The previous chapter set forth the principle that the ultimate substance of the Buddha is the basic life-force that calls all things into being, animates, and moves them and that it is an everlasting presence abounding within and about us all. The present chapter takes up the merit of clear perception of this principle, breaking it into twelve parts or stages, and states in detail the way to live in right faith.
Without going into these twelve stages one by one here, let it be enough to say that the meaning is this: if we hold the faith that we are animated by an eternal life-force without beginning or end, the power of deepening that faith and of extending it to others wells up without limit. Then if that faith is thoroughgoing enough, we are granted the supreme merit of knowing that we will at last attain the identical ultimate awakening experienced by the Buddha.
Clearly no ordinary practice is going to lead to such an attainment of buddhahood. As told in this chapter, there were bodhisattvas who practiced through eight lifetimes before attaining that state. But simply to know that by right faith and true endeavor we will at some time reach the same state as Shakyamuni is a vast source of light to ourselves and to all humanity. If only there is this light, then every human life takes on meaning and is joyous.
When a life is passed in a succession of empty pleasures and sorrows - making money and losing it, loving and being disappointed in love, reaching a position only to lose it through some small failing - there well may be a sense that every moment is full, but in retrospect at the moment of death such a life, which has been swayed by a narrow egoism that chased after shadows, will seem utterly empty.
How totally different, though, is a life in which there is a firm backbone of faith - even a life that superficially seems no different from such a vain life of recurring pains, sorrows, and joys! For with this backbone, with the certainty that, whatever the ups and downs, every step on the way is that much nearer the state of the Buddha, the most painful life may be lived pleasantly and ended happily.
Our lives do not stop with this life. This life of the Buddha is imperishable, and our own lives that are part of that life are likewise imperishable. To realize - even merely to think - that this life, the next, and the next, on and on eternally, must be a repetition of everyday joys and sorrows is enough to make most say, "No more." But with true faith, with the awareness that every step brings us that much closer to the state of the Buddha, then, however long the journey, it is always full of interest, of hope, of fulfillment. This indeed is the great merit won by the true believer.
Yet the effort of the true believer does not end with himself alone, for while his effort is toward the state of the Buddha, he strives also to bring all those he can into the way he treads. For as the number of true believers swells, humankind as a whole is raised up, and the world is brought closer to becoming itself that highest paradise, the Land of Eternal Tranquillity and Light. In summary, this is the meaning of the twelve stages of merit enumerated in this chapter.
The concluding division of the Lotus Sutra runs from the last half of chapter 17 through chapter 28, the end of the sutra. The main themes of this division are the merits of right faith, the state of mind necessary to right faith, and Shakyamuni's command to his disciples, including our latter-day selves, to preach the right faith to later generations.
The present chapter, "Discrimination of Merits," explains the merits of faith. They are merits of the spirit, as are those of the first half of the next chapter, "The Merits of Joyful Acceptance." But beginning with the last half of that chapter, merits affecting our persons and our daily lives are taken up.
Some may say that there is no need to attend to these merits, that if one studies and fully comprehends what is taught in the crucial sixteenth chapter and the two half chapters on either side of it, it is enough to have complete faith that, like the life of the Buddha, a person's life is everlasting and imperishable. And certainly anyone who can do just this is commendable. But in fact such complete faith is hard to attain, and there is a question as to whether one in ten thousand, or even one in a hundred thousand, can attain it. The sad fact is that the average person takes the ideal state described as a world far, far removed from the likes of him or her. And so after all, if the teaching is truly to be felt, it must be put in terms of things close at hand to everyday life. This is of great importance in the concluding division of the Lotus Sutra.
Again the average person tends quickly to slack off. Most people readily see how fine a thing the teaching is and understand this with their heads, but they get lazy. However, if they have right faith, practice it in their persons, and actually advance upward as taught in the scripture, and if they constantly read and recite that scripture, then their faith will constantly be renewed and never give way to the tendency to slacken. This is of equal importance in the concluding division.
Again, Shakyamuni specifically directed even people like ourselves to announce his teaching to others. This is a thing to be grateful for. And every time we look upon his words and see into his thought, we are lifted up and lent new courage and steadfastness. This is of final importance in the concluding division.
And so for the 99,999 in 100,000 that are average people, the concluding division is indispensable, and with all due humility we must read it with the same intensity as those parts that form the essence of the teaching proper.
The T'ien-t'ai patriarch Chih-i, of China, reduced to easily understood and memorable form the essential matter of this chapter as it bears on the mental preparation of the believer. He described this preparation in nine short phrases under two headings: four faiths and five categories. The items of the four faiths are sometimes referred to as the four faiths of the presence - that is, four stages or levels of faith that describe the proper conduct of the believer during Shakyamuni's lifetime. The stages of the four faiths of course apply equally today.
The first stage of the four faiths is momentary faith and understanding. It is important to believe in and understand, even for a single moment, the limitlessness of the life of the Buddha, for this is to understand the real aspect of all things. It is the great leap of the spirit.
Second is overall appreciation of the meaning of the teachings. A step beyond the first, this means to go beyond momentary faith in and understanding of the immeasurable life of the Buddha to a broad appreciation of the great meaning contained in the teaching. It means that just as the life of the Buddha is eternal and imperishable, so also are our own lives in that they are one with the Buddha's. Only because we are lost in clouds of illusion do we not see this. If one by one we dispel these clouds, then without fail we perceive that we are entirely one with the Buddha.
Third is broad study and ministry, by which is meant what the believer should be and do. Beyond an overall understanding and appreciation of the truth of the teaching, the believer learns the broad teaching of the Lotus Sutra, plants it firmly in mind, gives devotion and thanksgiving to it, and goes on to tell it to others and bring them to the Way of the Buddha.
Fourth is deep faith and clear perception, by which is meant that with deepening faith in and understanding of the immeasurable life of the Buddha, the believer gains the certainty of the Buddha's constant presence. With this comes a view of life and the world perfectly in accord with the teaching of the Buddha and a capacity to live in a state of joy in that teaching.
In turn, the five categories are sometimes referred to as the five categories after extinction because they describe the proper conduct of the believer after the Buddha's extinction and the five merits that are related to this conduct.
The first of the five categories is the first attendant joy. By this is meant the stirring of a sense of joy upon learning of the existence of so precious a teaching as that of the immeasurable life of the Buddha and understanding what this means. This is faith, and the thought is dealt with at some length in the following chapter, "The Merits of Joyful Acceptance."
Next comes reading and recitation. While the first attendant joy in itself is proof of true faith, the teaching must be firmly implanted in the mind by intense study and recitation.
The third category is preaching. The urge to tell others about it is a natural outcome of close knowledge of the priceless teaching of the Buddha. In telling others, believers better their own condition, and their merit is the greater because of influencing others for good.
Fourth comes auxiliary practice of the six degrees, the six degrees being another way of speaking of the Six Perfections of a bodhisattva: donation, keeping the precepts, perseverance, assiduity, meditation, and wisdom. What is meant by auxiliary practice is that at the same time that a person accepts, reads and recites, and preaches the Law (that is, the teachings) he also practices the Six Perfections. In so doing, the bodhisattva moves on to a yet higher state.
Finally comes full practice of the six degrees, and with the attainment of this category of complete practice, the practitioner is near the full knowledge and enlightenment of the Buddha.
Chih-i's statement of the four faiths and the five categories, part of which is reviewed here, is in words that compress the exact expression to be found in the sutra. The reader may therefore find it hard at first to identify the elements of the four faiths and the five categories described. But they are there, and because Chih-i's terse expression gives us a set of easy-to-use terms, it is important to match them with the passages from which they are derived and to remember them.
Copyright by Rissho Kosei-kai. All rights reserved.