The Sutra of the Lotus Flower of the Wonderful Law
Chapter 12: Devadatta (2)
This is the ninetieth installment of a detailed
commentary on the Threefold Lotus Sutra by the late founder of Rissho
Kosei-kai, Rev. Nikkyo Niwano.
What kind of person was Devadatta? Because of his rebellion against and
attempts to injure the Buddha, later generations have tended to brand
him an unalloyed villain and neglect to explore his motives and
character. But his evil actions sprang from very human weaknesses.
Therefore a close look at his life provides us with much food for
thought concerning the failings that we share with him as fellow human
According to some sources, Devadatta was a son of King Amritodana--the
younger brother of Shuddhodana, king of the Shakyas and Shakyamuni's
father--and the older brother of Ananda. Thus he was Shakyamuni's
cousin. As a youth, Devadatta was endowed with physical and mental
prowess and with talents second only to those of Prince Siddhartha, as
Shakyamuni was known before he renounced secular life. In many ways the
two were rivals. But Devadatta could never best the prince. I imagine
that Devadatta's tangled feelings of rivalry and inferiority hardened
into a lasting resentment that eventually burst forth in the form of
The greatest blow to Devadatta's pride as a young man is said to have
been his loss of Princess Yashodhara to Siddhartha. When choosing a
consort, it was the custom among the Shakyas to have the young men of
noble birth vie for her hand in various tests of martial prowess, with
the victor winning the right to wed her. Yashodhara was the greatest
beauty in the kingdom, and Devadatta, like the other young noblemen,
longed for her and was keen to compete for her hand. The contestants
also included Ananda and Nanda, Siddhartha's half brother, who thus
were the prince's rivals, as well.
The contest began with archery and ended with wrestling. The prince won
every test of skill. In the wrestling, it is said, Devadatta hurled
himself violently at Siddhartha, who withstood the impact and then,
lifting Devadatta above eye level, paraded around the wrestling ring
three times holding him high before setting him down gently. When the
competition was over and everyone had left, King Shuddhodana had a
beautifully adorned white elephant led forth to welcome the victor.
Devadatta, on his way home, came upon the elephant just as it was
coming out of the palace gate. In his chagrin at losing and his
jealousy of the victor, he grabbed the elephant's trunk with his left
hand and with his right fist dealt the beast a great blow on a vital
spot on its forehead. The elephant toppled to the ground. As if to say,
"Look at my prowess," Devadatta smiled disdainfully at the amazed
on-lookers and strutted off.
Ananda, Nanda, and all the other competitors must have felt chagrin at
their defeat and envy of the winner, but they did not vent their
feelings in this way. In today's parlance, we would say they had
sportsmanship. Devadatta, unfortunately, did not. Perhaps the seeds of
the many unsportsman-like deeds he would perpetrate in later life were
sown that day. When we think of what a huge difference the small mental
act of controlling or not controlling feelings of chagrin and envy made
over the course of a lifetime, we are struck anew by the great
importance of character formation in youth.
When Shakyamuni was about to return to the kingdom of Magadha after
visiting his birthplace for the first time since attaining
enlightenment, eight men, including Ananda, Aniruddha, and Upali,
begged to be allowed to become his disciples and were accepted.
Devadatta, too, was among their number. Shakyamuni taught them the Law
in a nearby grove. Six attained the arhat's enlightenment on the spot.
Only Ananda and Devadatta were unable to extricate themselves from the
toils of illusion, Ananda because of his tendency to let his emotions
get the better of him, Devadatta because of his pride.
Subsequently, Devadatta practiced earnestly under Shakyamuni's
guidance. He memorized all the teachings he heard, never hesitated to
ask about anything that puzzled him, and worked hard at meditation. But
although he made considerable spiritual progress, unfortunately he
could not conquer his strong self-attachment. Seeing the Sangha
flourish and grow into a community of several thousand bhikshus and
watching so many kings and other men of importance flock to the Buddha
and become devotees, Devadatta, despite all his spiritual practice to
improve his character, was unable to suppress his ambition to be a
great leader of men and have multitudes at his beck and call. Cursed by
his strong self-attachment, he could not attain the state of religious
ecstasy, serenity, and clarity that the other leading disciples
enjoyed. He began to feel frustrated, somehow shut out of the inner
circle or left behind.
Thirty years passed. Many people think of Devadatta as having done
nothing but plot rebellion, but for thirty long years he engaged in
religious practice as a member of the Sangha. Clearly, he was no
ordinary man. But because of his strong self-attachment, not only did
he fail to achieve true enlightenment, he finally backslid grievously
from the Way. The Buddhist scriptures explain the motivation behind his
downfall in the following way.
Burning with envy of the freedom enjoyed by those bhikshus who had
attained supernormal powers, one day Devadatta begged the Buddha to
teach him how to acquire such powers. Shakyamuni said, "Supernormal
powers come naturally to one who has attained enlightenment. To seek
them for their own sake is mistaken. First contemplate the truths of
emptiness and impermanence and strive to become truly enlightened to
them." But because Devadatta desired the phenomenal manifestation of
forms and powers rather than enlightenment, he could not bring himself
to obey Shakyamuni's instructions. He had heard about impermanence,
nonself, emptiness, and so on, for thirty years, until he was sick of
them. What he really craved was supernormal powers.
Determined to have his way, Devadatta went to the bhikshus Gavampati
and Kaundinya, who were renowned for their psychic powers, and
importuned them to teach him their secret. Both told him, as had
Shakyamuni, that such powers were of only secondary importance.
Undaunted, he next approached Dashabala-Kashyapa, who, being of a
simple and naive disposition, agreed to teach him without a second
thought. Needless to say, Devadatta studied single-mindedly. And
eventually he did indeed gain the powers he lusted after. Devadatta's
success filled him with confidence--or, rather, arrogance. He began to
see himself as more than a match for Shakyamuni, let alone such eminent
disciples as Shariputra and Maudgalyayana. In the end, his inexorably
swelling arrogance led him to backslide. This train of events has great
lessons for us today.
Going to Rajagriha, the capital of Magadha and a stronghold of
Shakyamuni's Sangha, Devadatta ingratiated himself with Prince
Ajatashatru and persuaded the prince to become his patron.
Ajatashatru's father, King Bimbisara, was a devout follower of the
Buddha and supporter of the Sangha. Devadatta's plan was to destroy the
link between the king and the Sangha and set up a new sangha under
Ajatashatru's patronage. First he incited Ajatashatru to kill the king
and usurp the throne. The impressionable young prince fell in with
Devadatta's plot and cast the king into prison, intending to starve him
to death. Moreover, when he discovered that his mother, Queen Vaidehi,
had been painting her body with honey and flour and visiting the king
in prison to provide him with sustenance, he confined her in the inner
apartments of the palace.
In this way Ajatashatru seized the throne, and Devadatta realized his
wish to establish his own sangha under the new king's patronage. Having
practiced under Shakyamuni for thirty years, he had an extensive
knowledge of the Law. He was also a skilled preacher and was endowed
with supernormal powers. All in all, he was well equipped to win the
adulation of the ignorant. He rapidly built up a large following of
bhikshus and lay devotees, until his sangha rivaled that of Shakyamuni
Around the time of King Bimbisara's imprisonment, Devadatta presented
Shakyamuni with a set of "reforms" of the Sangha, proposing the
following five stringent new precepts: (1) Bhikshus are to live in
forests throughout their lives; they are not allowed to live in
villages. (2) Bhikshus are to live as mendicants throughout their
lives; they are not allowed to accept invitations from lay believers.
(3) Bhikshus are to wear only tattered robes made of rags throughout
their lives; they are not allowed to accept robes offered by lay
believers. (4) Bhikshus are to sleep under trees throughout their
lives; they are not allowed to enter roofed dwellings. (5) Bhikshus are
not to eat the flesh of fish or animals throughout their lives; those
who do are to be punished.
Naturally, such extreme precepts violated the Buddha's teaching of
enlightenment by means of the Middle Way, which eschews the extremes of
asceticism and indulgence. In Shakyamuni's view, the prime object of
spiritual practice was to rid oneself of delusions and attain the
Buddha's wisdom; preoccupation with details of food, clothing, and
shelter would only distract practitioners from this. Even if
enlightenment could be attained through the kind of harsh practice
Devadatta proposed, it would be possible for only a handful of people.
Such extreme asceticism was not the true way to salvation. True
salvation had to be accessible to all people, in all walks of life.
If all people are to be saved, prescribing the smallest details of
food, clothing, and shelter is counterproductive. When every aspect of
daily life is rigidly regulated, with no regard for differences in
environment, ethnicity, customs, and individual physique and
personality, people tend to become focused on the regulations
themselves and to lose sight of the main objective of religious
practice, attainment of the Buddha's wisdom. Thus, Shakyamuni held that
the important thing was not to covet ease; prescribing every detail of
daily life was unnecessary. Still, in a Sangha of thousands, inevitably
some members of the community would occasionally behave in ways that
hindered practice or disturbed the harmony of communal life. Whenever
this happened, Shakyamuni would admonish the offender individually. But
the disciples, in their awe and veneration of the Buddha, made these
admonitions into precepts for the Sangha as a whole, which is why
eventually there were lists of 250 precepts for bhikshus and 348
precepts for bhikshunis.
Since Shakyamuni taught the Middle Way, naturally he flatly refused to
endorse Devadatta's ascetic "reforms." Biographies of the Buddha record
the following striking interchange between Shakyamuni and Shariputra.
Shakyamuni instructed Shariputra to tell the bhikshus who followed
Devadatta that those who obeyed Devadatta's five precepts were
violating the Three Treasures--the Buddha, the Buddha's teaching, and
the community of believers. Shariputra appeared hesitant. He said,
"World-honored One, in the past I have praised Devadatta, so I feel
uneasy about criticizing his shortcomings now." Shakyamuni promptly
replied, "It is right to praise what is praiseworthy. And it is right
to criticize what deserves criticism. What is wrong must be set right."
Acknowledging the truth of Shakyamuni's words, Shariputra immediately
went to the bhikshus led by Devadatta and delivered the message, which
amounted to a pronouncement of expulsion from the Sangha. Devadatta
responded by spreading the word that Shakyamuni was living a life of
luxury, thus declaring overt rebellion.
Earlier, when Devadatta had incited Ajatashatru to kill his father, he
had promised that he himself would injure Shakyamuni. True to his
promise, he sent forth thirty-one skilled archers; but when they
approached the Buddha, they were struck with awe at his nobility.
Casting aside their bows and arrows, they prostrated themselves before
him. They were accepted into the Sangha on the spot.
Devadatta then decided to take matters into his own hands. One day,
when Shakyamuni was on Mount Gridhrakuta, Devadatta rolled a huge
boulder toward him from above. As the boulder bounced down the slope,
it split into two. The smaller part hit Shakyamuni in the foot, causing
profuse bleeding. Returning to the monastery in pain, he restrained the
bhikshus, who were eager to sally forth there and then to punish
Devadatta, before lying down quietly. It is recorded that the wound was
slow to heal but that the master physician Jivaka finally healed it by
Realizing that it was impossible to harm Shakyamuni permanently by
means of human powers, Devadatta next intoxicated an elephant with wine
and let it loose as Shakyamuni was passing by on a begging round. The
animal thundered toward the Buddha. But he entered the samadhi
of compassion and quietly walked straight toward the beast. The
elephant suddenly turned docile and knelt before him, caressing his
feet with its trunk, then rose and walked away.
Meanwhile, remorse for his heinous sins began to steal across
Ajatashatru's heart. One day, seeing Prince Udayibhadra in great pain
from an infected finger, Ajatashatru spontaneously embraced him and
sucked the pus from his finger. Queen Vaidehi, who witnessed the
encounter, cried out, "Ah, so did the king do for you when you were
small!" These words struck Ajatashatru to the heart, and suddenly his
eyes were opened. Going to Shakyamuni, he confessed his sins and became
a follower. Devadatta, deprived of his chief patron, fell into a
piteous state. His disciples left him. When he went out begging, no one
would give him food. Biographies of the Buddha relate that in his
desperation Devadatta subsequently perpetrated many other evil deeds
and finally fell into a state of living hell.
Reflecting carefully on Devadatta's life, we realize that he was not
simply a villain but an extremely able man. If only he had not made a
wrong turning, he would probably have been a splendid bhikshu leading
an exemplary life. Unfortunately, though, he was the weakest kind of
human being. He lacked the courage to rid himself of his
self-attachment, to repent of his wrongdoing and correct himself. Being
a human being, he must have felt the urge to do so from time to time.
Indeed, intelligent as he was, I imagine that he was constantly
tormented by that urge. But because his self-attachment was stronger
than his remorse, he was unable to undergo a true change of heart and
slipped ever deeper into degradation. What a pitiful life his was!
The reason I have devoted so much space to Devadatta's life is that he
had many points in common with people today. The present age is full of
people who share his weakness, a fact that has brought untold darkness
and unhappiness to the world. We need to take a good look at ourselves
in the light of Devadatta's life. I hope we will have the courage and
resolution to firmly renounce self-attachment when circumstances call
for it. I believe this is the greatest challenge facing humankind.
Returning to the sutra text, why did the Buddha speak of "the good
friend Devadatta"? I think there are two main reasons. First, the
existence of a traitor like Devadatta confirmed the correctness of the
Buddha's teaching of the Middle Way and kept the Sangha as a whole from
being diverted to an erroneous course. Second, because Devadatta
exposed the greatest failing of human beings and demonstrated the most
fearsome face of human nature, Shakyamuni's own enlightenment was
The second reason calls for a word of explanation. Some may wonder how
the already supreme enlightenment of the Buddha could be deepened by
the likes of Devadatta. Such doubts spring from deifying the Buddha,
regarding him as something other than human. The original meaning of buddha
is "enlightened one." The Buddha was a human being, though an
enlightened one (this does not apply to the Eternal Original Buddha, of
Shakyamuni attained enlightenment, and thus became the Buddha, beneath the bodhi
tree at Buddhagaya; but this was basic enlightenment to the law of
dependent origination and the real aspect of all things. On the basis
of that enlightenment, in the course of his teaching activities he
continually deepened his enlightenment and attained further insight
into human beings and human relations.
It is highly unrealistic to think that because Shakyamuni achieved Perfect Enlightenment beneath the bodhi
tree there was nothing that could have been added to it. Is it not
highly insulting to believe that he made no progress whatsoever between
his enlightenment at the age of thirty or thirty-five and his death at
the age of eighty? Such a thing is unthinkable. To repeat: The Buddha's
reference, in the context of a story of a former life, to Devadatta as
a good friend should be interpreted as acknowledgment that thanks to
Devadatta the Sangha had been able to proceed firmly on the correct
course of the Middle Way and the Buddha himself had gained the inner
experience of deepening his enlightenment.
Since ancient times it has been said that one can be motivated to
embark on the Way of the Buddha by two kinds of conditions: "normal
conditions" and "reverse conditions." Originally, the former meant that
good deeds could provide the conditions for embarking on the Way, and
the latter meant that opposition to the Buddha and vilification of the
Law could provide the conditions for receiving instruction from the
Buddha and bodhisattvas and thus embarking on the Way. We today,
however, would do better to interpret them as follows.
"Normal conditions" means that coming into contact with positive
energy, such as good teachers, friends, and writings, enables us to
proceed in a positive direction. "Reverse conditions" means that
negative energy brought to bear from without or negative circumstances
that we ourselves generate--persecution, slander, misfortune,
failure--can, if we assimilate them, nourish our growth as human beings
by triggering a religious awakening. The reason I suggest this
interpretation is that the traditional one, especially in the case of
"reverse conditions," is hard for us today to relate to and thus does
not motivate us strongly.
For the sake of personal growth, it is important that we gain a firm
understanding of this modern interpretation of normal and reverse
conditions. Of course we must actively seek out normal conditions, but
there is no telling when we may be assaulted by reverse conditions.
Indeed, in one way or another they are being generated all the time.
Those who shrink from reverse conditions are weaklings, and those who
are defeated by them backslide. As I have said, we must constantly seek
out normal conditions and accumulate them. But when we meet with
reverse conditions, we must recall Shakyamuni's attitude toward
Devadatta and cope with them valorously through Mahayana enlightenment,
using them to nourish our growth by thoroughly assimilating them. This
is the way of the truly brave, the true believer.
TEXT I declare to all you four groups:
Devadatta, after his departure and innumerable kalpas have passed, will
become a buddha, whose title will be King of the Gods Tathagata,
Worshipful, All Wise, Perfectly Enlightened in Conduct, Well Departed,
Understander of the World, Peerless Leader, Controller, Teacher of Gods
and Men, Buddha, World-honored One, and whose world will be named
Divine Way. At that time the Buddha King of Gods shall dwell in the
world for twenty intermediate kalpas. He shall widely preach the
Wonderful Law for all the living, and living beings [numerous] as the
sands of the Ganges will attain arhatship; innumerable beings will
devote themselves to pratyekabuddhahood; and living beings [numerous]
as the sands of the Ganges, devoting themselves to the supreme Way,
will attain to the assurance of nonbirth and reach the [stage] of never
falling back [into mortal life].
COMMENTARY Intermediate kalpas.
This term, which appears only in this chapter of the Lotus Sutra, is
equivalent to the small kalpas mentioned in other chapters.
This refers to the stage of practice at which one is pure, having rid
oneself of all illusion, and is worthy of others' respect.
· Pratyekabuddhahood. Pratyekabuddhas are those who, through such practices as meditation and samadhi,
have become enlightened to the truths of the universe and of human life
through their own efforts, or those who are engaged in such practices.
· The supreme Way. This is a reference to the Way of the Buddha and the Buddha's enlightenment.
· The assurance of nonbirth. This is the stage at which one has thoroughly realized the truth that all phenomena are inherently empty (shunya)
and the law of nonbirth, that is, transcendence of life and death (the
latter is explained in the commentary on chapter 2 of the Sutra of
Innumerable Meanings, "Preaching") and is no longer perturbed by any
phenomenal changes. "Assurance" means that one is firm in one's
attainment of that stage and will never backslide.
TEXT Then after the parinirvana of the
Buddha King of Gods, the Righteous Law will dwell in his world during
twenty intermediate kalpas. For his complete body relic, a stupa of the
precious seven shall be erected, sixty yojanas in height and forty
yojanas in length and width. All the gods and people, with various
flowers, sandal powder, incense for burning, perfumed unguents,
garments, garlands, banners, flags, jeweled canopies, music, and song,
shall respectfully salute and pay homage to the wonderful Stupa of the
Precious Seven. Innumerable living beings will attain arhatship;
incalculable living beings will awaken to pratyekabuddhahood; and
inconceivable [numbers of the] living will be aroused to Bodhi and
reach the [stage] of never falling back [into mortality]."
COMMENTARY Parinirvana. This refers to both mind and body entering complete nirvana, that is, death in the conventional sense.
This marks the end of the prediction of Devadatta's buddhahood. Why did
Shakyamuni give his assurance that a villain like Devadatta would
eventually become a buddha? We have already seen that Devadatta's evil
acted as reverse conditions to deepen the Buddha's enlightenment and
strengthen the Sangha's confidence that it was on the correct course.
But the Buddha and the members of the Sangha were benefited in this way
because of the wisdom, strong courage, and great enlightenment that
enabled them to thoroughly assimilate reverse conditions and use them
as nourishment rather than succumb to them. Devadatta did not deserve
the credit for the good results generated by his evil deeds, however,
nor did the good outcome cancel out the evil he had done. It would be a
great mistake to think that providing reverse conditions in any way
qualifies a person for buddhahood.
Shakyamuni used the example of Devadatta to drive home in a startling
and dramatic way the point he had made over and over, that all human
beings possess the buddha-nature equally. Simply being told that
everyone has the buddha-nature in equal measure and thus has the
potential for buddhahood would not be enough to make an ordinary person
feel deeply, "That means me, too." Even the knowledge that such eminent
disciples as Shariputra, Maudgalyayana, Maha-Kashyapa, and
Maha-Katyayana had been assured that they would attain buddhahood would
seem to have little relevance to one's own situation, since those
disciples had progressed so much further along the Way.
But as the Buddha's sermon continued and the buddhahood of the five
hundred bhikshus and countless other people both learned and unlearned
was predicted, those assembled would begin to be able to relate to the
idea in a personal way. Still, the niggling thought would remain, "Yes,
but all these people have practiced a great deal. How can I possibly
emulate them?" Suddenly Shakyamuni predicted the buddhahood of
Devadatta, that great enemy of the Law. It was like a bolt from the
blue. "Shakyamuni doesn't lie, so that must mean that even Devadatta
can become a buddha." All the listeners were astounded.
Hard on the heels of amazement would come the thought, "Wait a minute.
If even Devadatta can become a buddha, I certainly should be able to,
since I haven't done anything so very bad." For the first time the
lofty ideal of buddhahood would start to seem like something that might
actually apply to oneself. This would prompt one to think back over
everything Shakyamuni had taught so far as something directly
applicable to oneself, a process that would lead to a deeply personal
assimilation and understanding of each teaching.
Let us imagine the train of thought of a bhikshu who heard the
prediction of Devadatta's buddhahood. "The Buddha has taught that all
phenomena are empty. And he has taught that everyone is essentially
equal. That means Shariputra and Devadatta and I are basically equal.
[See the November/December 2005 issue of Dharma World.]
We all receive the Original Buddha's vivifying power equally. If I
accept all this, it follows that I too can attain the same totally free
state as the Buddha. That's what he means by teaching that all possess
the buddha-nature equally.
"The Buddha has also taught that it's because our buddha-nature is
obscured by a thick layer of defilements that it's so hard for the
compassion of the Original Buddha to penetrate and for us to feel it,
and that we have to get rid of our defilements in order to reveal our
buddha-nature. This means the only difference between Shariputra and
Devadatta and me is how thickly our buddha-nature is covered with
defilements. It's just a matter of degree. There's absolutely no
difference in our essential nature as human beings. People really are
equal, after all.
"The only reason Devadatta did so much evil is that his buddha-nature
was heavily encrusted with defilements. Once he eradicates them, he's
fully qualified for buddhahood. By the same token, if I just get rid of
my defilements, I'm qualified to become a buddha, too. But can I really
get rid of all of them? Looking into my heart, I think I've managed to
eradicate most of them. But all--that's
a different matter. I don't think it's possible. And if it's impossible
for me, even though I'm practicing the Buddha Way as hard as I can, how
can it be expected of all people? Still, the Buddha says that everyone
can become a buddha. How can that be?
"Ah, I've just remembered! In the Sutra of Innumerable Meanings the
Buddha said that 'defilements, even though existent, will become as if
nonexistent.' That's it! He taught that defilements are created merely
by the coming together of causes and conditions, so if we change what
links causes and conditions to something better, defilements cease to
be defilements. It's because we're entangled in our defilements that we
can't get rid of them. If we truly realize that essentially they have
no substance, they won't harm or bind us anymore even if we still have
"It all goes back to the teachings of emptiness and dependent
origination, and the realization that defilements, too, arise through
dependent origination. Since they are products of dependent
origination, if we just apply good causes and conditions, defilements
will be instantly transformed into forces for good. That's the meaning
of the teaching of the identity of defilements and enlightenment.
Little by little, I'm beginning to understand.
"That's why the Buddha has also taught that it's not enough to purify one's heart, that one has to act
to benefit both oneself and others. If we apply a good direction to our
defilements through our actions, that positive energy benefits both
other people and ourselves. This enables us to receive the Buddha's
compassion without resistance. So ordinary people and buddhas can
function in the same way.
"Devadatta translated his defilements directly into action. That's what
made his actions evil. If he awakens to the Buddha's teaching and
applies a good direction to his delusions, he'll immediately be able to
do good. That's the only difference between someone who's evil and
someone who's good. Now I understand that Devadatta can definitely
become a buddha--and that I can, too!"
As we see, this hypothetical bhikshu was finally enlightened. It would
behoove us all to think through this teaching in the same way. If we
do, we too will be sure to achieve the same deep realization of the
truth of Shakyamuni's prediction of Devadatta's buddhahood, based as it
was on the basic Buddhist teachings of emptiness, dependent
origination, and all human beings' equal possession of the
TEXT The Buddha said to the bhikshus: "If
there be in a future world any good son or good daughter to hear this
Devadatta chapter of the Wonderful Law Flower Sutra with pure heart and
believing reverence, and is free from doubt, such a one shall not fall
into the hells or become a hungry spirit or animal, [but shall] be born
into the presence of the buddhas of the universe. Wherever he be born
he will always hear this sutra;
COMMENTARY This passage, together with
the next, can be interpreted in two ways. The first is to take it as
describing the fortunate spiritual state of one who receives and
believes the teaching in this chapter. The second, based on the concept
of transmigration, is to see it as explaining that one who receives and
believes the teaching in this chapter will invariably be reborn in
favorable circumstances and will be able to hear the teaching of the
The first interpretation should be easy to understand if we have
carefully read the discussion above of why an evil person can attain
buddhahood. The essential nature of all people is the buddha-nature. We
are animated by the compassion of the Eternal Original Buddha.
Nevertheless, our buddha-nature tends to be obscured by a thick layer
of defilements, so that we block ourselves from receiving all of the
Buddha's compassion. It follows that if we do our best to rid ourselves
of defilements or apply a good direction to them, transforming them
into energy for good, any of us can become a buddha. This constitutes
the true development of our humanity, and our true happiness as human
If, by means of the teaching in this chapter, we can understand this
truth and truly believe it, we will never fall into the evil course of
translating our defilements directly into actions as Devadatta did. In
other words, we will cease to be subject to the inferior, anguished
ways of living known as the realms of the hells (acting in anger and
living in constant emotional anguish), hungry spirits (craving one
thing after another to satisfy the ego and constantly fretting because
we cannot fulfill all our self-centered desires), or animals (lapsing
into inhumane or subhuman behavior by giving our instinctual impulses
free rein, thereby hurting others and making ourselves unhappy).
The statement that one who hears and believes the teaching of this
chapter will "be born into the presence of the buddhas of the universe"
means that we will be aware that wherever we may be we are always in
the Buddha's presence. Awareness of being in the Buddha's presence
means consciousness that we are enlivened by the Buddha. This gives us
great confidence in life, infuses us with courage, and enables us to
live in a happy frame of mind.
Naturally, therefore, "wherever he be born he will always hear this
sutra." If we are always aware of being in the Buddha's presence, we
will never forget his teaching--"this sutra"--whatever our environment.
We will constantly contemplate and savor it.
Now let us examine the second interpretation. Under the influence of
Western thought, the concept of transmigration has come to be seen as
unscientific, as merely a way to encourage ignorant people to do good
and to discourage them from doing evil. But the so-called scientific
approach is limited to what we can perceive with the five senses. In
other words, it can be applied only to what we experience in this world
and can prove to others. We often hear about people who claim to have
seen the afterworld, but scientifically speaking, what they have
experienced is probably syncope or some kind of coma. After all, death
is something each of us can experience only once in this life.
Therefore, both those who purport to be able to describe the afterworld
and those who deny that there is anything after death are unscientific.
Shakyamuni answered all questions about existence after death by saying
that such matters were "morally neutral," neither helping nor hindering
enlightenment--a highly scientific approach.
As explained in the commentary on the significance of the
theory of transmigration in chapter 2, "Tactfulness" (see the
November/December 1998 issue), Shakyamuni taught about transmigration
from quite a different standpoint, addressing the issue on a completely
different level. He did not discuss transmigration in order to explain
the afterworld. Transmigration is a necessary concept in terms of the
law of cause and effect. Since good actions always generate good
effects and bad actions invariably give rise to bad effects, it follows
quite rationally that the impact of what we do is not limited to this
life but is bound to have an effect on our next life, as well.
If we believe that this is the only life we have and that death is the
end of everything, we have to conclude that life is nothing but the
incessant clash of people's conflicting desires and egos. What a
fearful prospect! And if we maintain that this life is only a
provisional existence and our efforts are of little meaning, that true
significance and happiness are to be found only in the next world, it
means abandoning all endeavor. What a dreary world this leaves us
inhabiting! Shakyamuni taught the theory of transmigration on the basis
of the law of cause and effect to keep people from lapsing into
nihilism or passivity.
The Buddha's teaching is not a matter of theory alone; its primary aim
is to save living human beings and to create a happy society. His
theory of transmigration springs naturally from this. That, too, is why
he expounded the doctrine of "long-term practice," continued practice
over the course of many lives.
To hear this chapter of the Lotus Sutra "with pure heart and believing
reverence, . . . free from doubt," means to accept the Buddha's
teaching without resistance and to persevere in our efforts in this
life. If we do so, we will "be born into the presence of the buddhas of
the universe," and wherever we are born, we "will always hear this
sutra." In other words, we will be able to encounter the teaching of
the Lotus Sutra in our next life, as well, and will be able to advance
further toward supreme enlightenment, that is, buddhahood.
TEXT and if he be born amongst men or
gods, he will enjoy marvelous delight. As to the Buddha into whose
presence [he is born], his birth shall be by emanation from a lotus
COMMENTARY Marvelous delight. The Sanskrit pradhana, translated into English as "marvelous," is rendered in the Chinese text as sheng-miao. Sheng means excellent, while miao
means inexpressibly superb, that is, supreme. Thus, "marvelous delight"
indicates not the vulgar joy of sensuous pleasures but an extremely
elevated spiritual joy. Those who can receive and believe the teaching
of this chapter, whether born into the human or the heavenly realm,
will not be caught up in pursuit of the pleasures of the five desires
(the desires of the five senses) and will have little need to undergo
again the painful practice necessary to combat the defilements
associated with the five desires, but will be able to live a life
filled with spiritual joy.
· Birth shall be by emanation from a lotus flower.
Lotus flowers are rooted in mud, but the beautiful blossoms that unfold
above the muddy water are quite untouched by dirt. Thus, to be born "by
emanation from a lotus flower" means that although one lives in this
sullied world among ordinary defiled people, one can possess the purity
of the Buddha. This is the state of the bodhisattva. In short, anyone
who hears this chapter "with pure heart and believing reverence, and is
free from doubt," will be able to achieve at least the bodhisattva
state. The reason should be clear from the earlier discussion of the
process of enlightenment to the truth that even an evil person can
Thus ends the first half of the chapter. Now a different cast of
characters appears and a new sermon begins--though this one, too,
explicates the truth that all human beings possess the buddha-nature
To be continued
In this series, passages in the TEXT sections are quoted from The Threefold Lotus Sutra,
Tokyo: Kosei Publishing Company, 1975, with slight revisions. The
diacritical marks originally used for several Sanskrit terms in the TEXT sections are omitted here for easier reading.
This article was originally published in the April-June 2007 issue of
Copyright (C) 1997-2012 by Kosei Publishing Co. All rights reserved.