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 15
Springing Up Out of the Earth

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THIS CHAPTER INCLUDES two especially important points. First, the World-honored One flatly refused the many bodhisattvas who had come from other lands to the saha world, offering to cooperate with him in instructing all the living beings there. Secondly, he told the many bodhisattvas who sprang up out of the earth that it was their duty to do this.

The bodhisattvas who sprang up out of the earth signify people who have had much suffering and worry during their lives, have accumulated virtues in such an unfavorable environment, and have attained enlightenment while leading ordinary lives. Such people, who have themselves experienced and weathered much suffering and worry, possess real power. They indeed have the power to instruct other people.

That the Buddha entrusted the saha world to the bodhisattvas who emerged from the earth teaches us that the world in which we live should be purified and made peaceful through our own efforts as dwellers in the world, and that we should realize happiness in our lives through our own efforts. We are responsible for creating the Pure Land where we live. We should bring about our happiness through our own efforts - what a reassuring and positive teaching this is!

Shakyamuni Buddha himself went through such a process of suffering and finally attained supreme enlightenment. Buddhism differs distinctively from other religions in this point. Though all have fine teachings, there is no clear evidence of another case in which the founder of a religion attained his own supreme enlightenment and established his own religion. Some religions proclaim that their founders were sent by God. Others declare that God gave a revelation to the founder or that God descended from heaven to this world.

Unlike these religions, the teaching of Buddhism is the truth that Lord Shakyamuni, who was born as a human being like all of us and experienced human suffering and worry, aspired to enlightenment, practiced ascetic disciplines, and attained enlightenment after six years of spiritual effort. The process through which he attained his enlightenment can be clearly seen. Therefore, we can feel confident that we are sure to reach supreme enlightenment eventually if only we follow the Buddha's teachings and traverse the same path. It is also sure that because this teaching is one that sprang up out of the earth (actual life), we who actually live in this world can follow it. Chapter 15 makes this point emphatically.

Another important point is the introduction of the Law of Origin - the teaching of the Original Buddha - in the latter half of the chapter. The difference between the Buddha appearing in history (shakubutsu) and the Original Buddha (hombutsu) has already been explained. The former half of chapter 15 is defined as the introductory part of the Law of Origin, and the latter half of chapter 15, all of chapter 16, and the first half of chapter 17 are the main part. Thus chapter 15 occupies a pivotal position in the division of the Lotus Sutra, and we should read it carefully and wholeheartedly.

When the World-honored One finished preaching the chapter "A Happy Life," numerous bodhisattvas who had come from other lands arose in the great assembly, and with their palms joined together saluted and said to the Buddha: "World-honored One! If the Buddha will allow us, after his extinction, diligently and zealously to protect and keep, read and recite, copy and worship this sutra in this saha world, we would preach it abroad in this land."

Thereupon the Buddha firmly answered the host of bodhisattvas: "Enough! My good sons! There is no need for you to protect and keep this sutra. Wherefore? Because in my saha world there are in fact a great many bodhisattvas, and each one of these bodhisattvas has a great retinue. These are able, after my extinction, to protect and keep, read and recite, and preach abroad this sutra."

When the Buddha had thus spoken, the saha world trembled and quaked, and from its midst there issued innumerable bodhisattvas. All these bodhisattvas, their golden-hued bodies bearing the same sacred signs as the Buddha, had been dwelling in the infinite space below the saha world. Hearing the voice of Shakyamuni Buddha preaching, they sprang forth from below.

That these bodhisattvas did not originally dwell in the earth but that they, who were in the infinite space below the saha world, came out of the earth and rose into the sky has a deep meaning. These bodhisattvas were people who had been freed from delusion in their former lives by means of the Buddha's teachings. For this reason, they had been dwelling in infinite space. But hearing the Buddha declare that he would entrust the instruction of the saha world to them, they entered into the earth, namely, this saha world, experiencing suffering there, and practiced religious disciplines so zealously as to attain the mental state of bodhisattvas. Therefore they rose into the sky again after coming out of the earth. Though the bodhisattvas had been free from delusion in their former lives, they voluntarily passed through various sufferings and worries in this saha world for the purpose of saving the people here, endeavored earnestly to become enlightened, and preached the teaching to others. As mentioned before, this is a very important process; without completing such an endeavor, they could not truly acquire the divine power to save the people in the saha world.

Some of these bodhisattvas were the commanders of great hosts, each leading a retinue that he instructed; some led innumerable followers and others led fewer; and there were also those who were alone, practicing in isolation.

When these innumerable bodhisattvas had emerged from the earth, each went up to the Stupa of the Precious Seven in the sky, where the Tathagata Abundant Treasures and Shakyamuni Buddha were seated. On their arrival they made obeisance to both the World-honored Ones and extolled them with all manner of bodhisattva hymns. Then they stood to one side, gazing with delight upon both the World-honored Ones. They continued to extol the buddhas thus for fifty minor kalpas. During all this time Shakyamuni Buddha sat in silence, and silent also were the four groups, but the fifty kalpas, through the divine power of the Buddha, seemed to the great multitude as half a day.

THE FOUR UNIVERSAL VOWS OF THE BODHISATTVA. At that time the four groups, also through the divine power of the Buddha, saw the bodhisattvas, who filled the space of innumerable domains. Among this host of bodhisattvas there were four leading teachers: Eminent Conduct (Jogyo), Boundless Conduct (Muhengyo), Pure Conduct (Jogyo), and Steadfast Conduct (Anryugyo).

As explained in the discussion of the vow (gan) in chapter 9, the general vow (sogan) that should be made by all who practice the Buddha Way consists of the following four universal vows of the bodhisattva (shi gu-seigan), each of which is identified with one of the four great bodhisattvas mentioned above:

1. Shujo muhen seigan-do. However innumerable living beings are, I vow to save them. (Steadfast Conduct)
2. Bonno mushu seigan-dan. However immeasurable the defilements are, I vow to extinguish them. (Pure Conduct)
3. Homon mujin seigan-gaku. However limitless the Buddha's teachings are, I vow to master them. (Boundless Conduct)
4. Butsudo mujo seigan-jo. However infinite the Buddha's Way is, I vow to realize it. (Eminent Conduct)

These four universal fundamental vows are thus represented by the above four bodhisattvas. Conversely, the four bodhisattvas can be said to be the symbols of the fundamental vows of all Buddhists.

Each at the head of his great host, these four bodhisattvas with their palms joined together looked toward Shakyamuni Buddha and inquired of him: "World-honored One! Have you few ailments and few troubles, and are you at ease? Are those whom you must save readily receiving your teaching? Do they cause the World-honored One not to become weary?"

Then the World-honored One, in the great assembly of the bodhisattvas, spoke thus: "My good sons! The Tathagata is at ease, with few ailments and few troubles. These beings are easy to transform and I am free from weariness. Wherefore? Because all these beings for generations have constantly received my instruction and worshiped and honored the former buddhas, cultivating roots of goodness. All these beings on first seeing me and hearing my preaching received it in faith and entered the Tathagata wisdom, except those who had previously practiced and learned the small vehicle; but even such people as these I have now caused to hear this sutra and enter the Buddha wisdom."

Though the Buddha was already advanced in years and had had many difficulties in spreading the Law for the instruction of all living beings, he did not feel this to be a burden or find it difficult. From his attitude we can vividly sense his boundless benevolence.

Thereupon these great bodhisattvas spoke thus in verse:

"Good, good!
Great Hero, World-honored One!
All these living beings
Are easily transformed by you,
Are able to inquire into
The profound wisdom of buddhas,
And, hearing, to believe and discern.
We congratulate you."

Then the World-honored One extolled these supreme chiefs, the great bodhisattvas, saying: "Good, good! My good sons! You may rightly be minded to congratulate the Tathagata."

Then the Bodhisattva Maitreya and the host of other bodhisattvas all reflected: "From of old we have never seen nor heard of such a host of great bodhisattvas issuing from the earth, standing in the presence of the World-honored One with their palms joined together worshiping and inquiring of the Tathagata." The Bodhisattva Maitreya desired to resolve his own doubt, so he joined his palms together and asked the Buddha in verse:

"These innumerable thousand myriad kotis,
This great host of bodhisattvas,
Are such as we have never seen before.
Be pleased to explain, Honored of Men,
From what places they have come,
For what reason they have assembled.
Huge of body, of transcendent power,
Of wisdom inconceivable,
Firm of will and memory,
With great powers of long-suffering,
Whom all the living rejoice to see:
Whence have they come?"

Meanwhile the buddhas who had emanated from Shakyamuni Buddha and had come from innumerable domains in other quarters eagerly awaited the Buddha's answer to the question put by the Bodhisattva Maitreya. Thereupon Shakyamuni Buddha addressed Maitreya: "Good, Good! Ajita!1 You have well asked the Buddha concerning so great a matter. Do you all, with one mind, put on the armor of zeal and exhibit a firm will, for the Tathagata now intends to reveal and proclaim the wisdom of buddhas, the sovereign and supernatural power of buddhas, the lion-eagerness of buddhas, and the awe-inspiring forceful power of buddhas."

Then the World-honored One, desiring to proclaim this teaching over again, said in verse that he was about to expound what he had never revealed before and called upon the bodhisattvas to listen to it single-mindedly. Having spoken these verses, he again addressed the Bodhisattva Maitreya: "Ajita! All these great bodhisattvas, innumerable and numberless, who have issued from the earth, and whom you have never seen before - I in this saha world, after attaining Perfect Enlightenment, instructed and led all these bodhisattvas, controlled their minds, and caused them to set their thoughts on the Way." Thus the Buddha extolled the fact that these bodhisattvas had practiced many religious disciplines and that they possessed high virtues.

Then the Bodhisattva Maitreya, the numberless bodhisattvas, and other beings were seized with doubt and perplexity, wondering at this rare thing and reflecting: "How has the World-honored One, in so short a time, instructed such innumerable, countless great bodhisattvas and caused them to abide in Perfect Enlightenment?" Then, addressing the Buddha, they said: "World-honored One! The Tathagata, when he was a prince, left the Shakya palace and not far from the city of Gaya took his seat on the wisdom terrace, and attained Perfect Enlightenment. From that time but forty years have passed. World-honored One! In so short a time how have you done such great Buddha deeds, and by Buddha power and Buddha merit taught such an innumerable host of great bodhisattvas to attain Perfect Enlightenment?

"World-honored One! This host of great bodhisattvas, even if a man counted them for numberless years, he could not come to an end or reach their limit. All these from the far past under innumerable and countless buddhas have planted their roots of goodness and accomplished the bodhisattva way, constantly living the noble life. World-honored One! Such a matter as this the world will find it hard to believe. It is just as if there were a man of fine complexion and black hair, twenty-five years old, who pointed to centenarians and said: 'These are my sons,' and as if those centenarians also pointed to the youth and said: 'This is our father who begot and reared us.' This matter is hard of belief. So also is it with the Buddha, whose attainment of the Way is really not long since. Yet this great host of bodhisattvas, for numberless thousands of myriads of kotis of kalpas, for the sake of the Buddha Way, have devoted themselves with zeal, and they have well perceived all of it; they are treasures amongst men and of extreme rareness in all worlds.

"Today the World-honored One has just said that when he attained the Buddha Way he from the beginning caused them to aspire to enlightenment, instructed and led, and caused them to proceed toward Perfect Enlightenment. It is not long since the World-honored One became a buddha, yet he has been able to do this great, meritorious deed. Though we still believe that what the Buddha preached according to the truth appropriate for the hearers and the words the Buddha uttered have never been false, and also the Buddha's knowledge is all perceived by us, yet if newly converted bodhisattvas hear this statement after the Buddha's extinction, they may not receive it in faith and this will give rise to causes of wrong action to the destruction of the Law. So, World-honored One, be pleased to explain it, removing our doubts, and so that all your good sons in future generations, on hearing this matter, shall also not beget doubt."

Then Maitreya repeated his request in verse. In the next chapter, "Revelation of the [Eternal] Life of the Tathagata," the World-honored One replies to the bodhisattvas in detail and reveals to them the entity of the Buddha.

In the verses spoken by the Bodhisattva Maitreya occur the following words: "They have ably learned the bodhisattva way, / And are as untainted with worldly things / As the lotus flower in the water." These words represent the ideal way of life that the Buddha teaches us in the Lotus Sutra. We should not withdraw from society but should lead beautiful and pure lives within society. The ideal of the Lotus Sutra consists in making all society pure and beautiful. The title Sutra of the Lotus Flower of the Wonderful Law expresses this ideal.

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Kosei - The Gift of Life. The Power to Live.
  1. Ajita,"Unconquered," is a title of the Bodhisattva Maitreya.

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