Beginning with this chapter, the Lotus Sutra becomes much easier. The Buddha's teaching so far has been theoretical and philosophical, but here, with the introduction of a parable, there is an abrupt change to a style readily understood by ordinary people.
The second chapter of the sutra closed with Shakyamuni's statement that all would become buddhas, and now Shariputra, his face lit with joy, rises to salute Shakyamuni and announce his ecstasy at the understanding just granted to him. First in prose, then in verse, he speaks of his own spiritual progress, which now, though not complete, is crowned with the certainty of his becoming a buddha himself and a teacher of bodhisattvas.
Shakyamuni then announces that in an age almost infinitely distant, yet seemingly near at hand, Shariputra will become a buddha whose name will be Flower Light Tathagata and whose domain will be the Undefiled, a land that is described as of itself bursting with abounding vitality and joy. This remarkable passage is repeated in poetry. Following the repetition, the assembled multitude rejoices at the prediction of Shariputra's perfect enlightenment, and the skies are filled with celestial robes offered in homage to the Buddha. Heavenly music and flowers come down.
A hymn of praise and thanksgiving follows, and then Shariputra again speaks to Shakyamuni. He states that his own doubts have been dispelled but that there are twelve hundred others at various stages of discipline and training who are perplexed by Shakyamuni's abrupt revelation of the new message about tactful teaching.
This announcement from Shariputra is the point of departure for the parable that is the body of the chapter.
It is necessary at this point to introduce one or two terms that appear in the following discussion. In the progress toward buddhahood, which is the fourth of the four holy stages, the first is that of the attender, the shravaka. Shravaka means a person who listens to the Buddha's teachings and exerts himself to attain the stage of enlightenment by practicing these teachings. Pratyekabuddha means a self-enlightened person who obtains emancipation for himself without any teacher. The common point in both of these stages is a lack of the wish and dedication to save other people. Shravakas and pratyekabuddhas do not teach and seek to save others. Their gain is viewed as merely personal salvation. In Mahayana teaching the two stages are often referred to as the two vehicles. The third stage is that of the bodhisattva - a Mahayana development - a being in the final stage before buddhahood or one who seeks enlightenment not only for himself but for all sentient beings.
Now Shariputra's joy stems directly from the Buddha's statement that all will become buddhas, but he is made even more joyous to have his own buddhahood specifically predicted. Until now he has been only a shravaka, clearly below the bodhisattva, and it had hardly occurred to him that he would reach that highest state of being, becoming a buddha himself.
In the chapter on tactfulness it is stated that "there is no other vehicle, but only the One Buddha-vehicle," which makes it plain that the way to buddhahood is but one and that there are no second or third vehicles. Then farther on, toward the end of the same chapter, Shakyamuni states that he is here to teach the bodhisattvas and that he has no shravaka disciples, which means that all the disciples are bodhisattvas and none are to be called shravakas. And then, at the end, he says, "Rejoice greatly in your hearts, knowing that you will become buddhas." And so, hearing this, those who had thought of themselves as mere students in the "high school" of the shravakas realized that their school was preparatory to the "college" of bodhisattvas, to borrow our contemporary language, and that while they had thought they were mere preparatory school students, they were in fact already in college. Moreover, since the college of bodhisattvas is the course to buddhahood, if only they continued to accumulate practice, they would become buddhas, and this truth they perceived clearly at the bottom of their souls. How could they not rejoice?
Hereupon Shariputra explains his gratitude but at the same time honestly confesses his previous inadequacy. In turn the Buddha confirms Shariputra's enlightenment and announces to him in particular that he is to become a buddha. This is the first of a number of predictions to shravaka disciples of their coming buddhahood, and the close disciples later all have their buddhahood predicted. In this sense the Lotus Sutra may be regarded as the Sutra of Prediction of Buddhahood - a major distinction - for it is the sutra that bestows upon all people the assurance that they may become buddhas.
Now, to return to the text, we read Shariputra's assertion first in prose, then in verse, that upon attaining the enlightenment of a buddha, he will preach the supreme doctrine and teach many. Shakyamuni's specific announcement of Shariputra's buddhahood, as indicated earlier, places it far, far in the future, but the prevailing feeling is one of its being near, as the realm of the Flower Light Tathagata is described in all its color and glory. Shariputra is content for himself, but he is worried over the twelve hundred others who are puzzled by the depth of the Buddha's teaching, and he pleads for a clearing up of this difficulty.
The World-honored One, Shakyamuni, then tells the parable of the burning house. In a city in a certain country there was a great elder. His house was enormous but was provided with only a single narrow door. This house was terribly dilapidated, and suddenly one day a fire broke out and began to spread rapidly. The elder's numerous children were all inside. He begged them to come out, but they were all busy at their play. Though it seemed certain that they would be burned, they took no notice and had no urge to escape.
The elder thought for a moment. He was very strong and might load them all into some kind of box and bring them out at once. But then he thought that if he did this some might fall out and be burned. So he decided to warn them of the fearsomeness of the fire so that they might come out by themselves.
In a loud voice he called to them to come out at once to escape being burned alive, but the children merely glanced up and took no real notice.
The elder then remembered that his children all wanted carts, and so he called to them to come out at once because he had the goat carts, deer carts, and bullock carts that they were always wanting.
When the children heard this, they finally paid attention and fell all over each other in their rush to get out, and thus they were able to escape from the burning house. The elder was relieved at their safe delivery from harm, and as they began to ask for their carts, he gave each of them not the ordinary carts they wanted but carts splendidly decorated with precious things and drawn by great white bullocks.
Though the reader has perhaps already seen the meaning of this parable, we may explain it further by pointing out that the father-elder stands for the Buddha. The children are no other than ourselves, ordinary people, while the dilapidated house is our plain human society, and the fire is our physical and mental desire. This desire is the cause of human suffering. Because we are totally taken up with material things and our physical bodies and lose our spiritual liberty, we suffer. Moreover, foolish living creatures are not even aware that they have no spiritual liberty, and so on this account they do not understand that they are about to be consumed by the fires of their desire. Their minds are entirely taken up with daily life.
In order to relieve human misery, Shakyamuni presented various teachings. Human beings are of various kinds, and even among the seekers of the Way to salvation there are the shravakas, who have attended to the good teaching and are striving to dispel their delusion; the pratyekabuddhas, who by themselves in meditation and thought seek to open the Way; and the bodhisattvas, who as they seek supreme enlightenment at the same time give themselves to the salvation of all. When people find in the Buddha's teaching anything that exactly fits their own liking, they are unconsciously drawn into that teaching. This is the meaning in the parable of getting the children to come outside by themselves by offering each of them the carts they wanted.
So it is that although the teaching of the Buddha is at the end only the one Way to buddhahood, in the preparatory stages different artful and tactful means of teaching are employed. People then strive, each in accord with the individual lesson, to cultivate themselves, but as they practice and advance to higher levels, they discover that far ahead all the ways become one. This is the Way to buddhahood. The discovery that the way one has trod, which one had thought was only a second- or third-class road, actually turns out to be that supremely true Way is cause for great peace, hope, and joy. This is what is said when the children, who thought only that they would get goat carts, deer carts, and bullock carts, were all alike given the unexpected pleasure of a great white bullock cart, the best possible: the Way to buddhahood itself.
In reading this way, as if it were between the lines, one may find still other important lessons besides the principal one I have just outlined from this parable.
Another point to be noted, for example, is the way in which the elder first thought, because of his own great strength and power, to gather up the children bodily into some kind of box and drag them outside but then realized that this might be useless unless they could be made to come out by themselves.
This suggests how different it is to be saved by a power outside or by a power within oneself. For living creatures to be wordlessly dragged outside the world of suffering is to be saved by an outside power. But, engrossed in the pleasures and joys of the things before their very eyes, they may drop away and be lost, or, in the terms of the parable, the children may feel that playing inside the broad area of their burning house is to be preferred to the confining box prepared for their rescue. This is likely unless they themselves awaken. Moreover, once outside the burning house, they may still think the inside more amusing and go back.
At this point the elder, who stands for the Buddha, determined by some way to make them deliver themselves by their own strength. It does not matter what device is used to get them to run outside. Wanting a goat cart will do, or a deer cart, or a bullock cart. The point of value is that they come out of their own accord and will, for if they come out of their own accord and will, they will not go back again unless something unusual happens. Faith must be like this. If one only calls upon the gods or buddhas to deliver him, he is not likely to reach true salvation, because the very lack of desire and effort to make a better thing of his mind and heart, to correct his own conduct, will prevent him. Self-cultivation through personal practice of one's own will is the way salvation is achieved.
But the final goal of such practice is to do away with the little self, or ego, and, obedient to the universal truth, to become one with the great life-force of the universe. And so we must realize that this power within is not our own in the sense that lets us say, "We did this."
Faith that comes from the power within is no other than our own will and effort taking refuge in that absolute power that is the great lifeforce of the universe. So it is that the power within us is the power without and the power without, the power within. Otherwise there is no attainment of salvation. All this is suggested by the action of the elder in the parable.
Now we come to the matter of the single narrow door, the significance of which is that great revolution of the mind and heart that is the discarding of the egoistic self. The tremendous difficulty of this, so far as ordinary people are concerned, is symbolized by this narrow door.
Discarding the self, or egoism, occurs in a number of stages. The first stage is awakening to the simple truth, or principle, that human suffering is brought about by the collection of greeds and wants - desires - that make up the self. The realization of this alone represents a substantial step away from the self, but this is not enough if there is no awareness of the truth of what the self may give rise to.
At the second stage there must be the realization that in accordance with the Law of Causation all that we so urgently want and are attached to is a temporary appearance brought about by a concurrence of primary and secondary causes. Further, it must be seen that in accordance with the Law of the Twelve Causes the origin of those desires is ignorance, a basic misapprehension that the flesh is oneself.
When one perceives these laws, it becomes clear that the self to which one has clung is in fact something that has no real substance, and as a result one is automatically removed from self-centered thinking.
Then, with further practice, one may perceive the truth that all beings in this universe are at bottom void and identical, and with this realization one may fully taste the sense of unity that all are brothers, that all equally partake of the great life-force of the universe. When one has come this far, the self vanishes. One of the most admirable and best known passages in the entire Buddhist canon is in this chapter.
Now this triple world
All is my domain;
The living beings in it
All are my sons.
But now this place
Abounds with distresses;
And I alone
Am able to save and protect them.
The universe is the Buddha's, all things, all people, are his children, and he alone can deliver them from their pain and distress. But this is neither assertion of personal ownership of the universe nor boasting that he alone can save. What the Buddha is saying here is that there is no deliverance without casting away the self and merging with the Buddha.
If we can really cast away our selves, we may find in ourselves the great lifeforce of the universe that lives in all things. Then if we can gaze upon the life-force in ourselves that lives throughout the universe, our mind can in an instant go anywhere throughout that universe, and thus we may grasp the sense of what it means for the universe to be ours.
It is in this way that the mind becomes truly free. We are not hindered by anything, and, acting as we will, we are always in harmony with the truth, and our acts give life to ourselves and all people.
When the universe is ours, all the life that dwells in it is part of ourselves, and all things that have life are our children, our brothers or sisters. Thus, as a parent or brother or sister, we give ourselves to serve that life. This is the great, the true, compassion. It is none other than buddhahood itself.
These, then, are some of the lessons that are merely suggested in this chapter. The reason for their being only suggested is that those in attendance when the teaching was delivered could not understand, however clearly the lesson was put. This is why Shakyamuni then patiently continued his very long sermon. He knew that through his sowing seeds of impression by suggestion, at some time later sprouting would occur, and so he proceeded.
Copyright by Rissho Kosei-kai. All rights reserved.