5th century Lotus Sutra fragment

Mahayana Main scriptures: Sutras (sacred texts) — 2184 sacred writings. Popular: 1) Lotus Sutra — a sermon by the Buddha on Bodhisattva, buddha-nature, etc. 2) Perfection of Wisdom Sutra (Prajna-paramita) — describes emptiness and others. 3) Heart Sutra— describes nirvana, emptiness, and Ultimate Reality. 4) "Land of Bliss" Sutra — describes the Pure Land of Amitabha Buddha.

Most of the Mahayana canon is in the form of Sutras, Sastras and Tantras. Sutras are the most authoritative and widely accepted as doctrine. Sustras are much less universally accepted and are usually associated with a particular school. They are often commentaries attributed by name to a person with a specific school. Tantras are secret documents linked with the esoteric Tantric sects that are only supposed to be viewed by those who have been properly initiated.

According to Columbia University's Asia for Educators: Most Mahayana literature is in Sanskrit, and some is in Chinese, Tibetan and Central Asian languages. The most widely used sutras are from The Perfection of Wisdom, of which there are about 30 different version put together over about a 700 year period. In China, “the translation of Buddhist texts from Sanskrit and other Indic and Central Asian languages into Chinese constitutes a large area of study. Although written largely in classical Chinese in the context of a premodern civilization in which relatively few people could read, [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs,]

Websites and Resources on Buddhism: Buddha Net ; Religious Tolerance Page ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Internet Sacred Texts Archive ; Introduction to Buddhism ; Early Buddhist texts, translations, and parallels, SuttaCentral ; East Asian Buddhist Studies: A Reference Guide, UCLA ; View on Buddhism ; Tricycle: The Buddhist Review ; BBC - Religion: Buddhism ; Buddhist Centre; A sketch of the Buddha's Life ; What Was The Buddha Like? by Ven S. Dhammika ; Jataka Tales (Stories About Buddha) ; Illustrated Jataka Tales and Buddhist stories ; Buddhist Tales ; Arahants, Buddhas and Bodhisattvas by Bhikkhu Bodhi ; Victoria and Albert Museum ;

Mahayana Buddhism: Seon Zen Buddhism ; Readings in Zen Buddhism, Hakuin Ekaku (Ed: Monika Bincsik) ; How to do Zazen (Zen Buddhist Meditation) ;
Wikipedia article ; Comparison of Buddhist Traditions (Mahayana – Therevada – Tibetan) ; The Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra: complete text and analysis ; Buddhas and Bodhisattvas in Mahayana Buddhism ; The Bodhisattva Ideal in Theravāda Theory and Practice by Jeffrey Samuels ; Zen Buddhism ; The Zen Site ; Wikipedia article on Zen Buddhism Wikipedia


Mahayana sutras are usually statements attributed to The Buddha centuries after he supposedly said them but are true enough to Buddhist doctrines that they have been accepted as truths. Sutras are often chanted in prayers and written or printed again and again to earn merit.

detail from the Diamond Sutra

Some sutras are very famous and widely read. According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “The Diamond Sutra, for example, is concise and pithy in wording yet also fully expresses the idea of "prajna (wisdom)" in popular Mahayana Buddhism, thereby spreading far and wide... Another major text, The Hua-yen Sutra, expounds on the origins of the Buddhist world and the idea that all things are interconnected, being the scripture forming the basis and namesake of the Hua-yen School. Although originating in India, it later became one of the most important sects in Chinese Buddhism. The scriptures devoted to Kuan-yin, the bodhisattva of compassion, are intimately related to the development of Kuan-yin belief in the Chin and Sixteen Kingdoms era (265-439). Furthermore, after Dharmaraksa translated The True Dharma of the Lotus Sutra in 286 and Kumarajiva translated The Sublime Dharma of the Lotus Sutra, the image of Kuan-yin as a "savoir from difficulties and suffering" and "incarnation infinitum" became deeply planted in the minds of followers, thereby forming the basis of widespread views about Kuan-yin that are still held today. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei npm-gov-tw \=/ ]

According to Columbia University's Asia for Educators: Buddhist sutras were known far and wide in China. To mention just three examples: 1) The seemingly magical spell from the Heart Sutra was known by many; 2) stories from the Lotus Sutra were painted on the walls of popular temples; and 3) religious preachers, popular storytellers, and low-class dramatists alike drew on the rich trove of mythology provided by Buddhist narrative." [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs,]

Important Sutras

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: ““The Suvarnaprabhasa-sutra (or, Golden Light Sutra) is one that highlights a discourse by Shakyamuni in Rajagriha, India. It is taught that those who embrace the scripture will obtain the protection of the four heavenly kings and other benevolent deities, and that, if a ruler takes faith in the correct teaching, these deities will protect his country. It was introduced to China in early fifth century, and was immediately received by the Han Chinese as well as the noblemen and common souls of many neighboring states. There were five Chinese translations, and to date the ten-chüan A Vision of the Suvarna-prabhasa Sutra (also known as Sovereign Kings of the Golden Light Sutra) rendered by Master I-ching (635-713) in 703, known for its comprehensiveness, accuracy, and textual fluidity, has been the most popular version. I-ching was a priest of T'ang China who traveled via marine routes to India to study Buddhism. He stayed there for twenty-five years and visited more than thirty Buddhist sites. After he returned to China with four hundred Sanskrit scriptures, I-ching devoted himself to translating them. He translated fifty-six titles of Buddhist texts in two hundred and thirty chüan, and was acknowledged as one of the four greatest translators of Buddhist scriptures. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei npm-gov-tw \=/ ]

Avatamsaka sutra at the Nara National Museum in Japan

“The Hua-yen Sutra is known in Sanksrit as Avatamsaka sutra, one of the most important scriptures in Mahayana Buddhism and the main theoretical classic upon which the Hua-yen School is based. This sutra is said to have been the first expounded by the Buddha after achieving enlightenment. It describes the "The sublime world within a flower garland" where the Vairocana Buddha resides in a realm of countless buddhas that form the notion of "multitudinous buddhas". The version of The Hua-yen Sutra in the National Palace Museum collection was translated by Siksanda, including a total of 80 chapters and hence known as The Hua-yen Eighty. The original text in Sanskrit has a total of 45,000 verses, for which Empress Wu (Tze-t'ien) dispatched an emissary to Khotan to acquire. Translation was then begun at the Ta-pien-k'ung Temple in Loyang in 695, and the Chinese translation was completed in 699 at Fo-shou Temple. \=/

“Highly revered by Chinese Buddhists, the Maharatnakuta-sutra is considered one of the five greatest scriptures. Very much in the form of a monographic series, the work is a collection of forty-nine sutras introducing the doctrines of all major schools of Mahayana Buddhism, with discourses espousing the mean between two extremes and the idea of a realm of mind beyond substance or nothing. It was translated into Chinese by Bodhiruci (562-727) and collated by him with various previous translations in 713." \=/

“Buddhism has a total of 84,000 Dharma gates by which anyone can reach enlightenment, approach the summit of wisdom, and uncover ways of deliverance. While this orientation is rather spiritual and philosophical, the pragmatic requirements of the finite world have not been unattended to in the realm of Buddhism. As a matter of fact, many Dharmaparyaya's, such as those texts of esoteric teachings, are intended to assist man in his pursuit of happiness, wealth, and well-being, as well as his search for protection against diseases and misfortunes. The Svaraga-bhumyasta-rajas-riddhi-mantra-sutra is one such example.” \=/

The Sutra of Forty-Two Chapters contains very long excerpts from Nagarjuna's Treatise on The Great Perfection of Wisdom (Mahaapraj~naapaaramitaa Upadesha), "an immense exegesis to the Mahaapraj~naapaaramitaa Sutra in 25,000 lines. Classically, it is preserved only in a 100-fascicle Chinese edition translated from Sanskrit in A.D. 405. by Kumarajiva, the brilliant and prolific translator-monk who was the premier transmitter to the Chinese of the Maadhyamika teachings of Nagarjuna."

Diamond Sutra

The world's oldest surviving book, the Diamond Sutra, was printed with wooden blocks in China in A.D. 868. It consists of Buddhist scriptures printed on seven 2½-foot-long, one-foot-wide sheets of paper pasted together into one 16-foot-long scroll. Part of the Perfection of Wisdom text, a Mahayanist sermon preached by Buddha, it was found in cave in Gansu Province in 1907 by the British explorer Aurel Stein, who also found well-preserved 9th century silk and linen paintings.

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “The full name of The Diamond Sutra in the original Sanskrit is Vajracchedika-prajñaparamita sutra. In Sanskrit, the word "vajra" means "sharpness, destroyer of all", which is why in English the diamond and thunderbolt are often used to describe it. "Prajña" refers to "wisdom". Therefore, this sutra is a canon by which ignorance can be eradicated and wisdom achieved. Since The Diamond Sutra belongs to the Prajña scriptures of Mahayana Buddhism, transcribing its text is also considered a means of achieving merit and practice beyond reading, reciting, and accepting its contents. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei npm-gov-tw \=/ ]

Heart Sutra

Heart Sutra T-shirt

The Heart Sutra is one of the most well-known sutras. It is attributed to Nagarjuna (A.D. c. 150 – c. 250 CE), who is regarded by many as the second greatest teacher in Buddhism. Some people even feel that Nagarjuna is the second Buddha who The Buddha prophesied would come sometime after to clarify things. Nagarjuna did much to clarify the nature of emptiness and is responsible for the Heart Sutra.

A section of the Great Wisdom Beyond Wisdom Heart Sutra goes: “Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva, when practicing deeply the Prajna Paramita, perceived that all five skandhas in their own being are empty and was saved from all suffering. O Shariputra, form does not differ from emptiness; emptiness does not differ from form. That which is form is emptiness; that which is emptiness form. The same is true of feelings, perceptions, formations, consciousness. [Source: version of the Heart Sutra, used at the San Francisco Zen Center, Raja Hornsteinm Australian National University]

“O Shariputra, all dharmas are marked with emptiness. they do not appear nor disappear, are not tainted nor pure, do not increase nor decrease. Therefore in emptiness: no form, no feelings, no perceptions, no formations, no consciousness; no eyes, no ears, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind; no color, no sound, no smell, no taste, no touch, no object of mind; no realm of eyes...until no realm of mind-consciousness; no ignorance and also no extinction of it...until no old-age and death and also no extinction of it; no suffering, no origination, no stopping, no path, no cognition, also no attainment with nothing to attain.

“A bodhisattva depends on Prajna Paramita and the mind is no hindrance. Without any hindrance no fears exist. Far apart from every perverted view one dwells in nirvana. In the three worlds all buddhas depend on Prajna Paramita and attain unsurpassed complete perfect enlightenment. Therefore, know the Prajna Paramita is the great transcendent mantra, is the great bright mantra, is the utmost mantra, is the supreme mantra which is able to relieve all suffering and is true not false; so proclaim the Prajna Paramita mantra, proclaim the mantra that says:

Gate Gate Paragate Parasamgate Bodhi Svaha
All buddhas ten directions three times
All beings bodhisattvas mahasattvas
Wisdom beyond wisdom Maha Prajna Paramita

Lotus Sutra

The “Lotus of the Good Law Sutra," or more simply “the Lotus Sutra," is one of the most widely venerated and beautiful Buddhist scriptures. Followers often believe that salvation can be achieved by repeatedly chanting, "I take my refuge in the Lotus Sutra" and passages from the Lotus sutra in front of a small altar containing a scroll with Chinese characters representing the Lotus Sutra. Translations of it into English or other Western languages are often not very good.

Japanese Buddhist altar with a Lotus Sutra

Albert Craig wrote: “The Lotus Sutra (Saddharmapundarikasutra), "Lotus of the True Dharma" is one of the best-loved sacred texts of Mahayana Buddhism. Its original Sanskrit text was translated many times into Chinese (the earliest being in 225 CE), as well as into Tibetan and other languages.” [Source: Albert M. Craig, et al, “The Heritage of World Civilizations”]

According to Columbia University's Asia for Educators: “The Lotus Sutra is a Buddhist scripture composed well after the death of the historical Buddha (around 483 B.C.) and written down in Sanskrit even later. The scripture was translated into Chinese at least five different times between 255 and 601 CE and proved to be a tremendously influential text for Chinese Buddhism. The Lotus Sutra is a text of the Mahayana School of Buddhism. As such, its major message is that there is only one way to reach enlightenment, and that is through the way of the bodhisattva as described in the Lotus Sutra. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, ]

“The Lotus Sutra is the most popular and influential Mahayana Buddhist scriptures. It is the basis on which the Tiantai, Tendai, and Nichiren schools of Buddhism in China and Japan were established. The earliest known Sanskrit title for the sutra is the “Saddharma Pundarika Sutra," which translates to “Scripture of the Lotus Blossom of the Fine Dharma." In English, the shortened form Lotus Sutra is commonThe most respected version in Chinese is the translation carried out under the direction of the Indian monk Kumarajiva in A.D. 406. For many East Asian Buddhists, the Lotus Sutra contains the ultimate and complete teaching of the Buddha and the reciting of the text is believed to be very auspicious. [Source: Wikipedia]

History of the Lotus Sutra

The Lotus Sutra presents itself as a discourse delivered by the Buddha toward the end of his life. The tradition in Mahayana states that the sutras were written down during the life of the Buddha and stored for five hundred years in a naga-realm. After this, they were reintroduced into the human realm at the time of the Fourth Buddhist Council in Kashmir. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Lotus Sutra written by Prince Shotoku of Japan in the early 7th century

The Lotus Sutra was originally translated from Sanskrit into Chinese by Dharmaraksa (Zhu Fahu) in A.D. 286 in Chang'an. However, the view that there is a high degree of probability that the base text for that translation was actually written in a Prakrit language has gained widespread acceptance. Jan Nattier has recently summarized this aspect of the early textual transmission of such Buddhist scriptures in China thus, bearing in mind that Dharmaraksa's period of activity falls well within the period she defines: "Studies to date indicate that Buddhist scriptures arriving in China in the early centuries of the Common Era were composed not just in one Indian dialect but in several . . . in sum, the information available to us suggests that, barring strong evidence of another kind, we should assume that any text translated in the second or third century AD was not based on Sanskrit, but one or other of the many Prakrit vernaculars." It may have originally been composed in a Prakrit dialect and then later translated into Sanskrit to lend it greater respectability. +

According to Jonathan Silk, the influence of the Lotus Sutra in India may have been limited, but "it is a prominent scripture in East Asian Buddhism."The sutra has most prominence in Tiantai (sometimes called "The Lotus School") and Nichiren Buddhism. It is also very influential in Zen Buddhism. Tao Sheng, a fifth-century Chinese Buddhist monk wrote the earliest commentary on the Lotus sutra.Tao Sheng was known for promoting the concept of Buddha nature and the idea that even deluded people will attain enlightenment. +

Zhiyi, the generally credited founder of the Tiantai school of Buddhism, was the student of Nanyue Huisiwho was the leading authority of his time on the Lotus Sutra. Zhiyi's philosophical synthesis saw the Lotus sutra as the final teaching of the Buddha and the highest teaching of Buddhism. He wrote two commentaries on the sutra: Profound meanings of the Lotus sutra and Words and phrases of the Lotus sutra. Zhiyi also linked the teachings of the Lotus sutra with the Buddha nature teachings of the Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra and made a distinction between the "Eternal Buddha" Vairocana and the manifestations. In Tiantai, Vairocana (the primeval Buddha) is seen as the 'Bliss body' - Sambhogakaya - of the historical Gautama Buddha. Consequently, the Lotus Sutra is a very important sutra in Tiantai and correspondingly, in Japanese Tendai (founded by Saicho, 767–822). Tendai Buddhism was the dominant form of mainstream Buddhism in Japan for many years. +

Major Teachings of the Lotus Sutra

1) One vehicle, many skillful means: The Lotus sutra is known for its extensive instruction on the concept and usage of skillful means, the seventh paramita or perfection of a Bodhisattva – mostly in the form of parables. The many 'skillful' or 'expedient' means and the "three vehicles" are revealed to all be part of the One Vehicle (Ekayana), which is also the Bodhisattva path. This is also one of the first sutras to use the term Mahayana, or "Great Vehicle". In the Lotus sutra, the One Vehicle encompasses so many different teachings because the Buddha's compassion and wish to save all beings led him to adapt the teaching to suit many different kinds of people. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Paul Williams explains: “Although the corpus of teachings attributed to the Buddha, if taken as a whole, embodies many contradictions, these contradictions are only apparent. Teachings are appropriate to the context in which they are given and thus their contradictions evaporate. The Buddha's teachings are to be used like ladders, or, to apply an age-old Buddhist image, like a raft employed to cross a river. There is no point in carrying the raft once the journey has been completed and its function fulfilled. When used, such a teaching transcends itself." [Source: “Mahayana Buddhism: the doctrinal foundations” by Paul Williams (Routledge, 1989) p. 151]

The sutra emphasizes that all these seemingly different teachings are actually just skillful applications of the one dharma and thus all constitute the "One Buddha Vehicle and knowledge of all modes". 1) The Lotus sutra sees all other teachings are subservient to, propagated by and in the service of the ultimate truth of the One Vehicle leading to Buddhahood. The Lotus Sutra also claims to be superior to other sutras and states that full Buddhahood is only arrived at by exposure to its teachings and skillful means. +

Lotus Sutra from Japan

2) All beings have potential to become Buddhas: The Lotus sutra is also significant because it reveals that women, evil people and even animals can be bodhisattvas and have the potential to attain full Buddhahood. It also teaches that all people equally can attain Buddhahood in their present form. That is, through the Lotus Sutra, people need neither practice austerities for countless kalpas nor wait for rebirth in a different physical form (previous teachings held that women must be reborn as men and then practice for innumerable kalpas in order to become Buddhas). Through its many stories and parables, the Lotus sutra affirms the spiritual equality of all beings.The Lotus sutra also teaches that the Buddha has many embodiments or emanations and these are the countless bodhisattva disciples. These bodhisattvas choose to remain in the world to save all beings and to keep the teaching alive. According to Gene Reeves: "Because the Buddha and his Dharma are alive in such bodhisattvas, he himself continues to be alive. The fantastically long life of the Buddha, in other words, is at least partly a function of and dependent on his being embodied in others." +

3) The nature of the Buddhas: Another concept introduced by the Lotus Sutra is the idea that the Buddha is an eternal entity, who achieved nirvana eons ago, but remains in the world to help teach beings the Dharma time and again. He reveals himself as the "father" of all beings and evinces the loving care of just such a father. Moreover, the sutra indicates that even after the parinirvana (apparent physical death) of a Buddha, that Buddha continues to be real and to be capable of communicating with the world.The idea that the physical death of a Buddha is the termination of that Buddha is graphically refuted by the appearance of another Buddha, who passed long before. In the vision of the Lotus Sutra, Buddhas are ultimately immortal. Crucially, not only are there multiple Buddhas in this view, but an infinite stream of Buddhas extending infinitely in space in the ten directions and through unquantifiable eons of time. The Lotus Sutra illustrates a sense of timelessness and the inconceivable, often using large numbers and measurements of time and space. +

The Buddha of the Lotus sutra states: “In this way, since my attainment of Buddhahood it has been a very great interval of time. My life-span is incalculable asatkhyeyakalpas [rather a lot of aeons], ever enduring, never perishing. O good men! The life-span I achieved in my former treading of the bodhisattva path even now is not exhausted, for it is twice the above number. Yet even now, though in reality I am not to pass into extinction [enter final nirvana], yet I proclaim that I am about to accept extinction. By resort to these expedient devices [this skill-in-means] the Thus Come One [the Tathagata] teaches and converts the beings. [Source: “ Scripture of the Lotus Blossom of the Fine Dharma: The Lotus Sutra” translated by Leon Hurvitz (Columbia University Press, 1976]

Chapters of the Lotus Sutra

The Lotus Sutra is comprised on 28 chapters: Chapter 1: Introduction - During a gathering at Vulture Peak, Gautama Buddha goes into a deep meditation, the earth shakes in six ways, and he brings forth a ray of light which illuminates thousands of "Buddha-fields" in the east.Bodhisattva Manjusri then states that the Buddha is about to expound his ultimate teaching. Chapter 2: Ways and Means - Shakyamuni explains his use of skillful means to adapt his teachings according to the capacities of his audience. He reveals that the ultimate purpose of the Buddhas is to cause sentient beings "to obtain the insight of the Buddha" and "to enter the way into the insight of the Buddha". Chapter 3: A Parable - The Buddha teaches a parable in which a father uses the promise of various toy carts to get his children out of a burning house, once they are outside, he gives them all one large cart to travel in instead. This symbolizes how the Buddha uses the Three Vehicles: Arhatship, Pratyekabuddhahood and Samyaksambuddhahood, as skilful means to liberate all beings - even though there is only one vehicle. The Buddha also promises Sariputra that he will attain enlightenment. Chapter 4: Faith and Understanding - The parable of the poor son and his rich father, who guides him to regain self-confidence and "recognize his own Buddha-wisdom". Chapter 5: Parable of the plants - This parable says that the Dharma is like a great monsoon rain that nourishes many different kinds of plants who represent Sravakas, Pratyekabuddhas, and Bodhisattvas, and all beings receiving the teachings according to their respective capacities. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Goryeo-era Illustrated manuscript of the Lotus Sutra from Gwangdeoksa temple in Chenan, Korea

Chapter 6: Assurances of Becoming a Buddha - The Buddha prophesizes the enlightenment of Mahakasyapa, Subhuti, Mahakatyayana and Mahamaudgalyayana. Chapter 7: The Magic City - The Buddha teaches a parable about a group of people seeking a great treasure who are tired of their journey and wish to quit. Their guide creates a magical phantom city for them to rest in and then makes it disappear. The Buddha explains that the magic city is the provisional teachings of Buddhism and the treasure is enlightenment. Chapter 8: Assurances for 500 Arhats. - 500 Arhats are assured of their future Buddhahood and they tell the parable of a man who has fallen asleep after drinking and whose friend sews a jewel into his garment. When he wakes up he continues a life of poverty without realizing he is really rich, he only discovers the jewel after meeting his old friend again. The hidden jewel has been interpreted as a symbol of Buddha-nature. Zimmermann noted the obvious similarity with the nine parables in the Tathagatagarbha Sutra that illustrate how the indwelling Buddha in sentient beings is hidden by negative mental states. Chapter 9: Assurances for the Trainees and Adepts. - Ananda, Rahula and two thousand Sravakas are assured of their future Buddhahood. +

Chapter 10: Teacher of the Dharma - Presents the practices of teaching the sutra which includes accepting, embracing, reading, chanting, writing, explaining, propagating it, and living in accordance with its teachings. Chapter 11: The Treasure stupa - A great jeweled stupa rises from the earth and floats in the air; a voice is heard from within praising the Lotus Sutra. It is revealed that another Buddha resides in the tower, the Buddha Prabhutaratna (Many-Treasures) and that there are other countless Buddhas in the ten directions, who are now also summoned by the Buddha. This chapter reveals the eternal nature of Buddhahood and the doctrine of the existence of multiple Buddhas at the same time. Chapter 12: Devadatta - Through the stories of the Dragon King's daughter and Devadatta, the Buddha teaches that everyone can become enlightened - women, animals, and even the most sinful murderers. Chapter 13: Encouragement to uphold the sutra - The Buddha encourages all beings to embrace the teachings of the sutra in all times, even in the most difficult ages to come. The Buddha prophesizes that six thousand nuns who are also present will become Buddhas. Chapter 14: Peace and Contentment - This chapter explains that even though life is filled with challenges, if we practice the dharma diligently through thoughts, words, and deeds, we can be peaceful, joyful and content. Virtues such as patience, gentleness, a calm mind, wisdom and charity are to be cultivated. +

Chapter 15: Springing Up from the Earth - In this chapter countless bodhisattvas spring up from the earth, ready to teach, and the Buddha reveals that there have been innumerable bodhisattvas propagating the dharma for aeons. This confuses some disciples including Maitreya, but the Buddha affirms that he has taught all of these bodhisattvas himself. Chapter 16: The eternal lifespan of the Tathagata - The Buddha explains that he is truly eternal and omniscient and he then teaches the Parable of the Excellent Physician who entices his sons into taking his medicine by feigning his death. Chapter 17: Merits and Virtues of enlightenment - The Buddha explains that since he has been teaching as many beings as the sands of the Ganges have been saved. Chapter 18: Merits and Virtues of Joyful Acceptance - Faith in the teachings of the sutra brings much merit and lead to good rebirths. Chapter 19: Merits and Virtues obtained by a Teacher of the Dharma - The relative importance of the merits of the six senses are explained by the Buddha. Chapter 20: The Bodhisattva Sadaparibhuta - The Buddha tells a story about the time he was a Bodhisattva called Sadaparibhuta (Never Despising) and how he treated every person he met, good or bad, with respect, always remembering that they will too become Buddhas. Chapter 21: The Spiritual Power of the Tathagata - Reveals that the sutra contains all of the Eternal Buddha's secret spiritual powers. The bodhisattvas who have sprung from the earth worship the sutra and promise to propagate it. +

Chapter 22: The Passing of the Commission - The Buddha transmits the Lotus sutra to his congregation and entrusts them with its safekeeping. Chapter 23: The Bodhisattva Bhai?ajyaraja - The Buddha tells the story of the 'Medicine king' Bodhisattva, the story focuses on the practices of self-sacrifice (including the burning of fingers) as well the diagnosis and healing of sickness. The hearing and chanting of the Lotus sutra is also said to cure diseases. The Buddha uses various metaphors to declare that the Lotus Sutra is the king of all sutras. Chapter 24: The Bodhisattva Gadgadasvara - The Bodhisattva "Wonderful Voice" appears to worship the Buddha and his story is told. Chapter 25: The Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara - The Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara (Guanyin) whose name means 'listening to the cries of the world' makes an offering to the Buddha and the stupa. Chapter 26: Dharani - Several Bodhisattvas offer Dharanis in order to protect those who keep and recite the Lotus Sutra. Chapter 27: King Wonderfully Adorned - A chapter on the story of King 'Wonderful-Adornment'. Chapter 28: Encouragement of the Bodhisattva Samantabhadra - A bodhisattva called "Universal Virtue" asks the Buddha how to preserve the sutra in the future. Samantabhadra promises to protect and guard who those who keep this sutra in the future Age of Dharma Decline. +

Goryeo illustrated manuscript of the Lotus Sutra from Korea, c 140

Lotus Sutra: The Nature of the Buddha

The passage in the Lotus Sutra on “The Nature of The Buddha” (Lotus Sutra: 15, 268-272) is important in the development of the idea of the cosmic form of the Buddha. Note that "Tathagata" "(which means "Thus Gone", ie, having achieved Nirvana) is one of the titles of Buddha. The passage reads: “Fully enlightened for ever so long, the Tathagata has an endless span of life, he lasts for ever. Although the Tathagata has not entered Nirvana, he makes a show of entering Nirvana, for the sake of those who have to be educated. And even today my ancient course as a Bodhisattva is still incomplete, and my life span is not yet ended. From today onwards still twice as many hundreds of thousands of Nayutas of Kotis of aeons must elapse before my life span is complete. Although therefore I do not at present enter into Nirvana (or extinction), nevertheless I announce my Nirvana. [Source: Edward Conze, ed., Buddhist Texts through the Ages, (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1964), pp 142-143, repr in Albert M. Craig, et al, “The Heritage of World Civilizations,” 2d ed., (New York: Macmillan, 1990), p. 310, Brooklyn College website]

“For by this method I bring beings to maturity. Because it might be that, if I stayed here too long and could be seen too often, beings who have performed no meritorious actions, who are without merit, a poorly lot, eager for sensuous pleasures, blind, and wrapped in the net of false views, would, in the knowledge that the Tathagata stays (here all the time), get the notion that life is a mere sport, and would not conceive the notion that the (sight of the) Tathagata is hard to obtain. In the conviction that the Tathagata is always at hand they would not exert their vigor for the purpose of escaping from the triple world, and they would not conceive of the Tathagata as hard to obtain.

“Hence the Tathagata, in his skill in means, .has uttered to those beings the saying that ''Rarely O monks, do Tathagatas appear in the world." Because during many hundreds of thousands of Nayutas of Kotis of aeons those beings may have the sight of a Tathagata, or they may not. And therefore, basing my statement on this fact, I say that "Rarely, O monks do Tathagatas appear in the world." To the extent that they understand the rarity of a Tathagata's appearance, to that extent they will wonder (at his appearance), and sorrow (at his disappearance), and when they do not see the Tathagata, they will long for the sight of him. The wholesome roots, which result from their turning their attention towards the Tathagata as towards an objective basis, will for a long time tend to their weal, benefit and happiness. Considering this the Tathagata, although he does not actually enter Nirvana, announces his entering into Nirvana, f or the sake of those to be educated. And that is a discourse on Dharma by the Tathagata himself.. When he utters it, there is in it no false speech on the part of the Tathagata.”

Diamond Sutra, AD 868

Lotus Sutra On Faith: Parable of the Burning House

The use of parables was one of the favorite methods of teaching in the Tendai sect of Mahayana Buddhism in Japan. The Parable of the Burning House, which is a part of the Lotus sutra, is designed to show the superiority of the single sutra (that of the Lotus) over traditional Buddhist teaching of the equal power of the three sutras. The “Parable of the Burning House” in the Lotus Sutra goes: “Let us suppose the following case, Sariputra....There was a certain housekeeper, old, aged, decrepit, very advanced in years, rich, wealthy, opulent; he had a great house, high, spacious, built a long time ago and old, inhabited by some two, three, four, or five hundred living beings. The house had but one door, and a thatch; its terraces were tottering, the bases of its pillars rot- ten, the coverings and plaster of the walls loose. On a sudden the whole house was from every side put in conflagration by a mass of fire. Let us suppose that the man had many little boys, say five, or ten, or wven twenty, and that he himself had come out of the house. [Source: David J. Lu, Sources of Japanese History, Vol 1, (New York: MgGraw-Hill, 1974), 52-54, repr. in Mark A. Kishlansky, ed., Sources of World History, Volume I, (New York: HarperCollins CollegePublishers, 1995), pp. 152-54, Brooklyn College website]

“Now, Sariputra, that man, on seeing the house from every side wrapt in a blaze by a great mass of fire, got afraid, and...calls to the boys: "Come, my children; the house is burning with a mass of fire; come, lest you be burnt in the mass fire, and come to grief and disaster," But the ignorant boys do not heed the words of him who is their well-wisher; they are not afraid nor know the purport of the word "burning"; they run hither and thither, walk about, and repeatedly look at their father; all, because they are so ignorant.”

“The man has a clear perception of their inclinations. Now these boys happen to have many and manifold toys to play with, pretty, nice, pleasant, dear, amusing, and precious. The man, knowing the disposition of the boys, says to them: "My children, your toys, which you are so loath to miss, which are so various and multifarious, [such as] bullock-carts, goat-carts, deer-carts, which are so pretty, nice, dear, and precious to you, have all been put by me outside the house-door for you to play with. Come, run our, leave the house; to each of you I shall give what he wants. Come soon, come out for the sake of these toys." And the boys, on hearing the names mentioned of such playthings as they like and desire, quickly rush out from the burning house, with eager effort and great alacrity, one having no time to wait for the other, and pushing each other on the cry of "Who shall arrive first, the very first?'

“The man, seeing that his children have safely lnd happily escaped, goes and sits down in the open air on the square of the village, his heart is filled with joy and delight. The boys go up to the place where their father is sitting, and say: 'Father, give us those toys to play with, those bullock-carts, and deer-carts." Then, Sariputra, the man gives to his sons, who run swift as the wind, bullock-carts only, made of seven precious substances, provided with benches, hung with a rnultitude of small bells, lofty, adorned with rare and wonderful jewels, embellished with jewel wreaths, decorated with garlands of flowers, carpeted with cotton mattresses and woolen coverlets, covered with white cloth and silk, having on both sides easy cushions, yoked with white, very fair and fleet bullocks, led by a multitude of men. To each of his children he gives several bullock-carts of one appearance and one kind, provided with flags, and swift as wind. That man does so, Sariputra because being rich,... he rightly thinks: Why should I give these boys inferior carts, al1 these boys being my own children, dear and precious? I have such great vehicles, and ought to treat all the boys equally and without partiality. As I won many treasures and granaries, I could give such great vehicles to all beings, how much more then to my own children," Meanwhile the boys are mounting the vehicles with feelings of astonishment and wonder. Now, Sariputra, what is thy opinion? Has that man made himself guilty of a falsehood by first holding out to his children the prospect of three vehicles and afterwards going to each of them the greatest vehicles only, the most magnificent vehicle? Sariputra answered: By no means, Lord. That is not sufficient to qualify the man as a speaker of falsehood, since it only was a skilful device to persuade his children to go out of the burning house and save their lives. Nay, besides recovering their very bodies, O Lord, they have received all those toys. If that man, O Lord, had given no single cart, even then he would not have been a speaker of falsehood, for he had previously been meditating on saving the little boys from a great mas of pain by some able device.

Tang-era Heart Sutra from China

“The venerable Sariputra having thus spoken, the Lord said to him: Very well, Sariputra, quite so; it is even as you say. So too, Sariputra, the Tathagata is free from all dangers, wholly exempt from all misfortune, despondency, calamity, pain, grief, the thick enveloping dark mists of ignorance. He, the Tathagata, endowed with Buddha-knowledge, forces, absence of hesitation, uncommon properties, and mighty by magical power, is the father of the world, who has reached the highest perfection in the knowledge of skilful means, who is most merciful, long-suffering, benevolent, compassionate. He appears in this triple world, which is like a house the roof and shelter whereof are decayed, [a house] burning by a mass of misery,.... Once born, he sees how the creatures are burnt, tormented, vexed, distressed by birth, old age, disease, death, grief, wailing, pain, melan- choly, despondency; how for the sake of enjoyment, and prompted by sensual desires, they severally suffer various pains. In consequence both of what in this world they are seeking and what they have acquired, they will in a future state suffer various pains, in hell, in the brute creation, in the realm of Yamaraja (king of the dead); suffer such pains as poverty in the world of gods or men, union with hateful persons or things, and separation from the beloved ones. And while incessantly whirling in that mass of evils they are sporting, playing, diverting themselves; they do not fear, nor dread, nor are they seized with terror; they do not know, nor mind; they are not startled, do not try to escape, but are enjoying themselves in that triple world which is like unto a burning house, and run hither and thither. Though overwhelmed by that mass of evil, they do not conceive the idea that they must beware of it. Under such circumstances, Sariputra, the Tathagata reflects thus: "Verify, I am the father of these beings; I must save them from this mass of evil, and bestow on them the immense, inconceivable bliss of Buddha-knowledge, wherewith they shall sport, play, and divert themselves, wherein they shall find their rest. If, in the conviction of my possessing the power of knowledge and magical faculties. I manifest to these beings the knowledge, forces and absence of hesitation of the Tathagata, without availing myself of some device, these beings will not escape. For they are attached to the pleasures of the five senses, to worldly pleasure." they will not be freed from birth, old age, disease, death, grief, wailing, pain, melancholy, despondency, by which they are burnt., tormented, vexed, distressed. Unless they are forced to leave the triple world which is like a house the shelter and roof whereof is in a blaze, how are they to get acquainted with Buddha-knowledge?"

Now, Sariputra, even as that man with powerful arms, without using the strength of his arms, attracts his children out of the burning house by an able device, and afterwards gives them magnificent, great carts, so Sariputra, the Tathagata possessed of knowledge and freedom from all hesitation, without using them, in order to attract the creatures out of the triple world which is like a burning house with decayed roof and shelter, shows, by his knowledge of able devices, three vehicles, viz. the vehicle of the disciples, the vehicle of the pratyeka-buddhas, the vehicle of the bodhisattvas. By means these three vehicles he attracts the creatures a speaks to them thus: "Do not delight in the triple world, which is like a burning house, these miserable forms, sounds, odors, flavc and contacts. For in delighting in this triple world you are burnt, heated, inflamed with thirst inseparable from the pleasures of the five senses. Fly from this triple world; betake yourselves to the three vehicles.... I give you pledge for it, that I shall give you these three vehicles, make an effort to run out of this triple world. And to attract them I say "These vehicles are grand, praised by the Aryas, and provided with most pleasant things; with such you are sport, play, and divert yourselves in a noble manner. You will feel the great delight of the faculties, powers, constituents of Bodhi, meditations, the eight degrees of emancipation, self-concentration, and the results of self-concentration, a you will become greatly happy and cheerful."

From the Lotus Sutra: “The Daughter of the Dragon King”

The section of the Lotus Sutra entitled “The Daughter of the Dragon King” addresses the question of the salvation of women. It reads: “Bodhisattva Wisdom Accumulated questioned Manjusri, saying, “This sutra is very profound subtle, and wonderful, a treasure among sutras, a rarity in the world. Are there perhaps any living beings who, by earnestly and diligently practicing this sutra, have been able to attain Buddhahood quickly?” Manjusri replied, “There is the daughter of the dragon king Sagara, who has just turned eight. [Source: “Sources of Chinese Tradition," compiled by Wm. Theodore de Bary and Irene Bloom, 2nd ed., vol. 1 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), 453-454; Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, ]

Sutra of Great Wisdom

“Her wisdom has keen roots, and she is good at understanding the root activities and deeds of living beings. She has mastered the dharanis, has been able to accept and embrace all the storehouse of profound secrets preached by the Buddhas, has entered deep into meditation thoroughly grasped the doctrines, and in the space of an instant conceived the desire for bodhi and reached the level of no regression. Her eloquence knows no hindrance, and she thinks of living beings with compassion as though they were her own children. She is fully endowed with blessings, and when it comes to conceiving in mind and expounding by mouth, she is subtle, wonderful, comprehensive, and great. Kind, compassionate, benevolent, yielding, she is gentle and refined in will, capable of attaining bodhi." At that time Sariputra said to the dragon girl, “You suppose that in this short time you have been able to attain the unsurpassed way. But this is difficult to believe. Why? Because a woman's body is soiled and defiled, not a vessel for the Law. How could you attain the unsurpassed bodhi? The road to Buddhahood is long and far.stretching. Only after one has spent immeasurable kalpas pursuing austerities, accumulating deeds, practicing all kinds paramitas, can one finally achieve success. Moreover, a woman is subject to the five obstacles.

“First, she cannot become a Brahma heavenly king. Second, she cannot become the king Sakra. Third, she cannot become a devil king. Fourth, she cannot become a wheel.turning sage king. Fifth, she cannot become a Buddha. How then could a woman like you be able to attain Buddhahood so quickly?” At that time the dragon girl had a precious jewel worth as much as the thousand-millionfold world, which she presented to the Buddha. The Buddha immediately accepted it. The dragon girl said to Bodhisattva Wisdom Accumulated and to the venerable one, Sariputra, “I presented the precious jewel and the World.Honored One accepted it — was that not quickly done?” They replied, “Very quickly!” The girl said, “Employ your supernatural powers and watch me attain Buddhahood. It will be even quicker than that!” At that time the members of the assembly all saw the dragon girl in the space of an instant change into a man and carry out all the practices of a bodhisattva, immediately proceeding to the Spotless World of the south, taking a seat on a jeweled lotus, and attaining impartial and correct enlightenment. With the thirty-two features and the eighty characteristics, he expounded the wonderful Law for all living beings everywhere in the ten directions. …

From the Lotus Sutra: "The Buddha Preaches the One Great Vehicle"

According to Columbia University's Asia for Educators: “The passage below, which describes the Buddha talking with one of his followers, Sariputra, addresses the question of the multitude, of why there are so many schools of Buddhism. This is an issue that Mahayana scriptures had to address, since they were written relatively late in the history of Buddhism and had to compete for authority with earlier texts." [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, ]

The section of the Lotus Sutra entitled “The Buddha Preaches the One Great Vehicle” reads: “At that time Manjusri said to the bodhisattva and mahasattva Maitreya and the other great men “Good men, I suppose that the Buddha, the World.Honored One, wishes now to expound the great Law." At that time the World-Honored One calmly arose from his samadhi and addressed Sariputra saying, “The wisdom of the Buddhas is infinitely profound and immeasurable. The door to this wisdom is difficult to understand and difficult to enter. “Sariputra, ever since I attained Buddhahood I have through various causes and various similes widely expounded my teachings and have used countless expedient means to guide living beings and cause them to renounce their attachments. Why is this? Because the Thus.Come One is fully possessed of both expedient means and the perfection of wisdom. [Source: “Sources of Chinese Tradition," compiled by Wm. Theodore de Bary and Irene Bloom, 2nd ed., vol. 1 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), 447-448; Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, ]

Sui Dynasty Mahaparinirvan sutra from China

“Sariputra, to sum it up: the Buddha has fully realized the Law that is limitless, boundless never attained before. “Sariputra, the Buddhas preach the Law in accordance with what is appropriate, but the meaning is difficult to understand. Why is this? Because we employ countless expedient means discussing causes and conditions and using words of simile and parable to expound the teachings. This Law is not something that can be understood through pondering or analysis.

“Only those who are Buddhas can understand it. “Sariputra, I know that living beings have various desires, attachments that are deeply implanted in their minds. Taking cognizance of this basic nature of theirs, I will therefore use various causes and conditions, words of simile and parable, and the power of expedient means and expound the Law for them. Sariputra, I do this so that all of them may attain the one Buddha vehicle and wisdom embracing all species. “Sariputra, if any of my disciples should claim to be an arhat or a pratyeka-buddha and yet does not heed or understand that the Buddhas, the Thus.Come Ones, simply teach and convert the bodhisattvas, then he is no disciple of mine; he is no arhat or pratyeka-buddha.

““Again, Sariputra, if there should be monks or nuns who claim that they have already attained the status of arhat, that this is their last incarnation, that they have reached the final nirva.a, and that therefore they have no further intention of seeking supreme perfect enlightenment, then you should understand that such as these are all persons of overbearing arrogance. Why do I say this? Because if there are monks who have truly attained the status of arhat, then it would be unthinkable that they should fail to believe this Law. … There is no other vehicle, there is only the one Buddha vehicle."

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: East Asia History Sourcebook , “Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University, Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia, Asia Society Museum , “The Essence of Buddhism” Edited by E. Haldeman-Julius, 1922, Project Gutenberg, Virtual Library Sri Lanka “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “Encyclopedia of the World's Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); “Encyclopedia of the World Cultures: Volume 5 East and Southeast Asia” edited by Paul Hockings (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1993); “ National Geographic, the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton's Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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