Lotus Sutra: tedious or genius?

Question: If the Lotus Sutra is so great, why is it also so tedious and pointless?

Carmelight: I assume you mean pointless in the sense that the sutra never gets to the point. Throughout the sutra, the Buddha promises to reveal the ultimate teaching, but never gets around to saying explicitly what it is.

The sutra features seven famous parables, or lessons, such as the wealthy man and the poor son. Each story has a point. The deeds of several bodhisattvas are recounted, too. Generations of Buddhists have found these stories instructive. But overall, I understand why someone might read the Lotus Sutra cover to cover (which takes patience and determination!) and wonder why it is so revered.

Montepulciano: The Lotus Sutra is repetitious and ridiculously detailed about seemingly unimportant things. When you read it, you realize the enormous favor Nichiren has done us by teaching that Nam-myoho-renge-kyo encompasses the entirety of Buddhism. All we need to know is the Daimoku, or title of the Lotus Sutra. Chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, according to Nichiren, is all we need to fulfill the sutra’s request that we read, recite, copy, uphold and embody the Lotus. Thank you, Nichiren.

Jutta: There’s more to the Lotus Sutra than meets the eye. In terms of modern storytelling, the sutra resembles a shaggy-dog story. A shaggy-dog story is full of detailed digressions and anecdotes presented as if they are crucial to the story. The story is a long build up, concluding with anticlimax; the punchline is a dud. A shaggy-dog story plays with our expectations. Ultimately, the story subverts or undermines our expectations for comedic or instructive effect.

Look at how the Lotus Sutra ends. It’s a brilliant anticlimax. The sutra goes on and on about who shows up to hear the Buddha preach, where they all came from, how they arrived, great things they did. The assembly is a grand spectacle. But how does it end? With the simple statement that they left. They left! No details about how they left. No exhaustive explanations about where they went, or how they had been changed, if at all, by attending the wordy preaching and non-revelation of the ultimate teaching.

They just left. Total anticlimax. It’s hilarious.

Wade: I see what you mean. Chapter 28 of the Lotus Sutra (Gene Reeves’ translation) ends with: “Receiving and embracing the Buddha’s words, they paid their respects to him and left.” After all the dharma-drama preceding it, this can seem like an abrupt ending.

Remember, though, that the Lotus Sutra had many authors and was composed and compiled over many decades. Some Nichiren Buddhists feel that the sutra ends with Chapter 22, known as the “Entrustment” chapter. The Buddha entrusts the Bodhisattvas of the Earth with “the rare Dharma of supreme awakening.” At the end of the chapter, the Buddha sends the emanations, or entities embodying Buddhahood, back to the distant lands from which they came saying, “Buddhas, go in peace. Let the stupa of Abundant treasures Buddha be as it was.” Upon hearing this, everyone is “filled with great joy.” The end.

Jutta: Anticlimactic, don’t you think?

Wade: If we, too, are filled with great joy, it’s a splendid ending. I admit, however, to being filled with great puzzlement.

Montepulciano: A great shrug.

Oaks: When we read the Lotus Sutra, we expect grand truths to be revealed. In it, the Buddha promises to reveal grand truths. As we study the sutra, we’re looking for the ultimate teaching. It’s there, maybe, but where? Did we miss it somehow? We go back and re-read. We ponder. “I don’t get it. What am I missing?” We talk about it with other practitioners. We try to figure it out. This is the whole point!

Wade: How can we be certain about the “ultimate truth” at the heart of the Lotus? We can’t be certain. Honest uncertainty about the true teaching is what animates faith. We don’t know with certainty. Rather, we have faith.

Oaks: If we don’t understand it, how can we have faith in it?

Montepulciano: Faith in the Lotus does not mean believing in a fixed set of principles or rules set out in the sutra — because, as we’ve said, the ultimate teaching is never explicitly stated in the sutra.

To understand the sutra, we must actively live it, we must receive, embrace, read, recite, and proclaim. The point of doing these things is so that true hearing and understanding can arise. And if I understand Nichiren’s teachings correctly, he’s saying that chanting Daimoku ticks all these boxes. Chanting Daimoku is reading the sutra. Chanting Daimoku is understanding the sutra.

Wade: Just because we’ve found the Lotus Sutra doesn’t mean we’re finished seeking. Rather, to understand the Lotus Sutra means to embrace the unending, unfathomable mystery at its heart. “Understanding” in this case does not mean intellectual mastery.

Carmelight: The sutra ends — anticlimactically, perhaps — but the “ceremony in the air” continues. The Buddha is still preaching. This is a key point in Nichiren’s view of the Lotus Sutra: the Buddha is always here, preaching the law. There is no beginning to the Buddha’s lifespan, and no end. Perhaps the distinct lack of a grand finale in the text of the sutra is intended to suggest this endlessness — or rather, timelessness.

Jutta: Timelessness is the word, in the sense of meaning beyond time or unbounded by time. The Lotus Sutra is futuristic — it takes place in outer space. I mean, the Buddha lifts the assembly out of the Earth’s atmosphere. All the participants are hovering above the planet in the presence of the Treasure Tower. This Ceremony in the Air, to me, means that the Lotus Sutra is showing us a reality unbounded by the laws of this Earth. It shows us a reality beyond the Earth’s gravity, beyond our ordinary sense of spatial laws and dimensions. It suggests timelessness, too, with no beginning or ending.

Thanks to space exploration, most people today grasp the concept of weightlessness. We can watch videos on YouTube of astronauts floating around in spaceships, demonstrating how objects behave differently in space than on Earth. Simple things like, “how to brush your teeth in space.” I think, too, with the new Webb Telescope, we are going to develop a common understanding of timelessness. With technology, people will be able to see the dawn of our universe, and it will alter our common understanding of time.

Wade: Yes, the Lotus Sutra shows us a world beyond space and time. I see this as a world beyond karma. Without space and time, karma cannot function. So, we’re talking about nirvana, which is the cessation of karma.

Hillcrest: You need to focus this conversation because you’re going off in all directions. We could talk forever about karma and the Treasure Tower or the Ceremony in the Air.

Jones: Did you see the movie Gravity? If not, spoiler alert. Most of the action takes place in orbit above the Earth. The planet looks gorgeous, especially since the main character is desperately trying to return to Earth after a series of catastrophes. Watching the movie, I was like, “I can see why the area outside Earth’s atmosphere is a great setting for the Ceremony in the Air.” The tagline for the movie is something like, “Life in space is impossible.”

Analogy alert! We can’t live in outer space. We need air, gravity, human-scaled spatial directions such as the points of the compass, and time. Likewise, we can’t live in the mind-boggling environment of the Lotus Sutra. We can live only in the saha world — that is, in our ordinary, mortal world, which is rife with suffering. Importantly, the saha world isn’t the only world. Rather, the Lotus Sutra is a dimension inherent in the saha world. Or, more to the point, the saha world is a dimension inherent in the immense universe of the Lotus Sutra.

Montepulciano: To paraphrase Nichiren: whether we speak of the mortal world or the Lotus Sutra world, these are not two separate worlds. The distinction between the two depends solely on the expansiveness of our hearts and the clarity of our minds.

Hillcrest: That movie [Gravity, 2013, directed by Alfonso CuarĂ³n] was well-written. The whole time, you’re wondering what will happen next. It’s one crisis after another. Even when she returns to Earth, she’s not home and dry. She almost drowns. She crawls out of a river and kisses the ground. It looks like she’s somewhere in southeast Asia. I thought, oh, great, now she’s going to step on a landmine leftover from the Vietnam War. She doesn’t, but that’s what I was thinking.

Gravity shows what it is to be a human mortal in the saha world. It’s one thing after another, unending complication and catastrophe. We do our best to navigate. It’s all consequential. As in the movie, every little thing counts. We may go to outer space, but when we come home, we hug the Earth like our mama. Having the broader perspective of seeing everything from Earth’s orbit makes you want to kiss the mud. The lotus famously grows in mud, so that’s my contribution to this dialogue. The point of the Lotus Sutra is: Travel to space but come home and love the mud.