Introducing the Lotus Sutra


The opening evening of the new Lotus Sutra study group led by Zaren Edie Norton was a short lecture on the Lotus Sutra. Subsequent evenings will be more based on discussion and reading the text and will probably not be recorded.

The Lotus Sutra – Introduction

(based on introduction in Burton Watson’s translation, 1993)

The Text and Its Context
The Lotus Sutra is an important Buddhist scripture in the development and establishment of Mahayana Buddhism. It is a collection of sermons and stories said to have been delivered by the Buddha toward the end of his life.  It is made up of 28 chapters, written in both prose and poetry.  Scholars think the poetry was composed first as an aid to memorization and the prose restatements were added later for emphasis and pedagogical reasons.

Where and when it was composed is uncertain.  It is thought it was first composed in a local dialect and later translated into Sanskrit.  By 255 C.E. it was in existence (750 years after the Buddha, who lived in the 5th or 6th century B.C. E.).  By 406 C. E. it was read widely in Chinese.

Although the Sutra presents the teachings as the Buddha’s words, of course, since it was composed after his nirvana, it was the work of his followers.  As such it reflects both the evolution of the Buddha’s thinking and the actual development of Buddhism in the world.  The Sutra acknowledges the early Buddhist path of the ascetic seeking to become an Arhat (one who has nothing more to learn).  But the main theme of the Sutra is to reject the early Hinayana practices of individual accomplishment and monastic practice and promote the development of the Mahayana practices of the Bodhisattva– of compassion and liberation for all beings, not just for the special few adepts.

In this sense The Lotus Sutra (again, remember it was written down in the first or second century of the C. E.) was a political or polemical document (written after the historical Buddha’s death) to persuade people that the Mahayana way (which they claimed was The Great Vehicle) was superior to the Hinayana way (which the Mahayanans now termed The Lesser Vehicle).  Thus Buddhism developed in much the same manner as early Christianity, with various schisms and arguments about which side held the truth.

The Lotus Sutra does talk about the evolution of Buddhist thinking from the original Indian ascetic practices available to only a few who could bear such a difficult life, to the inclusive practice that invites everyone to participate.  There are passages in the Sutra that state that the ideas of the Buddha himself had evolved from directing his teaching at a few adepts to reaching out through skillful means to all beings, encouraging everyone to seek and find liberation.

Early Buddhism—what was later termed Hinayana Buddhism—adopted from Indian thought the belief in Karma, that life is an endless cycle of death and rebirth, in which the only way to escape bad Karma was by striving to do good so that over many rebirths, one could eventually achieve rebirth in more favorable circumstances.  Indeed, the Buddha himself was believed to be subject to rebirths; the Sutra speaks of the countless former lifetimes of the Buddha—and of many buddhas—being the proving grounds for the Buddha’s eventual enlightenment and nirvana.  The lesson being that with right effort, etc., all beings can move up spiritually.

Mahayana Buddhism denied the Indian belief that there was any individual soul or identity that carries over from one life to another life, but it did accept the idea of rebirth or transmigration. Thus it confirmed that good behavior and practices would eventually insure being born in more favorable circumstances.

There is evidence that in the early years of Buddhism, Hinayanans and Mahayanans co-existed, but later they broke apart, the Hinayanans going to South East Asia—Thailand, Burma, Cambodia—and the Mahayanans going to China, Tibet, Japan, Korea, Viet Nam. And much later both strains traveled to Europe and America. So as Buddhism evolved, the goal of the Hinayana practice of a few adepts becoming an Arhat through great individual effort changed to the Mahayana goal of everyone having the capability of becoming a Buddha—or realizing Buddha nature.  Assistance toward Buddhahood would come from Bodhisattvas, those highly developed beings who were capable of becoming Buddhas and achieving nirvana, but who, out of compassion, chose to remain in the world to liberate all beings before liberating themselves.

So the primary differences between early and later Buddhist thinking was in who were the primary beneficiaries of Buddhist practice—the individual or all beings.  Although this difference is no longer emphasized in contemporary Buddhist practices—e.g., Vipassana Buddhists value and practice compassion just as much as Zen or Tibetan Buddhists do (witness the Metta Sutta), still that original emphasis on seeking enlightenment or liberation for the individual vs. seeking liberation and enlightenment for all beings does play out subtly in the two traditions.

I think the Zen practices of meditating with our eyes open and letting go of our thoughts over and over again so we can be fully awake and present, moment to moment, are an expression of our Bodhisattva vow to save all sentient beings; whereas the closed eyes and careful attention to ones own mental processes of the Vipassana practice are expressions of the earlier Buddhist effort toward individual development as the way to salvation.  Today the two practices are similar in many ways—and we make an effort not to disparage either practice—but these small differences, I believe, are subtleties carried down through the centuries from the original doctrinal differences in the two strains of Buddhism.

The World View of The Lotus Sutra
The Buddhist world view as reflected in the Sutra was derived from the traditional Indian cosmology which said that the world was made up of four continents, which ranged around a great central mountain, Mt. Sumeru.  It said that “we” live in the southern continent, called Jambudvipa, but that outside our present world there are countless other worlds, some of them also with four continents, some of them with other realms.  But all worlds are presided over by various Buddhas.  And all worlds are caught up in the cycles of formation, continuance, decline, and disintegration—all of which cycles occur over VAST kalpas of time (Red Pine defines kalpas as follows: a minor kalpa lasts slightly less than 16,800,000 years, an infinite kalpa lasts 20 times as long, or 236,000,000 years; and a great kalpa lasts 4 times as long, or 1,344,000,000 years).

According to Buddhist cosmology, in our world, we ordinary beings occupy six realms of existence from low to high:

  1. Hell dwellers (there due to bad actions)
  2. Hungry ghosts (tormented by endless craving)
  3. Animals
  4. Asuras or demons (constantly in angry warfare)
  5. Human beings (with the fortunate opportunity to become Buddhas)
  6. Heavenly beings (who, while happy now, don’t have the opportunity to become Buddhas and can only move downward in the hierarchy)

These six levels were the original realms from Indian cosmology. Buddhism added four higher realms:

7.  Shravakas (voice-hearers—originally those who heard the Buddha speak)

8.  Pratyekabuddhas (self-enlightened)

9.  Bodhisattvas (dedicated to saving all others)

10. Buddhas

Mahayana Buddhism teaches that all beings can and should seek to become Buddhas, and humans have the good fortune to have been born in the ONLY level of the spiritual hierarchy
in which enlightenment and liberation are possible.  Thus many Buddhist texts—particularly Tibetan texts—encourage us to take advantage of this precious human opportunity that our life offers.   

The Doctrinal Assertions of The Lotus Sutra
The Sutra is known for its teaching on Skillful Means and the Bodhisattva Way, but central to its teaching is the concept of Emptiness, the idea that phenomena are empty of permanent identity.
Early on historically in the development of the concept of Emptiness, there was much negative reaction and criticism—and there is still this misunderstanding today about Buddhism—arguing that emptiness indicated that Buddhism was nihilistic, that it was saying that nothing exists.  But Mahayana thought argued that emptiness does not imply nihilism.  Instead it says:
The phenomenal world is empty because all phenomena, all of which arise from causes and conditions, are constantly changing.
Thus phenomena have no permanent characteristics; thereby they are empty.
They argued further that if all phenomena are characterized by emptiness, then emptiness must be the unchanging and abiding nature of existence.
Therefore the absolute, unchanging nature of existence must be synonymous with the phenomenal world.
Therefore all mental and physical distinctions we perceive or conceive must be part of a single, underlying unity.
From this progression of thought, the Mahayanans came to assert that samsara (the ordinary world of suffering, cyclical birth and death) is actually identical with nirvana (the extinction of passion and karma).
Thus ordinary life IS nirvana, itself—if we could but realize it.

We are the inheritors of this subtle logic in the Heart Sutra: Form is emptiness, emptiness is form.

The Setting and Principle Teachings of The Lotus Sutra
The Sutra describes extravagant, unimaginable scenes, eons of times, and numbers of followers gathered to listen to the Buddha preach.  These hyperbolic descriptions are intended both to praise the greatness of the Buddha and to boggle the reader’s mind in order to shake us loose from conventional thinking about space and time.

In the Sutra the Buddha preaches three main messages:

  1. There is only one vehicle or path to salvation (Buddhahood).  It is the Bodhisattva way, not his earlier teachings of the other two vehicles, the Shravaka way and the Pratyekabuddha way. (The Bodhisattva Way is further elaborated in the Diamond Sutra, also taught toward the end of the Buddha’s life.)
  2. The Sutra proclaims that all humans (not just adepts) can achieve enlightenment—even women.  Buddhahood is accessible to all.  (Surely this was a monumental breakthrough.)
  3. The Buddha is ever present in the world—an eternal being (though not God) that appears in form after many kalpas.  (Thus we have the future Buddha, Maitreya, yet to come.)

The Lotus Sutra, which presents itself as a devotional work, enjoins us to Accept, Uphold, Read, Recite, Copy, and Teach the sutra to others. In these ways, we can move toward liberation.
We will start with the major concept of the Sutra, Skillful Means—in some texts, also called Tactful Means or Expedient Means.  In this chapter and later ones, the Buddha explains how he teaches what he has assessed his listeners can understand.  By doing so, he is able to teach people at all levels of understanding and development—thus saving all sentient beings, regardless of their current capacities.  But first, let’s set the scene. (read pages 53 – 54).  And what does the Buddha look like?  Read pages 27 – 29.

Reading for next two sessions: pp. 82, 85 – 102 – Skillful Means.

About Zaren Edie Norton

Zaren Edie Norton began practice in the 1970's with Kobun Chino Otagawa, received the precepts from Tenshin Reb Anderson, and served as the shuso (head student) for the Winter 2011 Practice Period under Zoketsu Norman Fischer.
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