The Lotus Sutra is one of the most popular and influential Mahayana sutras and the basis on which the Tiantai, Tendai, Cheontae, and Nichiren schools of Buddhism were established.
According to British professor Paul Williams, “For many East Asian Buddhists since early times, the Lotus Sutra contains the final teaching of the Buddha, complete and sufficient for salvation.”
The sutra is presented in the form of a drama consisting of several scenes. According to Sangharakshita, it uses the entire cosmos for its stage, employs a multitude of mythological beings as actors and “speaks almost exclusively in the language of images“.
One vehicle, many skillful means
The Lotus Sutra is known for its extensive instruction on the concept and usage of skillful means – (Sanskrit: upāya, Japanese: hōben), the seventh paramita or perfection of a Bodhisattva – mostly in the form of parables.
The many ‘skillful’ or ‘expedient’ means and the “three vehicles” are revealed to all be part of the One Vehicle (Ekayāna), which is also the Bodhisattva path. This is also one of the first sutras to use the term Mahayana, or “Great Vehicle“.
In the Lotus Sutra, the One Vehicle encompasses so many different teachings because the Buddha’s compassion and wish to save all beings led him to adopt the teaching to suit many different kinds of people. As Paul Williams explains:
Although the corpus of teachings attributed to the Buddha, if taken as a whole, embodies many contradictions, these contradictions are only apparent. Teachings are appropriate to the context in which they are given and thus their contradictions evaporate. The Buddha’s teachings are to be used as ladders, or, to apply an age-old Buddhist image, like a raft employed to cross a river. There is no point in carrying the raft once the journey has been completed and its function fulfilled. When used, such teaching transcends itself.
The sutra emphasizes that all these seemingly different teachings are actually just skillful applications of the one Dharma and thus all constitute the “One Buddha Vehicle and knowledge of all modes“.
The Lotus Sutra sees all other teachings are subservient to, propagated by and in the service of the ultimate truth of the One Vehicle leading to Buddhahood.
The Lotus Sutra also claims to be superior to other sūtras and states that full Buddhahood is only arrived at by exposure to its teachings and skillful means.
All beings have the potential to become Buddhas
The One Vehicle doctrine defines the enlightenment of a Buddha as the ultimate goal and the sutra predicts that all those who hear the Dharma will eventually achieve this goal.
Many of the Buddha´s disciples receive prophecies that they will become future Buddhas. Devadatta, who, according to the Pali texts, had attempted to kill the Buddha, receives a prediction of enlightenment. 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.
Although the term buddha-nature is not mentioned once in the Lotus Sutra, Japanese scholars Hajime Nakamura and Akira Hirakawa suggest that the concept is implicitly present in the text.
Vasubandhu (fl. 4th to 5th century CE), an influential scholar-monk from Gandhara, interpreted the Lotus Sutra as the teaching of buddha-nature and later commentaries tended to adopt this view.
Based on his analysis of chapter 5, Zhanran (711-778), a scholar-monk of the Chinese Tiantai school, argued that insentient things also possess buddha-nature and in medieval Japan, the Tendai Lotus school developed its concept of original enlightenment which claimed the whole world to be originally enlighted.
The nature of the Buddhas
Another key concept introduced by the Lotus Sutra is the idea of the eternal Buddha, who achieved enlightenment innumerable eons ago but remains in the world to help teach beings the Dharma time and again.
The life span of this primordial Buddha is beyond imagination, his biography and his apparent death are portrayed as skillful means to teach sentient beings. The Buddha of the Lotus Sūtra states:
In this way, since my attainment of Buddhahood, it has been a very great interval of time. My life-span is incalculable asatkhyeyakalpas [rather a lot of eons], ever-enduring, never perishing. O, good men! The life-span I achieved in my former treading of the bodhisattva path even now is not exhausted, for it is twice the above number. Yet even now, though in reality, I am not to pass into extinction [enter final nirvana], yet I proclaim that I am about to accept extinction. By resort to these expedient devices [this skill-in-means] the Thus Come One [the Tathagata] teaches and converts the beings.
The idea that the physical death of a Buddha is the termination of that Buddha is graphically refuted by the appearance of another Buddha, Prabhûtaratna, who passed long before. In the vision of the Lotus Sūtra, Buddhas are ultimately immortal.
Crucially, not only are there multiple Buddhas in this view but an infinite stream of Buddhas extending infinitely in space in the ten directions and through unquantifiable eons of time. The Lotus Sūtra illustrates a sense of timelessness and the inconceivable, often using large numbers and measurements of time and space.
According to Gene Reeves, the Lotus Sutra 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. Reeves writes:
“because the Buddha and his Dharma are alive in such bodhisattvas, he himself continues to be alive. The fantastically long life of the Buddha, in other words, is at least partly a function of and dependent on his being embodied in others.”
The Lotus Sūtra also teaches various dhāraṇīs or the prayers of different celestial bodhisattvas who out of compassion protect and teach all beings.
The lotus flower imagery points to this quality of the bodhisattvas. The lotus symbolizes the bodhisattva who is rooted in the earthly mud and yet flowers above the water in the open air of enlightenment.
According to Donald Lopez, the Lotus Sutra 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.”
The Lotus Sutra was frequently cited in Indian works by Nagarjuna, Vasubandhu, Candrakirti, Shantideva and several authors of the Madhyamaka and the Yogacara school.
The only extant Indian commentary on the Lotus Sutra is attributed to Vasubandhu. According to Jonathan Silk, the influence of the Lotus Sūtra in India may have been limited, but “it is a prominent scripture in East Asian Buddhism.”
The sutra has the most prominence in Tiantai (sometimes called “The Lotus School”) and Nichiren Buddhism. It is also influential in Zen Buddhism.
Tao Sheng, a fifth-century Chinese Buddhist monk wrote the earliest extant commentary on the Lotus Sūtra.
Tao Sheng was known for promoting the concept of Buddha-nature and the idea that even deluded people will attain enlightenment. Daoxuan (596-667) of the Tang Dynasty wrote that the Lotus Sutra was:
“the most important sutra in China”.
Zhiyi (538–597 CE), the generally credited founder of the Tiantai school of Buddhism, was the student of Nanyue Huisi who was the leading authority of his time on the Lotus Sūtra. Zhiyi’s philosophical synthesis saw the Lotus Sūtra as the final teaching of the Buddha and the highest teaching of Buddhism.
He wrote two commentaries on the sutra: Profound meanings of the Lotus Sūtra and Words and phrases of the Lotus Sūtra. Zhiyi also linked the teachings of the Lotus Sūtra with the Buddha-nature teachings of the Mahāyāna Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūtra and made a distinction between the “Eternal Buddha” Vairocana and the manifestations.
In Tiantai, Vairocana (the primeval Buddha) is seen as the ‘Bliss body‘ – Sambhogakāya – of the historical Gautama Buddha.
The Lotus Sūtra is a very important sutra in Tiantai and correspondingly, in Japanese Tendai (founded by Saicho, 767–822).
Tendai Buddhism was the dominant form of mainstream Buddhism in Japan for many years and the influential founders of popular Japanese Buddhist sects including Nichiren, Honen, Shinran, and Dogen were trained as Tendai monks.
Nichiren, a 13th-century Japanese Buddhist monk, founded an entire school of Buddhism based on his belief that the Lotus Sūtra is “the Buddha´s ultimate teaching“, and that the title is the essence of the sutra, “the seed of Buddhahood”.
Nichiren held that chanting the title of the Lotus Sūtra – Namu Myōhō Renge Kyō – was the only way to practice Buddhism in the degenerate age of Dharma decline and was the highest practice of Buddhism. Nichiren described chapters 10-22 as the “third realm” of the Lotus Sutra (Daisan hōmon) which emphasizes the need to endure the trials of life and bodhisattva practice of the true law in the real sahā world.
Dogen, the 13th-century Japanese founder of Sōtō Zen Buddhism, used the Lotus Sūtra often in his writings. According to Taigen Dan Leighton:
“While Dogen’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” and that his writing “demonstrates that Dogen himself saw the Lotus Sutra, ‘expounded by all buddhas in the three times,’ as an important source for this self-proclamatory rhetorical style of expounding.”
In his Shobogenzo, Dogen directly discusses the Lotus Sūtra in the essay Hokke-Ten-Hokke, “The Dharma Flower Turns the Dharma Flower”. The essay uses dialogue from the Platform Sutra between Huineng and a monk who has memorized the Lotus Sūtra to illustrate the non-dual nature of Dharma practice and sutra study.
During his final days, Dogen spent his time reciting and writing the Lotus Sutra in his room which he named “The Lotus Sutra Hermitage“.
The Soto Zen monk Ryōkan also studied the Lotus Sūtra extensively and this sutra was the biggest inspiration for his poetry and calligraphy. The Rinzai Zen master Hakuin Ekaku achieved enlightenment while reading the third chapter of the Lotus Sūtra.
According to Shields, “modern(ist)” interpretations of the Lotus Sutra begin with the early 20th century nationalist applications of the Lotus Sutra by Chigaku Tanaka, Nissho Honda, Seno’o, and Nisshō Inoue. 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 of the Lotus Sutra on a global scale.
While noting the importance of several Japanese New Religious Movements to Lotus Sutra scholarship, Lopez focuses on the contributions made by the Reiyukai and Soka Gakkai and Stone discusses the contributions of the Soka Gakkai and Risshō Kōsei Kai.
Etai Yamada (1900–1999), the 253rd head priest of the Tendai denomination conducted ecumenical dialogues with religious leaders around the world based on his interpretation of the Lotus Sutra which culminated in a 1987 summit. He also used the Lotus Sutra 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 Sutra through publications, academic symposia, and exhibitions.
Influence on East Asian culture
The Lotus Sutra has had a great impact on East Asian literature, art, and folklore for over 1400 years.
Various events from it are depicted in religious art. Wang argues that the explosion of art inspired by the Lotus Sutra, starting from the 7th and 8th centuries in China, was a confluence of text and the topography of the Chinese medieval mind in which the latter dominated.
Motifs from the Lotus Sutra figure prominently in the Dunhuang caves built in the Sui era. In the fifth century, the scene of Shakyamuni and Prabhutaratna Buddhas seated together as depicted in the 11th chapter of the Lotus Sutra became arguably the most popular theme in Chinese Buddhist art.
Examples can be seen in a bronze plaque (year 686) at Hase-Dera Temple in Japan and, in Korea, at Dabotap and Seokgatap Pagodas, built-in 751, at Bulguksa Temple.
Tamura refers to the “Lotus Sutra literary genre.” Its ideas and images are writs large in great works of Chinese and Japanese literature such as The Dream of the Red Chamber and The Tale of Genji.
The Lotus Sutra has had an outsized influence on Japanese Buddhist poetry. Far more poems have been Lotus Sutra-inspired than other sutras.
In the work Kanwa taisho myoho renge-kyo, a compendium of more than 120 collections of poetry from the Heian period, there are more than 1360 poems with references to the Lotus Sutra in just their titles.
The Lotus Sutra has inspired a branch of folklore based on figures in the sutra or subsequent people who have embraced it.
The story of the Dragon King’s daughter, who attained enlightenment in the 12th (Devadatta) chapter of the Lotus Sutra, appears in the Complete Tale of Avalokiteśvara and the Southern Seas and the Precious Scroll of Sudhana and Longnü folk stories.
The Miraculous Tales of the Lotus Sutra is a collection of 129 stories with folklore motifs based on “Buddhist pseudo-biographies.”