The Lotus Sutra is one of the most popular and influential Mahayana Sutras. On the basis of this sutra, many schools of Buddhism have been established to date and some of them are Tiantai, Tendai, Cheontae, and Nichiren schools. It is believed that the Lotus Sutra contains the final teaching of Buddha, complete and sufficient for salvation.
Actually, the Lotus Sutra is the shortened form in English. The earliest known title for this sutra was the Saddharma Pundarika Sutra which is in Sanskrit and the immediate translation is Scripture of the Lotus Blossom of the Fine Dharma. Since the Lotus Sutra is most influential Mahayana Sutra, it is highly regarded in the Asian countries where Mahayana Buddhism has been traditionally practiced. The sutra has also been translated into several different languages.
Historical account of Sutra Compilation
There have been different opinions regarding the formation of the Lotus Sutra. In 1934 Kogaku Fuse concluded that the Lotus Sutra was composed of four main stages. He stated that the sections of chapters 1-9 and 17 were created in the first century BCE. The prose sections of these chapters were added in the first century CE. The chapters 10, 11, 13-16, 18-20 and 27 were added in the sutra in around 100 CE. Finally, the chapters 21-26 were added in the sutra in around 150 CE.
The opinion of Stephen F. Teiser and Jacqueline Stone conflict with that of Kogaku Fuse. Teiser and Stone stated that there is the consensus about the stages of composition but not about the dating of these strata.
Tamura argues that the first stage of composition, chapter 2-9, was completed around 50 CE. In the second stage of composition, it was expanded by chapters 10-21 around 100 CE. He believed that the third stage of composition was completed around 150 CE by adding up the chapters 22-27. But Karashima proposes another modified version of Fuse's hypotheses. His hypotheses include the categorization of the sutra. He believed that the chapters 2-9 were the earliest stratum. The first layer included the tristubh verse of the chapters and the second layer consists of the sloka verses and the prose of the chapters 2-9. The second stage was the development and compilation of chapters 1, 10-20, 27 and a part of chapter 5 and the final stage consists of chapters 21-26 and the section on Devadatta in chapter 11 of the Sanskrit version.
Teachings in the Lotus Sutra
The main teachings of the Lotus Sutra can be categorized as follows:
One vehicle, many skillful means
The Lotus Sutra is known for its extensive instruction on the concept and usage of skillful means. These instructions are included in the form of parables. The sutra emphasizes that all the teachings that are encountered are actually just skillful applications of one Dharma. The Lotus Sutra sees all other teachings as subordinate to the service of the ultimate truth of the One Vehicle leading to Buddhahood. The Lotus Sutra also claims to be superior to other sutras. It also states that the complete Buddhahood is only achieved by exposure to the teachings and the skillful means.
All beings have the potential to become Buddhas
The Lotus Sutra emphasize that all the beings living in the earth have the potential to become Buddhas. This Sutra explains further that the beings have the potential to become Buddhas in their present form. They don't have to wait for another kalpas or wait for rebirth in a different physical form. Hence this Sutra provides the instructions and it is listed as having faith in, following and practicing, not slandering, and truly refuting any slander of it and its teachings.
The nature of the Buddhas
The Lotus Sutra also mentions the Buddha is an eternal entity. He achieved nirvana eons ago but he remained in this world with the objective to help teach beings the Dharma. He reveals himself as the father of all beings and spreading the loving care of a father. Actually, this sutra indicates that even after the parinirvana of the Buddha, he continued to be real and to be capable of communicating with the world.