The Lotus Sutra, or Saddharma Pundarika Sutra, is one of the earliest Mahayana Buddhist texts and is considered to be the principal Mahayana sutra. Developing somewhat after Hinayana, the more ancient form of Buddhism that later evolved into modern Theravada, Mahayana is the second, though larger, of the two main branches of Buddhist thought. Mahayana Buddhism developed in India between the 2nd century B.C. and the 1st century A.D., and by the 4th, 5th, and 6th centuries A.D. had begun to spread into China, Korea, Japan, Tibet, Vietnam, and Central Asia, where further schools such as Pure Land Buddhism and Zen appeared. Mahayana Buddhism is more liberal in its interpretations of the teachings of the historical Buddha than Theravada, with a more mythologized interpretation of the nature of the Buddha; it also incorporates a wider variety of practices. Its monastic communities, or sangha, can include both lay believers and monks, both of whom can seek to become bodhisattva, aspirants to bodhi who seek to reach or enlightenment, who will also help all beings achieve nirvana. Although Buddhism remains widespread in much of Asia, by the 13th century A.D., it had largely disappeared from India.
Little is known about the origin of the Lotus Sutra, also called the Lotus of the True Law, although most scholars place its composition sometime in the 1st century a.d., with its final form being reached around 200 A.D.. The earliest translation of the Lotus Sutra into Chinese was made by Dharmaraksha in 286 A.D., and it has become the most popular Buddhist text in China and Japan. It is the sole canonical text for Japanese Buddhists of the Nichiren sect.
In its fairly simple, accessible literary style, illustrated with parables and poetic images, the Lotus Sutra propounds all the major doctrines of Mahayana Buddhism and focuses on the doctrine of the “one true vehicle [or way],” Ekayana, which includes both the “greater vehicle,” Mahayana, and the “lesser vehicle,” Theravada. In a parable, the Buddha explains the nature of revelation and the way in which it is adapted to the limited faculties of not-yet-enlightened human beings, until they are ready for full revelation.
The dramatic narrative of the Lotus Sutra contains a succession of dialogues that serve to make an impression on the reader of the great wisdom, power, and eminence of the Buddha. The selection presented here centers on a discourse given by Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, who lived from c. 563–483 B.C., to a congregation of followers at a famed place called Vulture’s Peak. He is represented as an almost eternal being, omnipotent, nearly free from the cycle of birth and rebirth, though from time to time, he descends to earth and is reborn among humans, as is the case in the discourse at Vulture’s Peak. The discourse stresses the proper use of wisdom, the need for compassion, and the importance of moral living.
The section of the text presented here is a Buddhist version of the myth of the phoenix. In it, a monk, the bodhisattva Mahasattva Sarvasattvapriyadarshana, or the bodhisattva Gladly Seen by All Living Beings, feeds himself for 12 years on the substances usually used in sacrificial rituals and then, by self-immolation, sacrifices his perfumed and anointed body to the Buddha. The Bodhisattva’s body burns for 1,200 years before he is reborn, having achieved a “heroic feat.” This is one step on his way to final extinction, having achieved Nirvana.
Lotus Sutra, ch. 23. “Former Affairs of the Bodhisattva Medicine King,” tr. Burton Watson, New York: Columbia University Press, 1993, pp, 280-289. Footnotes interpolated.
from THE LOTUS SUTRA
Former Affairs of the Bodhisattva Medicine King
At that time bodhisattva Constellation King Flower spoke to the Buddha, Saying: “World-Honored One, how does the bodhisattva Medicine King come and go in the saha world? World-Honored One, this bodhisattva Medicine King has carried out some hundreds, thousands, ten thousands, millions of nayutas of difficult practices, arduous practices. Very well, World-Honored One, could I ask you to explain a little? The heavenly beings, dragons, gods, yakshas, gandharvas, asuras, garudas, kimnaras, mahoragas, human and nonhuman beings, and the bodhisattvas who have come from other lands and the multitude of voice-hearers, will all be delighted to hear you.”
At that time the Buddha addressed the bodhisattva Constellation King Flower, saying: “Many kalpas in the past, immeasurable as Ganges sands, there was a Buddha named Sun Moon Pure Bright Virtue Thus Come One, worthy of offerings, of right and universal knowledge, perfect clarity and conduct, well gone, understanding the world, unexcelled worthy, trainer of people, teacher of heavenly and human beings, Buddha, World-Honored One. This Buddha had eighty million great bodhisattvas and mahasattvas and a multitude of great voice-hearers equal to the sands of seventy-two Ganges. This Buddha’s life span was forty-two thousand kalpas, and the life span of the bodhisattvas was the same. In his land there were no women, hell dwellers, hungry spirits, beasts of asuras, and no kinds of tribulation. The ground was as level as the palm of a hand, made of lapis lazuli and adorned with jeweled trees. Jeweled curtains covered it over, banners of jeweled flowers hung down, and jeweled urns and incense burners filled the land everywhere. There were daises made of the seven treasures, with a tree by each dais, the tree situated an arrow-shot length from the dais. These jeweled trees all had bodhisattvas and voice-hearers sitting under them, and each of the jeweled daises had hundreds of millions of heavenly beings playing on heavenly instruments and singing the praises of the Buddha as an offering.
“At that time, for the sake of the bodhisattva Gladly Seen by All Living Beings and the other numerous bodhisattvas and multitude of voice-hearers, the Buddha preached the Lotus Sutra. This bodhisattva Gladly Seen by All Living Beings delighted in carrying out arduous practices. In the midst of the Law preached by the Buddha Sun Moon Pure Bright Virtue he applied himself diligently and traveled about here and there, single-mindedly seeking Buddhahood for a period of fully twelve thousand years. After that he was able to gain the Samadhi in which one can manifest all physical forms. Having gained this Samadhi, his heart was filled with great joy and he thought to himself: My gaining the Samadhi in which I can manifest all physical forms is due entirely to the fact that I heard the Lotus Sutra. I must now make an offering to the Buddha Sun Moon Pure Bright Virtue and to the Lotus Sutra!
“Immediately he entered the Samadhi and in the midst of the sky rained down mandarava flowers, great mandarava flowers, and finely ground, hard black particles of sandalwood; they filled the whole sky like clouds as they came raining down. He also rained down the incense of the sandalwood that grows by the southern seashore. Six taels of this incense is worth as mush as the saha world. All these he used as an offering to the Buddha.
“When he had finished making this offering, he rose from his Samadhi and thought to himself: Though I have employed my supernatural powers to make this offering to the Buddha, it is not as good as making an offering of my own body.
“Thereupon he swallowed various perfumes, sandalwood, kunduruka, turushka, prikka, aloes, and liquidambar gum, and he also drank the fragrant oil of champaka and other kinds of flowers, doing this for a period of fully twelve hundred years. Anointing his body with fragrant oil, he appeared before the Buddha Sun Moon Pure Bright Virtue, wrapped his body in heavenly jeweled robes, poured fragrant oil over his head and, calling on his transcendental powers, set fire to his body. The glow shone forth, illuminating worlds equal in number to the sands of eighty million Ganges. The Buddhas in these worlds simultaneously spoke out in praise, saying: ‘Excellent, excellent, good man! This is true diligence. This is what is called a true Dharma offering to the Thus Come One. Though one may use flowers, incense, necklaces, incense for burning, powdered incense, paste incense, heavenly silken banners and canopies, along with the incense of the sandalwood that grows by the southern seashore, presenting offerings of all such things as these, he can never match this! Though one may make donations of his realm and cities, his wife and children, he is no match for this! Good man, this is called the foremost donation of all. Among all donations, this is the most highly prized, for one is offering the Dharma to the Thus Come ones!’
“After they had spoken these words, they each one fell silent. The body of the bodhisattva burned for twelve hundred years, and when that period of time had passed, it at last burned itself out.
“After the bodhisattva Gladly Seen by All Living Beings had made this Dharma offering and his life had come to an end, he was reborn in the land of the Buddha Sun Moon Pres Bright Virtue, in the household of the king Pure Virtue. Sitting in cross-legged position, he was suddenly born by transformation, and at once for the benefit of his father he spoke in verse form, saying:
Great king, you should now understand this.
Having walked about in a certain place,
I immediately gained the Samadhi
that allows me to manifest all physical forms.
I have carried out my endeavors with great diligence
and cast aside the body that I loved.
“When he had recited this verse, he said to his father: ‘The Buddha Sun Moon Pure Bright Virtue is still present at this time. Previously I made an offering to this Buddha and gained a dharani that allows me to understand the words of all living brings. Moreover I have heard this Lotus Sutra with its eight hundred, thousand, ten thousand, millions of nayutas, kankaras, vivaras, akshobhyas of verses. Great king, I must now once more make an offering to this Buddha.’
“Having said this, he seated himself on a dais made of the seven treasures, rose up into the air to the height of seven tala trees and, proceeding to the place where the Buddha was, bowed his head to the ground in obeisance to the Buddha’s feet, put the nails of his ten fingers together and spoke this verse in praise of the Buddha:
A countenance so rare and wonderful,
Its bright beams illuminating the ten directions!
At a previous time I made an offering,
And now once more I draw near.
“At that time, after the bodhisattva Gladly Seen by All Living Beings had spoken this verse, he said to the Buddha: ‘World-Honored One, is the World-Honored One still present in the world?’
“At that time the Buddha Sun Moon Pure Bright Virtue said to the bodhisattva Gladly Seen by All Living Beings: ‘Good man, the time has come for my nirvana. The time has come for extinction. You may provide me with a comfortable couch, for tonight will be my parinirvana.’
“He also commanded the bodhisattva Gladly Seen by All Living Beings, saying: ‘Good man, I take this Law of the Buddha and entrust it to you. In addition, the bodhisattvas and great disciples, along with the Law of anuttara-samyak-sambodhi, and the thousand-millionfold seven-jeweled world, with its jeweled trees and jeweled daises and heavenly beings who wait on and attend them—all these I hand over to you. I also entrust to you the relics of my body that remain after I have passed into extinction. You must distribute them abroad and arrange for offerings to them far and wide. You should erect many thousands of towers [to house them].’
“The Buddha Sun Moon Pure Bright Virtue, having given these commands to the bodhisattva Gladly Seen by All Living Beings, that night, in the last watch of the night, entered nirvana.
“At that time the bodhisattva Gladly Seen by All Living Beings, seeing the Buddha pass into extinction, was deeply grieved and distressed. Out of his great love and longing for the Buddha he at once prepared a pyre made of sandalwood from the seashore, and with this as an offering to the Buddha’s body, he cremated the body. After the fire had burned out, he gathered up the relics, fashioned eighty-four thousand jeweled urns, and built eighty-four thousand towers, high as the three worlds, adorned with central poles, draped with banners and canopies and hung with a multitude of jeweled bells.
“At that time the bodhisattva Gladly Seen by All Living Beings once more thought to himself: Though I have made these offerings, my mind is not yet satisfied. I must make some further offering to the relics.
“Then he spoke to the other bodhisattvas and great disciples, and to the heavenly beings, dragons, yakshas, and all the members of the great assembly, saying, ‘You must give your undivided attention. I will now make an offering to the relics of the Buddha Sun Moon Pure Bright Virtue.’
“Having spoken these words, immediately in the presence of the eighty-four thousand towers he burned his arms, which were adorned with a hundred blessings, for a period of seventy-two thousand years as his offering. This caused the numberless multitudes who were seeking to become voice-hearers, along with an immeasurable asamkhya of persons, to conceive a desire for anuttara-samyak-sambodhi, and all of them were able to dwell in the Samadhi where one can manifest all physical forms.
“At that time the bodhisattvas, heavenly and human beings, asuras and others, seeing that the bodhisattva had destroyed his arms, were alarmed and saddened and they said: ‘This bodhisattva Gladly Seen by All Living beings is our teacher, instructing and converting us. Now he has burned his arms and his body is no longer whole!’
“At that time, in the midst of the great assembly, the bodhisattva Gladly Seen by All Living Beings made this vow, saying: ‘I have cast away both my arms. I am certain to attain the golden body of a Buddha. If this is true and not false, then may my two arms become as they were before!’
“When he had finished pronouncing this vow, his arms reappeared of themselves as they had been before. This came about because the merits and wisdom of this bodhisattva were manifold and profound. At that time the thousand-millionfold world shook and trembled in six different ways, heaven rained down jeweled flowers, and all the heavenly and human beings gained what they had never had before.”
The Buddha said to the bodhisattva Constellation King Flower: “What do you think? Is this bodhisattva Gladly Seen by All Living Beings someone unknown to you? He is in fact none other than the present bodhisattva Medicine King! He cast aside his body as an offering in this fashion immeasurable hundreds, thousands, ten thousands, millions of nayutas of times.
“Constellation King Flower, if there are those who have made up their minds and wish to gain anuttara-samyak-sambodhi, they would do well to burn a finger or one toe of their foot as an offering to the Buddha towers. It is better than offering one’s realm and cities, wife and children, or the mountains, forests, rivers, and lakes in the ‘lands of the thousand-millionfold world, of all their precious treasures. Even if a person were to fill the whole thousand-million world with the seven treasures as an offering to the Buddha and the great bodhisattvas, pratyekabuddhas and arhats, the benefits gained by such a person cannot match those gained by accepting and upholding this Lotus Sutra, even just one four-line verse of it! The latter brings the most numerous blessings of all.
“Constellation King Flower, among all the rivers, streams, and other bodies of water, for example, the ocean is foremost. And this Lotus Sutra is likewise, being the most profound and greatest of the sutras preached by the Thus Come Ones. Again, just as among the Dirt Mountains, Black Mountains, Small Iron Encircling Mountains, Great Iron Encircling Mountains, Ten Treasure Mountains and all the other mountains, Mount Sumeru is foremost, so this Lotus Sutra is likewise. Among all the stars and their like, the moon, a god’s son, is foremost, so this Lotus Sutra is likewise. For among all the thousands, ten thousands, millions of types of sutra teachings, it shines the brightest. And just as the sun, a god’s son, can banish all darkness, so too this sutra is capable of destroying the darkness of all that is not good.
“As among the petty kings the wheel-turning sage king is foremost, so this sutra is the most honored among all the many sutras. As the lord Shakra is king among the thirty-three heavenly beings, so this sutra likewise is king among all the sutras. And as the heavenly king, great Brahma, is the father if all living beings, so this sutra likewise is father of all sages, worthies, those still learning, those who have completed their learning, and those who set their minds on becoming bodhisattvas. And as among all ordinary mortals, the srotaapanna, sakridagamin, anagamin, arhats and pratyekabuddhas are foremost, so this sutra likewise is foremost among all the sutra teachings preached by all the Thus Come Ones preached by all the bodhisattvas, or preached by all the voice-hearers. A person who can accept and uphold this sutra is likewise foremost among all living beings. Bodhisattvas are foremost among all voice-hearers and pratyekabuddhas, and in the same way this sutra is foremost among all the sutra teachings. As the Buddha is king of the doctrines, so likewise this sutra is king of the sutras.
“Constellation King Flower, this sutra can save all living beings. This sutra can cause all living beings to free themselves from suffering and aguish. This sutra can bring great benefits to all living beings and fulfill their desires, as a clear cool pond can satisfy all those who are thirsty. It is like a fire to one who is cold, a robe to one who is naked, like a band of merchants finding a leader, a child finding its mother, someone finding a ship in which to cross the water, a sick man finding a doctor, someone in darkness finding a lamp, the poor finding riches, the people finding a ruler, a traveling merchant finding his way to the sea. It is like a torch that banishes darkness. Such is this Lotus Sutra. It can cause living beings to cast off all distress, all sickness and pain. It can unloose all the bonds of birth and death.
“If a person is able to hear this Lotus Sutra, if he copies it himself or causes others to copy it, the benefits he gains thereby will be such that even the Buddha wisdom could never finish calculating their extent. If one copies these sutra rolls and uses flowers, incense, necklaces, incense for burning, powdered incense, paste incense, banners, canopies, robes, various kinds of lamps such as lamps of butter oil, oil lamps, lamps with various fragrant oils, lamps of champaka oil, lamps of sumana oil, Lamps of patala oil, lamps of varshika oil, or lamps of navamalika oil to make offerings to them, the benefits that he acquires will likewise be immeasurable.
“Constellation King Flower, if there is a person who hears this chapter on the Former Affairs of the Bodhisattva Medicine King, he too will gain immeasurable and boundless benefits. If there is a woman who hears this chapter on the Former Affairs of the Bodhisattva Medicine King and is able to accept and uphold it, that will be her last appearance in a woman’s body and she will never be born in that form again.
“If in the last five hundred year period after the Thus Come One has entered extinction there is a woman who hears this sutra and carries out its practices as the sutra directs, when her life here on earth comes to an end she will immediately go to the world of Peace and Delight where the Buddha Amitayus dwells surrounded by the assembly of great bodhisattvas and there will be born seated on a jeweled seat in the center of a lotus blossom. He  will no longer know the torments of greed, desire, anger, rage, stupidity of ignorance, or the torments brought about by arrogance, envy or other defilements. He will gain the bodhisattva’s transcendental powers and the truth of the birthlessness of all phenomena. Having gained this truth, his faculty of sight will be clear and pure, and with this clear pure faculty of sight he will see Buddhas and Thus Come Ones equal in number to the sands of seven hundred twelve thousand million nayutas of Ganges.
“At that time Buddhas will join in praising him from afar, saying: ‘Excellent, excellent, good man! In the midst of the Law of Shakyamuni Buddha you have been able to accept, uphold, read, recite and ponder this sutra and to preach it for others. The good fortune you gain thereby is immeasurable and boundless. It cannot be burned by fire or washed away by water. Your benefits are such that a thousand Buddhas speaking all together could never finish describing them. Now you have been able to destroy all devils and thieves, to annihilate the army of birth and death, and all others who bore you enmity of malice have likewise been wiped out.
“’Good man, a hundred, a thousand Buddhas will employ their transcendental powers to join in guarding and protection you. Among the heavenly and human beings of all the worlds, there will be no one like you. With the sole exception of the Thus Come One, there will be none among the voice-hearers, pratyekabuddhas of bodhisattvas whose wisdom and ability in meditation can equal yours!’
“Constellation King Flower, such will be the benefits and the power of wisdom successfully acquired by this bodhisattva.
“If there is a person who, hearing this chapter on the Former Affairs of the Bodhisattva Medicine King, is able to welcome it with joy and praise its excellence, then in this present existence this person’s mouth will constantly emit the fragrance of the blue lotus flower, and the pores of his body will constantly emit the fragrance of ox-head sandalwood. His benefits will be such as have been described above.
“For this reason, Constellation King Flower, I entrust this chapter on the Former Affairs of the Bodhisattva Medicine King to you. After I have passed into extinction, in the last five hundred year period you must spread it abroad widely throughout Jambudvipa and never allow it to be cut off, nor must you allow evil devils, the devils’ people, heavenly beings, dragons, yakshas of kumbhanda demons to seize the advantage!
“Constellation King Flower, you must use your transcendental powers to guard and protect this sutra. Why? Because this sutra provides good medicine for the ills of the people of Jambudvipa. If a person who has an illness is able to hear this sutra, then his illness will be wiped out and he will know neither old age or death.
“Constellation King Flower, if you see someone who accepts and upholds this sutra, you must take blue lotus blossoms, heap them with powdered incense, and scatter them over him as an offering. And when you have scattered them, you should think to yourself: Before long this person will pick grasses, spread them as a seat in the place of practice, and conquer the armies of the devil. Then he will sound the conch of the Law, beat the drum of the great Law, and free all living beings from the sea of old age, sickness, and death!
“For this reason when those who seek the Buddha way see someone who accepts and upholds this sutra, they should approach him with this kind of respect and reverence.”
When [the Buddha] preached this chapter on the Former Affairs of the Bodhisattva Medicine King, eighty-four thousand bodhisattvas gained the dharani that allows them to understand the words of all living beings. Many Treasures Thus Come One in the midst of his treasure tower praised the bodhisattva Constellation King Flower, Saying: “Excellent, excellent, Constellation King Flower. You succeeded in acquiring inconceivable benefits and thus were able to question Shakyamuni Buddha about this matter, profiting immeasurable numbers of living beings.”NOTES:
- Kaṅkara, vivara, and aksobhya are all extremely large numerical units.
- As the text makes clear later on, the woman has been reborn in male form.