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The Prism of the Lotus Sutra (1)

by Atsushi Kanazawa


The White Lotus

Among the many Buddhist scriptures, the Lotus Sutra is king. The original Sanskrit title is Saddharmapu??arika-sutra, translated by Kumarajiva into Chinese as Miaofa lianhua jing (Jpn., Myoho-renge-kyo). The Sanskrit title means "Scripture [sutra] of the White Lotus [pu??arika] of the Correct [sad] Teaching [dharma]," while the Chinese title means "Scripture of the Lotus Flower of the Wonderful Teaching." The pu??arika is a variety of lotus with white flowers. Buddhists would seem to see the figure of Shakyamuni, who strove to liberate people from suffering in a world filled with both good and evil, superimposed on these awesomely imposing and refreshing white lotus flowers, growing as they do in muddy water without being sullied by it.

In the Sutra of Innumerable Meanings we read that after the Buddha's sermon had ended, "various kinds of celestial flowers, such as utpala, padma, kumuda, and pu??arika, rained down from the sky." It is worth noting that the utpala, padma, kumuda, and pu??arika that rained from the sky to bear witness to this auspicious occasion are all varieties of lotus (or water lily), respectively blue, red, yellow, and white in color.

In Japan Prince Shotoku (574-622) wrote a commentary on the Lotus Sutra not long after Buddhism had been introduced there. Identifying the "lotus" in the title of the Lotus Sutra with the pu??arika, he detected in a characteristic of this plant - the fact that it blooms and bears fruit at the same time - a characteristic of the Lotus Sutra, which explains both cause and effect together.

The Lotus Sutra is incomparably engrossing as a narrative, but in addition there are abundant references to many familiar things such as animals, plants, accessories, and so on. Since we are seeking sustenance for our daily lives in Buddhism, it is my hope that we will take the Lotus Sutra in our hands and read through it little by little.

The Bodhi Tree

Buddhism is usually described as a teaching for becoming a buddha that was taught by the Buddha. The Buddha in this case is Gotama Siddhartha, who was born in India about twenty-five hundred years ago. As a prince of the Sakya tribe, he began to question the meaning of life, left home, and after many years of hardship reached a state of supreme bliss and became the Buddha. The word buddha means literally "awakened one" and signifies someone who has experienced awakening or enlightenment (bodhi). Becoming a buddha is also referred to as attaining buddhahood. In other words, Buddhism is a teaching in which the Buddha explains on the basis of his own experiences how we too might become buddhas.

It is recorded that the Buddha Shakyamuni gained enlightenment beneath an asvattha, or pipal tree (Ficus religiosa) at Bodh Gaya in India. Ever since then this tree has also been known as the bodhi (or bo) tree. Known too as the sacred fig, it is a member of the Moraceae, or mulberry, family and is famous for its profusion of distinctive cordate (heart-shaped) leaves. In the Sutra of Innumerable Meanings we read, "After six years' right sitting under the Bodhi tree of the wisdom throne, I could accomplish Perfect Enlightenment." The bodhi tree is similarly referred to in chapter 15 of the Lotus Sutra ("Springing Up out of the Earth"): "I, [near] the city of Gaya, / Sitting beneath the Bodhi tree, / Accomplished Perfect Enlightenment."

In Japan the linden, or lime, tree of the Tiliaceae, or linden, family is usually referred to as the bodhi tree, but it should be noted that although it resembles the sacred fig in the shape of its leaves and in other respects, it is a different tree. Which tree will become the bodhi tree for each of us, under which we might someday attain awakening?

Atsushi Kanazawa is a Professor in the Faculty of Buddhism at Komazawa University, Tokyo. He specializes in the Indian philosophy of language and the history of Indian philosophy and culture.

This article was originally published in the July-September 2013 issue of Dharma World.

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