The Revolutionary Lotus Sutra

Paul Copp reviews “Readings of the Lotus Sutra”, edited by Stephen F. Teiser and Jacqueline I. Stone.

Paul Copp
1 September 2009

Readings of the Lotus Sutra
Edited by Stephen F. Teiser and Jacqueline I. Stone
Columbia Readings of Buddhist Literature
Columbia University Press, 2009
304 pages; $24.50 (hardcover)

The Lotus Sutra, a revolutionary text of early Indian Mahayana, upended the conventional view of the Buddha and his tradition. The Lotus Sutra described the Buddha not as a human teacher but as a cosmic being, and as something close to a “lord of hosts.” Doctrinally, as well, the scripture made radical departures. For one, it has the Buddha saying that his earlier teachings, the very structure of the tradition the Lotus appeared within, were not unadulterated truths, but simply pragmatic and expedient devices for beings of lesser capacities—beings who were not ready for the deeper truths the sutra claimed to set forth, such as the revelation of the Buddha’s true nature.

The text seems to have been viewed as a marginal work in South Asian and Himalayan Buddhist traditions. But in East Asia, especially Japan, it became arguably the single most important Buddhist scripture. Indeed, as Stephen Teiser and Jacqueline Stone remark in their excellent new collection, Readings of the Lotus Sutra, “for many premodern Japanese people, the Lotus Sutra was the principal medium for the reception of Buddhism itself.” In medieval China, as well, the text had a profound influence, and the philosophical commentaries on the Lotus composed in China provided templates for later East Asian examples of the genre. As well, tales of the scripture’s miraculous potencies were immensely popular, and helped inspire a thriving tradition of Buddhist tale literature in medieval East Asia.

Because of the importance of the sutra, and the uniform clarity and excellence of this new volume, Readings of the Lotus Sutra provides an ideal introduction to East Asian Buddhist traditions, premodern and modern, one that will be welcomed not only by professors seeking to anchor a course on these matters, but by anyone interested in the practice and philosophy of Buddhism in East Asia.

The collection begins with a focus on the sutra itself and on what we can infer of its original contexts and impact. It then moves to considerations of the text’s reception in China, followed by an exploration of art inspired by the sutra, and finally to essays mainly concerned with its reception in Japanese Buddhism.

Teiser and Stone begin with a long and wide-ranging introduction called “Interpreting the Lotus Sutra.” The essays that follow are: “Expedient Devices, The One Vehicle, and the Lifespan of the Buddha,” by Carl Bielefeldt; “Gender and Hierarchy in the Lotus Sutra,” by Jan Nattier; “The Lotus Sutra and Self-Immolation,” by James Benn; “Buddhist Practice and the Lotus Sutra in China,” by Daniel B. Stevenson; “Art of the Lotus Sutra,” by Willa Jane Tanabe; “Bodily Reading of the Lotus Sutra,” by Ruben L. F. Habito; and “Realizing This World as the Buddha Land,” by Jacqueline Stone.

The introduction is the longest work in the book. In it, Stone and Teiser foreshadow the later discussions and offer their own readings of the text, clearly laying out the interpretive and philosophical issues. Were it simply a stand-alone essay, it would probably be the best short introduction to East Asian Buddhist practice and thought available. Combined with the essays that follow, it is all the more powerful. Its discussion of the different and contrasting interpretations the sutra has received in history, for example, when combined with Bielefeldt’s more in-depth treatment in his essay, provides a strong basis for both solitary consideration and seminars.

Bielefeldt’s and Nattier’s essays focus, respectively, on central themes and doctrines of the scripture itself, and on its original contexts. Bielefeldt, who came up with the “lord of hosts” comparison, presents an overview of three of the sutra’s revolutionary aspects: the importance it places on the pragmatic notion of “expedient devices,” or upaya; the concept of “one vehicle” as the true Buddhist path, as opposed to older divisions into two or three vehicles; and the view of the Buddha as a cosmic being rather than a man. Bielefeldt’s essay offers a particularly helpful discussion of the connection between the scripture’s exalted picture of the Buddha—the Buddha “defined as everything”—and the other two themes of his essay, showing how the new view restructures most of the central concepts of the tradition. As he notes, “[once] the Buddha is defined as everything, it becomes obvious that he (it?) has only one true body… The various vehicles taught by the Buddha, including the one carrying the bodhisattva to buddhahood, are merely provisional, expedient devices accommodated to the followers’ misguided sense of themselves as unenlightened beings. The real buddha vehicle goes nowhere; it is sudden because, like the Buddha himself, it has already arrived at the end of the path.” The “ambiguous consequences, both theoretical and practical” of these ideas, Bielefeldt notes, became fertile ground for interpretation and tradition-building.

Nattier takes on the difficult issue of the sutra’s implicit devaluation of women—and, as well, of people of low social status and of nonhumans. The essay is a model of interpretive and scholarly clarity—a model that in itself offers a powerful resource for readers. Nattier shows that, contrary to the modern view of Buddhism as an egalitarian teaching, a close reading of the Lotus Sutra reminds us that the tradition was steeped in hierarchies, including those of caste, seniority, and, most important for her essay, gender.

The Mahayana heritage, in particular, was built around a deeply androcentric view of the cosmos. Nattier shows that the passage most often cited as evidence against this picture of Buddhism—the magical gender transformations of the naga princess—actually does more to cement traditional Indian gender hierarchies than any other passage in the work. However, as Nattier observes, the Lotus is profoundly split between its earlier and later chapters. In the later chapters, where the Buddha, as Bielefeldt put it, “is everything,” hierarchies mainly disappear, leaving only the one dividing those who follow the Lotus Sutra from those who don’t.

Turning toward the history of the sutra’s reception in East Asia, Benn and Stevenson focus on traditional Chinese Buddhist practices of bodily devotion, which are based on the belief that certain objects are “repositories of sacred power.” In Benn’s essay, that object is the body of the practitioner; and in one devotional practice inspired by the sutra, the practitioner ritually soaks his body in fragrant oils and sets it on fire. Benn’s essay, like Nattier’s account of the gender hierarchies at the core of traditional Buddhism, presents a picture of practice that is shocking to the modern mind. But Benn makes clear that self-immolation was an emblematic expression of faith and devotion in the Chinese tradition.

Stevenson takes on devotional practices found more widely in Mahayana traditions: those subsumed under the rubric of the “cult of the book,” in which the texts themselves were viewed as the body of the Buddha and treated as the focus of contemplation and worship. Like other authors in this collection, both Benn and Stevenson find their best material in the miraculous tales that were a central genre in medieval East Asian Buddhism.

One of the few weaknesses of the collection is its scant attention to Korea, disappointing in a work that proclaims an East Asian focus. In this regard, Tanabe’s essay stands out for its serious treatment of Korean materials and history, while reminding us of the intimate connection of faith and art in Buddhism. Its scope is especially wide, exploring material from the Silk Road oasis of Dunhuang, from the Tangut realm, and from Korea and Japan. In terms of close attention to local differences across the region, hers is the richest entry in the collection.

The final two essays focus on Japan, particularly on the Nichiren tradition, which is based in part on readings of the Lotus Sutra. Habito presents medieval Japanese traditions of Lotus recitation, including Nichiren’s writings on the person- and world-transforming nature of the practice. Habito then turns to modern Japanese Buddhists who took these readings as inspiration to “engage in tasks of social engagement and personal and global transformation with the aim of realizing a Lotus land here on earth.”

Stone’s essay, the last in the volume, brings the discussion full circle to the more philosophical and textual focus of the book’s earlier chapters. She presents a lucid and subtle exploration of the range of doctrines and philosophical images that, in part, lay behind the sutra’s teaching of the “possibility of a ‘this-worldly’ buddha land.” In addition, Stone delves deeply into Lotus commentaries and, through a discussion of Nichiren’s thought, examines the world of modern Japanese Buddhism.

Stone’s—and Habito’s—readings of some of the many ways that notions of an immanent buddha realm have been employed and understood in modern Japan clearly reveal how Buddhism remains rooted in traditional doctrines, even as the religion is adapted to lives and times very unlike those of medieval monks and philosophers. Stone’s essay, like others in this collection, is valuable not only for the content of its readings but also for the ways it models close analysis of a text and its traditions.

Readings of the Lotus Sutra, the first in a series on Buddhist literature being published by Columbia University Press, sets a high standard indeed for subsequent volumes.

Paul Copp

Paul Copp teaches in the department of East Asian languages and civilizations at the University of Chicago.