The Living Message of the Lotus Sutra

A Sanskrit manuscript of the Lotus Sutra composed in South Turkestan Brahmi script, courtesy of Wikipedia

Hi folks, as Ohigan season has arrived once more, I revisited an old post I made ages ago in a past incarnation1 of this blog, but now updated and expanded from the original. So old it’s new again! 😄

A long time ago, while walking to work one day, I got to thinking about a certain, Buddhist text, the Lotus Sutra, or hokkekyō (法華経) in Japanese. The Lotus Sutra is probably the most important Buddhist text in all of Mahayana Buddhism, that is Buddhism across east Asia including China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam and so on. The Lotus Sutra is so important that it pretty much defines what Mahayana Buddhism is. Even though it is nearly 2,000 years old, composed in waves starting in the 1st century CE, it is still actively studied, chanted and an object of inspiration or even veneration.

In spite of its importance, the Lotus Sutra is a tough sutra to read, especially for new Buddhists who aren’t used to “sutra language” and style. An old Buddhist friend of mine described it as the “prologue without a story”. At other times, its very vivid imagery can bewilder, confuse or turn some people off.2

But that day, I got to thinking what the entire sutra means, since it is so long, and how this applies to life now. Once you get used to its style and language, even though it is almost 2,000 years old, I believe it is still important today to Buddhists and non-Buddhists because it introduces many ideas that have since become a part of mainstream Buddhism tradition:

  • In spite of the various schools, practices and regional/cultural differences, there is only one Buddhism, and all of them are included. (chapter 2)
  • No effort is wasted. If kids offer a pile of sand to the Buddha, or a person says “Hail Buddha” even once, they are on the Buddhist path and will someday reach Enlightenment. (chapter 2)
  • The Buddha is not just a physical/historical person, but represents the truth, and the desire to help all beings reach liberation. There is only one truth, but each person understands it as best they can. (chapter 5)
  • In true Buddhism, there is no discrimination between men and women, young and old. All can attain Buddhahood if they have the noble intention of doing so. (chapter 6, 8, 9, 10).
  • Further, intention and not form nor background is what matters. (chapter 12’s story of the Dragon Princess)
  • The Buddhist lifestyle is one of peace, good intentions and wholesome restraint. A person should refrain from criticizing other people’s beliefs, nor withhold teachings either when asked. (chapter 14)
  • Anyone who upholds these truths can be a “Bodhisattva of the Earth”, a guardian of the Buddhist teachings. (chapter 15).
  • The Buddha is more than just a physical/historical person. When one lives an upright, wholesome life and appreciates the Dharma, they can see the Buddha. In other words the Dharma embodies the Buddha, the Buddha embodies the Dharma. (chapter 16)
  • Delighting in the truth, in the Dharma, changes one for the better (ch. 18)
  • The epitome of Buddhist character is patience (ch. 20), dedication (ch. 23), humility (ch. 24) and compassion (ch. 25)
  • Friends and good companions are important on the Buddhist path. (ch. 27)
  • Never give up. (ch. 28)

All of these teachings can be found scattered here and there in earlier Buddhist texts, but the Lotus Sutra functions as a kind of “reboot” or “capstone” text that synthesizes all these ideas and presents them in a more cohesive narrative.

So, happy and peaceful Ohigan to readers, party on Wayne, and Nam-myoho Renge Kyo!

1 See what I did there? Huh? Huh? I’ll see myself out.

2 The first time I read it, it made little sense, and I put it down and forgot about it for years. Later, I found Thich Nhat Hanh’s excellent commentaries on the Lotus Sutra, titled Opening the Heart of the Cosmos. Reading that side-by-side with a copy of the Lotus Sutra helped me appreciate it a lot more.

Published by Doug

🎵Toss a coin to your Buddhist-Philhellenic-D&D-playing-Japanese-studying-dad-joke-telling-Trekker, O Valley of Plentyyy!🎵He/him

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