Faith is often compared to multiplication. The object of faith multiplied by the mind of faith equals the results of faith. Let us look more closely at this formula.
Even if the object of faith is the most perfect in the world, if our mind does not believe ardently and our faith is of low degree, then it cannot yield a great result.
Let us assume that the Buddha's teachings are equivalent to the figure 100. If a person's mind of faith is a mere one-half, then the result will be 50. If we consider an extreme case, in which despite the existence of the Buddha's teachings in this world today, a person does not believe in the teachings at all, then the result would be zero; 100 multiplied by zero equals zero.
At the same time, however vigorous a person's religious feelings might be, the result will be nil if the object of his faith is empty, because zero multiplied by a 100 equals zero. No matter how earnest one may be in devotion, if the object is empty the result will still be nil.
If a person has faith in a wrong teaching, then it stands to reason that this will lead to an evil or at least unhappy result. If the teaching itself is the equivalent of a minus one, and we take a person's religious mind to be the equivalent of 100, then we have a large negative result, for minus one multiplied by 100 equals minus 100. It is easy to understand how disastrous belief in an unsound religion can be.
The teachings of the Lotus Sutra can be compared to an infinite positive number, but let us suppose that they are equivalent to the figure 100. If one deeply believes in the sutra with so much as a single thought and is grateful for it, and if that single thought is assumed to be equivalent to the figure 1, the result will be a highly positive 100.
The initial rejoicing over the sutra is this important. As the merits of a person's religious feelings grow to values of 2, 5, 10, and 100, the results gradually increase, and before long they become immeasurable.
Let us now turn to the text.
TEXT 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 Dharma Flower Sutra, accepts it with joy, how much happiness will he obtain?"
And he spoke [it again] in verse:
"After the extinction of the World-honored One, / If anyone, hearing this sutra, / Is able to accept it with joy, / How much happiness will he obtain?"
COMMENTARY Needless to say, Maitreya Bodhisattva already understands 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 asks this question intending to make all sentient beings deepen their faith still further. He requests that the Buddha preach the merits of joyful acceptance in further detail for those whose understanding is still elementary.
TEXT Then the Buddha addressed Maitreya Bodhisattva-Mahasattva: "Ajita! If, after the extinction of the Tathagata, any bhikshu, bhikshuni, 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;
COMMENTARY The assembly. In our day we are apt to think of this as a formal gathering for Buddhist rites, but the true assembly is a gathering where believers deepen their faith by preaching and listening to the teachings.
. [What] he has heard. Having only just heard the teachings of the Buddha, it is important to transmit them to others precisely as he has heard them. Once he begins to comprehend the meaning of the teachings, he should preach lucidly and in a way that is appropriate to the listener, but for the initiate it is sufficient to repeat exactly what he has heard, in case he should inadvertently transmit the teachings incorrectly.
. To expound . . . according to his ability. The words "according to his ability" have two meanings. One is "suited to one's strength" and the other is "putting forth all one's strength."
It is hardly possible for a person who has heard the teachings for the first time to preach them as well as a high or learned priest. If a beginner discusses a teaching falteringly and is a poor speaker, then that is only natural. If he has a talent for writing, then he ought to transmit the teaching to others through the written word. Whatever the case, he should transmit the teachings according to his abilities and experiences. This is the first meaning of "according to his ability."
However, no matter how poor a speaker may be, if he earnestly endeavors to transmit the teachings to others to the best of his ability, his enthusiasm will undoubtedly make an impression on his hearers. In short, his sincerity is important. This is the second meaning of the words "according to his ability."
TEXT and all these people, having heard it, accept it with joy and again go on to transmit the teachings; these others, having heard it, also accepting it with joy, and transmitting the teachings, 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 accepts [the sutra]. Do you hearken well!
COMMENTARY Why does the Buddha refer to "the merit" of the fiftieth person who has heard the teachings? This expresses strongly the greatness of the teachings of the Lotus Sutra.
The reason for this merit is that the first person, who attends an assembly, has been able to hear a sermon directly from a leader who is accomplished in the Dharma and has persuasive power. Therefore he has been deeply moved by the sermon.
The person who transmits the teachings to others is the one who has just heard them. He has no extensive knowledge of the Dharma, no deep faith in it, and no experience in preaching it. Even if he can transmit the teachings to others exactly as he has heard them, as they are transmitted from that person to the next and on to the next, the joy the hearer feels will decrease in proportion to the hearer's distance from the original speaker.
So when the teachings are finally transmitted to the fiftieth person, they will be diluted, and in most cases they will not make any striking impression on the hearer. At most, he is likely to respond with a halfhearted "Oh, really?"
In this regard, however, the Lotus Sutra is different from other teachings. Its contents are immeasurably so great that as long as they are correctly transmitted from one person to the next, even the fiftieth person is bound to receive them with great joy. 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 of the words "the merit of that fiftieth good son or good daughter, who joyfully accepts [the sutra]."
Then the Buddha speaks of the merit of the fiftieth person who joyfully receives the truth. We should carefully note that the various merits are expressed in the sutra in highly symbolic ways, with abstract points represented in concrete forms. We ought not to take such words and phrases literally but grasp the true spirit hidden within them. If we do not, we will be in danger of falling into a foolish misunderstanding of the teachings. The same caution is necessary in reference to the various merits in the following chapters.
TEXT "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 being the whole of a Jambudvipa full of gold, silver, lapis lazuli, moonstone, 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.
COMMENTARY Six states of existence. See the January/February 1993 issue of Dharma World, on "Transmigrate within the six realms of existence."
. Born in the four [ways]. This means the following four categories: egg-born beings, womb-born (viviparous) beings, humidity-born beings (worms and insects produced in damp ground), and born by metamorphosis (beings whose origin is unknown, produced spontaneously as a result of karma). In short, that means all kinds of living beings.
. Whether they are formed or formless. Of the three realms of existence, the beings of the realm of desire and the realm of form each have form, so they are called "formed," and beings of the formless realm do not, so they are called "formless."
. Conscious. This refers to beings with a mental state in which the mind wanders.
. Unconscious. This indicates beings whose conscious mind has ceased wandering and entered a state of clarity and serenity.
. Neither conscious nor unconscious. This refers to spiritual beings who dwell in the "formless realm" whose existence can be imagined in spirit alone. "Neither conscious" indicates the mental state of those who have extinguished all the coarse defilements of those who belong to the lower mental state. "Nor unconscious" means the mental state in which subtle defilements still remain. The latter is the highest state within the three realms of existence, but it is still the realm of heaven (one of the six states, or realms, of existence), and one has not yet attained buddhahood.
TEXT This great master of giving 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 Dharma.' Thereupon, gathering together those beings, he proclaims to them the Dharma and instructs them; and by his revealing, teaching, benefiting, and rejoicing, they all in a moment become srota-apannas, sakridagamins, anagamins, and arhats, free from all defilements, having all acquired mastery of profound meditation and completed the eight emancipations. What is your opinion? May the merits obtained by this great master of giving be considered many or not?"
COMMENTARY Revealing, teaching, benefiting, and rejoicing. See the March/April 2004 issue of Dharma World, on "Showing, teaching, befitting, and gladdening them."
. Srota-apannas, sakridagamins, anagamins, and arhats. See the November/December 1992 issue of Dharma World.
TEXT 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 beings, his merits would be infinite; how much more when he causes them to attain arhatship?"
Then said the Buddha to Maitreya: "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 merit of that fiftieth person who, hearing a single verse of the Dharma Flower Sutra, receives it with joy; they are not up to one hundredth, or one thousandth, or one fraction of a hundred thousand myriad kotis; the power of figures or comparisons cannot express it.
COMMENTARY There are two reasons why the power of figures or comparisons cannot express the merit of the fiftieth person.
The first is that material donations differ fundamentally from the donation of the Dharma. To donate material things to others is certainly a good deed. But the merits of such actions are limited and relative.
Suppose, for example, that we give some money to needy people. A relatively small sum may help someone get back on his feet again. But another person may lead a more comfortable life while he has the money, then be no better off when it is spent. In some cases the money may even be counterproductive, encouraging the person to become idle or extravagant. Thus, however good a material donation may be, it is a limited and relative good.
When we donate money and goods to others, if we can teach them how to use these things effectively in order to start their lives anew, our donation will truly help them. This kind of teaching is included within the donation of the Dharma; material donations become more effective when the donation of the Dharma accompanies them. It would be ideal if social security were carried out this way.
But even this kind of donation is limited and relative, for its merits will end with one's life. The donation that is truly valuable and eternal is that of the Dharma - to give the Buddha's teachings to others. This kind of donation is not limited to one's present life but endures through one's future lives, and nothing is so important as the merits so obtained.
The second reason why the merit of the fiftieth person is beyond comparison is the qualitative difference of donations of the Dharma. The Buddha points out to Maitreya Bodhisattva that this great master of giving bestows all kinds of gifts to all beings in the universe and also gives them the donation of the Dharma by preaching the Buddha Dharma, leading them to attain arhatship. But the merits obtained by this man do not compare with the merit of that fiftieth person who hears a single verse of the Lotus Sutra and receives it with joy and gratitude. At first, this may seem strange, but it has the following meaning.
To attain arhatship, the mental state of having extinguished all defilements, is the pinnacle of Hinayana teachings. But if a person who has attained such a state isolates himself in the mountains, the merits he attains stop right there. The Buddha's teachings are very valuable, but their value only becomes fully manifested when a person preaches them, elevating his hearers and giving them strength and courage, thus improving society as a whole. If Buddhist monks and other people of faith isolate themselves in the mountains after their own enlightenment and devote themselves to performing funeral and memorial services, then they are not putting the Buddha's true spirit to practical effect.
The teachings of the Lotus Sutra, however, are not limited to liberating oneself alone from suffering; their main object is the bodhisattva practice of liberating other people as well. When a person hears even a single verse of the Lotus Sutra and receives it with joy, his feeling of joyful acceptance is certain to develop into the power to liberate other people and the world.
Suppose that arhatship is equivalent to the maximum figure of 100 because this mental state 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 point as his own enlightenment. However, there is a great difference in value between the figure 100 indicating Hinayana enlightenment and the figure 1 representing Mahayana teachings. This is because the figure 1 in the Mahayana teachings expands without limitation and possesses the potential of increasing eventually to 1,000 or 10,000.
For example, a person's own enlightenment can be compared to 500 bushels of rice put away in a storehouse. With that much stored up, a person would have enough for a lifetime. But that is as far as it goes. That rice may be eaten by pests such as mice or it may even rot. In contrast, the sense of one's first rejoicing over the teachings of the Lotus Sutra is like one bushel of rice seed sown in a field. Since these seeds are alive, they have the potential for vigorous and steady growth and can produce thousands or tens of thousands of bushels of rice. Even though a person's own enlightenment is incomplete, it is extremely valuable.
This is why the merits of a person who hears a single verse of the Lotus Sutra and receives it with joy are incomparably greater than those gained in the practice of giving maximum material donations, or even than the merits gained by donation of the Dharma, causing others to attain arhatship.
If this is the joy of the fiftieth person who in turn hears and rejoices in the teachings, what about the joy of the first person?
TEXT Ajita! If the merit of such a fiftieth person who in turn hears the Dharma Flower Sutra and accepts it with joy is indeed so infinite, boundless, and numberless, how much more is the happiness of those who among the first hearers in the assembly receive it joyfully, whose surpassing [happiness] still more infinite, boundless, and beyond number or compare.
COMMENTARY As explained before, because of the immeasurable value of the teachings themselves, the hearer can accept with joy even those transmitted in turn from one beginner to the fiftieth person, who is also a beginner. How much greater is the impact on a person who has heard the teachings directly from a preacher who has thoroughly mastered the Way. Joyful acceptance of the teachings will bring about major changes in his life and have a boundless influence upon society.
To this point the Buddha has preached the merit of the person who has received with joy and is deeply grateful for the teachings of the Lotus Sutra. Next, he states that even a person so unenlightened that his contact with the teachings fails to move him deeply will nevertheless obtain very great merit.
This shows us just how important it is to have the opportunity to encounter the Dharma. It is true that we all possess the buddha-nature, but we cannot attain liberation unless our buddha-nature awakens through such an opportunity. Therefore, to come into contact with the teachings is before everything else a prior condition for liberation, and the opportunity to encounter them must be said to be very precious indeed. Needless to say, our providing such an opportunity to others is also very precious.
TEXT "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 ascend to celestial palaces.
COMMENTARY Since ancient days this has been called the merit of "hearing the sutra for but a moment." Strictly speaking, this moment was one-thirtieth of a complete day, or forty-eight minutes as we measure time today. In other words, a very short time. That one can be reborn in the heavenly realm as a result of just having heard the teachings for even such a short period of time means that encountering the Dharma will provide a great turning point in that person's life.
Further, "a monastery" refers not just to a place where monks reside, but also to places where the Dharma is preached and practiced. The Jetavana Monastery and the Bamboo Grove Monastery were built in this fashion.
TEXT If again there be anyone who sits down in the place where [this] Dharma 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 a Shakra's seat, or a Brahma's, or the seat of a holy wheel-rolling king. Ajita! If, moreover, anyone says to another: 'There is a sutra named the Flower of the Dharma; 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. He will be of keen faculties and wise;
COMMENTARY Shakra (or Indra) and Brahma were originally gods of the Brahman religion, and within Buddhism they are taken as the supreme guardian gods of the Buddha Dharma. A holy wheel-rolling king, or cakravartin, is the greatest king, who rules this world correctly and peacefully on the basis of the Buddha Dharma. To be able to sit side by side with such benevolent deities and such a high personage means to be equally exalted.
. Bodhisattvas [who have attained] dharani. These are bodhisattvas who possess the power to instruct others not to do any evil and possess the power to encourage others to do good.
TEXT for hundreds of thousands of myriads of ages he will never be dumb nor have unpleasant breath; [will] ever be free from ailments of the tongue or ailments of the mouth; his teeth will never be dirty and black, nor yellow, nor with gaps, nor fall out, nor irregular, nor crooked; his lips will not be pendulous or twisted and shrunk, not coarse and rough, nor have sores and pustules, not be cracked and broken or awry and out of shape, neither thick nor big, neither sallow nor black, having nothing loathsome; his nose will not be flat or crooked and distorted; the color of his face will not be black, nor will it be narrow and long or ever be hollow and crooked, having nothing whatever unpleasing; his lips, tongue, and teeth all will be beautiful; his nose long, high, and straight; his face round and full; his eyebrows high and long; his forehead broad, even, and upright. His sign of manhood will be perfect.
COMMENTARY He states here in a variety of ways in which one can be reborn not only spiritually but also physically perfect and that we need not inquire into each condition of someone's rebirth. It is enough if we accept that a person's spirit can transform his physical features.
When we look at portraits and images of learned or noted priests, sages, and saints from ancient times, we find few who are endowed with physical beauty in the ordinary sense. In depictions of the ten great disciples of the Buddha, no one would call any of them particularly handsome, with the exception of Ananda and Rahula. Most of them have unprepossessing faces, which has given rise to the saying "A person with a face like an arhat." Nevertheless, they each have an inexpressibly gentle, compassionate, noble face of profound wisdom.
The influence of someone's spiritual rebirth is not limited to his mental aspect but also shows in his physical appearance. This is how we should interpret this passage of the sutra.
TEXT In whatever age he is born, he will see the Buddha, hear the Dharma, and receive the teaching in faith. Ajita! Just notice this - if the merit obtained from persuading one person to go and hear the Dharma is such as this, how much more is that of one who with his whole mind hears, preaches, reads, and recites it, in the assembly interprets it to the people, and practices what it preaches."
Thereupon the World-honored One, desiring to proclaim this meaning over again, spoke thus in verse:
"If anyone in an assembly / Hears this sutra, / Though only one stanza, / And joyfully proclaims it to others, / And thus its teaching is transmitted / Till it reaches the fiftieth [hearer], / The happiness obtained by this last / I now will explain. / Suppose a great master of giving / Who provides for a countless throng / During full eighty years / According to all their desires, / Then sees them decayed and old, / Gray-haired and faces wrinkled, / Teeth sparse and forms withered, / And thinks their death approaches; / 'Now,' says he, 'I must teach them / To obtain the fruits of the Way.' / Then by tactful methods he / Teaches them the true Dharma of nirvana:
COMMENTARY The fruits of the Way. This phrase means the results that can be obtained by learning the Buddha Way.
. The true Dharma of nirvana. This indicates, in this case, the nirvana of Hinayana Buddhism. "True" here means "correct," not true in the absolute sense.
TEXT 'All worlds are unstable, / Like water bubbles or will-o'-the-wisp. / Do you all hasten to beget / A spirit turning in disgust from them.' / All of them on hearing this Dharma / Attain arhatship, / Perfect in the six transcendent faculties, / Three clear views, and eight emancipations.
COMMENTARY Unstable. This means insecure, that is, changeable, unreliable.
. A spirit turning in disgust from them. This phrase means the mind which abhors these worlds so full of suffering and tries to turn away from them.
. The six transcendent faculties. See the July/August 1992 issue of Dharma World, on "The six divine faculties."
. Three clear views. See the May/June 2001 issue of Dharma World.
TEXT The last, the fiftieth [person], / Who hears one verse and rejoices - / This man's felicity surpasses that [of a great master of giving] / Beyond the power of comparison. / If a hearer whose turn is [so remote] / Has such boundless felicity, / How much greater is his who, in the congregation, / First hears one verse with joyfulness. / Let a man exhort but one person / And bring him to listen to the Dharma Flower, / Saying: 'This sutra is profound and wonderful, / Hard to meet in thousands of myriads of kalpas.' / Persuaded, he goes to listen / And hears it but for a moment; / The reward of such a persuader / Let me now discern and preach. / Age by age his mouth will never suffer, / His teeth not be gapped, yellow, or black, / Nor his lips thick, awry, or cracked, / With no loathsome appearance; / His tongue neither dried up, black, nor shrunken; / His nose high, long, and straight; / His forehead broad, level, and upright; / His visage elegant and dignified; / A joy for men to behold; / No fetid breath from his mouth, but / The scent of the utpala flower / Ever exhaling from his lips. / [Or] suppose one on purpose visits a monastery / To hear the Dharma Flower Sutra, / And hearing it but a moment rejoices; / Let me now tell of his happiness. / He will hereafter be born among gods or men, / Have fine elephants, horses, and carriages, / Jeweled palanquins and litters, / And ascend to celestial palaces. / If, in the place of preaching, / He urges men to sit and hear the sutra, / Because of this felicity he will attain / The seat of a Shakra, a Brahma, a wheel-rolling king. / How much more with him who singlemindedly / Hears and expounds its meaning / And practices according to [its] teaching - / His happiness is beyond limit."
COMMENTARY With this the chapter comes to an end. Throughout it we have been shown that the most important thing for the believer is to cultivate a mind that is attentive to the teachings and grateful for them. And that if we are grateful for them, then we will simply be unable to refrain from sharing the teachings with others.