This week Tesshin shared the “Parable of the Plants” from the Lotus Sutra. (attached below) Tesshin noted that a parable is a common teaching tool used in Buddhism to drive home a point. They differ from the koans as they invite us to ponder and understand a point in the Dharma rather than shutting down the intellectual process like koans do.
So, what is this parable trying to teach us? It is clearly stating that the Dharma, or teachings of reality, are present and universally available to everyone. They are not just for monks and priests, Buddhists, or even “good and pious” people. The parable clearly states that the teachings are available to both “precept keepers AND precept breakers.”
What does this mean? It means that the teachings pervade everything because the teachings are nothing more than the way reality works. They fill every space and every moment. They are always present because they are reality. For us “moderns” we can liken it to the laws of physics. They work equally for murders and saints. They do this because they simply are? The laws of Dharma do not care about your past and future.
One should look at this with great joy! The truth of the Dharma is always there, always waiting for its opportunity to nourish you. The parable likens this to rain falling equally on every plant in the forest – whether it is a mighty tree or small herb. This parable is yet another challenge to the ego. Your chance to be nourished by the truth is not related to your status, intelligence, or socio-economic class. No matter who you are, all you need to do is look up to see the Dharma rain falling down upon your head. In Zen, we are constantly reminded that we have to transcend the concern about whether we are doing Zen properly! You do Zen by doing Zen in this very moment. Don’t think it do it! Tesshin was clear here, it is not about fixating on accomplishments and achievements. The Heart Sutra reminds us that there is “No Path, No Wisdom, and No Gain!”
So, we may ask that if every being gets their fair share of Dharma Rain, why should we bother to do the hard work of Zen practice. Here Tesshin reminded us that a question like this gets the whole concept backwards! This question assumes that we are trying to get something out of practice. The truth is that once we have a taste of reality, we will desire more nourishment. A huge tree and an herb both have access to the teachings, but the tree NEEDS so much more to survive. It is not that a tree is better than an herb, it is just that the tree needs more. It is the same with us. Once we start on the practice, we will be drawn to ingest more and more of the truth as we grow and develop.
Tesshin wrapped up by reminding us to not fall into the delusion of comparing. We are not practicing to become a mighty oak! We don’t need to compare ourselves to others. Someone else’s practice is not yours. All sentient beings are equal and have equal access to the universal truth of Dharma. All we need to do is open ourselves up to this truth.
The Parable of the Plants
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.
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