The Lotus Sutra puts all Buddhist practitioners on the way to Buddhahood.
When I first came to Indiana University as an assistant professor in the fall of 1992, I taught a class in Mahayana Buddhism based on an in-depth reading of just two texts: the Perfection of Wisdom in Eight Thousand Lines and the Lotus Sutra . Enrolled in the course was a Tibetan Buddhist monk from India—I knew him simply as Thubten—who had come to Indiana as a Tibetan language instructor. Thubten’s contract required him to take a certain number of credit-hours each semester, and that is how he came to be my student. It was not until later that I learned that Thubten held a geshe degree, the Tibetan Buddhist equivalent of a Ph.D. In retrospect this was probably fortunate, since my ignorance of his status allowed me to treat him just like the other students (and, of course, prevented me from worrying about the possibility of his superior expertise on certain points!).
Despite his non-native English, Thubten had little trouble during the first part of the semester, when we were studying the Perfection of Wisdom in Eight Thousand Lines. Though he had never read that particular sutra, the Perfection of Wisdom tradition, as one of the “core courses” of his monastic education, was quite familiar to him. When we came to the Lotus Sutra , however, I noticed a decided change. Though it has been tremendously influential in East Asia, the Lotus is rarely studied by Tibetan Buddhists. As we worked our way through the text, Thubten looked baffled, even worried. At one point, he told me that he had gone to the library to check out the Tibetan version of the sutra, for he thought he must not be understanding the English version correctly. Finally one day in class he simply shook his head in amazement and exclaimed, “I can’t believe the Buddha would say such things!”
Thubten was caught in a classic Mahayana predicament. As a devoted Buddhist, he accepted the verdict of his tradition that all Mahayana scriptures were the word of the person we call the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni. But at the same time, it seemed quite clear to him that the Lotus Sutra conflicted with much of what he, as a Mahayana Buddhist monk, had been taught.
I suspect that Thubten’s shock at encountering the Lotus was not, historically speaking, all that unusual. On the contrary, I think it might well have resembled in many ways what most Indian Buddhists in the first or second century C.E. felt when they first heard this very revolutionary text. For the Lotus does not only critique what some Mahayanists describe as the Hinayana (“lower vehicle”); it also contradicts much of what, at the time of its composition, was seen as constituting the Mahayana (“greater vehicle”) tradition as well.
Those familiar with secondary literature about Buddhism are likely to have the impression that the Mahayana emerged as a liberalizing movement within the Buddhist community, one that made the practice of Buddhism, and the attainment of awakening, available to a wider group than had previously been the case. Seen in this light, the Mahayana is often perceived as pro-laity, pro-family, even pro-women, and thus as a form of Buddhism particularly well adapted to the presumably more egalitarian societies of the world today. But it is becoming increasingly clear to scholars that this vision of the character of Mahayana Buddhism has been shaped by a very atypical text, namely, the Lotus Sutra .
For many students of Buddhism, the term Mahayana also has particular philosophical connotations: the belief in the emptiness of all phenomena, for example, or the understanding of the historical Buddha as a manifestation of ultimate reality, or of the dharmakaya (“dharma-body”). But when it first appeared, the term had none of these associations. The “greater vehicle” had, initially, one specific meaning. It was the vehicle, or path to awakening, of one intending to become a Buddha, which was the original meaning of the term bodhisattva. In other words, the word Mahayana, in its original usage, did not comprise any new doctrinal content whatsoever. It meant nothing more and nothing less than “the bodhisattva vehicle.” But it is not only the meaning of Mahayana that changed; other core terms—‚such as Buddha and bodhisattva—took on new meanings as well, and likewise, the goal of the Buddhist teachings came to be understood in new ways. During Shakyamuni Buddha’s own lifetime there was only one notion of what constituted awakening. The Buddha was seen as far greater than his followers, primarily because he had discovered the path to awakening for himself and thus made things far easier for those who would follow in his footsteps. But the nature of awakening itself—understood, in a general sense, as “seeing reality as it is”—was believed to be in every case identical. Indeed, Shakyamuni himself was, like his awakened followers, referred to as an arhat (literally “one who is worthy of respect”).
With time, however, the status accorded to the Buddha’s awakening rose, while that of his awakened followers—still known as arhats—declined, at least in some circles. Accordingly, within a few generations we find indications of a substantial difference in valuation between the Buddha (whose awakening is now referred to as “Supreme Perfect Awakening”) and the arhat (whose awakening is generally still referred to as “nirvana”). The Buddha’s awakening is now described as qualitatively greater, involving a degree of knowledge and insight not shared by an arhat. Of the two levels of realization, the arhat’s status is distinctly second class.
Not surprisingly, as this discrepancy became ever more sharply felt, some in the Buddhist monastic community were no longer satisfied to strive for “mere” arhatship. A growing number came to consider arhatship as something to be avoided, a “private nirvana” that would naturally result from intensive Buddhist practice unless something was done to prevent it. That “something” was the vow to attain a different goal—that is, the vow to instead become a Buddha.
Inspired both by stories of Shakyamuni’s years of asceticism and intensive self-cultivation in the wilderness prior to his awakening and by jataka stories describing his previous lives, some Buddhist monastics began to envision a far more rigorous and time-consuming path leading to the full awakening of a Buddha. Would-be bodhisattvas had to look forward to thousands, if not millions, of additional lives before Buddhahood could be attained. Further, it was assumed that in those lives they would perform the kind of extreme acts of self-sacrifice described in the jatakas, in which, for example, the Buddha-to-be, out of compassion, allows himself to be devoured by a hungry tigress and her cubs or to be cut to pieces by an evil king.
The pioneers of the bodhisattva path might well have viewed themselves as an elite destined for a higher goal than their monastic compatriots, but they did not, at this point, separate themselves from those who were striving for arhatship. In all likelihood, in fact, these early bodhisattvas constituted a relatively small group living within a monastic environment consisting largely of those who still had arhatship as their goal. These early volunteers for the bodhisattva track did not subscribe to the “signature” doctrines of later Mahayana philosophical schools—the emptiness of all phenomena, the ten stages of the bodhisattva path, the three “bodies” of the Buddha, and so forth—for all these had yet to emerge. They were simply a group of unusually ambitious and compassionate individuals who had dedicated themselves to doing whatever it takes to obtain Buddhahood rather than arhatship. But since the very definition of a Buddha is someone who discovers the way to awakening by himself in a world that knows nothing of Buddhism, they could not become Buddhas here and now. Rather, that final step had to be reserved for another time and (in most cases) another world-system. So the aim of these pioneering bodhisattvas entailed “rediscovering” Buddhism for the benefit of all beings in the distant future, when the teachings of previous Buddhas had long since been forgotten.
Given this scenario, the possibility of arhatship becomes, ironically, a threat. The early Mahayana scriptures still regarded its attainment as quite accessible even within this present lifetime. Meditation—especially the practice of the dhyanas (Pali, jhanas), or states of concentrative absorption—is viewed as a particular danger, since the budding bodhisattva may inadvertently “tumble into” arhatship. This is why the bodhisattva is warned in the Perfection of Wisdom in Eight Thousand Lines, for example, to use his “skillful means” to avoid accidentally attaining nirvana. The bodhisattva must walk a tightrope, as it were, cultivating advanced meditational practices while staving off what would be their natural result.