The Lotus Sūtra is a magical place, filled with wonders beyond conception. There are infinite bodhisattvas of various sorts, countless worlds illuminated by Buddha’s wisdom (Kubo and Yuyama 15), and a primordial Buddha materializing in a giant flying stūpa temple (Kubo and Yuyama 175), among other extraordinary occurrences. While the stated location for the teaching is Vulture Peak (Kubo and Yuyama 3)—a location here on Earth that tourists and pilgrims can visit—the setting may as well be another world from Jeta’s Grove in Anāthapiṇḍika’s Park where many of Buddha’s earlier discourses took place. The style and tone of The Lotus Sūtra differ from the texts preserved in the Pāli canon. While the historical Gautama Buddha continues to be a central figure, in The Lotus Sūtra he is accompanied by thousands if not millions of spiritual beings and magical creatures who do not appear so prominently in the Pāli canon (Kubo and Yuyama 3). The presence of these bodhisattvas, devas, and nāgas, is to occasion Buddha’s great revelation of the Mahāyāna teachings, the next level of his soteriological pedagogy.
The difference in literary style reflects a new stage of Buddhist development: while Buddha’s previous teachings were oriented towards the personal liberation and peace of nirvāṇa, The Lotus Sūtra is oriented to a vast interconnected web of sentience. Now the goal of the spiritual practitioner—called a bodhisattva— is to awaken to this reality and thus liberate infinite beings. Buddha knows that the inconceivably vast scope of the bodhisattva enterprise is a tough sell: the path of the arhat promises liberation from suffering in a blissful nirvāṇa, while the bodhisattva perpetually proliferates throughout the cosmos to intervene on others’ behalf in order to help them (Kubo and Yuyama 34). The former path promises that there is an end to all the hard work, learning, and asceticism, while the latter is an unending messianic project of rescuing infinite numbers of beings. Buddha is reluctant to broach the subject, knowing it will alienate many of his students, and indeed at the beginning of the text, several thousand arhats focused on individual nirvāṇa leave the stadium before the sermon begins (Kubo and Yuyama 30).
It is important to note that this new layer of doctrine is not intended to supplant the previous teachings. The bodhisattva path is not an alternative to or replacement for the practices of the arhat. Rather, the arhat path is a stage of development that, when realized, opens up the possibility for further development. Buddha does not begin his teaching career with the bodhisattva path because he realizes that many potential spiritual cultivators will be alarmed at the inconceivable scope of what is laid out before them and, paralyzed by trepidation, will never take the first steps (Kubo and Yuyama 65). The path to individual nirvāṇa (1) is laid out as an achievable goal with clear benefits—a kind of enlightenment in its own right—which inspires neophytes to engage enthusiastically with the rigors of Buddhist practice (Kubo and Yuyama 34). Having made sufficient progress, Buddha reveals to his students that this is only part of the story, and that unsurpassed complete enlightenment (2) requires the path of the bodhisattva (3) (Kubo and Yuyama 35). However, these paths do not have distinctly different destinations; instead, they are phases of development which are aspects of one path (4) to enlightenment (Kubo and Yuyama 46). Thus while The Lotus Sūtra seems to undermine other of Buddha’s teachings, its aim is instead to include and transcend the Foundational Paths (5) with the comprehensive cosmic scope of the Greater Path (6) (Kubo and Yuyama 99).
The Lotus Sūtra introduces this cosmic scope within the first few pages of the text: without a word, Buddha goes into deep meditation, emits a beam of light from his forehead, and makes visible countless beings in multiple realms and states of existence (Kubo and Yuyama 5). Many other Buddhist sūtras start with one of Buddha’s students asking a question to initiate a lecture or discussion, so this new occurrence is an unexpected change in Buddha’s teaching style. When confronted with this spectacle, Buddha’s students are dumbfounded, and the conversation begins among the disciples present. One amongst the multitudes recognizes the phenomenon: Mañjuśrī, the bodhisattva foremost in wisdom. Although we may understand Mañjuśrī as a historical person, he also “has closely attended and paid homage to innumerable Buddhas of the past” (Kubo and Yuyama 5), and he says that he had once seen a different Buddha emit an identical ray of light “in the past, more than innumerable, unthinkable, incalculable kalpas (7) ago” (Kubo and Yuyama 13). We begin to suspect that the events in The Lotus Sūtra are not happening merely in ordinary time and space. Indeed, Mañjuśrī is the embodiment of the Perfection of Wisdom, (8) and his recognition of the event is telling us that the ability to understand the referent of the following pages relies on having meditative realizations of emptiness. (9)
The audience—cleansed of “useless twigs and leaves,” since those who could not understand this new teaching had already left (Kubo and Yuyama 30)—is ready to study this most profound instruction. However, The Lotus Sūtra is exceedingly difficult to receive and understand (Kubo and Yuyama 76). The teachings are only given very rarely, with countless eons lapsing between, and always accompanied by a Buddha emitting a light-ray from his forehead (Kubo and Yuyama 13). It is revealed that all discursive teachings are situational, and do not reflect the highest truths about reality (Kubo and Yuyama 75). Buddha reminds his audience that his aim is not metaphysical or doctrinal, but soteriological: he speaks only for the purpose of inspiring and encouraging others to become free from suffering. Thus all of his spoken teachings are provisional, situational, and not one of them can be said to be definitive. The very idea of nirvāṇa was itself a provisional, and not an ultimate, teaching (Kubo and Yuyama 51). “[A]lthough [Buddha] is able to give the teaching of the Mahāyāna to all sentient beings, not all of them can accept it” because the vast scope is inconceivable to the discursive mind (Kubo and Yuyama 65). Now, with The Lotus Sūtra, Buddha is revealing the ultimate teaching. It is the sūtra which unifies all previous teachings and paths to express the most profound, direct path to enlightenment.
As Buddha has said, The Lotus Sūtra is difficult to access and comprehend. Perfection of Wisdom texts are well known for articulating the experience of emptiness as beyond words and language; emptiness is generally expressed in negations. While The Lotus Sūtra is not a prajñāpāramitā text per se, it is nonetheless coming from the inconceivable mind of the Buddha, in which the distinction between subject and object is removed, consciousness is without discursive contents, and all naming and labeling functions have ceased. It is this perspective that The Lotus Sūtra is teaching, thus the actual content of theLotus Sūtra is itself inconceivable. We are led to suspect that Buddha is using language and discourse to describe the Lotus Sūtra, while the true content of the Sūtra itself can only be perceived from a mind with the Perfection of Wisdom, since it is itself the experience of emptiness, the wonder of consciousness without content.
Indeed, the title of the text of The Lotus Sūtra does not explicitly state that the text is the actualLotus Sūtra. The full Sanskrit title of the text is Saddharmapuṇḍarīkasūtra, which literally translates to Textbook (sūtra [Monier-Williams 1241]) on the White Lotus (puṇḍarīka [Monier-Williams 631]) of the True (sat/ sad [Monier-Williams 1134]) Nature (dharma [Monier-Williams 510]). The title is difficult to convey with precision in English, as some of these terms have a variety of possible interpretations and definitions. The word dharma, for instance, could be translated as doctrine, law, practice, phenomena, or ultimate reality; Buddhist scholars do not have a commonly accepted shared definition, so the word is often left untranslated. The translators Kubo and Yuyama translate the title as Scripture of the White Lotus of the Marvelous Law (Kubo and Yuyama xiii), yet there are a variety of issues with this interpretation: the word Marvelous does not appear in the original Sanskrit (it is their interpretation of sat which could mean true, beautiful, wise, venerable, or honest [Monier-Williams 1134]), and translating dharma as law adds a doctrinal connotation not supported by Buddha’s soteriological—not doctrinal—aims in teaching. Another crucial interpretation in translating the title is the term sūtra- puṇḍarīka; since the words are in a compound form, the nouns are left undeclined, so the relationship between the words is ambiguous; the words may be in a genitive relationship as translated by Kubo and Yuyama (Sutra of the White Lotus), or they may be in a locative relationship (Sutra on the White Lotus).
The function of the text of The Lotus Sūtra takes on a different meaning if we consider the possibility that the book is about the Lotus Sūtra, and not the content of the Lotus Sūtra. This is supported by The Lotus Sūtra itself: “Even the title of this Lotus Sūtra cannot be heard in incalculable lands. How much more is it unable to be seen, accepted, preserved, and recited!” (Kubo and Yuyama 211). Buddha states that the teaching is “… the Dharma that is beyond conception” (Kubo and Yuyama 45). This inconceivable understanding “…could not be expressed in words so I taught … through the power of skillful means” (Kubo and Yuyama 44). Skillful means (10) are provisional teachings useful only in the moment; now, Buddha says “[h]aving openly set aside skillful means, I will teach only the highest path to all the bodhisattvas ” (Kubo and Yuyama 45). “This Lotus Sūtra is the ultimate teaching of all the Tathāgatas, (11) the most profound among all the teachings, and conferred at the very end” (Kubo and Yuyama 212). This conveys that Buddha’s instructions are provisional and situational, and that the true Lotus Sūtra is an inconceivable experience; we can talk about the subject but never fully express it within the limitations imposed by language.
An example of this inconceivability is the way space and time functions in The Lotus Sūtra. The Dharma is simultaneously infrequent and omnipresent. On the one hand, we are told that the teaching of this Dharma is exceedingly rare, with vast stretches of time between the instances that a Buddha emerges into the world. “The Buddha has preserved it for a long time and he has not taught it indiscriminately. Now, for the first time, he teaches it” (Kubo and Yuyama 212). “The Bhagavat (12) is truly extraordinary and can only be seen once in an extremely long time. One hundred and eighty kalpas have passed away fruitlessly, and no Buddhas have appeared during this time” (Kubo and Yuyama 127). And yet Buddha is continually present: “immeasurable, limitless, hundreds of thousands of myriads of koṭis of nayutas of kalpas have passed since I actually attained Buddhahood” (Kubo and Yuyama 231). Buddha’s “lifespan is immeasurable and incalculable” (Kubo and Yuyama 233); Buddha “abide[s] forever without entering parinirvāṇa” (13) (Kubo and Yuyama 233). This apparent contradiction is again a skillful means; in this ultimate teaching Buddha clarifies “I am always here without extinction, through the power of skillful means, I manifest extinction and nonextinction” (Kubo and Yuyama 237) so that his students will not make the mistake of taking his presence for granted and lose the motivation to put the teachings into practice.
There are many images throughout the text to demonstrate that the true Lotus Sūtra is beyond the words on the page in the text of The Lotus Sutra. A story is told of one bodhisattva who maintained his practice of always being respectful to everyone he met, treating them with respect on account that each one would eventually become a Buddha; although he was reviled and mistreated throughout his life, he never gave up on his practice, and on his death bed the Lotus Sūtra was revealed to him: “twenty thousands of myriads of koṭis of verses of the Lotus Sūtra [were] expounded” (Kubo and Yuyama 277). This could not have been the words of the short text, but indicates the expansive and supernormal state of the true Lotus Sūtra. Another anecdote from The Lotus Sūtra describes Buddha extending “his wide and long tongue which reached upward” to the realm of the gods, while his body “emitted innumerable and immeasurable colored rays of light from all his pores and universally illuminated the worlds of the ten directions” (Kubo and Yuyama 283). This Buddha is a cosmic being with incredible attributes that he reveals only to disciples of faith; not merely the simple ascetic monk we meet in earlier sūtras.
The scene that opens the text is unprecedented: Buddha emits a ray of light from his forehead, that “illuminated all the eighteen thousand worlds in the east, down as far as the lowest hell, Avīci, and up as high as the Akaniṣṭa Heaven. All the sentient beings in those worlds … became visible from this world. The Buddhas in those worlds were also seen, and the Dharma they were teaching could be heard” (Kubo and Yuyama 5). This description of Buddha having “manifested the sign of great transcendent power” (Kubo and Yuyama 5) indicates an inconceivable experience: the beings present witness the interpenetration of countless parallel universes. They can see how all the worlds, and all the beings in all the worlds, are entirely interdependent, existing in a web of relationships in which every phenomena is interlinked with every other aspect. “Buddha has now emitted this light and has shown this marvel in order to cause all sentient beings to hear and understand the Dharma which in all the worlds is difficult to understand” (Kubo and Yuyama 13). Thus the true Lotus Sūtra is not spoken, rather it is “revealed” (Kubo and Yuyama 15) through Buddha’s non-linguistic phenomenal display.
Buddhas “appear in the world to manifest the wisdom and insight … to sentient beings” (Kubo and Yuyama 31). Giving lectures and personal advice is an important part of Buddha’s teaching, but so too is the manifestation of ultimate reality, which is beyond conception. The text cannot itself display the inconceivable—which must be directly experienced—but it can describe it as best as possible. Like a brochure enticing us to visit a tropical destination, we can try to imagine the locale, but we must actually travel there in order to experience the ideal climate and sandy beaches. So too The Lotus Sūtra describes how Buddhas and bodhisattvas experience awakened consciousness, yet for the reader to actually witness the lotus and savor its exquisite fragrance, we must ourself become a Buddha or bodhisattva.
Understanding and transmitting the sūtra depends on perceiving the emptiness of all phenomena, which allows penetrating the truth of how reality is functioning. “All things … are beyond all language. They are not produced, nor do they emerge, nor do they arise. They do not have any name or mark, and in reality they have no substance” (Kubo and Yuyama 202). Here we have more descriptions of how the true Lotus Sūtra is expressing a reality that is beyond ordinary conception and language. It states that ordinary objects “are immeasurable, limitless, without obstacles or obstructions. They exist only through dependent origination, arising through error” of perception (Kubo and Yuyama 202); our very ordinary-seeming world is—from the perspective of awakened consciousness—a kaleidoscopic multiplicity of interdependent phenomenon entirely unlimited by opinions, conceptions, and labels. As ordinary unenlightened beings, the world as we perceive it is flawed; only the non-conceptual illuminated awareness can perceive true reality, which is the origin of the true Lotus Sūtra.
Buddha’s skillful means is to ensure that his audience can understand and use the teachings he is providing which are emerging from his own extraordinary understanding. When he introduces this ultimate Dharma in the Lotus Sūtra, he is cautious to not teach it to those who are unprepared. “None of the śrāvakas and pratyekabuddhas may be capable of understanding it” (Kubo and Yuyama 23). “It is impossible to explain this Dharma; the powers of speech fail. No other sentient being is able to understand it, except for those bodhisattvas who, in their belief, are willing to understand” (Kubo and Yuyama 24). Even highly developed practitioners, “[t]hough they fully understood the meaning and could expound this Dharma … they still would not be able to know the wisdom of the Buddhas” (Kubo and Yuyama 25). Buddha is warning not to teach those not ready: it is not that they cannot understand or accept it, rather they have no experience so they do not understand what he is talking about, and the risk is that they would be alarmed and turn away from further Buddhist practice.
Buddha is always teaching all beings with skillful means, so everything we hear and experience is the dharma. Buddha “perceive[s] the faculties of sentient beings—whether they are sharp or dull, diligent or idle—[and] explains the teachings according to their capacities” (Kubo and Yuyama 102). Having received the inconceivable teaching through Buddha’s skillful means, we “nevertheless [do] not perceive the merit that [we] have obtained” (Kubo and Yuyama 102). For Buddha “there is no this or that. Nor do I have either love or hate;” Buddha has “no attachments and make[s] no distinctions,” hence he “always teach[es] the Dharma equally to all” (Kubo and Yuyama 106). Receiving Buddha’s teaching, and progressing along the single path of true Dharma, is inevitable:
Having heard his teaching, all of these beings are at peace in this world and are born into a good existence in the future. Through this they will receive peace of mind and be able to hear the teaching. Having already heard the teaching, they will become free from obstructions and be able to gradually enter the path to the Dharma according to their capacities.(Kubo and Yuyama 102)
Thus, all we do—everything we have done or ever will do—is the practice of Dharma. Whatever we experience leads to a higher rebirth. Buddha “arouse[s] in us the aspiration for omniscience,” however “we forgot, we did not know or understand” (Kubo and Yuyama 155). Having heard his teaching, all of these beings are at peace in this world and are born into a good existence in the future. We can look to the story of Ānanda, one of Buddha’s students, who, merely through rejoicing, suddenly recalled immeasurable Buddhas and the Dharma they taught “as if he had just heard of it today” (Kubo and Yuyama 161); in time, under the right conditions, any of us could—and will—unexpectedly have a flash of recollection, and suddenly leap forward in spiritual development. We have already received a prediction of enlightenment from Buddha, we merely forgot.
The purpose of The Lotus Sūtra then is to kindle our memory, inspire us with faith, and encourage us to keep going. According to the text, just hearing the title, or hearing about the existence of the ultimate realization of the true Lotus Sūtra is evidence of the certainty of our own final awakening to Buddhahood. Anyone who merely preserves the name of The Lotus Sūtra is under the protection of magical beings (Kubo and Yuyama 322). While there are many practices to cultivate along the way, ultimately we are already at the destination. The only thing missing is to pay attention to the universal truth of the Dharma, the emptiness that opens to the interdependence of all phenomena, the natural state of all things.
(1) There are actually two paths to the nirvāṇa of the arhat mentioned in the Lotus Sūtra: the path of the listeners—śrāvakayāna— and the path of the solitary awakened—pratyekabuddhayāna. (Kubo and Yuyama 32)
(2) Sanskrit: anuttarā-samyak-saṃbodhi
(3) Sanskrit: bodhisattvayāna, Bodhisattva Vehicle or Path
(4) Sanskrit: ekayāna — One Vehicle or Path
(5) Sanksrit: hineyāna, the Foundational Vehicle or Path, sometimes translated as Lesser or, by Kubo and Yuyama as Inferior.
(6) Sanskrit: mahāyāna, the Great Vehicle or Path, contrasted with hineyāna, the Foundational (or Inferior) Vehicle or Path.
(7) Sanskrit: kalpa, A long period of time, usually translated into English as “eon” or “age” (Buswell and Lopez 31105).
(8) Sanskrit: prajñāpāramitā, Perfection of Wisdom: the deepest understanding how the mind and the world it perceives are really working.
(9) Sanskrit: śūnyatā — Emptiness: the absence of independent self-nature to objects, phenomena, and beings.
(10) Sanskrit: upāya, Buddha is likened to a physician prescribing medicine: he provides the correct medicine in the appropriate dosage only to treat the specific ailment of the patient he’s presently working with.
(11) Sanskrit: tathāgata, literally “thus come one” or “thus gone one,” is an epithet for Buddha, and the term he used to self-identify after his enlightenment.
(12) Epithet for Buddha.
(13) The “final extinction” of the Buddha, when he supposedly goes into a permanent state of non-being.
Buswell Jr., Robert E. and Lopez Jr., Donald S. The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2014. Kindle Edition.
Kubo, Tsugunari and Yuyama, Akira: translators. The Lotus Sūtra: Translated from the Chinese of Kumārajiva. Moraga, California: BDK America, Inc., 2007. Print.
Monier-Williams, Monier. A Sanskrit-English Dictionary. London, England: Oxford University Press, 1899. Print.