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The Lotus Sūtra (Sanskrit: Saddharma Puṇḍarīka Sūtra, literally Sutra on the White Lotus of the Sublime Dharma) is one of the most popular and influential Mahayana sutras, and the basis on which the Tiantai, Tendai, Cheontae, and Nichiren schools of Buddhism were established. For many East Asian Buddhists, the Lotus Sūtra contains the ultimate and complete teaching of the Buddha and the recitation of the text is understood to bring auspicious fortune and eradicate ones accumulated negative karma.
The earliest known Sanskrit title for the sūtra is the Saddharma Puṇḍarīka Sūtra, which translates to Scripture of the Lotus Blossom of the Fine Dharma. In English, the shortened form Lotus Sūtra is common. The Lotus Sūtra has also been highly regarded in a number of Asian countries where Mahāyāna Buddhism has been traditionally practiced. Translations of this title into the languages of some of these countries include:
- Sanskrit: सद्धर्मपुण्डरीक सूत्र Saddharmapuṇḍarīka Sūtra
- Chinese: 妙法蓮華經; pinyin: Miàofǎ Liánhuá jīng, shortened to 法華經 Fǎhuá jīng
- Japanese: (妙法蓮華経 Myōhō Renge Kyō), Hokke-kyō, Hoke-kyō (法華経)
- Korean: Hangul: 묘법연화경; RR: Myobeop Yeonhwa gyeong, shortened to Beophwa gyeong
- Tibetan: དམ་ཆོས་པད་མ་དཀར་པོའི་མདོ, Wylie: dam chos padma dkar po'i mdo, THL: Damchö Pema Karpo'i do
- Vietnamese: Diệu pháp Liên hoa kinh, shortened to Pháp hoa kinh
In 1934, based on his text-critical analysis of Chinese and Sanskrit versions, Kogaku Fuse concluded that the Lotus Sutra was composed in four main stages. According to Fuse, the verse sections of chapter 1-9 and 17 were probably created in the first century BCE, with the prose sections of these chapters added in the first century CE. He estimates the date of the third stage, chapter 10, 11, 13-16, 18-20 and 27, around 100 CE. Chapter 21-26 belong to the last stage (around 150 CE).
- chapter 2-9 is the earliest stratum. The first layer of this stratum includes the tristubh verses of these chapters which may have been transmitted orally in a Prakrit dialect. The second layer consists of the sloka verses and the prose of chapter 2-9.
- chapter 1, 10-20, 27, and a part of chapter 5 that is missing in Kumarajivas translation.
- chapter 21-26 and the section on Devadatta in chapter 11 of the Sanskrit version.
Versions and translations
- The Lotus Sutra of the Correct Dharma, in ten volumes and twenty-seven chapters, translated by Dharmarakṣa in 286 CE.
- The Lotus Sutra of the Wonderful Dharma, in eight volumes and twenty-eight chapters, translated by Kumārajīva in 406 CE.
- The Supplemented Lotus Sutra of the Wonderful Dharma, in seven volumes and twenty-seven chapters, a revised version of Kumarajivas text, translated by Jnanagupta and Dharmagupta in 601 CE.
The Lotus Sūtra was originally translated from Sanskrit into Chinese by Dharmarakṣa, aka Zhu Fahu, in 286 CE in Chang'an during the Western Jin Period (265-317 CE). However, the view that there is a high degree of probability that the base text for that translation was actually written in a Prakrit language has gained widespread acceptance. Jan Nattier has recently summarized this aspect of the early textual transmission of such Buddhist scriptures in China thus, bearing in mind that Dharmarakṣa's period of activity falls well within the period she defines: "Studies to date indicate that Buddhist scriptures arriving in China in the early centuries of the Common Era were composed not just in one Indian dialect but in several . . . in sum, the information available to us suggests that, barring strong evidence of another kind, we should assume that any text translated in the second or third century AD was not based on Sanskrit, but one or other of the many Prakrit vernaculars." It may have originally been composed in a Prakrit dialect and then later translated into Sanskrit to lend it greater respectability.
This early translation by Dharmarakṣa was superseded by a translation in seven fascicles by Kumārajīva in 406 CE. According to Jean-Noël Robert, Kumārajīva relied heavily on the earlier version. The Sanskrit editions are not widely used outside of academia.
In some Chinese and Japanese sources the Lotus Sūtra has been compiled together with two other sutras which serve as a prologue and epilogue, respectively the Innumerable Meanings Sutra (Chinese: 無量義經; pinyin: Wúliángyì jīng Muryōgi kyō) and the Samantabhadra Meditation Sutra (Chinese: 普賢經; pinyin: Pǔxián jīng, Fugen kyō). This composite sutra is often called the Threefold Lotus Sutra or Three-Part Dharma Flower Sutra (Chinese: 法華三部経; pinyin: Fǎhuá Sānbù jīng, Hokke Sambu kyō).
Translations into Western languages
The first French translation of the Lotus Sutra, based on a Nepalese Sanskrit manuscript, was published by Eugène Burnouf in 1852. Hendrik Kern completed his English translation of an ancient Nepalese Sanskrit manuscript in 1884. Later translations into English, French, Spanish and German are based on Kumarajivas Chinese text.
- Ch. 1, Introduction - During a gathering at Vulture Peak, Shakyamuni Buddha goes into a deep meditation, the earth shakes in six ways, and he brings forth a ray of light which illuminates thousands of buddha-fields in the east. Bodhisattva Manjusri then states that the Buddha is about to expound his ultimate teaching.
- Ch. 2, Ways and Means - Shakyamuni explains his use of skillful means to adapt his teachings according to the capacities of his audience. He reveals that the ultimate purpose of the Buddhas is to cause sentient beings "to obtain the insight of the Buddha" and "to enter the way into the insight of the Buddha".
- Ch. 3, A Parable - The Buddha teaches a parable in which a father uses the promise of various toy carts to get his children out of a burning house. Once they are outside, he gives them all one large cart to travel in instead. This symbolizes how the Buddha uses the Three Vehicles: Arhatship, Pratyekabuddhahood and Samyaksambuddhahood, as skillful means to liberate all beings - even though there is only one vehicle. The Buddha also promises Sariputra that he will attain enlightenment.
- Ch. 4, Faith and Understanding - Four senior disciples address the Buddha. They tell the parable of the poor son and his rich father, who guides him with pedagogically skillful devices to regain self-confidence and "recognize his own Buddha-wisdom".
- Ch. 5, Parable of the plants - This parable says that the Dharma is like a great monsoon rain that nourishes many different kinds of plants who represent Śrāvakas, Pratyekabuddhas, and Bodhisattvas, and all beings receiving the teachings according to their respective capacities.
- Ch. 6, Assurances of Becoming a Buddha - The Buddha prophesizes the enlightenment of Mahakasyapa, Subhuti, Mahakatyayana and Mahamaudgalyayana.
- Ch. 7, The Magic City - The Buddha teaches a parable about a group of people seeking a great treasure who are tired of their journey and wish to quit. Their guide creates a magical phantom city for them to rest in and then makes it disappear. The Buddha explains that the magic city represents the "Hinayana nirvana" and the treasure is buddhahood.
- Ch. 8, Assurances for 500 Arhats. - 500 Arhats are assured of their future Buddhahood. They tell the parable of a man who has fallen asleep after drinking and whose friend sews a jewel into his garment. When he wakes up he continues a life of poverty without realizing he is really rich, he only discovers the jewel after meeting his old friend again. The hidden jewel has been interpreted as a symbol of Buddha-nature. Zimmermann noted the obvious similarity with the nine parables in the Tathāgatagarbha Sūtra that illustrate how the indwelling Buddha in sentient beings is hidden by negative mental states.
- Ch. 9, Assurances for the Trainees and Adepts. - Ananda, Rahula and two thousand Śrāvakas are assured of their future Buddhahood.
- Ch. 10, Teacher of the Dharma - Presents the practices of teaching the sutra which includes accepting, embracing, reading, chanting, writing, explaining, propagating it, and living in accordance with its teachings.
- Ch. 11, The Treasure stupa - A great jeweled stupa rises from the earth and floats in the air; a voice is heard from within praising the Lotus Sūtra. Another Buddha resides in the tower, the Buddha Prabhūtaratna (Many-Treasures) and that there are other countless Buddhas in the ten directions, who are now also summoned by the Buddha. This chapter reveals the existence of multiple Buddhas at the same time and the doctrine of the eternal nature of Buddhahood.
- Ch. 12, Devadatta - Through the stories of the Dragon King's daughter and Devadatta, the Buddha teaches that everyone can become enlightened - women, animals, and even the most sinful murderers.
- Ch. 13, Encouragement to uphold the sutra - The Buddha encourages all beings to embrace the teachings of the sutra in all times, even in the most difficult ages to come. The Buddha prophesizes that six thousand nuns who are also present will become Buddhas.
- Ch. 14, Peace and Contentment - This chapter explains that even though life is filled with challenges, if we practice the dharma diligently through thoughts, words, and deeds, we can be peaceful, joyful and content. Virtues such as patience, gentleness, a calm mind, wisdom and charity are to be cultivated.
- Ch. 15, Springing Up from the Earth - In this chapter countless bodhisattvas spring up from the earth, ready to teach, and the Buddha declares that there have been innumerable bodhisattvas propagating the dharma for aeons. This confuses some disciples including Maitreya, but the Buddha affirms that he has taught all of these bodhisattvas himself.
- Ch. 16, The eternal lifespan of the Tathagata - The Buddha explains that he is truly eternal and omniscient. He then teaches the Parable of the Excellent Physician who entices his sons into taking his medicine by feigning his death.
- Ch. 17, Merits and Virtues of enlightenment - The Buddha explains that since he has been teaching as many beings as the sands of the Ganges have been saved.
- Ch. 18, Merits and Virtues of Joyful Acceptance - Faith in the teachings of the sutra brings much merit and lead to good rebirths.
- Ch. 19, Merits and Virtues obtained by a Teacher of the Dharma - The relative importance of the merits of the six senses are explained by the Buddha.
- Ch. 20, The Bodhisattva Sadāparibhūta - The Buddha tells a story about the time he was a Bodhisattva called Sadāparibhūta (Never Despising) and how he treated every person he met, good or bad, with respect, always remembering that they will too become Buddhas.
- Ch. 21, The Spiritual Power of the Tathagata - Reveals that the sutra contains all of the Eternal Buddha’s secret spiritual powers. The bodhisattvas who have sprung from the earth worship the sutra and promise to propagate it.
- Ch. 22, The Passing of the Commission - The Buddha transmits the Lotus Sutra to his congregation and entrusts them with its safekeeping.
- Ch. 23, The Bodhisattva Bhaiṣajyarāja - The Buddha tells the story of the 'Medicine king' Bodhisattva, who, in a previous life, burns his body as a supreme offering to the Buddha. The hearing and chanting of the Lotus sutra is also said to cure diseases. The Buddha uses various metaphors to declare that the Lotus Sutra is the king of all sutras.
- Ch. 24, The Bodhisattva Gadgadasvara - The Bodhisattva "Wonderful Voice" appears to worship the Buddha and his story is told.
- Ch. 25, The Bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara - This chapter is devoted to Avalokiteśvara, describing him as a compassionate bodhisattva who hears the cries of sentient beings, and rescues those who call upon his name.
- Ch. 26, Dhāraṇī - Hariti and several Bodhisattvas offer sacred formulae (dhāraṇī) in order to protect those who keep and recite the Lotus Sutra.
- Ch. 27, King Wonderfully Adorned - A chapter on the conversion of King 'Wonderful-Adornment' by his two sons.
- Ch. 28, Encouragement of the Bodhisattva Samantabhadra - A bodhisattva called "Universal Virtue" asks the Buddha how to preserve the sutra in the future. Samantabhadra promises to protect and guard all those who keep this sutra in the future Age of Dharma Decline.
One vehicle, many skillful means
This Lotus sutra is known for its extensive instruction on the concept and usage of skillful means – (Sanskrit: upāya, Japanese: hōben), the seventh paramita or perfection of a Bodhisattva – mostly in the form of parables. The many 'skillful' or 'expedient' means and the "three vehicles" are revealed to all be part of the One Vehicle (Ekayāna), which is also the Bodhisattva path. This is also one of the first sutras to use the term Mahāyāna, or "Great Vehicle". In the Lotus sutra, the One Vehicle encompasses so many different teachings because the Buddha's compassion and wish to save all beings led him to adapt the teaching to suit many different kinds of people. As Paul Williams explains:
Although the corpus of teachings attributed to the Buddha, if taken as a whole, embodies many contradictions, these contradictions are only apparent. Teachings are appropriate to the context in which they are given and thus their contradictions evaporate. The Buddha’s teachings are to be used like ladders, or, to apply an age-old Buddhist image, like a raft employed to cross a river. There is no point in carrying the raft once the journey has been completed and its function fulfilled. When used, such a teaching transcends itself.
The sutra emphasizes that all these seemingly different teachings are actually just skillful applications of the one dharma and thus all constitute the "One Buddha Vehicle and knowledge of all modes". The Lotus sutra sees all other teachings are subservient to, propagated by and in the service of the ultimate truth of the One Vehicle leading to Buddhahood. The Lotus Sūtra also claims to be superior to other sūtras and states that full Buddhahood is only arrived at by exposure to its teachings and skillful means. Chapter ten of the Burton Watson translation states: "...Medicine King, now I say to you, I have preached various sutras, and among those sutras the Lotus is foremost!"
All beings have the potential to become Buddhas
The Lotus Sutra is also significant because it reveals that women, evil people and even animals and plants have the potential to become Buddhas. It in fact teaches that beings have the potential become Buddhas in their present form, and provides instructions including: having faith in, following and practicing, not slandering, and truly refuting any slander of it and its teachings. That is, with the Lotus Sutra, people need neither practice austerities for countless kalpas nor wait for rebirth in a different physical form to become a Buddha (previous teachings held that women must be reborn as men and then practice for innumerable kalpas in order to become Buddhas). Thus through its many similes and parables, the Lotus sutra affirms the potential for all beings to become Buddhas, and furthermore provides instructions for all beings to becoming a Buddha in the present life.
The Lotus Sutra also teaches that the Buddha has many embodiments or emanations and these are the countless bodhisattva disciples. These bodhisattvas choose to remain in the world to save all beings and to keep the teaching alive. According to Gene Reeves: "Because the Buddha and his Dharma are alive in such bodhisattvas, he himself continues to be alive. The fantastically long life of the Buddha, in other words, is at least partly a function of and dependent on his being embodied in others." The Lotus sutra also teaches various dhāraṇīs or the prayers of different celestial bodhisattvas who out of compassion protect and teach all beings. The lotus flower imagery points to this quality of the bodhisattvas. The lotus symbolizes the bodhisattva who is rooted in the earthly mud and yet flowers above the water in the open air of enlightenment.
The universe outlined by the Lotus Sutra encompasses realms of gods, devas, dragons and other mythological beings, requiring numerous dimensions to contain them. Buddhas are described as the patient teachers of all beings, who constantly guide all beings to enlightenment. The radical message of the Lotus Sutra therefore includes the fact that all beings have the potential to become Buddhas and teach the dharma here and now.
The nature of the Buddhas
Another concept introduced by the Lotus Sūtra is the idea that the Buddha is an eternal entity, who achieved nirvana eons ago, but remains in the world to help teach beings the Dharma time and again. He reveals himself as the "father" of all beings and evinces the loving care of just such a father. Moreover, the sutra indicates that even after the parinirvana (apparent physical death) of a Buddha, that Buddha continues to be real and to be capable of communicating with the world.
The idea that the physical death of a Buddha is the termination of that Buddha is graphically refuted by the appearance of another Buddha, who passed long before. In the vision of the Lotus Sūtra, Buddhas are ultimately immortal. Crucially, not only are there multiple Buddhas in this view, but an infinite stream of Buddhas extending infinitely in space in the ten directions and through unquantifiable eons of time. The Lotus Sūtra illustrates a sense of timelessness and the inconceivable, often using large numbers and measurements of time and space. The Buddha of the Lotus sutra states:
In this way, since my attainment of Buddhahood it has been a very great interval of time. My life-span is incalculable asatkhyeyakalpas [rather a lot of aeons], ever enduring, never perishing. O good men! The life-span I achieved in my former treading of the bodhisattva path even now is not exhausted, for it is twice the above number. Yet even now, though in reality I am not to pass into extinction [enter final nirvana], yet I proclaim that I am about to accept extinction. By resort to these expedient devices [this skill-in-means] the Thus Come One [the Tathagata] teaches and converts the beings.
According to Jonathan Silk, the influence of the Lotus Sutra in India may have been limited, but "it is a prominent scripture in East Asian Buddhism." The sutra has most prominence in Tiantai (sometimes called "The Lotus School") and Nichiren Buddhism. It is also very influential in Zen Buddhism.
Buddhism in China
Tao Sheng, a fifth-century Chinese Buddhist monk wrote the earliest commentary on the Lotus sutra. Tao Sheng was known for promoting the concept of Buddha nature and the idea that even deluded people will attain enlightenment.
Zhiyi, the generally credited founder of the Tiantai school of Buddhism, was the student of Nanyue Huisi who was the leading authority of his time on the Lotus Sūtra. Zhiyi's philosophical synthesis saw the Lotus sutra as the final teaching of the Buddha and the highest teaching of Buddhism. He wrote two commentaries on the sutra: Profound meanings of the Lotus sutra and Words and phrases of the Lotus sutra. Zhiyi also linked the teachings of the Lotus sutra with the Buddha nature teachings of the Mahāyāna Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūtra and made a distinction between the "Eternal Buddha" Vairocana and the manifestations. In Tiantai, Vairocana (the primeval Buddha) is seen as the 'Bliss body' - Sambhogakāya - of the historical Gautama Buddha.
Buddhism in Japan
Consequently, the Lotus Sūtra is a very important sutra in Tiantai and correspondingly, in Japanese Tendai (founded by Saicho, 767–822). Tendai Buddhism was the dominant form of mainstream Buddhism in Japan for many years and future proponents of the Lotus Sūtra Nichiren and Dogen were trained as Tendai monks.
Nichiren, a 13th-century Japanese Buddhist monk, founded an entire school of Buddhism based on his belief that the Lotus Sūtra was "the Buddha´s ultimate teaching", and that it "contained the essence of the Buddha's enlightenment and that it held the key to transforming people's suffering and enabling society to flourish." Nichiren held that chanting the name of the Lotus sutra - Namu Myōhō Renge Kyō - was the only way to practice Buddhism in the degenerate age of mappo and was the highest practice of Buddhism. In the modern era Nichiren Buddhism has been influential through lay movements such as the Risshō Kōsei Kai and Soka Gakkai.
Dogen, the 13th-century Japanese founder of Sōtō Zen Buddhism, used the Lotus Sūtra often in his writings. According to Taigen Dan Leighton, "While Dogen's writings employ many sources, probably along with his own intuitive meditative awareness, his direct citations of the Lotus Sūtra indicate his conscious appropriation of its teachings as a significant source" and that his writing "demonstrates that Dogen himself saw the Lotus Sutra, 'expounded by all buddhas in the three times,' as an important source for this self-proclamatory rhetorical style of expounding." In his Shobogenzo, Dogen directly discusses the Lotus sutra in the essay Hokke-Ten-Hokke, "The Dharma Flower Turns the Dharma Flower". The essay uses a dialogue from the Platform Sutra between Huineng and a monk who has memorized the Lotus sutra to illustrate the non-dual nature of dharma practice and sutra study. The Soto Zen monk Ryōkan also studied the Lotus Sutra extensively and this sutra was the biggest inspiration for his poetry and calligraphy.
- Chapter numbers of the extant Sanskrit version are given here. The arrangement and numbering of chapters in Kumarajivas translation is different.
- In the Sanskrit manuscripts chapter 5 contains the parable of a blind man who refuses to believe that vision exists.
- Sanskrit buddhaksetra, the realm of a Buddha. "Impure buddha-fields are synonymous with a world system (cacravada), the infinite number of “world discs” in Buddhist cosmology that constitutes the universe (...)."
- The eight dragons who are mentioned in the Lotus Sutra, are known in Japan as the hachidai ryuuou (八大竜王), and appear throughout Japanese Buddhist art.
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|Chinese Wikisource has original text related to this article:|
- An 1884 English translation from Sanskrit by H.Kern from the Sacred Texts Web site
- An English translation by the Buddhist Text Translation Society