Exploring key Buddhist concepts in life and society today

The Parable of the Skilled Physician and His Sick Children

This is the seventh and final in a series introducing the parables of the Lotus Sutra.

[© Francesca Romana Perazzelli]

"Having received life, one cannot escape death," writes Nichiren. "Yet though everyone, from the noblest, the emperor, on down to the lowliest commoner, recognizes this as a fact, not even one person in a thousand or ten thousand truly takes the matter seriously." The inescapability of death may seem tragic, yet it is this certain fact of death that compels us, ultimately, to ask, "How do I live a meaningful and joyful life?" This question is at the heart of the Lotus Sutra and the parable of the skilled physician and his sick children.

The parable begins with a skilled physician who has many children. While he is away from home, his children drink poison. He returns to find them writhing on the ground in agony. He quickly gathers and mixes various fine herbs to prepare an excellent medicine. Some of his children take the medicine and are immediately cured, but others, who have been severely poisoned, refuse the medicine despite the pain they are experiencing.

The father devises a plan. He tells them, "You should know that I am now old and worn out, and the time of my death has come. I will leave this good medicine here. You should take it and not worry that it will not cure you." Having given these instructions, he goes off to another land, where he sends a messenger home to announce, "Your father is dead." Stricken by grief, his befuddled children come to their senses, take the medicine and are cured. The father, hearing that his children are all better, returns home.

Buddhism teaches that life is in a constant state of flux and that everything will ultimately change and fade. It is when the children awaken to this stark reality that they finally come to their senses and begin to seek a cure to their suffering, represented here as the good medicine of the Lotus Sutra--the essential teaching left by Shakyamuni Buddha for an ailing world. Like the confused children in the parable poisoned by mistaken beliefs, our lives can easily fall into patterns of deferment, avoidance, escapism or resignation. We are often unable to change our lives and our negative tendencies despite recognizing a need to do so. Sometimes it can take a crisis, such as the sudden passing of a loved one, to awaken us to the impermanence and preciousness of life and make us earnestly seek something more meaningful.

"It is when we are mindful of death that we begin to earnestly seek 'something eternal' and resolve to make the most valuable use of each moment of life," writes SGI President Daisaku Ikeda. This seeking spirit, the willingness to strive, is the basic condition for awakening to the eternal Buddha nature that exists within one's own life. In the parable, this awakening is represented by the father's return after the children take the medicine.

Coming to believe in our Buddhahood, however, does not magically elevate us above life's challenges or alter the fact of life's impermanence. Rather, with confidence in our Buddha nature--this vast, untapped internal reservoir of hope, courage, wisdom and compassion--we are able to squarely face up to the challenges of life and meaningfully transform them. What drives this dynamic process is the spirit of earnestly desiring to "see" the Buddha. In President Ikeda's words, "The mind of an ordinary person who seeks the Buddha becomes the mind of the Buddha itself."