Classic and Contemporary Buddhist Works

The Stories of the Lotus Sutra - Foreword

Foreword

As a young man the great Japanese Zen Master Hakuin was terrified of falling into hell. He’d heard that salvation lay in the Lotus Sutra and so eagerly got hold of a copy and read it. He found—to his great disappointment—that it was just stories. He’d been so hopeful. And so now he put it aside. Years later, after much strong practice/realization, Hakuin happened to be looking at the Sutra again. As he read, a cricket chirruped nearby from within the foundations of the temple—and with that, Hakuin experienced deep enlightenment. Tears streaming down his face, he felt he now finally understood why the Lotus Sutra was called the “King of Sutras”—and he found himself overwhelmed by its depth, relevance, and profundity.

My old teacher Roshi Philip Kapleau used to say, quoting Hakuin, “The ancient teachings illumine the mind, and the mind illumines the ancient teachings.” In other words, we ourselves have to bring the Lotus Sutra to life, even as it works skillfully on bringing us into our own real life. The relationship is dynamic and mutual, never static.

Actually, the Lotus Sutra (or the Dharma Flower Sutra, as Dr. Reeves beautifully terms it) is cosmic in scope and setting, vast in its imagination. And we, here on Planet Earth, have been literally dying for lack of such deep imagination. The corporation that pollutes the stream behind the nursery school is suffering, and causing suffering, too, from lack of imagination, lack of seeing how productivity, profit, community, and the communal resources of clean air and pure water are completely interconnected. War and hatred stem from similar failures of imagination, as does the rampant consumerism that literally melts icecaps and leaves polar bears to starve and die. We can see the shriveled fruits of failed imagination all around us. We live within it. But what would fulfilled imagination look like?

The Lotus Sutra tells us. It shows us that to the awakened imagination in reality we live in a buddha land. And that we ourselves, and all living beings, are buddhas! Talk about minds-eye-opening! Talk about revolutionary!

Imagination is a Way, and it is food and nourishment and a bed to rest upon while we’re on the Way. Gene Reeves’ stories from the Lotus Sutra are the Lotus Sutra, are Mind, are food and bed and shelter and hiking boots and a staff in our hands. For, wherever we’re at, we can always go farther toward realizing the actualities that the Sutra embodies. As Hakuin also said, “Buddhism is like a mountain. The more you climb it the higher it gets. It’s like an ocean. The further you go into it the deeper it gets.”

To vow the vows to save all beings, to realize buddha-nature, and then to not just take a shortcut to personal peace but go through all the stages of bodhisattva development is to dream a big dream. What the Lotus Sutra through its stories reveals is that all beings are actually right now, in reality, already on that Great Way, that endless Path— whether they know it or not, whether they call it that or not. Great wisdom, great compassion, selflessness, skillful liberative technique, determined resolve, vigorous application are the heart of our common humanity. We all already have these in full. They are our nature. And yet, at the same time it remains up to each of us to actualize them. And to do that we first need to begin to see the possibility of such awakening and of making such effort. We have to be able to imagine it. Only then we can work at it for real. The Lotus Sutra is a skillful device left by the great teacher Shakyamuni Buddha to do just that—to open a gateway to ourselves, and what we actually are and so might be; a great engine of awakened activity to benefit all beings.

Gene Reeves skillfully props open the door to that deep imagination in our time, and by wisely focusing in this book on stories themselves, consistently gets us to the heart of the matter. If not for him, many of us would just be hopefully hanging on to an old text, lugging it around, gazing at it up on our bookshelves wondering how to get it to speak. Is there a button? Should I shake it? What?

For Gene knows that stories are not just make-believe, and not just bunches of words skillfully strung together, either. They are a technology, maybe the oldest and most powerful on the planet, real tools for inner change that can help us see with our minds and hearts, awaken deep aspirations, enhance our skills, revive the will to leave old and self-centered paths behind as we keep on working to accomplish the way of the real, fully flowered human being. Stories are not dogmas, or what Gene calls “doctrines.” Nor do they address our somewhat lazy tendency of relying on belief. Stories are themselves experiences and here lies their power, a power that athletes today may understand better than scholars. If swimmers, for instance, want to swim better, they visualize doing it. They imagine a pool, feel the water temperature, see the color, draw in the salt or chlorine smell. Then they swim perfectly, feeling the water flowing smoothly past, feeling the muscles of the arms, shoulders, legs working perfectly, effortlessly, hearing the gurgling chime of water on the move. Then, getting into a real pool, in this actual world, they actually swim better. Experiences in stories get us or allow us to see with our minds, to experience realities of a different than physical sort. Yet what we experience in the imagination can affect us as deeply as actual experiences, ones we may draw on in memory. Their effect may be subtle, but it is not trivial.

As a storyteller I’ve experienced this myself in the act of telling stories, and I’ve seen it happen, too, with all sorts of audiences. When a story is told another, older kind of attention emerges. You can see it in people’s eyes and faces, see it in the way they hold their bodies at “Once upon a time.” Then this place we’re in, where we’re hearing the story told, whether it’s a small room, a theater, a gymnasium, a cafeteria, a tent, or a hillside under the dark open sky, fades. That literal place becomes secondary, as in a figure/ground reversal, and the so-called “inner world,” the world of the imagination, becomes primary. The world we create comes to the fore. We temporarily touch base with our innate power to participate in and co-create reality, and find again the original bonds of community and self. Though this happens often and naturally, it is never less than a thrilling moment. I’ve seen audiences shiver with cold on hot summer nights when stories are told set in ice and snow. I’ve seen alienated teenagers come to life, and seen them, after the story, share a newfound excitement with their own imaginative power.

Words create pictures in the mind. And each listener creates his or her own way of seeing, his or her own unique version of the tale. No one today knows how we do it—take sounds on the air, or squiggles on a page, and create realms that may never be seen with our physical eyes, uncover vast internal mandalas of good and evil, forests, mountains, and seas. Where are these scenes? Not in our heads. In our heads are bone, blood, and brain. So where is the realm of vision? This mysterious power to see seems to be hard-wired into our human being, for it happens naturally pretty much anywhere a story is well-told. Stories of bravery rouse our own courage. Stories of compassion awaken our own kindness and generosity. Stories of cause and effect make us wiser. Stories that change our perception of our own deep purposes on this earth can change the way we actually live and interact with ourselves and with our fellow beings. Stories in words may open doors unreachable by other technologies. Like the swimmer visualizing and practicing in a visionary pool, they help us develop our skills to first imagine, and then live, well. Unlike mere dogmas that can so easily put us to sleep, stories bring us to life.

I’d read the Lotus Sutra long ago and found it to be cosmic and full of wonders, just like Gene Reeves says. In fact, I’d found it to be a treasure house of stories, core stories of Buddhist vision and imagination, which is, in effect, Reality. In the Lotus Sutra or, maybe more accurately as the Lotus Sutra, are the stories/parables of the burning house and of the oxcart of the Great Way already carrying all beings; the story of the poor son of the rich man; the story of the jewel sewn into the robe; the stories of assurance of all eventually becoming buddhas—even us!— and the short sutra/chapter on the power of the Bodhisattva Kannon, the bodhisattva of great, limitless compassion. I read them all long ago and was indeed moved by this tremendous sense of vision. But then I’d set the sutra aside, looking into pithier texts like the Diamond Sutra, more down-to-earth ones like the Platform Sutra, and funnier, more iconoclastic ones like the Vimalakirti Sutra.

Now I’m going to have to put the Dharma Flower Sutra back on my essential reading list. I’ll have lots more to look at and work with this time around, thanks to Gene Reeves and his dedicated work. Hands palm to palm. I’m deeply grateful for this offering. I think you will be too.
 

Rafe Martin

 

Rafe Martin is an award-winning, internationally known author and storyteller who has been a featured teller at the prestigious National Storytelling Festival, the International Storytelling Center, and the Joseph Campbell Festival of Myth and Story. He is also a fully ordained lay Zen practitioner with many years of formal Zen practice and study, and the author most recently of The Banyan Deer: A Parable of Courage and Compassion.

 

How to cite this document:
© Rissho Kosei-kai, The Stories of the Lotus Sutra (Wisdom Publications, 2010)

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