Two Good Dharma Friends Discuss the Lotus Sutra by Dharma Jim
I hadn’t seen my good friend Doug for several months. Both of us, like most people, have busy schedules. We had finally both found some free time for lunch on a Saturday. I was eagerly looking forward to our meeting. Doug is an old friend and since both of us have become Dharma practitioners our conversations about the Dharma have proven particularly insightful for me.
We met at a cafe on Market Street, one we frequently choose for lunch. Though Doug looked well, I also noticed a certain tiredness, a kind of slowness, that was unusual for Doug. After ordering our lunch I asked Doug about his Dharma practice.
Doug hesitated, and then confessed that he was feeling discouraged. I asked him why he felt that way.
Doug responded, “It just feels so complicated and out of focus. And so contradictory. One group says this, another says that. One says practice this way, another says that’s wrong, practice this way. It’s very confusing.”
I felt a lot of sympathy for Doug. “You know, Doug, I have often felt the same way. It is confusing. All the different Dharma traditions are pouring into the west. Previously those traditions had been separated by geography, language, culture, and history. Over the centuries of their separation from each other they evolved along lines that caused them to drift farther and farther apart. But now it is possible to hear one of these traditions one day and a completely different one the next day. It’s like trying to understand monotheism by one day visiting a Jewish Temple and the next day visiting an Islamic Mosque and then following up with a visit to a Bahai meeting. Confusion is bound to arise.”
Doug looked thoughtful, “It’s not that I doubt the basic teachings; I still find them attractive, even inspiring. But how does one sort through it all and make it coherent? How do you?, assuming you have dealt with this.”
“How do I?” I hesitated. I’m not a scholar, just a dedicated layman. But Doug knew this, so I decided to proceed. “I use the ultimate/provisional distinction to help me sort out all these different teachings and approaches.”
Doug looked at me. His posture had shifted forward. I could tell he was shifting into his ‘let’s-have-an-in-depth-discussion’ mode. “I’ve heard of the ultimate/provisional distinction, but I’ve never given it much weight or paid much attention to it.”
“Why not?” I queried.
“Because groups disagree as to what is ultimate and what is provisional. And so I end up right back where I was before; with conflicting, incompatible views.”
“Just because someone uses a tool badly doesn’t mean that the tool should be abandoned.”
“Good point.” Doug paused, thinking. “So how do you see the ultimate/provisional distinction?”
At that point the waiter came. We placed our orders. I sipped some water. I was considering various ways of responding to Doug’s question. Finally I said, “In a sense the Buddha only taught one thing, and that one thing is the deathless and unborn. The deathless, the unborn, this is the ultimate teaching. All other teachings are provisional. That’s how I see it. In terms of the plethora of confusing presentations of the Dharma, I find that if I keep this distinction in mind, then the teachings are not distracting, even if they appear contradictory at first.”
Doug was considering carefully this suggestion. He asked, “What do you mean by provisional?”
“’Provisional’ means ‘leading up to’, or ‘assisting’, or ‘subsidiary’, or ‘supporting’ or ‘creating conditions for’. When I use the term ‘provisional’ I don’t mean ‘trivial’ or ‘disposable’ or ‘discardable’.”
Doug seemed to like that response. “Well, OK. That makes sense. But where do I find these ultimate teachings that you refer to, these teachings on the deathless and unborn?” There was a hint of skepticism in Doug’s question, a somewhat challenging tone. But I also sensed a genuine curiosity mixed in.
I responded, “Anywhere the Buddha teaches about the deathless, that is an ultimate teaching. One finds them scattered in various places in the Buddhist Canon. The most complete presentation of the deathless and unborn is in The Lotus Sutra.”
Doug paused. I could tell he was considering his words carefully. Though Doug was familiar with the Lotus Sutra, he had not practiced in such a tradition. “Jim, we’ve been friends a long time, so I feel I can be blunt with you. I hope you won’t take offense. But your claim that the Lotus Sutra is the ultimate teaching makes me very uncomfortable.”
I already suspected some of the reasons, but I wanted to hear them from Doug, so I asked, “Why is that?”
“Because it looks like yet another claim for superiority that I run into in all Buddhist groups. The problem is, though, that they all disagree as to what is ultimate. It all seems arbitrary and unnecessary.”
“Doug, I’m not offended. I agree that it does look that way, that it does seem arbitrary. But I am willing to have a discussion about the Lotus Sutra, if you like. I think I can offer a coherent defense of the Lotus Sutra, and I’m willing to take seriously any criticisms you may have.”
Doug sipped his coffee. “Since we’ve been friends a long time I trust that we can have such a discussion. But if, at some point you feel offended, please let me know. I want this to be an amicable discussion.”
Doug seized the moment, “Most Buddhist traditions do not agree with the idea that the Lotus Sutra is the ultimate teaching. Why should I accept a minority view?”
I responded, “You shouldn’t accept this view just because some people have asserted it, even if those people are old friends like me. The view should be accepted only upon examination. This is a basic teaching of the Buddha.”
Doug seemed to relax a little. “O.K. Let’s start here; some Buddhist traditions don’t accept the Lotus Sutra at all.”
“You are referring to the Theravada?”
“The Theravada rejects all Buddhist Discourses that do not appear in their own canon. The Theravada rejects the Perfection of Wisdom, the Pure Land Sutras, the Avatamsaka Sutra, the Ratnakuta Collection, etc. In extreme cases they even reject those Discourses which appear in the Agamas but do not appear in the Pali Canon. So it is not that the Theravada particularly rejects the Lotus Sutra. Given the large amount of material they reject, I don’t see why this should be given much weight.”
Doug had an answer, “Because the Theravada view is that the Lotus Sutra is not the word of the Buddha. If it is not the word of the Buddha it can’t be the ultimate teaching of the Buddha. And regardless of how the Theravada traditions treats other Sutras, we are here talking about the Lotus Sutra.”
I paused for a while to gather my thoughts. This is a large subject and has been contentious for many centuries, so I wanted to respond carefully. “My response to this is somewhat complex. Please be patient with me.
“First, the Theravada view that non-Theravada Sutras are not the word of the Buddha is based on the idea that the non-Theravada Sutras were written down later than the Theravada Discourses. They therefore further conclude that the Lotus Sutra, along with all non-Theravada Discourses, is a fabrication, a fiction, or an add-on. I believe there are difficulties with maintaining this point of view.
“Scholars state that the earliest portions of the Lotus Sutra were written down at about the same time as the Theravada Discourses. So at least part of the Lotus Sutra has just as much claim for antiquity and authenticity as the Theravada Discourses, if one is basing authenticity on the time the Discourse appears on paper.
“But there are broader considerations. Everyone agrees that the Buddha did not write anything. After the Buddha died his teachings were passed down orally for hundreds of years. They were then written down. This is agreed to by all parties and sects.
“If it is true that the Theravada Discourses were written down centuries after the Buddha died, then it is also possible that other Discourses were written down later, even centuries later, derived from other groups of practitioners than those who preserved the Theravada Discourses. In other words, even if the Lotus Sutra was written down later than the Theravada Discourses (or portions of it were written down later), that is not grounds for asserting that the Lotus Sutra (and other non-Theravada Discourses) are not authentic. If a teaching can be passed down orally for 200 or 300 years, then it can also be passed on orally for 500, 700, 1,000 years.
“If, on the other hand, the Theravada tradition rejects this possibility, then the possibility of an authentic transmission of the Discourses for a 200 to 300 year period is called into question. This would undermine their own claims for the unique authenticity of their own tradition.”
Doug had been listening carefully. “What you say seems reasonable. I’m not sure I’m convinced, but it is worth thinking over. But another issue is that most scholars, and all independent scholars, regard the Lotus Sutra as a composite text. That is to say that many chapters were written later and then added to the Lotus Sutra, or absorbed into the Lotus Sutra. This would undermine the idea of the Lotus Sutra being authentic and the word of the Buddha.”
I was expecting this observation. “It is true that the Lotus Sutra is a composite text. I tend to think of the work as ‘The Lotus Sutra Collection’. In other words it is an edited collection of Buddhist works some of which are very early and some of which are later additions. But it’s a good editing job and it hangs together well.
“But, in responding to a Theravada criticism along these lines, I think it is also the case that the Theravada Discourses exhibit layers of earlier and later strata. Some, according to scholars, are very early compilations. The Sutta Nipata is a good example. Some appear to be later additions, particularly those that seem to be under the strong influence of later Abhidhamma. So again, if the fact that the Lotus Sutra is a compound text disqualifies it, then that same criticism would also disqualify much of the Theravada Discourses.
“But I would also like to add here that I have no particular problem with viewing the Lotus Sutra as a kind of extended commentary on the Dharma.”
Doug looked surprised and then curious. “What do you mean?”
“I mean, let’s grant the Theravada view all the benefit of all the doubts. Let’s say that the Theravada Discourses are established as genuine and the Lotus Sutra is demonstrated to not be the actual words of the Buddha; even the earliest parts of the Lotus Sutra. Let’s stack the deck in the favor of the Theravada as much as we can. I would still argue that the Lotus Sutra can be viewed as, and should be viewed as, the ultimate teaching and the clearest, most eloquent, and grandest elaboration of the Dharma available.”
Doug frowned. “That seems a stretch to me.”
I paused. “Bear with me. Let me draw an analogy. Euclid wrote his geometry thousands of years ago. It took mathematicians many centuries to discover certain aspects of geometry which allowed them to unpack some of the meaning of this field. The result was non-euclidean geometry and a deeper understanding of the nature of space, math, geometry, and mind.
“Another good example is the works of Saint Augustine for the Christian tradition. Augustine’s works are a grand commentary on the Bible, and particularly the gospels. They are an interpretation of this tradition that many have found satisfying and definitive for that tradition.
“Another example is the great Confucian Sage, Chu Hsi. Chu Hsi presented an elaboration of the Confucian Classics more than 1,000 years after Confucius, but which then became central for that tradition for many centuries.
“There are many examples like this in history. Central insights into a particular vision of reality may not immediately emerge. So what I am suggesting is that if one wants to view the Lotus Sutra as a commentary and not an authentic Discourse of the Buddha, that is O.K. with me. The important thing is to examine what the Lotus Sutra has to say and see if it makes sense, see if it is consistent with other teachings of the Buddha, and to see if it actually illuminates the Dharma in a way that is liberative.”
Doug was still frowning. “I have a problem with that. If you are saying that the Lotus Sutra is commentary, or that it is O.K. to view it that way, it is an odd kind of commentary that consists mostly of fables, metaphors, and cosmic myths.”
Now it was my turn to frown. “That’s a modern view of commentary. Personification, myth, storytelling, etc., were all common methods of commentary until very recent times. Think of Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. For a long time it was one of the most widely read works in Christendom because people found its way of presenting Christianity helpful. It is all done with personification, allegory, and fable. The Lotus Sutra could be an example of a similar approach, one that many people have found effective.
“Another example is the famous ‘Consolation of Philosophy’ by Boethius. The entire work is an allegory which consists of a conversation between a personified Goddess of Philosophy, or Wisdom, and Boethius himself. It is a presentation and interpretation of central Platonic doctrines in allegorical form. It also uses poetry and metaphor throughout its presentation.
“I want to add, though, that my view of the Lotus Sutra is more orthodox. I believe that at the core of the Lotus Sutra are actual teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha. I realize, however, that there is no way to establish that. But I am relaxed about people regarding the Lotus Sutra as later material. In other words, even if it is entirely later material, that doesn’t mean it isn’t Dharma or not profound or not definitive. In other words, even if the Lotus Sutra consists entirely of commentary, relying on the Louts Sutra to comprehend the Dharma would not differ from Theravadans relying on Buddhaghosha, or Gelugs relying on Tsong Kahpa, or Sakyans from relying on Sakya Pandita, etc. So even if one grants to the critics of the Lotus Sutra all their points, just to be generous, it still would not undermine my trust in the Lotus Sutra as the definitive understanding of the Buddhadharma.”
Doug looked somewhat puzzled and somewhat exasperated. “But what about the doctrinal contradictions between the Lotus Sutra and the Theravada Discourses?”
I had put a lot of time into exactly this question. “I have two responses. First, there are contradictory presentations of the Dharma within the Theravada Discourses, so contradictions between the Lotus Sutra and the non-Lotus Sutra traditions do not, by themselves, prove a sufficient reason for rejecting the Lotus Sutra. For example, in the Numerical Sayings of the Theravada Canon there is presented a 10-fold path that is slightly different from the 8-fold path. Another example is that different presentations of the links of the specific arising of suffering contain various numbers of links in various orders. Another example is that sometimes the Buddha states that appearances ‘are’ suffering, while at other times he states that it is grasping at appearances which engenders suffering. This difference is especially significant And then there are differences regarding the status of Metta Bhavana and whether or not such a practice can lead to total liberation. Some Discourses say that it can only lead to a heavenly rebirth while some say that it can lead to full and complete liberation, to Nibbana. So there are numerous examples of different perspectives on the Dharma in the Theravada Canon itself.”
Doug dove in, “What you say may be true, but I don’t really find it convincing. Some of the doctrinal differences between the Theravada and the Lotus Sutra are important to these traditions. I don’t think you can place them in the same way you have done with the internal contradictions found within the Pali Canon.”
I responded, “Can you give me an example of the kind of contradiction you are referring to?”
Doug was ready, “To pick just one, the Theravada tradition considers an Arhat to be fully enlightened, whereas the Lotus Sutra considers the enlightenment of the Arhat to be a provisional realization, not an ultimate awakening. Many of the parables in the Lotus Sutra emphasize this point, such as the parable of the magic city.”
I sighed, “This dispute over the status of the Arhat has been a contentious one in Buddhism for a long time. Nevertheless, I believe it is a dispute that is largely unnecessary and that can be reconciled through a clear understanding of what the Lotus Sutra is trying to say.”
Doug queried, “Hmmm, are you saying that this dispute, which has gone on for so long, is basically a misunderstanding?”
“Yes, that is what I am suggesting. I realize that this argument has generated a lot of heat; but I think it is a sign of a basic misunderstanding when an argument goes on for a long time and is not resolved, or even moved forward. It is a signal that a new approach needs to be accessed.” I responded evenly; I had made this point to others before and I was ready for a rejection. But Doug surprised me.
“What is your view of this dispute and how do you think it can be resolved?” Doug appeared tentative but willing to listen. I think that our long friendship created a basis of trust so that we could discuss these matters without becoming suspicious of each others’ motives.
“My view of this matter of the Arhat’s status is that it is primarily a semantic, even lexical, dispute; not one of doctrine. When I read the Theravada Discourses my sense is that the term Arhat is used as a synonym for the Buddha, or the Buddha’s realization. I think it is used in exactly the same way as the term ‘Tathagata’ or ‘Sugata’, or any of the other common names for Shakyamuni. I do not recall any Discourse which distinguishes the realization of the Arhat from the realization of Shakyamuni Buddha. So I would say that the term Arhat as used in the Theravada Discourses means someone who has attained a realization that is the functional equivalent of Shakyamuni Buddha.
“In the Mahayana Discourses the term Arhat shifts meaning. ‘Arhat’ now becomes a stage on the path of realization. The term ‘Arhat’ in the Mahayana Discourses refers to someone who has attained some realization of a fairly refined and subtle nature, but still has more to accomplish. Specifically, the term ‘Arhat’ designates someone who is lost in the provisional teachings and has not yet awoken to the ultimate teaching.
“The important thing to keep in mind is that the Theravada tradition is aware of the problem of becoming lost in the provisional, or stuck in the provisional. This is mentioned a number of times in the Theravada Discourses. So this kind of problem is known in all Buddhist traditions. Hence, my conclusion is that what has happened is that two, or more, early Buddhist communities understood key terms, such as ‘Arhat’, in slightly different ways and this has lead to a continued misunderstanding between traditions down to the present day.
“I think it makes sense that different early Buddhist communities would understand key terms in different ways. For one thing, they inhabited different linguistic communities. They were also geographically distant from each other and so interaction would not have been constant or guaranteed. And there was no institutional authority to specify meanings of key terms and rule out others.
“So if you gloss the term ‘Arhat’ in the Lotus Sutra with ‘lost in the provisional’ this disparity between the traditions is overcome, or at least significantly lessened.
“But, in addition, and more importantly, I would like to suggest that there is an intimate connection between the Middle Length Discourses of the Theravada Canon and the Lotus Sutra. My feeling is that they are so intimately connected that if you reject one you would have to reject the other, and to accept one implies accepting the other.”
The waiter appeared with our order. Doug asked for a refill on his coffee.
This last comment seemed to surprise Doug. “What are the similarities you are referring to? But before we go there, I just want to say that your suggestions regarding the term ‘Arhat’ seems to me to be difficult to sustain. In other words, it seems to me that the disagreement over the status of the ‘Arhat’ is more substantial than you want it to be.”
“That may be true.” I understand that my suggestion is one that makes people invested in doctrinal divisions uncomfortable. I’ve run into this frequently. “However, I have a suggestion to make. When reading the Theravada Discourses try not to bring to them Mahayana interpretations and categories. The tendency for those of us who first encountered the Dharma in a Mahayana tradition is to see the Theravada through a Mahayana prism or lens. Try to bracket those preconceptions. Particularly, when coming across the term ‘Arhat’ try to let the Theravada tradition define that term on its own, and see what happens. It is my view that if one can do this, that the way the Theravada uses the term ‘Arhat’ will emerge on its own and the shift in meaning of this term from the Theravada to the Mahayana will become clear.”
Doug appeared thoughtful. “Well, as you know, I am primarily a Theravada practitioner with some Mahayana practice as well; notably Zen. It had not occurred to me that I was bringing a Mahayana view to the Theravada Discourses as you suggest. That’s an intriguing idea. I’ll give it a try and see what happens. There’s no guarantee, though, that I’ll agree with you!”
“Fair enough,” I said.
“But let’s return to the other similarities you have seen between the Middle Length Discourses and the Lotus Sutra collection.” Doug wanted to move on.
“First, both the Lotus Sutra and the Middle Length Discourses of the Theravada Canon begin with some of the disciples of the Buddha openly not liking what the Buddha is teaching. This is very unusual. In almost all of the Discourses the response to the Buddha’s teaching is one of awe and admiration. There are a few Discourses where a non-Buddhist walks away from the Dharma. But there are very few Discourses where disciples, those who have taken refuge, openly dislike what the Buddha is saying.
“In the commentaries on the First Discourse of the Middle Length Discourses, the Mulapariyaya Sutta, it says that 500 Bhikkhus were perplexed and could not understand the Discourse. Because of their pride and conceit, they were displeased.
“In Chapter 2 of the Lotus Sutra it says that 5,000 followers stood up and walked out of the gathering rather than listen to the teaching. This is a famous episode.
“My hypothesis is this: Both of these refer to an actual incident in the life of Shakyamuni Buddha. And the incident referred to is the Buddha teaching something that went beyond what his disciples regarded as the Dharma. Some of the disciples responded by rejecting what the Buddha was now offering.”
“That’s very interesting, that parallel you’ve drawn out. But why would the disciples react so strongly, why would they feel displeased?” As usual, Doug’s question went to the heart of the matter.
“That’s an intriguing question. Beyond saying that the displeased disciples were filled with pride and arrogant, the sources don’t really elaborate. When I first came across these episodes I had difficulty making sense of them. The reaction seemed disproportionate to what was being taught. But I think if one looks at this incident from the perspective of the ultimate/provisional distinction it makes sense. Drawing analogies to other fields of human experience helped me to get a feel for what was going on.
“For example, consider musicianship. Suppose someone, we’ll call him Dan, wants to learn the guitar. Dan finds a good guitar teacher. The teacher, after a time, discovers that Dan isn’t always attentive, is often tired, and doesn’t practice regularly. Yet Dan seems sincere. The teacher, through discreet questioning, finds out that Dan is given to late night parties, has a wretched diet, and uses drugs.
“The teacher now begins each lesson with some lifestyle suggestions. These include suggestions on diet, exercise, sleeping habits, the effect of drug use on Dan’s guitar playing, etc. Now, these suggestions are not about guitar playing. But they are relevant because they create conditions which are a good foundation for the guitar. These suggestions are provisional teachings in terms of learning to play the guitar.
“Another analogy may be helpful. Say someone, we’ll call her Joan, wants to learn tennis. Joan finds a good coach. As in the previous example, the coach discovers that Joan lives in ways that make it difficult for her to play tennis well. So the coach, like the music teacher, suggests that Joan make some lifestyle changes as conditions that will be conducive to improving her game. These lifestyle teachings from the coach are provisional teachings in terms of learning to play tennis.
“As I’ve said before, in a sense the Buddha only taught one thing: Awakening to the Deathless and Unborn. This awakening is the cessation of all sorrow. The particular genius of the Buddha was that he was able to comprehend what it is that people do that hinders this awakening. He was therefore able to instruct people on how to remove those obstacles. These include instructions in ethics, meditation, and view. All of these are provisional teachings. Only the Deathless is ultimate. However, what happens is that people get lost in provisional teachings, mistaking the provisional for the ultimate.”
The waiter came by and refilled Doug’s coffee. Doug took a long sip. “This is really good coffee.” He smiled. “What you say is clear to me. It makes sense. But why do you think people get confused?”
“That’s a good question. It took me a long time to sort that one out. Here are my thoughts on this.” I cleared my throat which had grown tired from talking too much. “People do not mistake changing their sleeping habits for becoming a musician or becoming a tennis player. The case of the Dharma is different, I think, because the provisional teachings of the Dharma are significant human achievements. It is a profound, and rare, achievement for someone to live a life in accord with the five lay precepts, and even rarer for someone to actualize the full monastic precepts. It is rare for someone to establish themselves in the dhyanas, in rarefied meditative states. Those who do establish themselves in those states have accomplished something significant.
“Because the actualization of provisional teachings requires much training, and because the provisional teachings are profound, it is understandable that people begin to think that the provisional teachings are the Dharma itself. This is getting lost in the provisional. It’s like forgetting the ultimate purpose of the Dharma.
“In addition, the Deathless is subtle, difficult to explain, difficult to access. In contrast, provisional teachings are easier to understand, less subtle, and therefore easier to grasp.
“In thinking about tennis and guitar, the ‘ultimate’ teaching in these areas is obvious; it is being able to play guitar well and play tennis well. Hence when the teacher or coach offers provisional teachings there is no confusion regarding that teaching’s status. No one confuses diet with guitar playing.
“Now, weave together all of these observations. Imagine you are a disciple of the Buddha. Imagine you are a monk who has meticulously followed the vinaya, the complex code, or way of life, for Buddhist monastics. Now imagine that the Buddha announces that this code is a provisional teaching. I can understand why some monks would become offended, especially if they had generated a sense of self and personal achievement around this.
“Or imagine that you had cultivated the ability to enter into rarefied meditative states, the higher dhyanas. This had taken years of dedication and practice. Now the Buddha says that this is a provisional teaching. I can understand why some who had invested so much time and effort into this practice might feel insulted. I can even believe that some of them would get up and leave the assembly.”
Doug paused. He looked thoughtful. He sipped his coffee slowly. “I think I understand the psychology you are pointing to. Let me make an analogy and see if it fits. Suppose someone wanted to learn math in order to understand transfinite numbers. On the way they learn calculus. Then they stop. The teacher/advisor says, ‘Don’t stop there. Calculus is wonderful, but you have further to go.’ Someone attached to their achievements, who has forgotten their original motivation, might become offended. They might even switch advisors.” Again Doug paused, mulling over various scenarios. “This is a fertile observation. One I will have to give some more attention to. In the meantime, are there other similarities you have noticed between the Middle Length Discourses and the Lotus Sutra?”
“The resemblance we have been talking about,” I began, “I call ‘resemblance of plot’. I mean that the basic setup of the two groups of Discourses is similar. Other similarities include an emphasis on skilful means, the central importance of ethics, the ultimate/provisional distinction, and teachings on the Deathless.”
The waiter came and removed our lunch plates. We both ordered some more coffee and I ordered a chocolate chip cookie for desert. Doug continued.
“Could you briefly outline the similarities you just mentioned?”
“Sure. First, skilful means. In the Middle Length Discourses there is a Sutta where a Brahmin asks the Buddha how to get to heaven. The Buddha responds by giving the Brahman a meditative technique that will get him into heaven. This is a clear example of skilful means. It is an incomplete teaching, but, given the Brahman’s inclinations, it is the best the Buddha could to at the time. Note that the Buddha is not being deceptive. He is offering what the individual needs; hopefully at some other time there will be an opportunity to offer a more complete teaching.
“Regarding ethics, Sutta 6 of the Middle Length Discourses, and Chapter 14 of the Lotus Sutra have similar emphases. Both teach the foundational nature of ethics for the path, or ethics as the path. Both emphasize the importance of maintaining high ethical standards and that such standards are a necessary practice for awakening.”
“Regarding the ultimate/provisional distinction; here the Lotus Sutra and the Middle Length Discourses make strikingly similar observations. In a sense, my hypothesis regarding the connection between the Middle Length Discourses and the Lotus Sutra stands or falls on this point.
“Sutta 106 of the Middle Length Discourses is a good example of what I am referring to. In this Sutta Ananda asks if attaining refined meditative states, the jhanas, will lead to liberation. The Buddha responds by saying that it might, or it might not, that if someone clings to these refined meditative absorptions they will not achieve liberation. The Buddha then goes on to identify the deathless with liberation and that the deathless is non-clinging.
“This is a central point in the Middle Length Discourses. It is the awakening to the deathless which is full liberation. Anything else, including refined meditative absorptions, is provisional. To rest in the provisional, no matter how exalted, is to miss the ultimate release from bondage. This is a central teaching shared by both the Middle Length Discourses and the Lotus Sutra.
“Which brings me to the crowning similarity: the centrality of the deathless and unborn. Chapter 16 of the Lotus Sutra is the most extensive teaching on the deathless found in the Buddhist Canon. It therefore illuminates the teachings on the deathless found in the Middle Length Discourses, which are, at times, obscure.
“To return to my hypothesis, I think that there was an actual historical episode (probably toward the end of Shakyamuni Buddha’s life) where the Buddha clarified that many of his teachings were provisional, and specifying that the ultimate purpose of his teaching was to awaken to the deathless and unborn. The response to this was not enthusiastic and was rejected by more than a few of the Buddha’s disciples.
“And this highlights a central insight about the Dharma and answers a core question regarding the Dharma. I am referring to whether or not the path of the Dharma, the Fourth Noble Truth, is simply cessation or whether there is an awakening to something. In some interpretations of the Dharma nirvana is interpreted as meaning simply cessation: the cessation of the 12 factors which give rise to suffering, for example. In other interpretations of the Dharma cessation is comprehended as provisional and the ultimate teachings is an awakening to the deathless and unborn. I hold the view that the ultimate teaching is an awakening to the deathless, and not just the cessation of afflictions. I think this is one of the central teachings of the Lotus Sutra.
“After the Buddha died this teaching that caused so much consternation among the Buddha’s disciples acted as a catalyst among different groups of Buddhists. In one of those groups this gave rise to the Middle Length Discourses, while in another group it gave rise to the Lotus Sutra. That is why I say that if you accept one of these it is necessary to accept the other.”
Doug responded, “You have obviously given this a lot of thought. What you have said seems insightful, even inspiring. But isn’t it just speculation on your part?”
“You mean can I prove it?” I asked.
“Yes, that’s what I mean.”
Doug’s question was a good one. “No, I can’t prove it. If by proof you mean mathematical certainty. What I can do is present a ‘good case’. In other words, my hypothesis is speculation, but it is not groundless speculation.”
We had finished our coffee. Doug looked at his watch. “I’m sorry good friend, but I have to go. But you have offered some intriguing insights. What I think I’ll do is spend some time reading the Lotus Sutra with your observations in mind. Then I’d like to get together again to discuss this further.”
“Nothing would give me greater pleasure.” Doug and I had been discussing the Dharma for years and our conversations were always fruitful. We didn’t always agree, but I always learned from our interactions and I think that Doug also benefited from them. I looked forward to our next meeting.
A few weeks passed by after my conversation with Doug. Then I received a call from him. Doug was hoping that we could get together again. We found that once again we had a Saturday free; though this time it was later in the afternoon. We agreed to meet at a desert place that also serves excellent coffee and tea.
Saturday came. I arrived before Doug, as is my tendency. I ordered a pumpkin cookie and some Dragon Well Green Tea. This place didn’t have waiters, one just placed one’s order at the counter and waited. So I took my cookie to a table and waited for the tea to brew. The Dragon Well was particularly fine. I sipped my tea in appreciation of its aroma and taste.
Doug was about 20 minutes late, as is his tendency. He placed an order for carrot cake and espresso at the counter. After receiving his order he joined me at the table.
Doug sipped his espresso. He looked both eager and apprehensive. I was eager to continue our conversation. After savoring his espresso, and a few bites on the carrot cake, Doug proceeded. “I’ve been thinking a lot about our last conversation. The truth is, I’ve been thinking about nothing else. I found it helpful, even though I don’t completely agree with your view or conclusions.
“There are several things, though, that I am uneasy about. One is that it seems to me that the ultimate/provisional distinction can lead to a diminution of the Dharma.” I was about to object, but Doug signaled with a hand motion that he wanted to continue, so I held back. “Hear me out. I understand the usefulness of the distinction. It does clarify certain teachings one finds in the Discourses. However, I think it can also lead to the idea of dispensing with the provisional teachings altogether. After all, who wants to spend time on the provisional; why not cut to the chase and directly access the ultimate?”
“I agree with you; that is a danger embedded in the ultimate/provisional distinction.” I could see that Doug was surprised at my agreement. I suspect that he expected a more defensive posture from me. “I think there are many who interpret the idea of a provisional teaching as meaning something which can be tossed out, put aside, or touched on only lightly. But I think this is a misunderstanding of the distinction.
“Provisional does not mean discardable, or trivial. The term ‘provisional’ means something that is a condition for awakening to the ultimate, but is not the ultimate itself. The provisional teachings are conditions which lead to awakening; as such they are to be highly valued. On the other hand, they should not be mistaken for the ultimate itself.
“Let me give an example of what I mean. The Buddha taught an ethical system, centered on the Five Precepts, that all Buddhists are expected to adopt. But these ethical teachings are not themselves the deathless and unborn. But they are conditions which make it possible for someone to awaken to the deathless and unborn. How so? Because if the mind is agitated and distracted, it is almost impossible for such an awakening to take place. If the mind is constantly strategizing about lying, about stealing, etc., then it is simply not possible for the mind to settle down enough to become aware of the subtle presence of the deathless. Hence there is a cause and effect relationship between living an ethical life and awakening.”
Doug responded, “That’s a good example. I see what you are saying. Still, it seems to me that many people upon hearing about the ultimate/provisional distinction do, in fact, dismiss the provisional teachings as being unnecessary. Some explicitly say this. How would you respond to them?”
“I would suggest that they look at the life of Shakyamuni Buddha.” I was seeing that Doug and I were in basic agreement, which was satisfying. “After Shakyamuni Buddha awakened he continued to live his life as a monastic, perfectly adhering to the precepts. He did not put them aside, discard them, or abandon them. Similarly, after Shakyamuni Buddha awakened he did not cease meditating; on the contrary he continued to meditate on a daily basis.
“Why did he do so? Here’s an analogy. Suppose someone wants to plant a garden. After a number of years the garden has taken the shape that they wanted. But that doesn’t mean that they now cease to water the garden, or that they cease to prune, trim, and fertilize. Similarly with the fields of the mind and heart. It may take many years for the awakening of the mind and heart to happen. But after it does happen, that does not mean that one should cease from tending the fields of the mind and heart. One continues to tend to them so that they will continue to yield their wisdom and insight.
“In other words, the provisional teachings make it possible for ultimate realization and if one abandons the provisional teachings the ultimate realization begins to fade; just as when one ceases to water a garden it begins to wither.”
Doug paused. “I like your approach and understanding. It fits with my own observation that it is really necessary to continue with the basic practices of the Dharma, the practices of such things as ethics. But why do you think that so many people want to dispense with these basic practices, want to put them aside?”
“I think it is because they get lost in the ultimate.”
Doug looked startled. “I understand what you mean when you say some people, like those disciples in the Middle Length Discourses and the Lotus Sutra who didn’t like the Buddha’s teaching, are lost in the provisional. But what in the world do you mean by ‘lost in the ultimate’? How could one get lost in the ultimate? Isn’t the whole point of the teaching the ultimate?” Doug sounded exasperated.
“I know it sounds strange, even paradoxical.” I responded evenly. “But I believe that embedded in the idea that one can dispense with provisional teachings is a subtle dualism. I mean by this that if one thinks one can dispense with the provisional it implies that the ultimate negates the provisional, that the ultimate lies somewhere else than where the provisional is present. My understanding of ultimate nature, of the deathless and unborn, is that there is no place it does not exist and no activity in which it is not present. If this understanding is accurate, then ultimate nature is also present when and where one lives by the precepts, when and where one engages in meditation, etc. This is why Shakyamuni Buddha could continue to live the life he lived even after his full awakening. To act as if ultimate realization leads to the abandonment of the provisional is to act as if the ultimate was confined to certain realms, certain activities, and not others. That is getting lost in the ultimate.
“There are two good reasons to maintain the provisional teachings. First, they establish the conditions for awakening and for continued deepening of one’s own awakening. Second, the provisional teachings show others who have not awakened, or who need to deepen their awakening, that these are the ways that one can follow in order to accomplish that task. In other words, one maintains the provisional teachings in order to deepen one’s own awakening, broaden it, and to assist others on the path to awakening. Maintaining the provisional teachings is, therefore, an essential part of the Bodhisattva Vow to assist sentient beings to fully awaken. If one discards the provisional teachings, one discards the Bodhisattva Vow.”
Doug looked thoughtful. “So in a sense the Dharma is a seamless whole.” Doug took another sip on his espresso. “I need to contemplate these ideas. Your perspective is quite different from what I have previously encountered.”
It was my turn, now, to be thoughtful. “Take your time. I am not claiming any originality here. Also, if you find flaws in my approach, please let me know. That is the only way I can grow in my own understanding.”
“Well, as long as you asked, I do have some observations. We’ve been friends a long time. It is only recently that you have centered your understanding so singlemindedly on the Lotus Sutra. I sense a danger in this kind of approach. It seems to me to be a kind of fundamentalism and introduces a certain rigidity in your approach. I am not saying that you are a fundamentalist; but that by relying on a single text, a single Discourse, you are leaning in that direction.” Doug was calm, but I could see that he felt he was taking a risk and I appreciated that he was willing to do that.
“I agree with you. There is that danger.” I responded without defensiveness.
Doug looked surprised. “I didn’t expect you to agree with me.”
I laughed. “You were ready for a fight?”
Now Doug laughed, “I guess so. I must say I’m relieved that you at least see the danger of a kind of drift into rigidity.”
Now it was my turn to laugh. “I rely on my good Dharma friends, people like you, to point out to me when I might be drifting into this kind of danger.”
Doug smiled. “That’s one of the beauties of sangha.”
I had run out of tea. So I picked up my teapot and went to the counter for a refill. When I returned I let it brew for a few minutes, then poured some of the second infusion into my teacup. The second infusion was even better than the first.
I now returned to our discussion. “Where were we? Oh, yea. Fundamentalism, rigidity, things like that. I think fundamentalism is a human danger, it is a tendency of the human mind. I don’t think it depends on regarding a particular text, like the Lotus Sutra, as being definitive. For example, it strikes me that many Zen, Dzog Chen, and other practitioners are rigid about rejecting texts as sources of wisdom. I would say many are dogmatic about it.”
Doug eagerly responded, “I know what you mean. It’s the kind of person who, the moment you start talking about a Sutta or Sutra, roles their eyes, sighs, and shakes their head at how deluded you are for even talking about the Dharma. I have found myself frequently frustrated by this approach.”
“Ah, so you’ve met this kind of practitioner?” I knew the answer, of course, who hasn’t run into this?
“Sure. They are everywhere, they are like a plague.” Doug’s frustration showed.
“So you can see that fundamentalism doesn’t have to rely on a text. What we are talking about is a fixed mind, what my teacher used to call ‘rocks mind’.”
Doug laughed again. “Rocks mind. That’s a good description. Yes, I can see your point. Even so, though, doesn’t elevating the Lotus Sutra to a definitive status incline one who has that view towards a certain rigidity of mind?”
I responded somewhat defensively, “I can only respond that I don’t think that danger is any greater with a tradition based on a text versus a tradition not based on a text. It’s just a danger of the human condition; it can arise in politics, economics, even in the arts. So it is not a problem that is peculiar to religion.”
Doug was not so easily mollified. “But look here; some will argue that it is this Sutra, some will argue that it is that Sutra, and of course, some Christians will argue that it is the New Testament, and some Vajrayanists will argue for the supremacy of a Tantra, etc. Thump, thump, thump!” Doug pounded the table with his fist for emphasis.
I paused to let the heat that was building up dissipate. “I think that in order to discuss this we need to discuss discussing religion. I mean, can people discuss religion?”
“I’m not sure what you are getting at?” Doug seemed a little suspicious. Maybe he thought I was trying to dodge the issue.
“It seems to me that religion in the west, and probably elsewhere as well, has gotten itself into a position such that having a conversation about it has become very difficult.” I was attempting to put the issue in a larger, sociological, context “Look, many people have different views on diet; some people argue for high protein diets, others argue for a fruit centered diet, while still others argue for a grain centered diet, etc. There are many such claims. In the context of diet it is not considered irrational, or fundamentalist, to advocate a particular diet. Nor is it considered wrong to question a particular diet. For example, if someone advocates a high protein diet, and I have objections to that diet, it isn’t considered bad form or impolite to ask questions about the high protein diet.
“But religion at this time is different. If someone holds the view that a particular religion is better, or that a particular religion’s view is highest, that claim is automatically regarded as suspicious simply because of the nature of the claim. In addition, it is considered bad form, or rude, or impolite, to question someone’s religious views. This is a really unfortunate situation. What I am saying is that I should be able to say that I think a particular religious view is better than another without being accused of being a fundamentalist, or rigid, simply for having such a view. Just as someone can advocate for a particular diet without that necessarily meaning that the person who argues for that diet is being somehow irrationally stubborn.”
I could see that Doug didn’t buy it. “What you say is an interesting observation, but I think the comparison doesn’t really hold water. Diet doesn’t hold the same psychological position in people’s minds and hearts that religion does. So it isn’t a fair comparison.”
“That’s a good point,” I responded. “I was deliberately trying to compare religion to something mundane in order to clarify my point. What I’m trying to get at is that religious views should not be exempt from the kind of public discourse that other fields of human action are subject to. Religion should not be exempt from, or held above, the kinds of discussions that are common in all other fields of human endeavor.
“But I see your point about comparing diet and religion. So let’s look at other areas. Mathematicians often disagree with each other. They hold public conferences to discuss their disagreements, write and publish papers about their proofs and whether or not they are adequate. In other words, it is considered normal for this kind of discussion to happen in this context. The same can be said about philosophy, economics, and other areas of human life. Only in religion does the idea appear that it is somehow beyond this kind of interaction. I believe this is a great loss for religion.
“You know, this wasn’t always the case. Traditionally in Buddhism, Dharma debate was frequent. Great Buddhist Sages would engage in public debates about their various positions. And these debates were often well attended by large audiences who were interested in these issues. This was true in India, China, Japan, and many other Buddhist countries. And this atmosphere of discussion, dialectic, and debate honed the Dharma, deepened the insights of the tradition, and kept Dharma discourse alive and well.
“But today, in recent history, religion tries to exempt itself from these kinds of discussions. It is considered off limits. Or it is considered a private matter that other people do not have a right to question or even make an inquiry about. The result is a withering of religious discourse. I believe that this situation is one of the conditions which has given rise to fundamentalism. In an atmosphere where people felt free to inquire and question religious beliefs and views, fundamentalism could not endure. If someone said a particular diet was correct, and then insisted that no one in the world had the right to inquire why, or ask for evidence in support of their position, the advocate of that diet would have a very small following; perhaps no following at all. But we as a culture have allowed exactly that to happen in the arena of religion. And the result is a plethora of bizarre and even dangerous views which are never held up to scrutiny and are allowed to sow the seeds of their destructive intentions far and wide.”
Doug smiled. “You are passionate about this. I understand what you are saying, but isn’t the solution to religious differences the acknowledgement that they are all saying basically the same thing?”
I frowned. “I hope that they aren’t all saying the same thing. That would be boring.”
Doug laughed. “That was unexpected.”
I continued. “What I mean is that I’m glad we have more than one kind of flower. I’m glad that we have more than one kind of music; not all pieces of music are string quartets. And I am glad that we have more than one form of spirituality.
“More importantly, the idea that all religions are saying the same thing is a kind of academic exercise. It’s not based on experience. No one I know who holds this view has actually practiced in all the different traditions, so there is no basis for making this assertion. I find it kind of arrogant.”
Doug laughed again. “O.K. then. Let’s return to the Lotus Sutra.”
I laughed with Doug. “Agreed. What I am asserting is that it is possible to put forth a claim about religion without that claim implying a fundamentalist stance. The key here is a willingness to be open regarding that claim. For example, if someone argues in favor of a particular diet and is unwilling to examine and discuss the pros and cons of that diet, I would say they have fallen into a fundamentalism regarding diet. If someone is unwilling to discuss or consider the pros and cons of their political position I would say they are a political fundamentalist. Similarly, in the arena of religion, in order to not be a fundamentalist one needs to be willing to be open to genuine discussion regarding the views one holds. Otherwise one has fallen into fundamentalism.”
Doug looked thoughtful. “So what you are saying is that the arena of religion should be treated the same way as other arenas of human endeavor and experience. That those who hold to a religious view, or a view on spirituality, do not have, or should not have, the option of dodging thoughtful questions and inquiry into their view.”
“Yes, that’s what I am saying.”
Doug’s brow narrowed. “But what about the role of faith? Isn’t that central to religion and doesn’t that negate the idea of open discussion and inquiry?”
“I think that is a misunderstanding of the meaning faith.” I paused to consider how to proceed. “It is true that many religious people use faith in the way you described. To be honest with you, I think this is a technique for valorizing ignorance. To understand this consider what would happen in mathematics if someone offered a proof for a theorem. Then another mathematician comes along and questions the validity of the proof. The first mathematician then responds by saying, ‘Well, I have faith in my demonstration. And you can’t question my faith.’ Such an approach, if accepted, would lead to the death throes of mathematics. I think that one of the reasons why many people are suspicious of religion in general is because of this attitude regarding faith; it is understood to be a way of dodging responsibility for one’s commitments.
“Faith does have a role in religion; but this role is not unique to religion. Basically, I understand faith to mean trust. To enter into any religious tradition or view one has to have a basic trust in what is being offered. The aspect of faith here is that at the beginning one does not know that what is being offered will bear fruit. One has to have a sense of trust and faith that if I follow what is being suggested, then it will bear fruit.
“But this isn’t any different from other fields of human experience. For example, if I want to learn a foreign language, say German, I have to have a sense of trust about the subject or I simply will not take the first step in learning German. I have to believe that studying German is worthwhile, I have to believe that I am capable of learning German, and I have to believe that the teacher I go to has knowledge of German and is able to pass on to others that knowledge. If any of these are missing I simply won’t take even the first step on the path to learning German.
“So when religions say that faith is necessary, that all religious understanding rests on faith, I completely agree with this. But it is important to realize that this faith is not a unique or special demand that is peculiar to religion. It is a necessary condition that must be present at the beginning of any path of understanding, both worldly and transcendental. And, in both cases, over time faith is transformed into understanding. As my studies of German proceed, faith is transformed into the ability to actually speak the language. In the case of the Dharma, faith in the Dharma blossoms forth into an awareness of the deathless and unborn.”
Doug considered what I was saying for. “I like what you are saying about faith. But you must realize that most people today, when they use the term faith, mean something like believing in something even though there is no evidence in support of it, or even though there is evidence that directly contradicts it. Hence faith is considered to be hostile to reason and science.”
I sighed, “Yes, I know. I’m painfully aware of this. And if religious people continue to hold to this view of faith I predict that religion will become a backwater for the ignorant and vicious. It used to be the case that the best minds would be attracted to religion. Think of people like Nagarjuna, Chandrakirti, Buddhaghosha, Chih I T’ien T’ai, Saicho, Chinul, Tsong Khapa, Miphan, and countless other Buddhist Sages. And this used to be true of other religions as well. Think of the Dionysius the Areopagite, Thomas Aquinas, Maximus the Confessor, Moses Maimonides, in the monotheistic tradition; think of great Sages like Chu Hsi in the Confucian tradition, etc. Today, however, the best minds bypass religion and head instead for science, philosophy, and technology. Why is this the case? I think to a large extent it is because in science, philosophy, and technology one finds a willingness to engage in the pros and cons of views that are presented. A scientist who presented a view and backed it up by saying that this view was based on blind faith, and they simply would not discuss it further would, eventually, be dismissed by colleagues. The same holds for philosophy and psychology. But in the field of religion anyone can offer any kind of outrageous view, views that are hateful, narrow, utterly devoid of any basis or evidence, and say that is their faith, and then act as if that settles the matter. It does not settle the matter. As I said previously, such an attitude is the death of the spirit.”
Again, Doug pondered the discussion. “Well, let’s return to the Lotus Sutra. Are you really saying that the highest teaching of the Buddha is embodied in a text, a particular text?”
I hesitated, but then decided to go ahead. “Yes, that is what I am saying.”
“But isn’t that just a form of reification. And doesn’t such an approach lead to a rigidity of mind and heart?”
“What do you mean by reification?” I asked.
Doug was ready, “I mean that you are equating a text with ultimate nature. Now, ultimate nature is the transcendental. And ultimate nature is constant. A text is not the constant. It appeared and will one day disappear. So how can the Lotus Sutra be the ultimate?”
“So you think I am turning the Lotus Sutra into a kind of idol?” I suggested.
“Yes, I guess that is what I mean in a raw kind of way. It is a kind of idolatry. By idolatry I mean a misplacement of the transcendental.” Doug clarified.
I pondered how to respond. “First, I think you are pointing out a real danger. In fact, I suspect that some people treat the Lotus Sutra in the way that you suggest. But that is also true of many other works and things in all traditions. It is even true in many secular contexts; for example, many people reify the state and turn their country into an idol. In this day and age that is quite common. Of course, that doesn’t let me off the hook. If I am turning the Lotus Sutra into an idol, that is a serious mistake.
“I have several responses to this. First, simply saying that the Louts Sutra is the highest, or most complete, presentation of the Dharma in and of itself does not constitute reification. To draw analogies; if I say that a particular presentation of logic, or baking, or gardening, is the best I have come across that does not mean that I am reifying, or idolizing, those presentations. It means that I find those presentations efficacious. Similarly, I think the Lotus Sutra is the most efficacious presentation of the Dharma. It is the clearest, the most direct. That is my claim; and not just my claim. It is the claim of a long line of Buddhist Sages from various traditions.
“But I would also like to respond to the idea that a text cannot embody the ultimate teaching of the Buddha, which was implied in your suggestion regarding texts and reification. This is the standard ‘finger and the moon’ criticism. The idea here is that a text can only be a finger pointing at the moon; meaning that the text is, at best, a pointer to that which is ultimate. And this in turn rests on the idea that ultimate nature is non-conceptual.”
Doug nodded, “Yes, that is what I am suggesting and a part of my criticism of your approach.”
“I would like to suggest for your consideration that the idea that a text cannot embody ultimate nature is a subtle form of dualism,” I responded cautiously; my experience has been that this can be a contentious issue.
“What do you mean?” Doug responded evenly.
“Consider this: The Heart Sutra says that ‘all things are marked by emptiness.’ The Lotus Sutra says that ‘all things are forever without substance.’ Now, this ‘all things’ is the key to understanding how, and why, a text can embody, can instantiate, ultimate nature. If it is really true that ‘all things’ have this nature, then words and concepts also have this ultimate nature. Because words and concepts are things; they are not non-things. If you are saying that words are only a finger pointing to the moon of ultimate nature, then you are saying that all things except for words, concepts, texts, have ultimate nature. Hence, I suggest that such an approach is a subtle form of dualism.”
Doug was silent for a few moments. “I’m having difficulty accepting what you are saying. Look, if what you are saying is true, then does it not follow that any text embodies ultimate nature? A political broadside, a recipe, a catalog; all of these would equally be candidates for embodying ultimate nature. So why elevate the Lotus Sutra over the latest catalog?”
“It is true that all things have this ultimate nature and therefore all texts have this ultimate nature; just as all things have it, including rocks and clouds and streets and stars and poems and advertisements. However, not all things speak of ultimate nature. That is the difference and it is a difference that I find crucial.” I eagerly responded.
“What do you mean when you say that ‘not all things speak of ultimate nature’?” Doug was still skeptical.
“It is a matter of self-referential consistency. What I mean is that rocks and clouds do not tell me about that aspect of their existence which is ultimate; they do not tap me on the shoulder and say that I can perceive ultimate nature, the presence of eternity, as something which they display. In contrast, a work like the Lotus Sutra does exactly that. To take just one example, Chapter 16 speaks lyrical about ultimate nature, about eternity, and the eternal life of the Tathagata. In this case the aspect of words which also displays the eternal, is also speaking about the eternal. This is the beauty of the words of the Buddha, that they simultaneously display and speak of ultimate nature.”
Doug looked somewhat puzzled. “What you say is interesting, but I’m not quite convinced. Wouldn’t what you are saying apply to any words that speak of the ultimate meaning of the Dharma?”
I nodded, “Yes, of course. However, I would argue that the Lotus Sutra is the most complete presentation of the ultimate meaning of the Dharma. It is the clearest presentation. It is the most explicit presentation.”
Doug frowned. “So you are saying that other Discourses which talk about ultimate nature are somehow lesser?”
I chuckled, “Well, yes, that is what I am saying. But before you brush this aside; consider this. There are many Discourses of the Buddha which speak of ultimate matters. Many of the Perfection of Wisdom Sutras do so, and there are scattered throughout the Buddhist Canon, in all its versions, beautiful Discourses on the ultimate. For example, Sutta 36 from the Middle Length Discourses is one of my favorites.
“Nevertheless, I would still argue that the Lotus Sutra is more complete. Though I admit that this is an arguable point I believe I am not alone in this assessment. Buddhist practitioners widely spaced in time and tradition have also viewed the Lotus Sutra in this way. They range from such ancient worthies as Chih I to living masters such as Thich Nhat Hanh. I’m not trying to win you over by citing a long list of Sages that have this view. I’m just pointing out that it is not an eccentric view or one that I have created out of thin air.”
Doug fell into one of his thoughtful silences. We both sipped tea. “What about the Lotus Sutra, specifically, not just your feeling, but what specifically about the Lotus Sutra leads you to view it as more complete than other presentations?”
“If I were to sum it up into a single point it would be this,” I put down my cup of tea. “Ultimate nature, the eternal, the always present, is not just a principle that one can deduce. Ultimate nature is a compassionate and responsive presence, and it is this aspect of ultimate nature as a compassionate and responsive presence that the Lotus Sutra reveals which places it above the other Discourses that speak of ultimate nature.
“This is why I think Nichiren is correct when he says that Chapter 16 of the Lotus Sutra is the heart of the Dharma. All the Discourses of the Buddha lead to the Lotus Sutra, like rivers flowing into an ocean. And the heart of the Lotus Sutra is Chapter 16 which reveals that the eternal life of the Tathagata is not just a principle, like emptiness, or even Buddha Nature, but the eternally compassionate presence which ceaselessly assists sentient beings to overcome all sorrow and awaken to the deathless and unborn. Without this teaching there is a certain dryness to the Buddhadharma; as if someone can deduce the basic principle of the Dharma and that will be sufficient. With the Lotus Sutra the Buddhadharma regains its heart and becomes a living tradition. The Lotus Sutra is the life blood of the Dharma which endows the Dharma with its vibrant presence. It is the Lotus Sutra which gives nourishment to all the rest of the Dharma, all the other Discourses and Practices; it is like the Lotus Sutra is the lifegiving energy, the Chi, if you will, coursing through all the branches of the Dharma, sustaining them, enriching them, and ensuring that they are a living and vital presence in the world.”
Doug appeared thoughtful. “I just don’t think I can go with you on this one. For me, Nirvana is about cessation. The Buddha taught the cessation of sorrow, the end of suffering. This idea of an eternal Buddha, it just seems too much like God to me. It seems to me you are imposing on the Dharma a theistic interpretation.”
I think we both realized we had reached a kind of impasse. But if a difference in understanding is going to be bridged, the first step is to clearly state what the difference is. So I decided to proceed. “So for you, the ultimate teaching of the Buddha is a negation; the absence of suffering?”
Doug responded, “Yes, that’s right. That’s what the Buddha taught. He said this on numerous occasions, that he teaches the end of suffering. Particularly, when people asked him metaphysical questions, or asked him if the Tathagata survives in some way after he dies, he said that such questions were not fruitful because they are not conducive to the end of suffering. From what I am hearing you are imposing precisely the kind of metaphysical and theological view on the Dharma that the Buddha said was not fruitful. I don’t mean to be harsh, but it just seems to me to be running counter to what the Buddha offered.”
“But there are passages in the Theravada Canon which seem to me to indicate a positive awakening, that the Buddha awakened to something.” I responded in a lowkey manner, but there was also a certain intensity coming from me, as I consider this to be a crucial point. “For example, the Buddha describes his awakening by saying, ‘Light arose within me.’ And there are those passages where the Buddha says, ‘There is that which is deathless, unborn, uncreated and unconditioned. If there were not the deathless, unborn, uncreated and unconditioned, liberation would not be possible.’ It is my contention that the Buddha awakened to something, however difficult that something is to define. Another way of putting it is this: To bring about the complete cessation of suffering one must awaken to the deathless and unborn.”
Doug tapped the table with his fingers. “But if what you are saying is true, then what is the difference between what the Buddha taught and what the monotheistic tradition teaches? Is there any difference? And if there isn’t any difference, why should we westerners bother?”
I laughed. Not a big guffaw, just a chuckle. “I think there are differences in the two traditions’ understanding of the meaning of the deathless. If I were to pick a single one to focus on it would be the non-separate nature of the deathless. I mean by this that in the monotheistic tradition ultimately God exists separately and self-sufficiently. That is to say, because God is viewed as the creator of all that exists, he exists independently of that creation. In Buddhism no such independent existence exists. The deathless, therefore, is not something outside of existence.
“This may seem like a minor point, or a point of obscure theological interest, of value only to those who have a lot of time to devote to the finer points of philosophical analysis. I think it would be a mistake to view it that way. This difference permeates the two traditions and manifests in myriad ways. For example, in mystical Christianity, the approach to ultimacy is accomplished through the systematic negation of appearances. First, sensory appearances are negated, then mental appearances are negated. When one is left in utter darkness, the ultimacy that precedes all appearances reveals itself in that darkness. In the meditative programs developed in the Buddhadharma there is no such equivalent. Meditative programs in the Dharma are designed not to negate appearances, but to comprehend appearances in their full actuality. Thus concentration forms of meditation in Buddhism do not negate appearances, but seek to reveal the actual manner in which appearances exist; which is to say that they are not solid, that they are changing, that they are dependent upon causes for their existence. Appearances are examined minutely, including mental appearances, because doing so reveals the actual manner of how existence functions. This is understood to be liberative, and is considered to be the overcoming of ignorance.”
Doug interrupted, “But what has that got to do with the deathless?”
I responded, “The Buddhist tradition comprehends the deathless as not remote, but hidden from our understanding due to ignorance and preoccupation with transient appearances. So what is needed is a shift of attention away from transient appearances to that which is constant, the deathless. When this shift takes place the deathless and unborn manifest.”
“There is another difference in the two traditions which I think is important.” I continued. “And that is that in the monotheistic tradition no ordinary being can become God because God is unique and transcendent. But it is precisely the promise of the Buddhist tradition, and specifically the Lotus Sutra, that one can become a Buddha, which means that one can become a fully enlightened one; someone in whom all ignorance and suffering has vanished.”
Doug smiled. “Yes, that is the promise of the Dharma. At least on that point we are in complete agreement. And it is why I continue to practice, in the hope of Nibbana, as the Theravadans say.”
“Yes, in the hope of Nibbana.” I felt a strong heart connection to Doug at this point. “It is that faith, that trust, that the Lotus of the Dharma will blossom in our hearts and minds which keeps us on the path. Life after life.”
Doug smiled again. “Yes, life after life.”
There was a long pause. I sipped some tea. Doug finished off his espresso. Then we meandered into some light talk about mutual friends; where they were, what they were doing, etc. It was clear that our Dharma discussion had come to a mutually satisfying conclusion. Not that we had come to an agreement on all points. But I felt that both of us had taken steps towards deepening our own understandings. That’s what Dharma friends are for.
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.