“O Bhagavat! We have always thought we had attained complete nirvana. We now realize that we were ignorant. Why is this? We should have attained the wisdom of the Tathāgatas. Yet we were satisfied with little wisdom!
“O Bhagavat! Suppose there were a man who came to the house of a close friend and went to sleep after becoming intoxicated with wine. The intimate friend, having to go out on official business, sews a priceless jewel into the inside of his friend’s garment and, giving it to him, leaves. But the man who was drunk and asleep is totally unaware of this. After getting up he leaves and roams around until he arrives in another country. Although he diligently seeks for food and clothing they are very difficult to obtain. He is satisfied if he just obtains a very meager amount. Later on the intimate friend happens to meet this man. Seeing him, he says:
O poor fellow! How have you come to this state through lack of food and clothing? Once, on such-and-such a day in such-and-such a month and year, I sewed a priceless jewel into the inside of your garment, wanting to make things easier for you and to let you enjoy the desires of the five senses as much as you wished. It is still there, although you aren’t aware of it, and you seek your livelihood with great effort and hardship! You have been very foolish. Sell this jewel and use it to buy what you need. From now on you will know neither poverty nor want and can live as you wish.
“The Buddha is exactly like this. When he was a bodhisattva he aroused in us the aspiration for omniscience. Nevertheless we forgot, we did not know or understand. We attained the path of the arhats and considered that we had attained nirvana. It was very hard for us to support ourselves and we were satisfied with little. But we never fully lost our wish for all-knowledge. Now the Bhagavat, perceiving our minds, has said this:
O monks! What you have attained is not the complete nirvana. For a long time I have made you plant the various roots of good merit of a buddha and shown you the marks of nirvana through skillful means. That is why you consider yourselves to have actually attained nirvana!
“O Bhagavat! We now know that we are actually bodhisattvas and will obtain a prediction of highest, complete enlightenment. For this reason we are extremely happy at having obtained such an unprecedented experience.”
In this story, the gem is the bodhisattva vehicle, taught by the Buddha to the arhats in previous lives but subsequently forgotten; the man’s life as a pauper is the śrāvaka vehicle, with its meager reward of nirvāṇa. In later uses of this popular story, the gem often becomes a metaphor for the buddha nature, the discovery of which reveals to us an inherent wealth we have ignored. Notice that, while the theme of forgetting our true status is shared with the parable of the prodigal son, here the practice and mastery of the śrāvaka vehicle play no religious role: the śrāvaka vehicle is just an expression of ignorance.
(2010-06-01). Readings of the Lotus Sutra (Columbia Readings of Buddhist Literature) (Kindle Locations 2280-2287). Columbia University Press. Kindle Edition.
This is another indication of the twist and turns of one’s “true identity” that is often masked-over as one reincarnates time and time again. Most of these arhats in the assembly are part and parcel of the śrāvaka vehicle, or “the way of the hearers” which is essentially those who are still not attuned to the higher teachings of the Mahayana. This is not to say that this identity is without its merit, as at the beginning here in chapter 8 the Blessed One praised the efforts of the great Arhat named the fulfilled-one, or Pūrṇa Maitrāyaṇīputra, whom the Blessed One considered to be the finest of all preachers of the Dharma—from Reeves’ translation:
I have always declared him to be first among all those who preach the Dharma. And I have always praised his many blessings. He has diligently defended, upheld, and helped to proclaim my Dharma. In the midst of the assembly of the four groups he has demonstrated and taught it, enriching them and giving them joy. Thoroughly understanding and explaining the true Dharma of the Buddha, he has greatly and abundantly benefited fellow followers of noble practices. Except for the Tathagata himself, there is no one who is so eloquent at explaining its theories…
“Monks, this Purna was first among those who preached the Dharma under the seven buddhas.10 Now he is first among those who preach the Dharma under me. Likewise, among those who preach the Dharma under future buddhas in this present Eon of Sages, he will be first, and he will defend, uphold, and help to proclaim the Buddha-dharma. Also in the future he will defend, uphold, and help to proclaim the Dharma of an innumerable, unlimited number of buddhas, teaching, transforming, and abundantly benefiting innumerable living beings and leading them toward supreme awakening. In order to purify buddha-lands he will always diligently persevere in teaching the living.
“Gradually taking up the bodhisattva way, after innumerable, countless eons, he will attain supreme awakening in this land. He will be called Dharma Radiance Tathagata, one worthy of offerings, truly awakened, fully clear in conduct, well gone, understanding the world, unexcelled leader, trainer of men, teacher of heavenly beings and people, buddha, world-honored one.
Hence, as this chapter states, Pūrṇa was known as the quintessential śrāvaka, yet eventually would also need, like the assembled arhats, to take-up the complete “bodhisattva-way.” So the full import of this parable indicates that even if one is the very finest of preachers of the Buddhadharma, one still needs to seek beyond even final-extinction and behold the ultimate Bodhi-Pearl, the ultimate awakening (annuttara-samyak-sambodhi) and thus come to fully Recollect and Embrace the very Noble-Nature of the Tathagatas themselves.