Embellishment in Lotus Sutra and Pali Suttas: Does it even matter what the Buddha actually said?

Do you think that there is an equal amount of embellishment in both cases?

I agree with your assessment that Pali suttas are not a 100% accurate representation of the Dhamma-Vinaya taught by the Buddha.
But your standard that “as long as essential concepts go back to the Buddha, it can be considered authentic” seems rather permissive of embellishments and additions that were not actually spoken by the Buddha.

The Buddha seems to have provided a standard and criterion of judging authenticity that differs from your own criterion:

And there the Blessed One addressed the bhikkhus, saying: “Now, bhikkhus, I shall make known to you the four great references. [37] Listen and pay heed to my words.” And those bhikkhus answered, saying:

“So be it, Lord.”

8-11. Then the Blessed One said: "In this fashion, bhikkhus, a bhikkhu might speak: ‘Face to face with the Blessed One, brethren, I have heard and learned thus: This is the Dhamma and the Discipline, the Master’s Dispensation’; or: ‘In an abode of such and such a name lives a community with elders and a chief. Face to face with that community, I have heard and learned thus: This is the Dhamma and the Discipline, the Master’s Dispensation’; or: ‘In an abode of such and such a name live several bhikkhus who are elders, who are learned, who have accomplished their course, who are preservers of the Dhamma, the Discipline, and the Summaries. Face to face with those elders, I have heard and learned thus: This is the Dhamma and the Discipline, the Master’s Dispensation’; or: ‘In an abode of such and such a name lives a single bhikkhu who is an elder, who is learned, who has accomplished his course, who is a preserver of the Dhamma, the Discipline, and the Summaries. Face to face with that elder, I have heard and learned thus: This is the Dhamma and the Discipline, the Master’s Dispensation.’

“In such a case, bhikkhus, the declaration of such a bhikkhu is neither to be received with approval nor with scorn. Without approval and without scorn, but carefully studying the sentences word by word, one should trace them in the Discourses and verify them by the Discipline. If they are neither traceable in the Discourses nor verifiable by the Discipline, one must conclude thus: ‘Certainly, this is not the Blessed One’s utterance; this has been misunderstood by that bhikkhu — or by that community, or by those elders, or by that elder.’ In that way, bhikkhus, you should reject it. But if the sentences concerned are traceable in the Discourses and verifiable by the Discipline, then one must conclude thus: ‘Certainly, this is the Blessed One’s utterance; this has been well understood by that bhikkhu — or by that community, or by those elders, or by that elder.’ And in that way, bhikkhus, you may accept it on the first, second, third, or fourth reference. These, bhikkhus, are the four great references for you to preserve.”

Perhaps, due to your lower standard for what qualifies as authentic, your personal judgment seems more likely to accept what has not been spoken by the Buddha as having been spoken by him. I say lower standard because it seems that having essential concepts justifies the embellishments, in contrast to the significantly higher standard laid out by the Buddha - which aims to reject what was not spoken by him as what was not spoken by him and accept what was spoken by him as being spoken by him.

Millions of beings have staked their lives and spiritual destinies on Jesus/Bible, Mohamed/Koran, etc.

The sheer number of beings staking their lives and spiritual destinies on someone or something does not make that being or thing any more valid due to the number of believers.
For example, even if the whole world believe that the world is completely flat, doesn’t make it actually so.

The validity of scripture seems fundamentally important for one who wishes to learn what the Buddha actually taught and said.

I agree. :pray: The whole notion of “debating the validity of one Buddhist scripture over another” seems antithetical and contrary to the Dhamma-Vinaya taught by the Buddha because it seems to lead to the engaging of debate, disputation, argumentation, etc.
However, a thorough and rigorous evaluation of the Dhamma-Vinaya seems very much in the spirit of inquiry and testing that the Buddha endorsed.

I agree :pray:


Greetings SF :slight_smile:

I’ve moved the above post to this new discussion thread as it was inviting discussion outside of the Opening Post/Topic. Please feel free to change the title to something that may more closely resemble what you wanted to discuss. It was moved, because it was not in line with the topic of top 10 suttas, where the purpose was just to list peoples favourite suttas and not engage in discussion about them. This way you are not restricted to the O.P. but can explore your question in depth :slight_smile:


Thank you very much. :pray:
It seems much more suitable this way. Thanks again. :pray:


The user you are responding to seems perma-banned.

You disagree with one Mahāyānika (the untagable @kensho) and agree with another, @Javier, who practices with a Tibetan saṁgha unless I’m mistaken. I practice with a Tendai saṁgha. I wonder how many times we’ve agreed and disagreed?

Mahāyāna, like any Buddhism, like this community of EBT enthusiasts here even, is diverse. Even if someone “belongs to a school,” that doesn’t mean they have to slavishly follow every single medieval doctrine X sage at Y time thought would be a good idea. For instance, I personally think there is a lot of snake oil in some strands of Amitābha-venerating Buddhisms, that doesn’t mean I don’t think the Avalokiteśvaraguṇakaraṇḍavyūha doesn’t have something significant to say to its audience, or the Saddharmapuṇḍarīka, for that matter.

I’m working on a response essay on another user’s thread elsewhere looking for information on the Lotus Sūtra. In it, I’m trying to give a better introduction to the Lotus Sūtra than what I’ve read in other places, and it’s for another forum, NewBuddhist, but I figured I might as well post it here with the details hidden, since it’s not strictly on-topic for the forum, but is perhaps on-topic for this thread.

It’s not finished yet, I will certainly say. There are at least 4 significant unwritten chunks that add and expand on this:

Analyzing the Lotus

The Lotus Sūtra is widely-hailed as a foundational Mahāyāna text whose influence is felt throughout the world etc., etc. You can find all manner of praise for this sūtra spread all over the internet, but what is it actually about? What happens in it? What Buddhist teachings are found in it?

I came to Buddhism through Buddhisms that grew out of the Lotus Sūtra, exposed to the many “Lotus Buddhisms” that promulgate through this world of ours. I’ve been exposed to what is called “Lotus Buddhism” for most of my time as a Buddhist, coupled with the prevalent influence of Sōka Gakkai in the Toronto Buddhist scene and its associated Nichiren-derived “Lotus Buddhism.” Lotus Buddhism can be considered an umbrella term for the schools which grow out of the East Asian sūtra-school Tiāntāi that I mentioned above. This school grew out of a series of exegete patriarchs who all traced themselves back to Venerable Zhìyǐ, mentioned also above.

I’m not the best person, perhaps, to laud the Lotus Sūtra, because although I have a great deal of affection for it, and although I think that it has something profound to say to those for whom it is a message, having been exposed to this sūtra for a number of years (and in my opinion perhaps having read more of it than some other Lotus Buddhists) I have to say that this is not my favourite Buddhist sūtra. I think there are far more foundational and important Mahāyāna scriptures. The Buddhāvataṁsaka is actually my favourite sūtra, but I’ll save that for the OP’s other thread.

Not all of the Lotus Sūtra is pleasant. We can turn to the Sukhavihāraparivarta, called “Peaceful Practices,” Chapter 14 of the free translation by Burton Watson at NichirenLibrary, for all manner of curious bodhisattva precept. Note the proscription on close association with jugglers –

Further, they [i.e. the bodhisattvas] should not associate closely with rulers, princes, high ministers or heads of offices, or with those who compose works of secular literature, critics of poetry, or with writers of books extolling the heretics, and not with hazardous amusement, boxing or wrestling, clowns, and various jugglers or with actors or others engaging in various kinds of illusionary entertainment, or with persons engaged in raising pigs, sheep, chickens or dogs, or those who engage in hunting or fishing or those with evil conduct.

– what did jugglers do to deserve to be lumped together with actors?

Levity aside, and sidestepping the more concerning likely homophobic overtones of other bodhisattva proscriptions in that same part of the text, and some more than sexist ones in other parts, there are also some profound sections of the Lotus Sūtra that I would like to introduce readers to, if they are not already familiar.

When dealing with commentarial material from the Lotus Sūtra, we find it unevenly distributed. The Lotus Sūtra is a series of fables and miracles, with one rather major miracle depicted in the middle, the disclosing of the so-called Tathāgatāyuṣpramāṇa, the “True Axiom of the Thus Come’s Lifespan,” also called the Juryō-hon in denominations that use Japanese. The miracle in question was referred to by Venerable Nichiren as the “Ceremony in the Air,” and that strikes me as as good a name as any. There is much more commentarial material on this than, say, the Universal Gateway of Avalokiteśvara, one of the later devotional sections of the sūtra.

Leading up to this event, the Buddha gives a series of fables outlining the exhaustiveness of his methodologies and their constant appropriateness to the task at hand: the liberation of sentient beings. There is the fable of the Burning House, wherein the Buddha explains that he appears to teach in three disparate Buddha vehicles, but in fact teaches only the one Buddha vehicle. This is a foundational anti-sectarian teaching in Mahāyāna, even though other parts of the Lotus Sūtra may not seem entirely coherent with this message.

There is also the fable of the lost son, wherein a son is given an inheritance, only to squander his immediate instalment of it on fleeting pleasures, losing his money and losing himself to wild roamings. For countless years, he scours the landscape until, destitute and desperate, he comes to a mansion, where the kindly elderly lord of the manor takes him in and gives him employment. He works for the kindly master and applies himself until he has risen up in the household, onto to have it eventually revealed that the kindly master is none other than the son’s father.

The son thought of his past poverty, his outlook humble, now having from the father a treasure harvest and also the father’s house and all his wealth. What great joy, to have what was never before had.
(Lotus Sūtra, Aupamyaparivarta, Ch. 3, “Fable,” T264.150b16)

Of course, “what was never before had” was always had all along, namely his inheritance. And this becomes a metaphor for Buddhadharma itself that will echo in the later more spectacular parts of the scripture: gaining that which was previous possessed, anew. What exactly is it that is “gained” in bodhi? “Precisely nothing,” says some.

While Śākyamuni Buddha teaches the grandiose mythohistorical assembly that is part-and-parcel to Mahāyāna sūtras, they are startled by a sudden hullaballoo from amidst the congregation.

Then, in front of the Lord, arose a stūpa, consisting of seven precious substances, from a spot on the Earth. In the middle of the Lord’s assembly, the stūpa of five hundred yojanas in height and of proportionate circumference, arose and stood up in the sky. It was aglitter, very beautiful, shining in various ways, nicely decorated with five hundreds of thousands of terraces with railings attached with flower ornaments, adorned with many hundreds of thousands of garlands of jewels, hung with hundreds of thousands of pieces of cloth and bells, with hundreds of thousands of ringing bells, emitting the fragrance of mangosteen and sandalwood, whose scent filled the whole world. The stūpa’s rows of spires, made of seven precious substances — namely, gold, silver, lapis lazuli, sapphire, emerald, red coral, and chrysoberyl, rose as high as the divine palaces of the Four Great Kings.

From the jewelled stūpa, then, the following voice issued forth: "Excellent, excellent, O Lord Śākyamuni! You have well expounded this Dharma Gate of the Lotus of the Good Law. So it is, O Lord!; so it is, O Sugata!

Then, having seen that great jewelled stūpa which was standing in the sky, the fourfold assembly became thrilled, became delighted, and then they all stood up from their seats, held out their joined hands and remained standing while looking up at the stūpa.
(Lotus Sūtra, Stūpasaṃdarśanaparivarta, “The Beholding of the Stūpa,” T262.32c22, translated by Seishi Karashima, edited by Caoimhghín Aindreás)

This is the ratnastūpa (the “jewelled reliquary”) of Prabhūtaratna Buddha, a Buddha from the inconceivable past. Supposedly, upon his death, his followers erected a great stūpa to house his glorified body in accordance with his instructions. It is revealed that this Buddha, while still a bodhisattva, undertook a heroic oath, that upon death, his ratnastūpa would travel to where the Buddhas preach the Dharma Gate of the Lotus of the Good Law to proclaim them and laud their dispensation.

Prabhūtaratna Buddha is a mysterious figure. Don’t bother looking anything up about him, there isn’t anything. This figure might even predate Buddhism, being a relic of ancient Jain or even pre-Vedic śramaṇa stūpa-cults, lost to the past. By the time this figure enters into written history, it is as a figure whose chief function is to laud and celebrate Śākyamuni Buddha and the Dharma Gate of the White Lotus of the Good Law.

In many ways, Prabhūtaratna Buddha reminds me of the equally mysterious Brahmā Sahampatti from the Pāḷi Canon:

Then it occurred to me, 'This principle I have discovered is deep, hard to see, hard to understand, peaceful, sublime, beyond the scope of reason, subtle, comprehensible to the astute. But people like attachment, they love it and enjoy it. It’s hard for them to see this thing; that is, specific conditionality, dependent origination. It’s also hard for them to see this thing; that is, the stilling of all activities, the letting go of all attachments, the ending of craving, fading away, cessation, extinguishment. And if I were to teach the Dhamma, others might not understand me, which would be wearying and troublesome for me.’

And then these verses, which were neither supernaturally inspired, nor learned before in the past, occurred to me:

‘I’ve struggled hard to realize this,
enough with trying to explain it!
This teaching is not easily understood
by those mired in greed and hate.
Those caught up in greed can’t see
what’s subtle, going against the stream,
deep, hard to see, and very fine,
for they’re shrouded in a mass of darkness.’

So, as I reflected like this, my mind inclined to remaining passive, not to teaching the Dhamma. Then Brahmā Sahampati, knowing what I was thinking, thought,

‘Oh my goodness! The world will be lost, the world will perish! For the mind of the Realized One, the perfected one, the fully awakened Buddha, inclines to remaining passive, not to teaching the Dhamma.’

Then, as easily as a strong person would extend or contract their arm, he vanished from the Brahmā realm and reappeared in front of the Buddha. He arranged his robe over one shoulder, knelt on his right knee, raised his joined palms toward the Buddha, and said,

‘Sir, let the Blessed One teach the Dhamma! Let the Holy One teach the Dhamma! There are beings with little dust in their eyes. They’re in decline because they haven’t heard the teaching. There will be those who understand the teaching!’

That’s what Brahmā Sahampati said. Then he went on to say:

‘Among the Magadhans there appeared in the past
an impure teaching thought up by those still stained.
Fling open the door to the deathless!
Let them hear the teaching the immaculate one discovered.
Standing high on a rocky mountain,
you can see the people all around.
In just the same way, all-seer, wise one,
ascend the palace built of Dhamma!
You’re free of sorrow; but look at these people
overwhelmed with sorrow, oppressed by rebirth and old age.
Rise, hero! Victor in battle, leader of the caravan,
wander the world without obligation.
Let the Blessed One teach the Dhamma!
There will be those who understand!’

Then, understanding Brahmā’s invitation, I surveyed the world with the eye of a Buddha, because of my compassion for sentient beings.
(Pāsarāsisutta, “The Noble Search,” MN 26, translated by Venerable Sujāto)

Brahmā Sahampatti serves as a catalyst for Śākyamuni’s teaching – a curious episode. Why on earth would the Buddha’s heart be “inclined to remaining passive [and] not to teaching the Dhamma?” More than one Buddhist has asked this curious question regarding this odd passage in which a deva, albeit a high and mighty one, must prod the Buddha to action instead of the Buddha’s own compassion. It should be noted that this episode from the Pāli nikāyas lacks parallels in the currently extant āgamas preserved in Chinese of the Sarvāstivāda. If readers at NewBuddhist do not know what all that jargon refers to, we can make a thread on EBT studies. I don’t know how exposed to that people on this forum are in general. Āgamas aside, the episode does find a parallel in the Mahāyāna Lalita­vistarasūtra at Chapter 23, the Exhortation.

And here is where one of the stumbling blocks of all Buddhist scriptures for moderns come to fore: who are these old gods no one really worships anymore and why do they matter? To which we can add: what’s with all these ancient Buddhas from the distant remote past?

Polytheistic gods are often known via interpretation: be that interpretation interpretatio graeca, romana, germanica, etc. There is even a Japanese-Vedic correspondence of deities mapped out for Japanese tantra which uses conventionally Vedic/Indic/Hindu gods. In addition to this, we find multiple different gods often absorbed into modalities of other gods.

So in addition to a “Zeus,” we can have a Zeus Aegiduchos, a Zeus Agoraeus, a Zeus Kasios, and a Zeus Helioupolites, some of these conventionally different gods, all known through the same general name-epithet: Zeus. The same is with Viṣṇu: Ksirodakaśāyī Viṣṇu, Nārasiṁha Viṣṇu and Viśvarūpa Viṣṇu.

The same, it would seem, happens in the Indian polytheism that Buddhism grew up in, with its many Brahmās. Brahmā Sahampati is some deity identified as “Sahaṁ Patiḥ,” or “Lord of the Aggregation,” the “aggregation/sahaṁ” here referring to the sahaṁ in sahālokadhātu, the “aggregated world-system.” This is likely a chief god of a Indian pantheon somewhere near where the Buddha preached, or if this is a later addition, the god of some society that converted to Buddhism. It is a propaganda story, one could argue, as is the Beholding of the Jewelled Reliquary in the Lotus Sūtra. Both are propagation tales.

“I don’t know about that Gautama, he teaches some strange stuff.”

“Well, I hear the Great God, Lord Firstborn Brahmā, Lord of the Universe, himself begged him to teach.”

“Interesting story, maybe I’ll hear more.”

One can see how such a story would function, particularly if Brahmā Sahampati was close to the hearts of many village grandmothers, and if piety ran deep in the community. What do we make of Brahmā Sahampati today? Not much. I take it the Pāsarāsisutta isn’t high on anyone’s go-to must-read sutta index. But the story clearly had a profound importance and role some time in the past, hence the inclusion of Brahmā Sahampati into the Buddhavacana when he is absent from the Life of the Buddha as known by the Sarvāstivādins. Prabhūtaratna Buddha is not a deva strictly speaking, but one might be forgiven to make the mistake on seeing them. The Lotus Sūtra arises out of the cultural milieu of the stūpa cultus, and past śramaṇa sages, Buddhist and non-Buddhist alike (Buddhist, Jains, and Hindus all have stūpas), were venerated at these stūpas.

Just like which particular instantiation of High God, Ruler of All, Sahaṁ Patiḥ, that Brahmā Sahampati represents, it is difficult to know which śramaṇa, their identity long-lost to time, that Prabhūtaratna Buddha is a memory of. Clearly he had a massive following and his name commanded tremendous spiritual weight. The Lotus Sūtra talks up Prabhūtaratna as an impossibly grand Buddha. Like I said before, both are propagation tales, but IMO, and hopefully I can demonstrate, the Lotus Sūtra has something deeper in mind with this episode.

Returning back to the sudden manifestation of the ratnastūpa at the assembly of the Buddha, the Buddha explains to the assembly the cause for the beholding of the stūpa on this wonderous occasion, namely the Buddhic Vow of Prabhūtaratna:

"This Prabhūtaratna Buddha had a profound oath he swore: "When this, my ratnastūpa, to witness the opening of the Dharma Gate of the White Lotus of the Good Law, goes before the many Buddhas, if there is the desiring that my body might be revealed to the four communities, may those Buddhas’ variegated bodies, the many Buddhas one by one in the ten-directional world system expounding the Dharma, return, gathering in one place, and truly thereafter my body will appear visible.

Having acclaimed thus, Śākyamuni turns to his interlocutor:

“Mahāpratibhāna, my variegated bodies, the many Buddhas one by one who are in the ten-directional world system expounding the Dharma, presently now will gather.”
(Lotus Sūtra T262.32c22 Stūpasaṁdarśanaparivarta The Beholding of the Stūpa)

Thus follows the Enthronement, the Ceremony in the Air, and the Lifespan Exegesis, three stories that make up the centre of the Lotus Sūtra, three impossible episodes pointing symbolically to the ultimate possibility: Buddhahood.

In the Enthronement, Prabhūtaratna Buddha entreats Śākyamuni Buddha to enter his jewelled reliquary, where they share one seat together in the “one vehicle” of the ratnastūpa.

In the Ceremony in the Air, the Buddha, from within the ratnastūpa, levitates the assembly and the stūpa into the clouds, and they collectively witness the kāmadhātu, this desire realm, and the rest of the three worlds of saṁsāra transformed into a Pure Land of radiance, peace, purity, and calm by the Buddha. The Buddha acclaims “this land” as his Pure Land.

From the air, above the rarified and purified reality, Śākyamuni proclaims the “True Axiom of the Thus-Come-One’s Lifespan:”

Always living here proclaiming the Dharma,
I always live here.
Through many godly powers,
I lead into error sentient beings:
although close by,
I am not seen.
Many see me,
I pass into extinction,
widely they worship my ashes,
sweetly, their hearts, each and every,
wishing to look upon my heart with reverence.
When someone becomes faithfully obedient,
noble in heart,
soft and gentle,
and with oneness of heart,
wishes to see the Buddha,
with no hesitations,
and with no illusions about this world and this life,
then I and the assembly,
entirely without exception,
have appeared on the Vulture Peak.
(Lotus Sūtra, Tathāgatāyuṣpramāṇaparivarta, T262.43b10)

This is held by many as the central point of the Lotus Sūtra.

As part of the oath of Prabhūtaratna, it is said that “if there is the desiring that [Prabhūtaratna’s] body might be revealed to the four communities,” then “the variegated bodies” of “the many Buddhas, one by one, in the ten-directional world system expounding the Dharma [will] return, gathering in one place,” and with this it is said that “truly thereafter [Prabhūtaratna’s] body will appear visible.”

What happens then? Śākyamuni Buddha says to Mahāpratibhāna, “My variegated bodies, the many Buddhas, one by one, who are in the ten-directional world system expounding the Dharma, presently now will gather.” And lo and behold, every single Buddha in the universe shows up. I don’t mean to present this as a silly event. Surely though, it is blatantly impossible. I want to turn to a moment to some words of out-of-context contextualization that I find very illuminating, from the Venerable Śravaka Sujāto, on the logic-defying chronology of Mahāyāna sūtras, in this case that of the Diamond Sūtra:

The Mahayana Sutras position themselves in a mythic time. The essence of mythic time is the idea that “these things never were, but always are”. Less poetically, myth speaks of “timeless truths”, things that constantly recur. Because they are timeless, we don’t need to have a historical source for them: they must have happened, regardless of what the evidence might say. The Diamond Sutra, as is the way of mythic storytelling, claims to be set in the distant past, but the text hints at its true historical context. It discusses the question of what happens after 500 years, when according to the early tradition the sasana would come to an end. The Diamond Sutra gets around this by saying that the Bodhisattvas will continue to sustain the sasana. The real concern of the Diamond Sutra is the state of Buddhism in India 500 years after the Buddha.
(Venerable Sujāto, SuttaCentral post, November 2017)

What matters is the symbol, is the story, and isn’t the timeline, and therein lies the heart of the Lotus Sūtra, a text about symbols, stories, and fables in an already-established Buddhist religious milieu versus Buddhavacana from the early establishment of the first monastic saṁgha and the development of the milieu.

The many Buddhas of the world-system are described as the variegated bodies of Śākyamuni Buddha, each an emanation of the root teacher, emanation here meaning “originate from; be produced by.” Through his expounding of the Dharma, Śākyamuni originates the Buddhahood of all sentient beings in the world-system of his dispensation, and he is depicted like a father, producing countless Buddha sons. There is a deeper level to this still. The Dharmakāya of the Buddhas is undifferentiated, and so it can be said to be singular. To quote the Buddhāvataṁsakasūtra, “All Buddhas are one Buddha.” All Buddhas as constituting a variegated body of Śākyamuni’s is a way of expressing this principle. Furthermore, there is another way to view this image. In this sea of divergent features and estranged characteristics, one sentient being here, one being there, be them Buddha or bodhisattva or uninstructed worldling, how could anyone, in that great variegated mass, find the characteristics and marks we normally associate with the Buddha? A body, a speech, a mind, a single being, a root guru, a teacher. The Buddha is a singular man, not a hoard of endless beings. This category dissonance between “mass of Buddhas from the ten directions” and “the particular Buddha Śākyamuni” is anticipated in the Mahāyāna question of “Where do we look to find the marks (lakṣāṇa) of Buddhahood?” How do we find it, in short? How do we find “him,” in short?

Chapter 26. The Dharmakāya is Without Appearance (法身非相)

“Subhūti, what does your mind say? The Tathāgata can be perceived by the thirty-two characteristics, can he not?” Subhūti replied, “So it is, so it is. The Tathāgata is perceived by the thirty-two characteristics.”

The Buddha said, “Subhūti, if one perceives the Tathāgata by the thirty-two characteristics, then a wheel-turning sage king is the Tathāgata.” Subhūti addressed the Buddha saying, “Lord, as I understand the meaning of what the Buddha has said, the Tathāgata should not be perceived by the thirty-two characteristics.”

At that time, the Lord spoke this verse:

If I am seen by sight
or sought by sound,
this person walks the wrong path,
unable to see Tathāgata.

(Diamond Sūtra, T235.752a11, Venerable Yifa translation)

The Sanskritic recension adds an extra verse, but comes across with a possible sectarian edge:

Those who by my form did see me,
And those who followed me by voice
Wrong the efforts they engaged in,
Me those people will not see.

From the Dharma should one see the Buddhas,
From the Dharma body comes their guidance.
Yet Dharma’s true nature cannot be discerned,
And no one can be conscious of it as an object.
(Diamond Sūtra, Sanskrit recension, translation by Conze)

The sūtras further elaborate that we observe the Buddha by way of his Dharmakāya, not the Rūpakāya.

“Enough, Vakkali! Why do you want to see this foul body? One who sees the Dhamma sees me; one who sees me sees the Dhamma. For in seeing the Dhamma, Vakkali, one sees me; and in seeing me, one sees the Dhamma."
(Vakkalisutta, “With Vakkali,” SN 22.87, Ven Sujāto translation)

The Dharmakāya of the Buddha, in addition to being the “Body of Truth” or the “Body of the Teaching,” is the Body of Emptiness, that which is identical to emptiness and associated deep non-attachment – luminous and blissful. In East Asian Buddhism, the Dharmakāya is identified with the “True Aspect” (真性) spoken of in Eastern Madhyamaka philosophy:

If you search for the true aspect of dharmas, you will find that they all enter into ultimate meaning and become equal, with identical aspects, which is to say no aspects, just like streams of different colour and different tastes entering into a great ocean of one colour and one taste.
(Venerable Vimalākṣa, 中論, “The Treatise on the Middle,” T1564.24a15, translation Christopher Bocking)

Dharmakāya, the realized Nirvāṇa, is like those colours and tastes, like all those myriad dharmas, like the countless Buddhas constituting the “body” of Śākyamuni Buddha.

The Buddhas of the past, future and present are equal, because the dharmakāya is one.
(Tathāgatotpattisambhavanirdeśasūtra, “Discourse on the Arising and Manifestation of the Tathāgata,” T291, translation by Guang Xin)

When this, my ratnastūpa, to witness the opening of the Dharma Gate of the White Lotus of the Good Law, goes before the many Buddhas, if there is the desiring that my body might be revealed to the four communities, may those Buddhas’ variegated bodies, the many Buddhas one by one in the ten-directional world system expounding the Dharma, return, gathering in one place, and truly thereafter my body will appear visible.
(Lotus Sūtra T262.32c22 Stūpasaṁdarśanaparivarta)

Fulfilling Prabhūtaratna’s prophetic oath (it’s awfully handy to fulfil prophecies when they emerge from the same text they are fulfilled in!), when Śākyamuni Buddha performs this magical feat, Prabhūtaratna Buddha emerges from the jewelled reliquary, his body appears visible, and he bids Śākyamuni be enthroned aside him in the ratnastūpa.

Then is the Enthronement. The Enthronement is a statement on duality and non-duality, on conventional functions and underlying ultimate essences, and it is ultimately a representation of the two truths in the enthroned Prabhūtaratna and Śākyamuni Buddhas. A moment ago, I mentioned East Asian Madhyamaka, which is also known as Sānlùn (三論), or the “Three Treatises” school because of their high regard for three particular śāstras, treatises, on Venerable Nāgārjuna’s Mūlamadhyamakakārikā. East Asian Madhyamaka is foundational for understanding the way that Buddhists in East Asia, where the Lotus Sūtra is most revered, have traditionally read this text and interfaced with it.

We all know the two truths of the Buddha, of Madhyamaka, of Abhidharma but, through the filter of East Asia, Madhyamaka takes on a new flavour, more sparsely presented than in the voluminous technical tomes of the Svātantrikas and Prāsaṅgikas. This short but dense pericope from Venerable Jízàng’s Dvasatyaśāstra will be important here, and I am going to take a moment to brake it down. This was Venerable Zhìyǐ’s Madhyamaka, if that helps clarify why I think this momentary interlude from the plot is relevant:

It is time to speak of two truths, two truths fashioned from the difference between two views. These two truths equally are missed. How? To those who grasp at existence, to those sentient beings, one speaks the absolute truth. To those who grasp at emptiness, to those sentient beings, one speaks the relative truth. In this way, through ‘is’ and ‘is not’ equally, sentient beings are grasping. Consequently, all misconceive. It is time to speak of two comprehensions which are not two. These two truths equally attained. How? Because these two comprehensions are not two. Two is the principle’s teaching. Not two is the teaching’s principle. Two is the middle’s designation. Not two is the designation’s middle. Two is the essence’s function. Not two is the function’s essence.
(Venerable Jízàng, 二諦義, “Exegesis on the Two Truths,” T1854.81c28)

In East Asian metaphysics, we can speak of a pair, namely that of essence and function, and yòng, presented in the term 體用, which is then presented in Buddhist Hybrid English as “essence-function.”

Here is a paper, if anyone feels academically inclined:

“Essence-function” is a paradigm that describes the workings of something versus the underlying principle that allows it to have workings. A classic essence-function pair stipulates “hard” as the essence of “sharp” and “sharp” as a function of “hard.”

In light of this, we can turn to a cursory review of Ven Jízàng. The two truths he speaks of are the relative and ultimate, as can be gleaned from the above source. The relative and the ultimate are generally regarded as two different “things,” two different truths, two different true perspectives, one from the perspective of the unawakened sentient being, one from the perspective of ultimate emptiness, of nirvāṇa. I want to focus on the ending of the passage, as it relates to essence-function, and as it relates to duality and non-duality. The two that are presented here are the truths of the relative and the ultimate. “Two” is representative of duality, or plurality, in Ven Jízàng’s passage here. “Not two” is, accordingly, non-duality.

Two is the principle’s teaching. Not two is the teaching’s principle. Two is the middle’s designation. Not two is the designation’s middle. Two is the essence’s function. Not two is the function’s essence.

Two is the principle’s teaching – a disparity between the two truths gives rise to the 84,000 dharma gates, the three Buddha vehicles, and the manifold needs of sentient beings, which itself is the varied and many diverse teachings of the Buddha.

Not two is the teaching’s principle – a indistinguishability between the two truths is the underlying principle that supports the Gateless Gate (T2005.292b12) of the one Buddha vehicle, the principle behind the the varied and many diverse teachings of the Buddha.

Two is the middle’s designation – a disparity between the two truths is the designation, or the naming, of myriad empty dharmas, and is the relative.

Not two is the designation’s middle – a indistinguishability between the two truths is the emptiness of those dharmas itself, and is the ultimate.

Two is the essence’s function – a disparity between the two truths is the functioning, the instantiation, the particularity, and the conceived fruit of the unarisen empty existence.

Not two is the function’s essence – a indistinguishability between the two truths is the essence, the basis, and the root of the unarisen empty existence.

It is like the opening of the Dàodéjīng:

The way that is walked is not the eternal way. The name that is named is not the eternal name. Without a name, it is the wellspring of heaven and earth; named, it is the mother of the ten thousand things.
(Dàodéjīng 1)

When the name is named, is made into a function, and as a result the “ten thousand things” come about (a Chinese expression equivalent to sarvadharma or “all phenomena [come about]”). When the name is unnamed, is as its essence and not its function, it is the wellspring of heaven and earth, which the Taoists see in contradistinction to the ten thousand things. If this doesn’t make sense, we should all talk about it, because things are only going to get wilder from here.

The many variegated Buddhas of the Ten Directions are functions of Śākyamuni. Śākyamuni is the essence of the Buddhas of the Ten Directions. We explored this in the post directly above this, when Śākyamuni Buddha gathered together all of the Buddhas of the world-system to circumambulate Prabhūtaratna’s stūpa, and the “body appear[ed] visible,” that body being the essence, the underlying principle, of the Buddhas, the Dharma Body/dharmakāya, represented as it were by the mythologized historical Ascetic Gautama. It is important to note that image as well: all gathered around the stūpa. This and passages like it are what lead scholars to believe that the Lotus Sūtra was produced by a stūpa-venerating Buddhist cultus between 200BC and 200AD.

Relating to this “body [that] will appear visible,” this dharmakāya-essence undergirding the many Buddhas, in esoteric exegesis of the Lotus Sūtra by the Tendai school, Prabhūtaratna is understood as an identity of the Buddha Mahāvairocana, an expedient personification of the dharmakāya itself. This is foreshadowed in many ways in the circumstance of the sūtra. Prabhūtaratna is a Buddha whose oath causes the coming together of the variegated bodies of the Buddha, from parts to whole, from functions to essence. In turn, as dharmakāya personified, Mahāvairocana is the underlying essence of all Buddhas. To requote the Tathāgatotpattisambhavanirdeśasūtra once more, "The Buddhas of the past, future and present are equal, because the dharmakāya is one."

Dharmakāya Mahāvairocana is associated with the emanation of Buddhas, as one would expect from the dharmakāya:

Now I, Vairocana Buddha, am sitting atop a lotus pedestal; On a thousand flowers surrounding me are a thousand Sakyamuni Buddhas. Each flower supports a hundred million worlds; in each world a Sakyamuni Buddha appears. All are seated beneath a Bodhi-tree, all simultaneously attain Buddhahood. All these innumerable Buddhas have Vairocana as their original body.
(Brahmājālabodhisattvaśīlasūtra, T21, translation by A. C. Muller)

When Mahāvairocana (Prabhūtaratna) enthrones Śākyamuni aside him, they share “one seat” in the “one vehicle,” and thereby proclaim the “one teaching” or “One Dharma” of the Buddhas. Mahāvairocana is the dharmākaya, identical ultimately with the featureless, with the empty dharmadhātu, with all phenomena. Śākyamuni Buddha, conventionally thought of as a function of Mahāvairocana Buddha, is united completely with Mahāvairocana in their one seat, and they share one essence, 一體, one substance, one embodiment, one principle. There is no longer duality between the rūpakāya and the dharmakāya, as they are now “not two” in their “one seat,” and the dharmakāya has become realized. This is a symbolic enactment of awakening itself.

The pacified mind encounters the dharmadhātu, which is itself, and realizes that which it did not realize before. The mind with one thought encounters that with no thought, saṁsāra, emptiness, nirvāṇa, the dharmadhātu, and truly penetrates to the essence instead of naming functions out of ignorance, and realizes itself to be the dharmakāya, to be the dharmadhātu – the non-dual vision of the yogi.

Venerable Nichiren was a Taimitsu (Tendai Tantra) priest before he left Tendai to start his own lay movement of New Kamakura Buddhism. His Tendai education shows through in his Goshos:

We learn that the true aspect of all phenomena is also the two Buddhas Śākyamuni and Prabhūtaratna [seated together in the ratnastūpa]. “All phenomena” corresponds to Prabhūtaratna, and “the true aspect” corresponds to Śākyamuni. These are also the two elements of reality and wisdom. Prabhūtaratna is reality; Śākyamuni is wisdom. It is enlightenment that reality and wisdom are two, and yet they are not two.
(Ven Nichiren, WND 1:35, translated by Burton Watson, edited)

In India, when Śākyamuni Buddha, the lord of teachings, was preaching the Lotus Sutra as described in the “Ratnastūpa” chapter, he summoned all the various Buddhas and had them take their seats upon the ground. Only the Thus Come One Mahāvairochana was seated within the ratnastūpa, on the lower seat to the south, while Śākyamuni Buddha was seated on the upper seat to the north.

This Thus Come One Mahāvairochana is the master of the Mahāvairochana of the Womb Realm described in the Mahāvairochana Sutra, and of the Mahāvairochana of the Diamond Realm described in the Diamond Crown Sutra. This Mahāvairochana, or Prabhūtaratna Buddha, who has as his vassals the Thus Come Ones Mahāvairochana of the two realms just mentioned, is in turn surpassed by Śākyamuni Buddha, the lord of teachings, who sits in the seat above him.
(Ven Nichiren, WND I: 88, translated by Burton Watson, edited)

The two realms referred to here are the two maṇḍalas at the heart of Tendai and Shingon esotericism: the vajradhātu maṇḍala (the diamond realm) and the garbhakośadhātu (the womb-treasury realm) maṇḍala. We don’t have time for a full-on esoteric Tantric reading of the Lotus Sūtra, but these do exist, and are centred around harmonizing the sūtra with two esoteric texts devoted to the dharmakāya Mahāvairocana: the Mahāvairocanābhisaṁbodhisūtra and the Vajraśekharasūtra (also known as the Sarvatathāgatatattvasaṃgrahasūtra). These two realms represent the relative and the ultimate, and are a Tantric technique for the realization of the two truths and their non-duality, that same non-duality acclaim by Venerable Nāgārjuna in his magnum opus:

Between nirvāna and this world, there is not even a slight disparity.
Between this world and nirvāṇa, there is also not even a slight disparity
From nirvāṇa’s true apex towards this world’s apex,
like this, there are two apices, and like this, there is not the smallest sliver of disparity between them.
(Ven Nāgārjuna, Mūlamadhyamakakārikā, “Root Verses on that which Middles,” T1564.35c27)

Shingon preserved this tantra almost exactly the same as Tendai, so if anyone is a bit further interested, they can learn a little bit about it in this documentary on YouTube, [“Prilgrimage to Koyasan.”](YouTube ““Prilgrimage to Koyasan.””)

The short of it is that the vajradhātu is emptiness and the garbhakośadhātu is emptiness unrealized. The vajradhātu is the dharmakāya realized and the garbhakośadhātu is the dharmakāya unrealized. The diamond realm is how things are, the womb realm is how things are, yet without disparity, the womb realm is aflame with saṁsāra and the diamond realm is calmed in nirvāṇa. The non-duality of the vajradhātu, the diamond realm is, and the garbhakośadhatu, the womb realm is, from root proceeding onwards, “that which is constantly under afflictive emotion, without limit, covered. Therefore sentient beings cannot obtain sight of it” (Parinirvāṇasūtra, Tathāgatadhātuparivarta T374.407b6). The non-duality between these two realms, two truths, itself is the tathāgatagarbha and is the dharmakāya.

The nature and characteristics of the path of suffering, they misunderstand this path of suffering, and saṃsāra remains expansive. This is misunderstanding the dharmakāya as the path of suffering. There is no separate dharmakāya apart from the path of suffering. If one realizes saṃsāra, then it is the dharmakāya. Thus it is said the nature and characteristics of the path of suffering are the nature and characteristics of the dharmakāya.
(Ven Zhìyǐ, 法华玄义, “The Dharma Flower’s Profound Meaning,” T1716.743c25-744.a3-7, a Tiāntāi commentary on the Lotus Sūtra)

This is what was spoken about above, with the words:

When Mahāvairocana (Prabhūtaratna) enthrones Śākyamuni aside him, they share “one seat” in the “one vehicle,” and thereby proclaim the “one teaching” or “One Dharma” of the Buddhas. Mahāvairocana is the dharmākaya, identical ultimately with the featureless, with the empty dharmadhātu, with all phenomena. Śākyamuni Buddha, conventionally thought of as a function of Mahāvairocana Buddha, is united completely with Mahāvairocana in their one seat, and they share one essence, 一體, one substance, one embodiment, one principle. There is no longer duality between the rūpakāya and the dharmakāya, as they are now “not two” in their “one seat,” and the dharmakāya has become realized. This is a symbolic enactment of awakening itself.

The pacified mind encounters the dharmadhātu, which is itself, and realizes that which it did not realize before. The mind with one thought encounters that with no thought, saṁsāra, emptiness, nirvāṇa, the dharmadhātu, and truly penetrates to the essence instead of naming functions out of ignorance, and realizes itself to be the dharmakāya, to be the dharmadhātu – the non-dual vision of the yogi.

Some more background reading here would be the Nirvānaparīkṣā from Mūlamadhyamakakārikā, with associated commentaries, which can be found at Chapter 25 of the treatise.

This all leads us into the Ceremony in the Air.

The rest of the essay is unwritten.


I try to respond to claims made point-by-point, so I try think in a way where sectarian affiliation doesn’t matter in my mind - though I am not always successful in guarding against this bias.

I am curious whether people think it matters what the Buddha even said in the first place?

It seems to me that those who are more careless and casual about what the Buddha said seem to tolerate and excuse embellishments as being spoken by the Buddha, when in reality it was not.

This should not be taken as a defense for Pali texts as these texts also make the same mistake to some degree. That being said, treating all sects as equal when they are in fact not equal seems to be a sectarian ploy to discredit and downplay the accuracy of those sects that are in fact more accurate representations overall.

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On the Lotus Sutra, my general impression is that it was part of the anti-Abhidharma movement, at least in terms of the one vs. three vehicle content. It also shares some themes with the Prajnaparamita texts (as @coemgenu points out in his essay). That in itself is internal evidence of at least those portions being later Buddhist thought since it’s a commentary on writings that were themselves commenting on the EBTs. It requires some background knowledge to fully grasp its context.


It seems strange to me to be even asking such a question on a specialist EBT forum, where so much visible effort is going into the preservation, translation and provision of access to the words of the Buddha… None of the many, many volunteers would be here, let alone monastics or scholars who have devoted their lives to this issue, if the Buddhas words were of no consequence…

There are many essays and other works referenced here, that will outline exactly why ascertaining the Buddhas teachings is important. Have a look in the search function.


Yes, it matters. Siddharta was a human that became a Buddha and was capable of lifting his teaching skills to a level where words alone could wake us up. I feel secure with the little I’ve got out of the vastness of words, and those bits I don’t understand is not for me but maybe exactly what some other might need to see what’s real for them.


I didn’t mean to point out sectarianism, I just meant “Isn’t it funny how agreeing and disagreeing works and who we find ourselves agreeing and disagreeing with?”

Well, look at it this way perhaps: if you hop from guru to guru waiting in their assemblies hoping for a giant bedazzled stūpa to burst out of the ground, you’ll be waiting a long time, and in fact I daresay Prabhūtaratna’s wondrous stūpa might never show up, despite the fact that it proceeds to the assembles of all Buddhas whenever and wherever they preach the Lotus Sūtra.

To take this story as literal is like suggesting that in Therīpadāna 30, eighteen thousand women transformed themselves into the moon and sun. We don’t need 18,000 suns near our planet: it’s plenty warm, and I imagine 18,000 moons might effect the tides.

They displayed great superpowers,
diverse, having various forms.

Body big as the universe,
they made the continent up north
their heads; both other islands wings;
and made India their torsos;

tail feathers: the southern ocean;
other feathers: varied rivers;
their eyes were the moon and the sun,
their crests were cosmic Mount Meru.

In their beaks, mountain at world’s end,
they carried a tree with its roots.
Coming up to him, fanning him,
they’re worshipping the World’s Leader.

Then they made themselves elephants,
likewise horses, mountains, oceans,
the moon and the sun, Mount Meru,
and Śakra, the king of the gods.


I suppose our finite eyes could not sees it even it is in front of us .

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That’s a whole other issue. Is Sumeru before our eyes but there’s too much dust in them? What stops Jesus or the Angel of the Lord being before our eyes but they’re just too dusty? It’s all a tricky matter, when we start (rightly and/or wrongly) second-guessing our eyeballs.

Is that dust that likes to hang out in front of eyes just the overly-literal mind which wants to interpret things as literally as possible? One wonders.

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lol touche - i see your point. The more I learn about the early sources across multiple schools, the less appealing I find it to subscribe to one particular sect. That being said, I don’t fall into the group that attempts to be indifferent and treat all sects as equal without regard for fairness. Furthermore, I find myself happy at arriving at mutual understanding and agreement with others regardless of what sectarian, religious, or any other form of affiliation that they may have, which is what I think you might have been trying to point out. :slightly_smiling_face:

lol, I think I get what your overall point is, but I find the particular way in which you expressed it to be interesting.
I think there was one discourse in which the Buddha said that that which is to be taken literally should be taken literally and that which is to be taken figuratively should be taken figuratively.
This seems to agree with your point that not everything can or should be taken literally.
With that being said, I am not a fan of beings who use this principle to take creative liberties and place words in the Buddha’s mouth that were not actually spoken by him - i.e. embellishments, nor those to the degree that they tolerate such embellishments.
It’s one thing to make up a story for the purpose of conveying lessons, such as Aesop’s fables.
It’s quite another to falsely attribute them to the Buddha.
It’s just this latter point that I think the Buddha himself warned against in relatively strong terms.

As I mentioned before, I agree that things that are not to be taken literally should not be taken literally. But there seems to be two dangers to guard against, like the type 1 and type 2 errors in statistics:
taking literally what is intended to be figurative
taking figuratively what it intended to be literal

A large part of my objection to the Lotus Sutra is not about whether it is helpful or to be taken figuratively. It might be helpful just like the helpful parts of other religions. My objection is all the parts of the Lotus Sutra that is claimed to have been spoken by the Buddha when in fact it hasn’t been - I object to such parts no matter which sect these are found in.

I tried to to find this quote as well. It had the word “neyyattha” in it.

I think it might have been in the Anguttara Nikaya, maybe book of twos? :thinking:

The nītattha vs neyyattha distinction is from the AN’s Bālavagga, but it’s not usually translated as “literally” and “figuratively”.

Bhikkhu Bodhi:
“A discourse whose meaning requires interpretation” vs “a discourse whose meaning is explicit”.

Ajahn Thanissaro:
“A discourse whose meaning needs to be inferred” vs “a discourse whose meaning has already been fully drawn out”.

Bhikkhu Sujāto:
“A discourse in need of interpretation” vs “a discourse whose meaning is explicit”

For the literal vs figurative distinction the usual terms are nippariyāyena and pariyāyena. In the commentaries, however, this distinction is equated with the nītattha vs neyyattha one and so some translators render it in the light of this.

From Bhikkhu Bodhi’s translation of the Sambādhasutta (AN 9.42):

Idhāvuso, bhikkhu vivicceva kāmehi …pe… paṭhamaṃ jhānaṃ upasampajja viharati. Ettāvatāpi kho, āvuso, sambādhe okāsādhigamo vutto bhagavatā pariyāyena. Tatrāpatthi sambādho. Kiñca tattha sambādho? Yadeva tattha vitakkavicārā aniruddhā honti, ayamettha sambādho.


Puna caparaṃ, āvuso, bhikkhu sabbaso nevasaññānāsaññāyatanaṃ samatikkamma saññāvedayitanirodhaṃ upasampajja viharati, paññāya cassa disvā āsavā parikkhīṇā honti. Ettāvatāpi kho, āvuso, sambādhe okāsādhigamo vutto bhagavatā nippariyāyenā’ ti.

“Here, friend, secluded from sensual pleasures … a bhikkhu enters and dwells in the first jhāna …. To this extent the Blessed One has spoken of the achievement of an opening amid confinement in a provisional sense. There, too, there is confinement. And what is the confinement there? Whatever thought and examination have not ceased there is the confinement in this case.


“Again, by completely surmounting the base of neither-perception-nor-non-perception, a bhikkhu enters and dwells in the cessation of perception and feeling, and having seen with wisdom, his taints are utterly destroyed. To this extent, friend, the Blessed One has spoken of the achievement of an opening amid confinement in a non-provisional sense.”

Translators who don’t accept the commentarial understanding of the distinction will render it in other ways.

“With a sequel” vs “without a sequel”.

“In one particular” vs “with no further particular”.