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Finding Wisdom in East Asian Classics$

Wm. Theodore de Bary

Print publication date: 2011

Print ISBN-13: 9780231153973

Published to Columbia Scholarship Online: November 2015

DOI: 10.7312/columbia/9780231153973.001.0001

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The Lotus Sūtra

The Lotus Sūtra

(p.110) 8 The Lotus Sūtra
Finding Wisdom in East Asian Classics

Wing-tsit Chan

Columbia University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter examines the Lotus Sūtra, the most important scripture of Mahāyūna Buddhism, which cuts across the entire Far East. Since its appearance in China in the third century, and especially after the fifth, the study of the Lotus has been pursued most vigorously and extensively. More lectures have been given, more research conducted into its subject matter and terminology, and more commentaries written on it than on any other Buddhist scripture. This scripture is written in the form of a drama, but it is a drama only in the loosest sense of the word, as it takes place on the greatest scale ever conceived by man. Its stage comprises many Buddha-worlds. Its timeframe is eternity. And its actors are the Lord Buddha Śākyamuni and innumerable other beings.

Keywords:   Lotus Sūtra, Buddhist scripture, Mahāyūna Buddhism, drama, Buddha-worlds

No one can understand the Far East without some knowledge of the teachings of the Lotus Sūtra, because it is the most important scripture of Mahāyāna Buddhism, which cuts across the entire Far East. In a narrow sense, it is a scripture of the Tian-tai School in China and Tendai in Japan and is the chief sūtra of the Nichiren School in Japan. But in a broad sense, it is the most basic sūtra for all Mahāyāna, shared by practically all the different schools. It was the first to preach revolutionary Mahāyāna doctrines and is still the most comprehensive statement of them, and most important of all, it has been the source of inspiration for Buddhist practice in the Far East for the last 1,500 years. If out of several hundred Mahāyāna sūtras one were to choose only one as the most representative and most meaningful, most students would select the Lotus. No wonder that when Chang Rong, an ardent advocate of the harmony of Confucianism, Buddhism, andDaoism, died in 497 c.e., heheldin hisleft hand a copy of the Classic of Filial Piety and the Daodejing and in his right hand the Lotus.

Ever since its appearance in China in the third century, and especially after the fifth, the study of the Lotus has been pursued most vigorously and extensively. According to the Biographies of Eminent Monks (Gao-seng juan), of twenty-one monks famous for reciting sūtras, sixteen recited the Lotus. More lectures have been given, more research conducted into its subject matter and terminology, and more commentaries written on it than on any other Buddhist scripture.

(p.111) This scripture is written in the form of a drama, but it is a drama only in the loosest sense of the word, as it takes place on the greatest scale ever conceived by man. Its stage comprises many Buddha-worlds. Its timeframe is eternity. And its actors are the Lord Buddha Śākyamuni and innumerable other beings. The scene opens with Śākyamuni sitting in a trance. Gathered before him are twelve thousand arhats, six thousand nuns headed by his mother and including his wife, eight thousand bodhisattvas, sixty thousand gods, Brahma with his twelve thousand dragon kings, and hundreds of thousands of heavenly beings, demons, and other beings. As the members of the congregation fold their hands in homage to him, a ray of light issues forth from his forehead, which illuminates the eighteen thousand Buddha-worlds in the East, in each of which a Buddha is preaching. The entire universe is shaking; flowers rain all over and perfume fills all space. It is announced that the Lord is now going to give a discourse (chap. 1).

Coming out of his trance, the Buddha begins to speak. He says that only Buddhas have perfect knowledge and are qualified to preach and that they are now preaching to all beings. At this, the proud arhats, the saints of Hīnayāna or Small Vehicle Buddhism (or rather Theravāda Buddhism), who consider themselves already perfectly enlightened, leave in silent protest. Śākyamuni does not teach the Three Vehicles—those of the Śrāvakas who attain their salvation by hearing the Buddha’s teaching, the Pratyekabuddhas who attain to their personal enlightenment by their own exertions, and the bodhisattvas who postpone their own departure from the world for the sake of helping all beings to be saved. Instead he teaches only the One Vehicle. He has taught the other vehicles merely as an expedient or convenient means for those who were not yet ready for the highest truth, the One Vehicle. In this vehicle, Nirvāna is not the extinction of existence, but the extinction of illusions and ignorance. Everyone will be saved. Anyone who practices charity; is patient; observes discipline; is diligent in spiritual cultivation; makes offerings to the Buddha; builds a stupa with gold, silver, crystal, amber, sandalwood, clay, or, in the case of a child at play, sand; who carves a Buddha figure in copper, pewter, or lacquered cloth or paints a Buddha figure with a brush or even a fingernail; makes music; recites a verse; offers a sound or a flower to the Buddha; or merely raises his head, folds his hands, or utters a simple word of admiration, namo, will attain salvation (chap. 2).

The disciple Śāriputra is now filled with joy and in ecstasy. He realizes that he is really a son of the Buddha, produced from the Buddha Law or (p.112) Dharma and born out of the Buddha’s mouth. He is assured by the Lord that he will be the Flower-light Buddha in the Buddha-world whose ground is crystal with eight broad walks lined with golden ropes and where a jeweled flower will spring up wherever the feet of his disciples tread. Anyone with devotion and faith will become a Buddha. He applies expedient and convenient means to save them all in accordance with the requirements of the circumstances, just as a father whose house is on fire but whose sons still think of play, offers them a goat cart, a deer cart, and an ox cart to lure them out. Thus saved, they are given only the ox cart, the best of all carts; that is, not the Three Vehicles but the One Vehicle (chap. 3). Śāriputra is also compared to the wandering son who comes to work for hire without realizing who his employer is and who receives from his loving father not only wages but all his wealth (chap. 4).

Speaking to Mahākāśyapa and other disciples, the Lord tells the parable of rain. It falls on all plants, though they are ignorant of the fact that because their natures differ they respond to the rain in different ways. Only the Buddha knows the true character and reality of existence. He will care for all beings and enable them to become Buddhas, provided they have faith, however simple (chap. 5).

Śākyamuni then foretells many future Buddhas. So-and-so will become Buddha Radiance, in the Buddha-world of Brilliant Virtue, whose period will last for thirty-two kalpas, or billions of years, and will be called Great Splendor. So-and-so will become the Buddha of Sandalwood Fragrance in the Buddha-world called Happy Feeling, whose period, called Perfect Joy, will be 104 kalpas. And so on (chap. 6).

Interrupting his predictions, he tells of an Ancient Buddha who, he remembers, had a life of 5,400,000 myriads of ten million cycles. After attaining enlightenment, he recited the Lotus for eight thousand cycles. His sixteen sons have all become Buddhas and continue to recite the sūtra. His last son, Śākyamuni, is the one repeating it now (chap. 7). Then he continues to foretell the future of all disciples, monks, and the multitude: they will all be Buddhas and live in Buddha-worlds where there will be no evil ways or women (chap. 8). The surest way to become a Buddha is to revere the Lotus Sūtra, whether by obeying its teachings, studying it, expounding it, copying it, distributing it, or offering it in temples. Reciting even one verse will lead to salvation. On the other hand, a single word of blasphemy is a great sin (chaps. 9–10).

Now a great seven-jeweled stupa arises from the ground and is suspended in midair. As a voice emanates from within, Śākyamuni tells the congregation (p.113) that inside is the total body of the Buddha, Prabhūtaratna, who has vowed to appear wherever the Lotus Sūtra is first proclaimed. As Śākyamuni issues a light from his forehead, illuminating all of the Buddha-worlds, Buddhas as innumerable as the grains of sand in the Ganges arrive before the shrine, which Śākyamuni opens with his finger. There the Ancient Buddha sits on a lion throne, in meditation. He has come, he says, as he has vowed, to hear the gospel. He invites Śākyamuni to sit beside him in the shrine (chap. 11). Following this, all present vow to proclaim the Lotus. A girl who wants to do the same has to change her sex in order to do so (chaps. 12–13).

Now Śākyamuni turns to Mañjuśrī and other bodhisattvas and explains to them how to preach the Lotus. The preaching, he says, is to be done in four ways: with right actions and intimacy; with a serene, pure, honest, brave, and joyful heart; with uprightness and no depravity; and with great compassion (chap. 14). Some offer to continue to preach the Lotus after Śākyamuni departs, but he assures them that it is unnecessary, for the earth will always bring forth an infinite number of bodhisattvas to do the work. Asked how he could have taught so many followers in only forty years of teaching, he replies that in fact he has been teaching throughout eternity (chap. 15). For the Buddha is really eternal. His true character knows neither being nor nonbeing, neither life nor death. Before restoring the stupa to its place, the two Buddhas, Śākyamuni and Prabhūtaratna, continue to preach for one hundred thousand years.

As the eternal preaching goes on, all the believers receive immense rewards, such as happiness (chap. 17), freedom from ailments, being born among gods, fulfillment of all their wishes (chap. 18), and special powers such as the ability to hear the sound of the universe (chap. 19). The bodhisattvas are always ready to help the believers and bestow these blessings, and thus it is very important that bodhisattvas be revered (chap. 20). At this point, the Buddha reveals the miraculous power (chap. 21). Amazed and awed, all beings now approach the shrine (chap. 22). Touching the foreheads of an infinite number of bodhisattvas, the Ancient Buddha urges them to spread the gospel. All depart rejoicing (chap. 22), and the drama ends.

The remaining chapters explain that the Lotus can heal the sick (chap. 23) and tell the story of Buddha Wonder Sound, who manifests himself to preach the sūtra and to save people by transforming himself, if necessary, into a woman (chap. 24), and about bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara (Guan-yin in Chinese and Kannon in Japanese), who will save people from fire, water, prison, and punishment, whether or not they are guilty, possess evil desires, (p.114) or suffer from ignorance and delusions, and who will bestow children, both boys and girls, upon all (chap. 25). Other chapters describe certain spells (chap. 26), relate the conversion of King Wonderful Splendor (chap. 27), and describe bodhisattva Universal Virtue’s offer to protect the Lotus (chap. 28).

This drama is as fascinating as it is fantastic. It is full of light, color, sound, fragrance, and action. It has a great deal of suspense and anticipation. It contains verses and fables. And it is a beautiful blending of fact and imagination. As a literary piece it is too repetitious, for what is said in prose is virtually all repeated in verse form. It lacks unity and balance. The climax comes too early, with the stupa’s appearance in chapter 11. Buddhist scholars have tried their best to argue that the first fourteen chapters deal with manifestations of the “realm of traces” while the last fourteen deal with reality or “the realm of origin,”1 or that the first half deals with salvation of the world or, figuratively speaking, the lotus flower, while the second half deals with the nature and personality of the Buddha, or the lotus seed. This, however, makes the sūtra more systematic and more philosophical than it really is. The Lotus is neither a theological treatise nor a philosophical essay. There is only a very brief passage in chapter 14 expressing the idea of the Void: that dharmas are neither born nor annihilated, neither begin nor end, neither rise nor fall. Rather, it is a dramatic presentation of fresh and revolutionary ideas offered as a message to enable religious practice and enrich religious experience. As such it is personal, dynamic, warm, and inspiring. It is a message of faith, hope, and love.

These novel and appealing religious ideas are not presented in abstract terms but in concrete images and living symbols. More than any other scripture, the Lotus has been the source of motifs of Buddhist art. Its figures dominate such famous caves as Dun-huang and Yün-gang. For several hundred years, the twin figures of the two Buddhas in the shrine were the most popular subjects in Buddhist painting and sculpture.2

Of all the symbols, the lotus flower is the central one, and it has penetrated both Buddhist and non-Buddhist Far Eastern culture. It has been and remains the symbol for Buddhism in general. In a popular sense, it stands for purity, as it rises from mud but remains clean, and it is in this sense that most Chinese and Japanese understand it, especially women, who take it to symbolize their feminine purity. The Neo-Confucian philosopher, Zhou Dunyi (1017–1073), in his famous essay on the lotus, saw in it nobility of character. But in its original meaning, the symbol has a far more philosophical import. It means the source of life and the power to continue to give life.3 (p.115) When the Lotus Sūtra says that wherever the Buddha’s disciples tread, flowers will grow, it means that Buddhas will be born out of the lotus. Thus the springing up of a lotus means the beginning of a new life. When Chinese poets secularized the Buddhist symbol and described women’s small feet as lotuses, saying that with every step a lotus would spring up, they were thinking only of feminine beauty and did not realize that unwittingly they had hit upon the central idea of the lotus symbol, namely, that it is life giving. This is the idea underlying all Mahāyāna concepts.

What are these concepts as expressed in the Lotus Sūtra? First and foremost is the new concept of the Buddha. He is no longer just an ascetic who preached for forty years in India. Instead he is an eternal being, omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent. He is neither one Buddha nor many, and therefore Western terms such as monotheism are meaningless for Buddhism. He is the father of all Buddhas. He is both the hero of the drama and its organizer and proprietor. He both acts in the drama and leads all the dramatic personnel, including the most humble, who in time too will have a role to play. In short, he is a living Buddha whose voice of teaching continues for all time and is heard everywhere. The truth preached by him and all the Buddha-sons is living truth, continuously unfolding itself and continuously enlightening people, just as lotuses are continuously springing up. This concept of the Supreme Being makes Mahāyāna radically different from Hīnayāna Buddhism, which insists that the Buddha was simply a man in history. It also satisfies a dire need in the Far East not met by Confucian humanism or Daoist naturalism.

Equally revolutionary and important is the doctrine of universal salvation. Instead of having each arhat work out his own salvation, as in Hīnayāna, the new message promises that all will be saved by bodhisattvas. No misfortune, ignorance, or even sin will condemn a being to eternal suffering. This is the Great Vehicle, salvation for all.

This Great Vehicle (or Great Career) is the career of the bodhisattva, who voluntarily postpones Buddhahood to help save all beings. An infinite number of bodhisattvas endure all sufferings in order to save others. The whole personality and career of the bodhisattva can be characterized by one word: compassion. They inspire, console, protect, and lead all beings to ultimate Buddhahood. They have taken vows and dedicated themselves to this end, and they will not become Buddhas until all become so. What a magnificent concept! These Buddhas and bodhisattvas are willing to undertake tremendous efforts, travel anywhere, and use any means necessary to (p.116) bring about salvation. Like the father saving his sons from the burning house, they are highly resourceful. This is not only a benevolent concept but also a very liberal one: the very narrow path of rigid discipline to salvation in the Hīnayāna has now been broadened; none will be prevented from entering Buddha Land.

This doctrine of convenient means has sometimes been misinterpreted in the West in terms of the end justifying any means. Like any other religion, Buddhism has not been free from abuse. But the four ways required for teaching the Lotus already mentioned should leave no doubt about the moral and spiritual prerequisites for any action. In reality, the various convenient means are but different phases of the same thing. It is the One Vehicle. The other Vehicles are but expedients to meet the requirements of those who have not seen the highest truth but understand only the common truth. People with an either/or point of view will find this Buddhist doctrine of twofold truth difficult to understand. But there is nothing contradictory in viewing the lotus on the common level as flower, leaves, and stem and on the higher level as the lotus itself, that is, as the seed. Similarly, viewed as common truth, the Buddha is Śākyamuni, a historical being, a Buddha of the “realm of traces,” but viewed on a higher level, he is Tathāgata, the eternal being, or Buddha of the “realm of origin.” These two levels are not contradictory but harmonious.

The ever-readiness of bodhisattvas to save beings by all means does not suggest that people should be passive. On their part, they must show devotion and faith. Faith, even as expressed in so simple a form as reciting the name of the Buddha, will lead to salvation. This is another aspect of Mahāyāna Buddhism that satisfied a great need in the Far East, where Confucian and Daoist rationalism left little room for such tender feelings as faith and devotion in religion. Whether or not the element of devotion was derived from Hinduism, it gives the great multitude hope for salvation through simple means.

This hope for salvation is beautifully and affectionately personified in the most popular bodhisattva, Guanyin. The embodiment of mercy and compassion, he endures much suffering and assumes the forms of both a Buddha and of animals, and journeys everywhere and anywhere to save all beings. He can have four, eight, eighteen, or a thousand hands, all of which he uses to save beings, in all possible ways under all possible circumstances. In Japan, Kannon retains his transcendental character as a Future Buddha. In China, however, he is presented in feminine form, perhaps to satisfy the Chinese love of sensuous beauty; perhaps to represent more appropriately (p.117) the quality of compassion, especially as a protector of women and bestower of children; or perhaps to give Buddhism a loving Mother, much like the Virgin Mary of Christianity. At any rate, Guanyin has been for centuries an inexhaustible source of comfort and inspiration for the Chinese. The twenty-fifth chapter of the Lotus Sūtra is especially devoted to him and has been singled out as a separate sūtra. It has been studied, recited, copied, distributed, and offered in temples as expressions of devotion and faith by millions and millions of followers, century after century.

These basic Mahāyāna ideas—the eternal Buddha, universal salvation, the bodhisattva doctrine, the teaching of convenient means, the gospel of the One Vehicle, the message of salvation by faith and devotion, and the compassion of Guanyin—are all here presented in a single sūtra for the first time in Buddhism. It would be claiming too much for the Lotus to say that it contains all the important Mahāyāna doctrines. Those on the Void, Twofold Truth, Instantaneous Transformation, Meditation, among others, are not treated here. But as a single document, it contains more important ideas than any other Buddhist scripture.

All this is contained in a book of twenty-eight chapters totaling about 69,000 Chinese characters. This, of course, refers to the Chinese translation Miao-fa lien-hua jing4 made by Kumārajīva (344–413). This is the version used and revered by the Chinese and Japanese and the one rendered, with some abridgment, into English by W. E. Soothill, entitled The Lotus of the Wonderful Law, or the Lotus Gospel.5 We have no idea who the author or authors of the sūtra were, when it was written, or in what language. It must be older than 255 c. e., because the first Chinese translation, a partial one, was done by an unknown missionary in China in 255 or 256.6 Of the three extant Chinese translations—by Dharmaraksha (Zhu Fa-hu), called Zheng fa-hua jing, in 286; by Kumārajīva in 406; and jointly by Jñānagupta and Dharmagupta, called Tian-pin miao-fa lien-hua jing, in 601—Kumārajīva’s has been accepted over the last fifteen centuries as the most authoritative. His original translation contained only twenty-seven chapters. The famous Chinese monk Fa-xian (d. 497), in quest of the twenty-eighth chapter, started for India in 475. He found in Khotan the chapter on Devadatta, a traitorous cousin of the Buddha. He returned and requested that Fa-i translate it. This chapter has since been added to the Kumārajīva version.

Kumārajīva’s version has surpassed others partly because it is the translation of the oldest text. Most probably the original came from Khotan. Jñānagupta said that it agreed with a manuscript in the Kuchean language, which he had seen. Since Mahāyāna Buddhism developed in northern (p.118) India or even further north in Central Asia, its early sūtras were in local dialects of these areas and only later put into Sanskrit. Kumārajīva’s version also agrees with the Tibetan version, and Tibetan translations are generally taken from the oldest texts. Takakusu believes Kumārajīva’s original to be the oldest because, among other things, it quotes from Nāgārjuna (c. 100–200).7 On the basis of textual criticism, scholars believe that the original contained twenty-one chapters, dated about 250 c.e., and was later expanded to twenty-eight.8

The more important reason for the supremacy of the Kumārajīva version is Kumārajīva himself. He opened up new studies in Buddhism in China, inaugurated a new era in translation, and trained as his pupils some of the most prominent Buddhist scholars, including the so-called Ten Philosophers of the Kumārajīva School, in Chinese history. Half Indian and half Kuchean, Kumārajīva became a monk at seven. He had such a great reputation in the Western regions that a Chinese king sent a general to bring him to China. After the general had kept him in northwestern China for seventeen years, another Chinese king dispatched an army to bring him to the capital in 401. There he enjoyed the highest honors and had the highest title of National Teacher conferred on him. Over a thousand monks attended his daily lectures. When he translated the Lotus, no fewer than two thousand scholars from all parts of China gathered around him. His scholarship and Chinese literary ability matched the best of the age. All in all, he inaugurated a new epoch in Chinese Buddhism, and the Lotus is one of the monuments of that achievement.

Since the translation agrees with the Tibetan, its accuracy cannot be questioned. However, Kumārajīva did take liberties. For example, he translated tathāgataśarīra (literally, “bone of the Tathāgata”) as ru-lai quan-shen, “Total Body of the Buddha” (chaps. 11 and 19).9 Evidently, he preferred to preserve the spirit of the work rather than translate literally. No wonder the lively Mahāyāna spirit prevails throughout the whole book.

How should we read this text today? We should not look for arguments or information in it. Since it was written and has been used for religious practice and experience, it is to be appreciated with goodwill and understanding. It does not matter whether you read it in its entirety or in part, whether this or that section first, whether in great seriousness or with a carefree spirit. You should approach it as you would approach a lotus flower. Look at its color now and then, and occasionally take in its fragrance. If you are in the proper spirit, a new lotus may even spring up for you.

(p.119) Notes

The Lotus Sūtra remains a basic scripture for several Japanese Buddhist sects today, who are active in translating and disseminating it worldwide. The standard scholarly translation into English of Kumārajīva’s Chinese version is by Leon Hurwitz, published by Columbia University Press in 1976, under the title The Scripture of the Lotus Blossom of the Fine Dharma. A partial English translation by W. E. Soothill, The Lotus of the Wonderful Law (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1931), omits many repetitious passages, but generally preserves the inspirational qualities of Kumārajīva’s version. The translation of H. Kern, The Saddharma Puṇḍarīka or the Lotus of the True Law (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984), is complete, but it is from a Sanskrit manuscript dated 1039, much later than the Kumārajīva text.


(1.) Junjirō Takakusu, The Essentials of Buddhist Philosophy, ed. Charles Moore and Wing-tsit Chan (Honolulu: University Press of Hawaii, 1947), 182.

(2.) J. Leroy Davidson, The Lotus Sutra in Chinese Art (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1954), 24ff.

(3.) A. K. Coomaraswamy, Elements of Buddhist Iconography (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1935), 18.

(4.) Sanskrit title: Saddharma-pundarīka Sūtra. For a good study of the sutra, see Edward J. Thomas, The History of Buddhistic Thought (London: Kegan Paul, 1933), chap. 14.

(5.) The Lotus of the Wonderful Law, or the Lotus Gospel, trans. W. E. Soothill (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1930).

(6.) Another translation, now lost, was done in 335 by Chih Tao-ken.

(8.) Ibid., 177; H. Kern, The Saddharmapundarīka or the Lotus of the True Law, vol. 21 of Sacred Books of the East (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1884), xxii.

(9.) Fuse Kōgaku, “Hokkekyō no seishin to yakkai no mondai [The Spirit of the Lotus and Problems of Its Translation and Interpretation],” Journal of Indian and Buddhist Studies 5, no. 1 (January 1957): 73–82.