There is a famous Zen parable that tells the story of a rich man’s son who was lost or kidnapped. In the parable, the rich man searches for his son everywhere, but to no avail. Years pass, until one day a beggar comes to the rich man’s house looking for alms. The beggar is fed and turns to leave, but as he is going out of the compound gate, the rich man looks out his upstairs window and recognizes the beggar as his long lost son. 

Overjoyed, the rich man sends one of his servants to bring the young man to him. However, when his son, the “beggar”, hears that the nobleman has summoned him, he becomes afraid that something is wrong. “What do I”, he declares, “a simple beggar, have I to do with such a great nobleman?” and runs away.

The rich man then realizes that his son must slowly regain his trust and confidence before he is ready to take his place in the household again. So he sends a loyal servant, dressed as a beggar, to befriend his son.

After they have been wandering together for a good while, the servant convinces the beggar son to take a menial job as a gardener in the rich man’s house. Then the rich man slowly promotes the beggar to higher and higher positions of responsibility until he is responsible for running the whole household. Finally, after many years, the rich man makes a feast and in front of all his friends and household declares:

“This servant who has served me so well is in fact my long lost son. I give to him everything that I own.” [1]

There are times in our life when we are so low that everything around us looks dark and gloomy. It seems like God has forgotten and abandoned us. We feel that there is no hope left. Like a lost beggar, we wander aimlessly through the world.

At such moments, this Zen parable comes to tell us not to be worried, not to be afraid, God is watching over us. Even if we are unable to perceive it, He is steadily guiding us back into His loving embrace.

For each of us there is a particular path we need to follow to return home. For some of us, the journey is the gentle movement of the parable from gardener to trusted servant to son. For others, the way is more tangled and bumpy. But no matter what our trajectory may be, the central message of this story remains true: God is taking care of us. He/She is preparing the way forward in our lives, even if the outer circumstances seem to be telling us that it cannot be so.

 

In his exposition of the parable of the rich man’s son, the Zen Master Zenkei Shibayama points out a striking detail in the story: When the lost son first comes to his father’s house as a beggar, his father recognizes him immediately and sends one of his servants to bring his son to him. However, when the beggar son hears that the rich man wants to see him, he becomes afraid – thinking to himself: “What do I have to do with such a nobleman?” and runs away. It is only after the failure of this first attempt to bring the son home that the father goes through the long charade of treating him first like a beggar, then a servant, and finally revealing that the beggar is in reality his own son.

Master Shibayama explains that this is exactly what happened to the Buddha after his enlightenment. On the morning following his realization, the Buddha cried out: “Everybody is endowed with the wisdom and appearance of the Tathagata [the enlightened One]!” or “All beings are primarily Buddhas!”

However, like the lost son who thought he was a beggar, when the populace heard the Buddha’s teaching they would not even listen to him. “‘How absurd’, they said, ‘we are so sinful, greedy and ill tempered. How could we be enlightened beings? Don’t deceive us’”, they told the Buddha and ran away.

Like the rich man in the parable, the Buddha then had to adopt a different method of teaching whereby he slowly revealed to the people the ultimate truth.

First he taught: “You are sinful creatures and are in defilement. Repent, and purify yourselves”…Then, he went on to say…”Everything with form changes. Everything in the world is just a result of causes and conditions. The happiness of life is to come to this realization and live with no attachment.”

In this way, the Buddha gradually went on to expound higher and higher teachings until the day came at last when he could declare the great truth.

“The time has come’, he said, ‘for me to show you the Truth. Everyone listen to me carefully. All Buddhas appear in this world in order to awaken human beings to the true wisdom [that all being are Buddhas].” Now the people were ready to receive his words. [2]

This elucidation of the Buddha’s experience provides us with a novel way of looking at Biblical history.

In the beginning, God infused the first humans with a spark of the Divine Mind and then placed them on a higher plane of consciousness, which we call the Garden of Eden. On the plane of Eden, humanity lived in bodies composed of light and communed freely with the Lord. They fulfilled their appointed role as “children of the rich man.”

Unfortunately, humanity was unable to hold onto this lofty state of consciousness; they were unable to live as Divine beings. As a result, they fell from Eden and were forced to live as “wandering beggars” lost in the exile of this material world.

After many years of wandering, God again recognized his lost children. He sent His servant Moses to the people of Israel to start the process of bringing them back home. At Sinai, the people of Israel were told “you are all Buddhas”, you are all children of the rich man – you are a nation of priests.

The Children of Israel, however, could not accept this sublime truth and enter into the exalted awareness that it imparts. Instead, they chose the familiar reality of the Golden Calf and the slave consciousness which they knew so well.

Again, when the Israelites were commanded to conquer the Promised Land, then too they were unable to hold on to the higher vision. They became terrified when they heard the grim report of the spies, and pleaded with Moses to take them back to Egypt.

As a result of this lack of faith, this lack of vision, the generation of the Exodus was condemned to die off in the desert. The teaching of the ultimate wisdom was abandoned for the time being, and a much longer and more gradual process of awakening was begun.

The Midrash gives us an inkling of this truth, when it uses the similarity in the Hebrew spelling of God’s cry of “ay-eikah?” – where are you? after Adam and Eve have eaten of the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge in Eden (Genesis 3:9), and the cry of the prophet Jeremiah over the destruction of Jerusalem “eichah yashva baddad haear rabotai am!” – How does the city sit solitary that was full of people! (Lamentation 1:1) – to forge a connection between the two situations.

Tisha B’Av is not a solitary event. It is part of a larger picture, one element in a greater process that is working out through the length of human history. Tisha B’Av is one component of the ongoing relationship between God and humanity. It is one expression of a universal paradigm that underlies all experiences in this world.

 

The Shabbat after Tisha B’Av is called Shabbat Nachamu – the Shabbat of Consolation. On Shabbat Nachamu, we read the portion from the prophet Isaiah that begins with the words: “nachamu, nachamu ami” – comfort ye, comfort ye my people. Many of the commentators question why the word nachamu, comfort, is repeated twice in the opening phrase of the reading. The Zen parable of the rich man’s son combined together with Master Shibayama’s explanation of the Buddha’s post-enlightenment experience offers us one possible way of understanding the purpose of this repetition.

There are, in fact, two consolations that God promises to bestow upon us. The first consolation is His assurance that a day we will come when we will discover that we all are Divine beings – we are all children of the rich man. The second consolation will be that, in that same moment, we will realize that we always have been the rich man’s children – we never were anything else. The exalted consciousness of a Buddha is really our natural state of being.

When the appropriate moment in our spiritual evolution arrives, the Lord will once again ask us the question “ayeikah?” – Where are you, who are you, who am I? This time, the answer will spontaneously arise from our very being: “we are all sparks of our Spiritual Father. We are all enlightened beings who are Divine.”

With these words, our incarnation on this physical plane of existence will have reached its culmination. The tikkun or spiritual repair of the Great Fall that took place in Eden will be complete. And the double consolation which God vouchsafed for all of humanity will have finally been fulfilled.

 

Copyright © 2012, by Yoel Glick

 


Acknowledgements    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Saddharma Pundarika Sutra
  2. Abbot Zenkei Shibayama , A Flower does not Talk