Synopsis PART 1 (Chapter 1 - 14)
The Lotus Sutra opens with the Introduction (ch.1). Shakyamuni Buddha is seated in deep meditation at the Eagle Peak. The earth begins to quaver and a bright light illuminates the land. In awe of the Buddha’s powers, the general assembly of disciples wait in eager anticipation to hear what wonderful teaching the Buddha is about to preach.
Shakyamuni begins by stating that all other sutras expounded in the past are only Expedient Means (ch.2) to lead everyone to the path of enlightenment. Shariputra, one of his foremost disciples, is the first to fully grasp the teaching. Overjoyed by this realisation, he requests for Shakyamuni to preach to other disciples “a Law never before known in the past”. Shakyamuni then employs the first of many Similes and Parables (ch.3) with The Parable of the Three Carts and the Burning House to awaken four other learned disciples of his to the ultimate truth. Their Belief and Understanding (ch.4) of Buddhism are deepened, and they respond with The Parable of the Wealthy Man and his Son with great happiness.
Shakyamuni adds on to his disciples’ sharing with The Parable of the Medicinal Herbs (ch.5) to illustrate the impartiality of Buddhism, affirming to his disciples that they too, will attain Buddhahood without fail in the Bestowal of Prophecy (ch.6), The Prophecy of Enlightenment for Five Hundred Disciples (ch.8), and The Prophecies Conferred on Learners and Adepts (ch.9).
Awakened to this truth, his disciples kneel before Shakyamuni in reverence and share The Parable of the Gem in the Robe, likening themselves to the poor man in the parable who was alerted to the precious gem sewn within his robe. Shakyamuni also explains that the Teacher of the Law (ch.10) is not just him, but anyone who practices Buddhism and continues to spread his teachings after his passing.
Midway, Shakyamuni reminds his disciples through The Parable of the Phantom City (ch.7) that the past teachings are like a Phantom City he conjured, but they must now go to their true “destination”, the Treasure Tower to attain enlightenment. The Emergence of the Treasure Tower (ch.11), then ensues. It is adorned with unimaginable number of jewels, signifying the immeasurable and brilliant life potential that is manifested in one’s life when enlightened.
Shakyamuni reveals the further power of the teaching to enable all living beings, good or bad, men or women, human or non-human, to attain enlightenment in their present forms. He predicts that Devadatta (ch.12), a disciple who had initially attempted Shakyamuni’s assassination, will gain enlightenment. Shakyamuni also recounts Dragon King’s daughter‘s enlightenment after practicing the way.
The Bodhisattva Medicine King and a few other disciples then stand up and vow to spread the Law and Shakyamuni teaches that the methods to spread the Law should be one of Encouraging Devotion (ch.13) and Peaceful Practices (ch.14) explained through The Parable of the Jewel in the Topknot. However to their surprise, Shakyamuni rejects his disciples’ offer to propagate the law and at this moment, the earth shatters and Shakyamuni proceeds to preach the second half of the Lotus Sutra.
PART 2 (Chapter 15 -28)
As the earth shatters, Emerging from the Earth (ch. 15) are a multitude of Bodhisattvas who joyfully vow to propagate the Law after the Buddha’s passing. Bewildered at the number of followers Shakyamuni could amass in a short span of years, Shakyamuni finally reveals to his present- day disciples the Life Span of the Thus Come One (ch. 16), the heart of the Lotus Sutra.
He speaks about a fact never known before; that his famous enlightenment under the Bodhi tree was only one of the many lifetimes in which he has been enlightened, explaining why he had been able to gather the countless number of Bodhisattvas due to his preaching over multiple lifetimes. Using The Parable of the Excellent Physician and his Sick Children, he explains that his death is not entering a final state of nirvana, but rather an expedient means to point people in the right direction. True nirvana is revealed to be an eternal realm that transcends life and death, rather than a final destination of rest. Its eternity also shows the boundlessness of life potential in our lives.
Shakyamuni starts to speak about the Distinctions in Benefits (ch.17) of practicing and spreading Buddhism including The Benefits of Responding with Joy (ch. 18) and The Benefits of the Teacher of the Law (ch.19). In order to emphasise the spirit of Buddhist compassion to his disciples, he talks about one of his previous incarnations as Bodhisattva Never Disparaging (ch. 20) who attained Buddhahood, because he never failed to treat each person he met with utmost respect even though he was cursed and beaten up countless of times. He did so because in believing in the Lotus Sutra teaching that everyone has an inherent goodness or ability to gain enlightenment, he treated them with the respect as he would to a Buddha.
Another mystical ceremony begins with The Supernatural Powers of the Thus Come One (ch. 21), where Shakyamuni bestows upon the Bodhisattvas of the Earth, who are ordinary beings like us, as the key group who will propagate the Law. The Bodhisattvas of the Earth embraces the Entrustment (ch. 22) by Shakyamuni. As different Bodhisattvas take turns to rise from their seats to seek Shakyamuni guidance on practicing the Bodhisattva way, he answers them by bringing up examples of the Former Affairs of Bodhisattva Medicine King (ch. 23), The Bodhisattva Wonderful Sound (ch. 24) and The Universal Gateway of The Bodhisattva Perceiver of the World’s Sounds (ch. 25).
After having felt deeply encouraged by Shakyamuni’s teachings, various Bodhisattvas, protective functions and even demons of the universe vowed with their own Dharani (ch. 26) to protect and spread the Buddha’s teachings. Shakyamuni gradually closes the Lotus Sutra preaching with the stories of Former Affairs of King Wonderful Adornment (ch. 27) and Encouragements of the Bodhisattva Universal Worthy (ch. 28), who have been role models in upholding the teachings faithfully across multiple existences. Having been deeply enlightened and satisfied, the general assembly departs, carrying on with their respective missions and paths.