Hello, and I hope this finds everyone well.
Or, as they instead say here in Taiwan, 你吃飽了沒？
I often get asked why I’m here in Taiwan studying Chinese, as well as the question of how I ended up here. Both of these are not as easy to answer as one would expect. However, both do involve, in some way, the Lotus Sutra, one of the most read, studied, and venerated scriptures in East-Asian Buddhism. Though this sutra (the Sanskrit equivalent of the English term scripture) often belies its depth through its use simple language and numerous analogies, it is often called in the East the “King of all Scriptures,” as it resides at the very pinnacle of the spiritual life.
Following on a kind suggestion from the last post, it looks like I’ll start to share a bit of what it is about the Lotus Sutra that I find so important in the practice and understanding of Buddhism. However, this post will not be an introductory one to the text; I’ll save that for the next post.
Instead, this post will share a little about how the Lotus Sutra provided a bit of a seed that is flowering of this experience here in Taiwan. (I’ll apologize for the length of this post; there’s a fair bit in here.)
I can trace an interesting and unexpected chain of causes and conditions that eventually opened up this opportunity to study here in Taiwan back to a line of text that appears in Chapter 2 of the Lotus Sutra. Of course this wasn’t the only seed that is sprouting in these Taiwan-flavored experiences, but it was one of the more significant ones.
The line in question in Chinese is:
wéi fó yú fó nǎi néng jiù jìn zhū fǎ shí xiàng
This can be translated, as usual, in a number of different ways, but here’s one:
Only a Buddha together with a Buddha can fully understand the true character of all things.
A few years ago, I started a fairly in-depth study and practice of the Lotus Sutra, largely because of this passage. Part of that study involved comparing translations. There are now seven different English translations of the Lotus Sutra: six complete ones from the Chinese, and one from the Sanskrit. With this line of text (and many others), each translation says something slightly different. I have put, at the end of this post, most of the English translations of this section for comparison, along with links to the various complete translations of the Lotus Sutra.
Back to the text, at first I wanted to understand what was meant by the phrase “the true character of all things,” and why different translators translated this differently (again see below for the different translations of this passage). So, I managed to obtain a copy of the Chinese version of the Lotus Sutra, found the line of this text (no small feat at the time), and pieced together what the Chinese characters had to say. Of course, this wasn’t sufficient, so I’m here in Taiwan in part trying to improve on this understanding a little bit.
Originally, as I just mentioned, my interest and focus was in the last four characters: 諸法實相, which can be variously translated as “the real form of all thoughts and things,” “the true aspect of all phenomenon,” “the true character of all things,” “the Reality of All Existence,” “the ultimate reality of everything,” etc.
諸法 means “everything that appears,” and 實相 means “true aspect/form/appearance.” This points to the Truth: the absolute, unchanging, unborn, ineffable Truth; in contrast to (but includes) the appearance of things that are born, change, and die. The “true appearance of things” is beyond words, unhindered by thoughts, comings and going, or concepts. It is absolute, liberated Truth. And, of course, what these words, 諸法實相, point to is the important thing, not what they actually say.
However, in recent months, my attention has been more drawn to the characters 唯佛與佛, which can be fairly literally translated as, “Only a Buddha and a Buddha…” or “Only a Buddha together with a Buddha…”
Why this has now piqued my interest, I’m not all that certain. Partly, I believe, came from listening to this interesting Dharma talk by a Buddhist scholar named Dr. Brook Ziporyn a few years ago. In it (worth watching if you have the time and interest) he emphasizes the Lotus Sutra’s teaching of our relationship with the Buddha, and the Buddha’s relationship with us. So this passage, to my mind at least, speaks of the vital importance of relation in the practice of Buddhism. And, with “relation,” I don’t just mean relation-ships with friends, spouse, family, etc; but all that we are in relation to. In fact “we” only exist in relation; and these relations, including our relationship with ourselves, are the gateway to lasting spiritual freedom; the freedom of a Buddha.
This is a little hard to articulate, but to me, this passage states that it is only through this relation with “other” that the truth is known and realized. In fact, this is another way of stating that the law of “cause and effect” is the ground for spiritual practice, as “relation” is another way of describing “cause and effect,” the central tenet of Buddhist practice.
In the passage above, “Together with” means “at the same time as,” as well as, “I only understand when you understand; you understand only when I understand.” This is, using slightly modified Christian terminology, the way it is because all beings are in communion with truth….and are in communion with each other.
This is all made all the more apparent when, a bit later on in the same chapter of the Lotus Sutra, the Buddha tells his listeners why a Buddha appears in the world to teach the Dharma. This purpose, to summarize, is to enable all beings to attain full Buddhahood. Or, in the words of the Lotus Sutra (from Kubo and Yuyama’s translation found here in full .pdf),
The Buddhas appear in this world to cause sentient beings to aspire toward purity and the wisdom and insight of the buddhas. They appear in this world to manifest the wisdom and insight of the buddhas to sentient beings. They appear in this world to cause sentient beings to attain the wisdom and insight of a buddha’s enlightenment. They appear in this world in order to cause sentient beings to enter the path of the wisdom and insight of a buddha.
In another post, I’ll try and talk a bit more about this important passage, as it is the cornerstone for the entire Lotus Sutra.
And, at this point, I might was well “let the cat out of the bag”: by the “Lotus Sutra,” what I mean is “us” — our lives, our wish for (and attempts to find) happiness and fulfillment. This “Sutra” is really just another name for our lives. The Lotus Sutra does not exist on paper, but only comes into existence when we follow our hearts. This is the purpose of the Buddha: to enable us to do this, thereby fulfilling our innate purpose as human beings.
Back to the text: “Buddhas” are Buddhas only when beings become Buddhas; with out “us,” they have no purpose. And the “Dharma”, then, is the Dharma because it corresponds with our deepest, innate nature: that of a Buddha. The Dharma is what we do to become Buddhas (or what we do so that we may see that we are already Buddhas); and Buddhas are those who help beings realize we are already Buddhas.
Hopefully you are still bearing with this post.
To explain this in a slightly different way, here’s another quote from the Platform Sutra of Huineng, one of the other most venerated and studied texts in Chinese Buddhism (from the late Dr. John McRae’s translation, available here as a .pdf),
You should have faith that the perceptual understanding of the buddhas is only your own mind. There is no other buddha. It is only that all the sentient beings obstruct their own brilliance by the sensory realms of desire. Externally conditioned and internally disrupted, they take hectic delight in sensation. Then they belabor other Buddhas to arise from their samādhi and use various harsh words to get them to stop! Don’t seek out- side yourself—you’re no different from the buddhas!
And other line from the same Sutra,
Good friends, if one is unenlightened, then the buddhas are sentient beings. When one is enlightened for [even] a single moment, then [all] sentient beings are buddhas.
So, we can think of “Buddhas” as anyone, everyone, and everything we encounter in our life. All things, including our own selves, are constantly showing us the Truth at all time, helping us realize our true nature, and fulfill our true purpose. We, most often, are just not noticing.
So then, another way to understand the original line of text from the Lotus Sutra is:
Only Buddhas together with all beings fully accomplish the true purpose of being human.
Ok. I’ll conclude here with this:
“Only a Buddha together with a Buddha“, in part, means that we are all in this together; there is no difference between Buddhas and sentient beings, for we are utterly dependent upon each other.
“Fully understanding the true character of all things“, in part, means “who we really are”; we we really, truly, always have been, since time without beginning.
This may make more sense as we explore a bit more of the Lotus Sutra in subsequent (hopefully shorter) posts.
To end, here are the seven different English translations of the original line of Chinese text. Feel free to follow the links below for versions of the Lotus Sutra, three of which are available in full online for free.
Only among buddhas can the true character of all things be fathomed.
–From the translation by Gene Reeves.
Only a buddha together with a buddha can fathom the ultimate reality of all things.
Only a buddha together with a buddha can fathom the Reality of All Existence.
–Also from Rissho Kosei Kai, but an older translation, found here (a full pdf of the Lotus Sutra).
The true aspect of all phenomena can only be understood and shared between Buddhas.
…only the Buddhas and the Buddha can exhaust the Real Mark of all dharmas.
–Translation by the Buddhist Text Translation Society, found here online in full.
No one but the buddhas can completely know the real aspects of all dharmas.
–Translated by Tsugunari Kubo, Akira Yuyama, two Japanese scholars, found here in full .pdf format.
…only a Buddha and a Buddha can exhaust [the[ reality [of all things].
–Translated by Leon Hurvitz.
As always, I hope this finds you well. Thank you for reading….