I am reading the Lotus Sutra in preparation for Chris Fortin’s discussion of this text in the Everyday Zen dharma seminars. I just finished the chapter, “Belief and Understanding,” which is really the parable of the prodigal son…called the “impoverished son” in this text.
In the Buddhist version, like the Christian, the son leaves home for many years and falls into a destitute state – a state in which he finds himself despicable and the lowest of the low. In the Buddhist version, the father is also wealthy, although in this version, the father is king-like, sitting on a throne of pearls.
According to the Buddhist story, the father knows he is going to die eventually and sends for his son, so that he will have someone to inherit his vast wealth. But he knows his son would not believe he is the son of a wealthy king, so he asks the messengers to say, “This wealthy man would like you to work for him.” And also knowing that the son would feel unworthy, says to the messengers, “You can tell him that he can shovel excrement.”
The son in the Buddhist parable does return, but he refuses to see the king, because he considers himself to be filthy. So the king – wishing to approach his son - puts on dirty clothes, puts excrement on his body, and goes to his son saying, “Let us work together shoveling excrement.” After many years, the man gains the trust and love of his son. The father then reveals his identity, but he still knows that the son cannot accept that he is the son of a king, so he puts his son in charge of the treasury, dispursing great sums of money. Only after several years of doing this work, can the son really believe that he is the son of a king.
In the Christian version, the son wants to return home, but fears the wrath of his father. When he is returning home, his father sees him far down the road. The father runs down the road, throws his arms around him, and forgives him. He is overjoyed to have him home at last.
So here is what is so interesting to me: In the Christian version, the father – God – is the antecedent to forgiveness and wholeness. In Buddhism, buddha-nature is the antecedent. That is, according to Buddhism, we are already pure and great. We are buddha-nature. Only because of our fear and suffering and low sense of ourselves do we feel unworthy to step up to our greatness. In the Christian version, especially the evangelical version (as explained to me to my once evangelical husband), we are sinners and will always be sinners, but it is through God’s love and his incarnation into a suffering Jesus, do we find redemption.
I would guess that the Buddhist parable was heard on the “silk road” in the time of Jesus. The story was then changed and told both through a Jewish perspective and through Christ’s message.
The parables seem very different, but somehow the same. In one story the greatness is outside of ourselves in the form of God. In the other story, our own true nature is already great. But in both stories, we find peace and love and belonging.