In the previous chapter, "Exhortation to Hold Firm," the bodhisattvas vowed that they would persist in spreading the teaching of the Lotus Sutra no matter how much they were persecuted. In this chapter the Bodhisattva Manjushri, deeply impressed, and agreeing wholeheartedly with their stand, asks the Buddha on their behalf, "How are these bodhisattva-mahasattvas to be able to preach this sutra in the evil age to come? In reply, the Buddha thoughtfully explains the basic attitudes that a practitioner of the Lotus Sutra should adopt.
What we should note particularly is that in the previous chapter the eager bodhisattvas forecast many trials in "the evil age to come," while Shakyamuni asserted that those who truly believe and practice the teaching of the Lotus Sutra will be able to overcome all oppression and spend their days in a state of ease and comfort. Thus, while the point of the previous chapter is the demonstration of the vow to endure all persecution from without, the present chapter teaches us how to overcome temptations and delusions from within.
The expression "a happy life" can be taken as having two meanings. The first is an admonition to act of one's own volition, with a mind that is always at peace. A true practitioner of the Lotus Sutra is not a person who has to face religious persecution with gritted teeth and a defiant attitude but one who, whatever difficulties arise, can remain calm for the sake of the Law and willingly practice religious discipline and also work to spread the teaching.
Attitude is a strange thing. In movies we see mountain climbers straining under rucksacks weighing forty or fifty kilograms, sweat pouring down their faces. To us, they seem to be in a great deal of pain. When the mountain grows steeper, they may take three or four hours to climb twenty or thirty meters. Each step is taken at the risk of life itself. If sundown overtakes them on a cliff, there is nothing to do but spend the night in subzero temperatures suspended by ropes from the cliff. If they had been ordered to do this by an employer, you can imagine what complaints would be lodged for infringing human rights. Yet mountain climbers are ready to put up with any discomfort or danger because they themselves have decided that this is what they want to do. They are in pain, to be sure, but their minds are at peace. At this level, suffering becomes pleasure.
Practicing the teaching of the Lotus Sutra is the same. Novices will still grit their teeth in the face of persecution and derision, but a master of the Way will be able to face anything at all with a mind that is always composed and at peace. The practice itself is a source of joy. This is the first meaning of "a happy life." To reach such a stage, however, it is necessary to take the utmost care not to allow one's mind to be disturbed, discouraged, or tempted by the things of daily life. This chapter teaches us how to do this. We should read the Buddha's words as admonitions filled with tender affection, like the advice of a parent instructing a child about to set out on a journey. Like a father, the Buddha speaks directly to us, and as we listen to his voice his words penetrate our being.
The second meaning is the literal one: "a happy life." We can overcome all hardships and attain peace of mind if we truly believe the teaching of the Lotus Sutra and practice it. Our physical and mental states are not separate, so if we are at peace mentally, this will inevitably be reflected in our physical state and our daily life. In the present chapter the Buddha assures us of this.
The Buddha's words, spoken out of a deep affection for the inexperienced bodhisattvas, embody this truth. We must therefore accept them humbly and with gratitude. This will ensure us "a happy life." Let us now read the text of the chapter, bearing all this in mind.
TEXT At that time the Bodhisattva-Mahasattva Manjushri, the Law King's son, spoke to the Buddha, saying: "World-honored One! Rare indeed are such bodhisattvas as these! Reverently according with the Buddha, they have made great vows that in the evil age to come they will protect, keep, read, recite, and preach this Law Flower Sutra. World-honored One! How are these bodhisattva-mahasattvas to be able to preach this sutra in the evil age to come?"
The Buddha addressed Manjushri: "If any bodhisattva-mahasattva desires to preach this sutra in the evil age to come, he should be steadfast in the four methods: first, steadfast in the bodhisattva's spheres of action and intimacy, so that he may be able to preach this sutra to living beings.
COMMENTARY The four methods. These are the four basic practices of a bodhisattva, the "four pleasant practices" of the body, the mouth, the mind, and the vow.
? Spheres of action and intimacy. The first refers to the fundamental attitude as the basis of one's personal behavior. The second refers to the fundamental attitude regarding one's personal relations with others (in particular, relations with people in the secular world). These two spheres correspond to the pleasant practice of the body (or of deeds).
TEXT Manjushri! Why is it called a bodhisattva-mahasattva's sphere of action? If a bodhisattva-mahasattva abides in a state of patience, is gentle and agreeable, is neither hasty nor overbearing, and his mind [is] unperturbed; if, moreover, he has no laws by which to act, but sees all things in their real aspect, nor proceeds along the undivided way--this is termed a bodhisattva-mahasattva's sphere of action.
COMMENTARY The first part of the description of the bodhisattva's sphere of action is easy to understand; the second part, however, is far more difficult and is indeed something that it takes a bodhisattva to achieve. It teaches the way of seeing things, the basis of all action.
? State of patience. This indicates a serene and tranquil state of mind, without anger and conceit.
? Gentle and agreeable. This state signifies not acting against or misunderstanding the truth but following it obediently.
? Neither hasty nor overbearing. This expression means not allowing oneself to be flustered or rash.
? If . . . he has no laws by which to act. Since "laws" refers to phenomena, this phrase means that bodhisattvas should not be swayed by the fleeting manifestations of phenomena.
? Sees all things in their real aspect, nor proceeds along the undivided way. This is an extremely difficult expression. I have already mentioned a number of times that "all things" (phenomena) are empty. Bodhisattvas have to understand clearly what is meant by "empty," for it is upon this foundation that they must comprehend phenomena. But they must not bind themselves to the idea of emptiness, for to do so would be to isolate themselves from actuality. Perhaps it is all right for hermits, who have withdrawn from the world and are interested only in their own liberation, to devote themselves to the realization of the meaning of everything being empty; bodhisattvas, however, are activists whose task is to save people from their suffering. Therefore they need to discern the realities of the world, too.
Let us think about this in human terms. Since all people possess the buddha-nature, they are fundamentally equal. It is vitally important that bodhisattvas discern the buddha-nature that dwells within people and strive to develop it. This is the first principle of the teaching of the real aspect of all things. To be concerned solely with this concept of equality, however, is to be merely an otherworldly theoretician, unable in any practical sense to help people gain liberation. That is because the reality is that people differ in character and ability: Some are clever, others foolish, meek, devious, lazy, or small-minded. Since there must be causes and conditions that allow such a variety of differences to arise, it is necessary for bodhisattvas to discern differences exactly as they are (to see "all things in their real aspect") and to devise means of teaching accordingly. Otherwise they will be unable to guide people correctly to true liberation or to change the world for the better. This is the second principle of the teaching of the real aspect of all things.
We call the inability to discern this second principle "lack of discrimination," that is, not seeing clearly the distinctive characteristics of things. This is what the sutra calls "the undivided way." Thus, not "proceed[ing] along the undivided way" means not practicing discernment of distinctive characteristics (not acting by discerning the nature of differences). Thus, bodhisattvas should not allow themselves to be swayed by phenomena, so that they see things only in terms of their differences and make judgments and undertake action accordingly ("laws by which to act"), or by the idea of emptiness, so that they cannot discern any phenomenal differences and therefore judge and act on that basis ("proceeds along the undivided way"). To be in thrall to neither is the foundation of a bodhisattva's conduct.
TEXT Why is [the other] termed a bodhisattva-mahasattva's sphere of intimacy? A bodhisattva-mahasattva is not intimate with kings, princes, ministers, and rulers;
COMMENTARY The expression "sphere of intimacy" does not imply that a bodhisattva should not draw close to people. The Buddha, who made his great vow to liberate all living beings equally, would never have said that a bodhisattva should not be approachable. Here, "intimacy" refers to courting the favor of people, getting close to them because one wants something from them or because one harbors personal feelings that are overly friendly. It does not matter whether one is in contact with kings, princes, government ministers, or high officials; one should not make allowances for their status when preaching the true Dharma in order to win their favor. If one becomes too familiar with individuals, such relations will be fraught with many pitfalls. Bodhisattvas are therefore warned against such intimacy.
TEXT nor intimate with heretics, the brahmacarins, Nirgranthas, and so on; nor with composers of worldly and outside literature or poetry; nor with Lokayatas and Anti-Lokayatas;
COMMENTARY Heretics. See the July-September 2008 issue of Dharma World.
? Brahmacarins. These are people who practice Brahmanism.
? Nirgranthas. These are Jain ascetics. Jainism has many points in common with Buddhism, though the Buddhist teaching of the Middle Way marks a fundamental difference between the two. Jainism teaches an extreme form of asceticism and does not allow the taking of any life whatsoever. It also allows caste differences, not being based on the idea of fundamental human equality like Buddhism.
? Composers of worldly and outside literature or poetry. This refers to popular writers, poets, and songwriters and writers of non-Buddhist works. The admonition against close association with such people seems strange to the modern mind. Such people were the intelligentsia, those holding idiosyncratic, independent opinions, and so it was feared that inexperienced practitioners could be inadvertently led to doubt the Buddha Dharma and to regress from the practice of the Way. Thus it was necessary to warn the inexperienced to take care.
? Lokayatas. These are followers of an extremely materialistic and hedonistic school whose philosophy was one of the six non-Buddhist teachings current in India at the time of the Buddha. It taught that there is nothing outside matter, and that the purpose of life should therefore be to give oneself entirely to pleasure and profit. Lokayatas denied the effect and retribution of good and evil karma, and therefore regarded the true way of life to be the pursuit of pleasure.
? Anti-Lokayatas. Buddhist scholars are not clear to whom this refers, but the expression means the opposite of the Lokayatas, and thus those who are utterly opposed to the ways of the world. My interpretation is that it means extreme idealism as opposed to extreme materialism.
All these people have some kind of strong conviction and passion in that they hold to magnificent theories, and Buddhists coming into contact with them may be in danger of being seduced by the intensity of their ideas and lured away from the Buddha Way. Thus the Buddha urges caution.
TEXT nor does he resort to brutal sports, boxing, and wrestling, nor to the various performances of nartakas and others;
COMMENTARY Brutal sports. This means foolish and dangerous sport, play, or caprice.
? Nartakas. These are dancers, singers, and actors.
Today the tenor of the times has changed completely, and sports are regarded very highly. Games and sports harness aggressive instincts to peaceful purposes, and are valuable for both health and character building. Theatrical performances are also now thought of as excellent recreation. Nevertheless, both sport and performance can be abused, that is, become "brutal sports." Betting on sports, for example, takes away one's will to make an effort and can destroy one's life completely if taken to extremes. Consider the people whose lives have been ruined as a result of excessive betting on horse races and so on. Popular entertainment pervades our lives, but there are some fans who lose all grip on reality in their frenzy to identify with stars. Magazine articles and television programs that focus on scandal or invade star athletes' and entertainers' privacy to report the kinds of details a doting public demands can also be termed "brutal sports" that corrupt people's minds. We should stay well away from these things.
TEXT nor does he consort with candalas, keepers of pigs, sheep, fowl, and dogs, hunters, fishermen, and [those engaged in] these evil pursuits; whenever such people as these sometimes come to him, he preaches the Law to them expecting nothing [in return].
COMMENTARY We must interpret this passage very flexibly to allow for differences in custom and culture between ancient India and the modern world. The candalas were a particular caste in ancient Indian society, made up of the children of Sudra fathers and Brahman mothers. Sudras were the lowest of the four castes, being virtually slaves. Brahmans, on the other hand, were the ritualists and scholars, the highest caste.
Marriage between these two castes was forbidden, and so any child born of a union between them was casteless. Any person unaffiliated with any of the four castes was considered suitable only to fill such posts as executioner.
The occupations mentioned in the passage are all vital to society, and they should be highly regarded, since they provide people with necessary foodstuffs. This was not so in ancient India, however, as can be seen here. The "evil pursuits" mentioned refer in particular to jobs that involve the taking of life--or, more broadly, the kind of negative mental function that arises when one thinks, for example, that one must repeatedly take life in order to live. Today we would call this a subconscious sense of sin, self-disparagement, or despair.
The sutra, in saying that bodhisattvas should not consort with such people, is warning not that they should not approach them but that they must not be affected by the kind of atmosphere that may surround them. In other words, this admonition can be regarded as the expression of the care of a loving parent. Indeed, it is very clear that bodhisattvas are told that they must teach, without discrimination, anyone who comes to them to hear the Law. They are warned, however that they should do so without expectation of any profit ("expecting nothing [in return]"), as is the case whenever they expound the Law, for this is the basic attitude of the bodhisattva practice.
TEXT Further, he does not consort with bhikshus, bhikshunis, and male and female lay devotees who seek after shravakaship, nor does he address them; neither in a room, nor in the place of promenade, nor in the hall does he dwell or stay with them; if at times they come to him he takes the opportunity of preaching the Law expecting nothing [in return].
COMMENTARY A room. This refers to a monk's cell.
? Promenade. In India, it was customary to meditate upon the Law and to recite sutras while walking around.
Places of promenade were especially constructed for this purpose, and their remains have been found in Buddhist monastic buildings and temples. They were a kind of corridor.
If inexperienced bodhisattvas come into close contact with monks who have forgotten the necessity of liberating all people or listen to their teachings, they may be drawn to the two vehicles, and so become immersed in the search for their own enlightenment alone. The above passage warns of this possibility.
TEXT "Manjushri! Again a bodhisattva-mahasattva should not preach the Law to women, displaying an appearance capable of arousing passionate thoughts, nor have pleasure in seeing them; if he enters the homes of others, he does not converse with any girl, virgin, widow, and so forth, nor again does he become on friendly terms with any hermaphrodite;
COMMENTARY A bodhisattva-mahasattva should not preach the Law to women, displaying an appearance capable of arousing passionate thoughts. When a male bodhisattva preaches the Law to a woman, he should restrain himself from indulging in lustful thoughts toward her and from arousing such thoughts in her. If he tries to preach the Law in such circumstances he will commit a sin instead. This warning shows a keen understanding of the subtleties of human nature.
? He does not converse with any girl, virgin, widow. "Converse" refers here to friendly talk about worldly things. It is interesting that the inexperienced male bodhisattvas for whom this passage was written should have needed such an admonition.
? Hermaphrodite. The ancient Indians believed that there were five types of man physiologically not completely male. Such people carried with them a particular atmosphere that might cause young male bodhisattvas to waver in their aspiration for enlightenment. They were warned therefore to stay away from such people.
TEXT he does not enter the homes of others alone; if for some reason he must enter there alone, then with single mind he thinks of the Buddha;
COMMENTARY While it is not a problem for great bodhisattvas who have achieved the Way, visiting the houses of lay people alone may cause many difficulties for young and inexperienced bodhisattvas. Impure desires may arise as they seek to win favor or hanker after a warm welcome. Even when discoursing on the Law, they may well twist the truth of the Buddha's teaching out of concern for others' opinions.
When they are with their group, they should guard against an impure attitude, not let such desires influence them, and not distort the Law. This is why the Buddha tells bodhisattvas not to "enter the homes of others alone." If there is a compelling reason to enter the homes of others alone, however, bodhisattvas must think of the Buddha "with single mind," that is, they must constantly remember that they and the Buddha are one in mind, that the Buddha is always with them. If they are mindful that the Buddha is with them, inappropriate desires will not arise and they will not be halfhearted in preaching the Law.
The conviction that the Buddha is with one and is walking with one is a joyful state of mind that only a believer can know. Such a person can attain not only the merit of behaving as described here but also the even greater merit of peace of mind, the ability to rest easy at any time.
I have flown many times both within Japan and abroad, but I cannot remember ever being frightened of flying. This is not because I am especially brave but because I have always been convinced that the Buddha is with me. When we have such a conviction, we are able to act spontaneously, seeing things exactly as they are. We can say with complete equanimity that we live because the Original Buddha has a purpose for us, and that when he considers the time has come for us to leave this world, we will pass on, existing through him in death as in life. Cushioned by such ease, on our journey through life we can enjoy our surroundings to the full, study as we wish, and happily mix with those who are traveling with us.
Our life is a journey. Sometimes it is painful, at others constrained, and often we must strive to communicate peacefully with our traveling companions. At the same time, we have the enjoyment of learning and experiencing a great deal. The greatest delight of life's journey and its greatest significance is the ability to surrender to the Original Buddha the ultimate problem of birth and death. Having done so, we can move forward in the mission that has been assigned us. Then we will be able to pursue our real work, the creation of a truly human way of life. I believe this is the ultimate meaning that religion holds for us, and surmise that it was with this intent that Shakyamuni told the inexperienced bodhisattvas to think of the Buddha "with single mind."
TEXT if he preaches the Law to women, he does not display his teeth in smiles nor let his breast be seen, nor even for the sake of the Law does he ever become intimate, how much less for other reasons.
COMMENTARY Since the Buddha here warns against loose behavior in order to prevent any misconduct between men and women, it goes without saying that this has nothing to do with the "gentle expression and kind words" considered to be the best attitude in teaching the Law.
TEXT He takes no pleasure in nurturing young pupils, shramaneras, and children, nor has he pleasure in sharing the same teacher with them;
COMMENTARY Here we have a warning against pederasty.
TEXT but ever preferring meditation and seclusion, he cultivates and controls his mind. Manjushri! This is termed the first [grade] sphere of intimacy [of a bodhisattva].
COMMENTARY Meditation. This is a reference to seated meditation, or zazen. That is not something practiced by followers of Zen Buddhism alone. It is important for all people who study and practice Buddhism. There are many ways of performing zazen, but all require the practitioner to sit quietly, control unruly thoughts, and enter the state of nonself. Without practicing meditation, the teaching that we have learned will not take deep root in our minds, nor will we be inclined to put it into practice. This is why some form of meditation is an essential part of spiritual training in all religions.
The sutra has given us a series of warnings, all of which are closely related to ancient Indian customs and society. It is not necessary for us today to follow them literally, because they were warnings for inexperienced bodhisattvas, but we must strictly follow the underlying spirit of the words.
TEXT "Further, a bodhisattva-mahasattva contemplates all laws as empty--appearances as they really are, neither upside down, nor moving, nor receding, nor turning, just like space, of the nature of nothingness,
COMMENTARY The sutra speaks here of the realization of emptiness. We have already studied this in chapter 2, "Preaching," of the Sutra of Innumerable Meanings (see the January/February 1993 issue of Dharma World), but I strongly recommend further study of the meaning of emptiness, for it is one of the basic truths of the Buddha Dharma and we, as bodhisattvas, must always preach the Law on the basis of this truth ("sitting on the throne of the Tathagata").
? All laws. Here "laws" means "phenomena."
? Appearances as they really are. This phrase can be interpreted as accepting the phenomena we perceive just as they are, but here it means the original form of all things.
? Neither upside down. Given that all phenomena are originally empty and inherently equal, why is it that we see them as different, looking only at the various surface variations? We do so because of our ignorance, our fundamental lack of wisdom. This point has been explained in the discussion of the Law of the Twelve Causes and Conditions (see the January/February 2004 issue). "Upside down" means regarding what is the same as different, thinking that what has no fixed form is permanent, and viewing things as the reverse of what they are.
? Just like space, of the nature of nothingness. "Space" refers to the sky, or a place where there is nothing at all. "Nature of nothingness" means that nothing has self-nature and that there is no fixed substance.
TEXT cut off from the course of all words and expressions, unborn, not coming forth, not arising, nameless, formless, really without existence, infinite, boundless, unimpeded, unrestrained,
COMMENTARY When one contemplates all things in the world correctly, one sees that it is almost impossible to explain their essence in "words and expressions." Nevertheless, I feel confident that people of today, educated in concepts and theories, will be able to glean the gist of the above passage.
? Really without existence. All things in this world exist according to the law of dependent origination. There is no such thing, therefore, as an absolute existence or a fixed and eternal substance. Yet it is a fact that those things do exist as temporary forms, so we can interpret the phrase as "existing in this world but having no fixed substance."
? Unimpeded, unrestrained. We have the idea that all the phenomena that surround us actually exist in those forms. For example, if we see a concrete or metal wall in front of us, we naturally consider it an obstacle to our progress. Within an atom of even one of the densest metals, lead, however, elementary particles occupy only a hundred thousandth of it; all the rest is space. Thus even a thick lead wall can be penetrated, if considered in these terms. This may be easier to understand if I rephrase it and say that seeing things from the standpoint of elementary particles is viewing things in terms of the contemplation of emptiness. The more we resolve to devote ourselves to the contemplation of emptiness, the freer and more unrestricted our minds become, and the more unconscious we become of the impediments and restraints of phenomena.
TEXT only existing by causes and conditions, and produced through perversion [of thought]. Therefore I say constantly to delight in the contemplation of things [or laws] such as these is termed a bodhisattva-mahasattva's second sphere of intimacy."
COMMENTARY This is another important passage. All phenomena are originally empty, coming into being through the interplay of causes and conditions. If we look upon the things that surround us as fixed and unchanging, we will register only their differences and not realize that they are all originally equal. This happens because our view of things is topsy-turvy; we look at things the wrong way around and are unable to discern their true form or perceive them just as they are.
? The contemplation of things [or laws] such as these. "Laws" here refers to the true form, or aspect, of all things. Bodhisattvas must constantly and willingly discern causes and conditions (dependent origination) and be thorough in the contemplation of emptiness, viewing all things correctly.
This is the sphere of intimacy, the way in which bodhisattvas should relate to others. It is highly significant that the Buddha teaches here that bodhisattvas must spare no pains in the contemplation of emptiness as a way of relating to people. After all, such contemplation is the means by which bodhisattvas perceive the equality of human beings' true nature (buddha-nature), and it is by realizing this equality that they experience the knowledge that they and others are one, thus allowing deep compassion to be generated from within.
To be continued
In this series, passages in the text sections are quoted from The Threefold Lotus Sutra, Tokyo: Kosei Publishing Company, 1975, with slight revisions. The diacritical marks originally used for several Sanskrit terms in the text sections are omitted here for easier reading.
This article was originally published in the October-December 2008 issue of Dharma World.
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