A Teaching for Tragic Times

by Rev. Marvin Harada.

Once again we have witnessed a great tragedy that occurred before our eyes, as we saw the devastation of the bombs that killed and injured many at the Boston marathon. It almost seems like every month something shocking and devastating happens in the world around us. I would like to address the recent tragic situation by relating 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 by the name of Asita. 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 Asita and kill him, so that he would have a child. His men find Asita, 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 also teaches the Nembutsu to her.

Shinran Shonin sees the tragedy of Rajagriha as being the reason for Shakyamuni Buddha to teach about the Nembutsu, Namuamidabutsu, as the liberating teaching for all sentient beings. In his own writings, Shinran lists, or mentions people like Prince Ajatashatru and Queen Vaidehi, for being the historical people that were instrumental in the Nembutsu teaching to have been taught by Shakyamuni Buddha.

When we look at how Shinran saw this tragedy, it is quite striking. If, for example, Shakyamuni Buddha were present today, and he gave a specific sutra or message as a result of the tragedy that recently occurred, it would be like saying that both the terrorist who set off the bomb, and the victims of the bombs, were instrumental in a great teaching to emerge. Shinran Shonin did not look at the tragedy that occurred at Rajagriha simply from a moral, ethical standpoint. So often when such events occur in the world today, what we commonly hear is the word “evil.” Evil has struck. It was an act of evil. This is not to condone the horrific thing that took place, but in the tragedy at Rajagriha, Shinran Shonin did not call Prince Ajatashatru “evil.” Instead, he saw the perpetrator, the Prince, and Queen Vaidehi, the victim, as both being important factors in the Buddha’s message that was given to all sentient beings, and to himself, not just to Queen Vaidehi.

Rev. Haya Akegarasu, in his commentary on the Larger Sutra, discusses the Buddhist view of hell in one portion of that commentary. Rev. Akegarasu does not take hell literally, as a place one goes after death. Rev. Akegarasu takes it metaphorically, that it is talking about our own human life. In Buddhist hell, there are three basic people. There are the victims, the sufferers of hell. There is the judge of hell, Lord Emma. And there are the punishers of hell, who carry out the punishment to the victims. Rev. Akegarasu very interestingly looks at this and says, “We are all beings of hell. Sometimes we are the judge who is always judging people this way or that. Sometimes we are the victims, and we feel that everyone mistreats us or that life is never fair to us. Other times we are the punishers, and we inflict pain and suffering on others, sometimes by what we say, sometimes by what we do.

What a deep insight that is, to look at hell in that manner.

To see tragedy occur in the world around us, it cannot be denied that such terrible things are done by people who are lost in delusion. To be so angered that you want to inflict pain on others, or to be blinded by a certain political or religious viewpoint that you lose your sense of humanity and common sense, is what leads to such terrible things occurring in our world today.

All the more do we need the teachings of the Buddha. All the more we need to deeply understand the heart of the Dharma, and share it with others, so that the darkness in their hearts will be illuminated by the light of truth.

Namuamidabutsu,

Rev. Marvin Harada