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.


  1. Wonderful beginning. I use all three translation, though I know Gene Reeves personally and really enjoy his less "biblical" terminology. His is the translation I use in my daily practice.

  2. I might have found an online PDF file of the BDK version -- check out http://www.bdkamerica.org/digital/dbet_t0262_lotussutra_2007.pdf.

    1. Excellent! The BDK translation really is the finest one. Happy reading...

  3. There’s a story in Zen Buddhism called, in English, the Flower Sermon. In the sermon, Shakyamuni gives a wordless sermon to his disciples by holding up a white flower. No one in the audience understands the Flower Sermon except Mahākāśyapa, who smiles. Within Zen, the Flower Sermon communicates the ineffable nature of tathātā (suchness) and Mahākāśyapa's smile signifies the direct transmission of wisdom without words. I like to think that the title of the Lotus Sutra was given to suggest that the whole sutra is a silent teaching, a teaching hidden by the language of the spirit: icons, symbols, parables, and metaphors.