Compilation of the Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Lotus Sutra, one of the most important of Mahāyāna Buddhist texts, opened new avenues in Buddhist thought with its doctrines of expedient means and sudden enlightenment.

Summary of Event

The Saddharma-puṇḍarīka Sūtra, the Sutra of the Lotus Flower of the Wonderful Law, or Lotus Sutra, is one of the most well known of Mahāyāna texts. It forms part of the texts labeled as Prajñāpāramitā Sūtras, sutras of the perfection of wisdom of Mahāyāna Buddhism.

It has been argued that the text originated in India in the first century b.c.e. to the first century c.e. The present text is a compilation of prose and verse. Statements first made in prose are often reiterated in verse. The verse usually is more elaborate and very often offers details and points not mentioned in the prose. Scholars have argued that the original text consisted of verse in Prākrit. These verses were translated into Sanskrit, and the prose was then added. Sanskrit manuscripts of the Lotus Sutra have been found in Nepal, Central Asia, and Gilgit in Kashmir. Not all are complete. The earliest Sanskrit manuscripts have been dated to the fifth century c.e.

Six Chinese translations are recorded, but only three have come down to modernity. In 286 c.e., Dharmaraksha translated the work into Chinese. The most well known of the Chinese translations was that made by Kumārajīva in 401. A third translation was made by Jñānagupta and Dharmagupta in 601.

As can be seen, the earliest Chinese translations antedate the Sanskrit manuscripts. Scholars continue to examine the relation between the Sanskrit manuscripts and the Chinese translations. One significant difference between these versions is that the earliest Chinese translations have only twenty-seven chapters, omitting what is now known as chapter 12, the Devadatta chapter. Most of the Sanskrit manuscripts have this chapter. Thus it appears that Dharmaraksha and Kumārajīva drew on a Sanskrit manuscript that had only twenty-seven chapters. Somewhere toward the latter half of the sixth century, the Devadatta chapter was added to the Kumārajīva translation, and this augmented version forms the basis of modern Chinese and Japanese texts of the Lotus Sutra. Other smaller differences between the versions exist.

The setting for the Lotus Sutra is at Mount Gṛdhrakūta near Rajagriha (now Rajgir, Bihar, India). At an assembly, the Buddha sent forth a ray of light from between his eyebrows, lighting up all the worlds to the east. The bodhisattva Maitreya asked another bodhisattva, Manjushri, what was the cause of this emission of light. Manjushri explained that when these signs appeared in the distant past, the Buddha of that time preached the Sutra of the Lotus Flower of the Wonderful Law. Thus at the end of the first chapter, the story creates a strong expectation of hearing the Lotus Sutra. This expectation, however, is never fulfilled. The Lotus Sutra is constantly referred to but never recited.

Instead various ideas come into play. The most significant of these ideas is found in chapter 2. After the Buddha has stated that the wisdom of the Buddhas was difficult to explain, he resorted to the doctrine of “expedient or skillful means” (upāya). The Buddha explained: “We employ countless expedient means, discussing causes and conditions and using words of simile and parable to expound the teachings.” Various means are used to suit the varying capacities of the Buddha’s interlocutors. As an example of expedient means, the Buddha in chapter 3 related the parable of the rich man who saved his children from the burning house. The burning house represented the world of suffering. The rich man enticed his children out of the house with a promise to give them carts. The children rushed out of the house looking for the carts. The rich man was so relieved that he gave them one large cart. In interpreting the passage, the Buddha pointed out that the carts represent the way of the sravakas (voice hearers, or Hīnayāna), the way of the pratyekabuddhas (self-enlightened beings, who make no attempt to help others), and the way of the bodhisattva. Thus, on one level, the parable is an illustration of expedient means. However, within the parable one learns that the Hīnayāna, the way of the pratyekabuddha, and the bodhisattva are also expedient means, which are addressed to persons of different spiritual capacities. Ultimately the Buddha tells us there is only one way: All these expedient means lead to the same result—progress of the person toward enlightenment.


The idea of expedient means first appeared in the Lotus Sutra and has had a decisive influence on the development of Mahāyāna Buddhism. In China, the translation of Kumārajīva assured the preeminent status of the sutra. In Japan, Saicho (767-822) and Kukai (774-835), the respective founders of the Tendai and the Shingon sects, were greatly influenced by the Lotus Sutra, in particular by the Devadatta chapter, in which the dragon king’s daughter attained “sudden” enlightenment. The Lotus Sutra forms the basis for the Nichiren sect (which emerged in the twelfth century). The Nichiren chant, Namu myoho renge kyo (“honor to the Lotus Sutra”) is well known.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kashiwahara, Y., and K. Sonoda, eds. Shapers of Japanese Buddhism. Tokyo: Kosei, 1994. Essays on Saicho, Kukai, and Nichiren and their relation to the Lotus Sutra. Bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Niwano, N. A Guide to the Threefold “Lotus Sutra.” Tokyo: Kosei, 1981. A general introduction to the Lotus Sutra with discussion of each chapter. Glossary and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pye, M. Skillful Means: A Concept in Mahāyāna Buddhism. London: Gerald Duckworth, 1978. The only book-length analysis of skillful or expedient means, which forms the core of the Lotus Sutra. Bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tanabe, G., and W. Tanabe, eds. The “Lotus Sutra” in Japanese Culture. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1989. A useful collection of essays on the influence of the Lotus Sutra on Japanese Buddhism, art, and society. Bibliography and index.
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