Notes on ‘Why the Prodigal Son had to Wait‘ – seventh dhamma talk in the 2011 Dhamma Talk Series: The Dance of Emptiness.
Talks kindly hosted by the Dance Centre, School of Performing Arts, Sukhumvit 24, Bangkok.
Below are notes, quotes, links – in case anyone who listened to the talk would like to follow up on any of the topics. It is not a transcript of the whole talk. The video will become available one day, when we get the hang of video editing software….
Topic of this talk:
Kamma vs Forgiveness (or Why the Prodigal Son had to Wait)
Karma is the law of just returns, where forgiveness suggests there is a shortcut way out of our past sins. Are these two contradictory ideas? In fact there is some common ground. We look at what to do with your past transgressions, in the light of an emptiness that will accept neither right nor wrong
There are many ways to approach the topic of Kamma, this time the emphasis is on the question – does the universe offer forgiveness, or retribution. This is a question that comes up when comparing Buddhism with Christianity – you see in Thailand signs that Buddhism will have you pay for past bad action (Baab in Thai), where Jesus will forgive.
The words Kamma (Pali), and Karma (Sanskrit) mean the same thing. The word kaama however, of the famous Kaama Sutra, means sense desire – usually as lust.
Is Everything Kamma?
One sutta teaches that there are 3 wrong views:
- Everything happens due to Kamma
- Everything happens due to God
- Everything happens due to chance
So although Kamma means ’cause and effect’ – it does not mean every kind of cause and effect. If you touch paper to a candle flame, it will burn. Cause and effect, but nothing to do with kamma. If you use a candle to burn someone’s property however, this has a moral aspect, and an intent, so will have a kammic consequence.
If your car gets stolen, this is because you left the keys in, or parked it in the wrong place, not a consequence of your previous actions. It is not kamma.
One teaching talks about the way you act in this life, affecting your next life – if you are respectful here, you are influential in the next life; if you are generous here, you are wealthy in the next life etc.. Putting aside the question of rebirth for now (that’s a whole other topic), one of the parts of this causality is if you are harmful to others, in the next life you will be sickly.
So the idea came up that all physical feeling (especially illness) is due to kamma. When the Buddha was confronted with this he said “Stop, you are taking the teaching too far. You are taking it beyond what is commonly understood.” There are bodily feelings caused by the bile system, by the bodily humours, change of seasons, from taking uneven care of the body, from ‘attacks’ and from kamma.
For the keen who want to get back to the original suttas (teachings) then there is a comprehensive guide here.
Finding out ‘Why?’
So we have to be careful when we are trying answer ‘why?’. Good and bad things happen to yourself and others, but to try and answer why? is not the right approach. Unless you have vast powers, you cannot figure out why different things happen to you. In fact, trying to give a reason for everything is a way to avoid the truth – you don’t know. It’s comforting to have a nice handy explanation for everything – this happened because it is God’s will, that happened because of kamma etc.. But this is jsut a way to avoid the uncomfortable fact that we cannot figure out all the ‘why’s.
One piece of research that demonstrates our tendency to find the wrong explanations for what happens, is the Fundamental Attribution Error.
In short, people tend to ascribe internal reasons for their own success (I passed an exam because I am clever) and external causes for their own failure (I failed the exam because my teacher was no good). Similarly we ascribe external reasons for other’s success (he has money because he was very lucky) and internal reasons for other’s failure (she is ill because she is an unpleasant person).
When it comes to New Age ideas – they tend to over ascribe the world being driven by your own actions – thus my car got stolen because I attracted such with my negativity, or I fell ill due to my poor spiritual conditions. Similarly we often hear the idea that ‘whatever happens is God’s will’, or in the New Age style, everything happens to teach me a lesson.
From these examples we can see that really, you can’t go figuring everything out like this, and if you try you are taking the teaching past what is common sense.
How to Understand
The principle of Kamma was pretty clear. Be careful with your actions, because they shape your future.
There is no need or profit in trying to figure out the Why Why Why of everything that happens to you.
The Prodigal Son
Now we come to the story of the Prodigal Son, which demonstrates in parable the idea of the universe (or God) as having the nature of forgiveness. Note that both Buddhism, Christianity and Faerie Tale seek to demonstrate ideas and wisdom by the means of story. This story, along with the Lost Sheep, and the Lost Penny, are ways of showing the fogiving nature of the universe.
This is a very old story, belonging to many traditions.
‘Prodigal’ means ‘wasteful’. Below, the key points are in bold, for those who prefer to just skip through the text (though it is better to read the whole story properly).
There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, “Father, give me my share of the estate.” So he divided his property between them. Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living.
After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything. When he came to his senses, he said, “How many of my father’s hired men have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men.” So he got up and went to his father.
But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him. The son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” But the father said to his servants, “Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.” So they began to celebrate.
Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. “Your brother has come,” he replied, “and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.” The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. But he answered his father, “Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!” “My son,” the father said, “you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.” (Luke 15:11-32)
Note the main ideas – that you are given an inheritance of life, health and wealth, but the opportunity is squandered. Being in service of the pigs, means you are captured by your own greed. But the simple act of returning is enough to end your misery. Note that in this story also, you are not forgiven, nor escape your unpleasant circumstance, until you voluntarily return to the father.
This theme of God’s love being for all is quite common, but again needs to be understood:
I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.
Note that this teaching was to prompt people to practise forgiveness and loving kindness to all, including one’s enemies.
It also prompted Charles Bowen to write:
“The rain it raineth on the just
And also on the unjust fella;
But chiefly on the just, because
The unjust steals the just’s umbrella.”
(Note, in the Dhamma talk this verse was attributed to Ogden Nash. Actually it seems to be attributed to several people)
This is another version of the same tale from the Essene Gospel of Peace of Jesus Christ by the disciple John. Again, noteworthy parts in bold, for the skippers:
‘And Jesus spoke to them in parables: “You are like the prodigal son, who for many years did eat and drink, and passed his days in riotousness and lechery with his friends. And every week without his father’s knowledge he incurred new debts, and squandered all in a few days. And the moneylenders always lent to him, because his Father possessed great riches and always paid patiently the debts of his son. And in vain did he with fair words admonish his son, for he never listened to the admonitions of his father, who besought him in vain that he would give up his debaucheries which had no end, and that he would go to his fields to watch over the labour of his servants. And the son always promised him everything if he would pay his old debts, but the next day he began again. And for more than seven years the son continued in his riotous living. But, at last, his father lost patience and no more paid to the moneylenders the debts of his son. “If I continue always to pay,” he said, “there will be no end to the sins of my son.”
Then the moneylenders, who were deceived, in their wrath took the son into slavery that he might by his daily toil pay back to them the money which he had borrowed. And then ceased the eating and drinking and the daily excesses. From morning until night by the sweat of his face he watered the fields, and all of his limbs ached with the unaccustomed labour. And he lived upon dry bread, and had naught but his tears with which he could water it. And three days after he suffered so much from the heat and from weariness that he said to his master: “I can work no more, for all my limbs do ache. How long would you torment me?” “Till the day when by the labour of your hands you pay me all your debts, and when seven years are passed, you will be free.” And the desperate son answered weeping: “But I cannot bear so much as seven days. Have pity on me, for all my limbs do burn and ache.” And the wicked creditor cried out: “Press on with the work; if you could for seven years spend your days and your nights in riotousness, now must you work for seven years. I will not forgive you till you pay back all your debts to the uttermost drachma.” And the son, with his limbs racked with pain, went back despairing to the fields to continue his work.
Already he could hardly stand upon his feet because of his weariness and of his pains, when the seventh day was come, the Sabbath day, in which no man works in the field. Then the son gathered the remnant of his strength and staggered to the house of his father. And he cast himself down at his father’s feet and said: “Father, believe me for the last time and forgive me all my offences against you. I swear to you that I will never again live riotously and that I will be your obedient son in all things. Free me from the hands of my oppressor. Father, look upon me and upon my sick limbs, and harden not your heart.” Then tears came into his father’s eyes, and he took his son in his arms, and said: “Let us rejoice, for today a great joy is given me, because I have found again my beloved son, who was lost.” And he clothed him with his choicest raiment and all the day long they made merry. And on the morning of the morrow he gave his son a bag of silver that he might pay to his creditors all that he owed them. And when his son came back, he said to him: “My son, do you see that it is easy, through riotous living, to incur debts for seven years, but their payment is difficult by the heavy labour of seven years.” “Father, it is indeed hard to pay them, even for seven days.” And his father admonished him, saying: “For this once alone has it been permitted you to pay your debts in seven days instead of seven years, the rest is forgiven you. But take heed that in the time to come you do not incur more debts. For I tell you truly, that none else but your father forgives you your debts, because you are his son. For with all else you would have had to labour hard for seven years, as it is commanded in our laws.”
“My father, I will henceforth be your loving and obedient son, and I will not any more incur debts, for I know that their payment is hard.”
And he went to his father’s field and watched every day over the work of his father’s labourers. And he never made his labourers work hard, for he remembered his own heavy labour. And the years passed, and his father’s possession increased ever more-and more beneath his hand, for the blessing of his father was upon his labour. And slowly he gave back tenfold to his father all that he had squandered in the seven years. And when his father saw that his son used well his servants and all his possessions, he said to him: “My son, I see that my possessions are in good hands. I give you all my cattle, my house, my lands and my treasures. Let all this be your heritage, continue increasing it that I may have delight in you.” And when the son had received his inheritance from his father, he forgave their debts to all his debtors who could not pay him, for he did not forget that his debt also had been forgiven when he could not pay it. And God blessed him with long life, with many children and with much riches, because he was kind to all his servants and to all his cattle.
Here we have a slightly different idea – that you pay for your misdeeds, but only in part. If you ‘repent’ or change your attitude and intentions, then seven years of debt will incur only seven days of torment.
This is very similar to other traditions, such as Buddhism which has the story of the stolen goat: if your goat is stolen and you catch the thief, if he is a poor man you give him a beating. If he is rich, you ask for your goat back. Or a poor man who steals a penny is thrown into prison, where a rich man who steals a penny is not. You are the one with the goat – and when your kamma catches up with you, if you are rich (in virtue/morality) then it won’t have much affect on you. But if you are poor in virtue, then the kamma will give you a beating.
It is the same idea: If you are an upright person, and are willing to be righteous, then you will pay little in kammic debt for past bad deeds. The Sanskrit Yogasutrabhasya III 22 has the description of kamma as like a wet cloth – if it is rolled up it won’t dry fast, but if it is laid out in the sun, it can dry faster – so too does kamma quickly expire in a good person.
Now the Buddhist version of the Prodigal Son:
A young man left his father and ran away. For long he dwelt in other countries, for ten, or twenty, or fifty years. The older he grew, the more needy he became. Wandering in all directions to seek clothing and food, he unexpectedly approached his native country. The father had searched for his son all those years in vain and meanwhile had settled in a certain city. His home became very rich; his goods and treasures were fabulous.
At this time, the poor son, wandering through village after village and passing through countries and cities, at last reached the city where his father had settled. The father had always been thinking of his son, yet, although he had been parted from him over fifty years, he had never spoken of the matter to anyone. He only pondered over it within himself and cherished regret in his heart, saying, “Old and worn out I am. Although I own much wealth – gold, silver, and jewels, granaries and treasuries overflowing – I have no son. Some day my end will come and my wealth will be scattered and lost, for I have no heir. If I could only get back my son and commit my wealth to him, how contented and happy would I be, with no further anxiety!”
Meanwhile the poor son, hired for wages here and there, unexpectedly arrived at his father’s house. Standing by the gate, he saw from a distance his father seated on a lion-couch, his feet on a jeweled footstool, and with expensive strings of pearls adorning his body, revered and surrounded by priests, warriors, and citizens, attendants and young slaves waiting upon him right and left. The poor son, seeing his father having such great power, was seized with fear, regretting that he had come to this place. He reflected, “This must be a king, or someone of royal rank, it is impossible for me to be hired here. I had better go to some poor village in search of a job, where food and clothing are easier to get. If I stay here long, I may suffer oppression.” Reflecting thus, he rushed away.
Meanwhile the rich elder on his lion-seat had recognized his son at first glance, and with great joy in his heart reflected, “Now I have someone to whom I may pass on my wealth. I have always been thinking of my son, with no means of seeing him, but suddenly he himself has come and my longing is satisfied. Though worn with years, I yearn for him.”
Instantly he sent off his attendants to pursue the son quickly and fetch him back. Immediately the messengers hasten forth to seize him. The poor son, surprised and scared, loudly cried his complaint, “I have committed no offense against you, why should I be arrested?” The messengers all the more hastened to lay hold of him and brought him back. Following that, the poor son, thought that although he was innocent he would be imprisoned, and that now he would surely die. He became all the more terrified, fainted away and fell on the ground. The father, seeing this from a distance, sent word to the messengers, “I have no need for this man. Do not bring him by force. Sprinkle cold water on his face to restore him to consciousness and do not speak to him any further.” Why? The father, knowing that his son’s disposition was inferior, knowing that his own lordly position had caused distress to his son, yet convinced that he was his son, tactfully did not say to others, “This is my son.”
A messenger said to the son, “I set you free, go wherever you will.” The poor son was delighted, thus obtaining the unexpected release. He arose from the ground and went to a poor village in search of food and clothing. Then the elder, desiring to attract his son, set up a device. Secretly he sent two men, sorrowful and poor in appearance, saying, “Go and visit that place and gently say to the poor man, ‘There is a place for you to work here. We will hire you for scavenging, and we both also will work along with you.’” Then the two messengers went in search of the poor son and, having found him, presented him the above proposal. The poor son, having received his wages in advance, joined them in removing a refuse heap.
His father, beholding the son, was struck with compassion for him. One day he saw at a distance, through the window, his son’s figure, haggard and drawn, lean and sorrowful, filthy with dirt and dust. He took off his strings of jewels, his soft attire, and put on a coarse, torn and dirty garment, smeared his body with dust, took a basket in his right hand, and with an appearance fear-inspiring said to the laborers, “Get on with your work, don’t be lazy.” By such means he got near to his son, to whom he afterwards said, “Ay, my man, you stay and work here, do not leave again. I will increase your wages, give whatever you need, bowls, rice, wheat-flour, salt, vinegar, and so on. Have no hesitation; besides there is an old servant whom you can get if you need him. Be at ease in your mind; I am, as it were, your father; do not be worried again. Why? I am old and advanced in years, but you are young and vigorous; all the time you have been working, you have never been deceitful, lazy, angry or grumbling. I have never seen you, like the other laborers, with such vices as these. From this time forth you will be as my own begotten son.”
The elder gave him a new name and called him a son. But the poor son, although he rejoiced at this happening, still thought of himself as a humble hireling. For this reason, for twenty years he continued to be employed in scavenging. After this period, there grew mutual confidence between the father and the son. He went in and out and at his ease, though his abode was still in a small hut.
Then the father became ill and, knowing that he would die soon, said to the poor son, “Now I possess an abundance of gold, silver, and precious things, and my granaries and treasuries are full to overflowing. I want you to understand in detail the quantities of these things, and the amounts that should be received and given. This is my wish, and you must agree to it. Why? Because now we are of the same mind. Be increasingly careful so that there be no waste.” The poor son accepted his instruction and commands, and became acquainted with all the goods. However, he still had no idea of expecting to inherit anything, his abode was still the original place and he was still unable to abandon his sense of inferiority.
After a short time had again passed, the father noticed that his son’s ideas had gradually been enlarged, his aspirations developed, and that he despised his previous state of mind. Seeing that his own end was approaching, he commanded his son to come, and gathered all his relatives, the kings, priests, warriors, and citizens. When they were all assembled, he addressed them saying, “Now, gentlemen, this is my son, begotten by me. It is over fifty years since, from a certain city, he left me and ran away to endure loneliness and misery. His former name was so-and-so and my name was so-and-so. At that time in that city I sought him sorrowfully. Suddenly I met him in this place and regained him. This is really my son and I am really his father. Now all the wealth which I possess belongs entirely to my son, and all my previous disbursements and receipts are known by this son.” When the poor son heard these words of his father, great was his joy at such unexpected news, and thus he thought, “Without any mind for, or effort on my part, these treasures now come to me.”
World-honored One! The very rich elder is the Tathagata, and we are all as the Buddha’s sons. The Buddha has always declared that we are his sons. But because of the three sufferings, in the midst of births-and-deaths we have borne all kinds of torments, being deluded and ignorant and enjoying our attachment to things of no value. Today the World-honored One has caused us to ponder over and remove the dirt of all diverting discussions of inferior things. In these we have hitherto been diligent to make progress and have got, as it were, a day’s pay for our effort to reach nirvana. Obtaining this, we greatly rejoiced and were contented, saying to ourselves, “For our diligence and progress in the Buddha-law what we have received is ample”. The Buddha, knowing that our minds delighted in inferior things, by his tactfulness taught according to our capacity, but still we did not perceive that we are really Buddha’s sons. Therefore we say that though we had no mind to hope or expect it, yet now the Great Treasure of the King of the Law has of itself come to us, and such things that Buddha-sons should obtain, we have all obtained. (Saddharmapundarika Sutra 4)
Here too there is a period of ‘redemption’, but it is due to the Son’s own guilt making him feel unworthy of the father’s riches. This means that Enlightenment is our birth right, but we are restrained by our own limited view of ourselves. Mahayana Buddhism emphasises this point – that you are already Enlightened and do not have to go through thousands of lifetimes of purification to realise it. As the son starts to grow and act more like the rich man he should be, so he feels more worthy – Mahayana teaches that if you act as if you are enlightened, it makes it easier for Enlightenment to arise.
It should be pretty clear here, the general point.
Kamma is not a form of retribution, and a debt that we must pay in full, act by act. The affect of kamma changes depending on what kind of a person you are. Bad deeds are quickly expunged if you are a ‘large’ person, but long tormenting if you are a ‘small’ or constricted person.
You can’t go trying to figure out exactly why things happen the way they do – the teaching on Kamma is purely to make you be careful of your actions, as they have effects on you in the present or future.