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Belief and Understanding

Chapter 4

This Sutra’s first chapter, the Introduction, discusses its causes and conditions. The second chapter, Expedient Devices, tells how one within the Buddhadharma can use various expedients to teach and transform living beings. Because the Buddha feared that people would not understand, he used various analogies to clarify the Buddhadharma’s doctrines. Although we have heard about the expedients and the analogies, now, in the fourth chapter, Belief and Understanding, we find it is still necessary to have belief.

Belief: No matter what dharma is spoken, without personal belief in it you will not be able to accept it. If you cannot accept the dharma, it is just as if the dharma was not there at all. It is said,

Faith is the source of the Way and the mother of merit and virtue;
It nurtures all our good roots.

Faith, or belief, is the beginning of the Way. It is the mother of merit and virtue. If you have faith, you can increase your good roots. If you do not have faith, you cannot. So, faith is extremely important.

It is also said,

The Buddhadharma is like the great sea;
One can only enter it by means of faith.

To enter the great sea of the Buddhadharma you must have belief. If you have no belief, there is no way you can get onto it.

Let us take a look at the Chinese character for the word belief, or faith: xin ( 信 ). On the left hand side is a standing person radical: ren ( 人 ). On the right hand side, we have the character for works: yan ( 言 ). This means that there is a person there speaking. If you cannot believe what he is saying, it is useless. For his words to be of use to you, you must believe them. In the same way, if you believe in the Sutras you will be able to use them to your own benefit. If you do not believe in them, you would not.

What is meant by “being able to use them to your own benefit?” Say, for example, you have a big temper. The Sutras say clearly that one should avoid hatred, so you think, “Ah, I would not get angry; I should not hold on to this big temper anymore.” And, you do not know quite when, but one day you find that your temper is gone. Even if others get angry at you, you can bear up under it. That is faith. If you have no faith, when the Sutras say not to get angry, you will think, “Well, that is what the Sutras say, but who does not have a temper?” That is lack of faith. Without faith you cannot obtain advantage from the Sutra.

Perhaps you think, “Well, if I listen to the Sutras and just take everything lying down and do not get angry, I would not obtain any advantages either. It will be very hard to take.” Hah! You may feel that there are no advantages, but imperceptibly, by bearing up and not getting angry you gain in virtuous practice. If you get angry, you have no virtuous practice. So, your advantage lies in gaining merit and virtue. In this regard, faith is the most important quality.

I tell you not to have a fiery temper and not to get angry; you agree to my face saying you will do as I say, but as soon as you are apart from me you transform. Or, worse yet, you continue to get angry even in my presence! Utterly reckless, to you there is no law and no Heaven. “He tells me not to get angry? Well, I will just get angrier, and we will see how talented I am.” That is just having no faith. If you had faith, you would follow my teachings.

Understanding: Once you have faith, you can gain understanding. Without faith, you cannot gain understanding. The more I lecture on the Sutras, the less you believe. The less you believe, the more confused you get. The more confused you get, the less wisdom you have--you get stupid. If you give rise to faith and then understand, “Oh, I should really do as the Sutras instruct me to do,” then you will have obtained advantage.

This is the fourth chapter of the Dharma Flower Sutra. Faith: Ultimately, in what does one have faith? Understanding: Ultimately, what is it that one understands? One has faith in the inconceivably wonderful Dharma of the Great Vehicle. One understands and awakens to the cultivation of the practices of the inconceivable and wonderful Great Vehicle. Thus, this Chapter is titled: Belief and Understanding.


At that time the wise and long-lived Subhuti, Mahakatyayana, Mahakashyapa, Mahamaudgalyayana, having heard from the Buddha, Dharma such as they had never heard before, the bestowal of the prediction of anuttarasamyaksambodhi upon Shariputra, felt it very rare. They rose from their seats, jumped for joy, straightened their robes, bared their right shoulders, placed their right knees on the ground, single-mindedly put their palms together, inclined themselves respectfully, gazed at the honored countenance…

Outline :

F2. Leading those of average dispositions to understanding.
G1. Compiler’s preface telling of assembly’s rejoicing.


At that time means right after Shakymuni Buddha had spoken the Analogies Chapter advising Shariputra that he should speak the Dharma Flower Sutra only to those to whom it is appropriate to speak it. Unless people are suited to hear it, you cannot speak it to them. This is to avoid giving unsuitable living beings a chance to slander it.

The wise and long-lived Subhuti. Why is only Subhuti called “wise and long-lived”? The others are listed as “Maha” or great. It is because Subhuti has received orders from one of wisdom. It is also because he continues the line of the Buddha’s life of wisdom. Why do we say he has received orders from one of wisdom? Because among all wise people, the Buddha has the foremost wisdom. In the Prajna Dharma Assembly, the Buddha commanded Subhuti to teach all living beings. Shakyamuni Buddha is the “one of wisdom” meant here. He told Subhuti to teach all the Bodhisattvas, and to hand on the inheritance of Dharma. You could also say “Mahasubhuti.” He has a separate name because he is a bit different from the others. Subhuti has three names. He is called Good and Auspicious, Good Manifestation, and Empty Born.

Good and Auspicious is his name because when he was born, his father called in a diviner and the diviner found his birth to be both good and auspicious. Although he was good and auspicious, a strange thing happened. His father was very rich and had lots of gold, silver, and jewels in his storehouse. But when Subhuti was born they all disappeared, and the storehouse was empty. So he was given the name Empty Born. After seven days, all the treasures reappeared in the storehouse, so he was also named Good Manifestation. These three names all refer to Subhuti. The name Subhuti has these three meanings. They are three and yet one; one and yet three. They are neither three, nor one. He was foremost of the Buddha’s disciples in understanding emptiness. He understood the principle of emptiness.

“What is there to understand about emptiness?” you ask. “Do you have to understand emptiness?”

Of course, you do. If you do not understand emptiness, you do not understand the Buddhadharma. If you do not understand the Buddhadharma, you cannot become a Buddha. If you want to become a Buddha, you must first understand emptiness.

“But emptiness is just nothing at all. What is there to understand? You ask.

You must understand that “nothing at all.” If you do not understand that “nothing at all,” you will always be just a common person. If you understand that “nothing at all,” there is unlimited benefit to be gained.

What is emptiness? Let us look at empty space. What does it mean, “empty space”? It does not grasp or reject or receive anything. You cannot grasp it or let it go. If it took anything in, it would not be empty. When Subhuti understood the doctrine of not grasping, rejecting, or receiving, he then suddenly awakened to the principle of emptiness. Although we say that there is nothing at all in emptiness, still there is something true there. Were it not for that true thing which holds up emptiness, it would long ago have been destroyed. We people do not have the talent to shatter empty space. If we did, that would be “realizing the Way”. So the Venerable Elder Master Xu Yun said:

The teacup fell to the ground.
Sharp and clear was its sound.
Empty space was smashed to bits,
And the mad mind was put to rest.

How did the Venerable Master Xu Yun get enlightened? It was in the evening, during a Chan session, when everyone was drinking tea. In the Chan hall, you hold your small teacup in a certain way while someone pours the tea in for you, making sure not to pour too much so that it overflows and scalds your hand. The person who poured the tea for him knocked his teacup out of his hand, on to the floor. It made a loud, sharp noise. The noise woke the Master from his limitless kalpas worth of karmic consciousness. “Oh! So that is what it is all about!” When the cup broke, what do you think happened? Empty space disappeared. Where did it go? Ask Master Xu Yun. He knows where it went. And the mad mind, the mind that climbs on conditions, the mind which is filled with all types of ignorance, it came to rest. It stopped. It was gone. This is what Shakyamuni Buddha was talking about when he said,

All living beings have the Buddha nature.
All can become Buddhas.
It is only because of false thinking and attachment that they are unable to do so.

The Shurangama Sutra says, “When the mad mind comes to rest, then Bodhi appears.” Your mad mind is just your Bodhi mind, and when the mad mind stops, the Bodhi mind arises.

In the Chinese transliteration of the name “Subhuti,” the syllable “Su” is represented by the character, which means “to need” or “to want.” What is needed and wanted? Bodhi. (“Bodhi” and “Bhuti” are represented by the same Chinese characters.) Do you want Bodhi? If not, then I do. If you want it, then you can take it.

Mahakatyayana: “Maha” is Sanskrit and translated into Chinese, it means “great.” He is “great” Katyayana. Katyayana is a Sanskrit word meaning “literary elegance,” “fan cord,” and “good shoulders” as previously explained. He was incredibly eloquent. He could talk the dead back into life. You have to be pretty eloquent to do that. He was called “fan cord” because when he was young his father died, and his mother wanted to marry again; the child, however, was like a cord that bound her, so she could not get away. He was called “good shoulders” because his shoulders were very handsome. They looked good from the back, and even better from the front.

Among the Buddha’s disciples, he is foremost in debate. No one could out debate him. At that time there was a member of the outside Way sect of annihilationism who challenged him saying, “I say that when people die, they disappear, you say they do not. I say this because of all the people who have died, I have never heard of one who returned to tell where they had gone, not a single one, from ancient times to the present. They have never come back, written a postcard, sent a telegram or made a phone call. Once they die, it is all over. So I hold to annihilationism.”

Mahakayayana replied, “Well, let us not talk about dead people. Let us take, for example, someone who has broken the law and been put in jail. Does he has the freedom to go home and tell his family where he is being incarcerated and for how long? Is that possible?”

Because the outside Way adherent thought there was some principle in that, there was nothing he could say, except, “Supposing you are right. If someone dies and falls into the hells, they cannot get out and come back for a visit. But what about those who die and supposedly go up to the heavens? Why don’t they send down any news like, ‘Having a wonderful time. Wish you were here?’ They really should.”

Mahakatyayana replied, “Let me ask you. If someone had been stuck in a pit toilet and, through great effort, managed to extricate himself, do you think he would turn around and jump back in? Compared to heaven, the world of human beings is just like a stinking pit toilet. Do you think anyone would be so stupid as to jump back in? What is more, one day in the Tushita Heaven is equal to a hundred years among people. When he got there, it would take a day to get settled and rest, another day to go sight seeing and visit the gods and receive visitors. On the third day, when he thought to return, three hundred years would have gone by back in the human world, and the people he wanted to see would have long since died.

The annihilationist was speechless. This incident proves that Mahakatyayana was truly eloquent. If you do not believe it, try debating with him yourself.

You ask, “How could I meet him?”

He is right here in the Dharma Flower Sutra. He is right in front of you, and you cannot see him. Who are you going to complain to about that? He is right in front of you. This Venerable One has come to our Buddha Hall. Subhuti is here, and Mahakatyana is here, and Mahakashyapa is here. If you cannot see them, whose fault is it?

Mahakashyapa: Mahakashyapa was the first Buddhist Patriarch. He is still in the world and has not entered Nirvana. Why not? He is waiting for Maitreya Bodhisattva to become a Buddha, at which time he will give the bowl, given to him by the Four Heavenly Kings, to Maitreya. The Patriarch is now in China, Yunnan Province, Chicken Foot Mountain in samadhi waiting for Maitreya. “Maha,” again means great. Kashyapa is Sanskrit and means “light drinking clan.”

His body emitted light of purple-gold color which covered over all other light--sunlight, moonlight, starlight, lamplight. He outshone them all. It was as if all other light had been, so to speak, swallowed up by his light. This is an analogy. He did not really drink light. Why did his body emit this light? It was because limitless eons ago, following the Nirvana of Vipashyin Buddha, and during that Buddha’s Dharma-image age, he saw an image of that Buddha. The gold had all peeled off of the Buddha.

At that time a woman went out and took up a collection to regild the image. She went to a goldsmith with the money saying, “I want to regild this Buddha image. How much would you charge?” The goldsmith, admiring her very much for her good heart, said, “You should not take the merit and virtue all for yourself. We should share it. I will do it for half the price I normally charge, and we can split the merit and virtue.” The image was regilded and because of the merit and virtue obtained from that deed, in every life he was born with a body that was golden, outshining all other kinds of light. After they gilded the image, since they had such close affinities, they got married. The woman also had a golden body. They vowed that in every life they would be married and propagate the Buddhadharma.

So, during the time of Shakyamuni Buddha they were also husband and wife and then left home to cultivate the Way. Now, you should not misunderstand. Although they were married, it was only in name. They were not married in deed, because they both cultivated the Way and they were not like ordinary married people who give rise to so much ignorance and engage in impure activities. How do we know this? Because their bodies, both emitted golden light. If they had indulged in marital relations they would not have emitted golden light whether or not they regilded the Buddha image. Unless they protected their merit and virtue in their actions, they would not have been able to keep their light.

Mahakashyapa’s name also means “great turtle clan.” This is because his forefathers saw a huge turtle with a diagram on its back telling them how to cultivate the Way. Mahakashyapa’s parents prayed in front of a tree to the tree spirit seeking a son, and he was born. He is also called “Pippala,” then, which was the name of the tree. When he was in his twenties, his parents wanted to find him a wife. He said, “I would not marry any ordinary woman. It must be a woman whose body is the same color as mine.” After a time, his parents found such a woman in another country, and they were married and cultivated the Way together. He was a member of a non-Buddhist sect that worshipped fire. He cultivated the skill of fire.

For example, he did things like walking on fire. He took fire as a god, making offerings and bowing to it. Whenever he saw fire he said, “Fire is god. Look, anything that gets in the fire dies. Fire is just god.” He bowed to fire. When he was 120 years old, he met the Buddha. After the Buddha got enlightened, he first crossed over the five Bhikshus. Then he took a look and saw that in Magadha there was a great immortal, Mahakashyapa. If he crossed over Mahakashyapa, all of his disciples would become Buddhist disciples. He went and spoke the Dharma to Kashyapa. Kashyapa thought his own skill was very highly developed, but no matter what he did, he could not outdo the Buddha. So he bowed to the Buddha as his teacher and cultivated ascetic practices, becoming foremost of the disciples in cultivation of ascetic practices.

There are twelve types of ascetic practices. The Buddha noticed that as old as Kashyapa was, he was still eating once a day and sleeping under a tree and so on, and told him to discontinue his bitter practices. Kashyapa did not waver, however, he just kept on cultivating them. So Shakyamuni Buddha praised him saying that his bitter practices were insuring that the Buddhadharma would dwell long in the world.

Mahamaudgalyayana: His name means “descendant of a family of bean gatherers.” It also means “turnip root.” He is foremost in spiritual penetrations. Because he had great spiritual penetrations, one time he decided to use his spiritual powers and go off to the east through limitless, limitless worlds, but he still could not find a place where the Buddha’s voice did not reach. He was also very filial.

Now in the world, every year on the 15th day of the 7th lunar month, we celebrate the Ullambana Assembly. This came about because of Maudgalyayana. When he obtained the six spiritual penetrations (the heavenly eye, the heavenly ear, the knowledge of others’ thoughts, the knowledge of past lives, the complete spirit, and the extinction of outflows) and the five eyes, he first took a look to see where his parents had gone. He saw that his mother had fallen into the unintermittent hells. She was skin and bones and undergoing tremendous suffering. He took a bowl of food to her. She took the bowl with one hand and covered it with the sleeve of her other hand, fearing that the other ghosts would see it and try to take it away from her. But as soon as she puts a bite of food in her mouth, it turned into burning coals! She could not eat it. Why did it turn into fire? Because her karmic obstacles were too heavy.

Everything people encounter is a manifestation of their karmic obstacles. Because her karmic obstacles were so heavy, this very good food turned into fire. Maudgalyayana, despite all his spiritual powers, had no way to save his mother, so he hurried back to the Buddha and asked for help. The Buddha said, “When your mother was alive, she ate a lot of fish roe. She also slandered the Triple Jewel and was disrespectful towards the Sutras. That is why she fell into hell. Even though you have certified to the fruit of Arhatship, you cannot save her. What is to be done? You should invite the Sangha of the ten directions on the 15th day of the 7th lunar month, which is the day of the Buddha’s rejoicing and the day of the Sangha’s rest, their vacation.

You see, because the Buddha is happy on that day, he does not watch over the Sangha, and so they can do just about whatever they want. If they want to go out into the streets, they can, if they want to sleep, they can; if they want to sit in meditation, they can. Usually, they are very disciplined, but on this day they relax, because it is the end of the Summer Retreat which lasts from the 15th day of the 4th month to the 15th day of the 7th month. During these three months, they are not allowed to go outside. They cannot walk on the ground; they have to stay in their dwellings. On the 15th of the 7th month they are “liberated” and can go out again. Why aren’t they allowed to go walking around outside? Is that a crime? No. It is because during that time of year there are many, many bugs on the roads. If they walked on the ground, they would squash them. Since they do not want to kill, they avoid going anywhere during this time.

Shakyamuni Buddha told Mahamaudgalyayana to invite all the Sangha of the ten directions to gather together on the 15th day of the 7th month and make offerings to them. In this way his mother could leave suffering, attain bliss, and be born in the heavens. He did just that, and his mother was reborn in the heavens. After that, every year on that day they conducted the Ullambana Dharma Assembly so that other living beings could save their parents who had committed offenses and fallen into the hells and cross them over so they could be reborn in the heavens. The Ullambana ceremony is still conducted every year. Ullambana means “releasing those who are hanging upside down.” People in the hells are as if hanging upside down by a rope. On this day they are cut loose, liberated.

Mahamaudgalyayana’s personal name was Kolita, which is also the name of a tree. His father and mother also prayed to a tree spirit seeking a son.

Having heard from the Buddha, Dharma such as they had never heard before. These four Venerable Ones heard Dharma from the Buddha that they had never heard before. The bestowal of the prediction of anuttarasamyaksambodhi upon Shariputra. They figured that since they were Shariputra’s colleagues, and he received the enlightenment prediction, for sure they all had a share. They felt it very rare; their hearts awakened to and understood what was going on. They rose from their seats, jumped for joy. What made them jump right up in the air for joy? It was their limitless eons’ worth of habits. For limitless eons, when people are happy they have danced round, skipped like children. That they rose from their seats represents purity of body karma. That they felt it was very rare represents purity of mind karma.

Straightened their robes. This represents that they put down the Small Vehicle doctrines and picked up the Great Vehicle Buddhadharma. Bared their right shoulders. This represents the opening of the provisional to reveal the real. Earlier, before the provisional had been opened, it was as if the right shoulder was covered. Now, baring the shoulder represents opening the provisional. Placed their right knees on the ground. The ground represents the real Dharma, the real wisdom. Single-mindedly put their palms together represent the non-duality of the provisional and the real. The provisional is just the real, and the real is just the provisional. One opens the provisional to reveal the real, and for the sake of the real one bestows the provisional.

Opening the provisional to reveal the real,
the real is contained in the provisional.
Bestowing the provisional for the sake of the real,
the provisional is contained in the real.

Their putting their palms together single-mindedly represents the negation of both provisional and real because they are non-dual, and therefore, there is no provisional or real.

Inclined themselves respectfully. They inclined their bodies. Basically, their bodies were not entirely straight or bent. But they can bend, and they can straighten out again. This represents the assertion of both the provisional and real. Whatever is provisional is real, and whatever is real is just provisional.

Gazed at the honored countenance represents “we turn from provisional teachings and go towards the Buddha’s Real teachings.” Previously, we studied the Small Vehicle. Now, in the presence of the Buddha, we come to study the real Dharma, real wisdom.


“…and spoke to the Buddha, saying, “We, who dwell at the head of the Sangha and are advanced in years, told ourselves that we had already attained Nirvana and had no further responsibility, and we did not go forward to seek anuttarasamyaksambodhi.”


G2. An explanation for the Buddha.
H1. Explanation of attaining understanding in prose and verse.
I1. Prose
J1. Understanding through Dharma.
K2. Speaking of Dharma proper.
L1. Based on former understanding they did not seek further.
M1. Statement.


And spoke to the Buddha saying is the purity of the mouth karma. We, who dwell at the head of the Sangha. “We” refers to Subhuti, Mahakatyayana, Mahakashyapa, and Mahamaudgalyayana. These four dwelt at the head of the Sangha. Why didn’t these people seek the Great Vehicle Buddhadharma, the Buddha Vehicle? They were the leaders of the Sangha and models for others. They understood the Buddhadharma at a very high level. They had left home for a great many years. Those who have left home and just received precepts are called new-preceptees. Those who have held the precepts for many years are called old-preceptees. Their precept age is advanced. Those four were very lofty, and those who came after them imitated them.

Because they were the models for others, they felt that if they suddenly changed their course of thought and decided to cast the Small Vehicle aside to study the Great Vehicle, thus changing their principles, then those who followed them would not believe in them. They would say, “Look at that. They are really not reliable. They are not cultivating the Small Vehicle any more; they have switched to the Great Vehicle.” They were afraid others would ridicule them. Thus, they stubbornly held on to the Small Vehicle and refused to change. They were looking out for others, too, fearing that, if they changed, others would lose their faith in them and retreat from their resolve for the Way. Thus, they did not seek the Great Vehicle.

However, because they clung to the Small Vehicle, they could not understand the Great Vehicle. Why didn’t they wish to put aside their hearts for the Small Vehicle? They do not know that the three provisional vehicles were opened to reveal the one real vehicle, The Hearer, Condition-Enlightened, and the Bodhisattva Vehicles are the three provisional vehicles. They were opened to reveal the one Buddha Vehicle, but they were unaware of this and stubbornly held to these lesser vehicles. With this stubborn attachment to the Small Vehicle, they were unable to change. Both their stubborn attachment and their desire to remain consistent so that others would not lose faith constituted their first mistake.

The second reason they did not seek the Great Vehicle was because they were advanced in years. If they were to practice the Bodhisattva Path, they would be required to benefit themselves and benefit others, enlighten themselves and enlighten others, and vastly save all living beings. Now, they were so old they had no further responsibility. They were so old they felt there was nothing much they could do at their age, and so they did not seek the Great Vehicle, which must be understood before Buddhahood can be attained. They looked down upon themselves, thinking themselves too old to try to certify to the Buddha fruit. “We are too old; we are useless,” they thought. Since they could not break through this attachment, they had the false view that they could not be expected to seek the Great Vehicle Buddhadharma. That was their second mistake.

Thirdly, they thought that they had already attained Nirvana, so they figured they do not need to seek the Great Vehicle Dharma. Although they had attained Nirvana, that Nirvana was merely a one-sided Nirvana with residue. It was not ultimate Nirvana. They thought, “Lotuses do not grow on the high ground; they only grow in the low places in the water.” Since they had entered the proper position and obtained the unconditioned, attained Nirvana, they did not bring forth the resolve for the Great Vehicle. Previously, they had understood only the provisional dharma, not the actual Dharma. That is why they thought that they had attained the proper position when they had not attained the ultimate Nirvana at all. Because of this minor attachment on their part, they do not know that they were already cultivating the Bodhisattva Path. That was their third mistake.

These were three reasons why they said to the Buddha, “We, the leaders of the Sangha, who are very old, thought we had already attained Nirvana and did not have any further work, so we did not go forward to seek anuttarasamyaksambodhi, the Buddha fruit, the Unsurpassed, Proper and Equal, Right Enlightenment.

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