Tag Archives: Lotus Sutra

Discourse on the True Teaching of the White Lotus Flower: Part 2

Presented to the Riverview Dharma Centre on Sunday, July 30, 2017.


Chapters 10-15


The Message of the Lotus Sutra So Far

The Lotus Sutra is rooted in the Pali tradition and maybe even in the Pali or at least a similar Prakrit language. Although it appears extremely innovative, we know from our talk on “The Early Buddhist Schools” that about half of the early Hinayana schools were moving towards a more imaginative understanding of the dharma. The original stratum of the Lotus Sutra goes back to the first century BCE, about the same time that the Pali Canon was first written down. The Lotus Sutra is highly revered by Mahayana Buddhists and has even been credited with catalyzing enlightenment in at least one receptive reader, Hakuin Ekaku (1686-1768), reviver of the Rinzai school of Japanese Zen, while reading the third chapter. Three large themes have been identified in the Lotus Sutra:

  • The ultimate unity of all teachings;
  • The primordial Buddha archetype; and
  • The bodhisattva vow (bodhicitta) as the essential method of the path.

The lotus is a Buddhist symbol of body, speech, and mind. The lotus flower or blossom is an emblem of realization, untainted yet rooted in the mud of samsara. Similarly, the bodhisattva enjoys the fruits of realization but remains involved in the world out of compassion for suffering beings.

In the Lotus Sutra, the Buddha refers to himself as the Tathagata, a somewhat mysterious word translated by Hurvitz as the “Thus Come One.” The Lotus Sutra is the revelation of the essential mystery of the Tathagata, conceived in the interiority of his own enlightened mind. Thus, the Lotus Sutra is the direct manifestation of enlightenment itself, whereas the Pali Canon manifests enlightenment through the conditionality of unenlightened and samsaric experience. Thus, the Lotus Sutra is radiant and ecstatic, whereas the Pali suttas largely (though not exclusively) emphasize suffering and ignorance. This insight explains the essential difference of form between the two oeuvres.

The Lotus Sutra declares itself to be Buddhavacana, the authentic words of the Buddha, yet it is presented in an obviously transhistorical way, thus raising the question of what it means to be Buddhavacana and the nature of reality itself. The phantasmagorical world of the Lotus Sutra is a fantastic dharma display from the perspective of direct realization. The Lotus Sutra is a sort of opera, where the Buddha is the central figure of a vast cast of innumerable sorts of beings, all engaged in a series of grand speeches and gestures, in the course of which the Buddha progressively reveals his superior and indeed superlative, transcendent understanding of the dharma. It is a remarkable coincidence that the Lotus Sutra originated about the same time that Jesus taught the Gospel in Galilee and Jerusalem, fufilling the same function in relation to the Abrahamic tradition that preceded him.

The cosmology of the Lotus Sutra is the cosmology of Buddhism: an extended horizontal dimension consisting of a virtual infinity of universes, galaxies, solar systems, planets, beings, and atoms, as a single plane of a vertically extended hierarchy of greater or lesser degrees of energy, sentience, suffering, wisdom, and power. Broadly, this vertical axis consists of the divine realm, the human realm, and the demonic realm. The whole system functions in accordance with the law of causality (karma) and the principle of interdependent origination (pratityasamutpada).

This includes astronomical phenomena and luminous aerial “cars” or palaces, time dilation, and travelling through higher dimensions of experience over vast epochs of time. Here gods and men interact.

The Buddha’s teaching method is described as a stratagem or “skilled method” (upaya) whereby an infinity of buddhas throughout time have sought to communicate the dharma to suffering beings by the most effective means adapted to the strengths or limitations of the hearers themselves, thus creating the appearance of a great diversity of teachings whereas there is in fact only one method that leads to one singular end: supreme nondual enlightenment, anuttara-samyak-sambodhi, which may be literally rendered as ‘ultimate perfect wisdom.’ The dharma is like a universal rain nourishing the diversity of beings everywhere in the multiverse without distinction.

The Lotus Sutra declares that all methods are merely preparations for the path of the bodhisattva, without which perfect wisdom and ultimate enlightenment cannot be experienced. Moreover, the Buddha declares that ultimately all beings who aspire to enlightenment, even but for an instant, will experience complete and perfect enlightenment in accordance with the law of causality (karma), since every effect is the result of a cause and every cause must produce its correlative effect sooner or later. All possess the “precious jewel” of Buddha nature (tathagatagarbha) within themselves, and therefore enlightenment is everyone’s inherent self-nature from the very beginning. Ultimately, ignorance too is an illusion.

Chapter X A Teacher of the Law (The Preacher; Preachers of Dharma)

Chapter 10 of the Lotus Sutra represents the second phase of development of the Lotus Sutra, about fifty years after the first phase, represented by chapters 2 through 9. In this chapter the Buddha addresses eighty thousand ”great leaders” headed by Medicine King Tathagata (Skt. Bhaisajyaraja). In a former life, this bodhisattva vowed to heal the physical and mental diseases of all beings, providing many efficacious remedies for monastics.

Having heard something of the history of the Medicine Buddha, skeptics might object, how can we know that such a bodhisattva ever actually existed and if they did not exist, how can the cult of the Medicine Buddha be effective? The Tantrics will tell you that the “historical” biography of the Medicine Buddha is only his most exoteric or superficial aspect, the so-called “outer meaning.” Tantra refers to four levels of meaning of Buddhist teachings: surface meaning, secret meaning, secret within secret meaning, and secret meaning of the secret within secret meaning, which refer to increasingly subtle and profound levels of understanding.

Thus, the Medicine Buddha may be understood in different ways. The Medicine Buddha mythos or archetype may also be understood as a psychic egregore, to use a term deriving from the Western Esoteric Tradition. An egregore is a complex of psychic energy that is built up because of the concentration and worship of countless millions of living beings. This is not dissimilar from the Jungian notion of the archetype. Mind is not merely an epiphenomenon of matter but an influential reality in its own right, an idea that we also find in quantum physics interestingly, without regard to questions of historicity. This is the inner meaning of the Medicine Buddha. The secret meaning of the Medicine Buddha is that the Medicine Buddha is an aspect, vector, mode, or “ray” of the Buddha archetype, the primordial Buddha paradigm that is the commonality of all Buddhas, the Buddhahood of Buddhas if you like, which has been called Adi-Buddha, “primordial Buddha,” and identified with Samantabhadra, the patron of the Lotus Sutra, and others. The Primordial Buddha is not an historical being at all, but rather the abstract principle of Buddhahood itself. It represents the healing power of the Buddha archetype. This is the secret meaning. Finally, the most secret meaning of the Medicine Buddha is that it is the Buddha nature itself, and is thus identical with the True Self of every person, the fundamental nature of which is emptiness (shunyata) or non-self-identity (anatta) (paradoxically, the True Self is no-self, a statement that is only intelligible from the transdual perspective). These different levels of meaning, while not mutually exclusive, progress toward ever-increasing ultimacy. Thus, the historical objection is moot. A similar line of argument applies to the Mahayana itself. The Hinayana is the outer meaning of the dharma. The Mahayana is the inner meaning of the dharma. The Vajrayana is the secret meaning of the dharma. In addition, the Ekayana is the most secret meaning of the dharma.

The “great leaders” consist of gods, dragon kings, nature-spirits (yakshas and gandharvas),  demigods or demons (asuras), large humanoid bird-like creatures (garudas), centaurs (kimnaras), great serpents (mahoragas), male and female monastics and lay devotees, and various types of seekers, including disciples, solitary practitioners, bodhisattvas, and Buddhas, subsuming the three paths.  The Buddha reiterates that those who hear a single word of the Lotus Sutra but for a momentary instant in the presence of the Buddha or after his final emancipation will attain ultimate enlightenment.

The Buddha recommends to the assembly that the Lotus Sutra should be regarded as the Buddha incarnate and worshipped to be reborn as bodhisattvas in the evil human world of suffering. Thus, bodhisattvas are able to be reborn where they will as sons and daughters of the Buddha and keepers of the dharma, destined to become Buddhas themselves, accomplishing the self-arising and spontaneous intuitive wisdom. Those who disparage the Lotus Sutra or its teachers or teachings will incur great demerit, whereas those who extol the Buddha and the Lotus Sutra will acquire great merit and even greater happiness. The Lotus Sutra, the Buddha declares, is the supreme sutra of all sutras.

The Buddha says of the Lotus Sutra that “this sutra is the mystic, essential treasury of all buddhas, which must not be distributed among or recklessly delivered to men,” and the most difficult to believe and understand. Somewhat paradoxically, those who copy, keep, read, recite, worship, and preach the Lotus Sutra to others will be endowed by the Tathagata with his robe, a presumed reference to the story in the Pali Canon where the Buddha gives his robe to Mahakassapa to indicate his role as the Buddha’s successor as president of the First Buddhist Council. The Tathagata will place his hand on their heads (in blessing presumably, perhaps also to inspire their minds).

The Buddha suggests erecting a caitya, a pagoda in which sutras are deposited, for the Lotus Sutra, based on the doctrine that the Lotus Sutra is identical with the body of the Buddha. He asserts that bodhisattvas may be both lay and monastic, male and female, and that those who have heard the Lotus Sutra are walking in the true bodhisattva path and close to attaining enlightenment, because “the Perfect enlightenment of every bodhisattva all belongs to this sutra.” The Lotus Sutra reveals the meaning of the skillful method of the Buddha and is the only sutra that reveals the complete and real truth to all aspirants of whatever path and school, including Hinayana, Mahayana, disciples, solitary practitioners, and bodhisattvas.

The teacher of the Lotus Sutra should develop a great, compassionate, gentle, and patient heart based on the realization of universal voidness or emptiness. The Buddha will send spiritual protectors and shapeshifters to attend to his teaching, and even cause such a teacher and his audience to experience visions of the true Buddha as a pure and luminous being in the right circumstances. He will inspire such a teacher with the wisdom to teach the true dharma. This further implies that the Buddha continues be involved with the world, even though he dwells beyond all worlds. Thus, he is not extinct in the case of either being non-existent (nihilism) or impersonal (deism).

Chapter XI Beholding the Precious Stupa (Apparition of a Stupa; Apparition of the Jeweled Stupa)

Suddenly an enormous stupa arises (Hurvitz has “wells up”; Kato has “springs up”) out of the earth and appears to hover in the sky. The sutra gives the dimensions of the stupa as 500 yojanas by 250 yojanas (about 6000 x 3000 km (3725 x 1863 miles) following Alexander Cunningham’s estimate in Ancient Geography of India of 12 km = 1 yojana). The projection of the base (3000 x 3000) is 9 million square kilometres, slightly larger than the territory of China or America. Kern translates “stupa” as “meteoric phenomenon,” but the UFO association is obvious to us. It incorporates the abode of the Four Great Kings, the dimension 40 yojanas (480 km) above our own earth-plane. Made of precious metals and adorned with stones, banners, flags, garlands, and jeweled bells, all sorts of beings, including the inhabitants of the realm of the 33 gods, pay homage to and extol the fragrant stupa. The stupa also speaks! The Buddha identifies this stupa with the body of the Tathagata, the dharmakaya referred to in the Pali Canon. The whole story strongly suggests the story of the precious dharma wheel that appears in the sky in the Pali Canon and is identified with the sovereignty of the dharma.

The Buddha’s ajna chakra (the chakra located in the centre of the brain) emits a glow (Kato calls it a “ray signal”)  and in all the directions, wherever the Buddha directs his concentrated attention, buddhas appear in beautiful pure lands and Buddha fields preaching the Lotus Sutra with ravishing voices, innumerable as the sands of the Ganges. These buddhas are all emanations of the primary Buddha archetype, and appear as hidden dimensions of ordinary space-time (samsara). All of these buddhas pay homage to Siddartha Gautama on Vulture Peak and the precious stupa in this world of suffering, which is also transformed into a beautiful pure land.

The assembled Buddhas entreat the Buddha to open the stupa, who rises into the sky and opens the door of the stupa, which makes a great sound, “with the fingers of his right hand,” wherein they all behold the undissipated body of the Tathagata Abundant Treasures (Many Jewels, Prabhutaratna), identified with the dharmakaya or ‘reality body’ of the Buddha himself, seated in meditation in the ancient, archetypal cross-legged posture that goes back to Indus Valley civilization (3rd -2nd millennium BCE). The Buddha enters the stupa and sits down in cross-legged posture, whereupon the assembly also rises into the sky to join them and hear the teachings.

Chapter XII Devadatta

Chapter 11 of the Lotus Sutra, named after the Buddha’s wicked cousin and brother in law, Devadatta, is included in chapter 11 of the Sanskrit, Chinese, and Tibetan versions of the sutra. Kumarajiva’s version divides chapter 11 into two chapters.

The Buddha says that he sought the Lotus Sutra throughout vast epochs of time as a righteous king. A hermit, Asita by name, came to him and offered to teach him the Lotus Sutra, whereas the king accepted the hermit as his guru. Asita, the Buddha says, was none other than Devadatta.

Devadatta was a Buddhist monk and the cousin and brother-in-law of the Buddha, and the brother of Ananda. Devadatta was Koliyan. He split from the Buddha’s community with five hundred other monks to form their own sangha. Most of these are said to have been Shakyan relatives of both Devadatta and Siddhattha. Devadatta became self-righteous. He began to think that he and not the Buddha should lead the sangha. Shortly afterward, Devadatta asked the Buddha to retire and let him run the sangha. The Buddha retorted that he would not even let his trusted disciples Sariputta or Moggallana run the sangha, much less one like Devadatta, “who should be vomited like spittle.”

The Buddha warned the monks that Devadatta had changed for the worse. Seeing the danger in this, Devadatta approached Prince Ajatasattu and encouraged him to kill his father, the good King Bimbisara; meanwhile, Devadatta would kill the Buddha. Devadatta then tried to kill the Buddha himself by pushing a rock down on him while the Buddha was walking on the slopes of a mountain. When this failed, he got the elephant Nalagiri drunk and sicked the enraged elephant on the Buddha while the Buddha was on alms round. However, the Buddha’s loving-kindness (metta) was so great that it overcame the elephant’s anger. Devadatta then tried to create a schism in the order.

He collected a few monastic friends and demanded that the Buddha accept the following rules for the monks: that they should live all their lives in the forest, live entirely on alms obtained by begging, wear only robes made of discarded rags, dwell at the foot of trees, and abstain entirely from fish and flesh. The Buddha allowed the monastics to follow all of these except the last if they wished. The Buddha refused to make any of these rules compulsory, however, and Devadatta went about saying that the Buddha was living in abundance and luxury – similar to the accusation made by the Group of Five before the Buddha’s enlightenment. Devadatta then created a schism and recited the training rules (patimokkha) apart from the Buddha and his followers, with five hundred novices. The Buddha sent his two chief disciples, Sariputta and Moggallana, to bring back the erring young monks. Devadatta thought they had come to join his sangha. After asking Sariputta to give a dharma talk, he fell asleep. When he awoke, he discovered that the chief disciples had persuaded the young monks to return to the Buddha.

The Buddha predicts that Devadatta will become a Buddha. Considering Devadatta’s antipathy for Siddhartha in this life the identification of Devadatta with the source of the Lotus Sutra and the Buddha’s prediction that he will become a Buddha are both remarkable. The story reminds one of the Gnostic Christian books, especially the Gospel of Judas, in which Judas is represented as the positive agent of the salvific principle. The demonic or satanic principle is somehow essential for salvation. Thus, in Tantra, evil is transformed by mental power into a force for good. The Lotus Sutra is subtly indicating its identity with an antinomian tendency that we also find in the Gnostics, Sufis, and in William Blake.

Manjushri, the bodhisattva of wisdom, predicts that that the eight-year-old daughter of the Dragon King Samara will become a Buddha, thus discountenancing the misogyny of the Pali Canon and earlier passages of the Lotus Sutra itself. Sariputra, defending the old view, challenges Manjushri’s assertion that a woman can become a Buddha. “The body of a woman is filthy and not a vessel of the Law. How can she attain supreme Bodhi?” Presenting a pearl to the Buddha (cf. chapter 14), the dragon’s daughter transforms herself in a moment into a male Buddha and realizes instantaneous enlightenment.

Chapter XIII Exhortation to Hold Firm (Exertion; Fortitude)

The Medicine King Buddha and Great Eloquence vow to keep, read, recite, and preach the Lotus Sutra throughout the evil age to come, i.e., the present epoch, characterized by arrogance and greed. All of the assembly vows to do the same. The Buddha predicts the future enlightenment of his foster mother, Mahaprajapati and his wife, Yasodhara.

Chapter XIV A Happy Life (Comfortable Conduct; Peaceful Life)

Manjushri asks the Buddha how the Lotus Sutra is to be taught. The Buddha replies that he is to dwell in the “place where the bodhisattva acts,” characterized by four methods:

  • The way of the body;
  • The way of speech;
  • The way of mind; and
  • The way of the vow.

The Way of the Body

The way of the body consists of ethical behaviour. One follows the Middle Path between realism or eternalism and nihilism, avoiding discrimination, worldlings and worldly activities, and infatuation with the female form, as well as pandakas, one of the four genders recognized in Buddhism, and teaches dharma without any expectation of reward. The precise English translation of pandaka is obscure. Hurvitz translates the word as “unmanly men,” though he acknowledges that the literal meaning of the word is “impotent,” referring specifically to inability or disinterest in performing sexually with women.  Kato and Kern have “hermaphrodite.” PED has “eunuch or weakling.” Hurvitz states that homosexuals were included in this group (op. cit., p. 209fn). This condition of being impotent with women includes asexuality; full or partial impotence, whether psychological or physical; premature ejaculation; voyeurism; and fellatio. All such persons were prohibited from joining the sangha. The reference to having desire to “rear” or “keep” a young disciple or novice, however, suggests that homoerotic attraction was far from unknown to the celibate all-male sangha. Rather, one should concentrate on the Buddha and meditate in a quiet place.

Further, the bodhisattva should regard all phenomena as empty or void, seeing things as they really are, viz., not moving (a cutting edge theory of modern post quantum physics regards the universe as static, the illusion of change being the result of the dynamism of conscious intention or the act of observation), like space, beyond linguistic labelling and therefore transrational, illusory, infinite, ubiquitous, and the result of causes (karma) and conditions.

The Way of Speech

A bodhisattva should be friendly and tolerant, and constructive rather than destructive.  In a passage reminiscent of the Tao Te Ching, the Lotus Sutra says, “it is because one is skilled at cultivating such comfortable thoughts as these that one’s listeners shall not oppose ones intentions.”

The Way of Mind

The bodhisattva teaches the dharma with perfect equanimity, inducing others to hear, observe, recite, teach, copy, and honour the sutra with others.

The Way of the Vow

Finally, he should manifest bodhicitta, the bodhisattva vow whereby one generates the intention to attain Buddhahood and teach the dharma out of compassion for all beings and thus bring all beings to enlightenment.

The Buddha identifies the Lotus Sutra with a “bright pearl” in the top knot of a “sage-king” (cf. Plato’s philosopher kings). The wise king only gives the crown jewel to his chosen ones. The pearl is clearly a symbol of the sahasrara chakra at the crown of the head. Similarly, the Lotus Sutra presents the Buddha’s highest teaching.

Taoism and Buddhism see the pearl as a symbol of spiritual awareness or enlightenment.  The pearl in the centre of the lotus blossom symbolizes the ultimate wisdom in life, and pearls are associated with the dragon energy in Asian folklore. Pearls also represent the full moon, so prominent in Buddhist symbolism. In the Avatamsaka Sutra the metaphor of Indra’s net represents reality as a web or network where a pearl is tied into every knot in the web. The pearls represent the totality of all possibilities, where each pearl is connected to every other pearl through an infinite web symbolizing the infinite interconnectedness of all phenomena. Moreover, the surface of every pearl is like a mirror, reflecting all other pearls in the web. Jesus, of course, refers in a parable to the pearl of great price that represents the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 13:45f). Interestingly, the next parable in the Gospel refers to a net!

The wise king achieves the dharma by means of the combination of meditative concentration and wisdom, teaches the sutras and confers upon his followers such precious gifts as meditation, emancipation, “faultless roots and powers” (Hurvitz has “faculties without outflows”), and psychic powers (Kato has “all the wealth of the law”), culminating in nirvana.

Implicitly the Lotus Sutra, “the secret treasure house of the tathagatas,” is identified with the pearl, representing the highest teaching of the Buddha, by which all beings can achieve omniscience.

Chapter XV Springing Up Out of the Earth (Welling Up Out of the Earth; Issuing of Bodhisattvas from the Gaps of  the Earth)

In this prelude to chapter 16 (chapter 15 of the Sanskrit edition), in which the essential teaching of the Lotus Sutra is finally plainly revealed, the assembled bodhisattvas offer to teach the Lotus Sutra to others. However, the Buddha spurns their offer, declaring that the so-called “originally converted bodhisattvas” are chosen messengers who alone can teach the Lotus Sutra in the future. These bodhisattvas have been personally taught and trained by the Buddha, and are countless in number. At that moment, the earth shakes and is split asunder by earthquakes, and out of the great clefts, there appear vast numbers of luminous “bodhisattvas of the earth” that rise out of the earth and ascend to the great aerial stupa that we encountered in chapter 11. This recalls the allusion of the Buddha’s earth-touching gesture when he appeals to the deva of the earth in response to Mara’s challenge to prove the fact of his enlightenment.

Four bodhisattvas lead the bodhisattvas of the earth: Superior Practices (the leader), Boundless Practices, Pure Practices, and Firmly Established Practices, which have been interpreted in various ways.

The bodhisattvas that rise out of the earth take their seats cross-legged all around the Buddha. The Buddha declares that Maitreya will be the next Buddha. The Sanskrit version of the text refers to the Buddha’s “manliness.”

The Buddha tells the assembly that the bodhisattvas that emerge out of the earth inhabit a vast “open space” within the earth (saha)-sphere.  Here we see a possible archaic origin for the Hollow Earth Theory! This is a universal idea found in mythology, folklore, and legends, including Cabala and Tibetan Buddhism (Agharti). The inner earth is also the reputed location of Shambhala. In Greek lore, an ancient god called Zalmoxis inhabited these interior caverns. According to Celtic lore there is a cave in Station Island called Chuachan that leads to the lower realms, also known as St. Patrick’s Purgatory. The Tuatha De Danaan, who introduced Druidism to Ireland, also emerged out of the interior earth through a cave in County Down. Other similar sites include the north side of the Missouri River, whence the Mandan people are said to have originated; Cedar Creek, near the San Carlos Apache Indian Reservation; and the Red River above the junction of the Mississippi River. The Cedar Creek caverns were shown to Leclerc Milford, a French military officer and adventurer, by the Creek Indians in 1781, who declared that there was room there for fifteen or twenty thousand families. Hopi tradition refers to a similar cave in the Grand Canyon. The Incas have a tradition of such a cave east of Cuzco, Peru. Many ancient peoples believed that their ancestors came out of the interior of the earth. Many believe that they still exist.

Edmond Halley, after whom Halley ’s Comet is named, proposed that the earth is hollow in 1692. Some traditions identify the interior inhabitants as “devilish.” The interior earth has more recently been proposed as the source of the UFO phenomenon. Astronomer and computer scientist Dr. Jacques Vallee in particular has suggested that the UFO phenomenon is actually terrestrial in origin. W. Holiday’s “goblin universe” idea, popularized by Colin Wilson, may also be included here.[1] If one looks at the imaginative interpretation of the hollow earth hypothesis in fiction, it seems to be associated with inversion, archaism, high technology, secret knowledge, spirituality, alien life, and utopianism.  The hollow earth meme may be a psychological projection of a reality that has a larger, more profound interpretation.

We need not take these mythologems literally to take them seriously. It is easy to see in the “the midst of the open space of this sphere” modern scientific conceptions of multi-dimensionality, in which various numbers and types of dimensions beyond the ordinary four dimensions are concealed within our experience of materiality, as well as multi-universes that may coexist but be invisible and intangible to us. The Jungian in me cannot help but notice too that these higher beings are also interior beings! That modern science is openly speculating about such things is remarkable confirmation of the primordial wisdom of our ancient ancestors whose worldview is so similar to ours even after thousands of years of aberration that persists in the incredibly shallow and naïve view of reality that pervades religion, politics, industry and even science today (so-called “scientism”). The perennial philosophy is both protean and perdurable.

The incredulous assembly, deluded by historicism, objects that the Buddha has only been enlightened for forty years, putting the age at which he taught the Lotus Sutra at 75, five years before his parinirvana (circa 405 BCE). How, therefore, can he have trained so many bodhisattvas? They beg the Buddha to explain so that they do not doubt. This is the moment of consciousness expansion that everyone has been waiting for, and the prelude to the essential teaching of the Lotus Sutra, which we will discuss in the next talk in this series.


[1] See Adam Rourke, “The Goblin Universe: Speculations on the Nature of Reality,” 2009, http://assets.booklocker.com/pdfs/4263s.pdf and Ted Holiday and Colin Wilson, The Goblin Universe, 2nd ed., 1990.

Discourse on the True Teaching of the White Lotus

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.”

The Buddha’s Parable of the Burning House (A Poem by Bertolt Brecht)

Guatama the Buddha taught
The doctrine of greed’s wheel to which we are bound, and advised
That we shed all craving and thus
Undesiring enter the nothingness that he called Nirvana.
Then one day his pupils asked him:
“What is it like, this nothingness, Master? Every one of us would
Shed all craving, as you advise, but tell us
Whether this nothingness which then we shall enter
Is perhaps like being at one with all creation,
When you lie in water, your body weightless, at noon,
Unthinking almost, lazily lie in the water, or drowse
Hardly knowing now that you straighten the blanket,
Going down fast –whether this nothingness, then,
Is a happy one of this kind, a pleasant nothingness, or
Whether this nothingness of yours is more nothing, cold, senseless and void.”
Long the Buddha was silent, then said nonchalantly:
“There is no answer to your question.”
But in the evening, when they had gone,
The Buddha still sat under the bread-fruit tree and to the others,
To those who had not asked, addressed this parable:
“Lately I saw a house. It was burning. The flame
Licked at its roof. I went up close and observed
That there were people still inside. I entered the doorway and called
Out to them that the roof was ablaze, so exhorting them
To leave at once. But those people
Seemed in no hurry. One of them,
While the heat was already scorching his eyebrows,
Asked me what it was like outside, whether there was
Another house for them, and more of this kind. Without answering
I went out again. These people here, I thought,
Must burn to death before they stop asking questions.
And truly friends,
Whoever does not yet feel such heat in the floor that he’ll gladly
Exchange it for any other, rather than stay, to that man
I have nothing to say.” So Gautama the Buddha.
But we too, no longer concerned with the art of submission,
Rather with that of non-submission, and offering
Various proposals of an earthly nature, and beseeching men
To shake off their human tormentors, we too believe that to those
Who in face of the rising bomber squadrons of Capital go on asking too long
How we propose to do this, and how we envisage that,
And what will become of their savings and Sunday trousers after a revolution
We have nothing much to say.

Tales from the Calendar,” translated by Ivonne Kapp and Michael Hamburger (London: Methuen, 1961)