the lotus sutra

The Lotus Sutra (hokkekyō) consists of a series of sermons the historical Buddha gave to a multitude of disciples near the end of his earthly existence. These texts include both prose and verse, parable and anecdote, and are considered by many practicing Buddhists to be the culmination of Buddhist teaching. The Regent Michinaga was a devoted worshipper of the Lotus Sutra, regularly sponsoring formal expositions that would last 30 days. For court ladies in particular, the fifth book of the compilation, the Devadatta, was regarded as the high point as it described how the daughter of the dragon king under the sea attained enlightenment after hearing the Lotus preached. This was held as evidence that it was possible for women to attain buddhahood without first being reborn as male.

 In Murasaki's day, the current understanding of Buddhism stressed the necessity of relying on the grace of Amida Buddha in order to be reborn in the Pure Land of his paradise. It was thought that the condition of the world at the time was simply too impure and defiled for anyone to reach enlightenment from this life on earth. By copying, reciting, and devoting oneself to the Lotus Sutra, one could hope to be reborn on a lotus flower in Amida's paradise. There were nine levels of birth into this paradise. At the highest level, a soul could be reborn onto a fully opened lotus flower. At the lower levels, the lotus buds were closed, and the soul would have to wait until they opened.

Theoretically, from Amida's paradise it would be possible to attain complete enlightenment, but for Heian aristocrats, rebirth in the Pure Land seems to have been regarded as an end in itself. In The Tale of Genji, ("Wakana, part two") there is a scene where the ailing heroine Murasaki and Prince Genji exchange poems. Genji's poem contains a promise that the two of them would be reborn together on the same lotus flower in paradise. One gets the sense that the Heian courtiers' view of paradise was quite sensual, with gorgeous blossoms floating among fragrant colored clouds and angels playing heavenly music.

Copy of the Lotus Sutra, twelfth century, gold ink on indigo paper. The scene shown here illustrates the bodhisattva Fugen, riding a white elephant atop a cloud, floating over the ocean to rescue supplicants on the shore.