The Lotus Sūtra is one of the most popular and influential Mahāyāna sūtras, and the basis on which the Tiantai and Nichiren sects of Buddhism were established.
The earliest known Sanskrit title for the sūtra is the Saddharma Puṇḍarīka Sūtra, which translates to "Sūtra on the White Lotus of the Sublime Dharma." In English, the shortened form Lotus Sūtra is common. The Lotus Sūtra has also been highly regarded in a number of Asian countries where Mahāyāna Buddhism has been traditionally practiced.
The oldest parts of the text (Chapters 1-9 and 17) were probably written down between 100 BCE and 100 CE: most of the text had appeared by 200 CE.
The Lotus Sutra presents itself as a discourse delivered by the Buddha toward the end of his life. The tradition in Mahayana states that the sutra was written down at the time of the Buddha and stored for five hundred years in a realm of nāgas. After this they were reintroduced into the human realm at the time of the Fourth Buddhist Council in Kashmir. The sutra's teachings purport to be of a higher order than those contained in the āgamas of the Sūtra Piṭaka, and that humanity had been unable to understand the sutra at the time of the Buddha, and thus the teaching had to be held back.
The Lotus Sutra was originally translated from Sanskrit into Chinese by Dharmarakṣa, aka Zhu Fahu, in 286 CE in Chang'an during the Western Jin Period (265-317 CE) (E. Zurcher The Buddhist Conquest of China, 57-69). However, the view that there is a high degree of probability that the base text for that translation was actually written in a Prakrit language has gained widespread acceptance. Jan Nattier has recently summarized this aspect of the early textual transmission of such Buddhist scriptures in China thus, bearing in mind that Dharmarakṣa's period of activity falls well within the period she defines: "Studies to date indicate that Buddhist scriptures arriving in China in the early centuries of the Common Era were composed not just in one Indian dialect but in several . . . in sum, the information available to us suggests that, barring strong evidence of another kind, we should assume that any text translated in the second or third century CE was not based on Sanskrit, but one or other of the many Prakrit vernaculars."
This early translation by Dharmarakṣa was superseded by a translation in seven fascicles by Kumārajīva in 406 CE, although it is known that Kumārajīva made extensive use of the earlier version to the extent of borrowing readings directly from Dharmarakṣa's version. The Sanskrit copies are not widely used outside of academia. It has been translated by Burton Watson. According to Burton Watson it may have originally been composed in a Prakrit dialect and then later translated into Sanskrit to lend it greater respectability.
Modern scholars have not released much of the sutra on early fragments, except to say that they are not dependent on the Chinese or Tibetan Lotus sutras. Furthermore, other scholars have noted how the cryptic Dharani passages within the Lotus sutra represent a form of the Magadhi dialect that is more similar to Pali than Sanskrit. For instance, one Dharani reads in part: "Buddhavilokite Dharmaparikshite". Although the vilo is attested in Sanskrit, it appears first in the Buddhist Pali texts as "vilokita" with the meaning of "a vigilant looker" from vi, denoting intensification, and lok, etymologically connoting "to look".
This sutra is known for its extensive instruction on the concept and usage of skillful means – (Sanskrit: upāya), the seventh paramita or perfection of a Bodhisattva – mostly in the form of parables. It is also one of the first sutras to use the term Mahāyāna, or "Great Vehicle", Buddhism. Another concept introduced by the Lotus Sutra is the idea that the Buddha is an eternal entity, who achieved nirvana eons ago, but willingly chose to remain in the cycle of rebirth (samsara) to help teach beings the Dharma time and again. He reveals himself as the "father" of all beings and evinces the loving care of just such a father. Moreover, the sutra indicates that even after the Parinirvana (apparent physical death) of a Buddha, that Buddha continues to be real and to be capable of communicating with the world.
The idea that the physical death of a Buddha is the termination of that Buddha is graphically refuted by the movement and meaning of the scripture, in which another Buddha, who passed long before, appears and communicates with Shakyamuni himself. In the vision of the Lotus Sutra, Buddhas are ultimately immortal. A similar doctrine of the eternality of Buddhas is repeatedly expounded in the tathāgatagarbha sutras, which share certain family resemblances with the teachings of the Lotus Sutra.
The Lotus Sutra also indicates (in Chapter 4) that emptiness (śūnyatā) is not the ultimate vision to be attained by the aspirant Bodhisattva: the attainment of Buddha Wisdom is indicated to be a bliss-bestowing treasure that transcends seeing all as merely empty or merely labeled.
In terms of literary style, the Lotus Sutra illustrates a sense of timelessness and the inconceivable, often using large numbers and measurements of time and space. Some of the other Buddhas mentioned in the Lotus Sutra are said to have lifetimes of dozens or hundreds of kalpas, while the number of Bodhisattvas mentioned in the "Earth Bodhisattva" chapter number in the billions, if not more. The Lotus Sutra also often alludes to a special teaching that supersedes everything else that the Buddha has taught, but the Sutra never actually states what that teaching is. This is said to be in keeping with the general Mahāyāna Buddhist view that the highest teaching cannot be expressed in words.
The ultimate teaching of the sutra, however, is implied to the reader that "full Buddhahood" is only arrived at by exposure to the truths expressed implicitly in the Lotus Sutra via its many parables and references to a heretofore less clearly imagined cosmological order. Skillful means of most enlightened Buddhas is itself the highest teaching (the "Lotus Sutra" itself), in conjunction with the sutra's stated tenets that all other teachings are subservient to, propagated by and in the service of this highest truth and teaching aimed at creating "full Buddhas" out of pratyekabuddhas, lesser buddhas and bodhisattvas. The text also implies a parent-child relationship between the innumerable Buddhas and human beings and other types of beings, with an explicit indication that all religions and paths are in some way or another part of the skillful means of this highest teaching, which reaches its fullest expression in the Lotus Sutra. The various religious institutions and their doctrinal proponents notwithstanding, all paths are then, officially speaking, part of the skillful means and plan of Buddhism, thus the sutra's former disavowal of all competitive doctrinal disputes.
Crucially, not only are there multiple Buddhas in this view, but an infinite stream of Buddhas extending through unquantifiable eons of time ("thousands of kotis of kalpas") in a ceaseless cycle of creations and conflagrations.
In the vision set out in this sutra, moreover, not only are Buddhas innumerable, but the universe encompasses realms of gods, devas, dragons and other mythological beings, requiring numerous dimensions to contain them. Buddhas are portrayed as the patient teachers of all such beings.
Some sources consider the Lotus Sutra to have a prologue and epilogue: respectively the Innumerable Meanings Sutra and the Sutra of Meditation on the Bodhisattva Universal Worthy .
The Lotus Sutra claims to be superior to all other sutras. Chapter ten of the Burton Watson translation states:
".. Medicine King, now I say to you, I have preached various sutras, and among those sutras the Lotus is foremost!"
Chapter fourteen states:
"Among the sutras, it holds the highest place."
The Lotus Sutra is widely regarded as one of the most important and influential sutras, or sacred scriptures, of Buddhism. It is highly valued in the Mahayana tradition, which spread throughout East Asia.
Its key message is that Buddhahood--a condition of absolute happiness, freedom from fear and from all illusions--is inherent in all life. The development of this inner life state enables all people to overcome their problems and live a fulfilled and active life, fully engaged with others and with society. Rather than stressing impermanence and the consequent need to eliminate earthly desires and attachments, the Lotus Sutra asserts the ultimate reality of the Buddha nature inherent in all life. It is therefore a teaching which profoundly affirms the realities of daily life, and which naturally encourages an active engagement with others and with the whole of human society.
The Lotus Sutra is also unique among the teachings of Shakyamuni in that it makes the attainment of enlightenment a possibility open to all people, without distinction based on gender, race, social standing or education. In this way, it is seen to be a full expression of Shakyamuni's compassionate intention of opening the way to enlightenment to all people.
Six Chinese translations are recorded as having been made of the Lotus Sutra (Skt Saddharma-pun-darika-sutra; Chin Miao-fa-lien-hua-ching; Jpn Myoho-renge-kyo). Among these, the fifth-century translation of Kumarajiva (344-413), the Lotus Sutra of the Wonderful Law, is considered to be particularly outstanding and is the basis of the teachings that spread in China and Japan.
The Chinese Buddhist teacher T'ient'ai (538-597) divided the Lotus Sutra of the Wonderful Law into two parts: the first 14 chapters, which he called the theoretical teaching, and the latter 14 chapters, which he called the essential teaching. The theoretical teaching records the preaching of the historical Shakyamuni who is depicted as having first attained enlightenment during this lifetime in India. In the essential teaching, he discards his transient role as the historical Shakyamuni and reveals his true, eternally enlightened identity. The most important doctrine in the essential teaching, T'ient'ai says, is the revelation of this originally and eternally enlightened nature in the depths of Shakyamuni Buddha's life.
Almost 2,000 years after Shakyamuni's death, Nichiren, a 13th-century Japanese priest, distilled the profound theory of the Lotus Sutra into a practice which could enable every individual to reveal their Buddhahood, or highest state of life, in the midst of day-to-day reality.
The concluding words of the 16th chapter of the Lotus Sutra, recited daily by members of the SGI, encapsulate the Buddha's compassionate concern:
"At all times I think to myself:
How can I cause living beings
to gain entry into the unsurpassed way
and quickly acquire the body of a Buddha?"
With the collapse of communism and a pervasive absence of philosophy in our age, humanity is now directing its gaze beyond the present in search of a powerful new philosophy. In other words, people are looking for something that will satisfy the spiritual emptiness they feel, something that will revive their weary, battered lives and fill them once again with hope and vigor. Humanity is searching for a wisdom that will provide true direction and purpose to the individual and society. [. . .]
Some people say that the prevailing mood in the world today is one of powerlessness . . . Decisions about political, economic and environmental issues all seem to be made somewhere beyond our reach. What can the individual accomplish in the face of the huge institutions that run our world? This feeling of powerlessness fuels a vicious cycle that only worsens the situation and people's sense of futility.
At the opposite extreme of this sense of powerlessness lies the Lotus Sutra's philosophy of a single life-moment encompassing three thousand realms--known as ichinen sanzen--and the application of this teaching to our daily lives. The principle of one life-moment containing three thousand realms teaches us that the inner determination, or ichinen, of one individual can transform everything. It is a teaching that gives ultimate expression to the infinite potential and dignity inherent in the life of each human being. [. . .]
Today, after the end of the Cold War, we are living in a "Great Interregnum of Philosophy," an era in which there is an absence of any guiding philosophy. That is why this is precisely the time to speak of the Lotus Sutra, long known as the king of sutras. [. . .]
Religion must always be for the people. People do not exist for the sake of religion. This must be the fundamental rule of religion. To place supreme value on the human being is the teaching of the Lotus Sutra. It is the humanism of the Buddhist Law. [. . .]
Wherever we are, it is necessary to begin with the revitalization, the revolution of each individual human being, one at a time. That is what we mean by the revolution of society and the world through the human revolution. That is the teaching of the Lotus Sutra. And actions directed toward that end represent the wisdom of the Lotus Sutra.
The Lotus Sutra is a scripture that shows its true brilliance in periods of great transition . . . In India in Shakyamuni's time, the growth of cities was leading to a transcendence of old tribal divisions and to a new age in which people would live together in new, symbiotic relationships. It was a time of great intellectual confusion, with people teaching everything from pure materialism to hedonism, to asceticism. Against that background, Shakyamuni taught new principles of integration to unify humanity in this period of great change, and the Lotus Sutra is the living essence of that teaching.
Later, in China and Japan, when religion was in a state of chaos and people didn't know what to believe in, the Great Teacher T'ien-t'ai and Nichiren advocated the teachings of the Lotus Sutra and with this Sutra boldly confronted the issues of their respective eras and societies. The Lotus Sutra, one might say, represented the banner of unity with which they charged ahead in their struggles amid periods of great spiritual turbulence.
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. [. . .]
The Lotus Sutra teaches of the great "hidden treasure of the heart," as vast as the universe itself, which dispels any feelings of powerlessness. It teaches a vigorous way of living, in which we breathe the immense life of the universe itself. It teaches the true great adventure of self-reformation.
The Lotus Sutra has the breadth and scope to embrace all people on the way to peace. It has the fragrance of magnificent culture and art. It leads us to an unsurpassed state of life imbued with the qualities of eternity, happiness, true self and purity, so that wherever we are, we may say, "This, my land, remains safe and tranquil."
The Lotus Sutra has the drama of fighting for justice against evil. It has a warmth that comforts the weary. It has a vibrant, pulsing courage that drives away fear. It has a chorus of joy at attaining absolute freedom throughout the three existences of past, present and future. It has the soaring flight of liberty. It has brilliant light, flowers, greenery, music, paintings, vivid stories. It offers unsurpassed lessons on psychology, the workings of the human heart, lessons on life, lessons on happiness and lessons on peace. It maps out the basic rules for good health. It awakens us to the universal truth that a change in our heart, or attitude, can transform everything. It is neither the parched desert of individualism nor the prison of totalitarianism; it has the power to manifest a pure land of compassion, in which people complement and encourage each other.
Both communism and capitalism have used people as means for their own ends. But in the Lotus Sutra--the king of sutras--we find a fundamental humanism in which people are the goal and purpose, in which they are both protagonist and sovereign. Perhaps we could call this teaching of the Lotus Sutra a "cosmic humanism"? [. . . ]
Each passage and phrase of the Lotus Sutra is teaching about oneself, the entity of the Mystic Law. The sutra is not discussing something far removed from our own lives. [. . .] I would like to . . . explore the "wisdom of the Lotus Sutra" for the coming age. It is a journey to the truth that we ourselves are Buddhas. Life is an endless odyssey into the innermost sanctum of our own lives.
"A core theme of the sutra is the idea that all people equally and without exception possess 'Buddha nature.' The message of the Lotus Sutra is to encourage people's faith in their own Buddha nature, their own inherent capacity for wisdom, courage and compassion."
The teachings of Shakyamuni, the historical founder of Buddhism, are recorded in an enormous body of texts, known as sutras. The manner in which the philosophy of Buddhism is presented within the sutras varies widely. This can be explained by a number of factors. During the some 50 years over which Shakyamuni shared his teachings with the people of his day, he traveled widely throughout India. Rather than expounding his philosophy in a systematic manner, his teaching mainly took the form of dialogue. Meeting with people from a wide range of backgrounds--from ministers of state to unlettered men and women--he sought to respond to their questions and doubts. Most of all, he sought to provide answers to the fundamental questions of human existence: Why is it that we are born and must meet the inevitable sufferings of illness, aging and death?
The sutras were compiled in the years following the death of Shakyamuni; it is thought that the Lotus Sutra was compiled between the first and second century C.E. In Sanskrit it is known as the Saddharmapundarika-sutra (lit. "correct dharma white lotus sutra"). Like many Mahayana sutras, the Lotus Sutra spread through the "northern transmission" to Central Asia, China, Korea and Japan. Originally entering China in the third century C.E., the Lotus Sutra is said to have been translated into several different versions of the Chinese, of which three complete versions are extant. The fifth-century translation of Kumarajiva (344-413 C.E.) is considered to be particularly outstanding; its philosophical clarity and literary beauty are thought to have played a role in the widespread veneration of this sutra throughout East Asia.
The title of the Lotus Sutra in Kumarajiva's translation, Myoho-renge-kyo, contains the essence of the entire sutra, and it was on the basis of this realization that Nichiren (1222-1282 C.E.) established the invocation of Nam-myoho-renge-kyo as his core Buddhist practice.
The Lotus Sutra is considered the sutra that fulfills the purpose for Shakyamuni's advent in the world, expressed in these words: "At the start I took a vow, hoping to make all persons equal to me, without any distinction between us." In other words, the purpose of Shakyamuni's advent was to enable all people to attain the same state of perfect enlightenment that caused him to be known as "Buddha," or "awakened one."
The Lotus Sutra contains a number of concepts that were revolutionary both within the context of Buddhist teachings and within the broader social context of the time. Many of these are not stated explicitly but are implied or materialized in the dramatic and even fantastic-seeming events portrayed in the text. Much of the genius of later scholars of the sutra, such as T'ien-t'ai (538-597 C.E.), lay in their ability to extract and systematize these principles.
A core theme of the sutra is the idea that all people equally and without exception possess the "Buddha nature." The message of the Lotus Sutra is to encourage people's faith in their own Buddha nature, their own inherent capacity for wisdom, courage and compassion. The universal capacity for enlightenment is demonstrated through the examples of people for whom this possibility had traditionally been denied, such as women and people who had committed evil deeds.
In many sutras a number of Shakyamuni's senior disciples are condemned as people who have, through arrogant attachment to their intellectual abilities and their self-absorbed practice, "scorched the seeds of their own enlightenment." The profundity of Shakyamuni's teachings in the Lotus Sutra, however, awakens in them the spirit of humility and compassion. They realize that all people are inextricably interlinked in their quest for enlightenment, and that if we desire happiness ourselves, it is imperative that we work for the happiness of others.
In this sutra, moreover, Shakyamuni demonstrates that he actually attained enlightenment in the infinite past, not in his current lifetime as had been assumed by his followers. This illustrates, through the concrete example of his own life, that attaining enlightenment does not mean to change into or become something one is not. Rather, it means to reveal the inherent, "natural" state that already exists within.
As Daisaku Ikeda has written, the Lotus Sutra is ultimately a teaching of empowerment. It "teaches us that the inner determination of an individual can transform everything; it gives ultimate expression to the infinite potential and dignity inherent in each human life."
Of the countless scriptures of Mahayana Buddhism, few are more widely read or revered than the Lotus Sutra. Its teachings thoroughly permeate most schools of Buddhism in China, Korea and Japan. Yet its origins are shrouded in mystery.
The sutra's name in Sanskrit is Saddharma-pundarika Sutra, or "Sutra of the Lotus of the Wonderful Law." It is a matter of faith in some schools of Buddhism that the sutra contains the words of the historical Buddha. However, most historians believe the sutra was written in the 1st or 2nd century CE, probably by more than one writer. A translation was made from Sanskrit to Chinese in 255 CE, and this is the earliest historical documentation of its existence.
As with so many of the Mahayana sutras, the original text of the Lotus Sutra is lost. The several early Chinese translations are the oldest versions of the sutra that remain to us. In particular, a translation into Chinese by the monk Kamarajiva in 406 CE is believed to be the most faithful to the original text.
In 6th century China the Lotus Sutra was promoted as the supreme sutra by the monk Chih-i, founder of the Tiantai school of Mahayana Buddhism, called Tendai in Japan. In part through Tendai influence, the Lotus became the most revered sutra in Japan. It deeply influenced Japanese Zen and also is an object of devotion of the Nichiren school.
The Setting of the Sutra
In Buddhism, a sutra is a sermon of the Buddha or one of his principal disciples. Buddhist sutras usually begin with the traditional words, "Thus I have heard." This is a nod to the story of Ananda, who recited all of the historical Buddha's sermons at the First Buddhist Council and was said to have begun each recitation this way.
The Lotus Sutra begins, "Thus I have heard. At one time the Buddha was in Rajagriha, staying on Mount Gridhrakuta." Rajagriha was a city on the site of present-day Rajgir, in northeastern India, and Gridhrakuta, or "Vulture's Peak," is nearby. So, the Lotus Sutra begins by making a connection to a real place associated with the historical Buddha.
However, in a few sentences the reader will have left the phenomenal world behind. The scene opens to a place outside ordinary time and space. The Buddha is attended by an unimaginable number of beings, both human and nonhuman -- monks, nuns, laymen, laywomen, heavenly beings, dragons, garudas, and many others, including bodhisattvas and arhats. In this vast space eighteen thousand worlds are illuminated by a light reflected by a hair between the Buddha's eyebrows.
The sutra is divided into several chapters -- 28 in the Kamarajiva translation -- in which the Buddha or other beings offer sermons and parables. The text, partly prose and partly verse, contains some of the most beautiful passages of the world's religious literature.
It could take years to absorb all the teachings in such a rich text. However, three principal themes dominate the Lotus Sutra.
All Vehicles Are One Vehicle
In early passages the Buddha tells the assembly that his earlier teachings were provisional. People were not ready for his highest teaching, he said, and had to be brought to enlightenment by expedient means. But the Lotus represents the final, highest teaching, and supersedes all other teaching.
In particular, the Buddha addressed the doctrine of triyana, or "three vehicles" to nirvana. Very simply, the triyana describes people who realize enlightenment by hearing the Buddha's sermons, people who realize enlightenment for themselves through their own effort, and the path of the bodhisattva. But the Lotus Sutra says that the three vehicles are one vehicle, the buddha vehicle, through which all beings become buddhas.
All Beings May Become Buddhas
A theme expressed throughout the sutra is that all beings may attain buddhahood and attain Nirvana. A significant point is that in the dialogues the Buddha promises several women that they will attain buddhahood without having to be reborn as men.
The Buddha is presented in the Lotus Sutra as dharmakaya -- the unity of all things and beings, unmanifested, beyond existence or nonexistence, unbound by time and space. Because the dharmakaya is all beings, all beings have the potential to awaken to their true nature and attain buddhahood.
The Importance of Faith and Devotion
Buddhahood may not be attained through intellect alone. Indeed, the Mahayana view is that the absolute teaching cannot be expressed in words or understood by ordinary cognition. The Lotus Sutra stresses the importance of faith and devotion as means to realization of enlightenment. Among other significant points, the stress on faith and devotion makes buddhahood more accessible to laypeople, who do not spend their lives in ascetic monastic practice.
A distinctive feature of the Lotus Sutra is the use of parables. The parables contain many layers of metaphor that have inspired many layers of interpretation. This is merely a list of the major parables:
- The Burning House. A man lures his children out of a burning house (Chapter 3).
- The Prodigal Son. A poor, self-loathing man gradually learns that he is wealthy beyond measure (Chapter 4).
- The Medicinal Herbs. Although they grow in the same ground and receive the same rain, plants grow in different ways (Chapter 5).
- The Phantom City. A man leading people on a difficult journey conjures an illusion of a beautiful city to give them the heart to keep going (Chapter 7).
- The Gem in the Jacket. A man sews a gem into his friend's jacket. However, the friend wanders in poverty not knowing that he possesses a gem of great value (Chapter 8).
- The Gem in the King's Top-Knot. A king bestows many gifts but reserves his most priceless jewel for a person of exceptional merit (Chapter 14).
- The Excellent Physician. A physician's children are dying of poison but lack the sense to take medicine (Chapter 16).
Burton Watson's translation of The Lotus Sutra (Columbia University Press, 1993) has gained great popularity since its publication for its clarity and readability.
There is a new translation of The Lotus Sutra by Gene Reeves (Wisdom Publications, 2008) that has received very good reviews, although I have not read it myself.