Greater still are the merits of those who hear, read and recite it with single mind, explain it clearly and distinctly to the people in the Great Assembly, and practise it as taught.The White Lotus sutra
On a recent solitary retreat in a cabin in the Finnish countryside, in the midst of quiet countryside and mild autumn days, I spent a period every day for two weeks reading aloud the whole of the White Lotus Sutra.
Back in 1970 Bhante gave a series of talks based around this sutra which for many was a significant and inspiring part of their introduction to the Buddhist world. The White Lotus Sutra was hugely influential in the Buddhist tradition, especially in the Far East, but I know I am not alone in finding that going back to the sutra without the benefit of Sangharakshita’s commentary can initially be rather baffling.
A scholar writing the introduction to a new translation of the sutra made specifically for the benefit of people wanting to make sutra reading a part of their Buddhist practice, starts by pre-empting some obviously familiar first responses to the White Lotus Sutra. He quotes the Japanese Zen master Hakuin who wrote “What’s all this about being the ‘king of all sutras’? This is just a bunch of muddled parables and tall tales. It does not seem to include any actual – how shall we say ? – teachings.”
This scholar himself notes that the sutra could be seen as a book about a book, called itself, that simply tells how amazing the content of that book is….though as you read on in his introduction it becomes clear that he actually holds the sutra in very high esteem.
The Buddha in the White Lotus Sutra speaks often of the great spiritual benefits to be gained from hearing, and even more so, from reading, reciting, expounding or copying the sutra. In the Buddhist tradition teachings would often be passed on by a disciple listening to them being recited or read, or by reading those teachings aloud themselves, and then going on to reflect deeply on them.
Images from Saddhaloka’s solitary in Finland
At Adhisthana we have been having a series of retreats, led by teams of long standing Order members, where we have been going back to some of the suttas and sutras Bhante introduced us to. We are taking a fresh look at what we have been given and at how we can best pass the Dharma on through these suttas and sutras to future generations. It is an exploration we hope will want to join us in.
On these retreats we listen to substantial readings from a sutta or sutra, followed by time for absorbing and reflecting on what we have heard. Along with talks, discussion groups, meditation and devotional practice, this offers a very rich and many-sided approach to the scriptures that really allows them to come alive.
It was being part of teams exploring the White Lotus Sutra on retreats next year that led me to read the sutra on my solitary retreat. Through that reading I felt I was entering a very unfamiliar world, with much to still learn and make sense of. I can just share one small insight or understanding that started to open up the sutra for me. At times there are echoes of the language I am familiar with from the Bodhicaryavatara where Shantideva speaks about the Bodhicitta, but here speaking about the sutra. An example is when Shariputra, having been predicted to Buddhahood says “all of my doubts and regrets have been dispelled. My body and mind are unburdened, and I am happily at peace. For today I know that I am truly a child of the Buddha, born of the words of the Buddha, and come go life through his Dharma.”
To use a language I am familiar with, it is as if the White Lotus Sutra is the Bodhicitta, and just coming in touch with the sutra, hearing even just a few words of it, can change everything and set in motion a timeless process of profound spiritual transformation.
We have been given so much in Bhante’s presentation of the Dharma, and now we have to make it fully our own, and pass it on. We hope these retreats will be a significant part of this process, and that many of you will join us in hearing, reading, reciting, expounding the White Lotus Sutra, and other suttas and sutras, over the next year, and years to come. It is as if we are setting out together on a voyage of discovery, and we really don’t know quite where it is going to take us.