A Guide to 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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With this chapter we begin the closing half of the sutra - that is, the part dealing with the Law of Origin, (chapters 15 through 28), in which the ultimate substance of the Buddha (and the ultimate substance of humankind, which is the same) is made clear. This Law of Origin is the underpinning of the Law of Appearance (chapters 1 through 14), or the derived teachings set forth in the first fourteen chapters.

The first portion of this chapter forms an introduction to the Law of Origin, while the latter part, combined with all of chapter 16 and the first half of chapter 17 (the one chapter and two halves) gives us the essence of the Law of Origin.

As the present chapter opens, the World-honored One has completed the part of his sermon in chapter 14, "A Happy Life," and hordes of bodhisattvas from other worlds step forward and offer to spread the teaching in this saha-world after the Buddha's extinction. But the Buddha assures them that there is no need for their help, for from of old there are countless bodhisattvas already in this world whose duty it is to preach the Lotus Sutra. No sooner has he uttered these words than the surface of the earth breaks apart and countless bodhisattvas, in figure all resembling the very Buddha, rise up from the crevices.

This host of bodhisattvas is led by four outstanding ones - by name, Eminent Conduct, Boundless Conduct, Pure Conduct, and Steadfast Conduct - who come forward to salute the Buddha and are in turn addressed in a free and familiar fashion.

Those who had earlier assembled to hear the Buddha are puzzled by this development, and their questioning is expressed in a long address by the Bodhisattva Maitreya, who asks where these splendid creatures have come from and what kind of persons they are. The Buddha answers simply that they are those whom he has taught in this saha-world and led to enlightenment and that they have until now dwelt in a space beneath the saha-world. But the fact of the matter, it develops, is that from a time far, far in the past he has been engaged in instructing all this host of bodhisattvas.

This seemingly simple answer only puzzles the Bodhisattva Maitreya and all the other questioners, for they cannot understand how in the forty-odd years since Shakyamuni's enlightenment it has been possible to bring such numbers of beings to a state of perfection so near that of the Buddha himself. Yet no one close to the Buddha over these years has ever seen one of them. The chapter closes with a poetic repetition of the perplexity in which all now stand, as the Bodhisattva Maitreya presses Shakyamuni to explain and sweep away their doubts.

If the Bodhisattva Maitreya himself was confused in this way, there is little wonder that we in this latter age of mappo should be puzzled. In point of fact, however, the Buddha, responding as he did, was employing a device. By stating an apparent contradiction and raising questions in the minds of his listeners, and then in one stroke explaining the difficulty, he was able to leave a lasting impression. The explanation comes in the following chapter, "Revelation of the [Eternal] Life of the Tathagata," and by way of making this easier to understand, some explanation is needed here.

The expressions "taught in this world" and "instructed from a long time past" suggest two different ways of viewing a person. The first means viewing that person as a physical being with his own personality - that is, from the viewpoint of seeing the phenomena. The second means viewing that person as a being identical with oneself in having the buddha-nature, or the great life-force of the universe - that is, from the viewpoint of wisdom that penetrates the real aspect of things. The former is the way of viewing distinctive forms and their differences. The latter is the way of viewing identical being and equality. The right way to view humankind includes both aspects.

If you view a bodhisattva from the former viewpoint, he or she can be called a bodhisattva by influence: one who is influenced by Shakyamuni's teaching and is engaged in practice. But if you view the same bodhisattva from the latter viewpoint, he or she can be called a bodhisattva of the essence: one who, since the remote past, has been taught by the Eternal Buddha and is part of him.

Bodhisattvas by influence and bodhisattvas of the essence are in ultimate substance one and in no sense different, though it is possible to see here a vast difference between the splendor of the bodhisattva of the essence and the lowliness of the bodhisattva by influence. This, however, is merely a way of expressing the difference between those who have a self-awareness of being bodhisattvas of the essence and those who do not.

Accordingly, in our own time those of us who learn the teachings of the Buddha, practice them, and work for the salvation of people are bodhisattvas by influence. But if there were those who from the bottom of their hearts had the awareness that they were one with the Eternal Buddha, though their actions might be like those of the bodhisattva by influence, such persons would be bodhisattvas of the essence. In outward appearance the forms of faith of the two, the bodhisattva by influence and the bodhisattva of the essence, are alike, but if one enters into the inner substance of that faith, a difference of level is to be found that becomes apparent in the work of instruction and salvation.

There are different ways of viewing the sudden emergence from out of the earth of the throng of bodhisattvas described in this chapter, but we may observe three points of particular note. The first is in Shakyamuni's declining the offer made by the bodhisattvas from other worlds and entrusting the teaching to those who sprang up out of the saha-world. The lesson here is simply that only through the work and effort of people living wherever they may be is it possible to achieve peace and build a happy life.

The second is in the way in which the bodhisattvas, enjoying the state of enlightenment and dwelling in a space under the saha-world, broke through the ground at the sound of the Buddha's voice. Now those bodhisattvas dwelling in the space beneath this saha-world, though most certainly people of this world, were living in the pleasure of awareness of the void but had not as yet been moved to exercise that awareness for the salvation of the human world. Awareness of the void in human terms means seeing that the true nature of humankind is identical with the buddha-nature. So they were certainly aware of this truth, but they only took pleasure in this in themselves and did not turn outward to work for others. Such as these may indeed be fine people without blemish, but they do not serve for the salvation of living beings.

There is, then, an absolute necessity for such as these once and for all to break through the ground. In other words they must experience life in actual society; they must plunge into the grime and dirt in which humanity is struggling and feel directly humanity's suffering and torment. Only in this way may they really come to lead people and to save them. It does not do merely to deal in ideas, for without being in touch with reality one cannot deliver humankind.

The third is in the conduct element that formed part of the name of each of the four outstanding bodhisattvas who led the throng that sprang up out of the earth - that is, Eminent Conduct, Boundless Conduct, Pure Conduct, and Steadfast Conduct.

The first half of the Lotus Sutra was given over largely to the teaching of reason and truth, the teaching of wisdom. But upon completion of that half of the sutra, we had the abrupt appearance of a countless throng of bodhisattvas who were doers. Any teaching without application in practice, in conduct, is nothing. It must move on to the stage of action. True bodhisattvas are the doers who apply their knowledge of the true aspect of all reality, the statement of which truth is the theme of the first half of the Lotus Sutra. They are the doers who, in their compassionate conduct, exemplify the truth of the buddha-nature identity: the kind of persons who make the teaching of the Buddha meaningful in this world. Since this so precisely applies to us who are alive today, it is important to take the message to heart.

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