I read an interesting May 25, 2021 article in Newsweek about the progress of COVID-19 vaccinations in India. The Newsweek article focused on one village, Sisoda Village, which is in India’s Uttar Pradesh State. This caught my eye because Uttar Pradesh is where Kushinagar is located. Kushinagar is the place where Gautama Buddha attained parinirvana. In other words, Kushinagar is where the Buddha passed away. Sarnath is also located in the state of Uttar Pradesh. Sarnath is where the Buddha gave his first sermon.
At the moment, India has the highest rate of COVID-19 infections in the world. By late May, about 27 million infections were confirmed, while more than 300,000 have died. Hospitals have been overwhelmed and are without oxygen. Experts say that these figures are too conservative, and the actual figures are probably much higher. While it is obvious under these circumstances that India desperately needs to get their citizens vaccinated, Indian health officials in are having a difficult time.
When medical officials went to Sisoda Village in Barabanki, its residents began fleeing their homes and frantically leaping into nearby Saryu River. They were somehow informed incorrectly that the vaccine was a “poisonous injection.” The medical team tried their best to explain to them that the vaccine was not poisonous. Nonetheless, the villagers were so indoctrinated of the vaccine’s harm and lethality that hardly anyone believed them. For many, the COVID-19 vaccine was not only poisonous, they thought that it could lead to impotence or another viral infection. At the end of the day, only fourteen people out of a total of the 1500 people in the village was vaccinated.
Somehow, what happened in this rural village reminded me of a parable from Chapter 16 of the Lotus Sutra, called Ryo-i Byo-shi (良医病子の喩). Translated, Ryo-I Byo-shi means, “good doctor and sick children.” There was once a very respected and accomplished medical doctor who was very wealthy and owned a large mansion. He also had many children, perhaps in the hundreds, or even thousands. They all lived in his house. As part of his job, the good doctor was away regularly, and often traveled to far-off lands. One day, when the doctor was away, the children all drank poison by mistake. This made them sick and delirious.
Luckily for the children, their father happened to return at the right time. His children were all rolling on the ground in pain. The father quickly assessed the problem, and proceeded to create an antidote to counter the poison. He said to his children, “I have made a powerful medicine that works on any poison or ailment. Drink this medicine, and you will all be cured.” Some of the children who were only mildly affected by the poison understood their father clearly, and promptly drank the medicine. They were cured immediately. Whereas, there were other children whose condition was much more worse. These children were deeply afflicted, perhaps because they had drank so much poison. They had difficulty in understanding their father. They were in the midst of being taken over by the poison, and were almost hallucinatory.
The doctor was not satisfied in saving just some of his children. He desired to save them all. However, seeing that some of his children were either still not convinced that they can be saved or were too sick to comprehend what he was saying, the good doctor decided to use another approach. He placed his medicine on a table, and declared, “I will leave the medicine here. Make sure you drink it to get well,” and then, almost callously, ignored his children, and left his house, to travel to a far away. From his destination, the doctor dispatched someone to his home with a message for his children.
The message simply read, “Your father has passed away in a foreign land.” With the sudden realization that their father had died, these children began crying and were overcome by grief. Although they were hitherto obscured in their hearing, vision, and thinking, the sudden message of their father’s passing jolted them into recalling their father’s last words with limpid clarity–to take the medicine and get well. Those who had held out until now, willingly drank their father’s medicine, curing them of their ailments immediately.
Once the children were all cured, their father returned home. He was welcomed with utter joy. The father explained that because some of his children had veered off the path, and did not listen or did not want to listen to him, he decided to leave, and use hoben (an expedient) to make everyone believe that he was dead and would not return. The doctor’s strategy ultimately served to aid in convincing his children to take the medicine.
This parable includes an endless number of Buddha’s teachings. I would like to highlight just three at this time. First of all, we are constantly addressing variation in our lives. We can see that some of the doctor’s children had enough faith in their father to drink the medicine with complete confidence, and did so as soon as they were told. Others were either not so trusting of their father or chose not to listen to their father for some reason. These children required much more coaxing. It is often difficult to convince others of one’s intentions, no matter how noble or truthful they are.
The application of hoben or an expedient was a technique employed by the Buddha often to lead his followers along a path to the truth. hoben is never a lie, but a step towards the truth. hoben are like instruments used in the training stages of instruction, to help a student reach his or her potential, or so that they can someday actually apply their training in real- life situations. hoben is always to reach what is real.
In learning to swim, a teacher may hand a swimmer in their beginning stages, a float, for example. Training wheels are convenient in the beginning stages of learning how to ride a bicycle. Lots of pictures can aid a child in assisting to learn how to read. These expedients may help the learner psychologically, or to actually provide advice in mastering certain stages of learning. In all these cases, these helping agents are shed a little by little until they become either unnecessary or fluid in process. The Buddha taught by using a graded curriculum. He taught his disciples step by step, and each according to their capacities, always to lead them in a path to truth and righteousness.
Finally, the father in the parable at some point leaves his children, and then returns again. The children thought that he had perished in a land far away. The physician in the story symbolizes the Buddha, and the doctor’s children, the Buddha’s followers. Chapter 16 of the Lotus Sutra, in which this parable appears, concerns the Buddha’s longevity.
Historically, the Sakyamuni Buddha died 2500 years ago in Kushinagar as I mentioned earlier. The Lotus Sutra does not deny this, but this chapter emphasizes that the spirit of the Buddha cannot be extinguished. The Buddha’s parinirvana means that he is always with us, consumed with how to take care of us much like the father in the parable. Like the good doctor who disappeared from the sight of his children, the Buddha may have become something inert and invisible, Chapter 16 assures us that the Buddha exists eternally in his teachings within our hearts.