Category Archives: LS Introduction

Making Basic Lessons Easy to Understand

Sakyamuni predicted the enlightenment of the four great disciples just as he had with Sariputra. Chapters Three (“A Parable”), Four (“Understanding by Faith”), and Five (“The Simile of Herbs”) had used parables to clarify the basic lesson from Chapter Two (“Expedients”) – namely, all teachings are only expedients leading to the One Buddha Vehicle. The parables were followed up with assurances of future Buddhahood. In the next chapter, “The Parable of the Magic City,” he employs a different teaching method, showing how events in the remote past can affect the present and the future. This is called teaching by affinities with the past. These three methods – doctrinal teaching, parables, and affinities – are known as the Three Stages of Preaching. All three are designed to make the basic lesson easy for us to understand.

Introduction to the Lotus Sutra

The Universal Quality of the Buddha

This simile depicts the universal quality of the Buddha, who is like a large cloud that covers all the diverse beings of this world. Chapters Two and Three have introduced the teachings of the One Vehicle (the Truth), which unifies all kinds of philosophies and religions. The One Vehicle can also be understood as a manifestation of the Buddha’s personality, because he attained the Truth and manifested it in his very body. In the “Simile of Herbs,” the personality of the Buddha, the One Thus Come (Tathagata, the title by which he described himself after his enlightenment), is symbolized by the same kind of cloud, of rain, of content, or of taste.

Introduction to the Lotus Sutra

Under the Guidance of Our Father

Mental attitudes can be right or wrong; they can be noble or base. Faith that is formed through wrong mental attitudes is nothing more than superstition. Of course, there cannot be any errors in Sakyamuni’s teachings. But he expounded the law expediently in different ways according to our needs and abilities to understand. In this parable, the son, who believes himself to be base and humble, is a representation of all living beings. The father (the Buddha) educated his son with expedients in an effort to raise his base mind and make it into a noble one. This superior, noble mind is what we call the heart of the Buddha. Under the guidance of our father (the Buddha), we are all enabled to develop the heart of the Buddha, which every one of us already possesses by nature.

Introduction to the Lotus Sutra

Doctrines in the Lotus Sutra

The Buddhist faith often expounds difficult doctrines consisting of abstract philosophical ideas. When it comes to the Lotus Sutra, however, such complicated dogmas do not appear on the surface. For this reason, some critics have argued that there are no doctrines in the Lotus Sutra. But this is not true. The Lotus Sutra does contain profound philosophical thoughts. Instead of using tortuous logic, however, the Sutra explains its philosophy in the simplified form of stories, drawing on examples familiar to us from everyday life. This is why we find many parables in the text.

Introduction to the Lotus Sutra

Three Carts

From the theoretical standpoint, [The Parable of the Burning House] explains the relationship between the Three Vehicles and the One Vehicle. The three toy carts – the sheep-cart, deer-cart, and bullock-cart – respectively represent the Sravaka-Vehicle of the “hearers,” the Pratyekabuddha-Vehicle of the “private Buddhas,” and the Bodhisattva-Vehicle of those who serve and enlighten others. The large white bullock cart which is given to each of the children symbolizes the One Buddha Vehicle. The rich man first offered his children three kinds of carts as expedients, but in the end he gave each of them an identical large white bullock-cart. Obviously the Buddha told this parable to illustrate that the One Vehicle is true and the three are mere expedients. The differences between the One Vehicle and the Three Vehicles, which were discussed theoretically in Chapter Two, are now explained in a graphic story that anyone can understand and remember.

Introduction to the Lotus Sutra

The Three Stages of Preaching

This chapter is named “A Parable” because it contains a well-known story called, “The Burning House and the Three Carts” or “The Burning House of the Triple World.” The Lotus Sutra contains seven parables, commonly called the Seven Great Parables, and this is the first of them.

The first half of the Lotus Sutra (“Shakumon” or the “Theoretical Section”) is characterized by three stages of preaching. That is, the same subject is presented in three different ways according to the capacities of the hearers: first by a theory, then by a parable, and finally by means of a story from some previous existence. The teaching of the One Vehicle, for instance, is first presented theoretically in Chapter Two. Then it is illustrated by parables in Chapters Three, Four, Five, and Six. Finally its reason and purpose is clarified in Chapter Seven by a story from a previous existence.

Introduction to the Lotus Sutra

The Universal Truth

The Dharma which was attained and taught by Sakyamuni is the Universal Truth or Law, which must be acknowledged by every human being. There is only one Truth. However, so that people could understand it better, Sakyamuni expounded the one Truth in various ways, according to the capacities of his listeners. The varieties in Sakyamuni’s teaching show that the Truth is not rigid; rather it is flexible enough to be presented in different forms, according to the circumstances, despite its oneness. This is the reason Sakyamuni’s numerous sutras can be said to compose one and the same teaching. Unfortunately, sectarians, who did not understand the unity of Truth, began to turn these partial truths against each other and vie with each other for superiority. Their teachings, diverse as they may appear, are still united in the single teaching of the Buddha. The concept of the unification of doctrines is the very core of the teaching of the One Vehicle.

Sariputra

In Chapter One, Sakyamuni entered into the samadhi (deep concentration) on the Innumerable Teachings, and his body and mind became motionless. Now at the beginning of this chapter, he emerges quietly from that samadhi and begins to speak to Sariputra, one of his disciples. “The wisdom of the Buddhas,” he says, “is profound and immeasurable. Their wisdom cannot be understood by any “hearer” or “private Buddha.”

Sakyamuni chose Sariputra deliberately. He was a good example of a “hearer” who had attained the highest rank and become an arhat. In addition, he was considered the wisest among the ten great disciples of the Buddha. The Buddha begins his sermon with a gentle but firm criticism of the “hearers” and “private Buddhas.” The wisdom of the real Buddhas, he says, is far beyond their comprehension. The disciples must break from any attachment to their own way. Its results are only partial, not complete.

Introduction to the Lotus Sutra

Maitreya and Manjusri

The reader should bear in mind that at this point Sakyamuni’s preaching has not yet begun. In fact, the speakers here are not Sakyamuni but Maitreya and Manjusri, with the former asking the questions and the latter answering them. Sakyamuni takes no part at all in the conversation. His teachings will begin in the next chapter, “Expedients.” The two major elements of this chapter are: (1) Maitreya Bodhisattva’s description of the scene of various living beings illuminated by the ray of light emitted from the white curl between the Buddha’s eyebrows (in the present), and (2) Manjusri’s narrative on Wonderful-Light Bodhisattva (in the past).

Introduction to the Lotus Sutra

A Teaching Applicable Throughout the Cosmos

First of all, the narrative tells us that the Buddha’s light illuminated the east. Is there any special meaning to the east? One interpretation is that illuminating the east actually illuminating all directions, because the east represents them all. Another idea comes from Sanskrit. As the word purva (“east” in Sanskrit) also means “past” or “origin,” illuminating the east could be interpreted as “illuminating the origin of humanity.” At any rate, the chapter depicts in detail all kinds of spiritual seekers who are illuminated by the ray of light. This symbolizes the universality of the Lotus Sutra, a teaching that is applicable throughout the cosmos.

Introduction to the Lotus Sutra