Abundance in the White Lotus Sutra


The most frequent question I have been asked in the last four or five years, at Order Weekends, on National Festivals such as FWBO Day, or when I have travelled to a Centre to give a talk or lead a study Weekend, is ‘Have you just come from Birmingham?’ My answer is always the same, ‘I don’t live in Birmingham, I live at Vajrakuta’. Vajrakuta, in case you don’t know, is the Dharma Study Centre for men [editors note: Vajrukuta went on to become Dharmavastu, which ceased holding retreats in 2005.], although in recent years we have also held a number of seminars for Dharmacharinis who lead Mitras through the three year study course. Last year (1998) I led two seminars on the taped lecture series Parables, Myths, and Symbols of Mahayana Buddhism in the White Lotus Sutra — one for Dharmacharis and one for Dharmacharinis. On both occasions we studied the parables from the Sutra before we considered what Bhante had to say about them in his lectures, and in doing this we discovered things in the parables that Bhante had not pointed out. This is not very surprising in that a parable is a story, and it is possible to interpret the different episodes of a story in many different ways, thus teasing out more layers of meaning and significance. On these two seminars there was one thing that particularly struck me about the Sutra that I had never noticed before, and although Bhante alludes to it in his lecture series, he doesn’t explore the area very thoroughly. In a way it is strange that he didn’t make more of this point, as it is a very important aspect of his teaching — but in eight lectures it is not possible to say everything! So I have decided to write an article about it as my contribution to Madhyamavani in the hope that it will encourage you to read the Sutra if you haven’t already done so, or to read it again if you have.

Abundance in The White Lotus Sutra

At the beginning of the third chapter of the White Lotus Sutra (Saddharmapundarika Sutra) Sariputra says to The Buddha ‘Just now, when I heard from the World Honoured One this voice of the Dharma, my mind seemed to dance and I gained what I had never had before’. [1] This idea is repeated a number of times by various of the Buddha’s disciples throughout the Sutra: in Chapter Four Subhuti, Mahakasyapa and Mahamaudgalyayana say the same thing, adding ‘We have gained great goodness and benefit, an immeasurably rare jewel, something unsought that came of itself’. Later, in chapter eight ‘twelve hundred Arhats, [2] being free in mind, thought to themselves. We rejoice in gaining what we never had before’. They gained what they had never had before. This phrase, it seems to me, epitomises what is one of the most important themes in the Sutra — that the living of the spiritual life is one of fabulous abundance. The White Lotus is a Mahayana Sutra, and in its own terms this message of abundance is in contradistinction to the message of the Hinayana, [3] which is one of relative poverty. However, the Sutra has, as well as its specific, polemical meaning, a more universal significance, and it is on this more universal significance that I want to dwell in this article.

This message of abundance is expressed in the first half of the Sutra through four of the five parables, and reaches its climax with the emergence of the Precious Stupa in Chapter Eleven The four parables are those of the Burning House, the Return Journey, the Medicinal Herbs, and the Jewel in the Garment. I will only be looking at the first two parables in detail, and then at the episode of the Precious Stupa, although all of the parables I have mentioned carry the message of abundance.

The first parable comes in Chapter Three Simile and Parable and the Buddha tells it to Sariputra soon after his exclamation which I quoted at the beginning of this article. It is the Parable of the Burning House. A number of children are playing in a house, which has caught fire. Their father (‘a very rich man... his wealth was beyond measure’) tries to get them to leave the house, firstly by telling them the truth about the situation they are in (the house is dirty, rotting, falling down, full of fierce and aggressive animals, and what is more, it has just caught fire). The children take no notice of their father and carry on playing, so the father tries a ‘skilful means’. [4] He tells them that there are wonderful carriages outside, and if they would just leave the house, then the carriages would be their’s to play with. What I find particularly interesting about this parable is that the father first tries one method, which fails, before trying the more successful one of telling the children about the carriages.

The method that fails can be characterised by wisdom and renunciation. The father tells them the truth — he tells them about their actual situation, how awful it is, and how much better it would be if they left it, if they renounced their games. But his children don’t believe him, and they just carry on playing there, blissfully ignorant of the very real danger they are in. This approach doesn’t work, so he tries another one — that of telling them about the carriages outside the house. Here he switches from the approach of wisdom and renunciation to that of desire and faith. He knows that they like playing, and entices them out of the house with the promise of the best playthings imaginable. The children of course desire these carriages, and they also believe that if they leave the house they will get them — they have faith.

The first approach — that of wisdom and renunciation, is, we could say, the classical Hinayana approach to Enlightenment. Just look at the situation you are in: the world is a painful place, full of suffering, with such terrible things as old age, sickness and death. What is more, it is burning with the fires of greed, hatred and delusion, which scorch you. Take a good look at it — wouldn’t it be better to leave? But in the parable that approach doesn’t work. After all, what is outside the house? The father doesn’t say anything about that when he is using the first approach. Maybe there is nothing? Maybe this world, painful as it is, is better than nothing? So he uses the skilful means of the carriages — yes, he is saying, there is something, something much better than you have here. The parable is in part a critique of the Hinayana approach of renunciation, based on an awareness of the suffering inherent in the worldly life, but with very little positive to say about the goal. The parable is saying that that approach doesn’t work for the majority of people. Most of us need something positive and attractive to aspire to. This need is met by the father’s story of the carriages. And what carriages they are!

With gold, silver, lapis lazuli,
seashells, agate,
and other such precious things
he fashioned large carriages
beautifully adorned and decorated,
with railings running around them,
and bells hanging from all sides.
Ropes of gold twisted and twined,
nets of pearls
stretched over the top,
and fringes of golden flowers
hung down everywhere.
Multicoloured decorations
wound around and encircled the carriages,
soft silks and gauzes
served for cushions,
with fine felts of most wonderful make
valued at thousands or millions,
gleaming white and pure,
to spread over them.
There were large white oxen,
sleek, stalwart, of great strength,
handsome in form,
to draw the jeweled carriages,
and numerous grooms and attendants
to accompany and guard them.

Not only are the carriages beautiful, they are expensive! The Sutra is quite explicit about this. The fine felts are ‘valued at thousands or millions’. In this and other parables the Sutra transposes worldly wealth into spiritual wealth. Just imagine owning the most expensive things money can buy — imagine if these were suddenly yours with no effort on your part — how would you feel? Well, that’s what the spiritual life is like — you suddenly become very wealthy.

Just to make sure there is no possibility of misunderstanding here, I am not saying, and I don’t think the Sutra is saying, that there is no need for renunciation. What I think it is saying is that this method, on its own, is not enough for most people. I have characterised this method as one of wisdom and renunciation, and I have said that it is the classical Hinayana approach. However, it is not the approach always used in the Pali Canon. [5] In one of his discourses the Buddha makes a very similar point to that made in the Parable of the Burning House. One of the Buddha’s lay followers, Mahanama, approaches him with a problem. He says that, while he understands that greed, hatred and delusion are defilements of the mind, he is unable to abandon them. The Buddha understands this, and tells him that, before His Enlightenment, while still a Bodhisattva, he had the same problem. Even though he ‘clearly saw as it actually is with proper wisdom how sensual pleasures provide little gratification, much suffering and much despair, and how great is the danger in them’ he was not able to give them up. Understanding on its own, even for the Buddha-to-be, was not enough. It was only when he had experienced the dhyanas that he recognized that he was ‘no longer attracted to sensual pleasures’. He could give them up only when he had experienced something more pleasurable.

The second parable, the Parable of the Return Journey, occurs in the fourth chapter, and this time it is Subhuti, Mahakasyapa and Mahamaudgalyayana who tell it to The Buddha, again soon after they have announced that they ‘have gained what we never had before’. Like the previous parable, it is meant to show in graphic and worldly terms just how much they have gained, although this parable is much more psychologically sophisticated. Once upon a time a young man abandoned his father and went to live in another country. While the son gradually became poor, the father on the contrary was rich. The father spent many years looking for his son but eventually settled down in a certain city. One day the son, in search of work, approached this city and saw his father from a distance, although he did not recognize him. The father however, recognized his son, and immediately dispatched a servant to fetch him. On being accosted by the servant the son fainted away with fear, imagining that he was to be imprisoned and perhaps put to death. Seeing this, the father instructed his servant to free him and let him go wherever he wished. The son, realizing that he was free once more was delighted, and went to a poor village in search of work and shelter. His father then employed a skilful means — he instructed two men, both ‘lean and haggard’, with ‘no imposing appearance’ to approach him casually and offer him work at twice the regular wage. The work? Clearing away excrement from nearby the father’s mansion. It must have been a lot of excrement because he and the two servants worked at it for the next twenty years! As the years went by the son became used to being in the vicinity of the rich man and the mansion, and his father gradually and carefully began to take the son into his confidence. He told him that he was his best and most trustworthy worker, and that he considered him to be like a son. Later, when the father fell ill, he employed the son to look after his treasury, so that he became used to handling wealth, and coming in and out of the mansion. Eventually, just as the father was about to die he told his son the true situation, handing over all of his wealth to him. This is the parable.

The father is wealthy — fabulously so. We see him sitting ‘on a lion throne, his legs supported by a jewelled footrest, while Brahmans, noblemen, and householders, uniformly deferential, surrounded him. Festoons of pearls worth thousands or tens of thousands adorned his body, and clerks, grooms, and menservants holding white fly whisks stood in attendance to left and right. A jewelled canopy covered him, with flowered banners hanging from it, perfumed water had been sprinkled over the ground, heaps of rare flowers were scattered about, and precious objects were ranged here and there, brought out, put away, handed over and received.’ Again the writers of the Sutra make sure that we notice just how rich he is by adding the little detail of the value of the pearls — they are worth ‘tens of thousands’. To our sensibilities it may seem a bit vulgar to stress this, even more so perhaps to make sure that we notice all those people ‘uniformly deferential’, surrounding him and attending on him. But the writers of the Sutra had no qualms at all about this — the man is rich, he has everything he needs, everything he wants, and more. This is what Enlightenment is like.

The son in contrast is poor. ‘As he grew older he found himself increasingly poor and in want. He hurried about in every direction, seeking for clothing and food....’ The son in the parable is the Arahant, seen from the Mahayana point of view. He has settled on a lower, inferior ideal, and so is, in contrast to the follower of the Mahayana, impoverished. However, as I have already said, the parables have a universal significance outside of their immediate polemical meaning, and looked at in its more universal perspective the parable is telling us that we (the son in the parable) are poor. The father (the Buddha) is rich, and we can share in that wealth.

Not only can we share in that wealth; it is ours now, if we could just recognize it. The poor man is the son — the wealth is his — he just needs to recognize that fact. That he doesn’t recognize it means that he cannot share in it — effectively it is not his. In fact, he is frightened of the rich man’s wealth, he feels threatened by it. When the father orders two of his servants to fetch the son, he faints from fear.

Why was he so frightened? One of the insights the parable offers us is that from a worldly point of view the spiritual life looks like one of imprisonment and death. Imprisonment because renouncing all those things that we like to do, such as immerse ourselves in sensual pleasures, amass possessions around us, do whatever we feel like doing — renouncing all those things seems to amount only to a restriction of freedom. And what is at the end of the spiritual life? Death — the death of the ‘self’ in Enlightenment. From the worldly point of view the spiritual life seems oppressive, even repressive. From the Enlightened point of view — which is the point of view of the parable — the spiritual life is one of ever greater richness and abundance, whereas the worldly life is one of drudgery and dreariness.

For the rest of the parable the father tries to get his son to understand and accept the fact of his wealth by very skilfully allowing him to get used to being near him and his home, the mansion — the mansion being a symbol for Enlightenment. (Here is a good example of a similar object being used to signify different, even opposite ideas in different stories: in The Parable of the Burning House the house signifies the suffering of Samsara, whereas in the Parable of the Return Journey the house signifies the bliss of Enlightenment.) One of the ways the father gets his son used to being near the mansion is to employ him to clear away excrement, which he does for twenty years. Now it is important to remember that this was a skilful means on the part of the father. The son was actually rich, although he didn’t recognize it. Had he been able to recognize it there would have been no need for him to work for such a long time clearing away the excrement. I think this is a very good metaphor for the dichotomy of time and eternity, or for what Sangharakshita has called the ‘continuous path’ and the ‘discontinuous path’. From the point of view (if there could be such a thing!) of eternity the son is rich, always has been, and always will be. From the point of view of time he has to work to realize that fact. That is why the father (who is The Buddha, and therefore outside of the category of time) is able to see that the son is actually rich, whereas the son himself (who is us, or all unenlightened beings, and therefore trapped in the category of time) is unable to recognize his wealth. In order to gain Enlightenment we have, it seems, to tread the Path. But, Enlightenment being outside of such categories of time and space, no matter how long and far you tread the path, you are no nearer to the goal. Enlightenment is possible of attainment at any time because it is outside of time, but we are unable to see this, so we have to tread the Path, (we have to clear away excrement) for a long time.

The idea that these riches are, and always have been the son’s, is expressed by the son when, just before his father dies he gives all his wealth to him. ‘When the impoverished son heard these words of his father, he was filled with great joy, having gained what he never had before, and he thought to himself, I originally had no mind to covet or seek such things. Yet now these stores of treasures have come of their own accord’. They have come of their own accord. He didn’t work for them. He appeared to be working for them but actually they were his all the time. The ‘work’ was recognizing them as his own. We work at the spiritual life — we meditate, study, practice ethics and mindfulness, make friends with others who are themselves treading the path, and we thereby gain certain benefits. We become calmer, more contented, happier, and so on. These benefits are all on the ‘mundane’ level as it were. We also gain ‘Transcendental’ benefits — we gain Insight, we become irreversible from the path. These ‘Transcendental’ benefits are incommensurate with the work we have done to gain them — no amount of work done on the ‘mundane’ level is equal to Insight. Insight as it were ‘comes of its own accord’. Insight comes of its own accord? But surely we do work for it — we practise the Dharma don’t we? We tread the Path? We may feel that we work for it, but what do we think we are working for? Before we gain Insight we don’t really have any idea what the gaining of Insight will be like. Yes, we have words and ideas that we use to indicate it — Wisdom, Compassion, Energy, Seeing Things As They Really Are etc., but these words and ideas are taken from our experience of the mundane. So when we gain Insight it is a surprise — it is so much more than we expected. We are like the son who ‘originally had no mind to covet or seek such things. Yet now these treasures have come of their own accord’. We think that we are seeking and coveting Insight, but as we have no idea what Insight is, then we are actually seeking something else. When Insight arises we feel that it has come of its own accord.

Over the next few chapters there follow the Parable of the Medicinal Herbs, The Parable of the Magic City, and The Parable of the Jewel in the Garment. The Parable of the Medicinal Herbs is, strictly speaking, not a parable at all but a simile. The Buddha compares himself to a raincloud, pouring the rain of the Dharma on all plants, trees, shrubs etc., allowing and encouraging them to grow. Although it is the same rain, they all grow in their different ways. The simile is important because it gives us an image not of monetary wealth but of purely natural abundance — of joyous, irrepressible exuberance and life, springing up on all sides. We see, for instance

plants, bushes, medicinal herbs,
trees large and small
a hundred grains, rice seedlings
sugar cane, grapevines.
The rain moistens them all,
none fails to receive its full share.
The parched ground is everywhere watered,
herbs and trees alike grow lush.

The next episode that I want to discuss though is not a parable or a simile, but a piece of phantasmagoria. I want to look at the episode where the Precious Stupa comes up from underneath the ground and floats in the air above the assembly. This is the climax of the first half of the Sutra, and at this point the message of the Sutra is taken up right out of the mundane examples we have so far seen in the parables (carriages, mansions, jewels and plant life) into a higher, fantastic realm. ‘At that time in the Buddha’s presence there arose a stupa adorned with the seven treasures, five hundred yojanas in height and two hundred and fifty yojanas in width and depth, that rose up out of the earth and stood suspended in the air. Various kinds of precious objects adorned it. It had five thousand railings, a thousand, ten thousand rooms, and numberless streamers and banners decorated it. Festoons of jewels hung down and ten thousand million jewelled bells were suspended from it. All four sides emitted a fragrance of tamalipatra and sandalwood that pervaded the whole world. Its banners and canopies were made of the seven treasures, namely, gold, silver, lapis lazuli, seashell, agate, pearl and carnelian, and it was so high it reached to the heavenly palace of the Four Heavenly Kings.’ And so it goes on. Inside the Stupa is a Buddha, who congratulates the Buddha Sakyamuni for expounding the White Lotus Sutra.

This is obviously not an ordinary stupa — it is a symbol, and what it symbolises is impossible to say — you just have to feel it. It is extraordinary, fantastic, sublime and awe-inspiring. To appreciate the full force of this episode it is not enough to sit in your armchair to read it — you really have to read it, or listen to it, in a ritual context. You have to visualize it, hear it, smell it, feel it. (This is true of the parables and similes too — Mahayana Sutras need to be read out loud in a context of meditation and ritual to get their full benefits). Let’s not forget though that the Stupa is made of earthly materials, and that, were we to try to make such a Stupa it would cost an awful lot of money — it is a very expensive Stupa! Again, the writers of the Sutra are transposing worldly wealth to the spiritual, even Transcendental plane. And the Buddha inside the stupa, what is his name? Abundant Treasures. Enlightenment is not just the ‘blowing out’ [6] . of the defilements — it is not extinction, it is not a state of nothingness. It is a life of incredible richness, such as we cannot, from our current point of view, possibly imagine. We can imagine being rich, we can imagine winning the lottery or coming into an inheritance, we can imagine being in India during the rainy season when plants, trees, shrubs and flowers spring up everywhere in a riot of colour and exuberance, but we cannot imagine what it is like to be a Buddha. Imagining the Stupa coming up out of the ground can help us to get some way towards it, but even that cannot get us all the way there — unless by imagining the episode of the Stupa we gain Enlightenment, and then we would have ’gained something we never had before’. We would have ’received stores of treasures that have come of their own accord’. We would have imbibed the message of The White Lotus Sutra.

Ratnaguna is now a member of Breath Works mindfulness strategies for living well, pain management and stress reduction, based in Manchester. You can find out more about Dharma study from the Dharmaduta Training Course, part of Dharmapala College.

Originally published in Madhyamavani: Spring 1999 (Birmingham: Madhyamaloka, 1999).


[1] The Lotus Sutra trans. Burton Watson (New York: Columbia Univesity Press, 1993), 47 [Return]

[2] Mahayana (lit. Great Way) is the form of Buddhism which has at its heart the Ideal of the Bodhisattva. For the Hinayana (lit. Small or Lesser Way) the ideal is that of the Arahant. (See note 3). [Return]

[3] Arhat (Sanskrit; Arahant, Pali) is an Enlightened disciple of the Buddha. For the Mahayana, however, the ‘Enlightenment’ of the Arhat is inferior to that of the Buddha in that it is Enlightenment gained for one’s own sake. The ideal Buddhist for the Mahayana is the Bodhisattva, who aims at full Buddhahood for the sake of all sentient beings. [Return]

[4] Skilful Means (upaya kausalya) is an important virtue in Mahayana Buddhism. It is essentially the Buddha’s or Bodhisattva’s ability to adapt the teachings to suit the capabilities, inclinations, and spiritual development of whoever they are talking to. [Return]

[5] Of the many (at least eighteen) schools of the so-called Hinayana only one has survived — the Theravada, its teachings being preserved in the Pali Canon. The discourse (sutta) mentioned here is called The Shorter Discourse on the Mass of Suffering (Culadukkhakhandasutta) from the Middle Length Discourses (Majjhima Nikaya). [Return]

[6] ‘Blowing out’ is the literal translation of Nirvana. [Return]