Lotus Sutra

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A Goryeo-illustrated manuscript of the Lotus Sutra, c.1340
Avalokiteśvara Bodhisattva, who appears for the first time in the Lotus Sūtra
Samantabhadra Bodhisattva, traditionally the protector of the Lotus Sūtra

The Lotus Sūtra (Sanskrit: Saddharma Puṇḍarīka Sūtra) is one of the most popular and influential Mahāyāna sūtras, and the basis on which the Tiantai, Tendai, Cheontae, and Nichiren schools of Buddhism were established.


The earliest known Sanskrit title for the sūtra is the Saddharma Puṇḍarīka Sūtra, which translates to Scripture of the Lotus Blossom of the Fine Dharma.[1] In English, the shortened form Lotus Sūtra is common. The Lotus Sūtra has also been highly regarded in a number of Asian countries where Mahāyāna Buddhism has been traditionally practiced. Translations of this title into the languages of some of these countries include:

  • Sanskrit: सद्धर्मपुण्डरीकसूत्र Saddharma Puṇḍarīka Sūtra
  • Chinese: 妙法蓮華經 miàofǎ liánhuá jīng, shortened to 法華經 fǎhuá jīng
  • Japanese: 妙法蓮華経 myōhō-renge-kyō, shortened to 法華経 hokke-kyō, hoke-kyō
  • Korean: 묘법연화경 myobeop yeonhwa gyeong, shortened to 법화경 beophwa gyeong
  • Standard Tibetan: དམ་ཆོས་པད་མ་དཀར་པོའི་མདོ dam chos pad-ma dkar po'i mdo
  • Vietnamese Diệu pháp liên hoa kinh, shortened to Pháp hoa kinh
  • Sinhala language: ආර්ය සද්ධර්මපුන්ඩරික සුත්‍රය[2]

History and background[edit]

The oldest parts of the text (Chapters 1–9 and 17) were probably written down between 100 BCE and 100 CE, and most of the text had appeared by 200 CE.[3]

The Lotus Sūtra presents itself as a discourse delivered by the Buddha toward the end of His life. The tradition in Mahayana states that the sutras were written down at the time of the Buddha and stored for five hundred years in a realm of snake gods (nāgas). After this they were reintroduced into the human realm at the time of the Fourth Buddhist Council in Kashmir. The sutra's teachings purport to be of a higher order than those contained in the āgamas of the Sūtra Piṭaka, and that humanity had been unable to understand the sutra at the time of the Buddha, and thus the teaching had to be held back.


The Lotus Sūtra was originally translated from Sanskrit into Chinese by Dharmarakṣa, aka Zhu Fahu, in 286 CE in Chang'an during the Western Jin Period (265-317 CE).[4][5][6] However, the view that there is a high degree of probability that the base text for that translation was actually written in a Prakrit language has gained widespread acceptance. Jan Nattier has recently summarized this aspect of the early textual transmission of such Buddhist scriptures in China thus, bearing in mind that Dharmarakṣa's period of activity falls well within the period she defines: "Studies to date indicate that Buddhist scriptures arriving in China in the early centuries of the Common Era were composed not just in one Indian dialect but in several . . . in sum, the information available to us suggests that, barring strong evidence of another kind, we should assume that any text translated in the second or third century AD was not based on Sanskrit, but one or other of the many Prakrit vernaculars."[7] It may have originally been composed in a Prakrit dialect and then later translated into Sanskrit to lend it greater respectability.[8]

This early translation by Dharmarakṣa was superseded by a translation in seven fascicles by Kumārajīva in 406 CE.[9][10] According to Jean Noël Robert, Kumārajīva relied heavily on the earlier version.[11] The Sanskrit editions[12][13][14][15] are not widely used outside of academia.

Scholars have noted how the cryptic Dharani passages within the Lotus Sūtra represent a form of the Magadhi dialect that is more similar to Pali than Sanskrit.[citation needed] For instance, one Dharani reads in part: "Buddhavilokite Dharmaparikshite". Although the vilo is attested in Sanskrit, it appears first in the Buddhist Pali texts as "vilokita" with the meaning of "a vigilant looker" from vi, denoting intensification,[16] and lok, etymologically connoting "to look".[17]

There were six translations of the Lotus Sūtra into Chinese. Three of these are extant:[18]

  • The Lotus Sutra of the Correct Dharma, in ten volumes and twenty-seven chapters, translated by Dharmarakṣa in 286 CE.
  • The Lotus Sutra of the Wonderful Dharma, in eight volumes and twenty-eight chapters, translated by Kumārajīva in 406 CE.
  • The Supplemented Lotus Sutra of the Wonderful Dharma, in seven volumes and twenty-seven chapters, a revised version of Kumarajivas text, translated by Jnanagupta and Dharmagupta in 601 CE.[19]


Portable shrine depicting Buddha Sakyamuni preaching the Lotus Sūtra.[20] The Walters Art Museum.

This sutra is known for its extensive instruction on the concept and usage of skillful means – (Sanskrit: upāya, Japanese: hōben), the seventh paramita or perfection of a Bodhisattva – mostly in the form of parables. It is also one of the first sutras to use the term Mahāyāna, or "Great Vehicle", Buddhism. Another concept introduced by the Lotus Sūtra is the idea that the Buddha is an eternal entity, who achieved nirvana eons ago, but willingly chose to remain in the cycle of rebirth (samsara) to help teach beings the Dharma time and again. He reveals himself as the "father" of all beings and evinces the loving care of just such a father. Moreover, the sutra indicates that even after the Parinirvana (apparent physical death) of a Buddha, that Buddha continues to be real and to be capable of communicating with the world.

The idea that the physical death of a Buddha is the termination of that Buddha is graphically refuted by the movement and meaning of the scripture, in which another Buddha, who passed long before, appears and communicates with Shakyamuni himself. In the vision of the Lotus Sūtra, Buddhas are ultimately immortal. A similar doctrine of the eternality of Buddhas is repeatedly expounded in the tathāgatagarbha sutras, which share certain family resemblances with the teachings of the Lotus Sūtra.

The sutra speaks of a higher teaching but it doesn’t provide specific practices beyond the reading, copying, reciting, and preaching of the Sutra.[citation needed]

The Lotus Sūtra also indicates (in Chapter 4) that emptiness (śūnyatā) is not the ultimate vision to be attained by the aspirant Bodhisattva: the attainment of Buddha Wisdom is indicated to be a bliss-bestowing treasure that transcends seeing all as merely empty or merely labeled.

In terms of literary style, the Lotus Sūtra illustrates a sense of timelessness and the inconceivable, often using large numbers and measurements of time and space. Some of the other Buddhas mentioned in the Lotus Sūtra are said to have lifetimes of dozens or hundreds of kalpas, while the number of Bodhisattvas mentioned in the "Earth Bodhisattva" chapter number in the billions, if not more.

The ultimate teaching of the sutra is implied to the reader that "full Buddhahood" is only arrived at by exposure to the truths expressed implicitly in the Lotus Sūtra via its many parables and references to a heretofore less clearly imagined cosmological order. Skillful means of most enlightened Buddhas is itself the highest teaching (the Lotus Sūtra itself), in conjunction with the sutra's stated tenets that all other teachings are subservient to, propagated by and in the service of this highest truth, that there are not actually Three Vehicles (three kinds of teachings, each tailored to the capacity of a specific set of practitioners) as previously taught, but only One Vehicle (Skrt. Ekayāna, the Buddha’s ultimate teaching transcending limitations in the capacity of practitioners) leading to Buddhahood.[21]

The text also implies a parent-child relationship between Shakyamuni Buddha and living beings.

Crucially, not only are there multiple Buddhas in this view, but an infinite stream of Buddhas extending through unquantifiable eons of time ("thousands of kotis of kalpas") in a ceaseless cycle of creations and conflagrations.

In the vision set out in this sutra, moreover, not only are Buddhas innumerable, but the universe encompasses realms of gods, devas, dragons and other mythological beings, requiring numerous dimensions to contain them. Buddhas are portrayed as the patient teachers of all such beings. The eight dragons who are mentioned in the Lotus Sutra, are known in Japan as the hachidai ryuuou (八大竜王), and appear throughout Japanese Buddhist art.[22]

The sutra is also significant because it reveals that women and evil people can attain enlightenment (Chapter 12). It also teaches that all people equally can attain Buddhahood in their present form. That is, through the Lotus Sutra, people need neither practice austerities for countless kalpas nor wait for rebirth in a different physical form (previous teachings held that women must be reborn as men and then practice for innumerable kalpas in order to become Buddhas).

Some sources consider the Lotus Sūtra to have a prologue and epilogue: respectively the Innumerable Meanings Sutra (無量義經 Ch: Wú Liáng Yì Jīng Jp: Muryōgi Kyō) and the Sutra of Meditation on the Bodhisattva Universal Worthy (普賢經 Ch: Pǔ Xián Jīng Jp: Fugen Kyō).[23]

The Lotus Sūtra claims to be superior to other sūtras. Chapter ten of the Burton Watson translation states:

"... Medicine King, now I say to you, I have preached various sutras, and among those sutras the Lotus is foremost!"


According to Jonathan Silk, the influence of the Lotus Sutra in India may have been limited, but "it is a prominent scripture in East Asian Buddhism."[24]

Zhiyi, the generally credited founder of the Tiantai school of Buddhism, was the student of Nanyue Huisi[25][26] who was the leading authority of his time on the Lotus Sūtra.[25] Consequently, the Lotus Sūtra is a very important sutra in Tiantai[27] and correspondingly, Japanese Tendai. Tendai Buddhism was the dominant form of mainstream Buddhism in Japan for many years and future proponents of the Lotus Sūtra Nichiren and Dogen[28] were trained as Tendai monks.

Nichiren, a 13th-century Japanese Buddhist monk, founded an entire school of Buddhism based on his belief that the Lotus Sūtra was "the highest and ultimate teaching of Buddhism"[29] and that it "contained the essence of the Buddha's enlightenment and that it held the key to transforming people's suffering and enabling society to flourish."[30]

Dogen, the 13th-century Japanese founder of Sōtō Zen Buddhism, used the Lotus Sūtra often in his writings. According to Taigen Dan Leighton, "While Dogen's writings employ many sources, probably along with his own intuitive meditative awareness, his direct citations of the Lotus Sūtra indicate his conscious appropriation of its teachings as a significant source"[31] and that his writing "demonstrates that Dogen himself saw the Lotus Sutra, 'expounded by all buddhas in the three times,' as an important source for this self-proclamatory rhetorical style of expounding."[32]

The sutra has most prominence in Tendai (sometimes called "The Lotus School"[25]) and Nichiren[33] but it is also generally pervasive in all East Asian Buddhism.[33]

Translations in Western languages[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Hurvitz, Leon; trans. (1976). Scripture of the Lotus Blossom of the Fine Dharma: The Lotus Sutra. New York: Columbia University Press
  2. ^ Arya Saddharma Pundareeka Suthraya - Prof. W.M.Gunathilake and Senior Lecturer Thilak S. Subasinghe. Directly translated from the Sanskrit.[full citation needed]
  3. ^ Williams, Paul (1989). Mahāyāna Buddhism: the doctrinal foundations. Routledge. p. 142. ISBN 9780415356534. 
  4. ^ Taisho vol.9, pp. 63-134
  5. ^ Karashima, Seishi (1998). A Glossary of Dharmarakṣa’s Translation of the Lotus Sūtra, Bibliotheca Philologica et Philosophica Buddhica, Vol. I, The International Research Institute for Advanced Buddhology, Tokyo, p. VIII, ISBN 4-9980622-0-4.
  6. ^ Zürcher, Erik (2006). The Buddhist Conquest of China, Sinica Leidensia (Book 11), Brill; 3rd edition, pp. 57-69. ISBN 9004156046
  7. ^ Nattier, Jan (2008). A guide to the Earliest Chinese Buddhist Translations (PDF). International Research Institute for Advanced Buddhology, Soka University. p. 22. ISBN 9784904234006. 
  8. ^ Watson, Burton (tr.). The Lotus Sutra. New York 1993 (Columbia University Press), p. IX
  9. ^ Taisho vol. 9, no. 262, CBETA
  10. ^ Karashima, Seishi (2001). A Glossary of Kumarajiva's Translation of the Lotus Sutra, Bibliotheca Philologica et Philosophica Buddhica, Vol. , The International Research Institute for Advanced Buddhology, Vol. IV, Tokyo, p. VII, ISBN 4-9980622-3-9
  11. ^ Robert, Jean Noël (2011). "On a Possible Origin of the " Ten Suchnesses " List in Kumārajīva’s Translation of the Lotus Sutra". Journal of the International College for Postgraduate Buddhist Studies 15: 63. 
  12. ^ Kern, Hendrik; Nanjio, B.; eds. (1908-1912). Saddharmapuṇḍarīka; St. Pétersbourg: Imprimerie de l'Académie Impériale des Sciences, Bibliotheca Buddhica, 10, Vol.1, Vol. 2, Vol 3, Vol. 4, Vol. 5. (In Nāgarī)
  13. ^ Vaidya, P. L. (1960). Saddharmapuṇḍarīkasūtram. The Mithila Institute of Post-Graduate Studies and Research in Sanskrit Learning, Darbhanga. (Romanized Sanskrit)
  14. ^ Jamieson, R.C. (2002). Introduction to the Sanskrit Lotus Sutra Manuscripts, Journal of Oriental Studies 12 (6): 165–173.
  15. ^ Yuyama, Akira (1970). A Bibliography of the Sanskrit-Texts of the Sadharmapuṇḍarīkasūtra. Faculty of Asian Studies in Association With Australian National University, Canberra, Australia
  16. ^ PTS "Pali-English Dictionary" (1921-25), "vi-", accessed 23 Jan. 2011 from "U. Chicago".
  17. ^ For a translation of the Sanskrit vi-lok and associated cognates, see Monier Williams' "Sanskrit-English Dictionary" (1899), p. 986, "vi-lok". For a translation of vilokita as a Pali word, see PTS "Pali-English Dictionary" (PED), "viloketi" (where vilokita is a past participle of the Pali verb, viloketi). For the PED's definition of loka (generally referring to the seen or visible world), see PED. In the Pali canon, the word vilokita can be found in AN 4.103 and AN 8.10 (SLTP redaction). Upalavanna's translation of AN 4.103 (accessed 23 Jan. 2011 from "MettaNet", sutta 3, "Kumbhasuttaṃ" ), for example, translates vilokitaṃ as "scrutinizing".
  18. ^ The English Buddhist Dictionary Committee (2002). The Soka Gakkai Dictionary of Buddhism. Tōkyō: Soka Gakkai. ISBN 978-4-412-01205-9. 
  19. ^ Stone, Jaquelin (2003). "Lotus Sutra". In: Buswell, Robert E. ed.; Encyclopedia of Buddhism vol. 1, New York: Macmillan Reference Lib. ISBN 0028657187; p.471
  20. ^ "Portable Buddhist Shrine". The Walters Art Museum. 
  21. ^ The English Buddhist Dictionary Committee (2002). The Soka Gakkai Dictionary of Buddhism. Tōkyō: Soka Gakkai. ISBN 978-4-412-01205-9. 
  22. ^ 子規·正岡 (Shiki Masaoka) (1983). 歌よみに与ふる書 (Utayomi ni atauru sho). Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten. p. 17. 
  23. ^ Suguro, Shinjo; Nichiren Buddhist International Center, trans. (1998). Introduction to the Lotus Sutra, Fremont, Calif.: Jain Publishing Company. ISBN 0875730787; p. 4
  24. ^ Silk, Jonathan (2001). "The place of the Lotus Sutra in Indian Buddhism" (PDF). The Journal of Oriental Studies 11: 87, 90,91. 
  25. ^ a b c Kirchner, Thomas Yuho; Sasaki, Ruth Fuller. The Record of Linji. University of Hawaii Press. p. 193. ISBN 9780824833190. 
  26. ^ Magnin, Paul (1979). La vie et l'oeuvre de Huisi (515 - 577) : (les origines de la secte bouddhique chinoise du Tiantai). Paris: Adrien-Maisonneuve. ISBN 2-85539-066-4.
  27. ^ Groner, Paul (2000). Saicho : The Establishment of the Japanese Tendai School. University of Hawaii Press. pp. 199–200. ISBN 0824823710. 
  28. ^ Tanahashi, Kazuaki (1995). Moon in a Dewdrop. p. 4. ISBN 9780865471863. 
  29. ^ "About Buddhism". SGI USA. Retrieved April 27, 2013. 
  30. ^ "Who is Nichiren Daishonin?". SGI USA. Retrieved April 27, 2013. 
  31. ^ Leighton, Taigen Dan (2005). "Dogen's Appropriation of Lotus Sutra Ground and Space". Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 32 (1): 85–105. 
  32. ^ Leighton, Taigen Dan. "The Lotus Sutra as a Source for Dogen's Discourse Style". thezensite. Retrieved April 27, 2013. 
  33. ^ a b "The Final Word: An Interview with Jacqueline Stone". Tricycle: The Buddhist Review. 2006. Retrieved April 27, 2013. 
  34. ^ Kern, H. "The Sutra of the Lotus Flower of the Wonderful Law". The Sutra of the Lotus Flower of the Wonderful Law. Retrieved 2 February 2013. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Cole, Alan (2005). Text as Father: Paternal Seductions in Early Mahayana Buddhist Literature. University of California Press. Chapters 2 and 3 of this work present a close reading of the first four chapters of the Lotus Sūtra.
  • Murano, Senchu (1967). An Outline of the Lotus Sūtra, Contemporary Religions in Japan 8/1, 16-84
  • Pye, Michael (1978). Skilful Means - A concept in Mahayana Buddhism. London, UK: Gerald Duckworth & Co. Ltd. ISBN 0-7156-1266-2. 2nd edition: Routledge 2003.
  • Rawlinson, Andrew (1972). Studies in the Lotus Sutra (Saddharmapuṇḍarīka), Ph. D. Thesis, University of Lancaster. OCLC 38717855
  • Shinjo Suguro, Nichiren Buddhist International Center, trans. (1998): Introduction to the Lotus Sutra, Fremont, Calif.: Jain Publishing Company. ISBN 0875730787
  • Tanabe, George J.; Tanabe, Willa Jane (ed.) (1989). The Lotus Sutra in Japanese Culture. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press. ISBN 0-8248-1198-4. 
  • Tola, Fernando, Dragonetti, Carmen (2009). Buddhist positiveness: studies on the Lotus Sūtra, Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publ., 978-81-208-3406-4.

External links[edit]