The practice of Perfect Speech raises an interesting question: Would an enlightened person lie? A strict reading of the Buddha’s description of Perfect Speech would indicate that a lie is inconsistent with the Path. Conventional understanding might be that a lie is a product of a deluded mind, whether through ignorance or another defilement. What the Lotus Sutra proposes, which is of profound importance in the doctrinal developments of Mahayana Buddhism, is: An enlightened person (or, more pointedly, a bodhisattva) cannot lie.
Bodhisattvas cannot lie because they employ skillful means.
In the Lotus Sutra,1 the Buddha offers the disciple Shariputra the story about a man coaxing his children out of a burning house through ostensible deception. The man, upon learning his house is on fire and the children inside are in imminent mortal danger, tells each one that a particular prize is outside waiting for them. The father knew the children had become attached to certain animals, so he offered the promise that three carts–one yoked to an ox, one yoked to a sheep, one yoked to a deer–would await them outside the house. The children, eager to play with the animals, run out of the house to safety. Later, upon finding the children, the father summons his considerable means to present them lavish chariots adorned with jewels and other rarities. These chariots were each yoked to healthy, powerful oxen. Not a deer or sheep in sight. When pressed by a neighbor about his deception, the father defended himself by saying that he had prefaced his offer with the thought: “I will help my children escape with skillful means.”
Two lessons emerge from this story.
One, aimed at a modern reader, is that the father could only have arranged this spectacle if he had access to riches. A poor father, of whom there were, and are, many, would never have accomplished this. After all, the story goes on to describe the father’s access to treasures unattainable to many. It comes as no surprise that this story, as presented by the Buddha, draws obvious parallels: the house is Samsara, the father is the Buddha, the children, are the buddha’s followers, the three promised carriages are the three vehicles of early-to-mid- Buddhist practitioners (sravaka, pratyekabuddha, and bodhisattva), and the jeweled chariot is the Great Vehicle: the Mahayana.2
The second conclusion is one that provides resolution to questions which, at the time, and to some, were problematic. How is it that the Buddha can offer gifts to these children when each one wants something different? The answer, which it is important to note that allows the Buddha to say different things to different people (which might appear contradictory) is that he uses Skillful Means. Skillful Means, in delivering the Great Vehicle (Mahayana) in varying terms, each tailored to the specific audience which hears it.3 This not only resolves the question of why the Buddha would tailor his message (as he famously explained the Four Brahmaviharas as told in the Digha Nikaya). An enlightened person, in this case the Buddha, would not lie. Propounding the dharma to a carpenter might not resemble propounding the dharma to a priest.
The importance of the Lotus Sutra cannot be overstated, both in terms of geographical provenance and in doctrinal influence. Mahayana developments take the skillful means concept as a given. The teachings of the Buddha were not a golden set of ideas once true and forever true, and only delivered to free a handful of monks from their anxieties. No, the Dharma is a tool that has been, and will be, delivered in varying ways. All of the ways have in common that they point to the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, and dependent origination. Underlying all of these is the emptiness of all things.
Another enduring contribution of the Lotus Sutra is the chapter relating to the power, compassion, and influence of Avalokiteshvara. This chapter of the Lotus Sutra features the Buddha extolling Avalokiteshvara to the Bodhisattva Aksayamati. The promises of devotion to Avalokiteshvara are impressive. The Buddha claims that calling upon the aid of Avalokiteshvara will save the caller from fire, from being beaten, from drowning on the high seas, from the raging winds of a cyclone, and from the clutches of demons, among other dangers.
Avalokiteshvara is easy to spot in Buddhist iconography. He (sometimes she) is usually the one with somewhere between two and a thousand arms. The arms symbolize compassion. Avalokiteshvara is always ready to appear to give each person what they need.
The figure of Avalokiteshvara was developed in three stages in India.4 First, he was a member of a Trinity along with Amitayus (Amitabha) and Mahasthamaprampta. Conze notes similarities between this Trinity and those found in Persian/Iranian religions, such as Mithraism the Zervanism. In Zervanism, the deity Zervan Akarana is tantamount to Amitayus.5
The second stage saw Avalokiteshvara taking on supernatural powers and traits to aid other living beings, including an enormous physical stature, the ability to hold the earth, and containing entire world systems in the pores of his skin. In keeping with prior Indian ideas, many of his body parts were associated with worldly and astronomical processes.
Lastly, Avalokiteshvara began to display magical (Tantric) abilities, namely the power of his Mantras. Avalokiteshvara takes on traits of Shiva during this third and final phase.6
Further east, Avalokiteshvara transmuted genders. In Chinese (Kuan-in) and Japanese (Kwannon) forms, the Bodhisattva of Compassion is a woman. A believer in this deity, whether in male or female form, or whether two-armed or thousand-armed, might expect to receive gifts wonderful gifts. Avalokiteshvara “protects caravans from robbers, sailors from ship wreck, criminals from execution. By his help women obtain the children they desire. If one but thinks of Avalokiteshvara, fire ceases to burn, bonds are loosened spells revert from whence they came, beasts flee, and snakes lose their poison”.7 Faith in bodhisattvas to help with attaining Nirvana is not limited to Avalokiteshvara. Conze notes that this faith aspect stands in contrast to the renunciatory aspect of Buddhism. Is the path to Nirvana through faith or through practice? Buddhism is not the only religion to struggle with marrying these two concepts. However, with Buddhism, the philosophy of the Four Noble Truths, Eightfold Path, Interdependent Origination, Shunyata, and other key ideas can fully exist without the adornments of deities and paradises.
Sanskrit: Saddharma Puṇḍarīka Sūtra
2Bielefeldt, C.; Teiser, S.F. & Stone, J.I., 2009
3Bielefeldt, C.; Teiser, S.F. & Stone, J.I., 2009
4Edward Conze, 1959
5Edward Conze, 1959
6Edward Conze, 1959
7Edward Conze, 1959