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The Lotus Flower of the Wonderful Law Sutra

Chapter 4: 'Faith Discernment' 


The fourth chapter of the Lotus Sutra, like the third, contains at its core, a parable. The parable of this chapter will remind anyone familiar with biblical literature of the  'prodigal son' story. Before we discuss the parable however, we must deal with the title of the chapter, and the opening scene.

When we look at the title of the present chapter we see that it is made up of two readily identifiable terms: 'faith', and 'discernment'. These two terms are often described as being each others polar opposites. Nevertheless, they are both necessary for anyone who wishes to genuinely engage with the Buddha's teachings. These terms are quite straightforward on their own. However, in order to make sense of these two seemingly opposite terms in context, we will discuss them in reverse.  'Discernment 'is essentially the ability to exhibit keen insight and good judgement. In other words, it refers to one's ability to think rationally, and weigh up facts or evidence, and make the appropriate judgements. This is a matter of the 'mind'- it requires intellectual contemplation and engagement. 'Faith' on the other hand, is a matter of the 'heart'- it is a feeling of certainty about something. Now, before you get too caught up in my skilful way of explaining the difference between the two terms- remember that in Buddhism the word for heart is the same word for mind. They are not considered to be different in the same way that we think of them in the West.

So, why does the title of this chapter make use of these two quite different terms? The short answer is because both must be utilised if one hopes to make any progress with anything!- these two opposites must be part of our approach to the world; we must walk the middle path between the two of them. These days we are generally encouraged to think only of the 'discernment' aspect of the heart/mind.  We are taught that as long as we approach all things with a degree of skepticism, and look matter-of-factly at things, we will arrive at the appropriate conclusions. In fact, this is so much the case that the word 'faith' has become a dirty word; one we are ashamed of associating with. Of course, our tendency to feel this way didn't arise independent of causes- it arose because for many centuries, western societies were enmeshed in a truly extreme form of faith called 'blind-faith'. Faith was encouraged, in order to 'protect' beliefs that were unable to stand up to critical analysis, to the point where men such as Galileo were killed for 'discovering facts'.

But we shouldn't 'throw the baby out with the bath-water'.  We are heading to the alternative extreme. What we need to remember is that 'faith' (unlike its extreme end of the spectrum blind-faith) simply means 'trust' in something. Having faith in this sense means no more than being certain that if I put my hand in fire it will burn. This sort of trusting, this sort of faith, is essential for our survival. We all engage in this type of faith constantly. When you put something in the oven, each time you have faith that it will behave the same way it did last time you did the same thing. Every time you use the multiplication table, you are trusting in the sums you remember (i.e useually you 'remember' the answer- you don't usually work it out each and every time). So, if I can point out a couple of very mundane examples that show that we all engage in varying degrees of faith each and every day, then is there  problem? don't these examples prove we have found the balance between extreme faith, and needing to verify everything each and every time? 

What you find when you look at these examples of 'faith' working in our lives, is actually how much we abhore faith in anything these days. How? All these examples are subconcious- the only reason they are there is because I had to point it out for you to look at it clearly. We shouldn't have blind faith. Nevertheless, we need to have a certain level of trust in the Buddha's teachings in order to be able to 'weather the storms of life and practice'. If we don't have 'faith' in the Buddha when he says "you are also able to attain enlightenment", then its hard to see how one might get back up each time we get knocked down. We need both discernment, and faith. We start with discernment: when we first investigate Buddhism, we do so critically and with skepticism. We try the practices. And when they work, when we can see a change in ourselves, when we can see a change in our quality of life, our discernment tells us that these practices are rationally sound. More importantly, our discernment tells us that based on the evidence, these methods of the Buddha's work! The job of faith is to keep us going between this initial stage, and the final awakening of Buddhahood. When we look at the Buddha, and compare ourselves to him, sometimes it seems like we could never approach that level...like Buddhahood is just impossible. The only way we can get through the trials and tribulations of practice, of our lives, is to have trust in, to have faith in, the Buddha telling us that we will get there. How is this faith different to just blindly believing in the Buddha? How does this type of faith also require discernment? Because we have evidence that the things which we were skeptical about, that the Buddha told us, have been shown to be true. In other words, we have reason to trust, or have faith in the person who said it. Therefore, one 'withholds one's disbelief' for long enough to see if it is true or not.


We now turn our attention to the opening scene of the chapter. The four great disciples Sabhuti, MahaKatyayana, MahaKashyapa, and MahaMaudgalyayana, state that, by listening to the parable in the last chapter, they have finally come to have precisely these two qualities of 'faith in' and 'discernment of' the Dharma.They point out that they had been only aware of the Hinayana (i,e only used discernment, no faith), but that listening to the Buddha talk about Skilful Means in Chapter two, they have aroused the faith to carry on, and have realised what they couldn't see before. They show this spiritual journey by likening their experience to a parable:

There was once a young man who, left his father and ran away. For many many years he continues to wander from place to place, trying to make his way in the world. Everywhere he went he tried to work as a hired hand, doing menial work and trying to make ends meet. He lives a quite pitiable existence and is always short of the things he needs.

Meanwhile, the father during these many years, lamenting the loss of his only son searched and searched to no avail. After many years of not finding his son, he finally stops and settles in a particular city. In this city the father runs a business. "His home became very rich, his goods and treasures incalculable: gold, silver, lapis lazuli, coral, amber, crystal, and other gems, so that his granaries and treasuries overflow; he has many youths and slaves, retainers and attendants, and numberless elephants, horses, carriages, animals to ride, cows, and sheep." We are also told that the fathers business contracts extend to other countries. Wow! what a life! Although there is a vast contextual expanse of time between us and the time in which the story was written, we can all get some sense of what this would be like. A huge mansion, lots of money, jewelery, gold bars in a volt under the house...lots of sports cars in the driveway...servants, business contracts in every major city around the globe...Nevertheless we are told that the father always laments the loss of his son, and that he is forever thinking of some way to bring his son back to him.

Finally after many years, the son happens upon the city where his father now lives. He even comes across his fathers mansion. At first glance he thinks that this might be a place where he might find some work. When he walks through the gate he looks around the grounds of the mansion. He begins to see the immense wealth possessed by whoever owns it. In a corner of the grounds he sees what appears to be a great man seated on a gold chair who is being waited on, who rejects things he doesn't like (remember the son is living poorly). Seeing all this, he starts to get a little nervous. It occurs to him that someone this rich would have professionals working on his property. He begins to think that it would be best if he left, before he gets into trouble.

While the son had been coming to this conclusion, the old father had seen him looking around the compound near the gate. The father immediately recognised this man as his long lost son. As he watches the man turn to leave, he tells his servants to run after him and bring him back to him. The son turns to see these two servants running after him- he panics and runs off faster. As the two servants begin gaining on him, it all becomes too much for him and  he faints. When the father is informed of this situation, he tells his servants to leave the man be. The father tells no one that this is his long lost son everyone has heard of.

A couple of days later, the father sent his servants again to where his son was now staying. This time he had them dress in old and shabby clothing so that the son wouldn't panic like last time. They go to meet the son, and offer him work for twice the usual wage to move a pile of dirt for them. The son agrees and comes back to the mansion with the servants. When they arrive, they find the Father dressed likewise in old and shabby clothes. Over time, the son becomes more comfortable with working at the mansion (he still does not recognise his father).

As the Father and Son become closer, the Father often jokes that he is like 'a son to him'. The Son still not recognising his Father is nonetheless happy to have a good thing going. As the son gained self respect and confidence, the father increased his responsibilities until the son was now equivalent to manager of his business. By this time, the sons feelings of inferiority had lessened greatly, and the Father, knowing his own age and anticipating his death, called the king, the officials and all the big business partners he had to his mansion.

When they all get there, he announces to everyone there(including his Son) that this employee was indeed his long lost son, and that he will inherit all that he has. It was only at this moment that the son realized that this rich man was his father, and that all that he posessed was also his. Here ends the parable.

The rich man in the story is of course the Buddha. The wandering and poor son is all of us; all living beings. Althoug we are all the sons and daughters of the Buddha, we are unaware of our illustrious birth, and thinking such things have nothing to do with us, we turn our back on the way of our own accord. We leave the abode of enlightenment, and going out in the world, suffer in Samsara, instead of living with the Buddhas in Nirvana.

Nevertheless the bond between a child and a parent cannot be so easily severed, and the Buddha forever hopes, and thinks of skilful ways to bring us back to the mansion. Although we are ignorant of our our Buddha-Nature, we will one day, almost instinctively return to the Buddha, just as the son made his way back to the fathers mansion. Even when we don't recognise the Buddha, he recognises s as his own. He sees himself in us, he sees us as you would your children. Think about that...

The Buddha remains only so that he can help us come back to our birth right. Don't just take that at face value. Really think about how beautiful, how important, how lucky we are! Are you listening to the Buddha's words right now? Yes! Then that means you are feeling the Buddhas embrace right now. You are experiencing his affirming, warm and proud smile right now! If that doesn't make you a little bit teary inside, you still don't understand, go back and read the story again! :)

We often see the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha, and think that they are all lofty and high, while we are low and imperfect- just like the son did when he looked inside the mansion from the gate. But the Buddha will never abondon us. He will do whatever it takes. Just like the Father wore the old and shabby clothes, the Buddha will appear as an old wise man who offers words on a park bench. The Buddha will appear as a smile on a childs face.

When the son first started working, his job was to remove a pile of dirt. In the same way, our first job is to remove the filth of our 'baggage'. By clearing away the dirt, we clear away the delusion from our minds. But the son continued for a long time doing these menial jobs, still thinking that he was just an employee for a very long time. This is also important. Buddhahood is only achievable when you keep at it. You need to keep at it no matter what happens. A lot of us can practice, have faith in the Buddha's teachings, and be good when our lives are easy and carefree. But when times get tough, or doubt come our way, or when the whirlwind hits, we just say 'I can put it aside for a moment', or 'it doesn't work when times are hard'. If that type of thinking really helped, you wouldn't still be sitting where you are.

You'd be much freer. Your 'worth', your level of 'enlightenment', your genuine trust and faith in these teachings is only shown when times are bad. In fact, the good times don't teach you much at all. You have to keep firm hold of this stuff through the good and the bad...not one or the other. And you have to keep at it. You have all noticed progress in yourselves, you have all seen your ideas change, and no matter how small, you've seen how the Dharma and the Buddha, and the Sangha have been positive jewels in your life (now do you understand why they are called the Three Jewels/Treasures?). That is using your discernment and seeing that this stuff works. Now have faith in the Buddha, for he is, and always will be, your loving father.


Rev. Jikai Dehn