This is my third and final installment on the three core sutras that define Mahayana Buddhism. It has taken me four years to complete a study of these ancient Buddhist scripture in order to walk away feeling as though I have some grasp of their teachings as a Buddhist practitioner, but I am by no means a Buddhist scholar and this review is not intended for that purpose.
It is highly recommended that you read the previous two installments Prajñāpāramitā Part I: the Diamond that Cuts Through Illusion and Prajñāpāramitā Part II: The Heart of Insight before proceeding with part three. If you are not at all familiar with Buddhism, I highly recommend you read my introduction to the basics in The Middle Way and the Turning of the Wheel: A Brief Examination of Buddhism.
Though I have implied as much with the title of this review, the Lotus Sutra is not technically part of the Prajñāpāramitā sutras, and is in fact a standalone collection of text. It focuses on similar themes that I explored in the Diamond Sutra and the Heart Sutra and reads much the same way. All sutras were originally memorized as poetic verse, long before ever being written down.
The entire Lotus Sutra scripture took more than two centuries before arriving at its current written form. During the process of transforming from oral teaching to literary scripture, the verses were expanded and translations saw these teachings converted to prose, or at the very least accompanied by prose, in order to more fully explain the purpose and meaning of the teachings.
I will not be exploring the areas of study and practice we have already covered in the previous installments, and will instead focus on areas not previously discussed, or at least those not previously discussed in any depth. The Lotus Sutra is made of 28 chapters, but the first one that really stuck out to me as new and interesting was Chapter 14, wherein the Buddha (Siddhartha Gautama) has a conversation with one of his closest followers, Manjushri.
In this conversation Manjushri asks the Buddha how the Dharma may be taught in the future when “Bodhisattvas are rare, and life is full of evil and unhappiness and there are so many ignorant living beings.” The Buddha responds to Manjushri by declaring that they will be able to practice and spread the Dharma by “Dwelling in the Four Ways.” He outlined these as states of being, or conditions of existence and practice.
They are as follows:
Aside from Manjushri, the Buddha mentions or interacts with several other well-known bodhisattva in the Lotus Sutra. Some of these include Dharanimdhara, Avalokiteshvara, Samantabhadra, and Kshitigarbha. Bodhisattva Dharanimdhara, also known as “Protector of the Earth” or “Earth Holder,” took a vow to connect humankind with nature, or to reconnect those that are distant, or mediate for those who do not agree or understand one another.
For anyone studying or practicing as an environmental engineer or working in environmental protection, conservation, or restoration, they will find a kindred spirit in Bodhisattva Dharanimdhara who suspended his own chance at nirvana for the betterment of all, swearing a vow to serve all living beings on planet Earth until none need his aid.
Bodhisattva Kshitigarbha, also known as “the one who seeks great suffering,” made a vow to seek out places of terror and torture, places of pain and punishment, sadness and grief so that he could offer aid and support. Instead of seeking his own nirvana, he sought to aid those in most need. For this he is depicted as the bodhisattva of trauma. Those who work or volunteer in his name are known as the “Hands of Kshitigarbha” or sometimes translated as the “Arms of Kshitigarbha.”
He is also frequently affiliated with people who are known in Buddhism as “hungry ghosts.” People who have wandered down the wrong path and have broken the Five Core Precepts, or people who are experiencing some form of suffering. When we are overly hard on ourselves or get angry with people when they don’t live up to our expectations, this too can cause us to become hungry ghosts. When we find ourselves or others in this state of being, we should remember Bodhisattva Kshitigarbha and his strength of compassion and try to follow in his footsteps.
The Lotus Sutra focuses heavily on being compassionate to ourselves and to others, it reminds us of how we can continue to practice the Dharma no matter the circumstances in our lives or in the world, and it reinforces the importance of taking a bodhisattva vow.
I don’t intend to cover any additional Buddhist scripture, but I would certainly encourage others to explore them if they have not. Like most ancient religious texts, they are filled with wild stories of supernatural beings and events, but they are also filled with profound lessons on the human experience and serve as gentle reminders of who and what we should strive to become.