The Lotus Flower of the Wonderful Law Sutra
Chapter 1: "Introductory"
Chapter One of the Lotus Sutra opens by giving us the setting of this great sermon. That is, the “city of Royal Palaces on Mount Grdhrakuta.” This is followed by a list of those in attendance, beginning with the Bhikshus or Monks. Some of these are great names which we may be familiar with such as Sariputra, Ananda, Rahula, and Maha Kasyapa. It describes them as all being “arhats, faultless, free from earthly cares, self-developed, emancipated from all bonds of existence, and free in mind.” Before we move on, lets just be clear what type of men we are dealing with here. Firstly they are Arhat. Essentially this means that they are no longer subject to birth and death-they have extinguished the karmic roots which would continue their future rebirth in Samsara. According to the Theravada or Hinayana schools, this is the highest attainable goal of the Buddha’s disciples.
Secondly they are “faultless, free from earthly care, self-developed”. The first remark here is self explanatory. The second needs clarification. To be ‘free from earthly care’ here suggests that they are no longer ‘embroiled’ in the day to day affairs that keep us occupied. The ‘practicalities’ which give us so much anxiety. And finally to be ‘self-developed’ we could say, refers to two things: a) that they are developed individuals- i.e developed in self, or b) that they have achieved this state through their own effort and dedication-i.e developed by self.
“emancipated from all bonds of existence, and free in mind.” This means firstly that they are free from attachments as such. That is to say, they are freed from those relationships, relations that come through existence. It also means in a certain sense, that they are not bound by time and space. They are beyond those constraints which are a part of existing. And finally they are ‘”free in mind”. Just compare that with what you know about your own mental state. If your not quite sure what this means as such, look at the expression of the Buddha’s and Bodhisattva’s on many statues.
It goes on to state that some were “under training and (some) no longer under training.” That means in simple terms that some were considered to still be ‘learning the path’, while others were considered to have ‘learnt’ the path. This is important. There are those who are considered to ‘know it all’ in this crowd. And they are about to hear a sermon the likes of which they have never heard before.
It continues that there were Bodhisattva’s present who were “all free from backsliding in regard to Perfect Enlightenment, all having obtained dharani, all endowed with knowledge of eloquent discourse, and rolling the never-retrogressing wheel of the Law; who had paid homage to countless hundreds of thousands of buddhas, under whom they planted all the roots of virtue…penetrated the greatest knowledge, and reached the other shore”. Wow! What a list of achievements!
“all free from backsliding in regard to Perfect Enlightenment”. That is, they are beyond ‘taking a step backwards’. That is to say, they do not at times fall back into delusive thinking, they don’t make mistakes in their conduct- they are better than that.
“all having obtained dharani”. While dharani are specifically mantra-like incantations, in this context ‘dharani’ refers to the virtues that come from whole-hearted practice, or abilities which, to us, the deluded, seem magical.
“all endowed with knowledge of eloquent discourse”. This is one of the four pratisamvids or unlimited forms of wisdom which are properties of the enlightened. In essence it means that they are capable of speaking eloquently/beautifully/ pleasantly. In a manner that makes us want to listen.
“and rolling the never-retrogressing wheel of the Law”. To roll the wheel of the law means to teach the Dharma. This wheel is never-retrogressing in that it is always leading beings to enlightenment, never stopping, never faltering.
“who had paid homage to countless hundreds of thousands of buddhas, under whom they planted all the roots of virtue…penetrated the greatest knowledge, and reached the other shore”. We will deal with this in reverse. Penetrating the ‘greatest knowledge’ is of course referring to their deep understanding of Buddha Dharma, of the Buddhist teachings, the ‘greatest knowledge’ one could look into. In regards to the ‘other shore’, The Buddha once gave the analogy that we are on one river bank while the enlightened Buddha’s and Bodhisattva’s were on the ‘other’ shore/bank. Buddhism is the boat one may use to weather the ‘rapids’ of suffering and reach the other shore. The analogy does a number of things. Firstly, it states that enlightenment is not to be found outside of the here and now, in a heaven of some sort. Rather it must be found in the conditions of this world in which we find ourselves (note both river banks are within the same world). Secondly, it makes clear that Buddhism and the Buddhist teachings are merely a ‘vehicle’ we use to reach the Truth. Buddhism is not the Truth as such- it points to the Truth. Once we reach the other shore of enlightenment it would be foolish to carry the ‘boat’ of Buddhism upon our heads. The first section of the above quote needs to be thought about a bit. Let’s just think about how rare it is to meet a single Buddha in many many lifetimes. But it is saying here that they have all been ‘good enough’ to pay homage, and study under, ‘countless hundreds of thousands of buddhas’. We are then given some examples of these many Bodhisattva, some of which we may be readily familiar- Manjushri (Monjushiri) Bodhisattva, Avalokitesvara (Kannon) Bodhisattva, and Maitreya (Miroku) Bodhisattva to name a few.
The lists of those in attendance are then capped off with various groups of other beings such as Gods, Dragons, Asura’s(demons who continually fight- they represent the our own capacity for anger), Kimnara’s (a mythical being half-horse and half-man)and Gandharva’s (Celestial musicians). The important thing when reading these lists is not to get bogged down in whether or not such beings exist or not, in fact to do so is to miss the point somewhat. What is important here is that is is trying to cover any being that you could imagine. It is trying to put forward the idea that all beings are in need of the Buddha’s wisdom. None are exempt. All people, are in need of enlightenment.
It then says that, with all these beings in attendance, the Buddha preached the Innumerable Meanings Sutra. Having finished doing this, it says that the Buddha crossed his legs and entered the “contemplation of Innumerable Meanings.” In other words, the Buddha began meditating on the fact that all the myriad doctrines, expressions, teachings and so forth of the Dharma, all come from the one Law. That is namely the Wonderful Law of the Lotus Sutra.
But then something really strange happens. The Buddha “sent forth from the circle of white hair between his eyebrows a ray of light, which illuminated eighteen thousands worlds…so that there was nowhere it did not reach, downward to the Avici Hell and upward to the Akanishtha heaven. “ In other words the urna or tuft of hair between the Buddha’s eyebrows issued forth a great beam of light that lit up the entire universe, from the very lowest place, to the highest heaven. Every single bit was lit up brightly. We are told that those in attendance could see clearly, the Bodhisattva’s and Buddha’s of other realms and universes teaching the Dharma to others. Now please note, while a lot of strange and magical things do happen in Buddhist Sutra’s, this event IS SUPPOSED TO BE UNUSUAL. It’s not supposed to be just another one of those special things that a Buddha does and everyone thinks to themselves ‘this is just another example of the Buddha’s awesome power’. It is supposed to make you ‘double back’ and think to yourself:what!? In fact this is precisely what all the Bodhisattva’s do when this happens. Maitreya Bodhisattva thought the following to himself: “Now does the World-Honoured One display an appearance so marvellous. What is the cause and reason of this auspicious sign?” In other words, this is pretty amazing, it’s also pretty unusual. Why is the Buddha doing this? There has to be a good reason for him doing something so amazing and unbelievable.
Finally Maitreya Bodhisattva, looking around and seeing that everyone else is just as confused as he is, turns to Manjushri Bodhisattva to find out what is going on. He does this because Manjushri “has been in close contact with and paid homage to former innumerable Buddhas”. Therefore, if any one knows why a Buddha would do something like this, it would be him. And so he asks Manjushri: “Why does our master (the Buddha) frome the white hair between his eyebrows universally radiate so great a ray?” He then goes on to tell Manjushri of all the many things he sees in the universe because of this light. These things are quite numerous and are valuable insights into the ‘methods’ employed by Bodhisattva’s and Buddha’s to liberate living beings.
Before we go on to what Manjushri’s answer to the question is, lets be mindful of the symbolism here too. This simple image of the light illuminating every corner of the Universe is conveying the message that the Buddha’s teachings do precisely that. The Buddha Dharma, by virtue of liberating living beings from suffering and delusion, ‘illuminate’ every corner of the universe.
Maitreya is impatient for Manjushri to answer. He presses for an answer again: “The Wonderful Law which he has obtained- Does he now wish to preach it? Is he now going to prophesy?...He shows us all the Buddha-lands…This is not for any trivial reason.” In other words, is he doing this amazing and unbelievable thing because he is about to teach something and wants our attention? Is he doing it because he is going to ‘predict’(prophesy) somebody’s future achievement of enlightenment? There has to be an important reason for it.
Manjushri gives the short answer and then elaborates on it. The short answer goes as follows: “According to my consideration, the Buddha, World-honoured One, is now intending to preach the great Law…Whenever from any of the former Buddhas I have seen this auspice, after emitting such a ray, they have thereupon preached the great Law. Because of this, know ye, that now the Buddha, having displayed this ray, in like manner intends to cause all creatures to hear and know the Law which all the worlds will find hard to believe. That is why he displays this auspice.” The bolded segment is very important here. So the Buddha intends to preach the Dharma. But he is not intending to teach any old thing. He is going to preach those teachings which are hard to believe. Those teachings that are so profound that to us, they seem rather unbelievable. And it is because of this that he does this unusual and amazing thing of illuminating the whole universe. He knows that illuminating the whole universe for us to see all that is, in the many corners of the cosmos, is ‘awesome’. That’s the point. He is about to teach us things which, at first look wrong, or are hard to believe/ understand- things which may shake the very foundations of everything we thought we knew. Therefore, by showing us this really amazing and unusual thing first, it is a reminder to us that this guy (the Buddha) knows what he’s doing. He knows what he’s talking about, and while we may not get it straight away, while we may not ‘buy it’ at first, while it may sounds completely counter-intuitive at times, we should ‘trust’ in the Buddha.
I’d like to speak briefly about this as it might sound a little strange to Western ears. Many Western Buddhists quote the Kalama Sutta like a mantra, because it tells us to investigate Buddhism, because it tells us not to simply take things ‘on faith’. Indeed the sutta does say this, and confirms many Western Buddhist converts in their move from faith-based mono-theistic faiths to what they see as a religion more compatible with the scientific and rational modern mode of thought. Buddhism does encourage independent thought when we start investigating whether or not Buddhism makes sense to us. But to be fair, this ‘revisionist approach’ to Buddhism that attempts to make it fit into ‘modernity’ is rather disingenuous. Buddhism does ask us to be rational and probing in our investigation of the fundamental Buddhist Truths in order to ascertain whether or not they, in our investigation, map accurately onto the way things actually are. However, the first thing one does when becoming a Buddhist is to take refuge in the Three Jewels/Treasures of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. To take refuge is to ‘trust in’ the Buddha, his teachings, and those who transmit it. In short, regardless of what revisionists might say, faith is in fact an important part of Buddhist practice. For we, the ignorant, actual reality can seem so far removed. And so, we are required in Buddhism, to trust those who have seen more than us (the Buddha’s and Bodhisattva’s), until we are able to see for ourselves.
Manjushri then goes into his elaboration. He tells how, numerous past Buddhas under whom he served went through careers very similar to the one that the current Shakyamuni is currently going through. He tells us that Buddha’s in the past taught various doctrines such as the Four Noble Truths, the Twelvefold Conditioned Co-arising and so forth to beings depending on what they needed for many years- “to cause them to attain Perfect Enlightenment and to accomplish perfect knowledge.”
Then finally, these past Buddhas preached the Innumerable Meanings Sutra, just like Shakyamuni has just done. And having done so proceeded to enter Samadhi or meditation on the contemplation of Innumerable Meanings- again just as Shakyamuni Buddha has just done. And this was also followed by this great illuminating ray of light which dispelled the darkness from the universe.
Manjushri says that when all that we have just seen, happened before, the Buddha then arose from contemplation and preached a special ‘Great-Vehicle Sutra’. That sutra was called “The Lotus Flower of the Wonderful Law”. He tells us that it was so special that “during that time there was no one who felt fatigue in either body or mind.” That is to say, that it was so profound and important, that at no point did any of the audience lose concentration, wish they weren’t there, or look at the clock wondering if it would be over soon. This might be a good time to consider how many times you have lost concentration or thought of something else during this talk. And this is only one chapter! We are then told that the Buddha, having finished the Lotus Sutra, passed into Nirvana.
Manjushri then tells us a story about a disciple of the last Buddha (Mystic Light) before Shakyamuni that he served under. This disciple was called Fame Seeker. This is because he was only interested in gaining a name for himself and so, forgot every sutra he heard from the Buddha. However, Fame Seeker did have good Karmic roots and so was able to study under numerous Buddha’s. Manjushri then says that He himself is Bodhisattva Mystic Light, and that Maitreya is in fact that lazy disciple Fame Seeker many lifetimes later.