Thursday, April 16, 2009

Underground Bodhisattvas, and Bodhisattvas from Outer Space

While the Buddha was teaching the Lotus Sutra, a group of Bodhisattvas from outer space came to listen. Word had spread across the Universe that there was a Buddha teaching the Lotus Sutra on a planet known as "earth". Some of these outer space Bodhisattvas said, "Oh, cool - the Lotus Sutra. It's about time those earthlings heard the news." But some Bodhisattvas went further, though: they wanted to be there in person to witness this great event, and they also wanted to offer their help to propagate the teaching of the Lotus Sutra to the earth beings.

The Buddha thanked the outer space Bodhisattvas for their offer of help - but then he said: "watch this." And just then vast numbers of Bodhisattvas ready to teach the Lotus Sutra arose "from out of the open space under the ground." The Buddha then explained that all of these "underground Bodhisattvas" had been diligently studying and practicing for countless ages, and that these great teachers are always present everywhere to come to the aid of suffering beings.

But everyone wanted to know how these chthonic Bodhisattvas had learned about the Lotus Sutra if the Buddha was only just now teaching that Sutra on earth. The Buddha explained that he had only appeared to have been born 80 years previously, and had only appeared to attain enlightenment 40 years after that. In reality, the Buddha said, he had attained awakening an inconceivably long time ago, and that he himself had taught the Lotus Sutra to the underground Bodhisattvas before he had even been "born" in this present body.

Tao-Sheng (ca.360-432 AD) has this very "down to earth" explanation of this famous episode in the Lotus Sutra:

"That the earth split and the bodhisattvas welled up suggests that living beings inherently possess an endowment for enlightenment, and it cannot remain concealed; they are bound to break the earth of defilements and emerge to safeguard the Dharma."

* The story of the underground bodhisattvas and the bodhisattvas from outer space is found in chapters 14-15 of the Lotus Sutra.

* Taigen Dan Leighton has a very nice summary of this incident in his book Visions of Awakening Space and Time: Dogen and the Lotus Sutra in the first chapter, which is titled The Pivotal Story of the Lotus Sutra.

* See also Leighton's Dogen's Appropriation of Lotus Sutra Ground and Space.

* The quote from Tao-Sheng is taken from Tao-sheng's Commentary on the Lotus Sutra: A Study and Translation by Young-he Kim.

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