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The Lotus Flower of the Wonderful Law Sutra

Chapter 2: "Tactfulness"

Chapter two of the Lotus Sutra starts with the Buddha explaining to Sariputra that “the wisdom of buddhas is very profound and infinite.” We should take note here, usually the Buddhas teachings begin by a student asking something of the World Honoured One, of the Buddha. However in this case, whatever the Buddha is about to say, is obviously important enough that the Buddha of his own compulsion speaks it. He explains further that it is difficult to understand and difficult to penetrate deeply into it. Why is it difficult? “Because the Buddhas have been in fellowship with countless…Buddhas, perfectly practicing…and boldly and zealously advancing and…perfecting the very profound”. In other words it is difficult for us worldly beings to understand because the Buddhas spend their time training and practicing in the company of other Buddhas, other supremely enlightened beings with a far greater attainment and awakening than you or I. And so the ‘depths’ of the Buddha-dharma are immense.

“Ever since I became Buddha, with various reasonings and various parables I have widely discoursed and taught, and by countless tactful methods have led living beings, causing them to leave all attachments.” In other words, because the Buddha-dharma can seem so unfathomable at times to many of us, the Buddha spent much of his career ‘adapting’ and ‘presenting’ his teachings in such a way that they can be of value, and make a difference to us. That is, he presented them in ways that are meaningful to us, that are ‘tailored’ to our capacities and understandings. This is the main discussion of this chapter, and aims to set the Lotus Sutra apart from the rest of the Buddhist Canon.

“Sariputra! The Wisdom of the Tathagata is broad and great, profound and far-reaching; his mind is infinite”. That is to say, he possesses the Four Infinite Virtues of Mind- Infinite kindness/benevolence, infinite compassion, infinite joy, and infinite ‘indifference’ (indifference here refers to being neither pulled here or there by experience.

“his expositions are unimpeded”. ‘Unimpeded’ here refers to the Four Unlimited Powers of Wisdom or the Four pratisamvids- unlimited knowledge of the Law (Truth/Buddhist Teachings), unlimited knowledge of principles, unlimited knowledge of terms or arguments, unlimited knowledge of pleasant discourse. We have discussed these somewhat in the previous chapter and so will not elaborate on them again here.

“his powers”. This refers generally to the powers possessed by a Buddha, which we have yet to uncover. Specifically it refers to the Ten Powers of a Buddha. In essence, these ten powers tell us in brief, what it is to be a Buddha. Tell us what it is about Buddhahood that is worth striving for. They are namely: 

1) The power to know right and wrong. That means to know it without fault. 

2) The power to know the consequences of karma. For the rest of us, oftentimes we see the result or consequence of something, but not until it has been ‘unleashed’ upon us. We notice the consequences when we are suffering from them. We become more aware over time, and develop our ability to for-see the consequences of our actions. But, the Buddhas again possess this without fault. They are capable to observe the karmic chain of all beings of the three times (past, present, future). 

3) The power to know all meditations and contemplations. This is the power to enter into various meditative states/ Samadhi at will, but also to have learnt and mastered all such states. 

4) The power to know the various higher and lower capacities of sentient beings. This is the ability of Buddhas to know what level of attainment we have or have not attained. 

5) The power to what sentient beings understand. That is to say that the Buddhas are aware of our limitations. They are intimately aware of those things which particular individuals can understand, and of those things which they cannot understand. While this might seems straight forward enough, again I would like you to reflect on how many myriad sentient beings there are in existence, and therefore how many differing capacities there must be. That is the context in which this power should be seen. Importantly, it is from this very power that the Buddha is able to teach us by ‘tactfulness’, by ‘skilful means’. 

6) The power to know the fundamental nature and actions of sentient beings. In other words, Buddhas are capable of understanding our habits, our mode of being, our thought process. It also refers in some sense to the Buddhas omniscience. 

7) The power to know the causes and effects of sentient beings in all worlds. By understanding deeply, the causal chain and process, the Buddha is able to ‘deduce’ our conditioning, and likewise to ‘posit’ our future course. 

8) The power to know the results of karmas in past lives. We are again dealing with the causal chain and the Buddhas omniscience. 

9) The power of knowledge through supernatural insight. By having obtained Buddhahood, the Buddhas knowledge extends much farther than our own- and therefore, it is ‘supernatural’. 

10) The power of being free from all error, infallible in knowledge. This is self explanatory.

“his fearlessness”. A Buddha also possesses Four kinds of Fearlessness which assure us of his confidence in his own awakening. They are namely 

1) Fearlessness in proclaiming all truth. That is, he is certain that he possess the full truth. That he has missed nothing. This is important for us as Buddhists, particularly in the West.  Because, if we take this to heart, it means that when we play the ‘pick-and-choose’ with the Buddha’s teachings, taking only what we like or what conforms with our world view, we are being neither ‘genuine’ as Buddhists, or as non-Buddhists. On the one hand we are not trusting in the fact that we ‘take refuge in’ the knowledge of Shakyamuni Buddha. And on the other, we are still adhering to certain elements of Buddhism, and so we equally fail to be non-Buddhists.  

2) Fearlessness in proclaiming the truth of perfection- freedom from faults. This is a statement about the Buddhas attainment in terms of the ‘big picture’. The Buddha is certain that he has attained that ‘pinnacle’, that height of human potential so hard to obtain, so often sought after.

3) Fearlessness in exposing obstacles to the truth. The Buddha knows that those things, states of affairs, habitual tendencies, practices and so forth, which he proclaims to be obstacles on the Path, are actually obstacles on the Path. In order to avoid a tautology here, it is important to note that Buddhist Truths are, within Buddhism representative of ‘actual’ and ‘objective’ truth.  

4) Fearlessness in proclaiming the way to end all suffering. Because the Buddha has obtained enlightenment, the end of suffering, he is confident in his teachings and experience as the vehicle for other to likewise obtain it.

“his meditations”. The word translated here as 'meditation' is Dhyana. Dhyana refers to a state of deep meditative absorption in which one is lucidly aware. In this case, the reference is to the Buddha's 'perfection' of Dhyana (which is one of the six paramitas). This perfection equates to mastery of the Eight Stages of Dhyana (the progressive levels of meditative absorption). It is important to note here that the prerequisite of Dhyana is the elimination of/extinguishing of the Five Hindrances/ Mental Impediments. They are namely: 

1) desire. 

2) malice. 

3) Depression and sloth. 

4) Wildness and excitement. 

5) Doubt/ perplexity (about the Buddhas teachings).This is once again a reminder of what it is to be a Buddha. These reminders are designed to banish any doubts we might have about the doctrines to come, by assuring us of the 'qualifications' of the teacher voicing them (The Buddha).

"his emancipations". These refer specifically to the Eight Emancipations. In short, these are said to be conceptual emancipations, achieved by The Buddha. They are: 

1) Emancipation from the concept that notions have both subjective and objective realities corresponding to them. 

2) Emancipation from the conception that notions have no subjective but do have objective realities corresponding to them. 

3) Emancipation from the conception of any realities whatsoever, whether subjective or objective. 

4) Emancipation through the recognition that unreality is unlimited. 

5) Emancipation through the recognition that knowledge is unlimited. 

6) Emancipation through the recognition of absolute non-existence. 

7) Emancipation through a state of mind in which there neither consciousness nor unconsciousness. 

8) Emancipation through a state of mind in which there is final extinction of both sensation and consciousness.

"his contemplations have enabled him to enter into the boundless realms and accomplish all the unprecedented Law." In other words, The Buddha by virtue of these qualities and his insight, has been able to reach complete and perfect enlightenment (anuttara samyak sambodhi), and to teach it to all beings in the 'boundless realms'.

The Buddha goes on to tell Sariputra that "The Tathagata is able to discriminate everything, preach the laws skilfully, use gentle words, and cheer the hearts of all."This is essentially a hint at the doctrine we are about to be introduced to- Upaya or 'Skillful Means'.

Next the Buddha reassures Sariputra and the crowd once more that The Buddha has indeed obtained enlightenment. This time however, The Buddha adds that "there is no need to say more...Because the Law which the Buddha has perfected is... difficult to understand." The Buddha is basically telling Sariputra and the rest of the crowd that he doesn't think it would be wise for him to say more and continue you down this avenue of discussion. We can presume that this is because either he thinks that it will not be understood or appreciated by the crowd, or that it would be 'detrimental'- do more harm than good.

" Only a Buddha together with a Buddha can fathom the Reality of All Existence." This particular line is the basis for a very important, and very complex concept in Tendai Philosophy, namely the Doctrine of Original Enlightenment (Hongaku Shiso). To fully appreciate its significance would require more than this commentary will allow and so, I will attempt to break it down only briefly here. At first glance, this line can be read as The Buddha remarking that the reason no one will understand, is that only a Buddha in discussion with another Buddha can understand the true meaning of things, of the Buddha Dharma and therefore its beyond us. However, there are varying layers to this statement. The more accurate meaning we need to become aware of relates to what the Buddha is saying about us. Up until this sutra, one could suggest that The Buddha's teachings set up a 'duality'. That is, a distinction between us, as deluded, unenlightened, and suffering sentient beings on the one hand, and the enlightened Buddha on the other. In the Lotus Sutra, the Buddha breaks down this duality and points out that in fact there is no distinction as such. The Buddha tells us in various sutras that we sentient beings have the potential to achieve Buddhahood, the same status as he himself achieved. Therefore in order for the above statement to remain consistent, we cannot read the above quote to mean that the Buddhadharma is beyond us. How are we to understand this statement then? In order to make clear what is necessary here, let us consider an example given by Brook Zyporin (a contemporary Tiantai/ Tendai scholar). Music is not 'made' when the song writer writes it down or comes up with it. It is 'made' by us (the audience) and the song writer. That is to say, the music 'becomes real' when the artist plays it, and we hear it, appreciate and understand it. Therefore either one of us (the artist or the audience) can be considered to be the creator of that music. In other words, the song writer and the audience member cannot be ‘dilineated’; the music does not belong to either party exclusively. What does this have to do with the quote? To a certain extent, the implication is that the enlightenment that a Buddha possesses, likewise cannot be 'the property of' the Buddha alone. We as The Buddhas students are part of that process much like the audience in the example given above, and are therefore a part of The Buddha's experience of enlightenment as such. Like in the music example, when I hear, appreciate and understand the Dharma, the Buddhas teachings, it becomes real and meaningful- we are the 'other Buddha' in that sentence. As mentioned, this sentence is closely linked to the concept of Original Enlightenment.

"That is to say, all existence has such a form, such a nature, such an embodiment, such a potency, such a function, such a primary cause, such a secondary cause, such an effect, such a recompense, and such a complete fundamental whole." This also refers to a fundamental Tiantai/ Tendai doctrine. This is referred to as the doctrine of "The Ten Suchlike Characteristics". They correlate to the ten features described in the above quote, and in brief are meant to cover all the 'determinate aspects' of all particular entity's, or phenomena.

"This Law is inexpressable, it is beyond the realm of terms." Here we are reminded that enlightenment must be experienced- it cannot be given to us. There is also the reminder that enlightenment is beyond the discriminating faculty of conceptual thought, and that it is only when these are transcended that we come to understand 'the reality of all existence'.

"In the Laws preached by The Buddha you should beget great strength of faith, for at length after the Buddhas prepatory teaching, he must now proclaim the perfect truth." We have to try to imagine the impact these words must have made on the crowd of students and devotees before the Buddha. Essentially the Buddha has just said to all those who have learnt from him thus far, that all his teachings up until now have been 'prepatory teachings', and that now he needs them to trust what he is about to say- even if it contradicts previous teachings, because he will now teach none other than the unadultered wisdom of a Buddha in this sutra.

As you might expect, the assembly is thrown into confusion. They lament: "As yet the Buddha has declared only one principle of emancipation, and we also, obtaining this Law, reach nirvana. But now we do not know where this principle leads." In other words, the Buddhas students start thinking about the fact that until now, the Buddha has taught them to achieve Arhatship- Arhat is one who obtains nirvana (the end of suffering) but does not become a Buddha (a Buddha achieves nirvana and understands the nature of reality). This is an allusion to the Hinayana/Theravada doctrine that we do not possess the capacity to attain enlightenment and become Buddhas. Only special beings can do that. Therefore, in the Hinayana schools the aim is to reach Arhatship. The disciples in the congregation are beginning to question whether that conclusion was ultimately true, as the Buddha has referred to these teachings as 'prepatory'.

Sariputra, seeing that all his colleagues, himself included had been thrown into doubt by this pronouncement respectfully asks the Buddha on everyone’s behalf the following: "What is the cause and the reason for so earnestly extolling the paramount tactful method and the very profound, mysterious Law...at length though hast preached this Law...all the faultless Arhats and those seeking nirvana have now fallen into nets of doubt. Why does the Buddha speak thus?" In other words, we have done all that you've asked in the past. Why are you now saying that this was only an expedient path?

"The sons of the Buddhas mouth with folded hands wait expectedly." While this statement simply states that the Buddhas disciples are waiting to hear why the Buddha has said these things, it is important to note that a disciple of the Buddha is referred to as a 'son of the Buddhas mouth'. This is because they come under the guidance of the Buddha by hearing his teachings.

To the Sariputra and the crowd’s dismay the Buddha replies: "enough, enough, there is no need to say more. If I explain this matter, all the worlds of gods and men would be startled and perplexed." Basically the Buddha is saying that it is best that at this time, he does not answer the doubts of the crowd. This is because he feels that many are not ready/ able, or are unwilling to understand what he would be required to say.

Sariputra assures the Buddha. He tells the Buddha not to worry, that these students are diligent and wise, and will listen to all that the Buddha has to say: "Be pleased to expound it! Wherefore? Because in this assembly there are numberless hundred thousand myriad kotis of asamkhyeya living beings who have already seen the Buddhas, whose perceptions are keen and whose wisdom is clear. If they hear the Buddhas teaching, they will be able to believe it respectfully."

But the Buddha is still not convinced: "enough, enough, no need to say more...Those who are haughty on hearing would not believe it respectfully."

Sariputra once more begs the Buddha telling him that "countless beings are able respectfully to believe this law."

The Buddha finally relents and agrees to dispel the doubts of the crowd. "Do you listen attentively to, ponder, and remember it!” While a simple statement, let us remember her that this is our everlasting duty as Buddhists when reading the sutras.

"When he had thus spoken, in the assembly some five thousand Bhikshus, Bhikshunis, Upasakas, and Upasikas straightway rose from their seats and saluting the Buddha, withdrew." These titles refer respectively to the four groups of monks, nuns, laymen and laywomen. The passage itself tells us that as the Buddha agreed to teach, five thousand people within the assembly, stood up, bowed, and left. These individuals are said to have believed that they 'knew it all' and therefore that they had received all the Buddhas teachings. Therefore they left the congregation. These individuals are according to the Mahayana, the Hinayana who did not accept the Mahayana teachings.

"In such error as this they would not stay; and the World Honoured One was silent and did not stop them." Let’s remember this in our own relation to those who do not accept the Mahayana canon.

The Buddhas only comment on the matter was this: "Now in this congregation I am free from twigs and leaves, and have nothing but all that are purely the true and real."

"Sariputra, the meaning of the laws which the Buddhas expound as opportunity serves is difficult to understand. Wherefore? Because I expound the Laws by numberless tactful ways and with various reasonings and parabolic expressions." This is our introduction into the doctrine of Upaya or Skillful Means. Essentially it is the idea that the Buddha teaches in accordance with the capacity of his audience to understand. This means that certain tactful teachings are expedient teachings designed to move an individual from his initial position closer to the 'ultimate truth' as such. There are a number of implications here. Firstly, that the Hinayanic teachings were expedient skilful means, designed to make beings more susceptible to the teachings of the Mahayana. Secondly, there is the implication that all other Mahayana sutras are expediently taught in order to bring people to the ultimate truth, which is taught in the Lotus Sutra as the unadultered wisdom of the Buddhas enlightenment.

The next point of significance in this chapter is the exposition of The Four Perceptions of the Buddha-knowledge. These four perceptions describe the 'one great cause' which the Buddhas hope to accomplish. they are: "Because the Buddhas, the World Honoured Ones, desire to cause all living beings to open their eyes to the Buddha-knowledge so that they may gain the pure mind, therefore they appear in the world; because they desire to show all living beings the Buddha-knowledge, they appear in the world; because they desire to cause all the living to apprehend the Buddha-knowledge, they appear in the world; because they desire to cause all the living to enter the way of the Buddha-knowledge, they appear in the world."In essence they constitute the Buddhas 'mission statements'.

Next the Buddha tells Sariputra that "The Buddha Tathagatas teach only Bodhisattvas." This is also very significant. It tells us a couple of things. Firstly, that we are Bodhisattvas whether we think of ourselves as such or not. Why? Because if the Buddhas only teach Bodhisattvas, then anybody who hears/ reads the Buddha saying this, is by default- a Bodhisattva. Again, this quote is closely connected to the doctrine of Original Enlightenment. Secondly it makes clear that the Hinayana notion that only exceptional human beings can attain enlightenment and Buddhahood is provisional and not ultimately so. That all beings are no different from the Tathagata.

"The Tathagata by means of the One Buddha Vehicle, preaches to all living beings the Law; there is no other vehicle, neither a second nor a third." This introduces another central concept in Tendai Buddhist thought- the concept of the Ekayana or One Vehicle. In other words, the Buddha is saying that while the vehicles of the Buddhist teachings (Mahayana, Hinayana, Vajrayana) may appear to be separate and disparate teachings, as they are in large part expedients designed to facilitate the differing capacities of beings gain enlightenment, they are in actuality all the One Buddha Vehicle- the one vehicle leading to enlightenment.

The Buddha then goes on to say that the Buddhas have all taught by skilful means in accordance with the capacity of their listeners in the past, present, and will do likewise in the future.

"there is no such thing as a Bhikshu who has really obtained Arhatship if he has not believed this Law." This suggests that those Buddhists who do not accept the Lotus Sutra as the genuine teachings of The Buddha, are unable to attain Arhatship and therefore, unable to attain nirvana. This is significant because Arhatship is the very goal of the Hinayana. The Lotus Sutra makes the suggestion that not even this is possible without trust/ faith, and diligent practice in these doctrines.

"He causes them all to rejoice, preaching either sutras, or gathas, or former things, or birth stories, or the unprecedented, and also preaching by reasonings, by parables and geyas, and by upadesa scriptures." These are some of the different tactful methods the Buddhas use to teach sentient beings. Sutras are those texts attributed to the Buddha. Gathas are 'verses' and so could refer to short maxims or ad hoc teachings. Former things refer to stories of former Buddhas, Bodhisattvas or enlightened masters. Birth Stories refer specifically to the Jataka stories- stories about the previous rebirths of the Buddha. The Unprecedented are those things which we might class as miracles. Reasonings and Parables are self explanatory. Geya means 'to be sung' and therefore refer to the Buddhist equivalent of hymns. Upadesa scriptures most likely refer to commentary materials.

"If Sravakas or Bodhisattvas hear the Law which I preach, even be it but one verse, all, without doubt, become Buddhas." This means that all of us, listening to this teaching right now, have awakened the aspiration for enlightenment. This aspiration once ignited, can never be extinguished. And therefore, the Buddha assures us that we will undoubtedly become Buddhas.

"I by my signs-adorned body, with their shining illuminate the world, and am worshipped by countless multitudes, for who I preach the seal of reality," The signs are the 32 major and 80 minor marks which are said to adorn/ make up the body of a Buddha. The 'seal of reality' refers to the fact that the Buddhas teaching in this sutra represent the reality of all existence.

"They have entered the thicket of heretical views, such as 'existence' or 'nonexistence'; relying on these false views, altogether sixty-two." The former (existence) is the view that all things are real; the latter (nonexistence) is the view that all things are unreal. Both these views are rejected by Buddhism as being valid representations of reality. The sixty-two views are merely those ideas/ philosophical positions that arise from either of these two extremes.

"All existence, from the very beginning, is ever of the nirvana-nature." This means that all beings sentient and insentient are not only endowed with Buddha-nature (the capacity to attain enlightenment), but also are from the outset already completely enlightened and free of suffering. This is another quote very closely linked with the concept of Original Enlightenment.

The following verses explain that those that have even in the slightest, been involved in Buddhist practices, or who have shown respect for the teaching, will attain enlightenment - so much so that "If any, even with distracted mind, enter a stupa or temple and cry but once 'Namah Buddha', they have attained the Buddha-way." 'Namah Buddha' is the Sanskrit for homage to Buddha. In our tradition it would be said in Japanese as Namu Butsu. Why should such small acts, practices result in us 'attaining the Buddha-way'? Because no matter how small they may be, they suggest that we have sown the karmic causes for us to be able to in some measure, come in contact with the Buddha or his teachings. And therefore, they point to the fact that having acquired these karmic roots, we will attain enlightenment. This is why the Buddha goes on to say: "Of those who hear the Law, not one fails to become a Buddha."

The Buddhas, the world-honoured ones, know that nothing has independent existence" That is to say that nothing is independent of causes and conditions, and so nothing possesses an unchanging underlying self. "And that the Buddha-seeds spring from a cause" This means that the Buddhas are aware that through the teachings beings are able to cultivate and practice.

"All things abide in their fixed order, hence the world abides forever."The first half of the sentence refers to the fact that all things are 'such'. All phenomena are dependent upon/ founded on suchness. The second half of the sentence refers to the fact that suchness is ever abiding, unchanging.

"When I first sat on the wisdom throne, looking at that tree and walking about it during thrice seven days, I pondered such matters as these: 'The wisdom which I have obtained is wonderful and supreme. But all creatures are dull in their capacities, pleasure attached and blind with ignorance. Such classes of beings as these, how can they be saved?" After the Buddha attained enlightenment, he dwelled in the bliss of enlightenment for three weeks. During that time, he wondered what to do with the rest of his life. He wondered whether to teach or not. The conclusion he came to was that beings were so deluded that it would be impossible for them to understand much of what he had to say. Therefore, if he did teach the dharma, it might do more harm than good by making people averse to the teachings/ way things are.

The gods showed up t this point and begged Shakyamuni Buddha to teach. And it at this point that it says the Buddha vowed to use skilful means to present his teachings in accord with the limited capacities of us sentient beings. The One vehicle in reality became the three vehicles provisionally in order to attend to the varying tendencies of beings. The Buddha also at this time preached the doctrine of the three jewels or three treasures which constitute the points of support, tradition, and authority within Buddhism (Buddha, Dharma, Sangha).

The closing lines of the chapter read: "The Law of the Buddhas is thus: They proclaim the Law as opportunity serves. But those who will not learn, are not able to discern it. But you already know the expedient tactful ways of the Buddhas, the leaders of the world. Have no further doubts; rejoice greatly in your hearts, knowing that you will become Buddhas."
Rev. Jikai Dehn.