Lotus Sutra Project








On this page, we'll discuss the analysis and conclusions we have made on the Lotus Sutra, Chapter 1.

An important caveat we need to make is that this analysis only applies to the specific translation (by Kubo and Yuyama, based off of the Chinese translation from the original Sankrit text by Kumajivara) that we studied, since content may vary from translation to translation. Because the version we used is a translation of a translation, we cannot make assumptions based off of the original text because some facets of the text such as repetition could have been constructed by the translators.

Additionally, the analysis we've done so far applies only to Chapter 1 of the Lotus Sutra; therefore it is not necessarily applicable to the other chapters in the text. This is because the first chapter serves as a type of introduction for the text, and it contains a lot of elements that may not be as heavily used in other chapters. The references to holy figures, for instance, are much commonly found in this first chapter than in other chapters so that the readers may be introduced to names they will recognize throughout the rest of the text.

The following sections of analysis are specific to different literary features that we examined. Specifically, we looked at the use of features in prose vs. verse, the distribution of references to holy figures, and the use of repeated phrases. Below, we analyze these parts of the text as they relate to the Lotus Sutra being an effective teaching tool.

Analysis: Prose vs. Verse

As you can see in the text of the first chapter of the Lotus Sutra, the chapter has sections of prose, or narration, and poem-like verses. Before beginning any mark up, we had originally predicted that the appearance of significant literary features would be much heavier in the verse, which we figured mostly because verse-like writing or poems tend to be much more abstract.

However, we were surprised to see that the occurrences of certain features — namely references to holy figures, hyperbole, repetition of phrases, and references to number — were about the same in prose and in verse.

This follows logically when we consider that, when you actually read through the first chapter of the Lotus Sutra, it follows the pattern that a certain story or concept is introduced in the prose and simply repeated a bit more lyrically in the verse. Thus, it makes sense that both the prose and the verse would contain about the same number of literary features since they both pretty much contain the same content. It is interesting, though, that the prose contains as many literary features as it does, especially considering the fact that we weren’t expecting that originally.

As one can see from the first set of graphs, the literary feature with the biggest difference between prose and verse was the referencing of holy figures. This particular feature was difficult to handle in the mark-up, but we found some interesting results. In the prose, for instance, many different holy figures would be listed together by name, whereas in the verse, references to specific individuals would include either one figure or not at all.

Through this, we inferred that the authors of the text made use of the format of prose to include many specific names of holy figures, which allowed them to simultaneously bring authority to the text and bring authority to Buddhist mythology (from its association to such an important text). If you consider the list of names a single group, the balance between prose and verse in terms of holy references is nearly even. If instead you count the actual names that are being referenced, prose tips the scale in its direction.

From the data, we can infer that prose and verse contain similar content. However, the greater number of references and numbers in the prose shows that it is more descriptive, whereas the verse is more theoretical, used as a foil to the prose. In this way, repetition of the content in the prose and verse serves as a very intriguing teaching tool. The prose introduces the content and provides lots of preliminary details and the verse reinforces the content, including the most important material; the two forms work in harmony in order to drive home its message.

Analysis on the Holy Figure References

The first chapter of the Lotus Sutra makes extensive use of references to holy figures. It is important to list these figures in the first chapter, because it introduces the audience to the text. Having these figures here situates the in the large corpus of Buddhist texts. For newer practitioners, having references to such figures acquaints them to the vast amount of figures in Buddhism, and makes them want to learn more. For more experienced practitioners, seeing familiar figures allows them to understand the text better, and having such figures attached to the text gives it authority.

From the analysis of the holy figures, we learn that, as we discussed in prose vs. verse, figures are referenced much more frequently in prose. Accordingly, though, we do find that the figures mentioned in verse tend to have a much higher level in the hierarchy than do the figures mentioned in prose.

That, again, makes sense when we consider that the prose includes long lists of names of figures that may not be extremely important. In the verse, the most important people are referenced and mentioned because those people draw authority to the content in the prose, making only the most important information available in that shorter, poetic form.

Analysis on Repetition

A common thread throughout all the instances of repetition is that all of the repeated phrases carried some sort of religious value. In this chapter, there were phrases about key tenets of Buddhism, such as dharma and following the path of the Buddha. There were also instances of self-referencing; the Lotus Sutra itself is defined and referred to fourteen times in the text, creating almost a cycle of authority where the text inflates itself to give greater credence to its messages which in turn inflates the text further.

In this way, all the repeated phrases seem to carry one common goal and message – the repeated concepts are important to Buddhism, which is why they are repeated so often. The repeated concept, then, is easier to internalize and remember. In that way, because the reader encounters the repetition of so many different important topics, the reader can easily take away a general picture of important themes and concepts from the chapter.

This literary practice of repetition seems effective especially considering the way in which Buddhism was transferred over the years. Before things could be easily recorded, Buddhism, like many other religious traditions, relied on oral transmission. Monks, for example, had to memorize a lot of the information that we have so readily available on the internet today.

Because of this need for memorization, it follows logically that repetition of religious ideas would be a useful aid. Repeating phrases, principles, and images helped those who had to memorize the information. Moreover, the repetition reinforced the importance of that content, making it even easier to remember.

The use of repetition in this first chapter of the Lotus Sutra strongly supports the idea that the Lotus Sutra is an influential text because of its teaching abilities. Through the method of emphasis, key thoughts are easily recalled and understood. The repetition of an importance idea can also bring attention to itself to those who are not entirely familiar with it. Thus, the repetition serves a key feature of the Lotus Sutra as a teaching tool.

Final Analysis

Our original objective was to study the way in which the Lotus Sutra in its strange literary ways is an effective teaching tool to propagate Buddhist doctrine. We wanted to answer the question, “what is it about the text that makes it such an integral part of Buddhism?”

We have found that the literary features is influencing as a text in many different ways. By bringing authority of the holy figures into the text, the Lotus Sutra shows readers that, since these holy figures mentioned in the text have followed the buddha path, it is important that its audience do the same. Also, the Lotus Sutra reinforces religious ideas and tenets through the use of repeated phrases, making it easy to memorize, internalize, and recall.

Additionally, the Lotus Sutra includes prose and verse, which makes it easier for people who understand the material in different ways comprehend the content of the Lotus Sutra. For instance, if one Buddhist understands things more when they are written like a novel whereas another conceptualizes things faster when reading it as a poem, both can learn and experience the content nearly the exact same way because of the way that the Lotus Sutra is structured with the prose and verse.

With this, we find that the Lotus Sutra is so key to Buddhism because it wraps so many different Buddhist concepts into so many different forms. By bringing in authority and repeating ideas and referencing important thoughts and images, the Lotus Sutra neatly and expediently brings together all the facets of Buddhism that need to be internalized into a neat package with its literary features. The presentation of the text makes it an even more effective teaching tool, one that has reached millions around the globe. Thus, the literary features in the Lotus Sutra do indeed make it an impressive teaching tool for Buddhism.

Future Research

If we had had more time for this project, we would have loved to have looked at the other chapters in the text. The difficulty with the first chapter is that it is mostly introductory, and we think that a lot more key concepts are introduced later.

We also would have loved to have explored parables a little more, but that was not as emphasized in this first chapter. There is an entire chapter devoted to a parable, though, which is probably really interesting. As we got through more chapters, we would analyze paradoxes as well.

We also thought the idea of the spiritual levels (as mentioned in the repetition report) are interesting. We would have liked to have further studied the play on levels in the text. Perhaps the use of laymen is used more frequently than the use of divinity or vice versa. What would those references show? The answers to those questions would probably help give us a better understanding of the idea that the Lotus Sutra is trying to give about current spiritual levels and how to attain higher spiritual levels.

Along these lines, we would also have liked to do more research on the specific individuals mentioned in the text and what each of them stand for.

Another aspect we would have liked to look at the was the references to Buddhist mythology. For example, the text would bring in figures such as yaksas and nagas, which are non-human races. The reference to Buddhist mythology allows the Lotus Sutra to situate itself in the Buddhist canon, thereby attaining instant authority.


We would like to thank our instructors--Professor David J. Birnbaum, Gabrielle Kirilloff, and Janis Chinn--for all their help and support. This project would not have been possible without you. Thank you.

Back to Top of Page