The Family of King Wonderfully Adorned
by Gene Reeves
Sometimes it is the children who, in a reversal of the usual role, are able to lead a parent to the truth.
For the fifteen centuries or so of its life, Buddhism was almost exclusively a religion of monks, usually supported by lay members and groups. Initially it was exclusively a society of male monks, who separated themselves from ordinary life and responsibilities by leaving home to follow the Buddha. The Buddha himself abandoned his home and family in order to pursue an ascetic life. For the most part, monks do not have a lot of interest in family life; it is what they have abandoned.
So it is very interesting that we find in chapter 27, nearly at the end of the Lotus Sutra, an interesting family drama, the story of a king named Wonderfully Adorned, his wife, Queen Pure Virtue, and their two sons.
The Buddha tells the assembly that long ago there was a buddha with the very long name of Wisdom Blessed by the King of Constellations Called the Sound of Thunder in the Clouds. (Here, I'll call him "Wisdom Blessed" for short.) Like Shakyamuni Buddha, Wisdom Blessed Buddha taught and preached the Lotus Sutra. And it was during the age of his Dharma that there lived a king by the name of Wonderfully Adorned, with his wife, Queen Pure Virtue, and their two sons, Pure Treasury and Pure Eyes.
The two sons had already acquired great magical powers as a result of doing everything a bodhisattva should do, including perfecting seven bodhisattva practices, having good attitudes toward others, practicing thirty-seven ways to enlightenment, and achieving seven types of contemplation. But their father was a follower of a non-Buddhist way. So the sons went to their mother and pleaded with her to go with them to hear the Buddha preach the Lotus Sutra. The mother agreed, but told them to first get their father's permission, and, with sympathy for him, to use their magic to persuade him.
The sons then went up into the air before their father and performed a variety of wonders--standing, walking, sitting, and lying down in the air, emitting water and fire from their bodies, suddenly becoming giants or dwarfs, diving into the earth as though it were water, walking on water as though it were earth, and so on. In this way they were able to open their father's mind by purifying it, enabling him to understand and have faith in the Dharma.
Of course, the king was filled with joy, and wanted to know who their teacher was. To this they replied that it was Wisdom Blessed Buddha, who teaches the Lotus Sutra everywhere. The father said he wanted to go with them to see the Buddha.
Then the sons went back to their mother and begged her to allow them to leave home so that they could practice the Way under Wisdom Blessed Buddha. As it is extremely difficult to see a buddha, she said, the mother agreed. Then the sons asked both parents to go with them to see the Buddha. Thus, all four approached the Buddha, accompanied by tens of thousands of various ministers and servants.
Wisdom Blessed Buddha taught the king, showing him the Way, and making him very happy. The king and queen removed the extremely valuable necklaces they were wearing and tossed them over the Buddha, whereupon the necklaces flew up into the sky and were transformed into a jeweled platform on which there was a jeweled couch and billions of heavenly garments. And the Buddha, sitting cross-legged on the couch, emitted great rays of light and announced to everyone that, after much study and practice as a monk, King Wonderfully Adorned would become a buddha.
Following this, the king abdicated his throne, gave up his home, and with his wife and two sons, practiced the Buddha Way according to the Lotus Sutra for eighty-four thousand years under Wisdom Blessed Buddha. Following contemplation, the former king went to Wisdom Blessed Buddha up in the air to praise his sons for doing the Buddha's work, enabling him to see the Buddha and inspiring the roots of goodness which were already in him. "These two sons," he said, "are my good friends."
And the Buddha agreed, praising such friends and explaining that anyone who plants roots of goodness will subsequently have good friends. "A good friend," he said, "is the great cause and condition by which one is transformed and led to see the Buddha."
After praising the Buddha at length, the former king promised never again to follow his own whims, allow himself a wrong view, or experience pride, arrogance, anger, or other evil states.
Shakyamuni Buddha then explained to the assembly that King Wonderfully Adorned was actually today's Padmashri Bodhisattva, Queen Pure Virtue was actually Marks of Shining Adornment, who appeared in that other world out of compassion for the king, and the sons were the bodhisattvas Medicine King and Superior Medicine, who had gained such powers by planting roots of goodness under countless buddhas.
A Modern Family?
This story is primarily about the relationship of the father, King Wonderfully Adorned, with his sons. But we may find the role of the mother, Queen Pure Virtue, also of interest. In the India of that time, women were very subordinate to men and therefore wives to their husbands. Of course, this queen does not challenge her husband directly. In fact, she insists that their sons respect their father, even though he is of a different religion. As is often the case with modern mothers, however, this mother seems to be the glue holding the family together, a kind of mediator between the father and the sons. More than anyone else in the story, she displays great skill in means, in effect teaching the sons how to persuade and convert their father to the Buddhist path.
It is also interesting that we find here the Lotus Sutra being sensitive to the possibility of families having members with different religious perspectives. Sometimes the term "heretical" has been used to translate the Chinese/Japanese term gedo which literally means "off the path," where the path is the way of the Buddha. It simply means non-Buddhist. Actually, one could say that Buddhism itself is a Hindu heresy. "Heresy" means departure from something already established, some "orthodoxy," and is always more or less within some tradition. Thus "Christian heresy" is possible and so is "Buddhist heresy" but that is not what is meant by gedo, especially here, where the king is a follower of Brahmin views, that is, of orthodox views.
So, the king's beliefs are different, perhaps even more "orthodox" than those of the sons, who have decided to follow the buddha of that time. What should the sons do in such a case? Here they are urged by their mother to continue to respect and honor him.
Buddhism does not reject family life. By setting up an alternative, celibate institution, it did have and continues to have a problematic relation to families, especially in traditional Theravada Buddhism. But the Lotus Sutra says little about monastic rules and life as such, emphasizing the importance of life in the world being dedicated to the work of the Buddha. Thus, we can understand this story as saying that it is good if a whole family can devote itself to the Buddha Way.
Roots of Goodness
The buddha in this story says that anyone who plants roots of goodness will have good friends. This idea of "roots of goodness" or "wholesome roots" can be compared to buddha-nature, but is not exactly the same. Buddha-nature is understood to be given by nature and unavoidable. Roots of goodness, on the other hand, are typically, in Buddhist literature, planted in former lives.
Though the term is not found in the Lotus Sutra itself, most contemporary followers of the sutra make much use of the term "buddha-nature" to express one of the sutra's central teachings--the idea that everyone, every living being, has the potential and power to become a buddha.
Especially in talking with non-Buddhists, who have no knowledge of the Buddhist ideas of causation and "buddha-nature," sometimes it is better to use ordinary terms rather than Buddhist jargon. Though we can say that one of its central teachings is the buddha-nature, the Lotus Sutra itself never uses that term.
The main point in the use of "roots of goodness" here is that acts have consequences. Each of us has resources to draw upon. We don't start from nothing. Those who have preceded us, even those who have preceded us by many centuries, have laid the foundations for our own lives. But, in the same way, we too can plant roots of goodness, making the world, even into the distant future, a more wholesome place for our descendants.
In this story, leaving home is the primary indication of personal transformation. The Lotus Sutra frequently uses a phrase that means "teach and transform." Usually it involves a transformation from ordinary monastic life to the life of a bodhisattva, that is, undergoing a change from one focused on one's own salvation to one focused on helping others. Here, however, leaving home is used to indicate the transformation from being a householder to being a fulltime follower of the Buddha. We are not told whether King Wonderfully Adorned and his family shaved their heads and became monks and nuns, as what is important here is not so much their status as their behavior. "The practice of the Buddha's teachings," says the king, "will bring peace and comfort, and good feelings. From this day forward, I will no longer follow my own whims, nor allow myself wrong views, pride or arrogance, anger, or any other evil states."
What is involved, then, is essentially the forsaking of more purely selfish interests for the good of the whole--that is, doing the work of the Buddha. This is a kind of radical change in life, a kind of conversion. Thus, though not the same, it can be related to and compared with the central theme of Christianity, expressed there both as conversion and as resurrection--that is, the everpresent possibility of a radically new, transformed life.
Founder Nikkyo Niwano thought that such conversion is symbolized in this story by the magic of the two sons. By performing fantastic stunts, they showed their father that the Buddha Dharma had changed their lives--their bodies and their behavior--and not just their words. Especially with those who are closest to us, teaching by example may be more important than attempting to teach by words alone. Of course, some things can probably only be taught by words, but when it comes to teaching religious faith, how one lives or embodies one's faith may be much more persuasive than what one says about it.
The Lotus Sutra teaches that we should reflect the Dharma in our own lives, especially in relation to those who are close to us, such as other members of our family. Just thinking we are Buddhist, or saying we are Buddhist, or belonging to a Buddhist organization, or even regularly performing Buddhist practices such as meditation or recitation, is not enough. It doesn't mean anything unless it affects how we behave in everyday life.
A Platform for Spreading the Buddha's Light
When the king and queen gave Wisdom Blessed Buddha their extremely valuable necklaces, they were transformed into a jeweled platform with a seat for the Buddha from which he emitted light. The point of this, I think, is that when we devote ourselves to the Buddha, not only can our lives be transformed, but ordinary things as well. The necklaces can symbolize any gift to the Buddha. Here the necklaces are exceptionally valuable because they are from a king and queen. But every gift to the Buddha is valuable in its own way. We might think of the Donate-a-Meal Campaign, as a simple program through which members of Rissho Kosei-kai and others forgo meals in order to contribute to a fund for peace, as a kind of gift to the Buddha--gifts that, though small, may be transformed into something very great.
It is no accident that the first of the six bodhisattva practices is generosity, often understood as giving, or making donations.
The Value of Friends and Teachers
King Wonderfully Adorned praises his sons as his friends or teachers and Wisdom Blessed Buddha responds that good friends or teachers do the work of the Buddha, showing people the Way, causing them to enter it, and bringing them joy.
The Japanese term used here, zenchishiki, is not easy to translate. Some use "good friends," some "good teachers." Perhaps good "acquaintances" or "associates" would be a good translation, for there is a sense in which our good friends are always also our teachers. The point is that the help or guidance of others can be enormously useful. Entering the Way, becoming more mindful or awakened, is not something best done in isolation. We all need good friends and teachers.
In the Lotus Sutra, the term pratyekabuddha is used to refer to monks who go off into forests by themselves to pursue their own awakening in solitude. But while the term is used frequently in the early chapters and pratyekabuddhas are made prominent by being named as one of the four holy states of buddhas, bodhisattvas, pratyekabuddhas, and shravakas, we never learn anything at all about any particular pratyekabuddha. While we hear the names of a great many buddhas, bodhisattvas, and shravakas in the Lotus Sutra, we never encounter the name of even a single pratyekabuddha. This leads me to think that, at least for the Lotus Sutra, pratyekabuddhas are not very important. Though there probably was a historic forest-monk tradition in India, in the Lotus Sutra, the pratyekabuddha seems to fill a kind of logical role. That is, there are those who strive for awakening primarily in monastic communities, the shravakas, and there are those who strive for awakening in ordinary communities, the bodhisattvas. There needs to be room for those who strive for awakening apart from all communities. But from the bodhisattva perspective of the Lotus Sutra, pratyekabuddhas are irrelevant. Since they do not even teach others, they do no harm, but neither do they contribute to the Buddha's work of transforming the whole world into a buddha land.
For the Lotus Sutra, the ideal is the life of the bodhisattva, which is also the life of the Buddha. And that life cannot be led in isolation. It necessarily involves both being informed by and teaching others. Some of those we teach or learn from may be our teachers or students or close friends in a more or less formal sense, but many only become our friends in relation to the Dharma--they become our friends in an important sense because of the Dharma relationship we have with them. Such others, while not our teachers or friends in the formal sense, can nevertheless be true teachers and friends.
Though the amount of time I enjoyed in direct conversation with Founder Niwano was not very great, and we were never close friends in the ordinary sense, I always think of him as being among my most important teachers and closest of friends. He was and is my Dharma teacher. In this story, the formal relationship is father and sons, even king and princes, but the Dharma relationship is one of teachers and student or true friends.
As I wrote this, in Japan it was the beginning of this year's Bon festival season. Many people visited a temple to invite and guide their ancestors' spirits to return home for a brief visit. And they lit small fires with which to welcome them back home. In other words, Bon is a special time for remembering what our ancestors have contributed to our own lives. But it would be inaccurate, I think, to restrict our respect for our ancestors only to those with whom we have a blood or genetic relationship. Those who have had an important influence on our lives include not only such ancestors in a narrow sense, but all of those who have taught us, including some we've never known personally. That is why it is appropriate that in our ritual "transfer of blessings" we recognize a great host of spirits, both related and unrelated to us in a biological sense. For members of Rissho Kosei-kai, and many other people as well, Founder Niwano is one of our greatest teachers. It is appropriate that we recognize and show appreciation for him in suitable ways, for he is importantly related to us; he is our great ancestor.
Another way of putting the point of this story is that we should care about the social environment in which we live. It's a well-known fact that if people who are "rehabilitated" in prison return to the same social environment, they will soon revert to the kind of behavior that resulted in their being in prison. Many years ago, I had the privilege of working with disturbed adolescent children at a residential treatment center for such children. There, too, we knew that after months and sometimes years of working to restore highly disturbed young men and women to normal lives, if they were returned to the same social environment there was a very great likelihood that they would revert to the kind of depression and ugly behavior that resulted in their being sent to the treatment center. Finding an alternative social environment for those who were ready to leave was often not easy, but those who worked with such young people knew that the kind of social environment in which we placed them would make an enormous difference in what became of them.
The Sons Are Teachers of Their Fathers
It comes as no surprise to parents that the young can teach and lead their elders. But there is more than that involved here. Buddhism sometimes breaks radically with social conventions. The most important symbol and reality of that is the exhortation to children to break with their parents and leave home. In this story, the break with convention is that the sons become teachers of the father, rather than the expected opposite.
In many of the parables in early chapters of the Lotus Sutra, a father teaches his children, but here, toward the end of the sutra, we are reminded that it is not always so, that the opposite can also be the case, and that children can be teachers of their parents. Part of the significance of this is that we should expect the Dharma to come to us from surprising places, including our children. Earlier we have seen that it can come even from our enemies, or from a young dragon princess.
This is part of idea of the Universal Buddha--the Dharma is everywhere for those who have the eyes to see it and the ears with which to hear it. If we are open to the buddha-nature in others, we will see potential buddhas everywhere.
Seven Bodhisattva Practices
As we have seen, the Lotus Sutra sometimes breaks from Buddhist tradition. Almost everywhere they are mentioned, including in other parts of the Lotus Sutra, there are six bodhisattva practices, which are often called "perfections," from the Sanskrit term paramita, because they are practices through which bodhisattvas should try to perfect themselves.
Though some have been translated in other ways, the normal six are: (1) generosity in giving; (2) morality sometimes understood as following commandments or precepts; (3) patiently enduring hardship; (4) perseverance or devotion to one's goals; (5) meditation or meditative concentration; and (6) wisdom. To these six a seventh is added here--the practice of skillful means.
On the one hand, it is very appropriate that the practice of skillful means is added to the normal bodhisattva practices. Among other things, it makes clear that the practice of skillful means is not, as some have said, something that can be done only by a buddha. Here it is made abundantly clear that use of skillful means is a practice of all who follow the bodhisattva path.
But much more important, I think, is the constant ability of the Lotus Sutra to surprise the reader by presenting the unexpected. Buddhism has many formulas, several lists of different numbers of items, which originally were probably aids to memorization. They are useful in that way still. But, while finding such lists useful, we should also be aware that they are themselves convenient devices, utilized to help people to follow the Buddha and do the work of the Buddha. They should not be made into rigid lists that cannot be modified when appropriate. After reading many occurrences of six practices or paramitas, to suddenly find the list changed to seven can be to experience the impermanence of all such lists.
As you teach or share the Buddha Dharma, you may want to devise your own list of bodhisattva practices. I once talked about the eleven practices of the Lotus Sutra. If I were doing that talk again today, I would have to make it a list of twelve. The point is that the Lotus Sutra encourages us to adapt the Dharma and our ways of teaching it creatively in accord with what is most likely to be useful in our own place and time.
Following the Truth
The king follows the truth when it is shown to him, even though it is his own sons who lead him to the truth. This probably is the main point intended in the story. The Lotus Sutra wants us to realize that we too must follow the truth, regardless of the source.
Following the truth means not only recognizing it, but also acting in accord with it. The king sees truth in the deeds of his sons and he follows them to see Wisdom Blessed Buddha.
In this sense, Buddhism can be seen as radically anti-authoritarian. You should follow the truth regardless of convention, regardless of from where or from whom it comes. But, at the same time, this final authority of the individual has to be kept in check by having good associations, good friends, and teachers.
Thus, Buddhism is here again a kind of middle way--saying follow the truth as you yourself see it, but be sure that you are looking in the right places, that you are looking critically, and that your perceptions are shared by good friends.
Children of the Buddha
Especially in early chapters of the Lotus Sutra, the expression "child of the Buddha" is frequently used as equivalent to "bodhisattva." For some this might signify leaving home in order to enter the Sangha, as in this story King Wonderfully Adorned and his entire family leave home to follow Wisdom Blessed Buddha. "Leaving home" in Chinese and Japanese means becoming a monk or nun, and thus becoming what was often thought of as a true Buddhist.
But one of the truly liberating teachings of the Lotus Sutra and Mahayana Buddhism generally is that one does not have to become a monk or nun in order to follow the bodhisattva way to be, just like the Buddha himself, a Dharma teacher. As we see most explicitly in chapter 10 of the Lotus Sutra, anyone can be a Dharma teacher for others. Such Dharma teachers are all children of the Buddha. But here being a child of the Buddha is not so much an alternative, as it is when one leaves home to follow a buddha, as it is an addition, a kind of fulfillment of being a child of one's biological parents. This is what is symbolized in this story by the fact that the whole family gives up domestic life in order to follow a buddha. In a sense, their entire home--father, mother, children, and servants--left home together.
Thus, the meaning of this story for us is that we can be children of our parents and parents of our children, or have no children at all, and still be children, true followers, of the Buddha. This potential to be a true child of the Buddha, according to the Lotus Sutra, is not initially something we have to earn or learn, it is given to us, just as our parents and children are given to us. Relationships created by birth can be grossly distorted or even forgotten, but cannot be completely destroyed or abolished. So, from the moment of our birth, our relationship with the Buddha, a relationship that has close affinities to the relationship of a parent with a child, is always being given to us and can never be completely rejected or abolished.
In a way, this is the lesson of the story of Devadatta in chapter 12 of the Lotus Sutra. No matter how hard he tried to harm the Buddha, he could not prevent the Buddha from seeing the potential in him for becoming a buddha himself. So, too, with us. No matter how much we may fail to follow the bodhisattva path, no matter how much we may fail to deal adequately with the poisons of greed and anger and stupidity in us, no matter how weak or sick or tired we may become, nothing on heaven or earth, not even a buddha, can remove or destroy our ability to do good by being a bodhisattva for others.
Gene Reeves is currently studying, teaching, and writing on Buddhism in Tokyo. A consultant and teacher at Rissho Kosei-kai, he was recently a research fellow at Rikkyo University. Before coming to Japan in 1989, Dr. Reeves was the dean of Meadville/Lombard Theological School and professorial lecturer in the Divinity School of the University of Chicago.
This article was originally published in the October-December 2006 issue of Dharma World.
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