Buddhism for Today: A Modern Interpretation of the Threefold Lotus Sutra

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THE TEACHING OF BUDDHISM are considered very difficult to understand. One of the main reasons for this may be that the Buddhist sutras are difficult to understand. This is only natural, because the sutras were first written in Indian languages, such as Sanskrit and Pali, about two thousand years ago; after being introduced into China, they were translated into Chinese, and these Chinese versions of the sutras were transmitted from China to Japan.

It is generally accepted opinion that of the many Buddhist sutras, the Sutra of the Lotus Flower of the Wonderful Law (Saddharma-pundarika-sutra) commonly known as the Lotus Sutra, is the most excellent. But reading this and other sutras in translation, we are confronted with many unfamiliar or exotic words, which give the reader the impression of a stiff sobriety. Most commentaries on the sutras give us only interpretations that adhere narrowly to the literal meaning of the original.

The Lotus Sutra also seems mysterious and far removed from our real lives because it presents fantastic stories and scenes of visionary worlds, while it also includes a number of philosophical terms full of hidden meanings. For this reason, most people give up the sutra in despair as too deep for them to understand, while some dismiss it altogether because, they think, it discusses matters that are not appropriate to our lives today.

However, the Lotus Sutra was not so difficult at the time that Shakyamuni Buddha preached it. Through his divine inspiration he did not speak of matters so mysterious as to be incomprehensible to the general public, nor did he impose private, esoteric views upon others. For a long time he pondered the problems of this world, of man, of how man should live in this world, and of human relationships, and finally he attained the knowledge of the universal truth that is applicable to every time, every place, and every person. The truth that applies to every time, every place, and every person cannot be so difficult that people do not understand it. For example, it is easy for everybody to understand the fact that one divided by three gives one-third. This truth is quite different from such irrational and yet widely held beliefs as sure recovery from illness by worshiping a particular object.

However, we cannot realize the truth that one divided by three gives one-third until we are old enough to understand it. Dr. Yoichi Yoshida, professor of Rikkyo University in Tokyo and a famous mathematician, recalls in his book, a collection of essays on mathematics, that studying decimal arithmetic in the third or fourth year of primary school, he encountered indefinitely indivisible calculations, such as that one divided by three gives 0.3333. . . . However, he could fold a piece of paper into three exactly equal parts. But he did not know why this was so. As he wanted to be a mathematician, Yoshida seriously pondered why one could not be divided by three by calculation, but could be divided in practice. When he was in the fifth or sixth grade, he was taught fractions and realized that the fractional number "one-third" provided a new way of looking at this problem. Somehow he felt he was being tricked when he was taught that the fractional number "one-third" was an answer to the problem of dividing one by three by calculation. However, he was very interested in fractions and tried hard to consider "one-third" as a number. Eventually he was able to understand why it was no miracle to be able actually to fold a piece of paper into three equal parts.

We can say the same thing of the teachings of the Buddha. Although in principle these teachings should be understandable to everybody, one cannot understand them even partially until he attains a certain degree of spiritual maturity. In studying mathematics, it would appear to be a good idea to teach schoolchildren about fractions at an early age. But teachers first teach whole numbers--one, two, three, and so on--and then proceed to fractional numbers because children in the first or second grade cannot understand fractions without this foundation.

In practice, teachers also teach children fractions like one-third, for example, by folding a piece of paper into three instead of by trying to explain the theory of fraction.

So Shakyamuni preached in various ways to the people of his day according to their power and level of understanding. He discoursed with them by various methods of reasoning and in parables so that the people of his time might be able to understand his teachings. Some people notice only the surface appearance of the Lotus Sutra and what it seems to express, and they think that they cannot possibly believe in the sutra because it discusses fantastic worlds that do not actually exist. Such considerations are superficial indeed in the case of the Lotus Sutra. If people realized the true spirit of the sutra, they could not help realizing that the sutra is filled with modern, scientific, and humanistic truths.

The people of Shakyamuni's day found it easy to understand his teachings. Because of this the Buddha's teachings caused a wonderful change in peoples' lives. If this had not been true, so many people could not have devoted themselves to his teachings after his short active life of fifty years. Moreover, it is said that the community of Shakyamuni had such a free atmosphere that "those who came were welcome; those who went away were not regretted." As shown in the case of the five thousand monks who left the assembly, recounted in chapter 2 of the Lotus Sutra, "Tactfulness," Shakyamuni did not try to persuade the five thousand conceited monks to stay in the assembly when he was about to preach the Lotus Sutra and so they left, saying that since they had already attained enlightenment it was not necessary for them to listen to the sutra. In spite of the fact that he forced people neither to come to hear him preach nor to stay on, followers of Shakyamuni's teachings rapidly increased to tens of thousands of people. This was undoubtedly due to Shakyamuni's incomparable power of inspiration and persuasion. But this power in turn was due to the fact that his teachings themselves were both valuable and easily understood.

However, Shakyamuni's liberal attitudes caused his disciples to be troubled with difficulties for a time after his death. The reason was his last words to his disciples. To them he said only, "All phenomena are always changing. Endeavor to practice Buddhism without negligence." He told them nothing about who should manage his community of believers or how. His surviving disciples naturally formed regional groups and observed his teachings. However, since they did not exercise any doctrinal control over Shakyamuni's teachings, there were differences of understanding among the various groups and regions of the vast country of India.

The basic problem was that Shakyamuni's teachings were correctly interpreted in the areas that he had visited often in order to teach, but in districts where the people had had no chance to hear his preaching directly and his teachings were only transmitted secondhand, the teachings were considerably changed according to the personal ideas that the various preachers added to the Buddha's teachings. Similar additions to the Buddha's teachings took place as time passed following Shakyamuni's death. The history of Buddhism shows that Shakyamuni's teachings were useful and vital during his lifetime and for some time after his death. But as time went on, the true spirit of his teachings was lost and only their form was preserved.

It was mentioned above that Shakyamuni's liberal attitudes caused his disciples difficulties for a time after his death. This "time after his death" is not limited to the first century or two following Shakyamuni's death but includes the present time, some twenty-five hundred years later. From the standpoint of the history of the human race, two thousand five hundred years is only a short time. In Japan, Buddhism, which was introduced from China, had a strong power for a time whenever a learned or distinguished priest appeared. But after a short time this power declined quickly. The thirteenth-century priest Nichiren, the founder of the Nichiren sect, for example, is believed to have infused new life into Japanese Buddhism. However, following his death, the teachings diverged from his true intention and degenerated into formalism.

In India, soon after the death of Shakyamuni the interpretation of his teachings began to differ in each region and in each group of disciples. Buddhist monks tried to establish their authority by practicing and preaching a way of life that is impossible for Buddhist laymen. As we can see in the Lotus Sutra, while Shakyamuni lived bhikshus (monks), bhikshunis (nuns), upasakas (male lay devotees), and upasikas (female lay devotees) listened to the Buddha's preaching, practiced his teachings, and endeavored to spread the Law in harmony with one another. However, after the Buddha's death a gulf opened between monks and lay devotees before either group was aware of it.

This continually widening gap came about because some monks attached much more importance to the formalities of keeping the precepts than to the fundamental spirit of why the precepts should be kept. There were also monks who intentionally made Shakyamuni's originally pragmatic teachings into a very difficult philosophy in order to oppose other teachings and philosophies existing in India at that time.

On the other hand, some people developed selfish ideas, insisting that despite what Shakyamuni had said, it was impossible for all people to attain the same degree of enlightenment as the Buddha. It is quite impossible for us to become as great as the Buddha, they maintained. We need only free ourselves from the bonds of illusion and suffering in this world.

Seeing that Buddhism was thus being diverted from its true spirit and losing its power, lay believers in particular had the ardent desire to restore Shakyamuni's true spirit to the teachings. Thus a new Buddhist group appeared. People of this group called their Buddhism Mahayana, that is, the "great vehicle" to convey us to the world of the Buddha, and deprecated the established Buddhism as Hinayana, the "lesser vehicle." Monks of the older groups retorted: "It is your Buddhism that is false." Consequently, a strong clash occurred between the new and the old.

The Lotus Sutra appeared under these circumstances, as an effort to unite Buddhism in one vehicle. This sutra stresses that in Buddhism there is only one vehicle (ekayana), to be followed equally by all people, and that the ultimate object of Shakyamuni's teachings is to bring all people to this vehicle.

The Lotus Sutra is thought to have been recorded about seven hundred years after the death of Shakyamuni Buddha. I see a deep meaning in the fact that the changes in Buddhism during its first seven hundred years established a pattern of change that has been followed throughout its long history. In the twentieth century, when Buddhism has adhered too much to form and has lost the power to save people, a religious movement has again arisen among lay devotees to restore Buddhism to Shakyamuni's true teachings and by the efforts of these lay believers is now spreading throughout Japan.

This new movement to reevaluate the Buddha's teachings has been spreading throughout the world, not only in Japan. In Western countries, there are many people who are unsatisfied with monotheism, atheism, or materialism and finally seek the solution to their problems in Buddhism. I hear that Buddhism has been made the principle of a new system of ethics even in the People's Republic of China, a communist country.

This is a most important period. We face the danger of the sudden annihilation of mankind unless man now comes to a new appreciation of human dignity by realizing the Buddha's teachings and returning to a way of life that helps others as well as himself to live.

I regret greatly that the Lotus Sutra, which includes the supreme teachings of the Buddha, appears to be so difficult and that it is studied by only a limited number of people and by specialists in religion. The Lotus Sutra is neither truly appreciated nor understood by people in general, and therefore it does not penetrate people's daily lives. This is the first reason for my decision to write this book. My earnest desire is to explain the Lotus Sutra so that its spirit can be understood by modern people and gain their sympathy, although I have remained faithful to the original intent of the sutra to the last.

We cannot truly understand the Lotus Sutra by reading only part of it. It is both a profound teaching and a wonderful work of art, unfolding like a drama. Therefore, we cannot grasp its true meaning unless we read it through from beginning to end. However, it is not easy to read the sutra, with its difficult and unfamiliar terminology, from cover to cover, and to grasp its meaning. We need a commentary that will help us understand the sutra in the context of our lives today. This is the second reason for my decision to write this book.

At the same time, we must always honor the original intent of the Lotus Sutra, as it is a noble work of art. Even in translation we find in the sutra an indescribable power that permeates our hearts. I think that readers will be able to understand the Lotus Sutra all the more if they consult it while reading this book. I believe, too, that they will be able to sense something of the spirit of the Lotus Sutra from this book.

If readers who understand the spirit of the sutra recite key portions morning and evening, its spirit will become more and more strongly rooted in the depths of their minds, and will surely be manifested in the conduct of their daily lives so that a new life will open before them. In this hope and belief I have written this book.

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