The Parable of the Prodigal Son, or the Lost Son, is known to most within the sphere of Christianity, but few are aware that a very similar parable exists within one of the most important texts of Mahayana Buddhism, The Lotus Sutra. Both parables share a common structure and plot consisting of a son who leaves home, returns, and is received by his father. Where the two differ however is in the specific details of the three broad plot sections, and what those details mean within the context of their respective religion. For example, the son leaves home in both parables, but parable found in Luke, in the New Testament, is used to teach Christians something completely different than what the parable found in Chapter Four of The Lotus Sutra teaches Buddhists. Another point in which the two parables differ is in who the characters represent within the parable. It could also be argued however that the characters are actually quite similar in their representations, the father representing the figurehead of the religion, God in Christianity and the Buddha, or more specifically the Buddha nature, in Buddhism and the son representing the practitioner. Despite their differences, cross-examining the two versions of the parable offer an insightful look into both Christianity and Buddhism, and any similarities between the two, while taking the time to fully understand the differences offers a deeper knowledge of each religion as well. Both parables are similar in structure and plot, but vary greatly in meaning, especially within the context of their respective religion.
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In both versions of the parable, the story begins with a sin leaving home. In the Christian version, a son asks his father for his share of the inheritance early, and leaves home with his small fortune, only to squander it all until he is forced to work in filth, feeding swine, while barely keeping himself fed. “He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything” (Luke 15:16). The pigs the son was seeding were fed better than he. In the Buddhist version, a son secretly runs away from his father and wanders for a great many years, living a poor life of menial labor, but still keeping himself afloat, clothed and fed. He wanders from village to village, place to place. Meanwhile, his father had been earnestly searching for him, and decided to take up residence in a city where he built up an enormous fortune upon an impressive estate. Within the Christian parable, the son leaving and squandering his inheritance symbolizes man leaving God’s grace for a life spent in sin. Even the son’s actions very clearly represent a sinful lifestyle. Asking his father or his share of the inheritance while his father still lives is a way of wishing his father were dead. This first part of the Christian version represents the first in a series of events that leads to returning to the light of God, that of turning from the grace of God to lead a life of sin. In the Buddhist version, the son runs away without any wealth from his father, and spends many years wandering in a miserable condition. This symbolizes the fact that wealth or privilege plays no role in spiritual development, the only “inheritance” man possesses is what he takes with him from one life to the next, and that is karma which is mismanaged, can lead to endless wandering from life to life until a permanent, positive growth towards nirvana is established.
The second part of the parable, present in both versions, is the son’s return home. In the Christian version, the son finally comes to his senses and asks himself “How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death” (Luke 15:17)! He plans to return to his father, beg for forgiveness of his sins, and ask to be put to work, and so goes home. The son in the Buddhist version makes no such conscious decision to go home; instead his wandering takes him to a magnificent estate where he sees a king-like figure being tended to by servants, he cannot recognize his own father amongst his father’s wealth. The son runs away in fear and his father, “recognized him immediately. His heart was filled with great joy and at once he thought: Now I have someone to entrust my storehouses of wealth and possessions to” (Lotus, 2)! So he sends one of his messengers to fetch his son. The messenger ends of scaring the son and the father lets his son go, becoming aware of his son’s desire to live a self-abasing life. He then sends out to servants in dirty garb to offer him work removing excrement at twice the regular wage, and the son accepts, returning home to his father, unbeknownst of course. In the Christian parable, the process of the son coming to his senses and wanting to come home to beg forgiveness for his sins, despite whatever humiliation he would go through at the hands of his other brother, is symbolic of the process of repentance. That is, confessing and coming to terms with ones sin and asking forgiveness of god. This represents the second event in man’s return to the light of god, recognizing his sin and repenting. In the Buddhist version, the son’s wandering is symbolic of the cycle of samsara, of birth and rebirth, or reincarnation. An individual will wander the stages of life, gaining or losing merit with every lifetime, until it culminates with the realization that leads to enlightenment and nirvana.
The last part of both parables is the reception of the son back home. In the Christian parable, the father runs out to embrace his son who was lost and is now found. He dresses his son in the best robes, gives him sandals, and slaughters the fattened calf to have a feast. Instead of the son humiliating himself by returning to the shame he received upon his departure, the father runs out to embrace his returning son, saving his son the humiliation. The son does not even finish repenting and confessing his sorrow over his sins before his father interrupts and brings all the gifts out to him. In the Buddhist version, his son’s reaction to the messenger suggests to the father that any sort of instant father-son reestablishment is not going to happen, and, understanding his son’s attitude, offers him work removing excrement through two of his other servants. The father often disguises himself and goes to the son who is working and encourages him to work hard. He promises to increase his salary and offers to cover his basic needs like food and shelter. This process goes on for twenty years; all the while the son is living in a small hut performing menial labor, until the father become ill and makes the son a sort of accountant over all his wealth. The son does not lose sight of his inferiority and beings to familiarize himself with the wealth, what goes in and out of the storehouses. It is not until the son comes to improve his outlook and despise his former lifestyle of menial tasks that the father feels he is ready and gathers all the relatives, the ministers, and administrators of the region and confesses that the son is in fact his son and entrusts all of his wealth to him. This process symbolizes the process by which the Buddha guides those who listen to the Dharma along the path towards nirvana and Buddhahood. With every passing life, one must gain merit to deserve his position in the coming life, working little by little towards enlightenment. It is not an instantaneous happening; it is something that must occur over thousands of lifetimes. The father’s reception of the son in the Christian version symbolizes God’s loving embrace of those who repent and confess their sins to him. Repentance allows one to return to God’s grace from sin. Coming back to God represents the third and final part in the process of returning to God’s grace. It is an emphasis on the fact that although no one strives for sin, that lifestyle is all too attractive and most fall victim to sin, but it is not the end of the road. Recognizing one’s wrongdoing, confessing one’s sins, and repenting to God can overcome any obstacles created by sin.
There is one very major difference between the two versions of the parable however, that of the presence of a second son in the Christian version. This second son spent his whole life working for his father, obeying him always, and when he approaches the house after his brother had returned and he hears music and laughter he becomes upset. He asks his father why he was celebrating his son who left and threw away his entire inheritance, but his father assures him that all that he owns will be his someday, but he must celebrate the return of his brother who was lost and is now found again. This character almost certainly reflects Jesus’ attitude toward the Pharisees, the “religious elites” of the time who were criticizing Jesus from delighting in the company of sinners. They considered themselves above people like that, too pure to spend time with defilers. But Jesus’ message was about love for all, embracing all who come to repent of their sins, regardless of the severity, and that is what the father is trying to tell the second brother, that despite his brother’s sins, he has come to ask forgiveness for them and they must show him love for it. Why the Buddhist version does not include a character like this is quite simple in that the two parables are meant to deliver two very different messages. The Christian version emphasizes that although sin is tempting and all fall to it occasionally, one can be cleansed through repentance and restored to God’s grace. The Buddhist version emphasizes the process of merit gaining from lifetime to lifetime and the fact that reaching the status of bodhisattva or even buddha takes many thousands of lifetimes. Humility is not as important in the Buddhist version and thus does not need the second brother.
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While these two parables may seem to differ significantly on the surface, a brief examination of both versions of the Parable of the Lost Son can reveal some striking similarities and offers an insightful look into the values of beliefs of both religions. Cross-examining literature and teachings from two different religions is a very effective tool for further understanding each religion, it can also raise awareness of some commonalities between the two that were unheard of prior.