Zen & the Lotus Sutra

Ryuei and Maylie at the Berkeley Zen Center

A Series of Seminars at the
Berkeley Zen Center ~ 1999
by Ryuei Michael McCormick

Introduction and Dedication
February 2002

This Lotus Sutra Seminar at the Berkeley Zen Center was given on April 1, 8, 15, 22, and 29 in 1999. The first four sessions consisted of discussions about the Lotus Sutra followed by recitation of passages of the Lotus Sutra. The fifth session consisted of Shodaigyo Meditation followed by a session of general questions and answers. All of this was made possible by Maylie Scott of the Berkeley Zen Center who invited me to come and speak about the Lotus Sutra and share the practice of Shodaigyo meditation. Maylie Scott was a Zen priest and had received transmission (inka) from Sojun Mel Weitzman in the Soto Zen lineage of Shunryu Suzuki. Sadly, Maylie Scott passed away on May 10, 2001, of liver cancer while I was attending Shingyo Dojo at Mt. Minobu. I will always be grateful to her for giving me the opportunity to share the Lotus Sutra and the Odaimoku with her Sangha, who otherwise might never have heard the Lotus Sutra taught from the perspective of Nichiren Buddhism or have encountered the practice of Odaimoku. Maylie struck me as a teacher with an open mind and a warm heart. Though she was entitled to call herself a Zen Master, she did not insist on that title, and seemed very eager to learn from and listen to others. I did not have many chances to hear her give teachings, but the few times I did during the seminar and in a follow-up session that she led afterwards (which was not recorded), I was impressed by her deep calm, thoughtfulness, and rich experience.

This writing is based on transcripts of the original seminar which Maylie sponsored, but has been modified to be more coherent and in some cases it has been expanded with additional material for clarification. I dedicate it to the memory of Kushin Seisho Maylie Scott (March 29, 1935 - May 10, 2001).

Table of Contents

Dedication to the memory of the late Zen Master, Kushin Seisho Maylie Scott (1935-2001)

Session One ~ April 1

  • Opening Verse and Statement (Ch.1)
  • Zen and the Lotus Sutra (Ch.2)
  • Parables of the Lotus Sutra (Ch.3-4)
  • Overview of the Seminar
  • Q&A from Session 1
  • Session Two ~ April 8

  • Overview of the Lotus Sutra
  • Bodhicitta (Ch.3-4)
  • Parables of Encouragement (Ch.5,7)
  • Parables of Buddha-nature (Ch.8,14)
  • Absolute and Relative Bodhicitta (Ch.10,14)
  • Q&A from Session 2
  • On the Odaimoku
  • Session Three ~ April 15

  • Appearance of the Precious Stupa (Ch.11-14)
  • The Emergent Bodhisattvas of the Earth (Ch.15)
  • The Eternal Buddha (Ch.16)
  • The Merits of the Single Moment of Faith and Rejoicing (Ch.17-19)
  • The Transmission of the Wonderful Dharma (Ch.21-22)
  • Q&A from Session 3
  • Session Four ~ April 22

  • Analysis of the Lotus Sutra
  • Bodhisattva Medicine King (Ch.23)
  • Bodhisattva Wonder Sound (Ch.24)
  • Bodhisattva Regarder of the Cries of the World (Ch.25)
  • Dharanis (Ch.26)
  • King Resplendent (Ch.27)
  • Encouragement of Bodhisattva Universal Virtue (Ch.28)
  • Q&A for Session 4
  • Session Five ~ April 29

  • Q&A for Session 5 after Shodaigyo Practice

    Appendix A: Verses for Opening the Sutra
    Appendix B: Practice Questions
  • Appendix C: The Seven Parables of the Lotus Sutra
    Appendix D: Zen Masters on the Lotus Sutra
    Appendix E: Recitation Passages
    Appendix F: Shodaigyo Meditation

    Session One

    Sutra Opening Verse:
    An unsurpassed, penetrating, and perfect Dharma
    Is rarely met with, even in one hundred, thousand, million kalpas.
    Having it to see and listen to, to remember and accept,
    I vow to taste the truth of the Tathagata's words.
    Maylie Scott: The Sutra Opening Verse is a great opening to the class because it's taken from the Lotus Sutra. I wanted to say a little bit about how this class is going to progress. Since I am leaving in the late summer, I wanted to give one more class on the Lotus Sutra. I won't say that I taught the Lotus Sutra, but we read through it a few years ago together. It is very much the foundation of our practice. In our meal chant we refer to it. Our ancestors refer to it again and again in the Blue Cliff Record, the Sutra of the 6th Patriarch, and Dogen's Shobogenzo, and in the Crooked Cucumber, Suzuki Roshi's biography, which I am about halfway through. While reading the Crooked Cucumber in conjunction with the Lotus Sutra, I am struck again and again by how much Suzuki Roshi is speaking from the Lotus Sutra.

    The Lotus Sutra is extremely difficult to teach. Shakyamuni Buddha says that it is extremely difficult to teach. The listeners in the sutra themselves complain of it's extreme difficulty. Although I said I'd teach it, I began to quail because it's never been taught to me, and there is something about our lineage which suggests that if you are going to teach something it is better to have been taught it first. So I called Taigen Leighton and told him what I was doing, and he said, "Oh, I have a friend named Michael Ryuei McCormick who is a Nichiren Shu practitioner, and the Nichiren Shu studies and is taught the Lotus Sutra." When Michael called me I was very pleased and excited by his understanding and familiarity with the sutra. We talked; and the more we talked the more it seemed obvious to me that I could sponsor the class and Michael could teach it.

    So it is very difficult to teach. The Mahayana sutras have such a different style from our Zen style, which is spare and close to the ground while the Mahayana sutras are large and baroque. So I hope we can suspend our judgment of this difference in style and perhaps come to appreciate it. I think we may. My hope is that we may as the class continues. The most important thing is how we study this sutra in a way that really informs our practice. In reading it, in thinking about it, and in reciting it, how do we integrate it and internalize it?

    As an aide to that, there are three hand-outs. One of them is just a single sheet of questions we can ask ourselves and practice with. On that sheet there are a couple of quotations, one from Dogen and one from Suzuki Roshi that are very rooted in the Lotus Sutra itself. As a class assignment it would be good to write a little paragraph or make a little painting or have some creative response to this sutra which is your own.

    Michael will explain the readings in the hand-out. There is also a copy of Dogen's fascicle on the Lotus Sutra, Hokke-ten-hokke. I hope that you can think about reading that fascicle once a week over the next five weeks during the class. Simply read it and see what happens as you digest it in the context of the class. At this point I would like to turn it over to Michael.

    Zen and the Lotus Sutra

    Michael McCormick: Good evening. Before I actually start, I want to thank Maylie again for having so much confidence in me after only a couple of telephone conversations and a business dinner. I'm very flattered and very thankful that you asked me to come here.

    Tonight, I will do two things. First I want to talk about the role of the Lotus Sutra within the Zen tradition. I want to explore some of the ways in which the Zen Masters expounded and utilized the Lotus Sutra in order to show the place of the Lotus Sutra within the Zen tradition. Then, for the second half of tonight's class, I want to give an overview of what I will be discussing over the next three weeks of talks. This will give you the highlights of things to come.

    Let me start with a passage from the fascicle Taking Refuge in the Three Jewels which is in the Shobogenzo. In the fascicle, Dogen is emphasizing the importance of taking refuge in the three jewels and how absolutely vital it is in our practice to understand the meaning of the three jewels in our lives. To do that he cites a passage from the Lotus Sutra which emphasizes the importance of the three jewels. In this fascicle, Dogen feels the need to stress the authority of the Lotus Sutra which he is citing to make his point. Here is what he says about the Saddharma-pundarika-sutra (which is the original title of the Lotus Sutra in Sanskrit):
    The Saddharma-pundarika-sutra explains the purpose of the various Buddhas having appeared in this world. It may be said to be the great king and the great master of all the various sutras that the Buddha Shakyamuni taught. Compared with this sutra, all the other sutras are merely its servants, its relatives, for it alone expounds the Truth. The other sutras, on the other hand, include provisional teachings of the Buddha, and therefore do not express his real intention. It is a mistake to use the teachings of the other sutras as the basis for determining the validity of those contained in the Saddharma-pundarika-sutra, for without the merit-power of the latter, the former would be valueless. All the other sutras find their origin in this sutra.
    That is quite a review. Definitely two thumbs up. One might wonder what is the big deal about this sutra? Why, in a tradition which emphasizes the Dharma that is transmitted beyond the scriptures, would a Zen Master say these things about a mere book? But I don't think that he is talking about a mere book, and we'll be getting into that later.

    First, I want to look at Hakuin. A few centuries after Dogen, at the end of the 17th and the beginning of the 18th century, Hakuin also wondered about the Lotus Sutra. He also wondered what was the big deal. For those of you who are not familiar with Hakuin, he is considered the reformer of the Rinzai lineage and I believe that most lineage holders of Rinzai in America today can trace themselves back to Hakuin. He is quite a writer. I enjoy reading Hakuin because he is very dramatic and over the top in many ways. One of the stories that I really enjoy about Hakuin concerns when he was a young boy and was trying to figure out how he could keep himself from falling into hell. Apparently in those days, the wandering preacher-evangelists liked to give fire and brimstone sermons just as some like to do today. I believe this was due to their lack of television and slasher films. In any case this was what entertained the peasants and encouraged the children to behave themselves. Hakuin, however, took it to heart and wanted to know how he could escape falling into hell. Since he grew up in a Nichiren Buddhist household, I am sure he heard over and over again how important the Lotus Sutra is and how it is the king of all sutras. He probably heard things very similar to what I just read from Dogen. He thought, "Well, I'd better give this sutra a chance and see if it has the answer for me." Here is what happened:
    I happened to hear that The Lotus Sutra was the king of all the scriptures the Buddha had preached. It was supposed to contain the essential meaning of all the buddhas. I got hold of a copy and read it through. But when I finished, I closed it with a heavy sigh. "This," I told myself, "is nothing but a collection of simple tales about cause and effect. True, mention is made of there being 'only one absolute vehicle,' and of 'the changeless unconditioned tranquility of all dharmas,' but on the whole it is what Lin-chi dismissed as 'mere verbal prescriptions for relieving the world's ills.' I'm not going to find what I'm looking for here."
    That's very different from Dogen's reaction. But then, several decades later, after many years of strenuous meditation and koan study, after being battered with brooms by women on the street and shoved off verandas by his master, Shoju, Hakuin began to have a different perspective, a different point of view. At the age of forty he decided to take another look at the Lotus Sutra. This time things were very different. He says:
    I read as far as the third chapter, the one on parables. Then, just like that, all the lingering doubts and uncertainties vanished from my mind. They suddenly ceased to exist. The reason for the Lotus's reputation as the "king of sutras" was now revealed to me with blinding clarity. Teardrops began cascading down my face like two strings of beads - they came like beans pouring from a ruptured sack. A loud involuntary cry burst from the depths of my being and I began sobbing uncontrollably. And as I did, I knew without any doubt that what I had realized in all those satoris I had experienced, what I had grasped in my understanding of those koans I had passed - had all been totally mistaken. I was finally able to penetrate the source of the free, enlightened activity that permeated Shoju's daily life. I also knew beyond any doubt that the tongue in the World-honored One's mouth moved with complete and unrestricted freedom.
    Quite a change. It's very interesting how a sutra, a teaching of the Buddha that at first appears to be nothing more than some simple matter of fact tales of cause and effect and stories about the One Vehicle that we've all heard so many times before can suddenly become the king of sutras. It is interesting that it can suddenly become something that has such an emotional impact that it evokes tears of joy, tears of release. How can this happen?

    Now notice, that he stopped at chapter three, "A Parable." This has happened before in the Zen tradition. When you go back to the 6th Patriarch, he too commented on the parable in the third chapter. In fact, the fascicle, "The Flower of Dharma Turns the Flower of Dharma" (Hokke-ten-Hokke) by Dogen is a commentary on the 6th Patriarch's commentary on the third chapter. So something very important, apparently, is going on in the third chapter and in the parable of that chapter. Something very important happened when the 6th Patriarch in China commented on it judging from the fact that Dogen wrote Hokke-ten-Hokke about it and you have Hakuin referring to it at this turning point in his life.

    Let's look at the highlights, at least, of the 6th Patriarch's commentaries and encounter with the Lotus Sutra. The version I put in the hand out is a little different from the one that Dogen commented on in Hokke-ten-Hokke. It's a little more fleshed out; maybe a little more polemical. I enjoy that kind of rhetoric. It's a vice of mine.

    In the story, the 6th Patriarch is sitting at the head of the congregation, probably up on a platform like this, and he is fielding questions from the assembly. There was one monk in the assembly named Fa-ta who was very arrogant. He was very full of himself because he had accomplished the great task of reciting the Lotus Sutra 3,000 times. By the way, that is a very significant number in the T'ien-t'ai tradition that focuses on the Lotus Sutra. It is taught that there are 3,000 worlds or life conditions present in every single moment. I'm not going to get into that now, but the idea is that by reciting the sutra 3,000 times, somehow this monk was able to attain the virtue of understanding all things just in the moment. But he really didn't. He knew how to recite, but he did not know how to take it into the heart. The 6th Patriarch called him on this and a very illuminating exchange followed. The 6th Patriarch asked the monk if he really understood the sutra and the monk sheepishly admitted that he did not really understand it. His self-confidence was not very well grounded. So he asks the patriarch to please explain the sutra to him, and the patriarch replies:
    The sutra is free from doubtful passages. It is only your mind that makes them doubtful.
    He then asks the monk to recite passages from the sutra for him, so that he could then comment on them to help clarify what the sutra is really about. The monk does so and after a certain point the 6th Patriarch stops him and says:

    The key note of this sutra is to set forth the aim and object of a Buddha's incarnation in this world. Though parables and illustrations are numerous in this book, none of them go beyond this pivotal point.

    Further on he quotes from the Lotus Sutra the passage that says:
    The buddhas, the world-honored ones, appear in the world because they desire to cause all living beings to disclose the wisdom of Buddha which will make them able to become pure. They appear in the world because they desire to show living beings the wisdom of the Buddha. They appear in the world because they desire to cause living beings to realize the wisdom of Buddha. They appear in the world because they desire to cause living beings to enter the state of truth which is the wisdom of the Buddha. Sariputra, this is why the buddhas appear in the world only by reason of the one great purpose.
    You might think, "So what? We know that. We know the buddhas came into the world to open the way to the buddha-knowledge." But there is really something very revolutionary going on here. This passage is from the second chapter of the Lotus Sutra. It is from the theoretical discourse of the Buddha to Shariputra. Dogen returns to this again and again and again in the Hokke-ten-hokke. He refers again and again to "disclosure, display, realization, and entering." The reason this is so revolutionary is because, if you think about it, it is very hard to believe that we can become just like the Buddha. No matter what kind of people we are, no matter what kind of shortcomings we have, no matter what kind of mistakes we have made, no matter how much we may have hurt ourselves or others, no matter how shortsighted we may feel, the buddha-knowledge is there for us. There are no exceptions to this. No exceptions at all. Not any based on gender, or race or ethnicity, or anything else. This is very hard for people to understand. Especially in those days when there were so many biases, so many ideas about how certain people weren't educated enough to become buddhas, or how certain genders were not qualified to become buddhas, or how certain people will never get it because they have selfishly gone off into the hills to attain their own liberation. Such hermits will never attain the compassion of a buddha. The Lotus Sutra is saying that the Buddha is trying to convey the very same enlightenment that he had to every single one of us. All his teachings come back to that point. This monk Fa-ta had trouble understanding that. He thought, "If only a buddha together with a buddha can fathom the true reality of all existence then how can we get in on this? How can we possibly share in this?" This was Fa-ta's attitude: "This is something that only the buddhas can understand. I'm not up to this." The 6th Patriarch reprimands him and says, "No, no. This is for you. Don't think that it is beyond your reach. This is for you." He says:
    You should not misinterpret, and come to the conclusion that Buddha-knowledge is something special to Buddha and not common to us all.... Such a misinterpretation would amount to slandering Buddha and blaspheming the sutra.
    When the monk finally gets it, "Well, o.k. Maybe it really is meant for me." He says, "Oh, I made such a big mistake. I wasted all that time reciting the sutra and I never got it. From this point on maybe I will not do that anymore." The 6th Patriarch says to him:
    There is nothing wrong in the sutra, so that you should refrain from reciting it. Whether sutra reciting will enlighten you or not or benefit you or no, all depends on yourself.
    Now there is the key point of this whole discourse between this monk and the 6th Patriarch. There are profound teachings in the Lotus Sutra. But if you are not opening yourself to it, it is just going to go right over your head as it did with Hakuin the first time he read the sutra. If you understand what the intention is, this book will come alive and become more than just a book, as it did for Hakuin later on, or Dogen. The crucial passage is where the 6th Patriarch says:
    He who recites the Sutra with the tongue and puts its teaching into actual practice with his mind "turns round" the Sutra. He who recites it without putting it into practice is "turned round" by the Sutra.
    So the sutra can help you or it can hurt you. We need to know the right way to approach it. Dogen took this as the theme to Hokke-ten-Hokke, "The Flower of Dharma Turns the Flower of Dharma." Dogen said:
    ...no one has grasped the point of the Flower of Dharma turning, or mastered the point of turning the Flower of Dharma, in the manner of our founding Patriarch, the eternal Buddha of Sokei...The reality that exists as it is is a treasure, is brightness, is a seat of truth, is mind in delusion, the Flower of Dharma turning, and is mind in realization, turning the Flower of Dharma, which is really just the Flower of Dharma turning the Flower of Dharma.

    When the mind is in the state of delusion, the Flower of Dharma turns. When the mind is in the state of realization, we turn the Flower of Dharma. If perfect realization can be like this, The Flower of Dharma turns the Flower of Dharma.
    What in the world is he talking about? What could this mean? What did the 6th Patriarch mean by that? What did Dogen mean by that? Dogen doesn't even just leave it at that. The 6th Patriarch was talking about a monk being turned around by this sutra when he is confused by it, or being able to turn around the sutra when he knows how to use it. But Dogen is saying the Flower of Dharma is turning the Flower of Dharma itself, whether we are in delusion or not. What are they talking about?

    Well, here is what I think they are talking about. The Myoho Renge Kyo, which is the Japanese way of saying the Wonderful Dharma of the Lotus Flower Teaching, is not simply a book. The book called the Lotus Sutra is about the Wonderful Dharma of the Lotus Flower Teaching. What is that teaching? It seems to resonate throughout the ages. It seems to go beyond the discourse of any one buddha in history. It is the enlightenment of the Buddha. Myoho Renge Kyo as a scripture is another way of expressing and pointing towards Buddha's enlightenment. He says earlier in the essay:
    Truly, this [real wisdom] is the perfect realization of buddhas alone, together with buddhas. The Dharma-Flower's turning may be preaching it as the disclosure, display, realization, and entering of buddhas who are rightful successors, and of rightful successors of buddhas. This [real wisdom] is also called the Sutra of the Lotus Flower of the Wonderful Dharma, and it is the method of teaching bodhisattvas.
    So the Sutra of the Lotus Flower of the Wonderful Dharma, the Myoho Renge Kyo, is the Buddha's enlightenment shown and revealed. That enlightenment is not some kind of inner nodule of spirituality that exists in the pineal gland or something like that. It's not that. It's not some kind of force like in Star Wars, or some kind of sub-atomic field that exists through everything. Though many people seem to think of it that way. It is the dynamic process of life itself, right here, right now. This process is always going on, and we are a part of this process. We are an expression of this process. The Lotus Sutra is an expression of this process, and Shakyamuni Buddha is expressing this process. What Dogen is talking about continuously throughout Hokke-ten-Hokke is that even when we are deluded and don't know what we are doing, even when we are bumping into the walls and creating a mess, that Flower of Dharma, that enlightenment of the Buddha, that process that is reality itself is still going on. It still has you in it's grasp. It is turning us. When we realize what it is, then we are fully, knowingly, and mindfully participating in that enlightenment. Then we are the Flower of Dharma turning the Flower of Dharma. I'm not sure if I have made that entirely clear, but that is what the questions and answers will be for afterwards and then I can make another attempt at it.

    Parables of the Lotus Sutra

    Let me move on now, to the parables. Up until now we have been talking about this very abstractly, very theoretically, just the way Shakyamuni does in the second chapter when he is speaking with Shariputra. Shariputra, of course, has the reputation for being the heady academic, the abstract scholastic disciple of the Buddha. In fact he is the one who is blamed, or perhaps I should say credited, with the Abhidharma. So let's get away from that level and move into the parables which follow the more scholarly discourses of the second chapter.

    The first one which the 6th Patriarch talks about is the Parable of the Burning House. There are seven parables in the Lotus Sutra, but I am only going to give you a sketchy outline of the first two for now. In the third chapter of the Lotus Sutra is the Parable of the Burning House, the favorite of the 6th Patriarch and the other Zen Masters. There is a wonderful description in there, especially in the verse section, of how horrible this house is. There are insects and rats, monsters and ogres, and all kinds of other creatures. In the midst of it are several children playing. For some strange reason I imagine them riding Big Wheels. Do you all remember Big Wheels? They are all just racing through the house on Big Wheels. They don't seem to mind the fact that the house is about to fall down.

    I live, as a matter of fact, on Sutter and Webster, a couple of blocks away from the old Zen Center, the original Sokoji on Busch Street where Shunryu Suzuki first came to work as a priest. Unfortunately, the house there now looks very much like the house in the Lotus Sutra. It's really on it's last legs. It's unfortunate because it is a beautiful building. I have the image of that place in my mind with these kids and the Big Wheels and all these monsters that have gotten inside, these ghosts of the past.

    In the midst of this mess a fire starts. As if things were not bad enough, now there is a fire. Now all the monsters and dogs and rats and cats and all the other creatures are really upset and panicking. Now they are tearing into each other and tearing everything apart and frantically trying to get out of the house. But the children still don't care. They are still riding around on their Big Wheels.

    Now, there is an old man who owns the house. He needs to get the children out. He thinks to himself, "If I just charge in there and try to pull them out, the children will get hurt. They will bump their heads on the door or the weight from holding the children will cause the steps to collapse. I can't just go in there and do it with brute force. I have to find a way to entice the children to come out on their own. But they are too involved in their games." Now, he knows that these children are not just satisfied with the toys they have. He knows that they want real-life carts that they can ride around in. So he calls out to them, "Please come out of the house. I have these carts out here for you. I have goat carts, deer carts, and even a big bullock cart."

    The children heard this and all come running and charging out of the house. "Where are the carts! Where are the carts!" they yell. The old man who owns the house is very wealthy, so he actually does the children one better. He's not only rescued them from this burning house, which they were not concerned about, but now instead of giving them these small little carts they had been promised, he gives each of them a big white bullock cart. This cart is even better than the big bullock cart that he had promised earlier to the more ambitious of the children. Now they each get something better than they had even thought they could get, better than they would have even thought to ask for.

    The meaning of this parable, is that the different disciples of the Buddha had different ideals, different aims, different concepts of what it would be like to be enlightened. Some of them wanted to be disciples and sit at the Buddha's feet and hear these wonderful teachings and then put them into practice and attain liberation from suffering. Some of them were content to go into the hills and the forests to meditate so they could figure it out for themselves. These would be the private-buddhas. Then there were others who were a little more ambitious, or (to put the positive spin on it) more compassionate, and wanted to become buddhas themselves and help others attain liberation. So these are the ones who were going for the bullock cart. Actually everybody, no matter what their own ideas, is going to get the big white bullock cart of buddhahood itself. This is much better than anyone had wished for. Even the bodhisattvas may be surprised because, even though they were aspiring to buddhahood, the actual attainment may be something much different from what they could imagine.

    This is the parable that the 6th Patriarch comments on. This is the understanding that he wants to convey to this monk who had previously thought of Buddhism as nothing more than reciting sutras to gain merit. Through this parable, the 6th Patriarch and the others are trying to convey that Buddhism is about raising our aspiration, raising our life-condition, so that we try to liberate ourselves and others as well. So that we fully open up and participate in life and not settle for a lesser goal. In fact, even if we are aiming for a lesser goal, we are still involved in the process. Actually there are no lesser goals. Those lesser goals are part of the greater process, part of the greater goal. There is no need to even argue about it. There is no need to go up to someone who just wants to be a hermit for a while and say, "You know, you shouldn't do that. You should be aspiring to save all sentient beings. You should be out demonstrating on the street or doing this or doing that." The Lotus Sutra recognizes that you need to address people where they are, with the aspirations that they have, and help them with what they can understand and practice. Anything else is just empty dreaming. However, that understood, you still need to keep them moving, keep spurring them on to greater and greater accomplishments, and greater and greater amounts of letting go and opening up. In commenting on this parable the 6th Patriarch says:
    The Sutra teaches you to dispense with the makeshifts and to resort to the ultimate. Having resorted to the ultimate, you will find that even the name "ultimate" disappears. You should appreciate that you are the sole owner of these valuables and that they are entirely subject to your disposal. When you are free from the arbitrary conception that they are the father's, or the son's, or that they are at so-and-so's disposal, you may be said to have learnt the right way to recite the Sutra. In that case from kalpa to kalpa the Sutra will be in your hand, and from morning to night you will be reciting the Sutra all the time.
    This is what he hoped the sutra-reciting-monk would learn. That he would live this process moment-to-moment. That he would not settle for a lesser understanding. That he would keep spurring himself on, but at the same time work with what was right in front of him. This is the way the expedient means of the Lotus Sutra works. Take people where they are and keep them moving in the direction of perfect and complete enlightenment.

    In that passage, the 6th Patriarch is also referring to another parable, which I want to discuss briefly, the Parable of the Poor Son, sometimes called the Parable of the Prodigal Son. It is found in the fourth chapter of the Lotus Sutra. Here we have a different view of expedient means. Whereas in the Parable of the Burning House, you have the Buddha as the old man addressing the disciples according to their different goals, and then presenting them with something better than they had hoped or asked for; in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, you have the example of a gradual unfolding of aspiration, and a gradual unfolding or deepening of the teaching.

    In the Parable of the Prodigal Son, much like in the biblical parable, a young boy takes his inheritance and heads off to the hills and probably ends up in Berkeley. He ends up very poor and leading a hand-to-mouth existence. In the meantime, the father has apparently made some very wise investments, probably in Silicon Valley based upon the speed with which he becomes wealthy in the story, and he become the master of a huge estate. But he never forgets his son. He never gives up looking for his son. He always feels this emptiness because he has no one to whom he can pass on his wealth. This is very interesting, the great wealth that he attains is not good enough. He needs to share it. The wealthy man in this story is again the Buddha. The point that is being made is that the Buddha's greatest wish is to share his realization with us.

    One day the son is passing by his father's estate and he no longer recognizes his father because it has been so long. He has been living such a poor existence for so long that he can't even relate to the kind of life that his father has been living. The father happens to see him passing on the street at this time and recognizes him. He says to one of his servants, "Please, go get that man passing by. Bring him to me. I think I might have a job for him." So he sends the servant out. The servant must have been some kind of security guard or something like that because when the son sees the servant coming towards him he is immediately terrified and runs away. He thinks, "Oh no, they are going to arrest me for something! No good can come of this. They probably think that I was casing the place in order to steal something and now I'm doomed." Finally the servant catches up to him and drags him back to the father. The son is practically fainting in fear. Seeing this, the father says, "This is not any good. It's o.k. I made a mistake. I thought I knew this person. You can let him go." So the son leaves.

    The father decides that he has to try a different approach. There is too much distance, too much misunderstanding at this point. So he sends out a more humble looking servant. Maybe a gate-keeper or something, or one of those who take out the trash. This man goes out and says to the son, "We have a job at the estate. It's a simple job. Just clearing out the trash. Clearing out manure from the stables. Why don't you come. It looks like you could use some work." The son agrees. This he can relate to. "He wants me to clear out the shit. O.k. I can do that."

    The son comes back, takes up this job and sticks with it for a few weeks. The father is watching him surreptitiously. He doesn't want to spook him anymore. He thinks, "O.k. he's sticking with it. He's doing his job. That's good. I think maybe now it is time to move this along." So the father takes off his nice Armani suit and puts on the more humble garb of a groundskeeper. He goes out to the son and says, "I've been watching you. You've been doing a pretty good job and I think at this point you might want to move into the gate house. Maybe we can give you some different responsibilities, something a little better than just cleaning out manure." The son agrees.

    This goes on for awhile, and eventually the son is able to relate to the father, although he still thinks of him as the boss. Over time the father gives him more and more responsibilities to the point where the son has become the chief accountant. He's responsible for keeping track of all the money and goods. He makes sure that all the treasure vaults of this wealthy man are kept in good order. Then the father become ill. He knows that this is it. "This is my last chance to pass on my inheritance, my legacy to my son." So he calls in the son and all his servants and all the rest of his family and friends and associates and says, "Now is the time to tell you that this man, who is now the general manager of my estate, is in actuality my own son. I am passing on everything to him." Of course the son is overjoyed, he couldn't have expected this. He had no idea that all the wealth he had been put in charge of was actually his own inheritance all along. Just like the 6th Patriarch said:
    You should appreciate that you are the sole owner of these valuables and that they are entirely subject to your disposal. When you are free from the arbitrary conception that they are the father's or the son's or that they are at so-and-so's disposal, you may be said to have learnt the right way to recite the sutra.
    Buddhahood is not the sole possession of Shakyamuni, or of Dogen, or of Hakuin, or of the 6th Patriarch, or anyone else. It is the vast treasure which is everyone's inheritance. But it is very difficult to relate to that. In fact, in the initial stages it might even be absolutely frightening.

    It is said in the T'ien-t'ai tradition, that the Buddha's teaching chronologically unfolded in the way the father related to the son. At first, the Buddha taught the Flower Garland Sutra and the interpenetration of all things in terms of the Jeweled Net of Indra. It's very hard to relate to that kind of teaching. You might think, "Wow! I don't know. I'm either going to have to sit hundreds of hours of zazen or take tabs of acid to even get a glimpse of this!" I don't recommend the latter. The point is that it scares people. It intimidates people. After a while their minds just shut down. "I can't relate to that," they might say. So the Buddha realized that he had to try a different tactic. So he taught the four noble truths and the eightfold path. He taught a way that we could liberate ourselves from our afflictions. This is the stage of clearing out the trash, clearing the decks. After that, one must learn to become more compassionate. One must learn that while you do need to start with yourself, take care of yourself, you also need to widen your scope. This is the point where the son is able to advance a little bit. This is where the Buddha started to teach the Pure Land Sutras and the Vimalakirti Sutra in order to give people a wider view. Then it got to the point where the Buddha could let people get a glimpse of the vision of the emptiness of all things. "Form is emptiness, emptiness is form." The Buddha could get people to begin to relate to the Buddha's own experience. They could begin to relate to their own buddha-nature. This would be equivalent to the son becoming the accountant or the general manager. The final stage is when the Buddha reveals that we ourselves are buddhas if we would only awaken. The wisdom of the Buddha is our own family treasure. These teachings are equivalent to the father revealing the true identity of the son and giving him his inheritance. That is the role of the Lotus Sutra in Buddhism. The Lotus Sutra is the account of the last teachings of the Buddha, wherein he finally reveals that this enlightenment, this buddhahood, is our inheritance that he wants us to awaken to. All the other teachings are a way of laying the groundwork, a way of preparing us to get to the point where we can take this in without running away, shutting down, or saying "Well, that's nice but..."

    Overview of the Seminar

    In the next few weeks, I want to talk about the Lotus Sutra not just as a collection of parables of our awakening. Indeed, there are many great parables in there and I will be covering the other parables, but I want to talk about the Lotus Sutra as a whole. I want to go beyond the third chapter. I want to go beyond just the idea that we can attain enlightenment, that we should aspire to it. I want to talk about the Lotus Sutra as a cosmic drama from the beginning to the end. It is a cosmic drama of our own awakening. This cosmic drama has three movements. The three movements are known in the T'ien-t'ai and Nichiren traditions as the three assemblies in two settings. These are about the internal divisions within the Lotus Sutra. My own teacher, the Ven. Ryusho Matsuda, tells me that this is the way the sutra was actually composed.

    The first ten chapters were compiled first and they held together as a sutra all by themselves. These first ten chapters relate the assembly on Mt. Sacred Eagle. Other translations call it Vulture Peak. It's on the ground, down to earth, and the Buddha is still the man who woke up, Prince Siddhartha who became enlightened sitting under the Bodhi Tree. This part of the sutra teaches the One Vehicle. It's all focused around the One Vehicle. It focuses on getting people to aspire to buddhahood itself. Telling them, "It's not only possible, but this is the path that in fact you are already on whether you realize it or not."

    The next twelve chapters make up the section known as the Ceremony in the Air. It begins in chapter eleven when a great treasure tower rises up out of the earth. There is a buddha in it called Many Treasures. Then the psychedelic scene known as the Ceremony in the Air commences. Senchu Murano, a bishop in our tradition, calls it a science fiction fantasy. In that ceremony the Buddha is no longer the historical Shakyamuni Buddha but the Eternal Buddha of all time and all space. In that ceremony the assembly place changes as well. The assembly on Eagle Peak rises up into the air also along with the treasure tower and Shakyamuni. Then, innumerable bodhisattvas rise up from underneath the earth and are revealed as the original disciples of the Buddha. This whole fantastic display is a way of showing the actual realization of buddhahood. It is no longer just theory, no longer just something to aspire to in the future, but an ongoing event that is right here and right now.

    The final six chapters of the sutra recount the last assembly and the return to Eagle Peak. It is coming back down to earth. It is taking that timeless placeless illumination and grounding it, making it real in terms of our practice and our actual relationships to ourselves and others and to this world.

    Those are the three assemblies and two settings. The first assembly on Eagle Peak, where we learn to aspire to buddhahood; the ceremony in the air, where there is the actual realization of buddhahood outside of the limits of time and place; and then there is the final assembly on Eagle Peak, where we ground that, where we make that real and dedicate all our merit to all beings. In fact, this movement from being grounded to realization to being grounded again is something that you find expressed in many different ways throughout the Buddhist tradition. You may be familiar with this saying:
    Before Zen, mountains are mountains and rivers are rivers. During Zen, mountains are no longer mountains and rivers are no longer rivers. After Zen, mountains are mountains and rivers are rivers.
    That is also describing this movement. This movement of understanding your present circumstances and raising your aspirations; going beyond your present circumstances and realizing something that is bigger than ourselves in the taken for granted world that we usually live in; and then returning again to our actual concrete conditions and living them just as they are and not as we would like them to be.

    Q&A from Session 1

    Question: I was wondering where the Heart Sutra fits into the unfolding of the sutras that you were describing?

    Michael: The Heart Sutra fits into that penultimate period just before the Lotus Sutra. You might say that the Buddha sets up many dichotomies early on between enlightened and unenlightened, samsara and nirvana, the way of the bodhisattvas and the way of the shravakas, nirvana and the pure land. You find all these in the Vimalakirti Sutra and the Pali Canon. When you get to the Prajnaparamita period, the Perfection of Wisdom period which the Heart Sutra is such a wonderful summary of, the Buddha is really clearing the decks of all those dichotomies. You should just drop them because enlightenment goes beyond any of these cut and dried categories. It is going to defy our ability to explain.

    Once one has gone beyond the dichotomies of this-and-that, self-other, subject-object, then one can enter the Lotus Sutra period. One can learn the positive aspects of the Dharma without getting caught up again in thinking "The buddha nature is some thing. The Buddha is an eternal being." These are all gross misunderstandings of the Lotus Sutra. While you can go beyond the Heart Sutra into this more positive way of relating to buddhahood, if you have not properly understood and practiced that perfection of wisdom you are going to reduce the Lotus Sutra to something that it is not. You are going to turn the Buddha of the Lotus Sutra into some kind of super god-like being. This is not what it is teaching. Without the preparation of the Heart Sutra, you are likely to mistake the buddha-nature for some kind of "True Self," some kind of Atman, which is again missing the point.

    Question: At what point in Shakyamuni's teaching career does he preach the Lotus Sutra?

    Michael: Traditionally it is said that he taught the Lotus Sutra in the last eight years of his life. It's kind of funny, because when you read the sutra, on the one hand it seems to take millions and millions of eons to get through the preaching of this sutra, on the other hand it seems like it was taught in one afternoon. So time is very relative. It is what you make of it. Traditionally, he taught it in the last years of his life. The very last sutra that he taught was the Mahaparinirvana Sutra, which is considered a kind of summary of everything that had gone before, including the Lotus Sutra.

    Question: I have essentially the same question, except about the Garland Sutra. The Buddha taught the Flower Garland early on and found that it blew out everybody's circuits and then withdrew it. He hid it away somewhere to be discovered later. Is that it?

    Michael: Essentially that is correct. Nichiren makes a very interesting point about the Flower Garland. I actually waded through the entire Cleary translation once and I didn't even notice this point because I was so overwhelmed by it. Nichiren mentions that Shakyamuni Buddha never teaches anything in the Flower Garland Sutra. He is sitting there abiding in the illumination that he had beneath the Bodhi Tree. It is the bodhisattvas who do all the teaching. The bodhisattvas are the ones discoursing back and forth and making displays and doing things. Nichiren points out that in all the other sutras up until the Lotus Sutra, none of them go beyond the Flower Garland. All of them are exemplifications or applications of what is taught in the Flower Garland. According to Nichiren, the only unique teaching of Shakyamuni Buddha is in the Lotus Sutra, because everything else is taught by the bodhisattvas.

    Then the question is, "What does the Lotus Sutra have that the Flower Garland does not?" In a way you can say that when you get to the Lotus Sutra you have returned to the Flower Garland period, because now, after the four noble truths and the eightfold path and the six perfections and emptiness and all of that, finally the minds of the disciples are ready for the Flower Garland teaching. What is different is that the Lotus Sutra explicitly includes these so-called lesser teachings of the four noble truths and eightfold path. It includes an explicit recognition of the buddhahood of people such as Devadatta, the Buddhist Judas. It explicitly recognizes the buddhahood of women and non-humans, in the person of the Dragon King's Daughter who stands in for all the minorities of ancient India. The inclusiveness of the Lotus Sutra is what makes it different from the Flower Garland. The Flower Garland is vast and wonderful, but you may wonder where it leaves those of us who don't get it. All these wonderful things are going on, but it is all over our heads. When you get to the Lotus Sutra it is no longer over our heads. It's right here. That is what makes it so unique.

    Also, it is the person of Shakyamuni which is his real teaching, not any of the discourses which come earlier on. Some have pointed out that there never is a Lotus discourse in the Lotus Sutra. It's all about the Lotus Sutra teaching, but it is never there because the teaching is the Buddha himself and the life of the Buddha which is our own life. We will get to that later in this seminar.

    Question: On a slightly skeptical note, do historical Buddhist scholars actually attribute this sutra to Shakyamuni?

    Michael: No, no. That would be absurd. The Dalai Lama would probably get upset to hear me say that. I've heard that he taught that the Mahayana Sutras were definitely taught by Shakyamuni Buddha, but I don't even think that when he said that he was being as straightforward as people think. I do not think he necessarily meant that the historical Shakyamuni Buddha taught the Mahayana Sutras in historical time and space.

    To be brief, the Buddha taught, we believe, in the 5th century B.C.E. His teachings were passed down through oral traditions. It was not even by a single oral tradition since there were different lines of traditions. By the time you get to the Christian era, the common era, people began to write them down. So you have different recensions. You have the Pali Canon, or what eventually became the Pali Canon, heading south. Then you have the different sutras which were written in Sanskrit heading north. Each of these sutras represented a school of thought about what is the real essence of the Buddha's teaching. The Flower Garland people, the monks who wrote that down, had a certain idea about what was at the heart of the Buddha's teaching. The Pure Land Sutra monks had a different idea of what was the essence. Those who wrote the Lotus Sutra, yet again, something else. Those who wrote down the Pali Canon probably wanted to stick to what they believed were the actual historical events, whereas those who wrote the Mahayana sutras were more concerned about the heart rather than what actually happened or what was actually said. Although, a lot of the Mahayana Sutras are reworkings of material found in the Pali Canon. These reworkings of the historical material are attempting to bring out the sub-text of compassion which goes beyond the mere words and beyond the mere historical situations. That is really what you find.

    When it got into China, the Chinese wondered "What is all this stuff? Why does this sutra says this, and this one says that, and this one over here is saying something else again?" It was the genius of the 6th century monk Chih-i, the founder of the T'ien-t'ai school, that finally brought harmony and organization to all these sutras. Chih-i showed the way in which the various sutras worked together and complemented one another. He believed that harmony ultimately led up to the Lotus Sutra. I think he had very good grounds for believing that and teaching that. Certainly Hakuin and Dogen, and most recently Thich Nhat Hanh, seem to agree with that assessment.

    Question: So we are dealing with a faith perspective as an underlying attempt to understand the Buddha's teaching. We do have the full knowledge that this teaching of the Lotus Sutra was not in existence at the time of Shakyamuni's teaching, even though it is being attributed to him by faithful tradition.

    Michael: I would say it was in existence at the time of Shakyamuni. There is a book called Creation by Gore Vidal which is a marvelous book and very funny. It is about a Zoroastrian ambassador from Persia who travels throughout Asia and meets Shakyamuni, Lao-tzu, Confucius, and various others. He makes the remark that everything east of the Indus River is numbered: twelve of these, four of these. There is a great passage where he is attending a discourse by the Buddha and there seems to be something going on between the Buddha and Shariputra. Some kind of inside joke is going on between the two of them. There seems to be many inside jokes going on all around that go beyond the actual teachings and discourses of Shakyamuni Buddha. I find that extremely plausible. I think that the Mahayana tradition is an attempt to express the inside joke of enlightenment, as it were. That "inside joke" probably was historical but was not conveyed in the more literal Pali Canon. Here is how Gore Vidal presented this:
    The Buddha's smile was barely visible in the twilight. Then he said, "As the space of the universe is filled with countless wheels of fiery stars, the wisdom that transcends this life is abysmally profound."

    "And difficult to comprehend, Tathagata," said Sariputra, "even for those who are awake."

    "Which is why, Sariputra, no one can ever comprehend it through awakening."

    The two old men burst out laughing at what was obviously a familiar joke.

    I remember nothing more of that meeting with the Buddha. I think that before we left the park, we visited a monastery. I believe that I first met Ananda then. He was a small man whose life work was to learn by heart everything that the Buddha was reported to have said and done.

    I do remember asking Prince Jeta if the Buddha had said anything to me that he had not said a thousand times before.

    "No. He uses the same images over and over again. The only new thing - to me - was the paradox about awakening."

    "But it was not new to Sariputra."

    "Well, Sariputra sees him more than anyone else, and they tell each other complicated jokes. They laugh a good deal together. I don't know at what. Although I am sufficiently advanced that I can smile at this world, I cannot laugh at it just yet."
    No, I don't think huge towers rose up out of the earth, especially towers half the diameter of this planet. I think that would have had an effect on the tides. Somebody would have noticed. I do think that what is expressed in the sutra was real in the hearts and minds and activities of Shakyamuni and his disciples. To do justice to it you have to express it in this mythical form. It was a "you had to be there" kind of experience. We need to engage it, not just with our insight practices, not just with our minds, but mythically as well. We need to engage in it with our devotion, with our hearts, and with our imaginations. Enter into the reality of it. That will in turn transform the way we relate to the actual concrete circumstances that are right here.

    Session One | Session Two | Session Three | Session Four | Session Five

    Copyright by Ryuei Michael McCormick. 1999. 2002.


    Hakuin's Letter to a Hokke Nun 1747
    Dogen's Hokke-ten-Hokke 1241
    The Seven Parables of the LS
    Zen & the LS Dogen/Hakuin
    Samantabhadra Bodhisattva
    An Overview of Buddhism
    Heart Sutra Commentary
    Odaimoku as Hua-t'ou
    Practice Questions
    Hua Yen

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