Excerpts from a Discourse on The Lotus Sutra, Vol. 1, pp. 2-79
(An Exegesis of The Sutra Title)
Venerable Xiao Pingshi
The Wondrous Dharma of the Lotus Sutra (C. Miaofa Lianhua Jing; 妙法蓮華經) is most commonly known by its shorter title, The Lotus Sutra, which is highly esteemed by Mahāyāna practitioners as it perfectly encompasses the true and ultimate teachings of Śākyamuni Buddha. The Chinese title Miaofa Lianhua Jing encapsulates the notion of three specific, profound, and insightful essences revealed in the sutra. However, further elucidation of why the lotus flower symbolizes Buddhism and why the Buddha is shown sitting atop an open lotus flower rather than atop another kind of flower is needed.
First, the two individual Chinese words that make up the word “Miaofa” in the Chinese title of The Lotus Sutra (Miao Fa) literally mean “Wondrous Dharma,” which connotes a subtle, wondrous, and inconceivable Dharma. Indeed, the Dharma is “Wondrous”: it refers to the wondrously profound Dharma of the tathāgatagarbha, which is endowed with countless supreme characteristics. Its foremost attribute is that it brings forth all existent dharmas. The tathāgatagarbha literally gives rise to all phenomenal dharmas, including our five aggregates and our sense fields and elements. Another attribute of the tathāgatagarbha is its indestructible diamond-like nature. Given its endowed indestructible nature, the tathāgatagarbha will naturally exist eternally, and its inherently distinctive nature has remained so since the beginningless eons. This is part of the sacred teachings of all Buddhas in the ten directions of the three times (tryadhva-buddha). Someday, when we have attained Buddhahood, we will say the same. In Buddhism, it denotes the set inference (量; pramāṇa) of the dharma realm. As such, the tathāgatagarbha’s indestructible nature can indeed be directly perceived and verified by enlightened bodhisattvas. Bodhisattvas who have personally realized the tathāgatagarbha can make inferences (比量; anumāna) based on their direct perception (現量; pratyakṣa) to verify their attainment of the Buddha Bodhi.
Another unique characteristic of the “Wondrous Dharma” is its intrinsically liberated or originally pure nirvanic nature. The Sixth Patriarch of Chan Master Huineng pointed out the distinction between the Buddha Dharma and the non-Buddhist views: “The heretical paths preach neither generation nor extinction; extinction halts generation, and generation reveals extinction. . . . Our explanation of ‘neither generation nor extinction’ is that fundamentally, there is no generation, and now there is no extinction. Therefore, it is different from the heretical paths.” Patriarch Huineng’s statement indicates that dharmas that require “making extinction halt generation” are not the true Buddha Bodhi. The True Dharma (saddharma) originally denoted having “no generation and no extinction.” That is, the True Dharma permanently inherently exists; it has not been given rise to and will never cease to exist. Therefore, the “Wondrous Dharma” need not be made extinct to stop the generation process, as taught in the Two-Vehicle doctrines.
That the Two-Vehicle practitioners pursuing the Path to Liberation—the total extinction of the five-aggregate self and 18 elements to have no more future rebirth in the phenomenal world—“make extinction halt generation” is clearly refuted by Chan Master Huineng, who ascertains that this is not the Buddha Bodhi expounded by the Buddha. Their cultivation mode of employing the phenomenal dharmas to extinguish future rebirth is not consistent with the definition of the True Dharma, which inherently has “no generation and no extinction.” Only a dharma that is inherently non-arising can be depicted as the Wondrous Dharma or the True Dharma (saddharma), which is essentially the goal of Buddhist cultivation. There is no other dharma endowed with this wondrous supreme nature of neither arising nor ceasing. It is unique and non-dual, proclaimed by Śākyamuni at the time of his birth (while taking seven steps and pointing one finger to the sky) as “the unique and honorable self.” This denotes the true meaning of the Middle Way.
Second, the Chinese word lianhua (lotus flower) gives the impression of being beautiful, serene, and transcendental. The lotus plant grows in muddy waters and then blooms into an untainted flower bud above the waters’ surface. In Chinese culture, muddy waters symbolize the impure human world. That is, cultivating oneself in such a dirty milieu with all sorts of beings will enable Buddhist practitioners to experience and witness myriad dharmas while preserving their pure minds. This connotes that all Buddhas have accomplished perfect Buddhahood in the desire realm; thus, one must become a Buddha in the human form to practice bodhisattvahood.
Additionally, the lotus plant has the important attribute of simultaneously producing flowers and seedpods. When the lotus flower blooms, the lotus seat is readily available. This symbolizes that the Tathagata already exists in this impure five-aggregate body on the casual ground. Buddhists should bear this in mind and thus confidently pursue the bodhisattva path in the human realm. An analogy involving the 10 metaphors of tathāgatagarbha proves the aforementioned statement.
One day, the World-Honored One appeared with a lotus flower high above His head. The flower soon bloomed beautifully. Inside the flower was a Tathagata Buddha sitting cross-legged. The flower soon withered and wrapped the Tathagata Buddha inside it. Among the wilted and rotten petals was a pure Tathagata Buddha sitting cross-legged, which resembles the wondrous tathāgatagarbha mind. The wilted and rotten lotus resembles our five-aggregate body. This analogy indicates that whenever the lotus withers, a bit of our vexation has been eliminated, and the Buddha nature gradually appears.
On the causal ground, while Buddhist practitioners pursue the Bodhi path, their own tathāgatagarbha mind readily perfectly encompasses the Buddha nature of becoming a Buddha. Having attained enlightenment to the tathāgatagarbha, practitioners will also rely on the same tathāgatagarbha to attain the (fruition of) Buddhahood in the future. The lotus plant produces flowers and seedpods simultaneously, signifying the factual presence of cause and effect (fruition) at the same time. These cause and effect are eternally associated with each other. On one hand, if an individual pursues the Path of Liberation or the Bodhi path, the cause and effect will not associate with each other, and one cannot achieve any result throughout the period of Buddhist cultivation. On the other hand, the simultaneous presence of the flower and seedpods of the lotus signifies the fast achievement of Buddhahood due to the simultaneous existence of the cause and effect. By realizing this “Wondrous Dharma” to attain the “lotus” of inherently pure and untainted prajñā, one can surely achieve Buddhahood, with the virtues of both the cause and effect associated with each other. This means that the condition of attainment is readily present in the causal ground of every being.
Furthermore, the tathāgatagarbha is also called the Wondrous Dharma or Lotus, implying its serene and pure nature and the fact that it is never associated with the five worldly desires (wealth, sex, fame, food, and sleep) as it inherently transcends the three realms. It resembles an untainted lotus flower springing forth from muddy waters without any hindrance.
Another unique characteristic of the lotus is its heat endurance. The lotus flower withstands strong heat from direct sunlight and thus connotes being free from torment and not being feverish, resembling the tathāgatagarbha self, which is detached from torment and restlessness in the three realms as it is inherently endowed with a liberated and nirvanic nature.
Lastly, the Chinese word jing (sutra) distinctly means that a central theme penetratively strings the core teachings together, and the title Miaofa Lianhua Jing (The Wondrous Dharma of the Lotus Sutra) points to the supremacy of the Wondrous Dharma, the tathāgatagarbha. This signifies that this sutra expounds a Wondrous Dharma, just like a lotus plant growing in muddy waters and later blooming untainted above the waters’ surface.
From the foregoing, it can be deduced that the complete Buddha Dharma is inseparable across the five periods and the Three Vehicles (or the Five Vehicles, adding the human and deva realms). All the teachings throughout each vehicle are interconnected and cannot be divided into individual vehicles to stand on their own. Most significantly, the Dharma that strings the Three Vehicles together is called the Wondrous Dharma, Lotus, the tathāgatagarbha, or sometimes the reality-suchness (真如). Only when the cause and effect exist synergistically with the same entity can the Dharma be called Lotus.
It is noteworthy that the lotus plant can exist only in the desire realm of the human world as it needs the condition of muddy waters to grow and bloom. Thus, the lotus plant exists only in the desire realm, not in the higher form or formless realm. This indicates that, to become a Buddha, we need to fully understand and experience all the seeds stored in the tathāgatagarbha to perfect all the dharmas encompassed by it. In other words, Śākyamuni Buddha’s teachings illustrate that one can attain Buddhahood only in the desire realm, where there are limitless dharmas, so that human beings equipped with decent wisdom can experience and pursue the Bodhi path. Hence, all Buddhas practice their bodhisattvahood only in the human realm during the final stage of their becoming a Buddha. This is what is signified by the lotus plant growing in the muddy waters of the human realm and the reason that we see Buddhas seated atop an open lotus flower instead of any other flower.
In essence, the full Chinese sutra title Miaofa Lianhua Jing (The Wondrous Dharma of the Lotus Sutra) or the shortened title The Lotus Sutra has already revealed the central principle at the beginning of the Buddha’s teaching. The cause and effect are inseparable, simultaneously existing within all beings on the causal ground. They denote the tathāgatagarbha mind, which stands for non-duality, neither arising nor ceasing, and the inherent nirvana, and is the Buddha nature. These elements all point to the permanently existing characteristics of the tathāgatagarbha.
A Discourse on The Lotus Sutra, Vol. 1, pp. 2-79