The Stories of the Lotus Sutra - Selections
Chapter 1: The Enchanting World of the Lotus Sutra
Chinese/Japanese term often used for “introduction” is more literally “entrance gateway.” And while that is not what the first chapter of the Lotus Sutra is called, that is exactly what it is. It is a gateway through which one can enter a new and mysterious world, an enchanting world—a world of the imagination.
The setting, the opening scene, is on Holy Eagle Peak. This Holy Eagle Peak is not off somewhere in another world. It is a real place on a mountain in northeast India. I was there a few years ago. But as well as being an actual, physical, and historical place, the Holy Eagle Peak of the Dharma Flower Sutra is a mythical place.
The place we visited, the geographical place, is like a ledge set on a steep mountainside, perhaps three-fourths of the way up the mountain. Above and below it, the mountain is both steep and rough, not the kind of place where anyone could sit and listen to a sermon or lecture. And the ledge itself would not hold more than three dozen or so people at a time.
In the Sutra this little place is populated by a huge assembly, with thousands of monks and nuns and laypeople, eighty thousand bodhisattvas, and a large number of gods, god-kings (including Indra, King of the Gods), dragon kings, chimera kings, centaur kings, ashura kings, griffin kings, satyrs, pythons, minor kings, and holy wheel-rolling kings. Already, just from the listing of such a population, and there is more, we know we have entered a realm that is special, even magical.
We do not know much about the Indian origins of the Lotus Sutra, but we can be reasonably confident that it was produced in northern India by monks, and it is very likely that many of its first hearers and readers would have known perfectly well that Holy Eagle Peak was in actuality much too small for the kind of assembly described at the beginning of Chapter 1. We are to understand from the very beginning, in other words, that this is a story, not a precise description of historical events, but a mythical account of historical events. It is meant not just for our knowledge, but for our participation. It invites us to use our own imagination to participate in the Sutra’s world of enchantment.
Some years ago when I wrote to a friend that I had moved to Japan to work on the Lotus Sutra, he responded that he had read the Sutra a long time ago and could not remember much about it, except for the fact that it contained a lot of “miracle stories.” There is, of course, a sense in which that is correct. The Sutra does have a great many stories of fantastic, supernormal, or supernatural events, and of the Buddha’s and various bodhisattvas’ holy or supernatural powers. But one thing these stories do not and cannot do is to function as “miracle stories” in the Christian sense of that term, that is, as stories that can be used to “prove” something about the intervention in history of a supernatural power.
The stories in the Dharma Flower Sutra, or at least many of them, are so fantastic, so imaginative, so unlike anything we have experienced, that they cannot possibly be taken for history or descriptions of factual matters, or stories about actual historical events. The reader of the Dharma Flower Sutra knows from the very first chapter that he or she has entered an imaginary world quite different from what we ordinarily perceive. And if the stories are successful, the reader will come to understand that he or she is empowered to perform miracles by them.
That this setting is in the actual world, on earth, is very important for the Lotus Sutra. In it there is explicit rejection of forms of idealism—exemplified for instance by Platonism—in which actual things are only poor reflections of some other, ideal reality. In Buddhism, idealism sometimes takes the form of a “two-truth theory” according to which there is a conventional world of appearance or phenomena and an absolute world of reality or truth. For the Dharma Flower Sutra, however, this world, the world of things, is an ultimately real world. This is the world in which Shakyamuni Buddha lives, both historically and in the present. This is the world in which countless bodhisattvas emerge from below to indicate the importance of bodhisattvas of this world taking care of this world. This is the world to which buddhas and bodhisattvas from all over the universe come to witness the teaching of Shakyamuni Buddha. This is the world in which all human beings are offered a special opportunity to be bodhisattvas and practice the Buddha Way, the way by which we too can be buddhas, buddhas right here on earth in the midst of the world’s suffering, including our own.
Affirmation of the Concrete
William LaFleur describes how Tendai thought, especially Chih-i’s Mo-ho-chih-kuan and the Lotus Sutra, influenced a transformation of Japanese poetry in the twelfth century. He points out that in the Lotus Sutra there is a philosophical move that is the opposite of what predominated in the West under the influence of Platonism. In the Sutra, “the illustration is in no way subordinate to what it illustrates.” Not a shadow of something else more real, “the narratives of the Lotus are not a means to an end beyond themselves. Their concrete mode of expression is not ‘chaff ’ to be dispensed with in order to attain a more abstract, rational, or spiritual truth.”
The Sutra itself says:
Even if you search in all directions,
You will find no other vehicles—
Except the skillful means of the Buddha. (LS 128)
In other words, apart from concrete events, apart from stories, teachings, actions, and so on, there is no Buddhism.
Thus, LaFleur explains, Chih-i’s contemplation is a kind of mindfulness directed toward objects of ordinary perception in which there is an implied rejection of the kind of ontological dualism in which essences are more real than concrete things. Thus what was important in the Mo-ho-chih-kuan for the poets Fujiwara no Shunzei (1114– 1204) and Fujiwara no Teika (1162–1241) was the teaching of gensho soku jisso—the identity of the phenomenal and the real, held together in a dynamic tension by Chih-i’s notion of the middle.
In LaFleur’s words, this constitutes a kind of “ontological egalitarianism” in which the abstract is no more real than the concrete. As the philosopher of religion Shin’ichi Hisamatsu (1889–1980) suggested, “to dig to the core of the core is to discover the invalidity of such distinctions and also to discover that, seen from the inside, the surface is deep.”
A famous poem of Teika is analyzed by LaFleur.
Gaze out far enough,
beyond all cherry blossoms
and scarlet maples,
to those huts by the harbor
fading in the autumn dusk.
This is no ordinary evocation of impermanence, but an invitation to see that by attempting to look over and beyond the ordinary and transient we discover that the huts in the distance have also begun to disappear, signifying a collapse of the distance between them and the cherries and maples.
The world of such poetry and such drama was one in which determinate emotions or ideas were no longer fixed to determinate images or actions. Simple symbols no longer seemed adequate; their portrait was deemed naive because it had too severely limited the relationship among phenomena. The Buddhists of medieval Japan, nurtured as they were in Tendai, held that the universe was such that even “in one thought there are three thousand worlds” (ichinen sanzen). This implied the boundlessness of the interpenetration of phenomena with one another. To the dimension of depth in the universe itself these Buddhists reacted with a sense of awe…And, to poets such as Shunzei, a universe of this depth deserved a degree and a mode of appreciation beyond that given to it by the traditional aesthetic.
In Chapter 1 of the Sutra, before the vast assembly, having already preached the Sutra of Innumerable Meanings, the Buddha entered deeply into meditative concentration. Then, to prepare the assembly to hear the Buddha preach, various omens suddenly appeared—flowers rained down from the heavens on everyone, the earth trembled and shook, and the Buddha emitted a ray of light from between his eyebrows, lighting up eighteen thousand worlds to the east, so that the whole assembly could see these worlds in great detail, including their heavens and purgatories, all their living beings, and even their past and present buddhas. Surely we are being advised here that we are entering a different world, and a different kind of world, a world that is at once rich in fantasy and at the same time anchored in this world.
Thus the Dharma Flower Sutra opens up and reveals this world as a magical world, a world in which flowers rain down from the heavens, drums sound by themselves, and Shakyamuni Buddha lights up all the worlds with beams of light streaming from between his eyebrows. It is a world in which an illusory castle-city provides a resting place for weary travelers, in which a stupa emerges from the ground so that an extinct buddha from long ago can praise Shakyamuni for teaching the Dharma Flower Sutra, where the Bodhisattva Wonderful Voice, with his nearly perfect, giant, and radiant body, from another world makes flowers appear on Holy Eagle Peak and then comes through countless millions of worlds with eighty-four thousand other bodhisattvas to visit Shakyamuni Buddha and others, and where the Bodhisattva Universal Sage comes flying through the sky on his white elephant with six tusks to visit and help those in this world.
I call this a world of enchantment. And enchantment, here, means a certain kind of fascination with the ordinary world. It means finding the special, even the supernatural, within the ordinary world of our existence. It means seeing this world itself as different, as special—as important and valuable. And this means that our lives—how we live and what we do—are important, not only for ourselves, but also for the Buddha and for the entire cosmos.
One person who understood well the importance of enchantment was Kenji Miyazawa, the poet, storyteller, science-fiction writer, scientist, and lover of the Lotus Sutra. Chanting Namu Myoho Renge-kyo, he imagined his spirit in boundless space, where he was filled with joy in the great cosmos, and from which he returned to earth, having acquired strength and courage to endure a life of suffering.
Known throughout the Tohoku area of Japan as “Kenji bosatsu” (Kenji the bodhisattva), Miyazawa devoted his whole life to the Dharma Flower Sutra—to practicing the Lotus Sutra, to embodying the Lotus Sutra, to living the Lotus Sutra—for example by helping struggling farmers of Iwate Prefecture with modern agricultural science.
One of his most ambitious works, A Night on the Milky Way Railroad, was turned into a popular animated film and used in various Japanese manga comic books. It is a story about a young boy, Giovanni, and his friend Campanella, who ride a train to the stars together—a celestial railroad, soaring through deep space—experiencing numerous adventures and encountering unusual characters. In the final passages of the story it becomes clear that this night train to the stars that Giovanni and his friend Campanella are riding is actually a ferry for souls traveling to life after death!
In a chapter called “Giovanni’s Ticket,” the conductor asks the passengers for their tickets. Campanella, who is dead from drowning, like the other passengers has a small gray, one-way ticket. Giovanni, who at first is very nervous because he thinks he has no ticket at all, discovers in a pocket a larger folded piece of green paper with mysterious characters written down the center. Examining this ticket, the conductor is astonished, and asks: “Did you get this ticket from three-dimensional space?” Bird-catcher, another passenger, then exclaims:
Wow, this is really something. This ticket will even let you go up to the real heaven. And not just to heaven, it is a pass that enables you to travel anywhere you want. If you have this, in fact, you can travel anywhere on this Milky Way Railway of the imperfect fourth-dimension of fantasy.
Giovanni alone on that train has a magical round-trip pass that enables him to freely travel from the “three-dimensional space” of ordinary reality to anywhere in the “fourth-dimensional space” of the invisible, spiritual, imaginative, and enchanting world that is the Milky Way Railroad.
What is this extraordinary railway ticket that enables one to enter the fourth-dimensional world and then return to the ordinary world? Giovanni’s ticket is the gohonzon (object of worship), or mandala, of Nichiren, with its inscription of the daimoku, the sacred title of the Lotus Flower of the Wonderful Dharma Sutra: “Namu Myoho Rengekyo.” The daimoku, as it represents and embodies the Dharma Flower Sutra, provides a connection, a passage as it were, between earth and heaven, between earthly and cosmic perspectives, between science and imagination.
Like poets before him, Miyazawa understood the deepest meaning of the Lotus Sutra—an affirmation of the reality and importance of this world, the world in which suffering has to be endured, and can be, combined with an imaginative cosmic perspective engendered by devotion to the Lotus Sutra. And with his imaginative power and skill as a writer, Miyazawa offers Giovanni’s ticket to each of us. Like the Sutra itself, he uses his own imagination to invite us into an imaginary other world in order to have us become more this-worldly.
In other words, the imagination, which makes it possible to soar above the realities of everyday existence, also makes it possible to function more effectively in this world.
When Giovanni wakes from his dream of adventures on that very strange and special railroad, he learns that his friend has indeed died, drowned in the river which is at that time the center of a festival. And Giovanni sees reflected in the water of the earthly river the river which is the Milky Way (named a river in Japanese). It is a kind of epiphany, a moment in which the vast cosmic reality and the right here on the ground are united in the imagination.
Having experienced the fantastic cosmic world, having experienced a unity of heavens and earth, Giovanni then finishes what he started out to do that day. He walks to the dairy and brings a bottle of milk home to his mother.
How to cite this document:
© Rissho Kosei-kai, The Stories of the Lotus Sutra (Wisdom Publications, 2010)
The Stories of the Lotus Sutra by Gene Reeves is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
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