It is for the sake of profound wisdom that this Dharma Flower Sutra is taught.
I’d like to finally begin what hopefully will be a series of posts about the Lotus Sutra. However, before launching into it, I would like to be quite clear about what my role here on this blog is in doing so: I am in no way any measure of expert or even one well-versed in this vastly important Buddhist text. I am, quite the contrary, a very young student of it, and consider myself still very much a beginner in studying and understanding, let alone living, what it teaches. In many ways it is a deceivingly simple text, tantalizingly “easy” to grasp and turn into dogmatic ideals; and yet every once in a while you may get a glimpse that the “Lotus Sutra” has nothing to do with its words printed or written down; instead you may sense the Lotus Sutra is indeed that which all things in this universe proclaim.
Ok, well, I do at least.
So, please, take what is written here and subsequently only as one somewhat dull-witted person’s opinion. And, may I humbly apologize for the inevitable deficiencies in these posts.
Ok: so, what is this “Lotus Sutra”?
To be official: “The Lotus Sutra” is an ancient Buddhist text, or sutra, purporting to be the word of the historical Buddha. The text itself, at least in the Chinese and English versions, is made up of 28 Chapters, and was originally composed in India over a period of a few hundred years by anonymous hands around the time of Christ, well after the historical Buddha Shakyamuni passed away.
The Lotus Sutra teaches a variety of things, the three most important of which are:
1) The Buddha’s use of “skillful means” (upaya) in teaching the Dharma;
2) How all these “skillful means” are nothing other than what the Buddha calls the One Buddha Vehicle; and
3) The inconceivable lifespan of the Buddha, showing how the “Buddha” is always present helping beings realize the truth of his Dharma.
We will explore these three themes in subsequent posts.
The Lotus Sutra is also very famous for its use of seven prominent metaphors or parables to convey some of its most important teachings (here is a nice synopsis of these parables.) We will also explore some of the more prominent parables in later posts.
However, the “Lotus Sutra,” as it is referred to in the west, actually is called something slightly different in most east-Asian countries. If we translate the characters most commonly used in East Asia to refer to this sutra (法華經 – fǎ huá jīng), the English would be “The Dharma Flower Sutra,” rather than “The Lotus Sutra.”
The full title in Chinese is 妙法蓮華經 (miào fǎ lián huá jīng), which could be translated fairly literally as “The Wondrous Dharma Lotus Flower Sutra,” or not so literally as “The Sutra of the Lotus Flower of the Wonderful Dharma.” It contains 28 chapters in the most widely-read Chinese translation, that done by the great Kuchian translator-monk Kumarajiva in 406 A.D. It was evidently translated into Chinese six different times, but only three of those translations still exist. And, of these three, only Kumarajiva’s translation was widely read.
The text as we now have it, as mentioned earlier, was mostly composed in ancient India around the time of Christ, with a few of the chapters appearing sometime in the next couple hundred years. Its Sanskrit title is Saddharma Puṇḍarīka Sūtra, which also translates into something similar as the above: “The Wonderful Dharma Lotus Flower Sutra.” For those who have heard Theravadan monks say in Pali “Sādhu, Sādhu,” meaning “It is good, very good,” the “sādh” in the Sanskrit “Saddharama” is the same root word: good, virtuous, meritorious, etc. So, “Saddharma“, simply put, means the Good Dharma.
Although the Chinese version of the Lotus Sutra was originally translated from the Sanskrit, it is generally understood that Kumarajiva’s translation is older than any of the existing Sanskrit texts we know have. For those unfamiliar with why this would be, here’s a short article about the decline of Buddhism in India. In short, due of a variety of factors, by the end of the 13th century, nearly all traces of Buddhism in India had been destroyed; texts most thoroughly. By that time, much of Buddhist literature had all ready been translated into Chinese; so though the Sanskrit texts were lost, the Chinese versions survived, as did the Pali versions through Buddhism’s flourishing in Sri Lanka.
The whole of the 28 chapters seems to have been written and organized together by the end of the 2nd Century A.D. in India by anonymous authors. (However, I seem to remember reading some where that the Sanskrit version only has 27 chapters.) As with most Mahayana scriptures, the Lotus Sutra begins with the words, “Thus have I heard,” attempting to show that someone actually heard the Buddha speak those words, giving seeming authority to the text’s contents. This is because the earliest texts in Buddhism, purportedly conveying the actual words the Buddha spoke, all begin with these same words: “Thus have I heard.”
In this way, the Lotus Sutra is considered to be “the word of the Buddha” (Buddhavacana), though, historically speaking, this is not accurate. However….in one sense, that is besides the point. When we understand the Buddha as the Dharma, and the Dharma as the Buddha, then the Buddha has never left this world, and continues to teach what can be known as the Wondrous Dharma Flower Sutra.
It is difficult to over-estimate the impact this one text has had in East Asian cultures. It has spawned flourishing generations of artists, near-complete schools of Buddhism, generations of practitioners devoted to its recitation, scores of commentaries and sub-commentaries, even religious movements that are quite on the edge of what is considered orthodox Buddhism. In short, the Lotus Sutra is much, much more than just what we might have between two covers of a book.
I’m not too certain how to proceed in coming posts, but most likely will go through the Lotus Sutra in some measure of order, from beginning to end. This, again, will be a very general exploration, based almost entirely on my own perspective, as informed by reading, study, and contemplation.
So, in that way, this may or may not have much value.
As always, wishing you well.
[The Buddha said]:
I always have this thought:
How may I help sentient beings
Be able to enter the unsurpassed Way,
And quickly attain the body of a Buddha.