‘Reading the Lotus Sutra as a Drama‘
When you open the “Lotus Sutra” for the first time, you might think, “How does this grand story relate to our lives?” Although the Lotus Sutra is one of the numerous Buddhist scriptures, it is declared by Buddha himself to be “the foremost teaching” (in the Chapter 10 “The Teacher of the Dharma”), and worshiped by people as “the king of all the sutras.
“However, if we read the Lotus Sutra as just a “grand tale” disconnected from our lives, it would not align with Buddha’s true intent. The Lotus Sutra has been read from various perspectives such as literature, history, art, and science, but the one who interpreted most aptly according to the true intent of Shakyamuni Buddha was Nichiren, who was born in 13th century Japan and called himself a “practitioner of the Lotus Sutra.”
Nichiren saw the entire Lotus Sutra as one drama and projected himself into every scene. Because he read it in this way, Nichiren lived powerfully, striving to realize the ideal world preached in the Lotus Sutra in this world, without succumbing to various persecutions and temptations. This way of reading, which embodies what the Lotus Sutra tells in reality, is called “Shikidoku”. This is the way Buddha wants us to read the Lotus Sutra.
By diving into the drama of the Lotus Sutra ourselves, the teachings, which seem unrelated to reality at first glance, should become a vibrant energy in our daily lives.
Now, we will proceed to read the Lotus Sutra as a drama in a digest format, focusing on the key points. Before we start, it is important to imagine that you were sitting in front of Buddha. Let’s listen carefully to Buddha’s voice.
2. Chapter 1, “Introduction”
‘The Light between Buddha’s Eyebrows’
The scene we are now is set on Mt. Grdhrakuta in India, transported back in time by over 2,000 more years. Sitting quietly in the center atop of the mountain is Shakyamuni Buddha, aged 72. As the crowd gathers to listen to his teachings, the number easily exceeds tens of thousands. Among them are numerous monks (bhikkhus) and nuns (bhikkhunis) wearing robes, male (upasakas) and female lay believers (upasikas), there are people of a variety of ages and occupations . Even King Ajatashatru who had killed his own father is there with his attendants.
Though invisible to our eyes, it appears that deities residing in the heand and earth, dragons, yakshas, gandharvas, asuras, garudas, kinnaras, and mahoragas have also come. They are mentioned in the sutra as celestial beings who attend the assembly.
Looking across the gathering, there are people of all ages, good and evil, benevolent and malevolent deities. Each of them has their own circumstances and perspectives, but they all share one thing in common: they are all fans of Shakyamuni Buddha.
It is the vastness of Shakyamuni Buddha’s heart that acknowledges the diversity of personalities. The gate opened for anyone is the entrance to the Lotus Sutra.
At that moment, flower petals fall from the sky, and the ground gently trembles. Light emitted from between Shakyamuni Buddha’s eyebrows illuminates the distant east.
Amazed by this, Maitreya Bodhisattva asks the knowledgeable Manjushri Bodhisattva about the reason behind this phenomenon. Manjushri Bodhisattva replies, ‘Indeed, this is a sign that Shakyamuni Buddha is about to deliver his most important teaching.’
Now, the various mystical phenomena described in the sutras express the state of our minds in visible form. In anticipation of the profound teachings to come, the joy and gratitude of the masses are depicted as flower petals, and the swelling expectations are portrayed as the earth’s vibrations. The light radiating from Shakyamuni Buddha’s eyebrows is a miraculous reflection of our boundless potential.
It is a brilliant light of wisdom and compassion that shines upon all the goodness and evilness of humans and is to save them. Finally, the preaching of the Lotus Sutra is about to begin.”
3. Chapter 2, “Expedient”
‘Unification of Teachings’
Shakyamuni Buddha stands up quietly and begins speaking to his disciple, Shariputra, who is the leader of the disciples.
“The truth I have realized is so profound that you, Shariputra, would not be able to comprehend.”
This initial statement shocks the disciples because Shariputra is known as the foremost in wisdom among them.
Shariputra and the other disciples who are known as the “Two Vehicles” of Sravaka (Hearer) and Pratyekabuddha (Cause-knowers), they are the sacred beings who have completely transcended desires and are considered in the high level as the practitioners.
Shariputra pleads three times to Shakyamuni Buddha, saying, “Please teach us the truth. We believe in your words.”
Shakyamuni Buddha seems relieved by Shariputra’s words “we believe” because the Lotus Sutra is not meant to be intellectually understood but to be realized through faith.
“Well then, let me explain the only purpose that I was born with. It is to make all of you become Buddhas. Every living being has the potential to become a Buddha. So, what exactly is a Buddha? My life’s mission is to demonstrate, explain, and experience as many people as possible to walk the Way of Buddhahood.”
What the Lotus Sutra expounds is the essence of Buddhism that “everyone can become a Buddha.” However, Shariputra and others of the “Two Vehicles” believe that they can not become Buddhas like Shakyamuni Buddha, as they deeply respect Him.
The words given by Shakyamuni Buddha shown at the beginning are a skillful means employed to break free from their fixed mindset and convey the message, “You can also become a Buddha!” It has been done with the intention of guiding them towards the truth.
The means employed to lead to the highest truth are called “expedients.”
The various teachings of “expedients” that Shakyamuni Buddha has taught are summarized and unified in the Lotus Sutra, which represents the “True Teaching.”
4. Chapters 10, “the Teacher of Dharma” and 11, “Beholding Stupa of Treasures”
‘The Opening of the Lotus Sutra Summit’
The disciples, who believe and accept Shakyamuni Buddha’s words that “everyone can become a Buddha,”
including Shariputra, Subhuti, Kasyapa, Maudgalyayana, and others of the “Two Vehicles.” They all have received a message from Shakyamuni Buddha saying, “You can also become a Buddha.” This is called the “Assurance” and, as its proof, they received a ‘Buddha’s name’ from Shakyamuni Buddha.
“Even after I pass away, anyone who rejoices upon hearing even a single verse of the Lotus Sutra shall receive an assurance,” said Shakyamuni Buddha.
It is when He has bestowed the ‘assurance’ to all those gathered. What a surprise! A magnificent and grand stupa adorned with treasures has emerged from the ground. It floats into the air, and a solemn and distinct voice is heard from within it.
“Wonderful, wonderful! Honorable Shakyamuni Buddha, all what the Lotus Sutra tells is true.”
The voice is of a Buddha named “Many Treasure”.
Then Shakyamuni Buddha instantly calls forth all the Buddhas existing throughout the entire universe to gather at Mt. Grdhrakuta. The door of the floating treasure stupa opens, and Shakyamuni Buddha sits alongside the Many Treasure Buddha.
At that moment, mysteriously, all the audience present at M. Grdhrakuta also floats in the air.
This congregation in the air is called “Koku (Akasha).” From here, the congregation of the Lotus Sutra spreads beyond both time and space, making the ‘Assembly in the Air.’
Shakyamuni Buddha addresses the multitude from within the treasure stupa.
“Is there anyone who will propagate and spread the Lotus Sutra after my extinction?”
Observing this scene, it is like a summit meeting. The Lotus Sutra is indeed a summit that directs the future of Buddhism. The symbol of the conference is the treasure stupa, and the countless Buddhas gathered here are guests who have assembled to observe its outcome. There is only one agenda: “Who will propagate and spread the Lotus Sutra after Shakyamuni Buddha’s extinction?”
The Lotus Sutra Summit has now commenced.
5. Chapter 12, “Devadatta”
‘The Enlightenment of the “evil” Devadatta and the Dragon King Daughter’
As I told that the Lotus Sutra teaches that ‘everyone can become a Buddha,’ this chapter 12 specifically explains it.
Devadatta, the cousin of Shakyamuni Buddha, is known as a wicked person who has strong jealousy so that he has harmed Buddha repeatedly and even attempted to kill Him. However, Shakyamuni Buddha has a different perspective.
He reveals a new fact, saying; “In a past life, Devadatta was my teacher who taught me the Lotus Sutra. In the future, he should become a Buddha named Heavenly-King Tathagata.” The audience is astonished. However, they realize the important teaching of the Lotus Sutra that everyone has equally the potential that they will become a Buddha through the right teaching and, at the same time they will become wicked due to wrong teachings.
At that moment, Manjushri Bodhisattva, an experienced and knowledgeable disciple, informs Wisdom-Accumulated Bodhisattva; “The daughter of the Dragon King, who resides in the ocean, aspired for the true teachings of the Buddha at the age of eight. She hears the Lotus Sutra and instantly becomes a Buddha.”
Even Manjushri Bodhisattva and Shariputra, “foremost in wisdom” found it difficult to believe the story of her. It was because they had a prejudice that women were discriminated against at that time and considered incapable of becoming Buddhist.
Then, the young Dragon King Daughter herself appeared gracefully. She said, “Watch carefully.” In an instant, the Dragon King Daughter has transformed into a man who preaches the Lotus Sutra to the people and guides them. It is evident to everyone that the young Dragon King Daughter has become an admirable Buddha.
Shariputra and Manjushri Bodhisattva, who have doubted and questioned the Dragon King Daughter’s enlightenment, witnessed this with their own eyes and had no choice but to remain silent.
It is important to note that the Dragon King Daughter is a young child and, furthermore, not a human but a dragon. Her enlightenment demonstrates the truthfulness of what the Lotus Sutra teaches that “everyone, including women, children, and animals, can become a Buddha.”
6. Chapter 15, ”The Appearance of Bodhisattvas from Underground”
‘The Arrival of Superheroes’
When Shakyamuni Buddha askes, “Is there anyone who will propagate and spread the Lotus Sutra after my extinction?,” many bodhisattvas volunteered, but he declined their offers, saying, “There is no need for that.”
“There are countless bodhisattvas, numbering in the billions, in this Sahā world. They will be the ones to preach the Lotus Sutra after my extinction,” Shakyamuni Buddha declared.
In response to Shakyamuni Buddha’s voice, the ground of Mt. Grdhrakuta split open. Then, as the spring gushed, an immense number of noble bodhisattvas, sixty thousand times the number of sands in the River Ganges, appeared one after another, radiating brilliant light.
These bodhisattvas are the superheroes of the Lotus Sutra, known as the ‘Bodhisattvas of the Earth.’ Shakyamuni Buddha had secretly raised those who propagate the teachings of the Lotus Sutra after His extinction in order to make the world a peaceful land of Buddhas.
It is significant that they emerged from the earth. It signifies that the ones who will save this world are not special beings from the heavenly realms like deities, but we, the humans who are born on and live on this earth, should rise up with our own strong determination.
Therefore, the Emerging Bodhisattvas are none other than ourselves, representing each and every one of us.
Among the Bodhisattvas of the Earth, there were four leaders: Superior-Practice Bodhisattva, Limitless-Practice Bodhisattva, Pure-Practice Bodhisattva, and Steadily-Practice Bodhisattva. Among them, Superior-Practice Bodhisattva is our great leader.
However, strangely enough, besides Shakyamuni Buddha, no one else knew about the existence of these bodhisattvas. Not even Maitreya Bodhisattva, who was said to appear as the next Buddha after Shakyamuni Buddha, knew about any of them.
So Maitreya Bodhisattva asked Shakyamuni Buddha, “It has passed forty some years since You attained enlightenment, but how have you had time enough to educate such a vast number of noble bodhisattvas?”
Maitreya Bodhisattva’s question would reveal a new fact regarding the lifespan of Shakyamuni Buddha.
7. Chapter 16, “Duration of the Life of the Tathagata”
‘Unity of the Buddhas’
In response to Maitreya Bodhisattva’s question, Shakyamuni Buddha began to reveal a truth he had never spoken of before.
“You may think that I renounced my status as a prince of the clan Shakya in my younger days, left my hometown of Kapilavastu, and attained enlightenment for the first time under the Bodhi tree. However, that is not the whole truth. In reality, I attained enlightenment in the extremely distant past, an inconceivable length of time known as countless, boundless, hundreds of thousands, millions, and billions of nayutas of asamkhya kalpas.”
Shakyamuni Buddha declared that His lifespan extended both in the past and future for eternity.
“Throughout the infinite span of time, I have preached the Dharma in various worlds. At times, I appeared as a Buddha named ‘Burning-Light,’ and all the Buddhas I mentioned before were merely provisional manifestations of myself.”
Famous Buddhas like Amitabha Buddha in the Pure Land and Medicine Buddha in the Lapis Lazuli World were all manifestations of Shakyamuni Buddha who possesses an eternal lifespan, changing His forms and names.
This is why Shakyamuni Buddha was able to gather all the Buddhas in the Assembly in Air instantaneously.
Referring to this Eternal Shakyamuni Buddha as the “Original Buddha” in terms of essence and foundation, all Buddhas are unified as the “Original Buddha” in the Lotus Sutra.
The “Bodhisattvas of the Earth” were the great bodhisattvas educated by the “Original Buddha” in the remotest past. They awaited the request from Shakyamuni Buddha “in the Air under the ground,” diligently cultivating themselves through practices.
Hence, not even Maitreya Bodhisattva had ever seen these noble bodhisattvas.
However, is it true that the duration of His life is eternal? Historically, Shakyamuni Buddha passed away at the age of 80.Shakyamuni Buddha had prepared an answer to this question in advance.
“If people believe that my physical body is eternally indestructible, they will think they can always meet the Buddha. Therefore, I intentionally pass away. By doing so, people will develop a stronger desire to meet the Buddha and make efforts. Though my physical body may be extinct, it is not a true death. The teachings will never be extinct.”
Furthermore, Shakyamuni Buddha revealed the truth about the land we inhabit.
“This land we live in is the eternal pure land where deities and humans should peacefully dwell.”
People had been under the misconception that the ideal “pure land” to which everyone aspires is located somewhere far away and special. However, the “pure land” is this Earth on which we stand.
“I am always with you.” The Eternal Shakyamuni Buddha, the “Original Buddha,” is present with all of us even now.
8. Chapter 20, “Never-Despising Bodhisattva”
‘Practicing the Lotus Sutra’
It may be hard to believe, but we are the ‘Bodhisattvas of the Earth’ who were guided by the ‘Original Buddha’ in the remotest past. Now that we know this, how should we live our lives?
Shakyamuni Buddha introduced us to a figure called the Bodhisattva Never Dispising, who serves as a model for our way of life.
In Chapter 20 of the Lotus Sutra, Shakyamuni Buddha began his discourse.
“The distinguishing characteristic of this bodhisattva is that, although he appears as a priest, no one has ever seen him reciting sutras. He would simply appear from nowhere, bow deeply and join his palms together, and say to people he encountered on the road, ‘I respect you. I never despise you. Because you will become a Buddha.’ He would continue to walk around, despite people ridiculing him and giving him the nickname ‘Never-Dispising.’ They would throw stones and strike him with sticks, but he would not get angry. Regardless, he always worshipped and respected people.”
Actually, dedicating ourselves to reciting the sutras is not enough as our practice. Shakyamuni Buddha emphasizes the importance of further engaging with the Lotus Sutra in both body and mind through this story.
The Lotus Sutra proclaims that “everyone can become a Buddha.”
The Never-Despising Bodhisattva was someone who practiced it in both his actions and thoughts.
He didn’t simply recite sutras; he had already internalized and embodied the teachings of the Lotus Sutra. It was the reason he engaged in the practice in this manner.
The Never-Despising Bodhisattva was a professional practitioner of the Lotus Sutra. Shouldn’t we also strive to practice the Lotus Sutra in our lives like him?
If we do so, there will be no enemies on this Earth, and conflicts will cease to exist.
Because everyone we encounter is a Buddha.
9. Chapter 21, “The Supernatural Power of the Tathagata”
‘People Like the Sun and Moon’
Finally, Shakyamuni Buddha designated the true successor to propagate the Lotus Sutra after his extinction. And, of course, it was none other than the Bodhisattvas of the Earth.
Shakyamuni Buddha addressed the leader of the Bodhisattvas of the Earth, the Superior-Practice Bodhisattva, saying, “I have put all the teachings of the Buddha, all the powers of the Buddha, the entirety of the Buddha, and the fact that the Buddha continuously saves people within this sutra. Bodhisattvas of the Earth! Please propagate this in the world after my extinction.”
Now, this sutra referred to is none other than the ‘Lotus Sutra.’ Its formal name is the ‘Sutra of the Lotus Flower of the Wonderful Dharma.’ Shakyamuni Buddha condensed everything into these mere ‘five characters’ when written in Chinese, entrusting them to the Bodhisattvas of the Earth. These ‘five characters’ are the ‘teachings’ that will save those of the Latter Age of the Dharma.
“I entrust this to you!”
The Bodhisattvas of the Earth, entrusted with this great mission, would appear and play an active role in the Latter Age of the Dharma, which is the most tumultuous era in which society deteriorates, beginning two thousand years after Shakyamuni Buddha’s extinction.
Indeed, Nichiren, who proclaimed that only the ‘Sutra of the Lotus Flower of the Wonderful Dharma’ illuminates the Latter Age of the Dharma, facing persecution as prophesied in the Lotus Sutra. He added the two characters ‘Namu’ (meaning devotion) to the ‘Sutra of the Lotus Flower of the Wonderful Dharma’ and chanted it as the ‘Odaimoku,’ spreading it throughout the world.
Undoubtedly, Nichiren is the Superior-Practice Bodhisattva, the leader of us, the Bodhisattvas of the Earth.
Moreover, Shakyamuni Buddha prophesied how the Bodhisattvas of the Earth would manifest themselves and what kind of person they would be to complete their mission.
“Just as the light of the sun and moon eliminates all darkness. He will appear in this world and eradicate people’s darkness.”
The leader of the Bodhisattvas of the Earth, the Superior-Practice Bodhisattva, faithfully fulfilled the promise with Shakyamuni Buddha and appeared in the world, just as the sutra described.
This is an obvious proof that the Lotus Sutra truly expounds the highest truth.
In a chaotic world, we, as one of the Bodhisattvas of the Earth, must follow in the footsteps of Nichiren after the extinction of the Buddha.”
10. Chapter 22, “Transmission”
‘Conclusion of the Lotus Sutra Summit’
Shakyamuni Buddha unified all the teachings and all the Buddhas in the Lotus Sutra and fulfilled the most important mission in his lifetime by designating his successors for the propagation of the Lotus Sutra after His extinction.
The drama of the Lotus Sutra reaches its conclusion.
In Chapter 22 of the Lotus Sutra, Shakyamuni Buddha declared to the countless Buddhas assembled in the “Air” to return to their worlds. This marks the closure of the “Lotus Sutra Summit.”
Then, the doors of the “treasure stupa” floating in the center of the “Air” began to slowly close. As if drawing in all the countless Buddhas and Bodhisattvas that had gathered there, the doors closed, symbolizing the convergence of eternal time and space.
Suddenly, we found ourselves standing atop Mt. Gridhakuta, as if awakening from a dream. We had returned to the place where we started, Mt. Gridhakuta in reality.
Starting from the Mt. Gridhakuta, the scene moved in the Congregation in the Air as the ideal world of Buddha, and returned again to the Mt. Gridhakuta. It signifies that while the Lotus Sutra expounds the ideal world of the Buddhas, it is always based on the real world, emphasizing that there is no separation from reality and that actually the ideal is to be found within it.
Thus, the fantastical world seen in the “Air,” where countless noble Bodhisattvas emerged from the earth, represents the potential realization of all things. It signifies that the time will come when these noble Bodhisattvas actively participate in our daily lives.
The Buddhas, who possess eternal lives, are present everywhere in our daily lives. This teaches us that the ideal and reality are inseparable, and the connection between the two lies within our faith.
11. Chapter 26, “Dharanis”
‘Guardians of the Lotus Sutra’
In the last six chapters of the Lotus Sutra, there are stories that serve as powerful charms for those who aspire to practice according to the teachings of the Lotus Sutra.
In Chapter 26 of the Lotus Sutra, someone courageous and resolute came up before Shakyamuni, declaring, ‘I will protect those who uphold the Lotus Sutra!’ And it was not a single person. Two steadfast Bodhisattvas, Medicine-King and Brave-In-Giving made this pledge.
Following them, formidable Heavenly Kings of Four Heavenly Kings protecting the cardinal directions, Vaisravana and World-Holding, who guard the north and east.
Additionally, a group consisting of Hariti and the Ten Rakshasiraised their hands. These beings were originally malevolent demons, but through the guidance of Shakyamuni Buddha, they transformed into strong and compassionate female deities.
The “Guardians of the Lotus Sutra” stood in a row, each reciting the mantra called “Dharani” and making their solemn pledges, hence this chapter is known as the “Dharani Chapter.” It has been believed from ancient times that the sounds of chanting the Dharani carry a mysterious power.
This power is said to protect the virtuous mind and repel the evil mind, serving as a potent force. Here, virtue refers to the mind that upholds the Lotus Sutra, while evil represents the mind that deviates from the teachings of the Lotus Sutra.
Shakyamuni Buddha addressed the “Guardians of the Lotus Sutra”; ‘Protect those who uphold the name of the Lotus Sutra!’ The name of the Lotus Sutra refers to the “Myoho Renge Kyo,” and to uphold it means to chant “Namu Myoho Renge Kyo.”
Therefore, once we awaken the mind to uphold the Lotus Sutra and chant “Namu Myoho Renge Kyo” even once, the “Guardians of the Lotus Sutra” will act. They become strong allies, warding off difficulties and temptations, protecting the practitioners of the Lotus Sutra.
12. Chapter 28, “The Encouragement of Universal-Sage Bodhisattva”
‘Beginning of ending’
The drama of the Lotus Sutra reaches its final chapter.
After eight years of preaching the Lotus Sutra, Shakyamuni Buddha is now 80 years old, having poured his heart and soul into this sutra. The time has come for him to conclude his preaching.
A guest arrives from the east at Mt. Gridhakuta. It is Universal-Sage Bodhisattva, riding a beautiful white elephant with six tusks. He poses a fitting question as the curtain falls
“After your extinction, how can we properly attain the heart of the Lotus Sutra through our practice? Please teach us.”
Shakyamuni Buddha responds clearly:
“First, believe that you are always protected by the Buddhas.Second, engage in virtuous deeds willingly.Third, seek out good companions and join them.Fourth, embrace compassion to save all living beings.”
These teachings, known as the “Four Practices for Accomplishment,” encapsulate the essence of the Lotus Sutra.
Those who have sat before Shakyamuni Buddha until the end, listening to the preaching of the Lotus Sutra, are “children of the Buddha” and “bodhisattvas of the earth.”
Now, it seems that the time has come for the conclusion of the Lotus Sutra’s preaching. Shakyamuni Buddha’s gaze is strong and far-reaching, extending beyond Mt. Gridhrakuta. He envisions a future where the “children of the Buddha” illuminate the world.
Great joy is found in every corner of Mt. Gridhakuta.
We express our deepest gratitude and carry Shakyamuni Buddha’s words in our hearts as we embark on our journey.
We have reached the end of the Lotus Sutra Digest, read as a dramatic summary.
Thank you for reading until the end. May this be a positive encounter and serve as an opportunity for people worldwide to embrace the Lotus Sutra in actuality.
I sincerely hope that through the teachings of the Lotus Sutra, a peaceful world—the land of Buddhahood—will be realized.
Namu Myoho Renge Kyo
The author bows in reverence.