Two Good Dharma Friends
Discuss the Lotus Sutra

by Jim Wilson


Visit Three

Life is complicated; work, family obligations, social commitments. Doug and I had one of our pauses. More than six months passed swiftly by without mutual communication. When I realized that so much time had passed I sent Doug an email suggesting that we find some time to get together for another lunch. He immediately replied, suggesting Saturday again. He asked if Ted could join us. Ted was an old friend of both Doug and I. Ted was a Vajrayana practitioner, some form of Tibetan Buddhism, I wasn’t sure of which specific tradition. I hadn’t seen Ted in several years. I responded that it seemed like a good idea for the three of us to meet. Lunch didn’t work out for the three of us; so we decided on a Saturday afternoon at the sweets and coffeehouse on Market Street; the one where Doug and I had last met.

I arrived about 20 minutes early. I ordered tea and a giant pumpkin cookie. I found a table and let the tea brew. After it had brewed sufficiently, I poured it. It was an English Breakfast blend and the aroma was tantalizing. The blend went well with the pumpkin cookie, so I didn’t mind waiting for Doug and Ted.

Doug and Ted arrived about 20 minutes late. Both of them ordered Tea; Doug ordered green tea and Ted ordered black tea. They each also had large chocolate chip cookies. Then they took their orders to the table I was at.

I hadn’t seen Ted in a long time. We greeted each other warmly and chatted about when the last time we had seen each other. It turned out that several years had passed.

After some more pleasantries and the sipping of our various beverages, Ted, somewhat anxiously, inquired, “I hear from Doug that the two of you have been having some Dharma discussions. Doug tells me you are asserting that the Lotus Sutra is the ultimate teaching of the Buddha. Is that correct?”

I responded evenly, “Yes, that’s correct. But to be more precise, my view is that the ultimate teaching of the Buddha is the teaching of the deathless and unborn. My view is that the clearest, most expansive, presentation of that teaching is found in the Lotus Sutra.”

Ted hesitated, then decided to proceed, “Well, you know that I am a Vajrayana practitioner?”

“Yes,” I said.

Ted continued, “And it is the view of the Vajrayana that the ultimate teachings are found in the Tantras. In other words, the Tantras are a more complete and superior vehicle than the Sutras.”

“Yes, I’m aware of that view. I don’t agree with it.” I responded. I could tell that this might become a contentious discussion so I responded in a tone of voice that was free from agitation. “It’s OK with me if people don’t agree with my point of view, or rather, the Lotus Sutra tradition point of view. This view is widespread in East Asia and it is one that I have found satisfying, efficacious, and clarifying. It is not a view that has received much attention in the west, at least not explicitly. As a view it is foundational for the way most East Asian traditions are presented; but since these traditions tend not to present their view in terms of Tenet Systems, in the way the Vajrayanists do, it is a view that, for the most part, is not explicitly discussed outside of the Lotus Sutra traditions themselves.”

Ted pondered this for a moment. “I’ve been practicing Vajrayana for a long time now. The Lotus Sutra is a nice sutra, it has some insightful things to say, but I don’t understand why someone would elevate it to the high status that you do.”

“First, it’s not me personally that is elevating the Lotus Sutra to such a status. There is a long tradition that includes many Dharma Sages that have found the Lotus Sutra to be the ultimate teaching of the Buddha. In other words, this isn’t some eccentric view that I have created. It is every bit as venerable as the Vajrayana traditions.” I was probably getting a little defensive, but remained basically cordial.

Ted nodded his head, “Yes, I understand that. I didn’t mean to imply that you were being eccentric. I know you well enough to understand that your view is taken only after careful consideration.”

“Thanks,” I said sincerely.

Ted continued, “But I don’t see why the Lotus Sutra receives such special attention on the part of the Lotus Sutra traditions. What is it about the Lotus Sutra that, in your opinion, justifies such a special status?”

“That’s a fair question,” I paused to gather my thoughts. “If I were to pick just a few points they would be these: First, the Lotus Sutra teaches the universality of the potential for enlightenment in a way that is explicit. In other words, all beings can become fully awakened. Second, the Lotus Sutra clarifies the meaning the ultimate/provisional distinction, which clarifies the meaning of the Fourth Noble Truth, the path to awakening. Third, the Lotus Sutra clarifies the nature of the deathless beyond being just a philosophical deduction or principle. Though there are many other points of sublime insight in the Lotus Sutra, these three are good starting points.”

Ted tilted his head. I think he was considering what I had just said and comparing it to his own tradition’s view. “In terms of insight, I see what you are saying about the Lotus Sutra. But what about method?”

“I’m not sure what you are getting at?” I responded, somewhat puzzled.

“It is the view of the Vajrayana traditions that the Tantras contain methods which are superior to the Sutras. So I am asking what is the method of the Lotus Sutra. You see, what I am saying is that insight isn’t sufficient, there also has to be realization and realization depends on method. So what is the method that the Lotus Sutra offers?” Ted asked these questions sincerely, but it seemed to me that there was a touch of an “I gotcha” quality in his questions as well. I chose to ignore this.

“There are several responses I can offer. Your question is somewhat complex, so I need to take one aspect at a time. First, the idea that the Tantras offer superior methods: I disagree with that assertion. From my perspective, all the Tantras are provisional teachings. I don’t mean by the word ‘provisional’ that they have no value. I mean that they are not teachings on the deathless and unborn, which is the ultimate teaching.” Ted was frowning. “OK, let’s put that aside for now. My question to you is what is the justification for saying that Tantra is superior in method to Sutra? Simply asserting that this is the case is not sufficient. Both reasons and evidence need to be offered; and my personal observation and study does not lead to any reasons or evidence that sustain this assertion.”

Ted looked annoyed. “There is a long tradition of Vajrayana Masters, enlightened teachers, who vouch for the efficacy of the Vajrayana and the superiority of its methods.”

I responded, “Yes, that’s true. But that is also true of every tradition of Buddhism. Those who regard Abhidharma as superior to Sutra make the same assertion. Those that regard various forms of meditation as superior to Sutra also make this assertion. It is easy to make assertions.” I paused, considering how to approach this issue in a constructive way. “In order for the assertion that Tantra has superior methods to hold I think that the Vajrayanists have to show that there is a connection between the deathless and the methods that they practice. Further, that this connection is causal; that is to say that the methods of Vajrayana are particularly suited for awakening to the deathless and unborn. I have not seen that established, and I think there are good reasons to think otherwise.”

Ted drummed his fingers. “You seem hostile to Vajrayana.”

“That’s not correct. I disagree with the Vajrayana claim that its methods are superior to Sutra, and specifically to the Lotus Sutra. That does not mean I am hostile to Vajrayana. As I said, I think Vajrayana, Buddhist Tantra, is a provisional teaching. But provisional teachings are to be valued. Provisional does not mean trivial or disposable.

“Look at it this way. Abhidharma is a highly refined system of analysis. By itself, however, it does not open the gate to the deathless. Similarly for the analyses of the Tenet Systems, such as Madhyamika. Or consider the dhyanas, rarefeid meditative absorptions. These are wonderful accomplishments; but by themselves they do not open the gate to the deathless. I regard Vajrayana as similar to these forms of Buddhist practice; they are all provisional teachings. Only the deathless and unborn is ultimate. I think Vajrayana is efficacious in the same way that all Buddhist practices are efficacious; but I do not think it is particularly efficacious, or faster, or more likely to lead someone to awakening to the deathless and unborn.”

Ted seemed somewhat mollified. “Let’s return to considering Sutra and Tantra.”

“Good idea,” I agreed.

Ted proceeded, “I guess I have two questions for you. First, why don’t you think the Tantras are superior in method? Second, what is it about the Lotus Sutra that you consider particularly efficacious?” Ted asked these in a calm way.

“Regarding the first question,” I responded, “I don’t think the Tantras are superior in method because they are esoteric.”

Ted blinked. Doug laughed. Then Doug said, “Are you being deliberately provocative? Sometimes I think you enjoy turning things on their head just to see what will happen.”

“No, I’m serious. One of the methods of the Tantras is esotericism. As a method I consider it a provisional tool. Sutras are superior to Tantras because they are exoteric, because they are not secret.” I was trying to be clear about this difficult point, but I could see that it was going past my two friends.

Ted stepped in. “But that is nonsense. You are saying that Tantras are beneath Sutras precisely because the Tantras are esoteric. In other words, the virtue which the Tantras claim about themselves, that they are esoteric teachings, is precisely what you regard as making them provisional. Is that right?”

“Yes, that’s right.” I responded. “Look at it this way: Is the deathless esoteric? Is the deathless something that requires entry into an esoteric structure in order for someone to realize it? I don’t think it does. I don’t see any connection between awakening to the deathless and unborn and esotericism. In fact, the opposite seems to me to be the case.” I was stressing my point. “I mean, as I said before, that I don’t see any connection between an esoteric structure and awakening to the deathless. There is no need to enter into an esoteric communion in order to awaken to the deathless, which means that the ultimate teaching does not require one enter an esoteric path.”

Ted sighed. “I don’t think that Vajrayanists make the claim that you say they are making. In fact, Vajrayanists specifically admire all Dharma traditions. What Vajrayanists do claim is that the Vajrayana is quicker, because of its methods.”

“I agree,” I said. “That is the Vajrayana position. I am disagreeing with it. Again; if the Vajrayana regards its methods as superior, because they are quicker, then my question is what is it about those methods that leads to awakening to the deathless? I don’t see any connection. And further, I would argue it is the very nature of the deathless that it is exoteric, not hidden, and that therefore the Sutra teachings are a more direct method for awakening than esoteric methods.”

“OK, I see what you are saying,” said Ted. “I see what you are saying, but I don’t think I like it.” Ted kind of chuckled.

I paused to gather my thoughts. “Ted, I’m not saying that the Vajrayana is bad, or that one shouldn’t practice it, or that it has no value. In many ways I deeply admire Vajrayana. But from the perspective of the Lotus Sutra, the Vajrayana is a provisional teaching in the same way that refined states of meditation are provisional, in the same way that ethical discipline is provisional, in the same way that refined intellectual understandings such as Abhidharma and Madhyamika are provisional. Only the deathless is ultimate, and the focus of what I am saying is that the Vajrayana does not grant any special access to that ultimate teaching.”

Ted was ready to respond. “You have stated that there is no connection between Vajrayana teachings and the deathless. Yet you are arguing that the Lotus Sutra is the means to awakening to the deathless and unborn. Well, I don’t see any connection between awakening to the deathless and the Lotus Sutra. So I’ll ask you, what is the causal relationship between the Lotus Sutra and this awakening to the ultimate teaching?” Ted was sharp, this was the right question to ask.

“In order to understand why I think the Lotus Sutra is the best means for such awakening we need to discover what is the necessary condition, or conditions, for awakening to the ultimate. There are many such conditions; for example, a precious human birth, a sound mind and body, living in a place where the Dharma is taught, and having access to the Dharma. These are all standard conditions that are necessary for awakening. One finds them listed in all Buddhist traditions.

“But there is one additional necessary condition. It is this: one moment of faith and joy in the Dharma. If there is not that one moment of faith and joy in the Dharma, awakening cannot happen. This is one of the primary teachings of the Lotus Sutra. It is implied as early as Chapter 3 when Shariputra is seen to be dancing for joy because the Buddha has told him of his future attainment of full enlightenment. It is precisely that joy and trust, or faith, in the Buddha and his prediction that is the causal basis for Shariputra’s eventually attaining full enlightenment. Later, this is emphasized explicitly in Chapter 17. And it is stated in the opening lines of Chapter 16 where the Buddha says, “Understand my words by faith.” But it is a theme of the Lotus Sutra that one finds woven through nearly every Chapter. For example, in the Chapter on Bodhisattva Never Despising, it is the trust and joy in the Dharma, the deep faith that Bodhisattva Never Despising has in the Dharma, which is the foundation for his practice of honoring all beings, and which eventuates in Bodhisattva Never Despising’s becoming a fully enlightened Buddha.

“In terms of our discussion here, one moment of faith and joy in the Dharma is not an esoteric teaching, it is exoteric. Since I regard this one moment of faith and joy in the Dharma as the pivotal, essential, and necessary condition for awakening, I therefore conclude that this means that the exoteric teachings are superior to the esoteric teachings. Furthermore, in terms of the Lotus Sutra, since the Lotus Sutra is a presentation of this teaching, and since the Lotus Sutra itself instills such faith and joy in the Dharma, the Lotus Sutra is the best means for nourishing the seed of full awakening that resides in the mind and heart of all sentient beings.”

“Wow!” Ted’s eyes were wide in mock amazement. “Jim, you have obviously given a lot of thought to this.”

Doug laughed, “You have no idea!”

Ted continued, “But still, I’m not convinced.”

I responded, “Ted, I’m not really out to convince you. Of course it would make me happy if you became a devotee of the Lotus Sutra. But more important to me is the opportunity to clarify my understanding. One of the most important functions of conversations like this, at least for me, is that it helps me to deepen my own understanding, to test it and see if it really holds or is coherent. That is one of the reasons why I enjoy having discussions with good Dharma friends. It is not a matter of converting you, or you converting me; it is a matter of having an opportunity to share our perspectives in a creative unfolding. It may not seem like it, but when I enter into discussions like this, I always think it is possible that I may change my mind, or that you might change your mind, or, and this is something that I find particularly attractive, in the interaction between you and me, perhaps a third possibility will emerge that neither of us had thought of before. That is the creative aspect of interactions like this.”

Ted relaxed a bit. “OK. I have to admit that it felt to me that you were really putting the pressure on. So you don’t mind if I question your view?”

“No. Go ahead. If my view isn’t questioned how can I deepen my understanding?” I said.

Ted leaned forward, “This one moment of faith and joy in the Dharma that you speak of, why is it so pivotal? I’m not sure I agree with you on that.”

“It has to do with the heart,” I responded. “Perhaps a contrast will illustrate what I mean. Think of a Sanskrit scholar who studies the Lotus Sutra, the Perfection of Wisdom Sutras, and other Sanskrit Buddhist Discourses. The Sanskrit scholar is studying these works because of his interest in Sanskrit, the grammar, the vocabulary, the syntax, and the history of the language. Primarily this scholar is a linguist. This kind of scholar may be able to tell us a great deal about what is said in these Discourses, but still the seed of awakening has not been nourished in the mind of the scholar. Perhaps the scholar is even skeptical or cynical about the possibility of awakening. In other words, the scholar does not view awakening as a genuine possibility. This could be for various reasons. Perhaps the scholar belongs to another religion, perhaps the scholar is a materialist, or perhaps the scholar has become jaded by previous negative experiences with religious groups. It doesn’t really matter. What does matter is that the one moment of faith and joy in the Dharma has not happened. Until it does the ultimate teaching remains obscured.”

Ted tugged at his chin. “I see what you are saying. That makes sense to me. But how does the Lotus Sutra nourish that seed of awakening you refer to? It isn’t enough to just say that one moment of faith and joy in the Dharma is a necessary condition. You are saying that the Lotus Sutra actually nourishes that one moment of faith and joy. How does it do that?”

“Because the Lotus Sutra teaches that all beings have Buddha Nature, that all beings have this capacity. And furthermore it teaches that all beings will become Buddhas in the fullness of time. And further, the Lotus Sutra, through the teaching of the ten realms, explains exactly why this is so,” I responded eagerly.

“But the Tantras also teach that all beings have Buddha Nature and will become Buddhas. Actually, the Vajrayana teaches that all beings are Buddhas. This is the basis of Guru Yoga.” Ted spoke with emphasis.

“Guru Yoga is a method,” I pointed out, “a method of teaching. There are many methods of teaching the Dharma. I’m not against Guru Yoga; it works for some people. All I’m saying is that it is a provisional teaching, not the ultimate teaching. However, I think that it is a misunderstanding to interpret the Buddha’s teaching in such a way as to conclude that all beings are Buddhas. For one thing, this negates the Fourth Noble Truth, the Truth of the Path. From another perspective I think this kind of teaching is a misunderstanding of nature and function. It is true that all beings have Buddha Nature, which I understand to mean that all beings have the ability, the potential, to awaken, to become a Buddha. But that doesn’t meant that all beings are Buddhas rights now, just as they are.

“Let me illustrate with an analogy. All normal human beings have the potential to be musicians. One might refer to this as “musician nature”. But not all human beings are musicians. To say that all beings are Buddhas is a similar kind of confusion.”

Ted appeared thoughtful, “I see what you are saying. It makes sense, but I’m not sure that the analogy between musicianship and Buddhahood is accurate. Musicianship is a talent, while Buddhahood as the actuality of existence. It seems to me that the two are not really comparable.”

“I don’t want to get sidetracked,” I responded hastily. “My point is simply that as a teaching method I grant that Guru Yoga is efficacious for some. What I’m questioning is the idea that it is a necessary condition for awakening to the deathless, which is the ultimate teaching. I do not see any necessary causal connection between the deathless, or awakening to the deathless, and the method of Guru Yoga. Unless that can be established, then I would say that Guru Yoga is just one method among many methods to assist sentient beings on the path to the ultimate; a method which is not better or worse than others.

“There’s a Sutta from the Middle Length Discourse which is on point here.” I noticed that Doug perked up when I mentioned this. “Anathapindika the Householder is dying. Shariputra comes to see him. Anathapinidka informs Shariputra that he is dying and asks for a final teaching. At that point Shariputra offers Anthapindika a thorough and beautiful teaching on non-clinging. In a style that is typical of Shariputra, non-clinging is examined from all possible angles; from the perspective of the five aggregates, the six sense bases, from the perspective of the jhanas, etc. The connection to our discussion is this: In another Discourse the Buddha says explicitly that the deathless is “the liberation of the mind through non-clinging.” Thus, Shariputra is explaining to Anthapindika, at the moment of Anthapinidika’s dying, how to awaken to the deathless.”

“That’s beautiful,” said Ted.

“But there’s more. Anthapindika, on hearing this teaching, begins to weep. Ananda asks him if he is o.k. Anthapindika says that even though he was a loyal supporter of the Dharma for many years, he has never before heard such a teaching. Shariputra responds that such teachings are not given to householders, but only to monastics, or those who have “gone forth.” My point in bringing this up is that Shariputra is making a kind of mistake that is similar to the one that Vajrayanists make regarding the deathless. The mistake is to keep the teaching hidden by creating arbitrary criteria as to who can access that teaching. In the case of Shariputra it was the idea that the ultimate teaching, the teaching on deathless non-clinging, could only be given to monastics. Now, I would argue that there is no necessary connection between awakening to the deathless and living one’s life as a monastic. And similarly I would argue that there is no necessary connection between awakening to deathless non-clinging and esoteric initiation.

“This does not mean that I think that monasticism or esotericism have no value. I value both highly. But they are only expedient means; they are provisional teachings. In the hands of skillful teachers these methods can support awakening to the deathless. But there is no reason why the deathless should be contingent upon being a monastic or having taken esoteric initiation.

“This is why I regard the Lotus Sutra as a higher and more complete teaching than the Tantras; precisely because Sutra teachings are not hidden and do not create the illusion that awakening to the deathless is contingent upon arbitrarily imposed conditions. The Lotus Sutra, then, is the true Universal Vehicle which opens the gate to the deathless for all sentient beings; monastic or lay, male or female, in whatever realm they may dwell, whatever form they may take. And that is how the Lotus Sutra instills in people that one moment of faith and joy in the Dharma; by teaching, showing, displaying, and explaining why the Deathless is something that can be realized by all sentient beings.”

Ted appeared thoughtful. “I don’t really know how to respond. I’ll have to think about what you have said. But at the moment, it just strikes me as improbable that something so subtle and hidden as the deathless could be most clearly presented in an exoteric teaching. I guess that is the connection I am making between the esoteric and the deathless; that the deathless is hidden and therefore requires an esoteric process in order to remove the veils and hindrances which cover it.”

“But the deathless isn’t hidden. It’s just that people don’t know how to pay attention to it,” I responded. Ted blinked.

“What do you mean when you say the deathless isn’t hidden,” Ted asked.

“I mean that the deathless is not something which is behind phenomena, it’s not beneath existing things, or prior to existing things. It is not a matter of removing things and then uncovering the deathless. It is a matter of shifting our attention so that we can perceive or gain access to the constant aspect of all phenomena. And that’s what the Lotus Sutra does; it draws our attention to this capacity that all sentient beings have and simply drawing one’s attention to it, to this capacity, is in itself nourishing this capacity.” I spoke hesitatingly, aware that this is a most subtle and difficult matter to express.

Ted frowned, “Isn’t the Deathless the hidden essence of beings?”

“No, I wouldn’t put it that way,” I responded. The deathless is not an essence. It is the transcendence of essence. It is the abandoning of being. But look, this is a subject for another discussion. And in many ways these kinds of philosophical speculations, though I enjoy them, do not, it seems to me, help us awaken to that deathless and unborn presence which is the heart of the Dharma.”

Ted laughed, “Yes, I agree with you there.”

“I’d like to say a little more about the one moment of faith and joy in the Dharma.” I wanted to return to this basic point.

“Sounds good to me,” Ted responded.

“In Chapter 17 of the Lotus Sutra it says that one moment of faith and joy surpasses the five perfections of generosity, ethics, patience, energy and meditation. Those who hear the Dharma and respond with faith and joy surpass those who hear of the Dharma and respond by practicing these five perfections. Only the Perfection of Wisdom is placed on an equal footing with this one moment of faith and joy.” I was on a roll.

Ted put up his hand. “Before you go further, I have to ask, what do you mean by faith here?”

“The centrality of faith can, I think, be understood by comparing its function in the Dharma to its function in other areas of human life. For example, suppose I want to learn quilting. In order for me to follow through on this interest I need to have a sense that it is worthwhile, that it is in some way meaningful in my life. This is the one moment of faith and joy in quilting that will propel my studies of quilting forward. The same applies to any activity a human being undertakes voluntarily in life. The distinction I am making is that I might study bookkeeping because my job demands it. In this case one moment of faith and joy isn’t necessary; the motivation is material and even if I dislike bookkeeping, I will probably pursue it to enhance my job opportunities.

“But when we get to areas of life that we enter into voluntarily, then that one moment of faith and joy is necessary to sustain the interest. To take another example, suppose someone wants to pursue bonsai. If the one moment of faith and joy in bonsai doesn’t appear, the likelihood is that that person will simply give it up. The same applies to the Dharma. Someone may have a passing interest in it, but if faith and joy in the Dharma doesn’t appear, the likelihood is that the person will simply let the Dharma slide. But with one moment of faith and joy, then the five perfections referred to in Chapter 17 become something one eagerly undertakes. Having a foundation of trust, faith, and joy in the Dharma I eagerly enter into the practice of generosity in order to support the Dharma, and also of ethics, patience on the path naturally arises, and joy and trust give rise to the energy needed to walk the path, and meditation is no longer a duty or chore, but something I eagerly look forward to.”

Ted responded, “I like that. You have a nice way of putting things. But why do you think the Perfection of Wisdom is placed on the same level as faith?”

“I’ve given a lot of thought to that. The Lotus Sutra doesn’t actually say why this is the case. I suspect that this was a commonly understood view at the time the Lotus Sutra appeared. Tentatively, I think that the Perfection of Wisdom provides a kind of discernment that can channel the enthusiasm of faith in a constructive way. Without the Perfection of Wisdom we might take a detour into an irrelevant subject and waste a lot of time. When wisdom is coupled with the energy of faith and joy, clarity as to the path appears. To take another analogy, suppose I wanted to learn gardening and someone told me I had first to learn geology. Now, geology is interesting, but I don’t really need to know geology in order to be a good gardener. If I have the wisdom of discernment, I can see that there isn’t really a solid connection between gardening and geology. Similarly, I think the Perfection of Wisdom clarifies what is essential in Dharma practice so that my enthusiasm born of faith and joy doesn’t get sidetracked into irrelevancies.”

Ted nodded, “Yes, that’s a good analogy. I get what you are saying.”

I leaned forward to drive home my point, “But my point in bringing all this up is that none of this is esoteric. None of it. Nor does any of it need to be esoteric. That is why I say that esoteric Dharma traditions are only provisional teachings, while the exoteric teachings, and in particular the Lotus Sutra, are more direct and display the ultimate teaching more clearly.”

Ted appeared uncomfortable. “Obviously the esoteric traditions don’t agree with your analysis. I’m not going to abandon my practice just because of one conversation.”

I nodded, “I wouldn’t want you to. I understand that esoteric traditions are efficacious for some people. I’m not an iconoclast and my purpose here isn’t destructive. My purpose is a defense of the exoteric Buddhist tradition, the traditions based on Sutra in particular.”

“But why do you feel a need for such a defense?” asked Ted.

“The need for such a defense arises out of the esoteric Buddhist traditions’ claims for being particularly efficacious and that therefore, by implication, and often stated explicitly, that exoteric traditions are less effective. I think this is false, for the reasons stated above. In general, those who follow the esoteric traditions are heavily invested in the idea that esoteric traditions are particularly effective, faster, more streamlined. But I have never heard of any evidence to support this idea. The support for this idea is done in terms of strictly internal philosophical self-justifications; the kind of thing that every tradition uses. Again, not only do I see no special efficacy for esoteric methods, I can see good reasons for not regarding esoteric methods as particularly efficacious. To return to my main point; the deathless is not itself hidden and does not require esoteric initiation in order to actualize it.

“Still, I’m not arguing against esotericism. As a collection of methods, it is clearly efficacious for some people; just as concentration practices are efficacious for some people, just as spacious awareness methods are efficacious for some people, etc. But all these methods are provisional teachings and eventually I believe an esoteric practitioner will need to move beyond the esoteric into the ultimate teaching found in the exoteric Sutras.”

Ted sipped the last of his coffee. “I’m not sure what to make of what you are saying. On the one hand you are saying that you aren’t against esotericism and on the other hand you are arguing against one of the main views of the esoteric tradition. Can you really have it both ways?”

“Yup. I want it both ways.” Both Ted and I laughed. “The world is getting smaller. Buddhist traditions that were separated by geography, language, and politics are now found right next to teach other. Teachings that may have been helpful at a time when these traditions were developing in isolation might no longer serve. I believe that the idea that esotericism is particularly efficacious, or faster, or in some sense superior to exoteric, Sutra, traditions is one of those views that, in light of this new situation of interaction, needs to be put aside. Those of us who have studied in non-esoteric traditions know that it is false. We have too much experience in the exoteric traditions to take this view seriously. If the methods, the skilful means, of the esoteric traditions are going to continue, they need to be released from their esoteric hothouse and allowed to flourish freely in the open realms of the exoteric, the realm of the Sutra teaching.”

There was a long pause as Doug and Ted ate a few bites of their cookies. I poured a little more tea. Finally, Ted continued, “I still don’t see why you would elevate the Lotus Sutra in particular. Why the Lotus Sutra? Given that you hold the exoteric Sutras to be more efficacious, or more direct, than the Tantras, or the esoteric, why not the Perfection of Wisdom, or the Avatamsaka, or, for that matter, the Nikayas or Agamas? Your choice seems arbitrary and forced to me, though obviously it is sincere.”

“I’ve spoken about this with Doug,” I responded. “I don’t want to bore Doug by repeating these points. But let me ask you, have you read the Lotus Sutra?”

“Yes, I’ve read it. As I said before, I like it, it’s just that I don’t find it a singularly insightful Sutra.” Ted responded.

“Though there are many reasons I regard the Lotus Sutra as the ultimate teaching of the Buddha,” I said, “what I would point out here is that those other Sutras do not point to the importance of one moment of faith and joy in the Dharma. They are therefore provisional in the sense that though they may teach supporting conditions, they do not nourish the essential condition. From the perspective of the esoteric traditions, I think that I would emphasize just this one point: that the Lotus Sutra clarifies the means for unifying all the Dharma teachings. As Thich Nhat Hanh said, the Lotus Sutra is the King of the Sutras and shows the way for the reconciliation of all the Dharma teachings, and I would include the esoteric teachings here.”

“How does The Lotus Sutra accomplish this?” asked Ted.

“The Lotus Sutra does this by clarifying the ultimate/provisional distinction. Think of the Dharma as a lotus blossom.” I felt at home here for this is one of the things that I always find comforting about the Lotus Sutra. “At the center of the Lotus of the Fine Dharma is the ultimate teaching. The ultimate teaching is the Deathless, the Unborn, and it is awakening to this deathlessness that is the cessation of all sorrow.

“The petals of the lotus can be understood as responses to this central, ultimate teaching. They grow out of this central teaching. Some of the blossoms are methods, some are traditions of interpretation, some are doctrines. But they all emerge from this central, ultimate teaching.

“In this metaphor one comprehends the intimate connection between the provisional and ultimate teaching. One would not want to discard the petals of the lotus, and similarly, one does not want to discard the provisional teachings of the Dharma for they are of great beauty. Moreover, it is the petals of the lotus of the fine Dharma that attracts people to the Dharma. However, the petals are dependent upon the center of the blossom, they unfold from it, and have their roots in the soil out of which the lotus grows. It is easy to forget this when distracted by the fine petals of the lotus; but without the center of the lotus the petals would not be there.

“The Lotus Sutra comprehends all the teachings as having a place, an honored, place. Rather than looking on them as contradictory and as occasions for debate and rancor, the Lotus Sutra comprehends the different Dharma teachings as having the function of drawing our attention to the Dharma, just as the petals of the lotus draw bees to its nectar. But we must go beyond the petals and taste the nectar of the deathless. When we do so, we find that the Dharma has one taste; the taste of liberation, the taste of awakening, the end of sorrow.”

There was a long pause. I was finished. Ted was thoughtful. Doug was smiling.

Finally Doug spoke, “Jim, your love of the Lotus Sutra is clear; I think both of us see that.” Ted nodded at this point. “I’m just not sure that either of us are willing to grant the centrality of the Lotus Sutra in the way you have.”

I responded, “I’m comfortable with that. I would only add that I hope you will read, contemplate, study, and question the Lotus Sutra. Such study will assist you on your path, wherever that might take you.”

Ted said, “I’ve enjoyed our conversation. Like Doug, I’m not really convinced with your point of view, but at least now I can see that your view is a considered one.” Ted paused, and then decided to add, “I hope we can have further conversations about this, and, of course, about the Dharma in general.”

Doug laughed, “Conversations about the Dharma? You couldn’t stop Jim from talking about the Dharma no matter how hard you tried!”

Now I laughed, “True. But seriously Ted, nothing gives me greater joy than Dharma discussion. Perhaps the three of us can get together for such discussion on a somewhat regular basis?”

They both agreed that this was a good idea. We sipped the last of our drinks. Finished our cookies. Then we wandered into some small talk; for about a half hour discussing work, family, and the latest movies. The conversation wound down. We all had things to do. We parted as we had met, as good Dharma friends.

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Notice: Copyright 2005 by Jim Wilson, also known as Dharmajim. All rights reserved. Permission is hereby given to copy and download this document provided this notice remains a part of the document.
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