GUIDE TO THE LOTUS SUTRA
The Lotus Sutra is one of the most influential texts of Mahayana Buddhism, especially within East Asia, and is considered one of the most central texts in Tendai Buddhism. The Lotus Sutra has shaped Mahayana Buddhism since the earliest of times, and was often cited by Indian masters, (Nagarjuna, Vasabandhu, Candrakirti, Shantideva, etc), Chinese masters (Tao Sheng, Daoxuan, Nanyue Huisi, Zhiyi, etc), as well as numerous Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese and Tibetan masters.
The Lotus Sutra in Tendai Buddhism
In Tendai Buddhism, it is viewed as the pinnacle of the Buddha’s teachings, his final revelation. Bringing together all his previous teachings (the Three Vehicles/Sravaka, Pretyakabuddha & Bodhisattva) in to one perfect teaching (the Single Vehicle/Ekayāna). Its central tenants include Universal Complete Buddhahood for all sentient beings, be they male, female, animal, naga, asura, or deva, etc. Even those who are considered ‘evil’ have the same potential.
The tenants of the Lotus Sutra
When first read, the Lotus Sutra can seem mystical, confusing, ambiguous, and even unclear, reading more like a JR Tolkien novel than a Buddhist Sutra. It is for this reason that many in the west cast the Lotus Sutra aside, unable to unwrap the sutra. However, I believe the sutra is not meant to be read as an historical text, but as an attempt to unify the diverging Buddhist schools, to reinvigorate our practice. Thus, the very fabric of the Lotus Sutra illustrates one of its central teachings; skilful means, telling us not to mistake the finger for the moon.
Zhiyi wrote two texts outlining the central teachings of the Lotus Sutra; The Profound Meaning of the Lotus Sutra, and the Words and Phrases of the Lotus Sutra. The links will take you to an overview of these important texts.
Due to its lofty position within East Asian Buddhism, naturally the Lotus Sutra has been the subject of scrutiny from many Western & Eastern scholars. Although there are disagreements, the following seems to be the consensus;
The Lotus Sutra is Indian in origin and one of the earliest Mahayana sutras written. Chapter 1-9 and 17 are believed to be the earliest, probably written around the first century BCE. The rest were added to the sutra somewhere between 100-150 CE. Although the text survives in Sanskrit, according to Kogaku Fuse, the earliest verses of the Sutra shows indications that it was first transmitted orally in Prakrit, an early Indian dialect, and was later translated in to Sanskrit, then later in to Chinese. There have been numerous attempts to local the Sutras place of origin, with Gandhara being the most likely hypothesis.
Frequently asked questions:
Does the Lotus Sutra supplant all other sutras?
Not according to Tendai doctrine, no. The Lotus Sutra puts all other teachings in a certain light, but it does not discard them. This is why Tendai is a very eclectic school, as we value the many skilful ways in which the Dharma is practiced. It is through expedient means that the ‘real’ is revealed. If we discard the expedient, how will we ever be able to know the ‘real’?
If, according to Tendai, the Lotus Sutra doesn’t supplant other sutras, why is it considered the “King of all Sutras”?
The Lotus Sutra is king because it unifies all the Three Vehicles. Many people often view the Three Vehicles as separate, and contradictory. The Lotus Sutra illustrates that these apparent differences are simply expedients utilised in order to reach as many sentient beings as possible. Thus, we can be assured that no matter which Vehicle we are following, we are all following the Buddha’s Dharma. Incidentally, it is not the only Mahayana Sutra that teaches this, however the Lotus Sutra is far more explicit in this teaching, and its teaching of universal Buddhahood.
Do Tendai Buddhists chant the Diamoku, ‘Namu Myoho Renge Kyo’?
The phrase ‘Namu Myoho Renge Kyo’ (Praise to the Subtle Lotus Sutra aka the ‘Diamoku’) appears only a few times within larger liturgical chants, however it is not repeated more than once, and it is not practiced as a mantra in Tendai. However, neither is it forbidden to chant it, therefore you may hear a Tendai Buddhist recite this phrase from time to time.
Western scholars suggest that the Lotus Sutra are not the words of the Buddha. Does this devalue the content of the Lotus Sutra?
Not at all. The truth in Dharma is not found in books, or in knowing which words are the historical words of the Buddha, but in their usefulness in the pursuit of Enlightenment.