"Though old and young alike dwell in the realm of uncertainty, it is part of the natural order for the elderly to die first and the young to remain awhile. Thus, even as we grieve, we can find some cause for consolation. Sometimes, however, it is the old who remain and the young who die first. No one feels more bitter resentment than a young child who dies before its parents. No one despairs more deeply than parents who see their child precede them in death. People live in this fleeting world where all is uncertainty and impermanence, yet day and night they think only of how much wealth they can amass in this life. From dawn todusk they concentrate on worldly affairs, and neither revere the Buddha nor take faith in the Law. They ignore Buddhist practice and lack wisdom, idling their days away. And when they die and are brought before the court of Yama, the lord of hell, what can they carry as provisions on the long journey through the threefold world? What can they use as a boat or raft to ferry themselves across the sea of the sufferings of birth and death to the Land of Actual Reward or theBuddha Land of Tranquil Light? When one is deluded, it is as if one were dreaming. And when one is enlightened, it is as if one had awakened. Thinking in this way, the boy Snow Mountains resolved to awake from the dream of the transient world and to seek the reality of enlightenment. So he secluded himself in the mountains and devoted himself to deep meditation, sweeping away the dust of delusion and befuddlement in his single-minded pursuit of the Buddhist teaching.
The god Shakra looked down from heaven and observed the boy Snow Mountains in the distance. He thought to himself: “Though the baby fish are many, there are few that grow up to be big fish. Though the flowers of the mango tree are many, there are few that turn into fruit. In like manner, there are many people who set their hearts on enlightenment, but only a few who continue their practice and in fact attain the true way. The aspiration for enlightenment in common mortals is often hindered by evil influences and easily swayed by circumstances; though many warriors don armor, few go without fear into battle. Let me go test this young man’s resolve.” So saying, Shakradisguised himself as a demon and appeared at the boy’s side.
At that time the Buddha had not yet made his appearance in the world, and although the boy Snow Mountains had sought everywhere for the scriptures of the great vehicle, he had been unable to learn anything of them. Just then he heard a faint voice saying, “All is changeable, nothing is constant. This is the law of birth and death.” The young man looked all around in amazement, but there was no one in sight except a demon standing nearby. In appearance it was fierce and horrible; the hairs on its head were like flames and the teeth in its mouth like swords, and its eyes were fixed on the boy in a furious glare. When the boy saw this, he was not frightened in the least. He was so overjoyed at the opportunity to hear something of the Buddhist teaching that he did not even question it. He was like a calf separated from its mother that hears the faint sound of her lowing. “Who spoke that verse? There must be more!” he thought, and once more he searched all around, but still there was no one to be seen. He wondered if it could have been the demon who recited the verse. But on second thought that seemed impossible, since the demon must have been born a demon in retribution for some past evil act. The verse was certainly a teaching of the Buddha, and he was sure it could never have come from the mouth of a lowly demon. But as there was no one else about, he asked, “Was it you who preached that verse?” “Don’t speak to me!” replied the demon. “I’ve had nothing to eat for days. I’m starved, exhausted, and almost out of my mind. I may have uttered some sort of nonsense, but in my dazed condition I don’t even know what it was.”
“For me to hear only the first half of that verse,” said the boy, “is like seeing only half the moon, or obtaining half a jewel. It must have been you who spoke, so I beg you to teach me the remaining half.” The demon replied sarcastically, “You are already enlightened, so you should feel no resentment even if you don’t hear the rest of the verse. I’m dying of starvation, and I haven’t the strength to speak—say no more to me!”
“Could you teach me if you had something to eat?” asked the boy. “If I had something to eat, I might be able to,” said the demon. Elated, the boy said, “Well, then, what kind of food would you like?” But the demon replied, “Ask no more. You will certainly be horrified when you hear what I eat. Besides, you would never be able to provide it.”
Yet the boy Snow Mountains was insistent. “If you will just tell me what you want, I will try to find it for you.” The demon answered, “I eat only the tender flesh of humans and drink only their warm blood. I fly through the air far and wide in search of food, but people are protected by the Buddhas and gods so that, even though I want to kill them, I cannot. I can only kill and eat those whom the Buddhas and gods have forsaken.”
Hearing this, the boy decided to give his own body for the sake of the Law, so that he could hear the entire verse.
“Your food is right here,” he said. “You need look no further. Since I am still alive, my flesh is warm, and since my flesh is warm, so is my blood. Therefore, I ask you to teach me the rest of the verse, and in exchange, I will offer you my body.” Then the demon grew furious and demanded, “Who could believe your words? After I’ve taught you the rest of the verse, who can I call on as a witness to make you keep your promise”?
The boy replied: “This body of mine is mortal. But if I give my life for the Law, casting away this vile body that would otherwise die in vain, in the next life I will certainly attain enlightenment and become a Buddha. I will receive a pure and wonderful body. It will be like throwing away a piece of crockery and receiving a precious vessel in exchange. I call upon Brahmā and Shakra, the four heavenly kings, and the Buddhas and bodhisattvas of the ten directions to be my witnesses. I could not possibly deceive you in their presence.”
The demon, somewhat mollified, said, “If what you say is true, I will teach you the rest of the verse.” The boy Snow Mountains was overjoyed and, removing his deerskin garment, spread it out for the demon to sit upon while he preached. Then the boy knelt, bowed his head to the ground, and placed his palms together in reverence, saying, “All I ask is that you teach me the rest of the verse.” Thus he offered his heartfelt respect to the demon. The demon, seating himself on the deerskin, then recited these words: “Extinguishing the cycle of birth and death, one enters the joy of nirvana.” The moment he heard this, the boy was filled with joy, and his reverence for the verse was boundless. Resolving toremember it in his next life, he repeated it over and over again, and etched it deep in his heart.
He pondered, thinking to himself, “I rejoice that this verse [though it came from a demon] is no different from the teaching of the Buddha, but at the same time I lament that I alone have heard it and that I am unable to transmit it to others.” Thereupon he inscribed the stanza on stones, cliff faces, and the trees along the road, and he prayed that those who might later pass by would see it, understand its meaning, and finally enter the true way. This done, he climbed a tall tree and threw himself down before the demon. But before he had reached the ground, the demon quickly resumed his original form as Shakra, caught the boy, and gently placed him on a level spot. Bowing before him reverently, the god said, “In order to test you, I held back the Thus Come One’s sacred teaching for a time, causing anguish in the heart of a bodhisattva. I hope you will forgive my fault and save me without fail in my next life.”
Then all of the heavenly beings gathered around to praise the boy Snow Mountains, saying, “Excellent, excellent! He is truly a bodhisattva.” By casting away his body to listen to half a verse, the bodhisattva was able to eradicate offenses calling for twelve kalpas of the sufferings of birth and death [and attain enlightenment]. His story is referred to in the Nirvana Sutra.
In the past the boy Snow Mountains was willing to give his life to hear but half a verse. How much more thankful should we be to hear a chapter or even a volume of the Lotus Sutra! How can we ever repay such a blessing? Indeed, if you care about your next life, you should make this bodhisattva your example. Even though you may be too poor to offer anything of value, if the opportunity should arise to give up your life to acquire the Law of the Buddha, you should offer your life in order to pursue the Law."