In the “Prophecy of Enlightenment for Five Hundred Disciples,” from Chapter Eight of the Lotus Sutra, the Buddha shares the Parable of the Jewel Hidden in the Robe to explain that buddhanature is a jewel we already possess, even if we are not aware of it.

As mentioned earlier in this series, to truly understand these parables one must first look at who is telling the story. For the Parable of the Jewel Hidden in the Robe, the parable is told by Kaundinya (the first disciple of the Buddha) and the five hundred arhats. In this parable, two old friends, one wealthy and one poor, are eating and drinking wine together. The poor friend drinks himself into a stupor and falls asleep. Early the next morning, the wealthy one must leave on business. Before he leaves, the wealthy friend sews a priceless jewel inside of the robe of his poor friend, who is still asleep. Later, the wealthy man comes across his friend, who is still living in poverty. He points out to his poor friend that all this time there has been a priceless gem hidden inside his robe and that he did not have to be living in poverty.

This parable, along with the Parable of the Pearl in the Top Knot, are the only two of the seven parables that are not about skillful means. In fact, one could argue that this parable is an example of unskillful means. Why did the wealthy friend hide the jewel within his friend’s robe? Wouldn’t it have been better to have left him a note?

The traditional explanation of this parable is that the jewel symbolizes how we all already possess buddhanature, even if we are not aware of it. Unaware of our own buddhanature, we are ceaselessly buffeted about by life’s challenges. However, once we awaken to our inherent buddhanature, we can transform our lives to become happy, peaceful, and free of suffering. In his 2013 book of dialogues with Vincent Harding, America Will Be!, the late Daisaku Ikeda Sensei writes: 

“This parable shows, in simple terms, the principle that every human is endowed with the buddhanature of infinite potential and inestimable worth. It teaches us that the key to overcoming the constraints of our present reality, whatever they may be, lies within ourselves.”

In a more allegorical interpretation from his book Peaceful Action, Open Heart, Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh writes:

“The Buddha is not a person outside us, but the energy of mindfulness, concentration, and insight within us. We have the seeds within us.”

Kaundinya was a Brahmin and the royal court scholar of King Suddhodana, Siddhartha’s father, of the Sakyas in Kapilavastu. Upon seeing the baby Siddhartha, he predicted that Siddhartha would either become the greatest Wheel Turning King or the Buddha. He, along with four others, followed Siddhartha through six years of ascetic practice. The five of them left him when Siddhartha gave up the strict practice of asceticism and austerities. Subsequently, after Siddhartha awoke, becoming the Buddha, his first dharma talk (the Sermon in the Deer Park at Sarnath) was to Kaundinya and the other four mendicants. Awed by his presence and message and led by Kaundinya, they became the Shakyamuni’s first disciples. Here, Kaundinya provides the context and important point of this parable, that buddhanature is always present, whether known or unknown. Every subsequent dharma teaching from the Buddha arises from this.

This is also a story of ignorance and spiritual poverty. In the parable, the Buddha is the wealthy friend and we, the reader, are the poor friend who passes out drunk and contents themselves with things like momentary pleasures and lesser teachings. The Buddha uses this parable to remind us that we are all bodhisattvas and have the ability to realize Buddhahood.

The metaphors in this parable begin with its name. Hidden means deep. The jewel sewn into the robe is our mind of faith. Wine is our fundamental ignorance (Sanskrit: avidya), ignorant that we have buddhanature. Nichiren taught that the character “Myo,” which is often translated as mystic or wonderful, also meant sobering up, and that the idea of the wine of ignorance and sobering up are mutually inseparable. Grand Master Zhiyi (T’ien-t’ai) wrote in The Great Calming and Contemplation that the ignorance and dust of defilements are none other than enlightenment. Defilements are themselves awakening, and sufferings of birth and death are nirvana. Thich Naht Hanh taught that “without suffering, there is no way to cultivate understanding and compassion.” In Shu Shi shin Gosho, from Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, Vol. II, Nichiren wrote:

“… living beings have never for an instant been separated from the wish-granting jewel.”

Inspired by this parable, 12th-century poet Sojo Joen wrote a beautiful waka poem to expound upon the buddhanature hidden within. Translated by Patrick Donnelly in the collection The Wind from Vulture Peak: The Buddhification of Japanese Waka in the Heian Period, Joen writes: 

“If the wind from Vulture Peak,
had not blown my sleeves inside out, would I have found the jewel
inside the reverse of my coat?”

The Sanskrit mantra “om mani padme hum” (hail the great jewel in the lotus) reveres and calls upon Avalokiteshvara. I believe that Avalokiteshvara is best understood as a metaphor for metta. The Lotus Sutra’s primary message is about the supreme power of metta, which underlies all the other wondrous teachings it has to offer. Metta, then, is the jewel of the lotus. Buddhanature is metta. All change, healing, transformation, and awakening come from metta. Of the four brahma-viharas, metta (loving-kindness) is first, and it can be said that karuna (compassion), mudita (sympathetic joy) and upekkha (equanimity) are expressions or manifestations of metta.

Avalokiteshvara can be seen as both a real being and as a powerful metaphor for a quality, state, or action within all life. In his letter “Ichidai Shōgyō Tai-I” from Outline of All the Holy Teachings of the Buddha, Nichiren writes:

“At this time, the Lotus Sutra establishes self-power but is not self-power. This is because the ‘self’ includes the ten worlds of all sentient beings; and, from the beginning, we contain the buddha-realm of both ourselves and all sentient beings. Therefore, our becoming a buddha does not bring a new buddha [into the world]. [The Lotus Sutra] also establishes Other-power but is not Other-power. The buddha who is ‘other’ is contained within the selves of ordinary people. This other buddha makes himself the same as our own buddhanature.”

Nichiren rarely used the term buddhanature, instead preferring “Buddha Realm,” from the Ten Realms, or “Seed of buddhanature.” He believed that buddhanature came much too close to implying something permanent and lasting. We can see examples of this error when people conflate Buddha and God, as the same idea with different names. Nichiren liked the metaphor of seeds to describe buddhanature. One has to water and nourish the seed for it to grow. If one leaves the field fallow and makes no effort to cultivate the seeds, they rot. In Two Buddhas Seated Side by Side: A Guide to the Lotus Sutra, Donald S. Lopez Jr. and Jacqueline Stone write: 

“ ‘Buddhanature’ and ‘seed of buddhahood’ are similar in that both indicate the potential for buddhahood, supreme enlightenment, but where ‘nature’ is constant and unchanging, ‘seeds’ can lie dormant, even rot, or germinate and grow in response to conditions; as the Lotus Sutra says, ‘The buddha-seeds germinate through dependent origination.’ ”

Nichiren used the phrase “seed of Buddhahood” to show that Buddhahood is not an abstract potential, and instead arises through specific causes and conditions through spiritual practice. In his belief, Buddhahood could be achieved by chanting Namu- myoho-renge-kyo, or the daimoku. Sometimes he refers to the daimoku itself as the “seed of Buddhahood.” Imparting a teaching from Grand Master Zhiyi, he believed in the concept of buddhanature as made up of three causes: 

(1) the innate potential for Buddhahood; 
(2) the wisdom that illuminates it; and 
(3) the practice that manifests that wisdom. 

The jewel in the robe is the seed of buddhanature that lies dormant within us until we manifest it through our practice. The jewel is worthless just sewn into our clothes. We must find it and take it out to use it. We must do something with it. We also find guidance in the paramita of Endeavor/Energy (Sanskrit, virya) from the six paramitas. We must make efforts to awaken ourselves and live a wholesome life to be at ease and free of suffering. Some of the Buddha’s final words upon his deathbed echo this sentiment, as he says:

“Behold, O monks, this is my last advice to you. All component things in the world are changeable. They are not lasting. Work hard to gain your own salvation.”

It isn’t enough just to show up, accept yourself as you are, and embrace your authentic true self. Living a wholesome life requires effort. There are no participation trophies. There is no core, permanent, or essential “authentic self” to be accepted. We are constantly and continually evolving, impermanent beings, manifesting through complex sets of causes and conditions, ceaselessly changing. Forming, and reforming each moment. We are what we think, say, and do. Best, then, to try hard and never give up.

It isn’t enough just to show up, accept yourself as you are, and embrace your authentic true self. Living a wholesome life requires effort

The Parable of the Jewel in the Robe is a practice, grounded in metta. Practice is the manifestation of our awakening and the blossoming of our seeds of buddhanature into beautiful flowers. 

No mud, no lotus. No dukkha, no wisdom. No practice, no awakening. 

Namu-myoho-renge-kyo

Translation from: The Threefold Lotus Sutra, A Modern Translation for Contemporary Readers. Translated by Michio Shinozaki, Brook A. Ziporyn and David C. Earhart. Published by Kosei Publishing, 2019.

“With the supreme comfort of 
Hearing his voice giving us the assurance of Buddha Nature, 
We rejoice to receive something we never had before
And revere the Buddha of boundless wisdom.
Now in the presence of the World-Honored One,
We regret our oversights and mistakes.
From the immeasurable buddha treasures,
We took only the small portion of nirvana,
And like ignorant fools,
We deemed it to be sufficient.
We were like the poor man
Who went to the house of a close friend.
That friend, being very rich,
Served him many rare delicacies.
He took a priceless gem
And made an unspoken gift of it before he departed,
Sewing it into the lining of the man’s robe
While the man lay there unaware.
After the man got up,
He journeyed to another land.
Seeking food and clothing to sustain himself,
He underwent great hardships to stay alive,
Feeling satisfied with what little he could obtain
And wishing for nothing better.
He was unaware of the priceless gem
Within the lining of his robe.
Later, when the friend who made a gift of the gem
Saw this poor man,
He painstakingly rebuked him
And showed him the gem sewn into his robe.
When the poor man saw this gem,
He was overjoyed.
With wealth and property,
He could satisfy the five desires as he wished.
So it is with us.
Throughout the long night, the World-Honored One,
Ever compassionate, taught and transformed us,
Causing the seed of the highest aspiration to be sown.
Because of our ignorance,
We were unaware of it.
Attaining but the small portion of nirvana,
We deemed it sufficient and sought no more.
Now the Buddha has awakened us,
Saying that ours is not real extinguishment
And that only when we attain the supreme wisdom of a buddha
Do we have true extinguishment.
Now we have heard from the Buddha
Of the assurance of our Buddha Nature and its adornments,
And also of receiving assurances from each other in turn.
Our bodies and minds are completely filled with joy.”

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