Zen & the Lotus Sutra

Ryuei and Maylie with 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

    Analysis of the Lotus Sutra

    Michael: Good evening. Now we come to the final six chapters of the Lotus Sutra. Again, I will one more time go over the way in which I have been approaching the sutra as a whole, so we will have a better idea of what we will be looking at tonight. The first ten chapters of the sutra was the first assembly on Eagle Peak. In that section of the sutra the Buddha taught the One Vehicle and finally revealed to all of the disciples as well as the bodhisattvas that they were all on the path to buddhahood so they should all aspire to become enlightened for the sake of themselves and others. That first section was dealing with aspiration, the part of our practice where we are aspiring to buddhahood.

    The middle section, chapters 11-22 that we discussed last week dealt with the Ceremony in the Air, the appearance of the treasure tower, the union of Shakyamuni Buddha - the one in this world who realized enlightenment - and Many Treasures Buddha who represents the buddha-nature united in the treasure tower and raising everyone up to their level so they can all see things in a new and different way. The middle section deals with that part of our practice where realization comes of itself, you might say. It is not the result of our finite or ego based efforts, but the power of our aspiration breaks through into a realization that transcends the self.

    Now, these final six chapters, the treasure tower and Many Treasures Buddha has returned to this realm. Now we are back on Eagle Peak again. We are back on solid ground, but with a very different way of understanding and a different way of acting and living.

    In the very beginning I spoke of this in reference to the Zen idea that "Before Zen, mountains are mountains and rivers are rivers, during Zen mountains are no longer mountains and rivers are no longer rivers." Now we have come to the stage where again, "mountains are mountains and rivers are rivers." But how does one live now that we have come back to earth, now that we have our feet back down on the ground again? What do we do now that we have taken the step off the one hundred foot pole? That is what these six chapters are going to try to answer. These are the chapters of dedication. Taking that realization, taking that merit, all of that turn-over, that radical new view that has come about in the previous chapters and now applying it and giving it, turning it over to others.

    Before I start, I also want to say that this way of viewing it as the unfolding of our own practice in terms of aspiration, realization and dedication is only one of many different ways of looking at the sutra. There are many other perspectives. Because I have chosen this way I have skipped over many important and wonderful chapters. I have skipped over the 12th chapter which discusses the enlightenment of Devadatta, the Buddhist Judas, and the enlightenment of the eight year old daughter of the dragon king. I have skipped over chapters 13 and 14 that talk about how to carry out ones aspiration in daily life, before realization, under conditions that are pleasant or may be oppressive. I have had to skip over chapter 20, the chapter on Bodhisattva Never Despise, which is a wonderful chapter. In a way it summarizes by itself what Buddhism is about: recognizing and acknowledging the buddha-nature in all things. Again, I encourage you to look at these chapters on your own. Because even if we had a hundred days and spent 24 hours of everyday talking about the sutra we couldn't exhaust it. I don't want anyone to be under the illusion or think that I am under the illusion that I am covering everything.

    Bodhisattva Medicine King

    Without further ado let's start looking at these last six chapters. Think of them as different windows onto bodhisattva practice, different facets of the wish-fulfilling gem of bodhisattva practice. The first one is the chapter on Bodhisattva Medicine King. This chapter is troubling to a lot of people because in this chapter you find the inspiration for the monks and nuns and others in Vietnam who set themselves on fire. A lot of people may have forgotten about that today, or were born after those events. Certainly I was just a little baby. I was born in 1966 when all of that was going on, but I heard about it and how troubling it was. It is troubling to think that the Lotus Sutra could inspire such an act. I won't presume to judge it.

    Let me briefly summarize the chapter. In it, Bodhisattva Constellation King Flower asks the Buddha, again these are very descriptive names, about the past activities of Medicine King Bodhisattva. What did he do to attain the exulted position that he has as one of the celestial bodhisattvas? The Buddha precedes to tell him that in Medicine King Bodhisattva's past life he was a bodhisattva called Loveliness. In that life, he spent 12,000 years single-mindedly striving to see the Buddha. Through doing that he attained the contemplation of the revelation of all forms. I suspect that the original was the samadhi of the revelation of all forms. Samadhi is when you unite with something so that there is no longer any separation, no longer any subject and object. This is not just samadhi with one thing, like a transcendent god or a mystic principle, this is a union with the revelation of all things. Upon attaining that he preceded to turn himself for 1,200 years into a living incense stick. The sutra says that he ingested many perfumes and herbs and doused himself in oils and then lit himself on fire and became a living incense stick and burned for 1,200 years. When he had consumed himself, he reappeared, or was reborn, as the son of King Pure Virtue and then again sought the Buddha with single-mindedness. In this case it was the buddha Sun-Moon-Brilliance. In these past life stories these buddhas are able to live for a very long time so that he was able to serve the very same buddha. When this buddha passed away, as an offering or commemoration of this buddha and his teachings, he preceded to set fire to his arms for 72,000 years. This Bodhisattva Loveliness was well thought of by all the other disciples and bodhisattvas and they said, "This is terrible. You are burning yourself up. You are destroying yourself. How are you going to be able to help others if you have no arms?" He then informs them that through the purity of his practice he is able to restore his arms.

    So we should understand by this that we are not talking about literally going out and setting yourself on fire. What we are talking about is a very symbolic expression or way of showing one's zeal. He is burning with zeal, burning with enthusiasm for the Dharma, for the Buddha. It is a willingness to throw all of one's self into the practice. That is really what this is about. Through doing that, one is mysteriously restored like a phoenix. One is restored to one's true nature, restored to one's true capacity to help and to reach out, just as Bodhisattva Loveliness had his arms restored. Just as when he had consumed himself totally he was able to reappear and again serve the buddha. So this is very much like the gospel teaching that in order to find yourself you must lose yourself. That is what is going on there.

    Bodhisattva Wonder Sound

    Now let us move on to the next chapter to Bodhisattva Wonder Sound. In this chapter, there is a Buddha named King Wisdom of the Pure Flower Constellation who lives in a pure land called Adorned with All Pure Radiance. You might recall that last week we talked briefly about the Flower Garland Sutra and how it lists all the wonderful worlds and their beautiful names and all the names of the wonderful buddhas who live in these realms whereas we are just stuck here in the saha world. This is happening all over again here in the Lotus Sutra, except in this case, Buddha King Wisdom of the Pure Flower Constellation has an attendant bodhisattva named Wonder Sound who wishes to come to this world and pay homage to Shakyamuni Buddha. What impresses Bodhisattva Wonder Sound is that Shakyamuni Buddha would be willing to come to this world with all its hardships and limitations and to teach under these circumstances the people who, much like myself, have such a difficult time trying to get it through their thick heads what he is trying to share with us. So out of admiration for the heroic effort of the Buddha for coming to this world, Bodhisattva Wonder Sound wishes to come here himself.

    What is interesting is that Buddha King Wisdom of the Pure Flower Constellation gives him advice before making the trip. He says:
    Do not look lightly on that domain or conceive a low opinion of it. Good son! That saha world with its high and low [places] is uneven and full of earth, stones, hills, and filth; the body of the Buddha is short and small, and all the bodhisattvas are small of stature, whereas your body is forty-two thousand yojanas [high] and my body is six million, eight hundred thousand yojanas. Your body is of the finest order, [blessed with] hundreds of thousands of myriads of felicities, and of a wonderful brightness. Therefore on going there do not look lightly on that domain, nor conceive a low opinion of the Buddha, nor of the bodhisattvas, nor of [their] country.
    In other words, don't be condescending. Don't think that because you are living in these ideal circumstances and have attained such high realizations and such marvelous powers that you are any better than they are, because really, in the Dharma, there is pure equality. There is no comparing high and low, many or few. If Bodhisattva Wonder Sound is a real bodhisattva, he will not succumb to the temptation of looking down upon those whom he is coming to greet, those whom he is trying to help. Just as in the first chapter we should be burning with zeal to help others, this chapter is pointing out that at the same time we should not set ourselves above them. So all these balances need to be maintained. As I said in one of the previous lectures, the sutra keeps giving you one thing and then giving you something else to keep it in perspective.

    So Bodhisattva Wonder Sound comes down and greets Shakyamuni Buddha, and all the other bodhisattvas are very impressed to see this marvelous celestial bodhisattva from another world who is so huge and transcendent. Yet, Shakyamuni Buddha says to them:
    You merely see here [one] body of the Bodhisattva Wonder Sound. But this bodhisattva appears in many kinds of bodies everywhere preaching this sutra to the living.
    He then precedes to enumerate all the different forms that the Bodhisattva Wonder Sound takes on. I believe that there are 34 of them altogether. He can appear as a god, a goddess, a brahmin (a priest), or a soldier, as a prince, or as a beggar, or as a child, or a merchant, male, female, old, young, even in devilish, or demonic, or monstrous forms. Even, and this boggles my mind, in the form of a buddha if that is what will help people. That is very strange because when you think about the 16th chapter the Buddha reveals that he remains in this world even though he seems to enter nirvana, so in a sense the Buddha is a bodhisattva and now you have it the other way around - a bodhisattva who can become a buddha for us. So things are much more flexible, much more open-ended than we are usually led to believe, than we would usually like to think.

    After telling the bodhisattvas and the disciples of the many forms of Bodhisattva Wonder Sound, he says:
    Good son! That contemplation is named revelation of all forms. The Bodhisattva Wonder Sound, abiding in this contemplation, is able thus to benefit countless beings.
    So there it is again, the samadhi of revealing all forms. This appears again and again throughout these last six chapters. Bodhisattva Wonder Sound, far from looking down on or having a condescending attitude is able to have such feelings of compassion and solidarity with those that he engages that he becomes them. He loses his transcendent form, empties himself out into the forms of a beggar, a child, a prince, of a god, a goddess, a hungry ghost, or even of a buddha. I think that this is our challenge as well. To be able to empty ourselves out in our practice, to have that samadhi of the revelation of all forms, to have such total solidarity. But at the same time to maintain that sense of freedom and liberation, even while one is totally engaged. A very mysterious process.

    Bodhisattva Regarder of the Cries of the World

    The next chapter, is about The All Sidedness of the Bodhisattva Regarder of the Cries of the World. Many of you may know her as Kuan Yin Bodhisattva, the goddess of mercy or as Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva. This chapter is a great favorite in East Asia and even in the Soto school in Japan, the verse portion of this chapter as well as the verse portion of the 16th chapter are often recited. In the Chinese schools this is the one part of the Lotus Sutra that they will recite to the exclusion of all else. It has received quite a lot of attention. This chapter is intriguing for a number of reasons. I want to talk about three of them.

    The first is Kuan Yin's practice. Her practice is actually "deep listening" as Thich Nhat Hanh says. This listening is not just listening. It is not exclusively listening, as if one were to listen to someone but not look at them. It is really about fully opening oneself to the needs of others. Fully opening oneself to what is going on around one and within one as well. It is a panoramic awareness and attention to the world and responding directly and purely to that. In the Surangama Sutra, where all the bodhisattvas are asked to share their meditation techniques, it is this practice of deep listening, or transcendent hearing as it says in the Goddard version, that can lead directly to nirvana, to the non-abiding nirvana of the bodhisattva. So this is a freedom and liberation that still responds to and is engaged with others. This is a very important practice that is being shared here. In the Surangama Sutra, it is discussed from the perspective of the practitioner. In the 25th chapter, it is looking at it from the angle of those who are being responded to. But there are always two sides to this, because to really practice the 25th chapter we need to enter into that practice ourselves.

    Another important aspect of this chapter is what Kuan Yin is doing when she responds to others. It says that she frees them from greed, frees those who call upon her from anger, frees them from ignorance. She rescues them from all the troubles and turmoils of life, from lawsuits, from pirates, from bandits, from bankruptcy, from all of these things. There is a huge list. As 20th, almost 21st, century Americans, we read this and think, "Isn't this like the medieval cult of the Virgin Mary?" It has been interpreted and used that way, and from the outside that is what it seems like. She is going to help us when we call upon her. But actually, when we call upon her that calling is itself deep listening. Our giving voice is also hearing and entering into the practice ourselves. That is her real presence. Her real presence is in a sense the personification of nirvana itself. It is in nirvana, entering into that context, that there is no more greed, no more anger, no more ignorance, no more worrying and anxiety over a self that can become bankrupt, or land in jail, or get mugged on the street, or any of these other things. Of course, on another level, these things might still happen to us, but once we have really entered into this practice, it no longer affects some kind of self that needs to be protected. Now there is a flow, a grace that can respond to these difficulties without being overwhelmed by them, that can not only rise above these circumstances, frustrations and provocations, but relieve others also of these overwhelming feelings and difficulties and respond creatively to them. I think that is what is really going on here. It is not calling out to a transcendent savior but entering into her real presence, which is the presence of nirvana itself. It's easy to say these things, of course.

    Now in this chapter, Kuan Yin also reveals the samadhi of the revelation of all forms and just as in the previous chapter there is a list of all the many beings that she is able to become. Again, this deep listening is also deep solidarity with others. It is a freedom that can flow into all circumstances like water filling many different kinds of containers, not getting fixed into any one form but able to flow again into another form. It is a freedom that responds spontaneously and without fixations to new circumstances as they arise. It is to know from the inside out how others feel, instead of looking at them from the outside and thinking, "Boy, I feel sorry for that person." There is no question of that here. There is a full entering into the experience of the other, but retaining that liberation as one enters into relationship with the other, and in doing so communicates liberation to others.

    The last aspect of this chapter that I want to talk about is what happens towards the end, just before the verse section. A very curious thing happens involving Bodhisattva Infinite Thought. Infinite Thought is a very interesting name because it indicates that the one who is able to enter into the practice of Kuan Yin has infinite thought, which is no longer fixed or bound. Infinite Thought wishes to give an offering of a necklace to Kuan Yin Bodhisattva, to the Regarder of the Cries of the World, and she refuses. He tries again saying, "I want to offer this to you because I am so impressed with who you are and what you have been able to do for all of us, and the example you have set." Again she says, "No, no. I can't take it. I can't accept it." Finally the Shakyamuni Buddha intervenes and says, "Please, for the sake of all the beings here accept it." So she does reluctantly. But she takes the necklace and splits it in two. She gives one half to Shakyamuni Buddha and she gives the other half to the treasure tower (which makes a brief cameo reappearance in this chapter). That is very interesting. On the folk lore level, one just goes straight to Bodhisattva Kuan Yin, right to the Regarder of the Cries and seeks her help and intercession; but in this chapter Kuan Yin herself is saying "I don't want to be an intermediary. You have to enter into this directly yourself. Don't try to put me between yourself and your own buddha-nature." The only reason she does so is because some people otherwise couldn't identify with this exalted state, this transcendent aspect of ourselves, the buddha-nature, in any other way. So she become a bridge as it were. She becomes a link in a cycle of merit that is shared back and forth. She returns the gifts that she receives back to her own source, the Buddha, the one who awoke to the buddha-nature and to the treasure tower which is the buddha-nature that is realized. Of course this is the ground of our own lives, of our own selves, the groundless-ground you could say, the selfless-self. Back and forth, back and forth it goes. From budha-nature to Kuan Yin to responding to us, and from us responding to her compassion back to the Buddha and then back to the ground beneath our feet. Back and forth. Back and forth. That is really what this chapter is about. Not getting fixated on the bodhisattvas to come bail us out, but seeing them as the bridge into that deeper understanding. Seeing them as the way to go deeper into ourselves. Seeing them as a link, just as we are a link in that cycle of the grace of the buddha-nature.


    The next chapter is called Dharanis. Sometimes they are called spells. I'm not sure how accurate that is. They are long strings of syllables. They are usually kept in Sanskrit. Many of them are the names of gods and goddesses, and powers. From the Indian point of view, the word itself is the power of that which it is trying to invoke. Words are very powerful to them. These dharanis were not just magickal spells, but very powerful sound-symbols of realization itself, of the virtues and merits of the one's who bestowed these dharanis. It was believed that if you could learn the dharanis, you would be able to remember and maintain the teachings on a very deep level, not just in the head but in the gut.

    All of these six chapters are about dedication. In this chapter, various individuals bestow dharanis upon the practitioners of the Lotus Sutra, so that they can be protected in their practice. There are two things going on here. When one really realizes the value of the Dharma, one wishes to give back something, give back to the community, give back to others, bestow one's protection upon others. From the other side, one who takes up the Dharma, who takes up the practice are themselves protected. They receive the response of the Dharmadhatu, the Dharma Realm, which in this case is personified by the various beings in this chapter who are bestowing these mystic syllables.

    I will tell you briefly who they are: Medicine King Bodhisattva, who we met before, is bestowing his merit, his protection, in the form of a dharani; Bodhisattva Courageous Giver, and his name invokes the theme of this chapter; these two bodhisattvas are followed by the Divine King Vaisravana and the Divine King Domain Holder.

    Click Here to learn about the Mandala used by Nichiren Shu

    If you were ever to see the mandala of the Nichiren school which I belong to, which depicts the Ceremony in the Air in calligraphic form, there are four large calligraphic characters in the corners and they are the four divine kings who protect the universe. They stand guard over the north, south, east and west of the universe. Their presence delineates the Dharma Realm and shows that Namu Myoho Renge Kyo, Devotion to the True Dharma of the Lotus Flower Teaching, pervades and illuminates the entire universe. Nothing is left out. So in this sense, the presence of these two divine kings is showing that the whole universe is responding to us. These are not just individuals, they are representing the four corners of the universe. Everything responds to our practice, and our practice in turn is a response to everything.

    Finally, the dharanis are bestowed by Kishimojin, or Hariti, and the ten rakshasa women who are said to be her daughters. She is a demon, and it is interesting that in Buddhism we are said to receive the protection of demons. What is really going on here is not that Buddhists are actually devil-worhippers or practicing black magick. What is really going on is that Buddhism recognizes that even misfortune, even those things which under some circumstances can be very negative can also be catalysts for awakening. Kishimojin was one of those spirits in the ancient world who were believed to have caused Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). It was said that she carried away babies or killed babies in the night. The Buddha, hearing of these activities, stole one of her five-hundred children. She got very upset and looked all over for her child which the Buddha had hidden with his transcendent powers. Finally she gave up and went to the one person who knows everything, the Buddha and says, "I can't find my baby!" The Buddha says to her, "You take children from these peasants and they only have two or three or four and you have no compassion for them. You, on the other hand, have five-hundred, but when I hid one of yours you get so upset." Then she realized, "I haven't even been aware of what I was doing. I wasn't thinking of how my actions were affecting others." With that she awakened her own bodhicitta, her own aspiration to help others and to lift herself out of her own self-inflicted suffering. In this chapter she turns over all of that formerly negative energy into protection for us. Now this is a nice little fairy tale, but if you think about it, what are most vaccines and inoculations? What are a lot of the medicines that we use? In other circumstances they are poison, but they have been redirected. So psychologically we can redirect ourselves, but even in the non-psychological material "base" world, things get redirected. Buddhism recognizes this, and that is why we receive the protection of even the negative forces in life. That is why we should never write anybody off as a hopeless case. We never know when there might be a sudden turn-around and then they will become our benefactor.

    King Resplendent

    The next chapter is the story of King Resplendent. In this chapter we have another fairy tale. We have the king, Resplendent, his wife, Pure Virtue, and their sons, Pure Treasury and Pure Eyed. One gets an image from these names of something like Ozzy and Harriett from the 50s. Everything is very pure and wonderful and clean cut with names like this. Despite this, things are not perfect because King Resplendent, horror of horrors, is not a Buddhist. He reveres the brahmins. He is very backwards and old fashioned that way. His radical sons wish to follow the teachings of a Buddha named Thunder Voice Constellation King of Wisdom. So the two sons go to their mother. This is a trick that goes back billions and trillions of years. They know they are not going to get anywhere with dad, so they go ask mom. They ask Pure Virtue, "Can we go and join the Buddha? Can we go and renounce our position as princes and take up this Dharma?" She says what all mothers have said for billions and trillions of years, "Go ask your father." She then advises them to show him the benefits of their practice. "Show him what this Dharma is about. Don't try to talk him into it or badger him. Show him." And that is what they do.

    Now it wouldn't be very exciting if the sutra said that they showed him by mindfully washing the dishes or mindfully cleaning their rooms, or mindfully doing their chores. So instead, it makes things a little more spectacular by having them walking on air and shooting fire from their mouths and water from below and then water from above and fire from below and all kinds of martial art style tricks that one would see in a video game where the characters are shooting lightning and flying through the air. So they do all this and the king is very impressed. He decides that "Maybe there is something to this Buddhism after all." So washing the dishes didn't do the trick but shooting fire and flying through space did in this case. But the point is that they set an example. They showed what their practice was about instead of just talking about it saying, "Hey guess what! I'm a Buddhist. I know all this great stuff. Let me tell you about all the books I've read. All these fantastic concepts." They didn't do that. They leave it to people like me to do that. These people directly showed what it is about. The king was so impressed in fact that he himself decided that he would go join and study under this Buddha Thunder Voice Constellation King of Wisdom. There is going to be a test afterwards so remember. The king, is now able himself to show the fruits of the practice of the Dharma in his own life. The following happens:
    Whereupon he arose in the sky to a height of seven tala trees and said to that buddha: "World-honored One! These my two sons have already done a buddha-deed by their supernatural transformations, changing my heretical mind, establishing me in the Buddha-law, and causing me to see the World-honored One. These two sons are my good friends, for out of a desire to develop the roots of goodness [planted] in my former lives and to benefit me, they came and were born in my house."
    He goes on to say how he himself is going to try to live the Dharma and inspire others:
    Then, when King Resplendent had extolled that buddha's so many merits, countless hundreds of thousands of myriads of kotis of them, with all his mind he folded his hands before the tathagata and again addressed that buddha, saying: "Unprecedented is the World-honored One. The Tathagata's teaching is perfect in its inconceivable and wonderful merits. The moral precepts which he promulgates are comforting and quickening. From this day onward I will not again follow my own mind, nor beget false views, nor a haughty, angry, or any other sinful mind." Having uttered these words, he did reverence to the buddha and went forth.

    That's a little better than flying through space and shooting fireballs. At least there is a moral example being set forth here. Of course, in the ancient world if the king, the ruler, set an example then the kingdom would likewise follow. The health of the nation would follow the health of the king. So here we have a whole kingdom transformed because of the example set by two sons. In our own practice, that is what we need to do. We need to transform the world not through badgering and conniving or trying to brow-beat people into thinking and seeing things the way we do, but setting the example ourselves.

    Encouragement of the Bodhisattva Universal Virtue

    Now we come to the last chapter, 28. The Encouragement of the Bodhisattva Universal Virtue. This chapter may not mean so much to someone who may not know about Bodhisattva Universal Virtue. To those who do know who this bodhisattva is and read this chapter, it is mind-blowing. It is incredible. Universal Virtue is also known as Samantabhadra in Sanskrit or Fugen Bosatsu in Japanese. Is this Manjushri here?

    P: Yes.

    M: The Buddha in his aspect of the sambhogakaya, the bliss body, the reward body of the Buddha, is often accompanied by bodhisattvas as opposed to the historical Buddha who is accompanied by the disciples, the people he knew in history. So a transcendent Buddha requires transcendent attendants. Manjushri represent Wisdom, and he's not doing it here but...

    P: That's Avalokiteshvara. He's on the other side on the lion.

    M: O.k.

    P: With the double-edged sword.

    M: O.k. I was about to say he has the sword, the sword that cuts through delusion. The sword that gets to the point. So Manjushri is the wisdom, and he is on the one side and he rides the lion because the lion is the king of animals and the Dharma, or Truth, is the king of all things. On the other side, is Bodhisattva Samantabhadra, Universal Virtue, riding the elephant. The six tusked elephant which represents the six perfections. The elephant, when it is going through the jungle, lets nothing stand in its way. Nothing can impede its progress. It is too big. Samantabhadra is the practice of Buddhism. Not just the wisdom, but the application of wisdom. It is making the good cause, acting on what one knows that is unimpeded. Bodhisattva Universal Virtue is really the theme of the Flower Garland Sutra. The Flower Garland Sutra sets forth the path of the Bodhisattva and all its permutations. He is the personification of all of those practices. All of the activities, all of the good causes, all of the virtues and merits of the Buddha, or that bring about buddhahood, or that come from buddhahood. He is buddhahood as activity, action, function, dynamic relationality. As the personification of all the good causes of the Buddha he comes at the very end of the Lotus Sutra to show the active side of taking faith in the sutra, to show the active unfolding of that faith.

    Also, he arrives to bring his practice into ours and to allow us to enter into his. Because if you think about it, the six perfections are very daunting. Do any of us have perfect generosity, perfect virtue, perfect patience, perfect enthusiasm, perfect tranquility of mind, perfect wisdom? Do any of us have even one of those? Now, when you read the sutras, we are expected to have all six. That's scary. I think that even if I had 20 billion lives I would never be able to amass that kind of perfection on my own. Yet, the Lotus Sutra is saying, if you remember last week when we were talking about the single moment of rejoicing, that even one moment of rejoicing in the truth of this sutra brings more merit than all of those perfections combined, except for perfect wisdom, which this single moment is a different way of expressing. Somehow, when we break out of the self, we break out of the limitations of the self, out of the finite efforts of the self, and enter into the efforts and causes of all things, in this case personified by Bodhisattva Universal Virtue. There is a merger between my own small way of embodying these truths and the embodiment which is everything. This is going back to Dogen's essay where he says, "We are the Flower of Dharma turning the Flower of Dharma, and the Flower of Dharma is turning us." It's very helpful to think of this as merging into Bodhisattva Universal Virtue and Bodhisattva Universal Virtue merging into us. Really, when one understands what the Dharma is, there is no self or other, subject or object, within or without, self-power or Other-power. It all just becomes the clear light of the perfect effort, the perfect practice, the perfect realization of reality itself. Words can't do it justice but words can attempt it. Words can try to make us realize that there is something to be realized. So with that, let me read to you the passages where Bodhisattva Universal Virtue is promising to aid us, to join with us in our practice. Bodhisattva Universal Virtue says to the Buddha:
    World-honored One! In the last five hundred years of the corrupt and evil age, whoever receives and keeps this sutra I will guard and protect, rid of the anxiety of decline and sickness, and give ease of mind, so that no one shall be able to spy out and take advantage of weakness.
    So we don't have to be afraid of our own failures or shortcomings. Our practice goes beyond that.
    World-honored One! If there be any bodhisattvas who hear these dharanis, they shall be aware of the supernatural power of Universal Virtue. If while the Law-Flower Sutra proceeds on its course through Jambudvipa there be those who receive and keep it, let them reflect thus: "This is all due to the majestic power of Universal Virtue." If any receive and keep, read and recite, rightly remember it, comprehend its meaning, and practice it as preached, let it be known that these are doing the works of Universal Virtue and have deeply planted good roots under numberless countless buddhas, and that their heads will be caressed by the hands of the tathagatas...
    So our own practice is motivated by Universal Virtue himself. The fact that we have even taken up Buddhism is coming from a source far deeper than our own desires and wishes and intentions. What follows upon that will resonate with reality itself. It will not just be limited to what we can imagine.

    I think that I will just end what I was saying about these chapters with the idea that we need to make an effort ourselves. We need to dedicate whatever realization, whatever merits, whatever virtues that we ourselves have. It is not as though we have to wait around for Bodhisattva Universal Virtue to do it for us. But we should take heart that whatever effort we make will open up into the effort of all beings, the effort that is buddhahood itself, the actions of the buddha-nature and not just our self-actions with their shortsightedness and limits. Really we are in the midst of the boundarlessness of all of these practices and virtues and merits of the Buddha. I think that will be a good place to end the discussion tonight and open it up to questions or comments or answers.

    Q&A for Session 4

    Q: So much of the Lotus Sutra seems imaginary. For instance, how could all those people hear the Buddha speaking?

    M: There is very little in the Lotus Sutra that logistically makes any sense. Now that you have raised that point, it's true that the people sitting way in the back couldn't hear what the Buddha was saying because he didn't have a little speaker like this. Too bad. We might have a very different view of Buddhism if we had actual recordings of the Buddha's teachings. I don't know. The point is that it is not about listening to the actual physical voice, although sometimes that's involved, of a particular person. What is really happening in the Lotus Sutra is happening now. The Ceremony in the Air, the meetings on Vulture Peak are still going on. They are still going on because we are still the disciples, we are still the bodhisattvas, we are still the hungry ghosts, and the demons, and the gods and the goddesses. We are embodying all of that ourselves. All of those beings that were there are us. Not just the nice ones, or the bad ones, or the mediocre ones, but all of them are us. The ground that we are walking on is Vulture Peak. The air that we breath, that is the air of the Ceremony in the Air. Our bodies, these bones, this flesh, snot, tears, blood and hair, this is the treasure tower. When we deeply listen like Bodhisattva Regarder of the Cries of the World to the sound of reality itself, we are hearing the sermon. We are hearing the Buddha's teachings. We should meditate very deeply, not like Zen meditation, but meditate in the sense of reflecting deeply on what it means that all those beings were gathered there at that particular place to listen to that particular person. We should reflect very deeply on what that means for us.

    Maylie: Thank you. I think that you said that our Zen ancestors mostly refer to just the first three chapters of the Lotus Sutra. Why?

    M: They were not the only ones. The T'ien-t'ai meditative scholastic school that based its teachings on the Lotus Sutra also stuck with the first few chapters. Part of the reason is that the first half of the Lotus Sutra is the theoretical half, the part that sets out what we are trying to do, and that gives a direction to our practice. It is from chapter 15 on that you get into realization and what to do after realization. But really, realization has to come of itself. You have to be there. Talking about it is not good enough. Reading about it wont by itself get you there. So I think that the T'ien-t'ai school and the Zen school and others thought that one should concentrate on the first half so that one could practice correctly with the right intention. Then when one had realization one could appreciate what is going on in the other half of the sutra. But if you tried to do it the other way around, you would read the last half without realization of your own, and end up like Hakuin, throwing up your hands and saying that it is impossible to understand. "This doesn't make any sense. There is nothing so special about this." Then one would have discarded the Lotus Sutra without really looking at how the first half is trying to give you a key to understanding the second half. And the reason for only going as far as the third chapter is that the second chapter in an abstract sense tells you what the whole sutra is about, or at least what the first half is about. It tells you about buddha-nature and aspiring to buddhahood and the One Vehicle. In the third chapter you get the Parable of the Burning House, the first real example. All the other parables are just trying to give you a better understanding of the second chapter. I think that is why they stopped there. "Now we have the essence of it, and the rest is just more of the same."

    The Nichiren school takes a very different point of view. The idea of the Nichiren school is that we are kidding ourselves if we think that we can practice perfectly, if we think that we have what it takes to practice the way the Buddha and his disciples practiced. If we had that kind of merit we would have been born back in that time. If we had that kind of merit we would be able to shave our heads and go off into the hills and do all those extremely strenuous difficult practices. If you think about it, most of us are leading pretty ordinary lives. Sure we are able to take our retreats, or meditate in the morning and at night, and in between take care of the family and go to a full time job and do all of those other things. However, I can't for a second kid myself into thinking that I am practicing the way the Buddha practiced or that Shariputra practiced, the way all of those other early disciples practiced. I would be kidding myself if I thought that I were on the level of the bodhisattvas discussed here. So Nichiren's idea was to keep the first half in mind but concentrate on the second half of the sutra because that realization is underlying your life right now, no matter how ordinary you think it is. No matter how limited or confused or frustrated you are, you are living in the midst of that realization. If you can just have the faith that you are living in the midst of enlightenment and the fulfillment of buddhahood, then you will be able to practice correctly. So he reversed everything. The idea is to get the point and then you can practice, rather than practice so that you can get the point. Does that make any sense?

    Q: How do you do that?

    M: Namu Myoho Renge Kyo!

    Q: Our ancestor [Dogen] in the Hokke-ten-Hokke seems not to have turned it around again but in a sense keeps turning it around. In other words, I think for him, probably for us, practice starts with the second half of the Lotus Sutra, with realization. Or at least it is not separate from that.

    M: Right. The Nichiren Shu, the school that I belong to has sometimes taken issue with other Nichiren schools, because the other Nichiren schools say that the last half is so important that we can forget about the first half. But the Nichiren Shu is also known as the Ichi-ha or the Harmony school because we believe that both halves need to be in harmony with each other.

    When I read Hokke-ten-Hokke, on one level it seems like he is not going beyond the third chapter, but on another level his interpretation of the Parable of the Burning House presumes a deep understanding of the rest of the sutra, and a deep realization based on what we call the essential section, the section revealing the eternal life of the Buddha. Yes, I would agree.

    Q: Well, his instructions for practice seem to reflect the ecstatic view, if you will, of the Lotus Sutra.

    M: Very much. I think that is part of why he [Dogen] left the Tendai school. I think that he also was frustrated by this idea that "If we are already enlightened, then why do we need to practice so much? Why are we concentrating on all this?" I think that dissonance between practice and realization was as real for him as it was for Nichiren. Definitely. The Tendai school wasn't making the connections. At least it wasn't for him or for Nichiren. Maybe some Tendai people would say something different. Of course we weren't there, so we have no way of knowing.

    I'll tell you one thing, now that I am thinking of it. While I will wholeheartedly say that I believe the Nichiren school most clearly shows how to practice the Lotus Sutra, in my experience the sectarian boundaries are really fuzzy, and in a sense kind of meaningless. I think the important thing is to find those people who have realized what the teaching is for themselves and can help you realize it too. I think that sectarian affiliation or the official teachings of the sect become secondary to what the real people are actually doing and actually thinking and actually seeing and how they can touch your life. Because if you can't enter into that kind of environment where there is that existential confrontation to bring this to life, then it doesn't matter how clearly the teachings are given or what the ideals of the sect are, you are just going to fall flat on your face. I think that's why Dogen had to spend so much time looking for a good teacher.

    Q: I'm interested in what you said, so I'll paraphrase it and see if you agree. What I got out of it is that if we make the best effort that we can, then we are pulled into this energy force which exists out there and at that point it's not our own volition. We are caught up in this universal energy and attain realization. Did I understand you correctly?

    M: Right. Though I wouldn't say that we are pulled into something other or outside of us, but that the self breaks open. The image is often given of a jar floating in the ocean, the jar breaks open and the water in the jar becomes one with the water of the ocean. It's more like that. We break open into that non-dual reality.

    Q: Not an energy force.

    M: Right. It's really attaining to something that was already there in the first place. It is breaking through those artificial constructions that we built up through our own actions, thoughts, and words, and deeds. It breaks through.

    Q: So you think that Nichiren Buddhism takes less effort than Zen?

    M: I think that Nichiren pictured it like a baby chick that is just ready to hatch and is tapping on the inside of the egg and that the Buddha is like the mother tapping on the outside in response. I think that Nichiren saw Zen as a kind of heroic, macho, self-power, "I'm going to do it myself" kind of thing, which asks "who needs the Buddha?" Maybe that is how some of the Zen people in his time were teaching it. I don't think that would be true of Dogen or anyone else who actually knew what they were talking about. But that was how he perceived the Zen sect. He believed that their attitude was: "Do it yourself. We don't need tradition. We don't need the Buddha." I think that he also rejected the Pure Land idea that we are totally helpless and godforsaken and that only the Buddha can come and save us. I think he disagreed with both those positions. I think that he saw it as a synergy, as a very subtle interrelationship between our own efforts and the Buddha, the buddha-nature. Then you get to the point where there is no self or Other, so where is this effort coming from? From the outside or from the inside? Is the egg cracking open because of the chick hitting it or because of the mother hitting it? It just cracks open.

    Q: I hate to ask such a piquish question...

    M: Go ahead.

    Q: I was just wondering if there was anybody here in this assembly who knew the answer to this by their own experience?

    M: The answer to self and Other power?

    Q: The answer to whether enlightenment is something achieved as an individual, or something which you are helped with by the Buddha? Is there an external energy that sucks you in? Any of these things. Does anyone know? Or are we all aspirants? Is there anyone who can interpret the second half of the Lotus Sutra from the position of realization.

    M: Let me get one thing out of the way. First off, we are all aspirants but I've been explaining up until now the Lotus Sutra's demonstration of our practice in terms of aspiration, realization and dedication, but these are not three steps. This isn't the cha-cha-cha, one-two-three. They are simultaneous aspects of the single moment of practice, of fully practicing where we are now as we are now. I notice that when I am practicing, when I am chanting, sometimes my mind is at the level of "I am just aspiring," sometimes it goes a little deeper. Sometimes I am able to just throw myself into it and words just don't do justice to it. Then there are other times when I think more about the people in Kosovo, or the high school shootings, or hoping that somehow through my practice this will benefit others. But really all those levels are constantly interrelated, constantly supporting one another, giving rise to one another.

    I will tell you another story that will hopefully answer your question more directly. When I was in grade school, I was diagnosed by child-psychologists as having learning disabilities and behavioral problems and all that other nonsense, so I went to a special school. The teachers were constantly sending daily reports to my parents to show if I had done anything inappropriate that day. If I spoke out of turn or jumped out of my seat and clapped chalk in someone's face (I enjoyed doing that) and all the other nasty tricks I used to play they would mark it down. Consequently, I became extremely self-conscious in grade school because I was always being watched and I was always watching myself, and I was always wondering "Why can't I control myself? Why do I have all this energy that makes me want to jump up? Why can't I just be like the other kids and just do my work and go to regular school and be like everybody else?" But I just couldn't. It was too much. No matter how hard I tried, it just didn't work. Something would screw me up, or I'd forget myself and do something inappropriate. My self-power wasn't working. And no matter what other people did, it didn't help very much either.

    But I remember one day (and it's not quite right to say that I remember it) but I came in, I sat down, I put my book bag down, they said "Here, we are going to do this." I did it. I took the notes on the chalk board. I went out to recess and played. I went through the whole day just doing what was right there in front of me. I didn't even think about the fact that I was behaving so well. It didn't even occur to me until the end of the day when the teacher said to me, "Michael, you were so good today." This I remember. I looked up at her and said, "I was?" I realized that, "Wow! I just had a perfect day. Everything was in synch." I was so proud of myself that of course I just lost it after that. I don't know what I did the next day, but it wasnt that perfect. I don't remember that.

    When I think back to that day, I wasn't making any effort to behave myself. Nobody else was making me behave myself. I just did what was there and very clearly too. It just unfolded. There was no ego in it at all. That is part of what made it so smooth. I offer that for what it's worth.

    Q: I'm not sure that your story satisfied my inquiry. You were saying that in the Nichiren school you concentrate on the realization side so you can somehow break through into the realization side and in the Zen school we practice very hard and hope to become enlightened perhaps but we kind of don't think about that.

    M: And you try very hard not to think about it right?

    Q: Different schools seem to have different explanations of how realization occurs or what promotes realization. There are different instructions and strategies and transcendental explanations of how realization occurs. So I was just wondering... and this is a question I feel comfortable asking you, I feel extremely uncomfortable asking my teacher because it's breaking the rules... does anybody in this company know the answers to these questions by first hand experience? My suspicion is no. O.k.? That is another way of saying that we are all aspirants, none of us are realized. Because a person who was looking from the other side of the river, the crossing, they could answer that question.

    M: My suspicion is that, while I doubt that anybody here is established in it, that every person in this room has had moments where the sunshine broke through the clouds as it were. That's my suspicion. I think that our practice is a way of trying to widen that gap to let more sunlight in. Or a way of further establishing ourselves in that. That is my suspicion.

    Q: Do you speak for yourself Michael?

    M: Yes, I do. That is part of the point of my telling that story. That even as a little kid far before I heard of Buddhism, I had a very Buddhist moment. And there have been other times.

    Q: While I appreciate Cathy's question and I can also appreciate your story of having your perfectly well behaved day, it leaves me a little confused about how much effort is the right amount of effort. That is leaving aside the question of which direction to put your efforts. How much effort? How much do we really need to try versus how much do we really need to relax or maybe how much we need to try to relax? I don't know. It seems the farther along I go, the more confused about that I get.

    M: I am having this gut feeling here that the answer is no effort at all. That is what my gut is telling me to say. No effort at all. That is difficult.

    Q: Good answer.

    Stephen: I just wanted to share something based on that question about the effort. I practice as does Michael, and I have done it for thirty years now. There have been those times when the clouds cleared. I have seen people say, "Oh, we've got to chant what we call a daimoku tozo and chant for 24 hours straight." Then they would be absolutely wrung out and a mess at work. However, the experiences that have been my epiphanies, or whatever the term is to be used, were the ones that were no effort as Michael said. It was simply my sitting and chanting. The most vivid one for me was when my mother was dying. She was in the hospital and I was at home and I had already been called and told that she was not going to make it through the night. The only thing I had left to do was to sit in front of my altar with the candles and the mandala in front of me and simply invoke the title of the Lotus Sutra. And that's all I did. I didn't do it with fear. I simply did it as an expression of my own life. That experience was one of the most amazing for me in terms of non-existence of object and subject, non-existence of me. The only thing that existed for me at that time, to this day I can not tell you how long I sat, was the mandala and the sound of my invocation. At some point I simply stopped, went to bed, and when I woke up the next morning and called the hospital they informed me that my mother was down the hall having pizza. That experience was the most profound experience that I have ever had and made me understand on such a gut level that the Buddha is not about effort ultimately, it's about the heart and simply existing in that moment.

    M: Thank you.

    Q: I guess that your practice turns you around so that when it happens you can understand it better and take advantage of it more. I mean, in Zen practice you come to know your mind very well so that when there is a moment of clarity, instead of the next day not knowing why that happened to you, maybe there is a little more understanding of why that happened so that you can cultivate it.?

    M: That is a good point because Shakyamuni had his perfect day when he was young under the rose apple tree but he wasn't able to do anything with it.

    Q: I've never heard that story.

    M: You never heard that story? Have any of you heard that story? Some of you have.

    P: His father was out plowing the fields for the agricultural festival. It was the first time as a little baby that he sat up and meditated and achieved a deep state of meditation.

    M: The dhyana states, the trance states. Yes. It was based on his seeing, while the ritual plowing was going on, the worms getting pulled out of the ground and the birds coming down and eating them and he realized "Wow! Nature red in tooth and claw." That inspired him to sit down and find some peace amidst this horrible suffering that the festival was creating. He was a bit of an overwrought little child. But the point is, years later, when all the ascetisicm and other difficult willful, effortful practices that he had tried fell through, he remembered that experience. But now he was prepared to do something with it, to take it to that next level or insight, whereas before, as a child, he didn't have enough preparation of the ground. But even without the preparation these moments come upon us.

    Maylie: And still we are taught continuous effort, continuous practice.

    M: Right, but there is a difference between our self effort, the effort of a self that is striving to attain something, and the effort of a buddha or the effort of Universal Virtue, which is really kind of effortless.

    Q: I was just thinking as everyone was talking about practice and realization about Kanzan and Jittoku. The two are, how shall I say, cognitively disadvantaged, and they have the brooms you know?

    M: Oh, those two guys. Yeah.

    Q: Their practice is to just sweep. Of course, I guess the presumption is that they don't think too much about any of these things. They really have the advantage over us, even though we would call them handicapped or disadvantaged. They just sweep, and they have beautiful smiles.

    M: When I was in college I was jokingly referred to as the Sage of 40th Street, because I lived on 40th Street in West Philadelphia. I had this tiny little apartment that I shared with a bunch of roaches. I tried to make it as Japanese as possible because I like the aesthetic and it was also very practical because I didnŐt have enough space for anything else. One of my favorite things to do was to pull the straw mats off the floor, clear the furniture, and just mindlessly sweep. I don't think it was their kind of sweeping but I remember thinking, "Drop everything! I'm just going to sweep. Stop worrying about all this stuff outside this 10' apartment." It was neat.

    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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