three cycles of preaching ［三周の説法］ ( sanshū-no-seppō): Three cycles of preaching described in the Lotus Sutra, in which Shakyamuni Buddha’s voice-hearer disciples grasp the doctrine of the “replacement of the three vehicles with the one vehicle.” The doctrine reveals that the three vehicles—the teachings for voice-hearers, cause-awakened ones, and bodhisattvas—are not ends in themselves, as the Buddha had taught in sutras other than the Lotus, but expedient means by which he leads people to the one vehicle of Buddhahood. Each of the three cycles consists of Shakyamuni’s preaching, his disciples’ understanding what he has preached, and his bestowal of a prediction of future enlightenment upon his disciples. The three cycles of preaching occur in the eight chapters of the Lotus Sutra from “Expedient Means” (second) through “Prophecies” (ninth), and the three correspond respectively to three groups of disciples Shakyamuni teaches: those of superior, intermediate, and inferior capacity.
First, in the “Expedient Means” chapter, Shakyamuni preaches the doctrine of the true aspect of all phenomena and replaces the three vehicles with the one vehicle, i.e., that his disciples must abandon the three vehicles and accept the one vehicle. Shāriputra, who is of superior capacity, understands Shakyamuni’s preaching, and his enlightenment is then predicted in the “Simile and Parable” (third) chapter.
Second, in the “Simile and Parable” chapter, Shakyamuni relates the parable of the three carts and the burning house for those who have failed to understand the principle. Maudgalyāyana, Mahākāshyapa, Kātyāyana, and Subhūti, who are of intermediate capacity, understand the Buddha’s intention through this parable, and their enlightenment is predicted in the “Bestowal of Prophecy” (sixth) chapter.
Third, in the “Parable of the Phantom City” (seventh) chapter, Shakyamuni reveals the relationship between himself and his disciples since the remote past, in order to enlighten those who have failed to understand the meaning of the parable. Pūrna, Ānanda, Rāhula, and many others of inferior capacity, upon hearing about that relationship with Shakyamuni, understand the Buddha’s intention and thereby awaken to the one Buddha vehicle. Their enlightenment is predicted in the “Five Hundred Disciples” (eighth) and “Prophecies” chapters.