The Stories of the Lotus Sutra - Introduction
Be forewarned! This book might transform you into the kind of Buddhist who loves the Lotus Sutra and therefore deeply cares about this world. It is a commentary on the stories of the Lotus Sutra, a sutra that more than any other has been both loved and reviled. Though intended to be a companion volume to my translation of the Lotus Sutra, this does not mean that it cannot be read without the translation at hand. I think everything in this book can be understood on its own. Still, one’s understanding of the Dharma Flower Sutra will be greatly enhanced by reading the translation—or better yet by reading a Chinese version!
In this book I try to avoid use of non-English terms, including Sanskrit terms. Yet to some extent they cannot be avoided. I frequently use such terms as buddha, dharma, bodhisattva, shravaka, pratyekabuddha, and so on, all of which are Sanskrit terms, though some have been brought into the English language. In my view at least, good translations of these terms are not to be found. On the other hand, there are Sanskrit terms often used in English by Buddhist scholars and others that I believe can indeed better be understood in translation.
Chinese Buddhist terms, both proper names and common nouns, can be and often are translated in various ways. In fact, a great many Sanskrit Buddhist terms have been translated in various ways into Chinese. The Buddhist names and terms used in this book are all from my translation, The Lotus Sutra. In the back of that volume, you can find two large glossaries in which are shown Sanskrit, Chinese, and Japanese versions of all of the proper names and Buddhist terms found in this book.
Though originally given as a series of lectures, versions of most of the chapters in this book were previously published in the magazine Dharma World over a period of several years. All have been revised for this volume, and some new material has been added. I have tried to have the vocabulary of this work be consistent, from beginning to end of the book itself, and also with that of my translation.
During most of my adult life I have been both a teacher and a preacher, roles which I understand to be different, though, of course, teaching can be included within preaching and sometimes a little preaching may show up in a teacher. And that is what this book does, at least that is what I hope it does. I hope it will inspire at least some readers not only to understand the Lotus Sutra better but also to embrace it, at least some part of its core teaching. I hope some will be moved by it to improve their lives in some significant way. But where it has seemed relevant to do so, I have included factual information both about the text and about the subjects of the stories in the text.
I hope it will shed some light on and even open up the profound meaning of that text—which is normally known in East Asia as the Dharma Flower Sutra.2 (In this book I will use “Lotus Sutra” and “Dharma Flower Sutra” interchangeably.) Though any text, including the Dharma Flower Sutra, can be interpreted and understood in various ways, I believe that this text is first of all a religious text, intended primarily not to settle some dispute among monks in ancient India, or to expound philosophical doctrines, but rather to influence the lives of its hearers or readers in highly significant ways. In an important way, we might say that the text wants to teach and transform you! For that purpose to be fulfilled or even appreciated widely, it is important that the meaning and thrust of the Sutra be readily available to ordinary English-language readers. This attempt to interpret the Lotus Sutra in plain words is an attempt to have its rich meanings and significance available to a wider and widening audience.
The Lotus Sutra uses a variety of stories, including its famous parables, to draw us into its world, a world in which, if we truly enter it, we are likely to be transformed. It is thus a book of enchantment, a story book.
Emphasis on stories can be contrasted with emphasis on doctrines, or, as we tend to prefer these days, “teachings.” The Lotus Sutra does have teachings. Indeed, one meaning of “dharma” is “teachings.” Most important perhaps of its teachings are the doctrines of skillful means, of the One Buddha Vehicle, of the long life of the Buddha and many embodiments of Buddha, and of universal buddha-nature. An outline of the main teachings can be found in my “Translators Introduction” to The Lotus Sutra. Stories, perhaps parables especially, can be seen as illustrations of such teachings, and often they are. This is one way to understand and interpret the Lotus Sutra—but to understand its teachings and stories only in this way may be to miss what the Lotus Sutra is really about.
I believe that nearly everything taught in the Lotus Sutra is for the purpose of reorienting the lives of its hearers and readers. Its teachings, I believe, are not—at least not primarily—for giving us interesting ideas, or for adding to our store of knowledge, or for teaching us doctrines to believe or affirm. The teachings of the Dharma Flower Sutra are aimed at changing people’s lives.
In this sense, the Dharma Flower Sutra is as much, or more, an earthly, bodily, “physical” text as it is a spiritual one. It aims not merely for spiritual experiences, but change in behavior. In Chapter 12, the Bodhisattva Accumulated Wisdom says, “I have observed that in the [whole] world there is not even a spot as small as a mustard seed where [the Buddha] has not laid down body and life as a bodhisattva for the sake of the living.”(LS 252) The Lotus Sutra has to do with laying down one’s body and life.
It may be that both the teachings and the stories are not so much ends as they are means to something else. The “something else” is not easy to describe, or to believe, as the text tells us over and over again. It is nothing less than a radical transformation of the hearer or reader of the Sutra.
Take, for example, the doctrine of universal buddha-nature, which can also be said to be a doctrine of universal liberation or salvation. It has been said that this doctrine of universal salvation is the core teaching of the Lotus Sutra, and in a sense it is. But universal salvation is not something anyone can experience for themselves. In the text it approaches being something of a metaphysical doctrine, asserted implicitly over and over again, without argument. As universal, it cannot, of course, be illustrated or demonstrated. But stories can be told that reinforce the idea.
Thus stories are told of shravakas (those who hear the Buddha) who, despite having previously bought into the arhat ideal, an ideal which assumes that they are incapable of reaching the highest goal of becoming buddhas, become instead bodhisattvas—beings on the way to becoming buddhas. A story is told of Devadatta, infamous everywhere as a kind of epitome of evil due to his efforts to harm or kill the Buddha or to split the sangha, the community of monks—Devadatta is assured by the Buddha that he too is to become a buddha. And a story is told of a young dragon princess who, despite being both young and female (traditionally regarded as handicaps), is able to become a buddha extremely quickly.
All of these stories essentially say to the hearer or reader, “you too.” If shravakas and evil monks and little girls can become buddhas, so can you. And the teaching that buddha-nature is universal, a teaching not explicitly presented but strongly implied in the Lotus Sutra, does the same thing. It basically says that there are no exceptions to having buddha-nature; therefore you cannot make an exception of yourself.
That, I think, is the core purpose of the Lotus Sutra, not merely the abstract notion of universal awakening, but the always-present possibility and power of awakening, which is a kind of flowering, in each one of us.
The Buddha says to Shariputra in Chapter 3 of the Lotus Sutra, “Did I not tell you before that when the buddhas, the world-honored ones, by using causal explanations, parables, and other kinds of expression, teach the Dharma by skillful means, it is all for the purpose of supreme awakening? All these teachings are for the purpose of transforming people into bodhisattvas.” (LS 112)
These stories, then, are instruments, skillful means, to help us see and embrace what we might not otherwise see or appreciate—the potential and power in each of us to take up the way of the bodhisattva, which is to become supremely awakened, which is to become a buddha.
Such stories should be taken seriously but not too seriously. Taken too seriously, too literally, too doctrinally, they can mislead. Take, for example, what is probably the most famous parable in the Dharma Flower Sutra, the parable of the burning house, found in Chapter 3. In that story, in order to get his children to flee their burning house their father promises them a variety of carriages, goat-drawn carriages, deerdrawn carriages, and carriages drawn by oxen. That promise works to get the children out of the house to safety. But, after everyone is safely out of the burning house, the father has some second thoughts about the carriages. Realizing his own great wealth, he decides to give each of the children something even greater than he had promised, namely a carriage drawn by a great white ox—a carriage called the “Great Vehicle.”
In the text itself, the three original carriages are called the shravaka, pratyekabuddha, and buddha vehicles. And it is said that the third is the “Great Vehicle,” the vehicle pursued by bodhisattvas. What is the relation of this third vehicle and the “Great Vehicle” that is given in place of the three? Are there four vehicles in total, or only three? This question and questions related to it have been pondered over, discussed, and debated for centuries. Several different solutions to the seeming puzzle have been offered. And the question raised is not a trivial one; it has to do with the relation of the Great Vehicle, the Mahayana, and the bodhisattva path to the paths of the shravakas and pratyekabuddhas.
But perhaps the problem only arises from taking the numbers too seriously. The point of the story has nothing at all to do with the number of kinds of carriages. Basically the story is to have us understand that, while any number of kinds of teachings can lead to entering the way, the path of the bodhisattva is what eventually leads to being a buddha. The number of kinds of vehicles is irrelevant! Concern over it can be a distraction from the core message—that no matter what kind of carriage you pursue, you are always also pursuing supreme awakening and will become a buddha!
The emphasis here on stories means that some things are left out, from the Dharma Flower Sutra itself most prominently perhaps discussion of Chapters 17, 18, and 19, Chapter 26, “Incantations,” and of the so-called “opening” and “closing” sutras. There are also discursive sections in several chapters that are not treated in the present story-centered book.
Chapters 17, 18, and 19 are entitled “The Variety of Blessings,” “Blessings of Responding with Joy,” and “The Blessings of the Dharma Teacher.” All three have to do with the many blessings that can come to one who truly understands the meaning of the long life of the Buddha or who follows the Sutra. Chapter 17 emphasizes the importance of believing and acting on the belief that the Buddha’s life is extremely long, which amounts to following the way of the bodhisattva. This, it says, is even more important than following the transcendental practices or building stupas or temples. Chapter 18 emphasizes, as the title indicates, the importance of responding to the Sutra in joy. But here responding with joy entails spreading the teaching of the Sutra to others, either by teaching the Dharma oneself of by encouraging others to hear it from someone else. This is not unrelated to the previous chapter in that it is by spreading the Dharma from one person to another that the Buddha’s life becomes longer and longer. Chapter 19 describes supernatural powers that may come to someone who embraces and teaches the Dharma Flower Sutra: powers of the senses, the eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and body, as well as powers of the mind. These powers are fantastic and interesting to read about, but I don’t know that discussing them at length would add appreciably to this book.
Incantations, dharanis in Sanskrit, have played and continue to play an important role in East Asian Buddhism. Recitation and repetition of them, including but not only those in the Dharma Flower Sutra, is widely believed to be an important, especially auspicious Buddhist practice. And this is so whether the language be Chinese or Japanese, English or even Sanskrit. Today, each of several Japanese Buddhist organizations based on the Lotus Sutra has its own slightly different way of pronouncing the incantations found in the text. In any case, it is the sound that is efficacious, as no intellectual content is to be found in them. It may well be that this emphasis on sound in the absence of intellectual content in some ways serves a purpose not unlike that of stories. Without denying the importance of Buddhist teachings, they direct our attention away from doctrinal interpretation of the text and of the larger traditions of which it is a part toward an appreciation of dharanis that elicits a kind of mystical empowerment of those who are in their presence.
The main reason a chapter on incantations is not included in this book is that I am not ready to explain or interpret them—and suspect that I never will be. Like music, they are best enjoyed in the doing or hearing of them. I don’t think I can add anything about them that would be helpful, and I might, as it were, destroy their spell, for they are spells, and spells can be broken.
The Sutra of Innumerable Meanings has long been taken to be a kind of “opening” to the Dharma Flower Sutra itself, where it is mentioned. But there is not a story in it. At a doctrinal level it can be taken to be a supplement, even a kind of explanation of an important emphasis within the Dharma Flower Sutra, an emphasis which is embodied in the title of Chapter 2 of the Dharma Flower Sutra, “Skillful Means.” It can be seen as providing an interpretation of skillful means before that term is given the kind of prominence it has in the Dharma Flower Sutra. Thus, to begin with a discussion of the Sutra of Innumerable Meanings would be to give a kind of emphasis to doctrine, especially to the great powers of bodhisattvas and to the characteristics of the body of a buddha. This is not what I think the Lotus Sutra wants to emphasize. Thus, after some discussion of the role of stories, we begin with a story about the Buddha and his great assembly rather than with this “opening sutra.”
In the Sutra of Contemplation of the Dharma Practice of Universal Sage Bodhisattva, the so-called “closing sutra” of the threefold Lotus Sutra, the Lotus Sutra is mentioned. This is also a different genre of text. It is a guided meditation, especially intended, at least as the tradition has taken it, to be a guide to repentance. Here, too, the emphasis is hardly on doctrine or teachings. It provides a visualization sequence that is probably impossible to follow, at least intellectually, thus eliciting a kind of experience in the reader which can lead to the practice, both internally and ritually, of confession and repentance. Again, this may have some of the same effect as the Dharma Flower Sutra itself, but it lives, so to speak, in a different kind of environment.
The Dharma Flower Sutra is not a Chinese or Japanese text, at least not only a Chinese or Japanese text. It is a text originating in India some twenty-two centuries or more ago. A Sanskrit version, or versions, which themselves would have been translations or adaptations from some more common language or languages, were translated into Chinese several times during the first few centuries of the common era. One of those Chinese translations, that of Kumarajiva, became enormously popular and influential in Chinese culture and thence in all of East Asia, including China, Korea, Japan, and Vietnam. And this Chinese version has now been translated into many European languages, several times into English, and also in recent years into French, Italian, German, Russian, and other languages.
While Kumarajiva’s Chinese version has been adapted into Japanese, no one imagines that this Japanese version, or the Chinese version, or any other version is by itself the Dharma Flower Sutra, the Sutra of the Lotus Flower of the Wonderful Dharma, to use the full title. The precise meaning of the term “The Dharma Flower Sutra” and its equivalents in other languages has to remain somewhat imprecise, as there is no single text which is “The Lotus Sutra,” no one original from which others are derived. Even in the Sutra itself, there is no consistently maintained distinction between the Dharma Flower Sutra and Buddha Dharma. In a sense, we can say that the Sutra understands itself to be the most inclusive and important expression of the teachings of the Buddha.
How to cite this document:
© Rissho Kosei-kai, The Stories of the Lotus Sutra (Wisdom Publications, 2010)
The Stories of the Lotus Sutra by Gene Reeves is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
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