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If we view the overall flow of the Lotus Sutra, we see that the first portion of the sutra, starting with the “Introduction” chapter and ending with the tenth chapter, is set on Eagle Peak [Mount Gridhrakuta, outside the present-day city of Rajgir in India] where Shakyamuni Buddha preaches to a great assembly. In the eleventh chapter an enormous tower suddenly rises up out of the earth and floats into the air, and the Buddha uses his supernatural powers to lift the entire assembly up into the air. This portion of the sutra is accordingly known as the Ceremony in the Air. With the twenty-third chapter, the scene returns to Eagle Peak.
This makes three assemblies: the first assembly on Eagle Peak, the Ceremony in the Air, and the second assembly on Eagle Peak. The overall action of the sutra is therefore referred to as “three assemblies in two places.”
Eagle Peak is an actual spot in India where Shakyamuni preached. But the Ceremony in the Air section of the sutra clearly transcends reality. It is a representation of the vast and unbounded state of the Buddha, the state of enlightenment. This is a realm of ultimate reality and truth that transcends both time and space. I believe that the relationship between the two assemblies on Eagle Peak and the Ceremony in the Air has a profound significance in terms of a life philosophy. The progression from Eagle Peak to the “air” and then back to Eagle Peak represents a flow from reality prior to enlightenment, to the state of enlightenment, and then to reality after enlightenment. In other words, we cut the chains that bind us to the earth of reality in order to reach the lofty skies of enlightenment from where we can gaze serenely on all things. The subsequent progression from the Ceremony in the Air back to Eagle Peak represents the act of returning to daily life and society and facing its challenges. Reality becomes the means of demonstrating our Buddhahood.
related article Good and Evil The Buddhist understanding is that good and evil are innate, inseparable aspects of life. This view makes it impossible to label a particular individual or group as "good" or "evil." In life, we must not permit ourselves to be totally absorbed with immediate realities only. We must have ideals and strive to achieve them, thereby transcending present realities. On the other hand, we must not allow ourselves to become alienated from immediate realities. We can change nothing unless our feet are firmly planted on the ground.
Many people, and many religions as well, tend to choose one of two paths. Either they compromise with the realities of society and lose their identity, or, in seeking to evade these realities, they remove themselves entirely from society and try to create their own separate world. Both approaches are mistaken. The Lotus Sutra teaches a way of life in which we gaze serenely upon realities from an elevated state of life--high above in the air, as it were--and yet, at the same time, actively involve ourselves in those realities as reformers.
This same progression through “three assemblies in two places” can, when viewed from a slightly different angle, be taken to symbolize the differences of emphasis between Shakyamuni’s teachings and Nichiren’s teachings.
Shakyamuni’s teachings, we may say, emphasize the movement from Eagle Peak to the Ceremony in the Air--in other words, leaving this world in search of the realm of the Buddha’s wisdom. Nichiren’s Buddhism stresses the progression from enlightenment back to the world of everyday realities. It aims for the transformation of reality, and the practice of this Buddhism is to undertake compassionate action among the people. A Buddha is a person of action, of fighting spirit, not one who is content to remain comfortably in the realm of enlightenment.
related article The Meaning of Nam-myoho-renge-kyo Nichiren declared that to chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo was to activate its promise of universal enlightenment; he was establishing a form of practice that would open the way to enlightenment for all people--regardless of class or educational background. The “three assemblies in two places” also expresses the oneness of life and death. If the Ceremony in the Air represents the state of our existence after death, then Eagle Peak represents life. The “three assemblies in two places” thus represents the dynamic movement from life to death and to life again. It reveals the true entity of life and death as one inseparable phenomenon.
The important thing is that we act out the “three assemblies in two places” in our daily lives. Each moment, each day, has an eternity of value enfolded in it. The more time passes, the more each moment, each day, shines with a golden light. The Lotus Sutra teaches this unsurpassed way of living.