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The Analogy of the Transformed City

Chapter 7

This is the seventh of the twenty-eight chapters of The Dharma Flower Sutra. What is meant by “Transformed”? It means to create something out of nothing, and to turn something back into nothing. Most people do not understand this doctrine. It is inconceivable and cannot be understood with the mind or expressed in words. “City” is a large town. People build cities to protect themselves from invaders, scoundrels, and unreasonable people.

Where does the transformation come from? It comes from the Buddha’s spiritual penetrations. That is how, out of nothing, something can appear. Originally, the City did not exist, but now it appears. Once it appears, it is given the name “ Transformed City”.

The first thing we should understand about the Transformed City is that there is no such thing! It is an unreal city, created through transformation. It is an unreal city, an expedient city, an expedient Dharma, as it were. It is all entirely unreal: the city, the people, and the Dharma are all unreal.

“What is the use of it all, if it is all unreal?” you ask.

If you do not understand what is unreal, you will be unable to find the true. The Transformed City is a place where the Treasure Trove is kept. The Transformed City is the Provisional while the Treasure Trove is the Real. Basically, the Transformed City does not exist at all. If it were real, it would not be called a “Transformed City”; it would just be called a city. The analogy contains those of the Two Vehicles: the Hearer Vehicle and the Conditioned Enlightened Vehicle. Are there really Two Vehicles? No. There are not Two Vehicles. Then why do you talk about Two Vehicles? Because they do not exist! If they did exist, we would not have to speak about them!

The Two Vehicles are an expedient Dharma. So the Transformed City is an analogy for the Nirvana of the Two Vehicles. Nirvana means “not produced and not destroyed”. Without production, there is no extinction; without extinction, there is no production. The Nirvana of the Two Vehicles is that taught by the Provisional Wisdom; it is an expedient. The Buddha used his expedient and provisional wisdom to set forth the Dharma of the Two Vehicles. Why did he do this? When you go to school, why do you start out in elementary school? Why don’t you just start out going to the University? You could have your Ph.D. by the time you are ten. Wouldn’t that be great? Skip elementary school and high school. Unfortunately, you cannot do this. You have to start with elementary school. The Bodhisattva Vehicle is like high school. The Buddha Vehicle is like the university.

So, when l was in Hong Kong, I did not teach elementary school. I taught only at the university level. In grade school you have to keep the kids interested by telling them stories, and so forth, for them to make any progress. You can teach some doctrine in High School, but it is not until they reach college that they can really learn something.

The Buddhadharma works in the same way. Originally, there were not Two Vehicles. The Buddha set them up; just like, originally, we did not need elementary school, except that kids are too young to understand what they need to know and so an elementary school is set up to take care of them. When people are older, they attend high school and enter college at the age of eighteen or twenty. Once they enter higher education, the university has various degrees available: the Bachelor’s, the Master’s and the Ph.D. There are a lot of distinctions there. And so, those of the Two Vehicles are like the elementary school. If you want to become a Buddha, you must start out in “elementary school”, then go to “high school”, and then to the “university”. “High school” is like the Bodhisattva Path, and the “university” is like Buddhahood. You will understand this analogy, because you have all been to school.

“Oh?” you think, “the Two Vehicles are just elementary school”. Do not get too attached to the idea. It is only an analogy, you know. In Buddhism, the most important thing is to become a Buddha. But most people, if you told them right off that they should cultivate and become a Buddha, would be scared stiff. “What is that? Why should I become a Buddha? Arghh!!” Since they do not understand, you set up an “elementary school”. Obviously, you cannot give a small child a Ph.D., because he would not even have the sense to know what it was, and he would not value it at all. So, the Transformed City represents the Nirvana of the Two Vehicles, a provisionally spoken expedient term. Basically, there is no such thing, but because of the power of the provisionally spoken expedient, something appears out of nothing.

Someone hears this and starts to retreat, thinking, “Oh, so the Buddha lies. There is nothing there, and he says there is something there!”

There was nothing there, and then something was transformed. This is not a lie. This is called Two Vehicles rather than the Great Vehicle or the Vehicle of the Buddhas. It is a provisional expedient. He uses the substance of the teaching to teach and transform living beings. Living beings are taught to guard against delusive thoughts. They are taught to cut off the delusions of desire and views. This is called the Nirvana which leans toward emptiness. It leans one way; it is not the Middle way.

There are four ways of explaining the Sutras: 1) according to causes and conditions, 2) according to the essentials of the teaching.

Here I shall use the first two to explain to concept of the Transformed City.

1) According to causes and conditions: The doctrine of one-sided emptiness causes living beings to “rest, to be led, and to enter.” To “rest” refers to the teaching of the Three Storehouses; it is the Small Vehicle concept of Nirvana as consisting of understanding and the cessation of affliction.

“To be led” refers to the two types of milk products which represent the Vaipulya (curdled milk) and Prajna (butter) Teachings. During these two teachings, one is being led.

“Enter” means to “enter the Buddha’s knowledge and vision.” We speak of opening, demonstrating, awakening to, and entering the Buddha’s wisdom. To “rest” refers to the opening of the Buddha’s wisdom. “To be led” refers to the demonstrating and awakening to the Buddha’s wisdom.

“Enter” means to enter the Buddha’s wisdom, to open the provisional and reveal the real, to speak of the Buddha Vehicle and no other vehicles.

Still, with “rest, to be led, and to enter” one has not yet arrived at the Ultimate Treasure Trove. That is why this extinction is called a “ Transformed City”. It is a provisionally set up expedient device. The Treasure Trove is the Real Teaching. The Nirvana of the Two Vehicles is merely a Transformed City. It is a provisional expedient device set up by the Buddha.

This is an explanation according to causes and conditions. Now, to explain it,

2) According to the essentials of the teaching: Those of the Three Storehouse Teaching, thought of Nirvana as peace and rest. They thought, “Going to Nirvana is the greatest! Ahhh!!! There is no trouble there at all. No affliction. No gossip.” So those of the Three Storehouse Teaching really liked the idea of Nirvana. They wished to cross over into extinction. They viewed the Three Realms and wanted to be Solitarily Enlightened Ones. This is like a certain type of person who feels that everyone else is wrong, and he alone is right. He wants to go off and live somewhere all by himself thinking that would be the most wonderful. He feels it is just too much trouble to be around people.

Bodhisattvas of the Separate Teaching are not like that. They think, “You are not very good? I will draw closer to you. I will not leave you. I specialize in crossing over those who do not believe in Buddhism. If you do not believe in Buddhism, I will influence you somehow to bring forth the Bodhi mind.” This is the state of a Bodhisattva. The Bodhisattvas and those of the Two Vehicles are direct opposites. Bodhisattvas are like fathers who are out looking for their children, traveling across a very dangerous road. Suddenly they come to a very dangerous city. One foot is inside the dangerous city, and the other is outside. They are well aware that it is a very dangerous city. V-e-r-y dangerous! But when they think of their children they forget the danger. They go right into the dangerous city after them. This is the Buddha and the Bodhisattvas making vows to come into the world to save living beings. The Bodhisattva, keeping a few of his old habits—not cutting them all off yet--goes into birth and death and does not certify to the doctrine of true emptiness.

The Separate Teaching is the Prajna Period. The Storehouse Teaching is the Agama Period. The Pervasive Teaching is the Vaipulya Period. The Perfect Teaching is the Lotus Flower-Nirvana Period. The Separate Teaching calls the City “The so-called City, which is Like an Illusion”. It is an unreal city used to guard against dangers. The city is used as an expedient to cut off the delusions of views and thought. Although the delusions of views and thought have been cut off, they do not claim this is the highest state. Therefore, they call it the “so-called City”.

They do not claim it is the ultimate state. Those of the Two Vehicles go ahead and claim that their Nirvana is the highest state when actually it is not at all ultimate. Bodhisattvas purify the Buddhalands, roam and play among human beings, teaching and transforming living beings. They realize it is not the ultimate Dharma. Those of the Perfect Teaching, the Lotus Flower-Nirvana Period, know that originally there are no thieves. Since there are no thieves, they do not want a city, so they call the city they have a “ Transformed City”, an unreal city. This chapter takes its title from the doctrine of the Perfect Teaching. Thus, it is called “The Analogy of the Transformed City”.

Those of the Three Storehouse and the Pervasive Teachings think that their Nirvana is ultimate. They do not think of it as a Transformed City. Those are the Two Vehicles for you. Those of the Separate Teaching would not say it is ultimate and they would not admit that it is just a transformation. That is the state of the Bodhisattva. Those of the Perfect Teaching, the state of the Buddha, say it is not ultimate; it is a transformed city.

One may also analyze it from the point of view of the Four Siddhantas, or Four Methods by which the Buddha bestowed the teaching, the first being: 1) Mundane, or ordinary methods of giving: originally, the Transformed City was not there. But, suddenly it appeared, and the people who saw it were happy. 2) Individual treatment: when certain individuals gained understanding and rest through the analogy. 3) Diagnosing and treating moral diseases: the City guards against thieves and invaders. 4) Primary truth: in the end, when they gain real extinction.

The Four Siddhantas explained according to the Buddha’s response body: 1) The Buddha used the provisional expedient Dharma to set up the City. This is the transforming of the mundane, or ordinary. 2) Living beings brought forth goodness in small measure and this is transforming through individual treatment. 3) Getting rid of the delusions of views and thought is transformation through diagnoses and treatment of moral diseases. 4) In the end, they attain the Great Vehicle and the Great Fruit. This is transformation according to the primary truth.

The Buddha scolded those of the Small Vehicle who held to their one-sided emptiness. He told those of the Small Vehicle that they were withered sprouts and sterile seeds, utterly useless. What is to be done? Then he praised the Great Vehicle. He said it was the most wonderful Buddhadharma. It is the unsurpassed, profound, subtle, wonderful Dharma. He praised the Perfect Teaching as the most wonderful, and he spoke The Wonderful Dharma Lotus Flower Sutra. The doctrine set forth in this Sutra is all perfectly fused without obstruction. It is all inconceivable.

Someone might wonder why, if this Sutra is the Real Teaching, this chapter is not called “Former Causes and Conditions”, instead of “ Transformation City,” which is Provisional?

That is a good question. The first part of this chapter does discuss former causes and conditions from many eons back. Later in the chapter, the analogy of the Transformed City is raised. Bringing up the Transformed City is actually a revelation of the Real Teaching. Those of the Two Vehicles insisted on staying in samadhi all day and refused to move. They stayed in their Nirvana, thinking it very peaceful. They thought they had done what they had to do, finished their great work, and that they would undergo no further becoming. They got stuck in Nirvana and did not make progress in their cultivation. They were attached to Nirvana. Their provisional Dharma was revealed, and they were told it was not right to stay there. They should go forward. That was the purpose of the Transformed City.

At all times, in all places, once you have heard the Buddhadharma, you should not form an attachment to it. Get rid of your attachments.


The Buddha told the Bhikshus, “long ago, past limitless, boundless, inconceivable, asamkheya eons, there was a Buddha called Great Penetrating Wisdom Victory, Thus Come One, One Worthy of Offerings, One of Proper and Universal Knowledge, One Whose Understanding and Conduct are Complete, A Well-gone One, One Who Understands the World, Unsurpassed Lord, Taming and Regulating Hero, Teacher of Gods and Humans, Buddha, World Honored One. His country was named “ Good City,” and his eon was named “Great Mark”. O Bhikshus, it has been a great, long time since that Buddha passed into extinction.


E3. The circuit of speaking the causes and conditions.
F1. Speaking proper of causes and conditions.
G1. Showing his far-reaching knowledge and vision.
H1. Prose.
I1. Visible phenomena.


The Buddha told the Bhikshus, Shakyamuni Buddha said to the Bhikshus. This sentence was added by Ananda when he compiled the Sutras. Long ago, past limitless, boundless, inconceivable, asamkheyaeons, there was a Buddha called Great Penetrating Wisdom Victory. He had great spiritual penetrations and his wisdom was victorious over all. So I have told you that where you go you must be victorious. Thus Come One, One Worthy of Offerings from gods and humans, One of Proper and Universal Knowledge, One Whose Understanding and Conduct are Complete, A Well-gone One, One Who Understands the World. He has gone to the best place. He is the smartest person in the world. Unsurpassed Lord, there is no one higher than he.

In the heavens and below, there is no one like the Buddha.
In the ten direction worlds, he is beyond compare.
Everything in the world--I have seen it all,
And there is nothing that can compare with the Buddha.

Taming and Regulating Hero. He can subdue all in the Three Realms. Teacher of Gods and Humans, Buddha, greatly enlightened one, World Honored One, revered by those in and those beyond the world. Those are the Buddha’s ten titles. His country was named “ Good City”, because all the citizens were good, not evil and his eon was named “Great Mark”. O Bhikshus, it has been a great, long time since that Buddha passed into extinction. How long has it been? He now gives us an analogy:


Suppose someone were to grind all the earth in the three thousand great thousand worlds into ink powder and then suppose he passed through a thousand lands to the east and then dropped a particle the size of a mote of dust, and then passing through another thousand lands deposited another mote, and continued to do this until all the ink made of earth was exhausted. What do you think? Could a mathematician or his disciple ever reach the limit of the lands and know their number?

“No, World Honored One.”

“O Bhikshus, if the lands this person had passed through, whether or not he set down a particle in them, were all grounded into dust, and if each dust mote was equal to an eon, then the time since that Buddha passed into extinction would exceed their number by limitless, boundless, hundreds of thousands of tens of thousands of millions of asamkheya eons.


I2. Showing how long it was.


Suppose someone were to grind all the earth in the three thousand great thousand worlds into ink powder, finer than flour, and then suppose he passed through a thousand lands to the east and then dropped a particle the size of a mote of dust, and then passing through another thousand lands deposited another mote, and continued to do this until all the ink made of earth was exhausted. What do you think? Could a mathematician or his disciple ever reach the limit of the lands and know their number?

“No, World Honored One,” all the Bhikshus answer.

O Bhikshus, if the lands this person had passed through, whether or not he set down a particle in them, were all grounded into dust, and if each dust mote was equal to an eon, then the time since that Buddha passed into extinction would exceed their number by limitless, boundless, hundreds of thousands of tens of thousands of millions of asamkheya eons.

The text says, “Suppose someone were to grind all the earth in the three thousand worlds into ink powder.” Now, just by looking at the ink someone grinds, you can tell whether his mind is good or bad. If he rubs the stone at an angle, his mind is not straight, not good. If, when he writes, he makes a big mess, then his mind is “sick.” You can tell what a person is like by how they grind their ink. In China, they say, “Grind the ink lightly and hold the brush firmly.” That is the doctrine of grounding ink.

In the Tang Dynasty there was Li Tai Bai, a poet from Si Chuan. It is said that his grandfather is Li Ning. Historical texts say that there was a general during the Han Dynasty whose name was Li Ning. He had surrendered to the Huns, which are the present day Mongolians. He was very intelligent, but he made a lot of trouble with his gossip. He knew Gong-fu and swordsmanship by the time he was fifteen and was an accomplished writer by the time he was thirty. Before he was thirty he went up for the Imperial Examination.

There was a prominent official, He Zhi Zhang, who was very fond of him. He told Li Tai Bai, “You are sure to take first place. I will speak on your behalf.” Now, the heads of the examining board at that time were Yang Guo Zhong, the elder brother of Yang Gui Fei, and Gao Li Shi, an eunuch. He Zhi Zhang spoke to them saying, “Li Tai Bai really writes extremely well. He should get the top place.” When the two of them heard this, they were outraged. “You took money from Li Tai Bai as a bribe. We should get a cut! Then we will talk about who gets first place! A thousand or two pounds of gold…do you think you can come here and pull it off with just your eloquence? Ridiculous.”

They thought that He Zhi Zhang had received a bribe and withheld their share. They were very upset. When it came time to draw straws for writing an article Li Tai Bai got to draw first. He felt sure that the top place was his and he felt great. When Yang Guo Zhong saw what he wrote he said, “With your talent, you are qualified only to grind ink for me! You are terrible.” When Gao Li Shi heard this, he said, “Grind ink? He is not good enough to help me put on my shoes!” Li Tai Bai was so enraged he just stammered, “All right, fine. See you later.” and walked away, without first place, needless to say. Feeling as if he had really been wronged, he started drinking. He would drink away his sorrows all day long.

Li Tai Bai wrote a hundred poems with one bottle of wine.
He slept in the wine shops of Chang An.
When the Emperor called, he would not get on the boat;
He said he was a wine immortal.

From this we can see that in this world, we should take care not to make anyone too angry at us. If you get someone too angry at you, you may have to undergo the retribution at any time. Having been insulted so deeply by Yang Guo Zhong and Gao Li Shi, Li Tai Bai vowed to get revenge when the chance came. But what chance would he ever get? He was not an official or anybody important. How would he get his revenge? A chance did come. Not long after the test, a letter came for the Emperor from Korea, which was written in Korean. Since there was little cultural exchange between countries at that time there were very few people in China who could read the new Korean language. There was not anybody, in fact! The Koreans did this on purpose, to show off to the great country of China that they could not even read that small country’s writing. This would give the Koreans a reason to look down upon the Chinese.

This was a switch, because most countries played up to China. Anyway, when the Emperor got the letter he gave it to his officials for a translation but no one could read it. They all had their Ph.D. in this and that, but they could not read the letter. The Emperor made it known that anyone who could read the letter would be appointed to a high government position, but still, no one could read it. Li Tai Bai was still staying at He Zhi Zhang’s house. When He Zhi Zhang came home with his eyebrows knitted together in worry, Li Tai Bai asked his friend, “Why are you so worried?”

He Zhi Zhang said, “The Koreans have challenged China. They wrote us a letter which no one can read. It is in Korean. If we cannot even read it, we will really lose face.”

Li Tai Bai said, “Can I take a look at it?”

“You know Korean?”

“Sure,” smiled Li Tai Bai, “no problem.”

“I will tell the Emperor!” said He Zhi Zhang, and the next day he did.

Emperor Tai Zong of the Tang Dynasty said, “Well, bring him here! We are looking for just such a person! Why didn’t this person take part in the Imperial Examination?”

“He did,” said He Zhi Zhang, “but Yang Guo Zhong and Gao Li Shi refused to give him any recognition.”

Li Tai Bai came before the Emperor and agreed to read the letter and write a reply. “I have one condition, however,” said Li Tai Bai. “You must ask the Korean envoy to come in person and watch me read the letter and wait for the reply. That will prove to him that we, in China, have geniuses among us.”

“Of course,” the Emperor agreed. “And another thing,” said Li Tai Bai, “after the shabby treatment I got at the examination, I want a special favor.”

“Anything you want!” said the Emperor anxiously.

“While I am doing this, I want Yang Guo Zhong to grind my ink for me and Gao Li Shi to put my shoes on me. When the Koreans see this, they would not know what to think. They will assume I am a great talent, and they will thereby respect the country.”

“Fine! Fine! This is a special circumstance. That is a good idea,” said the Emperor, and he sent for the two officials. Yang Guo Zhong was the minister at the time. “Yang Guo Zhong,” he said, “this is our highest scholar here. You should grind some ink for him.” Yang Guo Zhong did not like the idea, but he had no choice. It was a command from the Emperor. He had said that Li Tai Bai was only good enough to grind his ink, and now he was being forced to grind ink for Li Tai Bai!

Gao Li Shi had just been ordered to remove Li Tai Bai’s shoes. Seeing this, the envoy thought, “How can Li Tai Bai use such a high official as a servant?” Li Tai Bai asked for some wine, and when he was done drinking, he read the letter and translated it into Chinese for the Emperor. The Korean envoy was amazed. “There are some real talents in China still,” he thought. “We better not look down on China.”

Li Tai Bai, by this time, roaring drunk, then wrote a reply and dismissed the envoy. So that is my story about grinding ink.

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