Two Good Dharma Friends
Discuss the Lotus Sutra

by Jim Wilson


Visit One

I hadn’t seen my good friend Doug for several months. Both of us, like most people, have busy schedules. We had finally both found some free time for lunch on a Saturday. I was eagerly looking forward to our meeting. Doug is an old friend and since both of us have become Dharma practitioners our conversations about the Dharma have proven particularly insightful for me.

We met at a cafe on Market Street, one we frequently choose for lunch. Though Doug looked well, I also noticed a certain tiredness, a kind of slowness, that was unusual for Doug. After ordering our lunch I asked Doug about his Dharma practice.

Doug hesitated, and then confessed that he was feeling discouraged. I asked him why he felt that way.

Doug responded, “It just feels so complicated and out of focus. And so contradictory. One group says this, another says that. One says practice this way, another says that’s wrong, practice this way. It’s very confusing.”

I felt a lot of sympathy for Doug. “You know, Doug, I have often felt the same way. It is confusing. All the different Dharma traditions are pouring into the west. Previously those traditions had been separated by geography, language, culture, and history. Over the centuries of their separation from each other they evolved along lines that caused them to drift farther and farther apart. But now it is possible to hear one of these traditions one day and a completely different one the next day. It’s like trying to understand monotheism by one day visiting a Jewish Temple and the next day visiting an Islamic Mosque and then following up with a visit to a Bahai meeting. Confusion is bound to arise.”

Doug looked thoughtful, “It’s not that I doubt the basic teachings; I still find them attractive, even inspiring. But how does one sort through it all and make it coherent? How do you?, assuming you have dealt with this.”

“How do I?” I hesitated. I’m not a scholar, just a dedicated layman. But Doug knew this, so I decided to proceed. “I use the ultimate/provisional distinction to help me sort out all these different teachings and approaches.”

Doug looked at me. His posture had shifted forward. I could tell he was shifting into his ‘let’s-have-an-in-depth-discussion’ mode. “I’ve heard of the ultimate/provisional distinction, but I’ve never given it much weight or paid much attention to it.”

“Why not?” I queried.

“Because groups disagree as to what is ultimate and what is provisional. And so I end up right back where I was before; with conflicting, incompatible views.”

“Just because someone uses a tool badly doesn’t mean that the tool should be abandoned.”

“Good point.” Doug paused, thinking. “So how do you see the ultimate/provisional distinction?”

At that point the waiter came. We placed our orders. I sipped some water. I was considering various ways of responding to Doug’s question. Finally I said, “In a sense the Buddha only taught one thing, and that one thing is the deathless and unborn. The deathless, the unborn, this is the ultimate teaching. All other teachings are provisional. That’s how I see it. In terms of the plethora of confusing presentations of the Dharma, I find that if I keep this distinction in mind, then the teachings are not distracting, even if they appear contradictory at first.”

Doug was considering carefully this suggestion. He asked, “What do you mean by provisional?”

“’Provisional’ means ‘leading up to’, or ‘assisting’, or ‘subsidiary’, or ‘supporting’ or ‘creating conditions for’. When I use the term ‘provisional’ I don’t mean ‘trivial’ or ‘disposable’ or ‘discardable’.”

Doug seemed to like that response. “Well, OK. That makes sense. But where do I find these ultimate teachings that you refer to, these teachings on the deathless and unborn?” There was a hint of skepticism in Doug’s question, a somewhat challenging tone. But I also sensed a genuine curiosity mixed in.

I responded, “Anywhere the Buddha teaches about the deathless, that is an ultimate teaching. One finds them scattered in various places in the Buddhist Canon. The most complete presentation of the deathless and unborn is in The Lotus Sutra.”

Doug paused. I could tell he was considering his words carefully. Though Doug was familiar with the Lotus Sutra, he had not practiced in such a tradition. “Jim, we’ve been friends a long time, so I feel I can be blunt with you. I hope you won’t take offense. But your claim that the Lotus Sutra is the ultimate teaching makes me very uncomfortable.”

I already suspected some of the reasons, but I wanted to hear them from Doug, so I asked, “Why is that?”

“Because it looks like yet another claim for superiority that I run into in all Buddhist groups. The problem is, though, that they all disagree as to what is ultimate. It all seems arbitrary and unnecessary.”

“Doug, I’m not offended. I agree that it does look that way, that it does seem arbitrary. But I am willing to have a discussion about the Lotus Sutra, if you like. I think I can offer a coherent defense of the Lotus Sutra, and I’m willing to take seriously any criticisms you may have.”

Doug sipped his coffee. “Since we’ve been friends a long time I trust that we can have such a discussion. But if, at some point you feel offended, please let me know. I want this to be an amicable discussion.”

“Agreed.”

Doug seized the moment, “Most Buddhist traditions do not agree with the idea that the Lotus Sutra is the ultimate teaching. Why should I accept a minority view?”

I responded, “You shouldn’t accept this view just because some people have asserted it, even if those people are old friends like me. The view should be accepted only upon examination. This is a basic teaching of the Buddha.”

Doug seemed to relax a little. “O.K. Let’s start here; some Buddhist traditions don’t accept the Lotus Sutra at all.”

“You are referring to the Theravada?”

“Yes.”

“The Theravada rejects all Buddhist Discourses that do not appear in their own canon. The Theravada rejects the Perfection of Wisdom, the Pure Land Sutras, the Avatamsaka Sutra, the Ratnakuta Collection, etc. In extreme cases they even reject those Discourses which appear in the Agamas but do not appear in the Pali Canon. So it is not that the Theravada particularly rejects the Lotus Sutra. Given the large amount of material they reject, I don’t see why this should be given much weight.”

Doug had an answer, “Because the Theravada view is that the Lotus Sutra is not the word of the Buddha. If it is not the word of the Buddha it can’t be the ultimate teaching of the Buddha. And regardless of how the Theravada traditions treats other Sutras, we are here talking about the Lotus Sutra.”

I paused for a while to gather my thoughts. This is a large subject and has been contentious for many centuries, so I wanted to respond carefully. “My response to this is somewhat complex. Please be patient with me.

“First, the Theravada view that non-Theravada Sutras are not the word of the Buddha is based on the idea that the non-Theravada Sutras were written down later than the Theravada Discourses. They therefore further conclude that the Lotus Sutra, along with all non-Theravada Discourses, is a fabrication, a fiction, or an add-on. I believe there are difficulties with maintaining this point of view.

“Scholars state that the earliest portions of the Lotus Sutra were written down at about the same time as the Theravada Discourses. So at least part of the Lotus Sutra has just as much claim for antiquity and authenticity as the Theravada Discourses, if one is basing authenticity on the time the Discourse appears on paper.

“But there are broader considerations. Everyone agrees that the Buddha did not write anything. After the Buddha died his teachings were passed down orally for hundreds of years. They were then written down. This is agreed to by all parties and sects.

“If it is true that the Theravada Discourses were written down centuries after the Buddha died, then it is also possible that other Discourses were written down later, even centuries later, derived from other groups of practitioners than those who preserved the Theravada Discourses. In other words, even if the Lotus Sutra was written down later than the Theravada Discourses (or portions of it were written down later), that is not grounds for asserting that the Lotus Sutra (and other non-Theravada Discourses) are not authentic. If a teaching can be passed down orally for 200 or 300 years, then it can also be passed on orally for 500, 700, 1,000 years.

“If, on the other hand, the Theravada tradition rejects this possibility, then the possibility of an authentic transmission of the Discourses for a 200 to 300 year period is called into question. This would undermine their own claims for the unique authenticity of their own tradition.”

Doug had been listening carefully. “What you say seems reasonable. I’m not sure I’m convinced, but it is worth thinking over. But another issue is that most scholars, and all independent scholars, regard the Lotus Sutra as a composite text. That is to say that many chapters were written later and then added to the Lotus Sutra, or absorbed into the Lotus Sutra. This would undermine the idea of the Lotus Sutra being authentic and the word of the Buddha.”

I was expecting this observation. “It is true that the Lotus Sutra is a composite text. I tend to think of the work as ‘The Lotus Sutra Collection’. In other words it is an edited collection of Buddhist works some of which are very early and some of which are later additions. But it’s a good editing job and it hangs together well.

“But, in responding to a Theravada criticism along these lines, I think it is also the case that the Theravada Discourses exhibit layers of earlier and later strata. Some, according to scholars, are very early compilations. The Sutta Nipata is a good example. Some appear to be later additions, particularly those that seem to be under the strong influence of later Abhidhamma. So again, if the fact that the Lotus Sutra is a compound text disqualifies it, then that same criticism would also disqualify much of the Theravada Discourses.

“But I would also like to add here that I have no particular problem with viewing the Lotus Sutra as a kind of extended commentary on the Dharma.”

Doug looked surprised and then curious. “What do you mean?”

“I mean, let’s grant the Theravada view all the benefit of all the doubts. Let’s say that the Theravada Discourses are established as genuine and the Lotus Sutra is demonstrated to not be the actual words of the Buddha; even the earliest parts of the Lotus Sutra. Let’s stack the deck in the favor of the Theravada as much as we can. I would still argue that the Lotus Sutra can be viewed as, and should be viewed as, the ultimate teaching and the clearest, most eloquent, and grandest elaboration of the Dharma available.”

Doug frowned. “That seems a stretch to me.”

I paused. “Bear with me. Let me draw an analogy. Euclid wrote his geometry thousands of years ago. It took mathematicians many centuries to discover certain aspects of geometry which allowed them to unpack some of the meaning of this field. The result was non-euclidean geometry and a deeper understanding of the nature of space, math, geometry, and mind.

“Another good example is the works of Saint Augustine for the Christian tradition. Augustine’s works are a grand commentary on the Bible, and particularly the gospels. They are an interpretation of this tradition that many have found satisfying and definitive for that tradition.

“Another example is the great Confucian Sage, Chu Hsi. Chu Hsi presented an elaboration of the Confucian Classics more than 1,000 years after Confucius, but which then became central for that tradition for many centuries.

“There are many examples like this in history. Central insights into a particular vision of reality may not immediately emerge. So what I am suggesting is that if one wants to view the Lotus Sutra as a commentary and not an authentic Discourse of the Buddha, that is O.K. with me. The important thing is to examine what the Lotus Sutra has to say and see if it makes sense, see if it is consistent with other teachings of the Buddha, and to see if it actually illuminates the Dharma in a way that is liberative.”

Doug was still frowning. “I have a problem with that. If you are saying that the Lotus Sutra is commentary, or that it is O.K. to view it that way, it is an odd kind of commentary that consists mostly of fables, metaphors, and cosmic myths.”

Now it was my turn to frown. “That’s a modern view of commentary. Personification, myth, storytelling, etc., were all common methods of commentary until very recent times. Think of Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. For a long time it was one of the most widely read works in Christendom because people found its way of presenting Christianity helpful. It is all done with personification, allegory, and fable. The Lotus Sutra could be an example of a similar approach, one that many people have found effective.

“Another example is the famous ‘Consolation of Philosophy’ by Boethius. The entire work is an allegory which consists of a conversation between a personified Goddess of Philosophy, or Wisdom, and Boethius himself. It is a presentation and interpretation of central Platonic doctrines in allegorical form. It also uses poetry and metaphor throughout its presentation.

“I want to add, though, that my view of the Lotus Sutra is more orthodox. I believe that at the core of the Lotus Sutra are actual teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha. I realize, however, that there is no way to establish that. But I am relaxed about people regarding the Lotus Sutra as later material. In other words, even if it is entirely later material, that doesn’t mean it isn’t Dharma or not profound or not definitive. In other words, even if the Lotus Sutra consists entirely of commentary, relying on the Louts Sutra to comprehend the Dharma would not differ from Theravadans relying on Buddhaghosha, or Gelugs relying on Tsong Kahpa, or Sakyans from relying on Sakya Pandita, etc. So even if one grants to the critics of the Lotus Sutra all their points, just to be generous, it still would not undermine my trust in the Lotus Sutra as the definitive understanding of the Buddhadharma.”

Doug looked somewhat puzzled and somewhat exasperated. “But what about the doctrinal contradictions between the Lotus Sutra and the Theravada Discourses?”

I had put a lot of time into exactly this question. “I have two responses. First, there are contradictory presentations of the Dharma within the Theravada Discourses, so contradictions between the Lotus Sutra and the non-Lotus Sutra traditions do not, by themselves, prove a sufficient reason for rejecting the Lotus Sutra. For example, in the Numerical Sayings of the Theravada Canon there is presented a 10-fold path that is slightly different from the 8-fold path. Another example is that different presentations of the links of the specific arising of suffering contain various numbers of links in various orders. Another example is that sometimes the Buddha states that appearances ‘are’ suffering, while at other times he states that it is grasping at appearances which engenders suffering. This difference is especially significant And then there are differences regarding the status of Metta Bhavana and whether or not such a practice can lead to total liberation. Some Discourses say that it can only lead to a heavenly rebirth while some say that it can lead to full and complete liberation, to Nibbana. So there are numerous examples of different perspectives on the Dharma in the Theravada Canon itself.”

Doug dove in, “What you say may be true, but I don’t really find it convincing. Some of the doctrinal differences between the Theravada and the Lotus Sutra are important to these traditions. I don’t think you can place them in the same way you have done with the internal contradictions found within the Pali Canon.”

I responded, “Can you give me an example of the kind of contradiction you are referring to?”

Doug was ready, “To pick just one, the Theravada tradition considers an Arhat to be fully enlightened, whereas the Lotus Sutra considers the enlightenment of the Arhat to be a provisional realization, not an ultimate awakening. Many of the parables in the Lotus Sutra emphasize this point, such as the parable of the magic city.”

I sighed, “This dispute over the status of the Arhat has been a contentious one in Buddhism for a long time. Nevertheless, I believe it is a dispute that is largely unnecessary and that can be reconciled through a clear understanding of what the Lotus Sutra is trying to say.”

Doug queried, “Hmmm, are you saying that this dispute, which has gone on for so long, is basically a misunderstanding?”

“Yes, that is what I am suggesting. I realize that this argument has generated a lot of heat; but I think it is a sign of a basic misunderstanding when an argument goes on for a long time and is not resolved, or even moved forward. It is a signal that a new approach needs to be accessed.” I responded evenly; I had made this point to others before and I was ready for a rejection. But Doug surprised me.

“What is your view of this dispute and how do you think it can be resolved?” Doug appeared tentative but willing to listen. I think that our long friendship created a basis of trust so that we could discuss these matters without becoming suspicious of each others’ motives.

“My view of this matter of the Arhat’s status is that it is primarily a semantic, even lexical, dispute; not one of doctrine. When I read the Theravada Discourses my sense is that the term Arhat is used as a synonym for the Buddha, or the Buddha’s realization. I think it is used in exactly the same way as the term ‘Tathagata’ or ‘Sugata’, or any of the other common names for Shakyamuni. I do not recall any Discourse which distinguishes the realization of the Arhat from the realization of Shakyamuni Buddha. So I would say that the term Arhat as used in the Theravada Discourses means someone who has attained a realization that is the functional equivalent of Shakyamuni Buddha.

“In the Mahayana Discourses the term Arhat shifts meaning. ‘Arhat’ now becomes a stage on the path of realization. The term ‘Arhat’ in the Mahayana Discourses refers to someone who has attained some realization of a fairly refined and subtle nature, but still has more to accomplish. Specifically, the term ‘Arhat’ designates someone who is lost in the provisional teachings and has not yet awoken to the ultimate teaching.

“The important thing to keep in mind is that the Theravada tradition is aware of the problem of becoming lost in the provisional, or stuck in the provisional. This is mentioned a number of times in the Theravada Discourses. So this kind of problem is known in all Buddhist traditions. Hence, my conclusion is that what has happened is that two, or more, early Buddhist communities understood key terms, such as ‘Arhat’, in slightly different ways and this has lead to a continued misunderstanding between traditions down to the present day.

“I think it makes sense that different early Buddhist communities would understand key terms in different ways. For one thing, they inhabited different linguistic communities. They were also geographically distant from each other and so interaction would not have been constant or guaranteed. And there was no institutional authority to specify meanings of key terms and rule out others.

“So if you gloss the term ‘Arhat’ in the Lotus Sutra with ‘lost in the provisional’ this disparity between the traditions is overcome, or at least significantly lessened.

“But, in addition, and more importantly, I would like to suggest that there is an intimate connection between the Middle Length Discourses of the Theravada Canon and the Lotus Sutra. My feeling is that they are so intimately connected that if you reject one you would have to reject the other, and to accept one implies accepting the other.”

The waiter appeared with our order. Doug asked for a refill on his coffee.

This last comment seemed to surprise Doug. “What are the similarities you are referring to? But before we go there, I just want to say that your suggestions regarding the term ‘Arhat’ seems to me to be difficult to sustain. In other words, it seems to me that the disagreement over the status of the ‘Arhat’ is more substantial than you want it to be.”

“That may be true.” I understand that my suggestion is one that makes people invested in doctrinal divisions uncomfortable. I’ve run into this frequently. “However, I have a suggestion to make. When reading the Theravada Discourses try not to bring to them Mahayana interpretations and categories. The tendency for those of us who first encountered the Dharma in a Mahayana tradition is to see the Theravada through a Mahayana prism or lens. Try to bracket those preconceptions. Particularly, when coming across the term ‘Arhat’ try to let the Theravada tradition define that term on its own, and see what happens. It is my view that if one can do this, that the way the Theravada uses the term ‘Arhat’ will emerge on its own and the shift in meaning of this term from the Theravada to the Mahayana will become clear.”

Doug appeared thoughtful. “Well, as you know, I am primarily a Theravada practitioner with some Mahayana practice as well; notably Zen. It had not occurred to me that I was bringing a Mahayana view to the Theravada Discourses as you suggest. That’s an intriguing idea. I’ll give it a try and see what happens. There’s no guarantee, though, that I’ll agree with you!”

“Fair enough,” I said.

“But let’s return to the other similarities you have seen between the Middle Length Discourses and the Lotus Sutra collection.” Doug wanted to move on.

“First, both the Lotus Sutra and the Middle Length Discourses of the Theravada Canon begin with some of the disciples of the Buddha openly not liking what the Buddha is teaching. This is very unusual. In almost all of the Discourses the response to the Buddha’s teaching is one of awe and admiration. There are a few Discourses where a non-Buddhist walks away from the Dharma. But there are very few Discourses where disciples, those who have taken refuge, openly dislike what the Buddha is saying.

“In the commentaries on the First Discourse of the Middle Length Discourses, the Mulapariyaya Sutta, it says that 500 Bhikkhus were perplexed and could not understand the Discourse. Because of their pride and conceit, they were displeased.

“In Chapter 2 of the Lotus Sutra it says that 5,000 followers stood up and walked out of the gathering rather than listen to the teaching. This is a famous episode.

“My hypothesis is this: Both of these refer to an actual incident in the life of Shakyamuni Buddha. And the incident referred to is the Buddha teaching something that went beyond what his disciples regarded as the Dharma. Some of the disciples responded by rejecting what the Buddha was now offering.”

“That’s very interesting, that parallel you’ve drawn out. But why would the disciples react so strongly, why would they feel displeased?” As usual, Doug’s question went to the heart of the matter.

“That’s an intriguing question. Beyond saying that the displeased disciples were filled with pride and arrogant, the sources don’t really elaborate. When I first came across these episodes I had difficulty making sense of them. The reaction seemed disproportionate to what was being taught. But I think if one looks at this incident from the perspective of the ultimate/provisional distinction it makes sense. Drawing analogies to other fields of human experience helped me to get a feel for what was going on.

“For example, consider musicianship. Suppose someone, we’ll call him Dan, wants to learn the guitar. Dan finds a good guitar teacher. The teacher, after a time, discovers that Dan isn’t always attentive, is often tired, and doesn’t practice regularly. Yet Dan seems sincere. The teacher, through discreet questioning, finds out that Dan is given to late night parties, has a wretched diet, and uses drugs.

“The teacher now begins each lesson with some lifestyle suggestions. These include suggestions on diet, exercise, sleeping habits, the effect of drug use on Dan’s guitar playing, etc. Now, these suggestions are not about guitar playing. But they are relevant because they create conditions which are a good foundation for the guitar. These suggestions are provisional teachings in terms of learning to play the guitar.

“Another analogy may be helpful. Say someone, we’ll call her Joan, wants to learn tennis. Joan finds a good coach. As in the previous example, the coach discovers that Joan lives in ways that make it difficult for her to play tennis well. So the coach, like the music teacher, suggests that Joan make some lifestyle changes as conditions that will be conducive to improving her game. These lifestyle teachings from the coach are provisional teachings in terms of learning to play tennis.

“As I’ve said before, in a sense the Buddha only taught one thing: Awakening to the Deathless and Unborn. This awakening is the cessation of all sorrow. The particular genius of the Buddha was that he was able to comprehend what it is that people do that hinders this awakening. He was therefore able to instruct people on how to remove those obstacles. These include instructions in ethics, meditation, and view. All of these are provisional teachings. Only the Deathless is ultimate. However, what happens is that people get lost in provisional teachings, mistaking the provisional for the ultimate.”

The waiter came by and refilled Doug’s coffee. Doug took a long sip. “This is really good coffee.” He smiled. “What you say is clear to me. It makes sense. But why do you think people get confused?”

“That’s a good question. It took me a long time to sort that one out. Here are my thoughts on this.” I cleared my throat which had grown tired from talking too much. “People do not mistake changing their sleeping habits for becoming a musician or becoming a tennis player. The case of the Dharma is different, I think, because the provisional teachings of the Dharma are significant human achievements. It is a profound, and rare, achievement for someone to live a life in accord with the five lay precepts, and even rarer for someone to actualize the full monastic precepts. It is rare for someone to establish themselves in the dhyanas, in rarefied meditative states. Those who do establish themselves in those states have accomplished something significant.

“Because the actualization of provisional teachings requires much training, and because the provisional teachings are profound, it is understandable that people begin to think that the provisional teachings are the Dharma itself. This is getting lost in the provisional. It’s like forgetting the ultimate purpose of the Dharma.

“In addition, the Deathless is subtle, difficult to explain, difficult to access. In contrast, provisional teachings are easier to understand, less subtle, and therefore easier to grasp.

“In thinking about tennis and guitar, the ‘ultimate’ teaching in these areas is obvious; it is being able to play guitar well and play tennis well. Hence when the teacher or coach offers provisional teachings there is no confusion regarding that teaching’s status. No one confuses diet with guitar playing.

“Now, weave together all of these observations. Imagine you are a disciple of the Buddha. Imagine you are a monk who has meticulously followed the vinaya, the complex code, or way of life, for Buddhist monastics. Now imagine that the Buddha announces that this code is a provisional teaching. I can understand why some monks would become offended, especially if they had generated a sense of self and personal achievement around this.

“Or imagine that you had cultivated the ability to enter into rarefied meditative states, the higher dhyanas. This had taken years of dedication and practice. Now the Buddha says that this is a provisional teaching. I can understand why some who had invested so much time and effort into this practice might feel insulted. I can even believe that some of them would get up and leave the assembly.”

Doug paused. He looked thoughtful. He sipped his coffee slowly. “I think I understand the psychology you are pointing to. Let me make an analogy and see if it fits. Suppose someone wanted to learn math in order to understand transfinite numbers. On the way they learn calculus. Then they stop. The teacher/advisor says, ‘Don’t stop there. Calculus is wonderful, but you have further to go.’ Someone attached to their achievements, who has forgotten their original motivation, might become offended. They might even switch advisors.” Again Doug paused, mulling over various scenarios. “This is a fertile observation. One I will have to give some more attention to. In the meantime, are there other similarities you have noticed between the Middle Length Discourses and the Lotus Sutra?”

“The resemblance we have been talking about,” I began, “I call ‘resemblance of plot’. I mean that the basic setup of the two groups of Discourses is similar. Other similarities include an emphasis on skilful means, the central importance of ethics, the ultimate/provisional distinction, and teachings on the Deathless.”

The waiter came and removed our lunch plates. We both ordered some more coffee and I ordered a chocolate chip cookie for desert. Doug continued.

“Could you briefly outline the similarities you just mentioned?”

“Sure. First, skilful means. In the Middle Length Discourses there is a Sutta where a Brahmin asks the Buddha how to get to heaven. The Buddha responds by giving the Brahman a meditative technique that will get him into heaven. This is a clear example of skilful means. It is an incomplete teaching, but, given the Brahman’s inclinations, it is the best the Buddha could to at the time. Note that the Buddha is not being deceptive. He is offering what the individual needs; hopefully at some other time there will be an opportunity to offer a more complete teaching.

“Regarding ethics, Sutta 6 of the Middle Length Discourses, and Chapter 14 of the Lotus Sutra have similar emphases. Both teach the foundational nature of ethics for the path, or ethics as the path. Both emphasize the importance of maintaining high ethical standards and that such standards are a necessary practice for awakening.”

“Regarding the ultimate/provisional distinction; here the Lotus Sutra and the Middle Length Discourses make strikingly similar observations. In a sense, my hypothesis regarding the connection between the Middle Length Discourses and the Lotus Sutra stands or falls on this point.

“Sutta 106 of the Middle Length Discourses is a good example of what I am referring to. In this Sutta Ananda asks if attaining refined meditative states, the jhanas, will lead to liberation. The Buddha responds by saying that it might, or it might not, that if someone clings to these refined meditative absorptions they will not achieve liberation. The Buddha then goes on to identify the deathless with liberation and that the deathless is non-clinging.

“This is a central point in the Middle Length Discourses. It is the awakening to the deathless which is full liberation. Anything else, including refined meditative absorptions, is provisional. To rest in the provisional, no matter how exalted, is to miss the ultimate release from bondage. This is a central teaching shared by both the Middle Length Discourses and the Lotus Sutra.

“Which brings me to the crowning similarity: the centrality of the deathless and unborn. Chapter 16 of the Lotus Sutra is the most extensive teaching on the deathless found in the Buddhist Canon. It therefore illuminates the teachings on the deathless found in the Middle Length Discourses, which are, at times, obscure.

“To return to my hypothesis, I think that there was an actual historical episode (probably toward the end of Shakyamuni Buddha’s life) where the Buddha clarified that many of his teachings were provisional, and specifying that the ultimate purpose of his teaching was to awaken to the deathless and unborn. The response to this was not enthusiastic and was rejected by more than a few of the Buddha’s disciples.

“And this highlights a central insight about the Dharma and answers a core question regarding the Dharma. I am referring to whether or not the path of the Dharma, the Fourth Noble Truth, is simply cessation or whether there is an awakening to something. In some interpretations of the Dharma nirvana is interpreted as meaning simply cessation: the cessation of the 12 factors which give rise to suffering, for example. In other interpretations of the Dharma cessation is comprehended as provisional and the ultimate teachings is an awakening to the deathless and unborn. I hold the view that the ultimate teaching is an awakening to the deathless, and not just the cessation of afflictions. I think this is one of the central teachings of the Lotus Sutra.

“After the Buddha died this teaching that caused so much consternation among the Buddha’s disciples acted as a catalyst among different groups of Buddhists. In one of those groups this gave rise to the Middle Length Discourses, while in another group it gave rise to the Lotus Sutra. That is why I say that if you accept one of these it is necessary to accept the other.”

Doug responded, “You have obviously given this a lot of thought. What you have said seems insightful, even inspiring. But isn’t it just speculation on your part?”

“You mean can I prove it?” I asked.

“Yes, that’s what I mean.”

Doug’s question was a good one. “No, I can’t prove it. If by proof you mean mathematical certainty. What I can do is present a ‘good case’. In other words, my hypothesis is speculation, but it is not groundless speculation.”

We had finished our coffee. Doug looked at his watch. “I’m sorry good friend, but I have to go. But you have offered some intriguing insights. What I think I’ll do is spend some time reading the Lotus Sutra with your observations in mind. Then I’d like to get together again to discuss this further.”

“Nothing would give me greater pleasure.” Doug and I had been discussing the Dharma for years and our conversations were always fruitful. We didn’t always agree, but I always learned from our interactions and I think that Doug also benefited from them. I looked forward to our next meeting.

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