Over several years I have given various lectures on the Lotus Sutra. In some instances the talks were given to a few people, in others the audience was quite large. Some times the same person would hear one or two lectures, but no one has heard them all. For what they are worth I have decided to put much of the best of the lectures here in this book. I first encountered the Lotus Sutra in 1969 when I was fresh out of Marine boot camp. I knew a little about Buddhism before I went to that first activity. I had studied a little of Buddhism in high school and college. I can honestly say now that what I really knew at that time was next to nothing. This is not a linear exposition of the sutra. This is a very circular approach, meandering even, I’ll mention something about a chapter in one part of the book, and then in another part of the book I may mention the same thing again but from a different perspective. I like to think of my approach to unraveling the mysteries of the Lotus Sutra as thematically oriented. This is not to say my approach is better than a linear chapter-by-chapter explanation. It is just a way that makes sense to me. I should point out that non-linear story telling is very popular in the south in America as well as much of Africa. There is reason to suspect the non-linear way may actually resonate with others as well. It is always a great joy when I am able to talk about the Lotus Sutra, and this book project has been no exception. I hope you think of this as a couple of friends sitting on the porch swing talking about something that means something important to both.
[In the Simile of the Herbs] small herbs represent humans and deities. The middle plants represent hearers and private Buddhas or Sravakas and Pratyekabuddhas. Finally, the large plants represent Bodhisattvas. The rain of the Dharma of the Lotus Flower Sutra is intended to be a teaching that is appropriate for all practitioners of the Dharma. No longer is there a separate teaching for different practitioners. The Lotus Sutra is the culmination of all the previous teachings of the Buddha. The Lotus Sutra represents a shift from teachings by expedients to teaching the fundamental truth. You could say that with the teaching of the Lotus Sutra, the Buddha has taken the wrapper off of Buddhism.
The unification of the spirit of the Buddha, the mind of the Buddha, and the teachings of the Buddha are clearly stated when he says that he knows all, and he knows the Way. He states that he has opened the path up to us based upon his wisdom and skill. Even when the Buddha seemed to be teaching different paths to enlightenment he was in fact teaching the true single way to eliminate suffering. He has experienced the truth of the equality of all Buddhas through his own life, he is teaching this to us through his many teachings leading up to the ultimate of the Lotus Sutra, and because of these he has made it possible for all beings to attain what he himself has attained.
Buddhism is not about prosperity practice. Our goal should be to eliminate suffering, and attachment to material gain is an attachment and bound to eventually lead to more suffering. No thing is immune to decay, even wealth and if not the wealth then certainly the body. The goal of our practice is to become enlightened, to manifest our inherent Buddha potential, and thereby convert our lands into the Buddha’s pure land.
There is a passage from the Simile of Herbs chapter that is read at the Segaki, Feeding Hungry Ghosts, service, which is performed for the deceased. … During this service we read the passage where the Buddha states he will cause all beings to cross the ocean of birth and death. He goes on and states he will cause them to break free of suffering, have peace of mind, and attain Nirvana. The intent of the Buddha is clear; every thing he does and has done, has been for the sole purpose of benefiting living beings enabling the release from suffering. It is important to note here that there is no specific promise of material gain or benefit.
There are not different rains there is only the one rain falling from the single cloud. The Buddha in his skillful wisdom knew what each of his disciples was capable of understanding. He taught according to that capacity with the objective of eventually leading them deeper so they could partake of the complete Dharma. This is one reason why we say that previous to the Lotus Sutra the Buddha taught according to the minds of those he was teaching, and in the Lotus Sutra the Buddha teaches according to his own mind.
The Buddha is saying in the Simile of Herbs that all along – even as he was teaching appropriate to Sravakas, Pratyekabuddhas, and Bodhisattvas – he was in essence teaching in a way that was preparing for the Lotus Sutra. These initial teachings are all part of the Lotus Sutra. That is why it is important that people not come to a conclusion that the Lotus Sutra replaces or does away with the previous teachings of the Buddha. We have to think of the teachings as being on a continuum that is leading to the ultimate truth revealed by the Buddha in the Lotus Sutra.
The Buddha all along was teaching the same Dharma but he did so according to the capacity of the people he was teaching.
As people take faith in the Lotus Sutra initially there is limited capacity for understanding. As time goes on and our capacity for understanding and incorporating the teachings in our lives increases, then we are able to see even deeper into the Dharma.
There is little that is obscured to us in interpreting The Simile of Herbs. The Buddha is pretty straightforward in saying that he is like the cloud. It seems simple enought to then think the rain represents the Dharma. The interesting thing is the Buddha, while explaining the Dharma is like the rain that falls evenly over all the plants, compares his different teachings to the different capacities of the people who have heard the Dharma.
In other words, the difference in Dharma is only as it applies to the person who takes nourishment from it. Fundamentally, there are not different Dharma teachings. There is only one teaching which appears to be different because of the capacity of the person hearing it.
There are some who may come to activities, perhaps frequently, but then the rest of their life is preoccupied with other things and so do not practice or follow Buddhism. There may be religious experience, but there is not fundamental embracing and manifesting in life of religious action. We could say they only have a nominal belief in Buddhism. It is worth our while to frequently reflect on our day-to-day actions and see how deeply our religious belief extends into our lives. Perhaps it is deep or perhaps it is shallow; honesty is the place where it can begin to change.
What the Buddha is trying to teach us in the Parable of the Rich Man and His Poor Son is that we all are inherently capable and endowed with the capacity to become enlightened and inherit the great fortune of all Buddhas. It isn’t about standing along side and comparing our life to the life of some other, but about being awakened to our own potential and recognizing the potential in others as being unique and yet the same.