The Lotus Sutra is widely regarded as one of the most important and influential sutras, or sacred scriptures, of Buddhism. It is highly valued in the Mahayana tradition, which spread throughout East Asia.
Its key message is that Buddhahood—a condition of absolute happiness, freedom from fear and from all illusions—is inherent in all life. The development of this inner life state enables all people to overcome their problems and live a fulfilled and active life, fully engaged with others and with society. Rather than stressing impermanence and the consequent need to eliminate earthly desires and attachments, the Lotus Sutra asserts the ultimate reality of the Buddha nature inherent in all life. It is therefore a teaching which profoundly affirms the realities of daily life, and which naturally encourages an active engagement with others and with the whole of human society.
The Lotus Sutra is also unique among the teachings of Shakyamuni in that it makes the attainment of enlightenment a possibility open to all people, without distinction based on gender, race, social standing or education. In this way, it is seen to be a full expression of Shakyamuni’s compassionate intention of opening the way to enlightenment to all people.
Six Chinese translations are recorded as having been made of the Lotus Sutra (Skt Saddharma-pun-darika-sutra; Chin Miao-fa-lien-hua-ching; Jpn Myoho-renge-kyo). Among these, the fifth-century translation of Kumarajiva (344-413), the Lotus Sutra of the Wonderful Law, is considered to be particularly outstanding and is the basis of the teachings that spread in China and Japan.
The Chinese Buddhist teacher T’ient’ai (538-597) divided the Lotus Sutra of the Wonderful Law into two parts: the first 14 chapters, which he called the theoretical teaching, and the latter 14 chapters, which he called the essential teaching. The theoretical teaching records the preaching of the historical Shakyamuni who is depicted as having first attained enlightenment during this lifetime in India. In the essential teaching, he discards his transient role as the historical Shakyamuni and reveals his true, eternally enlightened identity. The most important doctrine in the essential teaching, T’ient’ai says, is the revelation of this originally and eternally enlightened nature in the depths of Shakyamuni Buddha’s life.
Almost 2,000 years after Shakyamuni’s death, Nichiren, a 13th-century Japanese priest, distilled the profound theory of the Lotus Sutra into a practice which could enable every individual to reveal their Buddhahood, or highest state of life, in the midst of day-to-day reality.
The concluding words of the 16th chapter of the Lotus Sutra, recited daily by members of the SGI, encapsulate the Buddha’s compassionate concern: