In December 2014 I was invited to Las Vegas by then Bishop Shokai Kanai of the Nichiren Order of North America. He suggested that I do a presentation on the Parable of the Skillful Physician and His Sick Children found in Chapter 16 of the Lotus Sutra. On many occasions I have been asked to share my experiences as a hospital chaplain. It seemed like a good opportunity to combine both and so I began writing this book. This book is the second volume in my series “Studying the Lotus Sutra”. In this book as in all the books of this series I take one portion of the Lotus Sutra and examine it more deeply. This book focuses on the parable found in Chapter XVI of the Lotus Sutra; The Physician and His Ill Children. As I write about this parable I am tying to do so in a way that brings the stories told over 2500 years ago into our contemporary lives. I hope that through this little effort of mine a door will open for you to have a greater sense of connection to the Sutra.
Enlightenment is the ongoing engagement of seeking enlightenment. When we no longer engage ourselves in the activity of being enlightened, when we no longer seek enlightenment, then we are, in fact, no longer enlightened and have left the path. It may not look like regressing, especially at first, but the spiritual light dims, it becomes clouded and corrupted. Enlightenment becomes a disappointment but only because there is no longer enlightenment present. Complacency and enlightenment cannot coexist within the same spirit.
People have approached me on occasion, saying they feel incapable of teaching people about Buddhism or about the Lotus Sutra. Really all it takes is to learn to tell your story. It doesn’t need to be complex. It doesn’t need to be fancy. It simply needs to be your story as a person who practices the Lotus Sutra. You might be a visual person so your story might not even contain words. It might be pictures. It can be anything as long as your story is in there somewhere. Your story will connect with others in ways technical explanations may not.
I believe that entering the Lotus Sutra through the stories is what the original authors intended. The Lotus Sutra is not a collection of theories laid out in some formulaic order, yet the theories reveal themselves within the context of the myriad stories. Perhaps our challenge today is to hear the stories again from a more modern perspective. This is an invitation to make the sutra your own, to possess it in your life and use it to tell your own story.
In other words, the Ten Worlds are all present and within each world is the potential of all Ten Worlds. Those 100 worlds all contain the Ten Suchnesses. And those 1000 worlds and suchnesses are all Void, Temporary and the Middle Way, creating 3,000 conditions in each moment, all present, all connected and all related always.
So back to our 80-year-old woman today who carries the memory of the 8-year-old. The 80-year-old has tools available to her today she did not have as an 8-year-old. The 8-year-old had neither the skills nor capacity of the 80-year-old. Think about the Ten Suchnesses. Think about those as an 8-year-old and those as an 80-year-old. There are big differences.
The 8-year-old existed but no longer exists. And yet the 8-year-old has influence today, even though she died a long time ago. She perhaps hasn’t been buried yet, but she is dead. In her place – in her reincarnation, if you will – a multitude of women have come and gone. The reincarnation of self, the cycle of birth and death, continues in each and every moment and continues without end and without interruption.
What is real, and what is not real? This is where the Middle Way comes in. It is all both real and unreal at the same time. Can the 80-year-old woman touch the 8-year-old girl? Yes, at times the 8-year-old girl is perhaps painfully present, and yet where is that 8-year-old girl? She is visible nowhere.
We all have similar experiences, things we have experienced, things we have done at different stages in our lives. We may have regrets. We may have pride. All of those things existed and then are no more. Life is a fluid experience no matter how much we may wish it to be solid and unchanging.
What our Buddhist practice calls on us to do is to understand the true nature of our existence. This nature is transient, always changing, always dying, and always being reborn in every moment of our lives. We are always changing, never the same. Nothing remains unchanged forever.
Today I make peace with my past. I am not the same person I was 60 years ago, and I’m not the same person I will be a week from today. I am responsible for my actions in this moment, but no longer in control or have power over my actions in the past moment. This moment only allows me to experience the effects of previous causes and decide how I will proceed into the future. In a way, the past does not exist. It doesn’t exist yet we cling to it as if it were life and death, when in fact the past is only death, and the present represents our life.
We are each tasked with making friends with our past selves and past experience and past causes. We are not given the job of passing judgment on the actions of our past selves. This is not our Buddhist practice. Judgment is not really compatible with Buddhism. Instead, we are called upon to live life skillfully in the middle way.