Writings of Nichiren Shōnin Doctrine 2, pp. 137-139, 144

Two Nichiren Texts, pp. 76-79, 86

The Writings of Nichiren Daishōnin I, pp. 359-360, 364

Again and again the interlocutor in Kanjin Honzon-shō expresses his doubts that the Buddha, conceived by him as infinitely exalted, can reside within the minds of ordinary people. Why such grave doubts? People who have not grown up Buddhist or who have not read the sūtras or been involved with a living Buddhist tradition may only think of the Buddha as a person like ourselves but wiser, kinder, and perhaps more calm and self-controlled. He is to many of us a person who found true peace and reached the apogee of spiritual maturity. Traditional Buddhism, however, attributes to the Buddha powers, abilities, features, and aspects that are frankly supernatural or transcendental. Nichiren assumes that his readers would be familiar with these attributes of buddhahood. Given such transcendent view of the Buddha, how can it be possible for ordinary unenlightened people to contain the world of the Buddha within themselves? How is it possible that within the depths of our lives resides the same powers, and aspects and so forth? How can ordinary people have within them such an exalted nature? And yet, Nichiren will claim, based upon his understanding of the T’ien-t’ai teachings and his faith in the Lotus Sūtra, that there is indeed more to all of us than we can possibly imagine. So, in this chapter, to better understand what is being claimed in Kanjin Honzon-shō abut the nature of the Buddha and our own true nature, I will survey some of these traditional powers, abilities, features, and aspects. Frankly, I find it hard to give any credibility to these claims about supernatural powers, but at the same time I also find that these powers, abilities, features and aspects are an attempt to express something about the wonder of buddhahood and what it would be like to live awake and free.

From the very beginning there were questions about the nature of the Buddha. Was he a god, a mere human teacher of morality or something else? The Buddha did not see himself as definable in these or any other terms. Once, a bramin named Dona asked the Buddha if he was destined to become a deva (god), gandharva (celestial musician), a yaksha (nature spirit) or a human being in his next rebirth. In Pāli, apparently, the question could be interpreted as pertaining to either the present or a future rebirth. Bhikkhu Bodhi renders the question in the form of “could you be” rather than “could you become.” In any case, Dona politely asked about the Buddha’s present identity. The Buddha, however, denied that he would become anything in a future rebirth, and identified himself only as a buddha, an “awakened one.”

On one occasion the Blessed One was walking on the highway between Ukkatthā and Setavya. The brahmin Dona was also traveling along the highway between Ukkatthā and Setavya. The brahmin Dona then saw the thousand-spoked wheels of the Blessed One’s footprints, with their rims and hubs, complete in all respects, and thought: “It is astounding and amazing! These surely could not be the footprints of a human being!”

Then the Blessed One left the highway and sat down at the foot of a tree folding his legs crosswise, straightening his body, and establishing mindfulness in front of him. Tracking the Blessed One’s footprints, the brahmin Dona saw the Blessed One sitting at the foot of the tree – graceful, inspiring confidence, with peaceful faculties and peaceful mind, one who had attained to the highest taming and serenity, [like] a tamed and guarded bull elephant with controlled faculties. He then approached the Blessed One and said to him:

“Could you be a deva, sir?”

“I will not be a deva, brahmin.”

“Could you be a gandharva, brahmin?”

“I will not be a gandharva, brahmin?”

“Could you be a yakshas, sir?”

“I will not be a yakshas, brahmin.”

“Could you be a human being, sir?”

“I will not be a human being, brahmin.”

… “What then, could you be, sir?”

“Brahmin, I have abandoned those taints because of which I might have become a deva; I have cut them off at the root, made them like palm stumps, obliterated them so that they are no longer subject to future arising. I have abandoned those taints because of which I might have become a gandharvas… might have become a yakshas… might have become a human being; I have cut them off at the root, made them like palm stumps, obliterated them so that they are no longer subject to future arising. Just as a blue, red, or white lotus flower, though born in the water and grown up in the water, rises above the water and stands unsoiled by the water, even so, though born in the world and grown up in the world, I have overcome the world and dwell unsoiled by the world. Remember me, brahmin, as a buddha. (Bodhi 2012, pp. 425-426, slightly adapted)

The title “buddha”, as mentioned before, means “awakened one” and that is the one essential quality that sets the Buddha apart from all other sentient beings. Sentient beings are still caught in the dream of birth and death, but the Buddha has awakened to the reality of the unborn and deathless free of the taints of sensual craving, craving for continued existence, the holding of wrong views that deny or distort the law of cause and effect, and ignorance. He awakened to a life of selfless compassion. Note also that he compares himself to a lotus flower that has risen above the muddy waters it has grown up in and is now unsoiled.

“Buddha” is actually one of ten titles used to indicate or describe one who has attained perfect and complete awakening. Tathāgata” is another name for a buddha. It means both “Thus Come One” and “Thus Gone One.” It is a title that refers to a buddha’s ability to come and go from the realm of Truth. A buddha can also be called Deserver of Offerings, the Perfectly Enlightened One, the Man of Wisdom and Practice, the Well Gone, the Knower of the World, the Unsurpassed Man, the Controller of Men, the Teacher of Gods and Men, and the World Honored One. These titles are used throughout the Pāli Canon and in the Mahāyāna sūtras. In the Lotus Sūtra they are listed whenever a buddha is being spoken of for the first time.

There is more to buddhahood than just being spiritually awake and having grand titles. There are also many virtuous qualities that the Buddha has which enables him to be such a charismatic and effective teacher of the Dharma. These qualities are enumerated in the Lotus Sūtra when the Buddha speaks of how in a past life Devadatta was his teacher. The Buddha says that due to Devadatta’s teaching him the Wonderful Dharma he was able to attain these qualities.

He caused me to complete the six perfections. He caused me to have loving-kindness, compassion, joy and equanimity. He caused me to have the thirty-two major marks and eighty minor marks [of the Buddha]. He caused me to have my body purely gilt. He caused me to have ten powers and the four kinds of fearlessness. He caused me to know the four ways to attract others. He caused me to have the eighteen properties and supernatural powers [of the Buddha]. He caused me to have the power of giving discourses.” (Murano 2012, p. 202 adapted)

Let us examine these various qualities more closely in order to get a better understanding of what kind of a person the Buddha is supposed to be, and what he is supposed to be capable of.

First let me deal briefly with some of the categories of wholesome qualities mentioned in the passage from the Lotus Sūtra before moving on to those categories that require more in-depth explanations.

The six perfections are generosity, morality, patience, energy, meditation, and wisdom. These have been discussed in the previous article about the Buddha’s life and past lives as a bodhisattva.

Loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity are the four immeasurable minds, also known as the four divine abodes. They are four positive emotions that can be cultivated in meditation. Loving-kindness is to regard all beings as one would a dear friend and to wish them well. Compassion is to be extended to all those who are suffering. Sympathetic joy is to be felt for all those who have managed to attain liberation from suffering.  Equanimity is to look upon all beings equally and to not lost one’s emotional balance by being overwhelmed by sadness or joy.

The four ways to attract others are to be generous with alms and teach the Dharma, to use endearing speech, to act in ways that will benefit others, and to be impartial and cooperate with others. (See also Bodhi 2012, p. 419)

The Thirty-two Marks

This story of the Buddha’s meeting with Dona refers to the thousand-spoked wheels marking the Buddha’s feet. In the Buddha’s time this was believed to be one of the thirty-two marks of a “great man” such as a wheel turning king or a buddha. A wheel turning king is a divine emperor who is able to bring peace and justice to the entire world. A buddha, however, is one who changes the world by awakening himself and others to the true nature of reality. In either case, wheel turning kings and buddhas are said to bear these thirty-two marks so that they can be identified by those who know what to look for, such as the brahmins. Some of the thirty-two marks would strike people today as bizarre mutations, such as webbed hands and feet or hands that extend past the knees or the thousand-spoked wheels on the soles of the feet. Others would perhaps inspire a sense of awe and wonder, such as a golden complexion that radiates light. Finally, there are marks like the tuft of curly hair growing between the eyebrows and the protuberance at the crown of the head that can be seen in most portraits or sculptures of the Buddha. In another discourse in the Pāli Canon each of these marks is revealed to be the result of wholesome causes made in the past and emblematic of certain benefits the Buddha enjoyed as the effects of those past causes. For instance, in his past lives as a bodhisattva the Buddha practiced the four means of sustaining favorable relationships: generosity, pleasing speech, beneficial conduct and impartiality. Because of this the Buddha had soft and tender hands and feet. The benefit they represented was that his monastic and lay followers were all well disposed towards him. Certainly the correlations seem arbitrary, but the point is that they represent the Buddha’s virtuous qualities and the powerful impression that he made upon his contemporaries. The thirty-two marks are indicators of the true character and qualities of the one who bears them, in this case the character and qualities of an awakened one, the Buddha. (See Walshe, pp. 441-460)

There is also a list of eighty minor marks possessed by buddhas and other exalted beings. I will not discuss these here but they are listed in the Large Sūtra on Perfect Wisdom following a list of the thirty-two marks (see Conze 1984, pp. 583-587) I have noticed that these lists change from source to source and that the thirty-two major marks and eighty minor marks overlap.

In Nichiren Shū the thirty-two marks are the basis of the following praise of the Buddha’s physical appearance and the virtues they represent that is part of the annual ceremony celebrating the Buddha’s birth (though I will note that I have been unable to completely correlate the marks below with other lists of the marks).

When we observe the body of the Prince [Siddhārtha], we see that it is golden and indomitable, an unsurpassed vajra hammer, breaking the mountain of illicit passions, possessing all the marks of the great man. His flat soles indicate correct ease, therefore when he was in [his home] country it was very peaceful, and when he left home he attained Buddhahood. His hands and feet bear the mark of the wheel with a thousand spokes, so therefore he can turn the Wheel of the Dharma and become the Most Venerable One in the triple world. A sheath covers his male organ, making it unobtrusive, so therefore the Dharma is pure. His fingers are long and slender, and his hands are soft and tender, therefore the Dharma endures, his teaching remaining in the world for thousands of years continuing to guide us. His skin and bodily hair is very soft and the hairs curl clockwise to turn away dust and his body is golden and well proportioned, therefore he can overcome the heterodox ways. The [swastika on the] chest of his lion-like body turns, but not with wickedness, and even while standing straight he can touch his knees with his hands, therefore everybody bows to him. The seven parts of his body are convex, so therefore he has the power of a thousand to face the enemy. Because of his past deeds as a bodhisattva, none can hold a grudge against him. There are forty teeth in his mouth, they are all white and even, and he leads people with the amrita of the Dharma, therefore we have seven treasures. His jowls are like a lion’s, his four canines are signs of good fortune, and the virtue of the Buddha is revealed in the world, so therefore there is great abundance in the past, present, and future. Every flavor is tasted exactly as it is, so he can perfectly discern what he is eating, therefore he can create the taste of the Dharma and bestow it upon everyone. His large tongue is like a lotus, and can extend far enough to cover his face, so therefore the various sounds he makes are like amrita. The sound of his words are very beautiful, and they reverberate beyond heaven, therefore when he preaches the Dharma it makes it easy for us to attain peace. His eyes are dark blue, and he observes all with compassion, therefore all beings never feel uncomfortable when gazing upon the Buddha. On his head is a topknot, the color of his hair is dark blue, and he wants everyone to attain Buddhahood, therefore the Dharma prospers. The light of his face is like a full moon, his color and figure is like the first blossom of flowers, the hair between his eyes is pure white like a jewel. There is nothing like the Buddha in the heavens above or the earth below. There is nothing like the Buddha in the worlds of the ten directions. Even if we could see everything in this world we could not see anybody like the Buddha. (Hirai and McCormick, pp. 14-16)

Before moving on it is important to underscore that the thirty-two marks are not exclusive to the Buddha, but are also possessed by the wheel-turning kings and certain gods of the Vedic cosmology that carried over into Buddhism. The Mahāyāna sūtras point out that even aside from the fact that non-Buddhas might have such marks, the marks themselves are empty and not to be clung to any more than any other conditioned phenomena. In the Diamond Sūtra the Buddha teaches that he should not be perceived as having marks because ultimately there are no such things as marks with a self-nature to possess and no self to possess them. To speak of “having marks” is only to use a figure of speech to indicate the ultimate truth wherein all phenomena (whether mundane or supernatural) are empty and yet provisionally exist due to causes and conditions.

The Lord continued: “What do you think, Subhūti, can the Tathāgata be seen by the possession of his marks?”

Subhūti replied: “No indeed, O Lord. And why? What has been taught by the Tathāgata as the possession of marks, that is truly a no-possession of no-marks.”

The Lord said: “Wherever there is possession of marks, there is fraud, wherever there is no-possession of no-marks there is no fraud. Hence the Tathāgata is to be seen from no-marks as marks.” (Conze 2001, p. 20)

Further on in the same sūtra the Buddha goes on to say:

“What do you think, Subhūti, is the Tathāgata to be seen by means of his possession of marks?”

Subhūti replied: “No indeed, O Lord.”

The Lord said: “If, Subhūti, the Tathāgata could be recognized by his possession of marks, then also the wheel-turning king would be a Tathāgata. Therefore the Tathāgata is not to be seen by means of his possession of marks.

Subhūti then said: “As I, O Lord, understand the Lord’s teaching, the Tathāgata is not to be seen through his possession of marks.

Further the Lord taught on that occasion the following stanzas:

Those who by my form did see me,

And those who followed me by my voice

Wrong the efforts they engaged in,

Me those people will not see.

From the Dharma should one see the Buddhas,

From the Dharma-bodies comes their guidance.

Yet the Dharma’s true nature cannot be discerned,

And no one can be conscious of it as an object.

(Ibid, p. 63 slightly adapted)

The Dharma-body

In the Diamond Sūtra passage above we see a dichotomy between the form-body (Skt. rūpa-kāya) of the Buddha and his Dharma-body (Skt. Dharma-kāya). Unlike most people, the Buddha did not cling to his bodily form or consciousness or any of the other three of the five aggregates (feelings, perceptions, and mental volitions) that make up the life of a person and try to identify a fixed self-nature in them.  He spoke of his life in terms of the Dharma itself. One might say that through his awakening he ceased to live as a private individual and became instead a living embodiment or personification of the Dharma. The corollary to this is that the Dharma, not simply his personality or physical presence, was the true nature of his life. There was once an elder monk named Vakkali who was fatally ill and his one regret was that he was not able to go and see the Buddha. When, out of compassion, the Buddha came to visit the sick elder, he made the following remark:

“Enough, Vakkali! Why do you want to see this foul body? One who sees the Dharma sees me; one who sees me sees the Dharma. For in seeing the Dharma, Vakkali, one sees me; and in seeing me, one sees the Dharma.” (Bodhi 2000, p. 939 slightly adapted)

If seeing the Dharma is equivalent to seeing the Buddha, then one must ask: what exactly does it mean to see the Dharma? The Dharma, in this case, refers to the interdependent and dynamic life process that is the true nature of reality. The Buddha states in another discourse: “One who sees dependent origination sees the Dharma; one who sees the Dharma sees dependent origination.” (Ñānamoli & Bodhi, p. 284) Therefore, while the Buddha no longer identified himself with any particular phenomena or as having a fixed substantial selfhood, he did see himself as one who realized that the true nature of life is characterized by dependent origination. In the Aggañña Sutta of the Long Discourses of the Buddha the terms Brahma-kāya, or Divine Body, and Dharma-kāya, or Body of Dharma, are used to indicate that the reality which the Buddha has awakened to is the true body of the Buddha which all his disciples will also realize for themselves by following his teachings.

Vāsettha, all of you, though of different birth, name, clan and family, who have gone forth from the household life into homelessness, if you are asked who you are, should reply: “We are ascetics, followers of the Śākyan.” He whose faith in the Tathāgata is settled, rooted, established, solid, unshakeable by any ascetic or Brahmin, any deva or māra or Brahmā or anyone in the world, can truly say: “I am a true son of the Blessed Lord, born of his mouth, born of Dharma, created by Dharma, an heir of Dharma.” Why is that? Because, Vasettha, this designates the Tathāgata: “The Body of Dharma”, that is, “The Body of Brahmā”, or “Become Dharma”, that is, “Become Brahmā”. (Walshe, p. 409)

Buddhism came to speak of the Dharma-body as fivefold, consisting of morality, concentration, wisdom, liberation, and the knowledge of liberation in contrast to the five aggregates of form, feeling, perception, mental formations, and consciousness that un-awakened people cling to as a self or as properties of a self. In human terms the Dharma-body is the practice and realization of the Buddha Dharma and all the positive liberating qualities of buddhahood. It would later become synonymous with other terms for ultimate reality like “suchness” and emptiness. In the Innumerable Meanings Sūtra that is the first part of the Threefold Lotus Sūtra the following verses express and celebrate the interplay between the Buddha’s Dharma-body that is empty of marks and the form-body with marks that appears provisionally for the sake of all beings.

He is great, the great awakened one, the great holy Lord,

In him there is no defilement, no contamination, no attachment.

Trainer of gods and men, elephants and horses.

The breeze of his way and the fragrance of his virtue permeate all.

Quiet is his wisdom, calm his emotions, serene and firm his reasoning,

His views are extinguished and self-consciousness abolished, making him serene.

Long ago, he eradicated delusory thinking

And will never return to the phenomenal and reenter worldly life.

His body is neither existing nor non-existing,

Neither caused nor conditioned, neither itself nor other,

Neither square nor round, neither short nor long,

Neither appearing nor disappearing, neither born nor extinct,

Neither constructed nor arisen, neither made nor produced,

Neither sitting nor lying, neither walking nor standing,

Neither moving nor turning, neither resting nor idle,

Neither advancing nor retreating, neither at peace nor in danger,

Neither positive nor negative, neither gaining nor losing,

Neither this nor that, neither coming nor going,

Neither blue, nor yellow, neither red nor white,

Neither crimson nor purple nor a variety of colors.

Born of morality, concentration, wisdom, liberation, and knowledge of liberation.

Emerging from samādhi, the six supernatural powers, and the requisites of the Way.

Springing from kindness and compassion, the ten powers, and fearlessness.

Appearing due to the causal affinities of the good karma of sentient beings.

He shows his sixteen-foot tall body shining with purple gold.

Well-proportioned, brilliant and very bright.

His ūrnā mark curls like the moon, his neck shines like rays of the sun.

His curly hair is deep blue, and on the top of his head is a protuberance.

His pure eyes are like clear mirrors, and work well in all directions.

His eyebrows are dark blue; his mouth and cheeks well shaped.

His lips and tongue are a nice red, like a bright red flower.

His forty white teeth look like snowy jewels.

His forehead is broad, his nose long, and his face open.

His chest, marked with a swastika, is like the chest of a lion.

His hands and feet are soft and flexible, marked with a thousand-spoked wheel.

His armpits and palms are well rounded, and the grip is firm.

His upper and lower arms are long, his fingers straight and slender.

His skin is delicate and soft, and the hairs curl to the right.

His ankles and knees are exposed, but the male organ is concealed like a horse.

His muscles are smooth, joints strong, and legs tapered, like those of a deer.

His back is as resplendent as his front, pure and without blemish,

Untainted, like clear water, unspotted by any dirt.

His distinguishing thirty-two marks

And the eighty different minor marks seem to be visible,

Yet in reality, his form is neither with nor without marks.

All visible marks are transcended.

Without having marks his body has marks.

This is also true of the marks of the bodies of all sentient beings.

(Reeves, pp. 26-29 adapted)

I find it particularly striking that the above verses not only present the seeming paradox of the Buddha having marks that are empty, and therefore he has “no-marks”, but that it also asserts that what it is saying about these marks and no-marks is also true of all sentient beings. There is no ontological difference between the Buddha and sentient beings, the only difference is whether one is awakened to the true nature of life or not. The Dharma-body as the reality that is realized by awakened beings is no other than the Buddha-nature that is the potential of all beings to attain awakening about which more will be said later in this commentary.

The Six Supernatural Powers

The verses just cited refer to the Buddha’s six supernatural powers and other enumerations of the transcendent capabilities of a Buddha that are also mentioned in the passage from the Lotus Sūtra cited above. The six supernatural powers are forms of direct knowledge attained either through meditative concentration or spiritual insight. Of the six supernatural powers or types of direct knowledge, the first five can be attained as a by-product of meditative concentration and are available even to those who are not spiritually mature or liberated. The sixth, however, is attained only through spiritual insight and is possessed only by arhats, pratyekebuddhas, advanced bodhisattvas, and buddhas.

The first of the six supernatural powers is the supernatural mastery over the body:

That Blessed One enjoys the various kinds of supernormal power: having been one, he becomes many; having been many, he becomes one; he appears and vanishes; he goes unhindered through a wall, through an enclosure, through a mountain, as though through space; he dives in and out of the earth as though it were water; he walks on water without sinking as though it were earth; seated cross-legged, he travels in space like a bird; with his hand he touches and strokes the moon and the sun so powerful and mighty; he wields bodily mastery even as far as the Brahma-world. (Ñānamoli & Bodhi, p. 165)

This covers many of the standard miracles that holy men were thought to be capable of in ancient India and elsewhere. Though the Buddha claimed to have possessed such powers, he did not consider them important, and even refused to make a display of them. The Buddha even forbade his disciples from using such powers for the sake of cheap displays to impress the masses. Assuming for a moment that such powers are actually attainable and were in fact possessed by the Buddha, it would seem as though the Buddha considered these powers a distraction from the real work of attaining awakening and did not wish to draw any undue attention to such things. On a more mundane level, these miraculous powers poetically describe the accomplished meditator’s total self-mastery and ease in relation to their body and surroundings.

The second supernatural power corresponds to the psychic ability known as clairaudience:

With the divine ear element, which is purified and surpasses the human, the Blessed One hears both kinds of sounds, the heavenly and the human, those that are far as well as near. (Ibid, p.165)

This is the ability to hear things in remote locations beyond the power of the unaided human ear. This ability may have a basis in fact, but again it could also be an indication of the increased awareness of those who have cultivated mindful awareness through meditation.

The third supernatural power is the ability currently known as telepathy:

That Blessed One encompasses with his own mind, the minds of other beings, other persons. He understands a mind affected by lust as affected by lust and a mind unaffected by lust as unaffected by lust; he understands a mind affected by hate as affected by hate and a mind unaffected by hate as unaffected by hate; he understands a mind affected by delusion as affected by delusion and a mind unaffected by delusion as unaffected by delusion; he understands a contracted mind as contracted and a distracted mind as distracted; he understands an exalted mind as exalted and an unexalted mind as unexalted; he understands a surpassed mind as surpassed and an unsurpassed mind as unsurpassed; he understands a concentrated mind as concentrated and an unconcentrated mind as unconcentrated; he understands a liberated mind as liberated and an unliberated mind as unliberated. (Ibid, p. 165)

As with the first two, there have been and still are reports of people who claim to be able to read the minds of others. Whatever the factual basis, this power would also describe the ability of someone whose awareness and empathy is so acute that they are able to intuit the mental states of others. Needless to say, this would be an invaluable ability for a teacher to have.

The fourth supernatural powers is the ability to recall past lives:

Again, the Tathāgata recollects his manifold past lives, that is, one birth, two births, three births, four births, five births, ten births, twenty births, thirty births, forty births, fifty births, a hundred births, a thousand births, a hundred thousand births, many eons of world-contraction, many eons of world-expansion: `There I was so named, of such a clan, with such an appearance, such was my nutriment, such my experience of pleasure and pain, such my life-term; and passing away from there, I reappeared elsewhere; and there too I was so named, of such a clan, with such an appearance, such was my nutriment, such my experience of pleasure and pain, such my life-term; and passing away from there, I reappeared here.’ Thus with their aspects and particulars he recollects his manifold past lives. That too is a Tathāgata’s power that the Tathāgata has, by virtue of which he claims the herd-leader’s place, roars his lion’s roar in the assemblies, and sets rolling the Wheel of Brahmā. (Ibid, p. 166)

In modern times, the ability to recollect past lives has been claimed by psychics like Edgar Cayce, young children who claim to have memories of their previous lifetime who were studied by Dr. Ian Stevenson of the University of Virginia, and also the many patients of past life regression therapy which uses hypnosis to recall past life memories. The Buddha’s power to recall past lives is on a much different level however. The Buddha did not just have faint recollections of one or two past lives in childhood or with the help of hypnosis. The Buddha claimed to have consciously recalled the details of countless past lives going back to the beginningless past. In fact, this was part of what enabled him to fully apprehend the law of cause and effect. Some have doubted that the Buddha actually taught rebirth as anything other than a metaphor or a concession to folk religion. However, according to the Buddha himself, not only did he recollect all his past lives, but he considered it one of the powers possessed by all Buddhas, and it was by surveying his past lives that he was able to observe the operations of the law of cause and effect – the very cornerstone of his teachings.

The fifth supernatural power corresponds to the psychic ability that we now call clairvoyance:

“Again, with the divine eye, which is purified and surpasses the human, the Tathāgata sees beings passing away and reappearing, inferior and superior, fair and ugly, fortunate and unfortunate. I understood how beings pass according to their actions thus: These worthy beings who were ill-conducted in body, speech, and mind, revilers of noble ones, wrong in their views, giving effect to wrong view in their actions, on the dissolution of the body, after death, have reappeared in a state of deprivation, in perdition, even in hell; but these worthy beings who were well-conducted in body, speech, and mind, not revilers of noble ones, right in their views, giving effect to right view in their actions, on the dissolution of the body, after death, have reappeared in a good destination, even in the heavenly world.’ Thus with the divine eye, which is purified and surpasses the human, I saw beings passing away and reappearing, inferior and superior, fair and ugly, fortunate and unfortunate, and I understood how beings pass on according to their actions. That too is a Tathāgata’s power that the Tathāgata has, by virtue of which he claims the herd-leader’s place, roars his lion’s roar in the assemblies, and sets rolling the Wheel of Brahmā. (Ibid, p. 166)

This is the fifth of the six supernatural powers attained through meditative concentration. In some ways, it corresponds to the psychic ability known as clairvoyance. However, this power seems to be much more than simply the ability to see things that would normally be out of visual range. This power enables the Buddha to see into all realms of becoming, and furthermore to see where and how the various beings within those realms are being reborn. Through this power, the Buddha can actually observe the present workings of the law of cause and effect in the lives of all beings and not just in his own life.

The sixth supernatural power is what is known as the knowledge and destruction of the taints:

“Again, by realizing for himself with direct knowledge, the Tathāgata here and now enters upon and abides in the deliverance of mind and deliverance by wisdom that are taintless with the destruction of the taints. That too is a Tathāgata’s power that the Tathāgata has, by virtue of which he claims the herd-leader’s place, roars his lion’s roar in the assemblies, and sets rolling the Wheel of Brahmā. (Ibid, pp. 166-167)

This is the last of the six supernatural powers. It is available only to those who have attained sufficient insight to break through the taints of sensual desire, desire for continued existence, wrong views, and ignorance that keep sentient beings trapped within the cycle of birth and death. This power is the one whereby the Buddha actually knows that he is free and no longer bound by suffering or its causes. It is this power which the Buddha wishes to show others how to cultivate for themselves. All of the other powers and abilities are subordinate to this one.

Ten Powers of the Tathāgata

The ten powers referred to in the Lotus Sūtra passage and the verses from the Innumerable Meanings Sūtra refer to the ten power of the Tathāgata. These are a list of powers unique to a Buddha that overlaps with the six supernatural powers. While even those of the two vehicles can attain the six supernatural powers, only Buddhas are said to be capable of attaining all ten powers. The ten powers allow the Buddha to understand and express the true nature of reality to all sentient beings.

The first power is to understand what is truly possible and what is truly impossible. This relates to, for example, what kinds of causes or activity can lead to buddhahood and can never do so. (See ibid p. 165-166)

The second power is to understand the actual results of actions undertaken in the past, present, and future. Again, this has to do with the law of karma and the unfolding of cause and effect in terms of wholesome and unwholesome actions. (See ibid, p. 166)

The third power is to understand the ways leading to all destinations. By this is meant that the Buddha understands which causes will lead to each of the six lower worlds of rebirth and what will lead to liberation in the four higher worlds. (See ibid, p. 166)

The fourth power is to understand the world with its many different elements. This means that the Buddha understands all the various categories by which the phenomenal world is analyzed in Buddhism, such as the five aggregates (form, feeling, perception, volition, and consciousness) or the eighteen elements (the five physical senses and mind as a sense, their respective objects, and the type of conscious awareness corresponding to the meeting of a particular sense and its object). (See ibid, p. 166)

The fifth power is to understand the different inclinations of sentient beings. This means the Buddha is aware of the different levels of spiritual maturity that different individuals may or may not have reached. Some are high-minded and some are low-minded. He knows what people are interested in and what they may or may not be ready to hear. With this in mind, the Buddha is able to tailor his teachings to match the inclinations of those he teaches. (See ibid, p. 166)

The sixth power is to understand the disposition of the faculties of sentient beings. This refers to the faculties of faith, energy, mindfulness, concentration, and wisdom. In short, in order to attain liberation, individuals must cultivate these five faculties. This power is the Buddha’s ability to ascertain the abilities of any particular individual in regard to these faculties and their level of development. (See ibid, p. 166)

The seventh power is to understand defilement, cleansing, and emergence in regard to meditative absorption, liberations, concentrations, and attainments. What this means is that the Buddha understands all the meditative states that can be cultivated, what will hinder them, what will purify them, and how to enter and emerge from such states. (See ibid, p. 166)

The eighth, ninth, and tenth powers are the same as the fourth, fifth, and sixth of the six supernatural powers described above. Basically the ten powers are about the Buddha’s ability to completely understand the law of cause and effect in all its permutations, to understand the unfolding of that law in the activities of all sentient beings, and all the ways whereby people can cultivate themselves and attain liberation from suffering just as the Buddha himself did.

The Four Kinds of Fearlessness

The four kinds of fearlessness mentioned in the Lotus Sūtra passage above describe the confidence and competence with which the Buddha teaches the Dharma.

The first is that the Buddha is not afraid that anyone could accuse him of not being fully awakened or that there is something more he needs to realize. He has no fear that he has overlooked anything. (See Ñānamoli & Bodhi, p. 167)

The second is that the Buddha is not afraid that anyone could accuse him of having any taints or defilements that have not been destroyed. In other words, the Buddha is confident that he is totally free of all negative tendencies. He has reached the pinnacle of human perfection. (See ibid, p. 167)

The third is that the Buddha is not afraid that anyone could accuse him of being mistaken about what kinds of things are obstacles to practice. Here the Buddha states that what he has called obstacles to practice are in fact obstacles. He is not merely guessing, relying on conventional wisdom, tradition, or his own subjective feelings. He is claiming to know for a fact that certain actions and attitudes will hinder practice. (See ibid, p. 167)

The fourth is that the Buddha is not afraid that anyone could accuse him of not correctly teaching the path to freedom from suffering. He has no fear that what he has taught will be ineffective. He is certain his teachings are the way to attain liberation. (See ibid, p. 168)

The Buddha is supremely confident in his awakening, his freedom from impurity, his ability to point out obstacles to his disciples, and the efficaciousness of his teachings. Because he is without fear he can teach all people without hesitation or worry that someone might point out a flaw or mistake in what he teaches. He has no fear that someone else might surpass his own teaching and example. This confidence and it’s basis in the Buddha’s direct knowledge and many powers and abilities is what makes him a leader who is qualified to teach others the Dharma.

Eighteen Unique Properties of the Buddha

Finally the passage from the Lotus Sūtra refers to the eighteen unique properties of a Buddha. These are enumerated in the Large Sūtra on Perfect Wisdom.

From the night when the Tathāgata knows full enlightenment, to the day when he becomes extinct in Nirvāna, during all this time the Tathāgata:

  1. does not trip up,
  2. is not rash or noisy in his speech,
  3. is never robbed of his mindfulness.
  4. He has no perception of difference.
  5. His thought is never without concentration.
  6. His even-mindedness is not due to lack of consideration.
  7. His zeal,
  8. vigor,
  9. mindfulness,
  10. concentration,
  11. wisdom and
  12. deliverance never fail.
  13. All the deeds of his body,
  14. voice and
  15. mind are preceded by cognition and continue to conform to cognition.
  16. His cognition and vision regarding the past,
  17. future and
  18. present period of time proceeds unobstructed and freely.

And all that without taking anything as a basis. (Conze 1984, pp. 159-160 adapted)

The first three of these refer to the Buddha’s physical, verbal, and mental actions being without fault. The fourth property means that the Buddha is impartial to all, loving all equally without any favoritism. The fifth property means that he is always in a state of samādhi or concentration. The sixth property means that he maintains equanimity in all circumstances though aware of all phenomena (which presumably cause others to lose their equanimity). The next six properties are his unfailing zeal, energy, mindfulness, concentration, wisdom, and liberation from suffering. The next three properties are that all his bodily, verbal, and mental actions are preceded by wisdom and conform to wisdom. The last three properties are that he has unobstructed and free knowledge of the past, present, and future.

Here I will conclude this survey of the Buddha’s various powers, marks, and qualities, particularly as they are enumerated in the Lotus Sūtra. Many of them are outlandish and even hard to relate to for those of us living in a very different time and culture, but I hope that we can appreciate that these attributes were an attempt by early Buddhists to express the wonder of the Buddha’s deep insight, great compassion, and marvelous skill and effectiveness as a teacher. The Buddha represents in Buddhism all that people are capable of achieving in terms of maturing the faculties of wisdom as well as emotional and spiritual maturity. Keeping that in mind we can better understand the major theme of Kanjin Honzon-shō that we should come know what buddhahood is really about and have trust and confidence that it is already a part of our lives and its realization and actualization is always within our reach.


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_____________, trans. The Numerical Discourses of the Buddha: A New Translation of the Anguttara Nikāya. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2012.

Conze, Edward, trans. The Large Sutra on Perfect Wisdom. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.

__________________. Buddhist Wisdom: The Diamond Sutra and the Heart Sutra. New York: Vintage Books, 2001.

Gosho Translation Committee, editor-translator. The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin. Tokyo: Soka Gakkai, 1999.

Hirai, Chishin & McCormick, Ryuei, trans. Shutei Nichiren Shū Hōyō Shiki. Hayward: Nichiren Buddhist International Center, 2013.

Murano, Senchu, trans. Two Nichiren Texts. Berkeley: Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research, 2003.

______________, trans. The Lotus Sutra. Tokyo: Nichiren Shu Headquarters, 2012.

Ñānamoli, Bhikkhu and Bodhi, Bhikkhu, trans. The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha: A New Translation of the Majjhima Nikaya. Botson: Wisdom Publications, 1995.

Reeves, Gene, trans. The Lotus Sutra. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2008.

Walshe, Maurice, trans. The Long Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Digha Nikaya. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 1995.