The Lotus Sutra – Chapter 4 – Faith Discernment

The title of this chapter has been translated in various ways by different writers, some of which are ‘Faith Discernment’, ‘Belief and Understanding’ and ‘Willing Acceptance’. All are aiming at a similar central idea, but each approaches it with a slightly different emphasis. ‘Faith’, in the first, is similar to ‘belief’ in the second, but it has a more emotional or intuitive aspect than ‘belief’. They both indicate a faith or belief in the teachings and their effectiveness as a practice that leads to emancipation. Discernment and understanding both indicate a reasoned approach to the teachings. Taken together we can say that we have faith in the teachings because we have examined them and found them reasonable, which leads to the third version of the title, ‘Willing Acceptance’. Having investigated the teachings and found them reasonable we willingly accept them as the true basis for our lives. Without faith in the teachings there is no reason to carry out the practices. Why bother? Without looking at them to see if they are reasonable, what is it that we have faith in? We aren’t really sure unless we carry out such an investigation and come to some, at least, preliminary or basic understanding of what they are saying. But having both, having faith and understanding, we have the basis for a willing acceptance without hesitation or second guessing ourselves. When followed in that spirit the teachings have great power and effectiveness. In this chapter four disciples who have come to have faith in the teachings through their long experience of putting them into practice express their willing, even joyful, acceptance of the Buddha’s words.

In the previous chapter, Shakyamuni Buddha has given his senior disciple Shariputra a prediction that he would in a future lifetime become a Buddha himself and explains further his way of ‘skillful’ teachings by relating the parable of the burning house. He told all of those present who had successfully followed the path of the earlier teachings and attained liberation from suffering and sorrow that they, too, would attain the full wisdom of a Buddha. Immediately, four other senior disciples come before Shakyamuni and express their joy at hearing that they, too, would receive benefits of perfect enlightenment. They explain that they are now old and feeble having spent over twenty years sincerely practicing and mastering the early teachings, successfully attaining freedom from sorrow and suffering. Though they themselves taught the Buddha path to bodhisattvas, they never for a moment considered that it could apply to themselves as well. Now, hearing the Buddha saying that they, too, are in fact bodhisattvas and will ultimately attain the highest enlightenment they are filled with great joy at this unanticipated and unexpected event. To explain more fully, the four disciples tell the following parable of the wandering son.

Once there was a young boy who ran away from home and went off through many countries traveling around looking for work, food and shelter. For fifty years he moved about from place to place in this way becoming very destitute searching to find only the lowliest day labor and whatever meager provisions were given to him. The father during this time lamented the loss of his son and searched far and wide for him without success, but kept his sorrow to himself, never telling anyone of his lost son. During these years, the father became a fabulously wealthy and successful merchant and money-lender, eventually settling in another city, living in a great palace surrounded by inestimable luxury, fields, gardens and treasure-houses, workers, servants and retainers. His fame and wealth were so great that even kings and noblemen came to his home to ask his advice and assistance. The poor son in his travels one day came to the gate of the palace and seeing the father, but not recognizing him, surrounded by this great wealth and many visitors, became afraid for his own safety, thinking to himself, ‘this must be the home of some king. This is no place for me. If they see me here they will arrest me and I will become a slave’. The son runs off, but the father, having seen him through the gate recognizes him instantly and is filled with joy at his son’s return. He sends an assistant to bring him back to the palace. The assistant comes up to the son and tells him to return, but the son taken by fright thinking he is to be arrested and perhaps even put to death refuses and tries to escape. The assistant seizes him and the son falls into a faint from the horror. Seeing this from the distance the father realizes his mistake and tells the assistant to revive the son and to set him free. The son, greatly relieved at his escape goes off to a nearby humble village where he can safely find a little work and a few scraps of food.

The father devises a plan to entice the son back to his palace using skillful means. He still has not told anyone that this man is his son, but instead sends off two of his workers dirty and dressed in rags to offer the son a job sweeping dung at double wages. The son accepts and returns taking up the task and lives in a little hut on the palace grounds.  The father continues to watch him from afar to see how he works and one day disguises himself in dirty cloths and mud in order to get close to his son. As he does, he tells his laborers,

‘Get on with your work. Don’t be lazy!’ By such a device he gets near his son, to whom he soon afterword says, ‘My man, you stay and work here, do not go again elsewhere; I will increase your wages; whatever you need bowls, utensils, rice wheat flour, salt, vinegar and so on; have no hesitations; besides these is an old and worn-out servant whom you shall be given if you need him. Be at ease in your mind; I am as it were your father; do not be worried again. Why? I am old and advanced in years, but you are young and vigorous; all the time you have been working, you have never been deceitful, lazy, angry, or grumbling; I have never seen you have such vices as these, like the other laborers. From this time on you shall be as my own begotten son.’

The son rejoices at his unexpected well-being, but still considers himself just a humble hireling, continuing to sweep dung for another twenty years and to live in the same simple hut. Over this time confidence grows between the father and the son. As the father ages, he gradually introduces the son to running the business and teaches him how to manage the wealth and the household, tasks the son carries out successfully, but all the while still thinking that he is just the hired help having no desire or expectation that the riches were his. Finally the father, recognizing that his own death is approaching calls together all the household, his relatives, the king and his ministers and all his business partners and announces,

‘Know, gentlemen, this is my son begotten by me. It is over fifty years since he left me and ran away to endure loneliness and misery. At that time in that city I sought him sorrowfully. Suddenly in this place I met and regained him. This is really my son and I am really his father. Now all the wealth which I possess belongs entirely to my son and all my previous disbursements and receipts are known by this son.’

The son was filled with great joy hearing this unexpected news that he really was in fact the son and that all this wealth he had cared for was actually his. Never in all the time he lived and worked for the father had that thought crossed his mind and so he had no desire for it or expectation that he would attain it.

The four disciples go on to explain their own experience in terms of the parable they have just related. The Buddha is, once again, the father and they are like the wayward sons, experiencing all sorts of torments in their lives. Having attained the ‘day’s pay’ of nirvana for their diligent work in practicing the early teachings they have been fully satisfied, expecting nothing more. Even when the Buddha opened his storehouse of wisdom to them, instructing them to teach the bodhisattvas they, again like the son, simply believed that they were following their instructions, but that none of it actually belonged to them. Today, as Shakyamuni Buddha approaches his own death, like the father, he reveals that these four disciples are in fact his sons and will attain all the wisdom-treasure of the Buddhas.

Our personal development on the path often mirrors the historical development of the path itself. In the early teachings, the very first presentation is on the nature of suffering, sorrow and discontent, its causes and how one may be free from it. They go on to examine the nature of the world, of ourselves and our relations with both the world and other people. The Mahayana teachings developed out of these earlier expositions and reveal to a greater extent the universality of wisdom and compassion. The four disciples who relate this parable have in their own lives mastered the early practices and teachings, have already been exposed to the Mahayana, but now for the first time come to realize that they are among those who experience it. Most people coming to Buddhist practice for the first time do so because they have heard or read somewhere that it provides a method for ridding oneself of mental torments large and small and are seeking just such a relief for their own very real unhappiness. They learn basic meditation. They learn about the causes and conditions which lead to affliction, such as untoward desire, anger, and spiritual ignorance. And they learn about the qualities they may develop and cultivate as ways to release the grip of those afflictions, such as generosity, empathy, ethics, equanimity, kindness and compassion. Later they may come to greater familiarity with the Mahayana, learning how their own well-being is inextricably intertwined with the well-being of others and how awakening is universal.

Emphasis is made in this story on these qualities, and especially consistent and uncomplaining hard work over an extended period of time. In the parable the son worked as a dung sweeper for twenty years. He performed his job with humility, diligence and patience, never being ‘deceitful, lazy, angry, or grumbling’. The father explicitly tells his other laborers, ‘Get on with your work. Don’t be lazy!’ It won’t take twenty years before you realize some benefits from practice, but it will take more than reading a book or two, going on a weekend workshop, or meditating a few times. Whether you are learning to play the guitar, play a game of golf or learning the Buddha path, the results will be directly proportional to the quality of the effort you put in. If you do so, gradually, like the son, you will attain unexpected benefits.