The foregoing chapters have shown through parables the form and working of the Buddha and the Buddha's Law. This chapter and the next two treat of causal relations with the past, and they are further aids to those who may not yet understand.
Here Shakyamuni speaks of the close causal bond linking him with the disciples in the past, for the purpose of encouraging the disciples in their practice and affirming their attainment of buddhahood in a future life. The teaching here is that truth is eternal and unchanging and human life everlasting, so that ultimately all beings attain buddhahood.
At the opening of the chapter Shakyamuni speaks of a time ages and ages ago, so distant in the past that the mind cannot grasp it, when there was a buddha named the Universal Surpassing Wisdom Tathagata. His attainment of enlightenment occupied a vast period of time, but previously he had been a prince and the father of sixteen sons, the eldest of whom was named Wisdom Store. Long after he had left them to become a monk in a distant land and had at last attained perfect enlightenment after long practice, Wisdom Store and his brothers learned of this attainment and determined to follow in his footsteps. Their mothers and aunts were in tears to see them off, while their grandfather the king and a retinue of ministers and subjects went with them to the abode of the Buddha Universal Surpassing Wisdom.
At this point in the sutra, the king in a passage of verse reviews how the man who had been his son had passed from ordinary humanity through years of austerity and practice for the salvation of living beings to the attainment of buddhahood. He declares the homage of all people to this buddha and expresses the joy they all feel in knowing that they may gain the greatest happiness. At this, the sixteen princes join in the hymn of praise and beg for instruction in the Law.
A long sequence of praises and entreaties follows, after which the Tathagata Universal Surpassing Wisdom presents a summary of the teaching, reviewing the Law of the Twelve Causes. These are briefly stated as well understood without further explanation. A rather lengthy passage follows, describing events ranging through vast time and space as the tathagata is described as several times repeating the teaching and freeing countless beings from error. In this long interval the sixteen princes have become novices in the practice of the teaching. The tathagata preaches for this selfsame Lotus Flower of the Wonderful Law for ages and ages without cease, and then he rests, absorbed in meditation. At this point the sixteen, now bodhisattva-novices, continue with the preaching. At length the tathagata again speaks, recounting how these sixteen have served past buddhas, practiced the Law, and brought the teaching of the Lotus Sutra to countless living beings, not in one life only but repeatedly as these countless living beings were reborn with the bodhisattvas, hearing their teaching and taking it firmly into their hearts in faith and understanding.
At the conclusion of this somewhat difficult passage we are again in the original setting of the sutra. But this is not at once apparent, since the Buddha, continuing the sermon of which the foregoing was of course a part, names the buddhas that the sixteen bodhisattva-novices have become and the quarters of their abodes in all nations in which they preach the Law. The sixteenth of these, now speaking, is Shakyamuni Buddha, who has attained perfect enlightenment in the saha-world - the world of suffering that is our own. The instruction and salvation of this saha-world is his lot. People to whom he has preached the Lotus Sutra in the past are the disciples and others now listening before him, and in the future there will be other believers - ourselves today - who by this same sutra may gain deliverance.
The sermon continues as Shakyamuni declares that the Tathagata is not always in this world in human form, for, having fully delivered his teaching, he will be elsewhere. But if many are firm in faith and understanding, aware of the truth of human equality, and steadfast in mind, he has presented for these the teaching of the Lotus Sutra when leaving this world. This is what he has taught in the past and what he is teaching now. There are no two ways, only the single, inner teaching of the Lotus Sutra. The tact of the Tathagata and the ways he employs to lead people into the one Way proceed from his deep understanding of the nature and capacity of living beings. Many people are the captives of their sensual desires, inviting suffering upon themselves, but he leads them to do away with their illusions and to gain peace of mind. The manner in which he does this he then makes clear by relating a parable, the fourth of the seven parables in the Lotus Sutra: the parable of the city in a vision.
In a certain place, far from human habitation and beset with wild beasts, there is a long, perilous, and difficult road leading to a place of rare treasure, and a large company of people are traveling this difficult road in an effort to reach that treasure. The leader of the band, a man of surpassing wisdom and shrewdness, knows the road in all its turnings to its destination.
Some in the party at length tire in body and determination, and, giving out along the way, they urge their leader to give up the long journey ahead and turn back. The leader is familiar enough with suitable occasions and ways of bringing pitiful humanity out of danger. He knows that if he can just get them to hold out a little longer, they will not give up pursuit of the great treasure they can gain with only a little more effort. And so he produces out of the strength of his resources a phantom city, placed a little beyond the halfway mark on their journey. He tells his followers to fear no more, that there is now no turning back, for they may all enter the city before them and rest securely.
So they all enter the phantom city rejoicing and make themselves comfortable. Then, when the leader sees that they are all rested and refreshed, he causes the city to disappear. And, urging the company on to the place of treasure now close at hand, he reveals to them that the city where they were was but a temporary thing, a device he had used to give them rest and restore their spirits. Thus encouraged, they are safely brought to their destination. The chapter closes with a summary of its contents, highly condensed in memorable verse.
As in the parables of the burning house and the wandering son, the meaning here is the twofold principle of the single vehicle of the Buddha's teaching and the truth of tactful means. But this is not a mere repetition, for there is a new shade of meaning: the feeling of a new departure, a suggestion of the inspiration that comes into our lives from creation.
The long, hard road here is the journey of our lives, and on this journey we encounter all sorts of hardships and pain. We all strive to overcome these, but things seldom go as we want, and many of us, in the ordinary course of things, give up.
Many good people have fallen into the defeatist way of thinking that however much they struggle they get nowhere and that their best course is in one way or another to slip out of difficulties and get what pleasure they can out of life. In short, they give up the effort to progress and escape into an easy attitude toward life. On the other hand there are people of little moral uneasiness - people who readily fall into evil ways as they seek in whatever they do to take the short way with little thought for the consequences.
People at both of these extremes miss the true significance of life, for, as explained in some detail earlier, constant progress is the natural course of living things. It is the right and true way for people to live. To be defeated by the pains of human life, to forget this natural and true way to live, to stop midway or to turn back, is to cast away the worth one has as a human being.
The Buddha taught a single attitude of mind, saying to humankind, so to speak, "Wait! If you only do this, you may lead a peaceful life with neither suffering nor anguish. The apparent forms before your eyes are just appearances that pass. Do not be deceived, and you may always be at peace." In so many words, we are told to go beyond appearances. Thus the aspiration may arise in any mind that if one sees things fully in this way, it becomes possible to lead a peaceful life. This is the meaning of the instruction given by the leader in the parable as he produces the great city ahead and directs the company in his charge to go there and rest.
But while his followers rest he causes the city to vanish and urges them on to the ultimate ideal of human life that lies ahead. The people are at first surprised and confused, but they recover quickly and set out once again.
Human life in the true sense means creative and harmonious living. We are instructed to go beyond appearances if we would escape human suffering and reach a state of peacefulness of mind, but this state is only a stage on the way to enlightenment. For though as practitioners of the Way of the Buddha we may deliver ourselves from suffering, great numbers of people in the world remain trapped in suffering. To pass these people by and reach a realm of ease for ourselves alone is again a kind of escape, an arrogant selfishness. This is in no sense enlightenment. To strive in the midst of suffering humanity for the well-being of all is to live a truly human life. Thus we must do away with any feeling of temporary ease and contentment, leave the phantom city, and set out again upon a road of new toil.
But though this toilsome road may seem the selfsame road we have struggled along thus far, in fact it is toil of quite another dimension. And the worth of this toil is immeasurably greater, for it is the bodhisattva's toil for the happiness and well-being of people. When we perceive that as we toil and create things and ideas, our lives take on meaning, our hearts are lifted to that state of mind in which toil is pleasure.
Thus if all of us in the journey of life strive always after our nature, talent, and occupation to create those things that make for the happiness and well-being of others as well as ourselves, of the entire world, then that work of creation will most certainly make for a greater harmony. And such creation and the resulting state of harmony are the ultimate human ideal, a treasure of the highest order.
The chapter of the parable of the magic city is filled with important lessons, a basic one being the Law of the Twelve Causes, the twelvefold chain of causation. Four lines, first pronounced by the assembled Brahma heavenly kings, also occur here, and to this day they form the concluding words of services in virtually every sect of Buddhism:
May this merit
Extend to all
That we with all the living
May together accomplish the Buddha-way!
Copyright by Rissho Kosei-kai. All rights reserved.