Part Two - Before Studying the Sutra
2.1 ATTITUDES/APPROACHES IN READING THE SUTRA
To understand the truth, particularly the profound truth expounded in Lotus Sutra is not merely through words, but also through faith, meditation and other religious practices. The Lotus Sutra has exerted impact on the cultural and religious life of many people, not because of its actual ideas expounded, but of its guide to religious practice.
Thus, in order tounderstand the meaning of the sutra, it is suggested to act according to the sutra with our bodies and minds, rather than merely reading it.
Moreover, we should not approach the Lotus Sutra expecting to find in it a methodical exposition of a system of philosophy. However, we can learn the principles expounded in the Sutra, and find that they can be applied in different situations to explain the Buddha's teachings without any obstruction. It's wonderful Dharma!
2.2 FIRST IMPRESSIONS TO BEGINNERS
2.2 FIRST IMPRESSIONS TO BEGINNERS
In Lotus Sutra, some of the important principles of Buddhism are only touched upon, thus the readers are expected to be familiar with them already.
If you are lack of the fundamental understanding and proper faith in Buddhism, you may have the following peculiar feelings and impressions in reading Lotus Sutra.
Early in the Sutra, the Buddha reiterates that the wisdom of Buddha is inconceivable and not be spoken as it is extremely profound and difficult to understand. Subsequent to the three sincere requests by his chief disciple Shariputra , the Buddha agreed to speak of the One Buddle Vehicle. However, the Lotus Sutra tells us at times that the Lotus Sutra is about to be preached, at other times, it says that the Lotus Sutra has already been preached. At the end of the Sutra, the Buddha tells us how to propagate the Lotus Sutra, and the merits of doing so. The reader may not learn what text refers to the Lotus Sutra itself, and the concept of One Buddha Vehicle as said to be expounded by the Lotus Sutra. Some people say that the Lotus Sutra is "a discourse that is never delivered," "a long preface without a book"! It is so wonderful, therefore it is called "The Wonderful Dharma Lotus Flower Sutra".
Secondly, the reader may find that the Sutra is written in formulaic language and frequent repetition. These may not be appealing to the intellect, particularly if he is not religious.
However, it may be noted that these would facilitate the memory of the reciters in transmitting the Sutra orally, particularly during the propagation of Buddhism in the early centuries.
Moreover, the reader may not be patient in reading a long list of names of Bodhisattvas, Arhats and other heavenly beings in the Sutra. However, the presence of each of them in the assembly has its significance. If one wants to have a deeper understanding of the Lotus Sutra, one should have a good knowledge of those who names are mentioned in the Sutra.
In Lotus Sutra, the dramatic scenes are so grand that it seems to belong to other realm beyond our ordinary concepts of time, space and even our imagination. All the numbers given to the time and the beings are astronomical, which virtually means immeasurable and countless. They are meant to break up our conventional concepts of time and space. It is so wonderful!
2.3 BACKGROUND KNOWLEDGE
2.3 BACKGROUND KNOWLEDGE
In order to have better understanding of the Lotus Sutra, one must have some basic ideas in Buddhism.
The Lotus Sutra describes the events taking place in a cosmic world of different planes of existence, which are beyond the recognition through our fleshy sensual organs. With the traditional Indian background, the structure of the universe is described to be made up of four continents in the four directions with the great mountain called Mount Sumeru in the centre. The continent we live in is located to the south, known as Jambudvipa. There exist numerous other worlds in all directions outside our present world, some realms presided over by various Buddhas. All the worlds undergo a cycle of formation, development, decay and disintegration (emptiness), which is a process which has taken place in very, very long time (i.e. Kalpa).
In Buddhism, all beings exist in different realms of existence. The human being living in our world fall into the fourth realm. The ten realms of existence are:
For details, please refer to "Buddhism in a Nutshell" Chapter 4 (march 96 Issue).
The first three are called the Three Evil Paths, and the following three is called the Three Good Paths. All the beings in these six realms reincarnate through the endless cycle of death and rebirth, moving up and down from one path to another, depending on their good and evil deeds they have committed.
The last four are called the Four Holy Paths, representing different levels of enlightenment. The Shravakas and Pratyekabuddhas are called the Two Vehicles. By adding Bodhisattvas, the three are called The Three Vehicles.
It is one of the important concepts in Buddhism. It is difficult to understand because our mind always makes differentiation and distinctions in the phenomenal world through the senses. However, the concept of emptiness reveals that all such phenomena arise from causes and conditions, and they have no permanent characteristics, but change from time to time instantaneously. If all phenomena are characterized by the nature of emptiness, then emptiness must constitute the absolute and all-embracing nature of existence (i.e. True Suchness). This is a subtle relationship between "true emptiness" and "wonderful existence". All mental and physical distinctions that we perceive or conceive in our mind must be part of a single underlying unity, (the True Suchness). From this point of view, the death and rebirth is in the end identical with Nirvana, and affliction is the same as enlightenment, etc.
Moreover, with respect to emptiness, the time and space as we conceive them are meaningless. Anywhere is the same as everywhere, and now, then, never and forever are all one.
It says in Heart Sutra,
For details, please refer to "Buddhism in a Nutshell" Chapter 10 (June 96 Issue) and the Heart Sutra (Issues January 96 to March 96).
In Buddhism, there are Five Vehicles. A Vehicle is a transportation means to carry people across the sea of suffering to reach the shore of enlightenment. The Five Vehicles are:
The first two are sometimes taken as one, i.e. Human and Deva Vehicles. The third and fourth combined is called the Two Vehicles. The Two Vehicle together with the Bodhisattva Vehicle are known as the Three Vehicles.
The Two Vehicles are known as Hinayana, or The Small Vehicle. It means a small vehicle for a person to carry oneself across the sea of suffering and to attain the enlightenment. On the other hand, the Bodhisattva Vehicle is known as Mahayana, or the Great Vehicle. It means a great vehicle for many people to cross over, not just for oneself.
Above all, the ultimate, perfect and complete truth of Buddha is One Buddha Vehicle. In Buddhism, the Five Vehicle are established to facilitate the human beings to understand the reality of Buddhahood. As revealed in the Lotus Sutra, the teaching of One Buddha Vehicle is inconceivable and beyond words.
For details, please refer to "Buddhism in a Nutshell" Chapter 3 (March 96 Issue)