Over several years I have given various lectures on the Lotus Sutra. In some instances the talks were given to a few people, in others the audience was quite large. Some times the same person would hear one or two lectures, but no one has heard them all. For what they are worth I have decided to put much of the best of the lectures here in this book. I first encountered the Lotus Sutra in 1969 when I was fresh out of Marine boot camp. I knew a little about Buddhism before I went to that first activity. I had studied a little of Buddhism in high school and college. I can honestly say now that what I really knew at that time was next to nothing. This is not a linear exposition of the sutra. This is a very circular approach, meandering even, I’ll mention something about a chapter in one part of the book, and then in another part of the book I may mention the same thing again but from a different perspective. I like to think of my approach to unraveling the mysteries of the Lotus Sutra as thematically oriented. This is not to say my approach is better than a linear chapter-by-chapter explanation. It is just a way that makes sense to me. I should point out that non-linear story telling is very popular in the south in America as well as much of Africa. There is reason to suspect the non-linear way may actually resonate with others as well. It is always a great joy when I am able to talk about the Lotus Sutra, and this book project has been no exception. I hope you think of this as a couple of friends sitting on the porch swing talking about something that means something important to both.
As people take faith in the Lotus Sutra initially there is limited capacity for understanding. As time goes on and our capacity for understanding and incorporating the teachings in our lives increases, then we are able to see even deeper into the Dharma.
There is little that is obscured to us in interpreting The Simile of Herbs. The Buddha is pretty straightforward in saying that he is like the cloud. It seems simple enought to then think the rain represents the Dharma. The interesting thing is the Buddha, while explaining the Dharma is like the rain that falls evenly over all the plants, compares his different teachings to the different capacities of the people who have heard the Dharma.
In other words, the difference in Dharma is only as it applies to the person who takes nourishment from it. Fundamentally, there are not different Dharma teachings. There is only one teaching which appears to be different because of the capacity of the person hearing it.
There are some who may come to activities, perhaps frequently, but then the rest of their life is preoccupied with other things and so do not practice or follow Buddhism. There may be religious experience, but there is not fundamental embracing and manifesting in life of religious action. We could say they only have a nominal belief in Buddhism. It is worth our while to frequently reflect on our day-to-day actions and see how deeply our religious belief extends into our lives. Perhaps it is deep or perhaps it is shallow; honesty is the place where it can begin to change.
What the Buddha is trying to teach us in the Parable of the Rich Man and His Poor Son is that we all are inherently capable and endowed with the capacity to become enlightened and inherit the great fortune of all Buddhas. It isn’t about standing along side and comparing our life to the life of some other, but about being awakened to our own potential and recognizing the potential in others as being unique and yet the same.
In the Parable of the Rich Man and His Poor Son the son and the father are disconnected from each other. The son does not realize connection is possible and so does not seek it. The father though, does realize alienation or disconnection or separation from his son. The alienation becomes most strong when the poor son is directly confronted by the great wealth of the father. We may find this occurs in our own lives, we may feel most distant from enlightenment when we compare our lives to the lives of others.
In a way comparisons are a form of ensuring alienation endures.
Buddhism is in many ways constantly repeating this personal Odyssey, our Buddhist Odyssey, over and over again but with an ever-upward spiral. Sometimes we may be tempted to stop or slack off, or to run and hide, or to only sample briefly the joy of enlightenment. But the Buddha is always there, as we learn later on in Chapter XVI. The Buddha, through the teachings of the Lotus Sutra is ever present guiding and encouraging us until we are able to fully inherit the great metaphorical wealth of enlightenment. Because of the ever existing eternal and universal nature of Buddha and the fact of our inherent Buddha nature, our journey is not from one point in time such as past to present on to future, but a journey out of time or one that really transcends time and space.
It is our practice of chanting the Sacred Title, or Odaimoku, that slowly allows us to build up our lives. We begin to walk a path; we begin to take our journey towards the possibility of attaining the enlightened life promised to us by the Buddha.
Each of us is making a journey through life from birth to death, which is a fact of our existence. We are not sure of the length of that journey or the path it will take, but we do know for a fact the destination. We are unable to change the ultimate destination, and we may only be able to minimally impact the length of the journey. Buddhism gives us a way to take control of the single remaining element in this journey we can change and that is the path our journey takes us.
The wealth of the man in the Parable of the Rich Man and His Poor Son may be presented in terms of money, gems, and land – in other words material possessions – but remember the wealthy man was not happy until he was able to reconnect with his son, was able to raise his son’s life condition, and finally was able to pass on his fortune. The idea of connection, elevation, and transfer are important concepts for us to keep in mind more so than focusing on the accumulation of material possessions.
If what we do in life does not encourage or enhance connections then it is doubtful we could effectively carry out the mission of being a Bodhisattva. Without connections with others we will not be able to cause them to elevate their life conditions nor will we really be able to teach them Buddhism. The treasure that we really gain from practicing Buddhism is the indestructible joy that arises from the depth of our life and is not dependent upon outside circumstances. Our greatest joy though I believe ultimately comes from “sharing that wealth” with others through establishing a bond with them and then showing through the example of our own life how to practice Buddhism and make the necessary changes.
It says in the sutra, and Nichiren repeats it in his letters, it only takes one candle to instantly eliminate the darkness that has filled a cave for thousands of years. Chanting Odaimoku is like that candle. No matter how small or feeble, that one candle does begin to light up your life. That spark of hope can be the foundation of faith in your life that anything is possible to change if you follow the teachings of the Lotus Sutra.