The long version of the title is Scripture of the Lotus Blossom of the Fine Dharma
. The author and date of the Lotus Sutra
are unknown, but it is supposed to be the teachings of Sakyamuni
Buddha and many buddhas before him. Some people say a group of Buddhists became dissatisfied with the state of their religion and decided to reform it as they saw correctly. In the Lotus Sutra version of Buddhism, the Buddha is personalized, less elite and more appealing to laypeople
. Lotuses are a symbol of buddhas; the flower dwells in mucky water, as the Buddha dwells in samsara
. Yet the lotus is not affected by the dirty water, for it merely rolls of its petals. In the same way, the Buddha is not affected by the evilness of this realm. The lotus is an extremely
important and much-used metaphore.
The sutra’s opening scene describes a huge gathering of eighty thousand bodhisattvas and hundreds of thousands of Buddhist monks, nuns and laypeople, all on a mountain top waiting to hear from Sakyamuni Buddha. Two notable characters throughout the book:
- Manjusri, Sanskrit for gentle glory. He is said to be the wisest of all bodhisattvas, and is in charge of asking a lot of clarifying questions for everyone.
- Sariputra, the wisest of all monks. He is a disciple of the Buddha and is said to be an arhat (although arhat-ship in the traditional sense contradicts the Mahayana belief that all beings will become Buddhas – maybe I just took it out of context).
The main concept of the Lotus Sutra is this: Sakyamuni Buddha is older than we think, and had been around for millions upon millions of thousands of years before he supposedly was reborn as Prince Siddhartha around 480 bc. Sakyamuni Buddha goes on to explain his many uses of upaya throughout history. Upaya can be translated as expedient devices, or in other words, the different methods the Buddha uses to teach each person as an individual. He tells each person what he or she needs to hear in order to follow the Buddhist path. In this way, the Buddha is said to be the most skillful teacher.
The Lotus Sutra verifies its own existence by saying it has been kept secret until now. It is still widely controversial, and not every Buddhist believes its teachings.
There is too much information to cover without regurgitating the entire sutra, so I will give the highlights of some of the most popular chapters:
Apparition of the Jeweled Stupa: a magnificent stupa appears during one of Sakyamuni Buddha’s teachings, and a voice is heard from inside saying, ”How excellent! How excellent” The voice goes on to praise Sakyamuni for teaching the Lotus Sutra, and then the stupa opens to reveal a past Buddha named Many Jewels. He invited Sakyamuni to sit next to him for a while.
Devadatta: Sariputra says a woman’s body is filthy and disgusting, and therefore unable to become a Buddha. A female naga (a sort of dragon-type creature known for protecting treasure) offers a fabulous jewel to the Buddha, who immediately accepts. The naga says she will become a Buddha faster than the Buddha accepted the jewel from her. Just as she said, in the blink of an eye she transformed into a man and then into a Buddha with the thirty-two marks of a super man.
Welling Up Out of the Earth: There is an earthquake, and hundreds of thousands of countless bodhisattvas pop out of the ground. Sakyamuni Buddha says he has taught all of these people and led them to enlightenment in this lifetime. Maitreya is confused.
In the next chapter, Lifespan of the Thus Come One, the Buddha explains his use of upaya. He explains that his life is immeasurable, that he has been around for a very long time, teaching people in the ways they need to be treated. Sakyamuni says he ‘fakes’ his own death and rebirth in order to inspire mankind to follow the Buddhist path as soon as possible.
The Medicine King was a buddha who was good at healing. He is best known for burning himself as an offering to the current buddha at the time he lived. He drank huge vats of oil and fragrances for 1,200 years proir to the act, and burned for an additional 1,200 years after that. A practice in China is still seem today where monks will burn off their pinkies as offerings to the Buddha. This chapter of the Lotus Sutra is taken very literally.
The Lotus Sutra is one of the most famous and most important sutras in all of Buddhist literature. There are some who rely only on its teachings and disregard all other sutras as inferior, and others still who rely only on the name
of the Lotus Sutra to guide them. It is very powerful in some parts of the world.
Spacemunki, who is very knowledgable, says : While Sariputra is considered a great disciple of the Buddha, particularly in the Theravada, in Mahayana texts he often is Spasemunki says put in the role of a 'foil' to the teachings expounded by the Buddha and Bodhisattvas. Sariputra is there to represent the 'sravika' dharma, the teachings contained in the 'Hinayana' that are suitable for those with less-developed minds unable to grasp the other teachings. In the context of the Lotus Sutra, the 'sravika dharma' that is embodied in the questions of Sariputra is a subset of the greater teachings possesed in the larger Mahayana and the 'Ekayana' (the name given to those teachings contained in the Lotus Sutra alone) schools of thought. The arhats/sravikas are ostensibly headed towards the goal of arhatship, but in the end, by the Buddha's skillful means, they are guided into the 'ekayana' path which is a superset of their own teachings. The chapter where the Buddha uses an analogy of a wealthy father promising his sons variously decorated carts to lure them out of a burning house and then giving every son the finest cart is meant to illustrate this idea.