(All references are to the Senchu Murano translation)
Buddha Shakyamuni then discourses at some length on the virtues and wisdom of the Buddhas, which are inconceivable to thought and indescribable in words. This confuses the devotees in the assembly, the laypeople and the ordained ones; Sariputra, speaking on their behalf, asks the Buddha: Why do you extol the virtuous qualities of the Buddhas in this way? But the Buddha declines to explain this, because “‘If I do, all the gods and men in the world will be frightened and perplexed'” (p. 29).
Recall the introductory chapter of this sutra and the expectations it establishes. Does the Buddha’s teaching so far confirm those expectations, complicate them, or confound them?
Sariputra persists, pleading with the Buddha, who also persists in refusing him. The way the Buddha refuses is worth a close look:
No, no, I will not say any more.
My teaching is wonderful and inconceivable.
If arrogant people hear me,
They will not respect or believe me (p.30).
The Buddha’s concern seems to involve the capacity for some of the members of the assembly to learn. Because Sariputra repeatedly asks for instruction on this topic, however, showing that at least someone is willing to listen in good faith, the Buddha relents and agrees to explain his words and actions so far. But before he can do so, “five thousand people” among the monks, nuns, laymen and laywomen “of this congregation rose from their seats, bowed to the Buddha, and retired because they were so sinful and arrogant that they thought they had already obtained what they had not yet, and that they had already understood what they had not yet. Because of their faults, they did not stay” (p. 31).
It appears that Buddha is intent on teaching something new, and that some among his students actively resist learning what they do not already believe to be true. Consider this relation between what someone already knows and expects, and the interruption caused by new knowledge, in the rest of the Lotus Sutra. What does the simple act of learning something new challenge in a person? What does someone need to give up in order to grow and develop?
Immediately after the assembly is cleared of those who are not willing or able to try to learn, the Buddha delivers a shock:
Sariputra! What is the one great purpose for which the Buddhas, the World-Honoured Ones, appear in the worlds? The Buddhas, the World-Honoured Ones, appear in the worlds in order to cause all living beings to open [the gate to] the insight of the Buddha, and to cause them to purify themselves. They appear in the worlds in order to show the insight of the Buddha to all living beings. They appear in the worlds in order to cause all living beings to obtain the insight of the Buddha. They appear in the worlds in order to cause all living beings to enter the Way to the insight of the Buddha. Sariputra! This is the one great purpose for which the Buddhas appear in the worlds (p. 32).
This is a central teaching of the Lotus Sutra, and it is a whopper. It means that all beings have the capacity for Buddhahood, and further, that the one purpose of the Buddha’s teaching is to actualize that potential. This appears to be a direct refutation of the Buddha’s previous teaching that the highest aspiration for the practitioner was to become an Arhat or a bodhisattva (depending on the “vehicle” one practices, of which more below). The Lotus Sutra turns the tables on all these distinctions among vehicles and approaches:
Sariputra! All the Buddhas in the past expounded various teachings to all living beings with innumerable expedients, that is to say, with stories of previous lives, parables, similes and discourses, only for the purpose of revealing the One Buddha-Vehicle. The living beings who heard those teachings from those Buddhas finally obtained the knowledge of the equality and differences of all things (p. 32).
Here, the Buddha claims that all his teachings, heretofore divided into distinct vehicles (the sravaka path, the bodhisattva path among them) only serve one overall goal, the “one vehicle” or Ekayana approach. What does this mean to the ordinary monk or nun or layperson in the assembly, who has committed his or her life to practice with one goal in mind, when that one goal has had the rug pulled out from under it? What to do now? “Sariputra and all of you present here!” the Buddha announces: “Understand the Dharma by faith with all your hearts! There is no vehicle other than the One Buddha-Vehicle!”
Does this mean the Buddha’s teachings so far have only been provisional, only gimmicks to solve immediate problems? If so, is the Buddha asking his disciples to put their faith in a trickster? If not, where should one put one’s faith in the context of this teaching?
To approach the same matter from another perspective: what is the relationship between the student’s potential for Buddhahood and the teacher’s capacity for using expedients to help the student learn?
Where do you suppose the Buddha is going with this?