The doctrine of the real aspect of all existence was explained in chapter 2, "Tactfulness," the pillar of the first half of the sutra. What the doctrine amounts to in brief is that root and branch are after all alike. In other words this is to say that although apparent forms we see with our eyes display differences in accordance with a fixed law, root and branch, from first to last, are alike void. This is a cold scientific or philosophical truth. But simple understanding of this truth alone does not lead then and there to human happiness.
Accordingly Shakyamuni developed this truth step by step in human terms, namely, that the ultimate substance of humankind is the buddha-nature. Even though at the very beginning he had clearly stated this, it was hard for the congregation at large to grasp the truth, and so he made use of parables and tales of past existences to draw his listeners on, by suggestion preparing their minds to accept the truth.
Now in this chapter on the eternal life of the Buddha, the truth is clearly revealed. Here it is stated beyond doubt that the ultimate substance of the Buddha is the everlasting life-force of the universe, none other than the Eternal Buddha. It is further stated that humankind and all other things are but part of the Buddha - children of the Buddha, so to speak. In this way the cold perception of the void becomes charged with human warmth as people are stirred to gratitude upon realizing, deep inside, that they live wrapped in the compassion of the Eternal Buddha. At this stage comes true happiness and a sense of the worth of being alive.
The philosophical perception taught in the first half of the Lotus Sutra is now, in the second half, given a spiritual lift and takes on the ineffable quality of a religious teaching. This chapter thus becomes the heart and soul not only of the Lotus Sutra but also of all the sutras.
The truth is explained rationally, but in the parable of the physician's sons it is put in terms easily understood by all. The parable forms such an important part of the chapter that it is well to consider the essentials of this part of the sermon in terms of the parable itself.
The parable tells of a doctor renowned for his knowledge and skill with medicines, for he can cure any disease. This doctor has many children, and once when he has to go away to attend to some matter, in his absence the children drink some of his poisonous medicines. Such an event would never have happened if he had been at home, but children will be children, and this is the result. As the poison begins to work, they throw themselves on the ground in agony. At this point the doctor comes home. Some of the children are not so badly affected, but some are completely out of their minds. Still, they are all overjoyed to see their father again. They welcome him home, tell him how foolish they have been, and beg him to cure them and save their lives.
The doctor at once sees their state and sets about compounding curative herbs of pleasing color, taste, and smell. He gives his children the medicine he has compounded, promising them that it will take away their pains and cure them. The children who are not so badly affected and have not lost their senses take the medicine and are immediately cured, but the ones in whom the poison has worked deeply will not take the very medicine they have begged for. Being out of their minds, they do not like the color and smell and will not take it.
The physician sees that he must take extreme measures if his poor children are to be saved, for the poison has completely overcome their senses. He then gathers the children together and tells them that he is getting on in years and must soon die. Still, he has affairs to attend to and must go away again. He will leave the medicine he has prepared for them and urges them to take it. With this he sets out and has not been gone long before he sends a servant back with word that he has died.
The children are shocked and thrown into sorrow at this news. For the first time they keenly feel their desolation, and the shock restores their senses. The medicine their father has left now seems pleasant to look at and smell. They swallow it down and are promptly cured. At this point the father they have all thought to be dead comes home, alive and well. The doctor in this parable is the Buddha, the children ourselves. The poison is various desires, and the good medicine is the teaching of the Buddha.
Ordinary people are subject to all kinds of desire, and the prime reason for this is that they think that only what they can see with their eyes really exists and that what they can't see doesn't. Indeed the minds of all of us are taxed and in pain on account of our seeing our own bodies, money, and other material things, as well as all the events occurring around us, as things that really exist.
Shakyamuni taught that all visible or apparent forms in the world are but temporary appearances brought into being by combinations of causes and conditions. If these causes and conditions did not exist, neither would those visible forms, and different causes and conditions would produce other visible forms accordingly. On the basis of this truth he enunciated the doctrines summed up as the Twelve Causes, the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, and the Six Perfections. Through these teachings many were enabled to set aside delusion and attain to a peaceful state of mind.
Now so long as the superb leader Shakyamuni was near at hand constantly to teach and instruct, all was well with those he led. But it is a melancholy fact that when a leader is gone, bit by bit many ordinary followers will revert to what they were before. The average person, who thought that only what he or she could see really existed, was all too likely to stray from the path once Shakyamuni Buddha, who could be seen, had entered nirvana, or died as a physical body, even though the Buddha as life-force of the universe was and is always at hand.
Shakyamuni was concerned about this, and through the parable of the poisoned children he made abundantly clear the doctrine that the Buddha exists forever and is imperishable. Thus it is that though the leader may pass on, if only the truth he taught remains, human beings may be saved by it.
Just as the children in the parable, in their father's absence, did as they pleased and brought pain on themselves by inadvertently taking poison, so other living beings, in the absence of the Buddha in person, have brought suffering on themselves by living as they pleased. In the parable the father returned from the dead, so to speak, when he came home, and even the children who, like people swayed by various desires, had lost their senses from poison were overjoyed to see him again. They were like anyone, for however far one may stray from the path, in humanity's heart of hearts the buddha-nature remains intact.
The Buddha, like the physician-father, compounded a variety of precious medicines: a medicine to put aside delusion, a medicine for gaining true wisdom, a medicine to awaken a spirit of dedication to others. These were his devices of teaching. There were some who accepted them at once and were thereby saved, but there were numerous others who paid no attention and would not touch the medicines left for them. Being out of their senses, they found no virtue in them, mistaking their fragrance for stench and their color and taste for something foul. They would not touch them, for they were infatuated with the pleasures of various desires. To them the teachings of the Buddha were cramping, and they had no wish to listen to them. This is shallow humankind's selfish way. The Buddha, then, resorted to an extraordinary device to open people's eyes. He hid himself for a time where he could not be seen.
Historically Shakyamuni entered nirvana, which is to say that as a physical body he died. At this people felt suddenly left alone, and in their hearts there arose a fierce sense of devotion to a great leader lost. As powerful as a thirsty person's want for water, an urge to seek after the Buddha welled up in their hearts. In the verse passages of the sutra this thought is expressed as longing and thirsting.
People recover their senses as soon as such an intense feeling fills their hearts. They awaken. At this they realize that they must do something, and then with a will they leap to the teaching left for them and willingly take their medicine.
This longing and thirsting is not just for the visible Buddha. It has a more general or abstract sense. It often happens that people who have never been interested in gods or buddhas, always intent on the affairs of daily life, suddenly face some crisis. They find then that they want something to lean on or that they have enough of material things. They feel that something is missing and wonder if there isn't something that can give satisfaction to the spirit. Now what such people are looking for, whether they know it or not, is some god or buddha, for something to lean on, for something that can give satisfaction to the spirit.
And so either the historical Buddha or the Buddha whose being is abstract will serve. The important thing, if one's spirit is to be cleansed, if one is to be delivered, is to long for what can truly bring deliverance, to long for it with all the intensity of a person perishing from thirst. In this one point religion differs from the teachings of philosophy or ethics. The fine teachings of philosophy and ethics are easy enough to grasp with the mind, the surface of the mind. And if everyone understood them in this way and acted accordingly, there would be no problem. But in fact things don't go that way. Though much may be known on the surface of the mind, there are things hidden in the recesses of the mind that are not so easily dealt with, and unwittingly people are led astray by these things and in consequence act badly. This is why the hidden mind also must be cleansed, for without such cleansing there can be no deliverance. Religion and faith accomplish this for us.
In the parable the children were awakened when they were overtaken by longing and thirsting for their father, and when they had recovered their senses, their father came back home. In general terms what this means is that all beings may, if only they are alert, know that the Buddha is ever there.
The ultimate substance of the Buddha is the eternal, imperishable life-force, and never for an instant is this not at our sides. No, not at our sides, for it is a mistake to think of it as beside us; rather, the Buddha abounds within and about us all. We ourselves are of one substance with the Buddha.
Thus it is that if the Buddha seems not to be present, it is merely because we have forgotten or lost sight of the presence. Humanity has little abiding interest in infinite existences. How many people are always conscious of air or the sun or water? Only when something happens, particularly when there is want, do we remember how precious these things are.
We commit the same error with the Buddha. The ultimate substance of the Buddha is the basic life-force that calls into being, animates, and moves all things. And so since to live by the law of this life-force is to be free in the mind and ever happy, why should any of us ever forget, act contrarily, and bring suffering upon themselves?
If we have a deep awareness that we are animated by the Buddha, the life-force of the universe, if we are alive to the truth that as long as we are animated by the life-force of the universe the right way to live is by its laws, and if only we live according to the teachings of the Buddha, which are founded on these laws, then we may live always with the greatest confidence. Whatever pangs of life there may be, it will be as though they actually did not exist. This is the true way to live as a human being, and this is the great lesson of this chapter.
Copyright by Rissho Kosei-kai. All rights reserved.