The Seven Parables in the Lotus Sutra

Ryuei and Maylie at the Berkeley Zen Center

Zen & the Lotus Sutra
A Series of Seminars at the
Berkeley Zen Center ~ 1999
by Ryuei Michael McCormick

Table of Contents

Dedication to the memory of the late Zen Master, Kushin Seisho Maylie Scott (1935-2001)

Session One ~ April 1

  • Opening Verse and Statement (Ch.1)
  • Zen and the Lotus Sutra (Ch.2)
  • Parables of the Lotus Sutra (Ch.3-4)
  • Overview of the Seminar
  • Q&A from Session 1
  • Session Two ~ April 8

  • Overview of the Lotus Sutra
  • Bodhicitta (Ch.3-4)
  • Parables of Encouragement (Ch.5,7)
  • Parables of Buddha-nature (Ch.8,14)
  • Absolute and Relative Bodhicitta (Ch.10,14)
  • Q&A from Session 2
  • On the Odaimoku
  • Session Three ~ April 15

  • Appearance of the Precious Stupa (Ch.11-14)
  • The Emergent Bodhisattvas of the Earth (Ch.15)
  • The Eternal Buddha (Ch.16)
  • The Merits of the Single Moment of Faith and Rejoicing (Ch.17-19)
  • The Transmission of the Wonderful Dharma (Ch.21-22)
  • Q&A from Session 3
  • Session Four ~ April 22

  • Analysis of the Lotus Sutra
  • Bodhisattva Medicine King (Ch.23)
  • Bodhisattva Wonder Sound (Ch.24)
  • Bodhisattva Regarder of the Cries of the World (Ch.25)
  • Dharanis (Ch.26)
  • King Resplendent (Ch.27)
  • Encouragement of Bodhisattva Universal Virtue (Ch.28)
  • Q&A for Session 4
  • Session Five ~ April 29

  • Q&A for Session 5 after Shodaigyo Practice

    Appendix A: Verses for Opening the Sutra
    Appendix B: Practice Questions
  • Appendix C: The Seven Parables of the Lotus Sutra
    Appendix D: Zen Masters on the Lotus Sutra
    Appendix E: Recitation Passages
    Appendix F: Shodaigyo Meditation

    Appendix C

    The Seven Parables of the Lotus Sutra

    (From Shinjo Suguro's Introduction to the Lotus Sutra)

    1. The Parable of the Burning House (Chapter 3)

    Suppose there once lived a very rich man in a certain country. His wealth was vast. He had many rice fields, houses, and servants. Although his manor house was large, it had only one gate. Many people lived in that house, as much as five hundred, of whom thirty were his own children. The building was old and in disrepair, the fences and walls dilapidated, the bases of the pillar rotten, and the beams and ridgepoles tilting and slanted. Besides, although people had not noticed, numerous birds, beasts, and pets were rampant in the house.

    One day, while the man was out, fires broke out simultaneously on all sides of the house, and it began to burn. Inside the house, the children were so preoccupied with their games that they never noticed the fires and did not try to get out. The rich man came home, saw what was happening, and thought, "The children will die if they remain inside. I have to get them out quickly by any means, even by force if necessary." He shouted to them, "Come out right away!" But the children, who were scattered about the house and engrossed in their amusements, did not pay any attention to him. They continued playing as if they were in no danger at all.

    The rich man realized that he would have to save them by some expedient. He knew that children are attracted by rare toys, so he shouted to them, "There are toys out here which you love. You'll be sorry if you don't come out quickly and choose the ones you want. There are sheep-carts, deer-carts, and bullock-carts here outside the house. You can have whichever one you want if you come out right away."

    Suddenly the children began to listen to their father. They rushed out of the house, pushing and shoving each other to be first in line.

    Once the rich man saw them all safely outside, he felt relieved. The children said to him, "Give us the carts you promised us!" Instead of giving them separate presents, the rich man gave each of them an identical bullock-cart, more magnificent than anything they had longed for. It was called the "great white bullock-cart."

    The cart was tall, wide and deep. It was adorned with many treasures, surrounded by railings, and had bells hanging on the four sides. A richly adorned canopy was fixed on top. Garlands of flowers, tied with jeweled ropes, were hanging from the canopy. In the cart, there were quilts spread on one another, and a crimson pillow. The cart was yoked to white bullocks. The skin of these bullocks shone brightly; their build was stout and beautiful; their gate was regular. They could run as swift as the wind. Each cart was conducted by many attendants. Because the father was so wealthy and loved all his children equally, he gave them only the best - a splendid white bullock cart for each one.

    Shakyamuni asked: "Shariputra, do you think that the rich man was guilty of falsehood when he gave his children the sumptuous white bullock-carts instead of the ones they asked for?"

    Shariputra answered, "No, World-honored One. The rich man saved his children from the fire and caused them to survive. He should not be accused of falsehood, because the children were, indeed, given their toys, even if these toys were better than they had previously imagined. He used an expedient to save their lives, not a falsehood."

    Shakyamuni continued, "It is just as you say. Like the rich man, I am the father of the world. I eliminate fear, grief, ignorance, and darkness. I have supernatural skills and the power of wisdom. Out of my infinite compassion, I never tire of seeking good things for or benefiting living beings. I have appeared in the triple world (the worlds of desire, form, and non-form), which can be likened to the rotten and burning house, in order to save all living beings from the fires of earthly desires, to teach them, and have them attain supreme perfect-enlightenment. I see that all living beings are burned by the fires of birth, old age, disease, and death. They undergo all sorts of sufferings because of their cravings to enhance their lives. The rich man persuaded his children to come out by first promising them the gifts of the three kinds of carts. In the same way, I led all living beings with the expedient teachings of the Three Vehicles." (pp.44-46)

    2. The Parable of a Poor Son (Chapter 4)

    Once upon a time, there lived a poor man who wandered about the country looking for work. He had long ago forgotten the happy home of his childhood which he had left many years before. Now every year he grew poorer and poorer and more miserable as he drifted aimlessly about, until one day, quite by accident, he found himself back in the land of his birth. His father, meanwhile, had grown very rich and now lived in a magnificent villa, from which he directed his many employees and business affairs. However, he never forgot his son who had left home so many years before, and someday he hoped to find him again. He thought to himself, "I have no heir any more. When I die, all my accumulated wealth will be scattered and lost. I will have enjoyed all my success for nothing."

    One day the son, who had been begging from door to door, came to the gate of his father's villa. He peered in but did not recognize the wealthy businessman inside, who was surrounded by employees and servants obeying his instructions. He looked overwhelmingly powerful when he was giving orders to his servants. In fact, the sight of his old father frightened him. He thought, "Whoever that man is, he looks too important to bother himself with the likes of me. I had better leave this place before I get into some kind of trouble." He turned and ran away.

    (1) The rich man, however, had recognized his son at first sight. When he saw him run away, he immediately told two of his servants, "Go and catch that man! Bring him back here when you've got him!" When the poor son saw the two servants pursuing him, he was terrified. "Leave me alone!" he cried. "What have I done to you?" He was so frightened that he fainted dead away.

    (2) When the rich man saw how low his son had sunk, he realized he could hold him only by using some ruse. "Pour water on him," he told the servants, "and revive him. Then tell him he is free to go. But keep an eye on him and tell me where he has gone." The servants did as they were instructed, and the poor son got up and slipped away, much relieved that he had not been arrested. Once he heard where his son was staying, the father sent two other servants, much shabbier and humbler than the first pair, with instructions to offer the poor son a menial job. The son accepted, happy to get a day's work. In this way, the father kept his son close by doing menial labor day after day. The son, who was pleased to get regular employment, worked hard.

    (3) The father secretly watched his son compassionately. One day he removed his fine clothes and disguised himself as a foreman. He approached his son and spoke to him in a friendly manner. "You do good work, boy. It's time you had a better job. I am going to promote you to a task involving more responsibility. If there is anything you need, just speak to me about it. I am an old man without a son of my own. From now on, I'll be just like a father to you." So the son continued working at the estate, passing gradually from one job to another, always accepting more responsibility as he became ready for it.

    (4) One day the father fell ill. He knew that his days were numbered. He called in his son and promoted him to general manager. The son was pleased to accept the position, but still considered himself to be no more than a faithful employee.

    (5) He worked conscientiously, and soon was known far and wide for his honesty and dedication. When the father was on his deathbed, he called together all his relatives, associates, and employees. Then in front of everyone, he revealed his son's true identity and announced that he was the true heir to all his estates and businesses. The son was astonished to hear this. "I never dreamed that I was the rightful heir to all this," he said. "It has come to me totally unexpectedly." (pp. 52-54)

    3. The Parable of the Herbs (Chapter 5)

    Suppose the various trees and grasses of the one thousand million Sumeru-worlds (worlds containing living beings) including herbs growing in the thickets, forests, mountains, ravines and valleys, on the ground, and by rivers - all these plants being different in names and forms - were covered with a dark cloud, and then watered by a rainfall at the same time. The small, middle and large roots, stems, branches and leaves of the trees, and grasses, including herbs growing in thickets and forests were watered. So were the tall and short trees, whether they were superior in size, middle, or inferior. Those plants were given more or less water by the same rain from the same cloud, and grew differently according to their species. They produced different flowers and fruits even though they grew from the same soil and received water from the same rain.

    Maha-Kasyapa, know this! I, the Tathagata, am like the cloud. I have appeared in this world just as the large cloud rose. With resounding tones, I expounded the Dharma to gods, men and asuras (demonic beings) of the world, just as the large cloud covered all the one thousand million Sumeru-worlds. I said to the great multitude, "I am the Tathagata, the Buddha, the World-Honored One. I will cause all living beings to cross (the ocean of birth and death) if they have not yet done so. I will cause them to emancipate themselves from suffering if they have not yet done so. I will cause them to attain nirvana if they have not yet done so. I will cause them to have peace of mind if they have not yet done so. I know their present lives as they are and also their future lives as they will be. I know all. I see all. I know the Way. I have opened the Way. I will expound the Way.

    Having seen many thousands of billions of people come to hear the Dharma, the Tathagata knows which ones were clever, which were dull, which were diligent, and which were lazy. Therefore, the Tathagata expounded to them an innumerable variety of teachings according to their capacities, just like the large cloud caused a rainfall that watered the various trees and grasses at the same time. The various teachings the Tathagata expounded were of the same content, of the same taste, but people did not realize it because they were expounded in different ways according to the various stages of enlightenment they were in. Only the Tathagata knew that, and lead them to attain the final stage of enlightenment.

    I see all living beings equally. I have no partiality for them. For me, there is no 'this one' or 'that one.' I transcend love and hatred. I am attached to nothing. I am hindered by nothing. I always expound the Dharma to all living beings equally. I expound the Dharma to many just as I do to one."

    Although my teachings are of the same content to anyone just as the rain is of the same taste to all, so the hearers receive my teachings differently according to their capacities, just as the plants receive different amounts of the rain water." (pp. 57-59)

    4. The Parable of the Magic City (Chapter 7)

    Once upon a time, there was a place containing a magnificent treasure. In order to reach it, people had to travel a dangerous road, five hundred yojanas in length, and cross mountains, valleys, and deserts. There was a guide who knew this road well. He was a wise and clever man. A party of treasure-hunters hired him to lead them to the place where the treasure could be found. They set out with enthusiasm, but the trip turned out to be harder and more dangerous than they had imagined. Most of the party eventually wanted to give up the expedition and return home. "We don't care about the treasure anymore," they said. "Let's quit and go back." The leader thought, "They are giving up too easily. If they turn back now, they will have wasted all this effort for nothing. It would be a shame to stop now that we have gone more than half way. I must think of some expedient to encourage them to continue."

    He was a wise man who knew how to create illusions. Using his skill, he conjured up an imaginary city on the road ahead. "Look!" he told the travelers. "There is a city ahead of us! I know that you are all tired, but we can enter that city, find safety there, and refresh ourselves before continuing our journey." Delighted with what they saw, the treasure-hunters entered the "city," lay down in shady spots, and rested, feeling themselves secure at last from brigands and wild animals.

    When the travelers had rested and partaken of a good meal, the guide made the magic city disappear. "You see," he told them, "this city was only a mirage. But now that you feel rested and stronger, let's continue our journey. We have not much further to go." Encouraged by their leader, the travelers set forth again, helped each other when they encountered difficulties along the way, and finally reached their destination, the treasure site. (pp. 71-72)

    5. The Parable of the Hidden Gem (Chapter 8)

    There once lived a poor man who used to drink too much. On one occasion, he visited a wealthy friend, who offered him cup after cup of wine. He enjoyed himself and drank so much that finally he fell sound asleep. His friend had to leave on business. He knew that his poor companion generally lost his wits when drinking, but he felt sorry for him and wanted to help him in some way. So before leaving, he fastened a priceless gem to the garment of the poor man as a gift. Then he departed, certain that his poor friend would be delighted when he awoke and discovered his new wealth.

    But things did not work out as the rich friend had planned. The drunken man finally awoke, but he did not notice the gem which was sewn into his garment. He got bleary-eyed and went out, believing he possessed no more than a headache. He had no home nor steady work to go to, so he wandered about from one place to another for many years, living a miserable existence.

    One day he ran into his old friend. The friend was shocked by his wretched appearance. "What's wrong with you?" he asked. "I left a priceless gem sewn in your garment that last evening we were together. I expected you to sell it, invest the money in some business, and get on your feet at last. Why didn't you do so?"

    The poor man was bewildered. "Gem?" he asked. "What gem?" He felt along the lining of his garment, and was astonished to find a precious stone attached to it. He had been a wealthy man all this time without realizing it. (pp.79-80)

    6. The Parable of the Gem in the Topknot (Chapter 14)

    "Suppose a powerful wheel-turning-holy-king, a king superlative in war and peace, threatened neighboring monarchies and demanded their surrender. They ignored his demands, so he led his troops against them and defeated them by force of arms. He was pleased to see that some of his officers and men distinguished themselves in the war. Therefore, he rewarded each of them according to what they had earned, granting them spoils of war and other gifts, such as lands, villages, castles, palaces, and treasures. But there was one thing which he did not give away to anyone. This was a brilliant gem which he wore in his top-knot - a gem unique in all the world. If he had given it away, his followers would have been shocked (for it symbolized the authority of the king himself).

    The Buddha is like that king. He obtained the world of the Dharma (true law) by his powers of dhyana-concentration and wisdom, and became the king of the "triple world" (of desires, form, and non-form). He demanded that the evil spirits surrender and cease harassing living beings, but they ignored his demands. Therefore he waged war against them, and his armies, led by his outstanding disciples, launched themselves into battle with the forces of evil. He was pleased to see that some of his disciples distinguished themselves in the combat. He expounded many sutras for them, gave them treasures from the Dharma, and led them to Nirvana. But he did not expound the Lotus Sutra to them. Only when he sees that his disciples have already obtained extraordinary merits in their fight with the evil ones, and that they have already eliminated cravings and illusion, left the "triple world," and destroyed the nets of the demons (maras), does he then joyfully expound this Lotus Sutra, leading them to perfect enlightenment.

    The Lotus Sutra is the treasury of the hidden core of the Buddhas. It is superior to all other sutras. I kept it in secret and refrained from expounding it throughout the long night. Now for the first time I remove it from my top-knot and give it to you all. (pp.119-120)

    7. The Parable of the Excellent Physician (Chapter 16)

    There was once an excellent and wise physician, who could cure all manner of diseases. He had many children. One day, while the physician was traveling in a distant part of the country, his children got into his medicine chest and began to sample what they found there. They liked the contents of one bottle in particular, and too late they realized that it was poisonous. They fell to the floor, writhing in agony.

    Fortunately, the father returned home soon afterwards. He was shocked to find them in so much pain. "Father," some of them told him, "we drank from this bottle by mistake. Please do something to save us!" Others of the children only glared at him, as if it were all his fault in the first place. Some were already delirious, and could do nothing but moan.

    The father knew exactly what to do. He went into his laboratory and mixed several ingredients to make a remedy. Then he brought it in and offered it to the children. Some took it immediately and were cured. Others had to be forced to take it. Still others refused to take it at all.

    Then the father decided on an expedient. The obedient children, he knew, would take the remedy because he told them to. The disobedient children, on the other hand, would take it only if they wanted to, themselves. He set the remedy down nearby.

    "There is nothing more I can do for you," he told them. "I must leave now on urgent business. Take this remedy I have prepared and you will cure yourselves." Then he left them. A few days later, he sent a messenger to the house with the news that their father would return no more; he had died in a distant country.

    The children were much grieved to hear this report. Those who had been disobedient complained the loudest. "If our father had been here, he would not have let us suffer like this. Now he can help us no longer. He had left us with only these bottles containing what he said was a remedy for our pain." Then they realized the precariousness of their position. If they did not take this remedy immediately, they could die.

    They all took the remedy, and in due time were cured just as the father had predicted. When the father learned that his children were well again, he returned home and met them in a joyous reunion. (pp.135-136)

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