FORMATION AND PROPAGATION OF THE LOTUS SUTRA. In the Preface I have mentioned briefly how the Lotus Sutra came to be written, but I will now give a more detailed description of the process that eventually brought the sutra to Japan.
In Shakyamuni's time there was no widespread writing system in India. Therefore his sermons were memorized and spread by word of mouth. At that time, when people were obliged to learn by heart whatever they wished to remember, they had powers of memory beyond our imagining. People's daily lives were also less complicated and bustling than they are today. The great disciples of the Buddha, who had clear heads and pure minds, listened attentively so as to absorb every word spoken by Shakyamuni. Therefore, it is almost certain that they did not mishear Shakyamuni's sermons. Moreover, after the death of the Buddha, his disciples held frequent conferences in order to see whether their memories were mistaken or not. After verifying the Buddha's actual words and correcting each other's mistakes, they systematized their ideas. For this reason Shakyamuni's words have remained correct in spite of their being transmitted by word of mouth.
Shakyamuni preached many sermons during his frequent travels on foot in the vast area of northern India over a period of fifty years. He also preached in various ways, according to his audience's level of understanding. We must acknowledge the fact that the interpretation of the Buddha's teachings differed from place to place and from group to group of his disciples, and that as time passed there grew up differences in the understanding and preaching of his teachings. However, Shakyamuni's teachings themselves were accurately transmitted through the efforts of his disciples. There is no sutra that is not holy. The teachings of Shakyamuni have been recorded in the Agama sutras, the Prajnaparamita sutra, the Amitabha sutras, and many others. But only in the Lotus Sutra was the fundamental spirit of all Shakyamuni's teachings during his active life clearly expressed for the first time; in this sutra the important spirit of all his teachings has been unified and described in easily understood terms. In other words, in the Lotus Sutra the essentials of Buddhism, the very core of Shakyamuni's teachings, are explained exhaustively in simple yet powerful words.
Some people argue over the relative merits of various sutras and even harbor the illusion that the comparative merits of the sutras stem from differences in Shakyamuni's teachings. This is a serious mistake. No sutra was compiled by Shakyamuni himself. The fact is that he preached his numerous sermons to countless people during the fifty years between his first sermon to the five monks at the Deer Park in Varanasi (Benares) and his death at eighty years of age. From among these many sermons each group of disciples and their followers placed in their own sutras the sermons that they had heard directly or had been taught by others. Through whatever sutra we may study the teachings of Shakyamuni, Shakyamuni himself is the same honored one who casts the same light of wisdom on us. Therefore, although the Lotus Sutra is certainly the most excellent teaching among the many sutras, it reflects a basic misunderstanding to despise other sutras by excessively extolling the Lotus Sutra.
SYMBOLIC EXPRESSION IN THE LOTUS SUTRA. The Lotus Sutra was compiled in the form of a drama so that the general public at that time could easily understand it. The compilers of the sutra endeavored to help people grasp it by representing intangible ideas in tangible form. For example, in chapter 1 of the Lotus Sutra, "Introductory," it is said that when the ray sent forth from the Buddha's brow illuminated the eastern quarter of the eighteen thousand buddha-lands, all the buddhas and their disciples were seen to be existing everywhere. This expression means that the Buddha is in every heavenly body as well as on the earth, that is, he exists everywhere throughout the entire universe.
Such descriptions as the shaking of the earth and the raining down of flowers belong to this type of expression. Today we often encounter expressions like "I was so scared that my blood ran cold" or "I was convulsed with laughter." Nobody takes such expressions literally. But even if they are not factually true, they serve to communicate graphically and effectively the true feeling of the speaker or writer. This point offers us a key to understanding the Lotus Sutra. The important point is not "fact" but "truth," the truth of the Buddha's teaching. Even if in the Lotus Sutra we encounter things that seem to be unreal, we must firmly grasp the truth behind the surface of the words.
KUMARAJIVA'S TRANSLATION INTO CHINESE. A number of people took the Lotus Sutra to China and translated it into Chinese, but the version in common use in East Asia today is the translation made by Kumarajiva. His father, Kumarayana, who came of a noble family in India, went to Kucha, a country situated in Central Asia, between India and China, and married the sister of the king of that country. Their son, born in 344, was Kumarajiva. Buddhism was flourishing in Kucha, and Kumarajiva entered a monastery at the age of seven together with his mother, then was sent to India to study Mahayana Buddhism.
It is said that when he returned to his home country his teacher, Suryasoma, who discerned Kumarajiva's ability and character, taught him the Saddharma-pundarika-sutra (the Sutra of the Lotus Flower of the Wonderful Law), and then said to Kumarajiva, laying his right hand on Kumarajiva's head, "The sun of the Buddha has set in the west, and its remaining radiance is about to reach the east. This sutra has a connection with the northeast. Reverently propagate the sutra there."
Thinking back now to Suryasoma's words, "This sutra has a connection with the northeast," we realize that his prophecy had a very profound meaning, and we cannot help being moved by the realization that in later times Buddhism reached its greatest florescence in Japan, a country located far to the northeast of India.
In obedience to his teacher's word, Kumarajiva determined to propagate the Lotus Sutra in China, to the northeast. But as wars were common in China at that time and boundaries and nations were constantly changing, his plan could not be realized as easily as he had hoped. However, his fame as a translator spread throughout China, and in 401 he went to live in Ch'ang-an, capital of the Latter Ch'in dynasty, on the invitation of the king. Kumarajiva, who was already sixty-two years old at that time, was named National Preceptor, and for eight years, until he died in 413 at the age of seventy, he translated many sutras into Chinese.
Needless to say, the Lotus Sutra was the most important among the many sutras he translated. As he had found many mistakes in the Chinese translations that he had seen, he took a very prudent attitude toward his own work of translation. Although he had a good command of both Sanskrit and Chinese, he did not attempt to render Buddhist sutras into Chinese alone but assembled many scholars who were proficient in both languages. Moreover, he lectured on the Lotus Sutra in the presence of the king and others. Based on the notes that the scholars made from his lectures, each made a Chinese translation of the Lotus Sutra. After each scholar had completed his own translation and all had rigorously examined and discussed it, they finally completed a standard translation of the sutra. It is said that as many as two thousand men were engaged in this work. Therefore we may safely conclude that in Kumarajiva's translation of the Lotus Sutra from Sanskrit into Chinese, the teachings of Shakyamuni were transmitted almost without error.
The following story has been told concerning Kumarajiva's translation. The king of Yao Ch'in, who deeply respected the personality and ability of Kumarajiva, very much wanted him to have a child. So the king forced him to marry. On his death bed Kumarajiva remarked, "I was compelled to break the precepts by taking a wife, but I believe that what I have stated in words has never gone against the intention of the Buddha. If I have been honest in what I have said, my tongue alone will remain unburned when my body is cremated." It is said that when his family cremated his body his tongue alone did indeed remain unconsumed, emitting a brilliant light.
The Lotus Sutra subsequently played a very important part in Chinese Buddhism. After Chih-i,1 who was revered as the "Little Shakyamuni," had made an exhaustive study of all the sutras of Mahayana and Hinayana Buddhism, he concluded that the true intention of the Buddha was included in the Lotus Sutra, and he wrote the excellent commentary on the Lotus Sutra Hokke-gengi,2 Hokke-mongu,3 and Makashikan.4 Consequently the Lotus Sutra spread still more widely throughout China, and soon it was introduced into Japan through Korea.
THE LOTUS SUTRA IN JAPAN. It was in 577 that the Lotus Sutra as translated by Kumarajiva was taken to Naniwa (present-day Osaka) in Japan, and thirty-eight years later the Hokke-gisho,5 the first Japanese commentary on the Lotus Sutra, was written by the prince-regent Shotoku (574 - 622). This is said to be the oldest extant book written by a Japanese.
Prince Shotoku promulgated the code known as the Seventeen-Article Constitution, based on the spirit of the Lotus Sutra, and through this constitution the prince established the first law code in Japan. It is highly significant that the dawn of civilization in Japan was realized through applying the spirit of the Lotus Sutra. For fourteen hundred years since then, this spirit has been continuously transmitted from generation to generation among the Japanese people.
Many famous Buddhist priests in Japan endeavored to propagate the teaching of the Lotus Sutra, among them Saicho,6 Dogen,7 and Nichiren.8 Nichiren, especially, infused new life into this sutra at the risk of his life and exerted himself to propagate the sutra among the common people.
Almost seven hundred years have passed since Nichiren's death in 1282. The teachings of Shakyamuni had gradually lost their power after his death, but they regained their vigor through the appearance of the Lotus Sutra seven hundred years later. Interestingly enough, the same thing occurred during the seven hundred years between the death of Prince Shotoku and Nichiren's appearance. However, during the seven hundred years following Nichiren's death, the true spirit of the Lotus Sutra was again forgotten. Some people in Japan even believe that they can be saved merely by beating hand drums and repeating over and over again the formula including the title of the Lotus Sutra, Namu Myoho Renge-kyo - I take refuge in the Sutra of the Lotus Flower of the Wonderful Law - or that their prayers will be answered if they only worship the verbal mandala written by Nichiren, which centers on this formula.
The contents and spirit of the Lotus Sutra are very holy. The practice of its teaching is also holy. We lead ordinary everyday lives, but by understanding the teaching of the sutra, believing it, and practicing it, we try to approach a state of mind free from illusion and suffering. We realize that people should live in harmony and render service to each other. If one has such a feeling for even a few hours a day, his health and circumstances will naturally change for the better - this is his true salvation. That all the people in the world have such feelings and live happily - this is the ultimate idea and vow expressed in the Lotus Sutra.
Indeed, the Lotus Sutra is the teaching of human respect, self-perfection, and peace. In short, it is the teaching of humanism. Today, just seven hundred years after the death of Nichiren, we must restore the spirit of the Lotus Sutra and establish a better life for the sake of ourselves, our families, our societies, and the entire world.
ORGANIZATION OF THE THREEFOLD LOTUS SUTRA. The Threefold Lotus Sutra, or Hokke Sambu-kyo, consists of the Sutra of Innumerable Meanings (Muryogi-kyo); the Sutra of the Lotus Flower of the Wonderful Law (Myoho Renge-kyo), commonly known as the Lotus Sutra; and the Sutra of Meditation on the Bodhisattva Universal Virtue (Kan-fugen-bosatsu-gyoho-kyo, or simply Kan-fugen-gyo).
THE SUTRA OF INNUMERABLE MEANINGS. Of the three sutras mentioned above, the Sutra of Innumerable Meanings contains the sermon Shakyamuni delivered on the Vulture Peak (Mount Grdhrakuta) immediately before preaching the Lotus Sutra. The Sutra of Innumerable Meanings, which is inseparable from the Lotus Sutra, is regarded as the introduction to the latter. This is because in the Sutra of Innumerable Meanings Shakyamuni states the reasons for the aims and the order of his preaching during the past forty years and also says that he has not yet manifested the truth. This does not mean that so far he had preached untruth but that he had not yet revealed the final truth, although all of his previous sermons were true. In other words, he had not yet manifested the full profundity of his teaching, being afraid that people would not be able to grasp it because their understanding and faith were not sufficiently developed. Therefore he made an important promise concerning his next sermon: "I am now to reveal the real truth." His next sermon was the Lotus Sutra. For this reason, if we do not read the Sutra of Innumerable Meanings we cannot realize clearly either the position of the Lotus Sutra among all the sermons that Shakyamuni preached during his lifetime or the true sacredness of the Lotus Sutra.
The title of the sutra, "Innumerable Meanings," expresses the idea of a teaching having infinite meanings. It is said in this sutra that the innumerable meanings originate from one law. This one law is that of "nonform." But Shakyamuni did not explain this law in detail here, so its meaning cannot be understood clearly through this sutra. He expounded it thoroughly in the Lotus Sutra, which he preached next. There he made clear that the teaching of the infinite meanings was ultimately attributable to the truth preached in the Lotus Sutra, which was the most important of the sermons delivered during his lifetime.
In short, the Sutra of Innumerable Meanings was preached as the introduction of the Lotus Sutra and therefore has a close connection with the latter, being called the "opening sutra" (kaikyo) of the Lotus Sutra. The Sutra of Innumerable Meanings consists of three chapters: "Virtues" (Tokugyo-hon), "Preaching" (Seppo-hon), and "Ten Merits" (Jukudoku-hon). Chapter 1 is called the "introductory part" (jobun), chapter 2 the "main part" (shoshubun), and chapter 3 the "concluding part" (ruzubun). This tripartite division is common to other sutras, as well. The introductory part of a sutra expounds when, where, and for what kind of people the sutra was preached and why it had to be preached or what meaning it contained. The main part is the section including the main subject of the sutra, and is thus the most important of the three parts. The concluding part expresses what merit one can obtain through understanding thoroughly what is preached in the main part and by believing and practicing it, and therefore what divine protection will be given to those who revere the sutra and endeavor to spread it.
THE LOTUS SUTRA. The Sutra of the Lotus Flower of the Wonderful Law, commonly known as the Lotus Sutra, consists of twenty-eight chapters: Chapter 1, "Introductory"; chapter 2, "Tactfulness"; chapter 3, "A Parable"; chapter 4, "Faith Discernment"; chapter 5, "The Parable of the Herbs"; chapter 6, "Prediction"; chapter 7, "The Parable of the Magic City"; chapter 8, "The Five Hundred Disciples Receive the Prediction of Their Destiny"; chapter 9, "Prediction of the Destiny of Arhats, Training and Trained"; chapter 10, "A Teacher of the Law"; chapter 11, "Beholding the Precious Stupa"; chapter 12, "Devadatta"; chapter 13, "Exhortation to Hold Firm"; chapter 14, "A Happy Life"; chapter 15, "Springing Up out of Earth"; chapter 16, "Revelation of the [Eternal] Life of the Tathagata"; chapter 17, "Discrimination of Merits"; chapter 18, "The Merits of Joyful Acceptance"; chapter 19, "The Merits of the Preacher"; chapter 20, "The Bodhisattva Never Despise"; chapter 21, "The Divine Power of the Tathagata"; chapter 22, "The Final Commission"; chapter 23, " The Story of the Bodhisattva Medicine King"; chapter 24, "Bodhisattva Wonder Sound"; chapter 25, "The All-Sidedness of the Bodhisattva Regarder of the Cries of the World"; chapter 26, "Dharanis"; chapter 27, "The Story of King Resplendent"; chapter 28, "Encouragement of the Bodhisattva Universal Virtue." The title of each chapter indicates part or all of its contents.
From ancient times Buddhist scholars have divided the Lotus Sutra in various ways for the purpose of understanding it better. According to the division followed by most scholars, a line is drawn between chapters 14 and 15. The former half is defined as the "Law of Appearance" (shakumon) and the latter half as the "Law of Origin" (hommon); each of these two Laws is divided into introductory, main, and concluding parts. In the Law of Appearance, chapter 1 is defined as the introductory part; chapters 2 to 9 are the main part; and chapters 10 to 14 are the concluding part. In the Law of Origin, the former half of chapter 15 is the introductory part; the second half of chapter 15, chapter 16, and the first half of chapter 17 are the main part; and the latter half of chapter 17 and the remaining eleven chapters are the concluding part.
THE LAW OF APPEARANCE AND THE LAW OF ORIGIN. The Law of Appearance means the teaching of the Buddha appearing in history (shakubutsu). The "appearing Buddha" indicates the historical Shakyamuni, who was born in this world, attained Buddhahood after years of asceticism, and died at the age of eighty. Therefore the Law of Appearance includes the teachings of the organization of the universe, human life, and human relationships on the basis of the experience and enlightenment of Shakyamuni, who attained the ideal state of a human being. Shakyamuni also teaches us that wisdom is the most important attribute for maintaining a correct human relationships. The essence of the Law of Appearance is the wisdom of the Buddha.
The Law of Origin, with chapter 16 as its core, declares that Shakyamuni has continually taught people throughout the universe since the infinite past. In other words, the Buddha is the truth of the universe, that is, the fundamental principle or the fundamental power causing all phenomena of the universe, including the sun, other stars, human beings, animals, plants, and so on, to live and move. Therefore the Buddha has existed everywhere in the universe since its beginning. This Buddha is called the Original Buddha (hombutsu).
The human form in which the Original Buddha appeared in this world is the historical Shakyamuni as the appearing Buddha. We can easily understand the relationship between the two when we consider the relationship between electric waves and television. The electric waves emitted by television transmitters fill our surroundings. We cannot see, hear, or touch them, but it is a fact that such electric waves fill the space around us. When we switch on our television sets and tune them to a particular channel, the same image appears and the same voice is heard through every set tuned to that wavelength. The Original Buddha is equivalent to the person who speaks from the television studio. He is manifest not only in the studio but also permeates our surroundings like electric waves. The appearing Buddha corresponds to the image of this person that appears on the television set and to the voice emanating from it. The appearing Buddha could not appear if the Original Buddha did not exist, just as no television image could appear and no voice be heard if electric waves did not exist. Conversely, we cannot see the Original Buddha except through the appearing Buddha, just as we cannot receive electric waves as images and voices except through the medium of a television set.
Thus, the Original Buddha is the Buddha who exists in every part of the universe from the infinite past to the infinite future, but only through the teachings of Shakyamuni, who appeared in this world in obedience to the truth of the Original Buddha, can we understand that truth. We cannot declare that either the Original Buddha or the appearing Buddha is the more holy or the more important: both are necessary.
Radio and television stations emit electric waves, in the hope that as many people as possible will receive them through their television sets and radios. In the same way, the Original Buddha exists in every part of the universe, ready to save all beings of the universe. He instructs men, animals, and plants; and salvation means the full manifestation and complete development of the life essential to each form of life according to its true nature.
The Original Buddha is one with the truth of the universe. We have only to tune the wavelength of our own lives to that of the truth of the universe, and the Buddha appears to us. At that time the dark cloud of illusion covering our minds and bodies vanishes completely and the brilliant light of our essential life begins to shine from within our minds. This state of mind is our real salvation, and the spiritual state that we should attain.
The Original Buddha exists permanently from the infinite past to the infinite future, that is, this Buddha is without beginning or end. This Buddha appears in various forms appropriate to the particular time and place for the salvation of all people by means suited to their capacity to understand his teachings. This is the concept of the Original Buddha.
The Law of Origin is the teaching expressing the relationship between the Buddha and man, that is, the salvation of man through the Original Buddha. This salvation depends on the benevolence of the Buddha, and this benevolence is the essence of the Law of Origin.
THE SUTRA OF MEDITATION ON THE BODHISATTVA UNIVERSAL VIRTUE. This sutra teaches the practice of the Bodhisattva Universal Virtue. It consists of the sermon that Shakyamuni preached at the Great Forest Monastery of Vaisali in central India after he had taught the Lotus Sutra, and establishes the way of repentance as the practice of the spirit of the Lotus Sutra.
We are greatly encouraged when we read the Lotus Sutra, grasp the true meaning of the sermons that Shakyamuni preached during his lifetime, and realize that we can attain the same state of mind as the Buddha through practicing his teachings. However, the fact is that in our daily lives we are continually troubled with suffering and distress, and we are continually seized by desires of one kind or another. For this reason, we are apt to become disheartened and forget the valuable lessons of the sutra.
Although we understand theoretically that we can become buddhas, we do not know how to rid ourselves of our illusions; our minds are liable to be covered with a dark cloud of illusion. Repentance means the sweeping away of such dark clouds, and the Sutra of Meditation on the Bodhisattva Universal Virtue teaches the way to do this. Therefore this sutra also has a close relationship with the Lotus Sutra, and, as the epilogue of the Lotus Sutra, is called the "closing sutra" (kekkyo) of the Lotus Sutra. Because of its content, it is also called the "Sutra of Repentance."
- Chih-i (538 - 97) is the third patriarch in the lineage of the Chinese T'ien-t'ai (Japanese: Tendai) sect.
- Hokke-gengi is a ten- or twenty-fascicle work, the full title of which is Myoho Renge-kyo Gengi, composed by Chih-i and written down by Kuan-ting in the Sui dynasty (581 - 618). In this work the title of the Lotus Sutra is explained in detail and the profound teaching of the sutra is briefly explained through its title.
- Hokke-mongu is a ten- or twenty-fascicle commentary on the Lotus Sutra, the full title of which is Myoho Renge-kyo Mongu composed by Chih-i and written down by Kuan-ting.
- Makashikan is a twenty-fascicle work explaining the various aspects of meditation from the standpoint of the T'ien-t'ai sect. It is considered one of the three major works of T'ien-t'ai Buddhism.
- Hokke-gisho is a four-fascicle commentary on the Lotus Sutra. Though it is based on the Hokke-giki written by the Chinese Fa-yun, this work also contains many unique explanations and opinions. The manuscript written by the prince himself is extant.
- Saicho (767 - 822) was the founder of the Japanese Tendai (T'ien-t'ai) sect. In 804 he was sent by imperial order to China, where he studied the T'ien-t'ai doctrines. After returning to Japan, he applied for government recognition of the Tendai sect. In 806 he was given the honorary title Dengyo-daishi by the emperor. This was the first instance of the use of the title daishi, "great teacher" in Japan.
- Dogen (1200 - 1253) was the founder of the Soto sect of Zen Buddhism in Japan. After entering the priesthood on Mount Hiei, near Kyoto, he became a disciple of the Rinzai Zen master Eisai. He studied in China for seven years. After his return to Japan he lived for a time near Kyoto, later establishing the great Soto Zen monastery of Eihei-ji in what is now Fukui Prefecture. He wrote several important works on Zen, including the monumental Shobo-genzo.
- Nichiren (1222 - 1282) was the founder of the Japanese sect that bears his name. In 1253 he proclaimed that one should invoke the title of the Lotus Sutra with the formula Namu Myoho Renge-kyo.During his active propagation of the Lotus Sutra he suffered much persecution, including exile. His works include a very important commentary on the Lotus Sutra.
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