In the Woods

A Tale by The Rev. Shinkyo Will Warner

Once upon a time, there was a group of people who lived in the woods. They had lived that way for as long as any of them could remember. The dangers and resources were all familiar to them. They knew where to find food, how to build shelter, which animals were useful, which were a threat, and which were simply a joy to watch.

Even with all this, not all of them knew everything. There was an older woman among them who had spent her life learning from the woods. As a young girl she asked questions of the adults. As an adult she learned from her elders. As she became an elder herself, she was recognized as the wisest among them.

She knew she would not live forever. She tried to find someone to teach, someone to whom she could pass along what she had learned about the things that didn't happen to everyone every day.

Nobody was interested. Everyone was so caught up in what they were trying to do every day, they couldn't see the value in learning from this old woman. They thought they could take care of it another day.

One night, without warning, she died in her sleep. People were very unhappy. They all loved her dearly and knew they would miss her. Some now regretted not learning from her when they had the chance.

Many days later, the group woke up in the morning to the smell of smoke. They looked to see if someone had gotten up early to make a fire. Nobody had.

None of them had ever been in a forest fire before, but they had an idea that this was what was happening. They knew they had to move, but what direction should they go in? They couldn't tell where the smoke was coming from. If they went in the wrong direction, they might move towards the fire and get burned up in it.

Someone remembered that when she was alive and she needed help, the older woman would go to a tall tree, and that would give her the answer. So several people found a tall tree and went to it.

For a moment, they weren't sure what to do. Would the tree tell them where to go? Did they need to offer some spells or incantations to get the tree to talk?

Some started looking very closely at the roots, bark and lower branches, trying to find clues to their predicament. Was there something left over from an earlier fire that would tell them about this one?

No answer came. The smoke got thicker. People got scared.

Finally, a small boy worked his way through the crowd and proclaimed: "I know what to do." In what seemed no time at all, he climbed up to the top of the tree, pointed his arm towards the source of the smoke and cried, "There! That's where the fire is coming from." In this story, the tall tree is the Dharma of the Buddha. As we cannot hope to climb a tree without the foundation of the roots and lower branches, we cannot have the Wonderful Dharma of the Lotus Sutra without the earlier, provisional teachings.

At the same time, we must be aware of the limitations of the provisional teachings. We cannot stand on the ground observing the preliminary Sutras and expect the same results as if we climb to the top and practice the Dharma of the Lotus Sutra.

This is another point of the story. It's not until someone uses the Dharma as a practice rather than an object of intellectual inquiry can they save living beings. The small boy understood that the tree itself was meant to be used. It would not point them to some other wisdom.

The Dharma of the Lotus Sutra says: All beings will become Buddhas. All those who read, recite, copy and most importantly practice the Lotus Sutra will become Buddhas quickly and save all living beings.

It also teaches over and over how important it is to see the previous Sutras as provisional, however wonderful and full of wisdom they may be, no matter what benefits they may confer. They are not the whole of the Buddha's wisdom.

We can have much respect for all those practicing the provisional teachings, in whatever form they take. We should understand for ourselves though what those teachings cannot do. There will come a point when we will need to say: "This Wonderful Dharma of the Lotus Sutra is what leads to Buddhahood. It is something the Buddha meant for you to have. But so long as you cling to the provisional teachings, the wisdom of the Buddha cannot be yours."

How can we tell the difference between a provisional teaching and the Wonderful Dharma? Ask yourself, "Why am I studying and practicing this Dharma? Is it to end some kind of suffering? Or is it to become a Buddha?"

With palms together,
--The Rev. Shinkyo Will Warner

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Webpage created 31 March 2001
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