Zen & the Lotus Sutra

Ryuei and Maylie with the Berkeley Zen Center

A Series of Seminars at the
Berkeley Zen Center ~ 1999
by Ryuei Michael McCormick

Table of Contents

Dedication to the memory of the late Zen Master, Kushin Seisho Maylie Scott (1935-2001)

Session One ~ April 1

  • Opening Verse and Statement (Ch.1)
  • Zen and the Lotus Sutra (Ch.2)
  • Parables of the Lotus Sutra (Ch.3-4)
  • Overview of the Seminar
  • Q&A from Session 1
  • Session Two ~ April 8

  • Overview of the Lotus Sutra
  • Bodhicitta (Ch.3-4)
  • Parables of Encouragement (Ch.5,7)
  • Parables of Buddha-nature (Ch.8,14)
  • Absolute and Relative Bodhicitta (Ch.10,14)
  • Q&A from Session 2
  • On the Odaimoku
  • Session Three ~ April 15

  • Appearance of the Precious Stupa (Ch.11-14)
  • The Emergent Bodhisattvas of the Earth (Ch.15)
  • The Eternal Buddha (Ch.16)
  • The Merits of the Single Moment of Faith and Rejoicing (Ch.17-19)
  • The Transmission of the Wonderful Dharma (Ch.21-22)
  • Q&A from Session 3
  • Session Four ~ April 22

  • Analysis of the Lotus Sutra
  • Bodhisattva Medicine King (Ch.23)
  • Bodhisattva Wonder Sound (Ch.24)
  • Bodhisattva Regarder of the Cries of the World (Ch.25)
  • Dharanis (Ch.26)
  • King Resplendent (Ch.27)
  • Encouragement of Bodhisattva Universal Virtue (Ch.28)
  • Q&A for Session 4
  • Session Five ~ April 29

  • Q&A for Session 5 after Shodaigyo Practice

    Appendix A: Verses for Opening the Sutra
    Appendix B: Practice Questions
  • Appendix C: The Seven Parables of the Lotus Sutra
    Appendix D: Zen Masters on the Lotus Sutra
    Appendix E: Recitation Passages
    Appendix F: Shodaigyo Meditation

    Appendix D
    Zen Masters on the Lotus Sutra

    Zen Master Dogen from the Shobogenzo

    The Saddharma-pundarika-sutra states, "Those who commit various wrong acts will, because of karmic retribution, be unable to hear even the name of the Three Treasures for countless kalpas." The Saddharma-pundarika-sutra explains the purpose of the various Buddhas having appeared in this world. It may be said to be the great king and the great master of all the various sutras that the Buddha Shakyamuni taught. Compared with this sutra, all the other sutras are merely its servants, its relatives, for it alone expounds the Truth. The other sutras, on the other hand, include provisional teachings of the Buddha, and therefore do not express his real intention.

    It is a mistake to use the teachings of the other sutras as the basis for determining the validity of those contained in the Saddharma-pundarika-sutra, for without the merit-power of the latter, the former would be valueless. All the other sutras find their origin in this sutra. As the previously quoted sentence from this sutra shows, the merit of the Three Treasures is truly of unsurpassed value.
    (pp.129-130, Zen Master Dogen: An Introduction with Selected Writings)

    The 6th Patriarch from the Platform Sutra

    Bhikkhu Fa Ta, a native of Hung Chou, who joined the Order at the early age of seven, used to recite the Saddharma Pundarika (Lotus of the Good Law) Sutra. When he came to pay homage to the Patriarch, he failed to lower his head to the ground. For his abbreviated courtesy the Patriarch reproved him, saying, "If you object to lower your head to the ground, would it not be better to do away with salutation entirely" There must be something in your mind that makes you so puffed up. Tell me what you do in your daily exercise.

    "Recite the Saddharma Pundarika Sutra," replied Fa Ta. "I have read the whole text three thousand times."

    "Had you grasped the meaning of the Sutra," remarked the Patriarch, "you would not have assumed such a lofty bearing, even if you had read it ten thousand times. Had you grasped it, you would be treading the same Path as mine. What you have accomplished has already made you conceited, and moreover, you do not seem to realize that this is wrong. Listen to my stanza:
    Since the object of ceremony is to curb arrogance
    Why did you fail to lower your head to the ground?
    "To believe in a self" is the source of sin,
    But "to treat all attainment as void" attains merit incomparable!
    The Patriarch then asked for his name, and upon being told that his name was Fa Ta (meaning Understanding the Law), he remarked, "Your name is Fa Ta, but you have not understood the Law." He concluded by uttering another stanza:
    Your name is Fa Ta.
    Diligently and steadily you recite the Sutra.
    Lip-repitition of the text goes by the pronunciation only,
    But he whose mind is enlightened by grasping the meaning
    is a bodhisattva indeed!
    On account of conditions which may be traced to our past lives
    I will explain this to you.
    If you only believe that Buddha speaks no words,
    Then the Lotus will blossom in your mouth.
    Having heard this stanza, Fa Ta became remorseful and apologized to the Patriarch. He added, "Hereafter, I will be humble and polite on all occasions. As I do not quite understand the meaning of the Sutra I recite, I am doubtful as to its proper interpretation. With your profound knowledge and high wisdom, will you kindly give me a short explanation?"

    The Patriarch replied, "Fa Ta, the Law is quite clear; it is only your mind that is not clear. The Sutra is free from doubtful passages; it is only your mind that makes them doubtful. In reciting the Sutra, do you know its principal object?"

    "How can I know, Sir," replied Fa Ta, "since I am so dull and stupid? All I know is how to recite it word by word."

    The Patriarch then said, "Will you please recite the Sutra, as I cannot read it myself. I will then explain it to you."

    Fa Ta recited the Sutra, but when he came to the chapter entitled "Parables" the Patriarch stopped him, saying, "The key-note of this Sutra is to set forth the aim and object of a Buddha's incarnation in this world. Though parables and illustrations are numerous in this book, none of them goes beyond this pivotal point. Now what is that object? What is that aim? The Sutra says, 'It is for a sole object, a sole aim, verily a lofty object and a lofty aim that the Buddha appears in this world.' Now that sole object, that sole aim, that lofty object, that lofty aim referred to is the 'sight' of Buddha-Knowledge.

    "Common people attach themselves to objects without; and within, they fall into the wrong idea of 'vacuity'. When they are able to free themselves from attachment to objects when in contact with objects, and to free themselves from the fallacious view of annihilation on the doctrine of 'Void' they will be free from delusions within and from illusions without. He who understands this and whose mind is thus enlightened in an instant is said to have opened his eyes for the sight of Buddha-Knowledge.

    "The word 'Buddha' is equivalent to 'Enlightenment' which may be dealt with (as in the Sutra) under four heads:
    To open the eyes for the sight of Enlightenment-knowledge.
    To show the sight of Enlightenment-knowledge.
    To awake to the sight of Enlightenment-knowledge.
    To be firmly established in the Enlightenment-knowledge.
    "Should we be able, upon being taught, to grasp and understand thoroughly the teaching of Enlightenment-knowledge, then our inherent quality or true nature, i.e., the Enlightenment-knowledge, would have an opportunity to manifest itself. You should not misinterpret the text, and come to the conclusion that Buddha-knowledge is something special to Buddha and not common to us all because you happen to find in the Sutra this passage, 'To open the eyes for the sight of Buddha-knowledge, to show the sight of Buddha-knowledge, etc.' Such a misinterpretation would amount to slandering Buddha and blaspheming the Sutra. Since he is a Buddha, he is already in possession of this Enlightenment-knowledge and there is no occasion for himself to open his eyes for it. You should therefore accept the interpretation that Buddha-knowledge is the Buddha-knowledge of your own mind and not that of any other Buddha.

    "Being infatuated by sense-objects, and thereby shutting themselves from their own light, all sentient beings, tormented by outer circumstances and inner vexations, act voluntarily as slaves to their own desires. Seeing this, our Lord Buddha had to rise from his Samadhi in order to exhort them with earnest preaching of various kinds to suppress their desires and to refrain from seeking happiness from without, so that they might become the equals of Buddha. For this reason the Sutra says, 'To open the eyes for the sight of Buddha-knowledge, etc.'

    "I advise people constantly to open their eyes for the Buddha-knowledge within their mind. But in their perversity they commit sins under delusion and ignorance; they are kind in words, but wicked in mind; they are greedy, malignant, jealous, crooked, flattering, egotistic, offensive to men and destructive to inanimate objects. Thus, they open their eyes for the 'Common-people-knowledge.' Should they rectify their heart, so that wisdom arises perpetually, the mind would be under introspection, and evil doing be replaced by the practice of good; then they would initiate themselves into the Buddha-knowledge.

    "You should therefore from moment to moment open your eyes, not for 'Common-people-knowledge' but for Buddha-knowledge, which is super-mundane, while the former is worldly. On the other hand, if you stick to the concept that mere recitation (of the Sutra) as a daily exercise is good enough, then you are infatuated like the yak by its own tail." (Yaks are known to have a very high opinion of their own tails.)

    Fa Ta then said, "If that is so we have only to know the meaning of the Sutra and there would be no necessity for us to recite it. Is that right, Sir?"

    "There is nothing wrong in the Sutra," replied the Patriarch, "so that you should refrain from reciting it. Whether sutra-reciting will enlighten you or not, or benefit you or not, all depends on yourself. He who recites the Sutra with the tongue and puts its teaching into actual practice with his mind 'turns round' the Sutra. He who recites it without putting it into practice is 'turned round' by the Sutra. Listen to my stanza:
    "When our mind is under delusion, the Saddharma Pundarika Sutra 'turns us around.'
    With an enlightened mind we 'turn round' the Sutra instead.
    To recite the Sutra for a considerable time without knowing its principal object
    Indicates that you are a stranger to its meaning.
    The correct way to recite the Sutra is without holding any arbitrary belief;
    Otherwise it is wrong.
    He who is above 'affirmative' and 'negative'
    Rides permanently in the White Bullock Cart (the Vehicle of Buddha)."
    Having heard this stanza, Fa Ta was enlightened and moved to tears. "It is quite true," he exclaimed, "that heretofore I was unable to 'turn round' the Sutra. It was rather the Sutra that 'turned' me round."

    He then raised another point. "The Sutra says, 'From Sravakas (disciples) up to Bodhisattvas, even if they were to speculate with combined efforts they would be unable to comprehend the Buddha-knowledge.' But you, Sir, give me to understand that if an ordinary man realizes his own mind, he is said to have attained the Buddha-knowledge. I am afraid, Sir, that with the exception of those gifted with superior mental dispositions, others may doubt your remark. Furthermore, three kinds of Carts are mentioned in the Sutra, namely, Carts yoked with goats (i.e., the vehicle of Sravakas), Carts yoked with deers (the vehicle of Pratyeka Buddhas), and Carts yoked with bullocks (the vehicle of Bodhisattvas). How are these to be distinguished from the White Bullock Carts?"

    The Patriarch replied, "The Sutra is quite plain on this point; it is you who misunderstand it. The reason why Sravakas, Pratyeka Buddhas and Bodhisattvas cannot comprehend the Buddha-knowledge is because they speculate on it. They may combine their efforts to speculate, but the more they speculate, the farther they are from the truth. It was to ordinary men, not to other Buddhas, that Buddha Gautama preached this Sutra. As for those who cannot accept the doctrine he expounded, he let them leave the assembly. You do not seem to know that since we are already riding in the White Bullock Cart (the vehicle of Buddhas), there is no necessity for us to go out to look for the other three vehicles. Moreover, the Sutra tells you plainly that there is only the Buddha Vehicle, and that there are no other vehicles, such as the second or the third. It is for the sake of this sole vehicle that the Buddha had to preach to us with innumerable skillful devices, using various reasons and arguments, parables and illustrations, etc. Why can you not understand that the other three vehicles are makeshifts, for the past only; while the sole vehicle, the Buddha Vehicle, is the ultimate, meant for the present?

    "The Sutra teaches you to dispense with the makeshifts and to resort to the ultimate. Having resorted to the ultimate, you will find that even the name 'ultimate' disappears. You should appreciate that you are the sole owner of these valuables and that they are entirely subject to your disposal. When you are free from the arbitrary conception that they are the father's, or the son's, or that they are at so and so's disposal, you may be said to have learnt the right way to recite the Sutra. In that case from kalpa to kalpa the Sutra will be in your hand, and from morning to night you will be reciting the Sutra all the time."

    Being thus awakened, Fa Ta praised the Patriarch, in a transport of great joy, with the following stanza:
    The delusion that I have attained great merits by reciting the Sutra three thousand times over
    Is all dispelled by the utterance of the Master of Ts'ao Ch'i (i.e., the Patriarch).
    He who has not understood the object of a Buddha's incarnation in this world
    Is unable to suppress the wild passions accumulated in many lives.
    The three vehicles yoked by goat, deer and bullock respectively, are makeshifts only,
    While the three stages, preliminary, intermediate, and final, in which the orthodox Dharma is expounded, are well set out, indeed.
    How few appreciate that within the burning house itself (i.e., mundane existence)
    The King of Dharma is to be found!
    The Patriarch then told him that henceforth he might call himself a "Sutra-reciting Bhikkhu." After that interview, Fa Ta was able to grasp the profound meaning of Buddhism, yet he continued to recite the sutra as before.
    (pp.60-67, The Diamond Sutra and The Sutra of Hui Neng)

    Zen Master Dogen

    In conclusion, in the hundreds of years since this Sutra was transmitted into China, to be turned as the Flower of Dharma, very many people, here and there, have produced their commentaries and interpretations. Some, moreover, have attained the Dharma-state of an eminent person by relying on this Sutra. But no-one has grasped the point of the Flower of Dharma turning, or mastered the point of turning the Flower of Dharma, in the manner of our founding Patriarch, the eternal Buddha of Sokei. Now that we have heard these [points] and now that we have met it, we have experienced the meeting of eternal buddha with eternal buddha; how could [this] not be the land of eternal buddhas? How joyful it is! From kalpa to kalpa is the Flower of the Dharma, and from noon to night, even though our own body-and-mind grows strong and grows weak, it is just the Flower of Dharma itself. The reality that exists as it is is a treasure, is brightness, is a seat of truth, is mind in delusion, the Flower of Dharma turning, and is mind in realization, turning the Flower of Dharma, which is really just the Flower of Dharma turning the Flower of Dharma.
    When the mind is in the state of delusion, the Flower of Dharma turns.
    When the mind is in the state of realization, we turn the Flower of Dharma.
    If perfect realization can be like this,
    The Flower of Dharma turns the Flower of Dharma.

    When we serve offerings to it, venerate, honor, and praise it like this, the Flower of Dharma is the Flower of Dharma.
    (pp.219-220, Master Dogen's Shobogenzo: Book 1)

    Zen Master Hakuin

    I left home to become a Buddhist monk when I was fourteen. I became discouraged before even a year was out. My head had been shaved smooth, I wore a black robe, but I hadn't seen any sign of the Dharma's marvelous working. I happened to hear that The Lotus Sutra was the king of all the scriptures the Buddha had preached. It was supposed to contain the essential meaning of all the buddhas. I got hold of a copy and read it through. But when I finished, I closed it with a heavy sigh. "This," I told myself, "is nothing but a collection of simple tales about cause and effect. True, mention is made of there being 'only one absolute vehicle,' and of 'the changeless unconditioned tranquility of all dharmas,' but on the whole it is what Lin-chi dismissed as 'mere verbal prescriptions for relieving the world's ills.' I'm not going to find what I'm looking for here."

    I was deeply disillusioned. I didn't get over it for quite some time. Meanwhile, I lived as the priest of a small temple. I reached forty, the age when one is not supposed to be bothered any longer by doubts. One night, I decided to take another look at The Lotus Sutra. I got out my only lamp, turned up the wick, and began to read it once again. I read as far as the third chapter, the one on parables. Then, just like that, all the lingering doubts and uncertainties vanished from my mind. They suddenly ceased to exist. The reason for the Lotus's reputation as the "king of sutras" was now revealed to me with blinding clarity. Teardrops began cascading down my face like two strings of beads - they came like beans pouring from a ruptured sack. A loud involuntary cry burst from the depths of my being and I began sobbing uncontrollably. And as I did, I knew without any doubt that what I had realized in all those satoris I had experienced, what I had grasped in my understanding of those koans I had passed - had all been totally mistaken. I was finally able to penetrate the source of the free, enlightened activity that permeated Shoju's daily life. I also knew beyond any doubt that the tongue in the World-honored One's mouth moved with complete and unrestricted freedom. I realized I richly deserved a good thirty hard blows of the staff, just like Lin-chi!
    (p.33, The Essential Teachings of Zen Master Hakuin)

    Session One | Session Two | Session Three | Session Four | Session Five

    Copyright by Ryuei Michael McCormick. 1999. 2002.

    Hakuin's Letter to a Hokke Nun 1747
    Dogen's Hokke-ten-Hokke 1241
    Bankei and a Nichiren Priest
    The Seven Parables of the LS
    Samantabhadra Bodhisattva
    An Overview of Buddhism
    Heart Sutra Commentary
    Odaimoku as Hua-t'ou
    Practice Questions
    Hua Yen

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