TEXT The Tathagata clearly sees such things as these without mistake. Because all the living have various natures, various desires, various activities, various ideas and reasonings, [so] desiring to cause them to produce the roots of goodness, [the Tathagata] by so many reasonings, parables, and discourses has preached his various truths. The Buddha deeds which he does have never failed for a moment.
COMMENTARY The roots of goodness. This refers to the source, or root, of such things as good character, good desire, good action, good thought, and good judgment. It is like the root of a plant that is the source of a good trunk, branches, and leaves. In brief, it is the fundamental spirit of working for the betterment of humanity.
. Reasonings, parables, and discourses. I have already discussed the first two in detail (see the July/August 1996 issue of Dharma World). "Discourses" means theoretical preaching, especially in the sense of reasoned persuasion through appropriate language. It is probably best to think of this as synonymous with "preaching by Dharma."
. Buddha deeds. This refers to the action of the Buddha in leading all human beings to enlightenment and salvation. That action encompasses diverse forms - whether speaking of himself or speaking of others, whether indicating himself or indicating others, and whether indicating his own affairs or the affairs of others - and through these forms he instructs living beings in every possible place and method.
We must be fully aware that considering these Buddha deeds to be merely the work of the Buddha would be a grave mistake. Both transmitting the teachings of the Buddha and listening to and reading the teachings are no less Buddha deeds. Just as the Buddha has never once failed in the past to do these Buddha deeds, they will not be set aside for even a moment in the future. And the responsibility for these Buddha deeds in the future lies with us. Let us take full cognizance of this responsibility and always bear it in mind.
TEXT Thus it is, since I became Buddha in the very far distant past, [that my] lifetime is of infinite asamkhyeya kalpas, forever existing and immortal.
COMMENTARY Here, at long last, the entity of the Buddha is made clear. This is a major proclamation that the entity of the present existence of the Tathagata Shakyamuni is the Eternal Original Buddha, who neither arises nor perishes but is an eternal actuality that lives from the timeless past through the unlimited future.
. I became Buddha in the very far distant past. The literal translation from the Chinese is "an unlimited period of time has passed since I became the Buddha."
TEXT Good sons! The lifetime which I attained by pursuing the bodhisattva way is not even yet accomplished but will still be twice the previous number [of kalpas].
COMMENTARY When the Buddha declares, "I became Buddha in the very far distant past," he is of course speaking of the lifetime of the Eternal Original Buddha, the ultimate Truth. In contrast, here he says, "The lifetime which I attained by pursuing the bodhisattva way is not even yet accomplished but will still be twice the previous number [of kalpas]." This means the lifetime he acquired as the trace Buddha who appeared in this triple world and acquired various merits.
That this lifetime extended twice as long as the number of years mentioned previously is evidence that there is merit to be gained by practicing the way of the bodhisattva. The Buddha bears witness to this, so what more certain proof could there be? In brief, the Original Buddha and the Buddha who appears in various forms are one and the same; therefore his lifetime as the trace Buddha is actually infinite. Consequently, our buddha-nature can also be said to be eternal and infinite.
TEXT But now, in this unreal nirvana, I announce that I must enter the [real] nirvana. In this tactful way the Tathagata teaches all living beings.
COMMENTARY Enter nirvana. This means to enter parinirvana, that is, to die. In the Lotus Sutra the Buddha repeatedly says, "After my extinction." The foremost reason the Buddha began to preach the Lotus Sutra was that because he would soon have to depart this world, he would impart the teaching of the innermost, deepest truth. His disciples and the multitude, thinking that the Buddha would soon be gone so they ought to listen earnestly to the teaching while it was still possible, came with determined minds to join the assembly attending him. And not long thereafter, he did indeed pass from this world.
Why, when life still remained to him, did the Buddha leave the world behind and enter nirvana? That, too, was a skillful means of earnestly preaching to living beings, nothing less than a manifestation of the Buddha's compassion. He patiently explains the reasons.
TEXT Wherefore? If the Buddha abides long in the world, men of little virtue who do not cultivate the roots of goodness and are [spiritually] poor and mean, greedily attached to the five desires, and are caught in the net of [wrong] reflection and false views -
COMMENTARY The Buddha appeared in this world as a human being who was unparalleled as a guide in life. If disciples and ordinary believers, whatever their physical and mental sufferings and whatever their worries, sought the advice of the Buddha, he would immediately provide them with a solution. Yet however grateful one would be if such a superior guide in life continued to exist forever, a person would tend to become strongly dependent. A person would develop a carefree attitude, think that whenever one had problems one could always appeal for help, and would gradually lose the drive to improve.
. Poor and mean. This refers not to anything material but to poverty and meanness of spirit.
. Greedily attached to the five desires. This is to be captivated by the joys perceived by the five senses - form, sound, smell, taste, and touch - and the incessant pursuit of them. It means to constantly covet pleasure and to be in thrall to the desire to see only beautiful things, listen only to agreeable sounds, smell only pleasing fragrances, eat only delicious foods, and have only pleasant things touch one's skin (for example, to have cool summers and warm winters, to never be rained on or blown about by the wind, and to wear soft, comfortable clothing).
The desires of the five senses are instinctive, and there is nothing intrinsically bad about them. But since the earthly cares (defilements) come from them, one must not become enslaved to such physical pleasures and indulge in them. Nor can one allow the mind to be thrown into confusion and become impure.
The Buddha indicates on a variety of occasions that the instincts are not bad. He also showed this when he abandoned his ascetic practices and partook of milk gruel. The same idea is included in the teaching of the Middle Way. He also says that the instincts are morally neutral. This means that they are neither good nor bad, that is, they precede the distinction between good and bad. This is certainly true. If appetite, for example, were an evil instinct, we would die because we would be unable to partake of any food. And if sexual desire were an evil instinct and we were to repudiate it, the human species would become extinct.
The Buddha's teaching is not so extreme; rather, it holds that instincts exist prior to the distinction between good and evil and that although we ought not pull away from them, if we become captivated by instincts and indulge in them, the fires of earthly cares flare up, giving rise to the diverse miseries of humankind. If we misunderstand this point and fall into the extremes of complete devotion to ascetic practice or the denial of all desires, we wind up estranging ourselves from true salvation. We must not forget that the teaching of the Buddha is consistently that of the Middle Way.
. Caught in the net of [wrong] reflection and false views. "Reflection" refers to thinking and to the various ways in which we reflect on things that do not exist in actuality in front of us, including retrospection, conjecture, imagination, and assumption. "False views" means a mistaken way of thinking. It carries a strong connotation of self-centered, haphazard thought.
As an example, imagine that a man is walking down the hall at his company, unaware that some food is stuck to his chin. And imagine that when he happens to encounter the president of the company, the president looks at him and grins. If the employee is always wanting to get ahead and be promoted, he will think, "When the president looked at me, he smiled. That must mean I'll get some good news before long." On the contrary, if he is the kind of employee who has skipped work the previous day to have a date with his girlfriend, he will probably be startled and start worrying that he has been found out.
In both cases, because he is seeing the world only from his own narrow perspective, he is unable to see that the real reason the president grinned was because of the food stuck to his chin. One falls into this trap through a self-centered view of things, through self-preoccupation. This is "false views." If, however, the man is not self-preoccupied, his perspective is honest and pliant. "That's strange," he thinks. "The president looked at my face and smiled. It was an impish sort of grin, almost as if something were stuck on my face." And he will reach up and stroke his chin.
This is a light-hearted example, but there are innumerable instances in our daily lives of how a self-centered view and being caught up in our own perspective can cause us to fail to recognize the real aspect of things, to ponder various undesirable things, to worry, and to become miserable. This is to be "caught in the net of [wrong] reflection and false views." A person becomes this way by being "[spiritually] poor and mean, greedily attached to the five desires," that is, because the mind is debased and is captivated by the five desires.
TEXT if they see the Tathagata constantly present and not extinct, [they] will then become puffed up and lazy, and unable to conceive the idea that it is hard to meet [the Buddha] or a mind of reverence [for him].
COMMENTARY Puffed up. This refers to a self-indulgent mind. If the Buddha is always present, then we begin to feel that we can hear the teaching anytime we want. And we become willful, thinking that we may as well enjoy today because we can wait until tomorrow to hear the teaching. This sort of mind is puffed up.
It is said that those who go to Tokyo for sightseeing know the sights there better than those who were born and bred in the city. Because Tokyoites think that they can go to these places whenever they wish, they wait for some excuse to go and end up postponing going indefinitely. If one were able to separate Tokyo residents from those who live outside the city, it is probably safe to say that the majority of those who have gone to the top of Tokyo Tower are nonresidents.
It is hardly a matter of concern how long one neglects visiting a famous site, but it is quite a different matter when it comes to the teaching of the Buddha concerning the truth of the universe and the correct way to live one's life. One day's delay means one day's delay in growth as a human being. Yet even a single day's delay can result in something irreversible.
Let us suppose that suddenly some major personal problem arises. A person who has listened to the Buddhist teachings for some time and has awakened to a proper frame of mind will be able to deal the problem correctly. At the very least, the person will not be crushed by the problem. In contrast, normally a person with no spiritual support whatsoever will merely be thrown into confusion and be unable to do anything about it. Even if the person figures out some way of dealing with the problem, he or she will not be confident that it is really the correct path. And in the very worst case, he or she will hasten along the path to self-destruction.
Hence, it is imperative that we not postpone hearing the true teaching for even a day. Confucius teaches, "If a man hears the right way in the morning, he can die in the evening without regret." In the same way, if we listen to the teaching of the truth and attain enlightenment, we will be able to greet death with perfect composure whenever it may come. The same is true of various problems beside death.
. Lazy. This is the mind that grows weary and becomes idle. "However often I hear the Buddha's teaching, it's always the same. I know it, so there's no need to listen anymore." The Buddha's teachings are not so shallow. The more one listens and learns, the deeper the teachings are. Beyond enlightenment is yet another enlightenment. If one grapples seriously with the teachings, every day new ground will open up and every day will be replete. There could be no greater pleasure than this. If the Buddha is always present, however, we may become lazy.
. The idea that it is hard to meet [the Buddha]. This refers to how hard it is to imagine the difficulty of meeting the Buddha. We cannot meet the Buddha at a moment's notice, and even if we could, it would be the opportunity of a lifetime. As evidence of this, since the day on which the Buddha entered nirvana not one person who can stand comparison with him has appeared in this world. Despite this, if the Buddha is right before our eyes, we forget how grateful we should be and take it for granted that we can always meet him. Likewise, we do not recognize the blessing of our parents while we have them.
. Unable to conceive . . . a mind of reverence [for him]. "A mind of reverence" means venerating the Buddha and respectfully and earnestly heeding his teaching. That this intention becomes diluted when the Buddha is present is a sign of the wretchedness of ordinary people.
Without doubt people are capricious. For instance, the audience of a performance of traditional Japanese storytelling always includes some people who pay absolutely no attention to the performance but fidget, chatting with their neighbors or nibbling on snacks, entirely unable to stay focused. Such an attitude presumably springs from the confidence that one can always hear such tales, as long as one has the money and time to do so. But if a master from another country were performing for the first time in Japan, the audience would watch and listen with full attention.
Incidentally, when the audience fidgets, the storyteller seats himself on the stage and makes a low bow. Then, after looking around at the audience, he strikes the stand in front of him sharply with his folded fan in order to gather everyone's attention and begins to tell his story in a subdued, barely audible voice. As a result, the audience settles down. This is a skillful tactic of the professional storyteller - making it difficult to hear so that the members of the audience will feel that they want to hear. The storyteller has grasped this psychology very well. It is far more important to arouse the sense that it is difficult to encounter a buddha, so that the person will feel that he or she wants to listen earnestly to the teaching.
TEXT Therefore the Tathagata tactfully teaches: 'Know, bhikshus, the appearance of buddhas in the world is a rare occurrence.' Wherefore? In the course of countless hundreds of thousands of myriad kotis of kalpas, some men of little virtue may happen to see a buddha or none may see him. For this reason I say: 'Bhikshus! A tathagata may rarely be seen!'
COMMENTARY There are two crucial points in chapter 16, "Revelation of the [Eternal] Life of the Tathagata." The first is that the entity of the Buddha is made clear for the first time, and it is explained that his life is neither arising nor perishing. The second is that it is explained clearly why it is that the various trace buddhas, particularly the Tathagata Shakyamuni, must depart from this world. This passage is the crux of the second of these key points.
I imagine that nearly everyone who reads these lines has one doubt. It arises from feeling that there is a contradiction between this passage and the understanding of the Original Buddha, who is eternal and omnipresent and who gives life to each and every sentient being. Since the Buddha possesses unlimited compassion and saves each and every living being, one must wonder whether the Buddha ought not allow even a person of little virtue to see him.
This, though, is going a little too far. Previously I employed the metaphor of radio waves and a TV set, and it is surely true that the Original Buddha is like these radio waves, suffusing our surroundings. Therefore, a person with a highly sensitive TV antenna, that is, a person who excels in virtue or has striven through religious practice, can sense this spontaneously. But an ordinary person, one who neither excels in merit nor has worked at religious practice, will not be able to do this. That is because the TV set remains incomplete. Therefore it is necessary for the Buddha or those who have succeeded to his teachings - such as T'ien-t'ai Chih-i, Prince Shotoku, Saicho, Dogen, and Nichiren - to come into this world and preach the Law directly. By hearing these teachings directly, for the first time we are provided with a spirit that is attuned to these waves.
Those who are by nature lacking in merit, even if they are fortunate enough to live in the time of such a person, are unable to come in contact with his teaching. The reason for this, as I have explained, is that a buddha has already been manifested, that is, we need only awaken to his presence.
. To see a buddha. It is the same with seeing a buddha. No matter how often we may hear the teaching of a buddha, if our heart is not oriented toward what is taught, we will be unable to see that buddha. If you look around, you will undoubtedly notice many examples of this.
The Eternal Original Buddha is always present everywhere around us, but if we do not choose to worship him, it is only natural that his salvation will not manifest itself. It is like a TV set that is turned off. It is selfish to assume that because the Buddha is always close at hand we need not listen to the Way of truth and can continue a lazy, self-centered way of life guided by our own greed, all because we think we can count on the Buddha for salvation.
The Buddha is not outside us. Nor is he only within us. He is both outside and inside us; in other words, he fills the universe. For that reason, the moment we choose to worship him, his salvation becomes manifest. Honen (1133 - 1212) said, "When living beings bear the Buddha in mind, the Buddha also bears living beings in mind." That is to say, as soon as we take the Buddha into our hearts we come to understand that the Buddha already has us in his heart.
Consequently, the Buddha's salvation is something that people must seek for themselves. It is we who must persistently seek his teaching. If we do not possess the urge to do this, we will not have ears to hear the teaching even if it is preached right before us. Even if we hear the teaching, it will not sink in. People themselves must make the effort to seek salvation. This is one of the primary goals that the Buddha has taught us. He speaks of this again later in the Parable of the Good Physician, so I will explain it in greater detail at that point.
TEXT All these living beings, hearing such a statement, must certainly realize the thought of the difficulty of meeting a buddha and cherish a longing and a thirst for him; then will they cultivate the roots of goodness.
COMMENTARY Longing. If we can understand just how difficult it is to encounter a buddha, when we see a buddha we will be filled with a desire to be at his side every possible moment and to remain under his influence so that it permeates us like a wonderful fragrance.
. Thirst. Just as a person who is thirsty will constantly search for water, a person who adores and yearns for the Buddha will inevitably believe in and revere the Buddha wholeheartedly.
When it comes to this part of the teaching, rather than pursue explanations it seems to me most important to consider the teaching as it applies to personal life. We speak of the Buddha quite familiarly, but when we quietly consider it, we realize how difficult it is to meet and revere a buddha in this world of the Decay of the Law. In this dreadful world where people deceive, struggle with, and kill one another, it is most uncommon to encounter a buddha. When we think about this deeply, we awaken to a strong desire to truly meet a buddha. We gravitate powerfully toward the compassion of the Buddha, just as we cannot help feeling a strong yearning for the light of the sun after days of continuous rain or snow. This is to "cherish a longing and a thirst for" a buddha.
When this feeling arises, we are always purified. That is because the intentness of the desire to be drawn into the bosom of the Buddha leaves no room for impurity or defilement. Once we have become pure minded, we will pursue the teachings of the Buddha all the more and will deepen the desire to behave in accord with those teachings. In this manner, we not only improve ourselves but also naturally and spontaneously put the teachings into practice for the sake of other people and the world as a whole.
This is what makes religion what it is. Mere ethics and morality do not possess the power to sway people so deeply. Even if people are convinced by their reasonableness, they do not generate the powerful energy to put them into action. But within religion, feelings deepen through longing and thirsting for a god or a buddha, and that gives rise to the strength for practical action.
TEXT Therefore the Tathagata, though he does not in reality become extinct, yet announces [his] extinction. Again, good sons! The method of all buddha-tathagatas is always like this in order to save all the living, and it is altogether real and not false.
COMMENTARY Altogether real and not false. This phrase indicates the true value of skillful means. "Real" here connotes "true" rather than "factual." It is a truth that the Buddha is an entity with both no beginning and no end, but to people of little merit he does not reveal this but instead reveals that he will enter nirvana. This is not factually true, so it appears to be a falsehood, but in the context of the Buddha's great compassion for saving living beings, it is true. It is certainly not a falsehood. The word false has the connotations of "falsehood" and "futility." Falsehood and skillful means are often conflated, but that invites misunderstanding.
Let us take a case in point. A man tells a boy, "I will take you to America and put you through school there," and boards a ship with him at Yokohama. Just when the boy thinks the ship is heading east, it turns and heads west. The ship calls at Manila, Singapore, and Calcutta. The boy cannot help being filled with dissatisfaction and unease. Having been promised to be taken to America, it would have been easiest to get on an airplane and fly directly there, but no, he has to go by this slow ship, which, moreover, is heading in the opposite direction. The boy will entertain doubts about what is going on. Eventually the ship sails into the Mediterranean and docks at Marseilles. From there the man and boy travel overland to Paris. Thinking all this quite odd, the boy is then taken from Paris to England. After a stay in England he is finally put on an airplane and taken to America.
The reason the man took such a circuitous route is that the boy was unable to speak English and was unaccustomed to the lifestyles and customs of foreign lands. Had the man taken the boy directly to America by plane and abruptly placed him in school, the boy would probably have had absolutely no confidence, felt humiliated, and in general had a hard time. Out of parental concern, during the long ocean voyage the man gave the boy an opportunity to get used to Western foods and come into contact with non-Japanese. While he learned new customs, he also had actual practice with English. Having given the boy the chance to gain some self-confidence, the man took the boy to his ultimate destination. In this case, having promised to take the boy to America and then taken him by ship in the opposite direction was not a falsehood at all. Nor was it futile. It was a true and effective means. Skillful means refer to just this sort of thing.
Next the Buddha carefully sets forth the Parable of the Good Physician, the last of the seven famous parables of the Lotus Sutra, to make this point clear enough for anyone to comprehend.
TEXT Suppose, for instance, a good physician, who is wise and perspicacious, conversant with medical art, and skillful in healing all sorts of diseases. He has many sons, say ten, twenty, even up to a hundred. Because of some matter he goes abroad to a distant country. After his departure, his sons drink his other poisonous medicines, which send them into a delirium, and they lie rolling on the ground. At this moment their father comes back to his home. Of the sons who drank the poison, some have lost their senses, others are [still] sensible, but on seeing their father [approaching] in the distance they are all greatly delighted, and kneeling, salute him, asking: 'How good it is that you are returned in safety! We, in our foolishness, have mistakenly dosed ourselves with poison. We beg that you will heal us and give us back our lives.' The father, seeing his sons in such distress, in accordance with his prescriptions seeks for good herbs altogether perfect in color, scent, and fine flavor, and then pounds, sifts, and mixes them and gives them to his sons to take, speaking thus: 'This excellent medicine, with color, scent, and fine flavor altogether perfect, you may [now] take, and it will at once rid you of your distress so that you will have no more suffering.' Those amongst the sons who are sensible, seeing this excellent medicine with color and scent both good, take it immediately and are totally delivered from their illness. The others, who have lost their senses, seeing their father come, though they are also delighted, salute him, and ask him to heal their illness, yet when he offers them the medicine, they are unwilling to take it. Wherefore? Because the poison has entered deeply, they have lost their senses, and [even] in regard to this medicine of excellent color and scent they acknowledge that it is not good. The father reflects thus: 'Alas for these sons, afflicted by this poison, and their minds all unbalanced. Though they are glad to see me and implore to be healed, yet they are unwilling to take such excellent medicine as this. Now I must arrange an expedient plan so that they will take this medicine.' Then he says to them: 'You should know that I am worn out with old age and the time of my death has now arrived. This excellent medicine I now leave here. You may take it and have no fear of not being better.' After thus admonishing them, he departs again for another country and sends a messenger back to inform them: 'Your father is dead.'
COMMENTARY Unbalanced. This word is regularly found in various sutras. It means to see and think about things upside-down or in reverse, to not understand the real aspect of things.
It is said that ordinary beings suffer from the following four illusions (viparyasa): the illusion of permanence (nitya-viparyasa), regarding what is impermanent as permanent; the illusion of pleasure (sukha-viparyasa), mistaking what is essentially suffering for pleasure; the illusion of purity (suci-viparyasa), regarding only the surface of things and mistaking the impure for the pure; and the illusion of self (atma-viparyasa), mistakenly thinking that although all things are devoid of self, there is a lasting entity or substance (self) that exists independent of all other things (see the January/February 1992 issue of Dharma World). In addition to these illusions, there are many others, including the precise opposite of these. All in all, this passage explains that because the sons succumb to these illusions they regard things of peerless value as worthless.
TEXT And now, when those sons hear that their father is dead, their minds are greatly distressed and they thus reflect: 'If our father were alive he would have pity on us, and we should be saved and preserved. But now he has left us and died in a distant country. [Now] we feel we are orphans and have no one to rely on.' Continuous grief brings them to their senses, and they recognize the color, scent, and excellent flavor of the medicine and thereupon take it, their poisoning being entirely relieved. The father, hearing that the sons are all recovered, seeks an opportunity and returns so that they all see him.
COMMENTARY Orphans. In the Chinese text, this word means that the sons have been orphaned and have been left under the open sky with no shelter from the wind and rain. With no one to stand by them, they are disheartened and forlorn.
Now I will explain the teaching in this parable in detail. It should be apparent that the physician is the Buddha and that his sons represent living beings. The poisonous medicine is the defilements of the five desires, and the good medicine is the teaching of the Buddha. Ordinary people have various flaws, the greatest of which is thinking that only what they can see is actually real. This error generates all other errors and all misfortunes.
First of all, we suffer from being swayed by viewing whatever is before us - whether it be our own body, material things, money, or events that occur around us - as if it were actually real. This is the defilement of the five desires. Here the Buddha teaches us that all phenomena in this world are merely transitory manifestations that spring forth from the combining of cause and condition. Having been taught this truth, people for the first time realize that they have thought that things that do not really exist are real and that things that change do not change essentially. Because of this, they have been anxious and have suffered. Understanding this puts their minds at ease.
We are safe as long as a great guide like the Buddha is close at hand and we are continuously graced with his teaching, but it is one of the sad aspects of living beings that when a guide leaves us we gradually retrogress to being no better off than we were in the beginning. As I have said earlier, ordinary people have a habit of not believing in the existence of that which they cannot see with their own eyes. Despite the fact that the teaching has been left in good order, when the guiding figure is not present to lead them along the correct path, they wander from the true Way. This is what is meant by the passage in which the sons (living beings), in the absence of the father (the Buddha), mistakenly take the poisonous medicine and as a result writhe in pain.
Then the father returns from his journey. Seeing him, the sons, who are in agony from the poison (the defilements of the five desires), are filled with joy. The reason is that every human being possesses the buddha-nature. There are people who will kill others for personal gain, but even such people, deep down, possess the buddha-nature. It is merely that this buddha-nature is concealed beneath the poison of the five desires. Therefore, even in a man who appears to think only of his own profit, motivated by an entirely materialistic view of life, there is an uneasiness and loneliness that is unsatisfied by materialism. Though the man may not be aware of it, somewhere in his heart he searches for true peace of mind and a true sense of satisfaction. Therefore, if he has the opportunity to come into contact with a teaching that provides real peace of mind and deep satisfaction, he will gladly accept it. Need it be pointed out that our vocation as followers of the Buddha is to provide people like this with such opportunities?
For people who are suffering from the poison of the five desires, the Buddha has concocted a compound of medicine to remove delusions, medicine for attaining true wisdom, and medicine to elicit the spirit of serving others and has pounded them into a powder that is palatable to ordinary people. The Buddha, who is the good physician, delivers his teachings based upon such careful preparations. Those who obediently take this good medicine (the teaching) are immediately saved. But there are some who do not even attempt to take the medicine. That is because to them this nicely colored, pleasant-smelling medicine seems to have a strange color and an unpleasant odor. That is, people who are overwhelmed by the pleasures of the five senses feel that they cannot endure the constraints of the Buddha's precepts and teachings. They feel that the practice of contemplation, which concentrates the mind, is entirely too troublesome. And they feel that the practice of the bodhisattva who endeavors to help others is foolish.
This is self-indulgence on the part of frivolous humankind. It is the same as a child who has not yet attained wisdom rejecting the strict lessons of his or her father. Out of mercy, the father disciplines the child so that in the future the child will be able to stand on his or her own two feet, but the child, because he or she is living under the protection of the father, presumes upon that security and acts selfishly. The attitude of ordinary people toward the teachings of the Buddha is no different from this.
Regarding such living beings, the Buddha is neither angry nor resigned. He has compassion on such wayward children, saying, "Alas for these sons." This is something for which we must be truly grateful. In order to make ordinary people open their eyes, the Buddha employs extraordinary means. That is, he conceals himself for a while. In historical terms, the Buddha who appeared as the manifest-body entered nirvana. When this occurred, all those who had relied upon him were dismayed. They came to realize that one way or another they would have to stand on their own. This is precisely how the Buddha, out of great compassion, thrusts us away.
It is most important for people to do things for themselves. This is especially true when it comes to faith. Although we may adopt a faith upon the encouragement of others, we cannot become true believers unless we earnestly seek the Way with our own minds. Regardless of who brings food to the table, one must eat it oneself without the help of others. One who cannot do so is sick. Yet even when one who is physically sick is offered food on a spoon, one must chew and swallow it on one's own. Just as food tastes best when one eats it on one's own, this is true of other things. Because one seeks and grasps them for oneself, one truly makes them one's own. The Buddha concealed his physical body from us so that we might awaken to just how vital this self-discipline is.
Finally, the father's return to let the sons see that he is alive and well contains a most important lesson. We must pay particular attention to the word see, which means that something naturally enters the eye without conscious effort on our part. If we believe in the teachings of the Buddha with all our heart, we will naturally come to see the Buddha. This does not mean that we will see the figure of the Buddha, but rather that we will become aware that the Buddha is with us.
The relationship between the Buddha and human beings is not a distant one like that between ruler and ruled but is like that between father and child, who are bound by ties of blood. It is a relationship of warm affection, of embracing and being embraced. Because of this, even if we temporarily lose sight of the Buddha, if we correctly receive and believe in his teachings he will instantly return to our minds. As our true parent, he eternally lives with us and protects us. In this parable, we feel the indescribable compassion that the Buddha directs toward us.
After finishing the Parable of the Good Physician, the World-honored One asks the assembly the following.
TEXT All my good sons! What is your opinion? Are there any who could say that this good physician had committed the sin of falsehood?"
"No, World-honored One!"
The Buddha [then] said: "I also am like this. Since I became Buddha, infinite boundless hundred thousand myriad kotis of nayutas of asamkhyeya kalpas ago, for the sake of all living beings, by my tactful power, I have declared that I must enter nirvana, yet there is none who can lawfully accuse me of the error of falsehood."
COMMENTARY The Buddha then explains again, this time in verse, the infinite lifetime of the Original Buddha and the reasons for the extinction of the trace Buddha. The passage beginning with the words "Since I attained buddhahood" is considered one of the most important verses in the entire Lotus Sutra.
TEXT At that time the World-honored One, desiring to proclaim this meaning over again, spoke thus in verse:
"Since I attained buddhahood, / The kalpas through which I have passed / Are infinite hundred thousands of myriads / Of kotis of asamkhyeya years. / Ceaselessly preached I the Law and taught / Countless kotis of living beings / To enter the Way of the Buddha; / Since then are unmeasured kalpas. / In order to save all living beings, / By tactful methods I reveal nirvana, / Yet truly I am not [yet] extinct / But forever here preaching the Law.
COMMENTARY I reveal nirvana. In this case, nirvana means leaving this world, the state of extinction, and "reveal nirvana" means to manifest to everyone the phenomenon of extinction.
TEXT I forever remain in this [world], / Using all my spiritual powers / So that all perverted beings, / Though I am near, yet fail to see me.
COMMENTARY Because the Eternal Original Buddha is the fundamental Law (Dharma), the great life force, which gives life to all things, his power is free and unrestricted. The grounds for this are different from those of the supernatural strength that a person may have developed through ascetic practices.
From the perspective of the Buddha, although he is close he does not show himself, and from the perspective of ordinary people, he is close but they cannot see him. In other words, despite the fact that the Original Buddha is always with us, we cannot see him. This is because ordinary people see things only from their own point of view - appraising things as gain or loss, pleasant or unpleasant - and are unable to see that all phenomena are actually the Buddha's sermons. This is what is meant by "perverted." As I explained in detail in the context of the law of the Twelve Causes and Conditions (see the January/February 2004 issue of Dharma World), it seems that from the very beginning of life living beings have acted this way and there is nothing that can be done about it. It seems to be an irremediable perversion.
Unlike other living beings, however, human beings possess superior wisdom and thus need to realize that everything is an illusion. With such enlightenment, even within daily life, when people attend only to what can be seen by the eye, their minds are continually turned in the direction of the Buddha. Therefore, whether walking, standing, sitting, or lying down, their deeds are based on the teaching of the Buddha and they come naturally to practice the way of the bodhisattva. And when they become capable of perfecting this, human beings' unborn and undying buddha-nature is able to shine radiantly. Surely this is the zenith of religion.
TEXT All looking on me as extinct / Everywhere worship my relics, / All cherishing longing desires, / And beget thirsting hearts of hope.
COMMENTARY Me. Here the term refers to the Tathagata Shakyamuni, the Buddha of the manifest-body. The Buddha referred to within this verse is sometimes the Eternal Original Buddha and sometimes the trace Buddha, Shakyamuni, and it may be difficult to determine which is being referred to on each occasion. Since both the Original Buddha and the trace Buddha are originally identical, it may not make much difference, but we should, I think, try to distinguish between them. This is verse, and because it differs from expository prose we must use our powers of comprehension as believers to understand or intuit the true meaning.
TEXT [When] all living beings have believed and obeyed, / In [character] upright, in mind gentle, / Wholeheartedly wishing to see the Buddha, / Not caring for their own lives,
COMMENTARY Believed and obeyed. When a feeling of longing and thirst for the Buddha wells up, there naturally arises within living beings the ability to learn deeply the teachings imparted by the Buddha while he was in this world and to believe it from the bottom of the heart.
. In [character] upright. If one believes and obeys, one's character cannot help becoming upright. This means being simple in the sense of unadorned, straightforward, and pliant. Of all the things that modern people have lost, this seems the most significant - despite the fact that it is humanity's most valuable, jewellike possession. Surely this must be because humankind has gradually drifted away from true religion.
. In mind gentle. This is a truly wonderful expression. It expresses precisely the distinctive character of Buddhism and its believers. "Gentle" means tender and pliant. "Tender" does not mean limp or weak hearted. Rather, it is like the flexibility of athletes, who cannot improve their technique, persevere, and become truly strong unless they are physically flexible. Possessing gentleness of mind means that one is selfless and can pliantly accept the truth.
The teaching of Buddhism is gentleness itself. Although it is correct and right, it is not a stubborn, stiff kind of rightness. Nor is it a severe, unsparing rectitude. As I have pointed out in explaining the Middle Way (see the May/June 1997 issue), the Buddha's teaching is simultaneously always in concert with the truth and possessed of complete flexibility and freedom in its manifestations. As a consequence, the spirit of believers in the Buddha is not pressed into a rigid mold or shackled by dogma. Ideally, that spirit is free and possessed of the pliancy to remain faithful to the truth.
. Not caring for their own lives. This means not only being willing to lay down one's own life but also needing neither money nor fame, not desiring the pleasures of the body, and being willing to abandon social status. When combined, these elements mean a spirit of willingness to cast aside self and seek the teaching of the Buddha. When this spirit reaches its culmination, one is willing to offer up even one's life. This is the highest stage a believer can attain.
That does not mean placing a low value on life. On the contrary, precisely because one attains such a stage one is able to make the most of one's life in the true sense. Worldly desires are wishes to make something of the transient self, the self as a temporary phenomenon. Therefore, when those wishes are strong, one's true being cannot manifest itself.
It is in achieving the invigorating state of nonself, wherein one is willing to throw away even one's life, that the unborn and undying buddha-nature emerges. Modern people seem to have lost track of this truth. Because of this, whether in the fields of politics, education, or social work, there is a dearth of truly magnetic figures who have the capacity to pull along others.
It seems to me that this is because a very materially oriented, realistic way of thinking has become entrenched in the minds of the Japanese people in the postwar period. If everyone is so caught up in thinking about things, who will be able to save us from the crises that confront the world? Who will be able to guide humanity to the finer and deeper things in life?
I am convinced that the Japanese, who for well over a thousand years have cultivated their hearts and minds with the spirit of Buddhism, are a people worthy of this noble mission. I never cease hoping that people will give deep consideration to this spirit of not caring for one's own life.
TEXT Then I with all the Samgha / Appear together on the Divine Vulture Peak. / And then I tell all living beings /That I exist forever in this [world], / By the power of tactful methods / Revealing [myself] extinct and not extinct. / [If] in other regions there are beings / Reverent and with faith aspiring, / Again I am in their midst / To preach the supreme Law. / You, not hearing of this, / Only say I am extinct.
COMMENTARY With all the Samgha. This refers to all those who assist the teaching.
. The Divine Vulture Peak. Because the Divine Vulture Peak was the principal location where the Lotus Sutra was expounded, this refers to everything, that is, to this world. Whether we hear the true Dharma in Japan, in America, in the center of a city, in a temple, or in a place set aside for practice, each is the Divine Vulture Peak.
. Other regions. This refers to realms beyond this saha world. In more modern terms, we can consider it to refer to other planets. Many speculate that there must be other planets where intelligent life exists, and since the Eternal Original Buddha is the life force of the universe, it would be entirely natural for him to manifest himself on those worlds, as well.
TEXT I behold all living beings / Sunk in the sea of suffering, / Hence I do not reveal myself / But set them all aspiring, / Till, when their hearts are longing, / I appear to preach the Law. / In such supernaturally pervading power, / Throughout asamkhyeya kalpas / [I am] always on the Divine Vulture Peak / And in every other dwelling place.
COMMENTARY Sunk in the sea of suffering. Just as the text says, people who do not know the teaching of the Buddha are sunk in an ocean of hardship and travail. Some are not even aware that they are sinking in the bitter waters. Yet during their long lives even these people from time to time and for one reason or another must feel an indescribable loneliness or anxiety and therefore reach out for something to hold on to. They must hope for some absolute power upon which they can rely. This feeling is the first step toward longing for the Buddha.
. When their hearts are longing. It is important to note that it is because of their longing for the Buddha that he actually manifests himself to them. As I have said before, from our own perspective, if only we seek the Buddha, we will spontaneously come to see him.
TEXT When all the living see, at the kalpa's end, / The conflagration when it is burning, / Tranquil is this realm of mine, / Ever filled with heavenly beings, / Parks, and many palaces / With every kind of gem adorned, / Precious trees full of blossoms and fruits, / Where all beings take their pleasure; / All the gods strike the heavenly drums / And evermore make music, / Showering mandarava flowers / On the Buddha and his great assembly.
COMMENTARY The kalpa's end. Here we are talking of eons. In ancient India, it was believed that when the current age ended, there would come an age when everything would be reduced to ashes (see the September/October 2004 issue).
Even if such an age were to come, the world of the Buddha would be neither consumed nor destroyed. On the contrary, there would be a beautiful, serene realm. Regardless of how the world we know changes, the world of the Buddha's enlightenment, that is, the world in which the unborn, undying buddha-nature has been manifested, remains the Land of Tranquil Light.
TEXT My Pure Land will never be destroyed, / Yet all view it as being burned up, / And grief and horror and distress / Fill them all like this. / All those sinful beings, / By reason of their evil karma, / Throughout asamkhyeya kalpas, / Hear not the name of the Precious Three.
COMMENTARY My Pure Land will never be destroyed . . . fill them all like this. To the eye of the Buddha, this saha world is the realm of the Buddha, yet to the eye of sinful beings it displays the aspect of hell itself.
. Sinful beings. "Sinful" does not necessarily mean that one has done evil. It refers to being unable to manifest one's buddha-nature and, through one's delusion, trying to conceal the fact (see the July/August 2005 issue).
. The Precious Three. Soon after the Buddha began to propagate his teachings, he taught his disciples three things that believers take refuge in. Since there is nothing more valuable to believers, they are referred to as the Precious Three: the Three Treasures of the Buddha, the Law, and the Samgha.
First, needless to say, is the Buddha. Second is the Law, the truth of the universe, the teachings elucidated by the Buddha. To merely adore the Buddha and worship him would simply be adulation. The distinctive characteristic of Buddhism is revering the Law and making it one's spiritual ground. Third is the Samgha, the Sanskrit term for the Buddhist Order, or community of believers. Originally, the word meant "a close gathering." The Buddha gave this name to the group of companions, including himself, who followed the Way.
Ordinary people find it difficult to pursue the Law and practice alone, for they are apt to lapse into idleness or evil ways. But by joining hands and forming a close community of fellow believers to instruct, admonish, and encourage one another, they can make steady progress along the Way. That is why the Buddha taught us to make the Samgha one of our spiritual foundations.
When we Buddhists speak of the things that we ought to rely on spiritually, we arrive at these three. In other words, if we take as our spiritual ground the Buddha, the teaching of the truth (the Law), and the community of fellow believers (the Samgha), we will be able to practice the true Dharma in our daily lives without error.
When Prince Shotoku began the second clause of his Seventeen-article Constitution with the words "Sincerely reverence the three treasures," he did so out of a belief that they should be the spiritual foundation of the Japanese people. But those who remain in ignorance, forever victim of the defilements, have never even heard of the Three Treasures. In other words, they have not been blessed with an opportunity to encounter the teaching of the Buddha or become part of the community following that teaching, let alone meet and revere the Buddha.
TEXT But all who perform virtuous deeds / And are gentle and of upright nature, / These all see that I exist / And am here expounding the Law. / At times for all this throng / I preach the Buddha's life is eternal; / To those who at length see the Buddha / I preach that a buddha is rarely met. / My intelligence power is such, / My wisdom light shines infinitely, / My life is of countless kalpas, / From long-cultivated karma obtained.
COMMENTARY Here the Buddha is referring not to the Eternal Original Buddha but to the lifetime of the Buddha attained through the accumulation of practice as a bodhisattva in former lives.
TEXT You who have intelligence, / Do not in regard to this beget doubt / But bring it forever to an end, / For the Buddha's words are true, not false. / Like the physician who with clever device, / In order to cure his demented sons, / Though indeed alive announces [his own] death, / [Yet] cannot be charged with falsehood, / I, too, being father of this world, / Who heals all misery and affliction, / For the sake of the perverted people, / Though truly alive, say [I am] extinct;
COMMENTARY Here, the Original Buddha and the trace Buddha merge. This is the true aspect of the Buddha.
What a wonderful verse this is: "I, too, being father of this world, who heals all misery and affliction." The Buddha's compassion overflows. Can we not feel the warmth of that compassion as it is transmitted through our bodies and fills our hearts?
TEXT [Lest,] because always seeing me, / They should beget arrogant minds, / Be dissolute and set in their five desires, / And fall into evil paths. / I, ever knowing all beings, / Those who walk or walk not in the Way, / According to the right principles of salvation / Expound their every Law,
COMMENTARY Evil paths. See the January/February 1993 issue.
. According to the right principles of salvation. This means choosing the most appropriate means of propagating the Law so that it will be as effective as possible.
TEXT Ever making this my thought: / 'How shall I cause all the living / To enter the Way supreme / And speedily accomplish their buddhahood?'"
COMMENTARY These words are the acme of the Buddha's compassion. They refer not to salvation from individual sufferings but to the Buddha's original vow, which is to manifest essential salvation. Consequently, our Buddhist practice must also take this as its goal and ideal. Unless we do this, we will diverge from the Buddha's original vow.
We have reached the conclusion of chapter 16, "Revelation of the [Eternal] Life of the Tathagata." We have come to understand three things. First, the true form of the Buddha is the Eternal Original Buddha (the life force of the universe), and in that sense the Buddha has neither beginning nor end and always exists in this world. Second, the Eternal Original Buddha constantly dwells in this world, embracing all within and without, always and everywhere with us, giving us life. Third, because the Buddha and living beings are originally parent and child, we too will live for eternity.
If we fix this awareness firmly within our hearts, our lives will be truly free of anxiety. What is more, we will be filled with courage and a positive spirit.
This chapter is the quintessence of the Lotus Sutra, which is why it is considered to embody the spirit of all the scriptures of Buddhism.