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The Lotus Sutra: An Overview

A Revered Sutra of Mahayana Buddhism

By

Lotus Sutra Lotus © Zhang Lei | Dreamstime.com

Of the countless scriptures of Mahayana Buddhism, few are more widely read or revered than the Lotus Sutra. Its teachings thoroughly permeate most schools of Buddhism in China, Korea and Japan. Yet its origins are shrouded in mystery.

The sutra's name in Sanskrit is Saddharma-pundarika Sutra, or "Sutra of the Lotus of the Wonderful Law." It is a matter of faith in some schools of Buddhism that the sutra contains the words of the historical Buddha. However, most historians believe the sutra was written in the 1st or 2nd century CE, probably by more than one writer. A translation was made from Sanskrit to Chinese in 255 CE, and this is the earliest historical documentation of its existence.

As with so many of the Mahayana sutras, the original text of the Lotus Sutra is lost. The several early Chinese translations are the oldest versions of the sutra that remain to us. In particular, a translation into Chinese by the monk Kamarajiva in 406 CE is believed to be the most faithful to the original text.

In 6th century China the Lotus Sutra was promoted as the supreme sutra by the monk Chih-i, founder of the Tiantai school of Mahayana Buddhism, called Tendai in Japan. In part through Tendai influence, the Lotus became the most revered sutra in Japan. It deeply influenced Japanese Zen and also is an object of devotion of the Nichiren school.

The Setting of the Sutra

In Buddhism, a sutra is a sermon of the Buddha or one of his principal disciples. Buddhist sutras usually begin with the traditional words, "Thus I have heard." This is a nod to the story of Ananda, who recited all of the historical Buddha's sermons at the First Buddhist Council and was said to have begun each recitation this way.

The Lotus Sutra begins, "Thus I have heard. At one time the Buddha was in Rajagriha, staying on Mount Gridhrakuta." Rajagriha was a city on the site of present-day Rajgir, in northeastern India, and Gridhrakuta, or "Vulture's Peak," is nearby. So, the Lotus Sutra begins by making a connection to a real place associated with the historical Buddha.

However, in a few sentences the reader will have left the phenomenal world behind. The scene opens to a place outside ordinary time and space. The Buddha is attended by an unimaginable number of beings, both human and nonhuman -- monks, nuns, laymen, laywomen, heavenly beings, dragons, garudas, and many others, including bodhisattvas and arhats. In this vast space eighteen thousand worlds are illuminated by a light reflected by a hair between the Buddha's eyebrows.

The sutra is divided into several chapters -- 28 in the Kamarajiva translation -- in which the Buddha or other beings offer sermons and parables. The text, partly prose and partly verse, contains some of the most beautiful passages of the world's religious literature.

It could take years to absorb all the teachings in such a rich text. However, three principal themes dominate the Lotus Sutra.

All Vehicles Are One Vehicle

In early passages the Buddha tells the assembly that his earlier teachings were provisional. People were not ready for his highest teaching, he said, and had to be brought to enlightenment by expedient means. But the Lotus represents the final, highest teaching, and supersedes all other teaching.

In particular, the Buddha addressed the doctrine of triyana, or "three vehicles" to nirvana. Very simply, the triyana describes people who realize enlightenment by hearing the Buddha's sermons, people who realize enlightenment for themselves through their own effort, and the path of the bodhisattva. But the Lotus Sutra says that the three vehicles are one vehicle, the buddha vehicle, through which all beings become buddhas.

All Beings May Become Buddhas

A theme expressed throughout the sutra is that all beings may attain buddhahood and attain Nirvana. A significant point is that in the dialogues the Buddha promises several women that they will attain buddhahood without having to be reborn as men.

The Buddha is presented in the Lotus Sutra as dharmakaya -- the unity of all things and beings, unmanifested, beyond existence or nonexistence, unbound by time and space. Because the dharmakaya is all beings, all beings have the potential to awaken to their true nature and attain buddhahood.

The Importance of Faith and Devotion

Buddhahood may not be attained through intellect alone. Indeed, the Mahayana view is that the absolute teaching cannot be expressed in words or understood by ordinary cognition. The Lotus Sutra stresses the importance of faith and devotion as means to realization of enlightenment. Among other significant points, the stress on faith and devotion makes buddhahood more accessible to laypeople, who do not spend their lives in ascetic monastic practice.

The Parables

A distinctive feature of the Lotus Sutra is the use of parables. The parables contain many layers of metaphor that have inspired many layers of interpretation. This is merely a list of the major parables:

  • The Burning House. A man lures his children out of a burning house (Chapter 3).
  • The Prodigal Son. A poor, self-loathing man gradually learns that he is wealthy beyond measure (Chapter 4).
  • The Medicinal Herbs. Although they grow in the same ground and receive the same rain, plants grow in different ways (Chapter 5).
  • The Phantom City. A man leading people on a difficult journey conjures an illusion of a beautiful city to give them the heart to keep going (Chapter 7).
  • The Gem in the Jacket. A man sews a gem into his friend's jacket. However, the friend wanders in poverty not knowing that he possesses a gem of great value (Chapter 8).
  • The Gem in the King's Top-Knot. A king bestows many gifts but reserves his most priceless jewel for a person of exceptional merit (Chapter 14).
  • The Excellent Physician. A physician's children are dying of poison but lack the sense to take medicine (Chapter 16).

Translations

Burton Watson's translation of The Lotus Sutra (Columbia University Press, 1993) has gained great popularity since its publication for its clarity and readability. Compare Prices

There is a new translation of The Lotus Sutra by Gene Reeves (Wisdom Publications, 2008) that has received very good reviews, although I have not read it myself. Compare Prices

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