The Lotus Sutra

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The Lotus Sūtra (Saddharma Puṇḍarīka Sūtra) is one of the most popular and influential Mahāyāna sūtras, and is known for its extensive instruction on the concept and usage of skillful means (upāya), the seventh paramita or "perfection of a Bodhisattva". The ultimate teaching of the sutra is implied to the reader that "full Buddhahoo...

Chapter IV - Willing Acceptance

At that time the noble Subhūti, Mahākātyāyana, Mahākāśyapa, and Mahāmaudgalyāyana, having heard the unprecedented teaching from the Buddha and the Bhagavat’s prediction of Śāriputra’s highest, complete enlightenment, were filled with wonder and ecstatic joy. They immediately rose from their seats, straightened their garments, leaving their right shoulders bared, and touched their right knees to the ground. With rapt attention and with palms pressed together they bowed in veneration and, gazing at the Bhagavat’s face, said to the Buddha: “We are the seniors of the sangha, old and feeble. We considered ourselves to have attained nirvana and to be incapable of further seeking highest, complete enlightenment, so we did not do so.

“It has been a long time since the Bhagavat taught the Dharma in the past. Now we sit with weary bodies and only contemplate emptiness, signlessness, and wishlessness. Neither the bodhisattva teaching, nor the carefree sporting with transcendent powers, nor the pure buddha worlds, nor helping sentient beings attain enlightenment produced any eager desire in us.

“Why is this? Because the Bhagavat caused us to leave the triple world and to attain nirvana. But now we are old and feeble. We did not take even a single thought of pleasure in the Buddha’s inspiration of the bodhisattvas to highest, complete enlightenment. And now in the presence of the Buddha we have heard the śrāvakas receive their prediction of highest, complete enlightenment and we are very joyful to have obtained such an unprecedented experience. We never considered that we would suddenly be able to hear this marvelous teaching; and we are overjoyed that we have attained such great benefits—an immeasurable treasure which we attained, though unsought and unawaited.

“O Bhagavat! We now wish to give an illustration to clarify what we mean: Suppose there were a man who, when he was still a child, left his father and ran away. Living in another region for a long time he passed the age of ten, twenty, even fifty years. The older he got the more impoverished he became. He went searching everywhere for food and clothing, and while he was wandering about he started back by chance in the direction of his native country. From the first the father had looked for his son but in vain; in the meantime he had stayed in the city and become extremely wealthy, and now possessed uncountable treasures.

“[The father’s] storehouses were all filled to overflowing with gold, silver, lapis lazuli, coral, amber, crystal, and other such things. He had many servants, subordinates, and clerks as well as innumerable elephants, horses, carriages, cows, and sheep. He profited through lending and his trade with other countries was also great.

“Then the impoverished son, after wandering through many villages, from one country and city to another, finally reached the city where his father lived. Although the father had constantly thought about the son from whom he had been separated for over fifty years, he nevertheless had spoken to no one about it. He brooded and grieved in his heart, thinking to himself:

I have become old and feeble; and although I have many treasures, and storehouses filled with gold, silver, and precious jewels, I have no son. When I die my treasures will be scattered and lost for lack of someone to whom to entrust them.

“It was for this reason that he was always thinking anxiously about his son. He also thought:

If I could get my son back and leave my fortune to him I would be relieved and happy, and without further worry.

“O Bhagavat! At that time the impoverished son, who had been wandering about, taking odd jobs, by chance finally reached his father’s house. Standing at the side of the gate he saw his father in the distance sitting on the lion seat with his feet propped up on a jeweled stool, respectfully surrounded by many brahmans, kṣatriyas, and householders. His body was adorned with pearl necklaces worth thousands of myriads. He was attended on both sides by clerks and servants holding whisker fans. Above was a jeweled canopy with various hanging flowered banners. Perfume was sprinkled on the ground, which was strewn with a variety of beautiful flowers. There were rows of precious objects, and people were coming and going, buying and selling. With various trappings such as these, the father appeared very majestic indeed.

“The impoverished son, seeing his father wielding such great power, became terrified and regretted that he had ever come to that place. He thought to himself:

He must be a king or of a similar rank. This is not a place where I can obtain things as a hired worker. It would certainly be better for me to go to a poor village, a place where I can use my ability and easily obtain clothing and food. If I stay here for very long I will be seized and put to forced labor.

“Thinking this way, he quickly fled. At that time the wealthy man, sitting on the lion seat, realized that he had seen his son and became extremely happy. He then thought:

Now there is someone to whom I can leave my fortune and treasures. I have been constantly thinking about my son but had no way to meet him, and now suddenly he has come. This is exactly what I wanted. Although I am old I still yearn for him.

“The man immediately dispatched his attendants to chase his son and bring him back. Then the attendants quickly ran and overtook him. The impoverished son was frightened and cried out in fear:

I did nothing wrong! Why are you seizing me?

“The attendants grabbed him more firmly and forced him to return. Then the impoverished son thought:

They have seized me even though I have done nothing wrong. I shall certainly be killed.

“He was so terrified that he collapsed unconscious on the ground. His father, seeing this from a distance, told the attendants:

I don’t need him. Don’t force him to come! Pour cold water on his face and bring him to consciousness. Don’t say anything more to him. “What was the reason for this? The father knew that his son was of lowly aspiration, and that his own wealth and position would cause him problems. Although the father knew without doubt that the man was his son, he used skillful means and did not say to others, ‘This is my son.’

“The attendant then said to the son:

You are free to go wherever you wish.

“Then the impoverished son, happy because he had never felt such relief, stood up and went to a poor village to seek for food and clothing.

“At that time, wanting to get his son back, the wealthy man employed skillful means and secretly dispatched two attendants of wretched and humble appearance. He said to them:

Approach the impoverished fellow and gently tell him that there is a place for him to work where he will be paid double. If he gives his assent then bring him back to work. If he asks you what kind of work there is for him to do, tell him that he will be employed to sweep dung and that both of you will work with him.

“Then the two attendants immediately went in search of the impoverished son. When they found him they told him this. At that time he took his pay and immediately went to work sweeping dung.

“The father, seeing his son, felt pity and wondered what to do. Then one day while looking through the window he saw his son in the distance appearing emaciated and wretched, soiled with dung and dirt. The father took off his necklaces, fine garments, and ornaments and put on torn, filthy clothes. Covering himself with dirt and taking a dung sweeper in his right hand, he made himself look fearsome. He said to his workers: ‘Work hard and don’t be lazy!’

“Through this kind of skillful means he was able to approach his son. He spoke to him further saying:

You! I want you to always work here. Don’t go anywhere else and I will pay you more. There will be no difficulty in getting the things you need, like utensils, rice, noodles, salt, and vinegar. I also have an old servant. If you need him I’ll give him to you. Be at ease! I am just like your father, so don’t worry about anything! Why am I doing this?

Because I am old and you are still young. Whenever you work you are never lazy or sullen and never complain. I never see in you the bad qualities the other workers have. From now on you will be just like my own son.

“Then the wealthy man immediately addressed him as his child. At that time, even though the impoverished son rejoiced at being treated this way, he nevertheless still considered himself a humble employee. For this reason his father let him continue to sweep dung for twenty years. At the end of this period of time each had come to trust the other. Yet even though the son had free access to his father’s house, he still lived in the same place as before.

“O Bhagavat! One day the wealthy man became ill and knew he was going to die before long. He said to the impoverished son:

This is what I have been thinking and I want you to understand my intentions: I now have plenty of gold, silver, and precious treasures filling my storehouses. Get to know exactly how much is being taken in and out of them. Why do I want you to do this? Because you and I are one and the same. Take good care of our fortune and don’t let it be lost!

“Then the impoverished son obeyed his instructions. Although he learned everything about the gold, silver, precious treasure, and the storehouses, he never wanted to take even the least amount. Nevertheless he still lived in the same place as before and was still not able to get rid of his feeling of inferiority.

“After a short time had passed the father knew that his son’s mind had become composed, that his will had increased, and that he was ashamed of his former feelings. When the father was just on the verge of death he ordered his son to meet the king, ministers, kṣatriyas, householders, and relatives, who had already assembled there. The father then declared:

This is my son, my own progeny. When we were in a certain city he left me and fled. He wandered around for more than fifty years undergoing hardships. His original name is Such-and-such, and my name is Such-and-such. Long ago when I was in that city I worried and searched for him. At last and unexpectedly I met up with him. This is my true son and I am, in truth, his father. All of the fortune I now possess belongs to my son. He already knows about our finances.

“O Bhagavat! At that time the impoverished son, hearing what his father said, became extremely happy at having obtained such an unprecedented experience. Then he thought:

I never even considered receiving this; nevertheless, this treasure house has come into my possession, though unsought and unawaited.

“O Bhagavat! This very wealthy man is the Tathāgata, and all of us are the heirs of the Buddha. The Tathāgata has always said that we are his children. Because of the triple sufferings, O Bhagavat, we experienced pain, were confused, ignorant and attached to inferior teachings in life after life. Today the Bhagavat has made us think about getting rid of the dung of fallacies regarding the reality of the world and that, in this respect, we diligently strove to attain the nirvana only as one seeking a salary for a single day’s labor. We had already attained it and were extremely happy and satisfied with it. We said to ourselves:

Because we have made diligent efforts to comprehend the Buddha’s teaching we have attained a great deal.

“But the Bhagavat had formerly perceived that we were attached to desires and content with lowly aspirations. While letting us be so he did not explain that we were to have a portion of the treasure house of the Tathāgata’s wisdom and insight. Through the power of skillful means the Bhagavat has taught the wisdom of the Tathāgatas. Although we had attained nirvana from the Buddha as our salary for one day’s labor, we thought we had attained much and did not seek the Mahayana.

“Furthermore, we have manifested and explained the wisdom of the Tathāgata for the bodhisattvas; but we ourselves had no aspirations regarding it.

“Why is this? The Buddha, knowing that we were content with lowly aspirations, taught us according to what is appropriate through the power of skillful means. But we did not know that we really were the heirs of the Buddha.

“Now we fully know that the Bhagavat is unstinting in regard to the wisdom of the buddhas. What is the reason for this? We have actually been the heirs of the Buddha from long ago, even though we only yearned for the inferior teaching. If we had yearned for the superior teaching, then the Buddha would have taught the teachings of the Mahayana to us. Yet, in this sutra he has taught only the single vehicle.

“Now, in the past the Buddha reviled the śrāvakas—those who yearned for the inferior teaching—in the presence of the bodhisattvas, but actually the Buddha inspired them also with the Mahayana. That is why we say that though we originally had no desire to seek the great treasure of the King of the Dharma it has now come to us unsought and unawaited. We have all attained what we should attain as the heirs of the Buddha.”

Thereupon Mahākāśyapa, wanting to elaborate on the meaning of this further, spoke these verses:

Today we have heard the Buddha’s words,
And we are joyful and ecstatic
At having attained such an unprecedented experience.
The Buddha has said
That the śrāvakas will be able to become buddhas.
The most magnificent jewels
Have been obtained without being sought or awaited.
Suppose there were a young and inexperienced child
Who left his father
And ran away to a distant country.
He wandered around for more than fifty years.
And his worried father looked for him everywhere.
The father, exhausted from searching for him,
Remained in a city
Where he had a house built
And enjoyed the desires of the five senses.
His family built up a vast wealth of much gold, silver,
Mother-of-pearl, agate, pearls, lapis lazuli,
Elephants, horses, cows, sheep, floats, carriages,
Peasants, servants, and other employees.
He earned interest through loans and deposits
And had buyers and sellers
Throughout all the other regions.
He was surrounded by thousands of
Myriads of koṭis of people,
Who held him in awe;
Always loved by the king,
And deeply respected by the subjects
And powerful families.
There were many people
Coming and going on different business.
He was thus extremely wealthy
And very powerful.
And yet as he grew older,
He increasingly worried about his son.
Day and night he thought:

Soon I will die.
My foolish son has abandoned me
For over fifty years.
What should I do with the
Various goods in my treasure houses?

At that time the impoverished son
Was going from town to town,
From one country to another,
Seeking food and clothing.
Sometimes he obtained them, And sometimes he did not.
He was emaciated from hunger,
And his body was covered with scabies.
Through his wanderings,
He gradually reached the city
Where his father lived,
And, after having been employed
At one place after another,
Finally ended up at his father’s home.
At that time the wealthy man
Was sitting within the gate
On a lion seat, sheltered by
A huge jewel-covered canopy.
He was surrounded by his attendants
And guarded by his men.
Some were counting gold, silver, and jewels;
And some were settling the finances,
While others were keeping the accounts.
The impoverished son saw his father,
Who was extremely wealthy and dignified.
He wondered if this man were a king
Or someone of equal rank.
He became intimidated
And wondered why he had gone there.
He thought to himself:

If I stay here for long
I will be harassed and coerced into working.

Thinking this, he ran away
In search of a poor village
Where he could find employment.
At that time the wealthy man,
Who was sitting on the lion seat,
Saw his son in the distance.
Though he recognized him he told no one,
But sent his attendants
To pursue him and bring him back.
The impoverished son was terrified,
Cried out, and collapsed on the ground
In confusion, thinking:

Since this man has seized me
I shall certainly be killed.
In vain did I come here
In search of food and clothing.

The wealthy man knew that his son’s thoughts
Were humble and foolish,
And that he would not believe what he said,
Nor believe that he was his father.
Then using skillful means,
He dispatched other men
With squint eyes, of small stature
And little dignity, saying to them:

Tell him:
We will employ you
To sweep dung, at double your wages.

When he heard this
The impoverished son was overjoyed
And returned to sweep dung and clean houses.
The wealthy man
Constantly watched his son
Through the window and thought
That his son was foolish
And willingly did menial things.
Then the wealthy man
Put on torn and filthy clothes,
And, holding a dung sweeper,
Went out to his son.
He approached his son
Through this skillful means
And said to him:

Work hard!
I have already increased your wages
And given you more balm for your feet,
Given you sufficient food
And warm, thick mats.

He further advised him, saying sternly:
You should work diligently.
Then he gently added:

I will treat you like my son.

The wealthy man, being wise,
Gradually gave him freedom of the house;
And, after twenty years had passed,
Let him become involved In the family business.
He showed him the gold,
Silver, pearls, and crystal,
And made him learn about
All aspects of the finances.
Yet the impoverished son still lived
In a thatched hut outside the gate,
And considered himself poor, thinking
That these things were not his own.
The father knew that his son
Was gradually becoming more noble;
And, wanting to give him his fortune,
He assembled the king, ministers,
s, householders, and relatives.
He informed this great assembly, saying:

This is my son.
He left me and stayed away
For fifty years.
Twenty years have already passed
Since I saw my son return here.
Long ago I lost my son in a certain city
And, after wandering around in search of him,
I ended up staying here.
I entrust to him all the houses and men
That I possess.
They are all at his disposal.

The son thought:

Long ago I was poor and of lowly aspiration.
Now at my father’s place
I have obtained an immense fortune
Of such things as precious jewels and houses.
I am overjoyed at having obtained
Such an unprecedented experience!

The Buddha is also like this.
He knew that we yearned for the inferior teaching,
So he never taught us
That we should become buddhas.
Yet he did tell us that we had attained
The stage of noncorruption,
That we had achieved the inferior vehicle,
And that we were the disciples of the śrāvaka vehicle.
The Buddha told us to teach that
Those who practiced the highest path
Would be able to become buddhas.
Accepting the Buddha’s teaching,
We explained the highest path
For the great bodhisattvas,
Using various explanations and illustrations,
And many figures of speech.
The heirs of the Buddha
Heard the teachings from us,
Contemplated day and night,
And practiced diligently.
The buddhas instantly made their predictions saying:

You will all be able to become buddhas in the future.

We have explained the essence
Of the treasured teaching of the buddhas
Only for the sake of the bodhisattvas,
But did not expound it for ourselves.
Just as the impoverished son
Who, after approaching his father,
Learned of various things
Yet did not want them,
So, although we explained the treasure house
Of the teaching of the buddhas,
We never aspired to it.
We thought that we had ourselves attained nirvana
And considered this enough.
We understood only this
And did not think there was anything else.
Even if we heard
About the pure buddha lands
And leading and inspiring sentient beings,
We never rejoiced in it.
Why is this?
Because although we thought thus:

Every existence is quiescent,
Neither produced nor extinguished,
Neither large nor small,
Incorrupted and unconditioned,

We felt no eagerness.
For days and nights we neither craved for
Nor were attached to the wisdom of the buddhas,
Neither did we aspire to it.
Furthermore, we ourselves thought,
With regard to the Dharma itself,
That this was the ultimate goal.
After practicing the teaching
Of emptiness day and night,
We were able to shake off
The suffering of the triple world,
And, bearing our last bodies,
Abided in the nirvana with residue.
We were led and inspired by the buddhas
So that our attainment of the path was not in vain;
And we have already been able
To pass on the benefits
We received from the Buddha.
Although we have expounded
The teaching of the bodhisattvas
To the heirs of the Buddha
To seek the buddha path,
We never longed for this teaching.
Because he knew our minds
The Leader turned away from us.
At first he did not arouse our zeal
With the explanation that there exists
Real profit in the teaching.
Just as the wealthy man,
Who, knowing that his son was of lowly aspiration,
Broadened his son’s mind using
The power of skillful means,
And only then entrusted his entire fortune to him.
The Buddha is also exactly like this.
He has manifested marvelous things
But perceiving that we were content
With lowly aspirations.
He brought control to our minds using
The power of skillful means,
And only then taught us the great wisdom.
Thus today we have obtained
An unprecedented experience.
The fact that we have now spontaneously obtained
What we had not longed for
Is just like the impoverished son
Who obtained innumerable jewels.
O Bhagavat!
We have now obtained the path and its fruit
And have obtained pure sight
Into the incorruptible Dharma.
For a long while we have maintained
The pure conduct of the Buddha;
Today for the first time
We have obtained the results.
For a long time we have practiced
The pure path of discipline and integrity
Based on the teaching of the Dharma King,
And now we have attained
The supreme fruit of noncorruption.
We are now real śrāvakas
And cause everyone to hear the words “buddha path.”
We are now real arhats and shall be revered
Among the devas, humans, māras, and Brahmas
In all the worlds.
The Bhagavat, the Great Benefactor,
Benefits us with marvelous things
By his inspiration and compassion.
Who can repay him for it
Even in immeasurable koṭis of kalpas!
Even if one were to serve him
With one’s hands and feet,
Bow one’s head in reverence,
And give all kinds of offerings,
One could not repay him.
Even if one were to bear him
On one’s head and shoulders
Out of deep respect, for as many kalpas
As there are sands in the Ganges River,
One could not repay him.
Or even if one were to honor him
With delicious food,
Uncountable jeweled garments,
Beddings, various medicines,
Famed sandalwood from Mount Oxhead,
And various precious jewels;
Or by building temples,
Spreading jeweled clothing and other such things
For as many kalpas as there are sands in the Ganges River,
One could not repay him.
The buddhas have marvelous, immeasurable,
Limitless, inconceivable great transcendent powers.
They are the Kings of the Dharma.
Without depravities and unconditioned,
They are patient in all matters,
For the sake of the humble ones.
They teach the common people,
Who are attached to tangible things,
According to what is appropriate to them.
All of the buddhas having attained
Complete mastery over the Dharma,
Perceive the various desires and intentions
Of sentient beings and explain the teachings
With innumerable illustrations,
According to what is appropriate to them.
Judging from the roots of good merit
That sentient beings have planted in former lives,
The buddhas perceive who are mature
And who are not.
Considering this in various ways
And understanding the distinctions completely,
The buddhas teach the single path,
Explaining it as three
In accordance with what is appropriate.

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