The Lotus Sutra – Helping the Heart to Blossom
Christina Sarich, Contributing Writer
In Mahayana Buddhism there is a beautiful teaching called the Lotus Sutra, or Saddharma Pundarīka Sūtra. It is translated as the ‘rule of good dharma,’ like a golden rule to follow for a more prosperous and enjoyable life. It is practiced all over Asia, from China to Japan, Vietnam, Bhutan, and Tibet. It later spread to western countries well after its suggested origin of around 100 BC to 22 AD (since it was written in sections). The original sutra was written in Sanskrit. Sutra means ‘thread’ in the Sanskrit language and usually refers to an aphorism or teaching, which aims at piecing together the great fabric of existence. There have been many different translations, and many great teachers offer that the subtle meaning inherent in the transmission of the sutra from one to another is the most important aspect of the ‘thread.’
One of the greatest teachings of the Lotus Sutra is indicated in the fourth chapter. It suggests that emptiness, called Sunyata, is not the final vision, which should be aimed for by the aspiring Bodhisattva (a person who is ready to reach full enlightenment but chooses to delay it in order to help others achieve their own liberation from Maya, or illusion.) Buddha Wisdom is the ability to see the great emptiness, which is not a nihilistic absence of all, but a pureness of consciousness which does not need to label anything – like good or bad, right or wrong, etc. Within the entire Buddhist Canon, there are said to be more than 84,000 different teachings, but the Lotus Sutra encapsulates the Great Wisdom succinctly. The Buddha treated every individual as a separate personage with their own proclivities, and would prescribe different spiritual ‘medicine’ depending upon the ailment of the person.
In order to understand the Lotus Sutra, it helps to become familiar with a few terms, including those associated with the heart chakra:
Anahata – Anahata is the Sanskrit word meaning ‘un-struck note.’ It symbolizes the way the open heart manifests energetically. When we have an un-struck or unwounded heart, we act with utter concern for others, instead of simply trying to protect ourselves. The fourth charka is responsible for supporting our vocation in a loving manner. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali also compel us toward ‘right livelihood,’ along with ‘right view, speech, action. etc.,” as important vehicles for spiritual transformation. It is no wonder that there is so much disease and distress in the modern world, because often our means of ‘filling our rice bowl’ is in non-agreement with the heart’s higher purposes for us. When we are constantly at odds with our heart’s desires in our daily ‘work,’ then we create mental fluctuations (i.e., guilt, anger, frustration, sadness, etc. which are not supportive of maintaining equilibrium.)
The Anahata chakra is considered the first ‘spiritual’ chakra, the lower three being base or physical chakras associated with our most rudimentary purposes while on this planet. Once our energy is clear and rises to the heart, it becomes concerned with living by ‘right livelihood,’ a Buddhist term, but also one that shows up in other religions, including Christianity, for example, “God will take care of those who put Him first.” It is also evidenced in the awarding of the Alternative Nobel Prize every year, which goes to individuals who work on the ‘practical and exemplary solutions’ to global problems.
Wangari Maathai would be a shining example of someone who has incorporated an open and awakened heart into her life’s work. She won the aforementioned prize, as well as the Nobel Peace Prize, for her work in planting trees throughout Africa as both an environmental act and as a means to empower villages as a means to support women’s rights.
As you read the Lotus Sutra below, it will become apparent that ‘right livelihood’ is one in which we can affect the most loving change in the world. For some it will be teaching children, for others building green-infrastructure. For some it will be teaching others through their own loving actions, in simple ways, on a daily basis, in jobs as simple as serving coffee, or sweeping up a store-front. When we complete each action with love, then we are acting from the heart. Instead of being consumed with getting more, we are instead enthusiastic with sharing the abundance of our own loving attitude with others. This simple act can incite a transformative ripple into the world until we live at Holy Eagle Peak at all times.
Dependent Origination (pratDtyasamutpCda): The Buddhist doctrine, which holds that all phenomena (dharmas) arise in relation to causes and conditions, and in turn are the causes and conditions for the arising of other phenomena. Nothing exists autonomously, it is always the result of causes and conditions. The notion of independence, therefore, is a fallacy.
Kalpas – a manifestation and dissolution of the numerous universes, which goes on into infinity. Kalpas in relationship to our own human ‘universe,’ called Asamkhiya kalpas (the metaphysics of time), include childhood, maturity, old age an then death. As above so below. Just as stars are born and reborn, so are we. This is a cycle, which is divinely orchestrated and unavoidable.
Asamkhyas – Philosophy of the great Indian sage Kapila, who founded the Samkyha school. The school outlines the notion of duality, circa 4th century CE, stating that on the one hand, exists Prakritit (nature or matter, gross physical form), and on the other, there is Purusha, (consciousness or soul, unbounded materialism.)
Mandarava – female guru-deity often seen in Buddhist texts, but also the Coral Tree, one of the five trees fabled to grow in paradise.
Buddha Way – Middle Way or Middle Path encompassing the insights, which lead to an understanding of a world without opposites.
Holy Eagle Peak – a sacred and venerable place where Shakyamuni Buddha was said to expound the Lotus Sutra. It is located where the present city Rajgir exists, surrounded by five mountains, making it a natural fortress and place of contemplation in the Buddha’s time. It is a metaphoric place, however, more than physical. It is where ever people practice nam-myoho-renge-kyo. A place of enlightened tranquility that exists within each of us, and is not only available to those living in Rajgir.
Five Desires – Also called the five hindrances to insight or enlightenment, they are: craving for sensual pleasure (this does not mean you cannot have sex, just that your life should not be ruled by it), anger or ill-will (a feeling of ill-concern for others), sloth (half-hearted, unfocused attention), worry (an inability to self-soothe or calm the mind), doubt (conviction and trust in the divine nature of all things).
The Lotus Sutra
The following is a translation of the full Lotus Sutra, which is spoken or read silently by Buddhist Yogis both upon rising, and retiring each day:
Since I attained Buddhahood the number of kalpas that have passed is an immeasurable hundreds, thousands, ten thousands, millions, trillions, asamkhyas.
Constantly I have preached the Law, teaching, converting countless millions of living beings, causing them to enter the Buddha way, all this for immeasurable kalpas.
In order to save living beings, as an expedient means I appear to enter nirvana but in truth I do not pass into extinction. I am always here preaching the Law.
I am always here, but through my transcendental powers I make it so that living beings in their befuddlement do not see me even when close by.
When the multitude see that I have passed into extinction, far and wide they offer alms to my relics. All harbor thoughts of yearning and in their minds thirst to gaze at me.
When living beings have become truly faithful, honest and upright, gentle in intent, single-mindedly desiring to see the Buddha not hesitating even if it costs them their lives, then I and the assembly of monks appear together on Holy Eagle Peak.
At that time I tell the living beings that I am always here, never entering extinction, but that because of the power of an expedient means at times I appear to be extinct, at other times not, and that if there are living beings in other lands who are reverent and sincere in their wish to believe, then among them too I will preach the unsurpassed Law.
But you have not heard of this, so you suppose that I enter extinction. When I look at living beings I see them drowned in a sea of suffering; therefore I do not show myself, causing them to thirst for me.
Then when their minds are filled with yearning, at last I appear and preach the Law for them.
Such are my transcendental powers. For asamkhya kalpas constantly I have dwelled on Holy Eagle Peak and in various other places.
When living beings witness the end of a kalpa and all is consumed in a great fire, this, my land, remains safe and tranquil, constantly filled with heavenly and human beings.
The halls and pavilions in its gardens and groves are adorned with various kinds of gems.
Jewelled trees abound in flowers and fruit where living beings enjoy themselves at ease.
The gods strike heavenly drums, constantly making many kinds of music.
Mandarava blossoms rain down, scattering over the Buddha and the great assembly. My pure land is not destroyed, yet the multitude see it as consumed in fire, with anxiety, fear and other sufferings filling it everywhere.
These living beings with their various offenses, through causes arising from their evil actions, spend asamkhya kalpas without hearing the name of the Three Treasures. But those who practice meritorious ways, who are gentle, peaceful, honest and upright, all of them will see me here in person, preaching the Law.
At times for this multitude I describe the Buddha’s life span as immeasurable, and to those who see the Buddha only after a long time I explain how difficult it is to meet the Buddha.
Such is the power of my wisdom that its sagacious beams shine without measure. This life span of countless kalpas I gained as the result of lengthy practice.
You who are possessed of wisdom, entertain no doubts on this point! Cast them off, end them forever, for the Buddha’s words are true, not false.
He is like a skilled physician who uses an expedient means to cure his deranged sons. Though in fact alive, he gives out word he is dead, yet no one can say he speaks falsely. I am the father of this world, saving those who suffer and are afflicted.
Because of the befuddlement of ordinary people, though I live, I give out word I have entered extinction. For if they see me constantly, arrogance and selfishness arise in their minds.
Abandoning restraint, they give themselves up to the five desires and fall into the evil paths of existence.
Always I am aware of which living beings practice the way, and which do not, and in response to their needs for salvation I preach various doctrines for them.
At all times I think to myself: How can I cause living beings to gain entry into the unsurpassed way and quickly acquire the body of a Buddha?
This translation is from The Lotus Sutra, published by Columbia University Press and translated by Burton Watson (spacing has been added which is not in the earliest prose, as a means to easier reading.)
About the Author
Christina Sarich is a musician, yogi, humanitarian and freelance writer who channels many hours of studying Lao Tzu, Paramahansa Yogananda, Rob Brezny, Miles Davis, and Tom Robbins into interesting tidbits to help you Wake up Your Sleepy Little Head, and See the Big Picture. Her blog is Yoga for the New World.
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