Revised August 13, 2019; July 26, 2020
Difference Between a Sutra and Sutta
1. This sutrā, written by several Indian philosophers over hundreds of years, led to the gradual formation of Mahāyāna Buddhism over that period. Note that I am NOT referring to it as a sutta. Suttās are the original teachings of the Buddha delivered in Māghadhi language. They were subsequently written down in Pāli, and are available in the Tipiṭaka.
- In contrast, all Mahāyāna sutrās were written after the Parinibbāna (passing away) of the Buddha. Furthermore, they all are in Sanskrit without exception.
- Thus at least we have a clear way of distinguishing the original discourses by the Buddha (suttās) and those Mahāyāna sutrās written by laypeople hundreds of years after the Buddha.
- Even in the Thēravāda tradition, the question often arises regarding the interpretation of key concepts. As mentioned in the Tipiṭaka, this problem was there, even DURING the time of the Buddha.
How to Verify the Authencity of Buddha Dhamma
2. Once Mahā Prajapathi Gotami bhikkhuni, who was Prince Siddhartha’s stepmother, approached the Buddha and pointed out that some bhikkhus were teaching incorrect interpretations of the Dhamma. She fears that things will get out of hand after the Parinibbāna of the Buddha. “How can the future generations figure out the correct version of Dhamma?” she asked the Buddha.
- The Buddha agreed that it is inevitable that wrong interpretations will always be there, but said that there is a way to identify the correct version. He always said to look for consistency with the Four Noble Truths, as explained in the suttās. The Buddhist principle of Cause and effect is defined in the Paṭicca Samuppāda. How to live a moral life by getting rid of lōbha/rāga (greed), dōsa (anger/hate), mōha/avijjā (ignorance of the Four Noble Truths) is laid out in the Vinaya.
- These teachings lead to rāgakkhaya, dōsakkhaya, and mōhakkhaya (getting rid of rāga, dōsa, mōha).
- If a version of Dhamma does not lead to rāgakkhaya (reduction of greed), dōsakkhaya (reduction of hate), and mōhakkhaya (reduction of ignorance), then that version should be discarded. Internal consistency must be there too.
Three Ways to Attain Nibbāna
3. A bit of background material before we discuss this sutrā. According to the Buddha, there are three ways to attain Nibbāna:
- A Sammā Sambuddha (like Buddha Gōtama) discovers the Noble Eightfold Path and achieves Nibbāna through his efforts, AND he can teach the doctrine to others.
- A second way to attain Nibbāna is to learn Dhamma from a Sammā Sambuddha or a true disciple of his. That is how an Arahant reaches nibbāna.
- Then there are paccēka Buddhas who discover the Path by themselves but are not capable of explaining it to other people.
Only One Vehicle to Nibbāna (the “Great Vehicle” or Mahāyāna)?
4. Now let us discuss how this sutrā paved the way for the Bodhisattva concept in Mahāyāna.
This sutrā starts by the Buddha saying that even though he had taught that there were three paths to Nibbāna but now he is admitting that there is only one. When Ven. Ananda asked why he says that he did not think people were “ready” for this higher doctrine. Instead of there being three vehicles (or paths) that one can take, there is the only one. It is the great vehicle or the Mahāyāna (“mahā” is great, and “yāna” is a vehicle). And this is the path that he took by striving for eons as a Bodhisattva to become a Buddha.
- Continuing with this sutrā, now he (the Buddha) was advising everyone to become a Bodhisattva and to attain the Buddhahood. Then he assures all those Arahants present there, including Ven. Sariputta that they will become Buddhas. That is a complete lack of understanding of the concept of an Arahant. An Arahant is not going to be reborn, and thus, there is no way for an Arahant to become a Buddha.
Now let us go through a few more “obvious inconsistencies” in the sutrā.
The Sutrā Opens With a Lie (Musāvāda)
5. It is astonishing to see that the sutrā opens with, “Thus have I heard…”, a big musāvāda (an untruth) that Ven. Ananda is providing the details of the sutrā.
First, a brief background is in order. Venerable Ananda, who knew all the suttās by heart, recited them at the First Buddhist Council. Thus any given sutta in the Tipiṭaka starts with clarification, “Thus have I heard…” to indicate that this was what Venerable Ananda had heard himself. In trying to give the impression that this sutrā was also one delivered by the Buddha, the authors of the Lotus sutrā attempted to deceive the readers.
- The historians generally accept that the Lotus sutrā was written much later after the passing away (Parinibbāna) of the Buddha Gotama. That is true of all other sutrās written in Sanskrit.
- The oldest parts of the text (Chapters 1–9 and 17) were probably written between 100 BCE and 100 CE, and most of the text was complete by 200 CE. See, for example, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lotus_sutrā. Thus it was written by several authors over 100 years or more. A translation was made from Sanskrit to Chinese in 255 CE, and this is the earliest historical documentation of its existence.
Reads Like a Fairytale
6. The middle of the sutrā is devoted to describing the “universal accessibility” of the Buddhahood to anyone. Here it reads like a fairytale with astounding stories of accomplishments. For example, the daughter of the dragon king Sagara astonishes the assembly by performing various supernormal acts and says she can attain the Buddhahood “in an instant.”
- However, those sutrā also stress the importance of faith and devotion as a means to the realization of Enlightenment. There is less emphasis on the need for wisdom.
The Bodhisatta Vow
7. A critical problem is the Bodhisatta vow that a Mahāyāna Buddhist agrees in advance to take (see, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bodhisattva_vow). That is the promise to wait until “everyone is ready to attain the Buddhahood.” It is not clear how or who can determine WHEN everyone is ready.
- Current scientific facts point to the existence of an innumerable number of living beings; see, “There are as many creatures on your body as there are people on Earth!“. Therefore, it is a critical question as to how all these beings can attain Buddhahood at the same time.
- Furthermore, it seems contradictory that Buddha Gotama and many other previous Buddhas did not wait for anyone else.
A Buddha is Eternal?
8. The story gets even more fascinating in Chapter 16 (presumably as a different writer of the sutrā comes up with another idea). That is when Buddha Gotama reveals that he is an eternal being. He had attained the Buddhahood an incalculably distant time in the past. Even though he seems to pass away at times to nirvāna (Sanskrit word for Nibbāna), he periodically makes appearances in the world.
- This declaration makes the Buddha more like a Creator God, who has been there at all times! And there is no discussion on the issue of whether there was a beginning to this world.
- It seems to me that the philosophers who wrote Mahāyāna sutrās had no idea of the concept of Nibbāna! By the very definition, the whole idea of attaining Nibbāna is to dissociate from this suffering-filled material world: There are several posts at this site ranging from, “Three Kinds of Happiness – What is Niramisa Sukha?” to “What are Rupa? – Relation to nibbāna” on the concept of Nibbāna.
- Then there is the issue of there being other Buddhas present at that assembly too. And they all seem to be “at the same level.” Thus the question arises as to who was the first Buddha and then why those other Buddhas “did not wait until everyone else was ready for the Buddhahood.”
Absence of Key Doctrinal Concepts
9. Most of the sections of the sutrā hyperbolize the value of the single, great vehicle (Mahāyāna) to attain Nibbāna. That is in contrast to the three vehicles of Sammā Sambuddha, Pacceka Buddha, an Arahant; see #3 above. There is no discussion on the actual distinguishing doctrinal concepts of the single vehicle, other than just saying that it has the advantage of “easy accessibility of the Buddhahood.” What makes this “single-vehicle” approach different from the original “three-vehicle” approach in terms of details in Dhamma? For example, does it have a new way of describing the Noble Eightfold Path, Paṭicca Samuppāda, or the Four Noble Truths?
- The sutrā, like many other Sanskrit sutrās, only mentions those critical foundational concepts of Buddha Dhamma in passing. There is no discussion on them, let alone pointing out any difference from the original doctrine. I am amazed that no one even refers to this glaringly obvious point. What sets the “single-vehicle” approach apart from the original “three-vehicle” approach other than the name change?
- But the real problem is that in changing some key concepts. For example, getting rid of the Arahant concept and making the Buddha effectively a Creator God. This sutrā paved the way to distort the Buddha Dhamma for generations to come.
- In terms of the necessary conditions set forth by the Buddha, does this sutrā clarify how to reduce greed, hate, and ignorance? Can anyone point to such aspects? Other than the usage of grandiose descriptions, there is nothing substantial in terms of doctrine, let alone a revised doctrine. All it does is to gravely distort foundational concepts like nibbāna, Buddhahood, and Arahanthood with the concept of a “single-vehicle.”
Numerous Untruths, Inconsistencies, and Exaggerations
10. There are so many untruths, inconsistencies, and exaggerations in this sutrā that I only have space in this essay to point out the gross problems that are vividly displayed. That is why the post is a “focused analysis.”
- Here is an English translation of the sutrā available online, so that anyone can peruse through and see the apparent difference between this sutrā and any Pāli sutta that is in the Tipiṭaka: http://www.purifymind.com/Lotussutrā.htm
- One could compare this sutrā with the actual Pāli suttās that I started discussing; see, “Sutta – Introduction,” and the posts on the Mahā Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta below that.
- I must emphasize that one needs to evaluate this sutrā in the context of the profound and self-consistent Buddha Dhamma. One can get a glimpse of this by examining the “Key Dhamma Concepts,” “Paṭicca Samuppāda,” and “Abhidhamma” sections at this website, where I have only begun to layout the teachings, especially in the Abhidhamma section.
11. I would be happy to respond (and to correct any legitimate errors in the analysis) if anyone can point out any problems with my analysis. Please send me a comment to [email protected]
- This analysis is consistent with the central theme of this website. To point out problems with both Mahāyāna and Thēravāda versions as being practiced today. It is for the benefit of everyone that we should remove (or at least be aware of) all inconsistencies and untruths. Then the current and future generations will have a version of Buddha Dhamma that is close to the original version.
“Scripture of the Lotus Blossom of the Fine Dharma (The Lotus sutrā),” translated by Leon Hurvitz (2009).
“The Lotus sutrā,” translated by Burton Watson (1993).
“Saddharma Pundarika or The Lotus of the True Law,” translated by H. Kern (1884). First Dover edition, 1963.