The Lotus Sutra or Sutra on the White Lotus of the Sublime Dharma (Sanskrit: सद्धर्मपुण्डरीकसूत्र Saddharma Puṇḍarīka Sūtra; 妙法蓮華經 Chinese: Miàofǎ Liánhuā Jīng; Japanese: Myōhō Renge Kyō; Korean: Myobeomnyeonhwagyeong) is one of the most popular and influential Mahayana sutras in East Asia and the basis on which the Nichiren sects of Buddhism were established.
The Lotus Sutra is well-known for its extensive instruction on the Buddhist concept and usage of skillful means (Upaya). This Buddhist scripture is also particularly interesting for its description of the Buddha as the loving "father" of all beings who cares for everyone with great compassion. Such language has deep resonances in other religions, that also describe a Father figure in their theological framework.
The Lotus Sutra was probably compiled in the first century C.E. in Kashmir, during the fourth Buddhist Council of the newly founded Mahayana sect of Buddhism, more than 500 years after the death of Sakyamuni Buddha.It is thus not included in the more ancient Agamas of Mahayana Buddhism, nor in the Sutta Pitaka of the Theravada Buddhists, both of which represent the older Buddhist scriptures that can be historically linked to Sakyamuni Buddha himself. (See the Tripitika article.)
The Lotus Sutra appears to be a discourse delivered by Sakyamuni Buddha toward the end of his life. Mahayana tradition states that the Lotus Sutra was written down during the time of the Buddha and stored for 500 years in the realm of the dragons (or Nagas). After this, they were re-introduced into the human realm at the time of the Fourth Buddhist Council in Kashmir. The tradition further claims that the teachings of the Lotus Sutra are higher than the teachings contained in the Agamas and the Sutta Pitaka (the Sutra itself also claims this), and that humankind was unable to understand the Lotus Sutra at the time of the Buddha (500 B.C.E.). This is the reason given for the need to store the Lotus Sutra in the realm of the dragons for 500 years, after which humankind was able to understand the Lotus Sutra.
When the Buddhist sutras were introduced to China from India, it was typical for sutras to declare their own legitimacy, meaning that each sutra asserted itself as the direct words of Shakyamuni (the historical Buddha). However, there was a great deal of confusion over these sutras in the Chinese Buddhist world, since Confucianism and Daoism had their own clear primary texts. There was a great deal of discussion and disagreement over the legitimacy of Buddhist texts, similar to the struggle of Scholasticism in Christian Europe. Zhiyi (Chihi) organized sutras in five stages in a chronological order and selected the Lotus Sutra as the primary text of the Buddha. Nichiren followed Zhiyi's interpretation.
According to their approach, the first sutra preached by the Buddha was Avatamsaka; however it was so difficult for the people to understand that he taught the Agamas Sutra, which lasted 12 years and became the principle of Hinayana (Theravada) Buddhism. At the second stage, gradually Buddha began to teach Mahayana (the Great Vehicle) Buddhism. The third stage, which lasted eight years, was that of the Vaipulya (Vimalakirti) sutras, and was not for monks but for laymen. The fourth stage, that of the Perfection of Wisdom sutras, lasted 22 years; in its sutras he explained the theory of the Emptiness. The last stage was that of the Lotus Sutra, which were the final statement of Buddha before his parinirvana. In that time Buddha was 72 years old. Nichiren concluded based upon his chronological analyses of sutras that Buddha's final teaching was the Lotus Sutra, which was Mahayana’s Mahayana, or the essence of Mahayana.
Zhiyi (Chihi) formulated this theory of five stages. Nichiren followed his footsteps. In modern philology, these chronological stages are no longer accepted because scholars have found that the Lotus Sutra seems to have been composed around the first century C.E. Zhiyi built the Tiatani Buddhism doctrine upon the theory of five stages, and over a long period his disciples gradually added to and improved this doctrine.
The Lotus Sutra is well-known for its extensive instruction on the concept and usage of skillful means (Sanskrit: 'upaya'; Jp: hōben), mostly in the form of parables. It is also one of the first sutras to coin the term Mahayana, or "Great Vehicle" Buddhism. A key concept introduced by the Lotus Sutra is the idea that the Buddha is more of an eternal entity, who achieved nirvana eons ago, but willingly chose to remain in the cycle of rebirth 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 refuted by the scripture, in which another Buddha, who attained "parinirvaa" long before, appears and communicates with Shakyamuni himself. In the vision of the Lotus Sutra, Buddhas are ultimately immortal. A similar doctrine of Buddhist immortality is repeatedly expounded in the Tathagatagarbha sutras, which share certain family resemblances in spirit to the teachings of the Lotus Sutra.
The Lotus Sutra also indicates in Chapter 4 that emptiness (Sunyata) is not the ultimate vision to be attained by the aspirant Bodhisattva: rather the acquisition of Buddhist Wisdom is indicated to be a bliss-bestowing treasure that transcends seeing all things as merely empty.
The Lotus Sutra was originally translated from Sanskrit into Chinese by Dharmaraksa around 209 C.E., before being superseded by a translation in seven fascicles by Kumārajīva in 406 C.E. The Chinese title is usually abbreviated to 法華經, which is read Făhuā Jīng in Chinese and Hokekyō in Japanese, Beophwagyeong in Korean, and Pháp Hoa Kinh" in Vietnamese. The Sanskrit copies are not widely used outside of academia. It has been translated by Burton Watson. He suggests that the text may have originally been composed in a Prakrit dialect and then later translated into Sanskrit to lend it greater respectability.
In terms of literary style, the Lotus Sutra often uses astronomical numbers and measurements of time meant to convey a sense of timeless time, or to convey the inconceivable. Some of the other Buddhas mentioned in the Lotus Sutra are said to have lifetimes of dozens or hundreds of kalpas, while the number of Bodhisattvas mentioned in the "Earth Bodhisattva" chapter number in the billions, if not more. The Lotus Sutra also often alludes to a special teaching that supersedes everything else that the Buddha has taught, but the Sutra never actually says what that teaching is. This is said to be in keeping with the general Mahayana Buddhist view that the highest teaching cannot be expressed in words.
At least some sources consider that the Lotus Sutra has a prologue and an epilogue, these being respectively the Sutra of Infinite Meaning (無量義經 Jp: Muryōgi Kyō) and the Sutra of Meditation on the Bodhisattva Universal Worthy (普賢經 Jp: Fugen Kyō).
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