Lotus Sutra (Saddharmapu??arika-Sutra)

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The Lotus Sūtra (Sanskrit, Saddharmapundarīka—Sūtra) numbers among the most popular of MahĀyĀna scriptures. It is celebrated for its reconciliation of diverse teachings in the "one Buddha vehicle" (ekayāna) and for its promise that buddhahood can be achieved by all. Although it has not figured prominently in the Mahāyāna traditions of India or Tibet, the Lotus Sūtra has for centuries profoundly influenced Buddhist thought, art, and literature throughout East Asia. Its ideas have served as the basis for philosophical systems and meditative and ritual practice, while its parables and mythic imagery have inspired paintings, drama, and poetry. Since the late nineteenth century, the Lotus has also been read as supporting various forms of Buddhist social engagement.

Texts and translations

As with most Mahāyāna Sūtras, little is known of the circumstances surrounding the composition of the Lotus Sūtra. There is only one extant full-length commentary that appears likely to have been composed in India: the Fahua lun (Treatise on the Lotus), attributed to Vasubandhu (ca. fourth century c.e.), which exists in Chinese translation. Scholars date the Sūtra's compilation to roughly around the first two centuries of the common era. Six Chinese translations were made, of which three survive: Zhengfa hua jing, translated by Dharmaraksa in 286; Miaofa lianhua jing, translated by KumĀrajĪva in 406; and Tianben miaofa lianhua jing, translated by Jñānagupta and Dharmagupta in 601 (this last is a revision of Kumārajīva's translation). Kumārajīva's translation has twenty-eight chapters; the material comprising its twelfth, "Devadatta," chapter is included at the end of chapter eleven in the other two translations, which have only twenty-seven chapters (subsequent chapter references in this entry are to Kumārajīva's twenty-eight chapter version). Whether Kumārajīva's translation originally contained the Devadatta chapter, or whether it was added later, has been a matter of some debate.

Of the three Chinese versions of the Lotus Sūtra, Kumārajīva's proved by far the most popular. A Tibetan translation, Dam pa'i chos pad ma dkar po zhes bya ba theg pa chen po'i mdo, was also made in the early ninth century by Surendrabodhi and Sna nam Ye shes sde. Since the nineteenth century, Sanskrit manuscripts and manuscript fragments of the Lotus have been discovered in Nepal, Kashmir, Tibet, and other parts of Central Asia. Critical comparison of these various versions has advanced scholarly understanding of the process of the Sūtra's composition. As of the beginning of the twenty-first century, eight English translations have been published (all but one based on Kumārajīva's Chinese), along with translations into other modern languages.

Though the exact dating of individual chapters probably varies considerably, modern textual study suggests that the Lotus Sūtra may have been compiled, broadly speaking, in three stages. The first nine chapters, which focus on the themes of the "one vehicle" and "skillful means," represent an initial stage. Chapters ten through twenty-two, emphasizing bod-hisattva conduct and the importance of revering, preaching, and transmitting the Sūtra, constitute a second stage. This second stage corresponds, roughly, to that portion of the Sūtra called the "assembly in open space," in which the jeweled stŪpa of the Buddha Prabhutaratna appears from beneath the earth to testify to the Lotus Sūtra's truth, and Śākyamuni Buddha, accepting Prabhūtaratna's offer of a seat beside him in the stupa, uses his supramundane powers to lift the entire assembly into midair on a level with the two buddhas. The final chapters, dealing with devotion to specific bodhisattvas, appear to have been added still later. Traditionally, however, exegetes have divided the Sūtra not by stages in its compilation but by interpretation of its content. Zhiyi (538–597), de facto founder of the Tiantai school, termed the first fourteen chapters the "trace teaching" (Chinese, jimen; Japanese, shakumon), preached by Śākyamuni in a provisionally manifested form as the historical Buddha, and the second fourteen chapters, the "origin teaching" (benmen, honmon), revealing Śākyamuni to be the original or primordial Buddha, awakened since the inconceivably distant past. This division of the Sūtra into "trace" and "origin" sections formed the basis for numerous subsequent interpretations, especially in the Tiantai/Tendai and Nichiren schools.

In China, a practice began of grouping apparently related Sūtras into threes. The "threefold Lotus Sūtra" consists of Kumārajīva's Sūtra of the Lotus Blossom of the Wonderful Dharma (Chinese, Miaofa lianhua jing; Japanese, Myohorengekyo) as the main Sūtra; the Sūtra of Immeasurable Meanings (Wuliang yi jing, Muryōgikyō) as the introductory Sūtra; and the Sūtra on the Method of Contemplating Bodhisattva Samantabhadra (Guan Puxian pusa xingfa jing, Kan Fugen bosatsu gyōhōkyō) as the concluding Sūtra. No Sanskrit version is extant for either the introductory or the concluding Sūtra, and the circumstances of their compilation remain unclear. According to the first chapter of the Lotus Sūtra, just before expounding the Lotus itself, the Buddha preached "a Mahāyāna Sūtra called Immeasurable Meanings"; the Sūtra of Immeasurable Meanings was assumed to be that very Sūtra. It also contains the statement: "In these forty years and more, I [Śākyamuni] have not yet revealed the truth." The "truth" here was taken to mean the Lotus Sūtra, and this passage was used as a proof text to support arguments according the Lotus a supreme position among the Buddha's lifetime teachings. The Samantabhadra Sūtra was clearly composed with reference to chapter twenty-eight of the Lotus Sūtra, which is also about Samantabhadra, and sets forth a detailed meditation on this bodhisattva that includes repentance for sins committed with the six sense faculties. Zhiyi incorporated this ritual of repentance into the Lotus samadhi, the third of the "four kinds of sāmadhi" taught in the Tiantai meditative system.

Central themes of the Lotus Sūtra

The one vehicle and skillful means. Mahāyāna polemics extol the ideal of the bodhisattva who strives for the liberation of all, over and against the goal of personal nirvĀna sought by the Buddha's disciples (śāvakas) and the privately enlightened (pratyeka-buddhas), followers of the two so-called HĪnayĀna vehicles. Some Mahāyāna Sūtras, such as the Vimalakīrtinirdeśa, condemn the way of the two vehicles as a spiritual dead end. The Lotus Sūtra, however, attempts to reconcile them with the Mahāyāna by asserting that the threefold division in the Buddha's teaching, into separate vehicles for śrāvakas, pratyekabuddhas, and bodhisattvas, is a skillful means (upĀya); in reality, there is only one buddha vehicle. That is, the Buddha taught these three separate vehicles as a pedagogical device, in accordance with his auditors' varying capacity for practice and understanding, but they are all designed to lead ultimately to the one buddha vehicle and thus spring from a unitary intent. These intertwined themes—the Buddha's teaching through skill in means and the ultimate resolution of the three disparate vehicles in the one vehicle—are presented discursively in chapter two and then illustrated in subsequent chapters through analogies and parables, such as the three carts and the burning house, the rich man and his poor son, medicinal herbs, the magically conjured city, the gem concealed in a robe, and so forth.

While the Lotus Sūtra repeatedly asserts the supremacy of the one vehicle, it never actually explains what it is. This has opened the way for diametrically opposed readings of the Sūtra. One controversy among Chinese exegetes centered on whether the one vehicle is the same as, or different from, the bodhisattva vehicle (the so called "three carts or four" controversy). At stake was the question: Is the Mahāyāna the true, final teaching, and only the two vehicles provisional? Or is the Mahāyāna itself, like the two Hīnayāna vehicles, also ultimately a skillful means, leading to but transcended by a truth beyond expression? A related point of disagreement in the history of Lotus interpretation concerns whether the one vehicle should be read inclusively or exclusively. From an inclusive standpoint, since the one vehicle is all-encompassing, all practices and doctrinal formulations can be seen as provisional skillful means, which, while different in themselves, nonetheless all point toward the same realization. From an exclusive or hierarchical viewpoint, however, the one vehicle is equated with one specific teaching, the Lotus, which is thereby invested with absolute status, over and against all other teachings, which are then relegated to the lesser category of "provisional."

Universal buddhahood. A corollary to its claim that there is only one vehicle is the Lotus Sūtra's assertion that buddhahood is the final goal of all. In the Sūtra's words, "Among those who hear this dharma, there is not one who shall not attain buddhahood." This is illustrated by predictions of future buddhahood bestowed upon the Buddha's śrāvaka disciples, as they come to understand that the goal of personal nirvĀna they had pursued was a skillful expedient, not a final destination in itself. The twelfth, Devadatta, chapter was widely interpreted as extending the promise of buddhahood to persons seen as having particular obstacles to liberation. The prediction of eventual buddhahood for Devadatta, the Buddha's wicked cousin, was read as illustrating the potential for enlightenment even in evil persons, and the instantaneous realization of buddhahood by the dragon king's daughter, described in the same chapter, as a promise of enlightenment for women. In keeping with traditional views that buddhahood must be achieved in a male body, the dragon princess changes into a male in the moment before her enlightenment. Modern readers seeking support in the Mahāyāna for a position of gender equality find this element in the narrative troubling. Historically, however, exegetes and devotees have not necessarily adhered to a literal reading, and the Lotus was in fact thought to hold particular relevance for women's attainment of buddhahood.

The primordial Buddha. The latter part of the Lotus Sūtra, especially the "origin teaching," presents a radically revised depiction of Śākyamuni, not as the historical Buddha who lived and taught in India, but as the original or primordial Buddha. In chapter eleven, before he opens the jeweled stūpa of Prabhūtaratna, Śākyamuni "recalls his emanations," and the buddhas who then gather from throughout the ten directions are shown to be his manifestations. Particularly in chapter sixteen, Śākyamuni reveals that he first achieved enlightenment, not under the bodhi tree in this lifetime as people think, but billions of kalpas ago, in the inconceivably remote past. Ever since then, he has been here in this world and also in others, preaching the dharma and converting living beings. Thus his birth, renunciation, practice, awakening, and entry into nirvana are all revealed to be the skillful means by which he constantly teaches and liberates others.

The Buddha of the origin teaching is often spoken of as the "eternal Buddha," a term that, though easy to understand, flattens out a long and complex history of interpretation. Early Chinese exegetes disagreed over whether this Buddha's life span was finite or infinite, or whether he was a Buddha in the dharma-body (dharmakāya), the recompense-body (sambhogakāya), or the manifested-body (nirmānakāya) aspect. In a dynamic synthesis, Zhiyi interpreted the original Buddha of the Lotus Sūtra as embodying all three bodies in one: The dharma body is the truth that is realized; the recompense body is the wisdom that realizes it; and the manifested body, a compassionate expression of that wisdom as the human Buddha who appeared and taught in this world. In the Japanese Tendai tantric tradition (Taimitsu), the primordial Buddha of the Lotus Sūtra was identified with Vairocana or Mahavairocana, the cosmic Buddha pervading everywhere, whose form is all things, whose voice is all sounds, and whose mind is all thoughts. In Tendai original enlightenment (hongaku) doctrine, the primordial Buddha is said to be the "triple body that is unproduced" (musa sanjin), that is, innate originally. Here, the Buddha's enlightenment in the remote past is taken as a metaphor for the original enlightenment that is the beginningless true aspect of all things. Nichiren (1222–1282), founder of the school that would eventually bear his name, regarded the Buddha of the origin teaching as the only true Buddha, of whom all other buddhas are but manifestations. The practitioner is identified with this Buddha in the act of embracing faith in the Lotus Sūtra and chanting its title or daimoku, Namu Myōhō-renge-kyō.

The Lotus Sūtra and devotional practices

Following its introduction to China, numerous commentaries were written on the Lotus Sūtra by Buddhist scholars of many schools, stimulating doctrinal debate. The one vehicle doctrine played a key role in the Chinese scholastic project of establishing comprehensive classificatory systems (panjiao) that attempted to order the diverse Buddhist teachings transmitted from India and Central Asia into a coherent whole. Yet, while valued in elite circles, such doctrinal developments were probably less influential in the spread of faith in the Lotus Sūtra than were a range of devotional practices performed by both clerics and laypeople across social levels. These forms of Lotus practice transcended distinctions of school or sect and exerted a profound impact on the Buddhist ritual and devotional culture of East Asia.

Lotus Sūtra devotion in its Indic context belonged to a distinctive Mahāyāna "cult of the book," in which Sūtras were enshrined and revered in a manner analogous to the worship of Buddha relics enshrined in stupas. The Sūtra itself exhorts its devotees to text-centered acts of reverence, such as the "five practices" of receiving and keeping, reading, reciting from memory, teaching, and transcribing the Lotus Sūtra. As with other Mahāyāna Sūtras, Lotus Sūtra devotion in East Asia has often centered around copying, worshipping, and preaching the Sūtra. Such devotional acts might be sponsored officially, by the court, or undertaken privately. The merit thought to result was dedicated toward a number of aims, including realization of enlightenment; birth in a buddha's pure land or other ideal realm; eradication of sins; the postmortem welfare of deceased relatives; and this-worldly benefits, including the peace and stability of the country, long life, recovery from illness, and prevention of calamity. Tales compiled in both China and Japan extol the wondrous blessings obtained by monks, nuns, ascetics, and ordinary lay people who carried out such practices.

Copying the Lotus Sūtra might be undertaken by an individual or by a religious association formed for the purpose, or a professional calligrapher might be commissioned. Sūtra copying was seen as a virtuous deed whose merit might be dedicated toward one's own salvation or that of deceased family members. In China, Lotus Sūtra copying flourished particularly in the Sui (589–618) and Tang (618–907) dynasties. In Japan, the Lotus was the Sūtra most frequently copied in the Heian period (794–1185). Some transcriptions commissioned by wealthy patrons were copied on dark blue paper using gold or silver ink. Especially striking are surviving copies in which each of the Lotus Sūtra's 69,384 characters has been drawn seated on a lotus pedestal or surrounded by a stupa, thereby expressing the conviction that "each character of the Lotus is a living buddha." The Lotus Sūtra also numbered among those scriptures most often preserved in anticipation of the era of decline known as the Final Dharma age (Chinese, mofa; Japanese, mappō). In China, it was sometimes inscribed on stone slabs on hillsides, or in Japan, copied and buried in bronze cylinders to await the advent of Maitreya, the next buddha. Vernacular sermons on the Lotus, sometimes with accompanying illustrations, made its message broadly accessible, as did popular songs, poems, and artistic representations. One of the most widespread visual images of Lotus is that of the jeweled stupa, sometimes represented by the two buddhas, Śākyamuni and Prabhūtaratna, seated together. This scene is depicted in cave paintings, on steles, in maṆḍalas, and by small votive stupas.

The Lotus has also been associated with devotion to, or emulation of, specific bodhisattvas described in its later chapters. Chapter twenty-three describes how a bodhisattva called "Beheld with Joy by all Living Beings" steeps his body in perfumed oils and then burns it in offering to the Buddha and the Sūtra. This would become the textual basis for self-immolation, one of many forms of "discarding the body" undertaken by Buddhist ascetics. This controversial practice has been carried out as an act of renunciation, as an offering to the dharma, to achieve birth in a pure land, and as a form of protest when Buddhism has faced persecution. A broader influence on East Asian Buddhism as a whole stems from chapter twenty-five, which describes how the bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara (Guanyin, Kwan-ū˘m, Kannon) will respond compassionately to those who call upon his aid. This chapter eventually circulated as an independent Sūtra and helped promote devotion to Avalokiteśvara, which flourishes to this day. Descriptions in this chapter of the bodhisattva rescuing devotees from fire, flood, bandits, and other dangers were frequent subjects of Lotus-related painting.

The Lotus Sūtra and specific schools

While reverence for the Lotus Sūtra in East Asia has transcended all sectarian divisions, it has also come to be associated with two specific traditions: the Tiantai school, which spread in China, Korea, and Japan; and also the Nichiren school, which emerged in thirteenth-century Japan. The Lotus-related practices of these schools were influenced by, and in turn helped to shape, broader traditions of Lotus devotion.

The Tiantai/Tendai tradition. Zhiyi, the Tiantai founder, produced extensive and influential commentaries on the Lotus: the Fahua xuanyi (profound meaning of the Lotus), elucidating what he saw as the Sūtra's underlying principles, and the Fahua wenju (words and phrases of the Lotus), a line-by-line exegesis. The Lotus also provided him with a textual foundation for his conceptual innovations. A passage in Kumārajīva's translation of chapter two sets forth the "ten such-likes" (shirushi; Japanese, jūnyoze) as the "true aspect of the dharmas" (zhufa shixiang; Japanese, shoho jissō) that only buddhas can understand. By punctuating the passage in three different ways, Zhiyi derived the threefold truth of emptiness, conventional existence, and the middle, which informs the structure of his integrated system of doctrine and meditation. The same passage also provided him with a textual basis for "the single thought-moment being three thousand realms" (yinian sanqian, ichinen sanzen), his architectonic vision of the entire universe as an interpenetrating whole in which mind and concrete actualities are nondual and all dharmas are mutually inclusive. This is the "realm of the inconceivable," the first of ten modes of meditation set forth in his treatise on meditation, Mohe zhiguan (Great Calming and Contemplation).

Though Zhiyi valued the Lotus as the "subtle" teaching that alone reveals the perfect interfusion of the three truths, he held that other Sūtras also contain "subtle" elements; their particular admixtures of partial or provisional teachings were necessary responses to differences in human capacity and did not, in his view, reflect a rigid hierarchy of Sūtras. However, the Tiantai systematizer and sixth patriarch Zhanran (711–782), who lived in a time of increased sectarian consciousness and rivalry with other schools, organized the Sūtras into a hierarchy of "five periods and eight teachings," with the Lotus Sūtra at the apex. Zhanran's classification was instrumental in establishing the Sūtra's reputation as supreme among the Buddha's teachings.

New approaches to the Lotus Sūtra developed in Japanese Tendai, differentiating it from the Tiantai of the Asian mainland. Most notable was the flowering of a distinctive Tendai system of tantric Buddhism, or Taimitsu. Taimitsu theoreticians such as Ennin (794–864), Enchin (814–891), and Annen (841–?) reinterpreted the Lotus Sūtra as a tantric scripture and equated the Śākyamuni Buddha of the "origin teaching" with Vairocana or Mahāvairocana, the cosmic Buddha of the tantric teachings who is without beginning or end and who pervades everywhere. The Lotus also served as a basis for Taimitsu ritual, for example, in the "Lotus rite" (Hokke hŏ), performed to eradicate sin, build merit, and realize awakening. The maṆdala used in this rite depicts Śākyamuni and Prabhūtaratna seated together in its central court, as they appeared in the jeweled stupa, and may have influenced the form of Nichiren's maṇḍala. SaichŌ (767–822), founder of Japanese Tendai, had already identified the Lotus Sūtra with the doctrine of "realizing buddhahood with this very body" (sokushin jŏbutsu). Taimitsu thought and practice further promoted understandings of the Lotus as enabling the direct realization of enlightenment.

Another distinctive Lotus-based development of Japanese Tendai was the doctrine of original enlightenment, which dominated Tendai doctrinal studies from approximately the eleventh through seventeenth centuries. Though deeply colored by the assumptions of tantric Buddhism, original enlightenment doctrine was classified by its producers as "exoteric," in contrast to esoteric transmissions of tantric ritual. Original enlightenment thought might be seen as an attempt to reinterpret traditional Tiantai/Tendai doctrines and texts—including the works of Zhiyi and Zhanran, standard debate topics, and even the Lotus Sūtra itself—from the perspective that enlightenment is not "attained" but innate from the outset.

Largely through the medium of the Tiantai/Tendai tradition, both on the continent and in Japan, the Lotus Sūtra became associated with Pure Land Bud-dhism. Zhiyi had incorporated Pure Land elements into the constantly walking samadhi, the second of the "four kinds of sāmadhi" in his system of meditation. Here the practitioner circumambulates an altar to AmitĀbha Buddha while at the same time visualizing Amitābha's marks and qualities, eventually gaining insight into the nonduality of the visualized Buddha and the visualizing mind. During the Song dynasty (960–1279), Tiantai monks took the lead in promoting societies for Pure Land practice, including both monastics and laity. In Japan during the Heian period, an especially close connection existed between the Lotus Sūtra and Pure Land Buddhism, exemplified on Mount Hiei, the great Tendai monastic center, where monks performed the Lotus samadhi in the morning and chanted the Amitābha Sūtra in the evening. Mount Hiei was also the first site in Japan for practice of the "continuous nenbutsu," said to have been introduced from Mount Wutai in China by Saichō's disciple Ennin. This was a ritual form of contemplating Amitābha and intoning the Amitābha Sūtra with the aim of eradicating sin and achieving birth in Amitābha's Pure Land, which became incorporated into Tendai practices. Lotus-Pure Land associations flourished in the broader society as well, and many people recited and copied the Lotus Sūtra with the aspiration of achieving birth in Amitābha's paradise. Not until the Kamakura period (1185–1333), with the advent of teachers like Honen (1133–1212) and Nichiren, would strongly exclusivist forms of both Lotus and Pure Land devotion emerge.

Nichiren and modern Lotus-based movements.

Nichiren developed a strongly exclusivist reading of the Lotus as the only true teaching. He believed that the Buddha had intended this Sūtra specifically for the Final Dharma age, in which he and his contemporaries believed they were living. Other, provisional Sūtras, Nichiren insisted, could no longer lead to buddhahood in this benighted era. Accordingly, he stressed the practice of shakubuku, or teaching the dharma by directly rebuking attachment to provisional teachings. He saw his work of spreading faith in the Lotus as preparing the way for Bodhisattva Superior Conduct (Viśiṣtacāritra; Japanese, Jōgyō), the leader of the bodhisattvas who are Śākyamuni's original disciples, taught by him since his enlightenment in the inconceivably distant past, as described in the origin teaching. In chapter fifteen, these bodhisattvas emerge from beneath the earth and vow to spread the Lotus after Śākyamuni's nirvāṇa. Much of the later Nichiren tradition would identify Nichiren as an actual manifestation of Bodhisattva Superior Conduct.

The Lotus Sūtra foretells grave trials that its devotees will face in upholding it in an evil age after the Buddha's nirvāṇa. Historically, these passages probably reflect opposition from the Buddhist establishment encountered by the particular Mahāyāna community that compiled the Sūtra. Nichiren, however, saw these predictions as being borne out in the trials and persecutions he himself faced, and he read the Lotus as a work of prophecy being fulfilled by himself and his disciples. He termed this "reading with the body" (shikidoku), meaning to practice the Lotus not only by verbally reciting it and mentally believing in its teachings, but also by gladly undergoing in one's own person the harsh trials that the Sūtra says its devotees in the latter age must endure.

By the spread of exclusive faith in the Lotus, Nichiren taught, the buddha land could be realized in this present world. Especially in the twentieth century, this goal inspired a number of modern and contemporary Lotus- or Nichiren-based movements, which have assimilated Nichiren's vision of transforming this world into a buddha land to a range of political and humanitarian agendas. These groups include the small ascetic monastic order Nipponzan Myōhōji, which is committed to the antinuclear movement and to absolute nonviolence, as well as the large lay movements Risshō Kōsei Kai and Soka Gakkai, which engage in various local and international peace, educational, and relief projects.

See also:Chanting and Liturgy; Folk Religion: An Overview; Gender; Scripture


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Jacqueline I. Stone