Friday, 1 April 2016

The Lotus Sutra

"Jizo Bodhisattva" by Christina Hess. Source:
Recently I have become increasingly fascinated with the Lotus Sutra. When I first encountered it, it felt like a revelation. I read book IV, within which there is a parable about a rich man with a poor son. The son believes he is unworthy of prosperity, and so slowly the rich man uses skillful means to ensure the son accepts the wealth that is his birthright; wealth being a metaphor for Buddhahood. I responded powerfully to this story because it reflected where I was and have been for years – an admirer of Buddhism but more or less convinced that I am incapable of taking up this seemingly long, difficult and austere path. The key message of the Lotus Sutra is that enlightenment is within the reach of us all and Buddhist realisation is ultimately not for the few but the many, whether man or woman, renunciate or lay-person, human or non-human. This profoundly validating message lies at the core of the Lotus Sutra.

Historical context
Scholars agree that a significant portion of the Lotus Sutra represents the earliest Mahayana teachings to have been committed to writing. Coincidentally it was also the first Buddhist Sutra to be translated into a European language (in 1852 it was translated from Sanskrit into French by Orientalist Eugene Burnouf). It was originally written in either Sanskrit or, more likely, in Prakit, a related though more humble Indian dialect, perhaps around the time of the birth of Christ, circa 500 years after the lifetime of the Buddha. Although the earliest date we can give the Sutra with any certainty is 255 CE, when the first Chinese translation was made  the original Lotus Sutra has long been lost. The earliest Sanskrit copies we have date from the 5th or 6th centuries, though several Sanskrit copies, some made as recently as the 11th century or possibly later (when Mahayana Buddhism in south Asia entered a period of severe decline, following Muslim persecution and subsequent absorption into Hinduism), have been discovered in Nepal, Gilgit (north Pakistan) and Xinjiang (NW China). Its name in Sanskrit is the Saddharma PundarikaSaddharma means something like doctrine, truth or good law. Pundarika has a wide range of meanings including white lotus flower. Note that during the lifetime of the Buddha India was not a very literate society – instead of recording the Buddha’s teachings in writing the first Buddhists committed his teachings to memory. The Lotus Sutra is said to be what was originally a secret teaching given by the Gautama Buddha at the end of his life. The Sutra is widely accepted as authentic amongst contemporary Mahayana Buddhists (over half of the world’s Buddhists are Mahayana), but is disregarded by Theravada Buddhists, which is unsurprising, given that it is a foundational Mahayana Sutra.

Renowned contemporary Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh (of the Vietnamese Zen tradition) describes the impact and role of the Lotus Sutra on Mahayana Buddhism thus: 
“… Original Buddhism  was a time of unified Buddhism; there was just one Sutra Collection and one Vinaya Collection. Then came Schools Buddhism, which developed about 150 years after the Buddha’s lifetime, when the early Buddhist Sangha split into two schools – the Theravada (‘Way of the Elders’), which was conservative in nature; and the Mahasanghikavada (‘The Way of the Majority’), which was more progressive. As time went on these two schools further divided. … The Mahayana way of study and practice arose from the Mahasangika (Majority) school …   
The attitude of reconciliation and harmony reflected in the Lotus Sutra was very important in the maturation of Mahayana Buddhism. Because of the sutra’s capacity to integrate the paths of all the Buddhist vehicles, it has been given the highest place in the Mahayana canon. In the Lotus Sutra the Buddha says to [a] Bodhisattva … ‘Just as among all streams, rivers, and bodies of water the sea is the first, the [Lotus] Sutra … is the first … the deepest and the greatest among the scriptures preached by Thus Come One [ie, the Buddha].’ And earlier in the sutra, the Buddha says: ‘Medicine King, I now proclaim to you the scriptures that I preach; and among these scriptures the Dharma Blossom [ie, the Lotus Sutra] is foremost’ [Thich Nhat Hanh, Opening of the Cosmos: Insights on the Lotus Sutra]”. 

The doctrinal significance of the Lotus Sutra
Bodhisattva of compassion, Avalolitesvara, holding a white lotus,
Ajanta Caves mural, west central India, 5th century CE or earlier.
Noble Ross Reat, a professor of religion from the University of Queensland, who specialises in eastern religions, describes the seminal importance of the Lotus Sutra to Mahayana Buddhism thus:
“The Mahayana came to regard the essential Buddha not as a human being, but as the omnipresent truth (Dharma) manifest in all things. To emphasise this distinction, Mahayana Buddhism refers to the Dharma-kaya or ‘truth-body’ of the Buddha as opposed to the Nirmana-kaya or ‘physical body’ of the historical Buddha. The Nirmana-kaya of the Buddha is limited in space and time, whereas the Dharma-kaya Buddha is omnipresent and eternal … 
If, however, as the Mahayana asserts, the Buddha remains ever present in samsara, a new understanding of nirvana is required. The great Mahayana philosopher Nagarjuna expressed this new understanding in his doctrinal formulation in Mahayana Buddhism. 
‘There is no distinction of samsara from nirvana. There is no distinction of nirvana from samsara.’
… This doctrine is an outright rejection of the Theravada concept of the radical duality of ‘this world’ (samsara) and the ‘other world’ (nirvana). In Mahayana Buddhism, nirvana and samsara become two aspects of the same reality, the same Dharma. If one looks at the universe and sees the truth, that is nirvana. If one fails to see the truth, it is samsara … If one sees the Dharma-kaya everywhere and at all times, one knows that the Buddha remains present in samsara. The Lotus Sutra, parts of which contain some of the earliest Mahayana literature, foreshadows this new doctrine of the Buddha and of nirvana as follows.   
The life of the Tathagata [Buddha] so long ago enlightened is unlimited; he is everlasting. Without becoming extinct, the Tathagata makes a show of nirvana, on behalf of those needing guidance.’ 
… The Buddha’s ‘making a show’ in this passage represents an instance of upaya or ‘skillful means’, the final structural element in the conceptual foundation of Mahayana Buddhism’s devotionalism. The Pali [Theravada] suttas often record the Buddha as noting that one has to teach in accordance with the ability of one’s audience … Out of compassion, one skillfully presents part of the truth in a way that the pupil can grasp … In the passage above, the Lotus Sutra suggests that even the death of the Buddha was only an upaya, an educational ruse for the benefit of those who are determined that there must be a goal for which to strive, in this case, nirvana.  
By integrating the concept of Buddha and the concept of Dharma in this way , the Mahayana was able to provide for the masses appealing objects of religious devotion that remained appropriately Buddhist. This integration made possible a proliferation of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas personifying various Buddhist ideals such as wisdom (Manjusri Bodhisattva), compassion (Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva), and benevolence (Maitreya Buddha). Each of these personifications developed its own individual mythology and iconography – reflecting its own particular upaya – so as to appeal to the various temperaments of different devotees. And yet all of them are thought to resolve ultimately into the supreme, eternal and omnipresent Dharma-kaya. In the last analysis, all of the various Buddhas and Bodhisattvas of Mahayana Buddhism are but facets of the one ultimate truth, the Dharma [Reat, Buddhism: A History].”

Different translations of the Lotus Sutra
5th-6th century fragment of the Lotus Sutra
found in Xinjiang. Source:
The Lotus Sutra is particularly revered within Chinese, Vietnamese and Japanese lineages, which rely primarily on a translation into Chinese by (mostly) Kumarajiva in the 5th century – later translators added material, including the book dealing with Devadatta, to Kumarajiva’s original, probably in or after the 7th century. As noted above, the earliest copy of the Lotus Sutra known to exist dates from the 3rd century and is also in Chinese – but apparently this translation is rarely read by Buddhists today. It is likewise regarding the several Sanskrit copies dating from between the 5th-11th centuries which are extant. 

Thus there are multiple versions of the Lotus Sutra in existence. As it is regarded as a pivotal teaching of the Gautama Buddha I want to get some idea of what teachings are shared between the different translations with a view to perceiving the Lotus Sutra in its essential form. Logically one would suppose that the Sanskrit copies are the most true to the original teaching – for the original language of the Buddha (which is unknown) would have been Indo-Aryan, and Sanskrit is an Indo-Aryan language. Thus the need to translate would have been minimised during the Sanskrit copying process. However, as noted above, the most ancient version of the Lotus Sutra in existence is in Chinese, but does that make it any more authentic? Chinese is a distinctly different language to that spoken on the Indian subcontinent, the motherland of Buddhism. The opportunities for original meanings and intent to be altered during the process of translation would presumably be manifold. In any case, I do not have access to an English version of this earliest edition which is apparently rarely read by Buddhists today. As noted above, the most widely read English translation is based on Kumarajiva’s Chinese version. I have therefore, in an attempt to get some idea of the true essence of the Lotus Sutra, decided to try to see what is the same in three translations into English of what is arguably the important book in the Lotus Sutra  book II – I confess the task of comparing all of the books seems too great an undertaking. The translations I will look at are by:
  • Burton Watson (available at, who taught at Stanford and Columbia university as a professor of Chinese; he is renowned for his translations of Chinese and Japanese literature. His Lotus Sutra is an English translation of Kumarajiva’s 5th century Chinese translation (which includes some added material, from later translators, as noted above).
  • Gene Reeves (not available online), which I have as an iBook. Reeves is a philosopher of religion/Buddhist scholar with ties to Buddhists and academics in China, Japan and the United States. His Lotus Sutra is a translation based on Kumarajiva’s Chinese version.
  • Johan Hendrik Caspar Kern (available at, a 19th century professional linguist and Orientalist, renowned for his knowledge and study of Sanskrit. His Lotus Sutra is a translation of a medieval era Sanskrit copy from Nepal.
There is another easily accessible version translated by the Buddhist Text Translation Society (also based on Kumarajiva’s version), but as I cannot discover the scholarly credentials behind their translation I will not focus on it, but you can find a copy of it at or/and

3rd century Buddha found in Pakistan
A summary of book I – nidāna parivartaḥ (Skt)
Book I is an introduction establishing the Buddha is about to give a teaching (ie, the Lotus Sutra) to a huge number of humans, Gods, demigods, spirits, etc. The setting appears to be both the physical world of the Gautama Buddha as well as other-worldly and cosmic. The actual teaching commences with book II. 

A summary of book II – upāya kauśalya parivartaḥ (Skt)
The title of Book II is translated by Watson as “Expedient Means”, Reeves calls it “Skillful Means”, Kern calls it “Skillfulness” and the Buddhist Text Translation Society call it “Expedient Devices”.  In it the Buddha addresses his disciple Shariputra while also seemingly addressing the vast audience described in book I. That which is common between the versions I am looking at include the following:

I. The Dharma/cosmic truth of the universe is difficult to understand
That the Dharma (Dharma = eternal law of the cosmos; the ultimate and universal truth from the viewpoint of Buddhism; teachings of the Buddha) is profound and “difficult to understand” (Kern, Watson and Reeves) and for this reason various skillful means, which are usually verbal means (eg, causal explanations and parables), are used to help people understand the Dharma, and yet words alone cannot explain the Dharma. Likewise, neither reason, nor analysis alone will illuminate the Dharma. 

II. The Buddhas use skillful and expedient means to teach the Dharma and so there seem to be multiple spiritual vehicles
“I announce this to the assembly of voice-hearers [Shravakas] and to those who seek the vehicle of the cause-awakened one [the Pratyekabuddha way]: I have enabled people to escape the bonds of suffering and to attain nirvana. The Buddha, through the power of expedient means, has shown the teachings of the three vehicles, prying living beings loose from this or that attachment and allowing them to attain release” (Watson).  
“I say to all Shravakas and to those who seek the Pratyekabuddha way that I free from them from the bonds of suffering and enable them to reach nirvana. Through the power of skillful means the Buddha reveals the teaching of the three vehicles. Though all beings have various attachments, he leads them to liberate themselves” (Reeves).  
“I address all disciples here, those who have set out to reach the enlightenment of Pratyekabuddhas, those who are roused to activity at my Nirvâna, and those who have been released from the series of evils. It is by my superior skillfulness that I explain the law at great length to the world at large. I deliver whosoever are attached to one point or another, and show the three vehicles” (Kern).  
The three vehicles referred to appear to be (1) Shravakas, those who hear, memorise and proclaim the teachings of the Buddha (eg, monks and nuns); (2) Pratyekabuddhas, solitary realisers who achieve high states of spiritual realisation without a teacher (eg, forest hermits); (3) Bodhisattvas. A Bodhisattva takes the vow “Let me, by accomplishing my course of duty, lead others to enlightenment” (Kern). “I want to share [the Buddha way] universally with other living beings, that they may attain the same [Buddha] way” (Reeves). 

III. Bodhisattvas can understand the Dharma 
“It is impossible to explain it; it is unutterable; nor is there such a being in the world … [to] whom this law could be explained or who would be able to understand it when explained, with the exception of the Bodhisattvas, those who are firm in resolve.” (Kern)  
“This Law cannot be described, words fall silent before it. Among the other kinds of living beings there are none who can comprehend it, except the many bodhisattvas who are firm in the power of faith.” (Watson). 
“This Dharma is indescribable. Words must fall silent. Among other kinds of living beings, none can understand it, except the Bodhisattvas, whose faith is strong and firm” (Reeves). 
By these words the aspiration to become a Bodhisattva is established as the pinnacle of Mahayana Buddhism. As a personal interjection – it seems to me that it may be that only Bodhisattvas can understand the Dharma because only they truly understand the interconnectedness of all things and that we are all but parts of something larger, hence working for happiness of others inevitably results in working for the happiness of one's (ultimately non-existent or at least non-separate) self.

IV. Some people are just too self-inflated to understand the Dharma 
The Buddha muses that he has not before revealed the teaching he is about to give because Dharma “knowledge is too subtle, inscrutable, and there are too many unwise men who in their conceit and foolishness would scoff at the law revealed” (Kern). 
“My Law is wonderful and difficult to ponder. Those who are overbearingly arrogant when they hear it will never show reverent belief” (Watson). 
Three times the Buddha is asked to reveal this higher teaching – twice he refuses and on the third time he agrees to reveal it (there is a longstanding tradition within Buddhism of asking something three times and not receiving an answer until the third). Before he does so five thousand monks, nuns and lay devotees of both sexes in the congregation rise, bow to the Buddha and leave. Why? Because they are proud/arrogant and thought they had already attained what they had not (ie, that which could be called enlightenment, nirvana, release, Buddhahood or omniscience). 

V. There is only one Dharma, not many (the many are simply skillful expedients leading to the one)
What is this higher teaching? It is that there is but one Buddha vehicle, not three (nor more). This is true even though the Buddha uses a vast variety of different and skillful means to teach the Dharma.
“I have employed the power of expedient means to unfold and demonstrate this doctrine of three vehicles” (Watson). 
“It is but my skillfulness which prompts me to manifest three vehicles; for there is but one vehicle and one track” (Kern). 
“[Buddhas] teach millions and millions of countless gateways to the Dharma, this will actually be for the sake of the one vehicle … I use various gateways to the Dharma to proclaim the Buddha way” (Reeves). 
The Buddhas also apparently teach what do not appear to be Buddhist teachings to persons who are not ready for it. The Buddha “shall never say to [the ignorant with low dispositions], Ye also are to become Buddhas” (Kern) for if “I were in all cases to teach them the Buddha way, those without wisdom would become confused and in their bewilderment would fail to accept my teachings” (Watson). 
“There is, indeed, but one vehicle; there is no second, nor a third anywhere in the world, apart from the case of the Purushottamas [higher beings] using an expedient to show that there is a diversity of vehicles” (Kern).  
“Persons of meager virtue and small merit, they are troubled and beset by manifold sufferings … They are profoundly committed to false and empty doctrines, holding firmly to them, unable to set them aside. Arrogant and puffed up with self-importance … they will not hear a Buddha’s name, nor will they hear the correct teaching – such people are difficult to save. For these reasons … I have for their sake established expedient means …” (Watson). 
VI. The time to reveal this teaching to the many only ripened after the death of the Buddha 
“I never before said, ‘all of you will be able to achieve the Buddha way.’ The reason why I never said this was that the time was not yet ripe. But now is the right time to teach the great vehicle definitively” (Reeves).  
“Why should not the mighty one, after having waited for the right time, speak, now that he perceives the right moment is come? This is the fit opportunity” (Kern).
VII. Specific things we can do to bring us closer to enlightenment
Then it is said that the following things will lead to achieving the Buddha way (these are the things the three texts agree on): keep the precepts,* give alms, practice meditation and wisdom, cultivate merit, revere relics, create shrines, create images of the Buddha, make offerings (eg, of flowers or incense before images of the Buddha), bow and press the palms together before an image of the Buddha, stand before a Stupa and say “hail/homage to the Buddha”, create music which honours the Buddha. Listen to, read, recite or chant the Lotus Sutra.
“Any one who, on hearing a good exposition of it [the Lotus Sutra], shall cheerfully accept it and recite but one word of it, will have done honour to all Buddhas” (Kern). 
“If a person hears this Law, delights in and praises it, even if he utters just one word, then he has made offerings to all the Buddhas” (Watson).
VIII. Enlightenment is within reach
“If a Shravaka or a Bodhisattva hears the Dharma I preach, even a single verse of it, without doubt they will all become Buddhas … I transform all living beings and lead them all into the Buddha way” (Reeves).  
“You will have no more doubts or perplexities but, your minds filled with great joy, will know that you yourselves will attain Buddhahood” (Watson). 
“Give up all doubt and uncertainty in this respect; I declare that I am the king of the [Dharma] law; I am urging others to enlightenment … for the eminent Bodhisattvas, who are to keep this mystery … shall be modest and pure, striving after the supreme and the highest enlightenment, to them shall I unhesitatingly set forth the endless forms of this one and sole vehicle. Such is the mastership of the leaders; that is, their skillfulness. They have spoken in many mysteries; hence it is difficult to understand (them). Therefore try to understand the mystery of the Buddhas, the holy masters of the world; forsake all doubt and uncertainty: you shall become Buddhas; rejoice!” (Kern).

Conclusion and summary of book II
I think the thing I really like about the Lotus Sutra is not just its spiritually validating optimism but also the head-f—k  involved in wondering whether or not the Sutra is itself an example of skillful means. As Shariputra says:
“even with my wisdom, I cannot resolve the doubt as to whether this is the ultimate Dharma or only a path for getting to it” (Reeves).
Another thing l particularly like is the way the superiority of the one Buddha vehicle of the Lotus Sutra is proclaimed (which we expect any religious teaching to do, ie, to self-validate), while simultaneously affirming the validity of other spiritual paths, and different Buddhist lineages, which are viewed as expedient means on the path to higher realisation – this call to tolerance is a sure sign that we are dealing with a self-confident and higher teaching. As Daisaku Ikea (of the Nichiren tradition) says:
“The Lotus Sutra – expounding the very essence of the Law – is the king of sutras. A king does not negate the existence of others; his role is to bring out the full potential of all [].
And as Thich Nhat Hanh says:
“One reason the Lotus Sutra is the called the King of Sutras is because it has the capacity to fit together and accept all the schools of Buddhism … we should not think of the Mahayana as a rejection of the early Buddhist canon but rather as a continuation and expansion of its insights … [Thich Nhat Hanh, Opening of the Cosmos: Insights on the Lotus Sutra]”.
Finally, I appreciate the fact that certain very specific practices are espoused. This teaching is not just theoretical, it is also practical. The Sutra specifically endorses certain traditional practices of Buddhism, such as the keeping of the precepts,* the giving of alms, meditation, cultivating wisdom and merit, as well as devotional practice. 
“If there are living beings who have encountered ... past Buddhas, and if they have listened to the Law, presented alms, or kept the precepts, shown forbearance, been assiduous, practiced meditation and wisdom, and so forth, cultivating various kinds of merit and virtue, then persons such as these all have attained the Buddha way … if persons are of good and gentle mind, then living beings such as these have all attained the Buddha way … If there are persons who for the sake of the Buddhas fashion and set up images,  carving them with many distinguishing characteristics, then all have attained the Buddha way … Even if little boys in play should use a piece of grass or wood or a brush, or perhaps a fingernail to draw an image of the Buddha, such persons as these bit by bit will pile up merit and will become fully endowed with minds of great compassion; they all have attained the Buddha way … And if persons, in the presence of … [Buddha] images, should with reverent minds make offerings of flowers, incense, banners, or canopies, or if they should employ persons to make music … and if these many kinds of wonderful [musical] notes are intended wholly as an offering; or if one with a joyful mind sings a song in praise of the Buddha’s virtue, even if it is just one small note, then all who do these things have attained the Buddha way. If someone with a confused and distracted mind should take even one flower and offer it to a painted image, in time he would come to see countless Buddhas. Or if a person should bow or perform obeisance, or should merely press his palms together, or even should raise a single hand, or give no more than a slight nod of the head, and if this were done in offering to an image, then in time he would come to see countless Buddhas … If there are those who hear the Law, then not a one will fail to attain Buddhahood …” (Watson)

* Traditionally the most fundamental precepts for lay-Buddhists (non-renunciates) are to:
  1. Abandon destruction of life – be merciful and compassionate towards all living beings.
  2. Abandon taking that which is not given – dwell with an honest heart devoid of theft.
  3. Abandon sexual misconduct – sexual expression should not happen without love.
  4. Abandon false speech – speak the truth, be trustworthy, reliable and not deceptive.
  5. Abandon the use of drugs which cause negligence, deluded thoughts and/or indolence.
On certain designated days (a few times a month) lay-Buddhists are advised to uphold the eight precepts, which are the same as the five listed above except that the third precept is changed to "abandon sexual relations and observe celibacy", and three more are added: (6) eat only one meal day before noon; (7) abstain from dancing, singing, music, unsuitable shows, self adornment, cosmetics and perfume; (8) abandon the use of high and luxurious beds and seats. Given that the eight precepts advocate avoiding music, whereas the Lotus Sutra advocates making (Buddhist) music, it is likely that these precepts are not what is referred to here but instead the three comprehensive (or "pure") Bodhisattva precepts of the Mahayana lineage which are to:
  1. Refrain from causing harm to oneself and others.
  2. Act with loving kindness and compassion.
  3. Purify your mind so you can embrace all beings; live your life for the benefit of all living beings.
  • Kern, The Lotus of the True
  • Reeves, The Lotus Sutra: A Contemporary Translation of a Buddhist Classic, Wisdom Publications, 2008
  • Watson, The Lotus Sutra,
  • Reat, Buddhism: A History, Jain Pub Co, 1994
  • Hanh, Opening of the Cosmos: Insights on the Lotus Sutra, Parallex Press, 2003
  • Hirakawa, A History of Indian Buddhism: From Śākyamuni to Early Mahāyāna, Motilal Banarsidass, 1993
Note that this blogpost has been moved from another (discontinued) blog of which I am also the author. It did briefly appear on this blog (I originally wrote it for this blog) in 2015, before I removed it.

Written by M. Sentia Figula.

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