Power and Superpowers in the Lotus Sutra

I’ve been thinking about Power and Superpowers lately. It comes from studying the Lotus Sutra while I’ve been at Upaya this month leading the spring practice period. The Lotus Sutra, which is so important in our Soto Zen tradition, is a fantastical piece of spiritual literature that ranks among some of the most impressive writing in the history of humanity. It took shape over time and, like the Christian Gospels and the books of the Hebrew Testament, it was written down long after it became known through oral traditions. Also like western scripture, it was conceived and edited to address philosophical, political and social problems that were arising in the communities it was addressing.

One of the big problems was division. The various schools of Buddhism and the different practices that emerged over time were at odds with one another. It was becoming common to think that they were mutually exclusive of one another and that one was better than another. One key point of contention was about who was worthy of attaining Buddhahood. Like in our own society, those with power and privilege had a lot of influence over how people thought about this and in deciding who was included in the power structures of the community. 

I think of the Lotus Sutra as a teaching about reconciliation. It uses all kinds of imaginative and fantastic stories and verse as well as pithy parables to bring things and people back together again. This theme is perhaps most clear in the two stories contained in Chapter 12. In the first part, an important historical person named Devadatta is told he will attain Buddhahood by the Buddha himself. But Devadatta was not a nice person. He had plotted multiple times to have the Buddha killed so he himself could have more power over the sangha. Later in the chapter, we learn of a young girl, just barely eight years old, who preaches the Lotus Sutra and immediately attains Buddhahood. Historically, as a girl and a child, she would have been fated for powerlessness, and yet, she achieves Buddhahood immediately right before the eyes of this with power and privilege, shocking them into seeing things in a new way. 

Power – the quest for it and the withholding of it – is one of the most divisive issues in our world. Is there something from the Lotus Sutra that might help us heal a world that is fragmented by power and privilege? 

There are a number of superpowers at play in this chapter of the Sutra – superpowers that are needed to shift the misuse of power. The Buddha models inclusiveness, tolerance and patience as transformative superpowers. These are the qualities that allow Devadatta to become a Buddha. But how? The Buddha’s patience and acceptance of Devadatta, warts and all, gives the criminal a little opening for himself to recognize a Buddha when he sees one. As a result of the steady and patient forgiveness he is shown, he begins to see Buddhas everywhere. Whenever we make this recognition – that all beings have the potential for Buddhahood – we have to include ourselves in this and we then have the opportunity to actualize our own best selves. 

With the eight year old girl, the story tells us through a magical story that her superpower is her belief in her own worthiness despite the messages she has received from her culture. With this kind of confidence, the story tells us, we break out of our old costumes and take on the form of a Buddha. This is astonishingly empowering and courageous, especially in the context of ancient social structures. It also seems quite relevant to our times where women, LGBTQ+ people, refugees, people of color, immigrants, poor people, and many others are not recognized as Buddhas. 

The Lotus Sutra tells us that we will all be a Buddha someday, each one of us, unique in our own way, with a name given to us that reflects our own special superpowers. The inquiry we are invited into by the Lotus Sutra is “How will you courageously manifest your innate Buddhahood? What parts of your own life – even those parts you are ashamed of –  will you embrace as the ingredients of your own transformation? Is anything at all left out of your own unique path toward actualizing your best self here and now?” 

May all beings be well, safe and happy. 


Recent Posts