Lost & Found: Christian & Buddhist Parables of the Prodigal Son

Lost & Found: Christian & Buddhist Parables of the Prodigal Son November 30, 2017





The other night for about the ten thousandth time I introduced the raw basics of Zen meditation to a small group of people.

Beyond the basics of posture and some suggestions about breath counting I attempted to quickly summarize the “essences” of the practice. To do this I spoke of it as “olly olly oxen free.”

There are variations on that phrase but this seems the most common use. The term “Olly olly oxen free,”  for those who don’t know comes from children’s games, mostly hide and seek, but in others as well. Basically it means you can come out from hiding.

I think of it as “come home, come home. All is forgiven.”

For me the practices of presence that we call Zen, all turn on attending and forgetting. And, then the magic. Returning.

Helping to unpack this I find myself thinking of two stories.

In our culture it is nearly impossible to have not heard of the parable of the prodigal son. It’s captured in the Gospel According to Luke. A rich man has two sons. The younger asks for his inheritance immediately. Reluctantly the man gives his son his portion of the family’s wealth.

The young man immediately squanders it and is reduced to a life of begging.

Finally he returns to his home and asks to be taken in as a servant. The older son who has been faithful objects. But the father says, “You will inherit everything. But, he who was lost has been found.”

And with that a feast is prepared to welcome the lost son back.

In the Lotus Sutra there is a very similar story. A boy becomes a teenager and steals money from his family, runs away, and proceeds to quickly squander everything he had acquired.

Reduced to poverty he becomes a wandering beggar.

Years pass. His father spent a long time trying to find his son but without success. However he also continues to grow richer.

Finally the boy, now a man finds himself in his home village. There he sees a procession and thinks it must be that for some royal personage. It is, of course, his father. But in his reduced state he doesn’t recognize his father. The father, however, immediately knows his son.

Pretending he doesn’t know the young man is in fact is his son, the man offers his son a modest position in his entourage. Gradually, as he works and assumes responsibilities the son is given ever more important positions.

Years pass and finally as the man is about to die he reveals to his son their true relationship and tells him he will inherit everything.

The similarities of these two stories is striking, and there are those who are insistent that one influenced the other. It’s possible.

But, of course, they’re not exactly the same story. There are critical differences.

That said both offer important pointers to anyone lost in this world and seeking their true home. This deep longing is, I believe, part and parcel of our human condition. And all spiritual paths are about the journey from being lost to being found.

And with that I turn my heart to these stories of prodigals.

In the Christian version we are invited to a magical moment where someone surrenders his burden, is immediately reconciled, and with that is welcomed to a feast.

Of course there continue to be consequences for past actions, but the most important point is a calling into presence, into connection.

In the Buddhist version we are invited to a path of acknowledgement, where there is a profound connection, maybe even the same profound connection as in the other story, but, where the good teacher offers a path to reconciliation.

Here those past actions are addressed through a path of gradual unfolding of ability and empowered by success, further unfolding.

Immediate. Step by step.

Here are some questions.

Are they the same? Or, are they different?

Is that home the same or different?

And. Who are we really? The son? The father? The squandered inheritance? The path? The feast?

Olly, olly, oxen free…


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