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.
Another thing we can learn from the Simile of the Herbs is the notion that the Dharma is present everywhere. There is not a special place to attain enlightenment. The plants did not have to move or change location to benefit from the nourishing rain from the cloud. So too, we do not need to be in a different location, have a different set of neighbors, change jobs, or have different families, or even government. None of those things are factors in determining our ability to practice and receive benefit from the Lotus Sutra. The only limiting factor in our attaining enlightenment is simply our own self. If when you look around your life and you see some place that is not the land of the Buddha, it is simply because you are not viewing your life with the eyes of the Buddha. In other words if where you are is not the Buddha land then there is no Buddha present.
In the Simile of the Herbs, the one teaching – the single Buddha vehicle teaching of the Lotus Sutra – is applicable to all regardless of the many things we tend to hold up as measures of difference and inequality. When it comes to the teachings of the Buddha there can be no mistaking the divisions of class, education, economic standing, race, gender, sexual orientation, and on the list could go, these things do not matter when it comes to who is able to benefit from practicing the Lotus Sutra.
Thinking about ourselves and the Simile of the Herbs, if we say we are Buddhist but have no practice or don’t follow the precepts we are like a plant with no stem or tree without a trunk. It won’t be possible for us to support our faith and wisdom without the connection the stem provides. So too our practice, our chanting Odaimoku, is the connection that allows our faith and our wisdom to grow. Our faith harmoniously supports our practice and wisdom. You could say that study is our mind, which is the branches holding the leaves or wisdom of our lives. Our manifestation of enlightenment is dependent upon our faith, our practice, and our study. Without all three we cannot effectively maintain the kind of life that is capable of manifesting our innate Buddha potential.
This story in the Simile of the Herbs of the rain of the Dharma falling equally on all the various plants and herbs equally benefiting all according to their unique capacity also highlights the equality and inclusivity of the Lotus Sutra teaching. The teaching of Buddhism can benefit all beings and it does so without either diminishing the teaching or devaluing or diminishing those who apply it to their lives. There is no loss of the value of practice and faith regardless of our inner capacity or our physical ability. The Dharma looses no value and neither do we.
This story [in the Simile of the Herbs] of the rain of the Dharma falling equally on all the various plants and herbs equally benefiting all according to their unique capacity also highlights the equality and inclusivity of the Lotus Sutra teaching. The teaching of Buddhism can benefit all beings and it does so without either diminishing the teaching or devaluing or diminishing those who apply it to their lives. There is no loss of the value of practice and faith regardless of our inner capacity or our physical ability. The Dharma loses no value and neither do we.
Looking at the plants themselves [in the Simile of the Herbs] we can say that roots equal faith, stems equal precepts or practice, branches equal firm mind, and leaves equal wisdom. Plants as they grow must do so with each part in proportion to the others. A plant will not stay alive long if it has a massive root system sucking up nourishment and no stem or branches or leaves with which to transport the nourishment or to process it through photosynthesis. If there is a strong stem, lots of leaves, but no roots to soak up moisture and chemicals from the soil then the leaves will eventually whither and die. All of the parts of a plant must be developed in harmony with each other.
[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.