162 – Am I a Good Buddhist?
163 - Sutra del Loto 4: Parábola de las plantas - Seres superiores, intermedios o inferiores y el Dharma

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.

Read/listen to Lotus Sutra 1 (Devotion) or Lotus Sutra 2 (Parable of the Burning House) or Lotus Sutra 3 (The Lost Son Parable)



Quicklinks to Article Content:
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



Today’s episode is another one on the Lotus Sutra, which was thought to be compiled over the course of about 150 to 200 years from around the first century BCE to about 150 CE. It’s one of the earliest Mahayana sutras, arguably the most popular around the world in many different forms of Buddhism.

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).

In this episode I’m discussing the Parable of the Plants: Superior, Middling, or Inferior Beings and the Dharma. I will read from the Sutra first 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

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

This is all well and good. Buddha is very generous and compassionate and nonjudgmental. The terms “superior, middling and inferior” refer to the size of the plants, including large trees, medium sized trees, and small medicinal herbs. However, this analogy has a clear interpretation offered within this chapter on the parable:

“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 when she encounters them. They themselves may not know if they are superior, middling, or inferior. This is one of the qualities of a Buddha. Buddha is not only an awakened being, but also a great teacher.


The Teaching of the Parable of the Plants

As I’ve talked about before, Mahayana Sutras, especially early ones like the Lotus Sutra, need a little context. Part of what’s going on here is Mahayana Buddhism justifying itself within the existing Buddhist landscape of teachings. The sutra is trying to explain why the teachings seem different for different people, and why the Mahayana is saying it is the superior teaching. Does that mean the Buddha was lying before? That what he taught in his lifetime wasn’t the real teaching, making him a liar, or stingy with the Dharma? The basic message of this parable is that the Buddha is not lying or stingy, but offering to all what is essentially the same Dharma rain. Beings simply absorb what they need. All beings, great and small, no matter their abilities, are treated equally in the sense of compassion and generosity even if what they take away from the teaching is different. 

The Lotus Sutra chapter on the Parable of the Plants includes the description of those who are medium-sized medicinal herbs. Those are essentially the Arhats – the early Buddhist practitioners who usually did really intensive monastic practice. The sutra says they can attain Nirvana, or become a Pratyekabuddha, which is an independent Buddha – a being who awakens on their own without following the standard path or having a teacher. A Pratyekabuddha can’t really teach others because they came up with their own way. 

Those are medium-sized medicinal herbs. Those aren’t the great trees. The great trees are bodhisattvas. Not a small tree like one of us who aspires to become a Buddha, but someone really set on the path who has managed to be incredibly compassionate. Plus, the great tree bodhisattva dwells in peace with divine power. She has not just the aspiration to save beings, but the necessary spiritual skills and capacity. Those are the large trees. 

The parable of the plants also conveys that the Buddha is wise and discerns the differing needs and capacities of beings, and can change up how she teaches them so that they can best understand and grow. This is the classic Mahayana concept of skillful means. Essentially this is what any teacher tries to do; you’re not a good teacher if you don’t manage to get your message across to your audience! In this Parable of the Plants 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.”

What is your reaction when you hear this parable? I gave this teaching as a Dharma talk recently and many people who listen to it were simply encouraged. They pointed out how trees may be bigger and grander than medicinal herbs, but sometimes you need a medicinal herb. There’s diversity there. Beings may vary in personality ability or form, but all are valuable. All are part of the ecosystem if you will.



Parable of the Plants as a Challenge to the Ego

The Buddha makes it clear no one will be rejected for their dullness or lack of capacity or even precept breaking. He will rain the Dharma down equally anyway. If you take the basic message of this parable and think it’s lovely, that’s great. However, I am going to confess my reaction to this parable when I first encountered it about 20 years ago. You may or may not relate to my reaction, but keep in mind that if you don’t, you probably know someone who does. Maybe this will help you understand them. 

As I’ve talked about before, I didn’t have the greatest reaction to the Lotus Sutra in general when I first encountered it, and really had to wrestle with it. I’ve come to love it, but it took effort. The parable of the plants, in particular, annoyed the heck out of me. Other parts of the sutra say, “little children in their play, who gather sand and make it into stupas, all such beings have fulfilled the Buddha way,” in other words, the Buddhist path is about where your heart is, not about your spiritual attainments. But here’s the parable of plants clearly stating you can be inferior in terms of your Dharma practice. There are superior, middling, and inferior practitioners in the Dharma, and in the eyes of the Buddha who’s able to see at a glance where people are on the path of progress.

I took this one step further and thought that, even though my Zen teacher appears to be generous and kind and nonjudgmental and seems to offer the Dharma to her students without holding back and with respect for everyone, that she also 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, and “get it” faster than others.

In my own practice, I was trying mightily to let go of my habit of comparison, of worrying too much about my own progress. Yet the Lotus Sutra found it important to point out that there are substantial differences in terms of wisdom, compassion, freedom from delusion, freedom from greed and anger. There are differences among people and levels of insight and 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 size shrub or a small tree. When I heard this parable, though, I knew I was just a medicinal herb. Even worse, I figured I couldn’t even see how true that was because the nature of a medicinal herb was probably ignorance about your own limitations. The parable also seemed to suggest that our state in life, whether we’re superior, middling, or inferior, whether we’re emotionally mature or obsessed, whether we’re grasping or have a tendency to indulge anger, whether we can meditate very well, whether we have any self-discipline, was pretty much beyond our control, not really something we could change. Maybe I’m over interpreting here, but this is really where my mind went. The medicinal herb grows and thrives in the Dharma rain, but it never becomes a tree.

I practiced with certain people and envied their demeanor, their deportment, their meditation, their insight, and their stature in the community. For some reason they seem to have been born with advantages and were permanently superior to me. They were trees. I was a medicinal herb. I would never catch up. What the heck? This parable is supposedly encouraging, right?

I could have taken solace in the Buddha saying he looks upon all beings without exception as equal, and has no interest in favoring one over another or in cherishing one and hating another. Of course, that’s wonderful. But you might compare the situation to finding out your parents unequivocally love and cherish you and your siblings equally, without question, and would never favor one of you over the other – but they do regularly discuss how your siblings are smarter, more responsible, more capable, more talented, and even sometimes generally more likable than you are. With great pity, they discuss what kind of special treatment you need to thrive.

To be frank, this parable hurt my ego. It aroused fear that I really am permanently inferior, along with the fear of being seen as inferior by others. After all, the Buddha can see whether you are superior, middling, or inferior. Maybe the “shrubs” and “trees” around me can see my inferiority as well, and if they treat me kindly it’s because they think of me like a child and don’t feel the slightest bit defensive because they know I can never compete with them. And all those superior beings are in-the-know about my situation, cheering on my pathetic efforts because they set such low standards for me.


Familiarity with Our Inferior Nature

Reflecting on the parable of the plants might raise some social anxiety for you, if you’re anything like me. It can raise doubts that you can actually understand Buddhism or achieve much in practice because chances are, you’re just a medicinal herb. However, one of the things we learn over the course of practice is that we get much more familiar with our own limitations. 

As Dogen says 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 so often to be stingy or judgmental, oblivious, lazy, or angry, rather than generous, kind, compassionate, mindful, ethical, etc. It’s difficult not to conclude that most of us are medicinal herbs and trees are pretty darn rare. The people who are really progressing on the path are quite special and have unusual talents or discipline.

Of course there are different possible reactions to this parable other than your ego being challenged. Maybe you’re perfectly comfortable with being a medicinal herb and you don’t have the slightest concern or curiosity about what kind of plant you are or what kind of plant I am, or where we rate, relatively speaking, in Buddhism. Maybe that’s a sign of spiritual maturity and therefore you’re a shrub or a tree. On the other hand, perhaps you’re willing to embrace the idea that you’re in a medicinal herb. But that embrace may come with a hint of shame and fit with your narrative about being an inferior kind of person. That doesn’t seem exactly right or helpful either.


Radical Nonduality: Inferior and Complete Just as You Are

If we have any negative reaction to this parable, to the idea that we may indeed be less capable of practice than others, or even worthy of being categorized as “inferior” in some important ways, what can we do? How can we practice with this? What can we learn? It’s not a lasting or transformative solution to simply try not to think or feel what we think or feel. We’re unlikely to be able to simply stop wanting to be a tree instead of a medicinal herb. We’re unlikely to be able to force ourselves, through willpower, to stop comparing ourselves to others, or to stop caring about whether we can make any progress on the Buddhist path, or to stop wondering whether our teacher or fellow practitioners see us as inferior. The likely result of plain suppression is that these thoughts and feelings will still arise and make us feel even more inferior or insecure. We’ll probably think of ourselves, “It’s so petty to be thinking competitively, or wondering about what people think of me!”

This is an opportunity to turn the light around and shine awareness on what is going on within us, and to explore and question: What do we really care about? What do we most want? What’s underneath the fears around superior, middling, 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 a medicinal herb? Do we want recognition or status for its own sake, or because we imagine it will bring us insight and peace? Maybe insight and peace are accessible to us, but achieving them may not look like what we think it looks like?

Buddhism does not deny differences. That’s the relative world. To deny differences would be folly. Yet practice points us toward something more important. I think that it’s amazing that this two-thousand-year-old book, The Lotus Sutra, points us toward a need for profound self-acceptance and healing. Let me add two lines of my own to a part of the parable of the plants in order 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.

That last line, I added: “Each plant fulfills the beauty of the Buddha way by fulfilling its unique potential.”

This reminds me of one of my favorite stories about Uchiyama Roshi and his teacher, Sawaki Roshi (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

How powerful and healing, this realization, this self-acceptance and healing, this recognition that we can be different – that in some respects there can be superior, and middling, and inferior – and yet we’re all equal. This is the simultaneousness of difference and equality, relative and absolute, contingent and essential. 

We read “a violet blooms as a violet and rose blooms as a rose.” For violets there’s no need to desire to become roses. This teaching can be encouraging, but over the course of practice, it’s most valuable when this becomes a transformative conviction we test for ourselves in a moment of non-dual awareness.

A “moment of non-dual awareness” may sound like a great spiritual achievement you experience after years of meditation, but this is actually a run-of-the-mill thing that might happen to you while you’re driving, or drinking a cup of tea, or watching the sunshine come through a window and hit the dust so you can see rays of sunshine. It can be a moment where things become clear, and you see in what sense it is perfectly true that you are complete just as you are.

I once had a beautiful vision of the harmony of difference and sameness as it applies to the self. This wasn’t some great, transcendent experience, although it was profound and transformative. It’s simply that my mind was very still. Images came to my mind and formed themselves into a vision of sorts, without my conscious manipulation of them or interpretation of them. Rather like a waking dream.

I had a vision of a vast maple tree with giant leaves. All the leaves were incredibly luminous, radiantly yellow. I was one of the leaves. I had a sense of being an individual – in this case, an individual leaf. I was complete, unique, and radiant. I was limited, but I was a full and precious part of something greater. The whole situation was pervaded by a sense of perfection, everything being just as it should be. As a leaf, I was doing exactly what I was supposed to be doing. I was a perfectly beautiful leaf. I couldn’t be a leaf all by myself. One leaf doesn’t exist without a tree that has other leaves. I didn’t have to be a better leaf than any other leaf. I didn’t have to be a special leaf. I didn’t have to be the top leaf. Trying to be a special leaf would have been ridiculous: “Look at me! Look at me! Look at my special position on the tree!” 

My vision of the tree was a moment of healing, a moment of where I was able to perceive personally and emotionally and directly that it was okay for me to be exactly who I was: Limited, trying. I didn’t have to be better.

In this lifetime, we have very real limitations and imperfections, and they’re not to be taken lightly. Some of these limitations cause suffering for self and others. It’s not a matter of just saying, “Oh well, I’m limited. Who cares? We’re all perfect as we are.” On the other hand, even with our imperfection we are complete.

If I’m just a medicinal herb but I graciously embrace my medicinal herb nature completely, might that be a perfect manifestation of practice? In the final analysis, perhaps there really is no difference between medicinal herbs and great trees?

Read/listen to Lotus Sutra 5: Buddhahood



[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?
163 - Sutra del Loto 4: Parábola de las plantas - Seres superiores, intermedios o inferiores y el Dharma