The Lotus Sutra is one of the most important and influential of all the sutras or sacred scriptures of Mahayana Buddhism, revered by almost all branches of the Mahayana teachings, and over many centuries the object of intense veneration among Buddhist believers throughout China, Korea, Japan, and other regions of eastern Asia.
We do not know where or when the Lotus Sutra was composed, or in what language. Probably it was initially formulated in a local Indian dialect and then later put into Sanskrit to lend it greater respectability. All we can say for certain about the date of its composition is that it was already in existence by 255 ce, when the first Chinese translation of it was made. It was translated into Chinese several times subsequently, but it is through the version done in 406 by the Central Asian scholar-monk Kumarajiva that it has become widely known and read in China and the other countries within the Chinese cultural sphere of influence. This version has been universally acknowledged as the most authoritative and felicitous in language, and it is from this version that the present English translation has been made.
In recent years several Sanskrit texts of the Lotus Sutra, titled Saddharma-pundarika Sutra (The Lotus Sutra of the Wonderful Law), have been discovered in Nepal, Central Asia, and Kashmir. Some appear to have been copied in the eleventh century or later, some as early as the fifth or sixth century. Though the newer Sanskrit versions in particular differ considerably in places from the Kumarajiva translation, being often more verbose in expression, fragments of one of the oldest versions extant offer clear proof of the accuracy of his translation. This suggests that the text Kumarajiva followed was early in date, and may in fact have been quite close to the original version.
The Lotus Sutra, as just mentioned, was at an early date translated into Chinese, as well as into Tibetan, and in later centuries into Xi Xia, Mongol, Manchu, Korean, and Japanese. In recent years several translations into English and other European languages have appeared; now it is established as an important text of world literature.
Gautama, or Shakyamuni Buddha, the founder of Buddhism, appears to have lived in India sometime around the sixth or fifth century bce. Though it is difficult to describe his doctrines in detail, Buddhologists customarily accept several formulas as representative of his teachings. Most famous of these are the so-called four noble truths, which are referred to several times in the Lotus Sutra. These teach that (1) all existence in the saha world, the world in which we live at present, is marked by suffering; (2) that suffering is caused by craving; (3) that by doing away with craving one can gain release from suffering and reach a state of peace and enlightenment, often called nirvana; (4) that there is a method for achieving this goal, namely, the discipline known as the eightfold path. This is a set of moral principles enjoining one to cultivate right views, right thinking, right speech, right action, right way of life, right endeavor, right mindfulness, and right meditation.
Another doctrine, also touched on in the Lotus Sutra, is that of the twelve-linked chain of causation, or dependent origination, which illustrates step by step the causal relationship between ignorance and suffering. The purpose of the doctrine, like that of the four noble truths, is to wake one to the true nature of reality and help one to achieve emancipation from ignorance and suffering.
In order to pursue the kind of strenuous discipline needed to gain such release, it was thought all but imperative that one leave secular life and become a member of the Buddhist Order, which consisted of both monks and nuns. There, free from family entanglements and worldly concerns, one could devote oneself to a life of poverty, celibacy, and religious study and discipline, supported by the alms of the lay community. Lay believers could acquire religious merit by assisting the Order, observing the appropriate rules of moral conduct, and carrying out devotional practices such as paying obeisance at the stupas, or memorial towers, that housed the relics of the Buddha. But it was thought that they would have to wait until future existences before they could hope to gain full release from suffering.
Buddhism, it should be noted, took over from earlier Indian thought the belief in karma. According to this belief, all a one’s moral actions, whether good or bad, produce definite effects in one’s life, though such effects may take some time before manifesting themselves. According to the Indian view, living beings pass through an endless cycle of death and rebirth, and the ill effects of an evil action in one’s life may not become evident until some future existence; but that they will appear eventually is inescapable. Hence only by striving to do good in one’s present existence can one hope to escape even greater suffering in a future life.
Buddhism vehemently denied that there is any individual soul or personal identity that passes over from one existence to the next—to suppose there is is simply to open the way for further craving—but it did accept the idea of rebirth or transmigration, and taught that the circumstances or realm into which a being is reborn is determined by the good or bad acts done by that being in previous existences. This meant, among other things, that one did not necessarily have to struggle for release from suffering within a single lifetime, but could work at the goal of salvation step by step, performing good moral and devotional acts that would insure one of rebirth in more favorable circumstances in the future, and in this way gradually raising one’s level of spiritual attainment.
The tenets and practices of the religion I have described above are often referred to as Hinayana Buddhism. But Hinayana, which means “lesser vehicle,” is a derogatory term, applied to early Buddhism by a group within the religion that called itself Mahayana, or the “great vehicle,” and represented its doctrines as superior to and superseding those of earlier Buddhism. In keeping with the spirit of religious tolerance and mutual understanding that prevails in most quarters today, writers usually try to avoid use of the term “Hinayana,” instead referring to the earlier form of Buddhism as “Theravada,” or “Teachings of the Elders,” which is the name used by the branch of it that continues in existence today. This is the form of Buddhism that prevails at present in Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos.
The Mahayana movement appears to have begun in India around the first or second century of the Common Era. In part it was probably a reaction against the great emphasis upon monastic life that marked earlier Buddhism and against the arid psychological and metaphysical speculations that characterize much of early Buddhist philosophy. It aimed to open up the religious life to a wider proportion of the population, to accord a more important role to lay believers, to give more appealing expression to the teachings and make them more readily accessible.
In earlier Buddhism the goal of religious striving had been to achieve the state of arhat, or “worthy,” one who has “nothing more to learn” and has escaped rebirth in the lower realms of existence. Even to reach this state, however, it was believed, required many lifetimes of strenuous exertion. But Mahayana urged men and women to aim for nothing less than the achievement of the highest level of enlightenment, that of buddhahood. Enormous help in reaching this exalted goal, it was stressed, would come to them through figures known as bodhisattvas, beings who are dedicated not only to attaining enlightenment for themselves but, out of their immense compassion, to helping others to do likewise. Earlier Buddhism often described Shakyamuni Buddha as a bodhisattva in his previous existences, when he was still advancing toward enlightenment. But in Mahayana texts such as the Lotus Sutra the bodhisattvas are pictured as unlimited in number, all-seeing and all-caring, capable of extending boundless aid and succor to those who call upon them in sincere faith. Indeed, this great emphasis upon the role of the bodhisattva is one of the main characteristics that distinguish Mahayana thought from that of earlier Buddhism.
As first the proponents of these new Mahayana beliefs seem in many cases to have lived side by side in the same monasteries as the adherents of the earlier teachings. But doctrinal clashes arose from time to time and the two groups eventually drew apart. The Mahayana doctrines appear to have dominated in northwestern India, where they spread into the lands of Central Asia and thence into China. As a result, Chinese Buddhism was from the first overwhelmingly Mahayana in character, and it was this Mahayana version of the faith that in time was introduced to Korea, Japan, and Vietnam, where it continues in existence today.
The World of the Lotus Sutra
The Lotus Sutra depicts events that take place in a cosmic world of vast dimensions, a world in many ways reflecting traditional Indian views of the structure of the universe. For those who are not familiar with such views, it may be well to describe them here in brief. The world in which we live at present, it was believed, is made up of four continents ranged around a great central mountain, Mount Sumeru. We live in the continent located to the south, known as Jambudvipa, or the “continent of the jambu trees.” Outside of our present world there exist countless others spread out in all directions, some similarly made up of four continents, others realms presided over by various buddhas. All these worlds, like our own, are caught up in a never-ending cycle of formation, continuance, decline, and disintegration, a process that takes place over vast kalpas, or eons of time.
The ordinary beings living in our present world fall into six categories or occupy six realms of existence, arranged in hierarchical order in terms of their desirability. Lowest are the hell dwellers, beings who because of their evil actions in the past are compelled, for a time at least, to suffer in the various hells that exist beneath the earth, the most terrible of which is the Avichi hell, or the hell of incessant suffering. On a slightly higher level are the hungry ghosts or spirits, beings who are tormented by endless hunger and craving. Above this is the level of beasts, or beings of animal nature, and above that the realm of the asuras, demons who are pictured in Indian mythology as constantly engaged in angry warfare. These first three or four realms represent the “evil paths,” the lowest, most painful and undesirable states of existence.
Above these is the fifth level, the realm of human beings, and the sixth, that of the heavenly beings or gods. The gods, though they lead far happier lives than the beings in the other realms, are doomed in time to die. Whatever the realm, all the beings in these six realms repeat the never-ending cycle of death and rebirth, moving up or down from one level to another depending upon the good or evil deeds they have committed, but never gaining release from the cycle.
To these six lower worlds or levels Mahayana Buddhism adds four more, the “noble states,” representative of the life of enlightenment. On the seventh level are the shravakas, or voice-hearers. This term, by which they are known in the Lotus Sutra, originally referred simply to the Buddha’s disciples, those who had entered the Buddhist Order and learned the doctrines and practices directly from him. In the Lotus it also refer to those monks and nuns who followed the teachings of early Buddhism, such as the four noble truths, and strove to attain the state of arhat. Once they attained that state they ceased their endeavors, convinced that they had gained the highest goal possible for them.
Above these, on the eighth level, are the pratyekabuddhas, cause-awakened ones or self-enlightened ones, beings who have won an understanding of the truth through the Buddha’s early teachings or through their own observations of nature, but who make no effort to assist others to reach enlightenment. On the ninth level are the bodhisattvas, already described above, who out of compassion concern themselves not only with their own entry into buddhahood, but also with alleviating the sufferings of others. On the tenth and highest level are the buddhas, representing the state of buddhahood. It is this level, according to Mahayana doctrine, that all living beings should seek to attain, and which, it insists, they can attain if they will not content themselves with lesser goals but have faith in the Buddha and his teachings as these are embodied in the sacred scriptures.
Before passing on to a discussion of the particular doctrines set forth in the Lotus Sutra, there is one more aspect of the Mahayana worldview that must be touched upon, difficult though it is to treat in the limited space that can be allotted here. This is the concept of emptiness or void (shunyata), which is so central to the whole Mahayana system of belief.
The concept, often described in English as “nondualism,” is extremely hard for the mind to grasp or visualize, since the mind engages constantly in the making of distinctions and nondualism represents the rejection or transcendence of all distinctions. The world perceived through the senses, the phenomenal world as we know it, was described in early Buddhism as “empty” because it was taught that all such phenomena arise from causes and conditions, are in a constant state of flux, and are destined to change and pass away in time. They are also held to be “empty” in the sense that they have no inherent or permanent characteristics by which they can be described, changing as they do from instant to instant. But in Mahayana thought it became customary to emphasize not the negative but rather the positive aspects or import of the doctrine of emptiness. If all phenomena are characterized by the quality of emptiness, then emptiness must constitute the unchanging and abiding nature of existence, and therefore the absolute or unchanging world must be synonymous with the phenomenal one. Hence all mental and physical distinctions that we perceive or conceive of with our minds must be part of a single underlying unity. It is this concept of emptiness or nonduality that leads the Mahayana texts to assert that samsara, or the ordinary world of suffering and cyclical birth and death, is in the end identical with the world of nirvana, and that earthly desires are enlightenment.
The Principal Doctrines of the Lotus Sutra
The Kumarajiva translation of the Lotus Sutra as it exists at present is made up of twenty-eight chapters. Nearly all the chapters consist of a combination of prose and verse passages. Verse form was used to make it easier for the followers of the religion to memorize the teachings and retain them in mind, and the gathas, or verse passages, were probably composed first. Later, as the sutra moved toward its final form, prose passages were added that incorporated the verse sections into a continuous narrative. In the present arrangement of the text, the verse sections usually repeat what has already been stated in a preceding prose passage.
Like nearly all sutras, the Lotus begins with the words “This is what I heard.” These have traditionally been interpreted as having been spoken by the Buddha’s close disciple Ananda, who was present at many of the Buddha’s expositions of the Dharma, or doctrine. The speaker then proceeds to describe the occasion when, at Mount Gridhrakuta, or Eagle Peak, near the city of Rajagriha, the Buddha preached the Lotus Sutra.
In these opening sentences we are still in the world of historical reality or possibility, in a setting in the outskirts of the city of Rajagriha in northern India in which Gautama, or Shakyamuni, very probably did in fact propound his doctrines in the sixth or fifth century bce.
But as Ananda proceeds to describe the staggering number and variety of human, nonhuman, and heavenly beings who have gathered to listen to the Buddha’s discourse, we realize that we have left the world of factual reality far behind. This is the first point to keep in mind in reading the Lotus Sutra. Its setting, its vast assembly of listeners, its dramatic occurrences in the end belong to a realm that totally transcends our ordinary concepts of time, space, and possibility. Again and again we are told of events that took place countless, indescribable numbers of kalpas, or eons, in the past, or of beings or worlds that are as numerous as the sands of millions and billions of Ganges Rivers. Such “numbers” are in fact no more than pseudo-numbers or non-numbers, intended to impress on us the impossibility of measuring the immeasurable. They are not meant to convey any statistical data but simply to boggle the mind and jar it loose from its conventional concepts of time and space. For in the realm of emptiness, time and space as we conceive them are meaningless; anywhere is the same as everywhere, and now, then, never, forever are all one.
After several astounding events that impress upon us the truly cosmic scale of the drama that is unfolding, the Buddha begins to preach. The first important point he wishes to convey is that there is only one vehicle or one path to salvation, that which leads to the goal of buddhahood. Earlier in his preaching career, he had described three paths for the believer, what he calls the three vehicles. One was that of the shravaka, or voice-hearer, which leads to the realm of the arhat. Second was that of the pratyekabuddha, the being who gains enlightenment for himself alone, and the third was that of the bodhisattva. But now, the Buddha tells us, these lesser paths or goals are to be set aside and all beings are to aim for the single goal of buddhahood, the one and only vehicle to true enlightenment, or what the Lotus Sutra calls supreme perfect enlightenment.
When asked why, if there is only the single vehicle or truth, the Buddha has earlier taught his followers the doctrine of the three vehicles, he replies that at that time they were not yet ready to comprehend or accept the highest truth. Therefore he had to employ what he terms an expedient means in order to lead them gradually along the road to greater understanding. He then illustrates his point through the famous parable of the burning house.
The first lesson the sutra wishes to teach, then, is that its doctrines, delivered by the Buddha some forty or more years after the start of his preaching career, which is how the Lotus depicts them, represent the highest level of truth, the summation of the Buddha’s message, superseding his earlier pronouncements, which had only provisional validity.
In some Mahayana texts Shariputra and the other close disciples of the Buddha, who represent the “lesser vehicle” outlook and path of endeavor, are held up to ridicule or portrayed as figures of fun. But the prevailing mood of the Lotus Sutra is one of compassion, and in it the voice-hearers are shown responding to the Buddha’s words with understanding and gratitude. In return, the Buddha bestows on each of them a prophecy of the attainment of buddhahood in a future existence, and in many cases reveals the type of buddha land each will preside over.
The mood of revelation and rejoicing continues in the chapters that follow as the Buddha names more persons who are assured of attaining buddhahood. The company of nuns who are attending the assembly, headed by the Buddha’s aunt, Mahaprajapati, and his wife in his younger years, Yashodhara, at one point grow apprehensive because their names have not been mentioned, but the Buddha assures them that they too are included in his predictions of buddhahood.
All these monks and nuns have been personal followers of Shakyamuni Buddha, diligent in religious practice and faultless in their observance of the rules of conduct, and it is hardly surprising to learn that their efforts are to be crowned with success. Truly surprising, however, is the prophecy set forth in chapter twelve concerning Devadatta, who gives his name to the chapter.
Devadatta is described in accounts of the life of Shakyamuni Buddha as a disciple and cousin of the Buddha who, though full of zeal at first, later grew envious of Shakyamuni, made several attempts on his life, and schemed to foment division in the Order. For these crimes, among the most heinous in the eyes of Buddhism, he was said to have fallen into hell alive. Yet in chapter twelve of the Lotus Sutra the Buddha reveals that in a past existence this epitome of evil was in fact a good friend and teacher of the Buddha, preaching the way of enlightenment for him, and that in an era to come, Devadatta will without fail become a buddha himself. From this we learn that even the most depraved of persons can hope for salvation, and that in the realm of nondualism good and evil are not the eternal and mutually exclusive opposites we had supposed them to be.
Chapter twelve relates another affair of equally astounding import. In it, the bodhisattva Manjushri describes how he has been preaching the Lotus Sutra at the palace of the dragon king at the bottom of the sea. The nagas, or dragons, it should be noted, are one of eight kinds of nonhuman beings who are believed to protect Buddhism. They were revered in early Indian folk religion and were taken over by Buddhism, whose scriptures often portray them as paying homage to the Buddha and seeking knowledge of his teachings.
Asked if there were any among his listeners who succeeded in gaining enlightenment, Manjushri mentions the daughter of the dragon king Sagara, a girl just turned eight, who was able to master all the teachings. The questioner expresses understandable skepticism, pointing out that even Shakyamuni himself required many eons of religious practice before he could achieve enlightenment.
The girl herself then appears and before the astonished assembly performs various acts that demonstrate she has in fact achieved the highest level of understanding and can “in an instant” attain buddhahood. Earlier Buddhism had asserted that women are gravely hampered in their religious endeavors by “five obstacles,” one of which is the fact that they can never hope to attain buddhahood. But all such assertions are here in the Lotus Sutra unequivocally thrust aside. The child is a dragon, a nonhuman being, she is of the female sex, and she has barely turned eight, yet she reaches the highest goal in the space of a moment. Once again the Lotus Sutra reveals that its revolutionary doctrines operate in a realm transcending all petty distinctions of sex or species, instant or eon.
These joyous revelations concerning the universal accessibility of buddhahood, which occupy the middle chapters of the sutra, constitute the second important message of the work. The third is set forth in chapter sixteen. In chapter fifteen we are told how a vast multitude of bodhisattvas spring up from the earth in a miraculous manner in order that they may undertake the task of transmitting and protecting the teachings of the Buddha. When the Buddha is asked who these bodhisattvas are, he replies that they are persons whom he has taught and guided to enlightenment. His questioner quite naturally asks how Shakyamuni could possibly have taught and converted such immeasurable multitudes in the course of only forty years of preaching.
In chapter sixteen Shakyamuni reveals the answer to this riddle. The Buddha, he says, is an eternal being, ever present in the world, ever concerned for the salvation of all beings. He attained buddhahood an incalculably distant time in the past, and has never ceased to abide in the world since then. He seems at times to pass away into nirvana, and at other times to make a new appearance in the world. But he does this only so that living beings will not take his presence for granted and be slack in their quest for enlightenment. His seeming disappearance is no more than an expedient means that he employs to encourage them in their efforts, one of many such expedients that he adopts in order to fit his teachings to the different natures and capacities of individual beings and insure that those teachings will have relevance for all. From this we see that in the Lotus Sutra the Buddha, who had earlier been viewed as a historical personality, is now conceived as a being who transcends all boundaries of time and space, an ever-abiding principle of truth and compassion that exists everywhere and within all beings.
These then are the principal teachings of the Lotus Sutra, concepts that are basic to all Mahayana thought. In the sutra they are often very beautifully and persuasively expounded, especially in the various parables for which the Lotus is famous. But one should not approach the Lotus expecting to find in it a methodical exposition of a system of philosophy. Some of the principles traditionally thought to be most important in Buddhism are only touched upon in passing, as though one is expected to be acquainted with them already, while many of the more revolutionary doctrines are not presented in any orderly fashion or supported by careful or detailed arguments but rather thrust upon one with the suddenness of divine revelation.
The text, with its long lists of personages, its astronomical numbers, its formulaic language and frequent repetitions, its vivid parables, is incantatory in effect, appealing not so much to the intellect as to the emotions. It may be noted that in the early centuries of Buddhism it was customary not to put the teachings into written form but to transmit them orally, the works being committed to memory as had been the practice in earlier Indian religion. This was thought to be the proper way, the respectful way to transmit them and insure that they were not revealed to persons who were unqualified or unworthy to receive them. The formulaic language, the recapitulations in verse, the repetitions were all designed to assist the memory of the reciter, and these stylistic features were retained even after the scriptures had been put into written form.
Very early in the sutra the Buddha warns us that the wisdom of the buddhas is extremely profound and difficult to comprehend, and this warning is repeated frequently in later chapters. The Lotus Sutra tells us at times that the Lotus Sutra is about to be preached, at other times it says that the Lotus Sutra has already been preached with such-and-such results, and at still other times it gives instructions on just how the Lotus Sutra is to be preached or enumerates in detail the merits that accrue to one who pays due honor to the text. But readers may be forgiven if they come away from the work wondering just which of the chapters that make it up was meant to be the Lotus Sutra itself. One writer has in fact been led to describe the sutra as a text “about a discourse that is never delivered, . . . a lengthy preface without a book.”1 This is no doubt because Mahayana Buddhism has always insisted that its highest truth can never in the end be expressed in words, since words immediately create the kind of distinctions that violate the unity of emptiness. All the sutra can do, therefore, is to talk around it, leaving a hole in the middle where truth can reside.
But of course in the view of religion there are other approaches to truth than merely through words and intellectual discourse. The sutra therefore exhorts the individual to approach the wisdom of the buddhas through the avenue of faith and religious practice. The profound influence that the Lotus Sutra has exerted upon the cultural and religious life of the countries of eastern Asia is due as much to its function as a guide to devotional practice as to the actual ideas that it expounds. It calls upon us to act out the sutra with our bodies and minds rather than merely reading it, and in that way to enter into its meaning.
Much of the Lotus Sutra is taken up with injunctions to the believer to “accept and uphold, read, recite, copy, and teach” it to others, and with descriptions of the bountiful merits to be gained by such action, as well as warnings of the evil effects of speaking ill of the sutra and those who uphold it. In addition, one is encouraged to make offerings to the buddhas and bodhisattvas, to the stupas, or memorial towers, and to the monastic Order. Flowers, incense, music, and chants of praise are the customary offerings cited in the sutra, along with food, clothing, bedding, and other daily necessities in the case of members of the Order. Gold, silver, gems, and other valuables are also listed among the offerings, but lest this would seem to put the rich at an advantage, the sutra early on emphasizes that it is the spirit in which the offering is made rather than the article itself that is important. Even a tower of sand fashioned by children in play, if offered in the proper spirit, will be acceptable in the sight of the Buddha and bring reward, we are told. It may be noted that the animal sacrifices so central to the earlier Vedic religion were rejected by Buddhism as abhorrent. One chapter of the Lotus does in fact describe a bodhisattva who burned his own body as a form of sacrifice, but the passage is clearly meant to be taken metaphorically. Despite this fact, some believers of later times, in their eagerness to emulate the bodhisattva’s example, have interpreted it with tragic literalness.
Most famous and influential of the devotional chapters of the Lotus Sutra are those with which the work closes and that portray various bodhisattvas who can render particular aid and protection to the believer. Noteworthy among these is chapter twenty-five, which centers on a bodhisattva named Avalokitasvara2, or Perceiver of the World’s Sounds, known in China as Guanyin and in Japan as Kannon. The chapter relates in very concrete terms the wonderful types of assistance that the bodhisattva can render to persons of all different social levels and walks of life, ranging from kings and high ministers to traveling merchants or criminals in chains. In order to make his teaching and aid most readily acceptable to all kinds of beings, the bodhisattva is prepared to take on thirty-three different forms, matching his form to that of the being who calls upon him, whether that being be man or woman, exalted or humble, human or nonhuman in nature. Through chapters such as these, which have been recited with fervor by countless devotees over the centuries, the sutra has brought comfort and hope to all levels of society.
Because of its importance as an expression of basic Mahayana thought, its appeal as a devotional work, its dramatic scenes and memorable parables, the Lotus, as already emphasized, has exerted an incalculable influence upon the culture of East Asia. More commentaries have been written on it than on any other Buddhist scripture. The great works of Chinese and Japanese literature such as The Dream of the Red Chamber and The Tale of Genji are deeply imbued with its ideas and imagery, and its scenes are among the most frequently depicted in the religious art of the area.
The Lotus is not so much an integral work as a collection of religious texts, an anthology of sermons, stories, and devotional manuals, some speaking with particular force to persons of one type or in one set of circumstances, some to those of another type or in other circumstances. This is no doubt one reason why it has had such broad and lasting appeal over the ages and has permeated so deeply into the cultures that have been exposed to it.
The present translation is offered in the hope that through it readers of English may come to appreciate something of the power and appeal of the Lotus Sutra, and that among its wealth of profound religious ideas and striking imagery they may find passages that speak compellingly to them as well.