30 May 2013

Lotus Sutra Study Questions 23

This is about trust, faith, and commitment:  sticking to something that is sacred, something you value, even when you do not know how it will turn out, and even if it means making intensive sacrifices of one kind or another to make it work.  That is Chapter 23, which is presented as a past-life story of Medicine King Bodhisattva. 

As the story goes, in a time long ago one Gladly-Seen-By-All-Beings Bodhisattva made an offering of his body to a Buddha named Sun-Moon-Pure-Bright-Virtue by consuming fine incense and fragrant oils and setting his body alight with the pure intention of dedicating himself to the Dharma.  There was no way to know how this method would turn out, but in the story, it worked:  he was transformed, radiating intense light for an exceptionally long interval of time, and after finally dying, he took rebirth again in the company of the same Buddha.  After building many multitudes of stupas (monuments) for that Buddha's own mortal remains, Gladly-Seen Bodhisattva burnt off his own arms as an offering out of devotion to those stupas, again without knowing in advance how this would work.  His body was restored to health, intact, and he learned from the experience.

Sakyamuni Buddha goes on in this chapter to state that "Anyone who aspires for, and wishes to attain Anuttara-samyak-sambodhi, should offer a light to the stupa of the Buddha by burning a finger or a toe" (304).  There are Buddhist communities in which this practice is taken literally to this day; one can speculate that the self-immolations that have become famous in the last hundred years in Buddhist countries may have some relation to this practice.  In any event,  I do not wish for anyone to do this in our sangha.  Instead, I suggest what may be more difficult sacrifices:

*Offer your doubts and fears to the Buddha in your heart and set them on fire, imagining them to smell like sweet incense and to shine with the light of ten thousand suns.

*Offer your ignorance, arrogance, short-sightedness, cowardice, closed-mindedness, selfishness, hatred, jealousy, impatience, pride, aggression, and any other poisons of the heart in the same way, in a spirit of devotion.

*Respect the multitude of sentient beings you meet as though they contain the living relics of the Buddha in the way this ancient Bodhisattva did.  Because they do.  Use both arms if you can.

This leaves only one question:  what remains after these poisons are burned away and resolve into emptiness?  What is left behind?

27 May 2013

Contemplation: Ocean of Great Good

After reviewing the guidelines for practice, take the following as your object of contemplation:
The intention, ocean of great good,
That seeks to place all beings in the state of bliss,
And every action for the benefit of all:
Such is my delight and all my joy.

Santideva, The Way of the Bodhisattva, p. 49

20 May 2013

Contemplation: Rejoice in Virtue

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

With joy I celebrate
The virtue that relieves all beings
From the sorrows of the states of loss,
And places those who languish in the realms of bliss.

And I rejoice in virtue that creates the cause
Of gaining the enlightened state,
And celebrate the freedom won
By living beings from the round of pain.

And in the buddhahood of the protectors I delight
And in the stages of the buddhas' offspring.
Santideva, The Way of the Bodhisattva, p. 49

15 May 2013

Lotus Sutra Study Questions 22

Chapter 22 of the Lotus Sutra is very brief.  In it, Buddha Shakyamuni entrusts or transmits (depending on the translation) the teachings to the assembly.  He is asking them to "keep, read, recite, and expound" the teachings presented in this Sutra.  Following this, many of the supernatural elements that so prominently feature in the second half of the sutra are sent away from sight, including the Buddha Ancient Treasures.

Practically speaking, what does it mean to keep and expound or uphold this teaching?  In terms of practice or conduct in everyday life, what is the Buddha asking for?  What kind of practice is outlined in this Sutra, as you understand it? 

06 May 2013

Programming Notice

I will be away from the keyboard for the next week.  This means the contemplation and Lotus Sutra series are both on hiatus until I return, and I will be slow in responding to email.  I look forward to seeing you on my return.

Contemplation: The Bodhisattva who is Ill, 4

After reviewing the guidelines for practice, take the following as your object of contemplation:
[The bodhisattva] is not bound by the conditions of his birth, and hence he is able to preach the [Dharma] for living beings and liberate them from their bonds.  As the Buddha has said, if one is in bonds himself, to suppose he can free others from their bonds is hardly reasonable.  But if one is himself free of bonds, it is perfectly reasonable to assume he can free the bonds of others.  Therefore the bodhisattva must not conjure up bonds for himself.
Vimalakirti Sutra, p. 70

01 May 2013

Lotus Sutra Study Questions 21

Chapter 21 of the Lotus Sutra describes the miraculous supernatural activities of the Buddhas.  These are capacities that exceed the ordinary, repetitive, and mundane expectations and limits we experience in everyday samsaric life.  Of interest in this chapter is the relationship between this extraordinary Buddha-capacity and the opportunities for Buddhist practice that present themselves in this life.

The first kind of supernatural activity of the Buddhas is described here (all quotations from the Murano translation of the Lotus Sutra):
[The Buddha] stretched out his long and broad tongue upwards until the tip of it reached the World of Brahman.  Then he emitted rays of light with an immeasurable variety of colours from his pores.  The light illumined all the worlds of the ten quarters.  The Buddhas who were sitting on the lion-like seats under the jewelled trees also stretched out their broad and long tongues and emitted innumerable rays of light.  Sakyamuni Buddha and the Buddhas under the jewelled trees displayed these  supernatural powers of theirs for one hundred thousand years.  Then they pulled back their tongues, coughed at the same time, and snapped their fingers.  These two sounds [of coughing and snapping] reverberated over the Buddha-worlds of the ten quarters, and the ground of those worlds quaked in the six ways. (pp. 292-293)
I have been taught that the long, broad tongue of the Buddha represents the teachings of the Buddha s represented in the sutras and commentaries:  a deep and extensive canon of material, far-reaching.  Reflect on the light and sounds and unnaturally flexible duration of time described in this passage.  What might the different elements here mean if understood as symbolic language?  What is this passage attempting to communicate in its imagery?

The second kind of supernatural activity of the Buddhas is a bit more subtle.
all the teachings of the Tathagata, all the unhindered, supernatural powers of the Tathagata, and all the profound achievements of the Tathagata are revealed and expounded explicitly in this sutra (p. 294).
Review what you have learned so far in this sutra.  What are the most important achievements and capacities of the Buddha as presented in this sutra?  Just what teaching is the Buddha asking his disciples to follow, and how is he instructing them to practice here?  This chapter may offer a helpful point of departure in reflecting on this.