The Lotus Flower of the Wonderful Law Sutra
Chapter 7: "The Parable of the Magic City"
Although chapter seven is known as the 'magic city parable', it actually contains two sections, the first of which, can be thought of as standing independently of the Magic City story. In this first section, we hear the story of Universal Surpassing Wisdom Tathagata, and his sixteen sons, as well as an account of the Brahma Kings (gods) coming to pay homage to the Buddha Universal Surpassing Wisdom. It is with these accounts which we must now turn.
At the outset of the chapter, Shakyamuni Buddha goes to great lengths to describe the great and vast expanse of time that has passed since these events took place til now. We are told that the only way to imagine the vast expanse of time since this Buddha attained Nirvana (and ceased to exist in space and time) is to imagine that all of the 'earth element' (soil) of a:
"Three Thousand Great Thousandfold World were by someone ground into ink, and he were to pass through a thousand countries in an eastern direction, and then let fall one drop as large as a grain of dust; again passing through another thousand countries, again let fall one drop; suppose he thus proceeds until he has finished the ink...Suppose all those countries which that man has passed, where he has dropped a drop and where he has not, were ground to dust, and let one grain of dust be a kalpa- the time since that Buddha became extinct till now still exceeds those numbers by innumerable, unlimited hundred thousand myriad kotis of asamkhyeya kalpas."
In other words, imagine that all of the universe was ground to dust. Then imagine that you were able to travel through a thousand worlds, and were to drop a single particle of that dust in the thousandth world you visited. Then you continued travelling through another thousand worlds, and dropped another single particle of the dust. Continue to imagine that you continued doing this travelling through numberless worlds in the multiverse (multiple numberless universes) and dropping a single drop in the thousandth world until you had finished dropping all the dust of the universe. Now imagine the great number of all those worlds through which you had to pass. All those lands where you dropped some dust, and all those worlds where you didn' drop any. If you were to grind all those many many worlds to dust, and were to think of each particle of dust as a single aeon of time- multiply that number of aeons by infinity, and you still wouldn't be able to calculate the complete extent of time that has passed since that Buddha's extinction (Nirvana).
As if that incalculable number wasn't enough to raddle your brain, the Buddha goes on to say: "By the power of my Tathagata wisdom, I observe that length of time as if it were only today."
Why does the Buddha go to such great lengths to describe this vast expanse of time? If he wanted to say that it is so long that you cant calculate it, why didn't he just say that!? And secondly, why after describing it in such detail, does he say that is 'all in a days work for me'?
Let us work backwards, starting with the Buddha stating that he sees this time as if it were 'only today'. There are a number of implications to this statement- but let's discuss the most straightforward in the context of the chapter. The Buddha so often tells us that the Enlightened Mind, the Enlightened State is so far beyond whatever we could possibly imagine. In some sense, the Buddha is trying to give us a very real sense of what that might mean here. The depth and difficulty we think about when we contemplate that number (or contemplate how impossible it would be to contemplate that number)- that is only a small fragment of the wisdom posessed by Buddhas. It is a mere 'day' in the vast expanse of a lifetime. As a side note, this has a very immediate implication upon us: from an Original Enlightenment point of view, you posess this depth of wisdom now, here, right where you sit. The cliche way to think about all this would be to consider the oft repeated 'we only use a small percentage of our brain'. While this expression is quite misleading, it is useful for our purposes.
Now, we turn to the reason for the very detailed description of the vast expanse of time with which the chapter opened. The first reason for this highly 'graphic and visual' presentation is to give us some idea of the effort required of us on the Bodhisattva Path. The Buddha is always and continuously reminding us of the 'reality of our goal' -and of the fact that if we don't want pain for ourselves and others, we really don't have much of a choice.
However it is not just there to give us some measure of the extent of the Path, but also to give us some extent of what it means to 'be the Path'. In other words, the Buddha is giving us a very tangible conception of the power, effort, ability, that a Buddha must exert as a Buddha. The power, effort, and ability, which we have, and which we are expected to utilise for the benefit of ourselves and all other beings.
And finally, this great expanse of time gives us some sense of how long a Buddha lives- much longer than the short life we often think of Shakyamuni Buddha having. This concept is introduced here in order to prepare us for the main thrust of Chapter 16 (Lifespan of the Tathagata), so that it isn't too much of a 'shock to the system' when we get there.
Shakyamuni goes on to tell us that this Universal Surpassing Wisdom Tathagata had had sixteen sons before he left home, became a monk, and began Dharma practice. We are told that these sixteen sons all had full and rich lives with "various amusements". Nevertheless, upon hearing that their father had finally attained enlightenment, they left all these things, and went to pay homage to their father, the Buddha Universal Surpassing Wisdom. Why would they give all these things up? Because of the nature of the world in which we find ourselves. Because outside of your own enlightenment, and the enlightenment of others, what worthy goal is there? On a concrete level, we are also reminded of how rare it is to meet a Buddha, to be living and able to practice in the presense of or with a Buddha. The sixteen sons describe these things eloquently in verse as follows:
"All living are ever suffering, blind without a leader. Unaware of the way to end pain, knowing not to seek deliverance. Through the long night evil ways have increased, diminishing the heavenly throng; The world has passed from darkness into darkness, never hearing a Buddha's name. But now the Buddha has attained the supreme, Pacific, faultless Law, and we as well as gods and men gain great fortune. Therefore we all prostrate ourselves and offer our lives to the peerless honoured one."
Shakyamuni Buddha continues by telling us that when Universal Surpassing Wisdom Buddha had finally attained complete enlightenment, the universe shook, and a great bright light filled the universe in all directions from top to bottom. The light was so bright that it illuminated all of the Heavens in all directions as well. Upon seeing this great illumination, the many Brahma Kings (the gods), were unsure of what was happening, and decided to go with all of their retinues in search of the source of this great light. When the gods discovered that the light had been emitted by a Buddha upon his attainment of enlightenment, they offered him many great treasures, gave the Buddha beautiful flowers, and even offered their heavenly palaces to Him. Their only request; that Universal Surpassing Wisdom Tathagata teach them, and all other beings, the faultless and untainted Buddha Dharma.
On first glance this might simply be read as another group of people wishing to learn from the Buddha. However, it is significant that they are the highest of the gods for a number of reasons. Firstly, we are being told very clearly that the Buddhas posess wisdom far loftier than any gods. Gods still desire things/ posess cravings (if god created the universe, he desired to do so) and therefore, gods still suffer. Buddhas are beyond craving, and beyond suffering. And secondly, it is a very concrete reminder to us, that no matter how high, no matter how senior, no matter how wise we are, we must all show deference and respect to the Buddhas. Well that seems pretty obvious! BUT WAIT!- If all beings are originally enlightened, then all beings are Buddhas! Therefore, we must show deference, and reverence, and respect to ALL beings we meet. How could you hate, kill, hold a grudge against any being if you showed them the deference and respect you would show the Buddhas? the respect and deference the Brahma Kings showed Universal Surpassing Wisdom Tathagata?
This is repeated for each of the Brahma Kings in all the different directions. However, the final repitition of these events includes a passage that should be very familiar to us:
"May this deed of merit
Extend to all creatures
That we with all the living
May together accomplish the Buddha Way!"
Do you recognise it? This verse, with minor changes in wording is theTransference of Merit Verse used in all of our services, and in most Mahayana Buddhist services regardless of school.
Finally Universal Surpassing Wisdom Tathagata relents, and out of compassion, begins teaching the Dharma. He starts, as all Buddhas do, with the Four Noble Truths:
"This is suffering; this is the accumulation of suffering; this the extinction of suffering; this the way to the extinction of suffering."
He then proceeds to teach the Brahma Kings about the Twelvefold Links of Dependent Origination:
"Ignorance causes action; action cause consciousness; consciousness causes name and form; name and form cause the six entrances; the six entrances cause contact; contact causes sensation; sensation causes desire; desire causes clinging/attachment; clinging cause existence; existence causes birth; birth causes old age and death, grief, lamentation, suffering, and distress."
And finally, as all Buddhas do, Universal Surpassing Wisdom Tathagata taught his disciples the Lotus Sutra. This is once again a reaffirming of the fact that all Buddhas of the past have learn't, attained enlightenment by, and taught the Lotus Sutra, the highest wisdom.
As can be expected, we are told that these sixteen sons (the disciples and sons of Universal Surpassing Wisdom Buddha) learn't, received with faith, and passed on to their disciples the Lotus Sutra. In doing so, these sixteen sons all eventually attained enlightenment and became Buddhas themselves. The Buddhas they became are named, some of which we should be familiar with: one became Akshobhya Buddha in the east (Ashuku Nyorai), another became Amita (Amida) Buddha in the West. And finally, the last or youngest of the sixteen sons became the Shakyamuni Buddha of our world (Saha World).
Shakyamuni goes on to say that those disciples who he taught these things in the distant past are us! You and me! "All those living beings...whom I converted at that time are yourselves..." We often think of 'those monks, those nuns, those lay men, and those laywomen' who the Buddha taught in the Lotus Sutra. The Buddha is again reminding us; if we are sitting here now discussing and reading these things, then we were there on Vulture Peak, on Mt Grhdrakuta When Shakyamuni first preached the Lotus Sutra. We are not here by accident. You and I are here because we have the right karmic causes and conditions to be here. You and I are here because we have the exact same duty that Shakyamuni and the other sixteen sons had: namely to learn, receive in good faith, practice, obtain enlightenment through, and then teach to others The Lotus Sutra.
The final passage in this section of the chapter which we should consider is one with many interpretations. Therefore, I provide the passage in full, for your own consideration. Shakyamuni is discussing the fact that he wishes to teach all of his disciples the highest wisdom of Buddhas. He talks of them being in different lands and states that:
"But in other domains I shall still be Buddha though under different names."
Here ends the first section of the chapter, and begins the parable for which the chapter is named.
We are told to imagine that far off in the distance is
a land full of precious jewels which we would like to get to. In order to get
there we have to travel down a long, winding, dangerous road through a
wasteland (imagine a great desert perhaps). So in order to travel down this
road, we hire a guide to lead us through the wasteland to the great land of
jewels at the other end. On the way, the group becomes tired, worn out,
thirsty, hungry, and they begin to lose hope. Many in the group say to the
guide "We are utterly exhausted and
moreover afraid and cannot go any farther; the road before us stretches far;
let us turn back." The guide thinks to himself how pitiable these
beings are, wanting to turn back. And so, the guide by making use of a
conjuring trick, makes a great magic city appear just ahead of them. He then
tells them: " Do not fear, and do
not turn back. Here is this great city in which you may rest and follow your
own desires." The members of the group, seing this great city just
before them are filled with joy an run towards the magically conjured city.
They enter the city, and rest to their hearts content. They bathe, drink, and
feed themselves, renewing their strength and motivation thinking that this must
be the jewelled city, the land full of jewel which they sought in the first
place. Then when the guide is sure they have rested for long enough, he makes
the magic city disappear, and they find themselves in the desert again. The
guide tells them:
"Come along, all of you, the place of jewels is at hand. I only created this past large city for you to rest in."
The guide is of course the Buddha. The Buddha is the knowledgeable guide who is familiar with all the perils, sufferings, the twists and turns in the road ahead. We, You and I, are the group who sets out after the place of jewels. The place of jewels is Nirvana/Enlightenment. We are the fools who, becoming tired wish to turn back, and go home. In other words, we get tired of trying to strive on. We see the road ahead to be long, and the land of jewels to be far off in the distance. Therefore the Buddha creates a 'Magic City' for us to rest in. What is this magic city? the magic city is the Hinayana teaching. The Buddha taught us in the early teachings to attain Arhatship, and to end our own sufferings. The disciples/us, believing this to be the final goal, rest contently, assured that we have achieved the goal that we/they set out to achieve. Once they/ we have rested and regained our strength, the Buddha tells them/ us that this is not the final goal, that we must strive on, and that He created this Hinayana/ magic city for us to rest in. The Buddha now tells them/us that we must continue on the Path of the Mahayana, that we must not become attached to the magic city! And that we must now finally finish the journey to complete enlightenment.
As always, it is important for us to meet this on a personal level. If you and I are listening to this story, then you and I were the disciples who wanted to turn back. You and I are the disciples who entered the magic city, practiced the Hinayana, and thought that that was the ultimate goal. And finally, you and I are the disciples who, when the magic city was removed vowed to strive on towards the real land of jewels and treasure; Complete and Perfect Enlightenment. While the magic city in the story refers specifically to the Hinayana teachings, it can also be thought of as all of the Mahayana teachings which lead to the ultimate truth in The Lotus Sutra.
On a day to day level, we might like to think of the magic city as whatever skilful means we need to keep our spirits up. The magic city is whatever we can use to motivate us to strive on towards Buddhahood when the going gets tough.
"But there is only One Buddha Vehicle; it is for the resting place that two are preached."
Rev Jikai Dehn