Silk Road • Nāgārjuna
The Lotus Sutra or Sutra on the White Lotus of the Sublime Dharma (Sanskrit: सद्धर्मपुण्डरीकसूत्र Saddharma Puṇḍarīka Sūtra; Mandarin: 妙法蓮華經; Japanese: Myōhō Renge Kyō; Korean: Myo beob nyeon hwa gyeong; Vietnamese: Diệu Pháp Liên Hoa Kinh) is one of the most popular and influential Mahayana sutras in Asia, and the basis on which the Tien Tai and Nichiren sects of Buddhism were established.
History and background
The Lotus Sutra was probably compiled in the first century BCE in Kashmir, India some 500 years after the death of Shakyamuni Buddha. Therefore, it is not included in the more ancient Āgamas, nor in the parallel Sutta Pitaka of the Theravada Buddhists, both of which represent scriptures which to a greater degree of likelihood can be historically linked to the Buddha himself.
The Lotus Sutra purports to be a discourse delivered by the Buddha toward the end of his life. The tradition in Mahayana states that the sutra was written down at the time of the Buddha and stored for five hundred years in a realm of dragons (or Nagas). After this, they were said to have been reintroduced into the human realm at the time of the Fourth Buddhist Council in Kashmir. This tradition further claims that the sutra's teachings are of a higher order than those contained in the agamas and the Sutta Pitaka (the sutra itself also claims this). It maintains that humankind had been unable to understand the sutra at the time of the Buddha (500 BCE), and hence the teaching had to be held back.
It was conventionally thought that the Lotus Sutra was originally translated from Sanskrit into Chinese by Dharmarakṣa around 209 CE. However, the view that there is a high degree of probability that the base text for that translation was actually written in a Prakrit language has gained widespread acceptance. Jan Nattier (Nattier 2008) has recently summarized this aspect of the early textual transmission of such Buddhist scriptures in China thus, bearing in mind that Dharmarakṣa's period of activity falls well within the period she defines: "Studies to date indicate that Buddhist scriptures arriving in China in the early centuries of the Common Era were composed not just in one Indian dialect but in several . . . in sum, the information available to us suggests that, barring strong evidence of another kind, we should assume that any text translated in the second or third century CE was not based on Sanskrit, but one or other of the many Prakrit vernaculars."
This early translation by Dharmarakṣa was superseded by a translation in seven fascicles by Kumārajīva in 406 CE, although it is known that Kumārajīva made extensive use of the earlier version to the extent of borrowing readings directly from Dharmarakṣa's version. The Chinese title is usually abbreviated to 法華經, which is read Fǎ Huá Jīng in Chinese and Hokekyō in Japanese, Beophwagyeong in Korean, and Pháp Hoa Kinh" in Vietnamese. The Sanskrit copies are not widely used outside of academia. It has been translated by Burton Watson. According to Burton Watson it may have originally been composed in a Prakrit dialect and then later translated into Sanskrit to lend it greater respectability.
Modern scholars have not released much of the sutra on early fragments, except to say that they are not dependent on the Chinese or Tibetan Lotus sutras. Furthermore, other scholars have noted how the cryptic Dharani passages within the Lotus sutra represent a form of the Magadhi dialect that is more similar to Pali than Sanskrit. For instance, one Dharani reads in part: "Buddhavilokite Dharmaparikshite". Although the vilo is attested in Sanskrit, it appears first in the Buddhist Pali texts as "vilokita" with the meaning of "a vigilant looker" from vi, meaning eager like a passionless bird, and lok, meaning "look".
This sutra is known for its extensive instruction on the concept and usage of skillful means – (Sanskrit: upāya, Japanese: hōben), the seventh paramita or perfection of a Bodhisattva – mostly in the form of parables. It is also one of the first sutras to use the term Mahāyāna, or "Great Vehicle", Buddhism. Another concept introduced by the Lotus Sutra is the idea that the Buddha is an eternal entity, who achieved nirvana eons ago, but willingly chose to remain in the cycle of rebirth (samsara) to help teach beings the Dharma time and again. He reveals himself as the "father" of all beings and evinces the loving care of just such a father. Moreover, the sutra indicates that even after the Parinirvana (apparent physical death) of a Buddha, that Buddha continues to be real and to be capable of communicating with the world.
The idea that the physical death of a Buddha is the termination of that Buddha is graphically refuted by the movement and meaning of the scripture, in which another Buddha, who "parinirvana-ed" long before, appears and communicates with Shakyamuni himself. In the vision of the Lotus Sutra, Buddhas are ultimately immortal. A similar doctrine of the eternality of Buddhas is repeatedly expounded in the tathāgatagarbha sutras, which share certain family resemblances with the teachings of the Lotus Sutra.
The Lotus Sutra also indicates (in Chapter 4) that emptiness (śūnyatā) is not the ultimate vision to be attained by the aspirant Bodhisattva: the attainment of Buddha Wisdom is indicated to be a bliss-bestowing treasure that transcends seeing all as merely empty or merely labeled.
In terms of literary style, the Lotus Sutra illustrates a sense of timelessness and the inconceivable, often using large numbers and measurements of time and space. Some of the other Buddhas mentioned in the Lotus Sutra are said to have lifetimes of dozens or hundreds of kalpas, while the number of Bodhisattvas mentioned in the "Earth Bodhisattva" chapter number in the billions, if not more. The Lotus Sutra also often alludes to a special teaching that supersedes everything else that the Buddha has taught, but the Sutra never actually states what that teaching is. This is said to be in keeping with the general Mahāyāna Buddhist view that the highest teaching cannot be expressed in words.
The ultimate "teaching" of the sutra, however, is implied to the reader that "full Buddhahood" is only arrived at by exposure to the truths expressed implicitly in the Lotus Sutra via its many parables and references to a heretofore less clearly imagined cosmological order. Skillful means of most enlightened Buddhas is itself the highest teaching (the "Lotus Sutra" itself), in conjunction with the sutra's stated tenets that all other teachings are subservient to, propagated by and in the service of this highest truth and teaching aimed at creating "full Buddhas" out of pratyetkabuddhas, lesser buddhas and bodhisattvas. It is also implied in sections of the text that there is a parent-child relationship existing between the innumerable Buddhas and human beings and other types of beings, with an explicit indication that all religions and paths are in some way or another part of the skillful means of this highest Buddha Dharma which reaches its expressed pinnacle in the Lotus Sutra. The various religious institutions and their doctrinal proponents notwithstanding, all paths are then, officially speaking, part of the skillful means and plan of Buddhism, thus the sutra's former disavowal of all competitive doctrinal disputes.
Crucially, not only are there more than one Buddha, in this view, but an infinite stream of Buddhas, extending through unquantifiable eons of time (sometimes described as "thousands of kotis of kalpas"), in what seems to be a ceasless cycle of creations and conflagrations.
In the vision set out in this sutra, moreover, not only are Buddhas innumerable, but the universe encompasses realms of gods, devas, dragons and other mythological beings, requiring numerous dimensions to hold contain them. Buddhas are the patient teachers of all such beings - perhaps somewhat like a regional director of a universal education program - using all sorts of lower management.
Some sources consider the Lotus Sutra to have a prologue and epilogue: respectively the Innumerable Meanings Sutra (無量義經 Ch: Wú Liáng Yì Jīng Jp: Muryōgi Kyō) and the Sutra of Meditation on the Bodhisattva Universal Worthy (普賢經 Ch: Pǔ Xián Jīng Jp: Fugen Kyō).
Translations in Western languages
- Burnouf, Eugène (tr.). Le Lotus de la Bonne Loi : Traduit du sanskrit, accompagné d'un commentaire et de vingt et un mémoires relatifs au Bouddhisme. Paris 1852 (Imprimerie Nationale). – French translation from Sanskrit, first in Western language.
- Kern, H. (tr.). Saddharma Pundarîka or the Lotus of the True Law. Oxford 1884 (Clarendon Press) Sacred Books of the East, Vol. XXI, New York 1963 (Dover), Delhi 1968. Translation from Sanskrit.
- Soothill, W. E. (tr.). The Lotus of the Wonderful Law or The Lotus Gospel. Oxford 1930 (Clarendon Press). Abridged translation from the Chinese of Kumārajīva.
- Murano Senchū (tr.). The Sutra of the Lotus Flower of the Wonderful Law. Tokyo 1974 (Nichiren Shu Headquarters). Translation from the Chinese of Kumārajīva.
- Katō Bunno, Tamura Yoshirō, Miyasaka Kōjirō (tr.), The Threefold Lotus Sutra : The Sutra of Innumerable Meanings; The Sutra of the Lotus Flower of the Wonderful Law; The Sutra of Meditation on the Bodhisattva Universal Virtue. New York & Tōkyō 1975 (Weatherhill & Kōsei Publishing).
- Hurvitz, Leon (tr.). Scripture of the Lotus Blossom of the Fine Dharma: The Lotus Sutra. New York 1976 (Columbia University Press). Records of Civilization: Sources and Studies. Translation from the Chinese of Kumārajīva.
- Kuo-lin Lethcoe (ed.). The Wonderful Dharma Lotus Flower Sutra with the Commentary of Tripitaka Master Hsuan Hua. Translated by the Buddhist Text Translation Society. San Francisco 1977 (Buddhist Text Translation Society). Translation from the Chinese of Kumārajīva.
- Watson, Burton (tr.). The Lotus Sutra. New York 1993 (Columbia University Press) Translations from the Asian Classics. Translation from the Chinese of Kumārajīva.
- Kubo Tsugunari, Yuyama Akira (tr.) The Lotus Sutra. Revised 2nd ed. Berkeley, Calif. : Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research, 2007. Translation from the Chinese of Kumārajīva. ISBN 9781886439399
- Reeves, Gene (tr.) The Lotus Sutra : A Contemporary Translation of a Buddhist Classic. Boston 2008 (Wisdom Publications), ISBN 0-86171-571-3. xii + 492 pp. Translation from the Chinese of Kumārajīva. Includes also the opening and closing sutras The Sutra of Innumerable Meanings and The Sutra of Contemplation of the Dharma Practice of Universal Sage Bodhisattva.
- Tanabe, George J. & Tanabe, Willa Jane (ed.); The Lotus Sutra in Japanese Culture; Honolulu 1989 (University of Hawaii Press), ISBN 0-8248-1198-4 [II, 15] (Not a translation, but a collection of essays on Lotus Sutra & Japanese culture.)
- Amitabha Sutra
- Heart sutra
- Innumerable Meanings Sutra
- Flower Sermon
- Eternal Buddha
- Mahayana sutras
- Nichiren Buddhism
- Hokke Gisho, an annotated Japanese version of the sutra.
- Sutra of Meditation on the Bodhisattva Universal Worthy
Nattier, Jan, A Guide to the Earliest Chinese Buddhist Translations, Bibliotheca Philologica et Philosophica Buddhica X, IRIABS Tokyo 2008
| Chinese Wikisource has original text related to this article:
- An old translation into English by H.Kern, 1884, from the Sacred Texts Web site
- Lotus Sutra in Sanskrit (romanized) from Buddhist Sanskrit Texts No. 6 Saddharmapuṇḍarīkasūtram, Dr. P. L. Vaidya, ed, The Mithila Institute, Darbhanga, 1960 (scroll down to navigate chapters)
- Article that comments on the Lotus Sutra, including origin and relationship with other Sutras
- "Chapter 25 of the Lotus Sutra English Translation. Piece in female gender form
- "Better Than HD-TV," an article authored by a Soka Gakkai International-USA (SGI-USA) member that examines Nichiren's interpretation of the Lotus Sutra's Ceremony in the Air, also called the "Towering Assembly"
- The Art, 13 volumes of illuminated manuscripts inspired by the Lotus Sutra
- Practice and faith in the Lotus Sutra, Nichiren Shu in Italy
- Translations in various languages ( Classic Chinese, Arabic, Italian and English) of portions of the Lotus Sutra
- R.C. Jamieson (2002). "Sanskrit Lotus Sutra Manuscripts from Cambridge University Library (Add. 1682 and Add. 1683)" (PDF). Journal of Oriental Studies 12 (6): 165-173. http://www.iop.or.jp/0212/jamieson.pdf. Retrieved 2009-09-01.