The theme of this chapter is stress upon the merit of first attendant joy, with a detailed explanation of it. The reason for this repetition is that the joy attendant upon the teaching, with heartfelt gratitude for it and delight in it, is the primary and indispensable element of faith.
The chapter opens with a question from Maitreya about the happiness attendant upon hearing this sutra after Shakyamuni's extinction. The Buddha replies at length, saying, in paraphrase, "Let us suppose that some people have been to a meeting for an explanation of the Law, and that, moved by a spirit of gratitude and happiness, they tell someone else as well as they can what they have heard. And let us suppose that the one they have told is equally moved by an attendant joy and tells someone else. Then let us suppose that this process is repeated until the teaching reaches the fiftieth person, who likewise is moved to gratitude. The merit of this fiftieth one is hundreds of millions of times greater than the enormous merit accumulated by a very, very rich man who has spent his entire life in giving alms. Now if the merit of the fiftieth hearer is of this order, how much greater is the immeasurably infinite merit of those who heard the message at the first assembly."
As we read this today, we can understand the great merit of the first hearers easily enough, for they are in an atmosphere of faith and are hearing the message from the mouth of a persuasive leader versed in the Law. But when, in the absence of skillful speech or any atmosphere of faith, the word has passed from one lay person to another and another on to the fiftieth, then what is left of the message is only the bare bones. But even the bare bones of the Lotus Sutra are such that they cannot fail to impress, even at fiftieth remove.
There are two reasons that the merit of the impression conveyed by the message even at such remove is greater than the merit of a rich man who has spent his life in almsgiving. One is that the spiritual joy that springs from hearing the True Law is a treasure beyond compare. The other is that the joy developed as the message passes from one person to another becomes an infinite force.
Returning once more to the text, we find the thought developed - quite apart from the attendant joy - of the enormous merit of even momentary presence at a sermon to hear the teaching of the Lotus Sutra, and of the still greater merit of urging others who come later to sit and hear or share a seat.
The meaning of this is the importance of the tie, or manner of encounter, with the Law. While it is true that we all have the buddha-nature, without some tie or encounter to awaken us to it, it is of no avail. And so initial contact with the teaching is a prime and necessary condition. It is for this reason that encounter is so worthy a thing and that bringing others to such an encounter is still more worthy.
This chapter, then, teaches something of prime importance to the believer: readiness first to respond with joy upon hearing the teaching, coupled then with a resulting desire to share that joy immediately with others, to preach the message of the Lotus Sutra, the smallest part of which is filled with meaning.
Copyright by Rissho Kosei-kai. All rights reserved.