“Once upon a time there was a dangerous, bad road five hundred yojanas long. It was so fearful that no men lived in the neighborhood. Now many people wished to pass through this road in order to reach a place of treasures. They were led by a man, clever, wise, and well informed of the conditions of the dangerous road. He took them along this dangerous road, but halfway the people got tired of walking. They said to him, ‘We are tired out. We are also afraid of the danger of this road. We cannot go a step farther. Our destination is still far off. We wish to go back.’
“The leader, who knew many expedients, thought, ‘What a pity! They wish to go back without getting great treasures.’ Having thought this, he expediently made a city by magic at a distance of three hundred yojanas from the starting-point of this dangerous road. He said to them, ‘Do not be afraid! Do not go back! You can stay in that great city, and do anything you like. If you enter that city, you will be peaceful. If you go on afterwards and reach the place of treasures, then you can go home.’
“Thereupon the worn-out people had great joy. They said, ‘We have never had such joy as this before. Now we shall be able to get off this bad road and become peaceful.’
“Then they made their way forward and entered the magic city. They felt peaceful, thinking that they had already passed [through the bad road]. Seeing that they had already had a rest and relieved their fatigue, the leader caused the city to disappear, and said to them, ‘Now the place of treasures is near. I made this city by magic in order to give you a rest.’
“Bhikṣus! I, the Tathāgata, am like the leader. I am your great leader. I know that the bad road, which is made of birth-and-death and illusions, is dangerous and long, and that we should pass through it and get off it. If you had heard only of the One Vehicle of the Buddha, you would not have wished to see or approach the Buddha, but would have thought, ‘The Way to Buddhahood is too long for us to pass through unless we make painstaking efforts for a long time.’
“I knew that you were mean and timid. In order to give you a rest halfway, I expounded expediently to you the teaching of Nirvāṇa by the two vehicles. 9 To those who attained the two [vehicles], I say, ‘You have not yet done all that you should do. You are near the wisdom of the Buddha. Think it over and consider it! The Nirvāṇa you attained is not true. I divided the One Vehicle of the Buddha into three only expediently.’
“I say this just as the leader, who saw that his party had had a rest in the great city which he had made by magic in order to give them a rest, said to them, ‘The place of treasures is near. This city was not true. I made it by magic.’ ”
And in gāthās
Suppose there was a bad and dangerous road.
Many wild animals lived in the neighborhood.
No man was there; no water nor grass there.
The road was so fearful.
Many tens of millions of people
Wished to pass through this dangerous road.
The road was very long.
It was five hundred yojanas long.
The people had a leader.
He had a good memory.
He was wise and resolute in mind.
He could save people from dangers.
Getting tired, The people said to him:
“We are tired. We wish to go back.”
He thought: ‘How pitiful they are!
Why do they wish to return
Without getting great treasures?’
Thinking of an expedient, he said to himself:
‘I will use my supernatural powers.’
He made a great city by magic,
And adorned it with houses.
The city was surrounded by gardens, forests,
And by ponds and pools for bathing.
Many-storied gates and tall buildings [in that city]
Were filled with men and women.
Having made all this by magic,
He consoled the people, saying:
“Do not be afraid! Enter that city!
And do anything you like!”
They entered that city,
And had great joy. They felt peaceful,
And thought that they had already passed [through the road].
Seeing that they had already had a rest,
The leader collected them, and said:
“Go on ahead now!
This is a magic city.
You were tired out halfway.
You wished to go back.
Therefore, I made this city by magic
As an expedient.
Let us go to the place of treasures!”
I am like the leader.
I am the leader of all living beings.
I saw that halfway some got tired
With the seeking of enlightenment,
And that they could not pass through the dangerous road
Of birth-and-death and illusions.
Therefore, I expounded to them the teaching of Nirvāṇa
As an expedient to give them a rest, saying:
“You have already eliminated sufferings.
You have done everything you should do.”
Now I see that they have already attained Nirvāṇa
And that they have become Arhats.
Therefore, I now collect the great multitude,
And expound to them the true teaching.
The Buddhas expound the teaching of the Three Vehicles
Only as an expedient.
There is only the One Buddha-Vehicle.
The two [vehicles] were taught only as resting places.
Now I will tell you the truth.
What you attained is not [true] extinction.
Make great efforts in order to obtain
The Buddha’s knowledge of all things.
When you obtain the knowledge of all things
And the ten powers of the Buddha,
And the thirty-two physical marks,
You will be able to say that you attained true extinction.
The Buddhas, the Leaders, expound the teaching of Nirvāṇa
In order to give a rest [to all living beings].
When they see them having already had a rest,
They lead them to the wisdom of the Buddha.