The Parable of the Prodigal Son
in Christianity and Buddhism
by Ernest Valea
Most Westerners are familiar with the Parable of the Prodigal Son as it appears in Luke's Gospel, but probably few are aware that it has a Buddhist parallel in one of the major writings of Mahayana Buddhism. Although both parables seem to convey a similar message regarding God's compassion for humans, a closer look will reveal fundamental differences in their teaching and consequently between Christianity and Buddhism. Let me quote both parables and then analyze them.
First, here is the text in the Gospel According to Luke:
After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything. When he came to his senses, he said, "How many of my father's hired men have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men." So he got up and went to his father.
But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him. The son said to him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son." But the father said to his servants, "Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let's have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found." So they began to celebrate.
Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. "Your brother has come," he replied, "and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound." The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. But he answered his father, "Look! All these years I've been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!" "My son," the father said, "you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found." (Luke 15:11-32)
The Buddhist parable is longer:
At this time, the poor son, wandering through village after village and passing through countries and cities, at last reached the city where his father had settled. The father had always been thinking of his son, yet, although he had been parted from him over fifty years, he had never spoken of the matter to anyone. He only pondered over it within himself and cherished regret in his heart, saying, "Old and worn out I am. Although I own much wealth - gold, silver, and jewels, granaries and treasuries overflowing - I have no son. Some day my end will come and my wealth will be scattered and lost, for I have no heir. If I could only get back my son and commit my wealth to him, how contented and happy would I be, with no further anxiety!"
Meanwhile the poor son, hired for wages here and there, unexpectedly arrived at his father's house. Standing by the gate, he saw from a distance his father seated on a lion-couch, his feet on a jeweled footstool, and with expensive strings of pearls adorning his body, revered and surrounded by priests, warriors, and citizens, attendants and young slaves waiting upon him right and left. The poor son, seeing his father having such great power, was seized with fear, regretting that he had come to this place. He reflected, "This must be a king, or someone of royal rank, it is impossible for me to be hired here. I had better go to some poor village in search of a job, where food and clothing are easier to get. If I stay here long, I may suffer oppression." Reflecting thus, he rushed away.
Meanwhile the rich elder on his lion-seat had recognized his son at first glance, and with great joy in his heart reflected, "Now I have someone to whom I may pass on my wealth. I have always been thinking of my son, with no means of seeing him, but suddenly he himself has come and my longing is satisfied. Though worn with years, I yearn for him."
Instantly he sent off his attendants to pursue the son quickly and fetch him back. Immediately the messengers hasten forth to seize him. The poor son, surprised and scared, loudly cried his complaint, "I have committed no offense against you, why should I be arrested?" The messengers all the more hastened to lay hold of him and brought him back. Following that, the poor son, thought that although he was innocent he would be imprisoned, and that now he would surely die. He became all the more terrified, fainted away and fell on the ground. The father, seeing this from a distance, sent word to the messengers, "I have no need for this man. Do not bring him by force. Sprinkle cold water on his face to restore him to consciousness and do not speak to him any further." Why? The father, knowing that his son's disposition was inferior, knowing that his own lordly position had caused distress to his son, yet convinced that he was his son, tactfully did not say to others, "This is my son."
A messenger said to the son, "I set you free, go wherever you will." The poor son was delighted, thus obtaining the unexpected release. He arose from the ground and went to a poor village in search of food and clothing. Then the elder, desiring to attract his son, set up a device. Secretly he sent two men, sorrowful and poor in appearance, saying, "Go and visit that place and gently say to the poor man, 'There is a place for you to work here. We will hire you for scavenging, and we both also will work along with you.'" Then the two messengers went in search of the poor son and, having found him, presented him the above proposal. The poor son, having received his wages in advance, joined them in removing a refuse heap.
His father, beholding the son, was struck with compassion for him. One day he saw at a distance, through the window, his son's figure, haggard and drawn, lean and sorrowful, filthy with dirt and dust. He took off his strings of jewels, his soft attire, and put on a coarse, torn and dirty garment, smeared his body with dust, took a basket in his right hand, and with an appearance fear-inspiring said to the laborers, "Get on with your work, don't be lazy." By such means he got near to his son, to whom he afterwards said, "Ay, my man, you stay and work here, do not leave again. I will increase your wages, give whatever you need, bowls, rice, wheat-flour, salt, vinegar, and so on. Have no hesitation; besides there is an old servant whom you can get if you need him. Be at ease in your mind; I am, as it were, your father; do not be worried again. Why? I am old and advanced in years, but you are young and vigorous; all the time you have been working, you have never been deceitful, lazy, angry or grumbling. I have never seen you, like the other laborers, with such vices as these. From this time forth you will be as my own begotten son."
The elder gave him a new name and called him a son. But the poor son, although he rejoiced at this happening, still thought of himself as a humble hireling. For this reason, for twenty years he continued to be employed in scavenging. After this period, there grew mutual confidence between the father and the son. He went in and out and at his ease, though his abode was still in a small hut.
Then the father became ill and, knowing that he would die soon, said to the poor son, "Now I possess an abundance of gold, silver, and precious things, and my granaries and treasuries are full to overflowing. I want you to understand in detail the quantities of these things, and the amounts that should be received and given. This is my wish, and you must agree to it. Why? Because now we are of the same mind. Be increasingly careful so that there be no waste." The poor son accepted his instruction and commands, and became acquainted with all the goods. However, he still had no idea of expecting to inherit anything, his abode was still the original place and he was still unable to abandon his sense of inferiority.
After a short time had again passed, the father noticed that his son's ideas had gradually been enlarged, his aspirations developed, and that he despised his previous state of mind. Seeing that his own end was approaching, he commanded his son to come, and gathered all his relatives, the kings, priests, warriors, and citizens. When they were all assembled, he addressed them saying, "Now, gentlemen, this is my son, begotten by me. It is over fifty years since, from a certain city, he left me and ran away to endure loneliness and misery. His former name was so-and-so and my name was so-and-so. At that time in that city I sought him sorrowfully. Suddenly I met him in this place and regained him. This is really my son and I am really his father. Now all the wealth which I possess belongs entirely to my son, and all my previous disbursements and receipts are known by this son." When the poor son heard these words of his father, great was his joy at such unexpected news, and thus he thought, "Without any mind for, or effort on my part, these treasures now come to me."
World-honored One! The very rich elder is the Tathagata, and we are all as the Buddha's sons. The Buddha has always declared that we are his sons. But because of the three sufferings, in the midst of births-and-deaths we have borne all kinds of torments, being deluded and ignorant and enjoying our attachment to things of no value. Today the World-honored One has caused us to ponder over and remove the dirt of all diverting discussions of inferior things. In these we have hitherto been diligent to make progress and have got, as it were, a day's pay for our effort to reach nirvana. Obtaining this, we greatly rejoiced and were contented, saying to ourselves, "For our diligence and progress in the Buddha-law what we have received is ample". The Buddha, knowing that our minds delighted in inferior things, by his tactfulness taught according to our capacity, but still we did not perceive that we are really Buddha's sons. Therefore we say that though we had no mind to hope or expect it, yet now the Great Treasure of the King of the Law has of itself come to us, and such things that Buddha-sons should obtain, we have all obtained. (Saddharmapundarika Sutra 4)
The parable in its context
In Luke, the parable reveals the character of God in Christianity and his expectation that all sinners may return to a father-son relationship with him. Jesus told this parable to a large public consisting of both the 'religious experts' of the day, the Pharisees, and the people most despised by them, the tax collectors, prostitutes and other outcasts (Luke 15,1-2). The Pharisees considered these 'sinners' to be outside the acceptable boundary of God's kingdom and criticized Jesus for enjoying their company. In contrast to their contemptuous attitude, he told the previous two parables in Luke 15 (The Lost Sheep and The Lost Coin), in order to emphasize God's initiative in seeking and saving such sinners. In response, the 'outcasts' acknowledged their sinful life and came to Jesus for healing and forgiveness, while the Pharisees considered themselves good enough according to God's standards (see the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector in Luke 18:9-14). Thus the Parable of the Prodigal Son reveals both God's love for those who were ready to accept it (the prodigal son who returns to his father), and his rejection of the Pharisees' self-centered righteousness (the older son in the parable). Although the contrast between the two sons is an important point in the parable, since the Buddhist parable speaks only of a prodigal son, the teaching about the older son in Luke will be ignored in this comparison.
The Buddhist parable is part of the famous Saddharmapundarika Sutra (also called the Lotus Sutra, composed at the end of the second century AD), which revealed the new teaching of Mahayana Buddhism regarding the bodhisattva beings. The discourse of the Buddha's disciples takes place in front of a very large public, consisting of arhats, nuns, bodhisattvas, gods and other beings. His teaching was addressed to those who have reached the arhat stage of becoming and are supposed to advance further to becoming a bodhisattva and ultimately a Buddha. As the son in the parable shouldn't have been satisfied with his low social status, the Buddhist disciples should also aspire to a higher position, that of becoming a Buddha themselves. It will eventually be attained after a long process of learning and acquiring merits.
In the Gospel the father represents God, the Ultimate Reality in Christianity, while the prodigal son is the individual living in sin who finally repents and returns to a personal relationship with God. In the Sutra the father is Buddha (or more specifically, the Buddha nature - Dharmakaya), while the son is the individual struggling to become an enlightened bodhisattva being.
The son's departure and miserable condition
The prodigal son in Luke declares that he has had enough of staying home in obedience to his father and wants to be on his own. Not only does he want to leave home, but he even dares to claim his inheritance, the fortune he is supposed to get at his father's death. It would have been the equivalent of saying: "Father, I wish you were dead, so that I could cash in my inheritance." Such a demand is obviously outrageous, especially in the Middle Eastern context. However, instead of rebuking or even forsaking his son, the father grants his request.
Soon after this, the son leaves for a distant country where he squanders his entire fortune in wild living. This is a quite new and interesting experience for him, but it brings him to bankruptcy. Now he must find a job to make a living in that country, and the best offer he has is to feed someone's pigs. In a Jewish context, pigs are considered unclean animals; therefore being hired to feed them and even being hungry enough to long for their food illustrates the worst possible situation one can reach.
The spiritual meaning of the prodigal son's leaving home is human rebellion against God, the heavenly father. God does not oppose one's freedom of will in choosing how to live. As the son in the parable claims his inheritance and then squanders it, humans use all that God has granted them (wealth, health, time and relationships) not for serving him in obedience, but for selfish interests. This attitude is called sin, and brings humans to the lowest possible stage of decadence. Although living a sinful life is at first very attractive and pleasant, in the end it leads to destruction, not only spiritually, but also physically, emotionally and socially.
Although the father in the parable gives a large amount of money to his son, he is still rich after the son's departure. His only concern proves to be his son's personal safety and his eventual return home. Wealth plays no role for him. As the rich father in the parable doesn't become poor by his son's departure, God does not lose anything by our decision to live in rebellion against him. The only one who is losing everything is the sinful individual.
The prodigal son of the Buddhist Sutra leaves home without any fortune from his father. His departure looks more like running away in secrecy. He also becomes poorer but is still able to make a living. The father doesn't seem to have been rich at the moment of his son's departure. He rather becomes rich after this episode, in another city than the one in which he lived with his son. Therefore the son has no wealthy origins to which to return. Even if he had such a wealthy home, the father has left it, so there is no place for him to return. Regarding the father's concern in this story, he seems more worried about having an heir than about making his son happy again.
The meaning of the son's wandering in the Buddhist tale is that there is no initial privileged position to lose in one's spiritual becoming. As the son leaves his home poor and remains poor, humans have no other inheritance than karma, which makes them wander from one rebirth to another, rarely attaining a human state. The only truth that governs human existence is suffering, and ignoring it brings about karma, which leads to an endless wandering in multiple worlds, heavens and hells, with no original position to return to. The only spiritual fulfillment is a permanent growth toward nirvana.
The way back home
The prodigal son of the Gospel finally comes to his senses and acknowledges his dramatic condition. Ashamed, he plans to return to his father, confess his sin and ask to be hired as a servant. This position, no matter how humiliating it could be in front of his brother and the other servants, would be a much better choice than staying with the pigs.
The process of "coming to one's senses" is called repentance. It involves acknowledging the bankruptcy of living in sin and making the decision to leave it.
The Buddhist prodigal son makes no decision to return to his father. He has no place to return to, so he wanders from town to town until he unexpectedly arrives at his father's palace. The son doesn't even recognize his father, whose situation has changed a lot since his departure. The father's wealth inspires fear, causing the son to run away again in order to avoid more trouble. But the father recognizes him and sends his attendants to seize him and bring him to the palace against his will.
The son's wandering in the world can be interpreted as the effect of karma and rebirth. They 'seize' the individual and bring him or her in circumstances one cannot logically understand. Therefore we constantly experience suffering until we accept that the only solution is nirvana. Although reaching the status of a bodhisattva in Mahayana Buddhism (a being that helps other beings to attain liberation) seems to confer a personal destiny in the afterlife, the ultimate stage of becoming is that of realizing shunyata, the emptiness of all things, including personal existence.
What happens back home?
In Luke's parable, the father is waiting for his son to return home. He knew that the son couldn't find true fulfillment away from home. Instead of punishing him for his foolish behavior, the parable says that "while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him" (v. 20). Instead of humiliating the son for the shame he cast on him at departure, the father humiliates himself by running to meet him. Such a behavior is degrading according to Jewish standards. When the son has recited just half of his prepared speech, acknowledging he was wrong, the father interrupts him and commands the servants to bring him the best robe, to put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet, to slaughter the fattened calf and to prepare a feast to celebrate his son's return. These symbols prove full forgiveness and restoration of the son to his prior status. The robe is a sign of great distinction, the ring the sign of authority, the sandals a luxury (only slaves were barefooted) and the slaughter of the fattened calf the sign of a very important celebration in the family. Instead of becoming a hired servant as he hoped, the son is fully restored to the position he abandoned long before.
The Sutra presents in a whole different way the prodigal son's return home. The father unexpectedly recognizes him standing at his gate and sends his attendants to seize him and bring him to the palace. The son doesn't understand the situation and is terrified. Initially he is treated like a stranger because of his "inferior disposition." Any sudden restoration is out of the question.
Understanding his son's ignorance, the father hires him as a scavenger. Although filled with compassion, the father cannot reveal his identity until the son earns back his place in the family. So he meets him in disguise and encourages him to be honest in his work in order to be promoted. He promises to increase his salary and provide for his basic needs. The process of restoration is very slow. The son lives for 20 years in a small hut while he works as a scavenger. He must first prove to have acquired high qualities before being accepted back into the family.
The testing process would probably continue, but the father becomes ill, feeling his death to be imminent. Even at this time the son is not yet accepted into the family, but only promoted to a higher position, that of accountant over all his father's riches. Without abandoning his sense of inferiority, the son becomes acquainted with all the goods. Noticing that his son's perspective has gradually improved and that he despises his former status, only then does the father gather all his relatives and friends and declare the former servant to be his son and heir.
The teaching of the parable in Christianity and Buddhism
The Christian meaning of the parable is clear: We all need to return to God in repentance and faith. He does not compel us, so it must be a personal decision. God's forgiveness is not gained through high spiritual achievements, such as attaining merits through compassionate living or developing hoigh skills in meditation, but only by repentance. The price for our reconciliation with God was paid by Jesus Christ, through his death on the cross. There is nothing more to add.
The parable depicts God's amazing availability to forgive and restore us, his great love that accepts us independently of our status and past. It encourages us to come to him in repentance and faith, without fear, and so inherit personal communion with him in his everlasting kingdom.
The Buddhist parable has a different message. One cannot simply reach Buddhahood at once. The process is very long and demands a progressive accumulation of wisdom. Escaping from ignorance and suffering, attaining nirvana and becoming a bodhisattva is attained gradually by a day-by-day effort in training the mind and overcoming karma. Grace, in Buddhism, cannot be shown directly, but only as the disciple deserves it, which in fact is no grace at all.
There is also a major difference from Christianity in defining the status of the perfected being. Personhood has no room in nirvana. Although the bodhisattvas act as personal beings, they act as temporary catalysts for the sake of other beings so that they may also attain nirvana. The ultimate stage of spiritual progress is that of realizing shunyata, the emptiness of all things. It is the final blowing out of the candle, not the restoration of a broken relationship. Eternal communion with the Father in his kingdom makes no sense in Buddhism because ultimately there is no Father to have communion with.
The following table summarizes the contrasts in the teaching of the two parables:
Topic in the parable
Meaning in Christianity
Meaning in Buddhism
Jesus is teaching sinners, emphasizing their need and opportunity to be reconciled with God.
Buddha is teaching spiritually advanced disciples (arhats) about their need to attain a higher position, that of a bodhisattva.
God and sinners
The Buddha (as the ultimate Buddha nature) and those challenged to attain a similar status
The meaning of the son's departure from home
The human attitude of rebellion against God, called sin
Ignorance starts the wheel of rebirth.
The son's miserable condition
The human condition under the power of sin, away from personal communion with God
Karma and rebirth force one to wander from one physical existence to the next.
The decision to return home
A personal decision to leave sin, called repentance
Karma and rebirth eventually lead one to the proper level where wisdom and spiritual progress can be attained.
The father's attitude at the son's arrival
Complete forgiveness of sin and restoration to personal fellowship with God
The Buddha's "grace" allows one to progress little by little toward Buddhahood. One has to deserve his or her position by a process of gradual spiritual development.
Who pays the damage for the lost fortune
Jesus Christ paid the price for our forgiveness through his death and resurrection.
The disciple has to pay himself the price for erasing his or her ignorance, and constantly accumulate wisdom.
The son's inheritance
Eternal communion with God in his kingdom
Attaining an impersonal Ultimate Reality (shunyata), where there is no room for personhood and communion