Zen & the Lotus Sutra

Ryuei and Maylie at the Berkeley Zen Center

A Series of Seminars at the
Berkeley Zen Center ~ 1999
by Ryuei Michael McCormick

Table of Contents

Dedication to the memory of the late Zen Master, Kushin Seisho Maylie Scott (1935-2001)

Session One ~ April 1

  • Opening Verse and Statement (Ch.1)
  • Zen and the Lotus Sutra (Ch.2)
  • Parables of the Lotus Sutra (Ch.3-4)
  • Overview of the Seminar
  • Q&A from Session 1
  • Session Two ~ April 8

  • Overview of the Lotus Sutra
  • Bodhicitta (Ch.3-4)
  • Parables of Encouragement (Ch.5,7)
  • Parables of Buddha-nature (Ch.8,14)
  • Absolute and Relative Bodhicitta (Ch.10,14)
  • Q&A from Session 2
  • On the Odaimoku
  • Session Three ~ April 15

  • Appearance of the Precious Stupa (Ch.11-14)
  • The Emergent Bodhisattvas of the Earth (Ch.15)
  • The Eternal Buddha (Ch.16)
  • The Merits of the Single Moment of Faith and Rejoicing (Ch.17-19)
  • The Transmission of the Wonderful Dharma (Ch.21-22)
  • Q&A from Session 3
  • Session Four ~ April 22

  • Analysis of the Lotus Sutra
  • Bodhisattva Medicine King (Ch.23)
  • Bodhisattva Wonder Sound (Ch.24)
  • Bodhisattva Regarder of the Cries of the World (Ch.25)
  • Dharanis (Ch.26)
  • King Resplendent (Ch.27)
  • Encouragement of Bodhisattva Universal Virtue (Ch.28)
  • Q&A for Session 4
  • Session Five ~ April 29

  • Q&A for Session 5 after Shodaigyo Practice

    Appendix A: Verses for Opening the Sutra
    Appendix B: Practice Questions
  • Appendix C: The Seven Parables of the Lotus Sutra
    Appendix D: Zen Masters on the Lotus Sutra
    Appendix E: Recitation Passages
    Appendix F: Shodaigyo Meditation

    Session Three

    Appearance of the Precious Stupa

    Tonight we will talk about what cannot be talked about. I have been wondering how to do this. Fortunately, the sutra is going to help us look at what is beyond what can be looked at, or seen, or heard, or thought of. Tonight we will be dealing with chapters 11-22, the chapters which make up what is known as the Ceremony in the Air. To go over it again, the first ten chapters are the assembly on Eagle Peak where people begin with aspiration. They are still in the ordinary world of time and space and other people and zafus they can sit on and concrete objects. They aspire to have a realization that will take them beyond that. This week we will be discussing chapters 11-22 where they get beyond the ordinary, beyond the common sense way of viewing things, the whole world is turned upside down. This Ceremony in the Air deals with realization. The realization that comes in the midst of one's practice as one's practice. Next week we will be talking about the next six chapters which deal with the various bodhisattvas and how they bring this realization back down to earth, back down to Eagle Peak, back down to the world that we are usually living in.

    Tonight we will be going into the regions of Buddhist science fiction as one Nichiren Shu bishop has referred to it. It begins in chapter 11, with the Precious Stupa of the Tathagata Many Treasures which rises up out of the earth. Let me read to you the passage where this appears:

    At that time in front of the Buddha a stupa of the seven precious things, five hundred yojanas in height and two hundred and fifty yojanas in length and breadth, sprang up from the earth and abode in the sky... Then from the midst of the Precious Stupa there came a loud voice, praising and saying: "Excellent! Excellent! World-honored Shakyamuni! Thou art able to preach to the great assembly the Wonderful Law-Flower Sutra of universal and great wisdom, by which bodhisattvas are instructed and which the buddhas guard and mind. So it is, so it is, World-honored Shakyamuni! All that thou sayest is true."

    Up to this point the Buddha has been talking about the One Vehicle, the possibility that all beings can attain buddhahood for themselves. Even though different people have different states of mind, different inclinations, different talents, even different levels of aspiration, up to this point the Buddha has been teaching that they will all nevertheless enter the same stream, flow out into the same ocean of buddhahood, the very same enlightenment and realization that Shakyamuni himself had. Now you have this precious stupa rising up out of the earth and floating up into the sky, and you have this primordial buddha Many Treasures testifying to the truth, endorsing what the Buddha has been saying up to this point.

    Before I move on to the next parts of the Ceremony in the Air, let me say a few things about what this precious stupa is and who Many Treasures Buddha is. To begin with if you look at the dimensions of the treasure tower in the sutra and took those measurements and tried to apply them literally this precious stupa would be half the diameter of the earth. We are not talking about something that is in the realm of ordinary possibility. When you think about what this precious stupa is, it is the buddha-nature in a symbolic form. It is the stupa of the seven precious things. These seven precious things are different aspects of our own practice. Our ability to calm ourselves, find a center, investigate the truth, gain encouragement and inspiration from that effort. All these different aspects of our practice are the jewels of the precious stupa, and the precious stupa altogether is our own buddha-nature emerging from beneath the earth of our daily activities, our daily frustrations, our usual state of discouragement and quiet desperation (as Thoreau called it) and it rises up into the sky. It takes us up beyond that. It is transcendent. It breaks through the ordinary world that we usually live in.

    If Shakyamuni Buddha is the one who has realized the truth, Many Treasures Tathagata is the personification of the truth which is realized. Many Treasures Tathagata is the buddha within our own hearts, within the depths of ourselves that, when it hears the teaching of Shakyamuni, wells up from within us saying, "Yes! This is it. This makes sense. This must be the way out of that frustration, that anxiety, the anguish that we usually face. This must be the way into something that we previously could not have even imagined or asked for." As we saw in the reaction of the Buddha's disciples in the previous chapters when he predicted their buddhahood, and they said "This is something that we could not have even sought for ourselves."

    In the rest of that chapter, the treasure tower rises up, the disciples (who are still on the ground at this point) hear this testimony and they say, "Who is this? Who is saying these things?" Shakyamuni Buddha says, "This is the reliquary of an ancient buddha who made a vow in the far distant past that whenever the Wonderful Dharma of the Lotus Flower Sutra is preached he would appear to hear this preaching and testify to its truth." The disciples asked, "We would like to see this buddha. Could you open this sutra so that we can see his form." So the Buddha says, "First, I have to recall all the emanated buddhas throughout the universe back here, back to Eagle Peak, because only when everything is gathered together can we open up this universal truth." And that is what he precedes to do. But first he purifies the saha world, this world of endurance and suffering. All the various devils, demons, ghosts and others undergo a cosmic urban renewal and they are all cleared out. I prefer to interpret this differently. I don't like to think of them as all being bought off or shunted off to some other neighborhood. I prefer to think that the minds of all the beings within are elevated to the point where they no longer think of themselves as demons or ghosts or war makers or homeless people or rich people who don't care or any of the other various kinds of people there are. Their minds are elevated from what they were and they go beyond their usual state. So I don't think of it as removal but as transformation. Three times the buddha has to transform the saha world. Three times he has to purify it because there are so many buddhas with their retinues and bodhisattvas coming in. There are so many aspects of the truth appearing throughout the universe as reflections or mirror images of Shakyamuni Buddha. They all gather together.

    Some people interpret this as Shakyamuni Buddha being the only real Buddha and all the other ones are mere ghostly images or mere reflections. But I think of it more holographically. For those of us who live in this world, Shakyamuni Buddha is the one who taught the Dharma. Shakyamuni Buddha is the Buddha with whom we have a special relationship. He is the buddha whom we can relate to and who related to us in our terms. All the other truths go back to the truth that we can learn through Shakyamuni Buddha, the truth Shakyamuni embodied. But if we were to live on another planet, or world system, or in different circumstances there would be another buddha that we would relate to directly and then Shakyamuni Buddha would be the reflection of that buddha. So all of these buddhas are reflections of each other. There is no question of a hegemony or a monotheism of buddha. There is no, "I Shakyamuni am the lord your buddha. Thou shalt have no other buddhas before me." This is not what is going on. It is a holographic scene with all the buddhas echoing and mirroring each other. Because we live here, Shakyamuni Buddha is the one from whom the Dharma originates.

    Now when they are all gathered together and when it is seen that the truth is universal and expressed in many different ways throughout the universe, then Shakyamuni Buddha is able to open this treasure tower and show Many Treasures Tathagata. And Many Treasures, this buddha who has passed into nirvana so long ago, is not static. He is not a mere personification of non-existence. He seems very active and very lively for an ancient buddha. He is very hospitable as well because he invites Shakyamuni to come and share his throne within the precious stupa. So now you have both buddhas there. You have Shakyamuni and you have Many Treasures. You have the one who realized the truth and you have the embodiment, the personification, of the truth which is realized within us. Now both are in this tower which has risen up over the earth.

    The congregation wants to be there too. They say, "we can't see you so well anymore." Of course not, they are still within the realm of convention. So the Buddha, though his transcendent power, lifts the entire congregation up. When you think about it, in our practice we embody that union (perhaps I should say non-duality) of realization and that which is realized. When we practice, we are sitting in the treasure tower. When we practice, the world and all the beings within it are the assembly and all are lifted up into the sky with the treasure tower, with the practice and realization of the buddha-nature. That is what's going on here. Words can never do this justice, which is why the Lotus Sutra uses this fantastic imagery to convey to us how awesome this is, how incredible this is, how mind-boggling this whole process is.

    It doesn't end there. There is much more. The chapters which follow spell out some of the implications of this. In chapter 12 you have Devadatta's enlightenment predicted and (as I mentioned last week) the enlightenment of the dragon girl showing that nobody is left out of this. In chapters 13 and 14, it is demonstrated how one should practice in different circumstances, in peaceful circumstances and under hard or oppressive circumstances.

    The Emergent Bodhisattvas of the Earth

    In chapter 15 the bodhisattvas who have gathered together from all the corners of the universe, all these celestial transcendent perfect beings tell the Buddha, "We will teach this Wonderful Dharma in the future after you are gone, after your extinction. We would be happy to come into this world in spite of all its hardships and limitations in order to teach this and get people to wake up." Amazingly enough, the Buddha responds, "That's o.k. You don't need to do that. I have some other people in mind who are going to be able to preach this Dharma in the world that is so full of hardships after my extinction." Then he brings forth these other bodhisattvas. So let me read that passage to you:
    At that time the bodhisattva-mahasattvas who had come from other lands, numerous as the sands of the eight Ganges, arose in the great assembly, and with folded hands saluted and spoke to the Buddha, saying: "World-honored One! If the Buddha will allow us, after his extinction, diligently and zealously to protect and keep, read and recite, copy and worship this sutra in this saha-world, we would preach it abroad in this land." Thereupon the Buddha addressed all the host of those bodhisattva-mahasattas: "Enough! My good sons! There is no need for you to protect and keep this sutra. Wherefore? Because in my saha-world there are in fact bodhisattva-mahasattvas [numerous] as the sands of sixty thousand Ganges; each one of these bodhisattvas has a retinue [numerous] as the sands of sixty thousand Ganges; these persons are able, after my extinction, to protect and keep, read and recite, and preach abroad this sutra."

    When the Buddha had thus spoken, all the earth of the three-thousand-great-thousandfold land of the saha-world trembled and quaked, and from its midst there issued together innumerable thousand myriad kotis of bodhisattva-mahasattvas. All these bodhisattvas with their golden-hued bodies, thirty-two signs, and boundless radiance had all been dwelling in [infinite] space below this saha-world. All these bodhisattvas, hearing the voice of Shakyamuni Buddha preaching, sprang forth from below.
    I like to refer to these as the Emergent Bodhisattvas of the Earth. Sometimes, just to bring it down to earth a little more, I call them the Grass Roots Bodhisattvas. When you think about it, that is where they are coming from, from the roots. Not just from the ground but from beneath the earth where seeds are planted and where they take in their nourishment. It says from the "emptiness beneath the earth." These bodhisattvas have a very keen insight into emptiness but they are still rooted in this world with its daily cares and concerns. It is from these circumstances that they arise. Who are these bodhisattvas? They are us. We are the bodhisattvas who emerge from beneath the earth of the daily circumstances of our jobs, of our families, of our practice, of getting caught in traffic, of trying to finish making revisions in a dissertation, of trying to raise a daughter who keeps hiding that dissertation. This is the earth which our practice is rooted in. This is the earth which is empty and which we need to realize is empty but also very full. You will notice that these bodhisattvas are golden-hued with thirty-two marks, thirty-two signs. These bodhisattvas are described as not merely very advanced beings but as practically buddhas themselves. In fact, for all intents and purposes they are buddhas except that they have not taken that position. They don't need to. They just need to be who they are; practice as they are. But really, their practice is buddhahood itself. There are different sayings like "It takes one to know one." or "To get love you have to be loving yourself." Well this is the Buddhist version of that. To become a buddha you have to be a buddha. That is what these bodhisattvas are. Again, they are us. We are the ones who have been entrusted with teaching this Dharma, this Wonderful Dharma of the Lotus Flower in this age. Not the celestial bodhisattvas, not the ones who live in an ideal realm but we ourselves who have to deal with these circumstances.

    The Buddha then goes on to say that these are his original disciples. Not only will they be his disciples in the future, but in the far distant past these were his original disciples. The other bodhisattvas and other disciples who had been there all along looked at this huge vast conglomeration of these all-but-buddha-bodhisattvas who had seemingly sprung up from out of nowhere wondered how he could have had time in the mere forty years since the Buddha had become enlightened under the Bodhi Tree to teach all of these beings. But the Buddha insists that this is true, even if it seems as ridiculous, as the sutra says, as a young man of twenty pointing to a bunch of eighty year old men and saying, "These are my sons. The Buddha says, "Nevertheless, these are my original disciples."

    The Eternal Buddha

    Now we move into the 16th chapter, The Eternal Life of the Tathagata. This is where the Buddha reveals that he is much more than simply a prince who left the palace forty years before and woke up beneath the Bodhi Tree. Now some people misunderstand the 16th chapter and think that this talk of the Eternal Buddha means that the Buddha's enlightenment actually happened in the far distant past and that the enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree was just a show, just an expedient means or demonstration of how to become a buddha by someone who already was one. They misinterpret this buddha as some kind of superbeing or god who is making some kind of play at being human and attaining enlightenment. That is not what is going on here. Let me read a very crucial passage from the 16th chapter that might help put this in perspective. The Buddha says:
    [Because] the Tathagata knows and sees the character of the triple world as it really is: [to him] there is neither birth nor death, or going away or coming forth; neither living nor dead; neither reality nor unreality; neither thus nor otherwise. Unlike [the way] the triple world beholds the triple world, the Tathagata clearly sees such things as these without mistake.
    Now even in the Pali Canon the Buddha says many times that the Tathagata can not be measured or understood in terms of the body, or thoughts, or feelings, or any of the other aggregates which make up what we think of as the self. Essentially the Tathagata is beyond our ordinary understanding, beyond measurement, beyond quantifying. That is exactly what he is saying here. The Buddha does not see things in these terms anymore - self or Other, within or without, beginning or end. In the Buddha's enlightenment, all these categories and boxes broke down and the Buddha saw in his enlightenment that enlightenment was going on the whole time. This enlightenment was not just his enlightenment but the enlightenment of all beings of all time. This is how the bodhisattvas from beneath the earth can be the original disciples of this original buddha. Because that enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree is timeless, outside the boundaries of time and space. Just as the teaching of that enlightenment as the Wonderful Dharma of the Lotus Sutra and the 16th chapter is shown to be beyond time and space. What this means is that right in this time, now, in this space, it is being preached. Right now we are sitting under the Bodhi Tree. Right now we are in the congregation of the Ceremony in the Air. It's not a theory anymore. It's something we are living. We just need to see it. We need to learn how to see it. We need to see in a different way, hear in a different way, feel in a different way, think in a different way. When we can learn to do that, when we can open up to that, the Lotus Sutra is happening now. It's no longer the one vehicle of "someday you will become a buddha," it's the teaching that "if you could just wake up you would see that right now."

    The Merits of the Single Moment of Faith and Rejoicing

    But it doesn't end there. Believe it or not there is more. The Ceremony in the Air, the revelation in the 16th chapter that the Buddha's life is without bounds, that the Buddha's life and our life are both without bounds, is looking at it from our perspective. It is from the perspective of those who sit outside the treasure tower. But now we need to take it into ourselves. We need to really feel it, not just read it or try to imagine it or visualize it sitting on a zafu or sitting on a sunny beach or sitting on the grass and enjoying the fresh air. We need to take it right into our heart and down into our bellies. We need to give voice to it. That is what the next few chapters help us to understand and to do. The next chapter says:
    At that time when the great congregation heard the Buddha proclaim that such were the number of kalpas and the length of his lifetime, innumerable, countless living beings obtained great benefit.
    This goes beyond mere hearing. This is really hearing in the heart. Hearing in the gut. The 17th chapter goes on to say:
    Thereupon the Buddha addressed Maitreya Bodhisattva-Mahasattva: "Ajita! Those living beings who have heard that the lifetime of the Buddha is of such long duration and have been able to receive but one thought of faith and discernment - the merits they will obtain are beyond limit and measure. Suppose there be any good son or daughter who, for the sake of Perfect Enlightenment, during eight hundred thousand kotis of nayutas of kalpas practices the five paramitas: dana-paramita, sila-paramita, kshanti-paramita, virya-paramita, and dhyana-paramita, prajna-paramita being excepted; these merits compared with the above-mentioned merits are not equal to even the hundredth part, the thousandth part, or one part of a hundred thousand myriad kotis of it; indeed, neither numbers nor comparisons can make it known. If any good son or good daughter possesses such merit as this, there is no such thing as failing [to obtain] Perfect Enlightenment."
    Now probably you have heard many times that understanding enlightenment is not an intellectual undertaking. It's not about reason or figuring it out, or arriving at some conceptual idea. Prajnaparamita, the perfection of wisdom, is something that really can't be reduced to any text book descriptions. That is what the sutra is saying here. It is equating this single moment of faith and discernment in the life of the Buddha with the perfection of wisdom. Saying that as generous as you might try to be, as impeccably ethical as you might try to be, as patient, as concentrated (you might be able to sit in zazen for hours and hours without getting a cramp - unlike myself), it doesn't matter if you do not have that perfection of wisdom. That perfection of wisdom is what makes it real generosity, real sitting, real patience. That perfection of wisdom is nothing other than, according to this passage, that moment of really having full trust and confidence in the life of the Buddha as our own life. So it puts it in the context of faith, a single moment of faith, a single moment of opening up. Now this is not faith as in blind belief, it is faith as total trust, total confidence. The kind of total trust and confidence that only comes from a direct perception.

    The sutra goes on to say:
    Again, Ajita! If anyone hears the duration of the Buddha's life-time and apprehends its meaning, the merit obtained by this man will be beyond limit and he will advance to the supreme wisdom of tathagatas; how much more will [this be the case with] the one who is devoted to hearing this sutra, or causes others to hear it, or himself keeps it, or causes others to keep it, or himself copies it, or causes others to copy it, or with flowers, incense, garlands, banners, flags, silk canopies, and lamps of fragrant oil and ghee pays homage to the sutra; this man's merit will be infinite and boundless and able to bring forth perfect knowledge. Ajita! If any good son or good daughter, hearing of my declaration of the duration of my lifetime, believes and discerns it in his inmost heart, such a one will see the Buddha always on Mount Grdhrakuta surrounded by a host of great bodhisattvas and sravakas, and preaching the Law. And he will be able to see this saha-world whose land is lapis lazuli, plain and level, its eight roads marked off with jambunada gold, lined with jewel trees; it has towers, halls, and galleries all made of jewels, in which dwell together its bodhisattva host. If anyone is able so to behold, you may know that this is the sign of profound faith and discernment.
    This is the pure land. Thats what this passage is saying. We just need to open up to it.

    The next chapter, chapter 18, The Merits of Joyful Acceptance, says:
    If anyone in an assembly
    Hears this sutra,
    Though only one stanza,
    And joyfully proclaims it to others,
    And thus its teaching rolls on
    Till it reaches the fiftieth [hearer],
    The happiness obtained by this last
    I now will explain.
    Then he goes on with the hyperbole of the Mahayana which we have all come to know and love. I've already read enough passages like that but again I encourage you to go and see for yourself in the sutra. The 18th chapter is saying that even the 50th person who hears this, if they can understand it, even though they are so far removed from the original event, even though it's been passed down the line 50 times, it is so powerful that even they, if they can open up to it, they will have merits that go beyond any kind of piece meal attempt at being nice or being good. Because the perfection of being nice, being good, being kind, patient, compassionate is perfected by this moment of realization.

    Chapter 19, the Merits of the Preacher, goes on to say that the one who realizes these things will have all of their organs purified. Touch, taste, sight, sound, hearing, consciousness, all of these will become purified. There are several very profound passages in that chapter concerning how the entire world is embodied in ourselves once we realize this. It discusses how we can hear the Dharma in all things that are heard, can smell the Dharma. Everything becomes the Dharma for the one who is able to realize this. It talks about the purification of the six sense organs but it really goes beyond that. They are talking about the purification of the whole person, the whole being, through that single moment of realization, that single moment of faith in this eternal life of the Buddha which is our life, that single moment of opening up to the pure land right beneath our feet.

    The Transmission of the Wonderful Dharma

    Finally, in chapter 21, the Buddha speaks of this teaching, this Wonderful Dharma of the Lotus Flower Teaching, as the moment of transfer of the Buddha's realization to us in whatever situation we might find ourselves in. This is one of the most inspiring sections of the Lotus Sutra. It says:
    Essentially speaking, all the laws belonging to the Tathagata, all the sovereign, divine powers of the Tathagata, all the mysterious, essential treasuries of the Tathagata, and the very profound conditions of the Tathagata, all are proclaimed, displayed, revealed, and expounded in this sutra. Therefore you should, after the extinction of the Tathagata, wholeheartedly receive and keep, read and recite, explain and copy, cultivate and practice it as the teaching. In whatever land, whether it be received and kept, read and recited, explained and copied, cultivated and practiced as the teaching; whether in a grove, or under a tree, or in a monastery, or in a lay devotee's house, in a palace or a mountain, in a valley or in the wilderness, in all these places you must erect a caitya and make offerings. Wherefore? You should know that [all] these spots are the thrones of enlightenment. On these [spots] the buddhas attain Perfect Enlightenment; on these [spots] the buddhas roll the wheel of the Law; on these [spots] the buddhas [enter] parinirvana.
    If you remember the Parable of the Prodigal Son where the father finally reveals that he is the father and that the son will inherit everything that is the father's, this is the moment where you get to see the will. This is the moment where you are given the keys to the treasury. And really it is the key of your own heart. As Hui-neng said, "Don't think it's the fathers or the son's." It is just what it is. Wherever it is.

    Finally we come to chapter 22, the Final Commission. It's only two pages long. The Buddha, being very generous, opens the Dharma up, not just to us, the Bodhisattvas from Underground, but to all the other bodhisattvas who had said before "We want to preach this!" and he had said, "No, wait. I have some other people in mind." Well in 22 he opens this up to everybody. In our realization, we are really joining the sangha of the entire universe, of all beings everywhere without exception. Nothing, no one is left out. This final commission is really the total communion, as well as a commission to teach.

    And that is the Ceremony in the Air. I can't even imagine that I have done justice to it, but I hope that I have been able to convey a little to you of what it is about and what it means, what it could mean in our practice. With that I will open it up to questions.

    Q&A from Session 3

    Question: Is Eagle Peak the same as Vulture Peak in India? Or Rajgir?

    Michael: Rajgir is the city. The actual name of Eagle Peak or Vulture Peak is Grdhrakuta.

    Q: So Eagle Peak is that place?

    M: Right. It has been translated different ways. Eagle Peak. Vulture Peak. Depending on the translator. If you have ever seen a picture of it, it looks like an eagle or a vulture with its wings folded up. It is a big slab up at an angle. Supposedly there were caves in that area. The Buddha often, not just in the Lotus Sutra but in others, gave sermons at the top. I will point this out though, in the context of the Lotus Sutra, Eagle Peak is anywhere where the Lotus Sutra is realized. It is anywhere where the Lotus Sutra is shared between people. So when you read the sutra, realize that there are these different levels going on. Eagle Peak is a metaphoric place as well as a literal place.

    Q: This grandiose imagery of jeweled trees, and towers, and parasols, and banners and all that stuff. Is that Indian or Chinese?

    M: Very Indian. Apparently in India in the 5th century B.C.E. or later, it was very difficult to travel from one place to another. There were all these mountains that had to be passed and it was very difficult, and there were rivers that would flood and it was difficult to get over them. It was very tiring to go up and down these hills. Of course, this was not the Gangetic plane where the Buddha was teaching, but the foothills of the Himalayas. So the perfect place to them would be nice and level. Kansas would have been the pure land to them. Very easy to walk from one place to another with no obstructions. Also think of the Wizard of Oz. When Dorothy is in Kansas everything is in black and white, and then suddenly bang! Everything is in technicolor. There is the yellow brick road and all the colors. So what was the most colorful thing that you could see in ancient India? Jewels, sapphires, diamonds and pearls, opals and rubies were the most colorful things available. So they imagined that kind of color on everything and in everything. That to them was a way of expressing how beautiful the world can be if we had the eyes to see it.

    Q: The Indians as a culture still have an exuberance for color and silks and the qualities of iridescence and brilliance. It's still very much an aspect of their culture. In that regard it's quite different from the Chinese culture then and now.

    But I wanted to ask you about this expression, saha, the saha world. Where does that come from? Before you respond let me say that I remember, from a class series many years ago that Norman Fischer gave, that the Flower Garland Sutra referred to this world as the world of endurance. So could you please explain the significance of this?

    M: I was going to mention that, because there is this passage in the Flower Garland that talks about all the different worlds throughout the universe and all the different names they have. They are such beautiful names. There is the Flower Garland world of course, and there is the world of Precious Things, the world of Many Jeweled Necklaces, the world of Bejeweled Parasols and all these exotic names. It boggles the imagination if you try to imagine what these names might mean. There is a whole page or two listing all these wonderful beautiful names in the eastern and southern, northern and northeastern direction presumably stemming from here. And then you get to the saha world, the world of endurance. What a let down! I guess that we are the Bellvue of the Cosmos in a sense. In the 11th chapter when the Treasure Tower, the Precious Stupa rises up, the Buddha purifies this saha world, this world of endurance, three times. Revealing that actually, from the perspective of the Buddha, and from the perspective of any awakened being who comes into this sphere, this is already the pure land. He just uncovers what is already there. In the Sutra of Meditation on Bodhisattva Universal Virtue, the epilogue to the Lotus Sutra, this world of endurance in the aspect of a pure land is called the Pure Land of Tranquil Light. So that is where we are right now. We are in the Pure Land of Tranquil Light. We just don't realize it. In the 16th chapter is a very significant passage which says:
    When all the living see, at the kalpas end,
    The conflagration when it is burning,
    Tranquil is this realm of mine,
    Ever filled with heavenly beings,
    Parks, and many palaces
    With every kind of gem adorned,
    Precious trees full of blossoms and fruits,
    Where all creatures take their pleasure;
    All the gods strike the heavenly drums
    And evermore make music,
    Showering mandarava flowers
    On the Buddha and his great assembly.
    My Pure Land will never be destroyed,
    Yet all view it as being burned up,
    And grief and horror and distress
    Fill them all like this.
    So what the 16th chapter is saying is that it only seems to us like the world of endurance. Really this world is one of all those beautiful world systems with their beautiful names. This world in its true aspect is the Pure Land of Tranquil Light so we don't have to feel like we have been thrust into some cosmic ghetto of rebirth necessarily. Only if we want to persist in that kind of thinking.

    Q: I was struck by the passages which you were referring to which say things of this nature, "If you only have faith, if you can only believe this, then it will exceed by a millionfold the advantage or merits of good works, generosity, patience, concentration, the whole nine yards of the paramitas." This strikes me as an echo, a recapitulation, a reformulation of what certain Christian sects, certain Protestant sects, say: "Well, forget about all that other stuff. If you accept Jesus Christ as your savior, then you will be born-again. Good works and all that other stuff and all those rules can't hold a candle to it." Just faith, this idea of faith opens the door. Now I have heard it said that Mahayana arose during that same period of time that Christ was preaching and that there is cross-fertilization. Something that could be very likely.

    M: I have seen some very sloppy scholarship in that direction.

    Q: In fact, in this sutra, in contrast to the earlier Pali canon in which the Buddha is a human teacher, the Buddha is transformed into the Buddha as an eternal universal savior or even God.

    M: First of all there is nothing in the Lotus Sutra which contradicts or goes against the teachings in the Pali Canon, but there is much in the Lotus Sutra that takes material from the Pali Canon and carries it forward. Many times, I have heard people saying that in the Lotus Sutra the Buddha is turned into a god or the Buddha is no longer really a human being anymore. Well, they are not really looking at the Pali Canon very carefully when they say that, because in the Pali Canon the Buddha says that the Tathagata is beyond appearance and disappearance. This is stated many times. And there is nothing in here essentially different from what is in the Pali Canon. It is the way in which it is expressed which is different. The Pali Canon is very rational and logical. But in here the teaching is portrayed in a very mythic form. But it is not trying to make the Buddha into something which is beyond what we are. It is trying to say that if we really understand who we are we will see that we are no different than the Buddha. The Sutra of Innumerable Meanings, the prologue to the Lotus Sutra, says: after talking about all the wonderful mystical signs that are on the Buddha's body, it says:
    There are thirty-two such signs,
    The eighty kinds of excellence are visible,
    And truly, there is nothing
    Of form or nonform.
    All visible forms are transcended;
    His body is formless and yet has form.
    This is also true
    Of the form of the body of all living beings.
    So this is not a case where the Buddha is some kind of transcendent savior who has powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men. It's that the Buddha understands his life in a different way, and we too are being invited to enter into that understanding and understand our own life in a different way. When faith is used in this context, it is not a faith where one says, "I believe the Buddha was the Creator of Heaven and Earth...." It is not that kind of faith, where you have a bunch of creeds and ascribe to them intellectually and you say, "O.k. I believe that, I believe that. Where is my ticket to heaven?" That is not what is going on here. In this sense faith is when all of this becomes so real to you that it changes your life. So it is not just agreeing to something that someone is trying to put over on you about what the Buddha is. It is really realizing that "Oh! This is for real!" It is trust and confidence, it is not about blind belief.

    Q: I think people of faith in other religions would not say that their faith is simply assenting to a list of prior doctrines.

    M: And to that extent they may be approaching prajnaparamita as well. As a matter of fact, this is a good chance for me to take back something that I said last week. Last week somebody asked me about the pratyekabuddha path, the path of the private buddhas, and I was saying that the private buddha is one who awakens to dependent origination even though they have never heard of the Buddha or come into contact with Buddhism. Yet, they are unable to express it as fully as the Buddha did. I said that people like Rumi or Meister Eckhart would be examples of people in other cultures who independently arrived at the same truth of dependent origination as the Buddha. But I'd like to take that back, because it seems to me that somebody who independently arrived at dependent origination and was unable to speak of it, to teach it, somebody who was just a pratyekabuddha, we would never hear about. According to the definition of a private-buddha they would go off into the hills, realize it for themselves, and keep it to themselves. But the bodhisattva is the one who is able to realize the truth of the Buddha and is able to take it into other cultures, other worlds where the Dharma has not yet penetrated, and even try to express it in seemingly non-Buddhist terms. I think that when you read Rumi or read Meister Eckhart, you see examples of a Muslim in one case, or a Sufi, and a Christian in another, expressing these very same insights in terms that a Muslim or a Christian could identify with. In fact, let me read to you this passage from the Lotus Sutra:
    Bhikshus! Listen to me attentively!
    The Way [my] Buddha-son has walked,
    Is beyond conception.
    Knowing how all enjoy mere trifles
    And are afraid of the greater wisdom,
    The bodhisattvas therefore become
    Sravakas or pratyekabuddhas.
    By numberless tactful method
    They convert the various kinds of beings,
    Saying: ‘We are but sravakas,
    Far removed from the Buddha-way."

    They release innumerable beings,
    All completing [their course];
    Even the lowly disposed and the neglectful
    Gradually become buddhas.
    Inwardly hiding their bodhisattva-deeds,
    Outwardly they appear as sravakas.
    With few desires and disliking mortal life,
    They truly purify their buddha-land.
    They show themselves possessed of human passion
    And seem to hold heretical views.
    Thus do my disciples
    Tactfully save all beings.

    So it is very possible that some Christians in their own terminology may be expressing the very same insights that are being shared in the Lotus Sutra. It is very possible in the Buddhist world-view that bodhisattvas can be reborn as the members of other religions. But they carry their insight and compassion with them. That is their inheritance. They take the power of their vows with them. That doesn't mean that other traditions will be able to stay at that high level. Faith can easily degenerate into blind belief. Ecstatic awakening can become mere emotionalism. I think that is the problem. It can happen within Buddhism too.

    Q: I wasn't saying that to compare.

    M: I understand.

    Q: The reason that I brought it up was because I think this was a trend. A religious trend that seemed to be prevalent at that period of time. This ecstasy thing, this short-cuttism. "Forget about your monasticism and self-denial and all that stuff. One flash of perception is better than any of that." I just wanted to point out that this seems to be a cross-cultural idea.

    M: I think it is that they realize the futility of self-effort. Think about Shinran and Honen. There is a good example. Here were two men who went through the whole Tendai program of monastic training for 20 years in the case of Honen (I think), who read through the sutras five times, obeyed all the rules, performed all the rituals and ceremonies. Basically, they did everything they could to live up to the program and after all that effort they realized, "You know, I am still the same shitty person that I was when I started." Not only that, but they had driven themselves crazy trying to be perfect and realizing that "I can't match up, I can't live up to this." In that moment, when they dropped that effort, then they were able to drop their own "body and mind" as it were. Drop the egocentrism with which they were approaching the practice. And that for them was the moment of faith. But after that, Honen persisted in doing all the practices, living up to the precepts. Basically he remained a good monk. In Shinran's case, he realized that he could be a family man and embody it in that way. It is not as if they had a moment of faith and realized "Now I can do whatever I want." No, they had a moment of faith and finally it became real to them. Finally it wasn't a bunch of external rules they were trying to live up to. It was the Dharma in their heart expressing itself as ethical action, as a tranquil mind, as generosity. But now it was real. It was not some kind of painful austerity that they were trying to force themselves into. Now it was coming from the heart authentically. This idea of faith has been interpreted and used as a bypass or as a shortcut, a sort of salvation on the cheap. But really, it is the most simple act, but also the most difficult act. And once you've got it, everything will fall into place. But it's very easy to fool yourself.

    Q: Maybe it was necessary for them to go through all those travails to get to the place where they could actually make that realization.

    M: Right. Could the Buddha have discovered the Middle Way if he hadn't indulged himself, if he hadn't tortured himself almost to death? That doesn't mean we have to do it. We don't necessarily have to reinvent the Dharma Wheel.

    Q: This is such an important point. Would you say again what it is that this is asking us or encouraging us to have faith in?

    M: It is the courage to have faith in the boundarylessness which is the life of the Buddha, which is our own life. I think that is what it is asking us to have the faith and courage to realize and live. It is scary to try to step outside the boundaries that we ordinarily live in. It's very easy to live inside the burning house because we know where all the rooms are and where to find our things. But to race out the door into the unknown can be very scary. However, that is where the freedom is. That's where the safety is. That is where we can really accomplish something.

    Q: There must be a better word, or a more felicitous word or synonym for boundarylessness. What word is there Michael? Not boundarylessness.

    M: Well there is sunyata, emptiness. That is the one we typically use.

    Maylie: Well, we say "Drop body and mind."

    Participant 1: Jump off the top of a hundred foot pole.

    P2: I like boundarylessness.

    M: That's why these sutras are so long. They try to throw all the words in there so that everybody will find something that they like. The Flower Garland especially does that. It goes on and on and on with all kinds of adjectives and adverbs.

    Q: This is sort of a technical point, but I was wondering whether the treasure tower, the precious stupa in the Lotus Sutra, is an allusion to Vairocana's Tower in the Flower Garland Sutra. Is that the same kind of structure or a different architecture?

    M: There is the way of using words conventionally and the way of using words on the ultimate level. On the ultimate level everything becomes a synonym for everything else: Dharmadhatu = Buddha-nature = Dharmakaya. On that level, yes. They are trying to convey the same realization. On the more conventional level, I would say that the treasure tower is more like the emergence of our buddha-nature from out of our life, from out of our practice. It emerges from beneath the earth and lifts us up. The tower in the Flower Garland Sutra is more of a portrayal of the Dharmadhatu, the Dharma Realm as it appears to the advanced bodhisattva or to the Buddha.

    Q: Sudhana gets in, in the end. He gets a big pay day.

    M: In both cases it is an opening up to emptiness, or boundarlessness if you like that term. Thank you. I hadn't made that connection before. I will have to think about that more in the future.

    Maylie: If this one moment of faith is more important than all of our sentient being's small minded efforts, then what is it? Also, we know that this one moment of faith is very hard to sustain. So how do we practice with it?

    M: I think we shouldn't take one moment too literally. Here again we have the conventional way of using language and then the ultimate level. Since our language only operates within the conventional we have to somehow find a conventional term and make do with it as sort of a stand-in for what is ultimate. In this case, using the idea of one moment to signify time on an ultimate level. So really that one moment is encompassing all those other moments. When we can somehow understand this or enter into this, each of those moments of embodying or living out a particular practice, or a particular moment of meditation or being generous or being patient with someone enters into that one moment and finds its life in that one moment. It's one moment outside of time that informs all of the chronological moments within time. This is easy to say but very hard to live out.

    Maylie: Yes, and there are the other metaphors of the buddhas who have been practicing for kalpas and kalpas. There is no discontinuity in the Buddhist practice. It's hard to keep one's focus there.

    M: It has always seemed to me that the ultimate level is not something apart from our conventional activities and understanding, but it is something that is the context within which we operate conventionally. Most of the time we do not have the perspective to realize that context, and when we do then we continue with these conventional ways of doing things and thinking about things but now on a whole different level.

    Stephen: This question reminds me of the song in the Sound of Music, "How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?" There is the butterfly and the cloud and everything else. There are times when I feel like my faith is the result of my practice and other times when I am doing my practice and my faith is my practice. It is one of those indefinable things that is very much the moment.

    M: And when you are practicing that is the only moment there is.

    Q: To me the treasure tower suggests something very concrete: just sitting up straight in zazen. This brings it down to earth as a concrete thing and a universal thing.

    M: Right. In our practice we are trying to live out what we are reading in here. We are dramatizing it in our own life and making it real by doing that.

    Q: I was curious, when your daughter hid your dissertation...

    M: It was my wife's actually.

    Q: O.K. Were you involved in that incident?

    M: No, I received the panicked phone call at work.

    Q: I want to know what your practice was upon receiving the phone call.

    M: My practice was to wait for the initial storm to blow over and then to see what could be done afterwards. I do that for myself also, when I find myself going into a tail spin I realize "Well, I will get this out of my system, and then I can seriously sit down and think about what to do next." Optimally, you should be at the point where from the very first instant you think "Well, there has got to be a solution to this." But that is very difficult. I guess that it is a good sign if even in the midst of the panicking you realize that it is going to blow over and then you can get down to the real work of resolving whatever it is. Which is in fact what happened. Yumi, my wife, knew it too, because after she got it out of her system she hung up and within three minutes she called me back and said, "O.k., I found it." And it turned out that our daughter didn't hide it at all. She had put it next to the computer. We just have to be patient with ourselves I think.

    Q: Could you say a little bit about the historical context of how the sutra was written? I don't know anything about it. I missed the very first meeting so I don't know if you already said anything about that.

    M: It was, as the woman in the back mentioned, first compiled, first written down along with a lot of the other Mahayana sutras around the first century C.E. I think that it is very possible that there may have been a lot of sharing along the trade routes, the silk routes. As I mentioned last week, there are a lot of parallels between the Gospel of John and certain things in the Lotus Sutra as well as the parables in the synoptics. Anyway, the verse sections were written first. This is what most scholars think now. Then the prose parts were written as a way of building or embroidering on the verse sections. They believe that the first ten chapters were compiled first as a stand alone sutra, and then later on the middle 11-22 were added, and then the last 6 were appended at the end. There is some question about the 12th chapter, whether it was part of the original or appended around the time of Chih-i, the 6th century T'ien-t'ai patriarch. That is one of the best chapters, so I don't care when it was written or who wrote it.

    Q: Was there an oral tradition prior to that time? Or was it written down in sections?

    M: From my understanding there were different communities who had different oral traditions, and who were trying to keep the Buddha's teaching alive. Not just the literal teachings, but the heart of the teachings. So they came up with not just the literal traditions of the Pali Canon of what the Buddha might have said or done, but also a more mythic or poetic way of remembering the Buddha's teachings. I think that these oral traditions got written down by these different communities. So in one valley you had a bunch of monks transcribing parts of the Lotus Sutra, and in the next valley over the Pure Land Sutras, and in the next valley over the Flower Garland Sutra was written down. That is just my speculation.

    Q: Was it written in India?

    M: I believe so, but I know that a lot of them were written in Central Asia, like in Afghanistan and places like that. There is a lot of Persian influence on some of the Mahayana sutras.

    Q: So by them, you mean a lot of different Mahayana sutras, but the Lotus Sutra you believe was India?

    M: Right. But I would have to check on that.

    Session One | Session Two | Session Three | Session Four | Session Five

    Copyright by Ryuei Michael McCormick. 1999. 2002.


    Hakuin's Letter to a Hokke Nun 1747
    Dogen's Hokke-ten-Hokke 1241
    The Seven Parables of the LS
    Zen & the LS Dogen/Hakuin
    Building the Treasure Tower
    Samantabhadra Bodhisattva
    An Overview of Buddhism
    Heart Sutra Commentary
    Odaimoku as Hua-t'ou
    Practice Questions
    Hua Yen

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