Tea House

Buddhist Creative Writing and Inspiration

My Difficulties with the Lotus Sutra

Graham Lock

Working Title/Artist: Lotus Sutra Department: Asian Art Culture/Period/Location: HB/TOA Date Code: 07 Working Date: photographed by mma 1987, transparency # 2 scanned by film and media (jn) 11_15_01

“Devadatta,” Chapter 12 of the Lotus Sutra. From metmuseum.org

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.

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7 Comments

  1. Glenda Barton

    I think it would be enormously helpful to study the writings of Nichiren Daishonin’s, used by the lay practitioners of the Soka Gakkai, of which I am a member. I believe it might clear up a lit of confusion. Nichiren, a Japanese reformist priest in 13th century, through many difficulties and persecutions, established that chanting the title of the Lotus Sutra alone, Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo, is the key to attaining enlightenment. There is too much to go into here, but I urge you to look up the Daishonin’s life and writings, and the companion treatise, the Ongi Kuden. He reinvigorated and blew new life into the Lotus Sutra. Nichiren’s practice is a living, working embodiment of the Lotus Sutra, which is meant to be read with YOUR LIFE. Shakyamuni’s Buddhism is the Buddhism of the Harvest, Nichiren’s of the sowing, or the original seed of Buddhas of all time.

    • Graham

      Thank you very much for your comment, Glenda. I will definitely look at what Nichiren says about the Lotus Sutra.

  2. Max

    Definitely taking too literally what was written in an ancient way of communicating in pre-modern cultures. Imagine going to a darkened temple 1500 years ago and hearing these words spoken while watching the flare of the lanterns, across the golden representations of these celestial beings…clouds of sandalwood incense – we can still experience this today in many countries. Suggest you get a coffee table sized book of East Asian Lotus Sutra art – and pick an image or three – especially photos of sculptures, dharma friend!

    • Graham

      Yes, it might be better to see such a text as inspirational in purpose, rather than as a presentation of specific teachings.

  3. Interesting take. I do like the 3-body idea of the Mahayana and Vajrayana approaches.. (Dharmakaya, Sambhogakaya, and Nirmanakaya. If you haven’t heard of them, look ’em up! 🙂 ) So his “human body” was truly a thing of suffering and death was a certainty for him, too. I think the Bodhisattva idea is one way for the Mahayana path to show that the “old path” of 3 crazy-long eons before enlightenment could be a thing of the past. (Mahayana and Vajrayana point to shorter path, so, for some, it is said, enlightenment might be found in 16, 8, or even one lifetime.)

    One thing I do like about the Mahayana approach is its flexibility. Chan, Zen, and Tibetan Buddhism all are part of something that is alive and changing as the needs of various people change from area to area and down through time. The final “say so” as to whether a proposed change or addition is beneficial, I suppose, is whether the practice or teaching helps folk towards liberation and enlightenment. The “threats” that were probably normal practices in the time when the sutra was written clearly are seen as silly in our times. Even today, there are people proposing new pujas, new practice techniques, etc. Only time will tell if the new stuff is truly helpful. We shall see.

    • Graham

      Thank you so much for your thoughtful comments. Yes, I am familiar with the 3-bodies idea, although I have never really warmed to it, perhaps because it reminds me too much of the Christian Trinity dogma (not a good reason, I realise). But despite my difficulty with the Lotus Sutra, like you, I have found much that is inspirational and useful in the Mahayana traditions, and now that the Dharma is in the process of coming to terms with modernity it is good to look back at how flexible and creative the Dharma has been in the past in adapting to different cultural contexts. As you say, only time will tell what needs to be retained, what may be best discarded and what innovations may be useful.

  4. Guan Her Ng

    Hello Graham, some of my thoughts here. When you have read many Mahayana sutras, you will definitely perceive that often things described are starting to become ‘unbelievable’. When the Middle-Way school started decades after the passing of the Buddha, Mahayana scriptures were reinvented and lots of texts were made adapted from the classical texts. In addition, when it entered the Chinese Buddhist world, the texts would be interpreted sometimes too literal.

    The older texts such as the Jataka stories of the Buddha, were sometimes also romanticized and put into the category ‘unbelievable’. However, the Indian approach was that these stories are merely a source of inspiration, instead of practice what you preach phenomenon.

    Read some of the Theravada material, perhaps they are more ‘human’ and less ‘unbelievable’.

What are your thoughts?

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