The Lotus Sutra, a lecture given by Shakyamuni Buddha (the historical Buddha who lived in ancient India 2,500 years ago) shortly before his death summarizes his life’s teachings. From beginning to end, it unfolds dramatically in a series of parables and lessons in which he fully reveals the nature of reality as well as the methods anyone can follow and so replicate his awakening to that nature and experience it for him/herself.
Several great themes emerge from this sutra. First, the Buddha teaches in many ways so that his message may be comprehended by each particular listener according to their capacity. Rather than saying exactly the same thing in the same way to each person, the Buddha is able to discern how each individual will best be able to understand and so he speaks to him/her accordingly. Likewise, there are many different practices recommended by the Buddha to meet the interests and abilities of each person. Elsewhere in sutra it is mentioned that the Buddha taught in 86,000 different ways, an apocryphal number meaning “numberless”. There are many varieties of teachings and practices so that each might find those to which she/he can best relate. It is not that one is correct and another incorrect, or one better and one worse, or one higher and another lower. It is only that different people, having different personalities, interests, capacities can best relate in different ways. This is referred to as “Skillful Means”. Related to this theme is that of “One Vehicle”. Although the Buddha teaches in many different ways and recommends various sorts of practices, all lead to the same place, the same realization.
The next great theme is “Everyone will become a Buddha” sometime in the future—no exceptions. To become a Buddha is to stand on equal ground, see what the Buddha sees, experience what the Buddha experiences. “Buddha” means “One Who is Awake”, one who has opened her/his eyes to the true nature of reality. So Buddhism is not about worship of a deity or believing in a revealed truth, but about waking up and seeing/experiencing things as they are. Humans by nature seem to be tribal, forming groups of those like ourselves and excluding the “other” who is unlike us. The teaching of “Everyone will become a Buddha” allows us to see through the differences we perceive and by which we draw lines between “us” and “them” as only skin deep to discover our common humanity.
Another great theme is “The Eternal Life of the Buddha”. Shakyamuni Buddha was an historical figure who lived and taught for 80 years, 2,500 years ago in what is now northern India and southern Nepal. Although he died at the end of his long life, here he reveals that the “Buddha” is always present and always teaching in every place and time. Combined with the first theme mentioned, “Skillful Means”, this suggests that his teaching is living vibrantly meeting the needs and abilities of people in all times and places including ours. We are no more remote from his wisdom and compassion than those who lived 1,000 years ago in Japan, 1,500 years ago in China or even those who saw and heard him face-to-face in his own lifetime.
Of course, The Lotus Sutra contains much more than this. Every Thursday, a chapter of the sutra, each in its turn, provides the basis for the evening’s service. Before the service, Daichi will present a short talk about the message being presented, what it means and how it informs our practice. A brief commentary on each chapter begins here.