What Is The Lotus Sutra?

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सद्धर्म पुण्डरीका सूत्र

Saddharma Pundarika Sutra (the Lotus Flower Law of Good Dharma)

Lotus Sutra Definition

Saddharma Pundarika Sutra (Lotus Sutra) is one of the famous Mahayana sutras.

It is considered by many to be one of the most influential and essential sutras in this collection of Buddhist scriptures.

Lotus sutra deep dive

What are the Mahayana sutras?

The Lotus Sutras is part of the Mahayana sutras, a collection of key texts from the Mahayana Buddhist tradition. There are around 100 that have survived to this day, either in Sanskrit or in Chinese or Tibetan translation.

These sutras are generally viewed as the word of the Buddha himself since Mahayana Buddhists consider them to have been taught by the Buddha and then memorized and recited by his disciples.

Including the Lotus Sutras, other sutras in this collection include:

“Universal Gateway,” Chapter 25 of the Lotus Sutra. Date: dated 1257, Kamakura period (1185–1333). Japan. by David J, licensed under CC0 1.0

History of the Lotus Sutra

Likely originally composed in Kashmir, written in a local Indian dialect (Prakrit), and later translated into Sanskrit, scholars believe this text was first written around the 1st or 2nd century CE.

It was first translated into Chinese in the 3rd century CE by Kumārajīva, a monk from the Central Asian Kingdom of Kucha. This was arguably the beginning of how the Lotus Sutra became one of the most influential scriptures in East Asia.

The version written by Kumārajīva has probably become one of the most authoritative versions of the text and the one on which many other translations are based.

It was also translated into Tibetan, but its influence within Tibetan Buddhism is more limited than in China and Japan. Similarly, the popularity of the text is restricted in India compared to other East Asian countries, even though it was written there.

Importantly, this sutra contains the final teachings of the Buddha in the latest parts of his life and preaching career.

a painting of the buddha meditating under a tree

What does the Lotus Sutra teach?

1. One Vehicle

This was one of the early sutras that declared all beings could achieve the same level of enlightenment as the buddha; that all could access Buddhahood no matter which practice of Buddhism they chose!

This is a profound teaching and is often referred to as the doctrine of the One Vehicle or Ekayana (a term also used in the Upanishads).

In the Lotus Sutras, it refers to the path that leads sentient beings toward liberation.

The teaching that Buddhahood was accessible to anybody included women, who had been previously considered not to be able to achieve enlightenment, as well as those who committed immoral acts.

In the past, Buddha had taught three paths (vehicles):

  • Pratyekabuddha – leads to the nirvāṇa of the arhat (one who is worthy)
  • Sravaka – leads to the nirvāṇa of the arhat
  • Bodhisattva – leads to the state of Buddhahood

In the Lotus Sutras, he teaches that these are not means in themselves, but lead people to the One Vehicle. They are upaya, an expedient means deployed by the Buddha to teach people to forgo attachments.

These three vehicles are merely different aspects of one single vehicle, leading to the same place.

a path in the woods

2. Upaya

Upaya, meaning skillful or expedient means, is usually referred to in Buddhism as an activity that brings one closer to enlightenment. It does not necessarily have to be a conventional Buddhist practice, but it must always be done with compassion at its core.

Upaya is a key theme in the Lotus Sutras and is where a famous parable in Buddhist literature on the topic comes from.

In the parable, a fire breaks out in a man’s house where his two children are playing. He was able to escape but his children, preoccupied with all the fun of playing games, refused to leave.

In a bid to get them out of the house to safety, he tells them carriages are waiting for them outside drawn by ‘deer, goats, and bullocks’. Excited by this, the children leave the burning house and escape from danger.

The Buddha asks whether the man is wrong or immoral for lying to his children; the conclusion is no because he used skillful means to save his children from the burning house.

It was an act of compassion and thus he was blameless.

This story goes to show how every action is completely contextual, what may be right in one situation (e.g. lying) could be wrong in another situation.

Similarly, we can all be shown different paths by various teachers that lead us to liberation but in the end, we all get to the same place and enlightenment is always the goal.

a father and son at sunset

3. The Bodhisattva Path

The bodhisattva path is a path of radical love and compassion within Mahayana Buddhism, in which one commits to liberating all beings before attaining one’s own liberation.

It’s a path that brings us much closer to the One Vehicle and the Buddha states how anyone who follows this path will achieve Buddhahood.

Though the liberation of all beings may seem difficult to achieve in one lifetime, what this path really calls for us to do is act compassionately and kindly towards others based on the understanding that one cannot be free whilst many people are suffering.

The path speaks to the fact that we are all deeply connected and our happiness and fulfillment cannot occur in isolation, it is dependent on others also experiencing happiness or, more accurately, experiencing freedom rather than suffering.

Our service and commitment to improving the welfare of others leads to freedom for all, including ourselves.

a woman holding another woman's hand

4. Eternal Life

Those who firmly establish the state of Buddhahood in their lives will enjoy this state of life eternally.

Daisaku Ikeda, The Wisdom of the Lotus Sutra, vol. 4, pp. 22–23

In this teaching, Shakyamuni Buddha shares how he had already attained enlightenment in the remote past having ‘always existed here’, making him the Eternal Buddha.

Buddha’s unending life, as someone who has always been here and will continue to be, was a seminal concept that transformed what it meant to be a Buddha, to live eternally and expansively.

This was a new teaching from the Lotus Sutra; he had previously proclaimed that he would pass away at the end of this life, achieving nirvana.

Before the groundbreaking concept of the Eternal Buddha in this sutra, he taught he reached enlightenment in India for the first time in this lifetime.

For the first time, Buddha shared how this was not really the truth about his awakening! Instead, he has been awake for innumerable years.

In this text, he shares that the narrative he created around his death was simply upaya! A skillful means to ‘teach and transform all living beings’, ensuring they do not get complacent with their spiritual development.

Embracing this teaching opens up new possibilities on the spiritual path, empowering our practice by fully stepping into our true nature of love, kindness, truth, and compassion.

As Buddha puts it, we must always continue to ‘nurture’ our ‘roots of goodness’.

Chapter 25 of the Lotus Sutra - handscroll, calligrapher: Sugawara Mitsushige, 1257
Chapter 25 of the Lotus Sutra – handscroll, calligrapher: Sugawara Mitsushige, 1257 under CC0

Schools influenced by the Lotus Sutras

The sutras are the basis of the Tiantai and Nichiren schools of Buddhism.

  • Tiantai

The Lotus Sutra is the chief scripture of the school and thus it is commonly referred to as the ‘Lotus School’.

It’s one of the most prominent schools of Chinese Buddhism and emphasizes the teaching of the One Vehicle.

  • Nichiren 

A school of Japanese Buddhism that is said to be a school with one of the highest teachings and practices based on the Lotus Sutra.

The founder of Nichiren Buddhism, saint Nichiren, claimed that other Buddhist schools had misunderstood the truth of the Buddha and believed the Lotus Sutra contained the whole and purest truth.

golden Statue of Saint Nichiren
Statue of Saint Nichiren

lotus sutra in your life

With a hugely broad perspective on enlightenment, the Lotus Sutra changed the game for those seeking a deeper understanding of the full nature of life. It revealed the true purpose of the Buddha’s life in this world and the compassionate nature of Buddhism.

Each life is full of tremendous worth and potential with the possibility of awakening to our true nature, all whilst maintaining a reverence for the life that is around us.

Rather than the Buddha being a God-like transcendental figure, in the Lotus Sutra, he is quite the opposite. The Buddha is a representation of you!

You are the eternal life of the Buddha, in your very own and unique expression of it.

This is what the Lotus Sutra empowers us to do, realize our infinite potential and reclaim our power, living as the ultimate and fullest declaration of our human nature.

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To go deep and expand your yogic knowledge, access our free Yoga Terms Encyclopedia, where we host a profound wealth of ancient and timeless yogic wisdom in an accessible modern format.

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Liz is a Qigong and Yoga teacher based in Gloucestershire with a love for all things movement, nature & community. She strives to create a trauma-informed space in which everyone is empowered to be their authentic selves. www.elizabethburns.co.uk

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