162 – Am I a Good Buddhist?
164 – Gratitude as a Dharma Gate

The Lotus Sutra Parable of the Plants says that just as rain falls equally on plants big and small and each plant takes up what they need, so the Buddha shares the Dharma with all beings without any judgment or preference regarding their capacity, and each being receives what they need. I explore this message as well as the implication that there are indeed superior, middling or inferior practitioners and how this can challenge our ego.



Quicklinks to Episode Outline:
Parable of the Plants
Superior, Middling, and Inferior Practitioners
The Teaching of the Parable of the Plants
Parable of the Plants as a Challenge to the Ego
Familiarity with Our Inferior Nature
Radical Nonduality: Inferior and Complete Just as You Are
Transformative, Personal Insight about Self-Sufficiency


Lotus Sutra – Thought to be composed/compiled over the course of about 150, 200 years (1st century BCE – 150 CE)

One of the earliest Mahayana Sutras, arguably the most popular around the world, in many forms of Buddhism

Surprising… many messages very personal (self-esteem, path of devotion open to all…)

I’ve been working my way through the Sutra’s parables (so far, 134 – Lotus Sutra 1: What Is Devotion, and How Does It Fulfill the Buddha Way?, 144 – Lotus Sutra 2: Wake Up! The Parable of the Burning House, 152 – Lotus Sutra 3: This Means YOU – The Parable of the Lost Son).

Today: Parable of the Plants – Superior, Middling, or Inferior Beings and the Dharma… I will read from the Sutra to give you a good sense of the parable, then discuss its basic message. Then I’ll explore how you can gain something valuable from wrestling with this parable if, like me, you feel some reactivity around the idea of beings – of practitioners like me – being categorized as superior, middling, or inferior.

Parable of the Plants

Lotus Sutra 4: Parable of the Plants – Superior, Middling, or Inferior Beings and the Dharma

Read pg 162 (Gene Reeves translation):

“The rain falls everywhere,

Coming down on all sides,

Flowing everywhere without limit,

Reaching over the face of the earth.

Into the hidden recesses of mountains, streams, and steep valleys,

Where plants and trees grow, and medicinal herbs,

Big trees and small,

A hundred grains, rice seedlings, sugar cane, and grapevines.

All are moistened by the rain

And abundantly enriched.

The dry ground is soaked,

And both herbs and trees flourish.

By the same water that

Comes from that cloud,

Plants, trees, thickets, and forests,

According to their need, receive moisture.

All the trees,

Superior, middling, or inferior,

Each, according to its size,

Can grow and develop.

Roots, stems, branches, and leaves,

Blossoms and fruits in brilliant color,

One rain goes to all,

And all become bright and shiny.

Though their bodies, forms, and capacities

May be large or small,

The moisture they receive is the same,

Enabling each to flourish.

The Buddha is like this.

He appears in the world,

Like a great cloud

Universally covering all things.

Having appeared in the world

For the sake of living beings,

He makes distinctions in teaching

The reality of all things.

The great saint, the World-Honored One,

To human and heavenly beings

And in the midst of all beings,

Declares:  I am the Tathagata,

Most honored among people.

I appear in the world like a great cloud

To shower water on all parched living beings,

To free them from suffering

And so attain the joys of peace and comfort,

The joys of this world,

And the joy of nirvana.”[i]

Superior, Middling, and Inferior Practitioners

All well and good… generosity of the Buddha, compassion, lack of judgment

But the metaphor of medicinal herbs, trees superior, middling, and inferior (small, like shrubs, bigger, medium, gigantic…) has a clear interpretation offered within the chapter:

“Eminent and humble, high and low,

Precept-keepers and precept-breakers,

Those of great character

And those who are imperfect,

Those of correct views and those of wrong views,

Quick-witted and dull-witted,

I have the Dharma rain equally on all,

Without sparing or neglecting any.

When any living beings

Staying in any environment

Hear my Dharma,

They receive it according to their abilities.

Some dwell among human and heavenly beings,

Or with wheel-turning saintly kings,

Or with Indra, Brahma, or other kings.

These are like the smaller medicinal herbs.

Some understand the flawless Dharma,

Are able to attain nirvana,

Acquire the six divine powers,

And obtain the three kinds of knowledge.

Some live alone in mountain forests,

Always practice meditation,

And become pratyekabuddhas.

These are the medium-sized medicinal herbs.

Some seek to be like the World-Honored One,

Saying, “I will become a buddha,”

They persevere and practice meditation.

These are the superior medicinal herbs.

And there are the children of the Buddha

Who completely devote themselves

To the Buddha way,

Always practicing compassion.

They are assured

That they will become buddhas

And have no doubt about it.

These are called small trees.

Some, dwelling in peace with divine powers,

Turn the irreversible wheel,

Liberating innumerable millions of living beings.

Such bodhisattvas are called large trees.”[ii]

Notably, the Sutra says the Buddha, with her great wisdom, can discern the qualities and abilities and capacities of beings, they themselves may not know if they are superior, middling, or inferior.

The Teaching of the Parable of the Plants

Again, context: Mahayana justifying itself within existing Buddhist teachings… explaining how the teachings seemed to have changed, and how even though newer teachings are superior they are timely and appropriate; people weren’t ready before; certain beings need certain kinds of teachings – such as more straightforward arhat-aspiration based teachings…

The Buddha is not being stingy or judgmental with any beings, but offering what is essentially the same Dharma Rain, and they simply absorb what they need

All beings, great and small, no matter their abilities, treated equally (in the sense of compassion/generosity, if not in the flavor or amount of the teaching given)

The Buddha is wise and discerns the differing needs and capacities of beings and therefore can change up how he teaches them so they can best understand and grow (skillful means). In the chapter the Buddha says: “I look upon all things, Without exception, as equal. I have no interest anywhere in favoring one over another, Or in cherishing one and hating another.”

Your reaction? Many folks when I gave this as Dharma Talk simply encouraged…

“Trees” may be bigger, more grand than medicinal herb, but sometimes you need a medicinal herb!

Beings vary in personality, ability, form, etc. but all are valuable and part of the ecosystem…

Buddha/teachers/Sangha very compassionate…


Parable of the Plants as a Challenge to the Ego

My reaction to this parable when I first encountered it about 20 years ago: Resentment and insecurity. You may not have this reaction, so let me explain…

This parable, to me, says: Even though “little children in their play, who gather sand and make it into stupas, all such beings have fulfilled the Buddha way” (from elsewhere in the Lotus Sutra), there is superior, middling, and inferior in the Dharma, and in the eyes of the Buddha. Even though my Zen teacher was generous and kind and nonjudgmental, and seemed to offer the Dharma to her students without holding back with respect to anyone, she saw superior, middling, and inferior among us…

Even though the Lotus Sutra seems to level the playing field in the grand scheme of things, some beings are going to awaken/attain liberation/succeed/graduate/ “get it” faster than others. I was trying to let go of comparison and worrying too much about my own progress on the path, there really were differences in terms of wisdom, compassion, freedom from delusion, freedom of greed and anger, levels of insight, self-transcendence, ethical behavior, ability to concentrate and be mindful, etc. I was trying so hard to be diligent in my practice, to be at least a decent-sized shrub or small tree, but when I heard this parable I knew I was just a medicinal herb – and even worse, I couldn’t even see how true that was (the nature of a medicinal herb being a level of self-delusion that meant you’d be pretty ignorant of your own limitations)…

The parable also seemed to suggest that our state in life – whether we were superior, middling, or inferior – was pretty much beyond our control, and not really something we could change. The medicinal herb grows and thrives in the Dharma rain, but it never becomes a tree… And others (certain people I practiced with and envied) were certainly trees, having been born for some reason with an advantage, permanently superior to me, and I could never catch up…

This parable, presumably, was supposed to be encouraging… the Buddha says: “I look upon all things, Without exception, as equal. I have no interest anywhere in favoring one over another, Or in cherishing one and hating another.”

That’s great, but you might look at it as finding out your parents unequivocally love and cherish you and your siblings equally, but knowing they regularly discuss how your siblings are smarter, more responsible, more capable, more talented, and generally more likeable than you are, and what special treatment you need to thrive.

It hurt my ego. As long as the ego is involved: Arouses fear (or conclusion) of inferiority… arouses fear of being seen as inferior by others – especially if they are able to perceive what you cannot (social anxiety)… Raises doubts that you can actually understand Buddhism or achieve much in practice (because chances are, you’re just medicinal herb)…

Familiarity with Our Inferior Nature

One of the things we learn over the course of practice: We get much more familiar with our own limitations… Dogen in Genjokoan – “To study Buddhism is to study the self.” We witness directly, intimately, over and over, our self-attachment and self-absorption, how our first inclinations are often to be stingy, judgmental, oblivious, lazy, angry, etc. rather than generous, kind, compassionate, mindful, ethical, etc. Difficult not to conclude we’re all medicinal herbs, and then trees are pretty darn rare. The people who are really progressing on the path are quite special, have unusual talents and/or discipline.

Different possible reactions to this parable, perhaps… other than the ego being challenged. Maybe you are perfectly comfortable with being a medicinal herb, or you don’t have the slightest concern or curiosity about which kind of plant you are (how you rate in Buddhism). That may be a sign of kind of spiritual maturity which means – who knows? – you’re actually a shrub or tree!

On the other hand, maybe you’re willing to embrace the idea you’re a medicinal herb but that embrace comes with a hint of shame and fits with your narrative about being an inferior kind of person… that’s not exactly helpful either…

Radical Nonduality: Inferior and Complete Just as You Are

If we have any kind of negative reaction to this parable – to the idea that we may indeed be less capable of practice that others, or even worthy of being categorized as “inferior” in some important ways… what can we do? How can we practice? What can we learn?

Generally speaking, not a lasting, transformative solution to just try not to think or feel what we think or feel. “Stop wanting to be tree instead of a medicinal herb. Stop comparing yourself to others. Stop caring about whether you are capable of making any progress on the Buddhist path. Stop thinking about whether your teacher or fellow practitioners see you as inferior.”

Likely result of plain suppression: These thoughts and feeling still arise, and make us feel even more inferior or insecure (“Oh, so petty to be thinking competitively, or wondering about what people think of you!”)

Instead: Opportunity to, as usual, turn the light around and shine awareness on what is going on within us. What do we really care about? What do we most want? What’s underneath the fears around superior, middling, and inferior, around being judged by others? Is there a deeper motivation in our practice beyond the possibility of attaining some level of mastery that would qualify us as a tree compared to a shrub or medicinal herb?

Buddhism does not deny differences (the relative); that would be denial and folly. And yet it points us toward something more important…

I think it’s amazing that this 2,000 year old book points us toward a need for profound self-acceptance and healing. Let me add a dimension to the parable to call out this aspect (starting out with words from the Sutra and then departing):

“Roots, stems, branches, and leaves,

Blossoms and fruits in brilliant color,

One rain goes to all,

And all become bright and shiny.

Though their bodies, forms, and capacities

May be large or small…”

Each plant fulfills the beauty of the Buddha way

By fulfilling its unique potential.

Reminds me of one of my favorite stories about Uchiyama Roshi and his teacher, Sawaki Roshi (read from page 138 from The Zen Teaching of Homeless Kodo, Kosho Uchiyama and Shokaku Okumura[iii])

“Throughout his life, Sawaki Roshi said, ‘Zazen is good for nothing.’ In 1941, I was ordained and became one of his disciples. Soon after, while walking with him, I asked, ‘I am such a timid person. If I study under your guidance and practice zazen with you for many years until you pass away, can I become even a little bit stronger?’ He immediately replied, ‘No, you can’t. No matter how hard and how long you practice, zazen is good for nothing. I didn’t become who I am as a result of zazen. By nature I was this kind of person. On this point I haven’t changed at all.

“As you know, Sawaki Roshi was bighearted, freespirited, and witty, and yet careful and focused. He embodied the image of the ancient Zen master. When I heard his response I thought, ‘Although Roshi says so with his mouth, if I continue to practice zazen, I must be able to become a better person.’ With such an expectation, I served him and continued zazen practice until he died.

“He passed away on December 21 last year. We’ll mark the first anniversary of his death soon. Lately I’ve been reflecting on my past, and I now understand that zazen really is good for nothing. I’m still a coward and never became even a little bit like Sawaki Roshi.

“Finally I came to a conclusion. A violet blooms as a violet and a rose blooms as a rose. For violets, there’s no need to desire to become roses.”

Transformative, Personal Insight about Self-Sufficiency

This realization of simultaneous difference and equality is helpful if it’s intellectual or emotional, but it can be deeper than that…

It can be a transformative conviction we taste in a moment of non-duality…

My vision of being one radiant leaf on a vast maple tree… complete, unique, radiant, individual, limited, but part of something greater… complete, perfectly manifesting as a leaf just as I should be… no one would say, oh that’s a better leaf, what a special leaf; comparison not necessary, and in fact one leaf could not exist without the tree and all the other leaves…

Difference and sameness simultaneously, without conflict at all.

This lifetime: Very real limitations, imperfections on the one hand (not taken lightly! Some of them cause suffering for self and others), but on the other hand, is a gracious embrace of my medicinal herb nature, without lamenting on behalf of the self, actually a perfect manifestation of practice?



[i] The Lotus Sutra: A Contemporary Translation of a Buddhist Classic . Wisdom Publications. Kindle Edition.
[ii] Ibid
[iii] Uchiyama, Kosho. The Zen Teaching of Homeless Kodo. Shohaku Okumura (translation and commentary), Jokei Molly Delight Whitehead (Editor). Boston, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2014. Page 138.

Photo Credit

Image by Jeon Sang-O from Pixabay

162 – Am I a Good Buddhist?
164 – Gratitude as a Dharma Gate