This first part of the Threefold Lotus Sutra is complete in itself, but at the same time it is a prologue to the voluminous Sutra of the Lotus Flower of the Wonderful Dharma that follows. As a prologue it sets the scene and prepares the way for what is to come. The principal elements of mature Mahayana teachings are stated in the Threefold Lotus Sutra, and while these teachings are developed from those of the historical Buddha, they must certainly come from a time later than his. But they are presented in the sutra, not without a certain reason and logic, as the final teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha in the form of sermons delivered just before his death, or entrance into nirvana.
At the opening of the Sutra of Innumerable Meanings we find Shakyamuni Buddha at Vulture Peak outside the City of Royal Palaces in the kingdom of Magadha - in the vicinity of what is now northeastern India. A vast multitude is assembled to do reverence to him and to hear him - numbers so vast, in fact, that we must suspend belief that they could indeed have been there and heard. These numbers are not to be taken literally but are meant to convey the intensity of the feeling of awe and the breathless attention of all the people, gods, demons, animals, informed and uninformed alike, and indeed of all creation, awaiting the message to follow. Heaven and earth make themselves fragrant and beautiful, music sounds, and flowers rain down by way of pleasing the Buddha and expressing joy in his being.
All the assembled creatures bow low in reverence and then sit quietly to listen. A number of bodhisattvas and disciples are spoken of by name, and one of them, the Bodhisattva Great Adornment, stands forth and addresses a hymn of praise to the Buddha.
An understanding of the doctrine of Innumerable Meanings is necessary before going on to the Lotus Sutra itself, which forms the bulk and essence of the Threefold Lotus Sutra, and so a reading of the Sutra of Innumerable Meanings settles the spirit and prepares the mind to receive what is to follow.
Since early times the term innumerable meanings of the title has had two senses. In the first sense the term is singular in that it refers to the real aspect of all things, of all the forms in the universe - in short, the true form that is at the heart of the apparent world visible to the naked eye. In other words, it is that world of true being that exists beneath the apparent world. The body or substance (the ultimate substance) of this real aspect, being infinite and not subject to measurement, is termed substance immeasurable.
In the second sense the term is plural in that it refers to all the countless appearances or phenomena of the visible, tangible world we live in, brought forth from the one true world that is the real aspect of things. These appearances or phenomena, as an extension or working of the real aspect at the root of everything, are infinite and immeasurably complex, and the extension or working is termed extension immeasurable and innumerable.
The teachings of the Buddha are founded upon perception of the real aspect of things, and so it is that from one single truth countless teachings emerge. Or stated the other way around, countless teachings resolve into, or return to, the one truth that is the real aspect of all.
The purpose of the Sutra of Innumerable Meanings, then, is the statement of these principles of the substance immeasurable and extension innumerable of the real aspect of the universe.
Copyright by Rissho Kosei-kai. All rights reserved.