Part Two - Before Studying the Sutra


    2.1   Attitudes/Approaches in Reading the Sutra
    2.2   First Impression to Beginners
    2.3   Background Knowledge



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!


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.

  1. A preface without a book

    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".

  2. Elaborate repetition

    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.

  3. Long list of names

    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.

  4. Fairy tales and parables

    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!


In order to have better understanding of the Lotus Sutra, one must have some basic ideas in Buddhism.

  1. The Cosmic World

    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).

  2. The Ten Realms of Existence

    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:

    1. Hell - the lowest being who suffers because of his evil actions.
    2. Hungry ghost - being who suffers by hunger and craving.
    3. Animal
    4. Man
    5. Asura - furious demon
    6. God - holy being with blessings and happiness, but subjected to aging and death.
    7. Shravaka (Sound Hearer) - one enlightened through the hearing/understanding of the Four Noble Truths, and seeking for Arhatship.
    8. Pratyekabuddha (Self-enlightened ones) - one enlightened by one's own through the understanding of the Law of Dependent Origination.
    9. Bodhisattva - one postpone one's attainment of Buddhahood, but remain in salvating the suffered beings.
    10. Buddha - the perfect and complete one in the highest state of existence.

    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.

  3. True Emptiness & Wonderful Existence

    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).

  4. One, Two, Three & Five Vehicles
    People vary in their background, interests, levels of understanding, sharpness in mind, and objectives in studying Buddhism. Therefore there is no single school of teaching to satisfy all.

    1. For those who cannot understand the ultimate Dharma, Buddha Dharma provides them with the convenience to avoid their falling into the three lowest realms, i.e. Three Evil Paths.

    2. For those who can understand, but not courageous enough to undertake in practice, Buddha Dharma provides guidance to achieve enlightenment progressively.

    3. Buddha Dharma facilitates by all means all sentient beings to do all kinds of good things. In Buddhism, all sentient beings can be enlightened, as all sentient beings possess the Buddha's nature.

      1. Five Vehicles

        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:

        1. Human
        2. Deva
        3. Sravaka (Sound Hearer)
        4. Praetyka-Buddha (Condition Enlightened Ones)
        5. Bodhisattva

        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.

      2. Two Vehicles

        They thoroughly understand the impermanence, egolessness, dependent origination nature and nirvana of all Dharmas. The continuation of the life and death cycle never ends, due to the clinging to, and attachment of self.

        To practise diligently the Three Studies, i.e. the Sila (Precepts), Dhyana (Concentration) and Prajna (Wisdom) in order to counteract the Desire, Anger and Ignorance. The fear in the sufferings of Samsara urgently results in seeking emancipation. But this practice enables self salvation only, but not others.

        Exterminate the troubles arising from views and thoughts of the Three Realms, and attain out-of-worldly emancipation and Nirvana. No longer subject to bondage by further cycles of death and rebirth, but their wisdom is still insignificant. They think they have attained enough and in order to protect what they have achieved, they dwell in the void, look upon the Three Realms as jail, and all sentient beings as their opponents. They dare not develop Bodhicitta. They refuse to descend on the world to save all beings.

      3. The Bodhisattva Vehicle

        Aware that the Three Realms exist in the mind and that all Dharma are within our consciousness. Form is not different from emptiness and its nature never changes with any circumstance. Emptiness is not different from form, and the unchangeable nature goes along with any circumstance without being affected. Form and emptiness are non-dualistic. The mind, the Buddha, and sentient beings, are from the same source. All sentient beings have Buddhas nature and are able to attain Buddhahood.

        They put into effect their great vows of seeking Buddhahood and transforming beings. With transcendental wisdom, they understand that there are no beings to be saved and no Buddhahood to be attained. Owing to their great compassion, they often remain in the stream of life and death to relieve suffering and give happiness to all beings (never giving up any one being). They cultivate Six Paramitas in Ten Thousand Practices with Four Immeasurable minds.

        Permanently rid of the Five Basic Afflictions, served of the two forms of death, the attainment of the Three Enlightenments, the possession of all virtues, the attainment to the very source of the mind and the Four Virtues (i.e. eternity, joy personality and purity) having transformed consciousness into wisdom and attained the Unsurpassed Way.

      4. One Buddha Vehicle

        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)