The Lotus Sutra - Selections

A Contemporary Translation of a Buddhist Classic


504 pages, 6 x 9 inches


ISBN 9780861715718

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4: Faith and Understanding

At that time four men living a life of wisdom, Subhuti, Maha Katyayana, Maha-Kashyapa, and Maha-Maudgalyayana, hearing the Dharma they had never heard before from the Buddha and the assurance by the World-Honored One of Shariputra’s future supreme awakening, were astonished and ecstatic with joy from experiencing such an unprecedented thing. They immediately rose from their seats, arranged their robes, bared their right shoulders, and knelt on their right knees on the ground. Putting their palms together in complete devotion, they bowed in respect, gazed up at his honored face, and said to the Buddha:

“We leading monks, old and worn out, believed that we had already attained nirvana and could go no further. So we did not seek supreme awakening. The World-Honored One has been preaching the Dharma for a long time, and all the while we have been sitting in our places, weary in body and mindful only of emptiness, formlessness, and non-action. Neither the enjoyments nor the divine powers of the bodhisattvadharma—purifying buddha-lands and saving living beings—appealed to us.

“Why was this? The World-Honored One had made it possible for us to rise above the threefold world and gain evidence of nirvana. Besides, we are so old and worn out that when we heard of supreme awakening, with which the Buddha teaches and transforms bodhisattvas, no thought of pursuing it was attractive to us. Now, hearing directly from the Buddha that shravakas are assured of attaining supreme awakening, we are very happy. We have gained something we never before experienced.

 Unexpectedly and suddenly, we have now heard this rare Dharma. We see ourselves as extremely fortunate. Without even seeking it, we have acquired something great and good, an extremely rare treasure.

“World-Honored One, we would now like to use a parable to clarify what we mean. Suppose a still-young man left his father, ran away, and lived in some other land for a long time, for ten, twenty, or even fifty years. The older he became, the poorer and more needy he became. He wandered around in every direction looking for clothing and food until, finally, by chance, he was heading toward his homeland.

“Meanwhile, the father had searched for this son unsuccessfully, and now lived in another city. His household had become very wealthy, his goods and treasures incalculable: gold, silver, lapis lazuli, coral, amber, crystal, and other gems overflowed his storehouses. He also had many grooms and servants, clerks and attendants, and countless elephants, horses, carriages, oxen, and sheep. His revenues and investments spread to other lands. There also were many merchants and traveling traders around.

“At this time the poor son, wandering through village after village and passing through various lands and cities, at last reached the city where his father was living. Although his son had been away for more than fifty years, the father always thought about him. But he had never spoken of the matter to anyone, only pondering it to himself, his heart full of remorse and regret. He thought: ‘Old and worn out, I have great wealth—gold, silver, and rare treasures overflow my storehouses—yet I have no son. Someday my end will come and my wealth will be scattered and lost, for there is no one to whom I can leave it.’

“This is why he always so earnestly thought of his son. ‘If I could only get my son back and entrust my wealth to him,’ he thought, ‘how contented, how happy I would be, with no more anxiety!’

“Meanwhile, World-Honored One, the poor son, drifting from one job to another, accidentally arrived at his father’s house. Standing by the gate, he saw his father from a distance, seated on a lion seat. His feet were on a jeweled footstool, and strings of pearls worth tens of millions adorned his body. He was being revered by surrounding brahmans, nobles, and ordinary people, while attendants and servants with white fly whisks stood by on both sides. Over him was a jeweled canopy from which streamers of flowers hung down. Perfume was sprinkled on the ground, and all kinds of celebrated flowers were scattered around. And valuable things were set in rows for his approval or rejection. With such trappings, he looked majestic and distinguished.

“The poor son, seeing his father with such great power, was seized with fear and regretted that he had come to this place. He secretly thought to himself: ‘He must be a king or something like a king. This is no place for me to try to earn a living. I had better go to some poor town where I can be paid for my labor, and where food and clothing will be easier to get. If I stay here long, I may be captured and forced to work.’ Having thoughts of this kind, he ran away quickly.

“Meanwhile the elderly gentleman on the lion seat recognized his son at first sight. Filled with joy, he thought: ‘At last I have the one to whom my stores of wealth are to be entrusted. I’ve always been thinking of my son but had no way to see him. Now suddenly he has come by himself. My hope is completely fulfilled. Old and worn out, I yearn for an heir.’ “Then he sent messengers to run after the son and bring him back as quickly as possible. They ran after him and grabbed him. The poor son, surprised and afraid, loudly cried out in anger: ‘I have done nothing against you. Why am I being seized?’ The messengers held on to him even more firmly and forced him to go back with them.

“Then the poor son thought that, although he had done nothing wrong, he was being taken prisoner and surely would be put to death. All the more terrified and desperate, he fell down in a faint. The father, seeing this from a distance, told the messengers: ‘There is no need for this man. Don’t force him to come. Sprinkle some cold water on his face to wake him up, and say nothing more to him.’

“Why did he do this? The father knew that his son felt inept and humble, and that his own great position would be difficult for his son. He knew perfectly well that this was his son, but, using skillful means, he didn’t tell anyone that this was so.

“The messengers told the son: ‘We are releasing you now. You are free to go wherever you want.’ So the poor son rejoiced, having obtained what he had not had before. He got up from the ground and went off to a poor village in search of food and clothing.

“Then the rich man, wanting to entice his son back, decided to use skillful means again. Secretly he sent two men of miserable and undignified appearance after him, saying: ‘Go there and visit, and gently tell the poor man that there is a place for him to work where he will be given double the normal wage. If he agrees, bring him back here and put him to work. If he asks what kind of work you want him to do, tell him that we are hiring him to remove dung, and that you will work along with him.’

“Then the two messengers went in search of the poor man and, finding him, told to him what they had been told to say. The poor son asked for an advance on his wages, and joined them in removing the dung.

“The father, seeing the son, felt both sympathy and wonder. On another day, looking through a window, he saw his son at a distance, looking gaunt, lean, and filthy from the piles of dung, dirt, and filth. Taking off his necklaces, his soft clothing and ornaments, he put on coarse, torn, and dirty clothes, smeared his body with dirt, took a pan for dung in his right hand, and in a rough manner said to the workers: ‘Get to work! Don’t be so lazy!’ Through such skillful means he could get near his son.

“Afterward he said to the son: ‘Young man, now you should stay and work here, and not go anywhere else again. I will increase your wages. And you won’t have to worry about needing bowls, utensils, rice, flour, salt, vinegar, and so on. There is even an old and worn-out servant you can use if you need him. Take it easy. I’m like a father to you. You don’t need to worry any more. Why? Because I am old and advanced in years, but you are young and vigorous. All the time you have been working here, you have never been deceitful, lazy, angry, or grumbling. I have never seen you display the faults of other workers. From now on, you will be like my own son.’ Then the rich man gave him a new name, as he would to a child.

“Then the poor son, though pleased with all of this, still thought of himself as a humble laborer. Thus for twenty years he continued to be employed at removing dung. After that, they gained confidence in each other, and the son felt he could come and go easily. Yet he continued to live in the same place as before.

“World-Honored One, then the old man became ill. Knowing that he would die soon, he said to the poor son: ‘I now have abundant gold, silver, and rare treasures filling my storehouses to overflowing. I want you to have a detailed understanding of the quantities involved, and of what should be received and paid out. This is what I have in mind and want you to do. Why? Because from now on you and I will be no different. Be careful to see that there are no careless losses.’

“The poor son accepted these instructions and took stock of all the goods—gold, silver, and other valuables—and of the various storehouses, but never expected to receive even a meal for himself. He continued to live in the place where he had lived before and was unable to get rid of his sense of inferiority.

“After some time had passed, the father saw that his son was gradually becoming more confident and accomplished, and that he despised his former state of inferiority. Realizing that his own end was near, he ordered his son to arrange a meeting with his relatives, the king, the ministers, nobles, and ordinary citizens. When they had all assembled, he said to them: ‘Gentlemen, I should tell you that this is my son, my natural-born son. In another city he left me and ran away, for over fifty years enduring loneliness and suffering. His original name was so-andso and my name is so-and-so. At that time, when I was still living in my hometown, I worried about him and looked all over for him. It was here that I suddenly happened to meet him again. This is really my son, and I am really his father. Now all of my wealth belongs entirely to my son, and all my earlier disbursements and receipts are known by this son.’

“World-Honored One, when the poor son heard these words of his father, having gained something he had never had before, he was filled with joy. And he thought: ‘Without any intention or effort on my part these treasures have now come to me by themselves.’

“World-Honored One, the very rich old man is the Tathagata, and we are all like the Buddha’s children. The Tathagata has always taught that we are his children. Because of the three kinds of suffering, WorldHonored One, in the midst of birth and death we have borne all kinds of passionate worries. Being confused and ignorant, we enjoyed attachment to lesser teachings. Today the World-Honored One has led us to ponder over and to rid ourselves of such teachings and all the dung of diverting discussions. In the past we were diligent, and made progress in this way until we reached nirvana, which is like a single day’s pay. Having attained this nirvana, our hearts were filled with great joy. We were content. We said to ourselves, ‘Due to our diligent perseverance in the Buddha-dharma, we have received many rewards.’

 “However, the World-Honored One, knowing from past experience that we were attached to low desires and delighted in lesser teachings, let us go our own way and did not tell us: ‘You will yet have the insight of a tathagata, your portion of the treasury.’ Using the power of skillful means, the World-Honored One taught Tathagata-wisdom. But following the Buddha and attaining a single day’s pay of nirvana seemed such a great gain to us that we never devoted ourselves to seeking the Great Vehicle. “Also, since we revealed and preached Tathagata-wisdom for the sake  of bodhisattvas, we never aspired to it ourselves. Why was this? The Buddha, knowing that we delighted in lesser teachings, used his power of skillful means to teach us according to what was appropriate for us. But still we did not see that we are really children of the Buddha. But now we know. We realize that the World-Honored One does not hold back the wisdom of the Buddha from anyone. Why do we say this? From ancient times we were really children of the Buddha, but only took pleasure in lesser teachings. If we had had a mind to take pleasure in great things, the Buddha would have taught the Great Vehicle Dharma for our sakes.

“Now, in this sutra, the Buddha teaches only the one vehicle. Although in the past he spoke disparagingly in the presence of bodhisattvas of the shravakas’ liking for lesser teachings, in reality he was using the Great Vehicle to teach and transform us. Therefore we say that, though we had no hope or expectation of it, now the great treasure of the king of the Dharma has come to us by itself. Since it is something that children of the Buddha should acquire, we have all acquired it.”

Then Maha-Kashyapa, wanting to say what he meant once again, spoke in verse:


Today we have heard
The Buddha’s voice teaching.
We are ecstatic with joy,
Having obtained what we never had before.

The Buddha teaches that shravakas
Are able to become buddhas.
This collection of unexcelled treasures
Has become ours without our seeking it.

 It is like a youth who,
Immature and ignorant,
Left his father and ran away to distant lands, 
Wandering about from place to place for over fifty years.

His anxious father searched for him everywhere
Until, worn out from searching,
He settled in another city, built a house there
And took pleasure in the five desires.

His home was large and expensive,
With much gold and silver,
Seashell and agate,
Pearls and lapis lazuli,

Elephants, horses, oxen, and sheep,
Palanquins, buggies, and carriages.
Field workers and servants were there,
And a multitude of other people.

His revenues and investments
Spread even to other lands.
His traders and customers
Were everywhere.

Tens of millions of billions of people
Surrounded and honored him.
He was always in the favor of the king,
And all officials and powerful families honored him highly.

For many reasons
He was surrounded by a multitude.
Such was the extent of his wealth
And the greatness of his power.

But as he became older and infirm,
He longed all the more for his son.
Day and night he wondered:
“My time to die is coming.

“My foolish son has been away
For over fifty years.
All the things in my storehouses—
What should I do with them?”

At that time the poor son
Was looking for food and clothing,
Going from city to city
And from land to land.

Sometimes finding something,
Sometimes nothing,
He became famished, weak and gaunt,
And covered with scabs and sores.

Going from place to place,
From one job to another he wandered about,
Eventually coming to the city where his father lived,
Finally reaching his father’s house.

Just at that time, within his gates
The rich man had set up a great jeweled tent
And was sitting on a lion seat
Surrounded by his dependents and various attendants.

Some were counting
Gold, silver, and jewels,
Or incoming and outgoing goods,
Recording them in ledgers.

The poor son,
Seeing how eminent and distinguished his father was,
Thought: “This must be a king
Or someone like a king.”

 Alarmed and full of awe, he asked himself:
“Why have I come here?”
And he thought to himself:
“If I stay for long, I may be captured and forced to work.”

Having thought this,
He quickly ran away
In search of some poor village,
Where he might go to work.

The rich man on the lion seat
At that time
Saw his son in the distance,
And silently recognized him.

Immediately he ordered messengers 
To chase after him and bring him back.
The poor son cried out in fright,   
And fell to the ground in terror.

“These men have caught me.
Surely I will be killed!   
Why did I come here
To look for food and clothing?”

Knowing that his son was foolish and feeling inferior,
The rich man thought:
“He will never believe my words
Nor believe that I am his father.”

So, using skillful means,
He sent some other men,
One-eyed, short, common-looking,
Unimposing men.

“Go and tell him,” he said,
“You will be hired with us
To remove dung and filth,
And you will be paid double wages.”

Hearing this, the poor son
Was glad, and went with them
To remove dung and filth
And clean the stables.

Through a window
The rich man always watched his son,
And thought about how he was foolish
To be pleased with such menial work.

Then the rich man,
Putting on tattered, dirty clothes,
And taking a shovel for dung,
Would go to where his son was.

Using this skillful means
To get near him,
He encouraged the son
To work hard, saying:

“I have increased your wages
And given you oil for your feet,
And plenty of food and drink
And thick warm mats for a bed.”

Sometimes he used stern language:
“Get on with your work.”
At other times he spoke gently:
“You are like a son to me.”

Being wise, the rich man eventually allowed him
To go in and out of the house,
And after twenty years
Made him manager of the house.

 He showed him gold and silver,
Pearls and crystal,
And other incoming and outgoing things.
All this to have him understand such things.

Still the son lived outside the gate,
Living in a grass hovel,  
Regarding himself as poor,
And thinking: “None of this is mine.”

Knowing that his son’s disposition
Was gradually becoming
More open and generous,
And wanting to give him his wealth,

The father gathered together his relatives,
The king and ministers,
The nobles and ordinary citizens.
Before this great assembly

He announced: “This is my son,
Who left me and went off somewhere for fifty years.
And since I saw my son come back
Twenty years have gone by.

“Long ago in some other city
I lost my son.
I went all around searching for him,
And eventually came here.

“All that I have,
Houses and people, 
I give entirely to him.
He is free to use them as he wishes.”

The son thought of his earlier poverty
And feelings of inferiority,
And of how he had now, from his father,
Received such great treasures,

Along with houses and buildings
And all his wealth.
He was overjoyed at having received
What he had never had before.

The Buddha too is like this.
Knowing that we are pleased with small things,
You did not tell us before,
“You can become buddhas.”

Instead you told us about
Becoming free of fault,
Fulfilling a lesser vehicle 
And being shravaka disciples.

The Buddha ordered us  
To preach the supreme way,
Since those who study it and put it into practice
Can become buddhas.

Having received the Buddha’s teaching,
Using causal explanations, various parables,
And a variety of other kinds of expression,
We taught the unexcelled way for the sake of great bodhisattvas.

When children of the Buddha
Heard the Dharma from us,
They pondered over it day and night
And diligently studied and practiced it.

Then the Buddha
Assured them, saying:
“In future lives
You will become buddhas.”

 The true facts of the Dharma,
Of the secret storehouse of all the buddhas,
Could be taught only to bodhisattvas.
It was not for our sake that this essential truth was taught.

Just as that poor son,
When he came near his father,
Took care of all his possessions,
But had no desire to have them for himself,

So too, we taught
The storehouse of Buddha-dharma,
But had no will to seek it for ourselves.
We were like him.

We took the extinction of what was within
To be good enough.
Having done this,
Nothing more remained to be done.

Even if we heard
About purifying buddha-lands
Or teaching and transforming living beings,
We did not aspire to do them.

Why? Because all things are empty and tranquil
Without coming to be, without extinction,
Without being large, without being small,
Without fault, without action.

Thinking in this way, with no felt joy,
Throughout the long night
We neither sought nor were attached to
The wisdom of the Buddha.

Nor had we any desire
Or hope for it,
Believing that in regard to the
Dharma We had the ultimate.

Through the long night,
Studying and putting the Dharma of emptiness into practice,
We gained release from the threefold world’s
Illness of suffering and agony.

We lived out our final lives in an incomplete nirvana.
Having been taught and transformed by the Buddha,
We thought we surely had attained the Way,
And therefore already repaid the Buddha’s grace.

While we taught the bodhisattva-dharma
For the sake of the Buddha’s children,
Urging them to seek the Buddha way,
We ourselves never aspired to this Dharma.

Because he looked into our minds and hearts,
We were left alone by our leader and teacher.
At first he never encouraged us
By telling us about the true gain.

Just as the rich man,
Knowing his son’s sense of inferiority,
Used the power of skillful means   
To soften and win him over,

Only later did he entrust him with all his wealth.
So too with the Buddha:
Displaying rare actions,
And knowing that some want little things,

He uses the power of skillful means
To soften and temper them,
And then teaches them
Great wisdom.

Today we have obtained something we never had before.
What we had not even hoped for
Has come to us by itself,
Just as that poor son obtained innumerable treasures.

World-Honored One,
We have now gained the Way and won its fruit.
In the flawless Dharma
We have attained clear vision.

Having observed the Buddha’s pure precepts
Throughout the long night,
Today for the first time
We have obtained the fruit and reward.

In the Dharma of the Dharma king,
Having long observed noble practices,
We have now attained
The flawless, unexcelled great fruit.

Now we are
True shravakas.
For we will lead all beings to hear
The voice of the Buddha way.

Now we are true arhats.
Everywhere among gods and humans,
Devils and brahmans of all the worlds,
We deserve offerings.

The World-Honored One in his great grace,
Making use of rare things,
Teaches and transforms us out of sympathy,
Enriching us.

Even in countless hundreds of millions of eons,
Who could repay him?

Even if we offer our hands and feet,
Pay respect by bowing our heads,
And make all kinds of offerings,
None of us could ever repay him.

If we carried him on our head,
Or on our two shoulders,
Through as many eons as the sands of the Ganges;
Wholeheartedly revering him,

Offering him the best of food,
Countless jeweled robes,
All kinds of bedding,
And every sort of medication;

If with ox-head sandalwood
And all kinds of jewels   
We built stupas,
And carpeted the ground with jeweled robes;

If we did all such things as offerings,
Through as many eons
As the sands of the Ganges,
Still we would not be able to repay him.

Buddhas have rare,
Immeasurable and unlimited,
Inconceivably great
Power of divine faculties.

Tied neither to their faults nor actions,
The kings of the Dharma,
For the sake of the lowly,
Patiently endure.

To common people attached to appearances
They preach what is appropriate.
With the Dharma,
Buddhas have the greatest freedom.

Understanding the desires and pleasures of living beings
And the strength of their intentions,
According to what is appropriate and for their sake,
They use innumerable parables to teach the Dharma.

Making use of good roots
Put down in previous lives,
Knowing who is mature
And who is immature,

And making various calculations,
Distinctions, and perceptions,    
They take the way of the one vehicle,
And, as appropriate, teach the three.


How to cite this document:
© Rissho Kosei-kai, The Lotus Sutra (Wisdom Publications, 2008)

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