Friday, March 9, 2018

The wisdom of the lotus.

Symbol of enlightened purity
Sadly, the majority in the West have not been introduced to the depth and breadth of Eastern wisdom. It is more than a little arrogant and presumptuous to imagine we westerners are the sole keepers of the world’s great wisdom. One of the most profound of all Eastern sources is the Lotus Sutra. You don’t have to be a Buddhist to profit from human wisdom, regardless of source. “Wisdom by any other source remains wisdom.” 

The Lotus Sutra is widely regarded as one of the most important and influential of all sutras, or sacred scriptures, of Buddhism. In it, The Buddha expounds the ultimate truth of life to which he was enlightened. The sutra’s key message is that Buddhahood, the supreme state of life characterized by boundless compassion, wisdom, and courage, is inherent within every person without distinction of gender, ethnicity, social standing or intellectual ability. Awakening to this inherent wealth changes your life for the better.

Of significance, the name “Lotus Sutra,” is symbolic of how the lotus flower grows. A lotus is able to emerge from muddy waters (adversity) unspoiled and pure. As such the lotus represents a wise and spiritually enlightened quality in a person; it is representative of somebody who carries out their tasks with little concern for any reward and with a full liberation from attachment.

The Sutra is a teaching that encourages an active engagement with mundane life and all its challenges. Buddhahood is not an escape from these challenges but an inexhaustible source of positive energy to grapple with and transform the sufferings and contradictions of life and create happiness.

I’m sharing just one example, (The Parable of the burning house, following), without editing or redaction. The parable addresses the idea of “expedient meansan important aspect of Mahayana wisdom as a commentary on the rash of “white lies” currently rampant throughout our political sphere. In this parable, The Buddha is conversing with Shariputra one of the foremost disciples of the historical Buddha. Shariputra realized enlightenment and became an arhat while still a young man. It was said he was second only to the Buddha in his ability to teach. He is credited with mastering and codifying the Buddhas Abhidharma teachings, which became the third “basket” of the Tripitika.

“Shariputra, suppose that in a certain town in a certain country there was a very rich man. He was far along in years and his wealth was beyond measure. He had many fields, houses, and menservants. His own house was big and rambling, but it had only one gate. A great many people—a hundred, two hundred, perhaps as many as five hundred—lived in the house. The halls and rooms were old and decaying, the walls crumbling, the pillars rotten at their base, and the beams and rafters crooked and aslant. At that time a fire suddenly broke out on all sides, spreading through the rooms of the house. The sons of the rich man, ten, twenty perhaps thirty, were inside the house. When the rich man saw the huge flames leaping up on every side, he was greatly alarmed and fearful and thought to himself, I can escape to safety through the flaming gate, but my sons are inside the burning house enjoying themselves and playing games, unaware, unknowing, without alarm or fear. The fire is closing in on them, suffering and pain threaten them, yet their minds have no sense of loathing or peril and they do not think of trying to escape!

Shariputra, this rich man thought to himself, I have strength in my body and arms. I can wrap them in a robe or place them on a bench and carry them out of the house. And then again he thought, this house has only one gate, and moreover it is narrow and small. My sons are very young, they have no understanding, and they love their games, being so engrossed in them that they are likely to be burned in the fire. I must explain to them why I am fearful and alarmed. The house is already in flames and I must get them out quickly and not let them be burned up in the fire! Having thought in this way, he followed his plan and called to all his sons, saying, ‘You must come out at once!’ But though the father was moved by pity and gave good words of instruction, the sons were absorbed in their games and unwilling to heed them. They had no alarm, no fright, and in the end no mind to leave the house. Moreover, they did not understand what the fire was, what the house was, what the danger was. They merely raced about this way and that in play and looked at their father without heeding him.

At that time the rich man had this thought: The house is already in flames from this huge fire. If I and my sons do not get out at once, we are certain to be burned. I must now invent some expedient means that will make it possible for the children to escape harm. The father understood his sons and knew what various toys and curious objects each child customarily liked and what would delight them. And so he said to them, ‘The kind of playthings you like are rare and hard to find. If you do not take them when you can, you will surely regret it later. For example, things like these goat-carts, deer-carts, and ox-carts. They are outside the gate now where you can play with them. So you must come out of this burning house at once. Then whatever ones you want, I will give them all to you!’” 

At that time, when the sons heard their father telling them about these rare playthings because such things were just what they had wanted, each felt emboldened in heart and, pushing and shoving one another, they all came wildly dashing out of the burning house. The father subsequently presents each of his sons with a large bejeweled carriage drawn by a pure white ox. When the Buddha asks Shariputra whether the father was guilty of falsehood, he answers.

“No, World-Honored One. This rich man simply made it possible for his sons to escape the peril of fire and preserve their lives. He did not commit a falsehood. Why do I say this? Because if they were able to preserve their lives, then they had already obtained a plaything of sorts. And how much more so when, through an expedient means, they are rescued from that burning house!”

The Buddha explains his similes of the father representing a compassionate Tathāgata who is like “a father to all the world”, and the sons representing humans who are “born into the threefold world, a burning house, rotten, and old”.

“Shariputra, that rich man first used three types of carriages to entice his sons, but later he gave them just the large carriage adorned with jewels, the safest, most comfortable kind of all. Despite this, that rich man was not guilty of falsehood. The Tathagata does the same, and he is without falsehood. First, he preaches the three vehicles to attract and guide living beings, but later he employs just the Great Vehicle to save them. Why? The Tathagata possesses measureless wisdom, power, freedom from fear, the storehouse of the Dharma. He is capable of giving to all living beings the Dharma of the Great Vehicle. But not all of them are capable of receiving it. Shariputra, for this reason, you should understand that the Buddhas employ the power of expedient means. And because they do so, they make distinctions in the one Buddha vehicle and preach it as three.”

Being able to release oneself from hardened rules that bind, and adapt in the interest of saving those in jeopardy, may appear unethical to many but it must be considered who benefits when living by the letter of the law instead of by the spirit beneath the law’s intent.
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