12 December 2012

Lotus Sutra Study Questions 4

(All references are to the Murano translation)

At this point, four of the "'old and decrepit'" members of the assembly--Subhuti, Mahakatyayana, Maha-Kasyapa, and Maha-Maudgyalyayana--decide to speak up.  Speaking as one, they present their understanding of the Buddha's pronouncements in the previous two chapters of this sutra in the form of a parable.  This passage tells us a great deal about the Buddha's way of reaching and teaching people.  Here is a summary of the parable:

Imagine there is a man of great means and a young son set to inherit the entire estate.  The son foolishly wanders away, gets lost, wanders and wanders, finds himself forced to resort to begging, and eventually forgets who he really is (someone with nothing to worry about from birth):  he becomes convinced that the beggar's life is the only one appropriate to him.  His circumstances become, for him, the only possible reality.

Decades pass.  By chance, the father encounters the son, but the son, overwhelmed by the father's social estate, runs in fear from him and does not recognize him as his father.  The father then resolves on a trick to reeducate his son:  he disguises himself and his retainers as beggars only slightly better off than the estranged son, and indicates that at a certain estate down the road (really his own estate), work is available and the pay is above average. 

The son works at shoveling manure for decades on this estate, while the father slowly convinces him that he need not regard himself as someone who is only suitable for such labor--that he has other capabilities as well.  Eventually, the father reveals the whole story at a time when the son is able to accept its truth, entrusts the son with the estate that was his anyway, and all is well.

The Lotus Sutra, the elderly disciples of the Buddha, is like this:  we learn that Buddhahood (the estate) is possible for all of us and always has been, but because we have been too wound up, bound up, and incompetent, we have had to go through this elaborate teaching situation (shoveling manure) in order to accept this reality (the inheritance).

The Buddha accepts this parable and develops its themes in certain ways in the following chapter.  For now, let's explore what the parable tells us about the Buddha's teaching methods.

*The teacher in the parable, the wealthy father, is very patient indeed.  He is willing to give the disciple as much time knee-deep in crap as he needs in order to learn from his experience.  How do you understand this?  Why does he take this approach and not some other, do you suppose?

*If shoveling manure can stand in for meditation practice and study of the teachings in this parable, it suggests that anything can become a form of practice if the context is right and the attitude of the student is positive.  If anything can become a means to the end of awakening, then how does the teacher decide which teaching tool (which method) to use with a particular student?

*What kind of relationship between teacher and student is described here?  Are these people strangers to each other?  Put differently:  What needs to happen between the teacher and student before any kind of meaningful learning can take place?

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