[Of] all these sentient beings,
why [are they] complete with
[the] Tathāgatas’ wisdom,
[yet] ignorant [and] confused,
not knowing [and] not seeing [it]?
– Śākyamuni Buddha
Summary : In the ‘Wonderful Dharma Lotus Flower Sūtra’s Chapter 20 [On] Constantly Not Slighting Bodhisattva’ (《妙法莲华经》常不轻菩萨品第二十), Śākyamuni Buddha (释迦牟尼佛) told Mahāsthāmaprāpta [Attainment Of Great Strength] Bodhisattva Mahāsattva (得大势菩萨摩诃萨) and all in the assembly, that immeasurable kalpas (i.e. world cycles) ago, there was Bhīṣmagarjitasvararāja [Majestic Voice King] Buddha’s (威音王佛) in the land named Mahāsaṃbhavā (大成; Great Accomplishment) during the kalpa (i.e. a long time period) called Vinirbhoga (离衰; Departure From Decline). After his parinirvāṇa, during the Dharma Semblance Age (像法时期), there was once a Bodhisattva Bhikṣu, to all of whom met, be they Bhikṣus (monks), Bhikṣuṇīs (nuns), Upāsakas (laymen) or Upāsikās (laywomen) of the Four Assemblies (四众), he would prostrate and praise (礼拜赞叹), saying ‘[As] I deeply respect you [and all] others, [I do] not dare [to] slight [i.e. belittle; disdain; despise you]. Why is this [so]? [As] you [and] all others, [when] practising [the] Bodhisattva path, will attain [to] become Buddhas.’ (我深敬汝等，不敢轻慢。所以者何。汝等皆行菩萨道，当得作佛。)
Note : This voluntary practice is unusual as conventionally, monastics are neither obliged nor expected to prostrate to all, especially laypeople, what more, even without knowing their spiritual statuses. However, he was equanimously and sincerely expressing reverence, not so much to anyone’s defiled natures, but to the potential of everyone to awaken to their universally present and pure Buddha-nature (佛性). His words also served as a heartfelt and encouraging reminder to actualise this potential fully, by giving rise to Bodhicitta (菩提心), and practising the Bodhisattva path towards Buddhahood.
He was also expressing confidence in all, to boost their confidence, telling all that no one should be slighted or slight themselves, since everyone have Buddha-nature – even severely defiled ones, who currently disbelieve so. This practice can also be seen as an expression of ‘paying respects to all Buddhas’ (礼敬诸佛), as the most difficult aspect of the first practice (and vow) of Samantabhadra Bodhisattva in the ‘Chapter [On] Samantabhadra Bodhisattva’s Practices [And] Vows’《普贤菩萨行愿品》– in terms of future Buddhas (未来佛). All present sentient beings are considered as part of ‘all Buddhas’ (诸佛), as they include Buddhas of the past, present and future.
Summary : He did not focus on study of the sūtras, only practising reverencing, by speech praising and by body prostrating. Among the reverenced, are those who gave rose to anger, who harshly scolded him, for ‘ignorantly’ saying what he did, to predict their Buddhahood, saying they do not need such ‘false’ predictions. As such, over many years, he would be scolded, yet never in turn giving rise to anger, always patiently enduring, even when many used sticks to beat him and stones to throw at him. Avoiding these by standing afar when he could, he would loudly continue praising them. As such, those with excessive pride (增上慢; conceit) named him Sadāparibhūta (常不轻; Constantly Not Slighting).
Note : It is not that there is no need to study the sūtras, as he later still did, on his path to Buddhahood. Even if not studying the sūtras much in this lifetime, there must be enough practice based upon them to progress towards enlightenment, such as via reaching Amitābha Buddha’s (阿弥陀佛; Āmítuófó) Pure Land, where all sūtras will be mastered. In this case, the Bodhisattva’s main practice then was expression of utmost reverence to all beings, so much so, that even when encountering those who did not appreciate his practice, or even slight and disparage him, verbally and physically, his constant reverence for them never reduced a bit.
His diligent practice cultivated generosity by sharing the truth and hope of potential Buddhahood, with compassion, patience and forgiveness for the defiled. Although his practice risked enraging some, it was still a worthy and skilful means, as we shall later see, based on the tremendously beneficial long-term results. He was also mindful not to let others create negative karma, by minimising being harmed, while still sincerely asserting the truthfulness of his statement, lest it be not taken seriously.
Summary : When approaching the end of life, with his past misgivings exhausting, in the sky, Bhīṣmagarjitasvararāja Buddha’s previously taught 200,000,000 koṭis (with 1 koṭi being about 10 million) (二十千万亿) of verses from the Lotus Sūtra were heard, all of which he received and upheld, immediately attaining purity of the six [sense] roots (of eye, ear, smell, taste, touch and mind), increasing his lifespan to 2,000,000 koṭis of nayutas (with 1 nayuta being about 1 billion) (二百万亿那由他) of years, during which he widely spoke the Lotus Sūtra.
Note : Despite not studying sūtras, his sincere practice of reverencing all beings was able to purify himself adequately, to karmically deserve listening to an extended version of the Lotus Sūtra, as taught by a Buddha personally, thus accessing the essence of its teachings for practice towards Buddhahood. Resulting from deep reverence to all, which led to learning and practice of the Lotus Sūtra, his six roots were swiftly purified and his lifespan greatly increased. Although we might not be practising exactly as he did, reverence to the Buddha-nature of all will indeed lead us to the essence of the teachings for Buddhahood, represented by the Lotus Sūtra, directly or indirectly, with corresponding extents of similar benefits.
Summary : When the prideful fourfold assemblies experienced his great supernormal powers, joyful eloquence and great wholesome silence, having heard what he taught, they believed and followed him. He then transformed 10,000,000 koṭis (千万亿) of beings, enabling them to later attain Buddhahood. After his life ended, he met 2,000 koṭis (二千亿) of Buddhas, to speak the Lotus Sūtra within their Fourfold Assemblies, and with this as the cause, met another 2,000 koṭis of Buddhas to further receive, uphold, study and recite it, thus always having purity of the six roots and fearlessness when teaching.
Note : As the prideful did not have utmost reverence to all beings like the Bodhisattva did, they were the ones who slighted themselves, and others, including him. As they could not see his or their own potential for Buddhahood earlier, they disbelieved him. Now, although not yet a Buddha, the Bodhisattva had become capable of proving to them by his personal example, that just as he should not be slighted, they should not slight themselves and others too.
They were humbled and convinced by him, not mainly by his supernormal powers, but by his joyful and fearless eloquence in teaching the Dharma. As powers without the Dharma are superficial, distracting and useless, they should only be used as the last resort, as a skilful means to attract beings, to swiftly guide them to the actual Dharma. Powers by themselves are always discouraged as a central focus by the Buddha. In virtuous cycles, the Bodhisattva was thus able to greatly expand his Bodhisattva practice to guide many more to the same Bodhisattva path towards Buddhahood.
Summary : He made offerings to such great numbers of Buddhas, reverencing, honouring and highly praising all their good roots, thus meeting 10,000,000 koṭis (千万亿) more Buddhas, within their assemblies, also speaking the Lotus Sūtra, to accomplish meritorious virtues for Buddhahood – as Śākyamuni Buddha himself. Without receiving, upholding, studying and reciting of the Lotus Sūtra, speaking it for others in the presence of past Buddhas, to attain immeasurable blessings, and to be gradually complete with meritorious virtues, he would not had been able to swiftly attain Buddhahood.
Note : The Bodhisattva, being able to meet many Buddhas, made offerings to them and learnt the Dharma from them, to increase his meritorious virtues and wisdom accordingly. He also shared his meritorious virtues and wisdom by teaching the Lotus Sūtra, which swiftly led him to be accomplished as Śākyamuni Buddha himself. (The absolute swiftest path for Buddhahood would be through Āmítuófó’s Pure Land, which in this instance was not taken, but repeatedly recommended by Śākyamuni Buddha and every other Buddha elsewhere, in numerous sūtras.)
As in other parts of the Lotus Sūtra, there are self-referential features here. Śākyamuni Buddha taught the Lotus Sūtra that we are studying presently, the contents of which include how he encountered it in the past, before he became a Buddha, and how he came to know of its importance, which he is now highlighting. However, how can this sūtra’s contents be what it has now in the past, as this chapter on Śākyamuni Buddha as a Buddha could not be included then?
The answer is that the Lotus Sūtra represents the ‘[essence of the] flowering [of the] Dharma [into Buddhahood]’ (法华), which can be expressed with varying formats, according to the karmic affinity and spiritual capacity of its audience, as long as the essence remains unchanged, with its key teachings intact, including this key teaching on the importance of reverence to all beings. We know this is so as Śākyamuni Buddha himself mentioned in this very version of the Lotus Sūtra, that he as the Bodhisattva heard a much more extended version of it from a past Buddha.
Summary : Those attached to [aspects of] the Dharma [or phenomena of mind and matter] who heard the Bodhisattva say, ‘You will become Buddhas’ (汝当作佛) had the cause created for them to meet countless Buddhas. Those who despised him [and did not repent in time], as a result, for 200 koṭis of kalpas (二百亿劫), could not meet Buddhas, hear the Dharma or see the Sangha, for 1,000 kalpas [with 1 kalpa being 1.3 trillion years] (千劫) receiving great suffering in Avīci Hell, after which again meeting the Bodhisattva, who continued to guide them to Buddhahood. They were the present Lotus Sūtra assembly’s Bhadrapāla (跋陀婆罗) with 500 Bodhisattvas, Siṃhacandrā (师子月; Lion Moon) with 500 Bhikṣus, and Sugatacetanā (思佛) with 500 Upāsakas, all of whom will attain non-retrogression for Buddhahood.
Note : Simply hearing of the eventuality of Buddhahood from a Bodhisattva or Buddha once creates the cause for meeting many Buddhas, for learning about the path to Buddhahood. This works even if there is disbelief at first, even if with disdain, abuse and abandonment, even if first detouring for a long time to the furthest plane of hell as karmic retribution, to be totally separated from the Triple Gem. This is so as the seed for Buddhahood had been planted firmly by a Bodhisattva or Buddha, with whom there is karmic affinity, such that with future supportive conditions, they will be able to aid its ripening. Of course, beings should learn to be receptive to the Dharma or this will still take a very long time. Thus, no one is ever abandoned by any Bodhisattva or Buddha – no even those who repeatedly abandon them! Such is the great, perfect and moving compassion of all Buddhas and Bodhisattvas! May none of us ever let them down – by being ever more sincerely diligent in Dharma learning and practice – starting from now.
Āmítuófó’s name is likewise a vajra seed (金刚种子), with indestructible potential in leading us to his Pure Land for progress towards Buddhahood when heard or recited. With further nurturing of the Three Provisions (三资粮) of profound Faith (深信), sincere Aspiration (切愿) and true Practice (实行), we will be able to reach his Pure Land, to most swiftly attain non-retrogression for Buddhahood, and always be with (and become one with) the Triple Gem. This is a reason why many Buddhists often use Āmítuófó’s name when greeting one another – so as to (more) deeply plant, and (further) water this seed within all, for its steady flowering into Buddhahood.
I will teach [the] noble path,
[to] enable them [to] forever depart
[from] false thoughts [and] attachment,
[to] personally within themselves
attain sight [of the] Tathāgatas’ vast wisdom,
[to be] with [the] Buddhas’ without difference.
– Śākyamuni Buddha