Scroll of the Lotus Sutra (Hokekyo), 12th century, Metropolitan Museum of Art

" I will send men and women of pure faith and offer alms unto the dharma."- excerpt from the Lotus Scripture



The Lotus Sutra: An Overview


Of the countless scriptures of Mahayana Buddhism, few are more widely read or revered than the Lotus Sutra. Its teachings thoroughly permeate most schools of Buddhism in China, Korea and Japan. Yet its origins are shrouded in mystery. The three principle themes of the Lotus (Sutra) Scripture are:

  • All Beings may become Buddhas.
  • The importance of faith and devotion.
  • The seven parables (see below)


1: The Parable of the Three Carts and the Burning House

A wealthy man has a house with one gate. Inside are his many children. The house is on fire. To entice the children to come out of the burning house, he tells them that there are three chariots outside filled with toys, one pulled by a goat, another by a deer and last with an ox. When the children come out, they find large chariots for all of them, each pulled by an ox.  

The burning house represents the realm that we live in. The one gate represents the exit out, which is the Buddhadharma. The many children represent human beings in samsara and the fire represents our sufferings and vexations. The three chariots are the three vehicles of Buddhism and the great chariot is the Buddha Path. The main point of this parable is to show how the Buddha had taught in different ways to help sentient beings and finally leads them toward the Buddha Path. 

2: The Parable of the Wealthy Man and the Poor Son

The four great arhats wish to tell the Buddha their understanding of the Lotus Sutra through this parable. A young man runs away from home and lives in poverty, wandering from one place to another for many years. One day, he goes to his father's house but does not recognize his father. The father sees his son and sends a messenger to bring him back home, but the son faints out of fear. Then the father tells his servants to dress as beggars and entice his son to work for him as a laborer. The son works diligently for many years and finally inherits his father's fortune.  

The main points of this parable are: 

1. We are all children of the Buddha but are unaware of it.  
2. The Buddha is able to use all kinds of expedient means of teaching to help people become enlightened. 
3. The son represents all sentient beings who are lost, unable to understand the truth and misunderstand the teaching of the true nature. The many years of wandering represent the wandering of sentient beings through the realms of existence. 

3: The Parable of the Medicinal Herbs

The Buddha uses the metaphor of falling rain to describe how the Buddha teaches sentient beings. The rain, which represents the Buddhadharma, falls on various flora. There are five different types of plants--three types of medicinal herbs, small, medium and large, and small and large trees. The plants receive varying amounts of rain according to their size. This represents how the Buddha teaches with equanimity but because of the different roots of sentient beings, they gain different levels of understanding.  

4: The Parable of the Gem and the Magic City

A group of travelers start on a journey of five hundred yojanas (a unit of measurement) through dangerous terrain to a place with rare treasure. After walking three hundred yojanas, they become exhausted and want to return home. The leader of the group magically conjures a city so that the people may rest. After they have fully rested, the leader tells the group that the city is magical and that their true destination is close by, and makes the city disappear. 

The place with the rare treasures that is five hundred yojanas away represents full enlightenment. The magical city represents the nirvana of the pratyekabuddhas and arhats, which is a highly realized state of being but not full enlightenment. The leader is the Buddha who uses expedient means to lead the followers to the goal.  

5: The Parable of the Gem in the Jacket

Five hundred arhats who received a prophecy of enlightenment tell a parable to the Buddha to prove their understanding.  

The parable is about a man who visits his friend's home, eats and drinks, and falls asleep. The host leaves his home on business and sews a jewel into the drunken guest's clothing. The man wakes up, leaves the house and travels from one place to another in order to get basic necessities. Later, the poor man meets his friend and the friend tells him that, all along, there was a jewel sewn into his clothing. 

The drunkard represents pratyekabuddhas and arhats who are attached to their state of self-liberation without being aware of the greater state of full enlightenment. The hidden jewel represents the potential for Buddhahood and the clothing that hides the jewel represents our ignorance of our abilities and potential to become Buddhas. The dear friend represents the Buddha who wishes to enlighten every sentient being. Venerable encouraged us to reorganize and reprioritize our lives so that we can meet our full potential.  

6: The Parable of the Priceless Gem in the Topknot

This parable tells the story of a powerful and just king who sends his armies to subdue other countries. He rewards victorious soldiers with jewels but keeps a prized pearl in his topknot for the soldier with the greatest success in battle. Like this king, the Buddha gives many teachings and saves the highest teaching, which is the Lotus Sutra, for last (just before entering nirvana). 

7: The Parable of the Excellent Physician

In this parable, there is a highly skilled physician with many children. He leaves his home on business and goes far away. When he returns, he finds that his children have taken poison; some are completely out of their minds as a result. The physician prepares medicine for the children. The children who are still of sound mind accept the antidote and are cured but those children who are out of their minds do not take this medicine, thinking there is nothing wrong with them. The physician comes up with a plan to cure them. He goes away and sends a messenger to tell them that the father has died. The sick children become very sad when they hear the news and take the medicine, thinking that there is no one to care for them now that their father is gone. When they take the medicine, they are cured of their sickness. 

The skilled physician represents Sakyamuni Buddha. The poisoned children are ordinary sentient beings who have forgotten their true nature. The poisons are the three poisons of ignorance, anger and greed, and the Lotus Sutra is the medicine. The Buddha enters nirvana in order to encourage followers to take the medicine, or practice the teachings of the Lotus Sutra, rather than take for granted the Buddha's presence.  

To summarize the eight sessions of the Lotus Sutra series: 

1. Practitioners should strengthen their good roots, take refuge in the Three Jewels, and know that all sentient beings have Buddhanature. 
2. The Bodhisattva Never Disparaging reached Buddhahood using just one phrase.  
3. The Lotus Sutra shows the wisdom of the bodhisattvas and the vexations of the people.  
4. The seven parables are expedient means to reaching Buddhahood.