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The Lotus Sutra
Dr. Peter Della Santina

The period between the Second Council and the first century B.C.E. saw the growth of Mahayana literature in India and the emergence of a number of important texts. The first to appear were transitional works like the Lalitavistara and Mahavastu, which belong to derivative schools of the Mahasanghikas and describe the career of the Buddha in exalted, supra mundane terms. These were followed by more than a hundred definitive Mahayana sutras, like the former, composed in Sanskrit and hybrid Sanskrit. Most of these sutras are quite extensive; examples include the Lotus Sutra, the Perfection of Wisdom Sutra in eight thousand lines, the Samadhiraja Sutra, and the Lankavatara Sutra.. They make liberal use of parables and examples and put forward the major themes of the Mahayana tradition in a discursive, didactic way. These ideas were supported some time later by the systematic arguments found in the commentarial or exegetical literature, known as shastras, composed by outstanding figures like Nagarjuna, Asanga, and Vasubandhu.

Among the many Mahayana sutras now available to us, I will devote this and the next two chapters to three that exemplify important themes and phases in the development of Mahayana Buddhism: (1) the Lotus Sutra (Saddharmapundarika Sutra), (2) the Heart Sutra (Prajnaparamita Hridaya Sutra), and (3) the Lankavatara Sutra. In many ways, the Lotus is the foundation sutra of the Mahayana tradition. It has great influence in the Mahayana Buddhist world, not only in India but also in China and Japan, where it is the favorite text of the T'ien-t'ai and Nichiren schools. Moreover, insofar as it expounds the way of great compassion, the Lotus Sutra represents the essence of the Mahayana tradition's fundamental orientation, which is great compassion.

Let us examine a number of themes in the Lotus Sutra that I feel are particularly important for an understanding of the Mahayana tradition. Let us look first at what the sutra has to say about the Buddha. In Chapter 14, I mentioned a number of suggestions found in the Theravada canon that point to the supramundane and transcendental nature of the Buddha. This theme is elaborated on in formative, transitional texts like the Mahavastu and Lalitavistara. In the Lotus Sutra, the supramundane, eternal, and ever-active nature of the Buddha is explained very clearly and in considerable detail. The message is that the form of the Buddha Shakyamuni perceived by people in the sixth century B.C.E. was simply an apparition of the transcendental Buddha projected for the purpose of enlightening sentient beings. Although the world perceived the birth of Siddhartha among the Shakya clan, the event of his great renunciation, the years of his struggle for enlightenment, his attainment of enlightenment under the bodhi tree, his forty-five years of teaching, and his passing away into extinction at the age of eighty, all this was in fact merely a show for the purpose of enlightening sentient beings. The case for this idea is advanced in the Lotus Sutra with the help of the parable of the physician that appears in chapter sixteen of the text. In this parable, a well-qualified and famous physician who has been away from home for a long time returns to find that his sons have taken poison and are seriously ill. He sets about preparing an excellent remedy for them according to his knowledge of medicine. Some of his sons immediately take the medicine he offers and are cured of their illness.

Other sons, however, although they have looked forward to their father's return and assistance, are now unwilling to take the medicine he offers because they are already too deeply affected by the poison. They fail to appreciate the excellent properties of the medicine and continue in their grave illness. Seeing this, their father devises a way to induce them to be cured: he tells them that he is already advanced in years, that the time of his death is near, and that he must again travel to another country. He then leaves and has a message sent back to his sons telling them that he has died. Moved by the news of their father's death--and desperate now that there will be no one to look after them and cure them--they take the medicine and are cured. Hearing of their recovery, the father returns and is happily reunited with his sons.

Through this parable, we are given to understand that the Buddha's appearance in the world is like the return of the physician who has journeyed to a neighboring country. Upon his return, he finds that his sons, the people of the world, have ingested the poison of greed, anger, and delusion and are distressed, ill, and suffering. He devises a cure for their suffering, which is the Dharma, the path to liberation. Although some of the people of the world follow the path and achieve liberation, there are others who are too deeply afflicted by the poison of greed, anger, and delusion and who therefore refuse to follow the path which is good in the beginning, middle, and end. As a result, a device has to be employed to induce and encourage them to take the medicine, follow the path, and achieve liberation. That device is the apparent extinction of the Buddha--his entry into final nirvana. According to this parable, therefore, the historical Buddha never really lived and never really died, but was simply one of the many appearances of the supramundane, transcendental Buddha.

The sutra reinforces this point in chapter eleven, through the appearance of an earlier Buddha, the Buddha Prabhutaratna, who had become a Tathagata, or enlightened one, eons before. While Shakyamuni is engaged in preaching the Lotus Sutra (as described in that sutra itself), Prabhutaratna appears to the assembled multitude, who see him within a jeweled stupa, his body perfectly formed. This is another indication not only that the Buddha Shakyamuni has not yet entered into final extinction, but also that the Buddhas who preceded him did not do so.

According to the Lotus Sutra, then, Buddhas possess a supramundane and transcendental, indefinite nature; they also respond and cater to the needs of sentient beings according to their individual abilities. In chapter five of the sutra, the Buddha uses the similes of rain and of light to illustrate this point. He says that, just as rain falls on all vegetation--trees, shrubs, medicinal herbs, and grasses--without discrimination, and each according to its nature and capacity takes nourishment from the rain, so the Buddhas, through their appearance in the world and their teachings, nourish all sentient beings, each according to his or her individual ability--whether great, like the tall trees; middling, like smaller trees and shrubs; or low, like the grasses. Just as each plant benefits from rain according to its capacity, so every sentient being benefits from the appearance of the Buddha according to his or her capacity. And just as the light of the sun and moon falls equally on hills, valleys, and plains, illuminating each according to its position and in its own way and time, so the Buddha's presence sheds light on all sentient beings--be they high, middling, or low--according to their individual positions and capacities. It is in this sense that the infinite, supramundane Buddha appears in countless forms to benefit sentient beings: in the form of an Arhat, a Bodhisattva, a friend of virtue, and even in the form of an ordinary, unenlightened sentient being.

We know that it is difficult to know the ultimate nature of reality, the truth: the way things really are is not amenable to words. This is why the Buddha remained silent when he was asked whether the world is infinite or finite, both or neither, and whether the Tathagata exists or does not exist after death, or both or neither. The ultimate nature of reality has to be realized by oneself. This is reflected in the distinction between the Dharma that one becomes acquainted with indirectly, through the help of others, and the Dharma that one realizes for oneself. But this realization of the truth does not come easily. It has to be achieved by oneself, and it has to be the result of a direct, inner realization. Thus, motivated by great compassion, the Buddhas appear in the world to teach and help sentient beings achieve this realization of the ultimate nature of reality by stages. They do this through skillful means, according to the capacities and inclinations of sentient beings.

This idea regarding the differing capacities and inclinations of sentient beings is not peculiar to the Mahayana tradition. In the Theravada canon, also, the Buddha likens the varying capacities of living beings to the different positions of lotuses in a pond--some are submerged, others are partly submerged, and still others are free of the water and blossoming in the clear air and sunlight. Similarly, living beings are of inferior, middling, and superior capacity. The Theravada tradition also includes the idea of the Buddha's skillful means, as exemplified in different ways of teaching, such as directly and indirectly. This idea is reflected, too, in the distinction between the conventional and the ultimate truth. This notion of skillful means is developed and refined in the Mahayana tradition and is an extremely important theme of the Lotus Sutra.

Because the ultimate nature of reality is difficult to realize, and because sentient beings differ in their capacities and inclinations, the Buddhas resorted to skillful means to lead each and every sentient being to the ultimate goal of enlightenment, according to his or her own way and inclination. Therefore, the Lotus Sutra explains that the vehicle of the Bodhisattvas, the vehicle of the Pratyekabuddhas (or 'private Buddhas'), and the vehicle of the disciples are nothing more than skillful means calculated to suit the differing capacities and inclinations of sentient beings.

Chapter three of the Lotus Sutra uses a compelling parable to explain the nature of skillful means. The story it tells is this: Suppose there is a rich man who inhabits an old house and who has a number of children. One day the house suddenly catches on fire. The father, seeing that it will soon be engulfed in flames, calls to his children to come out, but they are absorbed in their play and do not heed his words. Being familiar with the inclinations of his children, the father thinks of a skillful device to induce them to leave the house. Knowing they are fond of toys, he calls to them to come out at once because he has brought them all different kinds of toy carts. The children abandon their play and rush out to get the carts. Once they are safely away from the burning house, the father gives each and everyone of them only the most excellent cart, the vehicle of the Buddhas.

It is easy to see that in this parable the house is the world, the fire is the fire of the afflictions, the father is the Buddha, and the children are the people of the world. The toy carts are the vehicles of the Bodhisattvas, Pratyekabuddhas, and disciples. Elsewhere in the Lotus Sutra, the Buddha explains that he taught the Hinayana path for those who believe in the existence of the world, and the Mahayana for those whose merit is well matured. To have taught only the Hinayana would have been miserly, yet had he taught only the Mahayana, many would have despaired of achieving the goal of enlightenment and not entered the path at all. Thus the Hinayana and Mahayana are expedient devices for the people of the world, designed to suit their different capacities and inclinations.

The Buddha also says in the sutra that Arhats like Shariputra and Rahula will all eventually attain Buddhahood. He then likens the nirvana of the Arhats to an illusory city conjured up by a wise guide who is leading a party of travelers to a vast treasure. On the way, the travelers grow weary and tired. They despair of reaching their goal, so the guide conjures up the appearance of a city that has all the amenities needed for them to rest and recover their strength. Thereafter, they will be able to continue their journey until they eventually reach the treasure. In this parable the guide is the Buddha, the travelers are the people of the world, and the illusory city is the nirvana of the Arhats. The message of skillful means is further explained in the Lotus Sutra by other parables and similes. For example, in chapter four there is the parable of a son who has been parted from his father at a young age and who spends the better part of his life in poverty and suffering, ignorant of his origins. His father, longing to see his son again and hand down his vast inheritance to him, is grieved by his inability to locate him. One day, the son happens to come to his father's house. Seeing the splendor of the household and the respect the servants have for the master of the house, he becomes conscious of his inferiority and attempts to flee, but his father recognizes him and sends men to bring him back. Unable to recognize his father in return, the son is terrified and protests his innocence. Seeing the situation, the father tells his men to let him go.

Some time later, the father sends his men, dressed in poor apparel, to offer his son the work of sweeping out dung in the cow sheds of the household. His son accepts this menial task and works for some time. Gradually, the father increases his wages. All the while, the son is unaware that the master is in fact his own father, and the father refrains from revealing it so as not to upset or frighten him. Eventually the son is elevated to the position of foreman. Only when he has thus broadened his vision and aspirations does his father reveal to him his origins and hand over to him his inheritance. At that point the son realizes his nobility and is overjoyed by his achievement. In the same way, the Lotus Sutra says that we are all sons of the Buddha and will all achieve the inheritance of Buddhahood. But because our ambitions and aspirations are paltry, the Buddha has set us disciplines whereby we will gradually develop and expand our vision until we realize our true nature and kinship and are ready to accept this inheritance of Buddhahood.

The central theme of the Lotus Sutra is the working of skillful means out of great compassion. Out of great compassion, the Buddhas appear in the world. Out of great compassion, they exercise their skillful means in countless ways, through countless forms, devices, practices, and vehicles. All these are calculated to suit the varying capacities and inclinations of sentient beings so that each one can, in his or her own way and time, aspire to and achieve full and perfect enlightenment, the enlightenment of the Buddha. It is because of this message--with its universality, optimism, and encouragement for all--that the Mahayana tradition has been able to win such phenomenal popularity not only in India but also in Central and East Asia.


[Taken from Peter Della Santina., The Tree of Enlightenment. (Taiwan: The Corporate Body of the Buddha Educational Foundation, 1997), pp. 133-141].


Sincere thanks to Ti.nh Tue^. for typing this article.


Updated: 1-5-2000

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