My name is Ale Fernandez. I live in Barcelona, Spain and I'm Chilean and Italian.
I am a web developer, artist and technical researcher.
I've lived in Scotland, Italy, Spain and England and career-wise I am interested in distributed systems and their applications to improvised performance and ecology.

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8/26/2007

My Interpretation so far of the Sutra of Innumerable Meanings

This Sutra, handed down by Ananda, the Buddha's companion, then found and translated to Chinese by Kumarijiva, is part 1 of a trilogy consisting of the Lotus Sutra, The Innumerable Meanings Sutra and the Meditation Sutra. It is studied and known among others, by Nichiren Schools of Buddhism, and it's his interpretation that I probably share most with: http://nichiren.info/OngiKuden/text/Muryogi.htm


First of all, it is meant to be read by Bodhisattvas. Boddhisatvas are people who use what they learn to teach others about how to be Buddhas. When I think of Boddhisatvas, I think of people like Gandhi or Martin Luther King etc, people who fought beyond their own lives for the greater good or peace, perhaps even without knowing what the right way or right practice is.


The Innumerable Meanings Sutra says these people will attain the supreme enlightenment that the Buddha attained, eventually, although the short term effect will be that everyone is a lot better off. Laws, people and societies alike, can manifest the Buddha nature, and it will emerge as a huge success of their individual characters. So even if you are hopelessly out of touch, you can still be a Buddha too.


Most of the deep stuff starts for me in the second chapter, "Preaching":


A Boddhisatva, (...) should learn observe that all laws (...) are (...) in themselves void in shape and form; they are neither great nor small, neither appearing nor disappearing; neither fixed nor movable, and neither advancing nor retreating, and they are nondualistic, just emptiness.


This is where it starts being about all things described as Forms or Laws(the translator's note says "or all existences"), and their nature. For me this is about physical laws governing our universe, laws present day to day around us such as economics and gravity and deep wisdoms learnt only after strife. Or even today's green philosophies and their counterparts. But I realise this is out of context and it's just my interpretation. Laws are all around us even in the moments of the day and they rise and fall and have lifespans like living things. There is only one law that is beyond this: Nonform. I don't know what that is - but it's not "wonderful" because he translates another word as wonderful later, and here he just says nonform - having no form and being formless. I think it could be Myo as in Wonderful as in Sutra of the Lotus of the Wonderful Law - that trust we have to place in the unknown beyond any law.


This is where he first mentions his "expedient means" which means that basically, he's been lying for about 40 years of Buddhist practice and as a teacher to a vast amount of people in what is now Nepal and India in around 400-500 BC, by vastly adapting what he had to teach so it would fit with laws and existences of the time. That truth would be, he implies, contained in the Lotus Sutra which was to follow. All three Sutras in this trilogy go on and on about the benefits of preaching and reciting the lotus sutra, but never say what it is - and that's where Nichiren Daishonin comes in...


Still, that's not very nice to hear for any Theravada Buddhists, or any followers of earlier teachings, like basically all non-Nichiren or Tendai sects... oops... I bet that doesn't sit too well with them if you also know of the common belief that the Threefold Lotus Sutra is believed to be a forgery put together by Mahayana monks, or hidden by priests for hundreds of years because it was believed to be a secret text meant for the future? Could make a cool graphic novel...


Then in the third and last chapter (and that's what I like about it - it's quite short!), it explains how we can avoid war, disease and famine on a national level: by all believing in the Lotus Sutra. Although this might seem a dogmatic conclusion, you'd have to understand that belief in the Lotus Sutra is dedication to the positive forces in the universe(i.e. the universe's Buddha nature). I can see how even on a basic level that might guarantee something: if it even just meant that everyone, no matter how flawed they may be in character, or whatever weird set of laws they believed in, or whatever society they came from, were equal, because they all and you all have a Buddha nature. In a country where this pluralism/mutual respect took place, I can see the positive use of the Lotus Sutra's philosophy, and that of this Innumerable Laws Sutra as it's preface. But then you'd all of course become SLAVES to us Buddhists, and we'd get the mad whips out and our shaved heads would reign invincible!!!


So that's my own flawed, learning vision of that - if you have any comments please let me know - I'm open to debate on this one... Here's another explanation (I don't think I really understand this one).


Anyway so far it seems to carry an important lesson even without reference to the LS: a lesson in detachment from any one belief, be that environmentalism or racism, because we attach ourselves to these beliefs without knowing what is actually good. It says that a Bodhisattva should have "mercy" (old translation) to lead us from the path of suffering and should have compassion to see beyond the evils of those transient laws of the world and the effects those things have on the people who can't see beyond them, as well as a strong belief and support for it's Buddha nature. It says that a Bodhisattva should be a hero in their personal world and not knowing the supreme truth which was then revealed in the Lotus Sutra about the attainment of Buddhism, should still use expedient means on all around them to teach them the Sutra of innumerable meanings.


There's then the 10 merits of practising this Sutra, and two of these are quite interesting in that one is the merit of attending Buddhas - this is Ananda's Bodhisattva practice: He was the Buddha's attendant in his later years, and in particular while he was expounding these Sutras in the state of Magadha. And then right after is Rahula's boddhisatva practice - of being the son of the buddha. In the Lotus Sutra they receive predictions of the enlightenment they would achieve throughout the ages to follow - the supreme kind, the same way: one after the other, and as a mirror of the way they were now. Their nature wasn't changed.


There's probably a lot of depth to all this to which I can only see the beginning - that for example it tells you that you don't have to practice the 4 noble truths or various other older Theravada teachings. It's enough to practice the IMS to get the 10 merits. But it's incomplete: Each of the 10 merits contains an exception - those who practice won't know the supreme truth and won't be able to do anything for themselves. Only for others.


The true aspect of all phenomena is mentioned here and is defined as "formless", but also there is the mention of the path of teaching - to answer the question of why he taught them the 4 noble truths and all that if it was just an expedient means.


Expedient means I think, could be just anything: using the power of your own charisma to convince people, using rational thought turned into blog posts or emails, spiritual leadership, whatever, it's all kind of "tactful" lies really, but the point is they lead people to go through relationships with laws, through these beliefs then, to encounter problems and to conquer them.


The innumerable laws which always change are to be used by Bodhisattvas in this way because people are different, and have different understandings, which is why the Buddha used expedient means to teach the people around him until then. I wonder if "Non form" is a basic central law that all the other laws progressively revolve around?


I haven't been able to find the Innumerable Meanings Sutra posted online. If anyone has a link please let me know! Hope you've liked and not been too bored by this post!

3 comments:

laurelwilber said...

Hey Ale,

Nice posting about the Lotus Sutra. Of course this is from three years ago, just wondering if you've come up with any new interpretations from your further readings?

I don't think there is any problem in offending Hinayana practitioners... if they don't admit that their practice is selfish in the long-run, they are not being entirely truthful, which is a precept they're supposed to be practicing.

After reading the whole Threefold Sutra, one comes back to the sutra of innumerable meanings... for a final re-dedication to thoroughly understanding certain aspects of just this sutra, and that will be enough for a lifetime of deep Buddhist investigation and then teaching/helping.

E Mon said...

Greetings, Ale, from Wisconsin, USA:
The definition of a Bodhisattva is "a being in whose nature it is to be enlightened." Well, then, what is the nature of being enlightened? It is the same nature as one who is getting up to leave a room lighted by a candle at night-time and, suddenly, something blows the candle light out: what is the nature of your mind at that precise moment? As for the 2nd Chapter, I refer you to the Heart Sutra, especially the first 17 verses. The Heart Sutra, actually, is the preamble to the Lotus Sutra, the Surangama Sutra and the Lankavatara Sutra, all of which give more "deep stuff" detail that is summarized in "Preaching". This is the point where you have to leave your intellectual mind at the door and begin practicing your meditative mind. Have fun!
Edward "Toshi" Mondini

ale said...

HI Laurel and Edward,

Blogger doesn't really tell me when your comments were sent, but I hope you are still here to read this reply. I've since stopped practicing Nichiren Buddhism as part of Soka Gakkai(I found the organisational structure too hierarchical, although I still think the teaching is excellent and well adapted for modern life), and so I don't really actively read sutras or treatises as I used to, which is a shame. I would love to be able to continue learning in this area and before I moved cities I had a whole network of buddhist friends from other ramifications of it with whom to talk about this kind of thing. My practice is now more practical let's say than meditative: I'm involved in fair.coop, the catalan integral cooperative and the p2p foundation and a lot of this is about trying to figure out what kind of society we want with regard to present crises of various types. How do you create an ethical economic, social or political system and live within it, even though you live also in regular day to day life that abides by the rules of possibly flawed existing structures around us. I still see this as an application of buddhism as the question still is "how can I cause others to reveal their buddhahood by challenging their issues and problems, becoming happy and growing from that experience?". To answer your comment Edward, I defined boddhisattva in the text as "one who helps but can't help him/herself" because that's how I understand the boddhissatva world within the 10 worlds, where buddhahood is where you do that and also are able help yourself. The example usually given is that of a volunteer, helper or nurse who is always giving and never has time to cure their own wounds, or sort out their own problems, leading to burnout or bottled up anger. This is the classic SGI criticism of pure boddhisatva practice, as the desired practice would be buddhahood. On "nature" the end of the expedient means chapter of the LS puts nature as only one of 10 aspects of a bodhissatva. I'd love to read the heart sutra though and I hear it's really poetic. I guess what stops me is not wanting to be affiliated to any one organisation and to be able to still see buddhist teachings as living, changing things we can still influence and develop with our lives and our practice as buddhists - not repeating what was written sometimes thousands of years before.

I wrote that blog post because I felt at the time that not enough had been written about that sutra... But the same may be said of Tientai's "great concentration and insight". I don't necessarily think Theravada / Hinyana teachings are inferior, or rather that it's not very useful to classify teachings in hierarchies either.. because I don't have enough information to be able to decide on it, and I feel the bias of most mahayana schools who say they are better, but I think I'd rather hear that first hand from it's practitioners or critics with first hand experience. I accept people have many different beliefs and you can't force people to change them: they'll still believe them most probably even after you've offended them. maybe it's naive but I'd rather try and find something in common with them and shared ground with which to work together than point out how I'm better... If you did like my buddhist ponderings though, I did write another article on buddhism way way back, although I didn't get to it's next step which was describing Ichinen as a derivative of the function in the article: https://web.archive.org/web/20030225231219/http://www.buddhajones.com/Inspiration/Algebraic.html

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