A Guide to the Threefold Lotus Sutra

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In recent years, as the crises facing humankind have become more numerous and more acute, interest in the Lotus Sutra has begun to increase. Thus it is that throughout the world people from various walks of life have come to regard this sutra as a valuable and practical spiritual guide for living in these troubled times.

Such high esteem for the Lotus Sutra - the last major sermons of Shakyamuni, the historical Buddha - is by no means solely a modern phenomenon. One of the earliest evidences of reverence for this sutra dates back almost seventeen centuries. In the mid-fourth century Kumarajiva (344 - 413) journeyed from Kucha, his homeland in Central Asia, to India for study and there he became learned in the teachings of Mahayana Buddhism. When he had completed his studies and was about to leave India on his mission of carrying the Buddha's teachings to other countries, his teacher, Suryasoma, recommended the Lotus Sutra to him, telling him to transmit it to the east and disseminate it there. In 401 Kumarajiva finally reached China, where he became an eminent translator of Buddhist scriptures. In the dozen years before his death he translated a number of Mahayana texts into Chinese, and the most important and best known is his elegant translation of the Lotus Sutra.

Following its transmission to China, Buddhism flourished there, producing many distinguished monks. Among all those monks, the great patriarch of the T'ien-t'ai sect, Chih-i (538 - 97), who was said to be foremost in wisdom and virtue and was called "Little Shakyamuni," made an exhaustive study of all the Buddhist scriptures available to him. As a result, he concluded that the core of Shakyamuni Buddha's teaching is revealed in the Lotus Sutra, and thus in the latter half of his life Chih-i dedicated himself to studying, explaining, and disseminating this sutra.

It is not necessary to discuss here the history of Buddhism in Japan since its introduction in 538, for stating even a few facts will indicate the importance and influence of the Lotus Sutra in Japan.
1. Prince-Regent Shotoku (574 - 622) established his Seventeen-Article Constitution, Japan's first law code, based on the spirit of the Lotus Sutra.
2. After more than ten years of arduous discipline, the priest Saicho (767 - 822), who built the great temple Enryaku-ji on Mount Hiei, concluded that the highest form of religious practice was to disseminate the teachings of the Lotus Sutra through the doctrines of T'ien-t'ai Buddhism, and he founded the Japanese branch of that sect, Tendai.
3. The Tendai temple Enryaku-ji was the training ground for a number of outstanding priests, including Honen (1133 - 1212), founder of the Pure Land sect of Japanese Buddhism; Shinran (1173 - 1262), founder of the True Pure Land sect; Dogen (1200 - 1253), founder of the Soto sect of Zen Buddhism; and Nichiren (1222 - 82), founder of the sect that bears his name. Nichiren, in particular, revered the Lotus Sutra, and at the risk of his life he confidently protested to the government of the time that only belief in the Lotus Sutra could ensure the welfare and salvation of human society.

Through my work with the International Association for Religious Freedom, the World Conference on Religion and Peace, and the Asian Conference on Religion and Peace, I had frequent opportunities to talk with people of religion throughout the world. Whenever I explained the teachings of the Lotus Sutra to them, almost invariably they responded with deep sympathy and admiration, expressed in such words as: "That is indeed an excellent teaching for the salvation of human beings."

Such reactions were not limited to people of religion. For instance, the gifted Japanese naturalist and poet Kenji Miyazawa (1896 - 1933) is remembered for the masterly poem "Ame nimo makezu" (I Don't Bow to Rain), which reflects the teachings of the Lotus Sutra. In his will Miyazawa included the following instructions: "Print a thousand copies of the Japanese-language version of the Lotus Sutra and distribute them to my acquaintances and friends. At the end of the text in the sutra, write this message: 'The work of my whole life has been solely to bring this sutra into your hands out of the desire for you to come in contact with the teaching of the Buddha contained in this sutra and to enter the supreme Way to enlightenment.'" Miyazawa's words give us food for thought.

Why is the Lotus Sutra esteemed as the foremost and most wonderful teaching for humankind? Although we could find enough answers to this question to fill a book, in the final analysis all those answers can be condensed to just two points.

First, the Lotus Sutra reveals and explains the infinite possibilities open to human beings. People have an infinite capacity for degeneracy if left unawakened and unmindful of discipline, yet at the same time they have an infinite capacity for elevation if they live in accordance with spiritual truth. Today, people are simply falling ever downward. Unless we stop now and think and completely change our way of living, we will certainly destroy ourselves. The Lotus Sutra reveals and explains both the theory and the practice necessary for bringing about such a change. Thinking that there is no answer for human foolishness, we are likely to become deeply depressed. But if, through the Lotus Sutra, we come to the realization that it is possible to change human nature for the better, fresh hope and courage ceaselessly well up in our hearts and minds.

Second, the Lotus Sutra teaches that, since all non-living and living things, including human beings, are manifestations of the great life-force of the universe, all of them are equal in terms of the fundamental value of their existence. A view of the world based on this thought naturally gives rise to a basic principle of living that can be stated as follows: "When human beings enjoy coexistence and mutual prosperity, respecting the life-force inherent in all existences, including themselves, and loving that life-force completely, great harmony will be achieved in this world. The ultimate happiness of human beings lies in such a state of mind." People have so far tended to consider all non-living and living things except themselves as existences at their disposal and have exploited, consumed, and destroyed them at will, and one result of this kind of thinking has been the pollution of nature. If we do not correct our wrongdoing immediately, we cannot be saved. The Lotus Sutra not only makes us keenly aware of these facts but also serves as an always dependable guide to the new way of living necessary for us now and in the future.

Because the Lotus Sutra is such an important and timely scripture, I have long cherished the hope that all people living today will come to know it. But I can easily imagine that people reading it for the first time may encounter certain difficulties, since the text was compiled in India some two thousand years ago and since it reflects the dramatic style common to oral literature and makes abundant use of highly symbolic expressions. For these reasons I decided to publish this guide to assist such readers.

Giving careful consideration to the relation among the thirty-two chapters of the Threefold Lotus Sutra - that is, the Lotus Sutra together with its opening and closing sutras, the Sutra of Innumerable Meanings and the Sutra of Meditation on the Bodhisattva Universal Virtue - my guide not only outlines the contents of the sutra but also explains the major points of each chapter in easily understood language. If through this explanation more people become aware of the supreme Way to enlightenment, no matter how small their number, I shall be extremely happy.

Finally, I would like to remind readers that my guide is only an outline of the Threefold Lotus Sutra: a simple guide to it. Because the sutra has long been appreciated as a work of great literary merit and because almost every word or phrase in it contains an important teaching, I would like to encourage readers to go on to the sutra itself. The Threefold Lotus Sutra, translated by Bunno Kato and others (Weatherhill/Kosei, 1975), has been praised highly and is well worth reading. The many passages from the Threefold Lotus Sutra quoted or paraphrased in the present book are taken from that one. It is my sincere hope that my book Buddhism for Today: A Modern Interpretation of the Threefold Lotus Sutra (Weatherhill/Kosei, 1976) will also be of help.

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