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   Home      The Lotus Flower of the Wonderful Law Sutra      Chapter 5: "The Parable of the Herbs"

The Lotus Flower of the Wonderful Law Sutra

Chapter 5: “The Parable of the Herbs” 


The primary focus of this chapter, in much the same way as the last, is a parable which expresses a particular concept or doctrine-namely the parable of the ‘medicinal herbs’. In this parable, The Buddha proceeds to convey the relationship between his teachings (the various Dharma Doors/Gates) and the receptivity of sentient beings (their ability to understand). In short, it is a parable which tries to ‘flesh out’ some of the implications of Chapter Two (on Skilful Means/Tactfulness). The chapter contains some other important concepts that we need to consider. With this in mind, we will first look at the meaning behind the parable itself, and then proceed to discuss those quotes, or passages which give us something else to consider, think about, or be aware of.

In the parable, the Buddha begins by describing the various types of plants which grow across the face of the planet. He tells us that certain plants grow in different surroundings or environments(he says that some grow in valleys, some on plains, some on mountains…), that they come in different sizes (they can be either small, medium sized, or large), that they have different shapes (they can be grasses, shrubs, trees, vines etc), and that they can be described varyingly (some might be medicinally beneficial, others poisonous…). All of these plants, no matter how different they are, require the sun and the rain to nourish and feed them.

We are then told to envisage a great cloud which covers the whole sky, heavy with rain. Finally the cloud, full to bursting, breaks and the rain falls upon the face of the earth. As this cloud covers the whole world, it rains on all the plants, whatever form they come in and nourished them. Importantly, it rains on them all equally, without discrimination (think about a cloud- it doesn’t make any judgements about who it rains on, and who it doesn’t). Although this same rain falls upon and nourished the great variety of vegetation equally, the plants, grasses, trees and shrubs etc, all grow and bloom according to their nature (even though they are nourished by the same rain, the rain doesn’t force them to become a certain way as such- it simply provides them with what they can personally handle.).

The Buddha then tells Maha Kashyapa that the Tathagatas are just like this. The Buddha tells us that he appears like this great overshadowing cloud.   Just like the rain rains equally on all beings, with one and the same water, the Buddha teaches the Dharma, the Teachings of the Truth, to all sentient beings. Sentient beings may be incredibly different, they may find themselves in different locations to each other, they may have different experiences, they may have different values, they may have different sizes and shapes…in short they may be of any variety- The Buddha teaches all with the same Dharma. It is all the Buddha-Dharma, and he pours it without discrimination, on the different sentient beings, nourishing them in their own way. In other words, the Buddha is the Great cloud that covers everything. The rain is the Buddha-Dharma which is available to all living beings. And all living beings are the infinite variety of plants and vegetation described in the parable.


The Buddha’s teachings (the Dharma) explain reality as it truly is. This reality is one, and undifferentiated (i.e it is of one flavour), just like all the rain water that falls from the cloud is one and the same. But all beings differ in their appearance, their make-up (in the details of their lives), and so, receive the rain differently, according to their capacity- according to their ability to receive, accept, and make use of it. Even though, all beings have the same Buddha-Nature at the heart of their very being, the ‘details’ of their lives are different. These details are Karma. The Buddha may present the teachings in a variety of different ways (hence the different sutras, the different schools, the different Dharma Doors), and beings receive them all differently. In providing these different ‘forms’ of his teachings, the Buddha provides the opportunity for beings, varied in circumstance, to approach liberation.

The lesson of the parable therefore, is the ‘apparent’ variety, and the ‘actual’ oneness of the Buddha Dharma, the Buddha’s Teachings, the truth that lies at the heart of all things, that lies at the heart of the universe. From the parable we, personally, must also understand that we must see things, from the ‘Middle Way’. In other words,  if we over-emphasize the ‘form’ or the appearance of things (i.e if we confuse the superfluous ‘outer details’ of things with the true nature of things), then we do not yet understand, we do not see things as they really are.

Alternatively, if we head to the other extreme (and get caught up in the oneness, the emptiness, the Buddha-Nature ‘ness’) we miss the detail which ‘conditions’ and exists in the world. Therefore, just like the Buddha, just like the parable, we must walk the Middle Path- we must first understand that all things are ‘empty’, that they are ‘Buddha-ey’, that they are ‘one-ey’, but then that we have to return to the world of detail which surrounds us. We cannot get caught up in emptiness when we practice- to do so would be to ‘see the tree; but miss the forest.’ It would also mean that we would stray from the Bodhisattva Path- because we would lose the ability to use skilful means. And on the other hand, we cant, like non-buddhists let ourselves get caught up in all the messy details of the world and miss the the way things are- to do so would be to ‘see the forest; but miss the trees.’ And it would also be to keep us suffering in Samsara. This is the teaching of the Three Truths (Threefold Truth) in parable form, as well as a parable about Skilful Means. This ‘balanced’ and careful understanding of things is unique to Buddhism. I challenge you to find a more thorough-going ‘middle-way’ out there in the world!

Now that we have discussed the parable itself, we turn our attention to specific passages or sections which require further attention.

“The Tathagata sees and knows what is the good in all the Laws and also knows what all living beings in their innermost heart are doing; he penetrates them all without hindrance.”

On first reading, we can take this to be a declaration of the basic premise behind the parable- that the Buddha understands the Dharma/Laws perfectly, and he knows how living beings are (their ‘details’), and so he can teach them in skilful ways without issue. But there is something else here. We are being told that the Buddha knows what we do, say, and think in our ‘innermost heart’. We are all perhaps familiar with this sort of concept because we come from a primarily Christian Culture. But the implication here is somewhat different. Unlike the Christian/ Abrahamic concept in which God knows all that we do, think and say in order to assure us that we will be held to account for our misdeeds, the Buddha has no such power to punish us like that. Remember that it is not for our actions we are punished, but by our actions are we punished or rewarded. So why would the Buddha make a point of telling us that he sees our innermost heart then? Because he is infinitely compassionate. Because he remains in Samsara, in this world of suffering, for no other reason than to help and assist, you, me, and every other living being. Think about that. This passage should be of great comfort to us. We are not experiences these hardships, these trials and tribulations alone. The Buddha is always there for us, and he always will be. He watches, he cries when we cry, he is distressed when we are distressed, he is understanding when we misunderstand. And he doesn’t judge, he just hopes that we will keep striving on, and in the process that we will lessen our suffering.

“Those who have not yet been saved I cause to be saved; those who have not yet been set free to be set free; those who have not yet been comforted to be comforted; those who have not yet attained nirvana to obtain nirvana.”

I point this particular quote out for a couple of reasons. Firstly, It is a truly comforting, helpful quote, which can be incredibly powerful when we need support. Next time you are down, alone, dejected and beaten- remember this quote, and think of the Buddha actually saying it to you, as he puts his arm around you…In the last chapter, we discussed the ‘fatherly’ aspect of the Buddha- this is something like the feeling you should feel when you read these types of quotes. The second reason I single this quote out is that it corresponds with the Four Bodhisattva Vows which all Mahayana Buddhists take (which you have taken). Beings are numberless; I vow to save them. Sufferings/ delusions are numberless; I vow to end them. Dharma Doors/ teachings are innumerable; I vow to master/ enter them all. The Buddha-Way is unfathomable; I vow to attain it. The reason I started first with asking you to feel how it might feel to be told this by the Buddha personally, and to feel the ‘fatherly’ love and affection it entails: is because you have all vowed these very same vows. You have vowed to walk the same path, to tread the same road. That beautiful warm fuzzy feeling that the Buddha actually saying these things to you would create; you should aim to make everyone you come in contact with, feel when you are by their side.

“the Law preached by the Tathagata is of one form and flavour, that is to say, deliverance, abandonment, extinction, and finally the attainment of perfect knowledge.”

This quote tells us that the Buddha-Dharma is one. It may appear to be Hinayana, Mahayana, and Vajrayana, but in reality they are all truly the Ekayana (one vehicle), not three. Then it gives us some idea of the qualities of the Buddha-Dharma. How can we tell if what we are hearing is truly the words of the Buddha? If someone tells you that The Buddha said/taught X, Y, Z- how can you know that that is truly what he taught? By seeing if it possesses the above qualities- if it does have these qualities/ affects, it is Buddha Dharma. So what are these qualities? Deliverance: This means that they lead to ‘deliverance from’ Samsara. Abandonment: this means that they lead to one ‘abandoning’ attachments and wrong views. Extinction: This means that they lead to the ‘extinction’ of extremes; we are able to walk the Middle Path. Attainment of Perfect Knowledge: And of course, this means that if they are the Buddha’s teachings, they must also lead to Complete and Perfect Enlightenment.

With all this discussion about different types of beings, with different capacities for the truth, and different methods of teaching them- the logical question one begins to ask is ‘Where am I? What level of person am I? and what method/ school of Buddhism is best for me?’ Well, you are here reading the Lotus Sutra, and in the last segment of the verse section of this chapter, the Buddha tells you where you are in all of this:

“The Way in which you walk

Is the Bodhisattva-way;

By gradually practicing and learning,

All of you will become Buddhas.”

In other words, if you want to know what path is best for you- your path, by virtue of having the karmic roots to hear the Lotus Sutra, the most complete, and supreme truth to be found in the Buddha-Dharma are one who is suited to that path. You are suited to the compassionate path of the Bodhisattva- even if you sometimes ‘get in the way’ of your inner Bodhisattva-activity. No matter what heavy Karma you have accumulated over the many many lifetimes from the beginningless past til now, you can rest assured that you must have also done some truly compassionate and wise things to be able to hear not just the Buddha-Dharma, but the Lotus Sutra.


Rev Jikai Dehn