THIS CHAPTER PREACHES in further detail the merits of first rejoicing over the Buddha's teachings. The reason such merits are repeatedly preached is that our joyful acceptance of the Buddha's teachings, our deep feeling of gratitude for them, is indispensable to faith. Even if we have read many sutras and have memorized all Buddhist doctrines, so long as we do not accept the Buddha's teachings with heartfelt joy this means merely that we are knowledgeable in Buddhism; it does not indicate that we believe in the Buddha. To have a sense of joyful acceptance of the Buddha's teachings is to have faith in them. Therefore the merits that we obtain by the joyful acceptance of his teachings are preached repeatedly in this chapter.
Faith is often said to multiply: the object of faith is multiplied by the mind of faith. However, even if the object of faith is the most perfect in the world, its effect cannot appear in a person if he assumes the wrong attitude in believing and has a low degree of faith. Let us suppose that the Buddha's teachings are equivalent to the figure one hundred. If a person's joyful acceptance of the Buddha's teachings is zero, a hundred multiplied by zero equals zero. At the same time, however strong a person's religious feeling may be, the result will be of no value to him if the object of his faith is empty, because zero multiplied by a hundred equals zero. However earnestly one may believe in an empty object, the result will be nil. If he has faith in a wrong teaching, it stands to reason that this will lead to an evil or unhappy result. If the teaching itself is an evil religion equivalent to a negative value of minus one, supposing a man's religious mind to be equivalent to one hundred, minus one multiplied by a hundred equals minus one hundred. Thus a highly negative effect will appear in the believer because the teaching itself is originally of a negative value. From this simple multiplication, we can easily understand what a terrible effect blind belief in an evil religion will have.
The teaching of the Lotus Sutra can be compared to an infinite positive number. Suppose that the sutra is equivalent to the figure one hundred. If one deeply believes in the sutra with a single thought, at the same time feeling gratitude toward it, and if his single thought of the sutra is assumed to be equivalent to the figure one, a highly positive effect will appear in him because one multiplied by one hundred makes one hundred.
If first rejoicing over the Buddha's teachings is important for a believer, how immeasurable will be the merits as his religious feeling increases to the value of two, five, ten, and a hundred.
At that time Maitreya Bodhisattva-Mahasattva spoke to the Buddha, saying: "World-honored One! If there be a good son or good daughter who, hearing this Law Flower Sutra, accepts it with joy, how much happiness will he obtain?"
To be sure, Maitreya Bodhisattva had already understood how much happiness a person obtains from accepting the Lotus Sutra with joy. But as might be expected of one who is the idealization of the Buddha's compassion, he asked this question with the intention of making all living beings deepen their faith still further; he requested the Buddha to preach the merits of joyful acceptance in further detail for those who had a low level of understanding.
Then the Buddha addressed Maitreya Bodhisattva: "Ajita! If, after the extinction of the Tathagata, any bhiksu, bhiksuni, upasaka, upasika, or other wise person, whether old or young, on hearing this sutra has accepted it with joy, and coming out of the assembly goes elsewhere to dwell either in a monastery or solitary place, or in a city, street, hamlet, or village, to expound what he has heard, according to his ability, to his father, mother, kindred, good friends, and acquaintances; and all these people, having heard it, accept it with joy and again go on to transmit the teaching; these others, having heard it, also accepting it with joy, and transmitting the teaching, and so on in turn to the fiftieth person - Ajita! I will now tell you about the merit of that fiftieth good son or good daughter, who joyfully receives the truth. Do you hearken well!"
THREE IMPORTANT POINTS. These words of the Buddha include three important points. The first is the words "As he has heard." For an initiate, having heard the teaching, it is most important to transmit it to others just as he has heard it. If he neglects to do so, there is the danger of his misinforming others of the vital point of the teaching. To transmit the teaching correctly would seem to be a simple thing, but it is more difficult than one may think, as shown by the following experiment conducted by sociologists. A number of people are lined up in a row. The one at the head of the row whispers a very short story into the ear of the next person, and in this way it is transmitted from one to another to the end of the row. For example, suppose that the short story is as follows: "Mary happened to pass by just when John and Jim were arguing with each other. John appeared to her to be defeating Jim because the latter, his face all aglow, glared at the former, whose face was pale." Even such a brief story changes amazingly while it is being transmitted among only ten people. If the story changes a little in what each transmitter says about certain points, it does not matter too much. But in many cases, the story becomes quite different, with Jim defeating John or John's face all aglow, not Jim's.
Why is even such a short story changed in being transmitted by word of mouth among even a small group? This is because one person mishears the story, another remembers it incorrectly and misses its point while retelling it, and others inject into it their own interpretations, so departs further and further from its original form. Subjective ideas are indeed an encumbrance that often cause mishearing and slips of memory. For instance, if we have the preconceived notion that a man who is confounded by his opponent must have a pale face, we are apt to mishear "Jim had a pale face" and to mistakenly remember the story this way.
If the Buddha's teachings were transmitted with mistakes like this, it would bring serious consequences to many people. Therefore the Buddha warns us, saying, "As he has heard." A person who has grasped the essentials of the teaching should be allowed to preach it in various tactful ways - indeed, it is natural for him to change his way of preaching according to his hearers' ability. But a beginner must not forget the Buddha's warning.
It may be remarked here that the Buddha's disciples paid very close attention to the matter of faithful transmission of the teachings. His five hundred leading disciples gathered at Rajagriha in Magadha four months after Shakyamuni Buddha's death. There they first verified the Buddha's teachings that they had heard from one another, and after ascertaining the Buddha's correct words, they endeavored to fix them firmly in their memories. Such a conference for compiling the Buddhist sutras was called samgiti (ketsuju), namely, a Buddhist council to decide orthodoxy.
It is said that the disciples proceeded in this council in the following way: when Ananda, who was considered the man who had heard the Buddha's sermons most often, was chosen to recite a teaching, Maha-Kasyapa, who presided over the council, asked him one question after another concerning the teaching - when, where, to whom, and on what occasion the Buddha had preached it, and what its contents were. Ananda answered each question that Kasyapa asked. The rest of the disciples listened calmly to these questions and answers. If they found no difference in Ananda's answer from their own memory of the teaching, they agreed with each other on the accuracy of their recall of the Buddha's teachings. Whenever one of them had an objection, it was thoroughly discussed. The disciples approved a teaching only when they unanimously agreed on it, since they were extremely aware of the sacred work of ascertaining the orthodoxy of the Buddha's teachings to be left for posterity.
When they had unanimously approved a teaching, saying, "It is exactly what we have heard directly from the Buddha," they recited it together and memorized it. This is why many Buddhist sutras begin with the words "Thus have I heard."
Repetition of exactly the same contents is found frequently in such sutras of early Buddhism as the Agamas because the disciples had memorized the questions and answers in the Buddhist councils. In the Mahayana sutras, including the Lotus Sutra, such repetition has been edited to a great extent, but repetition has been used in portions where it is necessary to deepen the impression of the readers.
The second important point is the words "according to his ability." These words have two meanings: one indicates the idea "suited to one's power" and the other expresses the ideal "to make one put forth all one's strength."
It is hardly possible for a person who has heard the teaching for the first time to preach it as well as a high or learned priest. If a beginner discusses a teaching falteringly and is a poor speaker, that is only natural. If he is a talented writer, he ought to transmit the teaching to others through writing. At all events, one should transmit the teaching according to one's ability and one's experience. This is the first meaning of the words "according to his ability."
However, if a poor speaker earnestly endeavors to transmit the teaching to others to the very best of his ability, his enthusiasm inevitably makes an impression on the hearer. In short, sincerity is important. This is the second meaning of the words "according to his ability."
The third point is the reason that here is preached the merit of the fiftieth person who has heard with joy the teaching, which then is transmitted in turn to fifty more people. This expresses strongly the greatness of the teachings of the Lotus Sutra.
The first person, who attends a sermon, has been able to hear the teaching directly from someone who is accomplished in the Law and has persuasive power. Therefore he has been deeply moved by the sermon. This first person, having heard the teaching, then transmits it to others. He does not have an extensive knowledge of the Law or deep faith in it or long experience in preaching it. Even if he can transmit the teaching to others exactly as he has heard it, the joy that the hearer feels will gradually lessen in direct proportion to his distance from the original speaker. Thus, when the teaching is transmitted to the fiftieth person, in most cases it will not give any joy to the hearer and he will not exert himself, only dismissing it with the words, "Oh, really?"
The Lotus Sutra differs from other teachings in this regard. So long as the contents of the sutra are correctly transmitted from person to person, even the fiftieth person cannot help accepting them with joy because they are so great. Of course, the joy the fiftieth person feels will inevitably be less than that of the first person. But even this degree of joy produces a great merit. We must realize the deep meaning included in the words, "the merits of the fiftieth person who in turn hears the Lotus Sutra and accepts it with joy."
Then the Buddha speaks of the merits of the fiftieth person who joyfully receives the truth. We must note carefully here the following point: various merits are expressed in the sutra in a highly symbolic way, with abstract points represented in concrete form. We must not take such words and phrases literally but must grasp the true spirit hidden in their depth, otherwise we will be in danger of falling into a stupid misunderstanding of the Buddha's teachings. We can say the same thing of the following chapters of the sutra.
"It is as the number of all the living beings in the six states of existence, in four hundred myriad kotis of asamkhyeyas of worlds, born in the four ways, egg-born, womb-born, humidity-born, or born by metamorphosis, whether they are formed or formless, whether conscious or unconscious, or neither conscious nor unconscious; footless, two-footed, four-footed, or many-footed - it is as the sum of all these living beings. Suppose someone, seeking their happiness, provides them with every article of pleasure they may desire, giving each living being the whole of a Jambudvipa,1 gold, silver, lapis lazuli, pearl, agate, coral, amber, and all sorts of wonderful jewels, with elephants, horses, carriages, and palaces and towers built of the precious seven, and so forth. This great master of gifts thus bestows gifts for full eighty years and then reflects thus: 'I have bestowed on all these beings articles of pleasure according to their desires, but now they have all grown old and worn, over eighty years of age, with hair gray and faces wrinkled, and death is not far off - I ought to instruct and guide them in the Buddha Law.' Thereupon, gathering together those beings, he proclaims to them the Law's instruction; and by his revealing, teaching, benefiting, and rejoicing, they all in a moment become srota-apannas, sakrdagamins, anagamins, and arhats, free from all imperfections, having all acquired mastery of profound meditation and completed the eight emancipations."
The six states mean the six realms or worlds in which the minds of living beings transmigrate. Born in the four ways means the following four categories of living beings: egg-born (beings produced from eggs), womb-born (viviparous beings), humidity-born (worms and other creatures things in damp ground), and born by metamorphosis (beings whose origin is unknown, for instance, heavenly beings). In short, the expression "born in the four ways" means all kinds of living beings.
In the words "whether conscious or unconscious," "conscious" means one with a discriminating mind and "unconscious" means one without such a mind. In the words "neither conscious nor unconscious," "neither conscious" indicates one who has realized that he cannot see the real state of all things with the discriminating mind, and "nor unconscious" indicates one who transcends both the discriminating and the nondiscriminating mind. All together, these words indicate the possessors of all kinds of minds. We need not be rigidly bound by the various words used here but may regard them as referring to all kinds of living beings. The expression "by his revealing, teaching, benefiting, and rejoicing" has already been discussed previously.
The categories beginning with srota-apannas are the four degrees attained by a Hinayana Buddhist: 1) srota-apanna, literally, "entrance into the stream" (leading to nirvana), is the first stage to be attained by a Hinayana disciple; 2) sakrdagamin, literally, "returning," or being reborn only once more, is the second stage, in which one has avoided defilements but still has the potential of defilement; 3) anagamin, literally, "not returning," or no more rebirth, is the third stage, in which one has avoided all defilements; and 4) arhat, literally, "man of worth" or "honorable man," is the last stage, in which one has freed himself from all defilements and has obtained a pure mind.
In their practice the followers of Hinayana Buddhism endeavor to rise gradually through each of these four degrees to attain enlightenment. However, the Buddha mentions here that they have instantaneously attained the four degrees.
The words "eight emancipations" mean eight kinds of meditation to free one from attachments. A detailed explanation of the eight emancipations is not necessary here because they belong to a specialized study of Buddhist doctrines.
Then the World-honored One asked Maitreya Bodhisattva: "What is your opinion? May the merits obtained by this great master of gifts be considered many or not?"
Maitreya said to the Buddha: "World-honored One! The merits of this man are very many, infinite and boundless. Even though this master of giving had only made gifts of all those articles of pleasure to those living beings, his merits would be infinite; how much more when he causes them to attain arhatship?"
Then said the Buddha to Maitreya in a firmer voice: "I will now speak clearly to you. The merits attained by this man in bestowing those means of happiness to all beings in the six states of existence of four hundred myriad kotis of asamkhyeyas of worlds, and causing them to attain arhatship do not compare with the merits of that fiftieth person who, hearing a single verse of the Law Flower Sutra, receives it with joy; they are not equal to one hundredth, or one thousandth, or one fraction of a hundred thousand myriad kotis; the power of figures or comparisons cannot express it."
There are two reasons that the power of figures or comparisons cannot express the merits of that fiftieth person. The first is that material donations differ fundamentally from the donation of the Law. To donate material things to others is certainly a good deed. But the benefits of such actions are limited and relative. For example, suppose that we give some money to destitute people. A relatively small sum may lead one person to find his feet again. But another person may lead a more comfortable life with that sum of money while he has it, and when he has spent it he may be no better off than before. On the contrary, the money may even have a harmful effect on a person, encouraging him in idle or luxury-loving habits. Thus, though a material donation is indeed good, it is a limited and relative good.
When we donate money and goods to others, if we can teach them how to start their lives anew by using these things effectively, this kind of donation will help them. This kind of teaching should be included within the donation of the Law; material donations become more effective when the donation of the Law is added to them. The ideal would be for social security to be enforced thus. But even this kind of donation is still limited and relative because its benefits will end with one's life. The donation that is truly sacred and is eternally effective is that of the Law, meaning that we give the Buddha's teachings to others. This kind of donation is not limited to one's life but extends to posterity. Therefore, nothing is so important as the merits obtained through this donation.
In the Buddha's words to Maitreya Bodhisattva, he points out that a person bestows material donations to all beings in the universe and also gives them the donation of the Law by preaching the Buddha's teachings, causing them to attain arhatship. But the merits obtained by this man do not compare with the merits of that fiftieth person who, hearing a single verse of the Lotus Sutra, receives it with joy. This may seem strange at first, but it has the following meaning.
To attain arhatship, that is, to reach the mental stage of having avoided all defilements, is the pinnacle of the Hinayana teaching. But if such a person isolates himself in the mountains, the merits attained by him stop at that stage. The Buddha's teachings are very valuable, but their value cannot be displayed fully unless the person preaches them, elevating his hearers and giving them power and courage, and thus improving the whole world. So long as Buddhist monks are confined to their temples after their own enlightenment and devote themselves to performing funeral and memorial services, they do not put the Buddha's true spirit to practical use.
The teaching of the Lotus Sutra is not limited to saving oneself from suffering; its aim is the bodhisattva practice of saving many others from their sufferings. When a person hears a single verse of the Lotus Sutra and receives it with joy, his feeling of joyful acceptance is sure to develop into the power of saving other people.
Suppose that arhatship is equivalent to the figure one hundred because this mental stage indicates one's own enlightenment. On the other hand, the joy one feels on first hearing a single verse of the Lotus Sutra may be worth only one mark as to his own enlightenment. However, there is a great difference in value between the figure one hundred indicating Hinayana enlightenment and the figure one indicating the Mahayana teaching. This is because the figure one in the Mahayana teaching expands limitlessly and has the potential of increasing eventually to one thousand or ten thousand.
For example, a person's own enlightenment can be compared to one hundred koku2 of rice in a warehouse. He can live on such a large amount of rice all his life, but that is all that he can do. The rice may be eaten by weevils or grawed by rats or may rot without his realizing it. On the other hand, the sense of joy one first feels in receiving the Lotus Sutra is like one sho3 of rice seed sown in a field. These seeds have the possibility of growing and increasing to hundreds or thousands of koku of rice. Here lies the reason that the merits of a person who, hearing a single verse of the Lotus Sutra, receives it with joy are far more than those gained in the practice of giving the greatest material donations or even of bestowing the donation of the Law, causing others to attain arhatship. Thus we realize that while the merits obtained by giving something to others are great, the merits of its receivers are also great.
So far we have been discussing the merits of the fiftieth person who hears the Lotus Sutra and accepts it with joy. What about the merits of the first hearers in the assembly? The Buddha expounded their merits as follows: "Ajita! If the merits of such a fiftieth person who in turn hears the Law Flower Sutra and accepts it with joy are indeed so infinite, boundless, and numberless, how much more is the happiness of him who among the first hearers in the assembly receives it joyfully, surpassing happiness still more infinite, boundless, and beyond number or compare."
As explained before, because of the immeasurable value of the teaching itself, the hearer can accept with joy even the teaching that has been transmitted in turn to the fiftieth person, who is a beginner. How much greater is the joy of a person who has heard the teaching directly from a preacher who has already attained enlightenment. Such joyful acceptance will bring about a great change in his life and will have a boundless influence upon society.
THE OPPORTUNITY TO ENCOUNTER THE TEACHING. This chapter also states that even a person who is so unenlightened that when he comes in contact with the teaching he is not deeply moved by it will obtain very great merits. This teaches us how important it is to have the opportunity to encounter the teaching. We all surely have the buddha-nature, but we cannot attain salvation unless we awaken to the existence of our buddha-nature through such an opportunity. To come in contact with the teaching is a prior condition for salvation, and the opportunity to encounter it must be said to be very sacred indeed. Accordingly, our giving such an opportunity to others is also a very sacred deed.
Then the Buddha preached the merits of a person who hears and receives the Lotus Sutra even for a moment and persuades or causes others to do so: "Again, Ajita! If anyone, for the sake of this sutra, goes to a monastery and, either sitting or standing, hears and receives it even for a moment, by reason of that merit in his next bodily rebirth he will acquire the most excellent kind of elephants, horses and carriages, jeweled palanquins and litters, and ride in celestial cars. If again there be anyone who sits down in the place where this Law is preached, and when others come persuades them to sit down and hear it, or shares his seat with others, that person's merit, on his bodily rebirth, will give him an Indra's seat, or a Brahma's, or the seat of a sacred wheel-rolling king. Ajita! If, moreover, anyone says to another: 'There is a sutra named the Flower of the Law; let us go together and listen to it,' and if he who is persuaded hears it but for a moment, that person's merit, after his bodily rebirth, will cause him to be born in the same place with bodhisattvas who have attained dharani."
Indra and Brahma are the supreme guardian gods of the Buddha's teachings. A sacred wheel-rolling king, or cakravartin, is a great king who rules this world correctly and peacefully on the basis of the Buddha's teachings. Bodhisattvas who have attained dharani are those who instruct people to cause them to avoid all evil and who persuade them to do all good. People who give others the chance of encountering the Lotus Sutra should be regarded as being just as holy as such benevolent gods, a sacred wheel-rolling king, or bodhisattvas. The next bodily rebirth of these people in the place where bodhisattvas live means that they will be reborn spiritually in this world, namely, that their lives will be completely changed and renewed.
This chapter also states that these people will be reborn not only spiritually but also physically in this world, and their sign of humanity will be perfect. Here we need not inquire into each condition of their rebirth. It is enough for us to realize that a person's spiritual rebirth shows in his features, demonstrating the truth that man's spirit influences his body. However, such a bodily change appears very slowly, and his countenance does not change greatly in the present world. In this case, human change means not one's physical beauty or ugliness but the shining loftiness of one's spirit. The more one accumulates religious practices, the more brilliantly will one's spirit shine.
When we see the portraits and images of learned or noted priests, sages, and saints preserved from ancient times, among them we find few endowed with physical beauty in the usual sense. In the depictions of the ten great disciples of the Buddha, no one could call any of them handsome except Ananda and Rahula. Most of them have unprepossessing faces, which has led to the saying, "A person with a face like an arhat." Nevertheless, each of the ten great disciples is depicted as a person who has a mild and compassionate face and also a holy sign representing the depth of his wisdom. If these great disciples accumulate the bodhisattva practice whenever they are reborn, their spiritual elevation increasingly influences their countenances and finally leads them to be the possessors of the signs of a buddha, becoming perfect in the thirty-two signs and the eighty kinds of excellence of a buddha. We too can become the possessors of such holy signs of a buddha.
The influence of man's spiritual rebirth is not limited to his mental aspect but also affects his bodily aspect. This latter change takes place very slowly, but it is sure to occur. This is how we should interpret this part of the Lotus Sutra.
- Jambudvipa, the southern of the four continents surrounding Mount Sumeru, is the world in which we live.
- A unit of measure used for rice in Japan; one koku is equivalent to 4.9629 bushels.
- One-hundredth koku.
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