Lotus Sūtra | Summary | 2

Lotus Flower
Lotus Flower

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

Originating in India where it had moderate import, it had great influence in China, Korea, and Japan, where it inspired the development of the Tiantai, Tendai and Nichiren schools of Buddhism.

The Lotus Sūtra is a very large text, around 350 pages of text, so here I will publish a short Summary of its chapters.

The origin of the Lotus Sūtra in India remains obscure, but some contemporary secular scholars believe it to have been written down in 4 phases,

with Chapters 2-9 (in Kumārajīva’s (344-413) 28 chapter format, see below) appearing as early as 100-50 BCE, the prose sections of the same chapters then added,

Chapters 1 and 10-22 (except Chapter 12) added still later, and Chapters 23-27, as well as Chapter 12, finally added, except for Chapter 28, which may have been attached as late as 220 CE as a final conclusion to the Sūtra.

As with other early Sūtras, parts of the text likely existed orally for some time before it was written down.

Chapter 1

During a gathering at Vulture Peak, Śākyamuni Buddha goes into a state of deep meditative absorption (Samādhi), the earth shakes in 6 ways,

and he brings forth a ray of light from the tuft of hair in between his eyebrows (ūrṇā-kośa) which illuminates thousands of Buddha-fields in the east.

Maitreya wonders what this means, and the Bodhisattva Mañjuśrī states that he has seen this miracle long ago when he was a student of the Buddha Candra-Sūrya-Pradīpa.

He then says that the Buddha is about to expound his Ultimate Teaching, The White Lotus of the Good Dharma.

In fact, Mañjuśrī says this Sūtra was taught by other Buddhas innumerable times in the past.

Chapters 2–9

Modern scholars suggest that chapters 2–9 contain the original form of the text.

In Chapter 2 the Buddha declares that there ultimately exists only One Path, One Vehicle, the Buddha vehicle (Buddha Yāna).

This concept is set forth in detail in chapters 3–9, using parables, narratives of previous existences and prophecies of awakening.

Chapter 2: Skilful Means

Śākyamuni explains his use of Skilful Means to adapt his teachings according to the capacities of his audience. He also says that his ways are inconceivable.

Śāriputra asks the Buddha to explain this and 5 000 monks leave because they do not want to hear this teaching.

The Buddha then reveals that the 3 Vehicles (Yānas) are really just Skilful Means, and that they are in reality the One Vehicle (Ekayāna).

He says that the ultimate purpose of the Buddhas is to cause sentient beings to obtain the insight of the Buddha and to enter the way into the insight of the Buddha.

The Buddha also states the various benefits for those who preserve the Sūtra, and that those who perform even the simplest forms of devotion will eventually reach Buddhahood.

The Buddha also states that those who reject and insult the Lotus Sūtra (and those who teach it) will be reborn in Hell.

Chapter 3: The Parable of the Burning House

The Buddha prophecies that in a future Eon (Kalpa) Śāriputra will become a Buddha called Padmaprabha.

Śāriputra is happy to have heard this new teaching, but says that some in the assembly are confused.

The Buddha responds with the parable of the burning house, in which a father (symbolizing the Buddha) uses the promise of various toy carts to get his children (sentient beings) out of a burning house (symbolizing Saṁsāra).

Once they are outside, he gives them all one large cart to travel in instead.

This symbolizes how the Buddha uses the 3 Vehicles, as Skilful Means to liberate all beings – even though there is only One single vehicle to Buddhahood, i.e. the Mahāyāna.

The Sūtra emphasizes that this is not a lie, but a compassionate salvific act.

Chapter 4: Belief and Understanding

4 senior disciples including Mahākāśyapa address the Buddha. They tell the parable of the poor son and his rich father (sometimes called the prodigal son parable):

This man left home and became a beggar for 50 years while his father became incredibly rich. One day the son arrives at the father's estate, but the son does not recognize his father and is afraid of such a powerful man. The father therefore sends low class people to offer him a menial job cleaning trash.

For over 20 years, the father gradually leads his son to more important and better jobs, such as being the accountant for all the father's wealth.

Then one day he announces his identity and the son is overjoyed.

The senior disciples say that they are like the son, because initially they did not have the confidence to accept Full Buddhahood, but today they are happy to accept their future Buddhahood.

Chapter 5: The Parable of Medicinal Herbs

This parable says that the Dharma is like a great monsoon rain that nourishes many different kinds of plants in accordance with their needs.

The plants represent Śrāvakas, Pratyekabuddhas, and Bodhisattvas, and all beings which receive and respond to the teachings according to their respective capacities.

Some versions of the Sūtra also contain other parables, such as one which compares the Dharma to the light of the Sun and Moon, which shine equally on all. Just like that, the Buddha's Wisdom shines on everyone equally.

Another parable found in some versions says that just like a Potter makes different types of pots from the same clay, the Buddha teaches the same One Vehicle in different forms.

Chapter 6: Bestowal of Prophecy

The Buddha prophesies the future Buddhahood of Mahākāśyapa, Mahā Maudgalyāyana, Subhūti, and Mahā Katyāyana.

Chapter 7: A Past Buddha and the Illusory City

The Buddha tells a story about a past Buddha called Mahābhijñā Jñānābhibhū, who reached awakening after aeons under the Bodhi tree and then taught the Four Noble Truths and Dependent Origination.

At the request of his 16 sons, he then taught the Lotus Sūtra for a 100 thousand Eons.

His sons proceeded to teach the Sūtra. The Buddha then says that these sons all became Buddhas and that he is one of these.

The Buddha also teaches a parable about a group of people seeking a great treasure who are tired of their journey and wish to quit. Their guide creates a Magical Illusory City for them to rest in and then makes it disappear.

The Buddha explains that the Magic City represents the Hīnayāna Nirvāṇa, created merely as a rest stop by the Buddha, and the real treasure and ultimate goal is Buddhahood.

Chapter 8: Prophecy for Five Hundred Disciples

Pūrṇa Maitrāyaṇī putra is declared by the Buddha to be the Supreme Teacher in his saṅgha and is given a prediction of future Buddhahood (his name will be Dharmaprabhāsa).

The Buddha then gives prophecies of future Buddhahood to 12 000 Arhats.

The 500 Arhats who had walked out before confess that they were ignorant in the past and attached to the inferior Nirvāṇa but now they are overjoyed since they have faith in their future Buddhahood.

The Arhats tell the parable of a man who has fallen asleep after drinking and whose friend sews a jewel into his garment.

When he wakes up he continues a life of poverty without realizing he is really rich, he only discovers the jewel after meeting his old friend again.

The hidden jewel has been interpreted as a symbol of Buddha-nature.

Some scholars have noted the similarity with the 9 parables in the Tathāgatagarbha Sūtra that illustrate how the indwelling Buddha in sentient beings is hidden by negative mental states.

Chapter 9: Prophecies for the Learners and Adepts

Ānanda, Rāhula, and 2 000 Bhikṣus aspire to get a prophecy, and the Buddha predicts their future Buddhahood.

Chapters 10–22

Chapters 10-22 expound the role of the Bodhisattva and the concept of the immeasurable and inconceivable lifespan and omnipresence of the Buddha.

The theme of propagating the Lotus Sūtra which starts in chapter 10, continues in the remaining chapters.

Chapter 10: The Dharma teachers

The Buddha states that whoever hears even just 1 line from the sūtra will attain Buddhahood.

This chapter presents the practices of teaching the Sūtra which includes accepting, embracing, reading, reciting, copying, explaining, propagating it, and living in accordance with its teachings.

The Teachers of the Dharma (dharmabhāṇaka) are praised as the messengers of the Buddha.

The Buddha states that they should be honoured as if they were Buddhas and that Stūpas should be built wherever the Sūtra is taught, recited or written.

Someone who does not know the Lotus is like digging a well and finding only dry earth, while a Bodhisattva that knows the Lotus is like striking water.

The Buddha also says that he will send emanations to protect the teachers of the Sūtra.

Chapter 11: The Emergence of the Jewelled Stūpa

A massive Jewelled Stūpa (a stylized Buddhist reliquary burial mound) rises from the earth and floats in the air. Then a voice is heard from within praising the Lotus Sūtra.

The Buddha states that another Buddha resides in the Stūpa, Prabhūtaratna, who attained awakening through the Lotus Sūtra and made a vow to make an appearance to verify the truth of the Lotus Sūtra whenever it is preached.

Countless manifestations of Śākyamuni Buddha in the 10 directions are now summoned by the Buddha into this world, transforming it into a Pure Land.

The Buddha then opens the Stūpa. Thereafter Prabhūtaratna invites Śākyamuni to sit beside him in the Jewelled Stūpa.

This chapter reveals the existence of multiple Buddhas at the same time as well as the idea that Buddhas can live on for countless aeons.

Among the doctrinal revelations that this scene intimates is that a Buddha does not die after he passes into Nirvāṇa.

Chapter 12: Devadatta

The Buddha tells a story about how in a previous life he was a King who became the slave of a Rishi just so he could hear the Lotus Sūtra.

This Rishi was none other than Devadatta, who is destined for Buddhahood in the future as the Buddha Devarāja.

In another story, Mañjuśrī praises the Nāga king Sāgara’s daughter and says she can attain Buddhahood.

The Bodhisattva Prajñākūṭa is sceptical of this, and then the Nāga princess appears. Śāriputra says that women cannot attain Buddhahood.

The Nāga princess makes an offering to the Buddha of a precious jewel and then says she can reach Buddhahood faster than she made that offering.

She then turns into a male Bodhisattva and becomes a Buddha.

Through these stories, the Buddha teaches that everyone can become Enlightened – men, women, animals, and even the most sinful murderers.

Chapter 13: Encouraging Devotion

The Buddha encourages all beings to embrace the teachings of the Sūtra in all times, even in the most difficult ages to come.

The Bodhisattvas Bhaiṣajya-rāja, Mahā Pratibhāna and 200 000 others promise to teach the Sūtra in the future.

The Buddha prophecies that the 6 000 Nuns who are also present, including Mahāprajāpatī and Yaśodharā, will all become Buddhas.

Chapter 14: Peaceful Practices

Mañjuśrī asks how a Bodhisattva should spread the teaching.

The Buddha explains the 4 qualities they should cultivate to teach the Sūtra:

1) They should be self-controlled and correctly see the characteristics of phenomena and they should stay apart from worldly life.

2) They should see the emptiness of phenomena.

3) They should be happy and never criticize and discourage people from Enlightenment.

4) They should have compassion for people and wish to attain Buddhahood so they may help liberate others. Virtues such as patience, gentleness, a calm mind, wisdom and compassion are to be cultivated.

Chapter 15: Emerging from the Earth

The Bodhisattvas from other world systems say they will help the Buddha teach this Sūtra here, but the Buddha says their help is not needed—he has many Bodhisattvas here.

Then the ground splits open and countless Bodhisattvas spring up from the Earth (lead by Viśiṣṭacāritra, Anantacāritra, Viśuddhacāritra, and Supratiṣṭhitacāritra‍), ready to teach.

Maitreya asks who these Bodhisattvas are since nobody has heard of them before.

The Buddha affirms that he has taught all of these Bodhisattvas himself in the remote past after attaining Buddhahood.

Maitreya then asks how this is possible, since these Bodhisattvas have been training for aeons.

Chapter 16: The Life Span of Tathāgata

The Buddha (Tathāgata) states that he actually attained Buddhahood countless quintillions of eons ago. He has only appeared to become awakened recently as a Skilful Means to teach others.

The Buddha also says that he only appears to pass into final Nirvāṇa, but actually he does not really do so. This is just a expedient teaching so that beings will not become complacent.

The Buddha then teaches the Parable of the Excellent Doctor

who entices his poisoned sons into taking an antidote by feigning his death. After they hear this they are shocked and take the medicine. The doctor then reveals he is still alive.

Because the Buddha uses Skilful Means in this way, he should not be seen as a liar, but as an intelligent Teacher.

Chapter 17: Merit

The Buddha explains the merit (puṇya) or benefits that come from listening to and believing in this teaching on the Buddha's lifespan.

He says that this teaching has led countless Bodhisattvas, as many as the sands of the Ganges, to various levels of spiritual accomplishment.

He also says that there greater benefit in hearing and believing the Lotus Sūtra than practicing the first 5 perfections for eons.

The Buddha states that those who have faith in this teaching will see this world as a Pure Land filled with Bodhisattvas.

Those who have faith in the Sūtra have already made offerings to past Buddhas and they do not need to build Stūpas or temples. These beings will developed excellent qualities and attain Buddhahood.

This chapter also says that Caityas should be built to honour the Buddha.

Chapter 18: Rejoicing

The Buddha states that the merit generated from rejoicing in this Sūtra (or in even just a single line from it) is far greater than bringing thousands of beings to Arhat-hood.

The merits of listening to the Sūtra, for even a moment, are extensively praised in this chapter.

Chapter 19: Benefits of the Teacher of the Law

The Buddha praises the merits of those who are devoted to the Lotus Sūtra.

He states that their 6 sense bases (Āyatanas) will become purified and develop the ability to experience the senses of billions of worlds as well as other Supernatural Powers.

Chapter 20: The Bodhisattva Never Disparaging

The Buddha tells a story about a previous life when he was a Bodhisattva called Sadāparibhūta (Never-disparaging or Never-disrespectful)

and how he treated every person he met, good or bad, with respect, always remembering that they will become Buddhas.

Never-disparaging experienced much ridicule and condemnation by other monastics and laypersons but he always responded by saying I do not despise you, for you will become a Buddha.  

He continued to teach this Sūtra for many lifetimes until he reached Buddhahood.

Chapter 21: Supernatural Powers of the Thus Come One

This chapter reveals that the Sūtra contains all of the Buddha's secret spiritual powers.

The Bodhisattvas who have sprung from the Earth (in chapter 15) are entrusted with the task of spreading and propagating it and they promise to do so.

Śākyamuni and Prabhūtaratna extend their tongues into the Brahmā Realm, emitting numerous rays of light along with countless Bodhisattvas.

This miracle lasts for a 100 000 years. Then they clear their throats and snap their fingers, which is heard in all worlds and all worlds shake.

All beings in the universe are then given a vision of the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. All Buddhas praise Śākyamuni for teaching the Lotus.

The Buddha says that the merits of teaching the Sūtra are immeasurable and that any place where it is being taught or copied is a Holy Place.

Chapter 22: Entrustment

The Buddha transmits the Lotus Sūtra to all Bodhisattvas in his congregation and entrusts them with its safekeeping and its propagation far and wide.

The Buddha Prabhūtaratna in his Jewelled Stūpa and the countless manifestations of Śākyamuni Buddha return to their respective Buddha-fields.

The Lotus Sūtra appears to end with Chapter 22, when the Buddha exhorts his disciples to spread the teaching, after which they return to their abodes.

Scholars speculate that this was the final chapter of an earlier version of the Lotus, with the last 6 chapters being interpolations.

This is the final chapter in the Sanskrit versions and the alternative Chinese translation.

Some Scholars suggest that an earlier version of the Sūtra ended with this chapter and that chapters 23–28 were inserted later into the Sanskrit version.

Chapters 23–28

These chapters are focused on various Bodhisattvas and their deeds.

Chapter 23: Former Affairs of Bodhisattva Medicine King

The Buddha tells the story of the 'Medicine King' (Bhaiṣajya-rāja) Bodhisattva, who, in a previous life as the Bodhisattva Sarva-sattva-priyā-darśana, set his body on fire, lighting up many world systems for 12 years, as a supreme offering to a Buddha.

This chapter teaches the practice offering the body, which involves burning a part of one's body (such as toe, finger, or a limb) as an offering.

The hearing and chanting of the Lotus Sūtra is also said to cure diseases.

The Buddha uses 9 similes to declare that the Lotus Sūtra is the king of all Sūtras.

Chapter 24: The Bodhisattva Gadgadasvara

Gadgadasvara ('Wonderful Voice'), a Bodhisattva from a distant world, visits Vulture Peak to worship the Buddha.

Gadgadasvara once made offerings of various kinds of music to the Buddha Megha-dundubhi-svara-rāja. His accumulated merits enable him to take on many different forms to propagate the Lotus Sūtra.

Chapter 25: The Universal Gateway of Avalokiteśvara Bodhisattva

This chapter is devoted to Bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara (Skt. “Lord Who Looks Down”, Ch. Guanyin, “Regarder of the Cries of the World”),

describing him as a compassionate Bodhisattva who hears the cries of sentient beings, and rescues those who call upon his name.

Chapter 26: Dhāraṇī

Hārītī and several Bodhisattvas offer sacred dhāraṇī (magical formulas) in order to protect those who keep and recite the Lotus Sūtra.

Chapter 27: Former Affairs of King Wonderful Adornment

This chapter tells the story of the conversion of King 'Wonderful-Adornment' by his 2 sons.

Chapter 28: Encouragement of Samantabhadra

A Bodhisattva called Universal Virtue or All Good (Samantabhadra) asks the Buddha how to preserve the Sūtra in the future.

Samantabhadra promises to protect and guard all those who keep this Sūtra in the future. He says that those who uphold the Sūtra will be reborn in the Trāyastriṁśa and Tuṣita heavens.

He also says that those who uphold this Sūtra will have many good qualities and should be seen and respected as Buddhas.