One of the reasons the Lotus Sutra has remained so beloved around the world for so long is that it is considered the teaching of universal liberation. Everyone is guaranteed to become a Buddha, monastics and lay practitioners, women and men, animals and plants alike. This message is poignantly illustrated in the Parable of the Medicinal Herbs, or the Rain of the Dharma.
Much like the best stories, the parables of the Lotus Sutra don’t give answers, they invite contemplation. A story comes alive only when someone imagines it, and this imagined version belongs to them alone. With the parables of the Lotus Sutra, each imagined story becomes another manifestation of buddhanature, enriching the world.
Two quick “fun facts” about Chapter Five, before we begin.
Chapter Five of the Lotus Sutra was the first chapter ever translated into English. Elizabeth Peabody translated it in 1844 for Ralph Waldo Emerson’s literary journal, The Dial. It was long mistakenly thought to have been translated by Henry David Thoreau. Leon Hurvitz’s 1976 translation of Chapter Five includes two additional parables not found in Kumarajiva’s Chinese translation, the Parable of the Potter and the Parable of the Blind Man. This is another example of why no ancient text can be considered definitive.
In Chapter Five’s Parable of the Medicinal Herbs, or the Parable of the Rain of the Dharma, the Buddha compares himself to a rain cloud that softly blankets the whole earth and the dharma to the rain that nourishes all beings and things equally.
The traditional understanding of this parable is that all who hear the dharma practice it according to their individual capacities, just as various plants absorb the rain and grow according to their species. Humans and gods are like small herbs, voice-hearers, and privately awakened ones are compared to the middle-size herbs, and bodhisattvas at various stages of development are compared to the large medicinal herbs. Each is different, each growing according to their individual natures, all nourished by the same dharma rain.
On the surface, this is another story about skillful means. What insights might this parable offer us on an interpersonal basis?
As pointed out in previous entries, if one wants to truly understand the parables of the Lotus Sutra, one must consider who the Buddha is addressing. In this particular teaching, the Buddha is addressing Mahakashyapa, one of his principle disciples. Mahakashyapa is foremost in diligently practicing the dharma. Here again we read about the importance of practice. Yet the Buddha is gently hinting at something equally important. Mahakashyapa, before becoming the Buddha’s disciple, was married to Bhadra Kapilani. They shared deep karmic affinities for each other, having spent many past lives together, perfecting virtue and seeking liberation. Bhadra Kapilani also became the Buddha’s disciple and an arhat. She is foremost in patience and compassion, and she was a very popular teacher. The message the Buddha is hinting at here is that diligent practice needs to be balanced with patience and compassion. The Great Teacher Miaole (aka Zhanran, 711–782, of the Tiantai School) wrote that obsessive focus on aesthetic practices and precepts is like a “tiger loose in the marketplace,” without being connected to our own innate buddhanature within.
This parable exemplifies a unique and unifying message, which blends other-power and self-power, flipping the perspective from the Buddha doing the work to our taking responsibility for our own growth. In Donald S. Lopez Jr. and Jacqueline I. Stone’s Two Buddhas Seated Side by Side: A Guide to the Lotus Sutra, the luminous juxtaposition is paralleled to the circular interdependence of nature:
“This metaphor of a single truth leading to different results seems at odds with the previous parables, which emphasize the Buddha’s ability to perceive the capacities of his disciples and, using skillful means, to adapt his teachings accordingly. To borrow the metaphor of this chapter, the notion of skillful means there would seem to imply a different rain falling on different plants.”
Growth isn’t either one approach or the other but the combination of both. This is another way to express interdependence and inter-being. Everyone has their own special abilities to do good and seek awakening for themselves and others. The plants do the work of growth when the right rain nourishes them. Using this beautiful and gentle story of a cloud, rain, and seeds blossoming into living plants, we see the interconnectedness of nature, where all the components are inextricably linked and connected in order for something new to grow. Is there a “prime” cause? The cloud? The rain? The seeds? The plants? The plants giving back moisture to the cloud? No, rather, we’re presented with life as a continuous, circular flow of being. Much like the lotus’s seeds sit atop its blossoming flower, so is cause brought forth by the effect. The parable invites us to contemplate this interbeing: is there any difference between the cloud and plant that grows from its rain?
In Ongi Kuden, the Nichiren Buddhist text that compiles a series of lectures on various important sentences and phrases from the Lotus Sutra, Nichiren Daishonin says, “The Buddha nature that is without beginning or end is comparable to the earth and arousing the heart and mind of seeking Bodhicitta is comparable to the seeds. The roots, stalks, twigs, leaves … symbolize ‘[kleshas as] enlightenment,’ and ‘the sufferings of birth and death [as] nirvana.’”
In his book Buddhism for Today, Nikkyo Niwano writes that the “roots, stalks, twigs, and leaves are equivalent to faith, precepts, meditation, and wisdom,” or a metaphor for the Threefold Training. We also learn that each plant is different, each having various unique shapes, sizes, fragrances, and more. We too have unique characteristics, qualities, and skills. Niwano continues, explaining how “wisdom that unites the ability to see both the equality of things (emptiness of the great cloud) and to discern the differences among things (provisional nature of the plants) is the attainment of perfect knowledge.”
While we are all equal in the dharma, everyone is different. Our diversity makes us stronger and richer. Herein lies the heart of this parable, our own self-responsibility. While the dharma rain falls equally on each of us, we must do the work—through our practice, or right endeavor—to grow into the best versions of ourselves.
The Lotus Sutra’s One Vehicle message, a single Rain of the Dharma, tells us that everyone is already a bodhisattva in the process of becoming buddhas. As bodhisattvas, we all share an “impossible dream” taken from the four bodhisattva vows:
“Sentient Beings are innumerable; I vow to save them all.”
The metaphor of a multitude of various plants and herbs suggests that we each have a special vow: something individual to us—a love, a passion, a skill—through which we connect with others. We grow and develop, sharing our unique skills and gifts with the world in our own various ways. Some are artists, teachers, businesspeople, government service workers and leaders, athletes, parents, caregivers, health workers, and yet we each have something special to share, no matter how small or big.
The most beautiful gardens and landscapes are full of a variety of colors, shapes, textures, and smells. The whole world is a garden. Nurture yourself the way a good gardener tends to their garden. When helping others empathically and compassionately, imagine yourself as the other person, asking what words they need to hear right now at this moment. A good gardener waters the garden, equally allowing each plant to grow into a beautiful being.
This parable also shares the same message as the previous ones we’ve published about faith, or trust and confidence in the dharma. Faith is the foundation for healing, transformation, and awakening. Faith is the flow of life. Faith is practice, right endeavor. Faith is each time we choose to walk through the door, to stop running, to simply sit and meditate. This parable reminds us that awakening is a process, encouraging us to be both diligent and patient, compassionate with ourselves and others.
We are all bodhisattvas in the process of becoming buddhas. It takes time to grow. We’re encouraged to be like Mahakashyapa, diligent in our practice, and like Bhadra Kapilani, to be patient and compassionate. We need both qualities, like two wings of a bird.
We need to drink in the rain of the dharma and nurture the dharma around us, like the continuous, circular flow of being.
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.
“You should know, Kashyapa,
That I am like a great cloud
That arises in the world
And covers all things everywhere.
This beneficent cloud is laden with rain.
Flashes of lightning sparkle and shine,
And the sound of thunder echoes from afar,
Filling everyone with joyful anticipation
As the sun’s rays are cloaked
And a refreshing coolness settles over the earth.
The dark cloud hangs down so low
It seems to be within arm’s reach.
It rains the same everywhere,
Equally falling in all four directions.
Its flow is beyond measure,
Completely saturating the soil.
Growing on mountains, by rivers, in gorges,
And in hidden recesses
Are plants, thickets, herbs,
Trees both large and small,
A hundred kinds of grain, rice seedlings,
Sugar cane, and grapevines.
This rain moistens them all,
None receiving less than its fill.
The parched earth is thoroughly soaked,
And the medicinal herbs and trees become equally lush.
From this cloud comes Water of one flavor,
And thereby plants, trees, thickets, and forests
Receive the appropriate share of moisture.
Whether large, medium, or small,
All of the trees equally,
In proportion to their size,
Are able to grow and develop.
Their roots, twigs, branches, and leaves,
And their brilliantly colored blossoms and fruits,
All become fresh and glossy
By this one rainfall.
Their embodiments, appearances, and natures
Can be divided by size,
And yet they are moistened by the same one source,
And each grows lush and thick.
In the same manner, the Buddha
Appears in the world
Like that great cloud,
Universally covering all things.
Having appeared in the world,
For the sake of all living beings
He clearly and distinctly elucidates
The reality of all things.
In the midst of heavenly beings, humans,
And all the great multitude,
The World-Honored One, the great sage,
Makes the following proclamation:
‘I am Tathagata,
The most honored of all beings.
My appearance in the world
Is just like a great cloud
That pours down rain
On all parched living beings.’”
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