Lotus Sutra Musings

So I read a commentary on the Expedient Means and Long Life chapter of the Lotus Sutra.

These chapters explain the motivation for Mahayana’s initial existence when early Buddhism already existed. Early Buddhism assumed:

The people who heard directly the teaching of the historical Buddha were able to become enlightened. (But few, or no other people since)
The historical Buddha is essentially dead, extinct or in Nirvana.
Another Buddha might come along. In a loooong time.

So a monk from that time could be unhappy that he just missed the Buddha and thus would fail or at least never be successful as those who could hear the Buddha preach in person.

Expedient Means says, the Buddha essentially lied. He faked his death. Why? Because in the days before writing the Lotus Sutra, people needed to think the Buddha was dead and it was grief that was motivating Buddhist practice. Now what has changed about people now adays, I don’t know. I’m not even convinced about this “grief motivates practice (or faith)” theory.

Long Life essentially says the Buddha is so long lived that for practical purposes, he’s immortal. He’s been alive nearly forever, and will be alive nearly forever and is still in this world. This has implications for us mortals because if we can become Buddha’s then we too will be immortal. And have super powers.  And that sounds better than nirvana too, because that bit about all four : extinct, not extinct, not both, not neither is gobbledygook and “I want to live forever” is at least clear, even if the means for making it happen is not.  This also implies that in the Lotus Sutra, the fundamental problem is not *suffering* and not *immortality in the rounds of rebirth in crappy realms* but the problem is mortality– that we die at all.

Next, there are the ideas heaped upon the Lotus Sutra:

Individual practice is ineffective (Mappo), but the comparatively effortless practice of reciting the title of the sutra is, because either the mystic law will do the hard work, or the Buddha who is still in the world will do the hard work. If the mystic law does the hard work, why bother with belief or saying the title? Wouldn’t simply doing nothing be simpler and then letting the mystic law do the work? How does the mystic law know, or care if you are a member in good standing with the group? Why would an insentient law be offended if we didn’t believe it or even slandered it? If it is the sentient Buddha who is doing the work for us, wouldn’t he be compassionate and save us all from death regardless, or he’s he a thin skinned, fragile ego jerk like the Christian god?

Morality is not so much about conventional morality, but “faith”, which is something like obedience. So if we are to have faith in something, why the Lotus Sutra in particular, why, not, oh I don’t know, L Ron Hubbard or Joseph Smith or Dawkins? They can’t all be right.  I sort of get faith as a sort of optimism (that Buddhist practice leads to something better than not practicing), but I have no use for this faith on so and so authority. In Zen the authority is derived from a fictional story about the Buddha transmitting the dharma from one monk to another until it gets to us, unmodified. But we don’t have to look far to see breaks in the chain and obvious points of doctrinal innovation. Besides, I couldn’t give a rat’s ass about what the historical Buddha taught, I only care about which of the many dharmas that exist today, which is the most useful, cogent and in line with *testable* reality.

I have no idea if elsewhere in the Lotus Sutra if it talks about original enlightenment (tathagatagharba) Mixed into the commentary was the idea of original enlightenment, that you already are enlightened, and you just need to notice it and then you won’t feel like you need to seek immortality, you already got it.  This feels like assuming the conclusion. You want to know how to become enlightened? Well, first assume you are already enlightened, and problem solved!

Alternatively this original enlightenment is some *thing* or *quality* about you that exists, but is covered with goop and needs to be cleaned up, sort of an original sin that needs to be magically scrubbed and then poof, you were enlightened, and now the fundamental problem of all the karmic gunk has been scrubbed off.

I did like the idea of three thousand realms in a single instant. Essentially this says that the realms are metaphors and there is a little bit of heaven and hell in every instant. This is actually, in my opinion, a radical, secularizing idea. It salvages the texts that talk about heaven and hell while dispensing with any need to believe in a heaven or hell or reincarnation as a real (not fictional) cosmology.

Anyhow, I think I will end up liking the ideas of the ancient Chinese commentators more than the Sutra itself, the same experience I had with the Avatamsaka. The Huayen philosophers had some keen & interesting ideas, while the Avatamsaka itself is a tedious read.

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