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

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The Sutra of the Lotus Flower of the Wonderful Law
Chapter 1 - Introductory

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THE MEANING OF THE TITLE. Before discussing the Sutra of the Lotus Flower of the Wonderful Law itself, I wish to comment on the title of the sutra, which expresses in brief the form and content of the sutra. I believe that this title is unique in its succinct expression of the profound meaning of the entire sutra.

The original of the Sutra of the Lotus Flower of the Wonderful Law, written in Sanskrit, is called Saddharma-pundarika-sutra. The title as translated into Chinese by Kumarajiva is Miao-fa-lien- hua-ching (Japanese, Myoho Renge-kyo). In the Sutra of the Lotus Flower of the Wonderful Law the absolute truth realized by Shakyamuni Buddha is presented. This truth is called the "Wonderful Law" (saddharma, miao-fa, myoho) because of its profound meaning, as shown in the discussion of the Sutra of Innumerable Meanings. First, as shown by the words "real state of all things," "Law" means all things that exist in the universe and all events that occur in the world. Secondly, it means the one truth that penetrates all things. Thirdly, it means the Law as an established rule when the truth appears as a phenomenon that we can see with our eyes and hear with our ears. Fourthly, it means the teaching of the truth.

The truth that expresses the original idea of these four meanings of "Wonderful Law" is the Buddha. Accordingly, the Law that rules the relationships of all things, including man, is also the Buddha; and the teaching, explaining how one should live on the basis of the truth, is the Buddha too. In short, the Law and the Buddha are one and the same. In other words, the Buddha and all the functions of the Buddha can be expressed with the word "Law." Because the Law has such a supreme, profound, and inexpressible meaning, it is modified by the adjective "Wonderful."

"Lotus" (pundarika, lien-hua, renge) means the lotus flower. In India this flower was regarded as the most beautiful in the world, for a lotus is rooted in mud but opens as a pure and beautiful flower unsoiled by the mud. This is an allegorical expression of the fundamental idea of the Lotus Sutra, that though man lives in this corrupt world, he is not tainted by it nor swayed by it, and he can live a beautiful life with perfect freedom of mind.

"Sutra" literally means a string or the warp threads in weaving. The people of ancient India had a custom of decorating their hair with beautiful flowers threaded on a string. In the same way, the holy teachings of the Buddha were gathered into compositions called sutras. All together, the title "Sutra of the Lotus Flower of the Wonderful Law" means "the supreme teaching that man can lead a correct life, without being swayed by illusions, while living in this corrupt world."

This chapter is called "Introductory" because it forms the introduction of the Lotus Sutra. The circumstances of its preaching are explained first: when Shakyamuni Buddha finished preaching the Sutra of Innumerable Meanings on Mount Grdhrakuta (Vulture Peak) for the sake of all the bodhisattvas, he sat cross-legged and entered contemplation, in which his body and mind were motionless.

This is a very important description. The Buddha always entered contemplation in this way before and after preaching. During his contemplation, he considered how he should preach in order to make his teaching sink deeply into the minds of his audience, and he also prayed that the teaching preached by him might be rightly received and spread by the hearers. It is said that Shakyamuni Buddha was lost in such contemplation for five hours a day. Following the example of the Buddha, it is desirable for us to close our eyes for a few minutes before and after listening to the Buddha's teaching so as to keep it constantly in our minds, to purify our minds with it, and to pray to be united with the Buddha.

At this time, when the Buddha entered contemplation, heaven and earth were moved by his teaching. Beautiful flowers rained from the sky, and the earth shook in six ways. Then all of the assembly obtained that which they had never experienced before, and they looked up to the Buddha with joy, with folded hands and of one mind.

Then the Buddha sent forth from the circle of white hair between his eyebrows a ray of light, which illuminated eighteen thousand worlds in the eastern quarter. In every part of this quarter were seen all the living beings in the six realms; likewise the causes of their present situations were seen. In every part of this quarter the buddhas were seen, and the people who had listened to the preaching of those buddhas and had practiced the Way could also be seen. Further, the bodhisattvas who walked the bodhisattva way and the stupas of the precious seven substances, made to house the relics of the buddhas after they had entered final nirvana, were also seen.

At that time Maitreya Bodhisattva wondered at the inconceivable and unprecedented appearance of the Buddha, and he wished to ask the Buddha why he had displayed such a marvel. But he could not ask the reason because the Buddha had entered into contemplation. Maitreya Bodhisattva then reflected that Manjushri Bodhisattva had been in close contact with and paid homage to innumerable former buddhas and should be able to answer his question concerning these unprecedented signs. So Maitreya Bodhisattva, desiring to resolve his own doubts and observing the perplexity arising in all the assembly, inquired of Manjushri: "What is the cause and reason for this inconceivable thing, that a ray of light was sent forth from the circle of white hair between the Buddha's eyebrows? Why did this luminous ray light up the eighteen thousand eastern buddha lands and reveal in detail the splendor of those buddha realms?" Thereupon Maitreya Bodhisattva, desiring to repeat what he had said, inquired the same thing in verse.

Then Manjushri said to Maitreya Bodhisattva and all the other leaders: "According to my judgment, the Buddha, the World-honored One, is preparing to preach a very important Law. This is because whenever any of the former buddhas displayed such an inconceivable appearance and emitted a ray of light, they thereupon preached this very important Law.

"Infinite, boundless, countless years ago, there was a buddha called Sun Moon Light Tathagata, who was endowed with perfect virtues. He proclaimed the right Law, which is good at its beginning, good in its middle, and good at its end. His teaching was always based on one truth. It was profound in its meaning, subtle in its terms, pure and unadulterated, perfect, flawless, and noble in practice. For those who sought to be shravakas he preached the Law of the Four Noble Truths for the overcoming of birth, old age, disease, and death, and finally leading to nirvana; for those who sought to be pratyekabuddhas he preached the Law of the Twelve Causes;1 for the bodhisattvas he preached the Six Perfections2 to cause them to attain Perfect Enlightenment and to achieve perfect knowledge."

The doctrines of the Four Noble Truths and the Six Perfections, or Paramitas, teach us how we can fundamentally solve the problem of the suffering and distress that we are faced with in our daily lives and how we can obtain a mental state of peace and quietude. As these doctrines form the core of the Buddha's teachings, we will explain them here.

THE FOUR NOBLE TRUTHS. The Four Noble Truths (shitai) are the Truth of Suffering (kutai), the Truth of Cause (jittai), the Truth of Extinction (mettai), and the Truth of the Path (dotai).

The first of the Four Noble Truths is the Truth of Suffering. This means that all things in this world are comprised of suffering for those who do not listen to the Buddha's teachings. Human life is filled with spiritual, physical, economic, and other forms of suffering. To acknowledge the real condition of suffering and see it through, without avoiding it or meeting it only halfway - this is the Truth of Suffering.

The Truth of Cause means that we must reflect on what causes have produced these human sufferings, and we must investigate them and understand them clearly. The investigation of the cause of suffering is shown clearly in the doctrines of the Reality of All Things (shoho-jisso) and of the Law of the Twelve Causes (juni-innen) explained in chapter 7 of the Lotus Sutra, "The Parable of the Magic City."

The Truth of Extinction is the state of absolute quietude wherein all the sufferings in human life are extinguished. It is the state in which we cut off spiritual, physical, economic, and all other forms of suffering, and realize in this world the Land of the Eternally Tranquil Light (referred to in the Sutra of Meditation on the Bodhisattva Universal Virtue as the land of the Buddha Vairocana). This is a state attained only by awakening to the three great truths that Shakyamuni has taught us: "All things are impermanent" (shogyo mujo), "All things are devoid of self" (shoho muga), and "Nirvana is quiescence" (nehan jakujo). These three great truths are also called the Three Seals of the Law (sambo-in). They are so important that they are said to be the three fundamental principles of Buddhism.

However, an ordinary person cannot easily realize these three great truths. In order to do so, it is necessary for him to practice them and endeavor to achieve them in his daily life: he must practice the bodhisattva way with his mind, his body, and his actions. This means that he must devote himself to the practice of the doctrines of the Eightfold Path (hassho-do) and the Six Perfections (roku-haramitsu). The Truth of the Path shows the way to absolute peace and the state of quietude that we can attain by practicing these two doctrines.

The Law of the Four Noble Truths teaches us to face the reality of human suffering (the Truth of Suffering), to grasp its real cause (the Truth of Cause), to practice daily the bodhisattva way (the Truth of the Path), and thereby to extinguish various sufferings (the Truth of Extinction).

Following is a brief explanation of the three great truths known as the Three Seals of the Law to help the reader gain a fuller understanding of true Buddhism and thus the ability to lead a better daily life.

ALL THINGS ARE IMPERMANENT. The true meaning of the words "All things are impermanent" has gradually come to be misunderstood in Japan and is now generally interpreted as "Life is fleeting." This is probably because the term has been often used with such a connotation in classical Japanese literature. This has been one of the great causes of misunderstanding Buddhism in Japan. It has given the general public the idea that Buddhism teaches us only to pray earnestly for rebirth in a better world because life is fleeting.

In order to correct this basic misinterpretation, we must understand clearly the meaning of the words "All things are impermanent" (shogyo mujo). Shogyo means "all phenomena that appear in this world" and mujo means "impermanent," that is, "nothing existing in a fixed form" - in short, "All things change." Therefore, the teaching of shogyo mujo is that all phenomena of this world are always changing.

Modern science has proved that the sun, which seems to shine in the sky without changing, is actually changing every moment. We think that there is no change between ourselves of yesterday and ourselves of today, but the fact is that the cells of the human body are constantly dying and being born, so that all the cells of the body are replaced every seven years. Each cell of our body is changing continuously, though we are not aware of it. And everyone knows from experience how the suffering, sorrow, joy, or pleasure that we feel can change in an instant.

Simply because such a state of constant change bears witness to the teaching that all things are impermanent, however, it would be a fundamental error to think that the Buddha's teaching suggests that we take things as they are in this transient and unreliable existence. The law that all things are impermanent is the teaching that we should be aware of the changing nature of all things and so not be surprised at or shaken by trifling changes in phenomena or circumstances.

When we understand in this positive way the law that all things are impermanent, we realize how great is our power as human beings; and finally, we clearly understand why man must live in such a way as steadily to grow and improve. We also become keenly aware of the necessity to express gratitude to one another and to live together in harmony, with equal love for others and with a feeling of unity.

Billions of years ago, the earth contained no life; volcanos poured forth torrents of lava, and poisonous vapor and gas filled the air. However, when the earth had cooled sufficiently, about two billion years ago, living beings evolved. These first living beings were simple unicellular microscopic organisms. Although these tiny life forms were exposed to great floods, tremendous earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and extremes of heat and cold, they were not destroyed. Far from disappearing, they increased in number and gradually evolved into more complex life forms. It is the established theory today that life developed from amoeba-like organisms to insects, fish, reptiles, amphibians, birds, mammals, and finally man.

We should consider anew the strength of life. In doing so, we can regain confidence in our own lives and thus gain the courage to have faith in the basic strength of life and its power to withstand temporary sufferings and setbacks. In the process of his evolution man has overcome many trials and difficulties. This life-power dwells in our own bodies. When we consider the evolutionary process from the amoeba to man and then look back on human history, we realize that when all is said and done, man has advanced upward step by step. At the same time, we become aware that to advance upward is the most fitting human way of life and that to stagnate in a particular stage, much less regress to a wrong course of life, is to deviate from the proper path of man's life. If we can grasp this, we can come to understand that we must advance continuously toward the ideal state of man - indeed, that to do so is most natural.

Needless to say, the ideal state of man is buddhahood. Therefore, when we have the desire to become buddhas and practice the Buddha's teachings continuously, we are following the natural direction of human life. This is nothing extraordinary, but rather a matter of course. It is also natural that our health and our home life will become more balanced when we return to the natural way from which we have deviated.

When we look back upon the evolutionary process that gave birth to life on the earth, which was originally filled only with melted lava, metals, gas, and vapor, and how life forms divided into plants and animals, the latter evolving gradually through insects, fish, amphibians, birds, and mammals, and finally into man, we realize also that wood, stone, metal, and all other substances in the world have the same ultimate ancestors as ourselves. We can regard all plants, birds, and beasts as our kin. We then feel a natural gratitude to plants, insects, fish, birds, and beasts. If we feel grateful to these living beings, how much more deeply thankful should we be for our parents and grandparents, our nearest kin, and for the spirits of other ancestors! We come to understand this clearly and feel it deeply.

Truly all things in the universe are related; what can we say when human beings in this world are not brothers to one another? They oppose each other, have each other, attack each other, even kill each other. This is not what man's life was intended to be. The reason that we do not realize this truth is because we are overwhelmed by the changes that impinge on us directly and are blinded by considerations of immediate gain and loss. If all men could see clearly the Buddha's teaching that all things are impermanent, they would be awakened from such illusion and could realize a peaceful and correct way of life in this world.

ALL THINGS ARE DEVOID OF SELF. The law that all things are devoid of self is the teaching that all things in this world, without exception, are related to one another. There is nothing that leads an isolated existence, that is wholly separated from other things. When we consider that even tiny insects, birds flying high in the sky, and pine trees growing on a distant hill were part of the same matter at the beginning of time on earth billions of years ago, we realize that these living beings are permeated by the same life-energy that gives us life. The same applies to earth, stone, clouds, and air.

When we turn our attention to the present and consider our own existence, we know that we are given life by earth and stone, and that we are obligated even to insects and birds. For example, if there were no clouds in the sky, we would have no rain; no plants would grow, and we would have no food. If there were no air, we could not live even a few minutes. Without exception, we have some invisible relationship even with those things that seem externally to have no connection with us.

To take a familiar example, even if our human bodies and minerals, such as iron, seem to be quite different, actually most of the body consists of water containing minerals; we live by the grace of such minerals as salt, calcium, iron, and copper. This fact demonstrates how things exist in connection with one another and are interdependent. It goes without saying that we have a much closer and stronger relationship to other human beings.

The late Dr. Albert Schweitzer, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, who worked as a medical missionary among the Africans for over forty years at Lambarene, Gabon, was one of the greatest men of the twentieth century. It is said that Dr. Schweitzer firmly resolved to succor the African people when one day, listening to a Bach organ composition, he felt a sudden strong conviction. Reflecting on this story about Dr. Schweitzer, we cannot help being deeply impressed by the hidden linkings of cause and condition. Bach, who had died long before Dr. Schweitzer heard his music, could never have dreamed of this connection between himself and the people of Africa. However, a beautiful piece of music composed by Bach provided the catalyst that led to the great resolution of the young scholar of Alsace, Albert Schweitzer.

This is only one example of how invisible human relationships extend widely and deeply, like the meshes of a net. We can easily realize how much more closely the people of the same country are linked to one another. Economics provides an example of how relationships that appear superficial are actually much more deeply interwoven. For whom are the taxes that we pay used? Who benefits by the health-insurance premiums that healthy people pay? Who pays the unemployment-insurance premiums that the unemployed receive? Such invisible and unrealized connections are more numerous than we can imagine. We are inseparably bound up with one another, and we all exist through being permeated by the same life-energy. In spite of this, opposition, dispute, struggle, and killing cause each of us to be swayed by his own ego and to live selfishly for his personal profit alone. This is the important reason why we must realize the truth that all things are devoid of self. When we have a deeper view of things, we realize that, as mentioned above, stagnating in a particular state or returning to a wrong course of life is sinful and evil because it goes against the historical inevitability and the natural course of human life that man advance upward step by step.

The Buddha's teachings instruct us that sin and evil did not originally exist in this world. They are due to the cessation of the proper progress of human life or the return to a wrong course. Therefore, the moment we abandon such negative uses of energy, that is, as soon as we are free from illusion, evil disappears and the world of the light of the brilliant rays of the Buddha is revealed before us. Our "non-advance," our "non-approach" to the Buddha, is sin and evil because such action is contrary to the proper course of human life.

From the selfish point of view of ego, we think that we can do as we like so long as we are prepared to accept the consequences of our actions, and ask only to be left alone and not interfered with by others. However, such an attitude is a fundamental error because our lives are related in some way to the lives of all others, so that the evil produced by one person inevitably exerts an influence upon other people somewhere, and the negligence of one person is sure to prevent others from advancing. If we understand this, we can be spiritually awakened to the fact that our own stagnation or retrogression hinders others, so that we determine to advance upward bit by bit. This is the true spirit of the law that all things are devoid of self, and this is the reason why the true spirit of Buddhism consists in constant endeavor.

NIRVANA IS QUIESCENCE. The law that nirvana is quiescence is the third of the three major fundamental principles of Buddhism. This law has been misunderstood because of misconstruing the word "nirvana." Many people think nirvana is synonymous with death. The words "Shakyamuni Buddha entered nirvana" are ordinarily used to refer to the death of the Buddha. For this reason the law "Nirvana is quiescence" has been understood to refer to a paradise like the Pure Land of Amitabha Buddha, which in Pure Land Buddhism is believed to be our ideal destination after death.

The Sanskrit word nirvana has the negative meaning of "extinction" or "annihilation." Therefore this word also means the state in which one's body dies or disappears. At the same time, nirvana means the state reached by extinguishing all illusions, and this is the sense in which it is used in the teachings of the Buddha. In the true sense of the word, nirvana means the state attained by completely destroying all illusions and of never being tempted by them in the future. Therefore the words "Shakyamuni Buddha entered nirvana" mean not his death but the enlightenment attained by him.

The law "Nirvana is quiescence" teaches us that we can completely extinguish all the sufferings of human life and obtain peace and quietude when we destroy all illusions. How can we reach this state? The only way is to realize the two laws "All things are impermanent" and "All things are devoid of self."

The reason we worry about various kinds of sufferings is that we forget that all phenomena in this world are impermanent, that all things continuously change according to the law of cause and condition; we are deluded by phenomena and influenced by considerations of immediate gain or loss. If we study the way to buddhahood and by practicing it realize the truth of the impermanence of all things, we become able to attain a state of peace and quietude in which we can never be swayed by shifting circumstances. This is the state of "Nirvana is quiescence."

We sometimes feel troubled by shortages of goods, setbacks in business, or personal conflicts and disputes. This is because we lack harmony between ourselves and inanimate things and with other people. Why are we not in harmony with one another? This is because either we do not realize the truth that all things are devoid of self or we have forgotten this truth. We can attain harmony with others spontaneously when we remember the truth that all things and all men are permeated by one great life-energy and that all things are invisibly interconnected, and when we make the best use of this interconnection by abandoning the idea of ego, that is, by enhancing this interconnection to benefit both ourselves and others. When in harmony with others, we can give up excess and deficiency, struggle and friction, and can maintain peaceful minds. This is the state expressed in the law "Nirvana is quiescence." It is an ideal state that can be only attained by realizing the other two laws, "All things are impermanent" and "All things are devoid of self."

The doctrines of the Eightfold Path and the Six Perfections teach us how to live in order to reach the state of "Nirvana is quiescence" and how we should practice the Buddha's teachings in order to do so. As these two doctrines have a close connection with the doctrine of the Four Noble Truths, a brief explanation of them follows.

THE EIGHTFOLD PATH. The Eightfold Path consists in right view (sho-ken), right thought (sho-shi), right speech (sho-go), right action (sho-gyo), right livelihood (sho-myo), right effort (sho-shojin), right mindfulness (sho-nen), and right concentration (sho-jo). Many precepts and teachings containing numbers - such as the Eightfold Path - appear in Buddhist scriptures. This is because people could not record the teachings in writing at the time that Shakyamuni Buddha was preaching the Law but were obliged to memorize what they heard. Therefore Shakyamuni Buddha used numbers in preaching various doctrines so that people might easily remember them. However, it is not necessary for us to be too literal about such numbers.

Those who find it difficult to remember the doctrine of the Eightfold Path because of its eight divisions may find it easier to understand it by dividing it into four parts. The first is its fundamental purpose, to establish correct faith in a religion based on the wisdom of the Buddha, which discerns and understands the principle of the Reality of All Things. The second is to have a right attitude in our daily lives; the third, to have right daily conduct; and the fourth, to follow the right way of practicing the Buddha's teachings.

"Right view" means to abandon a self-centered way of looking at things and to have a right view of the Buddha. In other words, it is to take refuge in the Buddha.

"Right thought" means not to incline toward a self-centered attitude toward things but to think of things rightly, from a higher standpoint. This teaches us to abandon the "three evils of the mind," covetousness, resentment, and evil-mindedness, and to think of things rightly, with as generous a mind as the Buddha. More precisely, these three evils are the greedy mind (covetousness) that thinks only of one's own gain; the angry mind (resentment) that does not like it when things do not turn out as one wishes; and the evil mind (evil-mindedness) that wants to have its own way in everything.

"Right speech" teaches us to use right words in our daily lives and to avoid the "four evils of the mouth": lying (false language), a double tongue, ill speaking (slander), and improper language (careless language).

"Right action" means daily conduct in accordance with the precepts of the Buddha. For this purpose it is important to refrain from the "three evils of the body" that hinder right actions: needless killing, stealing, and committing adultery or other sexual misconduct.

"Right livelihood" means to gain food, clothing, shelter, and the other necessities of life in a right way. This teaches us not to earn our livelihood through work that makes trouble for others or through a vocation useless to society but to live on a justifiable income that we can obtain through right work, a vocation useful to others.

"Right effort" means to engage constantly in right conduct without being idle or deviating from the right way, avoiding such wrongs as the three evils of the mind, the four evils of the mouth, and the three evils of the body mentioned above.

"Right mindfulness" means to practice with a right mind as the Buddha did. It cannot be truly said that we have the same mind as the Buddha unless we have a right mind not only toward ourselves but also toward others, and still further, toward all things. If we hope that only we ourselves may be right, we will become stubborn and self-satisfied people who are alienated from the world. We cannot say we have the same mind as the Buddha unless we address ourselves to all things in the universe with a fair and right mind.

"Right concentration" means always to determine to believe in the teachings of the Buddha and not to be agitated by any change of circumstances. This teaches us to practice consistently the right teaching of the Buddha. Taken altogether, the doctrine of the Eightfold Path is the teaching that shows us the right way to live our daily lives.

THE SIX PERFECTIONS. This doctrine teaches us the six kinds of practice that bodhisattvas should follow to attain enlightenment. The Six Perfections are donation (fuse), morality (jikai), forbearance (ninniku), effort (shojin), meditation (zenjo), and wisdom (chie).

A bodhisattva is a person who, unlike the shravaka and pratyekabuddha, wishes not only to extinguish his own illusions but to save others, as well. Therefore, the doctrine of the Six Perfections has the salvation of all living beings as its aim.

The practice of donation comes first in this doctrine. There are three kinds of donation: donating material goods, donating the Law, and donating fearlessness (the body). The first means to give others money or goods. The second refers to teaching others rightly. And the third means to remove the anxieties or sufferings of others through one's own effort. There is no one who is unable to perform some form of donation. No matter how impoverished one is, he should be able to give alms to those who are worse off than he or to support a public work with however small a donation, if he has the will to do so. Even if there is someone who absolutely cannot afford to do so, he can be useful to others and to society by offering his services. A person who has knowledge or wisdom in some field should be able to teach others or guide them even if he has no money or is physically handicapped. Even a person of humble circumstances can perform donation of the Law. To speak of his own experiences to others can be his donation of the Law. Even to teach others a recipe or how to knit, for example, can be a way to donate the Law.

It is essential that we be useful to others by practicing these three kinds of donation within the limits of our ability. Needless to say, nothing can be better for us than to practice all three. The fact that donation is the first of the practices of the bodhisattva is highly significant.

The practice of morality is the second of the Six Perfections. This teaches us that we cannot truly save others unless we remove our own illusions through the precepts given by the Buddha, and that we should perfect ourselves by living an upright life. However, we must not think that we cannot guide others just because we are not perfect ourselves. We cannot improve ourselves if we shut ourselves off from others in our efforts to live correctly. A major point of morality is to render service to others. The more we do for others, the more we can elevate ourselves, and the more we elevate ourselves, the more we can render service to others. Each reinforces the other.

The third of the Six Perfections is forbearance, a quality that is especially important for people today. Shakyamuni Buddha was endowed with all the virtues and became the Buddha through his constant practice. Although it is a sin against him to emphasize only one of his virtues, the greatest virtue of the Buddha as a man seems to have been his generosity. No matter what biography of Shakyamuni Buddha we read or which of the sutras, we find that nowhere is it recorded that the Buddha ever became angry. However severely he was persecuted and however coldly his disciples turned against him and departed from him, he was always sympathetic and compassionate.

If I were asked to explain with a single phrase the character of Shakyamuni Buddha as a man, I would answer without hesitation, "A person of perfect generosity." Therefore, I think that there is no action that makes Shakyamuni Buddha more sorrowful than when we become angry about something and reproach others or when we blame others for our own wrongs. Above all else, we should refrain from such actions toward each other. Forbearance is, in short, generosity. As we persevere in the practice of the bodhisattvas, we cease to become angry or reproachful toward others, or toward anything in the universe. We are apt to complain about the weather when it rains and to grumble about the dust when we have a spell of fine weather. However, when through forbearance we attain a calm and untroubled mind, we become thankful for both the rain and the sun. Then our minds become free from changes in our circumstances.

When we advance further, we come not only to have no feeling of anger and hatred toward those who hurt, insult, or betray us but even to wish actively to help them. On the other hand, we should not be swayed by flattery or praise of the good we may do but should quietly reflect on our conduct. We should not feel superior to others but should maintain a modest attitude when everything goes smoothly. All these attitudes come from forbearance. This mental state is the highest point of the practice of forbearance. Even though we cannot attain such a state of mind immediately, we can attain an attitude of compassion toward those who cause difficulties for us sooner than we expect. We ought to advance at least to this level. If this kind of forbearance were practiced by people throughout the world, this alone would establish peace and make mankind immeasurably happier.

The fourth of the Six Perfections is effort. This means to proceed straight toward an important target without being distracted by trivial things. We cannot say we are assiduous when our ideas and conduct are impure, even if we devote ourselves to the study and practice of the Buddha's teachings. Even when we devote ourselves to study and practice, we sometimes do not meet with good results or may even obtain adverse effects, or we may be hindered in our religious practice by others. But such matters are like waves rippling on the surface of the ocean; they are only phantoms, which will disappear when the wind dies down. Therefore, once we have determined to practice the bodhisattva way, we should advance single-mindedly toward our destination without turning aside. This is effort.

The fifth of the Six Perfections is meditation, dhyana in Sanskrit and zenjo in Japanese. Zen means "a quiet mind" or "an unbending spirit," and jo indicates the state of having a calm, unagitated mind. It is important for us not only to devote ourselves to the practice of the Buddha's teachings but also to view things thoroughly with a calm mind and to think them over well. Then we can see the true aspect of all things and discover the right way to cope with them.

The right way of seeing things and the power of discerning the true aspect of all things is wisdom - the last of the Six Perfections. The meaning of this word is not explained here because it has already been discussed earlier. We cannot save others without having wisdom. Let us suppose that there is an impoverished young man lying by the road. And suppose that we feel pity for him and give him some money without reflecting on the consequences. What if he is mildly addicted to some drug? He will grab the money given to him and use it to buy drugs. In this way he may become seriously, even hopelessly, addicted. If we had handed him over to the police instead of giving him money, he would have been sent to a hospital and could start life over again. This is the kind of error we may commit in performing donation without wisdom. Though this is an extreme case, similar cases on a smaller scale occur all the time. Thus, even though we may do something useful for others or practice good conduct in order to save them, none of our mercy or kindness is effective unless we have true wisdom. Far from being effective, our mercy may have a harmful effect. Therefore wisdom is an absolutely indispensable condition in practicing the bodhisattva way.

Now to return to chapter 1 of the Lotus Sutra. Manjushri continued to speak to Maitreya Bodhisattva-Mahasattva and all the other leaders: "All ye good sons! Thus Sun Moon Light Tathagata preached a proper Law for those who sought to be shravakas and pratyekabuddhas, and he also preached a suitable Law for the bodhisattvas. He made them attain Perfect Enlightenment and achieve perfect knowledge. Again there was a tathagata, also named Sun Moon Light, who preached the same Law, and again a tathagata, also named Sun Moon Light, who did the same; and in like manner there were twenty thousand tathagatas all bearing the same names, Sun Moon Light.

"Before the last of these tathagatas left home, he was a king and had eight royal sons. All these princes, hearing that their fathers had left home and attained Perfect Enlightenment, renounced their royal position and, following him, left home, and they planted roots of goodness under thousands of myriads of buddhas.

"At that time the Buddha Sun Moon Light preached the Great Vehicle Sutra called the Innumerable Meaning, the Law by which bodhisattvas are instructed and which the buddhas watch over and keep in mind. Having preached this sutra, he at once, amidst the great assembly, sat cross-legged and entered meditation. At this moment the sky rained beautiful flowers over the buddhas and all the great assembly. As soon as the universal buddha world shook in various ways, the Buddha Sun Moon Light sent forth from the circle of white hair between his eyebrows a ray of light, which illuminated eighteen thousand buddha lands in the eastern quarter, just like those that now are seen.

"Know, Maitreya! At that time in the assembly there were a great many bodhisattvas who joyfully desired to hear the Law. All these bodhisattvas, beholding this ray of wonderful light, desired to know the causes and the reasons for that ray. Then there was a bodhisattva named Mystic Light, who had eight hundred disciples. When the Buddha Sun Moon Light arose from contemplation, he preached by means of the Bodhisattva Mystic Light the Great Vehicle Sutra called the Lotus Flower of the Wonderful Law, by which bodhisattvas are instructed and which the buddhas watch over and keep in mind. For six hundred thousand years he rose not from his seat, and during all these long years his hearers in that assembly remained seated in their places, motionless in body and mind, listening to the buddha's preaching and deeming it but the length of a meal."

The above passage tells us that there were twenty thousands tathagatas in succession, all bearing the same name and performing the same function. (Tathagata means "one who has come from the truth" and is one of the epithets of a buddha.) The last of these buddhas preached the Great Vehicle Sutra called the Lotus Flower of the Wonderful Law. His preaching continued for six hundred thousand years, but his hearers in the assembly deemed it only the short length of a meal. A full explanation of the true meaning of this story will be given in the discussion of chapter 16, "Revelation of the [Eternal] Life of the Tathagata." Briefly, however, this mysterious story demonstrates clearly that true enlightenment is an eternal truth everywhere and is not affected by time and space.

Manjushri continued: "Having preached this sutra, the Buddha Sun Moon Light proclaimed to all in the assembly: 'Today, at midnight, will the Tathagata enter the nirvana of no remains.' After the buddha's extinction, the Bodhisattva Mystic Light, having retained in memory the Sutra of the Lotus Flower of the Wonderful Law, expounded it continuously for men.

"The Bodhisattva Mystic Light had a disciple whose name was Fame Seeker. This disciple was greedily attached to gain, and though he read and recited many sutras repeatedly, none of them penetrated and stuck; he forgot and lost almost all. So he was named Fame Seeker. This man also, because he had planted many roots of goodness, was able to meet innumerable buddhas, whom he worshiped, revered, honored, and extolled. Know, Maitreya! The Bodhisattva Mystic Light of that time was I myself, while the Bodhisattva Fame Seeker was you yourself.

"Now I see that this auspice is no different from the former one. Therefore, I consider that the present Tathagata will preach the Great Vehicle Sutra called the Lotus Flower of the Wonderful Law. All ye good sons! Wait for his preaching with folded hands and with one mind. He will be sure to preach the truth thoroughly to us to give the seeker of the way satisfaction."

Manjushri concluded his speech thus and then repeated the substance of his discourse in verse. With this, chapter 1 ends.

What is most impressive in this chapter is the immeasurable value of the Buddha's mental powers. Vividly expressed in the story of the last Buddha Sun Moon Light is the fact that Shakyamuni Buddha, who knew that the time of his entering nirvana was approaching, was determined to leave the most important experience of his enlightenment to posterity. However, we know that at that time his body had grown very weak from illness and old age. In spite of this fact, he began to preach the vast and profound Law of the Lotus Sutra, the strongest, most positive, and most affirmative teaching of his life. We must bow down before the greatness of his mental power and the depth of his enlightenment. And we must not forget that his mental power came from his great compassion for the yet unborn people of later times.

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Kosei - The Gift of Life. The Power to Live.
  1. The Twelve Causes are ignorance, actions, consciousness, name and form (mental functions and matter), the six entrances (the six senses), contact, sensation, desire, clinging, existence, birth, and old age and death.
  2. The Six Perfections (or Paramitas) are donation, morality, forbearance, effort, meditation, and wisdom. Paramita literally means "arriving at the other shore."

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