|The Innumerable Meanings Sutra|
Chapter 3: "Ten Merits"
Chapter Three of The Innumerable Meanings Sutra begins with Bodhisattva Great Adornment, extolling the virtues of the sutra, now being preached. He states that “hearing it but once is keeping all the laws.” Does that mean that in hearing the Innumerable Meanings Sutra we will magically acquire complete and final enlightenment? The short answer is no. Yes, it is fair to say that hearing, reading, and or reciting the Innumerable Meanings Sutra, generates ‘merit’ or good karma, by virtue of it being the truth, which helps us along the way. But we should be careful at least in this statement, not to read this as a blanket statement, telling us that all we need to to do is ‘hear it but once’. After all, the last two chapters, without going into too much detail gave us an ‘encyclopaedic bunch’ of doctrines which, it encouraged us to master.
It is clarified in the next paragraph by the following : “wherefore? If he practices it sincerely, he will quickly accomplish supreme buddhahood without fail.” Right! In other words, we have another ‘bundle’ here that needs to be ‘unravelled’. You could even say, these ‘bundles’ are the innumerable meanings stemming from the one law which gives this sutra its significance. What we have here, is a description of the ‘general’ stages of the Path as such. In ‘hearing’, the sutra arouses Bodhicitta within us, and this is the first stage on the Path. Bodhicitta or Bodaishin in Japanese, refers to the desire to attain enlightenment and to save all sentient beings from suffering. In other words, the first step is making the decision, or firm resolve, to set out on the Bodhisattva Path for the sake of all beings, oneself included. Without this aspiration, nothing happens. The other implication here is that enlightenment at the end of the day, is not found in books, or discussions or in intellectual musings. It is found in PRACTICE. We must practice this stuff. Otherwise it is just words on a page. If we don’t practice this stuff, we are Buddhists in name only. Now, let us be careful here. Like anything in Buddhism, we must be wary of falling into the opposite extreme. This IS NOT saying that we shouldn’t study the sutras. It is not saying, that we shouldn’t think about, discuss, or ‘develop wisdom’ about the Dharma. After all, that would make us just as much a slave to one extreme, as precisely what the Buddha is trying to steer us from. It is a reminder that only we, through our actions, through our careful planting of seeds, can bring about real benefit to ourselves and others. As some of you may know, in Buddhist temples we do not blow out candles and incense, rather we ‘wave out’ the flame. One of the reasons for this is that the Buddha stated that it is only the Buddha’s own disciples who, through their deeds, can bring the Buddhist teachings low. This was described by the ‘lamp of Dharma’ and as such, we vow not to ‘blow out the lamp of Dharma’.
Bodhisattva Great Adornment goes on to say that for those beings who do not get the chance to hear it, to hear the Buddha’s teachings, they “will never accomplish supreme Buddhahood even after a lapse of infinite, boundless, inconceivable asamkhyeya kalpas.” Why? Because just doing good things or being kind, only brings good karmic fruits. That is great sure, but the fundamental ignorance about things, has not yet been removed. Let’s think about that in two different ways. First lets project that out ‘onto the world’ if you will. That means that for a non-Buddhist, it is possible to be a compassionate, good, and virtuous human being. But, there is a way in which this is telling us that that alone, is not going to ‘free us from suffering’. We will still at some level keep producing the causes and conditions for future rebirth here in Samsara.
Then Bodhisattva Great Adornment requests that the Buddha “explain the profound and inconceivable matter of this sutra”. He asks the following questions: “From what place does this sutra come? For what place does it leave? At what place does it stay? Whereupon does this sutra make people quickly accomplish Perfect Enlightenment…?” In other words where did this sutra come from? What inspired its being preached? Where can it be found? And what is so great about it? For ease, we will deal with the Buddha’s answers to these questions separately.
The Buddha tells us that “This sutra originally comes from the abode of all the buddhas”. In simple terms, the Buddha is telling us that this sutra is none other than the content of the enlightened mind of the Buddhas itself. This ‘enlightened-ness’ is the ‘abode of all the Buddhas’ because it is that ‘place’ or state in which they rest, calmly, and perfectly.
He answers the second question by further saying that it (the sutra) “leaves for the aspiration of all the living to buddha-hood”. In other words, what causes it to be taught, the reason it is preached, is to benefit us. We, all of us, aspire for some inner peace. An inner quietude which is ‘happy’. It is for this reason, that out of compassion, the Buddhas disseminate that store of wisdom which is the enlightened mind, the abode of all the Buddhas.
“and stays at the place where all the bodhisattvas practice.” That is, its essence, its heart, can be found wherever Bodhisattvas preach the Buddhas teachings and seek to compassionately relieve the suffering of beings. Once again we have a strong emphasis on practice. The Buddha doesn’t say that it is stays on the pages, He does not say that it is to be found in temple libraries where the sutra is kept. He specifically says that it is found wherever it is practiced. Wherever Bodaishin (Bodhicitta) is present.
The rest of the chapter is spent answering the final question asked by Bodhisattva Great Adornment. That is, what is so great about this sutra, and more generally the Buddhas teachings. The Buddha does this by describing the Ten Merit Powers of this sutra. “First, this sutra makes the unawakened bodhisattva aspire to buddhahood, makes a merciless one raise the mind of mercy, makes a homicidal one raise the mind of great compassion, makes a jealous one raise the mind of joy, makes an attached one raise the mind of detachment, makes a miserly one raise the mind of donation, makes an arrogant one raise the mind of keeping the commandments, makes an irascible one raise the mind of perseverance, makes an indolent one raise the mind of assiduity, makes a distracted one raise the mind of meditation, makes an ignorant one raise the mind of wisdom, makes one who lacks concern for saving others raise the mind of saving others, makes one who commits the ten evils raise the mind of the ten virtues, makes one who wishes for existence aspire to the mind of nonexistence, makes one who has an inclination to apostasy build the mind of non-retrogression, makes one who commits defiled acts raise the mind of undefilement, and makes one who suffers from delusion raise the mind of detachment.” In other words, the first great thing about the Buddhas teachings is their transformative power. Their ability to take those most undesirable and pain causing qualities and turn them into something beautiful. There is a lot there so let’s break it down into parts.
“makes the unawakened bodhisattva aspire to buddhahood”. First off we have something important that if your not conscious of it, you might miss. What is an ‘unawakened bodhisattva’? Aren’t Bodhisattvas pretty enlightened? The Buddha here is talking about us. According to the Buddha, we are all Bodhisattvas. We are all ‘originally enlightened’ as such. This is a very important concept in Tendai that we need to start being aware of. Unlike the Zen schools, which understand the enlightened mind as being a ‘kernal’ or inner thing which is to be ‘brought out’ by practice and developed, Tendai, based on the Lotus Sutra understands us to be Buddhas in EVERY WAY. This doctrine has a lot to it so we won’t digress too much here. Essentially what this means is that every single silly, crazy, stupid thing that you do, is part of your experience of Buddhahood. Part of being a Buddha is understanding the nature of suffering. The suffering of ALL BEINGS. Therefore, think of all the ‘unenlightened’ stuff that you do, as something that you need to do, as part of your training, as part of your Buddhahood. So the implication here is that the Buddhas teachings awakens that Bodaishin (Bodhicitta), that desire to awaken.
“makes a merciless one raise the mind of mercy, makes a homicidal one raise the mind of great compassion”. These two are pretty self explanatory. They awaken our altruistic desire to be kind and compassionate.
“makes a jealous one raise the mind of joy”. When we look at jealousy, we could say that it is a desire to want what others have. A feeling of being ‘discontent’ with the circumstances in which we find ourselves. Therefore the joy that is being talked about here, is the peace and happiness that comes from being with things as they are. No more yearning for something else.
“makes an attached one raise the mind of detachment”. According to Buddhism, our sufferings come from attachment. Attachment perse is the cause of our discontentment. This is often expressed in Buddhism by the Three Poisons: Greed, Anger and Ignorance. These are nothing more than attachment- Greed is trying to pull something in towards onself (obvious attachment), Anger is trying to distance oneself from something (therefore being attached to it), and Ignorance is the mind from which we do either of those two. The mind that thinks that either of those two options makes any sense at all.
“makes a miserly one raise the mind of donation”. To be a miser is to ‘hoard wealth’. To be stingy. Therefore, in this case ‘donation’ signifies generosity.
“makes an arrogant one raise the mind of keeping the commandments”. To be arrogant is to think that one has all the answers. To think that you need only look to your own best judgement. On the surface level, it is describing the ability of the Buddhas teachings to awaken humility in us. To ‘pop us out of’ thinking we know it all. But more importantly it is telling us to drop the idea that we know best. The ‘commandments’ refer concretely to the Buddhist precepts but more generally to all of the Buddha’s teachings. What this means is that to fully give ourselves to those teachings requires us to at some level, acknowledge that the Buddha is far wiser than us. That at the end of the day, we probably don’t have all the answers and that until we do, we will place our trust in the Buddha. In his wisdom. This is explained in the Sutra Of Forty Two Sections when the Buddha says: “Be careful not to depend on your own intelligence, it is not to be trusted.” This is quite a tough one, not to mention quite a controversial one to most of us in the modern west. Is the Buddha asking us to have ‘blind-faith’? NO. The Buddha encourages you to use the basic principle of Buddhism to investigate and see for yourself whether or not they make sense. Is the Buddha asking us to have ‘faith-like trust’? YES. If we use the basic Buddhist teachings to investigate our lives, our world, and we find them to be true and accurate, the Buddha is saying that we should trust for those things which it is harder to see at first. Think of a man standing on the roof of a building and you standing on the road next to the building. The man on top of the building can see a lot further away and so can tell you what he sees. Not to have ‘trust’ in what he sees, if we already know him to be trustworthy’ would be like thinking we know what is behind the next building without having seen it.
“makes an irascible one raise the mind of perseverance”. To be irascible is to be hot-tempered, to have a mind that jumps from one place to another. Therefore to have perseverance here is to develop a mind that ‘perseveres’. That stays put, without being pulled here or there by how pleasant or unpleasant something is.
“makes an indolent one raise the mind of assiduity, makes a distracted one raise the mind of meditation, makes an ignorant one raise the mind of wisdom, makes one who lacks concern for saving others raise the mind of saving others”. These are talking about similar things and so we will deal with them together. To be indolent and to raise the mind of assiduity means to go from being lazy, to being diligent- in this case about your progress on the Path. The other two are again self explanatory.
“makes one who commits the ten evils raise the mind of the ten virtues”. The Ten Evil Deeds are specifically: 1) Killing, 2) Stealing, 3) Sexual Misconduct, 4) Lying, 5) slander, 6) Coarse Language, 7) Frivolous Chatter, 8) Covetousness, 9) Angry Speech, 10) Wrong Views. The Ten Virtuous Actions would be following the Ten Precepts or conversely not doing the above ten evils.
“makes one who wishes for existence aspire to the mind of nonexistence”. That is takes our yearning, our craving to continue acquiring, to continue existing, and transforms it into the mind not attached or governed by those concerns, the mind that seeks liberation from Samsara, from continual rebirth.
“makes one who has an inclination to apostasy build the mind of non-retrogression, makes one who commits defiled acts raise the mind of undefilement, and makes one who suffers from delusion raise the mind of detachment.” In this case, someone who ‘has an inclination to apostasy’ is someone who, while following the Buddhist Path, is prone to ‘hop off’ when the going gets tough. To practice for a time and then to ‘convince oneself’ that its not necessary. Or to take a step forward and then a step back. Therefore to build the mind of ‘non-retrogression’ is to stop that process. To raise the mind of perseverance that can hold all the ups and downs of our lives and our practice and keep us on the Path. The following one is fairly straight forward, as is the last one.
This is the First Merit Power of this Sutra, and more generally of the Buddhist Teachings. It is the power to ‘transform’.
The Second Merit Power of this Sutra is as follows: “if a living being can hear this sutra but once, or only one verse or phrase, he will penetrate into a hundred thousand kotis of meanings, and the law kept by him cannot be explained fully even in infinite kalpas.” In other words, because this is The Sutra of Innumerable Meanings, containing these infinite bundles of ideas, which we’ve seen, those who read or hear it, can’t help but take infinite lessons, innumerable pearls of wisdom from it. By reading a single verse, and studying it, unpacking it, one understands a great deal. The example of seeds is given in the sutra at this point. The point of this example is to show the extent and the exponential growth of meanings from this single sutra, this single doctrine of Innumerable Meanings.
The Third Merit Power of this sutra is said to be that if living beings hear it but once, or only a verse of phrase, “his delusions, even though existent, will become as if nonexistent; he will not be seized by fear, though he moves between birth and death; and he will raise the mind of compassion for all the living, and obtain the spirit of bravery to obey all the laws.” What does it mean to have delusions which become ‘as if they were nonexistent’? In other words, while we are still not yet fully enlightened, while we are still assailed by sufferings and ignorance of various sorts, by having glimpsed the Truth, by having seen a glimmer of light, we will be able to act and be as if we were well above our actual attainment. Why? Because we see that there is something ‘beyond’ our own little experience. We get a taste, real and immediate. And therefore we “will not be seized by fear” even though we remain in Samsara. We have begun to ‘see through’ Samsara, see it for what it really is. And so we know, that there is nothing very tangible about it, and fear begins to fall away. Finally when we have seen this ‘slither of Truth’, we can’t help but strive on, and help others catch a glimpse of it too.
“He will be able to relieve others, even though he cannot yet relieve himself.” We may not have yet developed the will-power to resist our cravings, we may not have developed the inner wisdom to start sweeping away our ignorance, we may not yet have accomplished skill in meditative absorption, but this does not mean that we have not ‘seen the light’ as such. Again we have a reference to the importance of practice. It is saying that enlightenment requires us to practice. But even when we are still in the early stages of our practice, we can help awaken the Bodaishin (Bodhicitta) in others, which starts the process off.
“Fourthly…if a living being can hear this sutra but once, or only a verse or phrase…he will become the attendant of the buddhas together with all bodhisattvas, and all the budda-tatagathas will always preach the Law to him.” In hearing and receiving these teachings, by accepting Buddhism, we become the attendants or disciples of the Buddha. We join the throng of Bodhisattvas who carry out the Buddha’s work and we ‘attend to’ the needs of the Three Jewels. With this trusting and open mind, “all the Buddha-Tatagathas will always preach the Law to” us.
“On hearing it, he will keep the Law entirely and follow it without disobeying. Moreover, he will interpret it for people extensively as occasion call.” Here we have something of our duty, of our job, as receivers of these invaluable teachings. Passively, we are to strive on, do our best and ‘obey’/trust in what the Buddha asks of us. Likewise, it is our duty, it is the only way we can repay the gift of Buddha-Dharma- to teach others, in whatever way we can. Even the smallest piece of Buddhist wisdom, presented in such a way that an individual takes and lives it, is what it is to be Bodhisattva’s.
“The king-the buddha, the queen-this sutra, come together, and this son- a bodhisattva, is born.”It would be hard to think of a better way of summing up the relationship between us, the Buddhas Teachings and the Buddhas themselves than this. Specifically this is the relationship between the Three Jewels/Treasures- Buddha, Dharma/sutra, and Sangha/ Bodhisattva.
“If a bodhisattva can hear one phrase or verse of this sutra…he will come to shake the three-thousand-great-thousandfold world, though he cannot yet realize the ultimate truth…Entering deeply into the secret Law of the buddhas, he will interpret it without error or fault. He will always be protected by all the buddhas, and especially covered with affection, because he is a beginner in learning.”We may take the first section to mean that even though we may not be fully enlightened, we still have the ability to ‘shake the universe’. To make an impact, through right practice and teaching of the Dharma. Provided that we reallypractice, and that we are sincere in doing so, we will penetrate deeply into it, interpreting it without error or fault. In other words, it is not limited to the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas in the sutras, we can do it too. We will be protected by the Buddha’s as we walk in their line, as their ‘good sons and good daughters’. Buddhas are not bound by space and time, having transcended the bounds of Samsara. And they are always there for us to draw on should we need to. There is also a reassurance here. The Buddha’s may not be able to ‘wipe away’ our misdeeds or ‘grant us enlightenment’ with a snap of the fingers, BUT they are there supporting us along the way. As mentors, as guides, as those who have gone before us. And there is something very comforting about all that. Knowing that, they have accomplished what we struggle with, that it can be done. That we have seniors to look up at.
“Fifthly…if good sons and good daughters keep, read, recite, and copy the Sutra of Innumerable Meanings…they will realize the way of great bodhisattva’s though they cannot yet be delivered from all the faults of an ordinary man and are still wrapped in delusions.” This is the first, but certainly not the last time, that these practices are mentioned in The Threefold Lotus Sutra. That is the practices of keeping, reading, reciting, and copying the sutras. These practices are ones that we should all try our best to engage in. Why? On a passive level they generate merit and good karmic fruit by virtue of propagating the truth, and passing it on. On an active level, in doing these practices, we cannot help but internalise the sutras. They no longer simply sit as words on a page, they become a part of how we see, and live in the world. By doing these things, we will assuredly, ‘realize the way of great bodhisattvas’. This isn’t a potential. This is an assurance, the Buddha assures us, that we WILL attain enlightenment.
“Sixthly…even though clothed in delusions, they will deliver living beings…and make them overcome all sufferings, by preaching the Law for them.” We have a precious treasure here. We have the capacity, though unenlightened to help deliver other beings also. Not only can we use the Dharma for our own benefit, but for the sake of others as well. This is similar to what is meant in the Maka Shikan when Tendai Daishi states that “Even a beginning practitioner becomes a refuge for the world if he has understood the meaning.”
“Seventhly…if good sons and good daughters… rejoice, believe, and raise the rare mind; keep, read, recite, copy, and expound it; practice it as it has been preached; aspire to buddhahood; cause all the good roots to sprout; raise the mind of great compassion; and want to relieve all living beings of sufferings, the Six Paramitas will be naturally present in them, though they cannot yet practice the Six Paramitas. “ To start with we have some practices to add to our list of duties. But we also have some ‘prerequisites’ if you will. To ‘rejoice, believe, and raise the rare mind’. That is, that our actions that follow, such as keeping, reading etc, must be undertaken with right motivation at the forefront. As we know, the most important thing underpinning our actions, is the motivation behind them. This is the time of motivation required here. If we can’t give it that, then what is it that we hope to achieve? On top of the practices mentioned earlier we have “expound it; practice it as it has been preached; aspire to buddhahood; cause all the good roots to sprout; raise the mind of great compassion; and want to liberate all sentient beings of sufferings”. The first one relates to our, using whatever Skillful Means necessary to help others gain the wisdom and peace of enlightenment. The second is important. As we mentioned earlier, it is important not to rely too heavily on our own intelligence. We have to practice Buddhism as it was preached. NOT ADDING other ideas that we have picked up along the way. NOT mixing in other doctrines and teachings that we picked up on our earlier spiritual shopping. Like a doctor, the Buddha prescribed the medicine- we have to take it. Mixing it with other ideas that we have would be like taking alcohol with your antibiotics. We also actually have to “aspire to buddhahood”. A lot of people come to Buddhism hoping to reduce their level of stress or look at the world in a slightly different way. Fine, there is no immediate problem with that. BUT, if you want to attain enlightenment, if you really want to fix the problems, samsara, then you HAVE TO aspire for the ultimate goal- and no other goal is worthy. We should cultivate our ‘good roots’ and cut off those which are unskilfull. And finally, true compassion, means wanting ‘all’ beings to be free of suffering- that includes your most hated enemies, that includes the worst tyrants and murderers from history-ALL beings.
And if we can do all of the above “the Six Paramitas will be naturally present” in us. The Six Paramita are specifically 1) Generosity/Giving, 2) Upholding the Precepts, 3) Patience, 4) Diligence, 5) Meditation, and 6) Prajna(Wisdom). These six forms of practice represents the those qualities which a Bodhisattva must embody. Therefore, what is being said here is that, while we may not have ‘mastered’ these practices as such, we can through doing the above begin to ‘embody’ them in a rather natural way. These teachings may be ‘explicated’, set out in all these different systems and given different titles and so forth- but in reality, they are qualities of Buddhahood and therefore arise as we cultivate the Path. We “come to attain the Law-treasure of the Six Paramitas even though (we) are not consciously seeking it.”
The Eighth Merit Power relates primarily to the ability of the practitioner of this sutra to “stir up faith and convert suddenly.” What this means is that practitioners of the Buddha’s Ultimate Teachings, through their example, through who they are, have the power to encourage others to walk the Path. Over time in our practice we begin to see how true this is, and at first it can be a little bit ‘odd’. We start thinking to ourselves ‘but I’m not a very good practitioner…how did I encourage him or her to practice?’ But as we have seen in this chapter, we don’t need to be perfectly enlightened. By every little thing we do, ‘flickers’ of the Buddha-Dharma radiate out, and that is all that is needed here. The other thing to note here is that the it talks about “worship(ping) this sutra with joy”. What does this mean? It seems strange that we might ‘worship’ a physical object…so why should we worship this sutra? Because the Threefold Lotus Sutra in its entirety, represents the enlightenment of the Buddhas. It represents the highest and most important truth expressible. That is why we should “worship this sutra with joy.”
“Ninthly…if good sons and good daughters, receiving this sutra…explain its meaning discriminatingly and widely for living beings, they will destroy the heavy barrier of sins resulting from previous karma and become purified”. In other words, if we teach it to people in such ways that they can understand it, in a manner that get through to them, by skillful means, then doing so will eradicate our previous negative karma. Why? Considering that we said earlier that Buddhas can’t simply ‘wash away our bad karma’, is this so? The Karmic ‘debt’ we have accumulated since time immemorial has grown to unimaginable heights over many many lifetimes. While we can’t ‘know’ precisely what we have done in the past, just imagine a little, based on your current life, what you have done over numberless lifetime without beginning. Imagine the pain you have caused, the sorrow you have been the cause of. All of this sounds rather terrible. But lets look at the reverse for a moment. When you teach the Dharma, teach people how to free themselves from pain and sufferings, that in itself is a wonderful action with good karmic consequences. But think down the line a little bit- every person you teach ends up teaching someone something in their lives, and they too might teach someone. That process will in some sense continue for generations to come. In some sense, you are the karmic originator of all of that good. When you teach someone, and they become a Bodhisattva in their corner of the world, you are responsible for bringing that Bodhisattva in some sense to those people. When you start to picture this process, you start to get a sense of why doing this “destroy(s) the heavy barrier of sin resulting from previous karma.” The rest of this merit power tells of how we, following this pattern, are able to be as Buddhas, relieving all beings, and attaining ultimate enlightenment.
Finally we arrive at the Tenth Merit Power. This merit power recaps much of what we have talked about and assures us that following all of this, we will certainly attain enlightenment, and help all others attain enlightenment as well.
The Buddha closes The Innumerable Meanings Sutra with the following instructions: “You should entertain a deep respect for this sutra, practice it as the Law, instruct all widely, and propagate it earnestly. You should protect it heartily day and night, and make all living beings obtain the benefits of the Law. This is truly great mercy and great compassion, so, offering the divine power of a vow, you should protect this sutra and not let anybody put obstacles in its way. Then you should have it practiced widely in Jambudvipa, and make all living beings observe, read, recite, copy, and adore it without fail. Because of this you will be made to attain Perfect Enlightenment rapidly.”