Lotus Sūtra | Key Teachings | 1

Lotus Flower
Lotus Flower

1. Lotus Sūtra

The Lotus Sūtra (Sanskrit: Saddharma Puṇḍarīka Sūtra, lit. 'Sūtra on the White Lotus of the True Dharma') is one of the most influential and venerated Buddhist Mahāyāna sūtras.

It is the main scripture on which the Tiantai, Tendai and Nichiren schools of Buddhism were established. It is also influential for other East Asian Buddhist schools, such as Zen.

For many Buddhists in East Asia since early times, the Lotus Sūtra contains the final teaching of Śākyamuni Buddha—complete and sufficient for salvation.

The Lotus Sūtra is arguably the most famous of all Buddhist texts, presenting a radical revision of both the Buddhist path and of the person of the Buddha.

2 central teachings of the Lotus Sūtra have been very influential for Mahāyāna Buddhism:

The 1st is the doctrine of the One Vehicle, which says that all Buddhist paths and practices lead to Buddhahood and so they are all merely Skilful Means (Upāya) of reaching Buddhahood.

The 2nd is the idea that the lifespan of the Buddha is immeasurable and that therefore, he did not really pass on into final Nirvāṇa (he only appeared to do so as Upāya), but is still active teaching the Dharma.

2. Title

The earliest known Sanskrit title for the sūtra is the Saddharma Puṇḍarīka Sūtra, which can be translated as the Scripture of the Lotus Blossom of the Fine Dharma or The Discourse on the White Lotus of the True Doctrine.

In English, the shortened form Lotus Sūtra is most common.

Translations of this title into Asian languages include the following:

The title of Kumārajīva’s (344–413 CE) Chinese translation of the Sūtra mean: Subtle Dharma Lotus Flower Sūtra. Shortened title: Dharma Flower Sūtra.

The title of Dharmarakṣa’s (c. 233-311 CE) Chinese translation is True Dharma Flower Sūtra.

In Japanese it is famous as Myōhō Renge Kyō (short: Hoke-kyō)

The Puṇḍarīka (the white lotus) is a symbol of particular purity in Indian literature, while the term Saddharma (true doctrine) is used to distinguish the Lotus Sūtra from all other previous teachings of the Buddha.

The lotus flower imagery is also said to point to the earthly connection of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas:

The lotus is rooted in the earthly mud and yet flowers above the water in the open air, just like the Bodhisattva lives in the world but remains unstained by it.

The Japanese Buddhist priest Nichiren (1222–1282) regarded the title as the summary of the Lotus Sūtra's teachings:

The chanting of the title Nam Myōhō Renge Kyō is the basic religious practice he advocated during his lifetime.

3. One Vehicle, Many Skilful Means

The Lotus Sūtra is known for its extensive instruction on Skilful Means (Sanskrit: Upāya kauśalya or Upāya, Jp.: hōben), which refers to how Buddhas teach in many ways adapted to the needs of their disciples.

This concept of Buddhist pedagogical strategies is often explained through parables or allegories.

In the Lotus, the many 'skilful' or 'expedient' practices and teachings taught by the Buddha (including the 3 vehicles to awakening) are revealed to all be part of the One Vehicle (Skt.: Ekayāna), the supreme and all-encompassing path that leads to Buddhahood.

Moreover, this Single Vehicle is none other than the myriad Skilful Means which are its expressions and modes.

As the Buddha says in the sūtra seek as you will in all 10 directions, there is no other vehicle, apart from the Upāyas of the Buddhas.

The One Vehicle is often associated with the Mahāyāna (Great Vehicle), which is a path that rejects the cutting off of rebirth (the individual Nirvāṇa or extinction of the Buddhist saint)

and seeks to heroically remain in the world of suffering to help others to attain awakening, all while working towards complete Buddhahood.

In the Lotus Sūtra, the One Vehicle encompasses many different and seemingly contradictory teachings

because the Buddha's great compassion and wish to save all beings (bodhicitta) led him to adapt the teaching to suit many different kinds of people and contexts.

As the Buddha states in the Lotus Sūtra:

Ever since I became a Buddha, I have used a variety of causal explanations and a variety of parables to teach and preach, and countless Skilful Means to lead living beings.

The Lotus Sūtra sees also all other teachings are subservient to, propagated by and in the service of the ultimate truth of the One Buddha–Vehicle, a goal that is available to all.

This can and has been interpreted by some figures in an exclusive and hierarchical sense, as meaning that all other Buddhist teachings are to be dispensed with.

However, many interpreters understand the One Vehicle in a more pluralist and inclusive sense which embraces and reconciles all Buddhist teachings and practices. Some have even applied this universalism to non-Buddhist teachings.

We can see this on the example of Tiantai / Tendai tradition – which tried to encompass All Buddhist Teachings – and later from their midst arouse very exclusive & separate Pure Land School & Nichiren Buddhism, which stressed only their way as the only vehicle.

The theme of unity and difference also includes other ideas besides the One Vehicle.

For example: there are said to be many Buddhas, they are all closely connected with Śākyamuni and they all teach the same thing.

4. All beings can be Buddhas

Another important teaching of the Lotus Sūtra is that All Beings can become Buddhas.

The Sūtra sees the awakening of a Buddha as the only and ultimate goal and it boldly claims that of any who hear the dharma, none shall fail to achieve Buddhahood.

Numerous figures in the Sūtra receive predictions of future Buddhahood, including the ultimate Buddhist villain Devadatta.

In chapter 10, the Buddha points out that all sorts of people will become Buddhas, including monks, nuns, laypeople, along with numerous non-human beings like Nāgas.

Even those, who practice only simple forms of devotion, such as paying respect to the Buddha, or drawing a picture of the Buddha, are assured of their future Buddhahood.

This teaching also encourages us see this potential for Buddhahood in all beings, even in enemies as well as to realize our own capacity to be a Buddha for someone else.

The story of the little Dragon Girl promotes the idea that women can also become Buddhas just like male monks.

This can be seen as an inclusive message which affirms the equality of everyone and seeks to provide an understanding of Buddha-dharma that excludes no one.

Although the term Buddha-nature (Buddha-dhātu) is not mentioned in the Lotus Sūtra, scholars suggest that the concept is implicitly present in the text.  

An Indian early commentary, interprets the Lotus Sūtra as a teaching of Buddha-nature and later East Asian commentaries tended to adopt this view.

Chinese commentators pointed to the story of Bodhisattva Never Disparaging in chapter 20 as evidence that the Lotus taught Buddha-nature implicitly.

5. The nature of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas

Another key concept introduced by the Lotus Sūtra is the idea that the Buddha's lifespan is immeasurable and that he is still present in the world.

The text states that the Buddha actually achieved Buddhahood innumerable Eons ago, but remains in the world to help teach beings the Dharma time and again.

The lifespan of the Buddha is said to be incalculable, beyond imagination, ever enduring, never perishing.

The biography and apparent death (Parinirvāṇa, final nirvana) of Śākyamuni Buddha (i.e. the Buddha Gautama) are portrayed as an illusory manifestation, a Skilful Means meant to teach others.

The idea that the physical death of a Buddha is the termination of their life is graphically refuted by the appearance of another Buddha, Prabhūtaratna (Abundant Treasures), who has taught the Lotus countless aeons ago.

The Lotus Sūtra indicates that not only can multiple Buddhas exist in the same time and place (which contrasts with earlier Indian views), but that there are countless streams of Buddhas extending throughout all of space and through unquantifiable eons of time.

The Lotus Sūtra illustrates a sense of timelessness and the inconceivable, often using large numbers and measurements of space and time.

The Lotus Sūtra affirms the view that the Buddha constantly abides in our present world.

As the Lotus states in chapter 16, the Buddha remains constantly dwelling in this Sahā world sphere, preaching the dharma, teaching and converting.

The Sūtra has also been interpreted as promoting the idea that the Buddha's Realm (Buddhakṣetra) is in some sense immanent in the present world, although radically different from our ordinary experience of being, free from decay, danger and suffering.

In this view, very influential in Tiantai and Japanese Buddhism, this world and the Pure Land are not, ultimately, separate places but are in fact here and now.

The Lotus Sūtra also teaches that the Buddha has many Embodiments and these are the countless Bodhisattva disciples. These Bodhisattvas choose to remain in the world to save all beings and to keep the teaching alive.