The Days of Hermits, Scoundrels, and a Dragon Princess

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Chapter 12 is the quintessential text in Buddhism conveying the all-encompassing ascendancy of Buddha-nature. It reveals that regardless of one’s moral stature, sexual identity, or karmic-predispositions, the potential-seed of Buddhahood is indigenous to all sentient beings. The “awakening” to one’s Buddha-nature is fully developed in this Chapter known as “Devadatta” that is essentially comprised of two segments—the first concerning a notorious man and the second involving a young female, both of whom secured their own realization of Buddhahood. It opens with the Buddha describing one of his previous existences when he was a discontented king who sought the doctrine of truth. He made it be known that he would become anyone’s servant who could reveal this Buddha-gnosis. A lowly hermit approaches him and conveys the importance of the Lotus Sutra. The king subsequently becomes the hermit’s personal-servant during which time he becomes enlightened to the teachings of the Sutra. The Buddha reveals that this hermit was non-other than Devadatta in a previous incarnation. Devadatta’s reputation was less than spectacular:

Although the chapter touches only on a past lifetime of Devadatta and makes no reference to his present identity as the Buddha’s jealous cousin, Devadatta would have been well known to the sūtra’s early devotees as the Buddhist archetype of an evildoer. Devadatta is said to have incited his friend, Prince Ajātaśatru, to kill his father, King Bimbisara, who was the Buddha’s patron, and usurp the throne. Devadatta also fomented dissension within the sangha and even attempted to kill the Buddha. In the context of the Lotus Sūtra, with its teaching of the one vehicle and promise of buddhahood for everyone, this chapter became widely understood as illustrating the potential for enlightenment even in evil persons.

Readings of the Lotus Sutra (Columbia Readings of Buddhist Literature) (Kindle Locations 677-681). Columbia University Press. Kindle Edition.

Not only was Devadatta recognized and honored, he was later to become a Buddha himself:

The Buddha addressed the fourfold assembly, saying: “After immeasurable kalpas have passed, Devadatta will then become a buddha called Devarāja, a Tathāgata, Arhat, Completely Enlightened, Perfect in Knowledge and Conduct, Well-Departed, Knower of the World, Unsurpassed, Tamer of Humans, Teacher of Devas and Humans, Buddha, Bhagavat. His world will be called Deva so pānā. At that time the Buddha Devarāja will abide in the world for twenty intermediate kalpas and extensively teach the True Dharma to sentient beings. Sentient beings equal in number to the sands of the Ganges River will attain arhatship. The thought of a pratyekabuddha has awakened in incalculable numbers of sentient beings. The thought of the highest path will awaken in sentient beings equal in number to the sands of the Ganges River, and they will become convinced of the nonarising of all dharmas and reside in the stage of nonretrogression.

In light of all this, it goes without saying that even a scoundrel, someone disloyal to the core, betraying the Buddha and all members of the Sangha, could—if awakened to their own Buddha-nature—receive all the benefits afforded to spiritual-children of the Tathagata. This also conveys a radical skillfull-means employed heightening the awareness that the very nucleus of Buddha-nature is hidden even in the most ignominious regions of the human spirit.

The next segment of this chapter transmits a further—all inclusive—device revealing that Buddha-nature is never discriminatory but freely and uninhibitedly exists in all. The great Manjushri himself rises from the dragon-palace at the bottom of the sea (a wonderful metaphor depicting that the greatest of all protectors of the Buddhadharma are the Mystical-Dragons, indeed the very personification of Wisdom Itself) and imparts the beautiful story of the Dragon-Kings daughter:

There is the daughter of the nāga king Sāgara who is only eight years old. She is wise; her faculties are sharp; and she also well knows all the faculties and deeds of sentient beings. She has attained the power of recollection. She preserves all the profound secret treasures taught by the buddhas, enters deep meditation, and is well capable of discerning all dharmas. She instantly produced the thought of enlightenment and attained the stage of nonretrogression. She has unhindered eloquence and thinks of sentient beings with as much compassion as if they were her own children. Her virtues are perfect. Her thoughts and explanations are subtle and extensive, merciful, and compassionate. She has a harmonious mind and has attained enlightenment.”

The Bodhisattva Prajnākūṭa said: “I see the Tathāgata Śākyamuni who has been incessantly carrying out difficult and severe practices for immeasurable kalpas, accumulating merit and virtue while seeking the bodhisattva path. Looking into the great manifold cosmos, there is not a single place even the size of a mustard seed where this bodhisattva has not abandoned his life for the sake of sentient beings. He attained the path to enlightenment only after this. It is hard to believe that this girl will instantly attain complete enlightenment.”

Before he had finished speaking the daughter of the nāga king suddenly appeared in their presence…

At that time Śāriputra spoke to the daughter of the nāga king, saying:

“You say that you will soon attain the highest path. This is difficult to believe. Why is this? The female body is polluted; it is not a fit vessel for the Dharma. How can you attain highest enlightenment?

“The buddha path is long. One can only attain it after diligently carrying out severe practices, and completely practicing the perfections over immeasurable kalpas. Moreover, the female body has five obstructions. The first is the inability to become a great Brahma. The second is the inability to become Śakra. The third is the inability to become Māra, and the fourth is the inability to become a universal monarch (cakravartin). The fifth is the inability to become a buddha. How can you with your female body quickly become a buddha?”

Then the daughter of the nāga king presented to the Buddha a jewel worth the great manifold cosmos, and the Buddha accepted it. The daughter of the nāga king spoke to Bodhisattva Prajnā kūṭa and the noble Śāri putra, saying: “I offered a jewel and the Bhagavat accepted it. Was that done quickly or not?”

They answered, saying: “It was done extremely quickly!”

The daughter said: “Through your transcendent powers watch me become a buddha even more quickly than that!”

Then the assembly there all saw the daughter of the nāga king instantly transform into a man, perfect the bodhisattva practices, go to the vimalā world in the south, sit on a jeweled lotus flower, and attain highest, complete enlightenment, become endowed with the thirty-two marks and eighty excellent characteristics, and expound the True Dharma universally for the sake of all sentient beings in the ten directions.

Then the bodhisattvas, śrāvakas, eight kinds of devas, nāgas, and so on, humans and nonhumans of the sahā world, all saw in the distance that the daughter of the nāga king had become a buddha and was universally teaching the Dharma for the sake of the humans and devas in that assembly. They rejoiced greatly and honored her from afar.

In today’s understanding this story reveals that Buddhism is not sexist; although many have still questioned why this most wise daughter of the Dragon King had to transform her body into that of a man. What she did was clearly in keeping with the Buddhist prescriptions of the day that Buddhahood could only be attained in a male-form. Yet, it can also serve as a form of poetic justice—she shows through her metamorphosis that she is equal—even superior (simply through this miraculous action)—to her male counterparts in the story. This is reminiscent of the story of the Goddess (Chapter 7) in the Vimalakirti Sutra who momentarily changes good ol’ sexist-Sariputra into a woman (her own form) while she transforms herself into his! Quite a twist indeed! The whole point of both stories is the teaching of the Buddha that when it comes to one’s own innate Buddha-nature, there is neither male nor female.

*Also, in particular for a Naga (Dragon) Princess, Buddha-gnosis (rooted in Bodhipower) is second nature.

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2 Responses to The Days of Hermits, Scoundrels, and a Dragon Princess

  1. Tozen says:

    This part of the Sutra always makes me laugh a great belly laugh, like some big santa listening to a great wisdom uttered from a precocious child.

    The spiritual pranks this most wonderful 8 year old minx plays in the face of spiritual beings considered more mature, is almost like a divine comedy (looks at Dante …sorry no pun intended) assuring good laughs during long nights under a single candle light.

  2. n. yeti says:

    Dear Tozen,

    On a slightly different topic, I have been looking deeply into the nature of forgiveness, as revealed by this passage of the sutra. Particularly how Devadatta’s actions were seemingly worthy of Shakyamuni’s forgiveness and even praise upon his ascention to Buddhahood, and yet are undeniably of the greatest offense.

    I am not particularly puzzled by this in itself, because clearly the wisdom practice is to see in such people as Devadatta the jewel of enlightenment, and an opportunity to practice forebearance, but I am somewhat perplexed by how this might be put into practice when the hurt is very great and difficult to release.

    It seems so many people, myself included in this to some degree, but really almost everyone perhaps to some degree, have a tendency to hold to hurt and resentment as a means to protect themselves, all the while pouring acid on their hearts and destroying their happiness because of this. And yet knowing this, and accepting this practice of forgiveness as valid and true, is not the same as being able to achieve the perfection of wisdom and cessation of these sorrows provoked by hurt and resentment.

    I have read many commentaries on this topic, and have looked deeply into it both personally and through the various teachings, but remain entangled by this to some degree. I would hope to extinguish this poison of resentment in my lifetime.

    I was curious how one would approach the topic of forgiveness from a Ch’an perspective, and would be very grateful if you might share some of your insight on this topic, if you are moved to do so, because I feel it is one of the great questions, not only for me, but for all of humanity in our dark age.

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