INTRODUCTION This chapter relates how
the bodhisattvas and others in the assembly, deeply moved by what the
Buddha had taught so far, especially his exposition in the previous
chapter, "Devadatta," of the truth that all possess the buddha-nature
in equal measure, vowed firmly to protect and practice this precious
teaching even at the cost of their lives. "Exhortation to hold firm"
means to urge others to receive and keep the Buddha's teaching.
Interestingly, however, the present chapter concerns not exhorting
others to hold firm but the bodhisattvas' own pledge to hold firm. Thus
the original Sanskrit title of the chapter, "Utsaha" (Ceaseless
Effort), seems to fit the content better. But one cannot exhort others
to do something unless one first resolves firmly to do it oneself; and
one cannot truly guide others to the teaching unless one practices it
oneself. This being the case, Kumarajiva's decision to title this
chapter "Exhortation to Hold Firm" when he translated the Lotus Sutra
into Chinese is most interesting.
In this chapter Shakyamuni also predicted the buddhahood of the
bhikshunis Mahaprajapati (Gautami) and Yashodhara. The description of
their forlorn feeling, after seeing the dragon king's daughter become a
buddha before their very eyes, because their own Perfect Enlightenment
had not yet been predicted, suggests that the two women had still not
succeeded in overcoming their sense of inferiority. The way all this is
presented demonstrates the marvelous skill with which the Lotus Sutra
The Buddha's prediction instantly dispelled the bhikshunis' gloom.
This indicates the great power of words, impressing upon us that while
the Buddha Dharma is always the truth, the actual words of those who
teach it are also important.
TEXT At that time the
Bodhisattva-Mahasattva Medicine King and the Bodhisattva-Mahasattva
Great Eloquence, with their retinue of twenty thousand bodhisattvas,
all in the presence of the Buddha, made this vow, saying: "Be pleased,
World-honored One, to be without anxiety! After the extinction of the
Buddha we will keep, read, recite, and preach this sutra. In the evil
age to come living beings will decrease in good qualities, while they
will increase in utter arrogance [and] in covetousness of gain and
honors, [and will] develop their evil qualities and be far removed from
emancipation. Though it may be difficult to teach and convert them, we,
arousing our utmost patience, will read and recite this sutra, keep,
preach, and copy it, pay every kind of homage to it, and spare not our
body and life."
COMMENTARY Good qualities.
This phrase, translated into Chinese with two ideograms meaning "root
of good," refers to the state of mind underlying good deeds--in other
· Arrogance. This indicates an unwarranted
high opinion of oneself, the deluded state of mind that leads one to
think that one knows what one does not, to think that one is
enlightened when one is not. There are various kinds of arrogance or
pride (mana), and we will discuss them in detail later in this chapter.
· Covetous of gain and honors. This means the inordinate desire for money, goods, and recognition from others.
· Evil qualities.
This phrase, translated into Chinese with two ideograms meaning "root
of evil," refers of course to the mental state underlying evil
deeds--that is, vice.
· Far removed from emancipation. To
be released from the mental state that is clouded by illusion and to
attain the pure mental state in which one is unswayed by phenomena is
emancipation. "Far removed from emancipation" describes the low mental
state in which one lacks even the aspiration to gain emancipation--an
uncomfortably apt description of people today, rapt as they are in the
pursuit of money and status.
· Pay every kind of homage. To
pay homage to the Lotus Sutra means to "read and recite this sutra,
keep, preach, and copy it"--in short, to practice its teaching.
· Spare not our body and life.
This passage is the origin of the phrase "spare neither body nor life,"
which we might call the motto of practitioners of the Lotus Sutra. It
means being so determined to accomplish enlightenment and bring
enlightenment to all others that one is prepared to sacrifice life and
limb in the process. It is simplistic, however, to interpret "body and
life" as applying to physical existence alone. The phrase also has a
deeper, spiritual significance.
Because this is so important, let me take the opportunity to elucidate it.
In spiritual terms, sparing neither body nor life means abandoning
the small self, that is, one's egotistical preoccupations, sacrificing
the self-centered desire for ease, a comfortable life, worldly success,
honor, and so on. What do we sacrifice these things for? Needless to
say, we sacrifice them to gain enlightenment--and not only to gain
enlightenment for ourselves but also to spread it to everyone, to give
all people real happiness and thus bring true peace to the world.
As our sense of self-sacrifice and service deepens, we achieve a
state of mind in which we would readily give up not only our selfish
desires but even our very lives. I imagine young people today will balk
at this idea. They will argue, "The self is precious. To sacrifice
oneself is to betray oneself. Life is the most valuable thing there is.
There's nothing worth sacrificing one's life for." This, however, is a
superficial philosophy reflecting a misguided Western way of thinking.
Westerners have long considered the self to be the essence of a
person's being. They have also regarded life as synonymous with the
life of the individual in the present world. Leading Western thinkers
today recognize that their culture has reached a spiritual dead end.
The root cause, I think, is this narrow interpretation of the self and
As we see in the Buddha's discourses, the Eastern concept of self is
not the ego but the true self (the buddha-nature) that is one with the
Original Buddha, the cosmic life force. Thus our life is not limited
spatially to this body or temporally to this world. It is the boundless
life that is one with the Original Buddha; it is eternal and infinite
life. This is the true nature of the self, identified by the deep
wisdom of the East. To "spare not our body and life" for the sake of
the Law means to abandon the small self that is a tangle of illusions
and let our buddha-nature shine forth. In other words, it is to truly live; it is to grasp eternal life, not the temporary life of this world.
Unless the human spirit is elevated to that level, it will be
impossible to create happiness for humankind as a whole no matter how
far material civilization may progress and no matter how much political
and social institutions may be reformed. This is why the Lotus Sutra
places so much emphasis on sparing neither body nor life. I must
stress, however, that this does not mean that life is not to be
revered. We have been given our present life so that we can practice in
order to attain supreme enlightenment, and for that reason we must
value this life. Thus, while there are situations in which we must not
hesitate to sacrifice our lives for the truth, there are also
situations in which we must continue to live, enduring hardship, for
the truth. Chapter 20, "The Bodhisattva Never Despise," concerns a
bodhisattva who revered the buddha-nature in everyone. To remain true
to the conviction that drove him to try to awaken all people to their
buddha-nature, whenever others sought to harm him, angered because they
thought he was making fun of them, he would run away and then, from a
safe distance, continue to pay them reverence.
Running away seems shameful, but Never Despise cared nothing for
appearances or reputation; he ran away to follow through on his
conviction. In short, he abandoned the small self and lived in the true
self. Since he had so thoroughly thrown off the small self, he must
have been prepared to give up his life at any moment. Nevertheless he
ran away without a thought for shame or repute. His attitude of sparing
neither body nor life is one that we today should be able to relate to.
What is important is that we engrave deeply in our minds the
fundamental principle that sparing neither body nor life does not mean
merely giving up one's physical life; it means abandoning the small
self and living in the true self.
TEXT Thereupon the five hundred arhats
in the assembly, whose future had been predicted, addressed the Buddha,
saying: "World-honored One! We also vow to publish abroad this sutra in
COMMENTARY These arhats were saying,
"Since the Bodhisattva-Mahasattva Medicine King, the
Bodhisattva-Mahasattva Great Eloquence, and the twenty thousand
bodhisattvas in their retinue are going to preach the Lotus Sutra in
this land, we will do the same in other lands."
TEXT Again the eight thousand arhats,
training and trained, whose future had been predicted, rising up from
their seats and folding their hands toward the Buddha, made this vow,
saying: "World-honored One! We also will publish abroad this sutra in
other lands. Wherefore? Because in this saha world men abound
in wickedness, cherish the utmost arrogance, [and] are of shallow
virtue, defiled with hatreds, crooked with suspicions, and insincere in
COMMENTARY These arhats, bhikshus who had just completed training (ashaiksha in Sanskrit) or still in training (shaiksha), were saying, "Dealing with this saha
world is still beyond us, so we will preach the Law in places that are
not beyond our powers." Instead of indulging in empty boasts, they
wisely recognized their limitations.
· Virtue. For a discussion of this term, see the October- December 2007 issue of DHARMA WORLD.
· Crooked with suspicions.
The two Chinese ideograms used to translate this phrase mean
"sycophancy" and "sophistry." Sycophancy leads to sophistry toward both
others and oneself. These are vices extremely widespread among people
TEXT Then the sister of the Buddha's
mother, the Bhikshuni Mahaprajapati, with six thousand bhikshunis,
training and trained, rose up from their seats, with one mind folded
their hands, [and] gazed up to the honored face without removing their
eyes for a moment.
COMMENTARY The Bhikshuni Mahaprajapati.
Shakyamuni's mother, Maya, died seven days after giving birth,
whereupon her younger sister married Shakyamuni's father, King
Shuddhodana, and brought up the prince as lovingly as if she had been
his biological mother. We can imagine her grief when he renounced the
world. What is more, her biological son, Nanda (Shakyamuni's younger
half brother), and her step-grandson, Rahula (Shakyamuni's son), also
renounced the world to follow the Buddha, and then the king died. She
was a person who tasted to the full the bitter cup of parting from
loved ones. But she was a cultivated and strong-minded woman and did
not allow herself to be beaten down by such changes in her environment.
When she was living as a laywoman, she fulfilled her duties as a wife
and mother; and when she renounced the world, she won the love and
trust of the other bhikshunis as their leader. (For an account of her
renunciation of the world, see the March/April 2005 issue.) She was
called Gautami, the feminine form of the Shakya clan name of Gautama,
but her religious name was Mahaprajapati, which means "way of great
Mahaprajapati was the first woman to join the Sangha. Not only for
this reason but also because of her sterling qualities, Shakyamuni gave
her total responsibility for the community of bhikshunis. Unable to
bear the thought of Shakyamuni's dying before her, at the age of 120
Mahaprajapati went to Vaishali, entered samadhi, and died.
Despite her venerable years, she is said to have showed no signs of
aging. Shakyamuni honored her by conducting her funeral himself. He,
along with Nanda, Rahula, and Ananda, is said to have borne her body to
the tomb. We could say she was the most fortunate woman in the world.
The Buddha never let personal feelings influence his treatment of
Mahaprajapati in life, however. He denied her request to join the
Sangha several times, and when he finally did allow it, he required her
to observe extremely strict monastic regulations. The humanity and
filial piety he showed in personally bearing her body to the tomb
brings tears to our eyes and impresses upon us once again what a great
man he was.
TEXT Then the World-honored One
addressed the Gautami: "Why, with sad countenance, do you gaze at the
Tathagata? Are you not thinking to say that I have not mentioned your
name and predicted for you Perfect Enlightenment? Gautami! I have
already inclusively announced that [the future of] all shravakas is
COMMENTARY Mahaprajapati's Perfect
Enlightenment had already been predicted, but Shakyamuni perceived that
her mind would not be at rest until he delivered a prediction
specifically directed at her.
TEXT Now you, who desire to know your
future destiny, shall, in the world to come, become a great teacher of
the Law in the teachings of the sixty-eight thousand kotis of buddhas,
and these six thousand bhikshunis, training and trained, will all
become teachers of the Law. Thus you will gradually become perfect in
the bodhisattva way and will become a buddha entitled Loveliness
Tathagata, Worshipful, All Wise, Perfectly Enlightened in Conduct, Well
Departed, Understander of the World, Peerless Leader, Controller,
Teacher of Gods and Men, Buddha, World-honored One.
COMMENTARY Teacher of the Law.
This refers to one who preaches the Law, who guides others in the Law.
It has nothing to do with whether one is ordained or a lay believer. A
priest who does not preach the Law for the sake of other people is not
qualified as a teacher of the Law, whereas a lay person who does do so
is a fine teacher of the Law.
TEXT Gautami! This Buddha Loveliness
and the six thousand bodhisattvas will each in turn predict the Perfect
Enlightenment [of others]."
COMMENTARY Just as in chapter 8, "The
Five Hundred Disciples Receive the Prediction of Their Destiny,"
Shakyamuni had predicted that as the five hundred bhikshus became
buddhas "in turn [each] shall predict" the buddhahood of others, so
here he proclaimed that the Buddha Loveliness would predict the Perfect
Enlightenment of one of the six thousand bodhisattvas, who upon
becoming a buddha would then predict the Perfect Enlightenment of
another bodhisattva, and so on indefinitely.
TEXT Thereupon the mother of Rahula,
the Bhikshuni Yashodhara, reflected thus: "The World-honored One in his
predictions has left my name alone unmentioned." [Then] the Buddha said
to Yashodhara: "You, in the teachings of the hundred thousand myriads
of kotis of buddhas in the world to come, by your doing of bodhisattva
deeds shall become a great teacher of the Law, gradually become perfect
in the Buddha Way, and in the domain Good become a buddha entitled The
Perfect Myriad-rayed Tathagata, Worshipful, All Wise, Perfectly
Enlightened in Conduct, Well Departed, Understander of the World,
Peerless Leader, Controller, Teacher of Gods and Men, Buddha,
World-honored One. The lifetime of that buddha will be innumerable asamkhyeya kalpas."
To be continued
This article was originally published in the January-March 2008 issue of Dharma World.