Lotus Sūtra | Religious Significance | 3

White Lotus Flower
White Lotus Flower

1. Reception in India

The Lotus Sūtra (Skt. Saddharma Puṇḍarīka Sūtra, The Discourse on the White Lotus of the True Doctrine) is the most famous Mahāyāna Sūtra.

The number of surviving manuscripts and manuscript fragments of the Lotus Sūtra suggests that the text was copied often.

The Lotus Sūtra is also cited in numerous scholarly treatises and compendiums,

including in the Compendium of Sūtras (Sūtra-samuccaya, which cites 4 passages from the Lotus), in the Compendium of Training (Śikṣā-samuccaya, 3 passages),

in the Da zhidu lun (23 citations) and in the Great Compendium of Sūtras (Mahā-sūtra-samuccaya) by the 11th-century Bengali master Atiśa.

It is cited by Indian Buddhists such as Vasubandhu (in his commentary on the Mahāyāna Saṁgraha), Candrakīrti (Madhyamakāvatāra-bhāṣya), Śāntideva, Kamalaśīla and Abhayākaragupta.

According to Paramārtha (499–569 CE), there were over 50 Indian commentaries on the Lotus.

However, there is only 1 surviving Indian commentary (which only survives in Chinese):

It is attributed to Vasubandhu (but this has been questioned by scholars). This commentary asserts the superiority of the Lotus above all other Sūtras.

The Lotus Sūtra's doctrine of the One Vehicle was not received equally by all Indian Buddhist traditions:

While this doctrine was fully embraced by the Mādhyamika School, the Yogācāra School saw the Lotus Sūtra as a provisional text.

Thus, for the Indian Yogācāra thinkers, the doctrine of the One Vehicle should not be taken literally, since it is merely provisional.

The Yogācāra commentators argue in turn that the declaration that there is but One Vehicle is not definitive but provisional, requiring interpretation; it is not to be taken to mean that there are not, in fact, 3 Vehicles.

When the Buddha said that the Buddha vehicle was the One Vehicle, he was exaggerating. What he meant was that it was the Supreme Vehicle.

For Yogācāra scholars, this Sūtra was taught as an Expedient Means for the benefit of those persons who have entered the lesser Śrāvaka Vehicle but have the capacity to embrace the Mahāyāna.

An Indian version of the Lotus Sūtra was translated into Tibetan by Yeshe De (Jñanasūtra) and the Indian translator Surendrabodhi during the reign of King Ralpachen (r. 815–38).

This version most closely matches the Chinese version of Jñānagupta and Dharmagupta, as well as the Nepalese Sanskrit version.

In China

2. Translations

3 translations of the Lotus Sūtra into Chinese are extant:

It was 1st translated into Chinese by Dharmarakṣa's team in 286 CE in Chang'an during the Western Jin Period (265–317 CE).

It was initially held that the source text was in Sanskrit, however, the view that the source text was actually in a Prakrit language has gained widespread acceptance.

This early translation by Dharmarakṣa was superseded by a translation in 7 fascicles by Kumārajīva's team in 406 CE which became the standard translation in East Asian Buddhism.

Kumārajīva relied heavily on the earlier version. Kumārajīva's version is missing the Devadatta chapter which had been present in the Dharmarakṣa version.

The 3rd extant version, The Supplemented Lotus Sūtra of the Wonderful Dharma in 7 volumes and 27 chapters, is a revised version of Kumārajīva's text, translated by Jñānagupta and Dharmagupta in 601 CE.

This version included elements that were absent in the Kumārajīva text, including the Devadatta chapter, various verses and the concluding part of chapter 25. Later, these elements were added back to the Kumārajīva text.

The Chinese Lotus Sūtra has been translated into other Asian languages including Uighur, Tangut, and more recently colloquial Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, and Korean.

3. Commentaries

One of Kumārajīva's great disciples, Daosheng (355–434), wrote the oldest surviving Chinese commentary on the Lotus Sūtra (titled the Fahua jing yishu).

For Daosheng, the central teaching of the Sūtra is the One Vehicle.

Daosheng divided the Sūtra into 3 parts (omitting the Devadatta Chapter):

1) the 1-13 chapters demonstrate that the cause of the 3 Vehicles becomes the cause of the One Vehicle.

2) The chapters 14-21 demonstrate that the effect of the 3 Vehicles is also the effect of the One Vehicle.

3) The final chapters 22-27 demonstrate that the followers of the 3 Vehicles are the same as the followers of the One Vehicle.

Daosheng was also known for promoting the concept of Buddha Nature and the idea that even deluded people will attain Enlightenment.

Already during the Tang Dynasty, Daoxuan (596–667) was writing that the Lotus Sūtra was the most important Sūtra in China.

Kuījī (632–82), a disciple of Xuanzang, wrote a commentary on the Lotus Sūtra: This commentary was translated into Tibetan and survives in the Tibetan Buddhist Canon.

Numerous other commentators from different Chinese Buddhist traditions wrote commentaries on the Lotus.

One topic of debate among Chinese commentators to the Lotus was the 3 carts or 4 carts debate which focused on whether the One Vehicle was the same as the Bodhisattva Vehicle or a different vehicle that transcends the Mahāyāna.

Chinese exegetes also disagreed on whether the Buddha of the Lotus Sūtra had an infinite life or a finite life (of immeasurable length)

as well as on the issue of whether the ultimate, Primordial Buddha of the Lotus referred to the Dharma-body (dharmakāya), to the Reward Body (Saṁbhogakāya), or to the manifest, Physical Body (Nirmaņakāya).

4. Tiantai

Perhaps the most influential Chinese commentator on the Lotus Sūtra was Zhiyi (538–597), a patriarch of the Tiantai School, who was said to have experienced awakening while reading the Lotus Sūtra.

Zhiyi was a student of Nanyue Huisi who was the leading authority of his time on the Lotus Sūtra.

Zhiyi adopted Daosheng's division of the Sūtra into 3 parts.

For Zhiyi, the 1-14 chapters are the trace teaching and the 15-28 chapters are the fundamental or original teaching.

For Zhiyi, the key message of the 1st part is the One Vehicle, while the key message of the 2nd half (the fundamental teaching of the whole text) is the Immeasurable Lifespan of the Buddha.

Zhiyi compares the fundamental teaching with the moon shining in the sky and the trace teaching with a moon reflected in a lake; the 1st is the source of the 2nd.

The Chinese practice of developing systems of doctrinal classifications (panjiao) was adopted by Zhiyi, which he interpreted through the doctrine of the One Vehicle.

For Zhiyi, while other Sūtras provide different messages for their intended audiences, the Lotus is uniquely comprehensive and holistic.

Zhiyi's philosophical synthesis saw the Lotus Sūtra as the final teaching of the Buddha and the highest teaching of Buddhism.

There are 2 major commentaries from Zhiyi on the Sūtra, the Profound Meaning of the Lotus Sūtra (Fahua xuanyi) which explains the main principles of the text

and the Words and Phrases of the Lotus Sūtra (Fahua Wenzhu), which comments on specific passages.

These 2 works were compiled by Zhiyi's disciple Guanding (561–632).

For Zhiyi, the central principle of the Lotus Sūtra's One Vehicle is the 3-fold Truth, a doctrine he developed out of Nāgārjuna’s Mādhyamika philosophy which posited a 2-fold truth.

For Zhiyi, this was the unifying principle which included all of the teachings of the Buddha's teachings and practices.

Zhiyi's view of the Lotus was an inclusive vision which had a place for every Buddhist Sūtra, teaching and practice.

Zhiyi also linked the teachings of the Lotus Sūtra with the Buddha Nature teachings of the Mahāyāna Mahā Parinirvāṇa Sūtra.

Zhiyi also interpreted the Buddha of the Lotus Sūtra as referring to all 3 Buddha bodies of the Trikāya:

For Zhiyi the Dharma Body is the Truth that is realized; the Reward Body is the Wisdom that realizes it; and the Manifest Body, a compassionate expression of that wisdom as the human Buddha who lived and taught in this world.

For Zhiyi, Vairocana (the primordial Buddha) is seen as the bliss body (Saṁbhogakāya) of the historical Gautama Buddha.

Zhiyi also wrote texts which outlined various spiritual practices that made use of the Lotus Sūtra. For example, chanting the Sūtra is an element of one of the 4 Samādhis in Zhiyi's magnum opus, the Mohe Zhiguan.

He also composed the Lotus Samādhi Rite of Repentance based on the sūtra.

The later Tiantai scholar Zhanran (711–778) wrote sub-commentaries to Zhiyi's works on the Lotus:

Based on his analysis of chapter 5, Zhanran would develop a new theory which held that even insentient beings such as rocks, trees and dust particles, possess Buddha-Nature. This doctrine would be adopted and developed by Japanese Buddhists like Saichō and Nichiren.

5. The Chinese Threefold Lotus Sūtra

Due to the religious and sacred emphasis on the Buddhist text, some East Asian traditions have compiled the Lotus Sūtra together with 2 other Sūtras which serve as a prologue and epilogue

1) The Innumerable Meanings Sūtra;
2) The Samantabhadra Meditation Sūtra

The combination of these 3 Sūtras is often called the Threefold Lotus Sūtra or 3-Part Dharma Flower Sūtra.

6. Japan

The Lotus Sūtra has also been an extremely influential text in Japanese Buddhism. One of the oldest Japanese texts is the Hokke Gisho, a commentary on the Lotus Sūtra based on the Chinese commentary by Fayun (467–529 CE).

By the 8th century, the Sūtra was important enough that the Emperor had established a network of nunneries, the so-called Temples for the Eradication of Sins through the Lotus, in each province, as a way to protect the royal family and the state.

There were also various Lotus Sūtra rituals that were held throughout Japan, at both temples and aristocratic households:

They were believed to help the dead and to grant long life to the living. These rituals are mentioned in The Tale of Genji (11th century literary work).

The Sūtra was also very influential on Japanese art and some copies of the text are high elaborate and ornate.

7. Tendai

The Tiantai School was brought to Japan by Saichō (767–822), who founded the Japanese Tendai tradition and wrote a commentary to the Lotus Sūtra, which would remain central to Tendai.

Saichō attempted to create a great synthesis of the various Chinese Buddhist traditions in his new Tendai School (including Esoteric, Pure Land, Zen and other elements), all which would be united under the Lotus One Vehicle doctrine.  

Saichō also understood the Lotus Sūtra to be a great direct path to Buddhahood which could be reached in this very life and in this very body.

Saichō taught that the Dragon king's daughter story was evidence for this direct path to Buddhahood which did not require 3 incalculable Eons.

Like Zhiyi, the Japanese Tendai School (as well as the Nichiren tradition which is influenced by Tendai) divided the Lotus Sūtra into 2 parts:

1) the trace or provisional teachings (Chapters 1–14)
2) the Essential teaching (Chapters 15–22) of the true and original Buddha.

Post-Saichō Tendai leaders like Ennin and Enchin also adopted further teachings from Esoteric Buddhism (mikkyō) into their interpretation and practice of the Lotus.

These figures interpreted the Lotus as an Esoteric text, and the Buddha of the Lotus Sūtra became seen as timeless and omnipresent cosmic reality that is immanent in all things.

By reciting mantras, performing mudras and using maṇḍalas in esoteric rituals, Tendai monks sought to unite their body, speech and mind with that of the Buddha and attain Buddhahood in this very body.

In Tendai esotericism, the Cosmic Buddha is identified with the primordially enlightened Śākyamuni of the Life Span chapter, and his Realm—that is, the entire universe—is conceived in maṇḍala terms as an ever-present, on-going Lotus Sūtra assembly.

As result of this interpretation, all the provisional Buddhas (such as Amida, Dainichi, and Yakushi) were integrated into the Primordial Buddha of immeasurable life from the latter half of the Lotus Sūtra.

These esoteric influences also led to the development of the Tendai concept of Original Enlightenment (Hongaku hōmon):

According to this theory, Buddhahood is not a distant goal, but is always present as the true inherent nature of all things. Buddhist practice is a way to realize this nature.

Apart from the major Heian period Tendai temples, there also arose groups of independent Lotus Sūtra devotees or Lotus holy ones (Hokke hijiri).

Many of them were mountain ascetics, or recluses (tonsei) who disliked the large established temples and saw them as more concerned with worldly gain.

They focused instead on practices based on the simple recitation, listening or reading of the Lotus Sūtra in solitary places, something which did not require temples and ritual paraphernalia.

Tendai Buddhism was the dominant form of mainstream Buddhism in Japan for many years and the influential founders of later popular Japanese Buddhist sects including Nichiren, Hōnen, Shinran and Dōgen were trained as Tendai monks.

8. Nichiren Buddhism

The Japanese monk Nichiren (1222–1282) founded a new Buddhist school based on his belief that the Lotus Sūtra is the Buddha's Ultimate Teaching, and that the title is the essence of the Sūtra, the seed of Buddhahood.

He was originally a Tendai monk, but grew to believe that Tendai had become corrupt and had turned away from the Lotus Sūtra and embraced all sorts of useless practices, such as Esoteric Buddhism and Pure Land devotion.

Nichiren taught that chanting the title of the Lotus Sūtra in a phrase called the Daimoku (Namu Myōhō Renge Kyō, Glory to the Dharma of the Lotus Sūtra) – was the only effective Buddhist practice in what he believed was the current degenerate age of Dharma Decline (Jp. Mappo).

This was to be recited in front of a Gohonzon (object of veneration).  

Nichiren believed that the immanent Buddha Realm is an ever-present reality which one could access by this practice.

Nichiren held that all other Buddhist sects were gravely mistaken and doomed to Avīci hell because they slandered the true Dharma by seeing other teachings as being above or equal to the Lotus Sūtra.

He also held that the current social and political chaos in Japan was caused by this sinful behaviour.

He therefore tasked himself and his followers with rescuing as many people as possible by getting them to abandon their heretical forms of Buddhism through direct confrontation and converting them to the One Vehicle of the Lotus.

He believed that establishing the True Dharma of the Lotus in Japan would lead to lasting peace and he identified with the Bodhisattva Viśiṣṭacāritra, leader of the Bodhisattvas of the Earth which appear in chapter 15.

Nichiren thus vehemently attacked the teachings of all other Japanese Buddhist sects in person and in print.

This behaviour would often lead to the persecution of Nichiren and Nichiren Buddhists.

Nichiren saw this persecution as a compassionate act of self-sacrifice, which needed to be endured.

He found this ideal in chapters 10–22 as the 3rd Realm of the Lotus Sūtra (daisan hōmon) which emphasizes the need for a Bodhisattva to endure the trials of life in the defiled Sahā world.

For Nichiren, these trials and tribulations were termed shikidoku (reading (the Lotus Sūtra) with the body) and they were believed to burn off negative Karma.

Nichiren Buddhism went through various developments and schisms after the death of Nichiren.

9. Zen Buddhism

The Lotus Sūtra was also a key source for Dōgen (1200–1263), the Japanese founder of Sōtō Zen Buddhism.

Dōgen writes in his Shōbōgenzō that compared with this sūtra, all the other sūtras are merely its servants, its relatives, for it alone expounds the Truth.  

While Dōgen's writings employ many sources, probably along with his own intuitive meditative awareness, his direct citations of the Lotus Sūtra indicate his conscious appropriation of its teachings as a significant source.

In his Shōbōgenzō, Dōgen directly discusses the Lotus Sūtra in the essay Hokke-Ten-Hokke, The Dharma Flower Turns the Dharma Flower:

The essay uses a dialogue from the Platform Sūtra between Huineng and a monk who has memorized the Lotus Sūtra to illustrate the non-dual nature of Dharma practice and Sūtra study.

During his final days, Dōgen spent his time reciting and writing the Lotus Sūtra in his room which he named The Lotus Sūtra Hermitage.

The Sōtō Zen monk Ryōkan also studied the Lotus Sūtra extensively and this Sūtra was the biggest inspiration for his poetry and calligraphy.

The Rinzai Zen master Hakuin Ekaku (1687–1768) achieved enlightenment while reading the 3rd chapter of the Lotus Sūtra.

Hakuin writes that when he first read the Sūtra at age 16, he was disappointed with it. However, 16 years later, after experiencing an awakening, he wrote,

    “One night, after some time, I took up the Lotus Sūtra. Suddenly I penetrated to the perfect, true, ultimate meaning of the Lotus.

The doubts I had held initially were destroyed and I became aware that the understanding I had obtained up to then was greatly in error. Unconsciously I uttered a great cry and burst into tears.”

10. Modern developments

Modernist Japanese interpretations of the Lotus Sūtra begin with the early 20th century Nationalist applications of the Lotus Sūtra.

Japanese New Religions began forming in the 19th century and the trend accelerated after World War II. Some of these groups have pushed the study and practice of the Lotus Sūtra to a global scale.

The most important role among several Japanese New Religious Movements in Lotus Sūtra scholarship have had the lay groups Reiyūkai and Sōka Gakkai and Risshō Kōsei Kai.

Several of these new Lotus based groups, such as Risshō Kōsei Kai and Sōka Gakkai, are also known for their social activism, international relief work and peace work.

Sōka Gakkai generally follows an exclusivist approach to the Lotus Sūtra, believing that only Nichiren Buddhism can bring world peace.

Meanwhile, Risshō Kōsei Kai follows an ecumenical, and inclusive approach and is known for its interfaith efforts and focus on World Peace.

According to their co-founder Niwano Nikkyō (1906–1999),

Lotus Sūtra is not a proper noun, but the Fundamental Truth—God, Allah, or the One Vehicle—at the heart of all great religions.

In a similar fashion, Etai Yamada (1900–1999), the 253rd head priest of the Tendai denomination conducted ecumenical dialogues with religious leaders around the world based on his inclusive interpretation of the Lotus Sūtra, which culminated in a 1987 summit.

He also used the Lotus Sūtra to move his sect from a temple Buddhism perspective to one based on social engagement.

Nichiren-inspired Buddhist organizations have shared their interpretations of the Lotus Sūtra through publications, academic symposia, and exhibitions.

The most famous and successful of the Japanese New Religions, has been Sōka Gakkai:

 Sōka Gakkai (The Value Creation Society) was a lay organization founded by the Nichiren-ists Tsunesaburō Makiguchi (1871–1944) and Toda Jōsei (1900–1958).

It became known for its aggressive conversion efforts based on confrontational proselytization as well as for its emphasis on this-worldly benefits,

- such as good health and financial prosperity which would accrue to those who helped spread the message of the Lotus.  

Sōka Gakkai was originally affiliated with Taiseki-ji, a Nichiren Shō-shū temple, but it was excommunicated from Nichiren Shōshu in the 1990s.

Sōka Gakkai no longer teaches the differences between the 2 gates or divisions of the Lotus Sūtra.

Instead, the modern organization teaches that only the sincere recitation of the Daimoku is the Doctrine of Essential Teaching

and that this does not require any clerical priesthood or temples since the true Saṅgha comprises all people who believe in the Buddha Dharma of Nichiren.