133 - Restoring Wonder: Hongzhi's Guidepost of Silent Illumination - Part 2
135 - Grief in Buddhism 1: Buddhist Teachings on Grief and the Danger of Spiritual Bypassing

What Is Devotion, and How Does It Fulfill the Buddha Way? The Lotus Sutra is one of the oldest and most central sutras in Mahayana Buddhism. The sutra states repeatedly that people who perform small acts of devotion, such as making an offering at memorial to the Buddha, “have fulfilled the Buddha Way.” What does this mean? I think the Lotus Sutra, and Mahayana Buddhism more generally, is saying that we can transform the universe in an instant, that the smallest of our actions matters, and that the key to all of it is the state of our own mind and heart.

 

Quicklinks to Content:
A Brief Introduction to the Lotus Sutra and the Mahayana
Skepticism About Being Able to Save All Beings
Yes, the Buddha Way Means Saving All
The Gateway of Devotion
What Is an Act of Devotion to Buddha?
How Does an Act of Devotion Fulfill the Buddha Way?

 

I chose this topic in part because it was just a matter of time before I needed to get around to talking about one of the oldest and most central sutras in Mahayana Buddhism, but also because I think one of the teachings in its first chapter is relevant for our practice, right here, right now. The first chapter of the Sutra, “Skillful Means,” states repeatedly that people who perform small acts of devotion, such as making an offering at memorial to the Buddha, “have fulfilled the Buddha Way.”

I think this Lotus Sutra teaching about the power and efficacy of devotion invites us to think beyond the obvious and incrementally beneficial aspects of our practice. I think the Lotus Sutra, and Mahayana Buddhism more generally, is saying that we can transform the universe in an instant, that the smallest of our actions matters, and that the key to all of it is the state of our own mind and heart. Personally, I find this an incredibly encouraging teaching when the world around me is in such distress.

A true Mahayanist, I can’t fathom attaining true peace of mind and liberation from suffering while other beings are falling victim to greed, hate, and delusion. I hope for more from my religion than a promise that anyone who diligently practices Buddhism will manage to be less upset by the world. Part of me is skeptical that any religion can deliver more than that, but another part of me is even more skeptical that the reality of existence is limited to the sad, constrained conceptual framework constructed by my little human brain.

A Brief Introduction to the Lotus Sutra and the Mahayana

To begin, let me give a very brief introduction to the Lotus Sutra and its first chapter, “Skillful Means.” (Note: In many translations of the Sutra, this is considered the second chapter, after an introductory one that sets the scene, with Shakyamuni Buddha preaching to countless Buddhas, bodhisattvas, disciples, gods, and a whole assortment of other sorts of beings.) The premise of the Lotus Sutra is that, in it, the Buddha is offering a new teaching, never before heard. In fact, of course, the Lotus Sutra appeared hundreds of years after the Buddha lived, and departs substantially from the tone and message of the original, older suttas. Naturally, conservative Buddhists found this development alarming. Therefore, a fairly large portion of the Lotus Sutra is simply an argument on its own behalf.

The Mahayana premise is this: All a Buddha wants to do is liberate sentient beings from suffering. However, different beings have different characters and capacities. In order to get through to people, a Buddha needs to take these differences into account and tailor her teaching to her audience. According to the Mahayana, the Buddha’s early disciples weren’t ready for the Mahayana message, so he offered them provisional teachings that would allow them to progress on the spiritual path. The Lotus Sutra and other Mahayana texts, then, complete the picture of the Buddhist path, offering the “maha,” or great, “yana,” or vehicle, whereas previously Buddhists only had the “hinayana,” or lesser vehicle.

I could go on and on, here, about the arising of the Mahayana, but I’ll save that for a Buddhist history episode. Suffice to say, for the purposes of this episode, that one of the primary messages of the Lotus Sutra is that it’s perfectly acceptable for a Buddha – or anyone sharing Buddhist teachings – to use what’s called “skillful means” in order to get through to, guide, or inspire sentient beings, even if those skillful means can be seen as a little deceptive. That is, withholding the supreme teaching for several hundred years wasn’t disingenuous on the part of the Buddha because he did it purely for the good of other beings. (How the Buddha delivered a Sutra centuries after his passing is another question we won’t explore here, but basically, either the teachings had remained hidden, or the Buddha can transcend time.)

The important aspect of skillful means for our discussion of devotion is how it puts the teachings about devotion in the context of the other traditional Buddhist teachings. You might look at the Mahayana sutras as being a little bit like the Christian New Testament, in that the newer texts aren’t meant to contradict or deny the older ones, but they more or less claim to offer a more complete and transcendent teaching that makes the older teachings a little bit outdated. In other words, you’re welcome to avail yourself of the practices and teachings of original Buddhism, but you don’t necessarily have to do so in order to benefit from the Mahayana message. This is meant to be an encouraging teaching, because you kind of have to be a super-dedicated spiritual athlete to achieve the goals of original Buddhism, which amounted to perfection. The Mahayana, on the other hand, is accessible to any and all people, and promises full deliverance in and of itself.

To me, this means that it’s beneficial that we strive to awaken to the Four Noble Truths, and follow the Eightfold Noble Path. By doing so, we relieve our own suffering and that of others. Gradually, if we practice long and hard, we strengthen our positive qualities and liberate ourselves from greed, hate, and delusion – usually, one delusion or habit at a time. Basic Buddhist practice really does improve our lives. But then what? How do we avoid getting discouraged when we recognize our own limitations, and face the overwhelming forces of greed, hate, and delusion in the wider world? That’s where the Mahayana teachings come in, and point us to a way of redemption that’s open to all beings, anywhere, anytime, regardless of their level of spiritual attainment or capabilities. And if such a way is open to all beings, there’s a chance all beings will be liberated from suffering – which is good news, because no one of us can truly be at peace when others are suffering.

Skepticism About Being Able to Save All Beings

A Mahayana way of redemption open to all sounds nice, but realistically human beings are pretty stubborn, and easily succumb to pride, greed, hate, and delusion. The Lotus Sutra doesn’t deny this. In the chapter we’re studying, “Skillful Means,” the Buddha explains (note, I’m using a translation by Gene Reeves, translated in 2008):

“With the eyes of a buddha
I see beings in the six realms

Reduced to extreme poverty,
Without merit or wisdom,
On the dangerous road
Of birth and death.

In continuous,
Unending suffering,
They are firmly rooted in the five desires [arising from the five senses]
Like an ox chasing its own tail.

Blinded by greed and desire,
They are blind and can see nothing.
Seeking neither the Buddha
With his great power

Nor the Dharma,
Which can bring an end to suffering.
With deeply entrenched wrong views,
They try to use suffering to get rid of suffering.

For the sake of these living beings
I have great compassion.”[i]

In other words, the Buddha isn’t laboring under the delusion that saving all beings is an easy task. This is why, he explains, he had the following thought after he attained enlightenment:

“The wisdom I have gained
Is fine, wonderful, and supreme.
But living beings with dull faculties
Are attached to pleasure
And blinded by ignorance.

Beings like this,
How can they be saved?”[ii]

According to the Lotus Sutra, a bunch of heavenly beings perceive the Buddha’s doubts about whether he can benefit other beings with what he’s realized. They beg the Buddha to teach, and he does.

When I translate the Buddha’s observations and doubts into my own experience, I think of the fact that even though my country, the United States, is one of the richest on the planet, in most of our cities, hundreds or thousands of people live in tents on the sidewalks. I think of how we buy, consume, and throw away so much stuff our oceans are filled with plastic, but even when we witness that reality with horror, we can’t stop the cycle of greed. Despite ourselves, the ridiculous delusion of racism continues to divide our society, as made evident by Covid-19 death rates in communities of color, in some places, being twice that of whites. How can humanity be saved?

Yes, the Buddha Way Means Saving All

Now, you might think, in response to what I’ve been saying, “Hey, wait a second. Buddhist practice is about taking responsibility for our own minds and behavior. You can’t save someone else; they have to do their own work. Plus, Buddhism isn’t about saving humanity, it’s about giving individuals the tools to save themselves.”

I suppose this is true, to some extent. The original Buddhist cosmology portrays six realms of existence through which we cycle repeatedly through the process of rebirth. The realms as a whole are called the “world of samsara,” which is driven by the forces of greed, hate, and delusion. Not everything in the world of samsara is bad, but even the good stuff doesn’t last, and the whole point of practice is to achieve liberation from samsara and never be reborn. Reformation of the six realms into place where all beings might be at ease is never even discussed, let alone offered as a goal. The ancient Indians of Buddha’s time looked at their world and concluded it was irredeemable, and frankly, it’s difficult for me to conclude otherwise, sometimes, when I look around at our world.

Does Mahayana Buddhism offer any different perspectives? In the Lotus Sutra, the Buddha couldn’t be clearer in expressing his vow to save every last being. He says:

“I originally took a vow,
Wanting to enable all living beings to be equal to me,
Without any distinctions.

In accord with this vow of long ago
Everything is now fulfilled,
For I transform all living beings
And lead them all into the Buddha way.”[iii]

Maybe the Buddha means that he’ll introduce Buddhism to each and every living being, and hold their hand through many lifetimes until each one attains complete and perfect Buddhahood. Maybe. But I don’t think the Mahayana message is meant to be interpreted in such a linear and incremental fashion. Why? A Buddha isn’t just an awakened being, he’s also a supremely skilled and compassionate bodhisattva and teacher of sentient beings. So, if all living beings end up equal to him, we all become skilled and compassionate teachers – of one another! Plus, the Buddha says he made a vow long ago to enable all living beings to be Buddhas, and “Everything is now fulfilled.” Right now, in delivering the Lotus Sutra, the Buddha transforms all living beings. At least, that’s how I read it.

The Gateway of Devotion

How are all these living beings transformed? What is conveyed in the Lotus Sutra, in this new teaching of the Buddha, that makes it possible for all beings to enter the Buddha Way despite our dull faculties, attachment to pleasure, and blindness due to ignorance?

Now we come to what I see as the most significant part of the “Skillful Means” chapter of the Lotus Sutra. The Buddha says:

“If any living beings,
Having encountered
Buddhas in the past,
And having heard the Dharma,

Have been generous, moral, patient, and persistent,
Practiced meditation and wisdom, and so on,
In various Way cultivating merit and virtue,
All such people have fulfilled the Buddha way.”[iv]

It’s not surprising to hear people praised for practicing the traditional path of Buddhist practice, but I think it’s significant that the Lotus Sutra says, “All such people have fulfilled the Buddha way.” It doesn’t say many such people have fulfilled the Buddha way. It doesn’t say all such people will eventually fulfill the Buddha way. It seems to suggest that in the midst of their effort itself they have fulfilled the Buddha way, even if it might not appear to be the case at first glance.

Devotion on altar

Offerings on a Buddhist altar

Then, radically, the Lotus Sutra goes on to describe all kinds of actions which result in the actors fulfilling the Buddha way, including: “If anyone is good and gentle, all such living beings have fulfilled the Buddha way.” Being good and gentle certainly seems like a more do-able path than extinguishing all the outflows in order to become an arhat, although it’s also difficult to be truly good and gentle. But the Lotus Sutra doesn’t stop there. You can fulfill the Buddha way by using precious materials to build memorial mounds, or stupas, over the Buddha remains, or to create buddha images. You can fulfill the Buddha way by making offerings of flowers, incense, and music to such memorials or images. But not just that:

“…Even if little children at play,
Use reeds, sticks, or brushes,
Or even their fingernails,
To draw images of Buddha,

All such people,
Gradually gaining merit,
And developing their great compassion,
Have fulfilled the Buddha way…

If anyone, even while distracted,
With even a single flower,
Makes an offering to a painted image,
They will progressively see countless buddhas.

There are those who worship by prostrating themselves,
Some merely by putting their palms together,
Others only by raising a hand,
And others by a slight nod of the head…

If anyone, even while distracted,
Enters a stupa or mausoleum
And even once exclaims, ‘Hail to the Buddha,’
They have fulfilled the Buddha way.”[iv]

Even if you take these passages to mean these small acts of devotion simply get you started on the path, and it will take you countless eons before attaining buddhahood, this is a pretty radical teaching. Apparently, all you need to do to be assured of becoming the equal of Shakyamuni Buddha is to make a little offering, even with a distracted mind. In original Buddhism, you had to practice pretty diligently even to achieve the lowest level of spiritual mastery, “stream-enterer,” which meant that it might take you many lifetimes to achieve Nirvana, but your eventual success was guaranteed. According to the Lotus Sutra, you’ve probably already guaranteed your eventual buddhahood without even realizing it, by performing some little off-hand act of devotion in the past.

What Is an Act of Devotion to Buddha?

What’s going on in the various devotional activities described in this part of the Lotus Sutra? All of the actions described, after the part about practicing Buddhist virtues and being good and kind, entail some kind of worshipful activity aimed at the Buddha, his remains, or his image. To worship means to show adoration or reverence. Devotion is a closely related word that can entail religious worship, or the feeling of love, enthusiasm, or loyalty for someone or something. Buddha isn’t a deity, so who or what are we showing adoration or reverence for when we bow in front of a Buddha image, or place flowers on an altar, or put our hands palm-to-palm and say aloud that we take refuge in Buddha?

What is Buddha to you? This is a question worth exploring.

Almost all Buddhist teachings and concepts can be engaged at many different levels. The most concrete and basic level, we might think of Buddha as a historical man who devised a really effective path of spiritual practice and taught it to others. Maybe the story of Siddhartha Gautama and his enlightenment is true, maybe it’s not, but one or more human beings are responsible for giving us the teachings and path of practice that so many of us are so grateful for. So, at a concrete level Buddha is awakened person who can teach us.

At another level, Buddha can be thought of as our own potential for awakening. And I’m not just talking about complete, perfect enlightenment, if such a thing even happens. I’m talking about our innate ability to discern pain from ease, skillful behavior from doing harm, and the freedom of liberation from the prison of self-interest. Human beings are far from perfect, and we are very susceptible to greed, hate, and delusion, but at a certain level we know better. How do we know? What is it within us that recognizes wisdom, truth, beauty, interdependence, and compassion? You might say our better nature is Buddha.

At still another level, maybe Buddha is all that is true, beneficial, and beautiful in the world, not just within sentient beings.

Whatever your sense of Buddha, what is the nature of a devotional or worshipful act with Buddha as its object?

I think about the little children in their play, drawing Buddha in the dirt. A child may draw many other things, like birds or cars. When she draws a Buddha, what is she thinking of? Perhaps the statues and images her parents keep up on an altar along with fresh flowers. Maybe a picture of a calm monk sitting under a tree. She probably isn’t thinking a whole lot of conscious devotional thoughts as she outlines a crude Buddha figure, but something attracts her to drawing it. Even if not explicit, she has picked up the message that there’s something worth reverence in this world. That there’s an alternative to anger, fear, and selfishness.

For myself, I think my primary act of devotion is my zazen. Putting my body in the zazen position each day is my way of demonstrating love, loyalty, adoration, and reverence for Buddha. I don’t tend to think often of Buddha as a historical figure, or a supernatural being, or even as the potential for awakening. I might as well call it “Buddha” as “The Ineffable” – it’s beyond words in any case.

I think an act of devotion is an act of love. We feel like offering something to the object of our love or admiration: A material offering, a word of encouragement or praise, a moment of our mindful attention. We might even offer thoughtful restraint of our own behavior, or we might sacrifice something we want in order to be of benefit or show respect. We might build something, or teach something, or offer a poem. Each of us probably performs numerous acts of devotion throughout the day.

How Does an Act of Devotion Fulfill the Buddha Way?

In what sense to we fulfill the Buddha way in these small acts of devotion? It is significant, I think, that the Lotus Sutra does not list a bunch of things people think or feel as ways to fulfill the Buddha way. Instead, it gives a list of actions. In other words, this isn’t just about sentiment or understanding. It’s about interacting with the world and demonstrating your love, even if it’s in very small ways – even with a distracted mind!

I think the entirety of the Buddha way is present within our acts of devotion. The beginning, middle, and end of the spiritual path is right there: The impulse to act, inspired by love; the discipline of the action, and the rewards of self-transcendence and connection.

This means there’s an aspect to our Buddhist practice that isn’t bounded in time and space. Our little acts of kindness, generosity, and devotion are little in the sense of cause and effect in the grand scheme of things, but each one is a complete celebration of Buddha. Our efforts at self-improvement may be slow and limited, but as acts of devotion they lack nothing. Our work to relieve the suffering of other beings may seem like a drop in the bucket at times, but we don’t know the positive effects of our devotion, just as we can’t see how the offering of a single flower to the Buddha leads to fulfilling the Buddha way. Sometimes even a hellish situation is transformed by an act of love or devotion.

 


Endnotes

[i] Reeves, Gene (translator). The Lotus Sutra: A Contemporary Translation of a Buddhist Classic. Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2008. Page 97
[ii] Ibid, Page 97
[iii] Ibid, Page 89
[iv] Ibid, Page 92

133 - Restoring Wonder: Hongzhi's Guidepost of Silent Illumination - Part 2
135 - Grief in Buddhism 1: Buddhist Teachings on Grief and the Danger of Spiritual Bypassing
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