Sutra–meaning, “something woven together”, in this case a series of teachings–is the word used for a Buddhist scripture. There are many sutras in the various traditions of Buddhism. Most of the early ones comprise the Pali Canon. In this series, I’ll be exploring the Lotus Sutra, which is the most revered document in Mahayana (Greater Vehicle) Buddhism.
In the introductory portion of the Lotus Sutra, the Buddhas hold in their mind and teach the Sutra of Innumerable Meanings for the benefit of the bodhisatvas, which are beings who are in the process of awakening to buddhahood: essentially, future Buddhas.
This indicates the idea of transmission from realized beings to awakening ones. Transmission ensures that the momentum of collective progress towards a culture of ataraxia and happiness is not lost in each generation, but that it continues and grows.
The Lotus Sutra contains within it, or is part of, a trilogy: 1. the introductory Sutra of Immeasurable Meanings, 2. the main portion (formally known as the Lotus Sutra), and 3. a sutra on how to practice a certain kind of meditation which (together with the initial Sutra of Innumerable Meanings) is mentioned in the central portion. This means that the other two, smaller sutras “live inside” the Lotus Sutra.
According to the initial Sutra of Immeasurable Meanings, the Buddhas instruct bodhisatvas that they must first study the ever-changing nature of things and phenomena (how they emerge, change, and reach extinction). Then they may move on to understanding ethics, and studying the desires and natures of living beings. This resonates with the three-fold Epicurean Canon-Physics-Ethics process of transmission. It is only once we understand the nature of things, that we can understand how to properly live and teach others.
Because the natures and desires and tendencies of sentient beings are immeasurable in number, the teaching is also immeasurable in number because its meanings and interpretations are immeasurable in number. Therefore, numerous methods are needed to free beings from suffering and lead them to the goal of delight, happiness, or pleasure known as sukkha.
In the sutra, this is understood to be the central crux or difficulty of the Buddhas. It’s the prevalent question that the early Buddhist masters who wrote the sutra were seeking to evaluate and answer, and the reason why they wrote the Lotus Sutra. How could they reach those who were too undisciplined or unpolished to cultivate happiness?
You should understand that this wonderful Law
is the secret crux of the buddhas.
In an evil world of the five impurities
those who merely delight in and are attached to the desires,
living beings such as this
in the end will never seek the buddha way.
The Lotus Sutra, Chapter Two: On Expedient Means
These early Buddhist masters had experienced deep compassion for suffering beings, but in the process of humbling themselves in order to help alleviate their suffering–as they had seen that Shakyamuni had done thousands of times throughout his decades of preaching–they confronted great difficulties and had to accept that different and creative methods were needed in order to reach different kinds of suffering beings. They had to, in a way, learn to “speak the many languages” understood by suffering beings.
A communal “vehicle” to save humans from suffering must always contend with this difficulty. The Lotus Sutra can be understood as having emerged from the shared efforts of early Buddhist masters to confront it, and it’s within the context of methods of transmission that these difficulties are addressed–which is why in the Lotus Sutra we are initially presented with an image of the Sutra of Immeasurable Meanings being transmitted from the mind of the Buddhas to bodhisatvas, or future Budhas. This may have indicated the process of oral transmission which is still today carried out in many Buddhist lineages, where one Master will recite, word-for-word and without interpretation or change, entire sutras to his followers, who must then memorize them word-for-word. In this manner, the accuracy and legitimacy of the teaching is preserved.
In our own tradition, we see that Lucretius engaged artistic people through poetry,Lucian engaged cynical people through comedy, and Philodemus had to adapt the teaching for the upper class of Roman times whereas the initial four masters had an intimate, egalitarian Greek community that was unconcerned with patrician worries. In this manner, these teachers were all able to efficiently reach people with different sensibilities.
One final note must be said about transmission, before we move on to other considerations. Like Mahayana Buddhism, the Epicurean doctrine was deemed to have salvific properties. Empress Plotina in the 2nd Century, for instance, called Epicurus her Savior. It may be argued that the salvific power of a doctrine lies in its ability to preserve itself communally, and that it’s therefore tied to the processes of transmission itself. This is why salvific religions and philosophies tend to be most keen to proselytise.
This makes better sense if we think of it in terms of what transmission does: it ensures that a community will pass on certain cultural memes to the following generation. This process requires that the community seek out new recipients for the teaching and that it continues to expand.
Seen in light of the paradigm created by the bit of research I shared in the last blog on how happiness is contagious, it becomes clear that the passing on of cultural memes tied to the science of happiness creates not only the process of transmission of salvific teachings, but also the societal environment in which those teachings most effectively blossom and have the strongest effect. This is why the sangha, or community of awakening beings, is one of the three jewels in which Buddhists take refuge, and it’s why holy friendship is frequently praised throughout the Epicurean writings.