On the Lotus Sutra

Part 2: Parables and Stories

Progress & Conservation🔰
12 min readJan 13, 2024
Vairocana, the Universal Buddha, generated using AI

In the previous essay, I covered some of the basic ideas of the Lotus Sutra and the practice of chanting the title or daimoku, which is especially associated with the teachings of Nichiren Daishonin. In this essay, I want to cover a few of the teachings espoused in the Lotus Sutra in more detail, as well as some of the key parables and stories from the sutra.

Key Themes

I’ll start by touching on some of the basic ideas that the Lotus Sutra espouses.

  1. A core idea espoused by the Lotus Sutra is the idea that each person has innate buddha-ness or a latent potential for buddhahood. This idea that all people contain the “buddha seed” or “embryonic buddha” or tathagata-garbha is, perhaps, the most fundamental doctrine of the sutra.
  2. Then there is the notion of the One Vehicle — the notion that there is but one raft or vehicle to ferry people across the great river of samsara to the other shore. The single vehicle is the raft of the buddha-dharma that carries people to the shores of nirvana.
  3. Following from this is the idea of the Buddha’s skillful means, whereby the Buddha adjusts his teachings to the needs of the people he is teaching. Although there is really only one vehicle or one path to buddhahood, the Buddha has espoused three vehicles — the hearer (or shravaka) vehicle, the solitary buddha (or pratyekabuddha) vehicle, and the boddhisattva or buddha vehicle. Although these three vehicles or three paths were traditionally conceived as separate goals that Buddhists could undertake, the Buddha reveals in the Lotus Sutra that the end goal is buddhahood for all. The Buddha taught the shravaka and pratyekabuddha paths for those who would have found the bodhisattva path too difficult. The “lesser vehicles” were simply a skillful means of getting people to move in the direction of buddhahood.
  4. Finally, there is the idea that buddhahood is a universal phenomena. All sentient beings have innate buddha-ness that simply needs to be realized. Everyone has the buddha nature, which is universal. All of the various buddhas are just separate manifestations of the same buddha-ness that we all share. Therefore, the Buddha, as Vairocana or the “Eternal Buddha,” transcends the historical life and death of Siddhartha Gautama. The concept of the Eternal Buddha is not something that I’m going to delve into here, but I thought it was worth mentioning.

These four points together constitute the essential teaching of the Lotus Sutra. The bulk of the sutra consists of a number of parables and stories that drive home these essential teachings.

The Parable of the Burning House, generated using AI

The Burning House

The first parable is the Parable of the Burning House. In this parable, a wealthy man’s house suddenly catches fire, trapping his many children inside. The children, unaware of the danger due to their engrossment in playing, do not heed their father’s calls to escape. To save them, the father promises various types of carts outside the house: bullock carts, goat carts, and deer carts, depending on what each child desires. Motivated by the gifts, the children finally rush out of the burning house. However, instead of the different carts promised, the father gives them each a magnificent, large, white ox cart, which is safer and more wonderful than any of the carts he mentioned.

This parable symbolizes the Buddha’s use of skillful means. The burning house represents the dangerous world filled with the fires of suffering, old age, sickness, and death. The ignorant children are the sentient beings engrossed in worldly pleasures and ignorant of the suffering. The father represents the Buddha, who, out of compassion, uses various skillful means to guide beings from the peril of samsara (the cycle of birth and death) to enlightenment.

The different carts promised to the children represent the various teachings and methods the Buddha offers according to the capacities and inclinations of individuals. Each of the three carts promised to the children in the parable symbolize one of the three vehicles — the shravaka, pratyekabuddha, and bodhisattva vehicles of traditional Buddhism. Ultimately, however, the Buddha guides all beings to the one great vehicle (Mahayana), symbolized by the magnificent ox cart, leading to the ultimate goal of enlightenment or Buddhahood, which is far greater than what they initially desired or could imagine.

The Prodigal Son

In the parable of the Prodigal Son, a young man leaves his father, a wealthy and influential man, and wanders away for many years, leading a life of poverty and hardship. One day, destitute and in despair, he unknowingly approaches his father’s mansion in search of work. The father, recognizing his son immediately, is overjoyed. However, realizing his son’s fear and shame due to his own degraded state, the father refrains from revealing his identity. Instead, he employs the son as a laborer, gradually promoting him over the years until the son gains confidence and a sense of belonging. Finally, on his deathbed, the father calls his son and reveals the truth, that he is his long-lost son and that all his wealth will be inherited by him. The son is astonished and deeply moved, realizing he was the heir to a vast fortune all along.

This parable illustrates the Buddha’s use of “skillful means” in guiding sentient beings to enlightenment. The father symbolizes the Buddha, while the prodigal son represents the deluded sentient beings who have forgotten their true, enlightened nature and inheritance (Buddhahood). The father’s strategy of gradually elevating the son’s position reflects the Buddha’s skillful means of guiding beings step by step, according to their capacity and readiness, toward the ultimate truth of their nature and the Dharma. The son’s eventual realization and inheritance represent the moment when a being realizes their Buddha-nature and attains enlightenment, inheriting the vast and immeasurable wealth of the Buddha’s wisdom and compassion.

The parable emphasizes the universal potential for enlightenment inherent in all beings, the compassionate and patient guidance of the Buddha, and the ultimate joy and fulfillment of realizing one’s true nature and the profound teachings of Buddhism. It’s a story of hope, transformation, and the boundless love of the Buddha for all beings, no matter how lost they may seem.

The Medicinal Herbs

In the Parable of the Medicinal Herbs, the Buddha describes a scenario where rain falls from the sky uniformly, nourishing all kinds of plants and trees — big, small, and of various types — spread across the land. Despite the rain being the same, each plant and tree absorbs the water according to its capacity and need, resulting in a variety of growths. Some may grow big and robust, others modest, yet all are nourished and vitalized.

The rain symbolizes the Buddha’s teachings, which are uniform, consistent, and available to all beings. The various plants and trees represent the diverse beings in the world, each with their own capacities, circumstances, and levels of understanding. Despite the singular source of the teachings, each being absorbs and benefits from the Dharma in a way that’s unique to their own nature and situation.

This parable illustrates the universal and egalitarian nature of the Buddha’s compassion and wisdom. It underscores the idea that the Dharma is accessible to all and can nourish and liberate everyone, irrespective of their inherent differences. Just as the plants thrive in their own ways from the same rain, all beings, regardless of their spiritual maturity or status, can grow and attain enlightenment from the teachings of the Buddha.

“I look upon all things
As universally equal,
Making no distinction between this and that,
With no feelings of like or dislike.
I have no greed or attachments,
Nor limitations or hindrances.
Always, for everyone,
I equally teach the Dharma….
The Buddha’s impartial teachings
Are like rainfall of a single flavor,
But living beings, according to their natures,
Receive them differently,
Just as each plant or tree
Absorbs a different amount of rain.” — 
The Lotus Sutra

The Conjured City, generated using AI

The Conjured City

In the Parable of the Conjured City, a group of people are traveling with a knowledgeable guide through a treacherous wilderness to reach a treasure. They grow tired and discouraged, feeling the journey is too difficult and wanting to turn back. To encourage them to continue, the guide uses his magical powers to create a conjured city, complete with all the comforts and amenities. The weary travelers enter the city, rest, and regain their strength. After they are rejuvenated and have forgotten their fatigue, the guide informs them that this city was just an illusion and that they should continue their journey towards the real treasure. Realizing how far they’ve come and motivated by the guide’s wisdom, they set out once again and eventually reach the precious treasure.

The conjured city represents temporary or expedient teachings given by the Buddha as a “skillful means” of getting people to do what needs to be done. The journey through the wilderness symbolizes the spiritual path toward enlightenment, which can be long, difficult, and often daunting. The travelers are the practitioners or sentient beings striving toward enlightenment. The guide is the Buddha, leading and encouraging beings on their path. The creation of the conjured city signifies the Buddha’s use of skillful means to provide teachings that are appropriate to the practitioners’ level of understanding and stage of the journey. These teachings are not the final goal but are necessary for the practitioners to rest and prepare themselves for the more profound teachings ahead. The dissolution of the city and the guide urging the travelers to move forward represents the Buddha revealing that these initial teachings are merely provisional and encouraging beings to strive for the ultimate truth and enlightenment. The city represents the “lesser vehicles” that are merely skillful means to help people progress along the single path of the Dharma.

The Priceless Gem

In the Parable of the Priceless Gem, a poor man visits his wealthy friend, who receives him warmly and offers him wine and food. The poor man, intoxicated by the wine, falls asleep. The wealthy friend, who has to leave on urgent business, decides to give the poor man a priceless gem as a gift. He sews it into the lining of the poor man’s robe without waking him and leaves. The poor man wakes up unaware of the gem sewn into his robe and continues his life, struggling and living in poverty. Much later, they meet again, and the wealthy friend is astonished to find the man still living in destitution. He asks the man to look inside his robe, revealing the priceless gem. Only then does the poor man realize the wealth he’s possessed all along and understands the generosity of his friend.

The priceless gem sewn into the robe represents the potential for enlightenment — the innate “Buddha-nature” or tathagata-garbha — inherent in every being. The poor man symbolizes ordinary beings who, unaware of their inherent potential, continue to live in ignorance and suffer as a result. The wealthy friend represents the Buddha, who universally espouses the Dharma for all people so that everyone can equally attain buddhahood. The parable illustrates that although the Buddha has made the wisdom of enlightenment accessible, many remain unaware of this inner treasure and continue to live in samsara (the cycle of birth, suffering, and death). It’s a call for individuals to awaken to the truth within them and realize the immense value of the Buddha’s teachings. The story encourages a search within oneself to find this “gem,” suggesting that enlightenment and ultimate liberation are not external acquisitions but are already present within, waiting to be discovered and actualized.

The Story of Devadatta

Then we have the story of Devadatta. Devadatta was a cousin and disciple of the Buddha but he became known for his jealousy and attempts to harm the Buddha. Despite these negative actions, in the Lotus Sutra, the Buddha makes a surprising revelation: Devadatta was actually a good friend to him in previous lives and played a significant role in his path to enlightenment. The Buddha declares that Devadatta will become a Buddha named “Heavenly King” in the future.

In the sutra, this proclamation surprises the assembly, as Devadatta had been seen as a villain, playing a role similar to that of Judas in the Bible. However, this narrative shift demonstrates the profound concept of innate buddha-ness and the idea that all beings have the potential for attaining enlightenment, regardless of what they have done in the past.

The Daughter of the Dragon King, generated using AI

The Daughter of the Dragon King

Now we come to the story of the Daughter of the Dragon King. Here I think it’s best to let the sutra speak for itself.

“The Bodhisattva Accumulation of Wisdom asked Manjushri, ‘This sutra is extremely profound and sublime, the pearl of all the sutras, a thing rare in this world. Are there any living beings who, by ardently and diligently practicing this sutra, speedily attain buddhahood?’
Manjushri replied, ‘Yes, the daughter of the Dragon King Sagara, just eight years old. She is wise, of keen faculties… She aspired to awakening and attained nonregression in a single instant.’…
“The Bodhisattva Accumulation of Wisdom said, ‘…I can hardly believe that this girl, in but a single moment, could attain Perfect Awakening — ‘
But before he finished speaking, the daughter of the dragon king suddenly appeared before the Buddha, bowed reverently at his feet, withdrew to one side, and offered verses of praise….
Shariputra said to the daughter of the dragon king, ‘You say that very soon you will attain the unsurpassable Way, but this is hard to believe. For how could the highest awakening be attained in the female body if it is impure and unclean and thus not a suitable vessel for the Dharma?… How then could you, in a female body, so speedily become a buddha?’
At that time, the dragon girl had a precious pearl worth a three-thousand-great-thousandfold world. She presented it to the Buddha, and the Buddha immediately accepted it. The dragon girl then said to the Bodhisattva Accumulation of Wisdom and the Venerable Shariputra, ‘I have offered my precious pearl to the World-Honored One, and he has accepted it. Did this happen quickly?’ They answered, ‘Yes, quite quickly.’ She said, ‘…watch me become a buddha even more quickly than that.’
At that moment, the entire assembly watched as the dragon girl instantly transformed into a male and accomplished all bodhisattva deeds….
Then all bodhisattvas and shravaka; the eight classes of guardians, including heavenly beings and dragons; and human and non-human beings in the saha world saw from afar the dragon girl become a buddha and teach the Dharma to all the human and heavenly beings that were then assembled.”
— The Lotus Sutra

You may recall from a previous essay, how a very similar story is told in the Vimalakirti Nirdesa and how the concept of the emptiness of gender is found in the Lotus Sutra and the Bodhidharma Anthology. It should also be emphasized here that the emptiness of gender is now being used as a segue into the idea of the innate buddha-ness of all sentient beings and the potential that all people have for attaining the Highest Perfect Enlightenment.

Bodhisattva Never Unworthy of Respect

Finally we come to the story of Bodhisattva Never Unworthy of Respect. This parable takes the form of a story about a past life of the Buddha.

“At that time, there was a bodhisattva monk named Never Unworthy of Respect. Great Power Attained, for what reason was he called Never Unworthy of Respect? Because that monk made a sign of respect to everyone he saw, whether monks, nuns, laymen, or laywomen, and praised them with these words: ‘I deeply revere you. I could never find you unworthy of respect or put myself above you. For all of you are practicing the bodhisattva way and all of you will become buddhas.’…
Great Power Attained, what is your opinion? Could the Bodhisattva Never Unworthy of Respect of all of those eras have possibly been someone unknown to you? He was none other than I myself.” —
The Lotus Sutra

“In the evil age to come,
Those bodhisattvas
With fearless minds
Who desire to teach this sutra…
Should not make distinctions such as,
‘This is a man’ or
‘This is a woman.’
They have no such attachments to all things,
Neither knowing or seeing them as such.
This is called the sphere of the bodhisattva’s practice.
All things are emptiness,
As they are without existence,
Neither permanently abiding
Nor arising and perishing….
Those with distorted perceptions make such distinctions as,
All things are existing or nonexistent,
Real or unreal,
Or produced or unproduced.
Bodhisattvas steadfastly abide in seclusion,
Cultivate and rein in the mind,
And are securely fixed and unmoving
As Mount Sumeru.
They contemplate all things
As nonexistence,
As just like empty space,
And as having no solidity,
No birth, no coming forth,
No moving, no regressing,
And with constant abiding as their sole attribute.” — 
The Lotus Sutra

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Progress & Conservation🔰

Buddhist; Daoist, Stoic; Atheist, Darwinist; Mystic, Critical Rationalist; advocate of basic income, land value tax, and universal healthcare.