THE MERITS OF RELIGIOUS PRACTICE. The previous chapter has taught us clearly that the Buddha exists together with us at all times. Understanding this, our mental state will spontaneously change for the better. Before we have attained true faith, we tend to feel insecure and are unable to maintain a truly unshakable hope and self-confidence. Of course, it cannot be said that we have never felt happiness, hope, or self-confidence. Some of us do enjoy a mental state full of hope and self-confidence. However, such happiness, hope, and self-confidence are so fragile that they are shattered as soon as any great misfortune befalls us.
People who have a superficial view of things and do not live for any purpose may be able to afford to indulge in the idle thought that today is today and tomorrow is tomorrow, so do not worry about the future but live for the moment. Most such people lack a sense of responsibility toward society, their own families, and even themselves. They are considered happy, but actually they are living counter to the truth "All things are devoid of self," absorbed in their own happiness. Such people do not accumulate good karma in this world but lead worthless dream lives.
The mental happiness, hope, and self-confidence of those who have attained true faith are not frothy and superficial but deep and firm-rooted in their minds. These people have calm, steadfast minds not agitated by anything because they maintain a mental attitude of great assurance, realizing, "I am always protected by the Buddha as an absolute existence; I am caused to live by the Buddha."
It is natural that life should change dramatically as soon as we attain such a mental state. It is impossible for our life not to change when our attitude changes. Our mental state changes because of faith, and through the change in our mind, our life changes at the same time. These are the merits of religious practice. Therefore faith is naturally associated with merits.
The merits of religious practice appear not only in man's mind but also in his body and his material life. Because his mind, his body, and the material things around him are composed of the same emptiness (energy), it stands to reason that his body should change according to changes in his mind, and at the same time that the material things around him should change. It is irrational and unscientific to admit mental merits but deny physical and material ones.
Medicine has made remarkable progress in the study of the relation between the human mind and body. Psychosomatic medicine has established the fact that various illnesses, such as eye diseases, skin complaints, heart trouble, hypertension, hives, asthma, morning sickness, and irregular menstruation, can be caused by a person's mental state. Psychosomatic medicine has proved that stomach and intestinal disorders in particular are strongly affected by one's mind. For example, gastric ulcers are more often caused by feelings of anxiety and irritation than by overindulgence in liquor or tobacco. Physicians have compiled statistics showing that students often suffer from appendicitis when their mental tension is suddenly relaxed, such as after an examination or a sport event. It is no wonder that man can recover from disease by changing his mental attitude, since his body is inseparable from his mind. I myself know of many such examples, including the case of a person who had lost the use of his legs and who was able to stand up and walk home after receiving a few words of religious instruction. We do not consider such a thing miraculous but a natural occurrence.
It is also not strange that one should become blessed with money and material things owing to a change in mental attitude after entering into a religious life. A person's changed mental attitude leads him inevitably to change his attitude toward his work and life, and accordingly directs him to the improvement of his life in general. This is not limited to changes in one's own life. If one earnestly takes refuge in a true faith, he will elicit a different response from other people. He begins to have feelings of optimism, confidence in life, and a positive attitude toward everything. Such feelings will naturally show in his face, speech, and conduct. Because of this change, those around him will be drawn to him because they feel buoyed up and strengthened by him. Accordingly, it is quite natural that his work should progress smoothly and that as a result he should come to be blessed with material wealth.
These merits are the result of religious practice, and when they appear, we should receive them with gratitude and frankness. We need not be tied to the idea that because faith is concerned with the problem of the mind we do not need any merits other than mental ones lest our religious life be tainted by something impure. Such an idea itself reflects an impure, distorted, and prejudiced attitude.
However, people of this type are relatively rare. Many more people belong to another type, "believers with a biased view." These people do not interpret divine favors in this world as the result of their religious practice but practice in the hope of receiving such benefits from the beginning. Almost all people who enter a religious faith have some form of suffering. It is natural for them to want to free themselves from such sufferings, and they are not to be blamed for this. But when they are concerned only with the desire to recover from illness or to be blessed with money, they are merely attaching themselves to the idea of "disease" or "poverty." Though they wish to rid themselves of these problems, instead they become their victims because their minds grasp the idea of illness or poverty so tightly that they cannot let go.
People who believe in religion only in order to receive divine favors in this world easily retrogress from their stage of development in that faith. This is because they cannot truly understand the eternity of the Buddha's life, and at the same time the eternity of man's life. They think only of the present and begin to doubt the teaching or grow tired of it unless clear material merits are manifested. But there are some people who cannot receive such merits in this world because of deep and inextinguishable unfavorable karma from their former lives, even if they have faith in a true religion, purify their minds, and devote themselves to the bodhisattva practice for the benefit of others in society.
Nevertheless, people who can believe in the immortality of the Buddha's life can also feel confident of their own eternal life. Therefore they can live with self-confidence, realizing, "If we only continue this way, we are sure to extinguish our former karma eventually and will approach the mental state of the Buddha step by step." Even if they do not immediately recover from illness or become suddenly blessed with tangible wealth, their minds will be composed. Even if they seem to outsiders to be suffering, their minds are free of suffering. This is the attitude adopted by a real believer.
In considering the merits of religious practice, we must place great importance on being upright in character and gentle in mind, as taught in chapter 16. We should focus our gaze on the Buddha alone, not worrying ourselves about divine favors in this world. We should be united with the Buddha and act obediently according to his guidance. If our actual life should consequently change for the better, that is a natural phenomenon produced because our minds and actions have been set in the direction of the truth. We should receive such phenomena gratefully and frankly.
The merits of religious practice are preached in three chapters of the latter half of the Lotus Sutra: chapter 17, "Discrimination of Merits"; chapter 18, "The Merits of Joyful Acceptance"; and chapter 19, "The Merits of the Preacher." We should read these chapters bearing in mind the basic significance of merits as discussed above.
The chapter "Discrimination of Merits" states in twelve stages the merits that we can obtain from believing firmly in the eternal life of the Buddha and at the same time teaches us the ideal religious life. This chapter preaches not the so-called divine favors in this world but mainly the mental merits that a believer can receive. Though those who are not familiar with the Buddha Law may not understand what religious merits mean, readers who have studied the Lotus Sutra up through chapter 16 will appreciate the value of religious merits. Let us now proceed to the main subject of the chapter.
Countless living beings obtained a great benefit when they learned from the Buddha's preaching in chapter 16 that the length of his life is limitless and that he had been constantly instructing all people everywhere in this world. This great benefit was the following: the living beings gained the conviction that they were caused to live and were protected and instructed by the Buddha, and thus they were able to realize a deep mental joy.
Then to the Bodhisattva Maitreya as the representative of the great congregation the World-honored One preached the merits of those who believe in the eternity of the Buddha's life, dividing these merits into twelve stages according to the believers' degree of faith and discernment.
The first stage of these merits is that "six million, eight hundred thousand kotis of nayutas of living beings, numerous as the sands of the Ganges, have attained the assurance of their nonrebirth." The meaning of these words can be amplified as follows: those who have become able to believe in the eternity of the Buddha's life are neither glad nor sad at any change in their environment or social circumstances. They can advance from an insecure state of mind to a firm belief in life that is not agitated by external changes. Moreover, this great conviction is not temporary but will continue for their whole life.
The second stage of merits is that "again a thousand times more bodhisattva-mahasattvas have attained the dharani power of hearing and keeping the Law."1 Here the words "a thousand times" is used to convey the concept of a very great number, like the expressions appearing later, such as "numerous as the atoms of a world," "numerous as the atoms of a three-thousand-great-thousandfold world," "numerous as the atoms of a middle-two-thousandfold domain," "numerous as the atoms of a small-thousandfold domain," "numerous as the atoms of four four-continental worlds,"2 "numerous as the atoms of three four-continental worlds," "numerous as the atoms of two four-continental worlds," "numerous as the atoms of one four-continental world," and "numerous as the atoms of eight worlds." We need not take such numbers literally. The word dharani means the mystical power to stop all evil and to encourage all good. The words "have attained the dharani power of hearing and keeping the Law" mean that by hearing and keeping the Buddha's teachings a man can obtain the mystical power to stop all evil and to encourage all good. This power of course greatly influences those around him as well as himself. This feature distinguishes the bodhisattvas from other living beings.
The next stage of merits is that "again, bodhisattva-mahasattvas numerous as the atoms of a world have attained the faculty of eloquent and unembarrassed discussion." Here "eloquent" means to preach the Buddha's teachings voluntarily, not reluctantly on the orders of another person or out of a sense of duty. It means not to preach with the secret desire of appearing better than others or from selfish motives but to preach voluntarily because to do so gives one joy. This is the ideal state of mind that the preacher should maintain.
The word "unembarrassed" means that nothing hinders the preacher from spreading the teachings. It means to preach and spread them without being discouraged even if one is laughed and sneered at, thought ill of, or persecuted by others. Such hindrances can come not only from outside but also from within oneself. Some people are zealous in their missionary work when they are well off or at leisure, but they do not care about others when they have no time or money to spare. This is caused by hindrances in both their circumstances and their minds. On the other hand, those who have attained a deep faith can devote themselves to the bodhisattva practice and widely spread the Lotus Sutra without hindrance even if they lead a hand-to-mouth existence or have personal worries.
In addition to meaning that the preacher yields to neither external nor internal hindrances, "unembarrassed" also means to possess the power of breaking down the mental resistance of the hearers of the preaching. In preaching to those who do not even try to believe in the Buddha's teachings, who take them lightly from the start, or who listen to them earnestly but cannot understand them at all, the ideal preacher is one who has the power of persuasion to make them listen to reason, make them understand, and lead them to believe sincerely without their being aware of it. Such persuasive power is called the faculty of unembarrassed discussion.
Taken all together, the meaning of "have attained the faculty of eloquent and unembarrassed discussion" can be restated as follows: a person has attained the faculty of always preaching the righteous Law to others with pleasure, yielding to neither external nor internal hindrances, and has the ability to persuade any kind of person.
The next stage of merits is as follows: "again, bodhisattva-mahasattvas numerous as the atoms of a world have attained hundreds of thousands of myriad kotis of the dharani of infinite revolutions."3 The merits in this stage are that one can obtain the mystical power (dharani) to stop all evil and to encourage all good, that is, the fundamental power extending from one person to another without end. These merits are very great because numerous bodhisattvas can thus become the driving force of missionary activities that spread limitlessly.
The next stage of merits is: "again, bodhisattva-mahasattvas numerous as the atoms of a three-thousand-great-thousandfold world have been enabled to roll forward the never-retreating Law wheel." As explained earlier, to roll the Law wheel means to propagate the Buddha's teachings as endlessly as a wheel rolls. Therefore the words "to roll forward the never-retreating Law wheel" indicate the idea that one must never take a single step backward no matter what obstacles or difficulties he may encounter, but continually preach and spread the teachings.
The next stage of merits is: "again, bodhisattva-mahasattvas numerous as the atoms of a middle-two-thousandfold domain have been enabled to roll forward the pure Law wheel." The merits of this stage mean that one becomes able to carry out the pure practices of the bodhisattvas in preaching the Law for its own sake, seeking no recompense. Ordinary people have difficulty in carrying out these practices, but a person who has reached the ideal perfection of faith can perform them.
The merits of the next stage are: "again, bodhisattva-mahasattvas numerous as the atoms of a small-thousandfold domain after eight rebirths will attain Perfect Enlightenment." The merits here are that a person practices various religious disciplines for eight more lives, as a result of which he can attain Perfect Enlightenment.
The next stage of merits is that the bodhisattva-mahasattvas will attain Perfect Enlightenment, according to the virtue each has accumulated, after four more births, three more births, two more births, or one more birth.
The next stage is that numerous living beings, hearing of the immortality of the Buddha, will all aspire to Perfect Enlightenment.
These are the twelve merits that a believer can obtain by holding an unshakable belief in the Buddha's infinite life. In brief, the Buddha teaches us that if we establish the basic idea of faith, we can infinitely generate the power both to deepen our own faith and to extend it to others. He also teaches us that we can expect to surely gain the supreme merit of attaining Perfect Enlightenment in the future if we thoroughly devote ourselves to deepening our own faith.
It is, of course, very difficult to attain Perfect Enlightenment. As preached in this chapter, some bodhisattvas cannot attain it unless they practice religious disciplines for eight more lives. How much less can we know how many years and how much effort it will cost ordinary people.
What great hope it gives us to know that we will surely attain Perfect Enlightenment at some time if we only believe in a righteous faith and endeavor to practice it. As long as we have this hope, life is happy and worth living. A person earns or loses money; he falls in love or is disappointed in love; he rises to a higher position in time or he loses his job because of a trifling mistake; he brings up his child successfully or loses it. If we pass through life in this way with no purpose, merely repeating vain feelings of joy and sorrow, even though each moment seems to be substantial and important, we will have an inexpressible sense of emptiness upon looking back over our life. But if our life has the strong backbone of a righteous faith running through it, and if we have a firm belief that we can advance to Perfect Enlightenment step by step even though life has its apparent ups and downs, its various joys and sorrows, we will be able to pass easily through whatever hardships may come, however long life's journey may be and however many rebirths it may entail.
Man's life is not limited to this world but continues eternally in each world to come. However, if we could foresee the repetition of the various occurrences of our daily lives in each and every world to come, we would be discouraged and would reject such a bleak prospect. Most people repeat the same suffering without any repentance in world after world because they cannot foresee this repetition. On the other hand, those who have been able to gain a true faith do not tire of and feel no objection to the journey of human life, however long it may be, because they know they can approach Perfect Enlightenment step by step. They can live rich lives filled with hope. This can be said to be the very greatest merit, which only believers in Buddhism can obtain.
A true believer should strive not only for the goal of his own ascent to the world of the buddhas but also for the aim of making as many other people as possible his companions there. The more true believers increase in number, the more the whole of mankind develops and the nearer this world approaches the ideal Land of Eternal Tranquil Light. Taken all together, the various merits preached in the sutras boil down to this.
When the Buddha had told of the bodhisattva-mahasattvas obtaining great benefits of the Law by having a firm belief in his infinite life, from the sky there rained down mandarava and maha-mandarava flowers, scattering over the innumerable buddhas seated on lion thrones below the jewel trees, over Shakyamuni Buddha and the long-extinct Tathagata Abundant Treasures seated on the lion throne in the Stupa of the Precious Seven, and also over all the great bodhisattvas and the host of the four groups (bhiksus, bhiksunis, upasakas, and upasikas).
Scattering flowers over someone in this way is an expression of gratitude; this custom still holds in India today. The raining down of flowers from the sky thus symbolizes the heavenly beings expressing their gratitude for the Buddha's teachings. The scattering of flowers over all the great bodhisattvas and the host of the four groups as well as the Buddha indicates that the disciples who hear the Buddha's teachings, as well as the Buddha himself who preaches them, are equally to be honored. When we listen to the Buddha's teachings and practice them wholeheartedly, we should imagine that beautiful mandarava and maha-mandarava flowers rain down on us from the sky, even if these flowers are invisible to us.
The sky also rained incense of fine sandalwood, aloes, and other substances. In the sky heavenly drums resounded of themselves, with an exquisite deep resonance. This image represents extolling the Buddha's teachings. Thousands of kinds of celestial garments also rained down, and in every direction various kinds of necklaces hung down. Jeweled censers, burning priceless incense, moved everywhere of their own accord to pay homage to the great congregation. As already explained, in Buddhist terms to pay homage to someone is an action representing one's gratitude to the Buddha and his teachings.
Over each buddha the bodhisattvas held canopies, one above another, right up to the Brahma heaven. All these bodhisattvas with exquisite voices sang countless hymns extolling the buddhas. The expression "Over each buddha, bodhisattvas held canopies, one above another, right up to the Brahma heaven" symbolizes that the Buddha's teachings are omnipresent in this universe and that all living beings are saved by them.
Thereupon Maitreya Bodhisattva rose from his seat and humbly bared his right shoulder, joined their palms together toward the Buddha, and spoke thus in verse:
"The Buddha has preached the rare Law
Never heard by us before.
Great is the power of the World-honored One
And his lifetime beyond estimation.
Numberless Buddha sons,
Hearing the World-honored One in detail
Tell of those who obtained the Law benefit,
Have been filled with joy."
With this preface, Maitreya Bodhisattva continued to speak in verse, repeating the merits preached by the Buddha. These verses can be easily understood if we have understood the preceding prose portion. Only words with different meanings will be explained below.
The words "some are steadfast in the never-retreating stage" mean that some abide in a stage of attainment from which they never slide back, whatever may happen. It has the same meaning as the expression "have attained the assurance of nonrebirth."
"To controlling myriads of kotis of revolutions" has the same meaning as the expression "have attained to hundreds of thousands of myriad kotis of the dharani of infinite revolutions."
In the words "bodhisattvas . . . who after one more birth / Will accomplish perfect knowledge," the words "perfect knowledge" mean the Buddha wisdom. This passage refers to those bodhisattvas who after one more birth will attain the same mental stage as the Buddha.
"Have all aspired to the supreme truth" means having the aspiration to attain the supreme Way (the Buddha's enlightenment); this has the same meaning as the expression "have all aspired to Perfect Enlightenment."
The verse also says: "Shakras and Brahmas numerous as sands of the Ganges / From countless buddha lands have come." These lines mean that the heavenly beings, including Shakras and Brahmas, have gathered from countless lands in the universe to pay homage to the Buddha.
In the lines "Before each one of the buddhas / Jeweled streamers hang fluttering," the word "streamers" refers to the victory banners that Brahman monks used to raise at the gates of their temples when they had defeated their opponents in religious dispute. This custom was common in India in ancient times, and consequently this expression appears in Buddhist sutras.
Man's belief in the eternity of the Buddha's life is the basic idea of Buddhists from which springs all teachings. Therefore, when the World-honored One preached the eternity of his life, jeweled streamers hung fluttering before each buddha who came to the great congregation as proof that the teachings preached by the Buddha are supreme.
Maitreya Bodhisattva, having repeated the Buddha's preaching in verse, ended with the following words:
"Hearing the Buddha's lifetime is infinite,
All beings are gladdened.
The Buddha's fame throughout the universe
Widely refreshes the roots of goodness
Of all living beings,
Aiding their desire for supreme truth."
It is not too much to say that the core of the first half of chapter 17 can be summed up in these words. From this verse portion we realize clearly Maitreya Bodhisattva's understanding of the Law and his faculty for expressing his understanding.
Since ancient times, the latter half of chapter 15, all of chapter 16, and the first half of chapter 17, the so-called one chapter and two halves, have been defined as the main part of the Law of Origin. The "one chapter and two halves" are thought to be not only the main part of the Law of Origin but also the core of the whole Lotus Sutra. Nichiren admired them as the spirit of all of the Buddhist scriptures.
The reason that the "one chapter and two halves" are regarded as so important is that what the Buddhist should believe - the greatest and most basic of the major points of the Buddhist faith--are here thoroughly investigated, and the object of our faith is definitively established. This has already been discussed in some detail in the discussion of chapter 16.
In the first half of chapter 17 the Buddha teaches us how important and reassuring it is for us to have established the object of faith in our religious lives. The latter half of this chapter and the eleven remaining chapters of the sutra are defined as the "concluding part" of the Law of Origin, which answer two major questions: "What results will be produced by our having righteous faith?" and "What mental attitude is needed in order to have righteous faith?" It is in the concluding part of the sutra that the World-honored One gives his commission to us to preach and spread this righteous faith to posterity.
The merits preached in the first half of chapter 17 are those of faith. In the latter half of chapter 17 and the former half of chapter 18 the same merits are preached. However, beginning with the latter half of chapter 18, the merits preached are those that appear in our personal affairs or in our daily lives.
Some people may think, "We need not pay attention to such merits. If we thoroughly study the 'one chapter and two halves' as the core of the Lotus Sutra, understand them truly, and believe deeply in the eternity of the Buddha's life, we can do without the rest." That would be quite an acceptable attitude if indeed they could practice as perfectly as they think. If so, their faith would be perfect. However, is there such a person in ten thousand or even a hundred thousand? In actuality it is very hard to practice perfectly what we think.
For ordinary people, the ideal state of mind seems infinitely far from their present situation and quite alien to their actual lives when they first hear it taught. But when this ideal is expounded in a way that is based on familiar problems in their daily lives, they will feel the teaching vividly. Here lies the first important function of the concluding part of the Lotus Sutra.
The minds of ordinary people are liable to become lazy. Even being fully aware of the value of the teaching, they will soon become negligent if they understand the virtues of the teaching in theory alone. However, if they continually read and recite the sutra, which teaches that one improves himself when he both holds and practices righteous faith, they can renew their resolve whenever it slackens. This is the second function of the concluding part of the sutra.
The Buddha tells us to preach and spread the Law. This is something for which we should be grateful to him. We are heartened and inspired with courage whenever we receive his words and enter into his feelings. Here lies the third function of the concluding part of the sutra.
The concluding portion of the Lotus Sutra is indispensable to ordinary people, which means most of us. Understanding this well, we must study the concluding part of the Law of Origin as eagerly as its main part, with humility rather than arrogance.
Thereupon the Buddha addressed Maitreya Bodhisattva-Mahasattva: "Ajita! Those living beings who have heard that the lifetime of the Buddha is of such long duration and have been able to receive but one thought of faith and discernment--the merits they will obtain are beyond limit and measure. Suppose there be any good son or good daughter who, for the sake of Perfect Enlightenment, during eight hundred thousand kotis of nayutas of kalpas practices the five paramitas: dana-paramita, sila-paramita, kshanti-paramita, virya-paramita, and dhyana-paramita, prajna-paramita being excepted;4 these merits compared with the above-mentioned merits are not equal to even the hundredth part, the thousandth part, or one part of a hundred thousand myriad kotis of it; indeed, neither numbers nor comparisons can make it known. If any good son or good daughter possesses such merits as this, there is no such thing as failing to obtain Perfect Enlightenment."
We risk misunderstanding the above words if we read them carelessly. It seems contradictory that although the Lotus Sutra strongly emphasizes the bodhisattva practice, people will obtain many more merits in having but one thought of faith and discernment concerning the eternity of the Buddha's life than in practicing the five paramitas for eight hundred thousand kotis of nayutas of kalpas. But in reading carefully the Buddha's words to Maitreya Bodhisattva, we can gather the difference in the values of the merits from the expression "neither numbers nor comparisons can make it known." This expression means that there is no comparison between the merits because their basic value is different. For example, we can compare ten thousand pounds or dollars or marks and one pound or dollar or mark because each is a sum of money. But the sum of ten thousand pounds cannot be compared with, say, learning because the two are originally dissimilar in kind.
To be sure, it is good for us to practice the five perfections - donation, keeping the precepts, perseverance, assiduity, and meditation - but these perfections, the practice of wisdom (prajna-paramita) excepted, fall into the category of ordinary morality and philosophical meditation. By means of these practices alone we cannot be saved from the delusion in our deepest subconscious mind; that is, we cannot attain nirvana. Wisdom here refers to the wisdom of the Buddha, not that of ordinary people. If we practice the five paramitas based on the Buddha's wisdom, such practices are perfect, are religious activities, and are a sure way to nirvana. That is why the Buddha in his words to Maitreya Bodhisattva clearly noted that he was excepting prajna-paramita, perfect wisdom.
We cannot attain perfect nirvana even if we practice ordinary moral deeds and philosophical meditation for decades or even centuries. On the other hand, if we have but one thought of faith and discernment concerning the eternity of the Buddha's life, this mental attitude leads us to be convinced of the eternity of our own life and to realize that we are caused to live by the Buddha as the great life of the universe. The moment we realize this, we can enter the realm of great peace of mind.
The former method is the endeavor of one apart from religion, while the latter is the mental state of enlightenment from a religious point of view. The two are originally different in value, and there is no way of comparing them. If we comprehend what the Buddha really means here, we will see that it is no exaggeration to say that the merits obtained by the practice of the five paramitas are not equal to one part of a hundred thousand myriad kotis of the merits received through but one thought of faith and discernment.
FOUR FAITHS AND FIVE CATEGORIES. Since ancient times, the essential points of this chapter have been considered to be the "four faiths" (shishin) and "five categories" (go-hon). This division was first made in China by Chih-i in order to make the chapter more easily understand.
The concept of the four faiths to be followed during the Buddha's lifetime came from the idea that the ideal way of faith while the Buddha lived was to be divided into the following four stages: 1) receiving but one thought of faith and discernment concerning the eternity of the Buddha's life, 2) apprehending its meaning, 3) devotion to preaching the Lotus Sutra abroad to others, and 4) beholding and perfecting profound faith and discernment.
The five categories of faith to be pursued after the Buddha's extinction are derived from the idea that the ideal way of faith in the age of degeneration is divided into the following five categories: 1) first rejoicing over the Lotus Sutra, 2) reading and reciting it, 3) preaching it to others, 4) concurrently practicing the six paramitas, and 5) intensively practicing the six paramitas.
The first of the four faiths is to receive but one thought of faith and discernment concerning the eternity of the Buddha's life. This is the first stage of faith, but the merits obtained by this practice are beyond limit or measure.
Thereupon the World-honored One, desiring to proclaim the meaning of his preaching again, spoke thus in verse:
"Though a man, seeking the Buddha wisdom,
During eighty myriad kotis
Of nayutas of kalpas
Were to perform the five paramitas,
And during those kalpas
Give alms and offerings to buddhas,
Pratyekabuddhas, and disciples,
As well as to bodhisattvas -
Rare and precious food and drink,
Superior clothing and bed furniture,
Monasteries built of sandalwood and
Adorned with gardens and groves,
Such alms as these,
Wonderful in variety -
Were he to maintain them through all those kalpas
As meritorious gifts to the Buddha way;
Moreover, though he were to keep the commandments
Purely, without flaw or fault,
And seek the supreme Way
Which all buddhas praise;
Or were he patiently to endure insult,
Stand firm in the stage of gentleness,
And though evils came upon him,
Keep his mind undisturbed;
Were he by other believers
Filled with utmost arrogance
To be scorned and distressed,
Yet able to bear even this;
Or were he to be diligent and zealous,
Ever strong in will and memory,
And during measureless kotis of kalpas
With all his mind continue unremitting,
And during numberless kalpas
Dwell in secluded places,
Whether resident or vagrant,
Avoiding sleep and ever concentrating his mind;
Were he, by this means,
To be able to beget meditations
And for eighty myriad kotis of kalpas
Calmly remain in them with unperturbed mind;
Were he, maintaining this single-minded happiness,
Willingly to seek the supreme Way, saying:
'I will attain all knowledge
And go on to the utmost point of meditation':
Were such a man for hundreds of thousands of
Myriads of kotis of kalpas
To perform such deeds of merits
As those above expounded;
Yet any good son or daughter
Who, hearing me declare my eternal life,
Believes it with but a single thought,
This one's reward surpasses his.
If anyone be entirely free
From all doubts and misgivings
And in his deepest heart believes it but a moment,
Such shall be his reward.
If there be bodhisattvas
Who have followed good ways for innumerable kalpas
And hear of my announcement of my eternal life,
They will be able to receive it in faith;
Such men as these
Will bow their heads in receiving this sutra
And say: 'May we in the future
Have long life to save all the living;
And just as the present World-honored One
Who, King of the Shakyas,
On his wisdom terrace raises the lion's roar,
Preaching the Law without fear,
So may we in future ages,
Honored and revered by all,
When sitting on the wisdom terrace,
In like manner tell of the duration of life!'
If there be any of profound spirit,
Pure and upright,
Learned and able to uphold the truth,
Who understand the meaning of the Buddha's word,
Such men as these
Will have no doubts about this teaching."
This verse includes some very important words that should here be explained. In the words "As meritorious gifts to the Buddha way," "meritorious gifts" means "merit transference" (eko), the idea of transferring one's own merit to others for their attainment of buddhahood. For instance, by reading and reciting the sutras the Buddha's teachings become deeply rooted in one's mind, which in this way is purified. From this standpoint, sutra recitation is originally a religious practice for one's own attainment of buddhahood. When we recite the sutras in a memorial service for the spirits of our ancestors, we transfer the merits that we should receive to our ancestors so that they may attain enlightenment in the spiritual world. For this reason, sutra reciting in the memorial service for the spirits of the dead is called "merit transference" (eko).
However, merit transference is not to be performed only for the sake of the dead. In accordance with its original meaning, it should be applicable to living people, as well. In fact, such transference is much more meaningful for the living than for the dead. If we recite the sutras while thinking of the happiness of the whole of mankind, we transfer the merits that we should receive to the whole of mankind. Thus, merit transference is the donation of the merit of the Law, which one should regard as one's most important treasure, to others. This is a much more self-sacrificing and sacred deed than to give monetary or other material offerings to others. Merit transference is the supreme act of donation.
If we give a monetary or other material offering to others with the secret expectation of its returning any merit to us, such an offering is the lowest of its kind. When we make an offering to others so that it may increase their happiness a little, this offering is based on ordinary moral standards. However, when we make an offering to others with the thought, "May this donation arouse the Buddha mind of the receiver and lead eventually to making all people accomplish the Buddha Way in this world," such an offering is the very best of its kind. This is why the verse says: "As meritorious gifts to the Buddha Way."
Here two points must be added to the explanation of merit transference. One is that although merit transference should be performed wholly for the sake of others, the merit that results from such an act unfailingly returns to the performer of the deed. For example, a sutra-reciting service for the spirits of one's ancestors helps them to attain enlightenment in the spiritual world. At the same time, the merit that results from the service returns to the performer of the service because the more often he holds such a service, the more his evil karma can be extinguished.
The other point is that the greatest merit transference to the spirits of the ancestors is to purify and to elevate one's own self. Nothing is more joyful and reassuring to the spirits of one's ancestors than one's own improvement. Therefore we must not limit ourselves to reciting the sutras and uttering the sacred title but must endeavor to purify and elevate ourselves in our deeds and mental attitudes.
Then the World-honored One continued: "Again, Ajita! If anyone hears of the duration of the Buddha's lifetime and apprehends its meaning, the merit obtained by this man will be beyond limit and he will advance the supreme wisdom of tathagatas."
This is a mental stage beyond that of receiving but one thought of faith and discernment concerning the eternity of the Buddha's life. This stage means not only to believe and discern the eternity of the Buddha's life with a single thought but to comprehend its great meaning. We are caused to live by the Buddha as the great life of the universe, and at the same time we are united with him. The eternity of the Buddha's life means the eternity of our own life. Although our existence seems quite different from that of the Buddha because we are covered with the clouds of delusion, we will surely become buddhas eventually if we try to remove the clouds of delusion from our minds one by one. We cannot attain buddhahood after only one or two lives, but once we have realized the immortality of our own life, we can tread the path of advancement with hope and courage. If all people had the same feeling and proceeded hand in hand toward this goal, a truly peaceful and ideal society would be realized on this earth.
When we understand the profound meaning of the eternity of the Buddha's life, the teaching of which seems so simple, this marks a further step toward the wisdom of the Buddha. This mental stage, which we can attain by deepening our faith, was called by Chih-i the stage of comprehending the meaning of the eternity of the Buddha's life.
"How much more will this be the case with the one who is devoted to hearing this sutra, or causes others to hear it, or himself keeps it, or causes others to keep it, or himself copies it, or causes others to copy it, or with flowers, incense, garlands, banners, flags, silk canopies, and lamps of fragrant oil and ghee pays homage to the sutra; this man's merit will be infinite and boundless and able to bring forth perfect knowledge."
This stage is that of the believer who has gone a step further than the stage of comprehending the meaning of the eternity of the Buddha's life. In the third stage, we not only understand the true meaning of the eternity of the Buddha's life but devote ourselves to hearing his teachings and do not forget them, as they have taken root in our minds; and we devote ourselves to religious practices, including copying the sutras. Besides such practices, we must urge and cause others to practice. This is the stage of devoting oneself to preaching the Lotus Sutra abroad to others.
At the same time, this stage teaches us to pay homage to the Lotus Sutra through various ways of revering it. Paying homage to the sutra is a way of expressing our heartfelt thanks for the Buddha's teachings. The names of the beautiful offerings and ornaments that are mentioned here symbolize the deep sense of gratitude to the Buddha shown by presenting these things to the sutra. If we have a deep sense of gratitude to the Buddha, it is natural that we try to express our appreciation. It is quite proper for believers to adorn their altars with various offerings.
"Ajita! If any good son or good daughter, hearing of my declaration of the duration of my lifetime, believes and discerns it in his inmost heart, such a one will see the Buddha always on Mount Grdhrakuta surrounded by a host of great bodhisattvas and shravakas, and preaching the Law. And he will see this saha world whose land is lapis lazuli, plain and level, its eight roads marked off with jambunada gold, lined with jewel trees; it has towers, halls, and galleries all made of jewels, in which dwell together its bodhisattva host. If anyone is able so to behold, you may know that this is the sign of profound faith and discernment."
These words teach us the mental state that we attain when we believe and discern the eternity of the Buddha's life in our inmost hearts. The expression "such a one will see the Buddha always on Mount Grdhrakuta surrounded by a host of great bodhisattva and shravakas, and preaching the Law" indicates our conviction that the Buddha always dwells wherever we are. At the same time, through this expression we truly realize that the Buddha's teachings are always being preached around us.
The depiction of the saha world as a beautiful land indicates the idea that the saha world is identical with the Pure Land in essence, if we can only deepen our faith enough to perceive it. The actual world of the present will be transformed into a pure and joyous one if our minds are always filled with religious exaltation through the Buddha's teachings. In this state of mind, any place we see appears beautiful and any person whom we see looks like a bodhisattva. We can pierce the superficial ugliness of a person and see through to the inherent buddha-nature in the depths of his mind.
This, the highest state of mind that believers can attain, is called the stage of beholding and perfecting profound faith and discernment. If from the bottom of our hearts we believe and discern the Buddha as actual being and the eternity of his life, we can view life and the world according to his teachings and can dwell continuously in the world of religious exaltation. As a result, we can see the saha world as identical in essence with the Land of Eternal Tranquil Light.
FIVE CATEGORIES OF MERITS. "And again, if anyone, after the extinction of the Tathagata, hears this sutra, and does not defame but rejoices over it, you may know that he has had the sign of deep faith and discernment."
With these words the Buddha begins to preach the ideal way of the believer following the Buddha's extinction and the five categories of merits to be obtained by the believer after the Buddha's extinction.
We cannot say we have faith so long as we only understand the Buddha's teachings in theory or acquiesce in them intellectually. We cannot enter the mental state of faith until we feel spiritual rejoicing in the teaching. When we first rejoice over the teaching, this mental state is called "first rejoicing over the teaching, "the first of the five categories. This state of mind is so important that its merits will be discussed in detail in chapter 18, "The Merits of Joyful Acceptance."
"How much more the one who reads and recites, receives and keeps it - this man carries the Tathagata on his head.5 Ajita! Such a good son or good daughter need no more erect stupas, temples, or monasteries for me, nor make offerings of the four requisites to the monks.6 Wherefore? Because this good son or good daughter who receives and keeps, reads and recites this sutra has already erected stupas, built monasteries, and made offerings to the monks, that is to say, has erected, for the Buddha's relics, stupas of the precious seven, high and broad, and tapering up to the Brahma heaven, hung with flags and canopies and precious bells, and with flowers, perfumes, garlands, sandal powder, unguents, incense, drums, instruments, pipes, flutes, harps, all kinds of dances and plays - singing and lauding with wondrous notes - he has already made these offerings for innumerable thousands of myriads of kotis of kalpas."
In this mental stage, in which the believer advances a step beyond that of first rejoicing over the teaching, he firmly receives and keeps the teaching and repeatedly reads and recites it. Reading and reciting a sutra means not only to recite it from memory but also to study it by repeating it to oneself with conscious care and thought. This stage of faith is called the category of "reading and reciting the sutras."
"Ajita! If anyone, after my extinction, hears this sutra and is able either to receive and keep, or himself copy it or cause others to copy it, he has already erected monasteries and built red sandalwood temples of thirty-two shrines, tall as eight tala trees, lofty, spacious, splendid, in which abide hundreds, thousands of bhiksus; adorned also with gardens, groves, and bathing pools, promenades and meditation cells; with clothing, victuals, bedding, medicaments, and all aids to pleasure provided to the full therein. Such monasteries and such numbers of temples, hundreds of thousands of myriads of kotis, countless in their number, he has here in my presence offered to me and to my bhiksus. Therefore I say if anyone after the extinction of the Tathagata receives and keeps, reads and recites it, preaches it to others, either himself copies it or causes others to copy it, and pays homage to the sutra, he need no longer erect stupas and temples or build monasteries and make offerings to the monks."
In this stage we come to feel that we cannot help preaching, the Buddha's teachings to others as we receive and keep, read and recite the sutras, and gradually we realize their value. Here we are not necessarily limited to preaching the Buddha's teachings through speech. We can inform others of his teachings in writing, and we can publicize them in newspapers or magazines. And even a poor speaker or writer can show the value of the Buddha's teachings to others through his religious practice of silence. All these practices are included in the words "preaching the Buddha's teachings to others."
The category of preaching the Buddha's teachings to others is the mental stage in which we go further than elevating ourselves and being saved as individuals, advancing to the bodhisattva practice of benefiting and saving others. Therefore, it is natural that the merits one obtains in this category are far greater than those in the category of reading and reciting the sutras.
A few more words of clarification concerning this category are needed. In both this and the previous categories, the Buddha says that a good son or good daughter need no more erect stupas of the precious seven for his relics, nor build monasteries, nor make offerings to the monks, repeating what he has already said in chapter 10, "A Teacher of the Law."
Through this the Buddha teaches us that sincere moral offerings that a person makes to him are far more worthy than formal material offerings. He also admonishes us that the greatest offering that one can make to the Buddha is to believe and receive the Buddha's teachings, practice them, and preach and spread them. First, we must keep this in mind. Next, we must not think that we need no longer have temples or monasteries simply because the Buddha declared that his whole body is contained in his teachings and that we do not have to enshrine his relics. A person who accepts the sutras from merely an academic point of view is apt to interpret the Buddha's words literally. He does not have a sense of gratitude toward and reverence for the Buddha. Such a person merely acquiesces in the Buddha's teachings in theory and forgets to believe in them.
Needless to say, according to the Buddha's teachings believers should make the greatest effort to believe and receive the teachings, practice them, and preach them for the sake of society as a whole. At the same time, we cannot but make material offerings to the Great Beneficent Teacher who leads us to the supreme Way, and to the many bodhisattvas who have helped him through all ages.
As has been often repeated in this book, the more we are affected by the Buddha's teachings, the more we are driven to expressing our feelings in some outward way. This is why Buddhists always adorn their altars with various offerings, worship at their altars every morning and evening, extol the Buddha, and pay homage to him by practicing religious acts.
"How much less he who is able to keep this sutra and add thereto almsgiving, morality, forbearance, zeal, concentration, and wisdom. His merit will be most excellent, infinite, and boundless; even as space which, east, west, south, and north, the four intermediate directions, the zenith and nadir, is infinite and boundless, so also the merit of this man will be infinite and boundless, and he will speedily reach perfect knowledge."
Here is taught the category that we can attain by further accumulation of religious practices, the category of concurrently practicing the six paramitas. This means to receive and keep the Buddha's teachings, to read and recite them, and to preach them to others, and concurrently to practice the six paramitas. However, at this stage it is almost impossible to practice all six of the paramitas perfectly. Therefore the Buddha teaches us to begin their practice from wherever we can, according to our situation and circumstances. Shakyamuni Buddha never urges us to do the impossible. He teaches us to build our practices by degrees, beginning at whatever stage we can. In chapter 2, "Tactfulness," he preaches that all living beings can enter the Buddha Way from anywhere, even from the fact that in their play children gather sand to make a buddha's stupa. In chapter 17, the Buddha shows us the logical order in which to deepen our faith step by step.
It is important that we note that the five paramitas seemed to be belittled in order to emphasize the merits obtained in the stage of receiving but one thought of faith and discernment concerning the eternity of the Buddha's life. But in the present category, the six paramitas, not just the five, are emphasized as necessities of faith. Shakyamuni Buddha was endowed with perfect wisdom and was a great leader; the disciples who were directly instructed by him during his lifetime could enter into deep faith through only believing and discerning the Buddha's teachings by listening to them and appreciating them. In their practice of the five paramitas, the Buddha's disciples were able to advance greatly in their practice because the Buddha directly instructed them with his perfect wisdom. To oversimplify somewhat, they were given wisdom by the Buddha and, based on this wisdom, they had only to practice intently the five other paramitas - donation, keeping the precepts, perseverance, assiduity, and meditation. It can readily be imagined that they could constantly practice these paramitas with deep emotion and religious exaltation because they did so in the presence of the Buddha, their model as a man of great character and a supreme leader.
However, we must study and practice his teachings through our own power in the age of degeneration, without the physical presence of Shakyamuni Buddha as our great leader and teacher. We must seek wisdom in the teachings he has left to us and must realize it for ourselves. Compared with the period when he lived, now indeed is the time when the practice of all six paramitas, including wisdom, must be regarded as most important. This is why the Buddha strongly urges us in this category to practice all six paramitas.
Believers who belong to the mental stage of this category practice the six paramitas in different ways, each according to his circumstances. Sometimes one is in a situation in which he is unable to practice certain of the paramitas and must practice them concurrently with the category of receiving and keeping the Buddha's teachings, reading and reciting them, and preaching them to other people. This is why the category is called "concurrently practicing the six paramitas."
However, in the fifth and final category believers can practice the six paramitas intensively and perfectly. Next the Buddha preaches the merits they will obtain by such practice: "If anyone reads and recites, receives and keeps this sutra, preaches it to other people, or himself copies it, or causes others to copy it; moreover, is able to erect stupas and build monasteries, and to serve and extol the shravaka monks, and also, with hundreds of thousands of myriads of kotis of ways of extolling, extols the merits of the bodhisattvas; also if he to other people, with various reasonings according to its meaning, expounds this Law Flower Sutra; again if he is able to keep the precepts in purity, amicably to dwell with the gentle, to endure insult without anger, to be firm in will and thought, ever to value meditation, to attain profound concentration, zealously and boldly to support the good, to be clever and wise in ably answering difficult questionings; Ajita, again, if after my extinction there be good sons and good daughters who receive and keep, read and recite this sutra, who possess such excellent merits as these, you should know that those people have proceeded toward the wisdom terrace and are near Perfect Enlightenment, sitting under the tree of enlightenment."
This category is called "intensively practicing the six paramitas," meaning their perfect practice. As the Buddha has declared, if one attains this mental stage he is near Perfect Enlightenment. So the Buddha said: "Ajita! Wherever those good sons or good daughters sit or stand or walk, in that place you should erect a stupa; all gods and men should pay homage to it as a stupa of the relics of the Buddha."
In the fourth category the Buddha said that one need no longer erect stupas for him, whereas in the final category he proclaims that wherever one practices intensively the six paramitas a stupa should be erected and should be paid homage to as a stupa of the Buddha's relics. Here the Buddha emphasizes the great importance of practicing his teachings and of preaching and spreading them to others in the age of degeneration. We should feel grateful for these words from the Buddha.
Next the Buddha repeated his teaching in verse. We should be able to understand these verses if we have understood the meaning of the prose section, because the verse portion includes almost exactly the same contents. The last four lines of the verse section should be regarded as most sacred words of the Buddha:
"When a Buddha son dwells in such a place,
It means that the Buddha himself uses it
And ever abides in it,
Walking, or sitting, or lying down."
The Buddha regards anyone who believes and discerns his teachings wholeheartedly as his son and calls him a Buddha son. He also says that wherever a Buddha son dwells is the Buddha's abode: "It means that the Buddha himself uses it." He declares that he continually abides in such a place, walking, sitting, and lying down there.
If we have deep and thorough faith, the Buddha himself comes wherever we may dwell and abides there together with us. For a believer nothing is more joyful or desirable. The day begins and ends with religious exaltation. We get up together with the Buddha in the morning and go to bed together with him at night. This is the perfection of man's religious life.
- Literally, the method of hearing and keeping dharani (by means of which one hears and keeps the Law). This is the first of the four fearlessnesses of a bodhisattva.
- A world of four continents surrounding a central mountain, Sumeru. The four continents are Purvavideha in the east, Aparagodaniya in the west, Jambudvipa in the south, and Uttarakuru in the north.
- The dharani of infinite revolutions or evolutions is the power to discriminate manifold phenomena without error. By this discrimination a bodhisattva destroys all his perplexities and exhibits many Buddha laws.
- The five paramitas or perfections are dana, or donation; sila, or keeping the precepts; kshanti, or perseverance; virya, or assiduity; and dhyana, or meditation. The sixth paramita is prajna, or wisdom.
- That is "holds the Tathagata in high esteem."
- Garments, food and drink, bed furnishings, and medicaments.
Copyright © 2009 by Rissho Kosei-kai. All rights reserved.