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The Parable of the Medicinal Herbs (The Buddha about himself)

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The Parable of the Medicinal Herbs

[The Buddha about himself]


At that time the World-Honored One1 said to Mahākaśyapa and the other major disciples: “Excellent, excellent, Kaśyapa. You have given an excellent description of the true blessings of the Tathāgata (Buddha)2. It is just as you have said. The Tathāgata indeed has immeasurable, boundless, asakhyas3 of blessings, and though you and the others were to spend immeasurable millions of kalpas in the effort, you could never finish describing them.

Kaśyapa, you should understand this. The Tathāgata is king of the doctrines. In what he preaches there is nothing that is vain. With regard to all the various doctrines he employs wisdom as a practical means in expounding these doctrines. Therefore the doctrines that he expounds all extend to the point where there is comprehensive wisdom. The Tathāgata observes and understands the end to which all doctrines tend. And he also understands the workings of the deepest mind of all living beings, penetrating them completely and without hindrance. And with regard to the doctrines he is thoroughly enlightened, and he reveals to living beings the totality of wisdom.

Kaśyapa, it is like the plants and trees, thickets, groves and the medicinal herbs, widely ranging in variety, each with its own name and hue, that grow in the hills and streams, the valleys and different soils of the thousand-millionfold world. Dense clouds spread over them, covering the entire thousand-millionfold world and in one moment saturating it all. The moisture penetrates to all the plants and trees, thickets, groves and medicinal herbs equally to their little roots, little stems, little limbs, little leaves, their middle-sized roots, middle-sized stems, middle-sized limbs, middle-sized leaves, to their big roots, big stems, big limbs and big leaves. Each of the trees, big and small, depending upon whether it is superior, middling or inferior in nature, receives its allotment. The rain falling from one blanket of cloud accords with each particular species and nature, causing it to sprout and mature, to blossom and bear fruit. Though all these plants and trees grow in the same earth and are moistened by the same rain, each has its differences and particulars.

Kaśyapa, you should understand that the Tathāgata is like this. He appears in the world like a great cloud arising. With a loud voice he penetrates to all the heavenly and human beings and the asuras of the entire world, like a great cloud spreading over the thousand-million-fold lands. And in the midst of the great assembly, he addresses to all present these words, saying: ‘I am the Tathāgata, worthy of offerings, who possesses right and universal knowledge, perfect clarity and conduct, well gone, who understands the world and is the unexcelled worthy being, the trainer of people, teacher of heavenly and human beings, the Buddha, the World­ Honored One. Those who have not yet crossed over to the other shore I will cause to cross over, those not yet freed I will free, those not yet at rest I will put at rest, those not yet in nirvāa I will cause to attain nirvāa.

Of the present existence or life and future existences I understand the true circumstances. I am one who knows all things, sees all things, understands the way, opens up the way, preaches the way. You heavenly and human beings, asuras and others, you must all come here so that I may let you hear the Teaching (dharma)!’

“At that time living beings of countless thousands, ten thousand millions of species came to the place where the Buddha was to listen to the Teaching. The Tathāgata then observes whether the capaci­ties of these living beings are keen or dull, whether they are diligent in there self efforts or lazy. And in accordance with what each is capable of hearing, he preaches the holy doctrine or teachings (dharma).4 for them in an immeasurable variety of ways, so that all of them are delighted and are able to gain excellent benefits therefrom.

“Once these living beings have heard the teaching they will enjoy peace and security in their present life and good circumstances in future lives, when they will receive joy throughout their path and again be able to hear the teaching. And having heard the teaching, they will escape from obstacles and hindrances, and with regard to the various doctrines will be able to exercise their powers to the fullest, so that gradually they can enter into the way. It is like the rain falling from that great cloud upon all the plants and trees, thickets, groves and medicinal herbs. Each, depending upon its species and nature, receives its full share of moistening and is enabled to sprout and grow.

“The doctrine preached by the Tathāgata is of one form, one flavor, namely, the form of emancipation, the form of spiritual distinction, the form of extinction5 which in the end comes down to a wisdom embrac­ing all species. When the living beings hear the Teaching of the Tathāgata, though they may embrace, read and recite it, and practice it as it dictates, they themselves do not realize or understand the blessings they are gaining thereby. Why is this? Because only the Tathāgata understands the species, the form, the substance, the nature of these living beings. He knows what things they dwell on, what things they ponder, what things they practice. He knows how they dwell on them, how they ponder, how they practice. He knows what dharma they dwell on, what they ponder, what dharma they practice, through what they attain what.

“Living beings exist in a variety of environments, but only the Tathāgata sees the true circumstances and fully understands them without hindrance. It is like those plants and trees, thickets, groves and medicinal herbs which do not themselves know whether they are superior, middling or inferior in nature. But the Tathāgata knows that this is the dharma of one form, one flavor, namely, the form of emancipation, the form of separation, the form of extinction, the form of ultimate nirvāa, of constant tranquility and extinction, which in the end finds its destination in emptiness6 The Buddha understands all this. But because he can see the desires that are in the minds of living beings, he guides and protects them, and for this reason does not immediately preach to them the wisdom that embraces all species.7

“You and the others, Kaśyapa, have done a very rare thing, for you can understand how the Tathāgata preaches the Doctrine in accordance with what is appropriate, you can have faith in it, you can accept it. Why do I say this? Because the fact that the Buddhas, the World-Honored Ones, preach the Doctrine in accordance with what is appropriate is hard to comprehend, hard to understand.”

  1. Buddha. []
  2. Tathāgata can be translated as ‘the Thus Gone One’ or ‘The Thus Come One. In the first case is meant the one who has crossed over to the other shore (from mundane to spiritual existence); in the second case is meant the same Buddha who now has returned from the other shore to teach all conscious beings who are still emerged in mundane illusions. []
  3. Asaṁkya means innumerable. A numerical unit of ancient India used to indicate an exceedingly large number. One source has it equal to 1059, while another describes it as 1051 – from: Chinese Buddhist Encyclopedia. []
  4. Dharma is also sometimes translated as ‘Law’, or Sacred Doctrine of the Buddha, or can be understood as ‘inner duty’ or ‘specific way of expression’. []
  5. Extinction, the English word here used for nirvāṇā, does not mean absolute extinction – which would make Buddhism the most depressing doctrine in the world. It means extinction of all illusions, attachments to illusions and their products, and liberation from all suffering involved in believing in the illusions of external existence. It is the unity with the Absolute, which by definition is beyond the speculation, limitation and divisiveness which are the nature and products of the mind. ‘Extinction from a mental (human) point of view is the same as ‘entering reality’ from the divine point of view. []
  6. Emptiness is śunyatā, zeroness. To understand śunyatā is the highest wisdom possible – i.e. the emptiness or misconception that any thing or entity exists on and for itself alone in isolated independence of other things and entities. ‘Separateness is the greatest heresy’ for a Buddhist philosopher. ‘Empty’ or ‘Zero’ is only so from the mundane and mental point of view, the mind which constantly veils spiritual Reality. This discursive, speculative mind must be slain before true vision is possible. Emptiness is therefore the beyond, the spiritual essence of all phenomena. No phenomenon is real in ultimate analysis. []
  7. The above is taken from the Saddharma Puṇḍarika Sūtra or Lotus Sutra, much of which is dedicated to explaining that the Buddha applies an endless variety of practical means to teach the true doctrine to beings as far as they can understand or absorb at that time. After sufficient development the same beings get more, and thus the Buddha guides development and evolution step by step in many different ways. – Ed. []