I have recently been studying the Sutra of the Lotus Flower of the Marvelous Dharma (妙法蓮花經), usually called the Lotus Sutra in English. This sutra has been and still is enormously important and influential in East Asian Buddhism.
As far as I understand it, the sutra makes three main points: firstly, that the previous three paths or vehicles the Buddha had taught for the ending of suffering and realization of nirvana were skillful means (upaya, also translated “expedient means,” “convenient methods,” and “方便”), to be transcended by the “one vehicle” or “one way” that leads to Buddhahood; secondly, that Buddhahood is potentially available for all; and thirdly, that Buddhas transcend normal conceptions of time and space and that the Buddha we know as Shakyamuni actually became awakened incalculable aeons ago and has since remained available to teach living beings and to guide them on the path to Buddhahood. His life and seeming awakening as Siddhartha Gautama was actually just a skillful means.
What follows are my thoughts on first working through the sutra.
“Skillful means” has always seemed to me a very useful notion, especially as an antidote for the tendency to take one formulation of a doctrine as The Truth, and all other formulations as misguided or even heretical. So I had no difficulty with the notion of the various Dharma teachings and practices being skillful means suited for different kinds of people. It was also cheering to be told that every being has the potential for Buddhahood, including women and such archetypical villains as the Buddha’s cousin Devadatta.
But I did have difficulty with the conception of the Buddha presented in the sutra. Part of my initial attraction to Buddhism was the image of the Buddha as a human being who faced the same kinds of problems as we all do, who left home and studied with several teachers, trying different practices, some resulting in dead ends, until famously “waking up” under the Bodhi tree in a place now known as Bodh Gaya. Obviously all kinds of myths have grown up around his life story over the nearly two and a half millennia since he lived, but it was hard for me to accept the notion of the Buddha as a supernatural being unbounded by time and space (or at least with an incredibly long life span) and the idea that his life as Siddhartha Gautama was just an elaborate skillful means for those (like me) not able or ready to accept the truth of a transcendent Buddha.
I also found myself a bit confused over the nature of the “one vehicle” or “one way” that the sutra talks about and says is so wonderful. The famous parable in the sutra of a father persuading his children to leave a burning house by telling them that their favorite playthings are outside the gate but then when they are out giving them a much larger and nicer carriage seems to indicate that they are in all four vehicles, and that the greater vehicle will replace the three lesser vehicles. According to the sutra, the three lesser vehicles are those of the shravakas (“hearers” – those working to become arhats), of the pratyekabuddhas (“solitary awakeners”), and of those following the bodhisattva way. But nowhere are we told clearly what the “one way” actually is. How precisely does it differ from the previous three vehicles? What are its moral teachings? What are its meditation practices? What aspect of wisdom does it teach? At the end I felt as if I had read an enthusiastic film review without being able to watch the film.
Finally, I found it very hard to take the extravagant self-praise in parts of the sutra, with details of the enormous blessings that reciting, copying, or listening to it can bestow, together with the blood-curdling threats given at the end of the sutra of what would happen to those who disparage or mock people who copy and recite it.
Yet the tens of thousands or maybe hundreds of thousands who have drawn inspiration from this sutra must have seen something in it that I can’t. So, since my initial reactions to the sutra, I have read some commentaries and been fortunate enough to talk to some friends who know a great deal more about the Dharma than I do. One thing I soon discovered is that I am far from being the first person to be puzzled by this sutra, and that a great deal has been written trying to reconcile the apparent contradictions in it. However, my friends pointed out that I have been too literal-minded (a common problem for me). Such a sutra should be approached like a piece of imaginative literature, not as a doctrinal argument. It is, for example, possible to interpret the notion of Buddha unlimited by time and space not as referring to a specific being but as a metaphor for the potential of Buddhahood which exists always and everywhere. The “one way” can also be interpreted not as a separate vehicle to replace the other lesser vehicles, but as a vehicle that encompasses or subsumes the other vehicles. In other words, the sutra may be making an ecumenical point—that whatever Dharma path one thinks one is following, one will inevitably end up on the one path to complete enlightenment. All the paths are skillful means leading to the same destination.
I still don’t really know how I feel about this sutra. Perhaps the best thing for me is to regard it as a skillful means that is perfectly suited to some, but doesn’t work well for me. Maybe some people would like to comment about how they have approached it or what they have learned from it.