A Guide to the Threefold Lotus Sutra

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The Sutra of the Lotus Flower of the Wonderful Law
Chapter 11
Beholding the Precious Stupa

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The previous chapter closed with the Buddha's explanation of the frame of mind necessary for teaching the Lotus Sutra in the latter days (mappo) and the merit of accepting the teaching rightly.

The present chapter opens with an event that immediately follows those closing words. Suddenly a resplendent tower, or stupa, springs from the ground and stands in the sky, and from inside a great voice announces how wonderful it is that Shakyamuni, the World-honored One, is preaching for this great assembly the Law-Flower Sutra - a teaching founded on knowledge of the truth that all living beings alike have the buddha-nature. It teaches everyone the Way of the bodhisattva, and it has the necessary protection of the buddhas. In support of the truth of the teaching, the voice continues that all that Shakyamuni, the World-honored One, says is true.

The listeners are struck with a wonder they do not understand, and the Bodhisattva Great Eloquence asks why it is that this stupa has risen from the earth and why a voice within it has spoken, to which Shakyamuni responds that inside the stupa is the whole body of the Tathagata.

We need to note here the great importance of these words. Since tathagata means one who has come of truth, or from the world of truth, the meaning of the whole body of the Tathagata's being in the stupa is that the figure of perfect truth is inside.

Truth in this sense is the final and real aspect of the universe. In other words it is the void. In human terms it is the buddha-nature that is man's true face. The stupa, then, is a symbol of the buddha-nature.

It is important to observe that the stupa did not come down from heaven but sprang up from the earth. Heaven is an ideal world removed from humankind, while earth is the actual world in touch with humankind. The buddha-nature is not something given from heaven or the beyond, but rather something dwelling in ourselves, coming from the earth, and so we are shown here that we need only discover this thing for ourselves.

The great teaching of the Lotus Sutra is the Way of the bodhisattva, which, founded upon the truth of the buddha-nature, is to rescue the world through the discovery and development of the buddha-nature present in all people. The buddhas guard this most important of teachings, and because Shakyamuni has for the first time given this teaching for the good of all humanity, he has done the most praiseworthy of praiseworthy deeds: a deed of utmost importance to all generations of humankind. This is the sense in which the great voice from inside the stupa of the buddha-nature speaks.

Now, to return to the text, the Buddha answers the question of the Bodhisattva Great Eloquence by saying that the voice from the stupa is that of a buddha called Tathagata Abundant Treasures, from far, far away in the east, and that when he was still a bodhisattva this buddha had made a vow that upon becoming a buddha he would go wherever the Lotus Sutra might be preached. He would go there to listen, appearing in a stupa before the assembled congregation to bear witness to its truth and to give praise. Moreover, upon attaining buddhahood and leaving the world, his parting word would be that those who would worship his whole body should erect a great stupa.

In this passage, "far, far away in the east" means that the Tathagata Abundant Treasures is not a buddha who actually appeared in bodily form in this world. Truth itself, complete or perfect truth, is here named Abundant Treasures. Had the Buddha used such a term as truth itself, or perfect truth, his hearers at the time, ordinary people, would not have understood his meaning, and so he gave it the human seeming form of a tathagata.

The one thing that does not change with time or place is truth. Since the beginning of the universe, always and everywhere, truth exists unchanging. This truth may appear in various forms, but all forms taken together in one are symbolized in the Tathagata Abundant Treasures, whose name literally means a presence of many precious things. His instruction to erect a great stupa means to make manifest the buddha-nature of all things. This is the highest form of veneration of the Tathagata Abundant Treasures, or truth. For what he desires is that the truth be made plain as truth. The buddha-nature of all things being made plain is the expression of perfect truth in this world.

The Bodhisattva Great Eloquence, who earlier had asked who was in the stupa, again pleads with the Buddha, saying that all the congregation want to see with their own eyes the buddha body of the Tathagata Abundant Treasures and urging that by the Buddha's supernatural power they may be permitted to worship it. At this point Shakyamuni explains that the Tathagata Abundant Treasures had made a deep and grave vow. His vow is that when he makes his stupa appear before any of the buddhas who preach the Lotus Sutra, if any of them want his own body shown to the congregation, he will appear bodily when all the buddhas sprung from him are recalled to assemble from the various worlds where they are preaching the Law.

We now need to stop for a moment to examine what this vow meant. There are countless doctrines of truth in the world, but all of them are only fractional bits of truth. In explaining the real aspect of existence and in explaining that the true nature of humankind is the buddha-nature, the Lotus Sutra brings together all truths and shows the complete form of truth, which is nothing less than the perfect body of the Tathagata. Thus a correct explanation of the Lotus Sutra shows this to be a teaching that brings together all truths. Piecemeal explanation of parts is the same as the earlier tactful means of teaching, but this cannot be regarded as the correct explanation of the Lotus Sutra.

Accordingly, attesting to the truth of the Lotus Sutra demanded that all the bits and pieces of the truth scattered throughout the universe be gathered in one place. This is why the Tathagata Abundant Treasures made his vow that all the buddhas born of his body would have to return and assemble in one place for him to appear.

At this point the Bodhisattva Great Eloquence again speaks for the congregation, asking that they might see these buddhas, and Shakyamuni illuminates the universe in all directions to assemble them. It thus becomes clear that the entire universe, not merely the saha-world of Shakyamuni, is filled with emanations of the Buddha's body. The world then undergoes a transformation that at once purifies and beautifies it and makes it spacious enough to accommodate the buddhas now assembling. When all have assembled, Shakyamuni himself rises into the sky and comes to rest in front of the precious stupa.

He then stretches forth his right hand, the symbol of knowledge, and opens the door of the stupa to reveal the Tathagata Abundant Treasures seated motionless, entire, as though in meditation. At once the tathagata speaks, praising Shakyamuni, whose explanation of the Lotus Sutra he has come to hear.

In this, something most important is symbolized. The Tathagata Abundant Treasures, being the totality of truth, sits perfectly still, indicating that truth is everlasting and unchanging. But the truth unmoving, as though in meditation, has no power to change our lives. Only when someone explains that truth so that it moves the hearts and minds of people does it become something that may rescue the human world. This is why the Tathagata Abundant Treasures, being truth, praises Shakyamuni, for it is Shakyamuni who in preaching the truth is setting it in motion. In this way the hope is expressed that the truth itself will be explained, widely understood, and given motion and application.

The Tathagata Abundant Treasures, revealed sitting squarely in the middle of his jeweled throne, slips to one side and offers the other half to Shakyamuni, who then enters the stupa and sits there with him.

In this brief action we may see two things suggested. First, there is destroyed the delusion held by many that Shakyamuni is only the Buddha of the flesh that was born and would die, for here he is shown to be a buddha like the Tathagata Abundant Treasures, and that, while of flesh subject to birth and mortality, he is the everlasting Buddha. This is made plain in chapter 16, but here it is merely suggested. And second, the Law-body, or ultimate substance, represented by the Tathagata Abundant Treasures, and the transformation or mutable body, the human form in which Shakyamuni Buddha appeared, are shown to be of the same order, which is to say that the truth itself and the interpreter of that truth are equally worthy beings.

Now, when all those assembled see the two tathagatas, Abundant Treasures and Shakyamuni, seated aloft on the jewel throne in the stupa floating high in the sky above them, they begin to think the buddhas remotely high and distant and to wish that by transcendent power they might also be gathered up into the sky. And Shakyamuni, at once perceiving their thought, lifts them up in a body, announcing that his remaining time before leaving the world is short and that he must entrust his teaching to the assembly in order that it will continue forever. At this point the material presented in the chapter so far is repeated and ornamented in verse, in the course of which the wonder and merit and great difficulty in the future world of keeping the great lesson of the Lotus Sutra are given attention. For the pleasure it will give the Buddha, the congregation is urged to believe and be resolute in spreading the teaching in the face of all difficulties. Here the chapter closes.

As used in this section the word sky means the ideal. The Tathagata Abundant Treasures is the ideal buddha, but Shakyamuni in his visible body has attained that ideal state and sits alongside the Tathagata Abundant Treasures in the precious stupa. When those gathered here see this, their spirits are moved to strive for that ideal state. This is what we call awakening to the bodhisattva ideal or generating the aspiration to enlightenment. In lifting the multitude to the level of the stupa, Shakyamuni figuratively brings them near this ideal.

The locale of the sermon so far has been Vulture Peak, but here it shifts to the sky, where it remains until the very end of chapter 22, "The Final Commission," after which the sermon is resumed on earth. There is a deep meaning in this shift of scene between two locales for the three segments composing the long sermon of the Lotus Sutra.

The earth is actuality, the sky the ideal. Now any lesson that at the beginning is not taught in relation to actuality is difficult to grapple with and hard to understand. And so the Buddha also began his explanation with actual problems of how to shake off delusion and be delivered from human suffering. Even limiting ourselves to the Lotus Sutra alone, we may see that at the very beginning the Buddha preached the knowledge of how to perceive what our world is made up of, what man is, and what kind of relations are right between one human being and another.

Once this knowledge has become part of a person, he or she must finally be shown the ideal state, which in the text here is the awakening to the Eternal Buddha that is the great life-force of the universe and the state of becoming one with that life-giving force. In actual life this state is hard to grasp, and awakening is impossible unless the mind is freed of egoism and enters a supernatural world - in other words, a state to be attained by mounting into the sky. Having attained this awakening, it is then possible to return to actuality and to put that awakening into practice in this world. And unless one reaches out to many, many others, unless the rescue of all humanity is achieved, personal salvation is incomplete. This is why the locale of the closing session of the sermon is back on earth. The Lotus Sutra is thus highly rational in structure.

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Kosei - The Gift of Life. The Power to Live. Copyright by Rissho Kosei-kai. All rights reserved.