THE SAGELY CITY OF TEN THOUSAND BUDDHAS
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The Wonderful Dharma Lotus Flower Sutra

Chapter 17: Discrimination of Merit and Virtue

We speak of the discrimination of merit and virtue because merit and virtue can be great or small; there can be a lot or just a little. Here we will discuss these discriminations.

What are "merit" and "virtue"? “Merit” is an external attribute and "virtue" is an internal one. Only if one establishes merit on the outside does one then have virtue inside. Merit is what one gains as a result of doing good deeds. Basically, one has a choice: One can do good deeds or not do them. If one chooses to do them, one gains merit. Once one has merit, one's self-nature will feel happy. That happiness is virtue. Merit and virtue are not accomplished through just a single deed. One has to do many, many good deeds and accumulate them in order to have great merit and much virtue.

Merit is the gradual accumulation of many good deeds, created layer by layer. A few accumulate into many; the small grows to become the large. Just as a mountain is slowly formed from an accumulation of tiny dust particles day by day, merit grows from small to great. The mountain does not get that much higher in two, three, four, or five days. Yet it grows every day, every month, and year by year. This does not happen all at once, but rather over a long period of time. Merit is just like the mountain.

As for virtue, it is like the sea. The sea is not created in a day, either. Who knows how many great eons were needed to create the sea? All waters flow into the sea, which is analogous to virtue. Merit and virtue accumulate in the same way that mountains and seas are formed. This is an analogy, though. You do not want to say that the Dharma Master defined mountains as being merit and seas as being virtue. It is an analogy, not the thing itself.

External merit and internal virtue are accumulated bit by bit until the point is reached at which a great measure has been amassed. Then one accomplishes one's work in the Way. Shakyamuni Buddha became a Buddha due to his perfection of merit and virtue. This chapter is called "Discrimination of Merit and Virtue" because we are dealing with the different deeds that can be done in the process of accumulation before merit and virtue have been perfected.

Hearing this chapter, we should set about doing deeds of merit and virtue. To simply listen and know about merit and virtue, but not to do any acts of merit and virtue, will bring no merit and virtue. If you hear about merit and virtue and then practice doing meritorious and virtuous deeds, your merit and virtue will grow daily, like the mountains and the seas. When they are perfected, you will become a Buddha.

Sutra:


At that time, when the assembly heard the Buddha describe the number of eons in the length of his life span, limitless, boundless asamkhyeyas of living beings gained great benefit.

Outline:

E2. General conferring of predictions for the Dharma body.
F1. The narrator's introduction.


Commentary:

At that time, when the assembly heard the Buddha describe the number of eons in the great length of his life span, in chapter sixteen, limitless, boundless—countless, numberless—asamkhyeyas of living beings gained great benefit.

Sutra:

The World Honored One then said to the Bodhisattva Mahasattva Maitreya, saying, “Ajita! When I spoke of the great length of the Thus Come One’s life span, living beings to the number of sand grains in six hundred and eighty myriads of kotis of nayutas of Ganges rivers gained Patience with the Non-production of Dharmas.”

“Again, a thousand times that number of Bodhisattvas Mahasattvas gained the dharani-door of hearing and upholding.”

“Again, Bodhisattvas Mahasattvas to the number of dust motes in a single world system gained the unobstructed eloquence of delight in speech.”

“Again, Bodhisattvas Mahasattvas to the number of dust motes in a single world system gained the dharani of a hundred thousand myriad kotis of limitless revolutions.”

“Again, Bodhisattvas Mahasattvas to the number of dust motes in a great world system became capable of turning the irreversible Dharma-wheel.”

“Again, Bodhisattvas Mahasattvas to the number of dust motes in a middle-sized world system were enabled to turn the pure Dharma-wheel.”

“Again, Bodhisattvas Mahasattvas to the number of dust motes in a small world system were destined to gain anuttarasamyaksambodhi after eight lifetimes.”

“Again, Bodhisattvas Mahasattvas to the number of dust motes in four sets of four continents were destined to gain anuttarasamyaksambodhi after four lifetimes.”

“Again, Bodhisattvas Mahasattvas to the number of dust motes in three sets of four continents were destined to gain anuttarasamyaksambodhi after three lifetimes.”

“Again, Bodhisattvas Mahasattvas to the number of dust motes in two sets of four continents were destined to gain anuttarasamyaksambodhi after two lifetimes.”

“Again, Bodhisattvas Mahasattvas to the number of dust motes in one set of four continents were destined to gain anuttarasamyaksambodhi after a single lifetime.”

“Again, living beings to the number of dust motes in eight world systems all brought forth the resolve for anuttarasamyaksambodhi.”

Outline:

F2. The discriminations made by the Thus Come One.


Commentary:

The World Honored One, Shakyamuni Buddha, then said to the Bodhisattva Mahasattva Maitreya, saying, "Ajita! When in the previous chapter I spoke of the great length of the Thus Come One's life span, living beings to the number of sand grains in six hundred and eighty myriads of kotis of nayutas of Ganges rivers gained Patience with the Non-production of Dharmas" When they awakened to that patience, they no longer saw the minutest dharma produced or the minutes dharma destroyed. One must certify to the fourth fruit of Arhatship in order to gain Patience with the Non-production of Dharmas.

Again, a thousand times that number of Bodhisattvas Mahasattvas gained the dharani-door of hearing and upholding. This means that after hearing, they accept and uphold the dharani. "Dharani" is a Sanskrit term which translates as "uniting and upholding." Dharanis unite all dharmas and uphold limitless meanings.

Again, Bodhisattvas Mahasattvas to the number of dust motes in a single world system gained the unobstructed eloquence of delight in speech. They liked to speak the Dharma and had no obstructions. No matter who tried to debate with them, these Bodhisattvas were victorious.

Again, Bodhisattvas Mahasattvas to the number of dust motes in a single world system gained the dharani of a hundred thousand myriad kotis of limitless revolutions. "Revolving" dharanis has the meaning of reciting, of being mindful, of being able to use the dharani. These Bodhisattvas could receive and uphold all these kinds of dharani-doors.

Again, Bodhisattvas Mahasattvas to the number of dust motes in a great world system became capable of turning the irreversible Dharma-wheel. One "world system" comprises one Mount Sumeru, one sun, one moon, and one set of four continents. One "thousand" of these world systems form a small world system. One thousand small world systems form a middle-sized world system. One thousand middle-sized world systems form a great world system. [Literally the "three thousand great thousand world system." "Three" is used because it indicates a thousand cubed (a billion) worlds.] They can turn the irreversible Dharma-wheel. "Irreversible" describes that they go forward only. They do not retrogress, but are always vigorous and never lazy.

Here in the Buddhist Lecture Hall we are turning the irreversible Dharma-wheel. So you should not retreat. If you retreat, you end up turning a reversible Dharma-wheel.

Here, we stay busy in the ways that we can as ordinary people, turning the irreversible Dharma-wheel, while at the same time we learn from the Sutra how to turn the irreversible Dharma-wheel the way the Great Bodhisattvas do. We are not actually doing it professionally yet. You should understand this clearly.

Again, Bodhisattvas Mahasattvas to the number of dust motes in a middle-sized world system were enabled to turn the Pure Dharma-wheel. "Middle-sized world system" means a thousand worlds squared, not cubed. The Pure Dharma-wheel is the Wonderful Dharma.

Again, Bodhisattvas Mahasattvas to the number of dust motes in a small world system of a thousand worlds—meaning there are a thousand Mount Sumerus, a thousand suns and moons, and a thousand set of four continents—were destined to gain anuttarasamyaksambodhi after eight lifetimes. These are Bodhisattvas of the Second Ground who must wait eight lifetimes to reach Buddhahood.

Again, Bodhisattvas Mahasattvas to the number of dust motes in four sets of four continents were destined to gain anuttarasamyaksambodhi after four lifetimes. These are Eighth Ground Bodhisattvas, as many as the dust motes in four sets of four continents, who must go through four lifetimes to attain the fruition level of the Buddha. "Four sets of four continents" would include four Mount Sumerus, four suns, four moons, and four sets of four continents—that is, four world systems.

Again, Bodhisattvas Mahasattvas to the number of dust motes in three sets of four continents were destined to gain anuttarasamyaksambodhi after three lifetimes. Here the number is composed of the dust motes in three world systems, meaning three Mount Sumerus, three suns, three moons, and three sets of four continents. These great Bodhisattvas Mahasattvas of the Ninth Ground must go through three lifetimes before attaining the Unsurpassed, Proper and Equal, Right Enlightenment.

Again, Bodhisattvas Mahasattvas to the number of dust motes in two sets of four continents were destined to gain anuttarasamyaksambodhi after two lifetimes. These are great Bodhisattvas of the Tenth Ground as many as the dust motes in two world systems, which would include two Mount Sumerus, two suns, two moons, and two sets of four continents.

Again, Bodhisattvas Mahasattvas to the number of dust motes in one set of four continents were destined to gain anuttarasamyaksambodhi after a single lifetime. These are Bodhisattvas at the level of Equal Enlightenment who must go through one lifetime to attain the Unsurpassed, Proper and Equal, Right Enlightenment of the Buddhas.

Again, living beings to the number of dust motes in eight world systems all brought forth the resolve for anuttarasamyaksambodhi. "Eight world systems" includes eight Mount Sumerus, eight suns, eight moons, and eight sets of four continents. These beings brought forth the resolve to attain Buddhahood. Those who study the Buddhadharma must first bring forth the resolve to attain Bodhi in order to eventually reap the Bodhi fruit. If you do not, you will not. You cannot just say, "Everybody is a Buddha." If you just say that and fail to bring forth the resolve to realize Buddhahood, you can say it forever but it will be just like speaking about food or counting others' money—it would not satisfy you. You can say, "Bread and butter and tofu and potatoes are delicious! Tomatoes are good, too." But if you just talk and do not eat, you would not get full. It is also like counting other people's money—it is not yours to use. You can count, "Ten, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty, a hundred thousand, a million, a billion, a trillion," counting all day long, but it is someone else's money, not yours to use. That is like saying, "Oh, everybody is a Buddha," but not cultivating. And yet if someone says you are selfish, you cannot stand it. If someone says, "You have so much greed," you think, "How dare you scold me!" There is a saying:

You may count other people's money all day long,
But not half a cent of it is yours.
If you fail to cultivate the Dharma,
You are making a similar mistake.

So if you do not cultivate, it is the same as counting other people's money for them.

At this point, someone has a question, but does not dare to ask. Why is that? Because he does not have a proper reason for asking it. And what is the question? He is thinking, "There is only one world. How can there be small, middle-sized, and great world systems? I just see this one world here surrounded by stars. I have never seen any other suns, moons, and Mount Sumerus. In fact, I cannot even find a Mount Sumeru in this world! How can there be other worlds?"

I would not address that question, but I will speak about something else. Let us talk about someone who lives way out in the countryside—a hick. He knows just his little area of countryside, and he sees the same people every day: his aunts and uncles and his parents' friends. He thinks there are only these people in this world, because he has never been out of his little town.

Later, for some reason, he wanders away and walks into another town. Amazed, he thinks, "What is this big city doing here? So big! It is bigger than my home town!" Before, he did not believe that there were other cities, but now that he sees it, he believes. Then he travels across the country and learns that there are lots of cities, but he still does not know there are also several hundred other countries in this world as well. For instance, if he were French he would only be aware of France. Then suppose he does travel to other countries, such as Germany and England and other places. If he did not go, he would think those countries did not exist. Only after he goes himself does he come to know about the other countries.

In the same way, there are many, many worlds. As of yet, you have not been to them, so you do not know about them. Once you go, I would not have to tell you about them, you will already understand. I could tell you about their existence now, but since you have not seen them yourself, and naturally you would not believe they exist. So for now, don't bring up this question. Keep it in mind for a while. When the time comes for you to travel to other worlds, you will naturally have your question answered.

This passage of text refers to both the bestowing of predictions for the Dharma body and propagation. It also relates to the Ten Dwellings, Ten Conducts, Ten Transferences, and the First and Second of the Ten Grounds.

The Bodhisattvas as many as the dust motes of a single world who obtained the dharani-door of Hearing and Upholding belong to the Ten Dwellings.

The Bodhisattvas Mahasattvas as many as the dust motes of one world who gained the Unobstructed Eloquence of Delight in Speech belong to the Ten Conducts. Those who certify to the position of the Ten Conducts gain the Unobstructed Eloquence of Delight in Speech.

The Bodhisattvas as many as the dust motes of one world who gained the dharani of a hundred thousand myriad kotis of limitless revolutions belong to the Ten Transferences. Once you certify to the position of the Ten Transferences; you obtain the revolving Dharani-door where the one is limitless, and the limitless is one.

The Bodhisattvas who became capable of turning the irreversible Dharma-wheel were those Bodhisattvas who had attained the three irreversibilities of position, conduct, and mindfulness. They certified to the First of the Ten Grounds.

The Bodhisattvas as many as the dust motes of two thousand middle lands who became capable of turning the pure Dharma-wheel were those who had certified to the Second of the Ten Grounds.

The Bodhisattvas as many as dust motes in a thousand minor-sized lands who were to gain anuttarasamyaksambodhi after eight lives were those Bodhisattvas who went from the Second to the Third and completely certified to the Fourth Ground as defined by the Perfect Teaching. (The Fourth Ground of the Perfect Teaching is not the same as the Fourth Ground of the Special Teaching or the Penetrating Teaching. That is because each of these teachings describes a different kind of level of accomplishment.)

This process of going from the Second to the Fourth Ground is called "increasing in the Way, decreasing in life." What does that mean? It means one increases one's wisdom of the Middle Way and decreases the amount of change birth and death that one still harbors. "Change birth and death" refers to the continual rising and cessation of thoughts in the mind. Those of the First and Second Ground do not have share and section birth and death, only change birth and death.

When one goes from the Second Ground and obtains complete certification to the Fourth Ground, according to the Perfect Teaching, only eight of the last nine portions of very subtle ignorance remain. Thus the life one decreases is not the life of share and section birth and death, but rather the life of change birth and death.

As one cuts off the categories, one advances through the Grounds. These are view delusions, thought delusions, and delusions stemming from ignorance. There are eighty-eight portions of view delusions and eighty-one portions of thought delusions. So by the Fourth Ground, only the last eight portions of delusions stemming from ignorance remain. These eight final portions of ignorance are very fine and subtle. When one gets rid of one portion of ignorance, one certifies to the next Ground. And so from the Fourth Ground, when the last eight portions are abolished, one attains the position of Wonderful Enlightenment.

When there are just four portions left to cut off, the Bodhisattva has reached the Eighth Ground. The Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh grounds are not mentioned here. The level of a Bodhisattva at the Eighth Ground is distinct from the Bodhisattva at the Seventh Ground. If the Eighth Ground Bodhisattva wishes to come to our world to teach and transform living beings, he will be born "wearing clothes." That means he is born in a flesh caul, as was the Venerable Elder Master Hsü Yun. But this kind of Eighth Ground Bodhisattva very rarely enters the world.

There is a saying:

Even Bodhisattvas are confused when they undergo rebirth;
Even Arhats become muddled when they dwell in the womb.

Even Eighth Ground Bodhisattvas get confused by having to dwell in a womb and be born; thus they have to cultivate again when they get to this world. That is why the Venerable Elder Master Hsü Yun did not get enlightened until he was fifty-six years old. But when he did, his enlightenment was such that he went straight back to the original source and knew what he looked like before his parents gave birth to him.

Sutra:

As the Buddha proclaimed these great advantages in the Dharma that the Bodhisattvas Mahasattvas had attained, there rained from space mandarava flowers and mahamandarava flowers, which floated down and settled upon the Buddhas seated on lion thrones beneath limitless hundreds of thousands of myriads of millions of jeweled trees, as well as upon Shakyamuni Buddha and Many Jewels Thus Come One, who had entered Nirvana long ago, both of whom were seated on the lion throne within the stupa of seven treasures. The flowers also settled upon the great Bodhisattvas and the fourfold assembly.

There also rained down finely ground chandana powder and aloeswood incense. Heavenly drums in space sounded of themselves, and their wonderful sounds reached far and wide. There also rained down thousands of kinds of heavenly garments strung with beads, as well as laces of real pearls, laces of mani pearls, and laces of As-You-Will pearls that covered the nine directions. Another offering to all in the great assembly was priceless incense burning in a multitude of precious censers, so that its scent naturally pervaded the great assembly and its surroundings.

Above each Buddha were Bodhisattvas holding aloft banners and canopies in a procession that extended clear up to the Brahma Heavens. All the Bodhisattvas, with wonderful sounds, sang limitless chants in praise of all Buddhas.

Outline:

F3. The perfect benefits manifested through portents.


Commentary:

When you wish to ask questions about the Dharma, you should do so in a proper manner. Use your samadhi power. Do not joke or laugh. If you have samadhi power, then you can develop the power of wisdom. With the power of wisdom you can come to understand what you have not yet understand. If you do not use your samadhi power, you would not gain wisdom power and will never be able to understand. When seeking the Dharma you must be upright and proper and act always as if the Buddha were right in front of you, right behind you, and to the left and right of you. If you remember that the Buddha is always right there with you, you would not be silly and disrespectful.

As the Buddha proclaimed these great advantages in the Dharma that the Bodhisattvas Mahasattvas had attained, and the benefit to Arhats and sages certified to the fruition and ordinary living beings as well, there rained from space mandarava flowers, white flowers "which accord with one's wish," and big, white mahamandarava flowers. These flowers floated down and settled upon the Buddhas seated on lion thrones beneath limitless hundreds of thousands of myriads of millions of jeweled trees, Bodhi trees, as an offering. They also settled as an offering on all the division body Buddhas of Shakyamuni Buddha, as well as upon both Shakyamuni Buddha and Many Jewels Thus Come One, who had entered Nirvana long ago, both of whom were seated on the lion throne within the stupa of Seven Treasures. The flowers also settled as an offering upon the great Bodhisattvas, the ones who had welled forth from the ground, and the fourfold assembly of Bhikshus, Bhikshunis, Upasakas, and Upasikas. This is the Portent of the Raining of Flowers.

There also rained down finely ground chandana powder and aloeswood incense. The previous section was the Portent of the Raining of Flowers. This section is the Portent of the Raining of Incense, all portents of offerings. [The Chinese name for aloeswood is literally "sinks-in-water."] Basically, wood should float in water, but this kind of incense is so condensed it sinks in water. Heavenly drums in space sounded of themselves, and their wonderful sounds reached far and wide. This is the Portent of the Heavenly Drums. There are drums in the heavens that sound when the Buddha has a Dharma assembly. Unlike the drums in the human realm, they do not need to be played by someone in order to sound; they play all by themselves! The sound of heavenly drums, too, is not like the coarse sound of drums in the human realm; it is very subtle, wonderful, and penetrating.

There also rained down thousands of kinds of heavenly garments, which beings in the heavens wear and which are strung with beads. This is the Portent of the Beaded Heavenly Garments. These rained down as well as laces of real pearls, laces of mani pearls, and laces of As-You-Will pearls. The "As-You-Will pearl" is a kind of dharani, “dharani” meaning "uniting and holding." There were these four kinds of beadwork that covered the nine directions. The Avatamsaka Sutra talks about the ten directions, but here there are nine directions. The nine directions are the ten directions minus the direction from which the adornments were falling—the zenith or upper direction. The nine directions represent the Nine Dharma Realms, that is, the Ten Dharma Realms minus the Dharma Realm of the Buddhas.

Another offering was priceless incense burning in a multitude of precious censers. What incense is this? It is the highest-quality incense, which money cannot buy, the "heart-incense." It is the incense of the heart. The censer was the heart, and in it the heart incense was burned as an offering to all in the great assembly, so that its scent naturally, without thought or planning, and all by itself, pervaded everywhere in the great assembly and its surroundings. It is called heart incense because just as one thought can pervade everywhere in the Dharma Realm and as one dust particle can pervade the Dharma Realm, naturally permeating all places, so too, when you light the heart incense, it infuses and perfumes, so evil is dispelled and good is created. Your evil habits get smoked out and only the good ones remain. This goodness and sincerity is used as an offering to the great assembly.

Above each Buddha from the ten directions, Shakyamuni Buddha's division bodies, were Bodhisattvas holding aloft banners and canopies studded with jewels in a procession that extended clear up to the Brahma Heavens. They formed orderly lines, one following another, as we do when we circumambulate and recite the Buddha's name.

All the Bodhisattvas, with wonderful sounds, sang out limitless chants in praise of all Buddhas. They made up verses and sang them in praise of the Buddhas.

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