At that time it occurred to the great assembly of twelve hundred śrāvakas, arhats free from corruption, beginning with Ājnāta kauṇḍinya, and the other monks, nuns, laymen, and laywomen who had set out to become śrāvakas and pratyekabuddhas: “Why has the Bhagavat just now so earnestly praised skillful means? For what reason has he declared that the Dharma that the buddhas have attained is very profound and difficult to understand? Why has he said that their intention in adapting their teaching to what is appropriate is so difficult to comprehend that all the śrāvakas and pratyekabuddhas are not able to understand it?
“As long as the Buddha taught the meaning of the single liberation we thought we had attained that Dharma and achieved nirvana. But now we do not understand what he means.”
At that time Śāriputra, aware of the confusion of the fourfold assemblies and himself also feeling confused, addressed the Buddha saying: “O Bhagavat! For what reason and on what grounds have you so earnestly praised the unique skillful means of the buddhas and the profound and subtle Dharma that is difficult to understand? Never before have I heard such a thing from the Buddha. Now Bhagavat, I entreat you to explain this because the fourfold assemblies are confused. O Bhagavat! Why have you so earnestly praised the Dharma that is profound, subtle, and difficult to understand?”
Then the Buddha addressed Śāriputra, saying: “Enough, enough! Speak no more! If I explained this matter, the devas and humans in all the worlds would be astounded.”
Then Śāriputra again addressed the Buddha: “O Bhagavat! Please explain it! I entreat you to explain it, because in this assembly there are innumerable hundreds of thousands of myriads of koṭis of incalculable sentient beings, sharp in faculties and possessed of wisdom, who have previously encountered the buddhas. When they hear the teaching of the Buddha they will trust, believe, and accept it.”
Then the Buddha again tried to dissuade Śāriputra, saying: “If I explain it, the devas, humans, and asuras in all the worlds will be astounded, and arrogant monks will certainly go to their downfall.”
And again Śāriputra addressed the Buddha, saying: “O Bhagavat! Please explain it! Please explain it! In this assembly there are people like me and others, numbering into the hundreds of thousands of myriads of koṭis of beings, who have been led and inspired by the buddhas in their former existences. Such people will certainly trust, believe, and accept it. And they will benefit, profit, and receive solace from it for a very long time.”
Essentially, the four-fold assembly full of monks, nuns, laymen and laywomen are astounded by the Buddha’s utterances. They automatically assumed that they would easily attain nirvana, and now the Buddha throws a whole new bone of understanding for them to gnaw-on; they simply can’t stand this and are utterly confused. So, Śāriputra (whom the Buddha once declared to be the perfect disciple and second only to him in transcendent knowledge [prajñā]) senses their mass-confusion and speaks-up on their behalf; although, he too, would like to hear a closer-understanding of what the Buddha was conveying. At first, though, the Buddha kept putting-him off, reiterating how difficult a teaching it is for devas, let alone for lay-folk. But eventually Śāriputra’s persistence wins-out and the Buddha acquiesces to his request. Śāriputra’s persistence is not something to be overlooked. It’s a teaching moment for all who adhere to spiritual growth. The way of the Bodhisattva—those who seek the higher teachings of the Buddha—is not an easy one to observe. It takes a great deal of perseverance and persistently seeking to forever grow in the ways of the Buddhadharma. It’s not for the faint-hearted or the lazy or those mere curiosity seekers who just rely on quick, superficial and surface understandings. In fact, the Tathagatas will only relay the greater-teachings to those who are willing to put-in long-hours and who burn the midnight-oil—who are ready for Prime-Time—in quest of greater Buddha-gnosis. Even when it comes to one’s “faith” in this enterprise, it’s not some kind of a quick-fix to be had at a moment’s notice. So, this is a spiritual exercise, one of the Tathagatas expedient means, not only meant for Śāriputra, but also for adepts who yearn for those Higher-Spiritual-Truths—the greater Spiritual Vehicle of the Mahayana.
Then the Bhagavat spoke to Śāriputra, saying: “You have now persistently asked me three times. How could I possibly not explain it to you? Therefore listen carefully and pay close attention! I will now illuminate and explain it.”
When he said this, five thousand monks, nuns, laymen, and laywomen in the assembly immediately got up from their seats, bowed to the Buddha, and left. What was the reason for this? Because the roots of error among this group had been deeply planted and they were arrogant, thinking they had attained what they had not attained and had realized what they had not realized. Because of such defects they did not stay. And the Bhagavat remained silent and did not stop them.
Then the Buddha addressed Śāriputra: “My assembly here is free of useless twigs and leaves; only the pure essence remains.
The one’s who fled the assembly were not like Śāriputra. They were vain, smug, and self-assured people who believed that they had already bought the one-way ticket direct to nirvana. But the Buddha says that’s OK, in fact, its “Great” that they left the assembly. Now those Higher-Truths will be revealed for those who are willing to put-in the extra elbow-grease in turning the pages of this Sutra—who are spiritually-gutsy enough to stay and become Illumined by the forth-coming revelations of the Tathagata. Gene Reeves’ translation marvelously offers the following verses:
Monks and nuns full of arrogance,
Proud laymen, and laywomen of little faith:
In the assembly of the four groups, such people
Were five thousand in number.
Not seeing their own errors,
Failing to observe the precepts
And carefully defending their faults,
These people of little wisdom have already left.
Those dregs of the assembly left
Because of the Buddha’s dignity and virtue.
Such people of little merit and virtue
Are incapable of receiving the Dharma.
Now this assembly has neither branches nor leaves,
But only good, firm fruit.
(2008-11-10). The Lotus Sutra: A Contemporary Translation of a Buddhist Classic (Kindle Locations 1356-1358). Wisdom Publications. Kindle Edition.
Love the allusion—those “dregs” of the assembly. That’s what they were, just lumps of waste-material on the deposit of faith in the Buddhadharma. Now that they have been pruned-away the real stuff can be revealed for the truly-faithful—the good, and firm fruit.