The Lotus Sutra puts all Buddhist practitioners on the way to Buddhahood.
IT IS AGAINST SUCH A BACKGROUND that we encounter—in the first or second century C.E.—a radical departure from this consensus. In the Lotus Sutra we hear that arhatship is not a genuine alternative destination, but that all Buddhist practitioners—not just a few—are en route to Buddhahood. We hear that the attainment of Buddhahood is not the result of aeons of self-sacrifice but is far easier than had previously been supposed, and that even a child who builds a stupa out of sand will one day become a Buddha. We are told that Shakyamuni was not simply a man who experienced awakening under the Bodhi tree but one who had already been awakened long before he came into our world. We hear further that he did not at his death really enter the extinction of final nirvana but simply appeared to do so for the benefit of his followers. The assumption that there can only be one Buddha per world-system at a time is challenged by the memorable scene of Shakyamuni and the ancient Buddha Prabhutaratna, or Many Treasures Buddha, sharing seats within a stupa in the sky. Finally, the Lotus gives a new meaning to the term “skillful means”: rather than a balancing act to avoid falling into arhatship, skillful means is now understood as a technique used in teaching other beings, specifically the adaptation of the content of one’s teachings to suit their needs. In short, virtually every one of the key assumptions of early Mahayana Buddhism has been radically overturned.
It is easy to see that such a message might well have been shocking. To those who aspired to attain arhatship, not to mention those who had already reached that goal, the Lotus Sutra says that their spiritual ideal is merely an illusion. And as for the Mahayanists, if a simple offering made by a child can ensure the attainment of Buddhahood, to what end have bodhisattvas been exerting themselves in the cultivation of the six perfections (paramitas), up to and including the renunciation of their own lives? Have all their efforts, like those of the practitioners who thought they had attained “real” arhatship, been in vain? The Lotus seems to suggest as much when it argues that minimal acts of devotion, and above all faith in the sutra itself, are sufficient guarantors of one’s eventual Buddhahood.
We are so used to hearing (once again, partly under the influence of the Lotus) of the opposition between Hinayana and Mahayana Buddhists that we are not inclined to see much commonality between these two camps. But the Lotus Sutra challenged a basic assumption about the nature of the Buddhist path shared by both the proponents of the nirvana of the arhat and the advocates of the newer option to “go for the gold” of Buddhahood. For both groups saw Buddhist practice as a path—that is, as a prolonged process of step-by-step self-cultivation.
As path-centered models of the religious life, both the traditional route leading to arhatship and the newer bodhisattva vehicle are examples of what Karl Potter, in his classic work Presuppositions of India’s Philosophies, calls “progress philosophies,” which describe liberation as the result of a gradual process of deliberate spiritual cultivation. Contrasted with this model are what Potter calls “leap philosophies,” according to which liberation takes place all at once and has no direct correlation to acts of self-cultivation.
From the viewpoint of a leap philosophy, there is no causal connection between the liberated and the unliberated state; it is, therefore, impossible to build a bridge between these two wholly incompatible realms. If it is not possible to create a causal chain that will lead one from unliberated to liberated status, and yet, as is claimed, liberation is possible, it must be the case that liberation is already in effect. All we must do as practitioners is to allow ourselves to see, and to acknowledge, that fact.
The “leap” to the liberated state occurs as a sudden insight. Depending on the Indian philosophical school in question, this breakthrough might be provoked by the undermining of one’s treasured rational categories (as in the Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna’s method of dialectical analysis), by hearing a verse from a sacred text (as was proposed by the Advaita philosopher Sureshvara), or by the grace of God alone (as asserted by the theistic philosopher Madhva). But whatever the context in which this sudden realization takes place, it is not the gradual result of self-cultivation. Even for the subgroup Potter terms the “do-it-yourself ” leap philosophers, who maintain that certain obstacles in the way of realization can be removed by one’s own effort, there is nothing one can do that can cause realization to occur. In the Lotus we see articulated a Buddhist leap philosophy, one that specifically challenged the progress philosophies of aspirants to arhatship and to Buddhahood alike. It has long been noted—not only by modern scholars but also by traditional Buddhist teachers—that the Lotus is singularly short on instructions for how to practice the path. But it is not as though the compilers of the sutra simply forgot to include that part. Rather, in the Lotus the very idea of a path is radically undermined. Instead, practice is fulfilled by accepting, in all humility, Shakyamuni’s word that through faith one will attain Buddhahood in the future. As the closing lines of chapter 2 of the sutra put it, “Have no further doubts; rejoice greatly in your hearts, knowing that you will become Buddhas.”
It is this, I suspect, that was the primary cause of Thubten’s consternation. Although Tibetan Buddhism has largely jettisoned arhatship as a valid goal, it has maintained a strong commitment to the notion of spiritual cultivation. To hear the Buddha proclaim that every practitioner is destined for Buddhahood—even those who, like the legendary betrayer of the dharma, Devadatta, are guilty of heinous crimes—would seem to subvert the very foundation of the long and demanding practice of the bodhisattva path.
But there is more at stake here than the individual’s spiritual practice, for rejection of the “progress” model has an institutional corollary as well. A progress philosophy necessarily entails a hierarchical community structure. As long as spiritual advancement is a matter of individual self-cultivation, members of the Buddhist community will necessarily be located at different levels on a hierarchical scale. In other words, the manner in which practice is construed also implies a particular style of social organization. In the case of progress philosophies, this means that different members of a given religious organization are understood as having made different degrees of progress, and thus they may be assigned to different spiritual ranks.
Leap philosophies, by contrast, tend to level such spiritual hierarchies. Instead, we find a sharp distinction between those who have and those who have not made the “leap” in question: a distinction between those who have come to see reality clearly, or have accepted the Buddha’s message, or have been ”saved” (to use the terminology of Evangelical Christianity, which is another leap philosophy), and those who have not. Within each of these two camps, however, we see a radical egalitarianism: all who have made the leap (however construed) have equally attained the goal, while all who have not are equally cut off from it.
Students of Buddhism, especially of its history, will note that Potter’s categories of leap and progress philosophies correspond, significantly though not entirely, to those of the longstanding debate about sudden versus gradual awakening. Although the polemics put forth by the advocates of sudden and gradual approaches assume a sharp distinction between the two, in practice—as scholarship has shown—the differences are generally more a matter of emphasis. Those who practice gradual self-cultivation usually recognize that their path includes moments of sudden insight, while those who give primacy to sudden realization generally acknowledge that one must make persistent effort to carry that realization into one’s daily life.
Contemporary readers do not always take the Lotus Sutra literally, of course, and though it embodies the qualities of a leap philosophy, this scripture has, throughout its history, provided the basis and inspiration not only for all-at-once leaps of faith but also for diligent step-by-step progress. Still, we should not deny the radical nature of its message. The sutra offers a model of spiritual life that is very different from those based on the metaphor of a path, challenging those who would measure their attainment in retreats practiced or insights accumulated or virtues exhibited. For those who would posit a one-to-one relationship between the effort one puts forth and the outcome one achieves, it speaks of the transformative power of faith in the awakened mind itself. It suggests that, through faith in its message, one makes the Buddha’s intention, rather than one’s own, the pivot of practice.
Jan Nattier is a professor of Religious Studies at Indiana University Bloomington.
Image 1: Heike Nokyo (Heike Family Votive Lotus Sutra), 1164, Japan. Photo: Satokazu Yazawa, Courtesy of Itsukushima Shrine.
Image 2: Fan-shaped Lotus Sutra, twelfth century. Courtesy of Shitenno-Ji, Japan.