The White Lotus of the Good Dharma
The Lifespan of the Tathāgata
Degé Kangyur, vol. 51 (mdo sde, ja), folios 1.b–180.b
Translated by Peter Alan Roberts
under the patronage and supervision of 84000: Translating the Words of the Buddha
First published 2018
Current version v 1.2.12 (2022)
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The White Lotus of the Good Dharma, popularly known as the Lotus Sūtra, is taught by Buddha Śākyamuni on Vulture Peak to an audience that includes bodhisattvas from countless realms, as well as bodhisattvas who emerge from under the ground, from the space below this world. Buddha Prabhūtaratna, who has long since passed into nirvāṇa, appears within a floating stūpa to hear the sūtra, and Śākyamuni enters the stūpa and sits beside him. The Lotus Sūtra is celebrated, particularly in East Asia, for its presentation of crucial elements of the Mahāyāna tradition, such as the doctrine that there is only one yāna, or “vehicle”; the distinction between expedient and definite teachings; and the notion that the Buddha’s life, enlightenment, and parinirvāṇa were simply manifestations of his transcendent buddhahood, while he continues to teach eternally. A recurring theme in the sūtra is its own significance in teaching these points during past and future eons, with many passages in which the Buddha and bodhisattvas such as Samantabhadra describe the great benefits that come from devotion to it, the history of its past devotees, and how it is the Buddha’s ultimate teaching, supreme over all other sūtras.
The White Lotus of the Good Dharma Sūtra was translated from Tibetan with reference to the Sanskrit by Peter Alan Roberts. Ling Lung Chen was the consultant for the Chinese versions. Emily Bower was the project manager and editor. Ben Gleason was the proofreader.
The translation was completed under the patronage and supervision of 84000: Translating the Words of the Buddha.
The generous sponsorship of May & George Gu, which helped make the work on this translation possible, is most gratefully acknowledged.
The Lifespan of the Tathāgata
Then the Bhagavān said to the complete assembly of bodhisattvas, “Noble ones, have faith and certainty in the true words that I, the Tathāgata, will speak.”
The Bhagavān said a second time, and a third time, to those bodhisattvas, “Noble ones, have faith and certainty in the true words that I, the Tathāgata, will speak. Noble ones, have faith and certainty in the true words that I, the Tathāgata, will speak.”
At this, the complete assembly of bodhisattvas, with bodhisattva mahāsattva Maitreya standing in front to them, with hands together in homage, requested, “Bhagavān, explain the meaning to us. Sugata, explain it to us. We will believe what the Tathāgata says.” A second time, the complete assembly of bodhisattvas requested the Bhagavān, “Bhagavān, explain the meaning to us. Sugata, explain it to us. We will believe what the Tathāgata says.” A third time, the complete assembly of bodhisattvas requested the Bhagavān, “Bhagavān, explain the meaning to us. Sugata, explain it to us. We will believe what the Tathāgata says.”
Then the Bhagavān, knowing that the bodhisattvas had made their request three times, said to those bodhisattvas, “And so, noble ones, listen to what has arisen because of the power of my samādhi.444
“Noble ones, the world with its devas, humans, and asuras thinks and believes, ‘Bhagavān Śākyamuni departed from his Śākya clan into mendicancy, went to the preeminent, supreme Bodhimaṇḍa, and attained the highest, complete enlightenment of buddhahood by the city of Gayā.’ [F.118.b] However, noble ones, I attained the highest, complete enlightenment of buddhahood many hundreds of thousands of quintillions of eons ago.
“Noble sons, it is like this: If there were a man who picked up one atom from among the atoms of the element of earth in countless445 fifty hundred thousand quintillion world realms, and he were to carry it in an eastern direction until he had passed countless, fifty hundred thousand quintillion world realms, and were then to deposit that atom there; and if he were to continue on further in that way446 until the entire element of earth in all those world realms was gone, depositing the atoms in that manner, in that way, into world realms in an eastern direction, then, noble ones, do you think that anyone could conceive of, or calculate, count, or determine the number of those world realms?”
The bodhisattva mahāsattva Maitreya and the complete assembly of bodhisattvas said to the Bhagavān, “Bhagavān, those world realms are numberless, are innumerable, and are beyond the capacity of the mind. Bhagavān, even all the śrāvakas and pratyekabuddhas with their higher wisdom could not conceive of, calculate, or determine their number. Bhagavān, even for us bodhisattvas on the level of irreversibility this subject is beyond the scope of our thoughts. Bhagavān, the number of those world realms would be incalculable.”
The Bhagavān said to those bodhisattva mahāsattvas, “Noble ones, I declare to you, I proclaim to you,447 [F.119.a] noble ones, in those world realms in which that man would deposit atoms, and, noble sons, those in which he did not deposit them, there are not, in all those hundreds of thousands of quintillions of world realms, noble sons, as many atoms as there are hundreds of thousands of quintillions of eons since I attained the highest complete enlightenment of buddhahood. Since I began teaching the Dharma to beings in this Sahā world realm and in another hundred thousand quintillion world realms, noble ones, those other tathāgatas, arhats, perfectly enlightened buddhas whom I have previously mentioned, beginning with Tathāgata Dīpaṃkara, and the passing into nirvāṇa of those tathāgatas, arhats, perfectly enlightened buddhas, were my emanations, noble ones, in order to accomplish the teaching of the Dharma through skillful methods. Moreover, noble ones, the Tathāgata, on seeing the extent of the faculties and diligence of the successive beings of future times, states what will be his name in those times, and states when his passing into nirvāṇa will occur, and in that way he will satisfy beings with various kinds of Dharma teachings.448
“Noble ones, the Tathāgata says to beings with various aspirations, few roots of merit, and many kleśas, ‘Bhikṣus, I am young; I renounced my family and it has not been long, bhikṣus, since I have attained the highest, complete enlightenment of perfect buddhahood.’
“Noble ones, even though it has thus been a long time since the Tathāgata attained the highest, complete enlightenment of perfect buddhahood, he says, ‘It has not been long since I attained the highest, complete enlightenment of perfect buddhahood.’ [F.119.b] That kind of Dharma was taught solely for the purpose of ripening beings and bringing them into the teaching.
“Noble ones, all those Dharma teachings were taught by the Tathāgata in order to guide beings.
“Noble ones, the words the Tathāgata speaks in order to guide beings, whether spoken by myself or spoken by someone else, whether concerning myself or concerning anyone else—whatever Dharma teachings the Tathāgata has taught, all are the truth that is spoken by the Tathāgata. The Tathāgata does not lie.
“Why is that? The Tathāgata has seen the three realms exactly as they are:449 there is no birth, no death, no transmigration, no becoming, no saṃsāra, no nirvāṇa, no being, no nonbeing, no existence, no nonexistence, no ‘like this,’ no ‘not like this,’ no ‘untrue,’ and no ‘not untrue.’ The Tathāgata does not see the three realms in the way that ordinary, foolish beings see them. Concerning this, the Tathāgata has the direct perception of phenomena, and there is no phenomenon of which he is oblivious. Therefore, whatever the Tathāgata says is all the truth, without any lies. However, as beings have different kinds of conduct, different kinds of aspirations, and different kinds of perception and conception, in order that they may develop roots of merit, the Tathāgata teaches many kinds of Dharma teachings, with many kinds of goals.
“Noble ones, whatever the Tathāgata has to do, that is what the Tathāgata does. The Tathāgata, who has attained perfect buddhahood a long time ago, has an immeasurable lifespan. [F.120.a] He always remains and does not pass into nirvāṇa, but creates the appearance of passing into nirvāṇa in order to benefit his students.
“Noble ones, I still have an entire lifespan of twice times a hundred thousand quintillion eons. Although I will not pass into nirvāṇa, I state that I am going to pass into nirvāṇa. Why is that? Noble ones, it is in order to ripen beings through this Dharma teaching. If I were not to pass into nirvāṇa and were to remain for a long time, because I would be constantly seen, beings would not create roots of merit. They would become destitute, devoid of merit, indulging in desires, blind, and caught in the net of wrong views. Thinking, ‘The Tathāgata remains,’ they would perceive him as easy to meet450 and would not perceive him as difficult to meet. They would think, ‘The Tathāgata is with us,’ and would not be diligently dedicated to escaping from the three realms. They would not view a tathāgata as being rare.
“Therefore, noble ones, the Tathāgata, using skillful method, states, ‘Bhikṣus, it is very difficult to find the appearance of the tathāgatas.’ Why is that? For those beings, it is possible that they may see a tathāgata after many hundred thousands of quintillions of eons, and it is possible that they will not.
“Noble ones, considering this, I say, ‘Bhikṣus, the appearance of a tathāgata is difficult to find,’ so that conceiving that the appearance of a tathāgata is difficult to find they perceive it as a wonder, and they have the understanding that a tathāgata passes into nirvāṇa. When they do not see the Tathāgata,451 [F.120.b] they will thirst for the sight of him. The roots of merit from the mind being focused upon the Tathāgata will bring good results, benefits, and happiness for a long time. Knowing this, for the sake of those to be guided, the Tathāgata announces that he will pass into nirvāṇa even though he does not pass into nirvāṇa.
“Noble ones, it is as if there were a man who is a physician who is wise, eminent, learned, intelligent, very skilled,452 and could cure all illnesses, and that man has many sons—ten, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty, a hundred, or a thousand. That physician goes away to somewhere else, and all his sons take a poisonous drink, or a venomous drink. As a result of that poison or venom, they are tormented and tortured by the sensations of suffering and roll around on the ground. Then their father, the physician, returns from his journey. His sons are in distress from the suffering caused by that poison or venom. Some have deluded perceptions and some do not have deluded perception but all are in distress from suffering. They are happy to see their father and say to him, ‘Father, you have returned happily and safely. Free us from this poison or venom that is destroying our bodies. Save our lives!’
“Their father sees that they are distressed by suffering, that they are tormented and tortured by illness and are rolling around on the ground. He gathers together great herbs with excellent color, aroma, and taste and grinds them on a stone. He tells his sons to drink this mixture, saying, ‘Sons, drink this great medicine that is colorful, aromatic, and tasty [F.121.a] Noble ones, if you drink this excellent medicine you will quickly be freed from the poison or venom, and will be happy and healthy.’
“Then the physician’s sons who do not have deluded perception see the color of the medicine, smell its aroma, taste its flavor, and quickly drink it. They become completely free from all illness. His sons who have deluded perception praise their father, saying, ‘Father, you have returned happily and safely. Heal us!’ but they do not drink the medicine. Why is that? Because their perception is deluded, they did not like the color of the medicine, did not like its smell, and did not like its taste. Then the physician thinks, ‘These sons of mine have deluded perception because of the poison or venom and so will not drink the medicine, but they are praising me. I will use a skillful method to make them drink this medicine.’
“Then the physician, wishing to use a skillful method to make his sons drink the medicine, says to them, ‘Noble ones, I am old, advanced in years, and aged. The time of my death is close. Sons, do not be sad. Do not be unhappy. If you need great medicine, take this medicine.’ Having instructed them in this way as a skillful method he goes to another land, and having gone there, sends news to his sick sons that he is dying. Then they become very sad, wail and weep, thinking, ‘Our only father, protector, progenitor, who had compassion for us has died, and so now we have no protector!’ They see that they are without a protector; they see that they have no refuge, and are overcome by sorrow.
“Through becoming overcome by sorrow, those whose perceptions are deluded gain undeluded perception. Then they can perceive the color, aroma, and taste of the medicine’s color, aroma, and taste, and at that time they drink it. [F.121.b] Once they have drunk it they become free from their illness. When the physician knows that his sons have been cured he then reveals himself to them.
“Noble ones, what do you think? Should someone who has used such a skillful method be called a liar?”
“Noble ones,” he continued, “in the same way, although I attained the highest, complete enlightenment of perfect buddhahood countless, innumerable hundreds of thousands of quintillions of eons ago, I sometimes teach as a skillful method such as this in order to guide beings. In this matter, I am not in any way a liar.”
This concludes “The Lifespan of the Tathāgata,” the fifteenth chapter of the Dharma teaching of “The White Lotus of the Good Dharma.”
Translated, revised, and finalized by the Indian Upādhyāya Surendrabodhi and the chief editor Lotsawa Bandé Nanam Yeshé Dé.
Tibetan Editions of the Sūtra
dam chos padma dkar po’i mdo (Saddharmapuṇḍarīkasūtra) [The White Lotus of the Good Dharma]. Toh 113, Degé Kangyur, 103 vols. New Delhi: Karmapae Chodhey Gyalwae Sungrab Patrun Khang, 1976–79, vol. 51 (mdo sde, ja), folios 1a–180b.
———. bka’ ’gyur (dpe bsdur ma) [Comparative Edition of the Kangyur], krung go’i bod rig pa zhib ’jug ste gnas kyi bka’ bstan dpe sdur khang (The Tibetan Tripitaka Collation Bureau of the China Tibetology Research Center). 108 volumes. Beijing: krung go’i bod rig pa dpe skrun khang (China Tibetology Publishing House), 2006–2009, vol. 51 (mdo sde, ja), pp. 3–427.
———. Choné Kangyur (co ne bka’ ’gyur). 108 vols. Choné: co ne par khang, 1926, vol. 31 (mdo sde, ja), folios 1–212b.
———. Lhasa Kangyur (lha sa bka’ ’gyur). 100 vols. Lhasa: zhol bka’ ’gyur par khang, 1934, vol. 53 (mdo sde, ja), folios 1b–285b.
———. Narthang Kangyur (snar thang bka’ ’gyur). 102 vols. Narthang: snar thang par khang, eighteenth century, vol. 53 (mdo sde, ja), folios 1b–281b.
———. Stok Palace Kangyur (stog pho brang bris ma bka’ ’gyur). 109 vols. Leh: smad rtsis shes rig dpe mdzod, 1975–80. vol. 67 (mdo sde, ma), folios 1a–270b.
———. Urga Kangyur (ur ga bka’ ’gyur). New Delhi: International Academy of Indian Culture, 1990–94. vol. 51 (mdo sde, ja), folios 1a–180b.
Khangkar, Tsultrim Kelsang (ed.) bod gyur dam pa’i chos padma dkar po zhes bya ba theg pa chen po’i mdo: Tibetan Translation of Saddharmapuṇḍarīka-sūtra. Nyin bod nang rig deb grangs (Japanese and Tibetan Buddhist Culture Series) XI. Kyoto: Tibetan Buddhist Culture Association, 2009.
Sanskrit Editions of the Sūtra
Zhongxin, Jiang. Sanskrit Lotus Sutra Fragments from the Lüshun Museum Collection. Tokyo: Sōka Gakkai, 1997.
Vaidya, P. L. Saddharmapuṇḍarīkasūtra. Darbhanga: The Mithila Institute of Post-Graduate Studies and Research in Sanskrit Learning, 1960.
Watanabe, Shōkō. Saddharmapuṇḍarīka Manuscripts Found in Gilgit. Tokyo: Reiyukai, 1972–75.
Wogihara, Unrai and Tsuchida, Chikao. Saddharmapuṇḍarīka-sūtram: Romanized and Revised Text of the Bibliotheca Buddhica publication by consulting a Sanskrit Ms. & Tibetan and Chinese translations. Tōkyō: Seigo-Kenkyūkai, 1934–35.
Translations of the Sūtra
Borsig, Margareta von. Lotos-Sutra: Das Große Erleuchtungsbuch des Buddhismus. Freiburg: Herder, 2003.
Burnouf, Eugene. Le lotus de la bonne loi. Paris: L’imprimerie Nationale, 1852.
Hurvitz, Leon. Scripture of the Lotus Blossom of the Fine Dharma. New York: Columbia University Press, 1976.
Katō, Bunnō. “The Sutra of the Lotus Flower of the Wonderful Law.” In The Threefold Lotus Sutra, translated by Bunnō Katō, Yoshirō Tamura, and Kōjirō Miyasaka, with revisions by W. E. Soothill, Wilhelm Schiffer, and Pier P. Del Campana, 18–213. New York and Tokyo: Weatherhill and Kosei, 1993.
Kern, H. Saddharma-Puṇḍarīka or the Lotus of the Good Law. Sacred Books of the East XXII. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1884.
Kubo, Tsugunari and Akira Yuyama. The Lotus Sutra. Berkeley: Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research (revised second edition), 2007.
Montgomery, Daniel B. The Lotus Sutra: The Sutra of the Lotus Flower of the Wonderful Dharma. Tokyo: Nichiren Shu Headquarters, 1991.
Murano, Senchū. The Lotus Sutra: Sutra of the Lotus of the Wonderful Dharma. Hayward, CA: Nichiren Buddhist International Center, 1974.
Reeves, Gene. The Lotus Sutra: A Contemporary Translation of a Buddhist Classic. Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2008.
Soothill, W.E. The Lotus of the Wonderful Law, or The Lotus Gospel. Richmond: Curzon Press, 1987.
Watson, Burton. The Lotus Sutra. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.
Other Kangyur Texts
rgya cher rol pa’i mdo (Lalitavistarasūtra, Toh 95. Degé Kangyur vol. 46 (mdo sde, kha), folios 1b–216b. English translation in Dharmachakra Translation committee (2013).
ting nge ’dzin gyi rgyal po’i mdo (Samādhirājasūtra), Toh 127, Degé Kangyur vol. 55 (mdo sde, da), folios 1a–175b. English translation in Roberts (2018).
de bzhin gshegs pa thams cad kyi gsang ba’i mdo (Tathāgataghuyakasūtra) [The Secret of the Tathāgatas Sūtra]. Toh 443, Degé Kangyur vol. 81 (rgyud, ca), folios 90a–157b.
phal po che’i mdo (Avataṁsakasūtra) [A Multitude of Buddhas Sūtra]. Toh 44, Degé Kangyur vols. 35–38 (phal chen, ka–a), folios ka 1a–nga 363a.
lang kar gshegs pa’i mdo (Laṅkāvatārasūtra) [The Entry into Laṅka Sutra]. Toh 107, Degé Kangyur vol. 49 (mdo sde, ca), folios 56a–191b.
shes rab pha rol tu phyin pa brgyad stong pa (Aṣṭasāhasrikāprajñāpāramitā) [The Perfection of Wisdom in Eight Thousand Verses]. Toh 12, Degé Kangyur vol. 33 (brgyad stong pa, ka), folios 1b–286a.
sa bcu pa’i mdo (Daśabhūmikasūtra) [The Sūtra of the Ten Bhūmis]. Chapter 31, in Toh 44, Degé Kangyur vol. 36 (phal chen, kha), folios 166a–283a. English translation in Roberts (2021).
gser ’od dam pa’i mdo (Suvarṇaprabhāsūtra) [The Golden Light Sūtra]. Toh 556, Degé Kangyur vol. 89 (rgyud, pa), folios 151b–273a.
Abhayākaragupta. thub pa’i dgongs pa’i rgyan (Munimatālaṁkāra). Toh 3903, Degé Tengyur vol. 210 (dbu ma, a), folios 73b–293a.
Asaṅga. theg pa chen po rgyud bla ma’i bstan bcos rnam par bshad pa (Mahāyānottaratantraśāstravyākhyā). Toh 4025, Degé Tengyur vol. 225 (sems tsam, phi), folios 74b–129a.
Candrakīrti. dbu ma la ’jug pa’i bshad pa (Madhyamakāvatārabhāṣya). Toh 3862, Degé Tengyur vol. 204 (dbu ma, ’a), folios 220b–348a.
———. byang chub sems dpa’i rnal ’byor spyod pa bzhi brgya pa’i ’grel pa (Bodhisattvayogacaryācatuḥśatakaṭīkā) Toh 3865, Degé Tengyur vol. 205 (dbu ma, ya), folios 30b–239a.
Daṃṣṭrāsena, Vasubandhu, or neither. shes rab kyi pha rol tu phyin pa ’bum pa dang nyi khri lnga stong pa dang khri brgyad stong pa’i rgya cher bshad pa (Śatasāhasrikāpañcaviṁśatisāhasrikaṣṭādaśasāhasrikāprajñāpāramitābṛhaṭṭīkā). Toh 3808, Degé Tengyur vol. 93 (sher phyin, pha), folios 1a–292b. English translation in Sparham (2022).
Dharmamitra. tshig rab tu gsal ba (Prasphuṭapadā). Toh 3796, Degé Tengyur vol. 87 (sher phyin, nya), folios 1a–110a.
Jānavajra. de bzhin gshegs pa’i snying po’i rgyan (Tathāgatahṛdayālaṁkāra). Toh 4019, Degé Tengyur vol. 224 (mdo ’grel, pi), folios 1a–310a.
Kamalaśīla. shes rab kyi pha rol tu phyin pa bdun brgya pa rgya cher bshad pa (Saptaśatikāprajñāpāramitāṭīkā). Toh 3815, Degé Tengyur vol. 95 (sher phyin, ma), folios 89a–178a.
Maitreya-Asaṅga. theg pa chen po rgyud bla ma’i bstan bcos (Mahāyānottaratantraśāstra) [A Mahāyāna Treatise on the Supreme Continuum]. Toh 4024, Degé Tengyur vol. 225 (sems tsam, phi), folios 54b–73a.
Nāgārjuna. mdo kun las btus pa (Sūtrasamuccaya). Toh 3934, Degé Tengyur vol. 212 (dbu ma, ki), folios 148b–215a.
Saitsalak (sa’i rtsa lag, Kuiji, Pṛthivībandhu). dam pa’i chos padma dkar po’i ’grel pa. Toh 4017, Degé Tengyur, vol. 120 (mdo ’grel, di), folios 175b–302a.
———. dam pa’i chos padma dkar po’i ’grel pa. bstan ’gyur (dpe bsdur ma) [Comparative Edition of the Tengyur], krung go’i bod rig pa zhib ’jug ste gnas kyi bka’ bstan dpe sdur khang (The Tibetan Tripitaka Collation Bureau of the China Tibetology Research Center). 120 volumes. Beijing: krung go’i bod rig pa dpe skrun khang (China Tibetology Publishing House), 1994–2008, vol. 69 (mdo sde, di, vol. 135), pp. 476–826.
Śāntideva. bslab pa kun las btus pa (Śikṣāsamuccaya). Toh 3940, Degé Tengyur vol. 111 (dbu ma, khi), folios 3a–194b.
Vasubandhu. theg pa chen po bsdus pa’i ’grel pa (Mahāyānasaṁgrahabhāṣya). Toh 4050, Degé Tengyur vol. 225 (sems tsam, yi), folios 121b–190a.
Wantsik (wan tshig, Yuan Tso). dgongs pa zab mo nges par ’grel pa (Gambhīrasaṁdhinirmocanasūtraṭīkā). Toh 4016, Degé Tengyur vols. 220–22 (mdo ’grel, ti–ti), folios ti 1a–di 175a.
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