The thing that strikes me most about the parable in Chapter 4, the “‘Buddhist’ Prodigal Son”, is that it is told to the Buddha (instead of vice-versa) by four of his most loyal disciples, Subhuti, Maha Katyayana, MahaMaudgalyayana and particularly by Mahākāśyapa. Two of them are well-known, Subhuti, who often plays a prominent role in sutras, in particular the Diamond Sutra, and of course, Mahākāśyapa, who was the first one to receive “Dharma-Mind transmission” from Gautama Buddha. Like devoted adepts on a long spiritual-journey, they were late in coming to realize their own share in “Buddha-nature”, yet their devotion to principles within the Buddhadharma led many to become enlightened. Hence, this parable is truly about them and other “devoted ones”, who at first without the added benefit of the Marvelous Bodhi-Pearl of Noble Wisdom, eventually progress through various spiritual-stages before setting their sights on the ultimate prize.
A young man left his father and ran away. For long he dwelt in other countries, for ten, or twenty, or fifty years. The older he grew, the more needy he became. Wandering in all directions to seek clothing and food, he unexpectedly approached his native country. The father had searched for his son all those years in vain and meanwhile had settled in a certain city. His home became very rich; his goods and treasures were fabulous.
At this time, the poor son, wandering through village after village and passing through countries and cities, at last reached the city where his father had settled. The father had always been thinking of his son, yet, although he had been parted from him over fifty years, he had never spoken of the matter to anyone. He only pondered over it within himself and cherished regret in his heart, saying, “Old and worn out I am. Although I own much wealth – gold, silver, and jewels, granaries and treasuries overflowing – I have no son. Some day my end will come and my wealth will be scattered and lost, for I have no heir. If I could only get back my son and commit my wealth to him, how contented and happy would I be, with no further anxiety!”
Meanwhile the poor son, hired for wages here and there, unexpectedly arrived at his father’s house. Standing by the gate, he saw from a distance his father seated on a lion-couch, his feet on a jeweled footstool, and with expensive strings of pearls adorning his body, revered and surrounded by priests, warriors, and citizens, attendants and young slaves waiting upon him right and left. The poor son, seeing his father having such great power, was seized with fear, regretting that he had come to this place. He reflected, “This must be a king, or someone of royal rank, it is impossible for me to be hired here. I had better go to some poor village in search of a job, where food and clothing are easier to get. If I stay here long, I may suffer oppression.” Reflecting thus, he rushed away.
Meanwhile the rich elder on his lion-seat had recognized his son at first glance, and with great joy in his heart reflected, “Now I have someone to whom I may pass on my wealth. I have always been thinking of my son, with no means of seeing him, but suddenly he himself has come and my longing is satisfied. Though worn with years, I yearn for him.”
Instantly he sent off his attendants to pursue the son quickly and fetch him back. Immediately the messengers hasten forth to seize him. The poor son, surprised and scared, loudly cried his complaint, “I have committed no offense against you, why should I be arrested?” The messengers all the more hastened to lay hold of him and brought him back. Following that, the poor son, thought that although he was innocent he would be imprisoned, and that now he would surely die. He became all the more terrified, fainted away and fell on the ground. The father, seeing this from a distance, sent word to the messengers, “I have no need for this man. Do not bring him by force. Sprinkle cold water on his face to restore him to consciousness and do not speak to him any further.” Why? The father, knowing that his son’s disposition was inferior, knowing that his own lordly position had caused distress to his son, yet convinced that he was his son, tactfully did not say to others, “This is my son.”
A messenger said to the son, “I set you free, go wherever you will.” The poor son was delighted, thus obtaining the unexpected release. He arose from the ground and went to a poor village in search of food and clothing. Then the elder, desiring to attract his son, set up a device. Secretly he sent two men, sorrowful and poor in appearance, saying, “Go and visit that place and gently say to the poor man, ‘There is a place for you to work here. We will hire you for scavenging, and we both also will work along with you.'” Then the two messengers went in search of the poor son and, having found him, presented him the above proposal. The poor son, having received his wages in advance, joined them in removing a refuse heap.
His father, beholding the son, was struck with compassion for him. One day he saw at a distance, through the window, his son’s figure, haggard and drawn, lean and sorrowful, filthy with dirt and dust. He took off his strings of jewels, his soft attire, and put on a coarse, torn and dirty garment, smeared his body with dust, took a basket in his right hand, and with an appearance fear-inspiring said to the laborers, “Get on with your work, don’t be lazy.” By such means he got near to his son, to whom he afterwards said, “Ay, my man, you stay and work here, do not leave again. I will increase your wages, give whatever you need, bowls, rice, wheat-flour, salt, vinegar, and so on. Have no hesitation; besides there is an old servant whom you can get if you need him. Be at ease in your mind; I am, as it were, your father; do not be worried again. Why? I am old and advanced in years, but you are young and vigorous; all the time you have been working, you have never been deceitful, lazy, angry or grumbling. I have never seen you, like the other laborers, with such vices as these. From this time forth you will be as my own begotten son.”
The elder gave him a new name and called him a son. But the poor son, although he rejoiced at this happening, still thought of himself as a humble hireling. For this reason, for twenty years he continued to be employed in scavenging. After this period, there grew mutual confidence between the father and the son. He went in and out and at his ease, though his abode was still in a small hut.
Then the father became ill and, knowing that he would die soon, said to the poor son, “Now I possess an abundance of gold, silver, and precious things, and my granaries and treasuries are full to overflowing. I want you to understand in detail the quantities of these things, and the amounts that should be received and given. This is my wish, and you must agree to it. Why? Because now we are of the same mind. Be increasingly careful so that there be no waste.” The poor son accepted his instruction and commands, and became acquainted with all the goods. However, he still had no idea of expecting to inherit anything, his abode was still the original place and he was still unable to abandon his sense of inferiority.
After a short time had again passed, the father noticed that his son’s ideas had gradually been enlarged, his aspirations developed, and that he despised his previous state of mind. Seeing that his own end was approaching, he commanded his son to come, and gathered all his relatives, the kings, priests, warriors, and citizens. When they were all assembled, he addressed them saying, “Now, gentlemen, this is my son, begotten by me. It is over fifty years since, from a certain city, he left me and ran away to endure loneliness and misery. His former name was so-and-so and my name was so-and-so. At that time in that city I sought him sorrowfully. Suddenly I met him in this place and regained him. This is really my son and I am really his father. Now all the wealth which I possess belongs entirely to my son, and all my previous disbursements and receipts are known by this son.” When the poor son heard these words of his father, great was his joy at such unexpected news, and thus he thought, “Without any mind for, or effort on my part, these treasures now come to me.”
World-honored One! The very rich elder is the Tathagata, and we are all as the Buddha’s sons. The Buddha has always declared that we are his sons. But because of the three sufferings, in the midst of births-and-deaths we have borne all kinds of torments, being deluded and ignorant and enjoying our attachment to things of no value. Today the World-honored One has caused us to ponder over and remove the dirt of all diverting discussions of inferior things. In these we have hitherto been diligent to make progress and have got, as it were, a day’s pay for our effort to reach nirvana. Obtaining this, we greatly rejoiced and were contented, saying to ourselves, “For our diligence and progress in the Buddha-law what we have received is ample”. The Buddha, knowing that our minds delighted in inferior things, by his tactfulness taught according to our capacity, but still we did not perceive that we are really Buddha’s sons. Therefore we say that though we had no mind to hope or expect it, yet now the Great Treasure of the King of the Law has of itself come to us, and such things that Buddha-sons should obtain, we have all obtained.
Actually I prefer this parable to the parable of the prodigal son in the Bible. The Father-Tathagata here in the Buddhist version does not automatically acknowledge his son as his own flesh when he returned home; but rather, after long periods of endless hard-toil (symbolic of the arduous, but rewarding spiritual path) the son comes “to earn” his own spiritual-inheritance. This reminds me of the old John Houseman /Smith-Barney commercial (circa 1970’s) wherein he says, “finding good investments takes good ole-fashion hard work; they make money the old-fashioned-way, they “EARN-IT!” Even though the son is self-effacing about this in the parable, he did in fact earn what was naturally his. Hence, the prize of obtaining what all good “Buddha-sons should obtain” is arrived at through good ole-fashioned hard work, of spiritually absorbing the Buddhadharma after years and years of faithful effort and a spirit of resiliency, despite the hard obstacles encountered along the way. Upon the full self-realization of Noble Wisdom, the prodigal-children of the Buddha are now ready to inherit their birthright as Noble Sons and Daughters—Ariyans who belong to the Tathagata clan (gotra) and hence share in the self-same Buddha-nature. Indeed, healthy and sound Spiritual-Maturation can only occur after Maturation of the Dung. Thus, the Skillful Means procured here is one of a gradual-nature, after thoroughly progressing through all the lower-stages in order to get a better foundation upon which the One Buddha-Vehicle can be Self-Realized.