full lotus

I’ve been reading and studying the Lotus Sutra lately, in an excellent translation by Bunno Kato and others, published by Kosei. I’ve also been reading the companion Guide to the Threefold Lotus Sutra by Nikkyo Niwano. This small volume briefly recounts the main events of each chapter, and then deftly explains the religious meanings, in the larger context of Mahayana Buddhism. I’m just getting this boring legal stuff out of the way in case you are inclined to take up the study of this luminous piece of spiritual literature. In this sutra, as in other Buddhist texts, the Buddha talks about bodhisattvas. We hear this phrase a lot, and not just because (I’m dating myself) it was the title of a Steely Dan hit. A bodhisattva, as defined in the glossary of the Kosei text, is “a person who seeks enlightenment not only for him- or herself, but for all sentient beings.” A noble purpose, indeed. It’s easy to believe that most of us are too busy to become bodhisattvas. Or are we? Every time we selflessly help others, we are expressing our true Buddha-nature. In these selfless acts, we become bodhisattvas. One of the most liberating messages of the Lotus Sutra is that we all have the capacity to become buddhas, fully enlightened human beings. Each and every one of us, no matter what our social status, gender, race, national origin, or any other false distinction you can think of is, can gain enlightenment. Even ruthless killers can become enlightened, as shown in the story of Angulimala and his conversion by the Buddha. Angulimala literally means “finger necklace.” During the Buddha’s time, he roamed the countryside, killing without conscience and cutting off people’s fingers to wear around his neck as gruesome trophies. But after meeting the Buddha, he renounced his past evil deeds, and became one of the Buddha’s most peaceful and dedicated disciples. Now of course this story might be nothing more than a parable. But it still expresses the eternal truth that everyone has the capacity to change for the better, that there are no such things as “lost causes.” As far as selflessly serving others, I remember a time right after my daughter was born when out of necessity my wife and I had to put our own wants and needs aside in order to concentrate wholeheartedly on the needs of our newborn baby. New, and not-so-new, parents often grumble about the fact that once they have kids, they can’t do the things they want to do anymore. Yes, it’s necessary to have time to recharge your batteries and regain the equilibrium that you sometimes lose as a parent, but for me, being totally dedicated to someone else’s needs was absolutely liberating. I could forget my self and what I needed, and concentrate fully on someone else for a change. Our slavery to ourselves is one of our biggest causes of misery. Indeed, this is one of the main teachings of Buddhism. As Dogen said, “To forget the self is to be enlightened by all things.” Unless we can turn off, or at least reduce, the constant whining of “Me, Me, Me” that we hear so often in our heads, we will never obtain true happiness. Forgetting the self and serving others is one way to become a real bodhisattva. And who knows; maybe someday Donald Fagen and Walter Becker will write a song about you.

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