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The Lotus Flower of the Wonderful Law Sutra
Chapter 8: "The Five Hundred Disciples Receive the Prediction of Their Destiny"
As the title of this chapter suggests, the current section of the Lotus Sutra is concerned with the Buddha's predicting the future enlightenment of his Disciples. However, the chapter contains much more than that, for it is here that we find the fifth parable of The Lotus Sutra.
The Buddha begins by fortelling the future enlightenment of his faithful and dilligent disciple Purna. The Buddha first tells us that Purna is a model disciple. We are told specifically that "Aside from the Tathagata, no one is able to equal the lucidity of his discourse." Purna is said to have been just as dilligent with the teachings of the Seven Buddhas of the Past, and will likewise be dilligent with the teachings of the Buddhas of the Future (993). Because of this dilligent practice, and his service to the Buddhas, we are told that Purna will attain complete and perfect enlightenment and be known as 'Radiance of The Law Tathagata'.
The Buddha goes on to describe what his Pure Land will be like, and the duration of his Dharma. There is a passage in the description of Radiance of The Law Tathagata's Pure Land which requires our attention. After proclaiming its great and beautiful qualities, The Buddha states that: "There will be no evil ways and no womankind, for all living beings will be transformed and have no carnal passion." In order to understand the implications of this passage, we need to understand some background to the discussion. In traditional Brahmanic Thought, women were said to be impure, and tainted. With this context in mind, are we to assume that the Buddha agreed with the Brahmins? If the sentence finished after its first statement perhaps- in this case however, the Buddha clarifies that all beings will be 'transformed' and free of 'carnal passion'. In other words, the Buddha states that all beings will be 'genderless' and therefore free of all lustful passions.
If this is the case, why does the Buddha single women out? and include them in a sentence that talks about 'evil ways'? The first reason is that the Buddha opens this chapter by addressing 'Bhikshus'- Male Monks. Therefore, he is referring to the absence of women because for them, women represent the 'temptation'. We might conclude then that if the chapter was directed at 'Bhikshunis'- Female Nuns, that it might be the reverse statement being made. But there is more to the statement. In fact, the more you consider it, the more clever it becomes. Remember that in this context, both men and women believed that women were impure. Also remember that most of what the Buddha is saying in his teachings is highly controversial. The more you look at this sentence, the more you see and experience what Skillfull Means really means. The Buddha begins by making a statement that confirms the common view of the people (i.e that women are tainted). This lulls his audience into a sense of 'comfort' in this long sermon of 'uncomfortable revelations'. AND THEN The Buddha clarifies it (by pointing out that enlightened beings are beyond gender). By doing this, The Buddha introduces an idea that seems ridiculous to his audience, in a way that they will most likely remember, and hopefully come to appreciate.
Upon hearing about the wonders of this future Buddha and his Pure Land, twelve hundred Arhats begin wondering about their own future detiny. The Buddha knowing the innermost hearts of all beings senses this, and proceeds to predict the future enlightenment of five hundred more in the assembly. The Buddha predicts that these Five Hundred in the assembly will all one day attain complete enlightenment, and will all be named Universal Light Tathagata. It is important to note here that the Buddha gives them all a 'blanket' title (namely Universal Light). Why? The implication here is supposed to extend much further than these five hundred disciples to all of us. In short, the Buddha is telling us that we too, any of us, if we practice like faithful Purna did, can attain Buddhahood. The name which is given to us all here, is designed to give us some sense of our obligation as Bodhisattvas/Buddhas. That is, that we are to be a light that shines universally. We are to be a bright light in a dark world. And finally, the title is presented in this 'blanket fashion' because it is critical that we are ALL this way, not just some of us. It is from passages like this, that our founder formulated our school motto of "Ichigu wo Terasu" or 'Light up a Corner of your World'.
After the Buddha has finished predicting our/the disciples future destiny, he states: "Inturn each shall predict saying: 'After my extinction so and so shall become a Buddha.' That means that because the Buddha has given you and I predictions, one day, when we attain our enlightenment, we must likewise predict the future enlightenment of other. In other words we must continue Shakyamuni Buddhas work. We are not Hinayana practitioners. It is not enough for us to simply strive for our own enlightenment, and having achieved it, enjoy the bliss of Buddhahood. We are Mahayanists. We must have compassion for all beings, just like the Buddha had for us in the first place.
The Buddha then closes the prediction by telling us: "To these who are not in this assembly, do you proclaim my words." As you should recall from Chapter 2, when the Buddha began to speak, a large number of monks, nuns, laymen and laywomen, left the assembly, thinking they had learn't all there is to know. These disciples are the Hinayana- those who reject the Mahayana. It is a Hinayana view that most living beings cannot attain complete enlightenment and Buddhahood. In the Hinayana it is thought that for most of us, Arhatship, or the cessation of suffering, is the ultimate possibility. However, The Buddha is here telling us to inform them of his words- of the fact that they will one day become Buddhas. PLEASE NOTE: In the same way that The Buddha let them leave without saying a word in chapter 2, we are not to read this passage and assume that it is our duty or our right to 'convert them'. This is not the way. Just like Shakyamuni Buddha, we are to do it skillfully, or only when they are ready to listen, or ask us about the Mahayana. Therefore, this passage is simply telling us that we are to tell them when appropriate, of The Buddhas ultimate teachings. Why? Because they should know better. Because they have 'their foot in the door' so to speak.
The disciples, overjoyed at hearing the prediction of their future enlightenment, reproach themselves for thinking they had attained Arhatship, and becoming complacent with thinking it to be the highest goal. In reproaching themselves, they liken it to the following parable:
They tell us to imagine a man who goes to a very close friends house and gets drunk, and pases out. The next day the friend must head off to work, but he is worried about his friend who is still out cold. So the friend ties a precious jewel or gem to the hem of his inebriated friend (in case he needs anything), and he heads out to work. Upon waking up, the man leaves his friend's home, and goes out "where for food and clothing he expends much labor and effort, and undergoes much hardship". Later, the friend (who had sewn the jewel into the drunk man's clothes) comes upon his friend, and seeing him work so hard and getting so little, says: "Tut! Sir, how is it you have come to this for the sake of food and clothing?" He then tells him that he sewed the jewel into his coat, but that because of his stupidity and ignorance, instead of using it, he went about laboring and working tirelessly to make ends meet. The friend then pulls the jewel out of where he had sewn it, and tells his friend to use it as he would like.
In short this is a parable discussing our
Buddha-Nature, and our Original Enlightenment. The Buddha is the good friend
who cares about us even though we turn up at his place drunk and proceed to
pass out. We are the ignorant man who after passing out, awakes still ignorant
and goes about struggling, and working so hard, achieving so little. The Jewel
hidden in our coat is our Buddha-Nature. It is our potential that has been
hidden there since the beginning, and needs only to be brought out and shown to
us. The suprise that the man feels when he is shown that the jewel was always
there, is akin to our suprise when the Buddha shows us that we have been
enlightened since the very beginning, by showing us our own Buddha-Nature, with
a smile upon his face :)
Rev Jikai Dehn