THE MEANING OF FAITH AND DISCERNMENT. Faith (shin) is the working of one's emotions, and discernment (ge) that of one's reason. Though people often say that a religion or faith ought to be believed in instead of argued about, it is very dangerous to believe blindly in a religion without having any knowledge of it. If this religion is a worthless or wrong teaching, blind belief will result in not only ruining ourselves but also exerting an extremely harmful influence on our families and on society in general.
Even if a religion is a good teaching, as long as we believe in it blindly our faith is liable to be easily shaken by circumstances. Let us suppose that one believes that he will recover from a disease or that his circumstances will improve if only he has faith in a particular religion, without understanding its teachings. He does recover from his illness, believing that his cure is due to his religion, but he suffers a relapse and then begins to doubt. Suppose that then his son fails his university-entrance examination; the father forsakes the faith to which he has so firmly adhered regardless of others' opinions. This kind of thing is a common occurrence.
This kind of faith is not a firm faith in the true sense of the term but merely a narrow faith. A true religion can always be understood through reason; this kind of understanding is called discernment. When we give a clear-cut explanation of a religion, this alone is also an incomplete faith. Though we can advance spiritually to a certain degree by means of such an incomplete faith, we cannot go beyond that degree. A true religion is extremely profound. For example, even if we can understand through reason that the Buddha is the truth of the universe, when we try to penetrate this truth completely we find it to be limitlessly profound and cannot grasp it through reason alone.
A famous scientist said, "The scientific universe in our time is so mystical that we have never found it in any history of thought." His words mean that the universe as scientifically considered is much more mystical than the mystery felt by primitive man in the presence of the sun, the moon, volcanoes, storms, and other natural phenomena, or the mystery felt by man at all periods in the face of religion. The more scientific knowledge increases, the more mystical the universe seems to become. To pursue this mystery through theory and experiment to wherever it may lead is the mission of science, and this is as it should be. On the other hand, through believing in religion we can enter the world of mystery directly, not merely theoretically. The mental state generated by the firsthand encounter with mystery is called faith. A religion whose teachings a person tries to explain entirely by reason has no power to move others because this person has only a theoretical understanding and cannot put his theory into practice. Such a religion does not produce the energy to cause others to follow it. True faith has power and energy. However uneducated a person may be and however humble his circumstances, he can save others and help them promote his religion if he only has faith. But if he has faith in what is fundamentally wrong, his energy exerts a harmful influence on society and those around him. Therefore faith and discernment must go together. A religion cannot be said to be true unless it combines faith and discernment. The Buddha's teachings can be understood by reason. They do not demand blind, unreasoning faith. We must understand the Buddha's teachings by listening to preaching and by reading the sutras. As we advance in our discernment of these teachings, faith is generated spontaneously.
When a person who has a flexible mind is not advanced in discernment, he develops faith as soon as he is told, "This is a true teaching." So far as the teaching of the Lotus Sutra is concerned, that is all right, because he will gradually advance in discernment through hearing and reading its teaching.
In short, we can enter a religion from the aspect either of faith or of discernment, but unless a religion combines both aspects, it does not have true power. With this basic knowledge of the components of a true religion, let us consider the text of chapter 4.
The World-honored One had given a shravaka bhikshu, Shariputra, the prediction that he would become a buddha, and he had clearly expounded the reason in the Parable of the Burning House. At that time, such shravaka bhikshus in the assembly as the Wisdom-destined Subhuti, Maha-Katyayana, Maha-Kashyapa, and Maha-Maudgalyayana came to realize the value of the Law more and more, and became ecstatic with joy. Thereupon they bowed in reverence, and with one mind and folded hands addressed the Buddha, saying: "We are senior monks among your disciples, and we are advanced in years. We considered ourselves free from earthly troubles and sufferings and that there was nothing more for us to strive for, so we did not press forward to seek after Perfect Enlightenment.
"The World-honored One has been preaching the Law for a long time, and all the while we have been seated in our places; our bodies have become weary and we have become neglectful and have felt there was no necessity to hear your preaching anymore. We thought only of the void, of the formless, and of nonfunction. But in regard to the Law that the bodhisattvas point out to others with great compassion, preaching freely according to others' capacity, causing them to display their true character, saving them equally and purifying the world, our hearts have not taken delight. We have no words to apologize for our imperfect understanding. Hearing the prediction that the Buddha has now given to Shariputra as to our fellow shravakas, saying, 'You can obtain Perfect Enlightenment,' we are extremely glad. Unexpectedly we now suddenly hear this rare Law. Profoundly do we congratulate ourselves on having acquired so great and good a gain, such an inestimable jewel, without seeking for it. World-honored One! We have understood thus the teaching that you have now preached to us. Now let us have the pleasure of speaking in a parable to make plain this meaning." Then the four great shravakas told the following story.
THE PARABLE OF THE POOR SON. A young man left his father and ran away. For a long time he lived in a distant country, until finally he was fifty years old. The older he grew, the poorer he became. Roaming here and there in search of work, he wandered until he approached his native country. The father, who had been very sorrowful over his son's leaving home, had searched for him all over the country but in vain. Meanwhile, the father had settled in a certain city. He had become very rich, his goods and treasures incalculable. He had many retainers and attendants.
At that time the poor son, wandering through village after village and passing through many cities and countries, at last reached the city where his father had settled. He found himself standing before the gate of his father's house, not knowing whose dwelling it was.
While the father constantly thought of his son, he never spoke of this to anyone. Pondering his loss and harboring regret in his heart, he reflected: "Old and worn, I own much wealth, but I have no son. Someday my end will come and my wealth will be scattered and lost. If I could only get my son back and commit my wealth to him, how contented and happy I would be!" About that time, the poor son, who had worked for wages here and there, stopped unexpectedly at his father's house in the hope of being hired. Standing by the gate, he saw from afar a dignified elderly man seated on a couch, surrounded and revered by many respectable-looking people. The poor son, seeing this powerful man, was seized with fear and thought, "He must be a king or someone of royal rank. This is no place for me to find work. I had better go to some poor village where I can hire out my labor, and where food and clothing are easier to get. If I stay here long, I may be seized and forcibly put to work." And he hastily ran away.
In the meantime, the rich man had recognized his son at first sight and with great joy had thought, "Ah! Suddenly my son has come back. My longing is satisfied. I have found my son, to whom I can leave all my wealth." Surprised to see his son suddenly run away, the father immediately sent attendants to rush after him and bring him back. The poor son, surprised and afraid, loudly cried, "I have committed no offense against you; why should I be seized?" But the messengers grabbed him and compelled him to return. The son thought that though he was innocent, he would be imprisoned and that this would certainly mean his death. He became so terrified at the thought that he fainted and fell to the ground. The father, seeing this from afar, ordered the messengers: "There is no need for this man. Do not bring him by force. Sprinkle cold water on his face to restore him to consciousness and do not speak to him any further." The father knew that his son's disposition was servile because of his long life of deprivation and that his own lordly position had frightened his son. Though he was sure that this was his son, he said nothing to others but decided to attract his son gradually.
After sprinkling cold water on the son's face to bring him to his senses, a messenger said, "I now set you free; go wherever you will." The poor son was delighted and departed, repeatedly making respectful bows. He went to a humble village in search of food and clothing, as was his habit. Then the father, desiring to attract his son, devised a plan. Secretly he sent two men poorly dressed and humble in appearance, telling them: "You go and visit that place and gently say to the poor man, 'There is a place for you to work here; you will be given double wages.' If the man agrees, bring him back and give him work. If he asks what work do you wish him to do, then you may say to him, 'We hire you to remove a heap of dirt, and both of us will work along with you.'"
The poor son, thinking this to be work fit for him and having entrusted himself to the two messengers, received his wages beforehand and joined them in removing the dirt heap. His father, watching him, was struck with compassion. One day he saw through a window his son's distant figure, gaunt and filthy, by the piles of dirt and dust. Thereupon the father, who was unable to bear this feeling of pity for his son, put on a coarse, torn, dirty garment, smeared his body with dust, took a dustpan in his hand, and joined the laborers. He said to them, "Get on with your work, don't be lazy." The father then said to his son, "I hear you are a poor fellow. You have nothing to live on, have you? You may depend upon me hereafter. My man, you stay and work here. Don't go elsewhere. I will increase your wages. You may use without hesitation whatever you need--bowls, utensils, rice, flour, salt, vinegar, and so on. Besides, there is an old and worn-out servant whom you shall be given if you need him. Be at ease. I am like your father; do not worry anymore. I am old, but you are young and vigorous. All the time you have been working, you have never been deceitful, lazy, angry, or grumbling. I have never seen in you any of the vices like those of the other laborers. From this time forth you shall be like my own son."
Thereupon the elder gave him a new name and called him his son. The poor son, though he rejoiced at this, still thought of himself as a humble hireling. For this reason, for twenty years he continued to be employed to remove dirt. After this period, there was mutual confidence between father and son, and the latter came and went as he pleased, though his servile spirit had not yet changed.
Then the elder became ill, and knowing that he would shortly die, he entrusted the son with the management of all his wealth. Though the son had gained his father's confidence, he still could not eradicate his sense of inferiority. After a short time, the son had become familiar with his father's household and all the treasure, and his thinking gradually broadened so that he could imagine managing all his father's house by himself. He now despised his previous state of mind.
The father was greatly relieved at this. Seeing that his end was near, he commanded his son to come and at the same time gathered together his relatives and the kings, ministers, kshatriyas, and citizens of the country. When they were all assembled, he proclaimed to them, "This is really my son and I am really his father." He explained why this was so and told them, "All the wealth that I possess entirely belongs to my son."
When the poor son heard these words, great was his joy at such unexpected news, and he thought, "Without any intention or effort on my part, these treasures have now come to me of themselves."
This is the Parable of the Poor Son, the second of the seven parables in the Lotus Sutra. As soon as the four shravakas finished relating the parable, they said to the World-honored One, "The very rich elder is the Buddha and we all are as his sons." Then they praised the Buddha's compassion and his tactful power, which had led them to the teaching of the Great Vehicle even though they had been satisfied with a lesser enlightenment.
Chapter 4 of the Lotus Sutra ends with the verses spoken by Maha-Kashyapa, which repeat the story.
From our point of view, the poor son symbolizes all living beings. But here let us regard the son as these four shravakas and try to apply the parable to their case.
The poor son, who originally knew that the rich elder (the Buddha) was his real father but ran away from him and wandered through human suffering, indicates the usual state of living beings in the world. In this stage, the four shravakas were ordinary people like us. However, there is no denying the ties of father and son. Even though the son did not know that he possessed the buddha-nature and wandered in the world of human sufferings, he unexpectedly approached the Buddha. Standing at the gate of the Buddha's house, living beings do not know that he is their father. But the Buddha recognized his son immediately. The Buddha is always close to us; the truth is everywhere, and the Buddha waits for us to find him. We have only to attune our minds to him. The Buddha tries to lead living beings to the truth, but they turn their backs on him because of their servile feeling that his teachings are too high for them and that it is impossible for people like them to approach him.
Then the Buddha, desiring to attract living beings, devises a plan. He sends messengers (the servants who work in the Buddha's house and obtain mental peace there, namely, the shravakas and pratyekabuddhas) having the same appearance as ordinary men but having attained a higher spiritual stage than ordinary human beings, and he causes them to raise the level of men's minds so that they can associate with such people as the messengers. To have the son remove the dirt heap means that the Buddha leads living beings to be free from their illusions by means of the practice of the small vehicle. This part of the Parable of the Poor Son applies to the process of the practice of the four great shravakas rather than to the state of living beings in general.
After gradually making the four shravakas familiar with his teachings in this way, the Buddha desired to call them his sons and tried to improve them through his true teachings. Meanwhile, the four shravakas were still under the impression that the Buddha's teachings had no connection with them but belonged to a higher plane, and they drew a line between the Buddha and themselves. So they continued to practice the small vehicle teaching assiduously for twenty years.
This is the point that ordinary people find difficult to emulate. For twenty long years, Subhuti, Katyayana, Kashyapa, and Maudgalyayana continued assiduously to remove the dirt heap without weariness, negligence, anger, or quarreling with their fellows. On this point they fully justify their fame as great disciples of Shakyamuni Buddha. In this way they finally obtained freedom of mind and became well acquainted with the Buddha's teachings.
Then the Buddha opened the door of the treasury of his teachings and said to them, "You can have everything in the treasury of my teachings." This was the Buddha's way of saying that because they were his real sons, they might take whatever they wished. But they still thought of themselves as servants and could not abandon their servile spirit. Therefore, though they performed their duties, such as preaching in place of the Buddha, perfectly and faithfully as managers (the Buddha's disciples), they did not realize that all the wealth actually belonged to them. They still could not abandon the mentality of the two vehicles and were very well content with their present status.
The Buddha preached the Lotus Sutra just before his death, proclaiming, "The relation between the Buddha and all living beings is that of father and son. All can become buddhas." The disciples at first were surprised by this great proclamation of the Buddha, and they were overjoyed to realize that unexpectedly the Buddha's wealth (the Buddha's enlightenment) was sure to belong to them.
This parable illustrates the process of long practice of these four shravakas and also the working of the Buddha's compassion and his tactful power, through which he steadily watched over his disciples and gradually raised them to a higher degree. However, fortunately we can encounter the Lotus Sutra without going through this long process first. For this reason, we can fly straight to the Buddha's arms. But various mental attitudes are necessary if we are to do so. These mental attitudes are also discussed in this chapter.
ARROGANCE AND HUMILITY. The first mental attitude that we learn from this chapter is to abandon a servile spirit. To think of ourselves as useless is to deny our own buddha-nature, and accordingly it is to deny the Buddha. It is thus an affront to the Buddha.
We should free our minds. We should always tell ourselves, "I can become a buddha too; I am united with the universe." We should recite this over and over to ourselves. When we recite this wholeheartedly for a set period, thinking of nothing else, we can enter into the state of perfect spiritual concentration. This state makes us acquire increasing confidence. This kind of confidence is quite different from arrogance. To be arrogant means to think one has realized what one has not yet realized, that is, to judge things according to one's limited discernment.
On the other hand, when we have truly realized something, we are usually not immediately aware of the fact of our own realization. One who has reached a very advanced spiritual state can sense this realization for himself, but most of us are not immediately aware of our realization. We only gradually become aware of it through its results. For example, somehow we feel light at heart; we feel relieved; we have become open-minded; we are no longer angry over or afraid of mere changes in circumstances; we feel that everything turns out as we wish. When we have such vague feelings, though not truly aware of them, we have attained the first stage of enlightenment. Therefore, it is not arrogant to think, "I can become a buddha," or "I am united with the universe," for we have come truly to experience this to some extent.
On the other hand, we must adopt a humble attitude when we listen to the Buddha's teachings and when we transmit them to others. Both our inner and our outer attitudes must always be humble. But it is permissible to be as proud as we like when we think about the truth. We may cherish such seemingly inflated ideas as "I am heir to the universe because I am the Buddha's son. The universe itself is our own, so I can own it, too." To think thus is a shortcut, helping us fly straight to the Buddha's arms, and to make us do so is the sole purpose of the appearance of the Buddha in this world.
The second mental attitude that we learn from chapter 4 is to maintain both faith and discernment toward the Lotus Sutra. Without both, we cannot fly surely to the Buddha's arms. We are liable to deviate from the right course, either to a wrong one or to a blind alley in human life. If this should happen to us, we need to read the Lotus Sutra over again. In that way we can be sure of finding the way to return our lives to the right course, because the Lotus Sutra includes teachings that are applicable to people in all situations; we can come to our senses by beginning with any portion of the sutra. This is how we can escape from blind alleys in human life.
The third important thing to learn from chapter 4 is that those who are fortunate enough to have encountered the Lotus Sutra and have been able to understand it and believe in it can fly straight to the Buddha's arms. However, today's world, in the evil ages of the five decays, is filled with "poor sons." We cannot be said to have actually practiced the spirit of the Lotus Sutra unless we save as many of these poor sons as possible. The only thing we can do to save them and lead them is to understand the spirit of the Buddha's tactful means as illustrated in this chapter. At the same time, we must follow the Buddha's example in using tactful means; we must not forget that to follow another's good example is a shortcut to reaching the goal.
The fourth lesson that we learn from chapter 4 is that an excellent way to progress from faith to discernment is revealed here. The four shravakas listened to the Parable of the Burning House and understood it. They not only thought that they had understood it but demonstrated their understanding to the Buddha in another parable. Not only to receive the teaching passively but also to announce actively what we have been able to realize is a very good way both to deepen our discernment and to elevate our faith. Moreover, it also helps to deepen others' discernment and elevate their faith. We must not overlook the importance of telling others of our own religious experiences, as demonstrated in this chapter.
Copyright © 2009 by Rissho Kosei-kai. All rights reserved.