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Rich man has a son who leaves him and becomes very poor. Poor sons meets rich father, does not know it is his father; father recognizes son. Father has two servants pretend to hire him to work for double the daily wages in his house; he does not tell them this is his son. His son works to clear a pile of dirt and rubble. Then the rich father disguises himself and goes to his son and hires him to remain in his service, asking him to look upon him as his father and tells him he is as a son to him. Rich father becomes ill and calls son/servant to him and asks him to manage all his possessions and wealth. The poor son does this without waste and without greed. The father then gathers his family and relatives and tells them that this poor man is now as his son and is to inherit all his wealth and property.
I thought this was a Bible story and now I find this is actually from the Lotus Sutra! you can read it in chapter four. Did Jesus then read the Lotus Sutra and use this for his own ends? How much of the Bible is from other sources?
Of course, there is a version of this story in the Bible. There is also a similar theme in the Hymn of the Pearl among the Gnostic corpus. Furthermore, you'll find other similar stories among other cultures and religions. In other words, this is a common theme in religious literature--the wayward son returning home and being accepted by the father. Some of these stories may be influenced by each other (e.g., Jesus might have read the Lotus Sutra); the problem with such a bare hypothesis is that the theme seems to be so common among human culture that it could easily surface at different times and places independently.
I have to say that, even though there is a very thin line of influence from Greece to North East India, the probability of Jesus having been influenced by the Lotus Sutra is rather low, pretty much nil.
Regardless, when you have a story or parable distributed over various cultures and religions, the point of interest is not how they resemble each other; that there is similarity in the broad outline is a given. What becomes significant is whatever is distinctive in the specific form of the story in each context.
So, in the Lotus Sutra version, when the son comes home, the father decides that the son is not yet ready to receive his inheritance. He puts him to work, cleaning out stables, etc. to prepare him. In the story in Luke 15, the father has been waiting for the son to return every day, and, when he finally shows up, he immediately accepts him, reinstates him, and holds a feast to celebrate his return. Then, there is a further wrinkle to the version that Jesus told, which could be construed as the point of it all for him: The formerly lost son had an older brother who is enraged by his father generosity.
To summarize: To whatever extent the stories are similar, there are also significant differences. The Lotus Sutra illustrates the Buddhist virtue of compassion, but the son still has to do some hard work to qualify for acceptance. The Bible illustrates the Christian doctrine of grace whereby the son is accepted immediately, and takes a swipe at those who oppose the notion of grace.
It would be overstating things to say that there is material in the Bible from other sources. On the other hand, God reveals himself within the context of human cultures, and so, to see a pattern that is found in other frameworks show up in the Bible should not take away from our understanding of it as a unique revelation. Many religious texts are sufficiently distinct from each other that they should be considered unique, even if they incorporate wide-spread themes. E.g., the Lotus Sutra is certainly unique, as is, say, the Bhagavad Gita. But they are not revelation in my view.
I find some similarity too. Lotus Sutra tells Buddha used skillful means. Gospel tells Jesus performed miracles. Both are very compassionate.
I really like the story in the Lotus Sutra. In this version, which I think is the original because it is so much more reasonable, the son had to learn responsibility, while I think in the Bible, the father just welcomed him home--like a rich spoiled kid. I think I would be mad too if my father did this to an irresponsible younger brother!
A-lian, Thanks for the insight. The fact that there are highly superficial similarities is beyond dispute. But if you become more specific, the similarities begin to vanish unless one simply writes off the specific elements as unimportant. I guess that just goes to show what I always say: Any two things are similar as long as you ignore the differences. I'm afraid that it appears to me that comparing the miracles of Jesus (e.g. healings) with the "skillful means" of the Buddha (uttering falsehoods in order to entice people to the truth) is about as long a stretch as I can conceive of. You can say that they were acts of compassion, but that's retreating into the realm of generality where, ultimately, you can make any two things sound similar. There are lots of people who have exhibited compassion in their own way, and that fact makes neither them nor their teachings impressively similar, let alone identical, except on a rather superficial level.
Erawan, I'm glad you recognize that there are differences. I'm not surprised that you prefer the Buddhist version as it appeals to a common human instinct. We tend to think that we are responsible to make ourselves acceptable to God or whatever divinity we recognize. The Christian comes to this issue with the realization that God is so holy that he can never tolerate sin in his presence, and that our sinfulness is so ingrained in our fallen nature that we cannot, out of our own capacity, eliminate it and, thus, make ourselves acceptable to God. (One needs to keep in mind here that Buddhism and Christianity have different starting points and different goals.) For me and other Christians, the parable of the prodigal son is a demonstration of God's unconditional love. He took the initiative to do what we ourselves could not through Christ's atoning death. No, I don't deserve it; no human being does. We read in the book of Romans 5:8: "While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us." I can focus on God and living in his Spirit, and I no longer need to fear for my destiny.
By the way, I didn't mention this in my earlier post because I needed to double-check the facts. From what I saw, the earliest physical exemplars we have of any version of the Lotus Sutra stem from the 3rd century AD, and there really is no way of telling when it was first written, or even in what language. This nebulous assessment contrasts with the gospels that were clearly written in the first century AD, and for which we have the first manuscripts no later than the beginning of the second century. So, the textual evidence does not support your personal preference that the Lotus Sutra version was the "original" one, if there even was a single original story with that motif.
Thanks for the good interaction.
I think the oral tradition of Asia is such a great and honorable thing--truth being told in stories from generation to generation. I honostly trust this more than the written texts that are more cold and distant. I would much rather hear or this from my grandfather than read it in a text from some scholar. This is why I think that gthe Lotus Sutra must be the original--that is comes down from an oral tradition that is much more human centered and compassionate. It doesn't bother me that it might change a little as long as the essence remains. I guess it comes down to me trusting the story more than the text.