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Thoughts on the Lotus Sutra

KeromeKerome Love, love is mysteryThe Continent Veteran
edited October 2019 in Buddhism Today

I was thinking I’d try a new tack on my explorations of Buddhism. I have been trying to touch the “peaks” of the tradition, and I thought I’d try and see what the search engines thought were the peaks. I got back the Lotus Sutra, among others, which came with some intrigueing references, so I thought I’d put together a little guide.

First of all, I’m to refer to the Wikipedia page and use that as a base, since I understand the whole Lotus Sutra is rather long.

According to Paul Williams, "For many East Asian Buddhists since early times the Lotus Sutra contains the final teaching of the Buddha, complete and sufficient for salvation."

Which sets some high expectations indeed.

The outline

I thought the outline of the Lotus Sutra presented on Wikipedia was interesting, it’s too lengthy to quote in full. It starts out by describing the earth shaking and emitting rays, which seems to me to be typical of texts which try to portray the Buddha as supernatural and powerful, rather than letting the teachings speak for themselves. Various parables are told by the Buddha and by senior disciples — I am not arrest fan of parables as a teaching method, they often rely on metaphors that are highly subject to different interpretations. The Buddha also prophesies the enlightenment of various students. I don’t see why that should be important to the listeners, it’s not a teaching which they can apply. Ch. 12 is a little intrigueing, as the Buddha there tells stories which say that anyone can become enlightened. There are 26 chapters in all, many are stories or parables.

The teachings

One vehicle, many skilful means. Here it is explained that many teachings of the Buddha are just skilful means, to be used like a raft to cross a river and then abandoned. I tend to think a little differently, I usually consider a problem and a solution, and then extend that solution to all similar problems. That the Lotus Sutra should be superior and required to arrive at full buddhahood seems so far illogical.

All beings have the potential to become buddhas. This is a proclamation made through several stories, but the question is what does it do for you, how does it help you along the path? It seems to me it is very much an affirmation aimed at arousing faith, it is a promise to those who are not studying the path.

The nature of the buddhas. This talks of the eternal nature of the buddhas. Again it seems to me that this is a promise to the faithful, that if you achieve buddhahood you will last forever but not in samsara.

My conclusions

The Lotus Sutra May be important in how it talks about Mahayana and bodhisattvas, but in terms of making progress on the Buddhist path it doesn’t seem to have a key role. I didn’t find very much in it that inspires my practice or lends itself to new insight about my condition. I do think it is an important Sutra for the Buddhist laypeople in Asia though, in the way it teaches and the way it says things it seems very much aimed at inspiring their faith.

I am left with the question whether it is worth tracking down and reading the whole Sutra, given what you can gather from wiki.



  • KeromeKerome Love, love is mystery The Continent Veteran

    I’ve been going back through the history of the forum looking at various threads about the Lotus Sutra and it is interesting to see different people’s attitudes towards it. The people who were introduced to it early on seem to retain a fondness for it, while the more advanced students who encounter it later had a similar reaction to my own.

    I think for most western buddhists who are interested in learning about their own minds, in a meditation practice, in the precepts and the usual Buddhist path, there is a lot more to Buddhism than just the Lotus Sutra. For people who are into faith, who are into worship as a path to personal development, they might well connect to it a lot more.

  • seeker242seeker242 Zen Florida, USA Veteran
    edited October 2019

    All beings have the potential to become buddhas. This is a proclamation made through several stories, but the question is what does it do for you, how does it help you along the path?

    It inspires faith! But not just in some external thing, but in your own practice. Faith in your own practice is quite important if you are actually going to make an effort. If you don't really believe you have the potential to become a Buddha, then you are probably not even going to try. Or, not going to make the effort that is necessary.

  • VimalajātiVimalajāti Veteran Whitby, Ontario Veteran

    This is a good topic for a conversation, particularly in light of the East Asian tradition of "Sūtra Schools," that is to say, schools based around an exegesis by a master on a particular sūtra. There used to be countless sūtra schools in East Asia, including the Nirvāṇa School, which a poster here asked about a while back. The Nirvāṇa School was based around Venerable Kumārajīva's (AFAIK?) exegeses on the Parinirvāṇasūtra.

    Two of the longest-lasting sūtra schools were/are the Tiāntāi and the Huáyán, which are still active in different parts of East Asia. The Huáyán (Flower Garland) School bases it's praxy and doxy on a series of exegeses by patriarchs on the Buddhāvataṁsakasūtra. The Tiāntāi (Heaven's Peak) School is based on a series of patriarchs' exegeses (particularly Venerable Zhìyǐ's) on the Saddharmapuṇḍarīkasūtra, which is actually seen as a sister text to the Parinirvāṇasūtra, them both supposedly having come from the same series of before-death sermons. Neither sūtra is, of course, historical, as particularly the Lotus Sūtra is a mythological meta-narrative commentary on contemporary (for it's time) Buddhism-as-religion itself.

    I can make a larger more substantial post in time. Contextualizing the Lotus Sūtra involves exploring these Tiāntāi patriarchs and their exegeses (a lot of which cannot be deduced from the text of the sūtra itself, blurring the lines between exoteric and esoteric interpretation), but this is a tiny blub until I find myself with more time.

  • KeromeKerome Love, love is mystery The Continent Veteran
    edited October 2019

    Thank you @Vimalajāti for that, it’s interesting to see where such sutras of high renown sit in the larger corpus of teachings of the Buddha... there are those who hold that studying it is sufficient for buddhahood, but I find that hard to believe.

  • LionduckLionduck Veteran Veteran

    A key element of the Lotus Sutra is the idea that anyone, Man, woman, good or evil can attain the state of Buddha. An 8 year old Dragon King's daughter attained instantaneous enlightenment (Buddha). Devadata, the paragon of evil was predicted to become a Buddha. The people of the two vehicles, who were said to have parched their seed of enlightenment, were predicted to also become Buddhas). No other sutra opened the door to enlightenment to/for everyone.

    As this is a general, very light touching of the Lotus Sutra, I will chock back the temptation to "Deep Dive" and leave it at that.

    Peace to all

  • KeromeKerome Love, love is mystery The Continent Veteran
    edited October 2019

    I would have been interested in your deep dive @lionduck ...

    The impression i am getting from a lot of Mahāyāna sutras is that they were written later, and are more stories and not so closely related to the Buddha as a real person.

  • federicafederica Deep-fried Dharma Batter Its better to remain silent and be thought a fool, than to speak out and remove all doubt Moderator

    Given that Mahayana Buddhism arose over 100 years after the Buddha's passing into Parinibbana, that's hardly surprising...

  • adamcrossleyadamcrossley Veteran Veteran

    I read a great introduction to the Lotus Sutra by Gene Reeves. From what I understand, the first mention of the text was by Nagarjuna around 200 CE in India. But almost nothing is known about its exact origins. It was translated into Chinese several times, but most prominently in 406. Those Chinese translations are now the oldest versions of the text that can be found. The originals, in Sanskrit or some other Indian language, are unfortunately lost.

    I'll flick through the introduction again and see if I can extract any gems.

    [The Lotus Sutra's] main thrust is to encourage readers to understand themselves in certain ways. [...] It teaches, for example, that everyone without exception has the potential to be a buddha. This simple teaching would later develop into doctrines and theories about Buddha-nature. But in this text what we actually have is not so much a doctrine as a series of stories, narratives that appeal to the human imagination as well as to the rational mind. The story of Devadatta, for example, tells us nothing at all about the historical Devadatta, but it encourages us to understand that just as Devadatta, everywhere known to be evil, is told that he is to become a buddha, so we too, no matter how imperfect, have the potential to become a buddha. We also need to understand that this story teaches us that a buddha is one who sees the potential for good in others, even enemies.

    The Devadatta story is followed immediately by the very interesting story of the dragon princess, a little girl whom Manjushri Bodhisattva proclaims to be capable of becoming a buddha immediately. This story was obviously intended to persuade monks, who would have been its only early auditors and readers, that women as well as men have the potential of being buddhas, common prejudice and informed opinion to the contrary.

    The idea in this sutra that everyone has the abillity to become a buddha gave rise to the association of the sutra with the notion of Buddha-nature as found in somewhat later Mahayana sutras. [...] It is also a very clever way to answer the question of how it is possible for one to overcome obstacles, however conceived, along the path of becoming a buddha. If ordinary human beings are completely under the sway of passions and delusions, by what power can they break through such a net of limitations? Some say that it is only by one's own strength; one can be saved only by oneself. Others say that it is only by the power of Amida Buddha or perhaps Guan-yin that one can be led to awakening. The Lotus Sutra says that it is by a power that is at once one's own and Shakyamuni Buddha's.

    Even more influential is the story of Never Disrespectful Bodhisattva in chapter 20. This bodhisattva did not read and recite sutras but simply went around telling everyone he met that they would become buddhas. Often despised for this, he persisted in refusing to be disrespectful to anyone. Later, after hearing the Lotus Sutra from the sky, he was able to enjoy a large following and eventually became Shakyamuni Buddha. What's most important, these stories seem to say, is not which religious practices you follow but how you treat others. To do good, in other words, is to follow the bodhisattva way.

    Throughout the sutra many traditional Buddhist doctrines are mentioned and sometimes discussed, especially the four holy truths, the eightfold path, the twelve-link chain of causes and conditions, and the six transcendental practices. Thus it is possible to interpret the sutra as having the purpose of overcoming suffering. Such basically negative goals as overcoming suffering, getting rid of attachments, becoming free from faults, dispelling illusion, and so on are not to be disparaged. They do describe very important Buddhist goals. But at least for the Lotus Sutra they are not enough. Beyond them is always a positive goal.

    Over and over we are told that a result of hearing even a small part of the sutra is joy. And we are allowed to witness the great joy of Shariputra when he realizes that he too is a bodhisattva on the way to becoming a buddha.

    Another equally important term is "peace." "It is not my intent," the Buddha says in chapter 3, "to lead people to extinction. I am the king of the Dharma, free to teach the Dharma, appearing in the world to bring peace and comfort to all the living."

    What I take from this is that the Lotus Sutra is a foundational text for three vital Mahayana beliefs:

    • Firstly, everyone has the potential to become a buddha, neither by relying totally on a supernatural power nor totally on oneself, but by the "middle way" of Buddha-nature which is the power of the Buddha inherent in all of us. This is both inspirational, encouraging faith in our own practice, and a reason to see the best in others and treat them ethically.
    • Secondly, we should appreciate the many "skillful means" of Buddhist practice. Whether we are Theravada (seeking individual arhatship), Pure Land (engaging in devotion, seeking a better afterlife), or Zen (practising to realize enlightenment right here, right now), as long as we treat others well and do good in the world, we are on the bodhisattva path.
    • And thirdly, the way Theravada Buddhism is sometimes communicated portrays the Buddha's teachings as largely negative—giving up this, overcoming that—whereas in reality what they offer is joy and peace.

    Even though the Lotus Sutra has been interpreted as putting Mahayana Buddhism above Theravada, I see it more as a reframing of the older teachings in a more positive light that had perhaps become lost in some parts of the Theravada world. I'm sorry for the extremely long post, but I felt that parts of this introduction were well worth sharing. @Kerome, I hope you find something useful there.

  • federicafederica Deep-fried Dharma Batter Its better to remain silent and be thought a fool, than to speak out and remove all doubt Moderator

    Great post, @adamcrossley ...

  • adamcrossleyadamcrossley Veteran Veteran

    Thank you, @federica. It was very helpful for me to read that introduction again. I'm sorry, by the way, that you feel the forum is not bustling with activity right now. I for one very much enjoy being here and am not going anywhere. Your moderation is not in vain!

  • federicafederica Deep-fried Dharma Batter Its better to remain silent and be thought a fool, than to speak out and remove all doubt Moderator

    Maybe it needs a facelift.... Nip here, tuck there, bit of botox....

  • KeromeKerome Love, love is mystery The Continent Veteran

    Its a very interesting introduction @adamcrossley. The fact that the Lotus Sutra introduces a series of positive goals is something I hadn’t seen before, and it sheds some new light on why it is thought of as a key sutra.

    I think you’re right to see it as a reframing of some of the earlier teachings, but it also speaks very much to the faith mind, and not so much to the analytical mind. So if that is what you connect to, it is a Sutra that will speak to you more.

  • adamcrossleyadamcrossley Veteran Veteran

    I should clarify, I just quoted extracts from the introduction. The full thing is much longer and well worth reading. Sorry, I’m not sure that was clear in my initial post.

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