Discourse on the True Teaching of the White Lotus: Part 1

Presented to the Riverview Dharma Centre on Saturday, June 10, 2017
Dedicated to the Toronto Centre of Gravity Buddhist Association*




Introduction + Chapters 1 – 9 

Renowned in the West as the Buddhist “New Testament,” the Saddharma Pundarika Sutra, literally the Discourse on the True Teaching (dharma) of the White Lotus Flower (or, conversely, the White Lotus Flower of the True Teaching), is the basis of the Tiantai, Tendai, Cheontae, and Nichiren schools, and is highly regarded by Mahayana Buddhists. It might be described with equal justification as the Buddhist Quran, in that it claims to reestablish the original and true spiritual teaching. Many East Asians regard the Lotus Sutra, as it is commonly called in English, as encoding the final, highest and ultimate teachings of the Buddha. The book exists in Sanskrit, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Tibetan, and Vietnamese versions.

According to Kogaku Fuse (1934) the book was composed in four main stages or phases. Chapters 1 or 2 to 9 are the earliest. Fuse believed that the verse sections were composed before the prose sections. According to Fuse, the earliest sections were composed in the first century BCE, about the same time that the Pali Canon was first written down and the Prajnaparamita literature appeared, but Tamura puts this date somewhat later, about 50 CE, a date that Fuse associates with the prose section of chapters 1 to 9 and 17. Tamura places the composition of chapters 10 to 22 about 100 CE and chapters 23 to 28 about 150 CE. Dates of chapters vary somewhat depending on the authority.

The English translation of the Chinese text of the Lotus Sutra that I have used for this talk is based on The Threefold Lotus Sutra (1975), translated by Bunno Kato, Yoshiro Tamura, and Kjiro Miyasaka. I have also referred to the highly esteemed Sanskrit translation of H. Kern (1884) that appeared in Max Muller’s Sacred Books of the East series, Vol. XXI, still used by scholars such as A.K. Warder. The Lotus Sutra is often bound together with the Sutra of Innumerable Meanings and the Sutra of Meditation of the Bodhisattva Universal Virtue, as it is in The Threefold Lotus Sutra, as a preface and an epilogue respectively. In this talk I will, however, focus on the Lotus Sutra. I have also approached the Lotus Sutra as a single synthetic work, working through the chapters in their standard order without regard to any questions of chronology. I have however broken the talks up based on the chronology, so this talk will largely be about the earliest section of the Lotus Sutra, yet even here there is disagreement, for some authorities ascribe a later date to the Introductory chapter (chapter 1). I have discussed my reasons for this ahistorical approach in my essay, “Hermeneutics and the Problem of Tradition” (chapter 1 of Dharma Talks).[1]

Whatever its development, the number of chapters of the final form of the Lotus Sutra, 28, is the number of the Moon (4 x 7), an important symbol of the dharma in the Pali Canon. 28 is also the number of historical Buddhas listed in the Buddhavamsa, culminating in Gotama (Maitreya is #29). Sixteen is also a lunar number, being the number of the lunar phases or kalas (4 x 4).

Like another Chinese sutra, the Sutra of Perfect Enlightenment, the Lotus Sutra has been credited with at least one enlightenment experience (that of Hakuin Ekaku (1686-1768), reviver of the Rinzai school of Japanese Zen, while reading the third chapter).

Scholars have identified three themes in the tripartite division of the sutra: the One Vehicle of the Wonderful Dharma, i.e., the essential oneness of all Buddhist ways; the Everlasting Original Buddha, the primordial Buddha archetype or paradigm; and the Way of the Bodhisattva, emphasizing the method or path.

The Lotus Sutra and the Pali Canon

There is growing acceptance of the view that the original language of the earliest sections of the Lotus Sutra was not Sanskrit, but a Prakrit language, like Pali (Kern finds vestiges of Magadhi and Pali in his translation of the Sanskrit version of the Lotus Sutra). Although clearly an early Mahayana text, the Lotus Sutra is filled with references to the Pali Canon. As we know from my talk on “The Early Buddhist Schools,” the Mahayana grew out of the early Hinayana schools rather than as a reaction against them, as is commonly but falsely believed.

The Lotus Sutra includes many references which will be familiar to readers of the Pali Canon: including places (Mount Grdhrakuta, Vulture’s Peak, the Buddha’s favourite place in Rajagaha), people (Maha-Kasyapa, Sariputra, Maha-Maudgalyayana, Ananda, Rahula, Yasodhara, et al.), doctrines (arhantship,  nirvana, parinirvana, Four Great Truths, hearers, void or emptiness, perfect wisdom, self-born, self-concentration, skilfulness, mantras, tathagatas, wheel of causes and effects (i.e., interdependent origination), samsara, sixty-two false views, and many others), and even events (e.g., the enlightenment of and subsequent preaching by the Buddha and the pattern of remembering similar situations with disciples in past lives),[2] but the Lotus Sutra represents a radical reevaluation of the meaning and significance of the Buddhist project as it introduces a new understanding of the goal of attainment and the character of the path itself. This is presented in the Lotus Sutra itself as the fulfilment and completion of the Hinayana (the “basic” or “fundamental” vehicle) rather than as its antithesis.

While it is fashionable to say that the Lotus Sutra is rhetorical and has no real content, in fact one can identify over a hundred concepts throughout the Lotus Sutra, all organized around the central revelation of the Lotus Sutra, identified by A.K. Warder with the fifteenth chapter of the book.[3] Warder is probably referring to chapter 15 of Kern’s Sanskrit edition, which is chapter 16 of the Chinese edition, since chapter 12 was split in two in the fifth or sixth century. However, none of the content was lost, although there are subtle differences between the Sanskrit and the Chinese versions. Scholars remain undecided as to which version came first. We’ll be discussing chapter 15 of the Lotus Sutra in the third talk of this series. 

The Symbol of the Lotus

The Sanskrit word “pundarika” means “lotus flower,” as well as the colour “white.” Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, and Jains all revere the lotus. Buddhists regard it as a symbol of body, speech, and mind. Rooted in the mud of samsara, the lotus flower blooms on the surface of the water, untainted by the mud from which it draws its nourishment. It also symbolizes non-attachment since water rolls easily off its petals. Many Asian deities are depicted sitting on lotus flowers. When the Bodhisattva was born, lotus flowers were said to bloom in his footprints. Padmasambhava is also said to have been born sitting on a lotus flower at the age of 8 years old, a trope that we also find mentioned in the Lotus Sutra (Kern, op. cit., cap. xi, p. 252; cf. Kato et al., op cit., cap. xii, p. 210). 

The Idea of the Tathagata

Tathagata is a somewhat mysterious word that the Buddha uses throughout the Pali Canon with reference to himself, and infrequently with reference to arhants. It is generally translated as “one who has thus gone” or “one who has thus come.” The word is used as though it was familiar to its audience, but has not been found in any pre-Buddhist literature. Even as early as Buddhaghosa (5th century CE) the exact meaning of the word was uncertain. In his commentary on the Digha Nikaya, Buddhaghosa gives eight alternative definitions: he who has arrived or walked in such a way; he who has come to the knowledge of reality; he who has won, discerned, or declares truth; he whose deeds accord with his words; and the great doctor whose medicine cures all ills.

The Anguttara Nikaya says that the Tathagata is called such because what is “seen, heard, sensed, and cognized, attained, searched into, and pondered over by the mind” is fully understood. Tathata refers to “thusness” or “suchness,” reality as it is. Richard Gombrich has suggested that the word means “one like that.” The word appears in the Mahabharata where it says, “Thus (tatha) is gone (gati) of those who have realized the Truth.”

In the Pali Canon, the Tathagata is described as immeasurable, inscrutable, hard to fathom, and not apprehended. Similarly, the Lotus Sutra refers frequently to the “mystery of the Tathagatas.” The Tathagata is free of latent tendencies (samskaras), and thus beyond the comprehension of other beings. They are “deep, immeasurable, unfathomable, like the mighty ocean.” Although this is sometimes taken to imply that the Tathagata has no post-mortem existence, this is strictly speaking not necessarily implied, since it does not follow that because something cannot be seen that it does not exist. The Buddha explicitly rejects nihilism, and his use of the tetralemma is far more profound than simple negation. Edward Conze says that in the Mahayana view the Tathagata refers to the true inherent selfhood of the human being. However, we must remember that this “selfhood” is not the inherently self-existing atomic “noun” self (atman) of the Upanishads but a continuous but essentially transient momentary consecution of sentience. It is the process philosophy of Whitehead or the “I seem to be a verb” of R. Buckminster Fuller.

Chapter I Introductory

The Lotus Sutra begins with the traditional words, “Thus have I heard,” referring to a story or tradition that is handed down from the past. Thus, the sutra explicitly identifies itself with the Buddhavacana, the Buddha-word, despite its obvious non-historical or trans-historical character. The authors of the sutra, whoever they were, must have understood this and yet they chose to present the sutra in a trans-historical context in order to make two points: (1) to identify the sutra with the Buddhavacana, and (2) to demonstrate the transience and non-self of historicity itself, and by this means to demonstrate the absolutely atemporal and transcendent nature of the True Dharma that leads to utter emancipation. In other words, the form and format of the Lotus Sutra itself is a dharma teaching!

That said, the sutra opens with the Buddha teaching the monastics on Vulture’s Peak, a favourite place of the Buddha outside Rajagaha. The sutra improbably identifies the impossible number of twelve thousand arhants, and proceeds to name the top twenty-one. The names are familiar to us from the Pali Canon, but the situation is anything but “Paliesque.” The reader is transported into an alternate universe in which the ordinary limitations of time and space do not apply. This world is the world of the pure mind. In case the reader hasn’t got it yet, the sutra goes on to describe three-quarters of a million also present, including monastics, bodhisattvas, various “divine sons,” “four great heavenly kings,” eight Dragon Kings, and other kimnaras, gandharvas, asuras, and  garudas. The inclusion in this list of four asura kings is very interesting in light of a long passage in the Vinaya where the asuras are spoken highly of and associated with concealed treasures and another passage in the suttas where many asuras came to honour the Buddha. These references echo an archaic teaching wherein the devas and asuras were not at war. The whole pyramid culminates in King Ajatasatru, the king of Magadha whose father, Bimbisara, supported the Buddha. After murdering his father and following a policy of violent expansion based on conquest, rather like Ashoka, Ajatasatru began to worry about the afterlife and became a supporter of the Buddha like the father that he had murdered. However, he also patronized the Jains. Nevertheless, the Buddha said that had Ajatasatru not been a murderer, his righteousness was such that he would have become an arhant.

According to the sutra, the Buddha preached the Sutra of Innumerable Meanings, which is often published as a preface to the Lotus Sutra. The Sutra of Innumerable Meanings gives teachings on virtue, preaching, and merit. After preaching the sutra, he entered an altered state of consciousness or trance state called “the contemplation of the station of innumerable meanings.” His body and mind became perfectly still. The sky rained flowers and the earth shook! From his Ajna chakra in the centre of the forehead a vector of attention emanated in the form of a beam of intense white light that illuminated eighteen thousand eastern worlds, revealing all sorts of beings including living and deceased buddhas, seekers, and bodhisattvas. The assembly marvels at this spectacle, including Maitreya, the Future Buddha, who asks Manjushri, the bodhisattva of wisdom, the cause of it all. Manjushri tells Maitreya and the assembly that the Buddha will now declare the Great Dharma that is hard to believe. Manjushri attributes the ultimate origin of this teaching to a transhistorical Buddha called “Sun Moon Light Tathagata.”

Manjushri says that the Buddha taught three paths for three different sorts of person: For the “hearers” he declared the Four Noble Truths, based on the principle of dukkha or universal suffering and leading to nirvana. For the solitary practitioners he declared the doctrine of interdependent origination, based on the principle of emptiness, leading to self-realization. In addition, for the bodhisattvas he taught the Six Perfections, based on the principle of compassion, leading to Buddhahood. “Sun Moon Light” also taught the Sutra of Innumerable Meanings, which teaches the path of bodhisattvahood, and entered trance as the Buddha had done.

Manjushri goes on to articulate many varied ways that one can seek the Buddha-way, including the cultivation of the merit of giving; monasticism; memorizing, reading, reciting, studying, and realizing the Buddha-knowledge; renunciation; guru-worship; and the cultivation of the qualities of radiance; energy; morality; forbearance; meditation; charitableness; science; and wisdom or indifference; and finally the practice of stupa worship.

When Manjushri had finished the Buddha emanated another laser beam that illuminated eighteen thousand eastern Buddha lands.  Manjushri says that he was the Bodhisattva “Mystic Light,” the disciple and successor of the Buddha “Sun Moon Light,” and that Maitreya was the Bodhisattva “Fame Seeker” who was a disciple of “Mystic Light.” Manjushri announces that the Buddha is about to preach the True Dharma.

It seems to be a universal spiritual idea, found in many religions including Gnosticism and native American spirituality, amongst others, that the universe is a vast, intricate and labyrinthine, multidimensional and interconnected network where all sorts of sentient beings appear in effectively infinite numbers at all stages of spiritual development and in all sorts of conditions over vast ages of time. This is the fundamental cosmic conception of Buddhism, which modern science is just beginning to appreciate after 2500 years. Everything in the Lotus Sutra is of astronomical proportions, which is in turn commenting on the original teachings of the Buddha themselves and the kind of world that they reveal to the pure mind of the enlightened observer.

Chapter II Tactfulness (Skilfulness)

Rousing from his trance, the Buddha declares to Sariputra, the disciple foremost in wisdom, that the Buddha wisdom and its wisdom school cannot be understood or entered respectively by mere hearers or solitary practitioners. Nevertheless, countless buddhas throughout time have used many teachings and skillful methods to lead living beings to the ultimate realization. The skill and wisdom of the Tathagata, however, is perfect; his mind has grasped the Infinite. Only a Buddha can know the Reality of All Existence in its totality. The hearers and solitary practitioners in the assembly are perplexed, including Sariputra himself, but the Buddha declines Sariputra’s request to explain his meaning, declaring that the worlds of gods and men are not prepared to know the truth. On the second request the Buddha declines again, stating further that gods, men, and asuras are not prepared for the truth and that stupid and arrogant monastics might fall into hell if they heard the answer.

After the third request, the Buddha relents, in accord with custom, whereupon five thousand monastics and householders walk out of the assembly because of their ignorance, spontaneously purifying the assembly as during the uposatha observance described in the Pali Canon. Sariputra, however, remained. The Buddha tells Sariputra that this doctrine is only revealed by a Buddha every three thousand years to teach human beings the Buddha wisdom concerning the pure mind that is true but translinquistic. This teaching is only for bodhisattvas. It is the truly universal, non-sectarian dharma teaching, the singular truth to which all of the contingent skillful methods and systems of Buddhist philosophy and doctrines testify implicitly, leading beyond reason to the realization of perfect wisdom.

This process is eternal and ongoing. In a degenerate age (such as that in which we live), the dharma is taught by skillful methods to accommodate all the different imperfections of beings, to bring as many beings as possible to realization. The Buddha declares especially that arhants should seek out Buddhahood and declares that, in the end, all those who aspire to Buddhahood, even if only for a moment, will achieve Buddhahood, in accordance with the inexorable law of karma whereby every cause must result in an effect and every effect must be the result of a cause.

Chapter III A Parable

Sariputra is ecstatic listening to the Buddha’s words, but he asks why the Buddha preaches the dharma of the “great vehicle” by means of the “small vehicle”? Immediately Sariputra himself blames it on the karmic limitations of the Buddha’s hearers, who set up arhantship in place of Buddhahood as the goal of the path. Later, the Buddha says that samsaric beings need samsaric means and must realize the nature of samsara, illusory as it is, before they can realize the wisdom of the Buddhas, “reality as it is.” This is of course an implicit reference to the Hinayana. The Buddha teaches realization by means of three vehicles: the hearers, which leads to the realization of nirvana; the solitary practitioners, which leads to self-realization; and the way of the bodhisattva, which leads to the perfect wisdom of Buddhahood. The arhants pursue “science with a master,” and thus are epiphenomenonal, but the Buddhas are primogenitary. No one can deny this. The solitary practitioners and Buddhas are self-ordained (“self-born”) and pursue “science without a master.” Interestingly, the texts all agree that Buddhahood is possible even in a dark age where the dharma is not known.

The Buddha tells Sariputra that in fact he, the Buddha, “caused” Sariputra to pursue the way of the bodhisattva many ages ago, and facetiously compares Sariputra’s attainment of nirvana (lit. “extinction”) with ignorance of reality (the antithesis of enlightenment that is traditionally characterized by the memory of past lives). The Buddha preaches the Lotus Sutra to reawaken the memory of Sariputra’s bodhisattva vow. The Buddha predicts that Sariputra will be reborn many ages in the future as a Buddha called “Flower Light Tathagata.” The Buddha goes on to describe his Buddha-land in highly ornate language, which echoes similar language used in the Pali Canon.

The assembly spontaneously removes their robes [sic] and they offer them to the Buddha as an homage. Devas, brahmas, and divine sons all pay homage to the Buddha with robes and flowers. Suddenly the robes themselves start to dance in the sky to the sounds of celestial music! A voice is heard declaring that the Buddha has rolled the wheel of the dharma for a second time since Varanasi, the place near Sarnath where the Buddha delivered the sermon called “Setting in Motion the Wheel of Dharma” in the First Dispensation, circa 455 BCE. Thus, the Lotus Sutra announces the advent of a Second Dispensation of the True Dharma about 50 CE. This is also the end of the first five hundred year cycle as it happens.

The Buddha tells Sariputra the famous parable of the burning house, immortalized in the poem of Bertolt Brecht.[4] A great elder, old and rich, lives in a huge house with only a single small door but with hundreds of inhabitants including many non-human beings and thirty young sons. Like the elder himself, the house is old, and a fire trap. Suddenly it bursts into flames! The elder realizes that although he can save himself, his children are so preoccupied by their games that they have no impulse to flee. He calls to his children to flee, but they are so innocent and preoccupied by their amusements that they heed him not. Therefore, the father lies to his children, declaring that outside the gate they will find many toys for them to play with. This device is identified with what the translator translates as “tactful means” (upaya), more conventionally translated as “skillful” or “expedient means” or method. Thus, the children rush outside and escape the fire. However, instead of giving the children toys he gives each of them a fine chariot, with curtains, bullocks, servants, and guards. Note the symbolism of the chariot. In Cabala, the chariot (merkabah) is a symbol of the Great Work. We also find the symbolism of the chariot in the Tarot trump of the same name.

The message of the parable is that skillful method is a deception designed to lure the ignorant into the true dharma, where the lie is a metaphor for the truth that incorporates the cognitive limitations of those to whom it is addressed. On the other hand, one could also say that truth itself is a form of falsehood, since all cognitions are limited, mere labels. Thus, the truth of the dharma is translinguistic. Because it is translinquistic, it can only be learned from one who has already realized it, i.e., a Tathagata.

Chapter IV Faith Discernment (Disposition)

Subhuti and several other arhants are awestruck and ecstatic. Rising and arranging their garments [sic], and making obeisance to the Buddha, they ask the Buddha for a parable of the dharma, referring to the void, formlessness, and nonfunction.[5] These apparently refer to the Hinayana “three gates of emancipation,” but the Sutra of the Dharma Seal is Mahayana.

The Buddha tells a parable of a man who runs away from his father as a youth and stays away for several decades. As he grows older, he becomes needier. He wanders about the countryside looking for food and clothing. Thus, he returns to his native land. In the meantime, his father has become rich. Over the course of the years, he has missed his son, regretting his leaving, and wishing to find him so that he can bequeath his possessions to his son, other than whom he has no heirs. By chance, the son arrives at his father’s house. The father recognizes the son, but the son does not recognize the father. Rather, he sees the wealth of the man and flees, thinking that he might be seized. The father sends servants after the son, who try to subdue the son by force but he resists. The father, realizing that this method will not work, develops a stratagem. He employs his son under the guise of a common householder, and over the course of the years, he befriends his son, until finally he reveals publically that this is his son and his heir. In this way, he tactually brings his son to the truth of himself, but not in such a way as would traumatize or overwhelm him.

The father is the Tathagata; the arhants are the Buddha’s sons. Through arhantship and the realization of nirvana, the Tathagata brings his “sons” to the realization of the Buddha or Tathagata wisdom of the bodhisattva path of the single way. Thus, the Lotus Sutra is saying that Hinayana is really Mahayana, or at least the prelude to Mahayana, but the arhants do not know this. Put another way, Hinayana reveals the same dharma from the perspective of samsaric ignorance. Mahayana, from the perspective of enlightenment, which transcends nirvana and samsara altogether. Nirvana itself is just part of the dualistic Hinayana construct.

Chapter V The Parable of the Herbs (On Plants)

The Buddha tells Kasyapa, the arhant who recited the verse portion of the previous chapter, that a Tathagata is full of merit and cannot lie, a doctrine that we also find propounded in the Pali Canon. He is the king of the dharma. His exposition of the dharma is skillful (upaya). The dharma of the Tathagata leads to the “stage” of “perfect knowledge.” Having perfect understanding of the dharma, he reveals the wisdom of perfect knowledge, all-knowing intelligence, or Buddha wisdom to all.

The Buddha compares the Tathagata to a cloud pouring down rain throughout the universe, fertilizing every sort of medicinal plant. “From the rain of one cloud [each] according to  the nature of its kind acquires its development, opening its blossoms and bearing its fruit. Though produced in one soil and moistened by the same rain, yet these plants and trees are all different.” From the diversity of life, the Buddha infers the manifestation of the dharma adapting itself to the conditions in which it manifests. This is of course a characteristic of living beings. The Tathagata spreads the dharma throughout the “three-thousand-great thousandfold world” (the chiliocosm), including gods, men, and asuras, which might be compared to the current scientific understanding of existence as consisting of a vast number of planets, solar systems, galaxies, and universes in potentially infinite proliferation. Buddhism understood that the structure of existence is recursive, i.e., infinitely differentiated through repetition, like a fractal, and totally interconnected at the most fundamental level based on the law of causality (karma). The Buddha teaches the dharma to all beings in all ways, as it is written in the Pali Canon, “each for himself,” thus benefitting all beings and bringing them all to the dharma according to each one’s inherent nature and momentary capacity, effecting the regeneration of the world, beyond the duality of nirvana and samsara.

The Tathagata teaches the “unitary essential law” that consists of deliverance from mortality, abandonment of nihilism, extinction of the extremes, and finally the perfect knowledge or wisdom concerning the “seeds” by which everything grows and develops according to its own nature. Only the Tathagata knows which stage each seed-being is at. The final resolution is the “final nirvana of eternal tranquility, ending in return to the void.” The realization of the essential emptiness of existence is the way.

Chapter VI Prediction (Announcement of Future Destiny)

The Buddha predicts that Mahakasyapa will become a Buddha called “Radiance Tathagata” in the far future. The Buddha enunciates the doctrine of the three dharma stages or phases, called Righteous Law, Counterfeit Law, and Decline of the Law. After the decline of the Law, a new Buddha appears to renew the dharma and regenerate the process. Each of these stages lasts for many ages, and thus lies beyond historical time. The transcendent Buddha paradigm or archetype itself acts in the world timelessly, revealing the dharma. The Buddha makes similar predictions with respect to other arhants in the assembly.

Chapter VII The Parable of the Magic City (Ancient Devotion)

Chapter vii of the Lotus Sutra introduces a trans-historical Buddha named Universal Surpassing Wisdom. This Buddha had sixteen sons prior to his enlightenment. According to the Sanskrit version of the Lotus Sutra, the “Brahma heavenly kings” travel vast distances (“five hundred myriad kotis of domains,” a koti itself referring to tens or hundreds of millions or more), coming from all directions in search of the luminous phenomenon that attends the enlightenment of Universal Surpassing Wisdom, to the Bodhi tree in the “western quarter” in their “aerial cars” (the Chinese commentaries describe them as mobile like carriages), where they circumambulate him hundreds of thousands of times and strew him with flowers. These “aerial cars” are themselves described as luminous. The alternative translation, “palaces,” suggests that these “aerial cars” are inhabited. I have discussed the relationship between the UFO phenomenon and Buddhism in my talk “Buddhism and the UFO Phenomenon” (chapter 9 of Dharma Talks, q.v.).[6] They entreat the Buddha to reveal the dharma after 180 ages of ignorance.

The Buddha introduces the topic of time dilation, declaring, “by the power of my Tathagata-wisdom, I observe the length of time as if it were only today.” He also alludes to the Buddhist cosmology, specifically the realm of the thirty-three. Usually this is interpreted with reference to the thirty-three gods of the Vedic pantheon. Here however the translator considers the number to refer to the number of “heavens.” Trayastrimsa is of course the topmost realm of the worlds of Sumeru and the second realm of the Gods of Desire, two realms above the human, between the Four Great Kings and Yama, the god of death.

Universal Surpassing Wisdom teaches the Four Great Truths and the Law of the Twelve Causes, aka Interdependent Origination, in both forward and reverse order, culminating in the annihilation of old age, death, grief, lamentation, suffering, and distress, in response to which billions and trillions of beings have their minds freed. Finally, he preaches the Lotus Sutra to his four sons and their followers. However, although half of the assembly accepted and believed in the Lotus Sutra, half doubted it. After this Universal Surpassing Wisdom went into retreat and practised meditative absorption for 84,000 ages. Meanwhile, his sons disseminated the Lotus Sutra.

Universal Surpassing Wisdom emerges from his retreat and declares that everyone who believes in the Lotus Sutra will attain “the Tathgata-wisdom of Perfect Enlightenment.” The Buddha (Sakyamuni, the original speaker of the Lotus Sutra) identifies himself with the sixteenth son of Universal Surpassing Wisdom (the sixteenth kala is the “excellent” or “supreme” kala). All of Universal Surpassing Wisdom’s sons became buddhas in different places, and the Buddha himself teaches the dharma under different names. Thus, the Buddha teaches the fundamental axiom of the perennial or ancient philosophy, of which historical Buddhism is just one thread.

The Buddha distinguishes between two nirvanas, initial and final, the former mechanical and imperfect, but the distinction is still mysterious. In fact, we find a parallel distinction in the Pali Canon, between nirvana “with residue” (or “substrate”), which the Buddha experienced at the age of 35, and “final nirvana” (parinirvana), without substrate, which the Buddha experienced at the age of 80, when his physical body died. This is called “[real] extinction.” Only by the skillful method (upaya) of the single or Buddha vehicle of the Tathagata, which is identical with the bodhisattva way, is final nirvana attained. The Lotus Sutra can only be understood by those who have penetrated or comprehended the dharma of the void or emptiness, which the Buddha said is the essence of the Law of the Twelve Causes.

The Buddha teaches a parable where a group of travellers on a long, windy, and difficult path, led by a seasoned guide, becomes exhausted and distraught at not reaching the goal and wants to turn back. Thus, the guide conjures the mirage of a beautiful city where the travellers can rest, and tells them that is the goal. Therefore, the travellers enter the illusory city with great hope, satisfied and refreshed, certain that they have reached the end. Once they are happy, the guide tells them that the city is illusory, and entreats them to make the final trek to the Place of Jewels, the true goal. Thus, they come to final emancipation. This story is not unlike the story of the raft in the Pali Canon.

Chapter VIII The Five Hundred Disciples Receive the Prediction of Their Destiny (Announcement of the Future Destiny of Five Hundred Monks)

Purna, son of Maitrayani, one of the ten disciples of the Buddha, noted for his eloquence, stands up and praises the Buddha. The Buddha praises Purna in return, declaring that next to himself Purna is the most lucid. The Buddha predicts that he will become the Buddha “Radiance of the Law Tathagata.” The Buddha declares that his “Buddha-land” will be as large as a chiliocosm, wherein the gods will inhabit “palaces … in the sky.” We have already noted the alternative translation of “palaces’ as “aerial cars,” and the context makes it clear that here we are referring to a universe, not a planet. The sutra states that men and gods will behold each other in these celestial palaces. Interestingly, his Buddha-land will have no females, because there will be no carnal passion (presumably they will be “spontaneously born,” like the devas in the Pali Canon). The inhabitants of Purna’s Buddha-land will be luminous and have the power of flight. The Buddha then proceeds to predict the future destiny and Buddhahood of 1,200 arhants.

The arhants declare their realization that the arhant nirvana is unsatisfactory and that more remains to be done. The Buddha originally taught Perfect Wisdom, which is implicitly identified with Buddhahood, but the arhants settled for partial or incomplete nirvana because that was the simpler path. Now they realize that arhantship is merely a stage on the path to Buddhahood, that is, the path of the bodhisattva, and they declare their aspiration to the final, real nirvana of complete and perfect Buddhahood.

Chapter IX Prediction of the Destiny of Arhants, Training and Trained (Announcement of the Future Destiny of Ananda, Rahula, and the Two Thousand Monks)

The Buddha goes on to predict the future Buddhahood of his disciples. Ananda will become the Buddha “Sovereign Universal King of Wisdom [great as] Mountains and Oceans Tathagata.” Ananda’s attainment of Buddhahood is his reward for an ancient vow to treasure the dharma.

The Buddha predicts that Rahula will become the Buddha “Treader on Seven-Jewelled Lotuses Tathagata.”

The Buddha tells Ananda that 2,000 arhants will attain Buddhahood in the far future.


* This talk was originally inspired by a talk I attended under the auspices of the Toronto Centre of Gravity Buddhist Association by Michael Stone and his teacher, Roshi Pat Enkyo O’Hara, on January 20, 2012. I am sorry that I wasn’t able to send Michael a copy of the four talks before his untimely death at the age of 42 on July 16, 2017, but I was able to send him a copy of my latest book, Dharma Talks, in April and he also had kind words to say about this blog.

[1] See also Paul J. Griffiths, On Being Buddha: The Classical Doctrine of Buddhahood (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1994), pp. 29, 32 38f., 49, 53. Cf. Yoshiro Tamura, Introduction to the Lotus Sutra (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2014), chap. 1.

[2] Kern, op. cit., cap. ii, pp. 54ff, vv. 112-24). Cf. Kato, op. cit., p. 72.

[3] See A.K. Warder, Indian Buddhism, 3rd rev. ed.  (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, 2000), p. 375f.

[4] Brecht, “The Buddha’s Parable of the Burning House.”

[5] Kern has “vanity,” “purposelessness,” and the “unfixed.” The Pali words sunnata, animitta, and appanihita mean “emptiness,” “motiveless,” and “free from desire.” Akira has “nonsubstantiality,” “signlessness,” and “wishlessness” (History of Indian Buddhism, p. 56).

[6] Cf. “The Buddha-vehicle is the ratha ekakakra, the one-wheeled carriage, each wheel being trinabhi, three-naved, as in Rig-veda I, 164, 2” (Kern, op. cit., p. 81 fn. 2). “Nave” refers to the hub of a wheel. The Rig Veda says, “Seven to the one-wheeled chariot yoke the Courser; bearing seven names the single Courser draws it. Three-naved the wheel is, sound and undecaying, whereon are resting all these worlds of being.”