Discourse on the True Teaching of the White Lotus Flower: Part 3

Presented to the Riverview Dharma Centre on Sunday, August 27, 2017.


Chapters 16-22


The Lotus Sutra opens with the Buddha seated in meditation on Vulture’s Peak before a vast assembly of all different sorts of beings, including male and female monastics and householders, gods, dragons, spirits, demigods, anti-gods, mythical birds, centaurs, great snakes, humans and non-humans, and kings. The world of the Lotus Sutra is clearly a visionary world, a world of the imagination, a world of the mind, and not the common historical world that we know as the earth-plane. It is, however, emphatically not an “unreal” world.

The Buddha displays wondrous and supernatural signs, including a beam of energy that emanates from his forehead. Manjushri, the bodhisattva of wisdom, tells Maitreya, the Next Buddha, that these are signs that the Buddha intends to preach the Great Dharma, specifically the Lotus Sutra, based on historical precedents. These signs are suggestive of the luminous signs of the imminent appearance of Brahma, referred to in the Pali Canon.

The Buddha reveals to Sariputra, the disciple foremost in wisdom, that the ultimate meaning of the dharma is hard to understand. Thus, he teaches disciples according to their faculties, adapted to their limited abilities and understanding; only a Buddha can comprehend the ultimate meaning of the teachings, which is beyond rational comprehension and linguistic articulation. Despite the great variety of teachings, the Buddha says there is only One Single Buddha Vehicle, which manifests in many different forms, including the three vehicles of the disciples, hermits, and wisdom beings. Sariputra begs the Buddha to teach this ultimately explanatory dharma, but the Buddha hesitates, declaring that it would cause gods and men to fear, and that arrogant monastics would fall into a great void because of it. Sariputra persists, and the Buddha finally relents, agreeing to teach the Great Dharma.

Immediately five thousand proud and arrogant monastic and lay disciples of the Buddha walk out of the assembly, thus purifying the assembly and making it a suitable receptacle for the ultimate revelation of the Lotus Sutra. The Buddha says that a teaching such as this, which is an ancient and indeed primordial teaching, is only revealed once every three thousand years, which is the mythological frequency of the flowering of the cluster fig blossom (Ficus glomerata, Skt. udumbara) to which he refers. Known as the “blue lotus,” the udumbara plant is used in Ayurvedic medicine as an aphrodisiac and to reduce fever, amongst other uses. 3400 BCE is near the midpoint of Indus Valley Civilization (4000-2000 BCE), the original Indian civilization, as well as being close to the advent of the Kali Yuga in 3102 BCE, corresponding to the advent of urban civilization.

The Buddha declares that innumerable Buddhas pervade the universe, all teaching the same ultimate truth in a vast variety of different forms, varying according to their conditions, yet all tending toward the complete and final enlightenment of Buddhahood. He further declares the future Buddhahood of all those in the assembly, declaring their future names, realms, eras, and longevities.

The Buddha then hints at the supreme teaching of the Lotus Sutra by means of a series of seven parables, including the Burning House, the Lost Heir, the Plants, the Phantom City, the Concealed Gem, the Crest Jewel, and the Physician’s Sons (chapters 3, 4, 5, 7, 8, 14, and 16 respectively). He declares the Lotus Sutra to be the supreme sutra, productive of great merit for those who hear, read, understand, keep, copy, or promulgate the sutra. Nirvana is not the goal of enlightenment, but merely the culmination of the first stage of the path, the stage of discipleship, on the way to enlightenment. Through nirvana, the adept extinguishes the imperfections and is emancipated from the mirage of samsara. They see phenomena as they really are in themselves, without distortion, and are freed from involuntary rebirth.

A stupa pyramid rises out of a void inside the earth, breaks through the ground, causes earthquakes, and hovers in the air above the assembly, followed by innumerable numbers of luminous wisdom beings. They come out of the earth and fly up to the stupa, where they join the Buddha and the gathered assembly inside what is clearly an enormous object.

Chapter XVI The Chapter of the Eternal Life of the Tathagata

The Buddha declares that he will speak, and the assembly, led by Maitreya, begs him to speak.

The Buddha declares the Buddha archetype or paradigm, the Buddhahood that is actually ancient and timeless, attained throughout endless samsara by all Buddhas. Buddhas manifest wherever and however necessary to further the spiritual development of those to whom they appear, yet within and beyond them all is the original and originating Buddhahood itself that appears to those to whom it appears in accordance with their conditions and their capacity. Since samsara is endless, so too is this Buddhahood. Therefore, it is primordial and has appeared and reappeared throughout all history and all time and space. 

Western academicians with a historicist bent regard this idea as a sort of theism and see the Lotus Sutra as a kind of reversion of Buddhism to theism, possibly even influenced by Christianity (but the opposite has also been argued). However, we do not need to look to Christianity to understand the influences of the Lotus Sutra. Far more likely is the doctrine of the Tathagatagarbha, the Buddha “womb” or “embryo” that represents the innate potentiality of every living sentient being for attaining Buddhahood. In the Pali Canon, it is described by the Buddha as “innately pure luminous mind” (Anguttara Nikaya). In the Mahayana tradition, it appears in the Nirvana Sutra (100-220 CE) and implicitly in the Lotus Sutra.  This is the preeminent “secret teaching” of the Lotus Sutra that is credited with the potential to catalyze enlightenment itself.

The Buddha made it clear that nirvana does not mean that the Tathagata is literally extinguished – he condemned nihilism – but that he is emancipated from all conditions, including involuntary rebirth, in an immortal (i.e., timeless) state. He sees things as they are, from a transdual perspective, in which samsara itself appears illusory, neither existent nor nonexistent. This is directly contrary to the Hinayana, which hypostasized phenomena as inherently suffering, transient, and non-self-identical beings.  This hypostatization of illusion creates an insuperable barrier to realization, similar in fact to the self-negating teachings of the Jains.

The Buddha tells the parable of the Good Physician. In his absence his sons drink toxic medicines and some lose their minds. The doctor gives the sons who still have their senses an herbal medicine that restores them to health and sanity, but the mad sons refuse to take the medicine, declaring that it is no good. Such is the state of the world. Therefore, the physician plans a ruse. He leaves the medicine with the sons and then sends back a messenger to tell them that he has died. Hearing this, they become so remorseful that they take the medicine and are cured. The sons who take the medicine are the wisdom beings, and they are cured of the suffering of existence, whereas those sons who cling to their suffering are the adepts, who refuse to realize that the First Noble Truth is belied by the fact of enlightenment, and thus is itself transient (everything true of samsara must be transient). However, in the end all realize the truth of the bodhisattva path and the transience of suffering and indeed of transience itself, thus realizing the Great Dharma.

In all this it should also be realized that samsara is not merely toxic, it is also medicinal, the poison of desire also being the method of emancipation (cf. Chapter V). The things that can kill us can also cure us. This establishes the premise for the way of transformation of the Inner (or Internal) Tantra.

Chapter XVII The Chapter of Efficacious Merit

An even greater number of wisdom beings were able to “take hold” of the “gateway of the dharanis,” or mantras, including a universally efficacious mantra (a panacea, in fact), and operate the wheel of dharma.[2] Many of these will attain enlightenment. After the Buddha spoke space was filled with a rain of flowers, sandalwood and other incenses, fine garments, and the sound of drums was heard.he Buddha declares to Maitreya that an incalculable number of beings (the number of grains of sand in 680 millions of nayutas of Ganges rivers, a nayuta being 100 billion) accepted the doctrine of the unborn dharma because of the revelation of the previous chapter.[1]

The Buddha declares that the merit of believing in or even just understanding the revelation of the Lotus Sutra is beyond calculation, far greater than the cultivation of the five perfections (generosity, morality, patience, energy, and meditation), but specifically not the perfection of wisdom, once again emphasizing the special role of wisdom in relation to the other perfections that I have emphasized in my talks on the Pali Canon. The perfection of wisdom is especially efficacious if it is received through a continuous face-to-face transmission. The Buddha reiterates that the merit of one who hears, promulgates, holds, writes down, or worships the sutra is incalculable and their purified senses will perceive the earth-plane as a pure land. Hurvitz says that such a one holds the Tathagata in his head. Kern has “carries on his shoulder.”  Similarly, the vodouisant carries the loa on their head! He will quickly come to the Knowledge of All Modes (Kato has “perfect knowledge”).  Another term is “omniscience.”

Chapter XVIII The Chapter of the Exposition of Meritorious Joy

Maitreya asks the Buddha how much joy a man or a woman who celebrates the Lotus Sutra will experience as a result. The Buddha says that if such a person preaches the Lotus Sutra such that fifty people also celebrate it, the joy that they all experience, even to the fiftieth person, will be incalculable. Moreover, anyone who accepts the Lotus Sutra will be reborn in a healthy and handsome body with great worldly benefits, including rebirth in higher worlds, where they will inhabit aerial vehicles (vimanas).[3]

The Lotus Sutra further describes the Buddha in phrases similar to the Pali Canon’s “32 and 80 marks of a great man,” including having beautiful lips, tongue, and teeth; a long, high and straight nose; round and full face; high and long eyebrows; broad, even, and upright forehead; and, interestingly, a perfect penis!

Chapter XIX The Chapter of the Profit of the True Teacher

The Buddha declares that anyone who accepts and keeps the Lotus Sutra will purify their sense organs, including their body and mind, such that they see everything in the “thousand-millionfold” world, both hidden and exposed, from the lowest hell to the Pinnacle or Summit  of Existence. The Pinnacle of Existence is equivalent to the sphere of neither perception nor non-perception of the formless realm. All living beings and their various karmic causes and conditions are included, without attachment, even if they have not acquired the Divine Eye, Ear, Nose, Tongue, Body, or Mind.

The various sensations that are described in the sutra are typical effects of advanced yoga practice or psychedelic experience. The references to Light Sound and Universal Purity may be equivalent to the Devas of Radiant Glory and Streaming Radiance.  Other cosmological references are familiar, including the Avici hell, Mount Meru (Sumeru) and its Iron Circle, the oceans within the iron rim, and the Brahma world. The qualification “without and within” suggests a recognition these worlds are objective and subjective, similar to Jung’s concept of the psychoid. Similarly, the “palaces” of the gods, which are interestingly both male and female, also refer to “aerial vehicles” or UFOs. Kato et al. refer to Light Sound as the second realm of meditation heavens, and Universal Purity as the third realm of meditation heavens.

The purification of consciousness results in its progressive refinement, such that one’s nervous sensibility can be vastly expanded. I have read, for example, of a North American shaman who could hear the sound of a tree falling in the forest in the wilderness where they lived. The Pali Canon refers to a mental body that is generated by the practice of the jhanas. Here we learn that those who keep the Lotus Sutra “will obtain a pure body like pure crystal which all the living delight to see,” and they will experience the totality of the macrocosm in their body.

With respect to the mind, the Buddha says that “with this pure mental faculty by hearing so much as a single gatha or a single phrase, he shall penetrate incalculable, limitless meanings; and after having understood these meanings he shall be able to expound a single phrase or a single gatha for as much as a month, or four months, or even for a year and the dharmas that he preaches shall be in accord with the import of that meaning, standing in absolutely no contradiction to the marks of reality.”  Thus, the verses of the sutra have “finite and boundless meanings” that can be discerned by the enlightened mind. Similarly, the number of Buddhas in the universe is infinite.

Chapter XX  The Chapter of Sadaparibhuta

The Buddha adds that in addition to the merits obtained by one who keeps the Lotus Sutra, contrarily, one who abuses or maligns them will experience great demerit. The Buddha implies that through the realization of the doctrine of the Four Noble Truths one attains the grade of disciple, characterized by the experience of nirvana (thus nirvana corresponds to the lowest grade of spiritual development); through the realization of the doctrine of Interdependent Origination one attains the grade of hermit; and through the realization of the doctrine of the Six Perfections one attains the grade of wisdom being, characterized by the experience of enlightenment and the wisdom of Buddhahood itself. The bodhisattva path subsumes all lower paths. The purification of the six sense faculties also extends one’s longevity.

Each Buddha appears at the nadir of human civilization, and inaugurates an eon divided into two phases, the Righteous Law and the Counterfeit Law. The second half of the eon, called the eon of diminution, is characterized by increasing famine, pestilence, and war. This period is also characterized by evil laws, the absence of moral restraint, erroneous doctrines, and short and brutish lives. This view of samsaric history is cyclical, as in the Pali Canon.

Chapter XXI  The Chapter of the Spiritual Influence of the Tathagata

The wisdom beings of the earth, who emerged out of the earth in chapter 15 and are now seated around the Buddha in the stupa UFO, “equal in number to the atoms in the thousandfold world,”[4] declare their intention to teach the Lotus Sutra so as to attain the Great Dharma, whereupon the Buddha and the whole assembly extend their tongues and emit innumerable rays of coloured light, reaching to the limits of the multiverse. After a long time they spit and snap their fingers, casing the earth to tremble and shake. Turning toward the earth, they all join their palms and chant, “Namah Sakyamunibuddaya,” that is, “Homage to the Shakyan sage, the Buddha.” This is according to the Chinese text. The Sanskrit text gives a longer mantra, “Namo bhagavate Sakyamunaye tathagatayarhate samyaksambuddhayeti vacam bhasante sma.” They scatter vast numbers of offerings including floral scents, necklaces, banners, parasols, etc. across the earth plane.  Interestingly, the earth is always referred to as a “plane,” and in post-quantum physics, it has been discovered that the topography of space is actually two dimensional, not three dimensional as it appears. This has led to the speculation that the universe is in fact a hologram!

The Buddha declares the merit and spiritual powers resulting from the concentration of the Tathagata to be infinite, and refers to the Lotus Sutra as a treasure house containing all the secrets of the Tathagatas. He says that all Buddhas are “emanations” of the primordial Buddha archetype or paradigm, that is both “without and within.”

Chapter XXII  The Chapter of the Essential Gift[5]

This chapter appears at the end of the Sanskrit edition of the Lotus Sutra, corresponding to chapter 27. However, Kumarajiva placed it here. Bunno Kato et al. argue in favour of Kumarjiva’s change.

Shakyamuni Buddha rises from his seat and in a gesture of benediction touches the heads of the wisdom beings with his right hand three times and entrusts the self-evident dharma of enlightenment to the wisdom beings, whereupon the wisdom beings experience an intense bodily ecstasy. The emphasis on the body recalls Buddhaghosa’s statement that the meditation on the body is a unique revelation found only in the Buddhadharma.[6] The sutra declares that the Buddhas in the assembly are emanations of his true body, the dharmakaya, the body of reality itself.


[1] However, we know from Kern that the cyphers can be ignored (Suddharma-Pundarika, p. 149, n. 3; etc.). This number, 680, is extremely interesting. It is the cube of 2 × 5 × 17, and is a tetradedral, or triangular pyramidal, number. It represents a pyramid with a triangular base and three sides (cf. chapter 11). The tetrahedron is the fundamental structural unit of existence according to R. Buckminster Fuller, an idea revived in the unified quantum theory of reality of the Quantum Gravity Research (QGR) group, a scientific think tank founded by Klee Irwin (whether Irwin knows that he has rediscovered Fuller’s theorem I am not sure). The sutra’s emphasis on “open space” is interesting in this context. Interestingly, 68 is also a “happy number,” which means that repeatedly adding up the sum of the squares of its digits leads eventually to unity.

[2] Kern has “obtained the dharani that makes a hundred thousand kotis [ten million] of revolutions” (ibid, p. 311). Kato notes that “the door, or method, of the hearing and keeping of dharani” refers to the first of our “fearlessness” of a wisdom being, fearlessness in proclaiming all truth. The other three are proclaiming the truth of perfection, exposing obstacles to the truth, and proclaiming the way to end all suffering.  Kato further notes, “the dharani of numberless revolutions or evolutions is the power to discriminate manifold phenomena without error. By this discrimination a bodhisattva destroys all his perplexities and exhibits many Buddha-laws” (Threefold Lotus Sutra, p. 257 f. and nn. 1 and 2).

[3] Hurvitz notes the alternative translation, “palaces,” but opines that vehicles is what is meant.

[4] About ten quadrillion vigintillion and one-hundred thousand quadrillion vigintillion atoms (1078 to 1082), according to modern scientific reckoning.

[5] This is chapter XXVII of the Sanskrit (Kern) edition of the Lotus Sutra, entitled anuparīndanāparivarta (anu + parindana + parivartah). Skt. anu = ‘fine, minute, atomic’; parindana = ‘gratification, present.’ The Chinese title is 嘱累品 – ‘enjoin, implore, urge’ + ‘bind together, twist around; accumulate involve, implicate; tired, weary, strain, work hard.’ Kern gives it the title dharmaparyaya, ‘turning the dharma,’ i.e., inaugurating the cycle.

[6] Cite Sarah Shaw.