This article is adapted from a talk delivered by the author on August 1, 2009, at a ceremony in Las Vegas commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of Rissho Kosei-kai's activities in North America. Some parts were also used in a talk given in Tokyo earlier that year.
I'm both glad and grateful to be here with you today - and more than a little embarrassed. I'm glad in part because it's fun to be here. I'm really enjoying seeing all of you again and being with you. It's exciting to be part of the launching of a new international venture by Rissho Kosei-kai, to celebrate the previous fifty years in North America, and to look forward to where we are going from here. So I am just enormously happy to be here with you and I'm grateful to all of those who have worked hard to make this convention a success, from the people who served us food, to those who designed the program, to those who entertained us with music, to those who have made speeches, especially President Nichiko Niwano, who gave us a very interesting, very deep and penetrating understanding of the Buddha of the Lotus Sutra. So, there is a lot to be very grateful for, and to make me happy to be here.
But I'm also a little embarrassed. I'm embarrassed because I don't know why I'm standing here, actually. For years, I've been learning from you. I've been to your Dharma centers in Boston and New York, in Chicago, in San Antonio and Oklahoma, in Los Angeles and Seattle and San Francisco, and of course in Hawaii. I think I've been to all of them. And in all of these places and in other places as well (occasionally some of you even come to Tokyo and visit us there), I've been learning from you! So it seems to me a little inappropriate that I'm the one standing on this stage right now.
The title of my talk is "Think Big!" Almost every year we hold an international seminar on the Lotus Sutra for scholars, and this talk began at our most recent one, held in Hawaii at Kona in the spring. One of the participants, a famous Japanese Buddhist scholar, said something like, "It cannot be doubted that the core teaching of the Lotus Sutra is universal salvation." I didn't want to quarrel with this distinguished professor in public, but during the next break time I said to him: "You know, there is a certain truth to that, but it's really not the whole truth. Really what the Lotus Sutra is concerned about," I said to him, "is your salvation, not some abstract universal salvation, but your salvation."
The Lotus Sutra, I want to say to you this morning, is about you - about your liberation, about your attitudes, your self-understanding, your behavior, your life! It's not, at least not primarily, about some abstract, universal everyone. It's about you!
There are several ways to read and understand any text. One can understand the Lotus Sutra to be about doctrines, about skillful means, buddha-nature, universal salvation, and so on. You can also understand it as stories about the Buddha and bodhisattvas. All of this is true, it is always about such things. But when it comes down to the bottom line, to the purpose of those doctrines, the purpose of those stories, the purpose of having Guanyin (Kuan-yin, Kannon) Bodhisattva in chapter 25, the purpose of all those things is to change your life. It's about you, especially about your imagination, your vision, your size, about whether you are able to think big and be big!
This is a little difficult to explain, but by "you" I don't really mean all of you together. I mean each and every one of us. Each and every one of us, the Lotus Sutra says, can become a buddha! That's thinking big. It requires a kind of expansion of the imagination. It requires thinking beyond the box. It requires thinking, and doing, things that we never imagined we could.
At the end of chapter 5, the Buddha says to his disciples, who are shravakas, or hearers,
What you are practicing
Is the bodhisattva way.
As you gradually practice and learn,
Every one of you should become a buddha.*
That's big! Wow!
In 1973, E. F. Schumacher published a little book called Small Is Beautiful. The Lotus Sutra does not conflict with this. It is not talking about big houses, big companies, big farms, big cars, and so forth. Small is still beautiful. Yet I want to encourage you to think big. The Lotus Sutra is talking about you - your goals and your ability; about your ability to think big!
The Lotus Sutra uses mind-stretching, expansive thinking - often with very, very big numbers. Sometimes they are simple: for example the Buddha tells his son Rahula that on the way to becoming a buddha he will make offerings to buddhas equal in number to the specks of dust of ten worlds. Imagine how many specks of dust there are just in your own living room, then in ten worlds. That's a lot of dust and a lot of offerings! Imagining them is mind-stretching.
In chapter 7 we are told about the time that has passed since Excellent in Great Penetrating Wisdom Buddha lived on Earth.
Suppose someone took all of the earth in a universe and ground it into ink powder, and then passed through a thousand lands to the east, dropping one speck as large as a speck of dust, and again passing through another thousand lands, dropping just one speck. Suppose he proceeded in this way until he had exhausted all the ink powder. . . .
Then suppose the earth of all those lands through which that man had passed dropping a speck, as well as those lands where he had not dropped any, were ground into dust. Let one speck of dust be one eon. The number of eons since that buddha passed into extinction . . . vastly exceeds that number by innumerable, unlimited hundreds of thousands of billions of eons.
You may think that this is just trying to express an unimaginably great big number. And it is true that that is what it is doing. But the reason it is doing that is to get us to stretch our minds. This is not just a big number; this is a mind-stretching number. It's much more than a very large number; it's really an invitation to you to think big.
Chapter 7 has other very large numbers: When that buddha became awakened, five million billion buddha-lands in each of the ten directions shook and became bright. Wow! Eight trillion men became novice monks. Wow! The buddha preached this sutra for eight thousand eons without resting, then meditated for eighty-four thousand eons. Wow! If you can wrap your mind around such numbers, you are thinking big!
The lifetimes of future buddhas are enormous. Ananda, for example, the Buddha's beloved assistant, is told that he will eventually become a buddha:
[His] lifetime will be innumerable tens of millions of billions of countless eons, so that even if a man counts and calculates for tens of millions of billions of innumerable, countless eons, it will be impossible to know the full number.
The great stupa of Abundant Treasures Buddha in chapter 11 is five hundred leagues tall, enough to reach the heavens. Wow!
To prepare enough space for all of his guests, Shakyamuni Buddha had to prepare two million billion myriads of worlds. Wow! You might have to borrow an apartment or house from your next-door neighbor if your party is too big, but he borrowed a lot more than that.
Do you remember the passage in chapter 16 when the Buddha says, "Since I became a buddha"?
"Suppose," says the Buddha, "someone were to take five hundred thousand billions of myriads of countless universes and grind them into dust. Then, after going east through five hundred thousand billions of myriads of innumerable lands, one of those specks of dust was deposited. And suppose he continued eastward until he had used up all those specks. What do you think? Is it possible to imagine or calculate the number of all those worlds?
"Maitreya Bodhisattva and the others said to the Buddha: 'World-Honored One, those worlds are innumerable, unlimited, beyond the reach of calculation and beyond the reach of thought. . . . We too cannot comprehend them. World-Honored One, such worlds would be innumerable and unlimited.'
"Then the Buddha said . . . : 'Good sons, suppose you took all those worlds, where a speck of dust has been deposited and where none has been deposited, and reduced them to dust. Let one speck be equal to one eon. The time that has passed since I became a buddha exceeds these by hundreds of thousands of billions of myriads of countless eons.'"
Or think about Wonderful Voice Bodhisattva in chapter 24 of the Lotus Sutra. He doesn't get talked about very much because he is sort of enormously overshadowed by Guanyin or Kannon Bodhisattva. Wonderful Voice is forty-two thousand leagues tall. According to various calculations, a yojana (yujun), or what I call a "league," is sixty-four or 120 or 160 kilometers. Forty-two thousand times the smallest of these is a little under three million kilometers. Now, the approximate distance from here to the moon is 382,500 kilometers. So the height of Wonderful Voice Bodhisattva is at least eight times the distance from here to the moon. That's tall!
These numbers are mind-stretching, encouraging us, encouraging us to think big. They seek to open up your imagination, your thinking, and your feeling, encouraging you to think big, even beyond normal human imagination.
The title of this talk is "Think Big!" but it's more than our thinking that should be big. It's also our behavior. We should, for example, be generous, not just with time and money, but also with friendly smiles, with kindness and good will. We should, in other words, be big-hearted. This is a little easier to say in the Chinese or Japanese languages because they have the concept of hsin (xin) or kokoro, which is both what we call mind and what we call heart. So it is more obvious in Chinese or Japanese that to think big is also to be big-hearted. That's what the Lotus Sutra expects of us. We should be ambitious for the Buddha Dharma.
I heard a story just recently about the 1942 opening ceremony in Tokyo of the first Rissho Kosei-kai training hall. The members, not so many in those days, had worked very hard to gather the materials and funds to put up that building. They were exhausted, and more than a little proud of what they had accomplished. Founder Nikkyo Niwano, though expected to praise and congratulate them, instead admonished them, saying that the place was too small. Cofounder Myoko Naganuma told him that he should apologize to the members for saying such a thing. But he refused, saying that the Dharma is too important to be restricted to such a small room. "We have to grow," he said. That's thinking big, and encouraging people to think big.
Think for a moment about the four bodhisattva vows. Of course in Rissho Kosei-kai people are taught to understand that we should be the bodhisattvas who emerge from the earth in chapter 15 of the Lotus Sutra. Bodhisattvas have four vows. There are various ways of expressing them. Here's one version:
. Living beings are innumerable, I vow to save every one of them
. Hindrances to my awakening are innumerable, I vow to overcome every one of them
. Approaches to the Buddha Dharma are innumerable, I vow to master every one of them
. Awakening is unattainable, I vow to attain it.
Wow! What the Lotus Sutra is trying to teach us, like these vows, is to dream the impossible, and to do the impossible. It's no wonder that in the Lotus Sutra bodhisattvas are almost always called mahasattvas, bodhisattva mahasattvas, great ones, big ones, people who can think big, and act big.
Thinking big means among other things that you should never just accept defeat. Find a victory, a silver lining, a lesson, in every defeat, even if only a tiny one. It's the best way to avoid stress, anxiety, and depression - always look for the silver lining.
Thinking big and being big do not mean that you should never be humble. Remember the short, common-looking, one-eyed, unimposing men in chapter 4. When the poor son has run from his rich father's home in fear, the father sends these men to persuade him to come back, and they succeed. This is a story about the rich man enabling the son to gain the strength to develop and overcome his own self-depreciation, to think big, or at least bigger. So the point I want to make about the short, common-looking, one-eyed, unimposing men is that they make it possible for the father to save his son. And they do this by doing the seemingly impossible.
Becoming a buddha does not necessarily mean being a buddha for everyone. People heard Never Disrespectful Bodhisattva say, "I deeply respect you. I would never dare to be disrespectful or arrogant toward you. . . . Because all of you are practicing the bodhisattva way and surely will become buddhas." But people did not see him as a bodhisattva, as one becoming a buddha. They saw him as a nuisance and a pest.
But, if you can't be a buddha for everyone, you can be for someone, even today. That's all the Lotus Sutra ever asks of us - to be a buddha for someone, and for as many as you are able.
In Mahayana Buddhism the blossoming of the lotus flower is much celebrated. But what the Lotus Sutra teaches is that we ourselves should be Dharma flowers - flowering, blossoming, springing up from the earth of everyday life, bringing a little beauty and happiness into this world. To be such a flowering is to be the buddha for someone. You don't need a PhD, you don't even need credentials from Rissho Kosei-kai or from anyone else. You don't need to study Chinese. You don't need to study Japanese. You don't need any of these things to be a blossoming lotus flower for someone else. All of those things are good, but they are not essential.
What the Lotus Sutra says is that it doesn't matter who you are, or what your condition, whether you are rich or poor, whether you are gay or straight, or, as someone else mentioned earlier this morning, just confused. It doesn't matter who you are. Any and every one of us has this ability and this power. The miracle of the Lotus Sutra is not only that this is a theoretical possibility, but that it is an actual possibility. Every single one of us has a power within us to help other people. That is all the Lotus Sutra asks of us.
Quotations from the Lotus Sutra used in this article are all from The Lotus Sutra: A Contemporary Translation of a Buddhist Classic,
translation and introduction by Gene Reeves, Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2008.
Gene Reeves is currently studying, teaching, and writing on Buddhism in Tokyo. A consultant and teacher at Rissho Kosei-kai, he was recently a research fellow at Rikkyo University. Before coming to Japan in 1989, Dr. Reeves was the dean of Meadville/Lombard Theological School and professorial lecturer in the Divinity School of the University of Chicago.
This article was originally published in the January-March 2010 issue of Dharma World.
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