How to Read the Lotus Sutra: A Guide for the Uninitiated – Tricycle

Posted: February 1, 2020 at 8:45 am


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So theres a polemical strategy here, right?

JS: Definitely. This is Mahayana Buddhism, which was positioning itself against the Buddhist mainstream. And so we have here a tremendous re-visioning of the entire received tradition.

What do you mean when you use the term mainstream Buddhism?

DL: What we are trying to name is the tradition of Buddhism before the Mahayana began, which was probably several centuries after the Buddhas death. We now know with some certainty that the Mahayana, despite its great fame in East Asia, remained a minority tradition throughout its long history in India. Everything else we just call the mainstream. These mainstream schools, of which there were many, tended to reject the Mahayana sutras, saying that they were not the word of the Buddha. They maintained the nirvana of the arhat as the ideal. This is not to say that they did not speak of the bodhisattva. Rather, they saw the bodhisattva as the rare figure who foregoes the path of the arhat to follow the longer bodhisattva path. The Lotus says that the nirvana of the arhat does not ultimately exist and that all beings can become bodhisattvas and thus buddhas.

JS: The Lotus Sutra extols the bodhisattva path as a path that everyone should follow in order to become a buddha. The compilersMahayana practitionersfaced the very difficult task of explaining why the Buddha himself didnt teach that, then, instead of offering the path of the arhat that leads to personal nirvana, the extinction of desire, and the stopping of the wheel of rebirth.

The Lotus Sutras answer, again, is that the Buddha preached to different people according to their capacity, but underlying those diverse teachings was his final intention: to lead everyone to the single goal of buddhahood.

Why dont we take that a little bit further: What does the Lotus Sutra do to legitimize itself or to give itself authority?

JS: The Lotus positions itself as the Buddhas supreme teaching. And it does that in many ways. First of all, its presented as the Buddhas final teaching. Hes about to enter nirvana, and so he preaches the sutra.

In the opening chapter, theres a scene where the Buddha emerges from meditation and flowers fall from the sky and the earth shakes. The bodhisattva Maitreya, who is supposed to be the next buddha and therefore should be extremely wise, doesnt know whats going on, so he asks the more experienced bodhisattva Manjushri whats happening. Manjushri recalls a scene from unfathomable kalpas [eons] ago, in the age of another buddha. Shortly before that buddha entered nirvana, the same signs appeared, and immediately afterward he preached the Sutra of the Lotus Blossom of the Wonderful Dharma.Thats what Shakyamuni is now going to do.

So the Lotus positions itself as both the final teaching and one thats older than anything recorded in the Buddhist tradition. And most interestingly, it repeatedly refers to itself in the course of the text. Its an actor in its own script, if you will.

So how was this ideathat the Lotus was his final teachingreceived?

DL: There were many in India who rejected the claim that the Mahayana sutras were the word of the Buddha. Great scholars like Nagarjuna, Bhaviveka, and Shantideva wrote defenses of the Mahayana over the course of centuries, so we know that the criticism never went away.

But the Lotus Sutra also legitimizes itself in other ways. Of course, the mainstream criticism would be: If the Buddha taught this, why do we have no record of it being taught? If the Buddha taught this, why is it not in the Tripitika, the previously accepted canon?

There are ways of legitimizing that dont rest on the historical question of was this or was this not preached by the Buddha.

As the Buddha is about to preach the Lotus Sutra, he says, Im now going to begin teaching. Im going to teach you something Ive never taught before. Im going to reveal the true teaching. Five thousand monks and nuns get up and walk out. The Buddha doesnt stop them.

The sutra is therefore saying that five thousand monks and nuns didnt hear him preach it and therefore they dont know about it. For the sutras champions, this passage provided a reason why so many claimed that the Lotus was not taught by the Buddha; they were among those who walked out when he began to teach it.

Thats pretty clever. In your new book, Two Buddhas Seated Side by Side, were looking at two different things: the sutra as it has come down to us from the time of its composition, some three or four hundred years after the Buddha, and then the centuries of interpretation that followed. So if I read the Lotus Sutra, Im not going to pick up what Nichiren [12221282 CE] extrapolated from it hundreds of years after its composition.

JS: Right. That was precisely one of the reasons for doing the book. On the one hand, it is a chapter-by- chapter guide to the Lotus Sutraa text that speaks in mythic imagery rather than discursively, so its very hard to read cold, without background explanation. At the same time, we conceived of this as a study in religious interpretationhow people reimagine or refigure their traditions in response to changing circumstances. Part of the book, then, looks at the way that Nichiren, roughly a thousand years later at the extreme opposite end of Asia, took the Lotus Sutra and the long tradition of its interpretation and reworked them to fit the needs of his time. We conceived of the book as an introduction to this problem of how religions stay alive and readjust to changing circumstances.

In the modern era, we face exposure to all sorts of different beliefs, and there is no really good reason for deciding that ones own is superior to anyone elses. But we still have to find value in the foundational texts. As you discussed, in Pali Buddhism, or Theravada, that meaning seems to rest on the claim that the teachings were the words of the Buddha. Yet like Nichiren, we have to come back to some texts and interpret them in ways that are relevant to our time. Is that right?

And further, all religious texts try to make a claim to authenticity, and they have various ways of doing it. But if we acknowledge the role that interpretation has played historically in the teaching of not only the Lotus but really all Buddhists texts, and that were not looking at them as the actual words of the Buddha, how do we then read them in a fruitful way? How do I understand its historical context and at the same time find great spiritual value in it?

JS: This is not a new issue. I think, for example, about Japan in the early 20th century when Buddhist leaders there had their first encounters with European Buddhist Studies. At the time, the Pali canon was thought by Western researchers to be closest to the direct preaching of the historical Buddha. We now know that the matter is much more complex, but at that time, the Mahayana was often considered a later, degenerate form. Japanese Buddhist scholars, many of whom were also Buddhist priests, had to find a way to reclaim the Mahayana, their own tradition, and they did this by saying, OK, maybe the Mahayana teachings werent the direct words of the historical person, Shakyamuni. But if we take seriously the idea that all people have buddhanature and access to buddha wisdom, there is no reason why new forms of that message cant appear in order to inspire people and answer the needs of the present. Its an argument based on whats deep and compelling philosophically rather than on historical origins. There are ways of legitimizing that dont rest on the historical question of was this or was this not preached by the Buddha.

What I tell my students is that any practitioner-believer, someone involved in a traditionwhether consciously or notis involved in a process of hermeneutical triangulation, as we might call it. They are continually having to negotiate between the received tradition and the social, political, and historical circumstances in which they live. At any moment, some parts of the received tradition are going to speak more powerfully, more cogently, than others. Other elements that perhaps were important in the past may now become marginalized; still others may be interpreted in novel ways. Practitioners are continually involved in this process. The more conscious one is of engaging in it, the more effective new adaptations of tradition are likely to be.

DL: Before we began the book and perhaps even more strongly after we finished it, Jackie and I both felt that ones appreciation of the Lotus Sutra is enhanced by understanding the circumstances of its composition. Rather than thinking of it as a transcendent truth that an unknown buddha taught billions of years ago and that all the buddhas teach over and over again through time, we might think of it instead as the product of a creative yet beleaguered community of Buddhist monks and nuns in India who knew doctrine very well, monks and nuns who were visionaries able to compose a text that from every perspective is a religious and literary masterpiece. We see the Lotus as a text that is able to take the tradition and reinterpret it for its devotees own time in a way that welcomes all sentient beings onto the great vehicle to buddhahood, a text that has passages whose beauty will make you weep. Speaking for myself, that in many ways is more inspiring than to think of it simply as the words of a distant transcendent being.

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How to Read the Lotus Sutra: A Guide for the Uninitiated - Tricycle

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February 1st, 2020 at 8:45 am

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