Part One - What is Lotus Sutra
1.1 NAME OF THE SUTRA
The Sutra in Sanskrit word is called Saddharmapundarika Sutra.
Sad means wonderful, fine, proper.
Dharma means teaching, generally used to described the Buddhist teaching.
Pundarika means white lotus flower.
It can be translated in several ways, such as:
1.2 THE ORIGINAL TEXT & ITS PROPAGATION & TRANSLATION
The Lotus Sutras is one of the few whose original text is written in Sanskrit nowadays. Probably, it was once written in dialect in east India, and was transmitted to NW India around the second century A.D., and then written in Sanskrit for further propagation. The Sutra was widely spread to Central Asia and Nepal. Since then, it has been translated in many different languages.
The Sutra was certain in its composition when the first Chinese translation was made by Dharmaraksa in A.D. 286. There were at least six Chinese versions, but only three are still in circulation. Amongst the three, the version translated by Kumarajiva in A.D. 406 is widely known and accepted. It is the most authoritative version on which the present English translation is based. The standard in rendering his oral languages is extremely high. It was a work of great literacy merit. The form of construction is strict, but it is easy to read.
Another Chinese version translated by Jnanagupta and Dharmagupta in A.D. 601 is the third one still in existence.
1.3 VENERATION FOR THE SUTRA
The Lotus Sutra was spoken by Shakyamuni Buddha before he entered Nirvana. It is the Buddha's ultimate teaching i.e. the most final Dharma, containing his final revelation on the universality of salvation, the true nature of Buddhahood, and the best and universally applicable means of attaining Buddhahood.
The Sutra is regarded as the pure, complete, unique and solitarily wonderful teaching in Buddhism. It is also said that all other Sutras were spoken for the sake of the Lotus Sutra, and so it is "the King of the Sutras".
In the first few centuries, Nagarjina and Vasubandhu manifested and promoted the Mahayana Buddhism. The Lotus Sutra was certainly one of the important Sutras venerated by the two great Dharma masters. Vasubandhu wrote a commentary on the Lotus Sutra, which is still one of the oldest and most authoritative Shastra nowadays in India.
It is particularly revered by all schools/sects in Mahayana Buddhism in China, so the study on the Lotus Sutra is most intensive. After the Lotus Sutra was translated in Chinese by Kumarajiva, many great Dharma masters of different schools wrote on the Sutra probably over 60 in number, such as:
|Satyasiddhi||Fa Yun (467-529 A.D.)|
|Tien Tai||Chih Che (538-597 A.D.)|
|Madhyamika||Ji Zang (549-623 A.D.)|
|Dharmalaksana||Gui Ji (632-682 A.D.)|
|Chan||Jie Huan in Sung Dynasty|
Other schools, such as Hua Yen , Esoteric, and Pure Land also uphold the Sutra in their practice in cultivation. Amongst all, Tien Tai school establishes the Lotus Sutra as the fundamental Sutra, by which the features of Tien Tai School are characterized.
Apart from China, the Sutra has been particularly influential to the Buddhists in Korea, Japan and other regions of eastern Asia over many years. It has been held in high regard, and generally well known in the West too.
If Buddhist disciples do not understand the Lotus Sutra, they don't understand Buddhism, because the speaking of the Lotus Sutra is the final goal of the Buddha's life. The Lotus Sutra vigorously advances the position that the superior person only knows the way to ultimate bliss and wisdom, but also helps others to find the Way.
1.4 MEANING OF THE TITLE
According to the Seven Title Classifications, the Wonderful Dharma Flower Sutra is established by reference to a Dharma and an analogy. The Wonderful Dharma is a Dharma, and the Lotus Flower is an analogy. Because the Wonderful Dharma is difficult to understand, the Lotus Sutra is used as an analogy.
The Dharma is spoken only occasionally by the Buddha, just as the Udumbara flower appears but once in a great while. Therefore, it is wonderful to hear the Dharma. (Chapter 2 - Expedient Devices)
The Dharma is extremely profound that have ever attained. All the Buddhas speak the Dharma in accord with what is appropriate, but its purport is difficult to understand. What is the reason? The Buddha extensively speak all Dharmas by means of countless expedient devices, various causes and conditions, analogies and expression. (Chapter 2 - Expedient Devices).
The Dharma cannot be understood through deliberation and discrimination. Only the Buddhas alone can know it. As the wonderful Dharma cannot be thought nor expressed in words, it is inconceivable and wonderful. The speaking of Dharma itself is not wonderful, but merely describes how wonderful the Dharma is. (Chapter 2 - Expedient Devices).
The Dharma is so vast, deep and far reaching that it is immeasurable. Its power is pervading unobstructively, so it is wonderful.
The Dharma is so rare and foremost, that its Real Mark can only be ultimately comprehended amongst Buddhas only.
The Dharma is difficult to think and understand. Those who are arrogant in studying Buddhism will not respect and believe the Dharma expounded by the Lotus Sutra. That is why five thousand Bhikshus, Bhiskshuni, Upasakas, Upasikas in the assembly rose their seats made obeisance to the Buddha and left, when the Buddha started to talk the Wonderful Dharma. (Chapter 2 - Expedient Devices)
It is not easy to explain the word "wonderful". A great Chinese Dharma Master Chih Che of the Tien Tai School took 90 days to lecture on one word "wonderful", yet he had not finished. Everything is the wonderful Dharma, because it is our heart that everything is to be known. Isn't it wonderful?
What is the Dharma expounded in the Lotus Sutra? It is the Dharma of the Buddha Vehicle. When Shakyamuni Buddha attained the perfect and complete enlightenment under the Bodhi tree, he made every endeavour to open and reveal the profound doctrine of Buddhahood to the living beings, so that they could understand and enter the realm of Buddhahood. However, the levels and "roots" of the living beings were so different that the Buddha had no alternative but spoke of the doctrine of the Three Vehicles, for the sake of Sravaka (the Sound Hearer), Pratyeka Buddha (Condition-enlightened One) and Bodhisattva.
The doctrine of the Three Vehicles is an expedient device, which facilitates the Buddha in leading living beings to understand the Wonderful Dharma of One Buddha Vehicle. The Sutra says in the verse,
"In the Buddhalands of the ten directions,
There is only the Dharma of One Vehicle,
There are not two or three,
Except those spoken by the Buddhas as expedients,
And those are but false appellations
Used to induce living beings,
So that he may teach them the Buddha's wisdom"
(Chapter 2 - Expedient Devices)
1.4.3. Lotus Flower
Lotus Flower is used to represent the Wonderful Dharma of One Buddha Vehicle. It is most appropriate because lotus flower is beautiful and noble. Vasubandhu, indicated that there were two meanings of lotus flower in this respect.
1. The meaning of the flower above water
The lotus flower grows in the pond, which is full of impure water and mud. However, the flower is not contaminated, the flowers blossom above the surface of water, but their stems and roots are still in water and mud. The flower, stem and root of lotus are just like the pure and wonderful doctrine One Buddha Vehicle spoken with the expedient and coarse doctrines of the Two Vehicles and the Three Vehicles in the hierarchy of the Buddha's teachings. Actually, the Two and Three Vehicles finally reveal and converge to One Buddha Vehicle.
2. The meaning of the blossoming of flower
The lotus flower is beautiful in appearance, fragrant in smell, pure and bright, so that everybody loves it. In the Dharma assembly, many people received the predictions to become Buddhas. They were so happy that they had strong faith and determination to cultivate and practice the Buddhist Way. In this respect, the blossoming of lotus flower is analogous to the attainment of Buddhahood.
That is why lotus flower is one of the important symbols in Buddhism.
Alternatively, the lotus flower can be interpreted as the Absolute Principle of the Middle Way. The root in the mud represents common people. The stem in the water represents those of the Two Vehicles. Common people are attached to existence; the mud is an analogy for existence. Those of the Two Vehicles are attached to emptiness; the stem in the water represents emptiness. The lotus flower, which blossoms above the water, represents the transcendence of emptiness and existence, and represents the Absolute Principle of the Middle Way. Middle Way means neither falling into emptiness nor going to the extreme of existence. Emptiness and existence are the two extremes;. To be unattached to either of the two extremes is the Absolute Principle of the Middle Way.
Moreover, as the lotus flower blooms and bears fruit/seeds at the same time, they can represent the non-duality of cause and effect. As the cause is thus, thus is the effect. If the cause planted is one of Buddhahood, the effect will be one of Buddhahood.
The lotus blooming and bearing fruit simultaneously also represents the opening the provisional to manifest the real --- one of the most important principle in Lotus Sutra. The blooming of the lotus represents the opening of the provisional Dharma (i.e. the Two Vehicles and the Three Vehicles). The lotus seeds which are revealed when the lotus blooms represent the real Dharma (i.e. One Buddha Vehicle). Provisional Dharma refers to expedient devices, and real Dharma is the genuine and proper Dharma.
When the lotus petals fall away, the seedpod stands alone. This represents annulling the provisional to establish the real i.e. abandoning the provisional Dharma and retaining the real Dharma.
In general, the lotus flower represents the wonderful Dharma. The lotus flower is just the wonderful Dharma, and vice versa. This is an analogy of the Sutra.
Sutra, a Sanskrit Word, means a tallying text. Above, a sutra tallies with the wonderful principles of all Buddhas, and below, it tallies with the opportunities for the teaching living beings.
The word sutra; can be interpreted in many ways:
All sutras have a specific title and a common title. The Wonderful Dharma Lotus Flower is the specific title while the word Sutra is the common title.