July Feature Article

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A Sutra for the Suffering of Today

Sometimes we might feel that Buddhism is a teaching that was given centuries ago, but doesn’t have a message for the contemporary world that we live in. This can hardly be farther from the truth. Although the teachings of the Buddha were given over 2500 years ago, they have tremendous meaning and relevance for us today.
I would like to relate a true story from the Buddhist tradition which comes from the Contemplation Sutra (Kammuryojukyo).
The Contemplation Sutra is about the tragedy of Rajagriha. At the center of the tragedy is Queen Vaidehi. Queen Vaidehi has been imprisoned by her own son, Prince Ajatashatru. Ajatashatru has also imprisoned his own father, King Bimbisara, and has ordered him to die by starvation. In her desperate situation, Vaidehi pleads to the Buddha to give her a teaching to get her out of her awful situation.
First, we have to know the background on this story. King Bimbisara is not entirely an innocent victim. Years ago, the King and his wife wanted a child, but a child was not born to them. The King sought out a fortune teller to give him some assistance. Will I ever have a child, he asks the fortune teller? The fortune teller relates that yes; the King and Queen will eventually have a child born to them. Presently there is an ascetic monk living in the mountains. When this monk dies, he will be reborn as your son, the fortune teller predicts. The King is so impatient and desperate for a child that he orders his men to go find the monk and kill him, so that he would have a child. His men find the monk, kill him, and sure enough, Queen Vaidehi becomes pregnant and they have a child.
When the child is born, the King again has a fortune teller give him a prediction on the life of his son, and the fortune teller says that this very son will someday turn on the King and kill him in the future. Oh no!, thinks King Bimbisara, so he has the baby thrown out the window of the palace, but miraculously, survives the fall with only a broken finger as an injury. The King and Queen then raise their child, Prince Ajatashatru.
When the Prince became a young adult, the Buddha’s cousin, who was an enemy of the Buddha, told Prince Ajatashatru the history of his birth and how his father had tried to kill him as a child.
Infuriated, Prince Ajatashatru overthrows his father and has him imprisoned with orders not to give him food, so that he will starve to death.
Queen Vaidehi visits her husband in prison, but sneaks in food to him, by pouring juice into her jeweled ornaments, and by putting a pasty mixture of flour and honey on her skin. She keeps her husband alive with these foods.
Some days later Prince Ajatashatru learns that his father is still alive and that his mother has been secretly helping him. Again in his anger, he imprisons his mother as well. This is the scenario of the Contemplation Sutra, in which Queen Vaidehi pleads to the Buddha for teaching and guidance. In the Contemplation Sutra, Shakyamuni Buddha teaches various meditation methods to comfort Vaidehi in her stress, and then teaches the Nembutsu, Namuamidabutsu to her.
When I studied in Japan, I used to listen to a monthly study class taught by a teacher named Hosokawa, who was a layperson, but a most devout and learned Shin Buddhist. In one of his lectures, I recall that he mentioned that the Contemplation Sutra from our Shin Buddhist tradition is the most relevant teaching for today, because this sutra is about tragedy, and the world today is nothing but tragedy.
How true Hosokawa-Sensei’s words are. Our world today is nothing but tragedy, seen replayed over and over again; 9-11, the tsunami in Japan, the Newtown shootings, and the bombings in Boston, just to name a few of the tragedies that I could have mentioned.
In the Contemplation Sutra, when you think about it, every person is in a tragic situation. King Bimbisara might have thought, “How I have failed as a father. Maybe it is my karma coming back to haunt me, since I tried to kill this child as an infant.” Queen Vaidehi must have felt, “How could I have raised such a son that would do such a terrible thing to my husband and me. How could he treat his own parents this way?” And even Ajatashatru could have thought, “How could I have been born to such terrible parents who tried to kill me as an infant? I can never forgive them for what they attempted to do. I am lucky that I survived that fall somehow. It must be my destiny to overthrow my father and take the throne. He doesn’t deserve to be the King.” On and on and on, we can see the tragedy that occurred at Rajagriha.
In response to this tragedy, the Buddha gives a simple teaching, a most simple teaching, — maybe too simple of a teaching, because we cannot somehow accept its simplicity. If one simply recites the Nembutsu, Namuamidabutsu, this world of suffering and tragedy can be transformed into a world of peace and joy. What you ask? Can it be that simple? There must be more that is necessary. Just the Nembutsu? Is that all? Really?
The Buddha and Shinran Shonin both reply, “Yes, that is all. Just recite the Nembutsu, listen to the Nembutsu, and examine and look into yourself. That is the path to true liberation, true awakening.”
In a world that is full of complexities, tragedies, and discord, the Nembutsu teaching can be the most effective, the most important teaching for modern man and contemporary society. Through this simple word, we receive light that is the wisdom to penetrate and destroy our ignorance. Through this simple word we awaken to our ego self, which is at the core of all the problems that occur in our world today.

Rev. Marvin Harada