17 January 2013

Lotus Sutra Study Questions 7

Chapter Seven develops the ideas on teaching and learning in the earlier chapters by moving them into the field of leadership.  The Buddha leads the community, His students, by providing them with situations in which they can learn together, sometimes by extraordinary means.  This is to say that the Buddha's leadership is guided first and foremost by the intention to guide beings toward Buddhahood and away from the habits that cause trouble.

To explain this point, the Buddha gives a parable in which a group of people have begun taking a journey under the leadership of a wise guide.  The guide, knowing that the travelers he is responsible for are not mentally or physically capable of accomplishing the journey without a rest in the middle, magically manifests a resting place at the midway point.  Here we are now, everyone!  The travelers are delighted and, importantly, their capacity for travel improves because they have learned to trust their ability to achieve their goals.  Once they have rested adequately, the guide then explains the complete truth:  we have further to go, but now that we are rested and experienced, we can accomplish this easily.  So they do.

In terms of Buddhist doctrine, the magical city that has been conjured up as a skilful means is the teaching of nirvana, and the real destination is Buddhahood.  There is a sectarian overlay in this parable, because some Buddhist schools do teach that the first and only goal of practice is in fact nirvana.  In this chapter, the Buddha claims that this is not so:  nirvana is a peaceful experience that is not ultimately real and is not the final goal of practice, because it lacks all the capacities and capabilities of Buddhahood. 

I would prefer not to engage in sectarian squabbling.  Instead, I would like to direct our attention to this question of leadership.  How would you describe the Buddha's leadership of the sangha (community) in this chapter?  Is it of a piece with the teaching philosophy we have seen in earlier chapters, or is it a new development?  Also, what do you think of the metaphor of travel used in this chapter? 

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