Lotus Sutra 1: Deep Background

At the end of a sit we bow, and we’re not bowing to the teacher, to this room, or the Buddha. We’re bowing to this moment. Everything that is, is in this moment. Bowing is a beautiful practice. Your bow affects your neighbour’s bow. The bow can be a meeting place between two people that never meet; it creates space and acknowledgment and keeps this meeting mysterious.

The handshake greeting arrived as a security. It is a demonstration that you’re not carrying a weapon. A bow is a physical gesture that makes two people equal, and leaves space between them.

Lotus Sutra
The main principle of the Lotus Sutra is playing down the person of the Buddha. Instead, it pitches the Buddha as a cosmic quality. Buddha becomes the awakening in all of us, in every sentient form. When you bow, you can ask yourself: where is the Buddha?

After the Buddha died there were several meetings called councils. A group of elders named as the theravadans would gather. At one of these meetings, these councils, the question of money arose. Monks were not permitted to physically touch money, and this increasingly became an issue because India’s first cities were rising up in the Gangetic plain, and in order to negotiate cities, money was often necessary. At the money meeting there was a falling out around the question of money, the elders separated, and the maha, the majority, separated.

Here’s another version of what happened. When the Buddha died there were arhats around, perfectly enlightened folks, only as time slipped by, people couldn’t help noticing that these perfect beings were not always perfect. Or at least: not as perfect as they made themselves out to be. And this raised doubts as to whether any person could be perfectly enlightened. And because enlightenment was the root of the entire practice, the whole enterprise came into question.

A perfectionist can never win, because if you win, there’s nothing left to do. Secretly, you never want to get it perfect because then you have to deal with what’s left over, or left out.

The response to this question of perfection and perfect enlightenment was to make the Buddha more mythic, more cosmic. This lends a renewed emphasis on being awake amongst others, rather than becoming a person who is perfect.

Again and again through history, we see systems (governments, institutions) which have found a way to see their own shadows. Or they become rigid and die. If a system can find its own shadow, it can often take some element of itself in order to deal with the shadow.

I Breathe You
You’re not inhaling or exhaling. Instead, the natural world is inhaling you. We’re breathing each other inside out, we’re turning each other inside out just by breathing. The breath that I’m breathing in, is the breath that you’re breathing out. And the breath that I’m breathing out, you’re breathing in. We’re in and outside of each other. Everything that we think of as mine is only a principle of nature.

Blue Collar Buddha
Theraveda is blue collar Buddhism. Let’s sit and do the work, Here are the precepts, the rules that need to be followed, now it’s time to sit on the cushion and get concentrated. Where’s the love in that? Humourless, one meal a day, riddle loving killjoys. What about the wonder of being alive and being awake with all sentient beings? The trees, the squirrels, even our sub-optimal mayor are sentient beings that can awaken.

Mahayana 101
In Mahayana Buddhism the emphasis is on love and compassion over analytical practices. At the end of Buddha’s life the texts are long and dry and dense. This emblematizes the Theraveda approach (at least, from the M viewpoint). Mahayana Buddhism doesn’t emphasize liberation but our relational qualities. If we’re breathing the same breath, how can I wake up separately from you?

  • Liberation is for the benefit of others. Perhaps we imagine that this monolith we name the self is going to sit and get concentrated and become enlightened, but this action separates us from others. Mahayana Buddhism insists that you can’t wake up until the last blade of grass has woken up. Our suffering is not being in this moment, instead we are busy shopping (for ideas, for new things to look at, temporary distractions).
  • The goal of the practice is not to be a Buddha but a bodhisattva. The intention is to serve others. There is a statue of Avalokiteshvara (the manifestation of the compassion of all Buddhas) in Kyoto which pictures the deity with 1,000 arms. And in each arm she has a tool: scissors, rope, a needle… Do you have a lot of tools? What are they? How can you take what you’ve suffered, and use it in order to serve others?

Bhodi: awake or intelligent
Sattva: being
Mahayana literature is not psychological or analytical, it’s imaginative and mythic. It relies on your ability to constantly re-imagine who you are.When a Buddha puts their hand out like a stop sign, or places it on your heart, or on your back, it means: no fear.

The Mahayana school leaves India and develops in Afghanistan and Pakistan before Buddhism goes to China and Japan. Many Mahayana texts have been discovered relatively recently in Afghanistan, many of these Sankrit texts were never translated into English. In India, Buddhism increasingly merged with Hinduism and Tantric practices over the next 100 years. Then it went to Tibet, and the Tibetans refine the Tantric thread and develop a physical practice over the next 4-500 years that introduces bandhas (amongst other things), and this eventually finds it way into the practice of hatha yoga.

Radical Revision
Mahayana Buddhism made a conscious decision to make Buddha larger than life, so that humans can stop trying to become Buddha, but instead become bodhisattvas. This is a radical revision of the dharma. This turning of the wheel becomes ritualized. Finally there is no one talking, no text, no speaker, no writer, no listener, no you, no me. They created a practice of turning the book, without opening it, turning it in physical space, as if it was a compass. The book becomes an object like a bow. In Mahayana there was less emphasis on the teachings and texts.

Mirrored Umbrella
The Buddha took a mirrored umbrella (very popular at the time, raindrops used to be filled with vanity) and invited all sentient beings to gather under it and take a look. What everyone saw was their own reflection, but also the reflections of everyone else. Every jewel in the parasol reflected every other jewel. Thousands were awakened, and the Buddha never said a word. Awakening doesn’t happen by reading about it, it’s something you do, it’s something you are. You can’t think your way towards it.

What’s in it for me?
Let’s take this Lotus Sutra book, for example. You pick it up and think: what’s in it for me? What am I going to get out of this? But what if just allow the Sutra to work on us, to season us? Then we might realize that there’s no one reading the text, there’s no text really, it’s your life. It’s the space between two people bowing. Maybe the greatest human tragedy is when we don’t allow that to happen. Sorry, I’m too busy. I can’t do that right now. I can’t help you, or even see you right now. Then we miss this opportunity to be a bodhisattva, the ideal of serving all beings. How could you express interdependence in everything you do? Not as a goal, but a way, the next step, the next meeting and bow.