Analysis of the Lotus Sutra
Michael: Good evening. Now we come to the final six chapters of the Lotus
Sutra. Again, I will one more time go over the way in which I have been
approaching the sutra as a whole, so we will have a better idea of what we
will be looking at tonight. The first ten chapters of the sutra was the first assembly on Eagle Peak. In that section of the sutra the Buddha
taught the One Vehicle and finally revealed to all of the disciples as well
as the bodhisattvas that they were all on the path to buddhahood so they
should all aspire to become enlightened for the sake of themselves and
others. That first section was dealing with aspiration, the part of our
practice where we are aspiring to buddhahood.
The middle section, chapters 11-22 that we discussed last week dealt with the Ceremony in the Air, the appearance of the treasure tower, the union of Shakyamuni Buddha - the one in this world who realized
enlightenment - and Many Treasures Buddha who represents the buddha-nature
united in the treasure tower and raising everyone up to their level so they
can all see things in a new and different way. The middle section deals
with that part of our practice where realization comes of itself, you might
say. It is not the result of our finite or ego based efforts, but the power
of our aspiration breaks through into a realization that transcends the
Now, these final six chapters, the treasure tower and Many
Treasures Buddha has returned to this realm. Now we are back on Eagle Peak
again. We are back on solid ground, but with a very different way of
understanding and a different way of acting and living.
In the very beginning I spoke of this in reference to the Zen idea
that "Before Zen, mountains are mountains and rivers are rivers, during Zen
mountains are no longer mountains and rivers are no longer rivers." Now we
have come to the stage where again, "mountains are mountains and rivers are
rivers." But how does one live now that we have come back to earth, now
that we have our feet back down on the ground again? What do we do now that
we have taken the step off the one hundred foot pole? That is what these
six chapters are going to try to answer. These are the chapters of
dedication. Taking that realization, taking that merit, all of that
turn-over, that radical new view that has come about in the previous
chapters and now applying it and giving it, turning it over to others.
Before I start, I also want to say that this way of viewing it as
the unfolding of our own practice in terms of aspiration, realization and
dedication is only one of many different ways of looking at the sutra.
There are many other perspectives. Because I have chosen this way I have
skipped over many important and wonderful chapters. I have skipped over the
12th chapter which discusses the enlightenment of Devadatta, the Buddhist
Judas, and the enlightenment of the eight year old daughter of the dragon
king. I have skipped over chapters 13 and 14 that talk about how to carry
out ones aspiration in daily life, before realization, under conditions
that are pleasant or may be oppressive. I have had to skip over chapter 20,
the chapter on Bodhisattva Never Despise, which is a wonderful chapter.
In a way it summarizes by itself what Buddhism is about: recognizing and
acknowledging the buddha-nature in all things. Again, I encourage you to
look at these chapters on your own. Because even if we had a hundred days
and spent 24 hours of everyday talking about the sutra we couldn't exhaust
it. I don't want anyone to be under the illusion or think that I am under
the illusion that I am covering everything.
Bodhisattva Medicine King
Without further ado let's start looking at these last six chapters.
Think of them as different windows onto bodhisattva practice, different
facets of the wish-fulfilling gem of bodhisattva practice. The first one is
the chapter on Bodhisattva Medicine King. This chapter is troubling to a
lot of people because in this chapter you find the inspiration for the
monks and nuns and others in Vietnam who set themselves on fire. A lot of
people may have forgotten about that today, or were born after those
events. Certainly I was just a little baby. I was born in 1966 when all of
that was going on, but I heard about it and how troubling it was. It is
troubling to think that the Lotus Sutra could inspire such an act. I won't
presume to judge it.
Let me briefly summarize the chapter. In it, Bodhisattva
Constellation King Flower asks the Buddha, again these are very descriptive
names, about the past activities of Medicine King Bodhisattva. What did he
do to attain the exulted position that he has as one of the celestial
bodhisattvas? The Buddha precedes to tell him that in Medicine King
Bodhisattva's past life he was a bodhisattva called Loveliness. In that
life, he spent 12,000 years single-mindedly striving to see the Buddha.
Through doing that he attained the contemplation of the revelation of all
forms. I suspect that the original was the samadhi of the revelation of all
forms. Samadhi is when you unite with something so that there is no longer
any separation, no longer any subject and object. This is not just samadhi
with one thing, like a transcendent god or a mystic principle, this is a
union with the revelation of all things. Upon attaining that he preceded to
turn himself for 1,200 years into a living incense stick. The sutra says
that he ingested many perfumes and herbs and doused himself in oils and
then lit himself on fire and became a living incense stick and burned for
1,200 years. When he had consumed himself, he reappeared, or was reborn, as
the son of King Pure Virtue and then again sought the Buddha with
single-mindedness. In this case it was the buddha Sun-Moon-Brilliance. In
these past life stories these buddhas are able to live for a very long time
so that he was able to serve the very same buddha. When this buddha passed
away, as an offering or commemoration of this buddha and his teachings, he
preceded to set fire to his arms for 72,000 years. This Bodhisattva
Loveliness was well thought of by all the other disciples and bodhisattvas
and they said, "This is terrible. You are burning yourself up. You are
destroying yourself. How are you going to be able to help others if you
have no arms?" He then informs them that through the purity of his practice
he is able to restore his arms.
So we should understand by this that we are not talking about
literally going out and setting yourself on fire. What we are talking about
is a very symbolic expression or way of showing one's zeal. He is burning
with zeal, burning with enthusiasm for the Dharma, for the Buddha. It is a
willingness to throw all of one's self into the practice. That is really
what this is about. Through doing that, one is mysteriously restored like a
phoenix. One is restored to one's true nature, restored to one's true
capacity to help and to reach out, just as Bodhisattva Loveliness had his
arms restored. Just as when he had consumed himself totally he was able to
reappear and again serve the buddha. So this is very much like the gospel
teaching that in order to find yourself you must lose yourself. That is
what is going on there.
Bodhisattva Wonder Sound
Now let us move on to the next chapter to Bodhisattva Wonder Sound.
In this chapter, there is a Buddha named King Wisdom of the Pure Flower
Constellation who lives in a pure land called Adorned with All Pure
Radiance. You might recall that last week we talked briefly about the
Flower Garland Sutra and how it lists all the wonderful worlds and their
beautiful names and all the names of the wonderful buddhas who live in
these realms whereas we are just stuck here in the saha world. This is
happening all over again here in the Lotus Sutra, except in this case,
Buddha King Wisdom of the Pure Flower Constellation has an attendant
bodhisattva named Wonder Sound who wishes to come to this world and pay
homage to Shakyamuni Buddha. What impresses Bodhisattva Wonder Sound is
that Shakyamuni Buddha would be willing to come to this world with all its
hardships and limitations and to teach under these circumstances the people
who, much like myself, have such a difficult time trying to get it through
their thick heads what he is trying to share with us. So out of admiration
for the heroic effort of the Buddha for coming to this world, Bodhisattva
Wonder Sound wishes to come here himself.
What is interesting is that Buddha King Wisdom of the Pure Flower
Constellation gives him advice before making the trip. He says:
Do not look lightly on that domain or conceive a low opinion of it. Good
son! That saha world with its high and low [places] is uneven and full of
earth, stones, hills, and filth; the body of the Buddha is short and small,
and all the bodhisattvas are small of stature, whereas your body is
forty-two thousand yojanas [high] and my body is six million, eight hundred
thousand yojanas. Your body is of the finest order, [blessed with] hundreds
of thousands of myriads of felicities, and of a wonderful brightness.
Therefore on going there do not look lightly on that domain, nor conceive a
low opinion of the Buddha, nor of the bodhisattvas, nor of [their] country.
In other words, don't be condescending. Don't think that because
you are living in these ideal circumstances and have attained such high
realizations and such marvelous powers that you are any better than they
are, because really, in the Dharma, there is pure equality. There is no
comparing high and low, many or few. If Bodhisattva Wonder Sound is a real
bodhisattva, he will not succumb to the temptation of looking down upon
those whom he is coming to greet, those whom he is trying to help. Just as
in the first chapter we should be burning with zeal to help others, this
chapter is pointing out that at the same time we should not set ourselves
above them. So all these balances need to be maintained. As I said in one
of the previous lectures, the sutra keeps giving you one thing and then
giving you something else to keep it in perspective.
So Bodhisattva Wonder Sound comes down and greets Shakyamuni
Buddha, and all the other bodhisattvas are very impressed to see this
marvelous celestial bodhisattva from another world who is so huge and
transcendent. Yet, Shakyamuni Buddha says to them:
You merely see here [one] body of the Bodhisattva Wonder Sound. But this
bodhisattva appears in many kinds of bodies everywhere preaching this sutra
to the living.
He then precedes to enumerate all the different forms that the
Bodhisattva Wonder Sound takes on. I believe that there are 34 of them
altogether. He can appear as a god, a goddess, a brahmin (a priest), or a
soldier, as a prince, or as a beggar, or as a child, or a merchant, male,
female, old, young, even in devilish, or demonic, or monstrous forms. Even,
and this boggles my mind, in the form of a buddha if that is what will help
people. That is very strange because when you think about the 16th chapter
the Buddha reveals that he remains in this world even though he seems to
enter nirvana, so in a sense the Buddha is a bodhisattva and now you have
it the other way around - a bodhisattva who can become a buddha for us. So
things are much more flexible, much more open-ended than we are usually led
to believe, than we would usually like to think.
After telling the bodhisattvas and the disciples of the many forms
of Bodhisattva Wonder Sound, he says:
Good son! That contemplation is named revelation of all forms. The
Bodhisattva Wonder Sound, abiding in this contemplation, is able thus to
benefit countless beings.
So there it is again, the samadhi of revealing all forms. This
appears again and again throughout these last six chapters. Bodhisattva
Wonder Sound, far from looking down on or having a condescending attitude
is able to have such feelings of compassion and solidarity with those that
he engages that he becomes them. He loses his transcendent form, empties
himself out into the forms of a beggar, a child, a prince, of a god, a
goddess, a hungry ghost, or even of a buddha. I think that this is our
challenge as well. To be able to empty ourselves out in our practice, to
have that samadhi of the revelation of all forms, to have such total
solidarity. But at the same time to maintain that sense of freedom and
liberation, even while one is totally engaged. A very mysterious process.
Bodhisattva Regarder of the Cries of the World
The next chapter, is about The All Sidedness of the Bodhisattva
Regarder of the Cries of the World. Many of you may know her as Kuan Yin
Bodhisattva, the goddess of mercy or as Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva. This
chapter is a great favorite in East Asia and even in the Soto school in
Japan, the verse portion of this chapter as well as the verse portion of
the 16th chapter are often recited. In the Chinese schools this is the one
part of the Lotus Sutra that they will recite to the exclusion of all else.
It has received quite a lot of attention. This chapter is intriguing for a
number of reasons. I want to talk about three of them.
The first is Kuan Yin's practice. Her practice is actually "deep
listening" as Thich Nhat Hanh says. This listening is not just listening.
It is not exclusively listening, as if one were to listen to someone but
not look at them. It is really about fully opening oneself to the needs of
others. Fully opening oneself to what is going on around one and within one
as well. It is a panoramic awareness and attention to the world and
responding directly and purely to that. In the Surangama Sutra, where all
the bodhisattvas are asked to share their meditation techniques, it is this
practice of deep listening, or transcendent hearing as it says in the
Goddard version, that can lead directly to nirvana, to the non-abiding
nirvana of the bodhisattva. So this is a freedom and liberation that still
responds to and is engaged with others. This is a very important practice
that is being shared here. In the Surangama Sutra, it is discussed from the
perspective of the practitioner. In the 25th chapter, it is looking at it
from the angle of those who are being responded to. But there are always
two sides to this, because to really practice the 25th chapter we need to
enter into that practice ourselves.
Another important aspect of this chapter is what Kuan Yin is doing when she responds to others. It says that she frees them from greed, frees
those who call upon her from anger, frees them from ignorance. She rescues
them from all the troubles and turmoils of life, from lawsuits, from
pirates, from bandits, from bankruptcy, from all of these things. There is
a huge list. As 20th, almost 21st, century Americans, we read this and
think, "Isn't this like the medieval cult of the Virgin Mary?" It has been
interpreted and used that way, and from the outside that is what it seems
like. She is going to help us when we call upon her. But actually, when we
call upon her that calling is itself deep listening. Our giving voice is
also hearing and entering into the practice ourselves. That is her real
presence. Her real presence is in a sense the personification of nirvana
itself. It is in nirvana, entering into that context, that there is no more
greed, no more anger, no more ignorance, no more worrying and anxiety over
a self that can become bankrupt, or land in jail, or get mugged on the
street, or any of these other things. Of course, on another level, these
things might still happen to us, but once we have really entered into this
practice, it no longer affects some kind of self that needs to be
protected. Now there is a flow, a grace that can respond to these
difficulties without being overwhelmed by them, that can not only rise
above these circumstances, frustrations and provocations, but relieve
others also of these overwhelming feelings and difficulties and respond
creatively to them. I think that is what is really going on here. It is not
calling out to a transcendent savior but entering into her real presence,
which is the presence of nirvana itself. It's easy to say these things, of course.
Now in this chapter, Kuan Yin also reveals the samadhi of the
revelation of all forms and just as in the previous chapter there is a list
of all the many beings that she is able to become. Again, this deep
listening is also deep solidarity with others. It is a freedom that can
flow into all circumstances like water filling many different kinds of
containers, not getting fixed into any one form but able to flow again into
another form. It is a freedom that responds spontaneously and without
fixations to new circumstances as they arise. It is to know from the inside
out how others feel, instead of looking at them from the outside and
thinking, "Boy, I feel sorry for that person." There is no question of that
here. There is a full entering into the experience of the other, but
retaining that liberation as one enters into relationship with the other,
and in doing so communicates liberation to others.
The last aspect of this chapter that I want to talk about is what
happens towards the end, just before the verse section. A very curious
thing happens involving Bodhisattva Infinite Thought. Infinite Thought is a
very interesting name because it indicates that the one who is able to
enter into the practice of Kuan Yin has infinite thought, which is no
longer fixed or bound. Infinite Thought wishes to give an offering of a
necklace to Kuan Yin Bodhisattva, to the Regarder of the Cries of the
World, and she refuses. He tries again saying, "I want to offer this to you
because I am so impressed with who you are and what you have been able to
do for all of us, and the example you have set." Again she says, "No, no. I
can't take it. I can't accept it." Finally the Shakyamuni Buddha intervenes
and says, "Please, for the sake of all the beings here accept it." So she
does reluctantly. But she takes the necklace and splits it in two. She
gives one half to Shakyamuni Buddha and she gives the other half to the
treasure tower (which makes a brief cameo reappearance in this chapter). That is very interesting. On the folk lore level, one just goes straight to
Bodhisattva Kuan Yin, right to the Regarder of the Cries and seeks her help
and intercession; but in this chapter Kuan Yin herself is saying "I don't
want to be an intermediary. You have to enter into this directly yourself.
Don't try to put me between yourself and your own buddha-nature." The
only reason she does so is because some people otherwise couldn't identify
with this exalted state, this transcendent aspect of ourselves, the
buddha-nature, in any other way. So she become a bridge as it were. She
becomes a link in a cycle of merit that is shared back and forth. She
returns the gifts that she receives back to her own source, the Buddha, the
one who awoke to the buddha-nature and to the treasure tower which is the buddha-nature that is realized. Of course this is the ground of our own
lives, of our own selves, the groundless-ground you could say, the
selfless-self. Back and forth, back and forth it goes. From budha-nature to
Kuan Yin to responding to us, and from us responding to her compassion back to the Buddha and then back to the ground beneath our feet. Back and forth.
Back and forth. That is really what this chapter is about. Not getting
fixated on the bodhisattvas to come bail us out, but seeing them as the
bridge into that deeper understanding. Seeing them as the way to go deeper
into ourselves. Seeing them as a link, just as we are a link in that cycle
of the grace of the buddha-nature.
The next chapter is called Dharanis. Sometimes they are called
spells. I'm not sure how accurate that is. They are long strings of
syllables. They are usually kept in Sanskrit. Many of them are the names of
gods and goddesses, and powers. From the Indian point of view, the word
itself is the power of that which it is trying to invoke. Words are very
powerful to them. These dharanis were not just magickal spells, but very
powerful sound-symbols of realization itself, of the virtues and merits of
the one's who bestowed these dharanis. It was believed that if you could
learn the dharanis, you would be able to remember and maintain the
teachings on a very deep level, not just in the head but in the gut.
All of these six chapters are about dedication. In this chapter,
various individuals bestow dharanis upon the practitioners of the Lotus
Sutra, so that they can be protected in their practice. There are two
things going on here. When one really realizes the value of the Dharma, one
wishes to give back something, give back to the community, give back to
others, bestow one's protection upon others. From the other side, one who
takes up the Dharma, who takes up the practice are themselves protected.
They receive the response of the Dharmadhatu, the Dharma Realm, which in
this case is personified by the various beings in this chapter who are
bestowing these mystic syllables.
I will tell you briefly who they are: Medicine King Bodhisattva,
who we met before, is bestowing his merit, his protection, in the form of a
dharani; Bodhisattva Courageous Giver, and his name invokes the theme of
this chapter; these two bodhisattvas are followed by the Divine King
Vaisravana and the Divine King Domain Holder.
If you were ever to see the mandala of the Nichiren school which I belong to, which depicts the Ceremony in the Air in calligraphic form,
there are four large calligraphic characters in the corners and they are
the four divine kings who protect the universe. They stand guard over the
north, south, east and west of the universe. Their presence delineates the
Dharma Realm and shows that Namu Myoho Renge Kyo, Devotion to the True
Dharma of the Lotus Flower Teaching, pervades and illuminates the entire
universe. Nothing is left out. So in this sense, the presence of these two
divine kings is showing that the whole universe is responding to us. These
are not just individuals, they are representing the four corners of the
universe. Everything responds to our practice, and our practice in turn is
a response to everything.
Finally, the dharanis are bestowed by Kishimojin, or Hariti, and the ten rakshasa women who are said to be her daughters. She is a demon, and it is interesting that in Buddhism we are said to receive the
protection of demons. What is really going on here is not that Buddhists
are actually devil-worhippers or practicing black magick. What is really
going on is that Buddhism recognizes that even misfortune, even those
things which under some circumstances can be very negative can also be
catalysts for awakening. Kishimojin was one of those spirits in the ancient
world who were believed to have caused Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). It was
said that she carried away babies or killed babies in the night. The
Buddha, hearing of these activities, stole one of her five-hundred
children. She got very upset and looked all over for her child which the
Buddha had hidden with his transcendent powers. Finally she gave up and
went to the one person who knows everything, the Buddha and says, "I can't
find my baby!" The Buddha says to her, "You take children from these
peasants and they only have two or three or four and you have no compassion
for them. You, on the other hand, have five-hundred, but when I hid one of
yours you get so upset." Then she realized, "I haven't even been aware of
what I was doing. I wasn't thinking of how my actions were affecting
others." With that she awakened her own bodhicitta, her own aspiration to
help others and to lift herself out of her own self-inflicted suffering. In
this chapter she turns over all of that formerly negative energy into
protection for us. Now this is a nice little fairy tale, but if you think
about it, what are most vaccines and inoculations? What are a lot of the
medicines that we use? In other circumstances they are poison, but they
have been redirected. So psychologically we can redirect ourselves, but
even in the non-psychological material "base" world, things get redirected.
Buddhism recognizes this, and that is why we receive the protection of even
the negative forces in life. That is why we should never write anybody off
as a hopeless case. We never know when there might be a sudden turn-around
and then they will become our benefactor.
The next chapter is the story of King Resplendent. In this chapter
we have another fairy tale. We have the king, Resplendent, his wife, Pure
Virtue, and their sons, Pure Treasury and Pure Eyed. One gets an image from
these names of something like Ozzy and Harriett from the 50s. Everything is
very pure and wonderful and clean cut with names like this. Despite this,
things are not perfect because King Resplendent, horror of horrors, is not
a Buddhist. He reveres the brahmins. He is very backwards and old fashioned
that way. His radical sons wish to follow the teachings of a Buddha named
Thunder Voice Constellation King of Wisdom. So the two sons go to their
mother. This is a trick that goes back billions and trillions of years.
They know they are not going to get anywhere with dad, so they go ask mom.
They ask Pure Virtue, "Can we go and join the Buddha? Can we go and
renounce our position as princes and take up this Dharma?" She says what
all mothers have said for billions and trillions of years, "Go ask your
father." She then advises them to show him the benefits of their practice.
"Show him what this Dharma is about. Don't try to talk him into it or
badger him. Show him." And that is what they do.
Now it wouldn't be very exciting if the sutra said that they showed
him by mindfully washing the dishes or mindfully cleaning their rooms, or
mindfully doing their chores. So instead, it makes things a little more
spectacular by having them walking on air and shooting fire from their
mouths and water from below and then water from above and fire from below
and all kinds of martial art style tricks that one would see in a video
game where the characters are shooting lightning and flying through the
air. So they do all this and the king is very impressed. He decides that
"Maybe there is something to this Buddhism after all." So washing the
dishes didn't do the trick but shooting fire and flying through space did
in this case. But the point is that they set an example. They showed what
their practice was about instead of just talking about it saying, "Hey
guess what! I'm a Buddhist. I know all this great stuff. Let me tell you
about all the books I've read. All these fantastic concepts." They didn't
do that. They leave it to people like me to do that. These people directly
showed what it is about. The king was so impressed in fact that he himself
decided that he would go join and study under this Buddha Thunder Voice
Constellation King of Wisdom. There is going to be a test afterwards so
remember. The king, is now able himself to show the fruits of the practice
of the Dharma in his own life. The following happens:
Whereupon he arose in the sky to a height of seven tala trees and said to
that buddha: "World-honored One! These my two sons have already done a
buddha-deed by their supernatural transformations, changing my heretical
mind, establishing me in the Buddha-law, and causing me to see the
World-honored One. These two sons are my good friends, for out of a desire
to develop the roots of goodness [planted] in my former lives and to
benefit me, they came and were born in my house."
He goes on to say how he himself is going to try to live the Dharma
and inspire others:
Then, when King Resplendent had extolled that buddha's so many merits,
countless hundreds of thousands of myriads of kotis of them, with all his
mind he folded his hands before the tathagata and again addressed that
buddha, saying: "Unprecedented is the World-honored One. The Tathagata's
teaching is perfect in its inconceivable and wonderful merits. The moral
precepts which he promulgates are comforting and quickening. From this day
onward I will not again follow my own mind, nor beget false views, nor a
haughty, angry, or any other sinful mind." Having uttered these words, he
did reverence to the buddha and went forth.
That's a little better than flying through space and shooting
fireballs. At least there is a moral example being set forth here. Of
course, in the ancient world if the king, the ruler, set an example then
the kingdom would likewise follow. The health of the nation would follow
the health of the king. So here we have a whole kingdom transformed because
of the example set by two sons. In our own practice, that is what we need
to do. We need to transform the world not through badgering and conniving
or trying to brow-beat people into thinking and seeing things the way we do,
but setting the example ourselves.
Encouragement of the Bodhisattva Universal Virtue
Now we come to the last chapter, 28. The Encouragement of the
Bodhisattva Universal Virtue. This chapter may not mean so much to someone
who may not know about Bodhisattva Universal Virtue. To those who do know
who this bodhisattva is and read this chapter, it is mind-blowing. It is
incredible. Universal Virtue is also known as Samantabhadra in Sanskrit or Fugen Bosatsu in Japanese. Is this Manjushri here?
M: The Buddha in his aspect of the sambhogakaya, the bliss body, the reward
body of the Buddha, is often accompanied by bodhisattvas as opposed to the
historical Buddha who is accompanied by the disciples, the people he knew
in history. So a transcendent Buddha requires transcendent attendants.
Manjushri represent Wisdom, and he's not doing it here but...
P: That's Avalokiteshvara. He's on the other side on the lion.
P: With the double-edged sword.
M: O.k. I was about to say he has the sword, the sword that cuts through
delusion. The sword that gets to the point. So Manjushri is the wisdom, and
he is on the one side and he rides the lion because the lion is the king of
animals and the Dharma, or Truth, is the king of all things. On the other
side, is Bodhisattva Samantabhadra, Universal Virtue, riding the elephant.
The six tusked elephant which represents the six perfections. The elephant,
when it is going through the jungle, lets nothing stand in its way. Nothing
can impede its progress. It is too big. Samantabhadra is the practice of
Buddhism. Not just the wisdom, but the application of wisdom. It is making
the good cause, acting on what one knows that is unimpeded. Bodhisattva
Universal Virtue is really the theme of the Flower Garland Sutra. The
Flower Garland Sutra sets forth the path of the Bodhisattva and all its
permutations. He is the personification of all of those practices. All of
the activities, all of the good causes, all of the virtues and merits of
the Buddha, or that bring about buddhahood, or that come from buddhahood.
He is buddhahood as activity, action, function, dynamic relationality. As
the personification of all the good causes of the Buddha he comes at the
very end of the Lotus Sutra to show the active side of taking faith in the
sutra, to show the active unfolding of that faith.
Also, he arrives to bring his practice into ours and to allow us to
enter into his. Because if you think about it, the six perfections are very
daunting. Do any of us have perfect generosity, perfect virtue, perfect
patience, perfect enthusiasm, perfect tranquility of mind, perfect wisdom?
Do any of us have even one of those? Now, when you read the sutras, we are
expected to have all six. That's scary. I think that even if I had 20
billion lives I would never be able to amass that kind of perfection on my
own. Yet, the Lotus Sutra is saying, if you remember last week when we were talking about the single moment of rejoicing, that even one moment of
rejoicing in the truth of this sutra brings more merit than all of those
perfections combined, except for perfect wisdom, which this single moment
is a different way of expressing. Somehow, when we break out of the self,
we break out of the limitations of the self, out of the finite efforts of
the self, and enter into the efforts and causes of all things, in this case
personified by Bodhisattva Universal Virtue. There is a merger between my
own small way of embodying these truths and the embodiment which is
everything. This is going back to Dogen's essay where he says, "We are the
Flower of Dharma turning the Flower of Dharma, and the Flower of Dharma is
turning us." It's very helpful to think of this as merging into Bodhisattva
Universal Virtue and Bodhisattva Universal Virtue merging into us. Really,
when one understands what the Dharma is, there is no self or other, subject
or object, within or without, self-power or Other-power. It all just
becomes the clear light of the perfect effort, the perfect practice, the
perfect realization of reality itself. Words can't do it justice but words
can attempt it. Words can try to make us realize that there is something to
be realized. So with that, let me read to you the passages where
Bodhisattva Universal Virtue is promising to aid us, to join with us in our
practice. Bodhisattva Universal Virtue says to the Buddha:
World-honored One! In the last five hundred years of the corrupt and evil
age, whoever receives and keeps this sutra I will guard and protect, rid of
the anxiety of decline and sickness, and give ease of mind, so that no one
shall be able to spy out and take advantage of weakness.
So we don't have to be afraid of our own failures or shortcomings.
Our practice goes beyond that.
World-honored One! If there be any bodhisattvas who hear these dharanis,
they shall be aware of the supernatural power of Universal Virtue. If while
the Law-Flower Sutra proceeds on its course through Jambudvipa there be
those who receive and keep it, let them reflect thus: "This is all due to
the majestic power of Universal Virtue." If any receive and keep, read and
recite, rightly remember it, comprehend its meaning, and practice it as
preached, let it be known that these are doing the works of Universal
Virtue and have deeply planted good roots under numberless countless
buddhas, and that their heads will be caressed by the hands of the
So our own practice is motivated by Universal Virtue himself. The
fact that we have even taken up Buddhism is coming from a source far deeper
than our own desires and wishes and intentions. What follows upon that will
resonate with reality itself. It will not just be limited to what we can
I think that I will just end what I was saying about these chapters
with the idea that we need to make an effort ourselves. We need to dedicate
whatever realization, whatever merits, whatever virtues that we ourselves
have. It is not as though we have to wait around for Bodhisattva Universal
Virtue to do it for us. But we should take heart that whatever effort we
make will open up into the effort of all beings, the effort that is
buddhahood itself, the actions of the buddha-nature and not just our
self-actions with their shortsightedness and limits. Really we are in the
midst of the boundarlessness of all of these practices and virtues and
merits of the Buddha. I think that will be a good place to end the
discussion tonight and open it up to questions or comments or answers.
Q&A for Session 4
Q: So much of the Lotus Sutra seems imaginary. For instance, how could all
those people hear the Buddha speaking?
M: There is very little in the Lotus Sutra that logistically makes any
sense. Now that you have raised that point, it's true that the people
sitting way in the back couldn't hear what the Buddha was saying because he
didn't have a little speaker like this. Too bad. We might have a very
different view of Buddhism if we had actual recordings of the Buddha's
teachings. I don't know. The point is that it is not about listening to the
actual physical voice, although sometimes that's involved, of a particular
person. What is really happening in the Lotus Sutra is happening now. The
Ceremony in the Air, the meetings on Vulture Peak are still going on. They
are still going on because we are still the disciples, we are still the
bodhisattvas, we are still the hungry ghosts, and the demons, and the gods
and the goddesses. We are embodying all of that ourselves. All of those
beings that were there are us. Not just the nice ones, or the bad ones, or
the mediocre ones, but all of them are us. The ground that we are walking
on is Vulture Peak. The air that we breath, that is the air of the Ceremony
in the Air. Our bodies, these bones, this flesh, snot, tears, blood and
hair, this is the treasure tower. When we deeply listen like Bodhisattva
Regarder of the Cries of the World to the sound of reality itself, we are
hearing the sermon. We are hearing the Buddha's teachings. We should
meditate very deeply, not like Zen meditation, but meditate in the sense of
reflecting deeply on what it means that all those beings were gathered
there at that particular place to listen to that particular person. We
should reflect very deeply on what that means for us.
Maylie: Thank you. I think that you said that our Zen ancestors mostly
refer to just the first three chapters of the Lotus Sutra. Why?
M: They were not the only ones. The T'ien-t'ai meditative scholastic school
that based its teachings on the Lotus Sutra also stuck with the first few
chapters. Part of the reason is that the first half of the Lotus Sutra is
the theoretical half, the part that sets out what we are trying to do, and
that gives a direction to our practice. It is from chapter 15 on that you
get into realization and what to do after realization. But really,
realization has to come of itself. You have to be there. Talking about it
is not good enough. Reading about it wont by itself get you there. So I
think that the T'ien-t'ai school and the Zen school and others thought that
one should concentrate on the first half so that one could practice
correctly with the right intention. Then when one had realization one could
appreciate what is going on in the other half of the sutra. But if you
tried to do it the other way around, you would read the last half without
realization of your own, and end up like Hakuin, throwing up your hands and
saying that it is impossible to understand. "This doesn't make any sense.
There is nothing so special about this." Then one would have discarded the
Lotus Sutra without really looking at how the first half is trying to give
you a key to understanding the second half. And the reason for only going
as far as the third chapter is that the second chapter in an abstract sense
tells you what the whole sutra is about, or at least what the first half is
about. It tells you about buddha-nature and aspiring to buddhahood and the
One Vehicle. In the third chapter you get the Parable of the Burning House,
the first real example. All the other parables are just trying to give you
a better understanding of the second chapter. I think that is why they
stopped there. "Now we have the essence of it, and the rest is just more of
The Nichiren school takes a very different point of view. The idea
of the Nichiren school is that we are kidding ourselves if we think that we
can practice perfectly, if we think that we have what it takes to practice
the way the Buddha and his disciples practiced. If we had that kind of
merit we would have been born back in that time. If we had that kind of
merit we would be able to shave our heads and go off into the hills and do
all those extremely strenuous difficult practices. If you think about it,
most of us are leading pretty ordinary lives. Sure we are able to take our
retreats, or meditate in the morning and at night, and in between take care
of the family and go to a full time job and do all of those other things.
However, I can't for a second kid myself into thinking that I am practicing
the way the Buddha practiced or that Shariputra practiced, the way all of
those other early disciples practiced. I would be kidding myself if I
thought that I were on the level of the bodhisattvas discussed here. So
Nichiren's idea was to keep the first half in mind but concentrate on the
second half of the sutra because that realization is underlying your life
right now, no matter how ordinary you think it is. No matter how limited or
confused or frustrated you are, you are living in the midst of that
realization. If you can just have the faith that you are living in the
midst of enlightenment and the fulfillment of buddhahood, then you will be
able to practice correctly. So he reversed everything. The idea is to get
the point and then you can practice, rather than practice so that you can
get the point. Does that make any sense?
Q: How do you do that?
M: Namu Myoho Renge Kyo!
Q: Our ancestor [Dogen] in the Hokke-ten-Hokke seems not to have turned it
around again but in a sense keeps turning it around. In other words, I
think for him, probably for us, practice starts with the second half of the
Lotus Sutra, with realization. Or at least it is not separate from that.
M: Right. The Nichiren Shu, the school that I belong to has sometimes taken issue with other Nichiren schools, because the other Nichiren schools say
that the last half is so important that we can forget about the first half.
But the Nichiren Shu is also known as the Ichi-ha or the Harmony school
because we believe that both halves need to be in harmony with each other.
When I read Hokke-ten-Hokke, on one level it seems like he is not
going beyond the third chapter, but on another level his interpretation of
the Parable of the Burning House presumes a deep understanding of the rest
of the sutra, and a deep realization based on what we call the essential
section, the section revealing the eternal life of the Buddha. Yes, I would
Q: Well, his instructions for practice seem to reflect the ecstatic view, if
you will, of the Lotus Sutra.
M: Very much. I think that is part of why he [Dogen] left the Tendai
school. I think that he also was frustrated by this idea that "If we are
already enlightened, then why do we need to practice so much? Why are we
concentrating on all this?" I think that dissonance between practice and
realization was as real for him as it was for Nichiren. Definitely. The Tendai school wasn't making the connections. At least it wasn't for him or
for Nichiren. Maybe some Tendai people would say something different. Of course we weren't there, so we have no way of knowing.
I'll tell you one thing, now that I am thinking of it. While I will
wholeheartedly say that I believe the Nichiren school most clearly shows
how to practice the Lotus Sutra, in my experience the sectarian boundaries
are really fuzzy, and in a sense kind of meaningless. I think the important
thing is to find those people who have realized what the teaching is for
themselves and can help you realize it too. I think that sectarian
affiliation or the official teachings of the sect become secondary to what
the real people are actually doing and actually thinking and actually
seeing and how they can touch your life. Because if you can't enter into
that kind of environment where there is that existential confrontation to
bring this to life, then it doesn't matter how clearly the teachings are
given or what the ideals of the sect are, you are just going to fall flat
on your face. I think that's why Dogen had to spend so much time looking
for a good teacher.
Q: I'm interested in what you said, so I'll paraphrase it and see if you
agree. What I got out of it is that if we make the best effort that we can,
then we are pulled into this energy force which exists out there and at
that point it's not our own volition. We are caught up in this universal
energy and attain realization. Did I understand you correctly?
M: Right. Though I wouldn't say that we are pulled into something other or
outside of us, but that the self breaks open. The image is often given of a
jar floating in the ocean, the jar breaks open and the water in the jar
becomes one with the water of the ocean. It's more like that. We break open
into that non-dual reality.
Q: Not an energy force.
M: Right. It's really attaining to something that was already there in the
first place. It is breaking through those artificial constructions that we
built up through our own actions, thoughts, and words, and deeds. It breaks
Q: So you think that Nichiren Buddhism takes less effort than Zen?
M: I think that Nichiren pictured it like a baby chick that is just ready
to hatch and is tapping on the inside of the egg and that the Buddha is
like the mother tapping on the outside in response. I think that Nichiren
saw Zen as a kind of heroic, macho, self-power, "I'm going to do it myself"
kind of thing, which asks "who needs the Buddha?" Maybe that is how some of
the Zen people in his time were teaching it. I don't think that would be
true of Dogen or anyone else who actually knew what they were talking
about. But that was how he perceived the Zen sect. He believed that their
attitude was: "Do it yourself. We don't need tradition. We don't need the
Buddha." I think that he also rejected the Pure Land idea that we are
totally helpless and godforsaken and that only the Buddha can come and save
us. I think he disagreed with both those positions. I think that he saw it
as a synergy, as a very subtle interrelationship between our own efforts
and the Buddha, the buddha-nature. Then you get to the point where there is
no self or Other, so where is this effort coming from? From the outside or
from the inside? Is the egg cracking open because of the chick hitting it
or because of the mother hitting it? It just cracks open.
Q: I hate to ask such a piquish question...
M: Go ahead.
Q: I was just wondering if there was anybody here in this assembly who knew
the answer to this by their own experience?
M: The answer to self and Other power?
Q: The answer to whether enlightenment is something achieved as an
individual, or something which you are helped with by the Buddha? Is there
an external energy that sucks you in? Any of these things. Does anyone
know? Or are we all aspirants? Is there anyone who can interpret the second
half of the Lotus Sutra from the position of realization.
M: Let me get one thing out of the way. First off, we are all aspirants but
I've been explaining up until now the Lotus Sutra's demonstration of our
practice in terms of aspiration, realization and dedication, but these are
not three steps. This isn't the cha-cha-cha, one-two-three. They are
simultaneous aspects of the single moment of practice, of fully practicing
where we are now as we are now. I notice that when I am practicing, when I
am chanting, sometimes my mind is at the level of "I am just aspiring,"
sometimes it goes a little deeper. Sometimes I am able to just throw myself
into it and words just don't do justice to it. Then there are other times
when I think more about the people in Kosovo, or the high school shootings,
or hoping that somehow through my practice this will benefit others. But
really all those levels are constantly interrelated, constantly supporting
one another, giving rise to one another.
I will tell you another story that will hopefully answer your
question more directly. When I was in grade school, I was diagnosed by
child-psychologists as having learning disabilities and behavioral problems
and all that other nonsense, so I went to a special school. The teachers
were constantly sending daily reports to my parents to show if I had done
anything inappropriate that day. If I spoke out of turn or jumped out of my
seat and clapped chalk in someone's face (I enjoyed doing that) and all the
other nasty tricks I used to play they would mark it down. Consequently, I
became extremely self-conscious in grade school because I was always being
watched and I was always watching myself, and I was always wondering "Why
can't I control myself? Why do I have all this energy that makes me want to
jump up? Why can't I just be like the other kids and just do my work and go
to regular school and be like everybody else?" But I just couldn't. It was
too much. No matter how hard I tried, it just didn't work. Something would
screw me up, or I'd forget myself and do something inappropriate. My
self-power wasn't working. And no matter what other people did, it didn't
help very much either.
But I remember one day (and it's not quite right to say that I
remember it) but I came in, I sat down, I put my book bag down, they said
"Here, we are going to do this." I did it. I took the notes on the chalk
board. I went out to recess and played. I went through the whole day just
doing what was right there in front of me. I didn't even think about the
fact that I was behaving so well. It didn't even occur to me until the end
of the day when the teacher said to me, "Michael, you were so good today."
This I remember. I looked up at her and said, "I was?" I realized that,
"Wow! I just had a perfect day. Everything was in synch." I was so proud
of myself that of course I just lost it after that. I don't know what I did
the next day, but it wasnt that perfect. I don't remember that.
When I think back to that day, I wasn't making any effort to behave
myself. Nobody else was making me behave myself. I just did what was there
and very clearly too. It just unfolded. There was no ego in it at all. That
is part of what made it so smooth. I offer that for what it's worth.
Q: I'm not sure that your story satisfied my inquiry. You were saying that
in the Nichiren school you concentrate on the realization side so you can
somehow break through into the realization side and in the Zen school we
practice very hard and hope to become enlightened perhaps but we kind of
don't think about that.
M: And you try very hard not to think about it right?
Q: Different schools seem to have different explanations of how realization
occurs or what promotes realization. There are different instructions and
strategies and transcendental explanations of how realization occurs. So I
was just wondering... and this is a question I feel comfortable asking you,
I feel extremely uncomfortable asking my teacher because it's breaking the
rules... does anybody in this company know the answers to these questions
by first hand experience? My suspicion is no. O.k.? That is another way of
saying that we are all aspirants, none of us are realized. Because a person
who was looking from the other side of the river, the crossing, they could
answer that question.
M: My suspicion is that, while I doubt that anybody here is established in
it, that every person in this room has had moments where the sunshine broke
through the clouds as it were. That's my suspicion. I think that our
practice is a way of trying to widen that gap to let more sunlight in. Or a
way of further establishing ourselves in that. That is my suspicion.
Q: Do you speak for yourself Michael?
M: Yes, I do. That is part of the point of my telling that story. That even
as a little kid far before I heard of Buddhism, I had a very Buddhist
moment. And there have been other times.
Q: While I appreciate Cathy's question and I can also appreciate your story
of having your perfectly well behaved day, it leaves me a little confused
about how much effort is the right amount of effort. That is leaving aside
the question of which direction to put your efforts. How much effort? How
much do we really need to try versus how much do we really need to relax or
maybe how much we need to try to relax? I don't know. It seems the farther
along I go, the more confused about that I get.
M: I am having this gut feeling here that the answer is no effort at all.
That is what my gut is telling me to say. No effort at all. That is difficult.
Q: Good answer.
Stephen: I just wanted to share something based on that question about the
effort. I practice as does Michael, and I have done it for thirty years
now. There have been those times when the clouds cleared. I have seen
people say, "Oh, we've got to chant what we call a daimoku tozo and chant
for 24 hours straight." Then they would be absolutely wrung out and a mess
at work. However, the experiences that have been my epiphanies, or whatever
the term is to be used, were the ones that were no effort as Michael said.
It was simply my sitting and chanting. The most vivid one for me was when
my mother was dying. She was in the hospital and I was at home and I had
already been called and told that she was not going to make it through the
night. The only thing I had left to do was to sit in front of my altar with
the candles and the mandala in front of me and simply invoke the title of
the Lotus Sutra. And that's all I did. I didn't do it with fear. I simply
did it as an expression of my own life. That experience was one of the most
amazing for me in terms of non-existence of object and subject,
non-existence of me. The only thing that existed for me at that time, to
this day I can not tell you how long I sat, was the mandala and the sound
of my invocation. At some point I simply stopped, went to bed, and when I
woke up the next morning and called the hospital they informed me that my
mother was down the hall having pizza. That experience was the most
profound experience that I have ever had and made me understand on such a
gut level that the Buddha is not about effort ultimately, it's about the
heart and simply existing in that moment.
M: Thank you.
Q: I guess that your practice turns you around so that when it happens you
can understand it better and take advantage of it more. I mean, in Zen
practice you come to know your mind very well so that when there is a
moment of clarity, instead of the next day not knowing why that happened to
you, maybe there is a little more understanding of why that happened so
that you can cultivate it.?
M: That is a good point because Shakyamuni had his perfect day when he was
young under the rose apple tree but he wasn't able to do anything with it.
Q: I've never heard that story.
M: You never heard that story? Have any of you heard that story? Some of
P: His father was out plowing the fields for the agricultural festival. It
was the first time as a little baby that he sat up and meditated and
achieved a deep state of meditation.
M: The dhyana states, the trance states. Yes. It was based on his seeing,
while the ritual plowing was going on, the worms getting pulled out of the
ground and the birds coming down and eating them and he realized "Wow!
Nature red in tooth and claw." That inspired him to sit down and find some
peace amidst this horrible suffering that the festival was creating. He was
a bit of an overwrought little child. But the point is, years later, when
all the ascetisicm and other difficult willful, effortful practices that he
had tried fell through, he remembered that experience. But now he was
prepared to do something with it, to take it to that next level or insight,
whereas before, as a child, he didn't have enough preparation of the
ground. But even without the preparation these moments come upon us.
Maylie: And still we are taught continuous effort, continuous practice.
M: Right, but there is a difference between our self effort, the effort of
a self that is striving to attain something, and the effort of a buddha or
the effort of Universal Virtue, which is really kind of effortless.
Q: I was just thinking as everyone was talking about practice and
realization about Kanzan and Jittoku. The two are, how shall I say,
cognitively disadvantaged, and they have the brooms you know?
M: Oh, those two guys. Yeah.
Q: Their practice is to just sweep. Of course, I guess the presumption is
that they don't think too much about any of these things. They really have
the advantage over us, even though we would call them handicapped or
disadvantaged. They just sweep, and they have beautiful smiles.
M: When I was in college I was jokingly referred to as the Sage of 40th
Street, because I lived on 40th Street in West Philadelphia. I had this
tiny little apartment that I shared with a bunch of roaches. I tried to
make it as Japanese as possible because I like the aesthetic and it was
also very practical because I didnÕt have enough space for anything else.
One of my favorite things to do was to pull the straw mats off the floor,
clear the furniture, and just mindlessly sweep. I don't think it was their
kind of sweeping but I remember thinking, "Drop everything! I'm just going
to sweep. Stop worrying about all this stuff outside this 10' apartment."
It was neat.