Saturday, March 2, 2013

Scripture of the Lotus Blossom of the Fine Dharma / Leon Hurvitz, tr. -- N.Y.: Columbia University Press, 1976

The Scripture of the Lotus Blossom of the Fine Dharma, also known simply as The Lotus Sutra is among the most important mahayana Buddhist sutras.  It is particularly important to Buddhism as it is practiced in East Asia.  This may have something to do with the fact that the original Sanskrit version of the sutra has been lost and that the versions that have been in existence for the longest are Chinese translations.  This particular English translation was based on the Chinese translation attributed to Kumarajiva, a fourth century Indo-Iranian figure who was responsible for managing a school of translators who were in turn responsible for the translation of many sutras into Chinese.

Like many mahayana sutras, The Lotus Sutra asserts the superiority of the path of the bodhisattva over other paths to enlightenment.  What is most interesting about The Lotus Sutra is that it does so in parables.  It also presents parables that explain how the bodhisattva tailors his (or her) message to the requirements of the listener -- as might any good teacher.  Both of these points are made in the first parable that appears in the work.  A man finds that his house is on fire, but that his children are inside enthralled by their toys.  To induce them to leave the house, he tells them that he has three carts outside for them: drawn respectively by a deer, a goat, and an ox.  Delighted, the children leave the burning house only to find that the ox cart is the only vehicle outside.  The bodhisattva explains that the man is justified in lying to the children in order to get them out of the house, and that only the ox cart -- which stands for the path of the bodhisattva -- is real.

In a second parable, a very rich man's son leaves his household and remains estranged for many years.  In the son's wanderings he comes upon a house that his father has founded.  Not knowing that it is his father's house, he becomes employed there, diligently working in the stables.  In time, the rich man, who knows his son's identity, rewards the son.  Eventually, when the son has become accustomed to being part of the household, the man reveals that he is the son's father and declares him his heir.

In a third parable, a guide was leading a group of travellers to a buried treasure.  The travellers grew tired and wanted to give up the journey.  So the guide caused an apparition of a beautiful city to appear, where the travellers rested.  When they regained their strength, the guide cause the city to vanish and led them on to the buried treasure.

Among the more unique parables is the story of "the dragon girl."  The Buddha asks the bodhisattva Manjusri to tell an assembled multitude if anyone hearing his teaching speedily gained enlightenment.  Manjusri described a girl of eight who had quickly gained enlightenement.  The bodhisattvas Prajnakuta expressed skepticism, whereupon the girl appeared before them and testified to her own enlightenment.  The bodhisattva Sariputra then expressed disbelieve, claiming that a woman could not achieve unexcelled enlightenment.  Whereupon the girl turned into a man.

Much of the sutra is a panegyric to the Buddha and various bodhisattvas. The Buddha is frequently associated with a rain of flower petals or fine garments, jewels, and fragrances.  Great expanses of time and space and hosts of auditors (Buddha, bodhisattvas, gods, humans, demons, non-humans, hungry ghosts, and beings in hell) are frequently described.  At times this can become a bit tedious, but when one tries to reflect these incalculable numbers, one's mind can be directed to a transcendental experience:

I now tell you plainly: the merit gained by this man for giving all manner of playthings to living beings of the six destinies in four hundred myriads of millions of asamkhyeyas of world-spheres, and also enabling them to obtain the fruit of the arhant, does not equal one-hundredth, not one-thousandths, not one-hundred-thousand-myriad-millionth part of the merit of that fiftieth person for appropriately rejoicing at hearing a single gatha of the Scripture of the Dharma Blossom for it is something that cannot be known through number or parable.
For the most part, the sutra only briefly makes mention of the central doctrines of mahayana Buddhism.  For these, I would recommend The Large Sutra of Perfect Wisdom.

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