The focus of this parable: “All beings are nourished by the Buddha Dharma and have Buddha Nature, although they grow into Buddhahood at their own pace.”
What are the symbols in this parable?
Parables as told by Buddha were meant to be metaphors for the teachings. In the case of the Parable of the Medicinal Plants, the key takeaways — from various commentaries —are:
- Great cloud — represents the Buddha
- Variety of plants — represents living sentient beings
- Rain — a metaphor for the teachings of the Buddha – Buddha Dharma
- The growth rate of the various plants — symbolizes the various ways different living beings, of different levels of understanding, grow faster or slower.
- Superior medicinal herbs — represented people who are on the path to becoming Buddhas
- Mediocre medicinal herbs — indicate people who practice becoming Pratyekabuddhas
- Inferior medicinal plants — suggest people practice at various other levels of understanding.
- Large tree — is the symbol of the grand Bodhisattva way — bringing all beings out of suffering and into ultimate future Buddhahood
- Small tree — is a metaphor for those who practice achieving Supreme Perfect Enlightenment.
Editors Note: This is chapter 5 in our ongoing series on the Lotus Sutra, and the third of the seven parables found in the Lotus Sutra. This is the well-known parable of the Medicinal Plants. The parable continues the theme from the Parable of the Lost Son (chapter 4) found here, and the parable of the Burning House in Chapter 3 — found here, if you missed it — where Buddha demonstrates how skillful means are sometimes needed to guide students.
This is an ongoing series, of publishing the beautiful English translations of the Lotus Sutra as guided by Venerable Master Hsuang Hua.
If you missed previous chapters, you’ll find them here:
- Chapter 1 of Lotus Sutra 12,000 Monks Gather>>
- Chapter 2 of Lotus Sutra Essence or Skillful Means>>
- Chapter 3 of Lotus Sutra, the Burning House>>
- Chapter 4 Parable of the Lost Son>>
Medicinal Herbs – Chapter 5
尔时世尊告摩诃迦叶、及诸大弟子:‘善哉、善哉，迦叶善说如来 真实功德。诚如所言，如来复有无量无边阿僧只功德，汝等若于无 量亿劫、说不能尽。
At that time the World Honored One told Mahakashyapa and all the great disciples, “Good indeed! Good indeed! Kasyapa has well spoken of the Thus Come One’s real and true merit and virtue. It is just as he said.
Furthermore, the Thus Come One has limitless, boundless asamkheyas of merit and virtue. If you were to speak of it throughout limitless millions of eons, you could not finish.
Kashyapa, you should know that the Thus Come One is the king of all the dharmas. Nothing that he teaches is false.
He extensively proclaims all dharmas by means of wisdom and expedients, and whatever dharmas he speaks all lead to the ground of all wisdom.
The Thus Come One contemplates and knows the tendencies of all dharmas. He also knows the depths of the mental processes of all living beings, having penetrated them without obstruction.
Furthermore, he has ultimate and clear understanding of all dharmas, and he instructs living beings in all-wisdom.
Kashyapa, consider the world of the three thousand great thousand worlds and the grasses, trees, forests, as well as the medicinal herbs, in their many varieties, with their different names and colors which the mountains, streams, valleys and flatlands produce.
A thick cloud spreads out, covering the three thousand great thousand worlds, raining on them equally everywhere at the same time, its moisture reaching every part.
The grasses, trees, forests and medicinal herbs – those of small roots, small stalks, small branches and small leaves, those of medium-sized roots, medium-sized stalks, medium-sized branches, medium-sized leaves or those of large roots, large stalks, large branches, and large leaves and also all the trees, whether great or small according to their size, small, medium, or large, all receive a portion of it.
From the rain of the one cloud each according to its nature grows, blossoms, and bears fruit.
Although they grow from the same ground and are moistened by the same rain, still, all the grasses and trees are different.
Kashyapa, you should know that the Thus Come One is also like this. He manifests in the world like a great cloud rising; with his great sound he covers the world with its gods, humans, and asuras, just like that great cloud covers the three thousand great thousand lands.
于大众中、而唱是言:“我是如来、应供、正遍知、明行足、善逝 世间解、无上士、调御丈夫、天人师、佛、世尊，未度者令度， In the midst of the great assembly he announces, “I am the Thus Come One, One Worthy of Offerings, One of Proper and Universal Knowledge, One Whose Understanding and Conduct Are Complete, Well Gone One Who Understands the World, an Unsurpassed Lord, a Taming and Regulating Hero, Teacher of Gods and Humans, the Buddha, the World Honored One. Those who have not yet been crossed over, I cross over.
Those who have not yet been liberated, I liberate. Those who have not yet been put at rest, I put at rest. Those who have not yet attained Nirvana, I cause to attain Nirvana.
I know things as they really are, both in the present and in the future.
I am the all-knowing one, the all-seeing one, the one who knows the Way, the one who opens the Way, the one who proclaims the Way. The entire assembly of gods, humans and asuras, all should come here to listen to the Dharma.”
Then, countless thousands of myriads of millions of kinds of living beings came before the Buddha to hear the Dharma.
Then, the Thus Come One, contemplating the sharpness and dullness of the faculties of these living beings, their vigor or laxness, according to their capacity, spoke the Dharma for their sakes in limitless varieties, causing them all to rejoice and quickly attain good benefit.
After having heard this Dharma, all of these living beings presently are at ease; in the future, they will be born in a good place. By means of the Way, they will enjoy happiness and also be able to hear the Dharma.
Having heard the Dharma, they will separate from all coverings and obstructions. Within all the dharmas, according to their powers, they will gradually gain entry to the Way.
“Just as that great cloud rains down on all the grasses, trees, forests, and medicinal herbs and each, according to its nature, fully receives the moisture and grows,
so, too, the Thus Come One speaks of a Dharma having one mark and one taste, that is to say: the mark of liberation, the mark of extinction, culminating in the Wisdom of All Modes.
Those living beings who, hearing the Thus Come One’s Dharma, uphold, read, recite and cultivate it as taught will not themselves be aware of the merit and virtue they obtain.
所以者何。唯有如来、知此众生种相体性，念何事，思何事，修何 事，云何念，云何思，云何修，以何法念，以何法思，以何法修， 以何法得何法，
What is the reason? Only the Thus Come One knows the kinds, the marks, the substances, and the natures of these living beings, what they are recollecting, what they are thinking, and what they are cultivating; how they are recollecting, how they are thinking, and how they are cultivating; by means of what dharma they recollect, by means of what dharma they think, and by means of what dharma they cultivate; and by means of what dharma they obtain what dharma.
Living beings dwell on a variety of levels. Only the Thus Come One sees them as they really are, clearly and without obstruction.
Just as those grasses, trees, and forests and all the medicinal herbs do not know themselves whether their natures are superior, middle, or inferior.
The Thus Come One knows the Dharma of one mark, of one flavor, that is to say: the mark of liberation, the mark of separation, the mark of extinction, the mark of ultimate Nirvana which is constantly still and extinct and which in the end returns to emptiness.
Already understanding this the Buddha contemplates the desires in the minds of living beings and protects them. For this reason he does not immediately speak of the Wisdom of All Modes.
Kashyapa, you are all very rare in your ability to know that the Thus Come One speaks the Dharma as it is appropriate, and in your ability to believe and accept it. Why it this?
All the Buddhas, the World Honored Ones speak an appropriate Dharma which is difficult to understand, difficult to know.”
At that time the World Honored One, wishing to restate this meaning spoke verses, saying:
破有法王、 出现世间， 随众生欲， 种种说法。
“Destroyer of existence, the Dharma King Manifests within the world;
According to living beings’ desires,
He teaches the Dharma in various ways.
如来尊重， 智慧深远， 久默斯要， 不务速说。
The Thus Come One, out of veneration
For this wisdom, deep and far-reaching,
Has long remained silent on this important matter, Being in no hurry to set it forth.
有智若闻， 则能信解， 无智疑悔， 则为永失。
Those with wisdom, if they heard it,
Would be able to believe and understand it, But those lacking wisdom would doubt it And thereby lose it for a long time
是故迦叶， 随力为说， 以种种缘、 令得正见。
For this reason, Kashyapa,
It is spoken in accord with their powers Employing various conditions
To lead them to the right view.
迦叶当知， 譬如大云， 起于世间， 遍覆一切，
Kashyapa, you should know It is like a great cloud
Rising above the world
And covering all
慧云含润， 电光晃曜， 雷声远震， 令众悦豫。
A wisdom cloud filled with moisture Illuminated with lightening flashes And vibrating with thunderous roars It brings delight to all,
日光掩蔽， 地上清凉， 叆叇垂布、 如可承揽。 Obscuring the light of the sun,
Refreshing the earth
The cloud lowers and expands
As if one could reach out and touch it,
其雨普等， 四方俱下， 流澍无量， 率土充洽。
It rains equally everywhere Falling alike in the four directions Pouring without measure Saturating all the lands.
山川险谷、 幽邃所生， 卉木药草， 大小诸树，
In the mountains, streams and steep valleys, In deep recesses, there grow
Grasses, trees, and herbs,
And trees, both great and small,
百谷苗稼， 甘蔗葡萄， 雨之所润， 无不丰足，
The grains, shoots, and plants,
The sugar cane and the grape vine; All are nourished by the rain,
And none fail to be enriched.
干地普洽， 药木并茂。 其云所出， 一味之水，
The parched ground is soaked,
The herbs and trees together flourish, Issuing from that cloud
Water of a single flavor
草木丛林， 随分受润。 一切诸树， 上中下等，
Moistens grasses, trees and forests Each according to its measure
All of the trees,
Great, medium and small,
称其大小， 各得生长， 根茎枝叶， 华果光色， 一雨所及， 皆得鲜泽。
According to their size
Can grow and develop.
When reached by that single rain
The roots, stalks, branches, and leaves, Flowers and fruits with luster and color, All are fresh and shining.
如其体相、 性分大小， 所润是一， 而各滋茂。
According to their substance and marks, And natures, either great or small
They alike receive moisture
And each one flourishes.
佛亦如是， 出现于世， 譬如大云、 普覆一切。
The Buddha, in the same way Manifests within the world Just like a great cloud Covering over everything.
既出于世， 为诸众生、 分别演说、 诸法之实。
Having come into the world For the sake of living beings, He discriminates and expounds The reality of all dharmas.
大圣世尊， 于诸天人、 一切众中、 而宣是言，
The Great Sage, the World Honored One, In the midst of the multitudes
Of gods and humans
Proclaims these words saying:
我为如来， 两足之尊， 出于世间， 犹如大云、
“I am the Thus Come One
The doubly complete honored one. I appear within the world
Like a great cloud
充润一切， 枯槁众生， 皆令离苦， 得安隐乐、 世间之乐、 及涅盘乐。
The dried-out living beings,
So they all leave suffering And gain peace and bliss Worldly joy
And the joy of Nirvana.
诸天人众， 一心善听， 皆应到此、 觐无上尊。 我为世尊， 无能及者，
All gods and humans assembled here
Listen singlemindedly and well.
You should all come here
To behold the Unsurpassed Honored One, I am the World Honored One,
The one beyond compare.
为大众说， 甘露净法。 其法一味， 解脱涅盘， To bring peace and ease to living beings
I manifest within the world
And for the sake of the assembly speak
The sweet dew of pure Dharma
The Dharma of a single flavor,
That of liberation and Nirvana.
以一妙音、 演畅斯义， 常为大乘， 而作因缘。
Using a single wondrous sound
I proclaim this principle
Constantly creating the causes and conditions For the Great Vehicle.
我观一切， 普皆平等， 无有彼此、 爱憎之心。
I contemplate all
Everywhere as equal,
Without “this” or “that”
And without thoughts of love or hate.
我无贪著， 亦无限碍， 恒为一切、 平等说法，
I have no greed or attachment, And no limitations or obstacles. Constantly for everyone,
I speak the Dharma, equally.
如为一人， 众多亦然。 常演说法， 曾无他事，
Speaking for a single person,
As I would for the multitudes.
I constantly expound and proclaim the Dharma And have no other work.
去来坐立、终不疲厌， 充足世间， 如雨普润。
Coming, going, sitting and standing
I never grow weary,
Filling the entire world,
Like the moisture of the universal rain.
贵贱上下， 持戒毁戒， 威仪具足、 及不具足， 正见邪见， 利根钝根， 等雨法雨， 而无懈倦。 For the noble, the lowly, the superior and inferior, Those who keep precepts
And those who break them,
Those with perfect awesome manner
And those not perfect,
Those with right views and those with deviant views The sharp rooted, the dull rooted
I send down equally the Dharma rain
And never grow weary.
一切众生、 闻我法者， 随力所受， 住于诸地。
All living beings
Who hear my Dharma
Receive it according to their power And dwell on various levels.
或处人天， 转轮圣王， 释梵诸王， 是小药草。
They may dwell among humans or gods, Or Wheel-turning sage kings,
Shakra or Brahma Kings.
These are the small herbs.
知无漏法， 能得涅盘， 起六神通， 及得三明，
Those who know the non outflow Dharma, Those who can attain Nirvana,
Giving rise to Six Spiritual Penetrations And attaining the Three Clarities,
独处山林， 常行禅定， 得缘觉证， 是中药草。
Dwelling alone in mountain groves
Ever practicing Chan samadhi
Attaining certification to condition-enlightenment : These are the middle-sized herbs.
求世尊处， 我当作佛， 行精进定， 是上药草。
Those who seek the place of the World Honored One Saying, “We will become Buddhas.”
Vigorously practicing concentration,
These are the superior herbs.
又诸佛子、 专心佛道， 常行慈悲， 自知作佛， 决定无疑， 是名小树。
Further, those disciples of the Buddha
Who turn their minds to the Buddha Way
Always practising compassion Knowing they will become Buddhas, For sure, without doubt:
These are called the small trees.
Those who dwell in spiritual penetrations, Turning the irreversible wheel,
度无量亿、 百千众生， 如是菩萨， 名为大树。
Saving limitless hundreds of thousands Of millions of living beings-
Such Bodhisattvas as these
Are called great trees.
佛平等说， 如一味雨， 随众生性、 所受不同， 如彼草木， 所禀各异，
The Buddha speaks equally,
Like the rain of a single flavor.
According to living beings’ natures They receive it differently,
Just as those herbs and trees
Each receives a different measure.
种种言辞， 演说一法， 于佛智慧， 如海一滴。 The Buddha uses this analogy
To instruct expediently.
With various phrases, he
Expounds and proclaims a single Dharma which
In the Buddha’s wisdom is
Like a drop within the sea.
我雨法雨， 充满世间， 一味之法， 随力修行，
I send down the rain of Dharma Filling all the world
The Dharma of one taste is Cultivated according to their power
如彼丛林、 药草诸树， 随其大小， 渐增茂好。
Just like those forest groves All the herbs and trees According to their size Grow and flourish well.
诸佛之法， 常以一味， 令诸世间、 普得具足，
The Dharma of all the Buddhas Is always of a single taste
It causes all the world
To attain perfection.
渐次修行， 皆得道果。 声闻缘觉， 处于山林， 住最后身， 闻法得果， 是名药草， 各得增长。 Through its gradual cultivation
All attain the fruits of the Way.
The Hearers, those enlightened to conditions Dwelling in mountain groves
Living in their final bodies
Hearing the Dharma, gain the fruit;
They are called the herbs, And each one does grow.
若诸菩萨， 智慧坚固， 了达三界， 求最上乘， 是名小树、 而得增长。
If there are Bodhisattvas,
Whose wisdom is firm and solid,
Who thoroughly comprehend the triple world And seek the supreme vehicle;
They are called small trees,
And each one does grow.
复有住禅， 得神通力， 闻诸法空， 心大欢喜， 放无数光， 度诸众生， 是名大树、 而得增长。 Further, those who dwell in Chan
Attaining spiritual powers,
Who hear the dharma of emptiness And rejoice within their minds, Emitting countless lights
Crossing over all beings;
They are called the large trees, And each one does grow.
譬如大云， 以一味雨、 润于人华， 各得成实。 In this way, Kashyapa,
The Dharma spoken by the Buddha
Is like that great cloud.
With rain of a single flavor,
It moistens all the people and flowers,
So each one bears fruit.
迦叶当知， 以诸因缘、 种种譬喻、 开示佛道， 是我方便， 诸佛亦然。
Kashyapa, you should know
That by using causes and conditions
And various analogies
I demonstrate and reveal the Buddha Path. These are my expedients
And other Buddhas are also thus.
今为汝等， 说最实事， 诸声闻众、 皆非灭度， 汝等所行， 是菩萨道， 渐渐修学， 悉当成佛。 Now, for your sake,
I speak of this true matter;
All of you Hearers,
None of you have reached extinction. What you now are walking
That is the Bodhisattva Path.
Gradually, gradually, cultivate and study, And you will all accomplish Buddhahood.”
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Author | Buddha Weekly
Lee Kane is the editor of Buddha Weekly, since 2007. His main focuses as a writer are mindfulness techniques, meditation, Dharma and Sutra commentaries, Buddhist practices, international perspectives and traditions, Vajrayana, Mahayana, Zen. He also covers various events.
Lee also contributes as a writer to various other online magazines and blogs.