In the preceding chapter, "Beholding the Precious Stupa," the great truth was made plain that people's true nature is the buddha-nature. Accordingly, to perceive that one's own true nature is the buddha-nature is the first and highest way to perfect oneself as a true human being. Indeed, whoever fully attains to this perception is none other than a buddha. Therefore any person at all - a wicked person despised by the world or an untaught child - who fully awakens to his or her own buddha-nature, if only he or she firmly believes, will become a buddha.
The teaching of awakening to one's own buddha-nature is developed in the present chapter, "Devadatta," which is made up of two parts, the first dealing with a wicked man's attainment of buddhahood and the second with a woman's attainment of buddhahood.
The chapter opens as the Buddha tells of a previous existence, when for long ages he was a king. He had not been content with his life of ease and kept seeking a doctrine of complete truth. For the sake of finding such a doctrine, he determined to give up his entire way of living and announced throughout his kingdom that he would become the body servant of any man who might teach him how all people could be saved.
A hermit came to him and said that he knew the Law-Flower Sutra, by which all people could be saved, and that he would instruct the king if the king would be as good as his word.
The king then and there became the hermit's servant. He gathered fruit and nuts, drew water, attended to all his needs, and even went so far as to lie on the ground in order that his master the hermit might sit and rest on his body. Laboring in this way, he heard the supreme teaching. This story is repeated in verse. Shakyamuni then announces that his own attainment of enlightenment had a distant but major connection with his practice and austerity in this previous existence and that the hermit who had taught him was none other than Devadatta in a previous existence. Owing to this good friendship with Devadatta, he had thus become a buddha and been enabled to save many living beings. He then declares that at a time far in the future and after long practice Devadatta will become a buddha.
Now this Devadatta was a cousin of Shakyamuni and was numbered among the disciples, and though he was sharp of mind, his spirit was warped, and he became opposed to everything, breaking up the harmony of the order and even making attempts on Shakyamuni's life, so wicked a man he was. The listeners are greatly astonished and strangely moved - though the sutra does not say this in so many words - to hear Shakyamuni say that so great a traitor was his own good friend, that it was owing to Devadatta that he had become a buddha, and that at last Devadatta too would become a buddha.
We may wonder here why Shakyamuni described this former existence and said that all was "due to the good friendship of Devadatta." The reason is that to one with so pure a spirit as Shakyamuni all things, whether good or evil, are means to enlightenment. So naturally he felt gratitude for all things in heaven and earth, for whatever transpired about him helped him toward enlightenment. This is a lesson we must learn thoroughly: that all things, both good and bad, are to be seen as means to enlightenment, for which we may be grateful. This is the first lesson of this chapter.
A further question one may ask is why an evil man like Devadatta was also granted buddhahood. Although he was the means of Shakyamuni's deepening enlightenment, this was in no true sense any credit to Devadatta. His evil was not thereby erased. Thus there is no connection between the gratitude to Devadatta and the prediction of his buddhahood.
Shakyamuni abruptly presented this example of Devadatta as a means of taking his hearers off guard, to impress upon their minds dramatically the truth he had repeatedly spoken: that all people alike have the buddha-nature.
Although the idea that all alike have the buddha-nature may be stated, the actual sense that one partakes of the same nature as the Buddha hardly occurs to the ordinary person. When the close disciples like Shariputra, Maha-Maudgalyayana, Maha-Kashyapa, or Maha-Katyayana are assured of buddhahood, the ordinary person is apt to feel that the likes of such exalted people have nothing to do with him. But as the sermon continues and the five hundred and the training and the trained all get their predictions, the truth begins to come home. Still it is hard to shake the feeling that all those people were advanced practitioners, far beyond oneself.
Then in an abrupt turn the enemy of the Buddha, the evil Devadatta, is given assurance of buddhahood. The hearer, knowing that the Buddha cannot lie, has it brought home to him that if even Devadatta may become a buddha, then one who has never committed such evil deeds must have yet a better chance. Shakyamuni used this brilliant device to bring all men to perceive for themselves their buddha-nature.
Physical and mental desire are the common lot of humankind. The practicing monk or nun must strive completely to separate himself or herself from such desire, but this is quite impossible for people living an ordinary life in the midst of their families. To try to do what cannot be done is against nature, and so ordinary people are taught to turn this desire in favorable directions. This is the Mahayana way. For example, if the desire to make money can be channeled into working for society, the same work and moneymaking may become a force for good.
Devadatta turned his desire as it was into action, and this was evil. But in Mahayana teaching, if desire is diverted toward good, it may work for good. The difference between evil men and good men is merely this. Basically all people alike have the buddha-nature. And so even Devadatta, if through practice he diverted his great desire toward good, might do away with this desire and at last become a buddha. This is the second lesson of this chapter.
We turn now to the last part of the chapter, concerning women. When the Buddha has finished showing that wicked people may attain buddhahood, the Bodhisattva Wisdom Accumulation, an attendant of the Tathagata Abundant Treasures, thinks that the sermon on self-awareness of the buddha-nature is over and suggests to the Tathagata Abundant Treasures that they return to their own land. But the Buddha detains him and tells him to stay for a while to attend to his disciple Manjushri. At once the Bodhisattva Manjushri appears from the dragon palace at the bottom of the sea - a place we may take to represent the state of a culturally backward people.
The Bodhisattva Wisdom Accumulation greets Manjushri and asks him how many beings he has converted. Manjushri answers that they were countless but that there must be proof. As he speaks, like a cloud rising from the sea, the splendid bodhisattvas he has converted appear, seated upon beautiful lotus flowers.
The Bodhisattva Wisdom Accumulation is struck with admiration and asks what he taught in the sea, to which Manjushri answers, only the Law-Flower Sutra. The Bodhisattva Wisdom Accumulation then presses on and asks if there is anyone now about to attain buddhahood from the teaching, and as Manjushri is answering that indeed there is, the eight-year-old daughter of the dragon king appears and does reverence before Shakyamuni. At this, Shariputra breaks in and informs the girl that the perfect knowledge of the Buddha took incalculable time and is to be attained only after diligent labor and full practice of the Six Perfections, and that a low-brained female with obstacles in her way can hardly accomplish it.
The girl gives no answer except to present to the Buddha a single pearl she holds in her hand - a jewel worth the three-thousand-great-thousandfold world. The Buddha joyfully accepts her gift. The dragon girl then tells Wisdom Accumulation and Shariputra that yet more swiftly than the Buddha's acceptance of her pearl she herself will become a buddha, and at once she appears in masculine form as a buddha presenting the teaching of the Lotus Sutra in a spotless world far away to the south.
Beholding this scene, Wisdom Accumulation, Shariputra, and the entire congregation are greatly moved and receive the truth of this worthy occasion into the depths of their hearts. Here the chapter ends.
Attitudes toward women have been much alike in many countries, but in ancient India there was the hard notion that women were far inferior to men, that they were a body compounded of evils, and that as such they were beyond the pale of redemption. This passage in the Devadatta chapter showing that a woman might in her human form attain to the highest state and be a buddha was an earth-shaking declaration. It is thought that in all of world history this is the earliest clear call for equality of men and women.
Men and women have inborn differences - bodily shape, role in reproduction, distinctive nature, and strengths and weaknesses in the way they work. But men and women thus unlike in form, giving play to their inborn distinctiveness, build congenial households and operate society. Through all this we must not forget that really men and women are equal and alike, and this is the ethical and social ground of male-female equality.
This ground may be understood intellectually, but at the time of the composition of the Lotus Sutra, people still felt deep in their hearts that women were to be looked down on, and this idea was not easily shaken. Shakyamuni, then, went yet one step further to make the identity of the true nature of humankind unmistakably clear by the supreme assurance of the attainment of buddhahood. The idea was thus fully put here that all people, men and women alike, have the same buddha-nature.
One may object that in the text of the sutra the dragon girl does not become a buddha in her female form but is changed into a man to become a buddha. But if we consider the psychology of the Indian people at this period, the point may readily be understood. By the dramatic expression of having the girl change into a man and become a buddha, the congregation, in whom the idea of looking down on women was fixed, was greatly impressed and made to grasp the meaning. But we need not dwell on this.
At first not even Shariputra could believe that this eight-year-old girl from the dragon palace could then and there become a buddha, and in this we may find an important lesson.
This eight-year-old girl symbolizes the forthright mind and heart of the child, and, as was pointed out earlier, the realm of the dragon palace symbolizes a people at a low level of culture. The pearl worth the three-thousand-great-thousandfold world is none other than faith.
If with the forthright mind and heart of a child we believe in the teaching of the Buddha, then in that instant we melt into and are one with the great life-force of the universe. The universe is ours. Faith indeed is worth the three-thousand-great-thousandfold world.
The Buddha's immediate acceptance of the pearl means that by and through faith one can straightway go through to the mind of the Buddha. The feeling and the response born of this are the direct route to buddhahood.
With the advance of civilization, people tend to manipulate religious teachings solely in the light of reason. Understanding is, of course, important, but reasoning alone has never led to that splendid turning of the mind that comes from sudden perception in the depths of the spirit. The eight-year-old girl from the dragon palace, though not of advanced mind, yet through selflessness of heart and utter faith in the Buddha enters the state of true perception.
It is important for us, too, in setting ourselves to study the teachings of the Buddha, to cast off ready-made ideas, fixed notions, and gripping emotions and to be as receptive as a sheet of clean white paper. This is the lesson we must draw from the account of feminine attainment of buddhahood, which continues from this chapter into the next.
Copyright by Rissho Kosei-kai. All rights reserved.