Curriculum Lectionary


GilgameshGenesisBiblical prophetsGospelsQur'anRumi and Kabir
Bhagavad GitaUpanishadsDhammapadaHeart and Lotus SutrasTao Te ChingAnalects


Session 1
Defined by Emptiness: The Heart Sutra
Session 2
Turning the Wheel of the Law: The Lotus Sutra
Session 3
The Heart of Compassion: The Lotus Sutra

Leader Notes

The Lotus Sutra is a very complex work and its teachings are not always easy to access. In these sessions we are focusing very broadly on the main elements – expedient means in this session, and the bodhisattva’s path in the next. The teachings on expedient means come from the original core of the Sutra and refer to the use of whatever techniques will be effective in gaining enlightenment, easing suffering, or introducing others to the Buddha’s teachings, even if these techniques do not reflect what we normally think of as truth and morality.

In this session, participants may have some difficulty grasping the teaching on expedient means and not seeing it as simply a way of tricking people. You may need to help them understand the Sutra’s teaching that all human ideals, including truthfulness in speech, are far less important than the coming to understand the ultimate truth of human existence.

There are many translations of the Lotus Sutra that you may use, but the one we will be quoting throughout these sessions is The Wonderful Dharma Lotus Flower Sutra, translated by the Buddhist Text Translation Society (full bibliographic information is given in Leader Resource 2), which can be found at http://www.cttbusa.org/lotus/lotus_contents.asp

Words Used in Today’s Readings:
bodhisattva – one who vows to remain within the cycle of death and rebirth until all
     sentient beings achieve liberation
Buddha – one who has gained enlightenment and is released from the bonds of rebirth
dharma – teachings of the true nature of things
dhyana – deep meditation
hearer – also known as a shravaka; one who gains enlightenment through hearing the Buddha’s words
paramita - perfection

pratekyabuddha – one who gains enlightenment through self-discovery
samadhi – deep meditation
Shariputra – one of the Buddha’s main disciples
yogana  - a unit of measure equal to a day’s march

  • To gain an understanding of the background and importance of the Lotus Sutra
  • To contemplate the Buddha’s teaching on expedient means
  • To think about unity in the midst of plurality
  • Review the historical background in Leader Resource 1 for use in Activity 1.
  • Print copies of the readings for this session from Leader Resource 2, if necessary.
  • Print or review the Sources found in Leader Resource 5 for use in Activity 3.
Leader Resources
Leader Resource 1 - Historical Introduction -
Leader Resource 3:The Heart of Understanding -
Leader Resource 2: Readings -
  • Chalice with candle and matches
  • Tingshas or a bell
  • Copies of the questions for the “father” and “children” groups in Activity 2
If You Only Have One Hour
  • Do not break participants into groups for Activity 2, The Greater Gift.
  • Skip Activity 3, Many Paths, One Vehicle.

Chalice lighting and opening meditation (5 minutes)

Historical Introduction to the Lotus Sutra (5 minutes)

Activity 1: Reading and Discussion (30 minutes)

Activity 2: The Greater Gift (25 minutes)

Activity 3: Many Paths, One Vehicle (20 minutes)

Chalice extinguishing and closing meditation (5 minutes)

Chalice Lighting

Ask a participant to light the chalice as you read the passage below. Invite participants to spend a few moments in silent meditation.

Great Sage, turn the Dharma-wheel,
To reveal the marks of all Dharmas,
To cross over tormented living beings,
So they may gain great joy.
When living beings hear the Dharma,
They may gain the way, or be reborn in the heavens;
The evil paths will decrease
And those of patience and goodness will increase.

            Lotus Sutra, Chapter 7
            (Buddhist Text Translation Society translation)

After a few moments have passed, ring the tingshas or otherwise signal the end of the meditation.

Activity One

Historical Introduction to the Lotus Sutra

Introduce the overall purpose of the class (to consider a classic of spiritual literature in a Unitarian Universalist context.) Drawing on Leader Resource 1, give a brief historical introduction to the text. Then go on to describe the setting of the Sutra.

The Setting of the Lotus Sutra

Most sutras present their teachings in the context of the Buddha speaking to his disciples. The Lotus Sutra, however, is cosmic in scale. Those attending the gathering that is the setting for this sutra number in the millions and include both human and non-human beings, and they do not all come from this world: there are countless worlds surrounding ours, each of which has its own Buddha. The time frame for the teaching is not the hour or two that it might take to speak all the words, but countless kalpas, or eons of time. We are clearly meant to understand that what is being given here is both eternal and limitless in nature.

Reading and Discussion

Expedient Means

Chapter 2, pgs 23-24      “At that time…all dharmas.””

  • What do you think he means by expedient means?
  • He says that only a Buddha can “exhaust the Real Mark of all dharmas” – or truly understand the teaching. Why can the Law he teaches only be understood by Buddhas?

Chapter 2, p. 31             “Shariputra, all the Buddhas…of the Buddhas.”

  • The Buddha answers the questions asked above.

The Parable of the Phantom City

Chapter 7, pg. 135-136    “[Imagine]…give you a rest.”

  • What does this say to you about expedient means?
  • What does it indicate about the world around you?

Leader Resources
Leader Resource 1 - Historical Introduction -
Leader Resource 2: Readings -
Activity Two

The Greater Gift

The last activity helped us get a sense of the Buddha’s use of expedient means to get people to understand his teachings. Now we will explore where these expedient means are leading.  Read the following summary of the Buddha’s parable of the burning house (from Chapter 3 of the Sutra) to the participants. Divide the participants into two groups, one that will focus on the father and one that will focus on the children. Pass out copies of the questions and ask the participants to discussion the questions for their particular group, then call everyone back together to discuss. Finally, move into a discussion of the last question, which pertains to all the participants.

Parable of the Burning House

A very wealthy man lives in a large and beautiful mansion that has only one gate leading to the outside. One day a fire breaks out. The wealthy man is near the gate and could escape, but his many children are still inside so he runs back in to save them. The children are all engrossed in playing with toys and games and do not see the flames nor smell the smoke – they are not aware that they need to escape. The father tries to tell them that there is a fire, but the children are so engrossed that they do not notice.

The father realizes he will need to utilize expedient means to get the children to leave. Knowing that some of his children love goat carts, some deer carts and some ox carts, he tells the children that these things are waiting for them if only they will rush outside – and they do! When they are outside the walls, the children ask their father for the carts they have been promised, but instead he gives each of them a much larger bejeweled cart covered with flower and lined with cushions, drawn by a pure white ox – a gift much greater than the ones they had been promised.

Question for the “father” group:

In Chapter 17 of the Sutra, we are given a list of six paramitas, or perfections, of the bodhisattva: generosity, virtue, patience, diligence, meditation and wisdom. Wisdom, we are told, is really the sum of the other five, the foundation on which they rest.

  • Do the father’s actions fulfill each of the first five paramitas?
  • If so, in what ways?
  • Does the father display the paramita of wisdom?

Question for the “children” group:

The children received more than they expected, but not exactly what they had been promised.

  • Were they tricked?
  • If the promise got them out of the burning house, then does it matter?

Question for all participants:

  • Looking back over the course of your own life, was there ever a time when you had an experience of “expedient means” – something that you thought of as a goal, but which turned out simply to be a step along the way to something greater?
  • Was this recognition an eye-opener for you?
  • Did it cause you to see your life or the world around you differently?
Activity Three

Many Paths, One Vehicle

The Lotus Sutra teaches that there is only one path to truth, and that all buddhas in all world (and remember, there are countless worlds) teach this as the ultimate truth – it is not restricted to the teaching of the one we know as the Buddha or to this particular earthly realm. It is the ultimate teaching, the ultimate truth, but the Sutra explains that the buddhas give teachings that are designed to be useful in specific historical and cultural contexts as a way of leading people to the one true understanding that is beyond all of these contexts.

There has been discussion in the Buddhist community about how this relates to religious pluralism. Does this mean that ultimately all religious teaching that does not move in the direction of the teaching of the Sutra is useless, and therefore that other religions are useless? Or does it mean that all teachings are ultimately pointing to truth, albeit in various ways? The teaching of the Sutra has been seen as both an exclusionary claim to truth and as a grounding for a pluralistic understanding that all religious teachings are ultimately leading toward the same goal, albeit with differing levels of utility.

Ask participants to think about the Sources that Unitarian Universalists honor, which end with a statement of gratitude for “the religious pluralism which enriches and ennobles our faith”.  Do we as Unitarian Universalists see religious pluralism as a way of honoring the differences among peoples, or do we see it as a recognition that all beliefs and truths are leading to an ultimate truth that subsumes them all? In other words, how well does the teaching of the Lotus Sutra encompass the teaching/beliefs/values of Unitarian Universalism? 

Leader Resources
Leader Resource 5: The Sources -
Chalice Extinguishing

Ask a participant to blow out the candle as you read the following:

I proclaim the Buddha Way
To bring peace and comfort to living beings.
I use the power of my wisdom,
To know the nature of beings’ desires;
I speak all dharmas expediently,
To lead them all to happiness.

            Lotus Sutra, Chapter 2
            (Buddhist Text Translation Society)

Before Session 3
Tell participants the topic of the next session: compassion and the presence of the Buddha. Encourage them to look at Chapters 12 and 16 and consider these ideas on their own before session 3.