CASE #22: Handing Down the Lotus
In the Lotus Sutra, Shakyamuni teaches: “One person, having heard, responds with joy and spreads the teachings, and the teachings in this way continue to be handed along from one to another until they reach a fiftieth person.”
The Lotus Sutra The most universally revered of all Mahayana Buddhist scriptures, alluded to in countless paintings and statues, and evoked constantly in the spiritual and secular literature of East Asia. Composed around the beginning of the Common Era, the best known version is the Chinese text translated by Kumarajiva in 406.
Responds with joy This refers to a direct understanding of the teachings, grasped at once and immediately put into practice, producing joy at the beginning, in the middle, and at the end.
The teachings In general, the word “teachings” refers to the buddhadharma as a whole. When the word appears in the Lotus Sutra, however, it refers specifically to the Lotus Sutra’s teachings, which are held to be more universal and more eternal than those of other Buddhist sutras—the universal and the eternal being the two main themes of the Lotus.
In Chapter 18 of the Lotus Sutra, entitled “The Benefits of Joyful Acceptance,” the word teachings refers to “a single verse of the Law,” the potency of such a verse being such that it can be handed along from one person to the next without losing any of its original power—down to the fiftieth person. This reflects the belief that the Mahayana teachings could penetrate to all levels of society, spreading laterally throughout the sangha, rather than just being passed “downward” in a linear fashion from one master to the next.
What kind of teaching can be passed to the fiftieth person without losing its meaning, force, and effect? A house wren has no trouble passing down its “single verse of the law” to other house wrens—not just fifty deep, but five hundred, or five hundred times five hundred! Why such difficulty on our part?
If passing down the dharma gives rise to thoughts of stress or strain, it’s not the dharma we’re passing along.
“A rose is a rose
Is a rose,” said Gertrude Stein.
What’s a nice Jewish girl
With a typewriter doing
With more dharma than me?
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