AS ALREADY MENTIONED, this sutra is an introduction to the Lotus Sutra. It begins with the description of a number of bodhisattvas extolling the virtues and excellence of Shakyamuni Buddha. The chapter begins with the phrase, "Thus have I heard," and following this are stated in beautiful and dignified language the circumstances at the time that the Buddha was staying at a monastery on Mount Grdhrakuta, on Vulture Peak (so called because it resembled a vulture in shape), together with a large assemblage of great bhikshus, twelve thousand in all.
A bhikshu is a Buddhist monk, and the great bhikshus are the major disciples of the Buddha, such as Shariputra and Kashyapa. Though these bhikshus have not yet attained bodhisattvahood, they have already reached the stage of arhat, one who is free from all illusions, by means of the Hinayana teaching. One need not take literally the number of twelve thousand given for the great bhikshus. We often encounter large numbers in the sutras, but they may be taken generally to indicate merely "a great number."
In the great assemblage there were also many bodhisattva-mahasattvas. A bodhisattva is one who practices the teaching of Mahayana Buddhism. Maha means "great" and sattva means "person," so that mahasattva indicates "great person," that is, one who has a great goal. The bodhisattvas are so called because all have the great goal of seeking supreme enlightenment and of finally attaining buddhahood by enlightening all people.
There were also gods, dragons, yakshas, spirits, and animals in the assemblage. Gods are beings living in the various heavens, while dragons are serpent-shaped demigods who live at the bottom of the sea. Yakshas are flying demons. Thus the beings at the great assemblage included demons, who are generally regarded as harmful to human beings, as well as animals. This kind of description is a characteristic of Buddhism that cannot be found in other religions. The Buddha did not try to lead only man to enlightenment but had such vast benevolence as to save all creatures of the universe from their sufferings and lead them to the shore of bliss. Therefore, even man-eating demons were permitted to attend the assemblage to hear the Buddha preach.
Besides these, there were people of all classes: bhikshus (monks), bhikshunis (nuns), upasakas (male lay devotees), upasikas (female lay devotees), many virtuous kings, princes, ministers, and ordinary people, men and women alike, as well as very rich people. They showed their devotion to the Buddha by prostrating themselves at his feet and by making procession around him. After they had burned incense, scattered flowers, and worshiped him in various ways, they retired and sat to one side.
For Buddhists, worshiping the Buddha is an expression of gratitude. When we have a deep sense of gratitude, we must always be sure to express it in our conduct. Gratitude without worship cannot be said to be true gratitude. To venerate the Buddha, Japanese Buddhists worship at their family altars by presenting flowers, tea, and water and by burning incense and beating gongs.
All the bodhisattvas in the assemblage were great saints of the Law and had attained the precepts, meditation, wisdom, emancipation, and the knowledge of emancipation. They were continuously in meditation, their minds tranquil and undistracted, and they were content with any environment and indifferent to worldly gain. They were immune to all delusion and distraction. They always possessed profound and infinite consideration through their calm and clear minds. Having maintained this state of mind for a long time, they could remember all the innumerable teachings of the Buddha. Moreover, having obtained the great wisdom, they had the ability to penetrate all things.
Wisdom is the ability both to discern the differences among all things and to see the truth common to them. In short, wisdom is the ability to realize that anybody can become a buddha. The Buddha's teachings stress that we cannot discern all things in the world correctly until we are completely endowed with the ability to know both distinction and equality.
These virtuous Bodhisattvas spread the Buddha's teachings, just as all the buddhas roll the Law-wheel. The order in which bodhisattvas are to propagate the teachings is plainly stated in this chapter. First, just as a dewdrop lays the dust on the parched earth, the bodhisattvas dip the dust of men's desires in a drop of the teachings. This is most valuable in opening the gate to nirvana. Then they preach the way of emancipation and remove all the sufferings and illusions with which people are faced. They also make people feel great joy and refreshment, as if their minds had been washed by listening to the Law. Next they teach the doctrine of the Twelve Causes to those who suffer from ignorance, old age, illness, and death, and thus help these people free themselves from their sufferings, just as a rain shower cools those who are suffering from the summer heat. Up to this point the bodhisattvas have been preaching the Hinayana teaching.
The Law of the Twelve Causes, also called the doctrine of the twelve-link chain of dependent origination, is one of the principal Hinayana teachings. In this important doctrine, Shakyamuni explains the process a person goes through from birth to death and how this process is repeated in his transmigration in the three temporal states of existence--the past, the present, and the future. In connection with this, he also shows that, as all human sufferings stem from fundamental ignorance (illusion), people can rid themselves of suffering by removing ignorance and can gain happiness by transcending the three temporal states of existence. A detailed explanation of this doctrine is given in chapter 7 of the Lotus Sutra, "The Parable of the Magic City."
The bodhisattvas enlighten the general populace through the order of teachings mentioned above, and make all people put forth the sprout of buddhahood. They also adopt tactful means to promote the Mahayana and to try to make all accomplish Perfect Enlightenment speedily. The phrase "to make all accomplish Perfect Enlightenment speedily," found often in the sutras, is very important. The word "speedily" includes the meaning of "straight, making no detour," as well as that of "quickly or rapidly."
Next, these bodhisattvas are extolled in the highest terms for their various virtues and for their importance to all people. Many bhikshus are also lauded as being excellent arhats, unrestricted by any bonds of faults, free from attachment, and truly emancipated.
This admiration of the bodhisattvas and bhikshus is not mere empty praise. It indicates the pattern of how these people have practiced the teachings of the Buddha. We cannot attain the same state of mind as the Buddha in a single leap. In the first place, we must study the practice of the bodhisattvas and the bhikshus. Some people consider our inability to follow the same kind of practice as due to its being far removed from the realities of everyday life. It is natural that they should think this, but that is no reason not to try to follow the pattern of the bodhisattvas and bhikshus. There is a key or a chance of opening the gate of enlightenment in following even only one of the many virtuous practices of the bodhisattvas that are expressed in the sutras.
Seeing that all the groups were seated with settled mind and were fully prepared to hear the Buddha's teachings, the Bodhisattva Great Adornment rose from his seat together with many other bodhisattvas and paid homage to the Buddha with various offerings. Making obeisance at the feet of the Buddha, the Bodhisattva Great Adornment praised him in verse. Verse is frequently used in the sutras to restate succinctly the major points that have been previously stated in prose or to praise the Buddha and the bodhisattvas.
All the beings, including the Bodhisattva Great Adornment, praised the holy mind of the Buddha who had realized all, had transcended all, and had led all creatures of the universe as he wished. They also admired the beauty of the Buddha's face, body, and voice, which were naturally manifested by his virtue, and the wonder of his enlightening all living beings through his teachings. They also praised the fact that the Buddha thought nothing of himself during his long striving and that he devoted himself to saving all living beings by enduring all kinds of distress and renouncing all, as the result of which he attained the great wisdom that enables all living beings to be led to enlightenment. The final verse portion of this chapter, which praises the Buddha's having become the Great Enlightened One, the Great Holy Lord, expresses the admiration of the bodhisattvas, who are on the way to attaining this state, of the exertion that the Buddha made over a long period. They concluded their praise with the words, "We submit ourselves to the One / Who has completed all hard things."
Praise of the Buddha serves to implant our ideal of the Buddha deep in our memory. It sets forth the eternal goal of buddhahood by constructing a picture of the Buddha's figure and power as the one who receives the greatest honor and is absolutely perfect.
Copyright © 2009 by Rissho Kosei-kai. All rights reserved.