Personally, I have found different versions, reflections, thesis, explanations, analysis, and opinions, about the Lotus Sutra. This Sutra is one of the most profound sutras in the timeline of Buddhism. It is supposed to have been one of the latest discourses of the Buddha. The following synopsis is the most interesting writings I've read... so, I place it here, for you to read... The composer calls it "The Drama of Cosmic Enlightenment".
To give a brief idea of what we are concerned with in the White Lotus Sutra I have chosen to call it the Drama of Cosmic Enlightenment. But in its own symbolic terms, the title of the sutra, if we attend carefully to it, speaks for itself. It’s as though the sutra is bursting with symbolism to the extent that even its title--Saddharma-Pundarika Sutra in the original Sanskrit--is symbolic. Before we start investigating the symbols within the sutra, then, let’s have a look at what the title might mean.
Saddharma is usually translated ‘good law’ or ‘good doctrine?the doctrine of course being the teaching of the Buddha--but this translation isn’t really good enough. Sat or sad comes from a Sanskrit root which means ‘to exist’, so it means something more like ‘true’ or ‘real’, ‘genuine’ or ‘authentic’. In the same way, although we may be used to translating ‘Dharma’ as ‘doctrine’ or ‘teaching’, it is more accurately rendered ‘truth’, or even ‘the ultimate nature of things’. Taking the two together, then, the essential meaning of saddharma is ‘the real truth’, and this is how we can best translate it. Incidentally, the same goes for the Pali equivalent saddhamma, which occurs many times in the Dhammapada.
Pundarika means ‘lotus’ or, more specifically, ‘white lotus’. Although we have only one word in English which has to make do for lotuses of all colours, in Sanskrit lotuses of different colours have different names. So we have ‘the white lotus of the real truth’. What does this title suggest? Lotuses usually grow in muddy ponds; but although the plants grow in the mud, the flowers bloom out of the water, so that their petals are pure and unstained. Because of this, the lotus has become a symbol of purity-- purity in the midst of impurity. It has come to symbolize the presence of the Unconditioned in the midst of the conditioned--if you like, the presence of the spiritual in the midst of the worldly--unstained by the conditions in which it appears. So the title of the sutra is suggesting that although the real truth appears in the midst of the world, it is not tainted by any worldly considerations.
The word sutra is the most common term for a Buddhist scripture, so that Buddhists refer to the sutras just as Christians might speak of the Bible. But although it tends to be used so generally, sutra has a specific meaning. It comes from a word meaning ‘a thread: so it suggests a number of topics strung together on a common thread of discourse. The form of a sutra is almost always the same. First you get a description of where the discourse was given, what was going on, and who was present. That is followed by the main body of the text, which usually consists of a teaching of the Dharma, the real truth, by the Buddha himself. The sutra then ends with an account of the effect of the Buddha’s teaching on the people listening.
In some sutras, although the Buddha is present, he stays in the background and one of his disciples speaks, in which case the text ends with the Buddha giving his approval to what the disciple has said, thus making the discourse his own, as it were. Sometimes, especially in Mahayana sutras, it is not even a question of the Buddha giving his approval. A disciple may be doing the actual speaking, but he speaks under the direct inspiration of the Buddha, so that in truth the Buddha is speaking through him. But however it is spoken, it is important to understand that whatever is said in the body of a sutra is not just issuing from the ordinary level of consciousness. It isn’t something that has been worked out intellectually. It isn’t a proof or an explanation of something in the mundane sense. It is a truth, a message, even a revelation, issuing from the depths of the Enlightened consciousness, the depths of the Buddha nature. This is the essential content of any Buddhist scripture, and this is its purpose: to communicate the nature of Enlightenment and show the way leading to its realization.
So we can translate the complete title of this particular communication of the Enlightened mind as ‘the Scripture of the White Lotus (or if you like the Transcendental Lotus) of the Real Truth’. We could scarcely hope to convey in English all the associations of the Sanskrit words, so the translation is only approximate, but it will do.
As a literary document, the White Lotus Sutra--to revert to the short version of the title--belongs to the first century of the Christian era, that is, five hundred years after the death of the Buddha. But although we know when the sutra was first written down, this, of course, does not give us any clue as to when it was first composed. It is hard for us to imagine, but for practically the whole of that first five hundred year period the Buddha’s teaching was passed on by word of mouth. Not a word of it was written down. Indeed, there is no evidence that the Buddha himself could read and write. In those days writing was not a very respectable accomplishment. Corrupt businessmen who wanted to keep a record of their international transactions might write things down, but it was not a proper occupation for religious people. So the Buddha just used to teach in the form of discourses, and people would listen to what he had to say, commit it to memory, and then repeat it to their own disciples. In this way the teachings of Buddhism--and of Hinduism too--were passed on from generation to generation, like the lighted torch passed from one runner to another at the start of the Olympic Games.
But eventually Indian Buddhists did start to write down the Buddha’s teachings. We don’t really know why. Perhaps memories had grown weaker since the Buddha’s day. Perhaps people didn’t feel so confident, and felt there was a danger that the teachings would be lost if they were not written down. Or perhaps reading and writing had become more respectable, so that it was natural to make the teachings available in written form. But whatever the reason, in the first century CE there was a general writing down of the teachings, and the White Lotus Sutra was among the teachings that became scriptures--’scripture’ literally meaning a written document--at that time.
The teachings of Buddhism were written down in various languages-- Sanskrit, Pali, Prakrit, Apabhramsa, Paisaci, and so on--and the White Lotus Sutra was one of the first to be written down in Sanskrit. But although Sanskrit is the language of ancient India, it doesn’t necessarily follow that India was where the text was first written down. By this time Buddhism, especially Mahayana Buddhism, had spread into central Asia, and it may have been there that the White Lotus Sutra was first recorded. After all, we know that the Pali scriptures originated from Sri Lanka, not India, at around the same time. But wherever the White Lotus Sutra was written down, it was written in a mixture of two kinds of Sanskrit: ‘Pure’ Sanskrit and ‘Buddhist Hybrid’ Sanskrit. Pure Sanskrit follows the rules laid down by the grammarian Panini, so it is sometimes called Paninian Sanskrit. Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit (sometimes simply called Mixed Sanskrit) is Sanskrit mixed with Prakritisms to produce a less ‘correct’, more colloquial language.
So the sutra is written in a combination of these two kinds of Sanskrit. It also combines prose and verse, the prose being in Pure, Paninian, Sanskrit and the poetry in Hybrid Sanskrit. This already makes the text quite distinctive. What makes it curious, not to say odd, from a literary point of view, is its structure. The prose and verse come alternately first you get a prose passage of a few pages, and then comes a passage in verse. The curious thing is that the verse passage repeats almost exactly what has just been said in prose (with a few contractions and expansions). Some scholars would have it that the verse sections are older than the prose, but there’s no real proof of that. The whole work, both prose and verse, is divided into twenty-seven chapters, or twenty-eight in some versions--and makes quite a substantial volume.
The original texts of many Buddhist scriptures have been lost, but in the case of the White Lotus Sutra we are fortunate. Copies were discovered in the nineteenth century, and there have been more recent discoveries too--in Nepal, where several copies were unearthed, in the sands of the desert of central Asia, and in Kashmir, where copies were found only a few decades ago. There are also ancient translations of the work into Chinese, Tibetan, and other languages. The standard Chinese translation is the work of Kumarajiva, one of the greatest of all Buddhist translators and scholars, who lived in the fourth and fifth centuries CE, during the T’ang dynasty, a time when Buddhism was thriving in China. For hundreds of years Kumarajiva’s translation exerted an influence on Chinese culture comparable to that of the Authorized Bible on English culture, and it is still considered by the Chinese to be a masterpiece of their classical literature. And as well as making such an impact on the literary world, Kumarajiva’s great achievement also inspired many Chinese artists, resulting in the development of a whole tradition of illustrating well-known scenes from the sutra.
Until fairly recently, only one complete translation of the sutra had been published in English. This was the work of the Dutch scholar Henrich Kern, published in the Sacred Books of the East series in 1884, and still in print. As this was the first translation, and as in those days people didn’t know the real meaning of a number of important Buddhist technical terms, it isn’t surprising that Kern’s version is less than perfect, although it is very good for its time. It’s rather unimaginative, and it contains some extremely odd footnotes. For one thing, the translator seems to be obsessed by the idea that the whole of Buddhism can be explained in terms of astronomy. He also tries to make out that nirvana is quite literally equivalent to the state of physical extinction: Enlightenment equals death, in other words. Very odd. A much more readable, although incomplete, version of the sutra became available in 1930 in the form of a translation of Kumarajiva’s Chinese text made by Bunno Kato and revised by Professor William Soothill, an English missionary who lived for a time in China. Although Soothill was a Christian, he does succeed in conveying the devotional fervour and the spiritual mood of the original text.’
The first sentence of the text is translated in the same way in whatever version you read. Indeed, the opening words are the hallmark of any Buddhist sutra, and the English translation, with its distinctive, slightly antiquated form, has a sort of magic about it, like ‘Once upon a time’. When we hear or read the words ‘Thus have I heard’ (evam maya srutam in Sanskrit), we know at once that a teaching of the Buddha is to follow. But who has ‘heard’? Who is the speaker? According to tradition it is Ananda. Ananda was the Buddha’s cousin, his disciple, and for twenty years his constant attendant and travelling companion. And Ananda is said to be the principal source of the oral tradition. We are told that his memory was so good that he was able to remember almost word for word whatever the Buddha said, and pass it on to the other disciples. If he happened to be out on an errand when the Buddha gave a teaching, he would get the Buddha to repeat it to him so that he had stored away in his memory a collection of everything that the Buddha had ever said.
I must confess that when I first came into contact with Buddhism, I did tend to wonder whether such a thing was possible. But during my twenty years in India, I certainly did meet both Indians and Tibetans who could reel off hundreds and hundreds of pages of scriptures by heart. And later, when I came back to England, I got to know somebody with a memory almost like a tape recorder. He would say, ‘On the eighth of July three years ago, you said...’ and would proceed to reel off, word for word, exactly what I had said--the order in which I had touched on certain topics, the logical stages of the argument, all the illustrations I had used, everything--together with the time of day and the circumstances. So I thought to myself, ‘If it is possible for someone in London in the twentieth century to have such a phenomenal memory, no doubt it was possible in ancient India too’, and I became convinced that the Buddha did have in Ananda someone with this extraordinary capacity to remember discourses and conversations.
But although these words, ‘Thus have I heard’, have a literal, historical significance, they also suggest something more esoteric. In reality, the Buddha is not outside us. The Buddha nature is not outside us, but within us--’This very body the Buddha’, as the Zen tradition has it. And we could say that there’s not just an Ananda outside, in the realm of history; there’s also an Ananda inside us. And just as the historical Ananda listened to the Buddha, so the Ananda inside us hears the voice of truth within. Ananda, we could say, is our own ordinary mind listening to the utterance of our own Enlightened consciousness. It’s as though within us we have two consciousnesses, a lower one and a higher one. The lower consciousness usually ignores the higher one and goes its own way, or maybe doesn’t even know that the higher one exists. But if that lower consciousness just stops and listens for a while, if it is receptive, it becomes aware of the voice of the higher consciousness. Like Ananda listening to the voice of the Buddha, our ordinary mind can be receptive to the higher mind, the Enlightened mind, within us. Taking this line of thought a bit further, we can say that the whole drama of cosmic Enlightenment takes place not only without, on the stage of the cosmos, but also within, in the recesses of our own heart.
Although the opening words of the sutra may be very familiar, once we are past them we find ourselves in a very unfamiliar world indeed. The world of the Mahayana sutra is almost the kind of thing you find in science fiction, on a more spiritual, transcendental level. So before we delve into the parables, myths, and symbols of the sutra, we need an introduction to this strange world. You probably won’t make much sense of it, and I’m afraid I’m not going to offer much help. I’m just going to relate some of the events described in the sutra and leave them to make their own effect, however strange, however bizarre, however unintelligible. For your part, just read it like a story. And whatever you do, don’t think. Don’t try to work it all out. Don’t ask yourself what it all means. Just let your mind stop ticking and take it all in. If you want to set your intellect to work on it, you can do that later on. For the moment, just absorb the content of the sutra as though you were watching a film in the darkness. This is something transcendentally surrealistic, and you really haven’t a hope of working it all out, so just let your rational mind go to sleep for a while and allow the pictures to have their effect. --And don’t be afraid of allowing yourself to feel.
The sutra opens on the Vulture’s Peak. In geographical terms, the Vulture’s Peak is an enormous rocky crag where the Buddha used to stay when he wanted to get away from it all. From there he could see for many miles around. In those days he would have been able to see, far in the distance, the tens of thousands of roofs of Rajagriha, the capital city of Magadha, which was one of the great kingdoms of northem India at that time. But there are no roofs there now. You can still visit the Vulture’s Peak, and it still commands a magnificent view, but there is no city any more. All you can see is dense leopard-inhabited jungle, and here and there a few ancient Buddhist, Jain, and even prehistoric Cyclopean ruins.
Symbolically speaking, the Vulture’s Peak represents the summit of earthly existence. Go beyond it, and you’re in the world of the transcendental, the world of the purely spiritual. So when the sutra describes the Buddha as seated on the Vulture’s Peak, it is placing him half way between heaven and earth. And he is surrounded there by tens of thousands of disciples of various kinds. We are told that there are twelve thousand Arhats, those who have reached nirvana in the Hinayana sense of the destruction of passions, without positive knowledge and illumination. Then there are eighty thousand Bodhisattvas, and also tens of thousands of gods and other non-human beings with their retinues.
And we are told that the Buddha delivers to this huge assembly a great discourse on infinity, a very popular Buddhist topic. He speaks eloquently for a long time, and everybody is deeply moved. Indeed, the effect of the Buddha’s teaching is such that beautiful flowers of many colours start raining down from the heavens, and the whole universe shakes and trembles in six different ways. Then, having finished his discourse, the Buddha enters into deep meditation; and while he is meditating, there comes forth from a spot between his eyebrows a brilliant ray of pure white light. It’s like a great searchlight sweeping all around the universe so that it is possible to see hundreds of millions of miles into the depths of space. In that intense light innumerable world systems are discovered in all the directions of space. And in every world system can be seen much the same thing as is going on in this one: a Buddha preaching, surrounded by disciples, and Bodhisattvas practising the six great disciplines.
So this is the spectacle revealed by the ray of light, which issues from the Buddha as he sits there meditating. Naturally the great assembly is astonished, and everybody wonders what it means, and what is going to happen. The Bodhisattva Maitreya, the future Buddha, as he is sometimes called, enquires of Manjusri, who is the wisest of the Bodhisattvas, traditionally regarded as the incarnation of Wisdom, ‘What is going on? What does this great occurrence signify?’ And Manjusri says, ‘I believe--in fact I’m sure--it means that the Buddha is about to proclaim the White Lotus Sutra.’
And as Manjusri says this, the Buddha slowly emerges from his meditation. He opens his eyes and says, as though speaking to himself, ‘The Truth in its fullness is very difficult to understand.’ So difficult is it, he says, that only the Buddhas, only the fully Enlightened ones, are able to understand it. Only they, and no one else, can understand the Truth in its fullness (which may be a salutary reflection for us). Everybody else, the Buddha tells the assembly, has to approach the truth gradually, step by step; and the Buddha takes this into account in his teaching. He takes people by the hand and leads them one step at a time. First he teaches the Arhat Ideal of gaining nirvana in the sense of the extinction of passions, and only then, when that has been achieved and understood, does he expound the higher, more Mahayanistic ideal of the realization of perfect Buddhahood through following the career of the Bodhisattva.
If he revealed the highest truth all at once, the Buddha goes on to explain, people would be so terrified that they would be unable to receive and assimilate it. Incidentally, this is rather like what happens at the point of death, according to the Tibetan Book of the Dead. In that instant, Reality in its fullness dawns on the mind in one blinding flash. If the mind could bear it, that moment could be the dawning of Enlightenment itself, but it is too much for the mind to bear, and it just shrinks back, terrified, and falls to ever lower levels of reality until it finds a level where it feels at home. Because people are afraid of Reality in this way, although the Buddha knows the full Truth, he can’t take the risk of revealing it to his disciples all at once. He has to take them so far and then show them the next stage, until eventually they reach the ultimate goal. On this occasion, he looks round the assembly and says that he’s not sure whether even now everybody present is ready to hear what he has to say. For there is, he now reveals, something more for them to learn. Even the Arhats among them do not yet know the highest Truth.
This revelation provokes a dramatic incident. Five thousand of the disciples present simply get up and walk out. They murmur among themselves, ‘Something more to learn? That’s impossible. We’re Enlightened, we’ve got nirvana. What more could there possibly be to learn? What is the Buddha talking about? Maybe he’s getting a bit senile. Something more to learn?--not for us!’ And with that they give the Buddha a perfunctory bow, just for old times’ sake, and out they all go, shaking the dust of the assembly from their sandals.
This is a trap into which we can fall only too easily. Mistaking intellectual understanding for true knowledge, we can fool ourselves into thinking that there’s no further to go, nothing more to learn. And of course as soon as we start thinking like that, we can’t possibly learn any more. This is the biggest danger of all, and many people, like the five thousand disciples, succumb to it. I’m reminded of an episode in English religious history when Oliver Cromwell had dealings with a number of religious sectaries who got into a terrific argument over some knotty points of scripture. They were so obstinate, so immovable, that in the end Cromwell wrote to them, in desperation, ‘Reverend Sirs, I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken.’
In the sutra, however, the Buddha doesn’t say anything; he just lets the disciples leave. And when they have gone, he simply says ‘Now the assembly is quite pure.’ In other words, now everyone present is receptive, prepared to consider that there may be something more for them to learn. So the Buddha goes on to reveal the highest Truth to this pure assembly. He tells them that his previous teaching of the three yanas is only provisional, an expedient made necessary by the diversity of temperaments among his disciples. Now these three yanas are not the Hinayana, the Mahayana, and the Vajrayana. I’m afraid that in Buddhism we get lots of terms with double meanings. The yanas the Buddha is talking about here are a different set--consisting of the Sravakayana (the way of the disciple), the pratyekabuddhayana (the way of the ‘privately Enlightened’ one), and the bodhisattvayana (the way of the Bodhisattva).
I don’t want to go into technicalities here--it’s more important to grasp the general principle that between them these three yanas symbolize different possible approaches to Enlightenment. The first two are different forms of spiritual individualism--the first perhaps being a bit more negative than the second--and the third is of course the Bodhisattva Ideal. When the Buddha says that his teaching of these three yanas was only provisional, he means--as he goes on to explain--that in reality there is only one way, ekayana. This is the Great Way, the Mahayana, the way leading to perfect Buddhahood. All roads lead to Rome; all the yanas, all the different ways-individualistic and altruistic--are useful up to a point, but ultimately they all converge into the Way. In other words, there is only one process of Higher Evolution, and all participate in it to the extent that they make an effort to develop. The Buddha tells the assembly that if anyone offers even a flower with faith and devotion, they are already--in principle--on the path to Buddhahood. One thing leads to another. A small act of faith leads to a bigger act of faith, a small practice of the Way leads to a bigger practice, and in this manner, step by step, you gradually begin to tread the Great Way, the one way leading to perfect Enlightenment. There is no good deed, no humanitarian act, that falls outside the scope of the Way.
On hearing this teaching Sariputra, the oldest and wisest of the Buddha’s disciples, is filled with joy. Although he is old, he is prepared to learn. His only regret, he says, is that he has spent so long at a lower level of understanding. But the Buddha encourages him, and tells him that at a time in the distant future he too will realize supreme Enlightenment as a perfect Buddha. He even tells him what his name will be. But not all the disciples are like Sariputra. Some of them are rather disturbed and perplexed by the new teaching. Have they been wasting their time? Was the old practice completely useless? What should they do next?
To reassure them, the Buddha tells the first of the great parables of the sutra, the parable of the burning house. And we see here for the first time the effect of symbolism. Four leading elders who were still in doubt after hearing the Buddha’s abstract statement of the higher teaching are now convinced. They now realize that they can go beyond the stage of eradication of negative emotions, and proceed to positive illumination, supreme Knowledge, Wisdom, Enlightenment ... and they are overjoyed. One of them, Mahakasyapa, gives expression to their joy by telling a parable on their behalf, the parable--or myth--of the return journey.
When the parable has been told, the Buddha praises the four elders, and proceeds to shed more light on the way he leads sentient beings to Enlightenment. We already know that he teaches step by step, holding back the highest truth until his disciples are ready to hear it. Now we learn, that he also adapts his teaching to suit the varying capacities of different people. To illustrate this, he tells two more parables: the parable 0f the rain-cloud and the parable of the sun. He follows the parables by predicting that Mahakasyapa and the other elders will also become perfect Buddhas, even announcing what their names will be.
Then, turning from the future to the past, and once more addressing the whole assembly, the Buddha tells them about another Buddha, a Buddha who lived millions and millions of years before his own time. The Buddha tells the story because the career of this Buddha in some respects paralleled his own. The majority of the followers of this Buddha, too, had followed the Hinayana path of the Arhat. Only sixteen of them--they were his own sons from the period before he became a monk--had aspired to perfect Buddhahood as Bodhisattvas. But sooner or later, the Buddha says, all the followers of this Buddha would enter the Great Way, the Mahayana. To illustrate this, the Buddha tells the parable of the magic city--and as we will not be looking at this parable in depth, I will recount it briefly here.
A party of travellers is bound for a place called Ratnadvipa (’the Place of Jewels’), and has employed a guide to show them the way through the dense forest. It is a very difficult, dangerous road, and long before they have reached their destination the travellers become exhausted, and say to their guide ‘We can’t go another step. Let’s all go back.’ But the guide thinks ‘That would be a pity. They’ve come so far already. What can I do to persuade them to keep going?’ Well, apparently the guide has some sort of magic power, because what he does is conjure up a magic city. He says to the travellers, ‘Look! There’s a city right here in front of us. Let’s rest there and have something to eat, and then we’ll decide what to do next.’ The travellers, of course, are only too pleased to stop and have a rest. They have a meal and spend the night in the magic city, and in the morning they feel much better, and decide that they will carry on with their journey after all. So the guide makes the magic city disappear and leads the travellers on to their destination, the Place of Jewels.’
The meaning of the parable is not hard to fathom in the context of the sutra. The guide is of course the Buddha, and the travellers are the disciples. The Place of Jewels is supreme Enlightenment, and the magic city is the Hinayana nirvana--nirvana as the comparatively negative state of freedom from passions, without positive spiritual illumination. And, as the parable suggests, the Buddha first of all speaks in terms of nirvana in the ordinary psychological sense. Only when this teaching has been assimilated--only when the disciples have rested in the magic city-does he lead them on to the higher spiritual goal of perfect Buddhahood, the Place of Jewels.
We could use the same parable to describe the process of teaching meditation. When people first come along to learn to meditate, they quite often ask ‘What is the goal of meditation?’ You wouldn’t usually reply, straight off, ‘Well, the goal of meditation is to become like a Buddha’, because that’s the last thing most people want to be. They’re not interested in anything religious or spiritual; they just want peace of mind in the midst of their everyday life and work. And it’s perfectly true to say that meditation gives you peace of mind. But when they’ve been meditating for some time, and they start to experience peace of mind through meditation, then they might ask ‘Well, is this all, or is there something more to meditation?’ That would be the right time to say ‘Yes, there is something more. Peace of mind in the ordinary psychological sense is not the final goal of meditation, but only an intermediate stage. Beyond it there’s a spiritual goal--Enlightenment, knowledge of the Truth, knowledge of Reality--which in Buddhist terms is called perfect Buddhahood.’ Here ‘peace of mind’ is the magic city in which the traveller is nourished and rested for the long journey to Enlightenment.
When the Buddha has told the parable of the magic city, we begin to see the effect of all these parables on the audience. More and more disciples come forward to confess their previously limited understanding and announce their acceptance of the new teaching. The Buddha predicts that the monk Purna, together with five hundred other distinguished Arhats, will gain supreme Enlightenment, and in their joy these Arhats also tell a parable, the parable of the drunkard and the jewel. More and more disciples are then predicted to perfect Buddhahood, and eventually all the Hinayana disciples are converted, and decide to aspire to supreme Enlightenment as Bodhisattvas.
There are, of course, thousands of Bodhisattvas already present, Bodhisattvas who have followed the Great Way from the beginning. The Buddha now turns to them, and impresses upon them that the White Lotus Sutra is tremendously important and must be preserved at all costs. The text should be read, recited, copied, expounded, and even ceremonially worshipped, the Buddha says. And all the Bodhisattvas promise to protect the sutra.
Then, suddenly, something extraordinary happens--extraordinary even by the standards of this extraordinary sutra. In the midst of the assembly, from the depths of the earth, there springs up a stupa, a colossal, unbelievably magnificent stupa, which towers into the sky. A stupa is a monument, which is made to contain the relics--fragments of bone and so on--of the Buddha or one of his disciples. Following a pre-Buddhistic practice, the first stupas were very simple--just a mound of earth, a sort of tumulus. But the stupa, which appears out of the earth in the White Lotus Sutra is made not of brick, not of stone, not even of marble, but of the seven precious things--gold, silver, lapis lazuli, moonstone, agate, pearl, and camelian. What is more, it is beautifully decorated with flags and flowers, and it is emitting light, fragrance, and music in all directions.
One can just imagine the scene. There are all these astonished disciples--only the Buddha isn’t astonished--and this enormous stupa towering into the sky. And as they all gaze up at the stupa in amazement, from the midst of it there comes forth a thunderous voice which cries ‘Excellent, excellent, Sakyamuni! You are well able to preach the White Lotus Sutra. All that you say is true.’ (Sakyamuni of course is the Buddha, whom we can call ‘our’ Buddha because he appeared in our world.) At this the disciples are absolutely agog. What does it all mean? Whose is the voice? Whose is the stupa? So the Buddha explains that the stupa contains the preserved body of a very ancient Buddha called Abundant Treasures (Prabhutaratna in Sanskrit), who lived millions upon millions of years ago. During his lifetime Abundant Treasures had made a vow that after his death, the stupa in which his remains were enshrined would spring forth wherever the White Lotus Sutra was being expounded. What is more, he had vowed that he himself would bear testimony to the truth of the teaching.
The whole assembly is very impressed by this explanation, and they ask if it isn’t possible for the stupa to be opened so that they can see the body of this ancient Buddha, still miraculously preserved after millions of years. But Sakyamuni tells them that it’s not as easy as all that. According to another vow, which Abundant Treasures made, Sakyamuni has to fulfil a certain condition before the preserved body of the ancient Buddha can be seen. The condition is that Sakyamuni must summon into his presence all the Buddhas who have ever emanated from him, and who are now teaching the Doctrine throughout the universe. And at once Sakyamuni proceeds to fulfil the condition, so that the assembly’s wish can be granted. Once more he sends out a great ray of light, which reveals the Buddhas in all the universes in the ten directions of space. And at 0nce those Buddhas understand that this is a signal, and tell their own Bodhisattvas ‘Now I’ve got to go on a joumey to the Saha-world, millions of miles across the universe, because Buddha Sakyamuni has sent for me.’
In Buddhism, each Buddha-world, each universe, has got a name. 0urs is called the Saha-world, ‘the world of endurance’, because here there’s a lot to be endured. According to the Buddhist scriptures, our world is not a particularly good one; there are lots of other worlds with Buddhas and Bodhisattvas where conditions are much better. So Sakyamuni doesn’t want these incoming Buddhas to see the imperfection of his own little universe, and sets about preparing it for their arrival. He transforms the whole earth into brilliant blue light, like lapis lazuli, with golden cords stretching across it to mark off the blue ground into squares. Inside these squares, we’re told, there spring up beautiful trees made entirely of jewels--trunk, branches, leaves, flowers, fruit--and thousands of feet tall. The earth, which is strewn with all sorts of heavenly flowers, smokes with sweet-smelling incense. And to complete the purification process, all the gods and men who are not part of the assembly are transferred somewhere--we’re not told precisely where, but they’re sort of bundled out of the way--and all the villages, towns and cities, mountains, rivers, and forests, disappear.
Hardly is this transformation completed when five hundred Buddhas arrive from the different directions of space, each accompanied by a great Bodhisattva, and take their seats on five hundred magnificent lion thrones under five hundred jewel trees. Such is the scale of things that they completely take up all the available space, and the Buddhas have barely begun to arrive. So Sakyamuni hastily purifies untold millions of worlds in all the directions of space, and they are all instantly occupied by streams of incoming Buddhas, who take their seats beneath jewel trees and pay their respects to the Buddha Sakyamuni by offering a double handful of jewel flowers.
Now that all these millions of Buddhas, with their attendant Bodhisattvas, are gathered together in one place, the condition laid down by Abundant Treasures has been fulfilled. So Sakyamuni floats up into the sky until he is level with the great door of the stupa, draws back the bolt, and flings open the door with a sound like thunder to reveal the body of Abundant Treasures within. And even though the body of the ancient Buddha is millions upon millions of years old, it is perfectly preserved, seated cross-legged within the stupa. Awe-struck at the sight, the assembly take up handfuls of jewel flowers and scatter them so that they rain down over the two Buddhas.
And it turns out that it is not just that Abundant Treasurer’s body has been perfectly preserved. The ancient Buddha is actually still alive after all these years, and he asks Sakyamuni to come and share his throne. So Sakyamuni goes to sit next to Abundant Treasurers in the stupa--this deeply symbolic and significant scene became a favourite one with Chinese Buddhist artists. The whole assembly, looking up into the sky at the two Buddhas, desires to be raised up to the same level, so Sakyamuni exerts his supernormal powers and lifts all the assembly, all the millions of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, up into the air until they are level with himself and Abundant Treasures.
At this point, Sakyamuni cries out in a loud voice ‘Who among you is able to preach the White Lotus Sutra in the Saha-world? The time of my death is at hand. To whom can I entrust the Lotus of the True Law?’ There then follows a whole series of episodes-possibly added to the sutra after the main body of it was completed--which I am going to omit, partly for the sake of brevity, and partly because they rather break up the continuity of the action. After these diversions, two Bodhisattvas come forward in response to the Buddha’s demand, and promise that they will preserve and spread the White Lotus Sutra after the Buddha’s death. And all the Arhats who have been predicted to perfect Buddhahood give a similar pledge.
Attention now turns to two nuns who are present, standing a little to one side. These are Mahaprajapati, the Buddha’s aunt and foster-mother, and Yasodhara, his wife in the days before he left home, both of whom became nuns after the Buddha’s Enlightenment, under his guidance. They are feeling rather sorrowful because nothing has so far been said about Enlightenment for them, but the Buddha assures them that they are sure of becoming perfectly Enlightened one day. In response, they too pledge to protect the White Lotus Sutra.
There are many irreversible Bodhisattvas in the assembly--’irreversible’ in that they have gone so far on the path that they cannot fall back into lower states, and are irrevocably bound for perfect Buddhahood. They now announce that they are determined to make the White Lotus Sutra known throughout the whole universe, and they join the rest of the assembly in begging the Buddha to have no anxiety about the sutra’s future, even in the dreadful days, which lie ahead. A dark age is approaching, they say, a time of war and confusion, bloodshed and evil, but they tell the Buddha ‘Do not worry. Even in the terrible age that is coming, we shall remember the teaching. We shall preserve it, we shall protect it, and we shall propagate it.’
We are swiftly made aware that the preservation of the sutra will be no easy task. The Bodhisattva Manjusri comments that it is a tremendous responsibility, and the Buddha agrees, and goes on to list four qualities, which the Bodhisattvas who want to fulfil this mission must have. First, they must be perfect in conduct. Second, they must confine themselves to ‘proper spheres of activity’--which means that they must avoid unsuitable company and dwell inwardly in the true nature of Reality. Third, they must maintain happy, peaceful states of mind, unaffected by zeal or envy. And fourth, they must cultivate feelings of love towards all living beings. The Buddha explains these four qualities in some detail, and then tells another parable, the parable of the wheel-rolling king, or universal monarch. (A ‘wheel-rolling’ king is one who sets turning the wheel of the Dhanna, that is, one who rules according to the Buddha’s teaching.)
The story goes like this. There was once a king who went to war because he wished to extend his domain. His soldiers fought so heroically that the king was very pleased with them, and gave them all the rewards they deserved. He gave them houses, land, clothes, slaves, chariots, gold, silver, gems--in fact, everything he had in his palace. The only thing he didn’t give away was the magnificent crest jewel that he wore in his own turban. Eventually, however, he was so pleased with the soldiers’ bravery that he took the crest jewel itself and handed it over to them. So, as the Buddha goes on to explain, he himself is like the wheel-rolling king. Seeing the efforts that his disciples have made to practise his teachings, seeing how bravely they have fought against Mara, he rewards them with more and more teachings and blessings. In the end, keeping nothing back, he gives them the supreme teaching, the White Lotus Sutra.
Having heard this parable, the great Bodhisattvas who have come from other world systems with their own Buddhas offer their services too. But Sakyamuni says ‘No, your services are not necessary. I have innumerable Bodhisattvas here in my own Saha-world, and they will protect the White Lotus Sutra after my death.’ As he says this, the universe shakes and trembles, and from the space underneath the earth there issues an incalculable host of irreversible Bodhisattvas. One by one they salute in turn all the Buddhas present, and sing their praises. Although this takes an extraordinary length of time--fifty minor aeons, during which the whole assembly stays completely silent--it actually seems, through the power of the Buddha, as though only a single afternoon has passed.
When all the salutations and songs are over, the Buddha Sakyamuni and the four leaders of the great host of irreversible Bodhisattvas exchange greetings. The implication seems to be that Sakyamuni is claiming all these newly appeared Bodhisattvas as his own disciples. The assembly can scarcely believe it. The Buddha assures them ‘Yes, these are indeed my own disciples, and they have been following the Great Way for a very long time. You haven’t seen them before because they live under the earth.’ But this isn’t good enough for the perplexed disciples. They say ‘Look here. You gained Enlightenment under the bodhi tree at Bodh Gaya only forty years ago. How can you possibly have trained such a fantastic number of Bodhisattvas in that time? A few hundred, a few thousand even, we could believe-but this many? And they seem to belong to past ages and to other world systems too. How can you possibly claim them all as your disciples? It’s as ridiculous as a young man of twenty-five pointing to a crowd of wizened centenarians and saying that they are all his sons.’
The Buddha, of course, has a reply to all this scepticism. And this reply is a central revelation, as the Mahayana sees it, making this scene the climax of the whole drama of cosmic Enlightenment. The Buddha says that he did not really gain Enlightenment only forty years ago. In fact, he says, he gained Enlightenment an uncountable, incalculable number of millions of ages ago. In other words, he makes the rather staggering claim that he is eternally Enlightened. By now it is obvious that this is no longer the historical Sakyamuni speaking, but the universal, cosmic principle of Enlightenment itself. All these millions of ages, he says, he has been teaching and preaching in many different forms, and in many different worlds. He has appeared as Dipankara Buddha, Sakyamuni Buddha, and so on. He is not really born, does not really attain Enlightenment, does not really die, but only appears to do so, just to encourage people. If he stayed with them all the time, he says, people would not appreciate him or follow his teaching. And to illustrate this, he tells the parable of the good physician.
This great declaration that the Buddha is eternally Enlightened produces a tremendous effect on the assembly. Hosts of disciples attain various spiritual insights, powers, understandings, and blessings, while flowers, incense, and jewels rain down from the sky, celestial canopies are raised on high, and countless Bodhisattvas sing the praises of all the Buddhas--a display which provides an apt setting for the Buddha’s next teaching. For he now explains that the development of faith in his eternal life, faith in the sense of an emotional response, is equivalent to the development of wisdom. Such faith, we may say, is wisdom expressed in emotional terms. If you have this sort of faith, you will see and hear the universal Buddha on the spiritual Vulture’s Peak eternally preaching the White Lotus Sutra. What is more, the Buddha says, the merits of listening to the White Lotus Sutra are very great, and the merits of preaching it even greater--and of course it’s very de-meritorious to disparage the sutra in any way.
This warning introduces the episode of the Bodhisattva Never Direct. Never Direct, the Buddha says, was a Bodhisattva who lived millions of years ago. He used to go around saying to people ‘It is not for me to direct you. You are free to do anything you like. But I would advise you to take up the Bodhisattva career so that ultimately you may become perfect Buddhas.’ Now some of the people on the receiving end of this got very fed up with Never Direct. Why on earth should they want to become Buddhas? Many of them became so angry that they abused the Bodhisattva, hit him with sticks, pelted him with stones, and generally gave him a very rough time indeed. Nothing daunted, however, and not bearing his abusers any ill-will, Never Direct would just retreat to a safe distance and continue to cry out ‘It is not for me to give you any direction. You will all become Buddhas.’ This is how he got his nickname, Never Direct. Sakyamuni ends the story by saying that he himself was Never Direct in a previous life, and some of those who were his persecutors in those days are now his disciples.
At this point it’s the turn of the irreversible Bodhisattvas from under the earth to speak. They also promise to protect the White Lotus Sutra, and say that they will preach it throughout the whole universe. Their promise sparks off all manner of mantels and wonders. The Buddhafields in all the directions of space begin to shake and tremble, and all the inhabitants of those distant worlds look down into the Saha-world and see it revealed, like looking down through the depths of the water and seeing something at the bottom. They see the Buddhas Sakyamuni and Abundant Treasures seated on their joint lotus throne in the middle of the stupa, and they see the countless millions of great Bodhisattvas.
Sakyamuni is joyfully hailed by all the gods, who shower down flowers, incense, and jewels which merge in a huge mass, like clouds massing together, and form a jewelled canopy which covers the whole sky. Marvel upon marvel takes place, until all the worlds in the universe are seen to reflect one another like millions of mutually reflecting mirrors, and interpenetrate one another like innumerable beams of intersecting coloured light. Eventually all these universes, with all their beings, all their Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, are fused into one harmonious Buddha-field, one cosmos wherein the principle of Enlightenment reigns supreme.
For one last time, the Buddha extols the merits of the sutra, and reminds the assembly of the importance of preserving it and propagating it. Then he rises from his lion throne in the midst of the sky and places his right hand in blessing on the heads of the countless irreversible Bodhisattvas. At last, requesting the Buddhas present to return to their own domains, he says ‘Buddhas, peace be upon you. Let the stupa of the Buddha Abundant Treasures be restored as before.’ Everybody rejoices--and thus the great drama concludes.