History and background
The Lotus Sutra was probably compiled in the first century CE in Kashmir, during the fourth Buddhist Council of the newly founded Mahāyāna sect of Buddhism, more than 500 years after the paranibbana of Shakyamuni Buddha. Therefore, it is probably not included in the more ancient Āgamas of Mahāyāna Buddhism, nor in the Sutta Pitaka of the Theravada Buddhists, both of which represent the older Buddhist scriptures which to a greater amount of certainty can be historically linked to Shakyamuni Buddha himself.
The Lotus Sutra purports to be a discourse delivered by Shakyamuni Buddha himself toward the end of his life. The tradition in Mahāyāna states that the Lotus Sutra was written down at the time of the Buddha and stored for five hundred years in the realm of the dragons (or Nāgas). After this, they were re-introduced into the human realm at the time of the Fourth Buddhist Council in Kashmir. The tradition further claims that the teachings of the Lotus Sutra are higher than the teachings contained in the Āgamas and the Sutta Pitaka (the Sutra itself also claims this), and that humankind was unable to understand the Lotus Sutra at the time of the Buddha (500 BCE). This is the reason given for the need to store the Lotus Sutra in the realm of the dragons for 500 years, after which humankind was able to understand the Lotus Sutra.
Several years ago western scholars began examining the collection of Buddhist texts acquired by the Schoyen collectors. Several scholars have noticed fragments from the Lotus Sutra that predate the earliest Christian gospels in Greek. These scholars have not released much on these fragments, except to say that they are not dependent on the Chinese or Tibeten Lotus sutras. Furthermore, other scholars have noted how the cryptic Dharani passages within the Lotus sutra represent a form of the Maghdi dialect that is more similar to Pali than Sanskrit. For instance one Dharani reads in part: Buddhavilokite Dharmaparikshite. Although the 'Vilo' is attested to in Sanskrit, it appears first in the Buddhist Pali texts as Vilokita with the meaning of "a vigilant looker" from vi=eager like a passionless bird and lok=look.
Translation and Composition
The Lotus Sutra was originally translated from Sanskrit into Chinese by Dharmarakṣa around 209 CE, before being superseded by a translation in seven fascicles by Kumārajīva in 406 CE. The Chinese title is usually abbreviated to 法華經, which is read Făhuā Jīng in Chinese and Hokekyō in Japanese, Beophwagyeong in Korean, and Pháp Hoa Kinh" in Vietnamese. The Sanskrit copies are not widely used outside of academia. It has been translated by Burton Watson. According to Burton Watson it may have originally been composed in a Prakrit dialect and then later translated into Sanskrit to lend it greater respectability.
This sutra is well-known for its extensive instruction on the concept and usage of skillful means (Sanskrit: upāya; Jp: hōben), mostly in the form of parables. It is also one of the first sutras to coin the term Mahāyāna, or 'Great Vehicle' Buddhism. Another concept introduced by the Lotus Sutra is the idea that the Buddha is more of an eternal entity, who achieved nirvana eons ago, but willingly chose to remain in the cycle of rebirth to help teach beings the Dharma time and again. He reveals himself as the "father" of all beings and evinces the loving care of just such a father. Moreover, the sutra indicates that even after the Parinirvana (apparent physical death) of a Buddha, that Buddha continues to be real and to be capable of communicating with the world. The idea that the physical death of the / a Buddha is the termination of that Buddha is graphically refuted by the movement and meaning of this scripture, in which another Buddha, who "parinirvana-ed" long before, appears and communicates with Shakyamuni himself. In the vision of the Lotus Sutra, Buddhas are ultimately immortal. A similar doctrine of Buddhic eternity is repeatedly expounded in the tathāgatagarbha sutras, which share certain family resemblances in spirit to the teachings of the Lotus Sutra.
The Lotus Sutra also indicates (Chapter 4) that emptiness (śūnyatā) is not the ultimate vision to be attained by the aspirant Bodhisattva: the obtainment of Buddhic Wisdom is indicated to be a bliss-bestowing treasure which transcends seeing all as merely empty.
In terms of literary style, the Lotus Sutra often uses astronomical numbers and measurements of time meant to convey a sense of timeless time, or to convey the inconceivable. Some of the other Buddhas mentioned in the Lotus Sutra are said to have lifetimes of dozens or hundreds of kalpas, while the number of Bodhisattvas mentioned in the "Earth Bodhisattva" chapter number in the billions, if not more. The Lotus Sutra also often alludes to a special teaching that supersedes everything else that the Buddha has taught, but the Sutra never actually says what that teaching is. This is said to be in keeping with the general Mahāyāna Buddhist view that the highest teaching cannot be expressed in words.
At least some sources consider that the Lotus Sutra has a prologue and an epilogue, these being respectively the Innumerable Meanings Sutra (無量義經 Jp: Muryōgi Kyō) and the Sutra of Meditation on the Bodhisattva Universal Worthy (普賢經 Jp: Fugen Kyō).