At the beginning of this chapter, the one that promises treasure, Purna is excited that he’s hearing such beautiful teachings. The Buddha says to the sangha:
Now this Purna in the past
diligently practiced the way
under a thousand million Buddhas,
proclaiming and guarding the Law of those Buddhas…
and in the future too he will offer alms
to immeasurable, countless Buddhas,
protecting, aiding and proclaiming their correct Law
and himself purifying the Buddha lands,
constantly employing various expedient means,
preaching the Law without fear,
saving multitudes beyond calculation…”
The mythical, hyperbolic language of the Lotus Sutra moves away from seeing the Buddha as a person, and instead he becomes a cosmic principal. If you think of the Buddha as a perfect person you might start comparing yourself to him, aspiring to become perfect. And what about those hard working arhats? Those who had found nirvana during the lifetime of the Buddha. Perhaps in time, some of the sangha saw that they were not quite so perfect after all. Look at the arhats fake it till they make it. But what if? What if you realized you are already a Buddha.
In our youthful Buddha hankering days we wanted to become enlightened. But we’ve grown so much lighter on our feet now that we’ve given up this need for perfection. Instead, we’ve turned our attention to craft. Every artist knows this. We can leave the high flying descriptions to the post-postmodern critics. We’re working on our craft here on the yoga mat. Paying our rent every day in the tower of song.
Shunryu Suzuki once looked out at his students and said, “You’re all so perfect. I feel so much love for you. I think you’re all enlightened until you open your mouth. All of you are perfect just as you are and you could use a little improvement.”
Purna receives a prophecy, he’s been a fine dharma teacher for many past ages. He is going to inherit a universe of Buddha lands. The best part about receiving prophecies in the Lotus Sutra is that they are met by smiling, dancing monks. Once the prophecy is delivered the smiling starts and spreads and the dancing begins. By contrast, check out the Pali canon – not much dancing there.
Before Purna gets up to dance 500 Buddhas get up to dance first. Have you ever been to a big Jewish wedding where some man or some woman starts to get the feeling? You can see it spreading across their face. And this feeling moves from her/his face to all the other faces in the assembly. There was a retreat at new year’s a couple of years back where one person started to giggle during a sit, and then their neighbour picked up on it, and it ran across the room. When that happens all you can do is to feel your feelings, and give in and laugh until it passes. The next day everyone felt badly and guilty, as if they’d done something wrong. But for all those who think that Buddhism is solemn, all about the exploration of suffering, the Lotus Sutra offers a steady backbeat of dancing as the expression of your heart.
500 arhats in the presence of the Buddha receive prophecies and then they offer a parable. In The Lotus Sutra, sometimes the Buddha offers a parable, and sometimes it comes from the assembly, as a way to show that they have understood a teaching.
World-Honoured One, it was like the case of a man who went to the house of a close friend and, having become drunk on wine, lay down to sleep. At that time the friend had to go out on official business. He took a priceless jewel, sewed it in the lining of the man’s robe, and left it with him when he went out. The man was asleep drunk and knew nothing about it. When he got up, he set out on a journey to other countries. In order to provide himself with food and clothing he had to search with all his energy and diligence, encountering very great hardship and making do with what little he could come by.
Later the close friend happened to meet him by chance. The friend said, “How absurd, old fellow! Why should you have to do all this for the sake of food and clothing? In the past I wanted to make certain you would be able to live in ease and satisfy the five desires, and on such-and-such a day and month and year I took a priceless jewel and sewed it in the lining of your robe. It must still be there now. But you did not know about it, and fretted and wore yourself out trying to provide a living for yourself. What nonsense! Now you must take the jewel and exchange it for goods. Then you can have whatever you wish at all times and never experience poverty or want.
What do you want?
I remember when I was 20 years old I was in Detroit and went to a Zen Centre there and approached the teacher and said that I wanted to start practicing. The teacher asked, “What do you want?” And then the bell rang, my session was over. That was the visit, I was waiting for him to tell me more but the session was over. That was a very profound question. Maybe sometimes we don’t know what we want.
Daiju visited the master Baso in China. Baso asked: “What do you seek?”
“Enlightenment”, replied Daiju.
“You have your own treasure house. Why do you search outside?” Baso asked.
Daiju inquired: “Where is my treasure house?”
Baso answered: “What you are asking is your treasure house.”
Daiju was enlightened! Daiju became a famous teacher, he would get very quiet, and then he would yell at his students, “Open the treasure chest! Open the treasure chest!”
Isn’t this the teaching we all need? If you want to get enlightened, open the treasure chest. The question is: what am I looking for? An answer closes off the way, but the question opens me, it makes me receptive to the contingency and conditions of my life. It puts me on the path.
Delusion is the teacher
Dogen wrote in the Shobogenzo “Those who have great realization of their delusions are Buddhas.” Maybe the treasure chest is not sparkling, or made of gold after all. Maybe we have an idea of what the treasure chest is so we look outside and we miss it. Maybe your wounds and the shadows you move in are the treasure. Dogen insists that someone who wakes up to the fact of their own delusions is a Buddha – but this waking up does not free someone from their delusions.
When you wake up to your own treasure chest, then you can wake up to the treasures of others. When you become sensitive to your own gold, and your own shadows, then you become sensitive to the gold and shadows of others.
If you could open up to only one person… your mother for instance. It’s so hard sometimes to give your time, your attention, your heart, to your mother. It doesn’t matter if she’s living or dead, our job on mother’s day is to honour our mother. To be with our mothers. Perhaps we could even see that there’s a woman behind the role. And if we can’t see the woman then perhaps she’s unable to see that there’s someone behind our role as son or daughter. We can give each other the gift, the space, the relief from these burdens. And if you can do this with your mother, then why stop there?
Womb of the Buddha
The traditional read of the Buddha womb says that inside you there is a treasure, a possibility, some golden part that can be mined. If you mine the rock you’ll find the gold. But this is not how the term is used in the Lotus Sutra. A lotus is a flower that grows out of the mud, it is part of the muck of our life. We aren’t getting above it all with our jewel, our jewel is part of the mess and difficulty and impossibility. In fact, this is where it comes from. And the lotus flower is not forever, it’s temporary and depends on conditions. The jewel is not separate from the rest of our lives, it is the rest of our life. To wake up to your delusions – perhaps this is how we generate compassion.
You may not be able to heal all of your wounds, the practice isn’t a magic pill. You might have addictions, social fears, relational styles that are difficult. And sometimes you might think you can talk it through. If I can only keep talking about my problems they’ll shrink to a small spot and disappear. But that doesn’t quite work. Not quite.
Tathagata Garba (Buddha womb)
The term “Buddha nature” enters the English language in 1940 through the writings of DT Suzuki who was translating the term pho (Buddha) shin (nature, essence). But the Chinese, 1,000 years earlier, had made a translation mistake, and the term “shin” or “womb” became translated as “essence,” that became “nature.”
Buddha nature is potential – the potential of being awake to Buddha. It doesn’t mean you have this thing waiting for you all the time. Another way of thinking about Buddha nature is that waking up to the jewel left in our coat is waking up to our sense of belonging. What happens in meditation when you see thought as thought – when you don’t get hooked by the story, but can just see mental formations as more mental formations. You can see the web, you don’t have to get out of it. You can see the structure unfolding without being swept away by it. This quietude brings with it a sense of belonging, of being home. This quiet, that we relearn again and again on the cushion, is like the river dust settling to the bottom of a water glass, revealing our true nature, our real home. Dukka is the frustration of not feeling here, not belonging.
What do you find at the end of the road? You find “this.” The place you belong. The home of this moment.
The Lotus Sutra is trying to get you into a place of faith, to have devotion to the Lotus Sutra as a path. Not seeing the jewel is a way of running away from where we belong. This creates self judgment, feelings of insufficiency and stinginess. When we’re not satisfied, when we’re lost inside our wounds we can’t give or serve. In Tibetan Buddhism, the opposite of generosity is stinginess. Or else we can feel inflated, this is another way of not feeling here, not belonging. Being inflated contracts the resources of the world, they shrink away. We can also oppress others by giving too much or being too much. There are some people who are too much: they’re too perfect, too generous, too smart – they dampen others. They take up too much room. It takes up a lot of energy in that part of the web. And on the other hand there are some people who are too little – and their smallness also dampens others.
What do you anchor your desires to? Your wounds.
The jewel can be a question you’re compelled to give a response to. Maybe your life after that is a response to the Buddha someone sewed in your coat. What we do continually in our life is sewing jewels in other people’s coats.