Saddharma Pundarika Sutra (Lotus Sutra) – A Focused Analysis

1. This sutrā was written by a number of Indian philosophers over hundreds of years, and 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 and were delivered in Māghadhi language, were written down in Pāli, and are available in the Tipitaka.

  • In contrast, all Mahāyāna sutrās were written after the Parinibbāna (passing away) of the Buddha and were written in Sanskrit without an exception.
  • Thus at least we have a clear way of distinguishing the original discourses by the Buddha (suttās) and those Mahāyāna sutrās written by lay people hundreds of years after the Buddha.
  • Other than this obvious language indicator, the question often arises as to which of many interpretations that are being given to key concepts even in the Thēravāda tradition. As mentioned in the Tipitaka, this problem was there even DURING the time of the Buddha.

2. Once Mahā Prajapathi Gotami bhikkhuni, who was Prince Siddhartha’s step mother, approached the Buddha and pointed out that some bhikkhus were providing incorrect interpretations of the Dhamma, and that she fears that the things will really get out of hand long time 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 clarify identify the correct version. He said always to look for consistency with the Four Noble Truths as explained in the suttās, the cause and effect as explained in the paticca samuppāda dhamma, and how to stay from getting indebted via rāga, dōsa, mōha as laid out in the vinaya; any genuine teaching should lead to rāgakkhaya, dōsakkhaya, and mōhakkhaya (getting rid of rāga, dōsa, mōha).
  • If a version of Dhamma does not have this internal consistency and does not lead to rāgakkhaya (reduction of greed), dōsakkhaya (reduction of hate), and mōhakkhaya (reduction of ignorance of the three characteristics of nature anicca, dukkha, anatta), then that should be discarded.

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 attains nibbāna through his own efforts, AND he is able to teach the doctrine to others.
  • Thus a second way to attain Nibbāna is to learn the Dhamma (or the Path) from a Sammā Sambuddha or a true disciple of his; this is how an Arahant attained nibbāna.
  • Then there are paccēka Buddhas who discover the Path by themselves but are not capable of explaining it to the other people.

4. Now let us discuss how this sutrā paved the way for the Bodhisattva concept in Mahāyāna.

This sutrā starts off 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. Thus instead of there being three vehicles (or paths) one can take, there is only one which is the great vehicle or the Mahāyāna (“mahā” is great and “yāna” is vehicle). And this is the path that he himself took by striving for aeons as a Bodhisattva to become a Buddha.

  • Continuing with this sutrā, now he (the Buddha) was advising everyone to become a Bodhisattava and to attain the Buddhahood. Then he assures all those Arahants present there, including Ven. Sariputta, that they themselves will become Buddhas. This is a complete lack of understanding of the concept of an Arahant (even though the sutta itself says that those Arahants had removed all defilements). 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.

5. It is astonishing to see that the sutrā opens with, “Thus have I heard…”, a big musavada (a lie) that Ven. Ananda is providing the details of the sutrā.

First a brief background: When the Pāli sutta in the Tipitaka were first summarized for transmission, Ven. Ananda, who knew all the suttās by heart, recited them at the First Buddhist Council; thus any given sutta in the Tipitaka starts off with his clarification, “Thus have I heard…” to indicate that this was what Ven. Ananda had heard himself. Trying to give the impression that this sutrā was also one delivered by the Buddha, the authors of the Lotus sutrā obviously tried to deceive the readers.

  • As with all the other sutrās written in Sanskrit, it has been generally accepted by the historians that the Lotus sutrā was written much later after the passing away (Parinibbāna) of the Buddha Gotama.
  • The oldest parts of the text (Chapters 1–9 and 17) were probably written down between 100 BCE and 100 CE, and most of the text had appeared by 200 CE; see, for example, http://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.

6. The middle of the sutrā is devoted to describing the “universal accessibility” of the Buddhahood to anyone. Here it reads like a fairytale where astounding stories of accomplishments are described: For example, a 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, the sutrā also stresses the importance of faith and devotion as means to realization of enlightenment, and minimizes the need for wisdom. Among other significant points, the stress on faith and devotion makes buddhahood more accessible to laypeople, who do not spend their lives in ascetic monastic practice; thus the Buddhahood is available to anyone.

7.  Yet the problem is that since a Mahāyāna Buddhist agrees in advance to take the Bodhisattva vow (see, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bodhisattva_vow) to wait until “everyone is ready to attain the Buddhahood”, it is not clear how or who can determine WHEN everyone is ready.

  • And all current scientific facts point to the possibility of there being an innumerable number of beings, this is a critical question how all these beings can attain the Buddhahood at the same time; see, “There are as many creatures on your body as there are people on Earth!“.
  • Furthermore, it seems contradictory that Buddha Gotama and many other previous Buddhas did not wait for anyone else.

8. The story gets even more fascinating in Chapter 16 (presumably as a different writer of the sutrā comes up with another idea), when the Buddha Gotama reveals that he is an eternal being: He attained the Buddhahood an incalculably distant time in the past, and even though 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 no mention (as far as I could see) has been made on the issue of whether there was a beginning to this world.
  • It seems to me that the philosophers who wrote these 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”.

9. With most of the sections of the sutrā dedicated to hyperbolizing the value of the single, great vehicle (Mahāyāna) to attain the nibbāna versus the three vehicles of Sammā Sambuddha, Pacceka Buddha, and Arahant, 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 approach in terms of details in Dhamma? For example, does it have new way of the describing the Noble Eightfold Path, paticca samuppada, or the Four Noble Truths?

  • In fact, the sutrā, as many other Sanskrit sutrās, only mention those key foundational concepts of Buddha Dhamma in passing. There is no discussion on them, let alone pointing out the differences 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 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 basic conditions set forth by the Buddha to see whether any teachings in this sutrā lead to a reduction in greed, hate, and ignorance, can anyone point to such aspects? Other than the usage of grandiose descriptions, there is nothing substantial in terms of a doctrine, let alone a revised doctrine. In fact, all it does is to gravely distort the foundational concepts like nibbāna, Buddhahood, and Arahanthood with the concept of “a single vehicle”.

10. There are so many untruths, inconsistencies, and exaggerations in this sutrā that I have space in this essay to point out only the gross problems that are vividly displayed; that is why the post is labelled as a “focused analysis”.

  • Here is a 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 Tipitaka: 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 Satipatthāna Sutta below that.
  • I must emphasize that one needs to evaluate this sutrā in the context of the deep and self-consistent Buddha Dhamma. One can get a glimpse of this by examining the “Key Dhamma Concepts”, “Paticca Samuppāda”, and “Abhidhamma” sections at this website, where I have only begun to lay out 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.

  • This analysis was done consistent with the main theme of this website, which is to point out problems with both Mahāyāna and Thēravāda versions as being practised today. It is for the benefit of everyone that we should remove (or at least be aware of) all inconsistencies and untruths so that the current and future generations will have a version of Buddha Dhamma that is close to the original version.

References

“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.

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