Sutra Opening Verse:
An unsurpassed, penetrating, and perfect Dharma
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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?
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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."
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.
"And difficult to comprehend, Tathagata," said Sariputra, "even for
those who are awake."
"Which is why, Sariputra, no one can ever comprehend it through
The two old men burst out laughing at what was obviously a
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."