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Lotus Sutra, the

Category: Books sutras and myths


The Lotus Sūtra (Sanskrit: Saddharma Puṇḍarīka Sūtra, literally Sutra on the White Lotus of the Sublime Dharma) is a Mahāyānan sutra, and the basis on which the Tiantai, Tendai, Cheontae, and Nichiren schools of Buddhism were established.

The Lotus sutra – Introduction and Preface by Burton Watson
The Lotus Sutra is one of the most important and influential of all the sutras or sacred scriptures of Mahayana Buddhism, revered by almost all branches of the Mahayana teachings, and over many centuries the object of intense veneration among Buddhist believers throughout China, Korea, Japan, and other regions of eastern Asia

Origins, dates and translations

The Lotus sutra – Introduction and Preface by Burton Watson
We do not know where or when the Lotus Sutra was composed, or in what language. Probably it was initially formulated in some local dialect of India or Central Asia and then later put into Sanskrit to lend it greater respectability. All we can say for certain about the date of its composition is that it was already in existence by 255 CE, when the first Chinese translation of it was made. It was translated into Chinese several times subsequently, but it is through the version done in 406 by the Central Asian scholar-monk Kumarajiva that it has become widely known and read in China and the other countries within the Chinese cultural sphere of influence. This version has been universally acknowledged as the most authoritative and felicitous in language.


In the observations below we have thus used the Kumarajiva version in the translation made by Burton Watson himself.  The observations are obviously just a selection to bring out some key points in the text and to help people get a flavour for its content.  The translation done by Burton Watson is well over 300 pages, as such a selection has to have been made.

These translations of the Lotus Sūtra into Chinese are extant:

  • The Lotus Sutra of the Correct Dharma, in ten volumes and twenty-seven chapters, translated by Dharmarakṣa in 286 CE from a Sanskrit version in Chang'an during the Western Jin Period (265-317 CE).
  • The Lotus Sutra of the Wonderful Dharma, in eight volumes and twenty-eight chapters, translated by Kumārajīva in 406 CE.  The base text, according to other scholars, was believed to be in a Prakrit language - one or other of the many Prakrit dialects.  According to Jean-Noël Robert, Kumārajīva relied heavily on this earlier Prakrit version.

The earliest known Sanskrit title for the sūtra is the Saddharma Puṇḍarīka Sūtra, which translates to Scripture of the Lotus Blossom of the Fine Dharma

The Lotus sutra – Introduction and Preface by Burton Watson
In recent years several Sanskrit texts of the Lotus Sutra, … have been discovered in Nepal, Central Asia, and Kashmir. Some appear to have been copied in the eleventh century or later, though some may have been copied as early as the fifth or sixth century. These Sanskrit versions of the work differ considerably in places from the Kumarajiva translation, being often more verbose in expression, which suggests that the text Kumarajiva followed was earlier in date, and may in fact have been quite close to the original version.

The Lotus Sutra, as just mentioned, was at an early date translated into Chinese, as well as into Tibetan, and in later centuries into Hsi-hsia, Mongol, Manchu, Korean, and Japanese. In recent years several translations into English and other European languages have appeared; now it is established as an important text of world literature. 


Translations of this title into the languages of some of these countries include:

  • Sanskrit: सद्धर्मपुण्डरीक सूत्र Saddharmapuṇḍarīka Sūtra
  • Chinese: 妙法蓮華經; pinyin: Miàofǎ Liánhuá jīng, shortened to 法華經 Fǎhuá jīng
  • Japanese: (妙法蓮華経 Myōhō Renge Kyō?), Hokke-kyō, Hoke-kyō (法華経?)
  • Korean: Hangul: 묘법연화경; RR: Myobeop Yeonhwa gyeong, shortened to Beophwa gyeong
  • Tibetan: དམ་ཆོས་པད་མ་དཀར་པོའི་མདོ, Wylie: dam chos padma dkar po'i mdo, THL: Damchö Pema Karpo'i do
  • Vietnamese: Diệu pháp Liên hoa kinh, shortened to Pháp hoa kinh

The first French translation of the Lotus Sutra, based on a Nepalese Sanskrit manuscript, was published by Eugène Burnouf in 1852. Hendrik Kern completed his English translation of an ancient Nepalese Sanskrit manuscript in 1884. Later translations into English, French, Spanish and German are based on Kumarajivas Chinese text.

The Lotus sutra – Introduction and Preface by Burton Watson
The Kumarajiva translation of the Lotus Sutra as it exists at present is made up of twenty-eight chapters. Nearly all the chapters consist of a combination of prose and verse passages. Verse form was used to make it easier for the followers of the religion to memorize the teachings and retain them in mind, and the gathas or verse passages were probably composed first. Later, as the sutra moved toward its final form, prose passages were added that incorporated the verse sections into a continuous narrative.

Principles of the teaching

The Lotus sutra – Introduction and Preface by Burton Watson
Like nearly all sutras, the Lotus begins with the Buddha's close disciple Ananda speaking the words, "This is what I heard." Ananda, who was present at all the Buddha's expositions of the Dharma or doctrine, then proceeds to describe the occasion when, at Mount Gridhrakuta or Eagle Peak near the city of Rajagriha, the Buddha preached the Lotus Sutra.

In these opening sentences we are still in the world of historical reality or possibility, in a setting in the outskirts of the city of Rajagriha in northern India in which Gautama or Shakyamuni very probably did in fact propound his doctrines in the sixth or fifth century BCE.
But as Ananda proceeds to describe the staggering number and variety of human, nonhuman, and heavenly beings who have gathered to listen to the Buddha's discourse, we realize that we have left the world of factual reality far behind. This is the first point to keep in mind in reading the Lotus Sutra. Its setting, its vast assembly of listeners, its dramatic occurrences in the end belong to a realm that totally transcends our ordinary concepts of time, space, and possibility…..
After several astounding events that impress upon us the truly cosmic scale of the drama that is unfolding, the Buddha begins to preach. The first important point he wishes to convey is that there is only one vehicle or one path to salvation, that which leads to the goal of Buddhahood….. the one and only vehicle to true enlightenment or perfect understanding, a state designated in the Lotus Sutra by the rather daunting Sanskrit term anuttara-samyak-sambodhi.

Buddhahood is available to all without exception


We should be able to see from the observations on the site that children and women are often favoured when it comes to spiritual experience – of all kinds.  Yet institutionalised religion – usually run by men – often sought to exclude both from any form of teaching or acknowledged spirituality.  Earlier Buddhism was no exception, and had asserted that women were gravely hampered in their religious endeavours by "five obstacles," one of which was the fact that they can never hope to attain Buddhahood. But all such assertions were unequivocally thrust aside in the Lotus Sutra.

The Lotus sutra – Introduction and Preface by Burton Watson
Asked if there were any among his listeners who succeeded in gaining enlightenment, Manjushri mentions the daughter of the dragon king Sagara, a girl just turned eight, who was able to master all the teachings. The questioner expresses understandable skepticism, pointing out that even Shakyamuni himself required many eons of religious practice before he could achieve enlightenment.
The girl herself then appears and before the astonished assembly performs various acts that demonstrate she has in fact achieved the highest level of understanding and can "in an instant" attain Buddhahood. …The child is a dragon, a nonhuman being, she is of the female sex, and she has barely turned eight, yet she reaches the highest goal in the space of a moment. Once again the Lotus Sutra reveals that its revolutionary doctrines operate in a realm transcending all petty distinctions of sex or species.



Mystics and mysticism incorporates the concept of redemption. 

Goethe, for example, was fascinated by the concept of redemption.   According to Nietzsche, Goethe had "a kind of almost joyous and trusting fatalism" that has "faith that only in the totality everything redeems itself and appears good and justified."  Faust is largely about redemption. 

And Goethe believed in the Great Work. The concept is extremely difficult to explain, as it relies on an understanding that creation and destruction go hand in hand and that sometimes destruction appears appallingly evil to those affected by it, but that in order for creation to proceed according to plan, destruction is needed.  The Great work is the plan for the evolution of the universe, as such one has to first believe that such a plan exists before redemption in its wider meaning can be understood.

The Lotus sutra – Introduction and Preface by Burton Watson
Devadatta is described in accounts of the life of Shakyamuni Buddha as a disciple and cousin of the Buddha who, though full of zeal at first, later grew envious of Shakyamuni, made several attempts on his life, and schemed to foment division in the Order. For these crimes, among the most heinous in the eyes of Buddhism, he was said to have fallen into hell alive. Yet in chapter twelve of the Lotus Sutra the Buddha reveals that in a past existence this epitome of evil was in fact a good friend and teacher of the Buddha, preaching the way of enlightenment for him, and that in an era to come, Devadatta will without fail become a Buddha himself. From this we learn that … in the realm of non-dualism good and evil are not the eternal and mutually exclusive opposites we had supposed them to be.

The need for expediency


To understand anything of the Lotus Sutra one must be at least partially familiar with the concepts of the Intelligence hierarchy and the levels and layers.  The Lotus Sutra is both about the existence of the Intelligence hierarchy and also the means by which communication in this hierarchy takes place from Celestial hierarchy to Terrestrial hierarchy.

The lower in the hierarchy one gets, the more difficult it is for the person to understand the levels above.  If we take the Terrestrial hierarchy it has 5 levels corresponding to the elements [5=Earth, 4=Water, 3=Air, 2= Fire, 1=Aether]. 

A person at the bottom level -5 – is spiritually naïve or ignorant and is only ever likely to understand the teachings of the person directly above – a level 4.

Level 5s - in the mountain of ascension know only the literal meaning of texts, if they have any interest at all and are interested only in the literal.

Level 4s  - start to understand that taking many texts [including those in the Bible incidentally] literally only produces an illogical story, without any real meaning, and thus there may be a bit more to the song/story than meets the eye and they start to do a bit of finding out.

Level 3s - have found the universal symbol system and are having to work very hard to get their heads round it, realising that you have to understand something of the concepts first before you understand the symbols.

Level 2s - have grasped the concepts and the symbols and thus understand texts [like the Bible] at the symbolic level, but they also suddenly cotton on to the esoteric nature of the texts like the Bible - the numbering system, the original use of the alphabet etc

Level 1s - understand the esoteric meaning and are essentially Boddhisattvas


The Lotus sutra – translated by Burton Watson
ln this evil world of the five impurities
those who merely delight in and are attached to the desires,
living beings such as this
in the end will never seek the Buddha way.
When evil persons in ages to come
hear the Buddha preach the single vehicle,
they will be confused, will not believe or accept it,
will reject the Law and fall into the evil paths.
But when there are those with a sense of shame, persons of purity
who have determined to seek the Buddha way,
then for the sake of such as these
one should widely praise the way of the single vehicle.
Shariputra, you should understand this.
The Law of the Buddhas is like this.
Employing ten thousand, a million expedient means,
they accord with what is appropriate in preaching the Law.




Level 1s are only ever likely to be understood by level 2s, level2s by level 3s and so on. 

Thus there is a form of ascent going on as each level above helps the one below and the Lotus Sutra specifically says that not only is this expedient – that is convenient and needed – it is also the only practical way of raising spiritual awareness in this many people. 

People may regard it as somehow improper because the texts are not being directly used and the teachers are not the Buddha or the Buddha’s disciples, but the Lotus sutra says specifically that the only ones ever likely to understand the true esoteric meaning of the Buddhist texts are the Level 1s. 

As a consequence it is not just expedient to use parables, stories, myths, unusual but simple methods for the other levels, it is essential to use them, otherwise the spiritual knowledge of people will never be raised. ............. In fact, it may well fall.

The Lotus sutra itself uses parables.  The Parable of the plants, for example, describes a great monsoon rain – rain being a symbol of spirit input - that nourishes many different kinds of plants who grow differently but all get the same input.

The Lotus sutra also teaches a parable about a group of people seeking a great treasure who are weary of their journey and wish to give in.

Their guide creates a magical phantom city for them to rest in, the objective of the parable being to show that it is perfectly acceptable to create intermediate spiritual goals and ‘resting places’, as long as it is recognised that this is all they are - phantoms which will all disappear, but at least provide some sense of achievement to a spiritual traveller with a long way to go.


The Lotus sutra – translated by Burton Watson
Shariputra, listen carefully,
for the Law which the Buddhas have attained,
through the power of countless expedient means they preach for the benefit of living beings.
The thoughts that are in the minds of living beings, the different types of paths they follow,
their various desires and natures,
the good and bad deeds they have done in previous existences-
all these the Buddha takes cognizance of,
and then he employs causes, similes and parables, words that embody the power of expedient means, in order to gladden and please them all.
Sometimes he preaches sutras,
verses, stories of the previous lives of disciples, stories of the previous lives of the Buddha, of unheard-of things.
At other times he preaches regarding causes and conditions, uses similes, parables, passages of poetry or discourses.
For those of dull capacities who delight in a little Law, who greedily cling to birth and death, who, despite the innumerable Buddhas, fail to practice the profound and wonderful way but are perplexed and confused by a host of troubles-
for these I preach nirvana.



Finally it is emphasised that there is really no distinction between all those striving in this ladder, pyramid or mountain towards supreme spirituality.  All are equal but simply at different stages and with different roles.  In other words the concept of Destiny is introduced in the sutra.

The Lotus sutra – translated by Burton Watson
The way followed by the sons of the Buddha, because they are well learned in expedient means,
is wonderful beyond conception.
They know how most beings delight in a little Law and are fearful of great wisdom.
Therefore the bodhisattvas pose as voice-hearers or pratyekabuddhas,
employing countless expedient means to convert the different kinds of living beings.

They proclaim themselves to be voice-hearers and say they are far removed from the Buddha way,
and so bring emancipation to immeasurable multitudes, allowing them all to achieve success.
Limited in aspiration, lazy and indolent though the multitudes are, bit by bit they are led to the attainment of Buddhahood.
Inwardly, in secret, the sons act as bodhisattvas, but outwardly they show themselves as voice-hearers.

They seem to be lessening desires out of hatred for birth and death, but in truth they are purifying the Buddha lands.
Before the multitude they seem possessed of the three poisons or manifest the signs of heretical views.
My disciples in this manner use expedient means to save living beings.

The ‘millions of beings’ and Intelligence hierarchy


The Lotus Sutra introduces the idea of a hierarchy of gradually more and more functionally powerful spiritual beings.

This is the Celestial hierarchy and none of the spirit entities in the celestial hierarchy has a form – no material existence. 

The power of each being –a western person might think of them as angels and archangels – is represented by size.  Thus in the texts the beings in the Celestial hierarchy are seen as larger and larger spirits until they eventually occupy an enormous and splendid tower – a palace.

The Lotus sutra – translated by Burton Watson
At that time in the Buddha’s presence there was a tower adorned with the seven treasures, five hundred yojanas in height and two hundred and fifty yojanas in width and depth, that rose up out of the earth and stood suspended in the air. Various kinds of precious objects adorned it. It had five thousand railings, a thousand, ten thousand rooms, and numberless streamers and banners decorated it. Festoons of jewels hung down and ten thousand million jeweled bells were suspended from it. All four sides emitted a fragrance of tamalapatra and sandalwood that pervaded the whole world. ……………….. At that time Shakyamuni Buddha saw the Buddhas that were his emanations all assembled, each sitting on a lion seat, and heard all these Buddhas say that they wished to participate in the opening of the treasure tower. …….Shakyamuni Buddha … then opened the door of the tower of seven treasures. … and at once all the members of the assembly caught sight of Many Treasures Thus Come One seated on a lion seat inside the treasure tower, his body whole and unimpaired, sitting as though engaged in meditation.

The descriptions of the realms occupied by these levels echoes Jesus’ statement that his ‘Father’s house has many rooms’.  There are numerous spiritual realms each more splendid than the lower one, as one ascends.

The Lotus sutra – translated by Burton Watson


Shariputra, in ages to come
you will become a Buddha, of universal wisdom, venerable,
bearing the name Flower Glow,
and you will save countless multitudes.
You will make offerings to numberless Buddhas,
be endowed with all the bodhisattva practices,
the ten powers and other blessings,
and will realize the unsurpassed way.
After countless kalpas have passed,
your kalpa will be named Great Treasure Adornment.
Your world will be called Free from Stain,
pure, without flaw or defilement.
Its land will be made of lapis lazuli,
its roads bounded by ropes of gold,
and seven-jeweled trees in a jumble of colours
will constantly bear blossoms and fruit.
The bodhisattvas of that realm
will always be firm in intent and thought.
Transcendental powers and paramitas-
each will be endowed with all of these,
and under numberless Buddhas
they will diligently study the bodhisattva way.
Thus these great men
will be converted by the Buddha Flower Glow.

Sacrifice and suffering

Amongst these Spirit entities are those who occasionally descend to the Terrestrial hierarchy in order to further progress mankind spiritually.  They thus make a sacrifice of becoming physical in order that they can help the Level 2s. 

The Lotus sutra – translated by Burton Watson
If one is capable of embracing
the Lotus Sutra of the Wonderful Law,
know that such a person is an envoy of the Buddha
who thinks with pity of living beings.


Those who are capable of embracing
the Lotus Sutra of the Wonderful Law
relinquish their claim to the pure land
and out of pity for living beings are born here.

Know that persons such as these
freely choose where they will be born,
and choose to be born in this evil world
so they may broadly expound the unsurpassed Law.

You should offer heavenly flowers and incense,
robes decked with heavenly treasures,
the wonderful treasure hoards of heaven
as alms to those who preach the Law.

In the evil world following my extinction
if there are those who can embrace this sutra,
you should press your palms together in reverence
and offer alms to them as you would to the
World-Honored One.

 The idea of the sacrifice [shown in our illustrations by the Tarot card of the Hanged Man], is not accompanied in the Lotus sutra by any idea that a physical sacrifice takes place.  But the task undertaken is described as extremely onerous and instructions are given for the ‘saint’ or ‘buddha’ or ‘boddhisattva’ on how to tackle the role and what to expect in the way of derision, scorn, opposition and so on.

The Lotus sutra – translated by Burton Watson


If when a person expounds this sutra
there is someone who speaks ill and reviles him
or attacks him with swords and staves, tiles and stones,
he should think of the Buddha and for that reason be patient…..

In a muddied kalpa, in an evil age
there will be many things to fear.
Evil demons will take possession of others
and through them curse, revile and heap shame on us.

But we, reverently trusting in the Buddha,
will put on the armour of perseverance.
In order to preach this sutra
we will bear these difficult things.

 The concept of ‘service’

The idea promoted is thus one of a celestial and terrestrial hierarchy constantly in communication and constantly on the ascent spiritually through the work of billions, not just one man.

It changes, too, the notion of ‘charity’.  Charity is not the giving of money in the Lotus sutra, it is the giving of oneself.  Serving others, helping others by action whether this is tuition or real action.  Rather intriguingly this ties in completely with the teachings of Jesus, who taught that charity meant action not money.

The Lotus sutra – translated by Burton Watson


I know for certain
this is not a devil pretending to be the Buddha.
But because I fell into the net of doubt
I supposed this to be the devil's work.

Now I hear the Buddha's soft and gentle sound,
profound, far-reaching, very subtle and wonderful,
expounding and discoursing on the pure Law,
and my mind is filled with great joy.

My doubts and regrets are forever ended,
I will rest and abide in true wisdom.
I am certain I will become a Buddha,
to be revered by heavenly and human beings,
turning the wheel of the unsurpassed Law
and teaching and converting the bodhisattvas.

The Buddha thereby becomes a concept as opposed to a person – the ‘Son ’ – in much the way that Meister Eckhart uses the term.

The Lotus sutra – Introduction and Preface by Burton Watson
In chapter fifteen we are told how a vast multitude of bodhisattvas spring up from the earth in a miraculous manner in order that they may undertake the task of transmitting and protecting the teachings of the Buddha. When the Buddha is asked who these bodhisattvas are, he replies that they are persons whom he has taught and guided to enlightenment. His questioner quite naturally asks how Shakyamuni could possibly have taught and converted such immeasurable multitudes in the course of only forty years of preaching.
In chapter sixteen Shakyamuni reveals the answer to this riddle.  The Buddha, he says, is an eternal being, ever present in the world, ever concerned for the salvation of all beings. He attained Buddhahood an incalculably distant time in the past, and has never ceased to abide in the world since then. He seems at times to pass away into nirvana, and at other times to make a new appearance in the world. But he does this only so that living beings will not take his presence for granted and be slack in their quest for enlightenment. His seeming disappearance is no more than an expedient means which he employs to encourage them in their efforts, one of many such expedients that he adopts in order to fit his teachings to the different natures and capacities of individual beings and insure that they will have relevance for all. 



Symbolically spiritual input and communication is often depicted by showing a chalice [the crown chakra] receiving water or some other symbolically equal liquid like wine or blood.  An entire suite is devoted in the Tarot cards to this idea of spiritual input flowing between people and it is called the ‘Cups’ suite.  It is a very useful symbolic interpretation and indeed many of the problems that might be encountered if one uses this method of conveying messages from higher to lower levels are explained in the Lotus sutra and appear in the Tarot card suite. 

It can be correctly deduced from this that these ideas were well known across the mystic systems. Buddhism was not alone in recognising the difficulties of effectively spreading a message, whilst keeping the integrity of the message.  Ironically the very phrase Chinese whispers, denotes the gradual change of a message as it passes from one source to another.

It is not just the intellectual capabilities of a person that cause problems, although the Lotus sutra recognises these problems to be severe.  Another problem is pre-conceptions and false beliefs coupled with arrogance – the person’s belief in their own ‘rightness’.  Or to put it another way the lack of an open or questioning mind.

The Higher spirit


The idea of the Higher spirit in Buddhism is only very vaguely explained.  As the concept of the Atman [the Higher spirit] in Hindu thought is so well understood, and Buddhism arose from these teachings, there was little need in the early days to rename the Atman or even reintroduce the concepts with a new name.  ‘Buddha nature’ is sometimes used – the Buddha in all of us, but otherwise Atman=Higher spirit = Buddha nature.

The Lotus sutra, however, does provide a rather good parable about the Higher spirit – the diamond in us all.  It relates  the parable of a man who falls asleep after drinking and whose friend sews a jewel/diamond into his garment. When the drunken man wakes up he continues a life of poverty without realizing he is really rich, he only discovers the jewel after meeting his old friend again. The hidden jewel is interpreted as a symbol of the Buddha-nature – the Atman or Higher spirit.  “Zimmermann notes the obvious similarity with the nine parables in the Tathāgatagarbha Sūtra that illustrate how the indwelling Buddha in sentient beings is hidden by negative mental states.”

In other words your way of thinking and living prevent the Higher spirit from ever being apparent.

The Lotus sutra – Introduction and Preface by Burton Watson
From  this we see that in the Lotus Sutra the Buddha, who had earlier been viewed as a historical personality, is now conceived as a being who transcends all boundaries of time and space, an ever-abiding principle of truth and compassion that exists everywhere and within all beings.


The Yugas

We have provided an explanation of the Yugas both in the section on the Ancestors and in the section on Shaivism

We are currently nearing the end of the Kali Yuga and are at a most critical time.  There are indeed predictions that by the end of this Yuga, humanity as we now exist, will be wiped out by another flood and a rather catastrophic series of explosions.

The various ages are called Kulpas in the Lotus sutra and it too predicts a very very difficult age for mankind.



The Lotus sutra – translated by Burton Watson
The other sutras
number as many as Ganges sands,
but though you expound those sutras,
that is not worth regarding as difficult.

If you were to seize Mount Sumeru
and fling it far off
to the measureless Buddha lands,
that too would not be difficult.

If you used the toe of your foot
to move the thousand-millionfold world,
booting it far away to other lands,
that too would not be difficult.


If you stood in the Summit of Being heaven
and for the sake of the assembly
preached countless other sutras,
that too would not be difficult.


But if after the Buddha has entered extinction,
in the time of evil,
you can preach this sutra,
that will be difficult indeed !

And if in future existences
one can read and uphold this sutra,
he will be a true son of the Buddha,
dwelling in a land spotless and good.

If after the Buddha has passed into extinction
one can understand the meaning of this sutra,
he will be the eyes of the world
for heavenly and human beings.

If in that fearful age
one can preach this sutra for even a moment,
he will deserve to receive alms
from all heavenly and human beings. 

 In summary

The Lotus sutra – Introduction and Preface by Burton Watson
one should not approach the Lotus sutra expecting to find in it a methodical exposition of a system of philosophy. Some of the most important principles of Buddhism are only touched upon in passing, as though the reader or hearer is expected to be acquainted with them already …… The text, with its long lists of personages, its astronomical numbers, its formulaic language and frequent repetitions, its vivid parables, is incantatory in effect, appealing not so much to the intellect as to the emotions.



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