How To Understand The Three Precious Carts
The Way is hard to find and difficult to follow, yet it is always within reach and simple to emulate. The sages tell us shadows of the material world mask reality and leave many grasping at illusions. Intellectually enslaved to a dichotomous mind, most of us are blinded to the crystal clear wisdom of the intuitive, universal mind.
Buddhism uses the parable of the ‘Three Precious Carts’ as a guide for those who seek the ultimate truth and are willing to do the work to awaken themselves and others. In the physical world, a cart is a type of vehicle, a useful tool to transport something from one place to another. Using a spiritual cart, Buddhists believe they can transport themselves to Nirvana.
Their spiritual cart has the following features. It transports one from this shore to the other shore through the suffering sea of the sensual world to eternal life. It delivers one from the cycle of life and death and moves one outside the grasp of sensual desire, delivering one from suffering within the Triple World1.
The Three Precious Carts:
The Goat Cart:
The Goat Cart or Small Vehicle of Cultivation is for sentient beings that have the spirit of wisdom within and follow the teachings of sages. Upon hearing of the Way, they receive it in faith and form the foundation needed for true self-cultivation.
These people are progressing in the restoration of their absolute nature. However, their roots of merit are shallow and they only concern themselves with their own liberation from the samsaric world, unlike the followers of the Great Vehicle, who seek liberation for all.
They have these qualities in common: They have the spirit of wisdom within. They follow the teaching of sages. They have the opportunity to hear the Way, the Supreme Truth. They receive it (teaching on the Way) in faith. They zealously make progress because they desire to escape the Triple World and seek Nirvana for themselves.
The Deer Cart:
Sentient beings whose roots of merit are deeper, with a firm foundation for spiritual cultivation, and who, through self-gained wisdom are able to comprehend the laws of karma and thus calm their minds and add tranquility to their lives, are said to be followers of the Deer Cart. They have these qualities in common: They have built the basic foundation for true cultivation. They seek self -gained wisdom and they understand the laws of cause and effect (karma) and thus may calm their mind and add tranquility to their life.
The Bullock Cart:
Within the Triple World, there are sentient beings who are free from the pangs of anger and hatred and who emanate boundless love, mercy, and compassion. Their roots of merit are deep and their mind is filled with mercy and compassion. The only vehicle that can contain their virtue is the Great Vehicle or Bullock Cart.
It is the goal of these sentient beings to seek for total equanimity and complete wisdom, not only for themselves, but also for all sentient beings. With their abundance of mercy and compassion, they endeavor to save all beings on every plane of existence. They have these qualities in common: Having attained equanimity, they seek complete wisdom. They are merciful and give comfort to save all beings on every plane of the sensual world.
In classifying the Three Precious Carts, we classify them as small, middle, and great. We may also call them the ‘Three Fruitions’. This means a small planting (sowing good seeds) will produce a small crop, while a great planting will produce a great crop.
According to the Buddhist texts one who completes the journey of the small cart may become an Arahant2 in the Enlightened Realms. Those who complete the journey of the middle cart may become a Pratyeka-Buddha, or Silent Buddha. And those who complete the journey of the great cart may become a Bodhisattva. Buddhahood belongs to the Great White Bullock Cart. “This vehicle is wonderful, pure, and supreme; In all the worlds there is nothing more exalted; It is that which the Buddha rejoices in and which all living creatures should praise, worship, and adore.”
An illustration of the value of the ‘Three Precious Carts’ and their relationship with sentient beings in the Triple World is written in the Lotus Sutra3. Sakyamuni Buddha explains the reasons for the three carts and provides us with the parable of the ‘Narrow Gate’. “Then the Buddha spoke to Sariputra: “Have I not before said that the Buddha, the world-honored ones, by various reasoning, parables, and terms preach the Law tactfully, all for the purpose of Perfect Enlightenment? All these teachings are for the purpose of transforming bodhisattvas. But Sariputra! Let me now again in a parable make this meaning still more clear, [for] intelligent people through a parable reach understanding.”
“Sariputra! Suppose in a [certain] kingdom, city, or town there is a great elder, old and worn, of boundless wealth, and possessing many fields, houses, slaves, and servants. His house is spacious and large, having only one door, and with many people dwelling in it, one hundred, two hundred, or even five hundred in number. Its halls and chambers are decayed and old, its walls crumbling, the bases of its pillars rotten, the beams and rooftree toppling and dangerous. On every side at the same moment fire suddenly starts and the house is in flames. The sons of the elder, say ten, twenty, or even thirty, are in this dwelling. The elder, on seeing this conflagration spring up on every side, is greatly startled and reflects thus: ‘Though I am able to get safely out of this burning house, yet my children in the burning house are pleasurably absorbed in amusements, without apprehension, knowledge, surprise, or fear. Though the fire is pressing upon them and pain and suffering are imminent, they do not mind or fear and have no impulse to escape.”
“Sariputra! This elder ponders thus: ‘I am strong in my body and arms. Shall I get them out of the house by means of a flower vessel, or a bench, or a table?’ Again he ponders:
‘This house has only one gate; moreover, it is narrow and small; [my] children are young knowing nothing as yetand attached to their place of play; perchance they will fall into and be burned in the fire. I must speak to them on this dreadful matter, [warning them] that the house is burning and that they must come out instantly lest they be burned and injured by the fire.” Having reflected thus, according to his thoughts, he notifies his children, “Come out quickly, all of you!”
“Though the father, in his pity, lures and admonishes with kind words, yet the children, joyfully attached to their play, are unwilling to believe him and have neither surprise nor fear, nor any mind to escape: moreover, they do not know what is the fire [he means], or what the house, and what he means by being lost, but only run hither and thither in play, glancing at their father. Then the elder reflects thus: “This house is burning in a great conflagration. If I and my children do not get out at once, we shall certainly be burned up by it. Let me now by some tactful means cause my children to escape this disaster.”
Before you choose a way orb path of cultivation, the Buddha warns if you choose to pursue the Path, you must proceed with eyes wide open. It is incredibly easy to lose your way and become hopelessly lost. In order to be protected from heretical paths, you must ask yourself two fundamental questions: Can I, by following this path, end the cycle of life and death? Can I, by following this path, attain complete peace, tranquility and imperturbability?
As far as the Buddha is concerned a true path of salvation will end the cycle of life and death and help you achieve peace and fulfillment in your lifetime. By following such a path, you will reap the ‘sweet fruit’ through your efforts to purify your absolute nature. On the other hand, if your answer is no to the two questions, then for all your efforts, you will, at best, reap only the pleasant flowers (outward form) of cultivation.
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