When Shakyamuni first became enlightened under the Bodhi tree, he realized that the people at that time would struggle to understand the profound wisdom of his perfect enlightenment and he was faced with a dilemma. Should I keep the teaching to myself (and let people continue to suffer) or should I try to teach the great Buddha vehicle but risk people discarding the teaching due to their inability to comprehend what I have gained (and thus continue to suffer)?
“Then my thoughts turned to the buddhas of the past and the power of expedient means they had employed, and I thought that the way I had now attained should likewise be preached as three vehicles. When I thought in this manner, the buddhas of the ten directions all appeared and with brahma sounds comforted and instructed me.
“Well done, Shakyamuni!” they said. “Foremost leader and teacher, you have attained the unsurpassed Law. But following the example of all other buddhas, you will employ the power of expedient means. We too have all attained the most wonderful, the foremost Law, but for the sake of living beings we make distinctions and preach the three vehicles. People of small wisdom delight in a small doctrine, unable to believe that they themselves could become buddhas. Therefore we employ expedient means, making distinctions and preaching various goals. But though we preach the three vehicles, we do it merely in order to teach the bodhisattvas.” …
When I heard these saintly lions and their deep, pure, subtle, wonderful sounds, I rejoiced, crying, “Hail to the buddhas!”
Then I thought to myself, I have come into this impure and evil world, and as these buddhas have preached, I too must follow that example in my actions.” (LSOC2, p77-78)
SO, WHAT ARE EXPEDIENT MEANS?
The Soka Gakkai Dictionary of Buddhism, states that expedient means are “methods adopted to instruct people and lead them to enlightenment.” and that “expedient means are skilfully devised and employed by Buddhas and bodhisattvas to lead people to salvation.”
Turning to the image of a treasure map, “X” marks the treasure of perfect enlightenment attainable through the practice of the Lotus Sutra - a treasure buried deep within our lives. But to enable people to reach the treasure, Shakyamuni needed to lead his followers away from danger, away from their suffering due to ignorance, greed and anger, and to teach them how to break the cycle of the six lower worlds.
He did this by giving them vehicles (teachings, guidelines, examples and directions) that would lead them along different paths or stages, each one allowing them to get closer to the treasure of Buddhahood than the last. The first three vehicles were the vehicle of Learning, the vehicle of Realisation (or Partial Enlightenment) and the vehicle of the Bodhisattva way.
With the Lotus Sutra, Shakyamuni reveals the fourth, and final vehicle – the ONE GREAT BUDDHA VEHICLE. This is the ONE, AND ONLY, vehicle that will allow everyone (regardless of sex, race, status, age or any other prejudicial criteria) who hears, upholds and practices it to gain supreme perfect enlightenment in this lifetime. This vehicle is the perfect wisdom of the unsurpassed law that Shakyamuni awoke to under the Boddhi tree forty years before.