The Lost Son parable of the Lotus Sutra perfectly conveys the difference between hinayana and Mahayana practice. Despite what we may think of ourselves, we already have everything we need – including the capacity for great liberation and service. At the same time, we need to practice in order to grow into our inheritance.
Read/listen to Lotus Sutra 1 (Devotion) or Lotus Sutra 2 (Parable of the Burning House)
Today: Third episode on the Lotus Sutra, focusing on the parable of the Lost Son…
We often assume our time is more neurotic than times in the past, especially the distant past, when we imagine times were simpler, communities were tighter, people didn’t have to deal with a constant barrage of information from all over the globe, or with constant technological change.
But the Lotus Sutra says otherwise…
Thought to be composed/compiled over the course of about 150, 200 years (1st century BCE – 150 CE)
The Lost Son Parable (Told as a Modern Tale)
Most famous for its parables. Today: the parable of the Lost Son. (Based on translation by Gene Reeves – and any quotes are from there – but I will tell it in my own words with some improvisation/modernization)
Young man, only 14 or 15, runs away from his family… gone for 30 years…
Lives a very rough life… poverty, loss, drug addiction, time spent in jail, ends up unhoused
At some point, continually itinerant lifestyle, sets up his tent in a new city
Standing in line at a free clinic, father drives by
Father has moved to this city, become very rich. Lives in a mansion with a cook, maids, assistants, a driver. Owner of a big construction firm, branches all over the country, a couple thousand employees right in this city.
Since his son left, very sad… never had another child.
Sees his son on the street, absolutely shocked, can hardly believe it. Has his driver go around the block and pass by his son again to make sure he saw correctly,
He’s sure… parks nearby, runs up to his son with outstretched arms.
Son is terrified – what’s this man in a suit coming up to him for? It probably means he’s in trouble, this is probably a cop. He doesn’t recognize his father, his mind is clouded by rough living and drugs and time… he leaves the line and runs away
The father is grief stricken, but of course remains determined. What is he going to do, forget about his son now that he’s found him again?
Has a couple of his employees who work in the area the son is living keep an eye on him and report back, without telling anyone this is his son. After a week or so, sends an employee around to the homeless camp saying he’s hiring a couple folks for a couple hour’s worth of work cleaning up at a nearby construction site. The first time or two, son doesn’t volunteer, but eventually they get him working somewhat regularly at these short-term, odd jobs.
Father makes sure the jobs pay well. Pretty soon the son has slightly better conditions… builds some relationships and a little confidence. They hire him on parttime, some folks at work encourage the son to move into some transitional housing that also requires him to get into rehab and counseling.
At long last the father can meet the son face-to-face without raising suspicion… he stops to “inspect” the construction site the son is working on, other employees introduce and say the son is a good worker.
Father starts to visit more regularly, has the son promoted. Son gains more confidence and stability. Eventually father hires son as a manager, after many years becomes VP of the company and quite well-off himself. Father finds excuses to have son come over to house, builds a relationship with him.
Finally the father reveals their relationship, bringing out photos and documents and talking about the many lonely years he wondered where his son was and whether he was still alive. It takes a while for the son to fully grasp the situation, but eventually he does, and marvels at the subtle shift – his situation is no longer (just) something he earned, but something that was his birthright. The Father is able to make their relationship public and identifies his son as his heir.
Reflecting on the Meaning of the Lost Son Parable
In Lotus Sutra, of course, wealthy man with servants, son is set to cleaning up animal dung, works his way up, etc.
As I said in my last talk/episode on a Lotus Sutra parable, parables are rich communication and teaching tools with many levels, evocative like poetry or dreams. This one is a little more down to earth than the Burning House, but still…
I encourage you to reflect on the parable on your own, after you’re done listening to this podcast episode. What is the meaning or teaching of this parable? Keep in mind: One level is a straightforward “interpretation” – this means this, that means that. That’s the metaphorical level, where the father and son and their interaction is standing in for something that happens in real life. That’s a valuable level to explore. In this story, what does wealth stand for? Inheritance? The father-son relationship?
But there’s also an evocative or feeling level: What does the imagery remind you of? What does it feel like to be family? To be an heir as opposed to an employee?
And the dreamlike level: What is it like to be the father in this scenario? What is it like to be the son? What is it like to be the people watching this story play out?
Mahayana Buddhism: Buddhahood is Our Inheritance
So, in Lotus Sutra: Four leading monks from the Buddha’s time – Subhuti, Maha Katyayana, Maha-Kashyapa, Maha-Maudgalyayana (the cream of the crop of Shakyamuni Buddha’s students as described in Pai Canon), come up to the Buddha after hearing him preach the Lotus Sutra teachings about the bodhisattva path and say it’s like they were the Lost Son, satisfied with a part-time job cleaning up a construction site, and now they find out they are heirs to a vast fortune. “We see ourselves as extremely fortunate. Without even seeking it, we have acquired something great and good, an extremely rare treasure.”[i]
Aside from the sectarian message here (the primo old school monks are publicly praising this new form of Buddhist teaching as immeasurably superior), what is this saying?
Honestly, what is your estimation of your own capabilities? Almost all of us tend to arrogance at times, so there may be certain ways in which you think you’re quite talented, responsible, intelligent, disciplined, virtuous, hard-working, etc.
But if you compare yourself to, say, Thich Nhat Hanh? The Dalai Lama? Mother Theresa? Anyone else you deeply respect for their realization and manifestation as a whole being (not just respect a particular achievement or outcome, but someone’s whole manner of being, and their generosity with others)
When we compare ourselves in this way, we probably think of there being a long arc of development, with saintly people at the top, and we’re somewhere along there with a long way to go
Many weaknesses and character flaws to overcome, selfishness to transcend, etc.
Just like the son had to work his way up from day laborer to VP
But did the son have to work his way up? Technically no, had he been able to recognize his father, their relationship, from the first day they were reunited
And yet, is there a sense in which the son did have to work all those years? In order to build up his confidence, build healthier habits, overcome his trauma and his limited ideas about himself, etc.?
What does this mean in terms of our practice? What inheritance, what treasure, could we embrace this moment, except for our own limited ideas about ourselves?
“Though I have taught nirvana,
It is not truly extinction.
All things, originally and naturally,
Have the character of tranquil extinction.
Limited Self-View in the Lost Son Parable
So Buddhahood is our inheritance, and the only thing preventing us from claiming that inheritance is ourselves, our own limited view of our ourselves, our low self-esteem, our lack of confidence, our lack of imagination, our sense of inadequacy
I sometimes wonder, if any of us were raised as the Dalai Lama was – from the age of two recognized as the incarnation of a previous enlightened being, the manifestation of the bodhisattva of compassion, bearing the hopes of a whole nation. Would you have developed into a being with a bigger heart, less selfishness, if this had been your understanding of yourself from a young age?
Of course, this doesn’t mean we ourselves, in a small sense, are Buddhas no matter what we do, or anything we say, think, or do is buddha action. In the parable, the son’s manifestation at the end was very different than at the beginning.
I think this parable elegantly conveys the nature of practice, the nature of the bodhisattva path. There is something more profound going on than an incremental self-improvement project. We have everything we need from the beginning; there is nowhere to go; despite our appearances we are children of the Buddha; our most potent limitations come from within. And yet… practice is also necessary, so we can grow into who we are supposed to be.
Implications of Hinayana Versus Mahayana Practice
Let’s assume for a moment that our practice is “hinayana,” or small vehicle practice (not at all synonymous with Theravadin practice or original Buddhism, hinayana is pejorative term) – this means that Buddhist practice is an effective tool for self-improvement, you need an immense amount of self-improvement, and that the optimistic aspect of Buddhism is that human perfection is possible if you work at it really diligently, for long enough (generally speaking, for many lifetimes).
Now think about getting caught up your humanness in the course of your daily life – getting angry, feeling judgmental, resentful, put out, self-pitying, anxious, stingy, fearful, greedy, lazy, etc.
Still extremely far from goal vs. remember a liberated way is possible in this moment (time?)
Perhaps inadequate, doubts about ability (no guarantee!) vs. live up to your better nature (personal capability?)
Need to work harder vs. need to let go (nature of the effort?)
Something needs to be fixed vs. something needs to be recognized, embraced (human nature)
Claiming Our Inheritance of Buddhahood
Imagine yourself claiming your inheritance – belonging, being worthy regardless of your failings
Helps move us along that path of development from Lost Son to Found Son…
We continue our daily practice, gradually expanding our sense of ourselves, building healthy lives, embodying our aspirations…
But the Lost Son parable suggests we also make a habit of exploring the implications of being a child of Buddha right here, right now