The Lotus Sutra is one of the most respected Buddhist texts and is hugely popular to this day in countries such as Japan and China. This text is considered to be one of the central texts of the main sect of Buddhism (which is known as Mahayana).
The Lotus Sutra begins with an assembly forming in front of a meditating Buddha. There are many gods in the assembly, including Indra and Brahma. Note that the main sect of Buddhism (Mahayana) doesn’t deny the existence of Hindu gods. However, these gods do not have any major role in these texts. The emphasis is on becoming a living emanation of kindness rather than pursuing a vision of a god.
The Buddha is in a state of samadhi, and is glowing brightly. Most of the crowd is wondering why the Buddha is glowing. The answer is revealed by Manjusri, the bodhisattva (enlightened being) who embodies wisdom. Manjusri states that the Buddha is glowing brightly because he is about to teach the Lotus Sutra, and therefore is very pleased.
Buddha expounds on the concept of skillful means, or upaya (उपाय). He explains the concept of “many paths, one result” using a story about skillful means.
There was once a rich man living in a mansion with only one entrance. One day, the mansion catches fire. Everyone rushes out of the house except the rich man’s young children, who are busy playing. The rich man fails to persuade his children to leave the house as the children want to keep playing. He then comes up with an idea and tells his children that there are several different types of carts outside the mansion, including a donkey-cart, a horse-cart, and an ox-cart. This catches the children’s attention and they eagerly leave the house in the nick of time. They then ask their father for the carts. The rich man reveals that he does have carts but he has just one type of cart made for all of them.
According to the Buddha, this story illustrates how different people may require several paths to reach the same goal. The several kinds of carts that the rich man promises to give his children all represent the numerous unique paths to enlightenment. However, the Buddha clarifies that all of these paths lead to a single ultimate goal. Buddha then asks one of his disciples whether the rich man’s trick was justified or not.
Buddha’s disciple replies that the rich man’s trick was completely justified due to his intentions of helping his children escape. Skillful means are determined by one’s intention rather than their actions. A lie is told with wrongful intent. On the other hand, skillful means are always used with righteous intentions. Therefore, the rich man used skillful means, not deception. However, if a scammer cheats somebody into losing all of their money, the scammer’s intentions are not beneficial to the world, hence he is a cheat.
Another tale that the Buddha narrates to deepen his students’ understanding of the subject is a story about plants. Buddha asks them to imagine a field full of several kinds of grasses, trees, and herbs. He then explains that a buddha is like the rain: wishing for all plants to grow. However, herbs may need more water than trees. Hence, the Buddha must use his skillful means to water a few plants more than others. This is not to be seen as preferential treatment. It simply means that everybody has different requirements. The time and attention that they need varies based on their abilities, personality, and maturity, and a buddha must adapt to these requirements to teach their students.
Lifespan of a Buddha
Buddha also speaks about the lifespan of a buddha. It is commonly believed by Buddhists that a buddha’s life ends after his parinirvana, or nirvana after death. Buddha explains that buddhas only appear to leave the world after their death. They are still alive in the form of their teaching. Based on this teaching, it could be theorized that the most recent Buddha is still alive in the form of his lingering teachings.
Another important concept from the Lotus Sutra is that of gender equality. In one of the stories, the bodhisattva Manjusri speaks highly about Longnü, the daughter of the Dragon king (Longnü was later made famous by the Chinese text The Precious Scroll of Sudhana and Longnü). Manjusri declares that the eight-year-old Longnü is already ready to become a buddha. Another bodhisattva challenges Manjusri. He claims that both females and children cannot become buddhas. Longnü then appears and offers a pearl to the Buddha (the pearl symbolizes her ego that she is dropping). After this, she instantly becomes a buddha. Due to this incident, the Buddha’s disciples learn that anybody can become a buddha regardless of their age, gender, or social status.
The sutra concludes with a bodhisattva known as Samantabhadra promising to protect the teachings of the Lotus Sutra and to protect all of those who read it or teach it to others. This sutra was quite an interesting read and I highly recommend it. If you’re interested, you can read it online here.