This is just me goofing off for a bit. I have enjoyed (and hopefully will soon again enjoy) playing Pathfinder, which is an improved version of Dungeons & Dragons 3.5. Pathfinder has come out with an East Asian setting but has so far not come out with a South Asian setting. I hope that will change someday. In the meantime I began wondering what I would do if I wanted to do a scenario using traditional Buddhist cosmology. Does Pathfinder have analogues for the eight kinds of supernatural beings who appear in the sūtras as well as other types of creatures? I know that in Gene Reeves translation of the Lotus Sūtra he decided to translate the names of some of these creatures by delving into a shared etymology with creatures who appear in Greek mythology (that old Indo-European linguistic connection) but I never really liked that as I think that even though there may be a shared etymology the creatures developed in different ways and have different roles. Still it got me to thinking that I could probably find creatures in the (as of this time) four Pathfinder Bestiaries. So as a kind of thought experiment here’s how I would deal with the eight kinds of supernatural beings in Pathfinder.

First of all, I don’t think I would treat each of the eight kinds as individual creatures but more as a class encompassing several different creatures or beings of varying CRs (Challenge Ratings). In fact, in Buddhism each of the kinds of supernatural beings is understood to be a general classification with many different kinds of creatures in each class and of course different countries also understood them differently. For instance, nagas in India are like serpents or humanoid snake like beings but in China they are more like dragons (Asian dragons not Western dragons).

So what are these supernatural beings and what would they be in Pathfinder?


The first are the devas or “radiant ones” who are the gods like Indra and Brahma and their cohorts. On Nichiren’s mandala he includes Indra, Brahma, and the gods of the sun, moon, and stars. In Pathfinder the gods are not listed in the bestiaries as they are effectively untouchable in-game (though they can interact with PCs or player characters but usually they do so only indirectly or through intermediaries). Celestials like agathions, angels, azatas, and archons would fit the bill however. In fact, three types of angel are specifically called devas: the Astral Deva (CR 14), the Monadic Deva (CR 12), and the Movanic Deva (CR 10). Anyone who wanted to play a deva as character would have to opt for an Aasimar (CR 1/2) meaning a person who had a deva for an ancestor.


Next are the nagas or “dragons.” Pathfinder actually has a whole group of creatures who are called nagas. There are dark nagas (CR 8) who are lawful evil, guardian nagas (CR 10) who are lawful good and who would fit the role of nagas who protect the Dharma and transmit secret teachings to high level clerics or oracles when the time is right, lunar nagas (CR 6) who are chaotic neutral and really into astrology, royal nagas (CR 11) who are lawful neutral and who are described like the many headed naga who supposedly covered the Buddha during a monsoon, spirit nagas (CR 9) who are chaotic evil, and water nagas (CR 7) who are neutral and seem more like the classical nagas who are associated with oceans and rivers. The Imperial Dragons modeled on Chinese dragons that appear in Bestiary 3 would also fit the bill as nagas, but most particularly the Sea Dragon (CR 4-20). Those who might want to play a naga can play a nagaji (CR 1/2), who are a race of serpent like humanoids originally created by nagas to be their servants.


Next are the yakshas who are a kind of nature spirit. There are no creatures called yakshas in Pathfinder. The descriptions of yakshas are pretty vague and they are not always benevolent. In fact, this class seems to overlap somewhat with the rakshasas who are fierce and malevolent spirits. Rakshasas (CR 5-20) are actually in Pathfinder already by name. In Japan the yakshas were associated with the birdlike humanoids called tengu (CR 1/2) which is a playable race in Pathfinder. Also in Japan the rakshasas were associated with a kind of Japanese ogre called oni of which there are several in Pathfinder the most typical being the so-called ogre mage (CR 8) though there is also an ogre that takes the form of a tengu called the yamabushi tengu (CR 5). I think it would also be appropriate to associate the yakshas with benevolent or at least neutral fey spirits generally such as dryads (CR 3), nymphs (CR 7), satyrs (CR 4), and many others including genies. Frankly yakshas and rakshasas seem to be rather large catchall categories. I would even say that yakshas encompass elves and dwarves while rakshasas would encompass orcs, and duergar.


Gandharvas are male celestial musicians who are part bird or part horse while apsaras are their wives. These beings also do no appear as such in Pathfinder. It is said that the words gandharva and centaur are related and centaurs (CR 3) are in Pathfinder. I think that the azatas called lillend (CR 7) would also be good candidates for gandharvas or apsaras for they are said to be able to fly. Again, aasimars related to gandharvas would be the only playable variety.


Asuras, the fighting demons, should, I think, be related to the titans and there are both good (CR 21) and evil (CR 22) titans in Pathfinder. Pathfinder also has a variety of beings of the type called asuras (CR 2-20) of which the upasundas (CR 9) seem most like the ones in traditional Buddhist cosmology. Those wanting to play an asura would have to settle for tieflings (CR 1/2).


Garudas (CR 9), the birdlike enemies of the nagas, actually are in Pathfinder. Again assimars would be the only playable type.


Kimnaras are another type of celestial musician said to either be humanoids with horses heads or birds with human heads. These sounds like a type of agathion, perhaps avorals (CR 9). Once again aasimars would be the only playable type.


Finally there are the mahoragas that are large serpents who live within the earth. Not sure what to make of these. Perhaps they are the more malevolent of the naga types listed above. Perhaps they are neothelids (CR 15) or serpentfolk (CR 4).

Writings of Nichiren Shōnin Doctrine 2, pp. 149-153

Two Nichiren Texts, pp. 93-97

The Writings of Nichiren Daishōnin I, pp. 367-369

In the 21st exchange the interlocutor asks to hear more about Nichiren’s innovative idea that the true focus of devotion (J. honzon) should be the Eternal Śākyamuni Buddha. Nichiren responds by presenting a system of analyzing the Buddha’s teachings into “four sets of three parts” (J. shishū-sandan), the four sets being (1) all of the sūtras collectively, (2) the Threefold Lotus Sūtra, (3) the two sections of the Threefold Lotus Sūtra, and (4) the true Dharma, while the three parts of each of these teachings are the preface, the main discourse, and the epilogue. The preface section is for the purpose of establishing the context and preparing people to hear, understand, and put into practice the main discourse. The main discourse is where one finds the main point and purpose of the teaching. The epilogue deals with the benefits gained from hearing and upholding the main discourse and with its transmission to others. This analysis is for the purpose of establishing that all the teachings were preparing the way for the propagation of Odaimoku in the Latter Age.

Nichiren’s division takes for granted the T’ien-t’ai system of classifying the Buddha’s teachings and also takes for granted that the sūtras were all taught by the historical Śākyamuni Buddha in the particular chronological order given in the T’ien-t’ai teaching of the five periods that was derived from statements given in the sūtras indicating the time and location of the Buddha’s discourses.  Nichiren provides some of the sūtra the citations for all this in his Shugo Kokka-ron (Treatise on Protecting the Nation). (See Hori 2003, pp. 6-10) Today, scholarship has shown that the Mahāyāna sūtras developed over a period of several centuries. Even the Pāli canon that was first written down in Sri Lanka in 29 BCE shows signs of development since the time of the Buddha’s passing. Given that we cannot naively accept that the sūtras are not verbatim records of the Buddha’s discourses, what does this mean for Nichiren’s analysis? I think that the way to approach this is to see Nichiren’s system of four sets of three parts as his way of understanding what the sūtras are leading up to and thereby evaluating the importance and purpose of various teachings. This understanding of the role the various sūtras and parts of the Lotus Sūtra play does not depend on whether they were actually spoken by the historical Buddha or whether they were given in the order that Nichiren understood them to be given in. What matters is whether this approach to the sūtras can help us to better appreciate, understand, and deepen our practice of Odaimoku.

My plan for this chapter of commentary is to not simply explain Nichiren’s four sets of three parts but to also discuss how we might best study Buddhism to better understand the Lotus Sūtra and our own practice. Buddhism can seem very difficult to understand but I think that if it is approached in a step-by-step way instead of a haphazard way or in a way almost deliberately intended to mystify then it can be seen that Buddhism is not, after all, as opaque as it might seem to be at first. I also hope to show that Buddhist teachings are not about making dogmatic metaphysical claims but rather are about helping us observe life’s realities directly. The teachings are really about our life and how we can best develop our own practice and realization. So what I hope to accomplish is to use this discussion of the four sets of three parts to clarify how the teachings of Buddhism and the Lotus Sūtra developed over time and how we might familiarize ourselves with these developments through our own study and hopefully put them into practice.

Three Parts of the Collection of All the Sutras (J. ichidai sandan)

The first set that Nichiren analyzes into preface, main discourse, and epilogue is the set of all sūtras taken as a whole.

The Lotus Sūtra consists of eight fascicles and twenty-eight chapters. Four steps of teaching (sutras of the first four tastes) were preached before the Lotus Sūtra was, and the Nirvāna Sūtra after it. This lifetime preaching of the Buddha can be bound in one sūtra. Those preached before the Lotus Sūtra, from the Flower Garland Sūtra, which was preached upon his attainment of buddhahood at Bodhgaya, to the Great Wisdom Sūtra, comprise the preface. The Sūtra of Infinite Meaning, the Lotus Sūtra, and the Sūtra of Meditation on the Universal Sage Bodhisattva, ten fascicles in all, serve as the main discourse while the Nirvāna Sūtra constitutes the epilogue. (Hori 2002, p. 150)

Here Nichiren refers to the T’ien-t’ai teaching about the five periods of the Buddha’s preaching. The first four periods were the periods of (1) preaching the Flower Garland Sūtra, (2) the discourses contained in the Āgamas that were Sanskrit sūtras from Northern India that were translated into Chinese and contain material that corresponds to the Pāli canon or Nikāyas, (3) the Expanded (S. vaipulya) sūtras that comprise all those Mahāyāna sūtras that don’t fit into the other four periods, and (4) the Perfection of Wisdom (S. Prajñā-pāramitā) sūtras. The fifth period includes both the Threefold Lotus Sūtra and the Nirvāna Sūtra. A lot of this material has been translated into English, though not everything. Even trying to read what has been translated, however, would take years. But is that really necessary? I am not convinced that for the average Buddhist practitioner it is necessary to do that. In any case, Nichiren is suggesting that all this material in the first four periods is just an introduction to the Lotus Sūtra while the Nirvāna Sūtra is just a reiteration. So why bother with any of it? Why not just concern oneself with the main discourse that is the Threefold Lotus Sūtra? Perhaps it was Nichiren’s intention that the average practitioner, as opposed to his monastic disciples who were expected to be specialists in Buddhist study and practice, need not bother with these other sūtras.

For my part, I had been practicing a form of Nichiren Buddhism for about two years when I finally found and quickly read The Threefold Lotus Sutra translated by Bunnō Katō, Yoshirō Tamura, and Kōjirō Miyasaka. I soon saw that the group I was with had been making claims about what was taught in the Lotus Sūtra that were not true. I also saw that the Lotus Sūtra is very difficult to understand without some kind of guide or commentary to explain references and unfamiliar terms, but I could no longer trust the people who I was practicing with at that time. They themselves had not read the sūtra, and once I had read the sūtra for myself I could see that the teaching did not match what the sūtra actually said. Nichiren’s writings provided commentary on what the sūtra is supposed to mean but there was no chapter-by-chapter commentary and Nichiren’s writings themselves needed a commentary due to his own use of unfamiliar references and terms. In addition, Nichiren himself cited the Nirvāna Sūtra that taught people to “follow the Dharma and not the person.” This meant that one should primarily go by what the sūtras themselves have to say rather than to trust commentaries if one wants to know what the Buddha taught. To me, all this meant that if I wanted to understand the references and terms in the Lotus Sūtra then I would have to read the other sūtras that the Lotus Sūtra seemed to assume its reader was already familiar with. By reading the other sūtras I would be, in effect, letting the Buddha explain the terms and references contained in the Lotus Sūtra. So, for instance, if I wanted to know what the references to the four noble truths and the eightfold path or dependent origination were about I should go and read the discourses where the Buddha explains those very things. Over more than two decades since that time when I first read the Threefold Lotus Sūtra I have read literally a bookcase full of sūtras (and the suttas of the Pāli canon) in English translation and have even made attempts to translate a few things for myself from classical Chinese. This effort has indeed enabled me to understand for myself what the Lotus Sūtra is talking about, or at least to understand its references and terminology. I am no longer dependent on some other person’s opinions or particular point of view but can make up my own mind about what the Lotus Sūtra does or does not mean for my practice and my life. I have also learned that reading a whole bookcase of material was not really necessary, at least not for understanding the Lotus Sūtra. Much was redundant, much was irrelevant, some of it went into details and particulars that seemed of negligible importance, but nevertheless I had to wade through it all to find what was important and relevant. I also found that in a few cases there were some very early commentaries or secondary literature that did provide useful and non-sectarian summaries of longer and more complex sūtras, though I did read the sūtras those were based on as well to double check them. I would now like to share what I think is essential background reading for understanding the Lotus Sūtra on its own terms.

First of all the Lotus Sūtra assumes that one is familiar with the life and teachings of the historical Buddha, in other words the Buddha as he appears in the Āgamas or the Nikāyas. Unfortunately the Āgamas have not been translated into English, but since the late 19th century the Nikāyas have been, and new translations have recently been published by Wisdom Publications since the late 1990s. This by itself is thousands of pages of reading, and a couple thousand more if one includes the translation of the Pāli Vinaya texts that include not just the monastic precepts and ordinances but also records of the Buddha’s early years and the formation of the Sangha. Is it necessary for the average practitioner to read all this? I don’t think so, but there are some key discourses that I think should be read. Everything that is relevant that would explain all the references in the Lotus Sūtra to pre-Mahāyāna teachings such as the workings of karma and rebirth, the four noble truths, dependent origination, or the Buddha’s problems with his cousin Devadatta can be found in the book The Life of the Buddha by Bhikkhu Ñānamoli. I highly recommend that book as it is composed of passages translated from the Pāli canon and arranged in such a way as to not only tell the Buddha’s life story but also cover all his most important discourses. Another excellent anthology of the Buddha’s discourses in the Nikāyas is In the Buddha’s Words: An Anthology of Discourses from the Pāli Canon by Bhikkhu Bodhi, the main translator of Wisdom Publications new translations of the Nikāyas. The only problem with that book is that it does not tell the story of the Buddha’s life in full, nor does it talk about the formation of the Sangha or the troubles with Devadatta which all figure into the Lotus Sūtra. I would also recommend that beginners in Buddhism read a translation of the Dhammapada, of which there are several good translations. The Dhammapada is a collection of verses that provide a fairly short and accessible overview of the Buddha’s teachings as they are to be found in the Pāli canon. The translation I have found to be the most helpful and reliable is the one done by John Ross Carter and Mahinda Palihawadana.

The Lotus Sūtra also assumes that the reader is familiar with basic Mahāyāna teachings about emptiness and the six perfections. There are also later Mahāyāna developments that came after the Lotus Sūtra such as the teachings concerning buddha-nature and the three bodies of the Buddha that later commentators used in explaining the Lotus Sūtra. So there are a few Mahāyāna works that I think should be read to understand both what the Lotus Sūtra itself is referring to and how later Buddhist traditions, particular T’ien-t’ai and Nichiren Buddhism, came to interpret it. The classic Mahāyāna treatment of emptiness can be found in the Diamond Sūtra and the Heart Sūtra and there are several translations and commentaries on these two sūtras available, for instance Buddhist Wisdom: The Diamond Sutra and the Heart Sutra by Edward Conze. For an excellent survey of the bodhisattva-vehicle and its six perfections I would recommend the Bodhicaryāvatāra by Śāntideva, of which I can recommend the translation by Kate Crosby and Andrew Skilton, though there are others available. It may not be a sūtra but it is a beautiful and fairly short work that summarizes what some very long and more complex sūtras do say about the six perfections. I think the Bodhicaryāvatāra can be seen as a kind of Mahāyāna counterpart to the Dhammapada. To understand Mahāyāna teachings about non-duality and also to see how harsh Mahāyāna condemnations of the two vehicles could get (to better appreciate the One Vehicle taught in the Lotus Sūtra) I would recommend reading the Vimalakīrti Sūtra. I found the translation by Robert A. F. Thurman called The Holy Teaching of Vimalakirti: A Mahayana Scripture very helpful, and there is also a translation by Burton Watson that is also pretty good and very readable. Teachings concerning buddha-nature are most easily approached through two treatises that attempt to summarize what late Mahāyāna traditionally taught as the sūtras that deal with it tend to be either long (like the Nirvāna Sūtra), difficult to understand (like the Lankāvatāra Sūtra), or hard to find (like the Tathāgatagarbha Sūtra) and in any case the treatises bring together and summarize what is said in these other sūtras. One treatise is called the Mahāyāna Uttaratantra Śāstra (also called the Ratna-gotra-vibhāga) that is translated by Rosemarie Fuchs in Buddha Nature: The Mahayana Uttaratantra Shastra with Commentary. That treatise also deals with the three bodies of the Buddha. The other treatise is The Awakening of Faith in the Mahāyāna of which I can recommend the translation by Yoshito S. Hakeda called The Awakening of Faith: Attributed to Aśvaghosha. This treatise was very important in the development of East Asian Buddhism. I will grant that there are passages in some of those texts that might be daunting but on the whole I have found that the above texts are not particularly difficult and none of them are excessively long. I personally feel that those sūtras and treatises are just enough to cover the major developments of Mahāyāna Buddhism that a reader and practitioner of the Lotus Sūtra would need to know to better understand and more deeply appreciate what the Lotus Sūtra is teaching.

There is one other book that I should mention here. It is called Buddha-Dharma: The Way to Enlightenment and is published by the Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research. The revised second edition came out in 2003. The Numata Center is attempting to translate the entirety of the 100-volume Taisho Tripitka that was published in Japan from 1924 to1934. The Taisho Tripitika collects all the Chinese translations of sūtras, vinaya, abhidharma as well as including important commentaries and other writings by Indian and East Asian writers. The book Buddha-Dharma is an anthology of excerpts from this collection as well as from the Pāli canon and is put together in such a way as to tell the life story of the Buddha and relate his most important teachings from both the Nikāyas and the Mahāyāna sūtras. There are places within it where I would quibble with the translations of some terms and where the translation becomes more of a paraphrase and summary so I prefer to rely on more scholarly translations of individual works. Still, it is a very helpful book to have and if one doesn’t want to track down all the other books I listed above this one handy volume will serve as a good introduction to general Buddhist and Mahāyāna Buddhist teachings. It also includes selections from the Lotus Sūtra as well.

Before moving on to the next section I would like to note the fact that Nichiren himself frequented cited other sūtras besides the Lotus Sūtra whenever he needed to clarify minor points about Buddhist teachings (minor as far as Nichiren was concerned anyway) or to make a point about current events or the position of the Lotus Sūtra in comparison to other teachings. For instance, in the Rissho Ankoku-ron (Treatise on Spreading Peace Throughout the Country by Establishing the True Dharma) Nichiren cited several sūtras besides the Lotus Sūtra that were relevant to his case that Japan was heading for civil war and foreign invasion if it did not turn away from false teachings and embrace the Lotus Sūtra. Nichiren also frequently cites the Nirvāna Sūtra throughout his writings, especially since much of that sūtra deals with hardships faced by practitioners of the true Dharma during times of persecution and the practice of subduing evil by righteous monks and civil authorities.

Three Parts of the Threefold Lotus Sūtra (J. ikkyo sandan)

The second set that Nichiren analyzes into preface, main discourse, and epilogue is the Threefold Lotus Sūtra.

The ten fascicles of the main discourse can be further divided into three parts. The Sūtra of Infinite Meaning and the first “Introduction” chapter of the Lotus Sūtra constitute the preface. The fifteen and one-half chapters of the Lotus Sūtra from the second chapter on “Expedients” to the nineteen-line verse in the seventeenth chapter, the “Variety of Merits”, mark the main discourse. The eleven and one-half chapters of the Lotus Sūtra from the last half of the “Variety of Merits” chapter, where the four stages of faith during Śākyamuni’s lifetime are preached, to the twenty-eight chapter of the sūtra, plus the one-fascicle of the Sūtra of Meditation on the Universal Sage Bodhisattva make up the epilogue. (Ibid, p. 150)

Here I will discuss the formation of the Threefold Lotus Sūtra and reserve a survey of its contents for my discussion of the third set of Nichiren’s analysis. Scholars believe that the earliest parts of the sūtra are the verse portions of chapters 2-9, and that these were probably written in the first century BCE. Over the course of the first century CE the prose portions of those chapters were written to clarify and elaborate on what was in the verse portions. These early chapters deal primarily with the historical Śākyamuni Buddha teaching his śrāvaka disciples and bodhisattvas are barely present. These early chapters also do not talk about reading or copying the sūtra, so this shows that they may have been based on an earlier oral transmission. Chapters 10-22 with the exceptions of chapters 12 and perhaps 18 (that may have appeared earlier) were probably added next around 100 CE. In these chapters the attention shifts to the bodhisattvas and the fantastic imagery of the Ceremony in the Air. The first chapter may have been added at this point or an earlier version revised to incorporate the presence of the bodhisattvas and other fantastic beings. Chapter 22 may have been the original ending with the chapters 23-28 being added over the course of the 2nd century as a kind of appendix relating the activities of various bodhisattvas endeavoring the share the teachings of the Lotus Sūtra. Sometime before the middle of the 3rd century the 12th chapter was added. Senchu Murano points out there are several discrepancies between that chapter and other parts of the sūtra betraying its late addition to the text. There were also other late additions to the text, such as a parable being added to 5 and the verse portion of chapter 25.

In China the Lotus Sūtra was translated no less than six times, with the earliest being done in 255. Only three of those translations are still extant. The earliest being the Sūtra of the Lotus Flower of the True Dharma (J. Shōhokke-kyō) by Dharmaraksa (n.d.) in 286. The most popular translation and the one used in T’ien-t’ai and Nichiren Buddhism for study and practice is the Sūtra of the Lotus Flower of the Wonderful Dharma (J. Myōhō-renge-kyō) by Kumārajīva (344-413) that was done in 406. There is also the Supplemented Sūtra of the Lotus Flower of the Wonderful Dharma (J. Tenbon-myōhō-renge-kyō) done by Jñānagupta (523-c. 600). The translations by Dharmaraksa and Jñānagupta used later version of the Sanskrit Lotus Sūtra that contained additions to the text not found in the Kumārajīva version that used an earlier version of the Sanskrit text. In fact, Kumārajīva’s original translation did not include chapter 12 and that was inserted translated in 490 by someone named Fa-i and inserted into the Kumārajīva translation in the early 6th century. Jñānagupta and Dharmagupta (d. 619) are credited with translating and inserting the verse portion of chapter 25 into the Kumārajīva version between 561-601. The Kumārajīva translation was originally divided into seven scrolls, but by the first half of the 8th century it came to be divided into eight, which is the form that we have it in today.

Dharmamitra (356-442) allegedly translated the Meditation on the Bodhisattva Universal Sage Sūtra between 424-442. This sūtra refers explicitly to the Lotus Sūtra and is really a kind of practice manual expanding on chapter 28 of the Lotus Sūtra. For that reason it came to be regarded as the epilogue to the Lotus Sūtra. Dharmajātayaśas (n.d.) allegedly translated the Innumerable Meanings Sūtra in 481. This sūtra does not refer to the Lotus Sūtra but in the first chapter of the Lotus Sūtra it says that the Buddha expounded the a sūtra by this name and so it has come to be seen as the preface to the Lotus Sūtra. There are no Sanskrit copies extant of either of these sūtras and some believe they may actually have been composed in China. In any case, since at least the time of T’ien-t’ai Chih-i (538-597) these two sūtras along with the Lotus Sūtra proper have been regarded as the Threefold Lotus Sūtra.

Three Parts Each of the Two Divisions of the Threefold Lotus Sūtra (J. nikyo rokudan)

The third set that Nichiren analyzes into preface, main discourse, and epilogue is actually two sets that both have a preface, main discourse, and epilogue. These two sets being the division between the Trace Gate or the first half of the Lotus Sūtra and the Original Gate or latter half of the Lotus Sūtra. Sometimes these sets are considered as two different sets and then this system of analysis is referred to as the five sets of three parts (J. gojū sandan).

Furthermore, the ten fascicles of the Threefold Lotus Sūtra can be divided into two sections, the Trace Gate and the Original Gate, each of which contains a preface, main discourse, and epilogue. First, in the Trace Gate, the Sūtra of Infinite Meaning and the first “Introduction” chapter of the Lotus Sūtra compose the preface; the eight chapters of the Lotus Sūtra from the second chapter on “Expedients” to the ninth chapter, “Assurance of Future Buddhahood” inclusive, represent the main discourse; and the five chapters from the tenth chapter, “The Teacher of the Dharma”, to the fourteenth chapter, “Peaceful Practices”, comprise the epilogue. (Ibid, pp. 150-151)

Moreover, fourteen chapters in the Original Gate can be regarded as one sūtra with three parts: the preface, the main discourse, and the epilogue. The first half of the fifteenth chapter, “Appearance of Bodhisattvas from Underground”, is the prologue. The second half of the fifteenth chapter, the sixteenth chapter, “The Life Span of the Buddha”, and the first half of the following chapter, the Variety of Merits”, (a chapter and two-halves in all) make up the main discourse. The remainder constitutes the epilogue. (Ibid, pp. 151-152)

Two early commentators on the Lotus Sūtra, Tao-sheng (d. 434) and Fa-yün (467-529), regarded the first half of the sūtra (chapters 1-14) as the realm of cause and the second half (chapters 15-28) as the realm of effect. Later, Chih-i regarded the first half as the Trace Gate that dealt with the teaching of the One Vehicle by the historical Śākyamuni Buddha and the latter half as the Original Gate that dealt with the teaching of the unquantifiable nature of the Buddha’s lifespan by the Eternal or Original Śākyamuni Buddha to his original disciples the bodhisattvas who spring up from underground. Nichiren’s analysis follows that of Chih-i in his Profound Meaning of the Lotus Sūtra, except that Nichiren includes the Innumerable Meanings Sūtra and the Meditation on the Bodhisattva Universal Sage Sūtra as part of the Trace Gate and Origin Gate respectively.

The preface section of the Trace Gate includes the Innumerable Meanings Sūtra and the first chapter, “Introduction,” of the Lotus Sūtra. The main discourse of the Trace Gate begins with chapter two, “Expedients,” and ends with chapter nine, “Assurance of Future Buddhahood of the Śrāvakas Who Have Something More to Learn and of the Śrāvakas Who Have Nothing More to Learn.” According to Chih-i in his Profound Meaning of the Lotus Sūtra, like a lotus flower whose flowers open to reveal the fruit inside, the Buddha in these chapters is teaching is about “opening the provisional and revealing the true” (J. kaigon-kenjitsu). This means that he opens up or discards the provisional teaching that those following the two vehicles of the śrāvakas and pratyekabuddhas cannot attain buddhahood and reveals that in fact they can attain buddhahood. It also means that he discards the three vehicles to reveal that there is in fact only the One Vehicle of buddhahood. It also means that he discards the provisional teaching that separates the ten worlds from hell to buddhahood and reveals their mutual possession, at least in principle. The principle doctrine of the Trace Gate, according to Chih-i, is that of “opening the three vehicles and revealing the One Vehicle” (J. kaisan-ken’ichi) that is at first stated concisely in the first part of chapter two, from the beginning to the end of the fifth set of verses (See Murano 2012, pp. 24-32). In this part the Buddha speaks of the reality of all things (J. shohō-jissō) in terms of ten suchnesses (J. jū-nyoze) or factors at the end of the first prose section. These ten suchnesses are integral to Chih-i’s concept of the three thousand worlds in a single thought-moment and they are recited three times to this day by Nichiren Buddhists to show that all ten factors are empty, that all ten are aspects of the provisional existence of the diverse phenomena of the ten worlds, and that all ten are aspects of the Middle Way. Because all ten worlds share these ten factors of the reality of all things, none of the ten worlds are truly separate from one another and so the world of buddhahood embraces all the others and is contained by them and therefore all beings in principle can attain buddhahood. Following this section, from the moment the Buddha responds to Śāriputra’s insistent inquiries to the end of chapter nine, the Buddha gives an expanded explanation of opening of the three vehicles and revealing the one. According to Chih-i, he does this in “three cycles of preaching” (J. sanshū-no-seppō). In the first cycle the Buddha gives a direct explanation in the rest of chapter two of the One Vehicle teaching that only disciples of superior capacity such as Śāriputra are able to take faith in. As a result he predicts the future buddhahood of Śāriputra in the beginning of chapter three, “A Parable.” In the second cycle the Buddha uses parables such as that of Parable of the Burning House in chapter three or the Parable of the Herbs in chapter five to help the disciples with intermediate capacity understand and take faith in his teaching. These disciples receive the prediction of their buddhahood in chapter six, “Assurance of Future Buddhahood.” In the third cycle the Buddha speaks of past life relationships to show that there are strong causal links between him and even the disciples of inferior capacity in order to help them overcome their doubts and take faith in the teaching of the One Vehicle. Specifically in chapter seven, “The Parable of the Magic City,” he speaks of the time three thousand dust-particle kalpas in the past when he sowed the seeds of buddhahood by teaching the Lotus Sūtra to them. Their buddhahood is predicted in chapter eight, “The Assurance of Future Buddhahood of the Five Hundred Disciples.” The epilogue of the Trace Gate runs from chapter ten, “The Teacher of the Dharma,” to chapter 14, “Peaceful Practices.” In those chapters the Buddha shifts his attention to the bodhisattvas and is primarily concerned with the propagation of the Lotus Sūtra into the future. In these chapters the Ceremony in the Air begins in chapter 11, “Beholding the Stūpa of Treasures,” and the assurance of buddhahood for evil men such as Devadatta and for women, children, and even the non-human, represented by the eight year old daughter of the dragon king, occurs in chapter 12, “Devadattva.”

The preface of the Original Gate is the first half of chapter 15, “The Appearance of Bodhisattvas from Underground.” In that chapter countless numbers of bodhisattvas and their attendants spring up from underground, coming from their dwelling place the “sky below the Sahā world.” Maitreya Bodhisattva asks who these bodhisattvas are as no one has ever seen them before. Here the preface ends. (Ibid, pp. 234-240) The main discourse begins in that same chapter as Śākyamuni Buddha explains that they are his own disciples. This leads Maitreya Bodhisattva to ask how it could be possible for the Buddha to have taught such a multitude of ancient bodhisattvas in the short span of time since he attained buddhahood beneath the Bodhi Tree. The response to this leads into the Buddha’s revelation of the actual extent of his lifespan as a Buddha in chapter 16, “The Duration of the Life of the Tathāgata.” In chapter 17, “The Variety of Merits,” the Buddha tells Maitreya Bodhisattva of the benefits gained by all those who heard and believed in what he taught in chapter 16. Maitreya’s response in prose and in verse ends the main discourse consisting of one chapter (16) and two halves (the latter half of 15 and the first half of 17). (Ibid, pp. 240-260) According to Chih-i’s Profound Meaning of the Lotus Sūtra, in the main discourse of the Original Gate the Buddha’s teaching is for the purpose of “opening the near and revealing the distant” (J. kaigon-kenmon) In other words, the Buddha is opening or discarding the idea that he only attained buddhahood in the near past some forty years before and is revealing that he actually attained buddhahood 500 dust-particle kalpas in the distant past. This is first revealed concisely, which is to say implied, in his response to Maitreya Bodhisattva’s initial inquiry about the identify of the bodhisattvas from underground in chapter 15 and revealed in a more extensive or expanded way in chapter 16. The epilogue of the Original Gate consists of the second half of chapter 17 through to chapter 28 and includes the Meditation on the Bodhisattva Universal Sage Sūtra. In chapter 21, “The Supernatural Powers of the Tathāgatas,” the Buddha gives a special transmission of the Dharma to Superior Practice Bodhisattva and the rest of the bodhisattvas from underground. In chapter 22, “Transmission,” there is a general transmission of the Dharma to all the other bodhisattvas present. At that point the Ceremony in the Air comes to a close and presumably Many Treasures Tathāgata and his stūpa of treasures, all the Buddha’s emanations in the ten directions, and the bodhisattvas from underground that appeared in chapter 15 all take their leave. Nichiren in particular underscored that the preaching of the Eternal Śākyamuni Buddha during the Ceremony in the Air above Vulture Peak to the bodhisattvas from underground was only told in the eight chapters from 15-22. The other chapters from 23-28 deal with the practices of bodhisattvas like World Voice Perceiver Bodhisattva and Universal Sage Bodhisattva and the protection and support they vow to provide to those who uphold the Lotus Sūtra.

Three Parts of the True Dharma (J. hompon sandan)

The fourth set that Nichiren analyzes has to do with the True Dharma of the five characters of the Odaimoku that is preceded by all else including the Lotus Sūtra itself.

There is another triple division culminating in the Original Gate. Innumerable sutras beginning with the Lotus Sūtra expounded during the time of the ancient Great Universal Wisdom Buddha, those preached by Śākyamuni Buddha during fifty some years of his lifetime – including the Flower Garland Sūtra, fourteen chapters of the Trace Gate of the Lotus Sūtra, and the Nirvāna Sūtra – as well as those preached by Buddhas in all the worlds in the universe in the past, at present, and in the future are the preface to the great Dharma of five characters hidden in the lines of the 16th chapter of the Lotus Sūtra, “The Life Span of the Buddha.

Compared to the one chapter and two-half chapters of the Lotus Sūtra that which comprise the main discourse according to this division, all other sutras may be called Hīnayāna teachings, false teachings, teachings that do not lead to buddhahood, or teachings in which the truth is not revealed. Those who listen to these “expedient” teachings have little virtue and much illusion; they are immature in thinking, poor in heart, and solitary, like birds and beasts, they do not know the existence of the Eternal Buddha, who is their father. (Ibid, p. 152 adapted)

The five characters hidden in the depths of the 16th chapter are of course the title of the Lotus Sūtra: myō, , ren, ge, and kyō. With the addition of na and mu to indicate praise and the taking of refuge, one has the seven character Odaimoku or sacred title whose chanting is to directly contemplate and take to heart the teaching of chapter 16 that the Eternal Śākyamuni Buddha is with us always leading us on to our own buddhahood. In comparison to this, all other sūtras, even the other parts of the Lotus Sūtra, are providing only provisional teachings that are meant to lead to and encourage the practice of Odaimoku. Nichiren says that these other teachings are in fact Hīnayāna, even the Mahāyāna sūtras and other parts of the Lotus Sūtra, because they do not clarify the full scope of the Buddha’s awakened life. From their perspective the Buddha enters parinirvāna or “total extinction” like the arhats and pratyekabuddhas who, upon entering parinirvāna themselves, “reduce the body to ashes and annihilate consciousness.” This would mean that the final end of the Buddha is the same kind of extinction as that aimed for in Hīnayāna Buddhism. Only in the one chapter and two-halves does Śākyamuni Buddha reveal that he will always be present and that he does not enter into extinction except in terms of a skillful method to keep people from becoming complacent and over reliant on the Buddha rather than cultivating their own awakening. This means that the ultimate goal of buddhahood is not annihilation but to always be present leading all living beings to buddhahood. The Buddha says in chapter 16: “I am always thinking: ‘How shall I cause all living beings to enter into the unsurpassed Way and quickly become buddhas?’” (Murano 2012, p. 255) The Buddha does this by praising and sharing the Lotus Sūtra, so wherever the Lotus Sūtra is praised, shared, and upheld there one will find the Eternal Śākyamuni Buddha. That is why Nichiren saw the Odaimoku, the seven characters that mean “Devotion to the Sūtra of the Lotus Flower of the Wonderful Dharma,” as the expression of the true meaning of the one chapter and two halves revealing the Eternal Śākyamuni Buddha.


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Crosby, Kate and Skilton, Andrew, trans. The Bodhicaryāvatāra. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Fuchs, Rosemarie, trans. Buddha Nature: The Mahayana Uttaratantra Shastra with Commentary. Ithaca: Snow Lion Publications, 2000.

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

Hakeda, Yoshito S., trans. The Awakening of Faith: Attributed to Ashvaghosha. New York: Columbia University Press, 1967.

Hori, Kyotsu, comp. Writings of Nichiren Shonin: Doctrine Volume 2. Tokyo: Nichiren Shu Overseas Propagation Promotion Association, 2002.

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Hurvitz, Leon, trans. The Scripture of the Lotus Blossom of the Fine Dharma (The Lotus Sūtra). New York: Columbia University Press, 2009.

Katō, Bunnō; Yoshirō, Tamura; and Miyasaka, Kōjirō, trans. The Threefold Lotus Sutra: The Sutra of Innumerable Meanings, the Sutra of the Lotus Flower of the Wonderful Law and the Sutra of Meditation on the Bodhisattva Universal Virtue. Tokyo: Kosei Publishing Co., 1988.

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

______________, trans. The Lotus Sutra: The Sutra of the Lotus Flower of the Wonderful Dharma. Tokyo: Nichiren Shu Headquarters, 2012.

Ñānamoli, Bhikkhu, trans. The Life of the Buddha. Seattle: Buddhist Publication Society Pariyatti Editions, 2001.

Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research Editorial Staff. Buddha-Dharma: The Way to Enlightenment (Revised Second Edition). Berkeley: Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research, 2003.

Pye, Michael. Skillful Means: A Concept in Mahayana Buddhism. London: Duckworth, 1978.

Reeves, Gene, trans. The Lotus Sutra: A Contemporary Translation of a Buddhist Classic. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2008.

Thurman, Robert A.F. The Holy Teaching of Vimalakirti: A Mahayana Scripture. New York: Pennsylvania State University, 1976.

Watson, Burton, trans. The Vimalakirti Sutra. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997.

_____________, trans. The Lotus Sutra and Its Opening and Closing Sutras. Tokyo: Soka Gakkai, 2009.

Emptiness (Pāli suññatā, Sanskrit śūnyatā) is a shocking word to use about the nature of all things including our own lives and yet that is the word the Buddha chose to use on several occasions. Some people have suggested that it should perhaps be translated with the gentler term “openness” or perhaps the more abstract “non-substantiality” but I think that the word was meant to be disconcerting even in the language and dialect the Buddha actually spoke. I believe the teaching of emptiness was meant to shake us up and drive home the point that there is no self or graspable substance to be found in any conditioned phenomena nor is the unconditioned any kind of self or graspable either. The teaching that all is empty is also often thought of as a Mahāyāna innovation, but in fact it is found in the Pāli canon, and in fact the Buddha seemed to view the teaching of emptiness as quite profound and something of great importance. On one occasion he said:

“Therefore, monks, you should train yourselves thus: ‘When those discourses spoken by the Tathāgata that are deep, deep in meaning, supramundane, dealing with emptiness, are being recited, we will be eager to listen to them, will lend an ear to them, will apply our minds to understand them; and we will think those teachings should be studied and mastered.’ Thus should you train yourselves.” (Bodhi 2000, p. 709)

There are in fact several discourses in the Pāli canon where emptiness is the theme. In one discourse the Buddha taught that a virtuous monk should carefully attend to the five aggregates of form, feeling, perception, mental formations, and consciousness that are all subject to clinging “as impermanent, as suffering, as a disease, as a tumor, as a dart, as misery, as an affliction, as alien, as disintegrating, as empty, as non-self.” (Ibid, p. 970) Here emptiness is synonymous with non-self and non-self is a term meant to show that none of the aggregates are fully subject to our control, none of them are permanent, none of them can exist on their own, and none of them can bring us complete or lasting satisfaction so none of them are what we can call a self that is eternal, independent, and truly happy and at ease. In another discourse the Buddha compares each of the aggregates to something that is obviously ephemeral, non-existent, or illusory. He compares form to a lump of foam on the Ganges River, feeling to a water bubble that rises on the surface of a body of water when rain falls upon it, perception to a mirage seen at high noon during the hot season, mental formations to the lack of heartwood in a plantain tree, and consciousness to a magical illusion created by a magician. In the case of any of the aggregates the Buddha states that upon investigation it will be revealed as void, hollow, and insubstantial. In verse this teaching is summarized as follows:

“Form is like a lump of foam,

Feeling like a water bubble;

Perception is like a mirage,

Volitions like a plantain trunk,

And consciousness like an illusion,

So explained the Kinsman of the Sun.

“However one may ponder it

And carefully investigate it,

It appears hollow and void

When one views it carefully.”

(See ibid, pp. 951-952)

The five aggregates that comprise sentient beings are all empty and so are the six sense bases, the twelve sense fields, and the eighteen elements that are all components of the Buddhist analysis of human existence. All of our senses, all the things we can sense, and all the forms of consciousness that arise based on sensory experience are all empty of a self as a fixed, independent entity or underlying substance. In short, the world and everything and everyone in it are empty.

Then the Venerable Ānanda approached the Blessed One … and said to him: “Venerable sir, it is said, ‘Empty is the world, empty is the world.’ In what way, venerable sir, is it said, ‘Empty is the world’?”

“It is, Ānanda, because it is empty of self and of what belongs to self that it is said, ‘Empty is the world.’ And what is empty of self and of what belongs to self? The eye, Ānanda, is empty of self and of what belongs to self. Forms are empty of self and of what belongs to self. Eye-consciousness is empty of self and of what belongs to self. Eye-contact is empty of self and of what belongs to self… Whatever feeling arises with mind-contact as condition – whether pleasant or painful or neither-painful-nor-pleasant – that too is empty of self and of what belongs to self.

“It is, Ānanda, because it is empty of self and of what belongs to self that it is said, ‘Empty is the world.’” (Ibid, pp. 1163-1164)

In other words, one must develop a perspective that recognizes that due to the impermanent and thoroughly contingent nature of all things there are no fixed or permanent signs of individual existence to grasp, that all things are empty of a self or what will establish a self, and therefore there is nothing to be wished for or desired.

“Monks, for direct knowledge of lust three things are to be developed. What three? Emptiness concentration, markless concentration, and wishless concentration. For direct knowledge of lust, these three things are to be developed.

“Monks, for full understanding of lust … for the utter destruction … for the abandoning … for the destruction … for the vanishing … for the fading away … for the cessation … for the giving up … For the relinquishment of lust these three things are to be developed.

“Monks, for direct knowledge … for full understanding … for the utter destruction … for the abandoning … for the destruction … for the vanishing … for the fading away … for the cessation … for the giving up … for the relinquishment of hatred … delusion … anger… hostility … denigration … insolence … envy … miserliness … deceitfulness … craftiness … obstinacy … vehemence … conceit … arrogance … intoxication … heedlessness, three things are to be developed. What three? Emptiness concentration, markless concentration, and wishless concentration. For the relinquishment of heedlessness, these three things are to be developed.”

This is what the Blessed One said. Elated, those monks delighted in the Blessed One’s statement. (Bodhi 2012, pp. 376-377)

The Abhidharma calls this perspective the triple gateway to liberation: the empty, the markless, and the wishless. They are three different contemplations that consider how all conditioned things are empty of self, that there are no marks or characteristics of things that can be permanently grasped, and that there are no conditioned things that can be wished for that would ever be able to bring ultimate lasting satisfaction. Through contemplating the empty, the markless, and the wishless one arrives at nirvāna, the unconditioned, that is empty of self, without any conditioned marks, and a state of total contentment wherein there is no need to wish for anything else. To abide in nirvāna, then, is to abide in the empty, the markless, and the wishless. In the Shorter Discourse on Emptiness (P. Cūlasuññata Sutta) in the Middle Length Discourses there is the following exchance between Ānanda and the Buddha:

“Venerable sir, on one occasion the Blessed One was living in the Sakyan country at a town of the Sakyas named Nagaraka. There, venerable sir, I heard and learned this from the Blessed One’s own lips: ‘Now, Ānanda, I often abide in emptiness.’ Did I hear that correctly, venerable sir, did I learn that correctly, attend to that correctly, remember that correctly?”

“Clearly, Ānanda, you heard that correctly, learned that correctly, attended to that correctly, remembered that correctly. As formerly, Ānanda, so now too I often abide in emptiness. (Ñānamoli and Bodhi, p. 965)

There are other discourses about and references to emptiness in the Pāli canon but I think the passages cited above are enough to show that emptiness is not just a Mahāyāna innovation but is regarded highly even in the pre-Mahāyāna teachings as a way to consider the emptiness of conditioned things and as a way of talking about nirvāna and the way in which arhats and buddhas abide in nirvāna.

There are two important Mahāyāna sūtras that are familiar to most Buddhist practitioners around the world today whose main theme is the teaching of emptiness. These are the Diamond Sūtra and the Heart Sūtra. These two sūtras were believed by the scholar and translator Edward Conze (1904-1979) to be summaries of the larger Perfection of Wisdom sūtras written in the fourth century CE. Today, some would argue that the Diamond Sūtra may actually have been one of the earliest of the Perfection of Wisdom sūtras and go back to the first century BCE and that later works were expanding upon its themes. In any case, Kumārajīva (344-413) translated the Diamond Sūtra into Chinese in the year 401. The earliest printed book that can be dated is actually a Chinese copy of the Diamond Sūtra from the year 868. Kumārājiva also supposedly translated the Heart Sūtra but this may be just an attribution and no copy of it has been dated prior to the 7th century. It is possible that it was a Chinese creation, being composed of excerpts from the Large Perfection of Wisdom Sūtra. In my view, neither of these sūtras say anything that departs radically from what was taught in the Pāli canon except insofar as the teachings of emptiness are set into a Mahāyāna context.

In the Diamond Sūtra, The monk Subhūti asks the Buddha, “How then, O Lord, should a son or daughter of good family, who have set out in the Bodhisattva-vehicle, stand, how progress, how control their thoughts?” (Conze, p. 13) Those who set out in the bodhisattva vehicle are those who aim not to merely escape samsāra, the cycle of birth and death, as arhats but to remain in samsāra for as long as it takes to accumulate sufficient merit and wisdom for the attainment of buddhahood so that they too can lead sentient beings into nirvāna. The rest of the sūtra is the Buddha’s answer to Subhūti’s inquiry. The Buddha’s first answer is in terms of the bodhisattva’s initial resolve.

The Lord said, “Here Subhūti, someone who has set out in the vehicle of a bodhisattva should produce a thought in this manner: ‘As many beings as there are in the universe of beings, comprehended under the term ‘beings’ – egg-born, born from a womb, moisture-born, or miraculously born; with or without form; with perception, without perception, and with neither perception nor non-perception – as far as any conceivable form of beings is conceived: all these I must lead to nirvāna, into that realm of nirvāna which leaves nothing behind. And yet, although innumerable beings have thus been led to nirvāna, no being at all has been led to nirvāna.’ And why? If in a bodhisattva the notion of ‘being’ should take place, he could not be called a ‘Bodhi-being.’ And why? He is not to be called a Bodhi-being, in whom the notion of a self or of a being should take place, or the notion of a living soul or of a person.” (Ibid, pp. 15-16 adapted)

The term emptiness is not used here and yet it is the emptiness of all beings that the bodhisattva realizes. On the one hand, the bodhisattva compassionately resolves to save all beings and yet the bodhisattva also has the wisdom to recognize that there is no-self, nor are there any substantial entities such as a being, soul, or person for the reasons given in the above discourses. The Buddha then explains that bodhisattvas who practice the perfection of generosity (the first of the six perfections, the other five being morality, patience, energy, meditation, and wisdom) should do so without depending upon any phenomena, including sights, sounds, smells, tastes, touchable objects, or mental objects. Further in the sūtra the perfection of patience is spoken of as possible only if one relinquishes thinking in terms of self, beings, souls, or persons. Presumably all six perfections (which this sūtra does not enumerate or otherwise explain) should be practiced without clinging to any notions or objects. This is again to emphasize that the bodhisattva is motivated by compassion but is guided by the wisdom that recognizes the empty nature of all things.

Other categories are also mentioned and exposed as not something to be grasped as an entity including the Buddha’s 32 marks, the various states of liberation culminating in arhatship, and buddhahood itself. Often in the sūtra it is said that something such as marks or merit is spoken of as “no-marks” or “no-merit” and therefore it can be spoken of as “marks” or “merit.” One can speak truthfully of things only if one recognizes the provisional nature of language and that there are no such things as substantial permanent, independent entities. In short there is no dharma, in other words phenomena, even awakening, that is not empty though also not completely nonexistent.

The Lord asked, “What do you think Subhūti? is there any dharma which the Tathāgata has has fully known as ‘perfect complete awakening’ or is there any dharma which the Tathāgata has demonstrated?

Subhūti replied, “No, not as I understand what the Lord has said. And why? This dharma that the Tathāgata has fully known or demonstrated – it cannot be grasped, it cannot be talked about, it is neither a dharma nor a no-dharma. And why? Because the unconditioned exalts the holy persons.” (Ibid, p. 30 adapted)

It should be remembered that the Buddha taught the Middle Way between asserting a substantial existence or a nihilistic nothingness. So what is being denied here is that there are any dharmas with a self-nature, but this is not to say that there is a sheer nothingness to be clung to either. There are contingent dharmas that we experience as the world of phenomena but ultimately there is no self in them. There is also nirvāna, the unconditioned, but that is not an object or thing that can be grasped as a self either. This again is no different from the Pāli canon discourses on emptiness wherein emptiness is taught to point out the lack of a self-nature in the aggregates and is also an aspect of nirvāna. The Diamond Sūtra finally ends with a verse that uses the same kinds of analogies for the ephemeral, illusory, and empty nature of things found in the discourse cited above from the Pāli canon about the five aggregates.

As stars, a fault of vision, as a lamp.

A mock show, dew drops, or a bubble,

A dream, a lightning flash, or cloud,

So should one view the conditioned.

(Ibid, p. 69)

The Heart Sūtra is very terse but does in fact use the word emptiness, over and over, to negate all the categories used in the Buddha’s earlier discourses to analyze the human condition. The five aggregates, the six sense bases, the eighteen elements, the four noble truths, the twelve-fold chain of dependent origination are all emptied out in turn. But here again this is no different from what has already been said in the Pāli canon, though in the Heart Sūtra Avalokiteśvara Bodhisattva delivers the discourse to Śāriputra and it ends with a mantra that means, “Gone, gone, gone beyond, perfectly gone beyond, awakening, hurrah!” The sūtra is very short so I will simply share my own translation of it.

Avalokiteśvara Bodhisattva

deeply practicing the perfection of wisdom at this time,

clearly sees that all five aggregates are empty

and delivered from all suffering and distress.


Form is no other than emptiness.

Emptiness is no other than form.

Form is emptiness.

Emptiness is form.

Feeling, perception, mental formations and consciousness

are also like this.


All phenomena are empty of characteristics.

They neither appear nor disappear.

They are neither defiled nor pure.

They neither increase nor decrease.

Thus, in emptiness there is no form,

nor is there feeling, perception, mental formations, or consciousness;

no eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, or [mental] phenomena;

no realm of seeing

and so on until no realm of mental discrimination;

no ignorance,

no end of ignorance,

and so on until no old age and death,

and no ending of old age and death;

no suffering, origination, cessation or way;

no wisdom and no attainment.

Since there is nothing to attain

a bodhisattva

relies upon the perfection of wisdom, whereby

the mind is unhindered.

Because there is no hindrance

there is no fear.

Far removed from all inverted delusions

nirvāna is realized at last.

The past, present and future buddhas all

rely on the perfection of wisdom in

attaining the supreme perfect awakening.

Therefore, know that the perfection of wisdom

is the great sacred mantra,

the great illuminating mantra,

the unsurpassed mantra,

which is able to remove all suffering.

It is true not false.

Therefore expound the perfection of wisdom mantra.

Now expound this mantra, saying:

Gate Gate Pāragate Pārasamgate Bodhi Svāhā!

In closing I’d like to stress that these discourses, from the earlier Pāli selections to these two Mahāyāna sūtras are not as nihilistic as they sound – far from it. They are in fact negating nihilism as much as they are negating the belief that there are eternal essences or unchanging independent substances. The point of talking about emptiness is to get the practitioner to stop clinging to their notions that there are things to cling to, including the notion that there is a self or some underlying essence to things beyond the dynamic flux of causes and conditions – each cause and condition itself being caused and condition and so on. Sheer nothingness or non-existence would also be viewed as a mistaken notion of an essence (or anti-essence) that should be seen as empty and therefore not something to be clung to. Where does this leave the practitioner? It leaves the practitioner free to experience liberation, no longer clinging unhappily to ephemeral conditions empty of any lasting self-nature. This may itself sound flat or negative to simply be free from clinging by seeing all things as empty, and yet there is something about the two Mahāyāna sūtras that really bears noticing. The Diamond Sūtra is a dialogue between the Buddha and the monk Subhūti who was one of the ten major śrāvaka disciples and the one renowned for dwelling without conflict due to his cultivation of boundless loving-kindness. The Heart Sūtra is a discourse given by Avakokiteśvara Bodhisattva, whose name means the Regarder of the Cries of the World and who is known as the Bodhisattva of Compassion. I do not think this is an accident. I think that what is being suggested is that to be free is also to be free to love without attachment and to have a fearless and boundless compassion for all.


Bodhi, Bhikkhu, trans. The Connected Discourses of the Buddha: A New Translation of the Samyutta Nikaya. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2000.

___________________. The Numerical Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Anguttara Nikāya. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 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.

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