Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The Other Prodigal

I love to read the literature of the various religious traditions of the world. I am a Christian who hears echoes of God's grace throughout the world's cultures. Recently I came across a Buddhist version of the parable of the Prodigal Son.  It is in the Lotus Sutra, written in the first century before Christ in India. But there is no literary connection to the Gospel account, as far as I know.

In the Indian version a young man is the son of a wealthy father. He wants to be on his own, and so he takes his inheritance, leaves his home and travels into a far country. There he spends all his money and is soon destitute. Not only is he financially ruined, his mental health deteriorates as well. He forgets who he is. He is reduced to wandering the countryside begging for food.

In his wanderings, he eventually meanders back to his own country after many years. But he does not recognize his own land. He comes to his own city, but he does not recognize it. He comes to his father's estate. His own servants do not recognize him, and he does not recognize them.

But his father recognizes the beggar at his gate as his lost son. He immediately realizes that his son is not in his right mind and does not know who he is. The son asks for something to eat. The father offers to give him food in exchange for some work in the garden.

After the work is done and the food is eaten, the father praises the work of the young man and offers him a job as a servant on his estate in exchange for food and lodging. The young man cannot believe his good fortune and accepts the offer. Eventually the son works his way up to assistant gardener and then head gardener and finally becomes head steward over the whole estate.

Eventually the father offers to adopt the man and make him his heir. The son agrees. Only then does the father reveal his true identity and their true relationship. There follows a tearful reunion.

There are some differences between the Biblical and Indian stories. The Indian story has no repentance and no older brother. (Although one could argue that the two brothers are combined into a single son in the Buddhist tale.) These are significant differences worthy of exploration, but I will leave that task to the apologists. I choose to explore the similarities that reflect the commonalities of our human condition.

In both accounts the son is lost and is found. Both sons return home. Both forget who they are - in different ways. Both are beggars, and both are willing to assume the role of a servant. Both experience the father's love and grace. Both are embraced by their true identity and restored to their former status.

I forget who I am. I act like a beggar at the gate of the King, whereas I am the beloved child of the Father. I pray I may spend no more years in forgetfulness and spiritual poverty.

Art is The Return of the Prodigal Son by Charlie Mackesy, bronze sculpture.

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