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The Lotus Sutra

The Lotus Sutra is one of the most beloved Mahayana sutras especially in the East Asian countries of China, Japan and Korea. I recently read this sutra for the first time. Please note that the following is only my reaction to the text and that I am neither a practicing Buddhist nor an expert in Buddhist studies.

The overwhelming impression one gets while reading the Lotus Sutra is of bigness. every number given is incalculably large; every time period is incalculably long. Special archaic words are used , which no one seems to know the exact meaning of, except that they are incredibly large.  From the very beginning the action encompasses not only the material plane of our reality but also higher and lower planes and alternate realities, all brought together for the occasion by the transcendental powers of Shakyamuni Buddha. Here we see the awesome panoramic grandeur of Mahayana Buddhism at its finest, a Buddhism which has gone far beyond its original roots as a North Indian philosophy, to embrace infinity and eternity. Whoever wrote the Lotus Sutra had no fear of thinking big. I am reminded of something I read somewhere, that Buddhism of all the world’s religions is best suited for a space-faring race in the vastness of the universe, since it has accepted the reality of infinite spaces and countless worlds since the beginning. Here in this sutra received Buddhist thought embracing concepts of scale and time which Western Civilization has only recently  engaged with, and then mostly in science fiction.

Against this backdrop the central theme of the Lotus Sutra, that all living things have the potential to become buddhas, seems natural and fitting. in the Pāli Canon, those scriptures used by Theravada Buddhists, three paths/vehicles are offered to enlightenment: the vehicle of the hearer, the vehicle of the hermit, and the vehicle of the  Bodhisattva. In the Lotus Sutra it is explained that all three of these paths in fact one, and all lead eventually to bodhisattvahood, and ultimately buddhahood. The concept of three paths is merely an expedient offered to teach people who were not ready for the Mahayana philosophy. The word Mahayana itself can be translated as “one big vehicle”. The Lotus Sutra also shows examples indicating that not just monks but also lay people women children and in fact all sentients can follow the Bodhisattva path and eventually become buddhas.   In other words, the vehicle is big enough for everyone.

Prabhūtaratna and Shakyamuni in the treasure tower; wall painting, Yulin Caves. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Another major theme revealed in the Lotus Sutra is that of the Eternal Buddha. even though Buddha’s exists as living beings through numerous incarnations they also exist as Buddha’s outside of time. Shakyamuni might  have been born a man and lived for 80 years but he has always been the Buddha and always will be. Even a buddha who has extinction can still interact with those bound to the wheel. For much of the Lotus Sutra Shakyamuni is joined by a Buddha named Many Treasures (Prabhūtaratna) who entered extinction incalculable eons ago and yet has returned to hear the sutra. This is an area where Buddhism, considered a secular philosophy by many people here in the West,  definitely pushes into the realm of theology. The assertion of an eternal Buddha requires a doctrinal explanation which is dealt with differently in the various schools of Buddhism, generally by postulating three (or more) aspects of the Buddha in which the highest is perfect and eternal and the lowest is one of multiple physical emanations, 

The Buddha’s physical appearance as a human being such as Gautama Buddha is an emanation body, a form he assumed to suit the spiritual dispositions and needs of ordinary beings. An emanation body derives from a subtler body, an enjoyment body. An enjoyment body emerges from the omniscient mind of a buddha, the wisdom dharmakāya.  

Dalai Lama, Thubten Chodron. (2017). One Teacher, Many Traditions. Simon and Schuster. p.29

This arrangement calls to mind the three homeostases of Plotinus, not to mention the Christian Trinity. <1>

Besides these major teaching points, the One Vehicle and the Eternal Buddha, the Lotus Sutra, a long work compared most sutras that I have encountered, alludes to numerous minor points of doctrine, most of which I was probably oblivious to, not having enough background in Buddhism. It also gives many, many pages of exhortations to read, copy, memorize, recite, and preach the Lotus Sutra itself—a sort of circular reference which seemed strange to me as a Western reader.  It also contains short bios of several of the most important bodhisattvas (of which Avalokiteśvara, aka Kuan Yin, is probably the most well known to Westerners) and a great deal of poetry. In fact, most material in the sutra is repeated twice, once in prose, and once in poetry. There are also numerous repetitive passages—a sort of scriptural boiler plate. The translator of the edition I read, Burton Watson, explains in the introduction that these features are probably relics of the period when the Sutra was primarily preserved orally. They make for a long read. Curiously, though, the cadence of the language and the vividness of the imagery is such that it is not a boring read, at least not if you approach it in the right mental state. How much of this is due to Watson’s skill as a translator, and how much to the sutra itself, I can’t say. What is certainly true, though, that this is one of the most widely read sutras in the history of the world, which is indicative of a literary appeal that transcends mere doctrine.

Thousand-Armed Avalokitesvara, China , via Flickr user Triratna_photos, [CC BY-NC 2.0]

<1> It is far from sure, however, that Neoplatonism developed free from Buddhist influences. The Eastern Roman empire traded with Buddhist countries. Both Roman philosophers and Buddhist monks sometimes traveled widely. Plotinus himself, who was from Egypt, could easily have reached several large, cosmopolitan cities where he might have encountered Buddhists.; All of the above is also true, of course, of Jesus Christ—a possibility which I hope to address in a later post.