28 November 2012

Lotus Sutra Study Questions 2

Chapter 2

(All references are to the Senchu Murano translation)

Buddha Shakyamuni then discourses at some length on the virtues and wisdom of the Buddhas, which are inconceivable to thought and indescribable in words.  This confuses the devotees in the assembly, the laypeople and the ordained ones; Sariputra, speaking on their behalf, asks the Buddha:  Why do you extol the virtuous qualities of the Buddhas in this way?  But the Buddha declines to explain this, because "'If I do, all the gods and men in the world will be frightened and perplexed'" (p. 29).

Recall the introductory chapter of this sutra and the expectations it establishes.  Does the Buddha's teaching so far confirm those expectations, complicate them, or confound them?

Sariputra persists, pleading with the Buddha, who also persists in refusing him.  The way the Buddha refuses is worth a close look:
No, no, I will not say any more.
My teaching is wonderful and inconceivable.
If arrogant people hear me,
They will not respect or believe me (p.30).
The Buddha's concern seems to involve the capacity for some of the members of the assembly to learn.  Because Sariputra repeatedly asks for instruction on this topic, however, showing that at least someone is willing to listen in good faith, the Buddha relents and agrees to explain his words and actions so far.  But before he can do so, "five thousand people" among the monks, nuns, laymen and laywomen "of this congregation rose from their seats, bowed to the Buddha, and retired because they were so sinful and arrogant that they thought they had already obtained what they had not yet, and that they had already understood what they had not yet.  Because of their faults, they did not stay" (p. 31).

It appears that Buddha is intent on teaching something new, and that some among his students actively resist learning what they do not already believe to be true.  Consider this relation between what someone already knows and expects, and the interruption caused by new knowledge, in the rest of the Lotus Sutra.  What does the simple act of learning something new challenge in a person?  What does someone need to give up in order to grow and develop?

Immediately after the assembly is cleared of those who are not willing or able to try to learn, the Buddha delivers a shock:
Sariputra! What is the one great purpose for which the Buddhas, the World-Honoured Ones, appear in the worlds?  The Buddhas, the World-Honoured Ones, appear in the worlds in order to cause all living beings to open [the gate to] the insight of the Buddha, and to cause them to purify themselves.  They appear in the worlds in order to show the insight of the Buddha to all living beings.  They appear in the worlds in order to cause all living beings to obtain the insight of the Buddha.  They appear in the worlds in order to cause all living beings to enter the Way to the insight of the Buddha.  Sariputra!  This is the one great purpose for which the Buddhas appear in the worlds (p. 32).
This is a central teaching of the Lotus Sutra, and it is a whopper.  It means that all beings have the capacity for Buddhahood, and further, that the one purpose of the Buddha's teaching is to actualize that potential.  This appears to be a direct refutation of the Buddha's previous teaching that the highest aspiration for the practitioner was to become an Arhat or a bodhisattva (depending on the "vehicle" one practices, of which more below).  The Lotus Sutra turns the tables on all these distinctions among vehicles and approaches:
Sariputra!  All the Buddhas in the past expounded various teachings to all living beings with innumerable expedients, that is to say, with stories of previous lives, parables, similes and discourses, only for the purpose of revealing the One Buddha-Vehicle.  The living beings who heard those teachings from those Buddhas finally obtained the knowledge of the equality and differences of all things (p. 32).
Here, the Buddha claims that all his teachings, heretofore divided into distinct vehicles (the sravaka path, the bodhisattva path among them) only serve one overall goal, the "one vehicle" or Ekayana approach.  What does this mean to the ordinary monk or nun or layperson in the assembly, who has committed his or her life to practice with one goal in mind, when that one goal has had the rug pulled out from under it?  What to do now?  "Sariputra and all of you present here!" the Buddha announces:  "Understand the Dharma by faith with all your hearts!  There is no vehicle other than the One Buddha-Vehicle!"

Does this mean the Buddha's teachings so far have only been provisional, only gimmicks to solve immediate problems? If so, is the Buddha asking his disciples to put their faith in a trickster?  If not, where should one put one's faith in the context of this teaching?

To approach the same matter from another perspective:  what is the relationship between the student's potential for Buddhahood and the teacher's capacity for using expedients to help the student learn?

Where do you suppose the Buddha is going with this?

25 November 2012

Contemplation: Hells in this world

After reviewing the guidelines for practice, take the following as your object of contemplation:

Therefore, individual beings create their own karma by their own acts, but if their karma is the same as other beings' karma, they will all fall into the same hells in this world.  These hells are created by their deluded acts of mind. Apart from those acts, the hells have no independent existence.

Surangama Sutra, page 363

23 November 2012

Lotus Sutra Study Questions 1

Chapter One

(All citations refer to the Senchu Murano translation)

This chapter introduces the sutra.  In it, the Buddha remains silent, but demonstrates a supernatural feat that sets the assembly of gathered disciples astir with questions:  "Thereupon the Buddha emitted a ray of light from the white curls between his eyebrows, and illumined all the corners of eighteen thousand worlds..." (page 3).  What could this mean?

One bodhisattva present at that time, Manjushri, remembers a similar event in the remote past, and from this experience makes an announcement:
All of you, know this, join your hands together,
And wait with one mind!
The Buddha will send the rain of the Dharma
And satisfy those who seek enlightenment.

The Buddha will remove
Any doubt of those who seek
The teaching of the Three Vehicles.
No question will be unanswered. (page 22)
Later, we will investigate what the Buddha (that which removes all doubts) represents in this sutra. For now, let's consider how this sutra opens up.

With an introduction like this, what do you expect of the teaching to come?

What is the significance of the Buddha showing his disciples something they have never seen before?

19 November 2012

Contemplation: Mutual Interaction

After reviewing the guidelines for practice, take the following as your object of contemplation:

Through their mutual interaction, there comes into being what does not really come into being, as well as what does not really abide, what is not really the mind, and what are not really phenomena.  From the force of their coming into being, an understanding is created, and its influence leads to activity subject to karma.  Similar karma mutually attracts, and because of the karma of this mutual attraction, there is a coming into being and a ceasing to be.  This is the reason for the distorted phenomenon of beings.

Surangama Sutra, p. 316

If you are interested, you can find our complete and portable Surangama Study Guide at this link.

16 November 2012

Portable & Complete Surangama Study Questions

I went ahead and organized the series of study questions we used in recent months in our study of the Surangama Sutra in one document.  It is available for free at this link.  It is my hope that it helps open up the teachings to people who are not familiar with them, and in that way perhaps plants a seed or two.


14 November 2012

The Lotus Sutra: An Overview

In the coming weeks, we will study and discuss the Lotus Sutra after our meetings for meditation.  The Lotus Sutra gives the central, fundamental teaching of our school, Tendai.  It is among the most popular Buddhist texts in the world, particularly in East Asia; it is surely the most popular sutra in Japanese history.  Why so?  Likely because it offers a comprehensive vision of the teachings in language that is accessible; it is structured in such a way as to provoke critical thought, the imagination, and emotional response.  Put differently, there is something for everyone in the Lotus Sutra

All you really need in order to participate is an open mind, a little bit of time each week to read and reflect, and a copy of the Lotus Sutra.  Here is some further background that may be of benefit, in order to set the table for the great feast.

Our approach to this sutra will be influenced by the traditional TienTai Ekayana view, as well as the innovative approach taken by the contemporary Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hanh in his commentary Opening the Heart of the Cosmos.  Most valuable among Thich Nhat Hanh's contributions in this respect is his division of the Lotus Sutra into three dimensions:  concerning the world of historical experience, the ultimate view of spiritual reality, and the "action dimension."  Here, "historical" refers to this world of action in time, the samsaric world of everyday life.  The "ultimate" describes the spiritual reality at work in and of the historical world, accessible to those who put their faith in their practice of Dharma.  The "action" dimension is that of the bodhisattva working in the world of historical action, the world of shortcoming and dissatisfaction, but from the point of view of the ultimate.  The action dimension is the bodhisattva's work, in this world but not of it.

I think this three-dimension approach makes a great deal of sense, particularly from the point of view of TienTai thought.  The great master Zhiyi (Chih-i) taught that there are essentially three truths:  the truth of the samsaric world, or the experience conventional reality by ordinary perception; the truth of emptiness, which reveals the truth of the samsaric world; and the truth of enlightenment, which encompasses both.  Thich Nhat Hanh's three dimensions of the Lotus Sutra seem to map onto these three truths in an interesting way.  (If anyone is interested in learning more about the three truths, Paul Swanson's book T'ien-T'ai Philosophy is recommended.  It is a challenging read, but very much worthwhile.  But I digress.)

We will read and discuss one chapter of the Lotus Sutra each week.  Each chapter, in Thich Nhat Hanh's scheme, primarily articulates one of these three dimensions, as follows:

The Historical Dimension:  Lotus Sutra chapters 1-10, and 12-14

The Ultimate Dimension:  Lotus Sutra chapters 11, 15-19, and 22

The Action Dimension:  Lotus Sutra chapters 20 and 23-28

At night as I recite the Lotus Sutra
The sound moves the galaxies
The earth below wakes up
In her lap suddenly flowers appear

At night as I recite the Lotus Sutra
A jeweled stupa appears resplendent
All over the sky bodhisattvas are seen
And Buddha's hand is in mine.

--Thich Nhat Hanh


The Lotus Sutra has been translated into English at least seven times.  I recommend one of three translations as offering a good balance among readability, accuracy, and affordability (in order of preference):

*Kato, The Threefold Lotus Sutra
*Reeves, The Lotus Sutra
*Murano, The Lotus Sutra

The Burton Watson translation is not recommended.  The BDK edition is of great value, but is very expensive indeed.

12 November 2012

Contemplation: To Wish for the Real

After reviewing the guidelines for practice, take the following as your object of contemplation:

"Neither what comes into being nor what it comes into being from are based in anything, nor are they a basis for anything.  Beings and the worlds they dwell in have no foundation, and yet, despite their having no foundation, beings and the worlds come into being.

"Confusion about the original perfect understanding results in delusion, but this delusion has no essential nature of its own; it is based on nothing.  One may wish to return to what is real, but to wish for the real is already a falsification.  The true nature of the suchness of reality is not a reality that one can seek to return to.  If one were to try to return to it, one would merely experience something that does not have the attributes of reality."

Surangama Sutra, p. 315

05 November 2012

Contemplation: The Suchness of Reality Manifests

After reviewing the guidelines for practice, take the following as your object of contemplation:

 The Matrix of the Thus-Come One is itself the wondrous, enlightened, luminous understanding, which illuminates he entire Dharma-Realm.  Within it, therefore, the one is infinitely many and the infinitely many are one.  The great appears within the small, just as the small appears within the great.  I sit unmoving in this still place for awakening, and my Dharma-body extends everywhere and encompasses the infinity of space in all ten directions.  On the tip of a fine hair, magnificent Buddha-lands appear.  Seated within each mote of dust, I turn the great Wheel of the Dharma.  Because I have freed myself from the world of perceived objects, I have become one with enlightenment.  Therefore the suchness of reality manifests--the inherent nature that is wondrous, luminous, and awake.
Surangama Sutra, p. 155