The Hero of the Larger Sutra

In a recent sermon I gave at the Sacramento Betsuin, I played the game that I sometimes do at OCBC with the Dharma School children. To illustrate how Buddhism is all around us in our everyday life, I ask the kids to throw out a word, object, anything, and I have to relate that to Buddhism. I did this game for the first time in Sacramento last Sunday. One girl shouted out “Harry Potter.” This young girl is also taking the Girl Scout and Cub Scout Padma and Metta class, and I remember that she mentioned that she loved the Harry Potter books and someday wanted to be a writer.

I answered her in the following manner. I asked, “Who is the hero of the Harry Potter books?” Everyone replied, “Harry Potter.” I then asked, “Who is the hero of the Star Wars movies?” The children all answered, “Luke Skywalker.” I then said, “Who is the hero of the Larger Sutra?” Everyone looked puzzled. I then explained a short version of the following:

Shakyamuni Buddha, in order to express his deep innermost heart of enlightenment, often told stories to explain and relate the Dharma. Shin Buddhism is based on a sutra called “The Larger Sutra” (full title is the Larger Sutra of Immeasurable Life). In this sutra the Buddha tells a story about a King who encounters a Buddha, and is so inspired that he decides to give up being a King to pursue the path to Buddhahood. His name was Bodhisattva Dharmakara, and he is the hero of the story. He is the Harry Potter, the Luke Skywalker of the Larger Sutra. Dharmakara was not a historical person, but yet the story of Dharmakara is a story that goes beyond time and history. That is why this sutra has resonated with Buddhists for centuries and centuries. It is because of its timeless message and because the “hero” of the story connects with people, just like Harry Potter and Luke Skywalker connect with people of all ages.

Bodhisattva Dharmakara seeks to first become a Buddha himself, to awaken to the same wisdom and compassion that he saw in his teacher, like Luke Skywalker sought to become a Jedi warrior after meeting Obi-Wan Kenobi. Dharmakara makes many vows for his life. His vows come from the core of his being. He seeks to become a truly enlightened one, and he seeks to save all sentient beings from suffering and delusion. Dharmakara will not rest until all beings are saved.

The story of Dharmakara expressed in the Larger Sutra shows us what are the contents of the heart of a Buddha, an enlightened one, and at the same time it shows us the contents of the heart of the unenlightened.
Dharmakara seeks to save all beings. Dharmakara embraces all beings, without forsaking anyone, not like the discriminatory mind of the unenlightened. Look at the world around us with the many societal problems of discrimination and prejudice. These are the actions of the unenlightened, but not the kind of heart of Bodhisattva Dharmakara. In the 48 vows that Dharmakara states in the Larger Sutra, he expresses how he seeks to save beings despite their physical makeup, despite the color of their skin. The heart of an enlightened one doesn’t say, “I want to save this race of people but not that race.” The heart of an enlightened one doesn’t say, “I want to save only people who are six feet tall.” The heart of an enlightened one doesn’t say, “I want to save only human beings but don’t care for birds or animals.” The heart of an enlightened one embraces all beings, not just human beings.

The Larger Sutra is not an easy text to read because it was composed in ancient India. It is like reading Shakespeare in English. We ponder over many terms and expressions that were part of the culture of that time.

Still, the core message of the story of the Larger Sutra related by Shakyamuni Buddha is the story of Bodhisattva Dharmakara, who fulfills his dream, his deepest aspiration, and becomes a Buddha named “Amida” meaning “Immeasurable Light and Immeasurable Life” which are a metaphor for wisdom and compassion.

This “story” from Shakyamuni Buddha teaches us so much, and it is this sutra, the Larger Sutra, that Shinran Shonin calls, “The True and Real Teaching.” Shinran Shonin encountered the heart of the Buddha through this sutra. His years of struggle and practice as a monk were resolved when he met his teacher, Honen, and this particular sutra. It was through seeing a living example of the story of Dharmakara, in Honen, that Shinran was able to discover the timeless heart of the Buddha, the heart of wisdom and compassion of Amida Buddha.

Stories are very powerful. Stories are timeless. Look at how temporary other things in life are. Inventions like the VCR and the cassette player were short lived. Nobody uses a pager anymore. Dynasties come and go, even dynasties under rulers like Alexander the Great. But the story of Dharmakara and his becoming Amida Buddha is a story that has crossed the Asian continent and now comes to the west. Now we must listen to, study, and receive this timeless story, of the life of a seeker, the life of a Buddha, and the deep and profound heart and mind that is being communicated through this story.

Rev. Marvin Harada