The Lotus Sūtra (Sanskrit: Saddharma Puṇḍarīka Sūtra, literally Sutra on the White Lotus of the Sublime Dharma) is one of the most popular and influential Mahayana sutras and the basis on which the Tiantai, Tendai, Cheontae, andNichiren schools of Buddhism were established. For many East Asian Buddhists, the Lotus Sūtra contains the ultimate and complete teaching of the Buddha and the reciting of the text is believed to be very auspicious.
The earliest known Sanskrit title for the sūtra is the Saddharma Puṇḍarīka Sūtra, which translates to Scripture of the Lotus Blossom of the Fine Dharma. In English, the shortened form Lotus Sūtra is common. The Lotus Sūtra has also been highly regarded in a number of Asian countries where Mahāyāna Buddhism has been traditionally practiced. Translations of this title into the languages of some of these countries include:
- Sanskrit: सद्धर्मपुण्डरीक सूत्र Saddharmapuṇḍarīka Sūtra
- Chinese: 妙法蓮華經; pinyin: Miàofǎ Liánhuá jīng, shortened to 法華經 Fǎhuá jīng
- Japanese: (妙法蓮華経 Myōhō Renge Kyō), Hokke-kyō, Hoke-kyō (法華経)
- Korean: Hangul: 묘법연화경; RR: Myobeop Yeonhwa gyeong, shortened to Beophwa gyeong
- Tibetan: དམ་ཆོས་པད་མ་དཀར་པོའི་མདོ, Wylie: dam chos padma dkar po’i mdo, THL: Damchö Pema Karpo’i do
- Vietnamese: Diệu pháp Liên hoa kinh, shortened to Pháp hoa kinh
- Tagalog: Ang Saysayin ng Baíno
The Lotus Sūtra presents itself as a discourse delivered by the Buddha toward the end of his life. The tradition in Mahayana states that the sutras were written down during the life of the Buddha and stored for five hundred years in a nāga-realm. After this, they were reintroduced into the human realm at the time of the Fourth Buddhist Council in Kashmir.
Outline of chapters
Illustrated Lotus Sūtra handscroll,Kamakura period, c. 1257; ink, color, and gold on paper.
- Ch. 1, Introduction – During a gathering at Vulture Peak, Gautama Buddha goes into a deep meditation, the earth shakes in six ways, and he brings forth a ray of light which illuminates thousands of “Buddha-fields”[note 1] in the east. Bodhisattva Manjusri then states that the Buddha is about to expound his ultimate teaching.
- Ch. 2, Ways and Means – Shakyamuni explains his use of skillful means to adapt his teachings according to the capacities of his audience. He reveals that the ultimate purpose of the Buddhas is to cause sentient beings “to obtain the insight of the Buddha” and “to enter the way into the insight of the Buddha”.
- Ch. 3, A Parable – The Buddha teaches a parable in which a father uses the promise of various toy carts to get his children out of a burning house, once they are outside, he gives them all one large cart to travel in instead. This symbolizes how the Buddha uses theThree Vehicles: Arhatship, Pratyekabuddhahood and Samyaksambuddhahood, as skilful means to liberate all beings – even though there is only one vehicle. The Buddha also promises Sariputra that he will attain enlightenment.
- Ch. 4, Faith and Understanding – The parable of the poor son and his rich father, who guides him to regain self-confidence and “recognize his own Buddha-wisdom”.
- Ch. 5, Parable of the plants – This parable says that the Dharma is like a great monsoon rain that nourishes many different kinds of plants who represent Śrāvakas,Pratyekabuddhas, and Bodhisattvas, and all beings receiving the teachings according to their respective capacities.
- Ch. 6, Assurances of Becoming a Buddha – The Buddha prophesizes the enlightenment of Mahakasyapa, Subhuti, Mahakatyayana and Mahamaudgalyayana.
- Ch. 7, The Magic City – The Buddha teaches a parable about a group of people seeking a great treasure who are tired of their journey and wish to quit. Their guide creates a magical phantom city for them to rest in and then makes it disappear. The Buddha explains that the magic city is the provisional teachings of Buddhism and the treasure is enlightenment.
- Ch. 8, Assurances for 500 Arhats. – 500 Arhats are assured of their future Buddhahood and they tell the parable of a man who has fallen asleep after drinking and whose friend sews a jewel into his garment. When he wakes up he continues a life of poverty without realizing he is really rich, he only discovers the jewel after meeting his old friend again. Zimmermann noted the obvious similarity with the nine parables in the Tathāgatagarbha Sūtra that illustrate how the indwelling Buddha in sentient beings is hidden by negative mental states.
- Ch. 9, Assurances for the Trainees and Adepts. – Ananda, Rahula and two thousand Śrāvakas are assured of their future Buddhahood.
The floating jeweled stupa.
- Ch. 10, Teacher of the Dharma – Presents the practices of teaching the sutra which includes accepting, embracing, reading, chanting, writing, explaining, propagating it, and living in accordance with its teachings.
- Ch. 11, The Treasure stupa – A great jeweled stupa rises from the earth and floats in the air; a voice is heard from within praising theLotus Sūtra. It is revealed that another Buddha resides in the tower, the Buddha Prabhūtaratna (Many-Treasures) and that there are other countless Buddhas in the ten directions, who are now also summoned by the Buddha. This chapter reveals the eternal nature ofBuddhahood and the doctrine of the existence of multiple Buddhas at the same time.
- Ch. 12, Devadatta – Through the stories of the Dragon King’s daughter and Devadatta, the Buddha teaches that everyone can become enlightened – women, animals, and even the most sinful murderers.
- Ch. 13, Encouragement to uphold the sutra – The Buddha encourages all beings to embrace the teachings of the sutra in all times, even in the most difficult ages to come. The Buddha prophesizes that six thousand nuns who are also present will become Buddhas.
- Ch. 14, Peace and Contentment – This chapter explains that even though life is filled with challenges, if we practice the dharma diligently through thoughts, words, and deeds, we can be peaceful, joyful and content. Virtues such as patience, gentleness, a calm mind, wisdom and charity are to be cultivated.
- Ch. 15, Springing Up from the Earth – In this chapter countless bodhisattvas spring up from the earth, ready to teach, and the Buddha reveals that there have been innumerable bodhisattvas propagating the dharma for aeons. This confuses some disciples including Maitreya, but the Buddha affirms that he has taught all of these bodhisattvas himself.
- Ch. 16, The eternal lifespan of the Tathagata – The Buddha explains that he is truly eternal and omniscient and he then teaches the Parable of the Excellent Physician who entices his sons into taking his medicine by feigning his death.
- Ch. 17, Merits and Virtues of enlightenment – The Buddha explains that since he has been teaching as many beings as the sands of the Ganges have been saved.
- Ch. 18, Merits and Virtues of Joyful Acceptance – Faith in the teachings of the sutra brings much merit and lead to good rebirths.
- Ch. 19, Merits and Virtues obtained by a Teacher of the Dharma – The relative importance of the merits of the six senses are explained by the Buddha.
- Ch. 20, The Bodhisattva Sadāparibhūta – The Buddha tells a story about the time he was a Bodhisattva called Sadāparibhūta (Never Despising) and how he treated every person he met, good or bad, with respect, always remembering that they will too become Buddhas.
- Ch. 21, The Spiritual Power of the Tathagata – Reveals that the sutra contains all of the Eternal Buddha’s secret spiritual powers. The bodhisattvas who have sprung from the earth worship the sutra and promise to propagate it.
- Ch. 22, The Passing of the Commission – The Buddha transmits the Lotus sutra to his congregation and entrusts them with its safekeeping.
- Ch. 23, The Bodhisattva Bhaiṣajyarāja – The Buddha tells the story of the ‘Medicine king’ Bodhisattva, the story focuses on the practices of self-sacrifice (including the burning of fingers) as well the diagnosis and healing of sickness. The hearing and chanting of the Lotus sutra is also said to cure diseases. The Buddha uses various metaphors to declare that the Lotus Sutra is the king of all sutras.
- Ch. 24, The Bodhisattva Gadgadasvara – The Bodhisattva “Wonderful Voice” appears to worship the Buddha and his story is told.
- Ch. 25, The Bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara – The Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara (Guanyin) whose name means ‘listening to the cries of the world’ makes an offering to the Buddha and the stupa.
- Ch. 26, Dhāraṇī – Several Bodhisattvas offer Dhāraṇīs in order to protect those who keep and recite the Lotus Sutra.
- Ch. 27, King Wonderfully Adorned – A chapter on the story of King ‘Wonderful-Adornment’.
- Ch. 28, Encouragement of the Bodhisattva Samantabhadra – A bodhisattva called “Universal Virtue” asks the Buddha how to preserve the sutra in the future. Samantabhadra promises to protect and guard all those who keep this sutra in the future Age of Dharma Decline.
Portable shrine depicting Buddha Sakyamuni preaching the Lotus Sūtra. The Walters Art Museum.
One vehicle, many skillful means
This Lotus sutra is known for its extensive instruction on the concept and usage of skillful means – (Sanskrit: upāya, Japanese: hōben), the seventh paramita or perfection of a Bodhisattva – mostly in the form of parables. The many ‘skillful’ or ‘expedient’ means and the “three vehicles” are revealed to all be part of the One Vehicle (Ekayāna), which is also the Bodhisattva path. This is also one of the first sutras to use the term Mahāyāna, or “Great Vehicle”. In the Lotus sutra, the One Vehicle encompasses so many different teachings because the Buddha’s compassion and wish to save all beings led him to adapt the teaching to suit many different kinds of people. As Paul Williams explains:
Although the corpus of teachings attributed to the Buddha, if taken as a whole, embodies many contradictions, these contradictions are only apparent. Teachings are appropriate to the context in which they are given and thus their contradictions evaporate. The Buddha’s teachings are to be used like ladders, or, to apply an age-old Buddhist image, like a raft employed to cross a river. There is no point in carrying the raft once the journey has been completed and its function fulfilled. When used, such a teaching transcends itself.
The sutra emphasizes that all these seemingly different teachings are actually just skillful applications of the one dharma and thus all constitute the “One Buddha Vehicle and knowledge of all modes”. The Lotus sutra sees all other teachings are subservient to, propagated by and in the service of the ultimate truth of the One Vehicle leading to Buddhahood. The Lotus Sūtra also claims to be superior to other sūtras and states that full Buddhahood is only arrived at by exposure to its teachings and skillful means. Chapter ten of the Burton Watson translation states: “…Medicine King, now I say to you, I have preached various sutras, and among those sutras the Lotus is foremost!”
The Lotus sutra is also significant because it reveals that women, evil people and even animals can be bodhisattvas and have the potential to attain full Buddhahood. It also teaches that all people equally can attain Buddhahood in their present form. That is, through the Lotus Sutra, people need neither practice austerities for countless kalpas nor wait for rebirth in a different physical form (previous teachings held that women must be reborn as men and then practice for innumerable kalpas in order to become Buddhas). Through its many stories and parables, the Lotus sutra affirms the spiritual equality of all beings.
The Lotus sutra also teaches that the Buddha has many embodiments or emanations and these are the countless bodhisattva disciples. These bodhisattvas choose to remain in the world to save all beings and to keep the teaching alive. According to Gene Reeves: “Because the Buddha and his Dharma are alive in such bodhisattvas, he himself continues to be alive. The fantastically long life of the Buddha, in other words, is at least partly a function of and dependent on his being embodied in others.” The Lotus sutra also teaches various dhāraṇīs or the prayers of different celestial bodhisattvas who out of compassion protect and teach all beings. The lotus flower imagery points to this quality of the bodhisattvas. The lotus symbolizes the bodhisattva who is rooted in the earthly mud and yet flowers above the water in the open air of enlightenment.
The universe outlined by the Lotus sutra encompasses realms of gods, devas, dragons[note 2] and other mythological beings, requiring numerous dimensions to contain them. Buddhas are portrayed as the patient teachers of all such beings who can be bodhisattvas and will ultimately become Buddhas themselves. The radical message of the Lotus sutra is then that all beings can embody the nature of the Buddha and teach his dharma here and now.