Shariputra, you should know
that at the start I took a vow
hoping to make all persons
equal to me, without any distinction between us,
and what I long ago hoped for
has now been fulfilled.
(The Lotus Sutra, ch. 2, p. 39)
In this famous passage from the Lotus Sutra, Shakyamuni Buddha presents one of the sutra's revolutionary principles. It is the fact that all people can attain the same state of life as he did, indicating the mutual possession of the Ten Worlds.
The Ten Worlds are states of life that all beings experience from moment to moment. They are Hell, Hunger, Animality, Anger, Humanity, Heaven (or Rapture), Learning, Realization, Bodhisattva (Compassion) and Buddhahood (enlightenment or absolute happiness). Earlier sutras depict the Ten Worlds as separate and distinct realms where people dwell. It was inconceivable that the pure state of Buddhahood could exist in the defiled lower worlds.
Shakyamuni's statement that all people can become equal to the Buddha, "without any distinction between us," attests to the superiority of the Lotus Sutra over provisional sutras. It indicates that the Buddha returns to the realm of the lower nine worlds to lead people to enlightenment, and that while existing in the lower nine worlds, ordinary people have the potential to attain Buddhahood.
In "Letter to Niike" Nichiren Daishonin explains: "As the sutra says, 'hoping to make all persons equal to me, without any distinction between us,' you can readily become as noble a Buddha as Shakyamuni. A bird's egg contains nothing but liquid, yet by itself this develops into a beak, two eyes, and all the other parts, and the bird soars into the sky. We, too, are the eggs of ignorance, which are pitiful things, but when nurtured by the chanting of Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, which is like the warmth of the mother bird, we develop the beak of the thirty-two features and the feathers of the eighty characteristics and are free to soar into the sky of the true aspect of all phenomena and the reality of all things. This is what is meant by the sutra passage that says in essence: 'All people dwell in the shell of ignorance, lacking the beak of wisdom. The Buddha comes back to this world—the land where sages and common mortals live together, the latter undergoing transmigration with differences and limitations—just as a mother bird returns to her nest, and cracks the shell of ignorance so that all people, like fledglings, may leave the nest and soar into the sky of the essential nature of phenomena and the reality of all things'" (The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, p. 1030).
In the Daishonin's thirteenth century japan, dominated by Buddhist sects that followed provisional sutras, Buddhas were thought to be transcendent savior figures. They were adorned with thirty-two extraordinary features, such as golden skin, Dharma-wheel markings on the soles of their feet, light radiating from their bodies, and so forth.
In this passage, Nichiren declares that Buddhahood is in fact inherent in the lives of all ordinary people. The role of the Buddha is not that of a supernatural being to which others are subservient.
By stating that "attaining Buddhahood is nothing extraordinary," he indicates that, remarkable as it may seem, we are originally endowed with the potential to do so. He uses the analogy of an egg to illustrate this fact. An egg is a common object, unremarkable on the surface and containing nothing but a sort of gooey liquid. Yet it possesses the potential to develop into a bird that can fly freely in the sky. Our lives are just like this. Outwardly we may be common mortals, yet we are naturally endowed with the potential to develop the state of absolute freedom of Buddhahood.
Although the Lotus Sutra attests to the existence of our Buddha nature, Nichiren Daishonin gave us the method to develop it by chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. In doing so, the Daishonin says we can develop the Buddha's thirty-two distinguishing features. These are interpreted to be compassion, insight, wisdom and other human qualities, and not as physical attributes that set the Buddha apart from other people. The ultimate reality of life lies nowhere apart from ourselves. We attain Buddhahood in our present form.
Even though we possess the potential for the supreme state of Buddhahood, unless we encounter the proper external relationship—the object of devotion, the Gohonzon—we remain "in the shell of ignorance, lacking the beak of wisdom." The role or function of the Gohonzon as the embodiment of Nichiren's Buddha nature, is to "crack the shell" or furnish the proper external cause by which we can bring forth our innate Gohonzon or Buddha nature.
In The Wisdom of the Lotus Sutra, SGI President Ikeda explains how this passage from the sutra applies to our practice in the Buddhist community of believers: "Propagating the teachings as well as fostering and raising capable people are all activities that accord with the Lotus Sutra's spirit. Other SGI cultural and social activities only take on profound significance when they contribute to developing people of ability and bring more and more people into contact with Buddhism.
"The Buddha vows to elevate all people to the same state of life as his own. This is the spirit to raise capable people, to enable people to develop to their fullest potential. This is also the spirit underlying the mentor-disciple relationship.
"Of course, since we also strive to keep growing and developing ourselves, the determination to bring others not only to our level but above and beyond is the true spirit of the Buddha's vow to 'make all persons equal to me, without any distinction between us.'
"The true essence of humanism lies in our compassion and earnest commitment to pray and exert ourselves for the growth of our fellow members, particularly those newer in faith. The SGI is a humanistic organization. It isn't run on authority or orders from above. It moves forward with the joy of being in contact with genuine humanity" (The Wisdom of the Lotus Sutra, vol. 1, p. 134–135).
This passage from the Lotus Sutra also illustrates the concept of the "oneness of mentor and disciple." Previous to the teachings of the Lotus Sutra, the view was that "the disciple is the disciple" and "the Buddha is the Buddha." But as indicated by the passage "hoping to make all persons equal to me, without any distinction between us," mentor and disciple are equal and united in their compassion for humanity and efforts to propagate the Law.
By Dave Baldschun, SGI-USA Study Department, based in part on Yasashii Kyogaku (Easy Buddhist Study) published by Seikyo Press in 1994.
Living Buddhism, August 2002, p. 4