Two common misconceptions about Buddhism are that its main goal is a state of final nirvana—or forever escaping the sufferings of birth, life, and death—and that its primary teaching is on emptiness and impermanence. Taking those aspects as Buddhism’s primary interest, it’s understandable why some might consider the tradition unappealing, empty of a heart and soul, or resulting in a nihilist disengagement from life through escapism or spiritual bypassing. A popular slogan that captures this misunderstanding from a nonpractitioner’s lens is, “I’m in my Zen place,” meaning that one is detached and unconcerned about a situation and its outcomes.
Yet Buddhist texts are filled with parables and verses that invite us to look deeply into our heart-mind and work to better ourselves. As the principle text of Nichiren Buddhism, the Lotus Sutra and the parables found within use structures similar to those of other philosophical and religious traditions, what Joseph Campbell termed the “monomyth,” known as the hero’s journey. From the earliest of religious texts and epic poetry to the fiction of today, stories about a hero who goes on an adventure, overcomes adversity, and returns home changed, abound. In his introduction to the revised edition of Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey, author Phil Cousineau writes, “the monomyth is in effect a meta myth, a philosophical reading of the unity of mankind’s spiritual history, the story behind the story.” Taken together, the seven parables of the Lotus Sutra weave together universal themes through stories of the Buddha’s use of skillful means, which come to represent meta myths about our common, collective human experience.
Last month, we looked at the Parable of the Burning House, learning that the burning house was a metaphor for ourselves, others, and our environment and the vast range of awful suffering every living being is subject to until they take the great white oxcart, or the One Vehicle of Mahayana teaching. This month, we explore the Lotus Sutra’s second parable from Chapter Four, The Wealthy Man and His Poor Son. This is the longest parable in the Lotus Sutra, taking up almost the entire chapter. I believe the authors of the Lotus Sutra devoted an entire chapter to this story because the messages of this parable are so important for us to live a happy, peaceful life, free from suffering.
The chapter’s title, “Faith and Understanding,” gives us insight into the context of the parable. Nichiren Buddhists consider faith to be a verb, expressed in the first two characters of the Odaimoku (Sacred Title) “Namu.” We do not consider faith as a blind belief but as a complete trust and confidence in the dynamic, holistic, process-flow nature of the universe (eternal Buddha) based on our own direct experience, which arises from our daily chanting meditation practice. When you read the word “faith,” think “practice.” Every time you sit and chant, it is an act and expression of faith.
There are similarities between the parable of the Wealthy Man and His Poor Son and the biblical parable of The Prodigal Son from the New Testament. Both speak to separation, struggle, and return. However, a notable difference between the two parables is the different ways the sons return and reconcile with their fathers. In the parable from the New Testament, the son—having squandered all of his wealth—is immediately welcomed and embraced by his father. In the parable from the Lotus Sutra, the son fears his dad’s retribution, and reconciliation can happen only after the father uses his skillful means to employ the son, with successively higher positions, working for him until his true identity is revealed. As we discussed in the introduction to this series, the Lotus Sutra was first discovered in the 1st century BCE in the city of Kashgar—an important city on the Silk Road between China, India, and the Middle East, where there was a great mixing of ideas, influencing the evolution of religion in both the East and West.
The Parable of the Wealthy Man and His Poor Son dives deeply into the second noble truth: suffering has a cause. We learn that the cause of our suffering is even deeper than the surface level understanding of what suffering is caused by—craving has a cause too. The parable suggests that the suffering from craving is caused by our poor self-perception and low self-esteem, which then fuels the three poisons of greed, hate, and ignorance, resulting in unwholesome behaviors.
The Parable of the Wealthy Man and His Poor Son tells the story of a boy who runs away from home and doesn’t return for fifty years. The father recognizes the poor son, but the son doesn’t recognize his father. The father sends a messenger to bring the son to him, but the son again runs away, mistakenly thinking he is going to be accused of a crime and killed. The father then sends two more messengers, who dress poorly to hire the son to clean and care for the father’s large stables. The son agrees and goes to work cleaning the manure in the stables for over twenty years before the father gradually promotes him, finally putting him in charge of his storehouses and wealth and referring to him as “son.” On his deathbed, the father reveals that he is in fact his real son. The son then takes his rightful place.
The traditional understanding of this parable is that the Buddha uses various skillful means to gradually lead us toward awakening, as the rich man does with his son. The Buddha knows you can’t force or make anyone do anything. The wealthy man is the Buddha, while the poor son represents ordinary people who wander around in spiritual poverty, unaware of their buddhanature.
This parable, like the Burning House, frames the Buddha as a loving, compassionate parent who is always thinking about his children. The Buddha says in the closing verses of Chapter Sixteen, “I am ever thinking, ‘How can I cause living beings to embark upon the unsurpassable way and quickly accomplish embodiment as buddhas?’”
But what does this parable invite us to contemplate about ourselves? To this point, I often refer to a technique one of my teachers shared with me to help me understand the sutras and the parables—pay attention to who is talking for context. In this parable, Kashyapa, Subhuti, Maudgalyayana, and Katyayana are talking, with the Buddha and the entire assembly listening.
Kashyapa is regarded as the foremost disciple in both ascetic practices and meditative absorption. As we read in the parables, the importance of practice is a key message; as in the Parable of the Burning House, where one must “walk through the door,” or in The Parable of the Wealthy Man and His Poor Son, where one must “stop running away.” As the main orator, Kashyapa is doing most of the talking in this parable, emphasizing that practice (faith) is paramount.
Another speaker, Subhuti, is regarded as the foremost disciple in understanding and compassion. Through the lens of Subhuti, seekers are encouraged to see through the provisional veils that cloud our thinking and view ourselves more clearly.
Maudgalyayana is regarded as the foremost among the Buddha’s disciples in his use of supernatural powers, which in the context of The Parable of the Wealthy Man and His Poor Son might mean the power to change our mind state or our negative self-perceptions.
And finally, Katyayana is regarded as foremost in teaching or expanding on and explaining brief statements made by the Buddha. We are reminded that teaching is one of the best ways to internalize and learn for ourselves, and as bodhisattvas we must seek awakening for ourselves and for others.
Taken together, this parable shares with us that practice, understanding, imagination, and teaching are the foundations for us to understand, embrace, and enjoy our lives.
There is also an esoteric encoding in this arrangement: four teachers equal the four foundations of mindfulness (body, feeling, mind, and phenomena) and come in two pairs: faith and understanding (practice and study; concentration and insight; and shamatha and vipassana). Being mindful depends on both these two qualities being in balance, like the two wings of a bird, or the two wheels of a cart.
As a great champion of the Lotus Sutra comprising the highest truth of Buddhist teachings, Nichiren Daishonin found several messages encoded within the story’s basic archetype. Daishonin explained that the verse “Who left his father and ran away,” from The Parable of the Wealthy Man and His Poor Son, is filled with double meanings: “Left” meaning withdrawing from the Eternal Buddha (dharmakaya), “ran” meaning shrouding oneself in ignorance, and “away” meaning being unhealthily attached to the five desires of the provisional realms of birth and death (samsara). Running away is another way to look at the second noble truth: suffering has a cause; we suffer when we run away.
Why did the young son run away in the first place? This parable never explains why. Good parables leave specific details unsaid, inviting the reader to use their own imagination to decide why. Perhaps it’s just because children are by nature rebellious? Perhaps it is just a part of growing up and constructing a healthy, functional ego, so that one can operate in the world. Did the son run away because he was traumatized so severely he shut down? Did the son run away because he was afraid of something real or perceived? Or perhaps running away is just our mind’s natural state until it is reconciled with our innate buddhanature.
The running manifests itself in several different images throughout the parable. We all have our own stables where we toil shoveling manure. Endlessly repeating the same cycles of reactivity, regret, and doubt. The question this parable is inviting us to contemplate is, “why do we run away?”
Our poor perception of ourselves, our low self-esteem, our awful self-stories, and the self-talk we endlessly subject ourselves to dictate our experiences, both internally and externally. We make life choices based on our self-perception. Low self-esteem is a terrible and cruel fetter to healing, transformation, and awakening. Running away from ourselves causes alienation, from ourselves and from others, with each step moving us further and further from ourselves, others, and the world around us. As Canadian author and meditation teacher Jeff Warren once said, “Life can seem like an endless game of tug-of-war. But all we must do is drop the rope.”
A koan for contemplating this truth is, “If you want to let go of the self, you must first embrace yourself.” Our feelings, emotions, and experiences—good, bad, or neutral—are genuine and a part of who we are. We won’t grow, transform, and awaken by running away from them; it is by embracing who we are that we awaken. There is a core teaching in Nichiren Buddhism called “Our Defilements are (the same as) Awakening.” This is written on every Mandala Gohonzon Nichiren Daishonin, painted as the Wisdom King Aizen Myoo, symbolizing that understanding is the most powerful guard of the dharma.
Another encouraging message layered within this parable is that the Buddha admits that he too makes mistakes. This is so important for us to understand. The Buddha isn’t perfect. He is just a human being, subject to all the same frailties and vulnerabilities as everyone else. He has regrets. He is born, grows old, gets sick, and dies. His first reaction to seeing his son after years apart is to “instantly [order] his attendants to chase after him and bring him back,” causing the poor son to cry out in alarm and fall to the ground in terror. This parable compassionately shares with us that the Buddha has regrets and makes mistakes even when applying skillful means. The Buddha has feelings and emotions that affect him and cause him to make mistakes, and yet, he is then agile and flexible enough in mind to try again, this time successfully rescuing his son. This parable compassionately reminds us that mistakes are how we learn.
The mythos of the Buddha that arose over the last 2,500 years, while beautiful and inspiring, can sometimes be a disservice, for it can cause us to neglect to see the Buddha as a human being. Instead, we see the Buddha as some transcendent being, a near godlike figure, a supernatural being able to levitate, walk on water, walk through the earth, perfect in all ways, clairvoyant, able to see the past, present, and future. These great myths can infantilize us, making it harder for us to awaken. We might compare ourselves to these myths and conclude, “Look at me! There is no way I can be like that!” In our ignorance and alienation, we mistakenly perceive that there is a gap between ourselves and the Buddha. This is due to the mistaken dualism of an “I” and an “Other.”
What The Parable of the Wealthy Man and His Poor Son offers us is an encouragement not to objectify the Buddha. If we persist in seeing Buddhahood as some ideal or perfect state, from which there is no retrogression, we simultaneously strengthen the negative self perception that we can never be like the Buddha and awaken in this lifetime. It is in fact the Buddha’s very humanness that assures us that we too can become buddhas.
Every time we choose to sit, we make a very real choice to stop running. Sometimes, the journey can feel overwhelming and hopeless. Like we’re just moving a pile of manure from one stall in the stable to another. But the truth is that every time we stop and sit, we change and transform. Sometimes a little, sometimes a lot. Sometimes in inconspicuous ways, unseen by you, and sometimes in conspicuous ways, seen by yourself and those around you.
A final message we find in this parable is we all need structure and support. The father gave his son a safe place to live, a job that provided meaning and purpose for his life, and a community to live in. This parable reinforces the importance of sangha and community. As the Buddha told Ananda, “Good friends are the whole of the religious life.” We’re reminded that community can appear in many shapes and forms, family, work, hobbies, temples, clubs, sports, and more: community is connection.
Our faith is expressed through our practice. Our practice is our time to remind ourselves we are worthy, we have buddhanature, we are safe at home right now in this moment. Each and every day, our practice is a gift to ourselves. A positive affirmation that we can do this. When we sit with this trust and confidence, our buddhanature naturally reveals itself within us. Nikkyo Niwano, the founder of the Nichiren lay organization Rissho Kosei Kai, wrote in Buddhism for Today, “We should always tell ourselves, ‘I can become a buddha too; I am united with the Universe.’”
The Parable of the Wealthy Man and His Poor Son takes us on a journey through the entire arc of the son’s life, from being a youth and running away, to settling down and maturing into his full awakening—a jewel in the net of Indra. The son healed, got well, transformed, and became whole. He returned to the embrace of his family, who were always willing to take him back in.
We can do it too. We can stop running.
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.
The Parable of The Wealthy Man and His Poor Son, in verse:
“On this day,
We heard the Buddha’s voice teaching,
And are ecstatic with joy,
Having gained something extraordinary.
The Buddha has proclaimed
That we shravakas will become buddhas
And that we will receive what we never sought,
His clusters of peerless jewels.
We are like that child,
Immature and unknowing,
Who left his father and ran away
To a faraway land,
Wandering about in many countries
For over fifty years.
His father, filled with sorrow,
Searched for him in all directions.
Wearied with his search,
He settled in a certain city.
There he built a house,
Where he enjoyed the pleasures of the five senses.
That estate was enormously wealthy.
It had quantities of gold, silver,
Mother of pearl, agates,
Pearls, lapis lazuli,
Elephants, horses, oxen, goats,
Carts, palanquins, and carriages.
Its field hands, servants,
And other people were great in number.
His profitable commerce
Extended to other countries.
His traders and customers
Were everywhere to be found.
A thousand million people
Surrounded and honored him.
He constantly enjoyed
The favor of royals.
All ministers and prominent families
Held him in high esteem.
For all of these reasons
He had many callers.
His wealth was so abundant
That his power and influence were great.
As he grew older and weaker,
He grieved all the more over his son.
Morning and night he thought to himself,
‘The time of my death is approaching,
And since my foolish son left me
Over fifty years ago,
What shall I do
With all of these things in my storehouses?’
At that time, the poor son
Was going from city to city
And country to country
In search of food and clothing.
Sometimes he could get hold of them,
And sometimes he could not.
He was famished, weak, gaunt,
And covered with scabs and sores.
Wandering about here and there,
He happened to come to the city in which his father lived.
Taking odd jobs as he drifted around,
He at last reached his father’s house.
At that very hour the elder
Had spread a large jeweled canopy
Inside his doorway
And was sitting on a lion seat
Surrounded by attendants,
Everyone at his service.
Some were calculating
His gold, silver, and other treasures,
And some were noting and recording
His income and expenses.
The poor son, seeing his father
So gloriously exalted and dignified,
Thought, ‘He must be a king
Or someone equal to a king.’
Alarmed and fearful, he wondered,
‘Why did I come here?’
And he thought to himself,
‘If I linger here, I may be seized
And pressed into forced labor.’
As soon as he thought so,
He quickly ran away
Toward some poor hamlet
Where he could humbly inquire after work.
At that time, the elder
On the lion seat
Caught sight of his son in the distance
And in silent recognition,
Instantly ordered his attendants
To chase after him and bring him back.
The poor son cried out in alarm
And fell to the ground in terror, thinking,
‘These men have caught me.
I am going to be killed!
Why, for food and clothing,
Did I come to this place?’
The elder knew that his son,
Being foolish and of low stature,
Would not believe what he said
Or believe that he was his father,
And so he quickly devised some skillful means.
He sent some men
Who were one eyed, short, or squat,
Unimposing in appearance,
To go to the son and tell him,
‘You will be hired to work at
Clearing away dung and filth
And will be given double wages.’
Hearing this, the poor son
Rejoiced and went with them
To work at clearing away dung and filth
And cleaning the rooms of the stables.
Through a window, the elder
Always observed his son.
Seeing that he was foolish
To be content with such humble tasks,
The elder then
Put on a tattered, dirty garment,
Picked up a dung scoop,
And went to where his son was working.
Thus using skillful means to get close to his son,
He bid him to work diligently, saying,
‘Your wages will be increased,
And you will be given oil for your feet,
Your fill of food and drink
And thick warm mats.’
Then he sharply scolded him, saying,
‘Get on with your work!’
At another time, he said gently,
‘You are like a son to me.’
In his wisdom, the elder
Gradually allowed him free access to the house,
And after twenty years had passed,
Put him in charge of the household affairs.
He showed him his gold and silver,
His crystals and pearls,
And made him aware
Of all of his transactions.
But still the son lived outside the house,
Lodging in a hovel.
Looking upon himself as poor and unworthy,
He thought, ‘These things are not mine.’
The father, seeing that his son’s mind
Had gradually broadened and matured,
Intended to leave him his fortune.
Gathering together relatives,
Royals, ministers of state,
Kshatriyas, and householders,
He announced to this great assembly,
‘This is my son,
Who left me and ran away
Fifty years ago.
Since I saw my son again,
Twenty years have passed.
Long ago in a certain city
This son was lost to me.
I went around searching for him,
Eventually ending up here.
Everything I have,
Including my buildings and servants,
I hereby bequeath to him.
He is free to use them as he pleases.’
The son thought of his former poverty
And lowly disposition,
And how he had now received from his father
Such great and rare treasures,
Along with houses and buildings,
And all of his wealth.
To attain something so unexpected
Filled him with great joy.
So is it also with the Buddha,
Who knows that we delighted in lesser things.
He never told us, ‘You will become buddhas.’
Instead he said that
We had attained the undefiled state,
Reached perfection in the lesser vehicle,
And had become his shravaka disciples.
The Buddha commanded us to
Teach that those who practice
The supreme Way
Will become buddhas.
We accepted the Buddha’s instruction,
And for the sake of transforming great bodhisattvas,
We employed examples from the past,
A variety of parables,
As well as words and terms,
To teach the unsurpassable Way.
Children of the Buddha
Heard the teaching from us,
Pondered it day and night,
Practiced it with unflagging zeal,
And then received their assurance
From the buddhas that ‘In a future lifetime,
You will become buddhas.’
Only for the sake of transforming bodhisattvas
Did we expound the truth,
That is, the teaching
All buddhas keep in their innermost treasury.
And yet for our own sake,
We never did explain its true essence.
We were just like the poor son
Who, having grown close to his father
And coming to know his possessions,
Still had no mind to make them his own.
Although we explained
The treasury of the Buddha’s teachings,
We did not aspire to it ourselves,
Being just like the son.
We considered it sufficient
To extinguish the passions inside ourselves.
Having accomplished this one matter,
We thought there was nothing more to do.
When we had heard about
The purification of buddha lands,
And the teaching and transforming of living beings,
They held no attraction for us.
Why was this?
We focused on all things
Being tranquil and empty,
Without origination or cessation,
Neither great nor small,
Undefiled and unconditioned.
Since such was our thinking,
We never conceived of joy.
Throughout the long night,
We had no cravings for or attachments to
The wisdom of the Buddha
And did not aspire to it.
Moreover, we believed that we had reached
The ultimate realization of the Dharma.
Having throughout the long night
Practiced the teaching of emptiness,
We were free from the suffering and distress
Of the threefold world
And dwelled in the final bodily state
Of the nirvana with remainder.
Having been taught and transformed by the Buddha,
Our accomplishment of the
Way was not in vain.
Therefore we supposed
We had repaid the kindness of the Buddha.
For the sake
Of the children of the Buddha,
We explained the teachings for bodhisattvas,
By which they could seek the Buddha Way,
But we ourselves never aspired
To this teaching.
Our leader and teacher left us alone
Because he had insight into our minds.
He did not start off by encouraging us
With revelations of the true benefits to be had.
The wealthy elder, Knowing his son’s inferior disposition,
Employed the power of skillful means
To gently mold and temper his son’s mind.
Then he bequeathed to him
His entire fortune.
So is it also with the Buddha
In his manifestation of rare wonders.
He knows that some people delight in lesser teachings,
And therefore employs the power of his skillful means
To temper and prepare their minds.
Then he teaches them great wisdom.
Today we have attained
What we did not seek
Has now come to us by itself,
Just as that poor son
Obtained immeasurable treasures.
Now, World-Honored One,
We have gained the
Way and its fruit
And attained the pure eye
Thanks to the undefiled Dharma.
Throughout the long night,
We kept the Buddha’s pure precepts,
And today, for the first time,
Gained their fruit and reward.
In the midst of the teachings of the Dharma King,
We long practiced brahma deeds.
Now we have attained the undefiled,
Peerless great fruit.
We are now
True shravakas, ‘voice hearers,’
For we will cause all beings
To hear the voice of the Buddha Way.
Now we are True arhats, ‘worthy of offerings,’
For everywhere, in all worlds,
We will be worthy of receiving offerings from
Heavenly beings, humans, Maras, and Brahmas.
The World-Honored One, in his great kindness,
Shows us something so rare.
Out of heartfelt sympathy, he teaches and transforms,
And brings us such benefits.
Even over immeasurable millions of kalpas,
Who could repay such kindness?
Even if we were to offer our hands and feet,
Pay homage with heads bowed,
And make all kinds of offerings,
We still could not repay it.
We would bear him on our heads
Or carry him on our shoulders,
Revering him with all our hearts
Throughout kalpas numerous as the sands of the Ganges.
We would offer him the finest delicacies,
Countless numbers of jeweled garments,
All kinds of beddings,
And every sort of liquid medicine.
We would use ox-head sandalwood
And all kinds of rare jewels
To erect stupas and monuments,
And carpet their grounds with jeweled garments.
Yet even if, with all such things as these,
We were to pay him homage
Throughout kalpas innumerable as the sands of the Ganges,
We still could not repay it.
The buddhas possess so very rare,
Infinite and boundless,
Inconceivably Great transcendent powers.
Being undefiled and unconditioned,
These kings of the Dharma
Are able to be patient
With those of inferior abilities,
And appropriately teach ordinary people
Who have many attachments.
The buddhas enjoy
Complete freedom in the Dharma.
They know the various desires, pleasures,
Aspirations, and strengths
Of all living beings
And, according to their capacities,
Use innumerable parables
To teach them the Dharma.
Focusing on the roots of
living beings planted in past lifetimes,
They discern which have matured
And which have not.
After gaining clear understanding
Through these various calculations and considerations,
They take the One Vehicle Way and,
Teach it as three.”
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