What is the Lotus Sutra?

What is the Lotus Sutra?

Since ancient times, the Lotus Sutra has been called “the king of sutras,” “the finest sutra,” or “the true teachings of Buddha.” It is the most popular Buddhist sutra and it is revered and worshiped widely around the world.

Shakyamuni Buddha, who was historically born in India, attained enlightenment when he was thirty and spread many teachings for fifty years until he died at eighty. In his later years, he was spreading the teachings of the Lotus Sutra, which summarizes all his other teachings, for eight years. At the time, Shakyamuni Buddha for the first time said: “after attaining enlightenment, I have shared many different teachings with you. However, they are actually all just provisional teachings to make you understand my true intention, the teachings of the Lotus Sutra. Therefore, it is time to leave behind all those provisional teachings and listen to the sermon of the Lotus Sutra I am now ready to give. From now on, never follow those provisional teachings and believe only in the teachings of the Lotus Sutra.” [Translated from Japanese.]

These provisional teachings were compiled and remain as other Sutras: The Flower Garland Sutra (the Kegon Sutra 華厳経), Agama Sutra (the Agon Sutra 阿含経), Great Sun Buddha Sutra (the Dainichi Sutra 大日経), the Three Sutras of Pure Land (the Jodo Sanbu Sutra 浄土三部経), and so on. These are all called Nizen-Shokyō 爾前諸経 (the Pre-Lotus Sutras). Nizen means “preached before the Lotus Sutra” and Shokyō means “all other sutras except the Lotus Sutra.” Why did Shakyamuni Buddha first need to preach lots of Nizen-Shokyō? To put it simply, it is impossible for an elementary school student to understand university-level classes without preparation. Therefore, Shakyamuni Buddha shared various teachings and taught various methods of practice as appropriate for different kinds of people for over forty years, so that eventually they would be able to understand the worldview of Buddhahood revealed in the Lotus Sutra.

Hence, we cannot accumulate Kudoku worshiping or practicing one of the Pre-Lotus Sutras, even though we might think the same Buddha preached all of them, so they all must be equally valuable. The Pre-Lotus sutras are just preliminary training to pass the final exam, so we will never accumulate Kudoku and reach Buddhahood following and practicing those sutras.

The Lotus Sutra consists of twenty-eight chapters. The first fourteen chapters are called Shakumon 迹門 (provisional chapters) and the latter fourteen are called Honmon 本門 (primordial chapters). This means that the Lotus Sutra is divided into two different parts (teachings).

Shaku 迹 in Shakumon literally means “shadow” or “footsteps” and Hon 本 in Honmon means “true” or “genuine.” Mon 門 means “the gate to Buddhahood (teachings for attaining Buddhahood).” So, even Shakumon teachings are just provisional teachings (the shadow of Honmon teachings), although the Lotus Sutra itself is the true teaching or real intention of Buddha compared to Nizen-Shokyō (the Pre-Lotus Sutras).

To put it simply, Shakumon teachings are definitely superior to the Pre-Lotus teachings (because they are included in the Lotus Sutra), but they have “no effect” since they are just “shadows” of Honmon teachings.

Then, what is the clear difference between Shakumon and Honmon? It is the form of Buddha during each teaching that is different. When he preached Shakumon his form was provisional Buddha who was historically born in India about three thousand years ago, and then became a priest at nineteen, attained Buddhahood at thirty, and died at eighty. He preached all the Pre-Lotus Sutras and Shakumon of the Lotus Sutra in this provisional form.

In fact, the true form of Shakyamuni Buddha, who preached Honmon, is called “Primordial Eternal Buddha.” This form was revealed in chapter sixteen The Life Span of Buddha 如来寿量品第十六 of the Lotus Sutra. To teach and save all sentient beings, Shakyamuni Buddha was born as an ordinary human to be able to show people that anyone can attain Buddhahood.

Then, let’s see who Primordial Buddha is in the next article.

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