186 - Making Peace with Ghosts: Unresolved Karma and the Sejiki (Segaki) Festival

In the Lotus Sutra, thousands of the Buddha’s disciples line up, each requesting their own, personal prediction of buddhahood. What is this about? Shouldn’t advanced practitioners of the Buddha way be beyond any concern about themselves? I share the stories from the Lotus Sutra and discuss the teaching contained in them – namely, that we all have self-doubt, and that spiritual liberation is about transcending the self but only manifests through unique, individual sentient beings.

 

 

Quicklinks to Article Content:
Individual Predictions of Buddhahood for the Buddha’s Disciples
Prediction of Buddhahood for Maha-Kashyapa
The Dharma Message of Maha-Kashyapa’s Prediction of Buddhahood
Everyone Else in the Assembly Wants a Prediction, Too!
But I’m Sure the Buddha Doesn’t Mean Me
The Dharma of Personal Predictions of Buddhahood

 

This episode is my fifth focused 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 and teachings on the Zen Studies Podcast. 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)

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

 

Individual Predictions of Buddhahood for the Buddha’s Disciples

In this episode I’m discussing a bunch of stories in the Lotus Sutra which aren’t parables. According to the sutra, after the teachings I’ve already covered in previous episodes, the Shakyamuni Buddha predicted his foremost disciple, Maha-Kashyapa, would attain complete buddhahood in future life. Shakyamuni doesn’t simply state this as a fact but makes the prediction vividly realistic by including Maha-Kashyapa’s buddha name, the name of his buddha land, and a description of that land. This inspires the Buddha’s other top disciples to ask for their very own, specific predictions of buddhahood. Shakyamuni obliges, and subsequently fulfills such requests from hundreds of additional followers. Whatever the level of spiritual attainment of the disciples, each one longed for special affirmation from the Buddha that they, too, would someday attain buddhahood.

While looking for affirmation from a great spiritual teacher like the Buddha may seem natural, it raises an important question. If awakening is about transcending self-concern and letting go of self-attachments, why does the Buddha indulge his disciples by giving them each individualized predictions of buddhahood? Isn’t a Buddha – a completely awakened being – free from self? What is it about Maha-Kashyapa, for example, that retains some kind of unique identifier through time, such that in future eons you can connect him to future buddha so-and-so?

I’ll share the stories about predictions of buddhahood from the Lotus Sutra, and then talk about the Dharma message contained in them. To give you a little taste ahead of time, the Dharma of these stories is about the tension between the individual and the ultimate. A Buddha is an awakened, liberated being who manifests great generosity, compassion, and skill in sharing the Dharma with others. However, we must remember there are no Buddhas out there, pure and holy and disembodied, gazing down on us, the imperfect sentient beings going about our daily lives, sometimes managing a pale imitation of the behavior of enlightened Buddhas. Buddhas are sentient beings, they are made of the exact same stuff we are. It makes no sense even to talk about Buddhas apart from sentient beings who are in need of, and capable of, awakening. No sentient beings, no buddhas! You might say Buddhas are the flower and sentient beings are the buds.

Even though we are empty of any inherent, enduring, independent self-nature, even though we need to get over the delusion of inherent self-nature and give up our self-attachments, we are. When awakening happens, you awaken. You realize you aren’t who you thought you were, but nonetheless the boundless you embodied in your particularly body, the you conditioned by your experiences, the you who inherits the results of your past actions, the you who breathes and walks and thinks and meditates, who loves and fears and learns… you awaken in a profoundly personal and intimate way. The Buddha’s disciples practice in life after life and eventually attain complete awakening and become particular buddhas with names and unique manifestations. Similarly, we practice over time and when we attain liberation we don’t transform into generic, bland, buddha robots. We become more fully who are.

 

Prediction of Buddhahood for Maha-Kashyapa

Part of the genius of the Lotus Sutra is the rich mythological imagery it offers, so I’ll begin by setting the scene for the predictions of buddhahood. This is from the translation by Gene Reeves:

“AT ONE TIME the Buddha was staying at Rajagriha on Holy Eagle Peak with a large group of great monks, twelve thousand in all… In addition there were two thousand others, some in training and some no longer in training. The nun Mahaprajapati was there with six thousand followers, and the nun Yashodhara, the mother of Rahula, with her followers. There were eighty thousand bodhisattvas, great ones, all free from backsliding in the pursuit of supreme awakening.”[i]

According to the sutra, in addition to these 100,000 people, the Buddha’s teaching was also attended by tens of thousands of gods and “children of heaven.” There were also eight dragon kings, four chimera kings, four centaur kings, four asura kings, four griffin kings, and the human King Ajatashatru – and each of these kings brought several hundred thousand followers.

The Buddha, often called the ‘World-Honored One’ in the sutra, was seated cross-legged, and all of these beings sat listening, looking up at the Buddha with complete attention.

According to the sutra, the Buddha teaches about the topics I’ve already discussed on the podcast, including skillful means, the value of devotion, the parable of the burning house, the parable of the lost son, and the parable of the plants. Then he predicts the future buddhahood of his foremost disciple Maha-Kashyapa:

“In a future life, this disciple of mine, Maha-Kashyapa, will go before three million billion world-honored buddhas, making offerings to them, revering, honoring, and praising them, and proclaiming the innumerable great teachings of the buddhas everywhere. In his final incarnation he will be able to become a buddha whose name will be Radiance Tathagata, one worthy of offerings, truly awakened, fully clear in conduct, well gone, understanding the world, unexcelled leader, trainer of men, teacher of heavenly beings and people, buddha, world-honored one. His land will be called Radiant Virtue, and his eon will be named Magnificently Adorned.

 

“The lifetime of this buddha will be twelve small eons…  His land will be magnificently adorned, free of all evil pollution, rubble, thorns or thistles, and filthy toilet waste. The land will be level and smooth, with no high or low places, hills or valleys. The ground will be lapis lazuli (la-piss lazoolee). Lines of jeweled trees and golden cords will mark off its roads. It will have precious flowers scattered over it. And the whole place will be pure and clean. The bodhisattvas of that land will be innumerable hundreds of billions, and there will be innumerable shravakas. There will be no deeds of the devil there, and, though the devil and the devil’s people will be there, they will all defend the Buddha-dharma.”[ii]

 

The Dharma Message of Maha-Kashyapa’s Prediction of Buddhahood

I think I can safely say, this isn’t true. Maybe the many of the Pali Canon suttas are more or less true – the Buddha is out wandering, stops in a grove of trees, the monks gather and listen to him teach. Pretty straightforward and down to earth. While there are plenty of accounts of supernatural events in the Pali Canon, they don’t generally feature centrally like they often do in the Lotus Sutra and other Mahayana texts.

I advise relating to these stories as myth, which means there is truth here. If you don’t get hung up on the factuality or historicity of this account, the story has been seen by our Dharma ancestors as one of the most effective ways to convey an important teaching. Let the imagery affect you like a dream… you know it isn’t true or real in an ordinary sense, but the imagery is communicating something powerful. Let the story capture your imagination and blow your mind a little.

With this lens of searching for truth within myth, what is the message of hundreds of thousands of beings – human and nonhuman – gathering to listen to the Buddha teach? Something remarkable and special is going on, something worth paying attention to. Whatever is happening is relevant to all manner of beings, suggesting the Buddha way is an effective path to liberation for anyone who is interested.

What truth is conveyed by the prediction of buddhahood for Maha-Kashyapa? What is the value of making this very specific prediction? The Buddha doesn’t just say, “Maha-Kashyapa, my foremost disciple, will eventually become a perfectly enlightened Buddha.” That’s enough to convey the efficacy of the Buddha way as a path of practice, which is significant in and of itself. The Buddha is not a supernatural being who descended to earth to save a bunch of being who can never be like him and thereby save themselves. It’s true that the Buddha was remarkable and skilled. However, the whole point of his teaching is to allow each of us to walk the same path to awakening. If it wasn’t possible for other beings to do the same thing he did, his path wouldn’t be worth much.

It’s significant that the Buddha doesn’t stop with a general prediction of Maha-Kashyapa’s buddhahood. Instead, he gets specific. The future Buddha is named, his realm is named, his eon is named. The realm is described, including a ground made of lapis lazuli, lines of jeweled trees, and golden cords will mark off its roads. My favorite part of the description is one that makes me wistful: “Though the devil and the devil’s people will be there, they will all defend the Buddha-dharma.”

By adding these details, the Buddha helps make this prediction seem more real. In some future rebirth, Maha-Kashyapa will really be a Buddha, just like Shakyamuni Buddha is now. Maha-Kashyapa will have disciples, and he’ll sit on a hill and teach just like Shakyamuni is now. He’ll live in a real place and time. Because every sentient being is unique, his Buddha land and time will have a unique appearance and flavor.

I am far, far from anything approaching Buddhahood, but only 15 years ago I could never imagine even becoming a humble Zen teacher. My teachers, and most other Zen and Buddhist teachers I knew, had something I didn’t. They were a different class of people. They had understood or achieved something – or many things – I had little hope of understanding and achieving. I had no clue about “emptiness” and “suchness” and “letting go of self” and “equanimity” and all that jazz. I sat on the meditation cushion absorbed in my karmic obstacles and fatal inadequacies.

If, all those years ago, someone had made a personal prediction of my becoming a Zen teacher, I wouldn’t have believed them because I don’t believe in supernatural abilities to predict the future. Still, I just might have been touched and encouraged despite myself if they had filled in some of the details:

“Fifteen years from now, you will be a Zen teacher. You will teach in a Sangha called Bright Way Zen, which will meet in humble but spacious Zendo on the westside of Portland Oregon and will boast 80 members. You will teach the Dharma not just to people physically assembled there, but to people from throughout the world, by connecting to them through technology.”

Hearing that strangely specific prediction, a seed of hope may have sprouted in me… opening me up to the possibility that this limited, imperfect being might experience for herself some of what the Dharma ancestors experienced.

 

Everyone Else in the Assembly Wants a Prediction, Too!

Here’s where the Lotus Sutra gets interesting.

After the Buddha spontaneously offers the prediction for Maha-Kashyapa:

“Then Maha-Maudgalyayana, Subhuti, Maha-Katyayana, and others, all trembling with excitement, put their palms together in rapt attention and gazed up into the World-Honored One’s face, not for an instant lowering their eyes. With voices in unison, they sang in verse:

“Great Hero, World-Honored One,

Dharma king of the Shakyas,

Out of compassion for us

Allow us to hear the voice of the Buddha!

 

Knowing the depths of our minds,

If you assure us of becoming buddhas,

It would be like being bathed in nectar,

Changing the heat to cool.

 

Anyone from a land of famine

Suddenly finding a king’s feast,

But still cherishing doubts and fears,

Would not dare to eat right away.

 

Only when instructed by the king

Would they dare to eat…

 

Though we hear the voice of the Buddha

Telling us we are to become buddhas,

We are still anxious and afraid,

Like the one who does not dare to eat.

 

But now if we receive the Buddha’s assurance,

We will be happy and at peace.

Great Hero, World-Honored One,

You always want to put the world at peace.

 

Please give us your assurance,

As you would tell a starving person to eat!”[iii]

Keep in mind that these aren’t beginner disciples! These are the Buddha’s foremost students, having attained great meditative concentration and insight, and having practiced diligently for many years under strict monastic discipline.

The Buddha then delivers a prediction for each of these disciples. Subhuti will eventually become Famous Features Tathagata in the land Birthplace of Jewels, where the people will live on jeweled terraces in rare and wonderful towers. Maha-Katyayana will eventually complete the bodhisattva way and become the buddha Jambunada Golden Light, of unsurpassed radiance. Maha-Maudgalyana (Moggallana of the Sejiki tale) will become the buddha Tamalpatra Sandalwood Fragance in the land Mind Pleasing, inhabited by countless bodhisattvas.

Okay, so we get some additional vivid imagery around the individual predictions to push the point home. However, after giving a subsequent sermon on a different topic, the Buddha receives another request from the audience.

First, the Buddha spontaneously offers a prediction – in the same manner as the ones already given – for Purna, one of the “five hundred disciples.” These are the next batch of the Buddha’s students: Not the cream of the cream of the crop, but fully realized arhats. I’m not sure whether Purna is a monk or devout lay disciple, but in any case, the Buddha says of Purna, “Except for the Tathagata [Buddha] himself, there is no one who is so eloquent at explaining [the Dharma’s] theories.” In the future he will become the buddha Dharma Radiance. This prediction gets not just the five hundred disciples excited, but the whole audience of “twelve hundred arhats who were mentally free.” They think to themselves:

“‘We rejoice at having what we never had before. If the World-Honored One would assure each of us of becoming buddhas in the future as he has the other great disciples, how glad we would be!’

The Buddha, knowing what was in their minds, said to Maha-Kashyapa: ‘One by one I will assure each of these twelve hundred arhats now before me of their supreme awakening.’” [iv]

Disciples gathered around the Buddha in the Lotus Sutra

The Lotus Sutra doesn’t contain 1200 prediction stories, of course, only a prediction for one arhat and an explicit “also” for 500 additional ones. Still, presumably this is a shorthand for the Buddha giving a prediction for every one of the 1200, as he promised.

After a few of these personalized predictions, you get the gist, right? You can assume that if you’re practicing the Buddha way as hard as you can, eventually, after many lifetimes, probably after countless eons, you’ll attain complete, perfect Buddhahood too, right? It may take a while, but your liberation is assured. Still, accomplished disciples of the Buddha keep asking for their very own predictions.

In the next chapter, two thousand lesser disciples (not yet arhats) make their request:

“‘World-Honored One, we too should have a share of this. We have put our trust only in the Tathagata. We are known and acknowledged by human and heavenly beings and asuras all over the world… If the Buddha assured us of supreme awakening, not only would our hopes be fulfilled but also the dreams of many.”[v]

The Buddha obliges, saying that Ananda will become the buddha King of the Wisdom of Mountains and Seas Who Is Unlimited in Power, in the land Never Lowered Victory Banner. A specific prediction is also given for Rahula, the Buddha’s son who has become a monk. The Buddha then says the remaining shravakas (“hearers” of the teaching) will all have the same buddha name, and each one will have a buddha land. This may seem like giving the rest of the disciples short shrift, but presumably this is shorthand for each one gets a prediction.

 

But I’m Sure the Buddha Doesn’t Mean Me

The Lotus Sutra’s predictions of buddhahood don’t end there! Much later in the sutra, Buddha’s aunt Mahaprajapati, plus 6,000 nuns, gazed up at the face of the Buddha in complete attention. The Buddha says:

“Why do you gaze at the Tathagata in such a troubled way? Are you wondering why I have not mentioned your name to assure you of supreme awakening? Gautami, I have already announced that all shravakas generally are assured. Now, if you want to have your assurance, I will tell you that in future lives, in the midst of the teachings of sixty-eight thousand millions of buddhas, you will become a great Dharma teacher and these six thousand nuns, in training and trained, will all become Dharma teachers. Thus you will gradually fulfill the bodhisattva way and become a buddha named Seen with Joy by All the Living Tathagatas…”[vi]

Still… after this, Yashodhara, the mother of Rahula, Buddha’s former wife and one of the first nuns, thinks, “In his assurances, the World-Honored One has left only my name unmentioned.”

Who among us has not thought this? Most of us seem to carry a deep conviction that we have a fatal flaws or inadequacies that make us unworthy, or that cause us to be excluded from the warm and supportive community of others, or that prevent us from reaching our heart’s desire. Setbacks or even a lack of explicit affirmation will trigger our sense of shame. On the other hand, others of us carry a deep conviction of our inherent worthiness or even superiority. For us, setbacks or a lack of affirmation trigger a sense of injustice. At a certain level, both arrogance and shame are rooted in the self-doubt, the only difference is whether you blame yourself or others for your dissatisfactory social status.

Chances are, Yashodhara was thinking, “All of these disciples have been given specific predictions of buddhahood, but the Shakyamuni hasn’t mentioned me. I used to be his wife! I bore and raised his son! I was one of the very first nuns! I have been practicing diligently for many years. If he hasn’t mentioned me, it must be because I am a failure despite all my struggles. Perhaps I am incapable of awakening after all.” Apparently, people weren’t all that different 2,000 years ago!

Yashodhara is given her prediction, then. She will become the buddha Having Ten Million Shining Characteristics. After hearing this, the 6,000 nuns say together:

“World-honored leader and teacher,

Comforter of human and heavenly beings,

Hearing your assurance was just what we needed.

We are at peace.”[vii]

 

The Dharma of a Personal Prediction of Buddhahood

What do the personal predictions of buddhahood in the Lotus Sutra tell us about the nature of practice, and the nature of awakening?

1. Everyone suffers from self-doubt. Whether you think you’re worthy but inexplicably unlikeable or excluded by others, or whether you’re convinced you’re unworthy, you’re not alone. Self-doubt lingers even in people who have achieved a great deal from your perspective. It is a strange and persistent human phenomenon – not often confessed, often unacknowledged internally, but lurking behind many of our motivations.

2. Low self-esteem is an obstacle. As long as we assume we are made of different stuff than the buddhas and ancestors, we limit our own progress on the path of practice. While self-doubt is natural, the way forward is to overcome it. This is the message not only of the Lotus Sutra’s predictions of buddhahood, but also of the sutra’s parable of the Lost Son. Each and every being is capable of awakening, and part of that awakening is coming to know our own buddha nature. This isn’t at all the same thing as building up confidence in the small self, which means concluding we’re hot stuff and will be able to attain the buddha way through sheer force of will. High self-esteem isn’t the goal. Instead, we’re aiming to get over our sense of small self, and learn to function naturally and freely without concern about how we rate.

3. It’s okay to ask for reassurance. Even though we’re looking to overcome our low (or high) self-esteem, it’s okay to ask for reassurance. When someone is further along a path of practice than you are, it’s perfectly natural and acceptable to ask them whether it looks like you’re headed the right way. Some timely encouragement can ease your anxieties, give you some peace, and free up more energy for practice. While we don’t want to become overly needy, requiring everyone we meet to affirm we’re okay, an appropriate request for reassurance from someone we respect is an act of humility.

4. The Buddha way applies to everyone. One personal prediction of buddhahood from the Lotus Sutra I haven’t mentioned yet is the one for the Buddha’s cousin, Devadatta. Devadatta was jealous of the Buddha and very ambitious. He plotted more than once to have the Buddha killed. And yet Shakyamuni predicts that in the distant future, even Devadatta will become a buddha. Clearly, the message of the sutra is that the Buddha way applies to everyone. Even you.

5. The rewards of buddhahood will be awesome beyond imagining. It may seem rather far-out or even materialistic that the Lotus Sutra describes future buddha lands as encrusted with jewels, covered with flowers, and miraculously devoid of toilet waste. However, what I take from this imagery is that Buddhist practice will take you to new realms you have never before experienced. These new realms will be bright, beautiful, and peaceful. If you set aside for a moment the idea of complete buddhahood achieved after many eons, this Dharma message is about our experience of diligent practice over the course of our lives. After an insight or a breakthrough, we often see the world in a whole new way.

6. Awakening will take a while but don’t lose hope. Part of each prediction of buddhahood is a description of how long each person is going to take to achieve it. It is said that their complete awakening will happen after eons, or after the person has made offers to “hundreds of millions” of buddhas. According to Buddhist mythology, there’s only one buddha in the world at a time, and each buddha’s age lasts long past his or her death. Therefore, serving hundreds of millions of buddhas is something that will take a very long time. However, if the rewards of practice will be awesome beyond imagining, are you going to give up just because it’s going to take a while?

7. Awakening is about transcending the small self, but it is still about the individual. The details of our “small self” – our gender, personality, intelligence, relationships, talents, strengths, ambitions, possessions, social status, power, etc. – are not what gives us access to awakening. In the realm of buddhahood, none of this stuff matters at all. The buddha nature you need to awaken to is not something you possess. It’s not a nugget of perfection living somewhere inside your body or mind. It is the nature of all Being, in which you actively participate. Realizing this for yourself means letting go of attachment to all your “small self” details.

At the same time, only sentient beings – beings who come along with all the details of a small self – become buddhas, and every buddha is also a sentient being. As long as we are on this earth, we are embodied and embedded within infinitely complex physical and social systems. The same would true of anyone who has attained so-called complete spiritual liberation, or a buddha. The joyous and beneficial mind and heart of a buddha manifests within real people: People with bodies, names, circumstances, and lives. Although a buddha transcends the self, she is still an individual.

Perhaps in a future eon I will become the buddha Clearly Explains the Teachings, in a buddha land called Attaining Insight. Someone else might become the buddha Extends Compassion to All Suffering Beings, in a land called Peaceful Rest. Yet another person might become the buddha Delivers Justice in a land called Embracing Ease. Maybe you’ll become the buddha Shares Joy in Myriad Forms, in a land called Spiritual Delight.

 


Endnotes

[i] Reeves, Gene (translator). The Lotus Sutra: A Contemporary Translation of a Buddhist Classic. Wisdom Publications. Kindle Edition. Chapter 1.

[ii] Ibid, Chapter 6.

[iii] Ibid

[iv] Ibid, Chapter 8

[v] Ibid, Chapter 9

[vi] Ibid, Chapter 13

[vii] Ibid

 

186 - Making Peace with Ghosts: Unresolved Karma and the Sejiki (Segaki) Festival
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