and tangible.
Sariputra graciously thanks the Buddha for his predictions, and enthusiastically ensures the Buddha that he is now free of doubt. But he expresses concern for his fellow twelve hundred sravakas who hearing these new teachings, which in certain ways seem to contradict earlier teachings, may have fallen further into doubt. And it is here that the Buddha tells the parable of this chapter, as a way of describing the way in which these seeming contradictions are skilful means, and therefore not genuine contradictions.
“Suppose in a certain kingdom, city, or town, there is a great elder, old and worn, of boundless wealth and possessing many fields, houses, slaves and servants.” So the First thing we have in the story is a ‘great elder’. This great elder is the Buddha himself. His boundless wealth and possessions is his infinite wisdom, power, and fearlessness.
“His House is spacious and large, having only one door, and with many people dwelling in it, one hundred, two hundred, or even five hundred in number. Its halls and chambers are decayed and old, its walls crumbling, the bases of its pillars rotten, the beams and rooftree toppling and dangerous.” His house is none other than Samsara. This world that we live in filled with numberless beings as its ‘many people’. The ‘one door’ symbolises the immense difficulty for us, deluded sentient beings, in trying to get out of the House, get out ofSamsara. The world described here is decaying and old…crumbling…rotten…toppling and dangerous. In other words, samsara as samsara, is not a great place to aspire to, to dwell in, to go along with.
“On every side at the same moment fire suddenly starts and the house is in flames. The sons of the elder, say ten, twenty, or even thirty, are in this dwelling.” The ‘sons of the elder’ are us, the Buddha’s disciples, Buddhists within the world. The fire that springs up all of a sudden are the fires of our physical and mental cravings and desires. The image we get here is that because we do not see that the true nature of desire is suffering, and that this suffering is the nature of samsara, we are consumed and burnt up in the flames.
The elder on seeing this fire spring up, thinks to himself: “Though I am able to get safely out of this burning house, yet my children in the burning house are pleasurably absorbed in amusements, without apprehension, knowledge, surprise or fear. Though the fire is pressing upon them and pain and suffering are imminent, they do not mind or fear and have no impulse to escape.” In other words The Buddha laments that although he is enlightened and can see samsara for what it really is, his disciples, his children cannot, and blindly carry on with creating and perpetuating their own suffering. However, the Buddha goes even further than simply saying that we can’t see things as they really are and continue to suffer- he is saying that we don’t even recognise our suffering as suffering! One thing you find as practice develops, is how much suffering you simply take as a necessary part of life. Take as so necessary, normal and unavoidable, that it doesn’t even ‘register’ as suffering. The obvious implication here is that we need to LOOK, and SEE what is actually going on in our lives. That we need to acknowledge these sufferings exist, and see them face to face, before we can even hope to do anything about it.
The Buddha/elder then thinks to himself: “I am strong in my body and arms. Shall I get them out of the house by means of a flower vessel, or a bench, or a table?” This statement can at first glance seem a bit nonsensical until we understand the symbolism of these three objects. A ‘flower vessel’ is symbolic of the Buddha’s wisdom. A ‘bench’ is symbolic of the fearlessness of a Buddha. A ‘table’ is symbolic of the powers of the Buddha. In other words, the Buddha/ elder in the story is saying to himself: ‘I’m pretty strong, should I just carry them out of the house and bring them to safety?’ ‘Should I just yell to them to come out?’.
The Buddha decides against simply carrying them out of the burning house. He does this because as we have seen, they are unaware of the danger surrounding them. If he loads them up in a big box to bring them out, they may very well simply jump out and injure themselves, or do other silly things- even if he brings them out, they have no reason to stay outside, and may run back inside to keep playing with their toys. So the elder calls out to the children: “Come out quickly, all of you!” But to no avail. The children continue playing with their toys.
Finally the elder decides to come up with a skilful way of luring his children out of the burning house. He starts thinking about the different likes and dislikes, and characters of his children. He then calls out: “The things with which you are fond of playing, so rare and precious- if you do not come out and get them, you will be sorry afterward. Such a variety of goat carts, deer carts, and bullock carts is now outside the gate to play with. All of you must come quickly out of this burning house, and I will give you whatever you want.” Now while various carts pulled by goats, deer and bullocks don’t seem all that interesting to us today, try to imagine that they are really fantastic gifts. Think of them like sports cars or something- perhaps a Mercedes Benz, a BMW, and a Rolls Royce. Concretely speaking the three carts refer respectively to the Sravakapath/vehicle, the Pratyekabuddha path/vehicle, and the Buddha/Bodhisattva path/vehicle respectively. A Sravaka is someone who, hearing the Buddha’s teachings, wishes to gain enlightenment for themselves.
A Pratyekabuddha is someone who works diligently on their own towards their goal of enlightenment. Both these individuals are working for their own enlightenment with little thought to the enlightenment of others. In the story they are the goat and deer carts. In reality, they together are the Hinayana practitioners. The Bodhisattva works not only for his own enlightenment, but also for the enlightenment for all other sentient beings in the universe. In the story they are those who like the bullock carts. In reality they are the practitioners of the Mahayana.
When the children hear that these wonderful gifts are waiting for them just outside the door, they scramble over each other as fast as they can, trying to get out first. When they arrive outside, the elder, happy that his plan to save his children was successful, gives them magnificently adorned and jewel-covered carts pulled by goats, deers, and bullocks respectively. The beauty of these carts is explained in detail, and this extravagance can be interpreted in a number of ways. In my opinion the beauty of the carts is significant. It describes that all of the carts, no matter which ones they are, are equally beautifully adorned. As we learnt in the last chapter, although the Buddha preaches three vehicles, they are all in actuality the One True Dharma Vehicle. In my opinion, the equal beauty of the carts is reinforcing this point. They may be drawn by a goat, a deer, or a bullock, but they are all equally the One Vehicle leading to enlightenment (equally adorned with jewels).
Just like the elder designing skillful ways to lure out his children, we are told: “ I (Buddha) am the father of all creatures, and I must snatch them from suffering and give them the bliss of the infinite, boundless Buddha-wisdom for them to play with.”
The Buddha further explains why he simply did not rescue his children by carrying them out. Before reading these verses we need to understand what is dichotomy is being set up here between being carried out, and being skilfully lured out. The Buddha carrying us from the flames to safety, would be like the Buddha simply snapping his fingers and transporting us from samsara to a Pure Land. While being skilfully lured out, is us learning to see for ourselves and coming out of the house. The Buddha says the following about why it is better that we ourselves do the work, and the problems with relying on the Buddha to save us: “ living creatures cannot by this method be saved. Wherefore? As long as all these creatures have never escaped birth, old age, disease, death, grief, and suffering, but are being burned in the burning house of the triple world, how can they understand the Buddha-wisdom?” In other words, if we have not ourselves become enlightened, seen samsara for what it really is, we will simply return to samsara. By removing us from the burning house of samsara, that does not mean that we are automatically enlightened, it means that we are in the Buddha’s Pure Land. But how can a Pure Land be pure, if the minds of the beings in it are not pure? We must wake up, ourselves, if it is to mean anything. We must do the work. We must come out of the burning house willingly, and what is more, we must know why we needed to come outside.
From this chapter the Buddha gives us the following admonishment which we should all take to heart: “All of you! Do not delight to dwell in the burning house of the triple world. Do not hanker after its crude forms, sounds, odours, flavours, and contacts. For if, through hankering, you beget a love of it, then you will be burned by it. Get you out of the triple world and attain to the three vehicles, the sravaka, pratyeka and Buddha vehicles. I now give you my pledge for this, and it will never prove false. Do you only be diligent and Zealous!”