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The Lotus Sutra

translated from the chinese by
Gene Reeves (Wisdom Publication, Boston, Rissho Kosei Kai, 2008)

16. The Lifetime of the Tathagata



At that time the Buddha said to the bodhisattvas and to all the great assembly: "Have faith in and understand, all you good sons, the truthful words of the Tathagata." Again he said to the great assembly: "Have faith in and understand the truthful words of the Tathagata." And yet again he said to the great assembly: "Have faith in and understand the truthful words of the Tathagata."

Then the great multitude of bodhisattvas, Maitreya at their head, put their palms together and said to the Buddha: "World-Honored One, we beg you to explain this matter. We will believe and accept the Buddha's words." They said this three times, repeating the words: "We beg you to explain this matter. We will believe and accept the Buddha's words."

Then the World-Honored One, knowing that the bodhisattvas' request, now repeated three times, would not be stopped, said to them: "You should all listen carefully to hear about the Tathagata's secret and divine powers. In all the worlds, the humans, heavenly beings, and asuras think that the present Shakyamuni Buddha left the palace of the Shakya clan, sat at the place of the Way not far from the city of Gaya, and attained supreme awakening. But, my good sons, in fact there have been innumerable, unlimited hundreds of thousands of billions of myriads of eons since I became a buddha.

"Suppose someone were to take five hundred thousand billions of myriads of countless three-thousand great thousandfold worlds and grind them into dust. Then, after going east through five hundred thousand billions of myriads of innumerable lands, one of those specks of dust was deposited. And suppose he continued eastward until he had used up all those specks. What do you think, my good sons? Is it possible to imagine or calculate the number of all those worlds?"

Maitreya Bodhisattva and the others said to the Buddha: "World-Honored One, those worlds are innumerable, unlimited, beyond the reach of calculation and beyond the reach of thought. Not even all the shravakas and pratyekabuddhas, with their flawless wisdom, would be able to imagine or understand such numbers. And we too, though we are at the stage of non-regression, cannot comprehend these matters. World-Honored One, such worlds would be innumerable and unlimited."

Then the Buddha said to all those bodhisattva great ones: "Good sons, now I will speak to you clearly. Suppose you took all those worlds, where a speck of dust has been deposited and where none has been deposited, and reduced them to dust. Let one speck be equal to an eon. The time that has passed since I became a buddha exceeds these by hun­dreds of thousands of billions of myriads of countless eons. Since that time I have constantly been in this world preaching, teaching, and transforming. And in other places, in hundreds of thousands of billions of myriads of countless other lands, I have led and enriched living beings

"Good sons, during this time I have talked about the Buddha Burning Light and others, and have told of their entering nirvana. In all of this I used skillful means to analyze things.

"Good sons, whenever living beings come to me, I use my Buddha's eyes to observe whether the faculties of their faith and so on are keen or dull. Accordingly, I appear in various places under different names and speak of the length of time during which my teachings will be effective. Sometimes I tell them I will enter nirvana. In various skillful ways, I teach the profound and wonderful Dharma, leading the living to rejoice.

"Good sons, the Tathagata sees that among the living there are those who prefer lesser teachings, and are of little virtue and heavy with filth. For these people I teach about how as a young man I left home and attained supreme awakening. But in reality the time since I became a buddha is very long, as I have said. It is just that I use skillful means to teach and transform living beings, so that they may enter the way of the Buddha.

"Good sons, all the sutras preached by the Tathagata are for the pur pose of saving all the living. Sometimes I speak of myself, sometimes of others; sometimes I appear as myself, sometimes as someone else; some­times I appear in my own actions, sometimes in the actions of others; but all that I say is true and not empty.

"Why is this? The Tathagata has insight into the character of the threefold world as it really is. Nothing is simply real, nothing simply empty, nothing as it seems, nothing the opposite. The threefold world is not as we experience it. The Tathagata sees all such things clearly, without mistake. "Because living beings have different natures, different desires, different activities, and different assumptions and ways of analyzing things, and because I wanted to lead them to put down roots of goodness, I have used a variety of causal explanations, parables, and other kinds of expression to share various teachings. I have never for a moment neglected the Buddha's work.

"Thus, since I became Buddha a very long time has passed, a lifetime of innumerable countless eons of constantly living here and never entering extinction. Good sons, from the beginning I have practiced the bodhisattva way, and that life is not yet finished, but will be twice as long as what has already passed. Even now, though I will not actually enter extinction, I announce that I will adopt the way of extinction. By using such skillful means, the Tathagata teaches and transforms living beings.

"Why is this? If the Buddha lives for a long time in this world, people of little virtue will not plant roots of goodness, and those who are poor and of humble origins will become attached to the five desires and be caught in a net of assumptions and false views. If they see that the Tathagata is always alive and never extinct, they will become arrogant and selfish or discouraged and neglectful. Unable to realize how difficult it is to meet him, they will not have a respectful attitude toward him.

"Therefore the Tathagata teaches by using skillful means, saying: `Monks, you should know that it is difficult to meet a buddha who has come into the world.' Why is this? In the course of countless hundreds of thousands of billions of eons, some people of little virtue may see a buddha while others may never see one. For this reason I say this: `Monks, it is difficult to see a tathagata.' Living beings, hearing such words, surely will realize that it is difficult to meet a buddha. They will yearn for one. Then they will cultivate roots of goodness. This is why the Tathagata announces his extinction even though he does not in reality become extinct.

"Good sons, the teachings of all the buddha-tathagatas are all like this. They are for the sake of liberating all the living. They are true and not empty.

"Suppose, for instance, there is a fine physician who is wise and clever and knows how to make medicines for curing all sorts of disease. He has many sons say, ten, twenty, even a hundred. To take care of some busi­ness he goes offto a distant land. After he leaves, his children drink some poisonous drugs, which drives them into deliriums of agony and leaves them writhing on the ground.
"At this point their father comes back home to find the sons have drunk the poison. Some have lost their minds, others have not. Seeing their father in the distance, they are all very happy. Kneeling to greet him, they say: `How good it is that you have returned safely! Foolishly we have taken some poison by mistake. Please heal us and give us back our lives.

"The father sees his children in such suffering and agony and, follow­ing various formulas, looks for good medicinal herbs, perfect in color, fragrance, and flavor. Then he pounds, sifts, and mixes them and gives them to his children, telling them: `This excellent medicine is perfect in color, fragrance, and flavor. Take it and you will quickly be rid of your suffering and agony, and be free from the illness.'
"Those children who have not lost their minds, seeing this excellent medicine of good color and fragrance, take it immediately and are completely cured of their illness. The others, who have lost their minds, arc also happy to see their father return and ask him to heal their illness. Yet when the medicine is given to them, they refuse to take it.

Why? Because the poison has penetrated deeply into them and they have lost their minds. Even though this medicine has good color and fragrance, they think it is no good.

"The father thinks to himself: `These poor children. Because of the poison in them, their minds are completely unbalanced. Though they are glad to see me and ask to be healed, they refuse to take this good medicine. Now I have to use some skillful means to get them to take this medicine.' Then he says to them: `You should know that I am now worn out with old age, and the time for me to die has now arrived. I will leave this excellent medicine here. You should take it and not worry that it will not make you better.' After instructing them in this way, he leaves again for another land, from which he sends back a messenger to inform them: `Your father is dead.'

"Good sons, what do you think? Can anyone say that this fine physician is lying?"

"No, World-Honored One."

The Buddha said: "I too am like this. Since I became Buddha, innu­merable, unlimited hundreds of thousands of billions of myriads of countless eons have passed. For the sake of living beings, I use the power of skillful means and say that I will take the way of extinction. Yet, tak­ing the circumstances into account, no one can accuse me of being guilty of lying."

At that time the World-Honored One, wanting to restate what he meant, spoke in verse:

Since I became a buddha,
Innumerable hundreds of thousands Of billions of countless
Numbers of eons have passed.
For countless eons I have taught the Dharma ceaselessly,
Teaching and transforming
Innumerable hundreds of millions of living beings,
Enabling them to enter the Buddha way.

In order to liberate the living,
As a skillful means I appear to enter nirvana.
Yet truly I am not extinct.
I am always here teaching the Dharma.
I am always here.
But due to my divine powers
Perverse living beings fail to see me
Even though I am close.
When the many see me as extinct
They make offerings to my remains everywhere.
All long for me,
Adore and yearn for me.
And when the living have become faithful,
Honest and upright and gentle,
And wholeheartedly want to see the Buddha,
Even at the cost of their own lives,
Then, together with the assembly of monks
I appear on Holy Eagle Peak.
Then I tell all the living
That I am always here, not extinct.
Yet by the power of skillful means
I reveal both extinction and non-extinction.
If there are living beings in other lands
Who are reverent and sincere in their faith,
Then among them as well
I will teach the unexcelled Dharma.

Not hearing about this,
You think only that I am extinct.
When I look at living beings,
I see them drowning in a sea of suffering.

So I do not show myself,
Making them adore and yearn for me
Until they are full oflonging.
Then I appear to teach the Dharma for them.

Such are my divine powers.
Throughout countless eons,
I have always lived on Holy Eagle Peak
And in various other places.

When the living witness the end of an eon,
When everything is consumed in a great fire,
This land of mine remains safe and tranquil,
Always filled with human and heavenly beings.

Its gardens and groves, halls and pavilions,
Are adorned with all kinds of gems.
Jeweled trees are full of flowers and fruit,
And living beings freely enjoy themselves.

Gods beat on heavenly drums,
Always making various kinds of music.
Mandarava blossoms rain down
And are scattered over the Buddha and the great assembly.

My Pure Land will never be destroyed,
Yet the multitude see it as being consumed in fire,
Everywhere filled with grief and fear
And all kinds of suffering.

Sinful living beings,
Because of the evil they have done in the past
Throughout countless eons,
Fail to hear the names of the three treasusers.

But those who do good,
Who are gentle and honest,
Will all see me here
Teaching the Dharma.

At times for this multitude
I teach that the Buddha's life is immeasurable,
And to those who see the Buddha only after a long time
I teach that it is difficult to meet a buddha.

The power of my wisdom is such
That its light shines immeasurably.
I gained this life of countless eons
From long-cultivated practice.

You who are wise
Should have no doubt about this.
You should reject doubt forever,
For the Buddha's words are true, not false.

Like the physician who uses skillful means
To cure his deranged children,
Though actually alive, he announces his death,
Yet cannot be, charged with lying.

I am the father of this world,
Healing all who suffer or are sick.
For the sake of ordinary, perverse people,
Though truly alive, I say I am extinct.

If people see me all the time,
They become arrogant and selfish,
Indulge in the five desires without restraint,
And fall into evil paths.

I always know which living beings
Practice the Way and which do not.
In accord with what they need to be saved,
I share various teachings for them.

I am always thinking:
"How can I lead all the living
To enter the unexcelled way
And quickly perfect their Buddha-bodies?"

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