Let me half remember that Japanese novel I like to leave under my pillow. I don’t actually read it at all, instead, at night, I invite it to dream me. It begins with a couple on a train, and the woman wakes up and sees her once and future beloved still sleeping. When she rubs the rest from her eyes and stares out the window she sees the Milky Way looking back at her. And when she sees again her fellow passengers, many of whom are soundly asleep, she realizes that this train is carrying the souls of the dead. Like her handsome partner, for instance, who drowned in a swimming accident last summer. The conductor arrives and asks for her ticket, and to her surprise she is able to produce one. Unlike everyone else here, she has a return fare, she will be able to travel to the heaven realm and then return to a home that won’t look like home anymore. When she finally gets back to earth it’s raining, and on her way out of the station she looks down and sees the Milky Way reflected in a puddle. The heaven realm is here after all, in a moment of vertical and horizontal transcendence. So what does she do? She buys a bottle of milk for her ailing mother. The awakening is earthy, compelling one to act. What do we do when we wake up? We begin to serve others.
The starry dreams of the Japanese dream book are like Mahayana Buddhism. If the Theraveda honchos were about clarifying intentions and adhering to rules, Mahayana values what we do with others. Simply having good intentions is not enough. They need to be acted on.
In the Chinese Tendai school there was a creative rewriting and reimagining of Buddhist texts. They felt that sila (ethics) were good, that panna (wisdom) was necessary, but what about the love? In their writings and rewritings, the Buddha is elevated into a cosmic principle, an idea of awakening. The goal is to become a bodhisattva, to put off one’s own enlightenment so that one can be of benefit, and to serve others.
The Lotus Sutra
The Buddha wanted to tell everyone what it was like to be enlightened, so he decided to teach the Lotus Sutra. He began with a summons, sending a beam of light out to all bodhisattvas to come. They arrived only to find a kind of intergalactic parking problem, there just wasn’t enough room. He takes out a mirrored parasol, and delivers his teaching without saying a word. Instead of talking, he shows. You connect the dots, you fill in the blanks. His teaching is not about having defilements to work with via ethical precepts and sitting practice, but instead he offers a demonstration that you are empty and therefore interdependent. The only problem? People don’t get it. So the Buddha goes on to teach what is now called the Pali canon – he raps about the second dart of pain, and mindfulness of breathing, the Fire Sermon and all his other greatest hits. But he does all this just so he can get to the heart of the matter: the Lotus Sutra. Actually, it wasn’t called the Lotus Sutra until 1915 when it was coined in a French translation. It used to be known as the Dharma Flowering Sutra.
In Chinese the word flower is both a noun and a verb. Practice is something that is flowering all the time. A flower is something you become when you read this Sutra. Maybe you can already feel that when you hear about the Buddha’s awakening.
The Buddha was motivated by a question. I am suffering. How do I resolve this suffering? Can you hear in this sentence the arrogance of the Buddha? It’s so arrogant that it becomes the arrogance of a child. We’re adults, so we’re too sophisticated to ask a question like this. Because we are interconnected, if others are suffering we feel their suffering. When the Dalai Lama speaks about Tibet, you can hear the way he feels every policeman’s stick on every head, every unjust imprisonment, as if it were his own. As we practice we become more tender, opening to an embodied feeling of interdependence.
Meanwhile Back at Eagle Peak
News gets around that the Buddha is going to teach the Lotus Sutra. The Buddha goes to Eagle Peak, a place that can hold perhaps 50 people. It’s close to what was then the largest city on earth, one of the first cities in the world that rose up around the Ganges River. There he preaches to 12,000 monks, kings, arhats, 80,000 bodhisattvas, griffin kings and a partridge in a pear tree. As the folks assemble, the Buddha goes into a deep state of meditation, samadhi. Then it rains three kinds of flowers, and this rain, or so the story goes, cools down greed, delusion and ill will. The earth shakes in six different ways (Indians thought the earth floated on water, because if you dug into the earth you could find water and make wells.) Then out of the white tuft of hair between his eyebrows he sent out light that traveled to 18,000 worlds, and everything in those worlds lit up. He didn’t have social media so he sent them a vibe. Call it psychic media.
The text says the message arrives in 18,000 worlds – meaning that the Buddha is everywhere, and in everything. This isn’t a teaching only for arhats, it can reach into everyone’s life. And at this moment, everyone can see what everyone else is thinking. You really can judge a book by its cover.
Manjushri asks Maitreya (the next Buddha aka metta aka Loving Kindness): “What’s going on?” Maitreya says, “The Buddha is going to teach the Lotus Sutra. I’ve seen this before because years ago Wonderful Light (yeah, that’s what he was called, you got a problem with that?) also sent out light between his eyebrows. It’s a portent, a signal that the Sutra is about to be delivered.”
Manjushri replies, in a conversation you’re unlikely to overhear on the subway: Wonderful Light had 800 disciples, all of whom were named Wonderful Light. And the last one had children, and one of those children was named Fame Seeker. Fame Seeker was attached to lucrative offerings, he wanted to practice in order to receive notoriety. There’s an element of Fame Seeker in all of us, isn’t there? Some desire to be seen. But even though he’s a shmuck, Fame Seeker sits and is awakened. It’s pretty heartening actually.
Manjushri asks: Was the bodhisattva Wonderful Light? Of that time? And Maitreya says no babe, it was me. I was Wonderful Light. And the bodhisattva named Fame Seeker was you. It’s me and you and it’s here now and this moment is forever. We’re still doing it and for the first time. The two of them have been born 100,000 times so that they can keep on serving each other. You serve others in order to wake up to this moment. We’ve all done this before. When you read the newspapers, can’t you identify with every character in every story? You’ve suffered, you’ve been awake, you’ve been asleep, you’ve been jailor and jailed,, an addict and a priest. As this practice tenderizes and seasons you, you can relate to people who you might have shut out before. You can take the pain you’ve transformed via the practice (which has allowed you get in touch with and stay in touch with this pain, to use it as a lens to re-view your life) and use this understanding in order to help other people, then you really have something special to offer.
When the Buddha goes into samadhi he’s not preaching the Lotus Sutra, he’s doing the Lotus Sutra. Lots of us talk about the dharma, but it’s different to do the dharma with your own body. Being in relationship means being successful and failing every day.
The Buddha demonstrates samadhi for everyone, and this demonstration is the Sutra. It is a demonstration of interdependence. We’re all in this together. How can you tell when a student is starting to get it? Everyone gets it in a different way, in their own way. Everything you rely on now may be gone. How do we know how we will be called to serve in the future? As a culture, as a nation, we’re stealing from future generations because of our relationship to the planet owing to our unecological lifestyles. In the future, they’re going to need practices like this when the word machines and ideas that sustain this stealing fall away.
The Lotus Sutra is not setting up a metaphysics because it’s not establishing a belief system. It’s trying to get you to use your imagination to see your life differently. The Sutra is trying to find a way to reach you the same way science fiction does – by conjuring other worlds, it conjures this one.
The Buddha announces that he’s not going to teach the Lotus Sutra. He’s asked three times, and the tradition is, that if you’re asked three times, you say yes. But he says, “I can’t teach the Sutra, because when I look around at all the people who have gathered here, I can see there is a lot of arrogance. When I start teaching they will think they’ve understood without the teaching really touching their hearts.” As soon as the Buddha says this 5,000 monks get up and leave. That’s a lot of monks. More than a roomful. The Buddha finally says, “OK, I’m going to teach this, but I need to know that you can hear it.”
This text, like those in the Pali Canon, is prefaced in its many sections by “this is what I have heard…” Many of these texts are lifted from Ananda’s photographic ears, the Buddha’s pre-writing scribe. The living memory tablet. The Lotus Sutra was written many years after the Pali canon, which makes ample use of the phrase “thus I have heard…”, and the many writers of the Lotus Sutra borrow this phrase, bringing it forward for their own use. It relieves the text of a certain authority. It’s just hearsay, instead of The Word. Overheard conversations, like the one you’re reading now.