Today we begin a series on what is generally referred to as the Lotus Sutra. Certainly it’s a Sutra that has captured the mind and hearts of East Asians for many centuries and it’s fascinating how its influence is still vibrant as ever. Essentially, the Lotus Sutra is a vast Mahayana masterpiece that can be broken-down into stages that highlight the following:
Stage One: chapters 2-9 encapsulate the Buddha’s teaching on expedient means (Skt.: upāyakauśalya, or upāya). Also interjected here is the central-nuance of the One Vehicle. We shall discover through the course of our study that this notion is not explicitly defined by the Buddha; because of this numerous interpretations have emerged throughout the millennium. However, this in itself presents an interesting hitch:
For example: “The Lotus Sūtra is thus unique among texts. It is not merely subject to various interpretations, as all texts are, but is open or empty at its very center. It is a surrounding text, pure context, which invites not only interpretation of what is said but filling in of what is not said. It therefore lends itself more easily than do other scriptures to being shaped by users of the text.”21 For some commentators, this understanding of the sūtra as an empty text is reinforced by the self-referential character of the Lotus, which appears so often as an actor in its own script. For example, in Chapter 1, when the Buddha emits light from his forehead illuminating eighteen thousand worlds, the earth shakes and flowers fall from the sky, and Mañjuśrī Bodhisattva interprets these omens to mean that the Buddha will now preach the Lotus Sūtra, which all buddhas throughout time and space expound as their final teaching. In other words, the Lotus Sūtra describes the signs that foretell its own preaching. (2010-06-01). Readings of the Lotus Sutra (Columbia Readings of Buddhist Literature) (Kindle Locations 595-604). Columbia University Press. Kindle Edition.
Also, the expedient means are bracketed by a series of parables, most notably in our study the Parable of the Burning House (Chapter 3); the rich man and his poor son (Chapter 4), medicinal herbs (Chapter 5), the magically conjured city (Chapter 7), and the gem hidden in the robe (Chapter 8).
Stage Two: interestingly this has been narrowed-down by scholars to have developed around 100 C.E., which included a new introduction, Chapter 1 (indeed, one of my personal favorites from within all Sutra Literature) and also incorporating chapters (10-21, but excluding 12) developing around the spiritual careers of bodhisattvas; ways and fashions to reverence the sutra, and bracketed by an ever-abiding presence of the omniscient-nature of the Buddha—indeed, as we shall discern the Blessed One becomes manifested as the many (Ch’an, the One becomes Many, the Many becomes One).
Stage Three: these encompass chapters 23-28 (concerning devotion to various bodhisattvas) and uniquely standing on its own merit, Chapter 12 that incorporates how even the most apparently unfit, like Śākyamuni’s evil cousin Devadatta and a female nāga (a nonhuman, dragon or serpent-like species)—can acquire buddhahood. Also, we will be covering various Movements dedicated to the Lotus Sutra, in particular the Japanese Tendai school and the Nichiren school. Perhaps I feel most akin to the Tendai school with its Esoteric Variants:
Esoteric teachings hold that the cosmic buddha or dharma body is without beginning or end and pervades everywhere. This buddha is not a person, whether historical or mythic, but universal principle conceived as a buddha body: all forms are this buddha’s body, all sounds are his voice, and all thoughts are his mind. Thus the body, speech, and mind of ordinary persons are no different from those of the cosmic buddha, though the unawakened fail to realize this. Through practice of the esoteric three mysteries—mudrās, mantras, and contemplations—the adept is said to align his or her body, speech, and mind with those of the cosmic buddha and thus realize awakening. Esoteric Buddhism helped bring about a broad conceptual shift in which liberation came increasingly to be understood not in linear terms as a goal to be achieved after a long period of practice, but as innate from the outset and manifested in the very act of practice. Within the Tendai school, the Lotus Sūtra itself as well as traditional Tiantai/Tendai doctrinal categories were reinterpreted from this perspective. This development, known as the doctrine of original enlightenment (hongaku), dominated Tendai doctrinal studies from approximately the eleventh through seventeenth centuries.70 (2010-06-01). Readings of the Lotus Sutra (Columbia Readings of Buddhist Literature) (Kindle Locations 1189-1191). Columbia University Press. Kindle Edition.
I suppose the Tendai school is type of mystical-cousin to the teachings found in The Tathāgatagarbhatārā Tantra, my work from last summer.
Of course, the Nichiren school eventually meta-morphosized into Nichirenism—an acute nationalistic interpretation of Nichiren, whose main emphasis was to transform this present saha-world into an ideal Buddhaland. We shall devote, however a more thorough development of how this came about, in particular with the following:
Nichiren taught his followers that buddhahood is to be achieved solely by embracing faith in the Lotus and chanting its title (daimoku) in the formula Namu myōhō renge kyō (“Devotion to the Sūtra of the Lotus Blossom of the Wonderful [or Fine] Dharma”). In advancing this claim, he drew on the commentaries of Zhiyi, who taught that the title of the Lotus contained the meaning of the entire sūtra. Nichiren did not himself invent the practice of chanting the title, but he was the first to accord it absolute status as a single practice and to provide it with a detailed doctrinal foundation. For Nichiren, the daimoku contains all the practices that the primordially awakened Śākyamuni Buddha undertook over inconceivable kalpas and also their resulting virtues and merits; by chanting the title with faith in the Lotus Sūtra, he taught, one is able to receive the same merits as Śākyamuni Buddha and realize buddhahood. (2010-06-01). Readings of the Lotus Sutra (Columbia Readings of Buddhist Literature) (Kindle Locations 1207-1218). Columbia University Press. Kindle Edition.
All in all, this ought to be a lively series.
Good choice. This should be a valuable study series, one I’ve been putting off for too long.
Vajra is it known at what point in Buddha’s life this sutra was delivered? I’ve always been confused by the Lotus as a “final teaching” when I see other sutras such as the Mahaparinirvana being described as the final teachings (i.e. before bodily death). Is this considered final in terms of its scope or when it was uttered?
Thanks, yes should be a most interesting study. This is from an early part of the Mahayana; there have been varying interpretations as to the Sutras “finality” status. It will slowly be uncovered in this series as to what was truly implied.