From China, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and the United States they came - twelve scholars, specialists in Buddhist or religious studies, who made their way to an island paradise earlier this year to participate in the thirteenth of an ongoing series of Lotus Sutra seminars sponsored by Rissho Kosei-kai. As Dr. Gene Reeves, one of the founding fathers of this conference series, stated in his remarks to open the first meeting on Wednesday, March 18, "to accommodate the Japanese love for Hawaii," and to take advantage of the marvelous Rissho Kosei-kai Retreat Center facility in Kona (on Hawaii's Big Island), "we thought we'd try Hawaii this year." Based on the smiling faces of the assembled scholars, it was quite clear that no one had seriously objected to the choice of venue.
The presentation and discussion of individual papers - some eloquent in their simplicity, others elegant in their complexity - under an overall theme of "The Lotus Sutra and Interfaith Relations" was conducted in a challenging schedule of morning through evening sessions (with informal parties at the end of the day to wind down from all-day concentration) at the Retreat Center, beginning on the eighteenth and continuing to midday of March 20. As each participant had received advance copies of all papers, the bulk of each seventy-five-minute session was dedicated to open discussion following an introductory summary by the author of the subject paper and comments by a designated respondent. While there was an umbrella theme, the topics, as might be expected, varied according to the specialization of the presenter, and papers (not appearing here in actual order of presentation) seemed to sort themselves into three broad subthemes: "The Lotus and/or Its Advocates Explored"; "The Lotus and Other Religious Traditions"; and "The Lotus's Interfaith Connections."
The Lotus and/or Its Advocates Explored
"A View on the Formation of the Lotus Sutra," by Dr. Shiro Matsumoto (Komazawa University, Tokyo), asserted that in order to grasp the fundamental position or stance of the Lotus Sutra, it is necessary to examine the formation of the text itself and through such examination to discern the earliest parts that come closest to the Buddha's original teachings. Dr. Matsumoto stated his belief that the central message of the Lotus Sutra is the attainment of buddhahood by all sentient beings inclusively. Yet in chapter 3, "Parable," one can find the statement that only bodhisattvas can attain buddhahood, while sravakas cannot. Given this apparent contradiction, Dr. Matsumoto made his case that the original message of the sutra - void of distinctions or exclusions - was not a thread woven consistently throughout the text, that the sutra was gradually formed, that chapter 2, "Tactfulness," is the oldest part of the sutra, and that the prose portion is the oldest part of that chapter. Noting that the words mahayana and bodhisattva do not appear in the Sanskrit text of chapter 2, and that the ekayana (i.e., the buddhayana, which Dr. Matsumoto considers to be the expression of the central message of universal attainment of buddhahood) is advocated in chapter 2, he offered that the term mahayana was introduced into the sutra in chapter 3 by means of the parable of the burning house, and in his opinion, that buddhayana was then replaced by mahayana as the content of ekayana. Among others, these were central considerations in his argument that the prose portion of the "Skillfull Means" chapter should be considered the oldest part and the original form of the Lotus Sutra.
In "A Lotus Practitioner and Interfaith Dialogue: Yamada Etai, the Lotus Sutra, and the Religious Summit Meeting on Mt. Hiei," Dr. Steven Covell (Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo) outlined the life of Etai Yamada, who became the 253rd head priest of the Tendai denomination of Buddhism in 1974. Dr. Covell focused on Yamada's interpretation of Lotus Sutra and Tendai Lotus teachings, enumerating the concepts that Yamada considered to be fundamentally important. The Lotus Sutra was "a guidebook for everyday life" for Yamada, and he valued the practice of "forgetting self and benefiting others," which he grasped from the early writings of Saicho, founder of Tendai in Japan. Based on that concept, according to Yamada, "group identities can be overcome, allowing individuals to cooperate to bring about peace and happiness," and it was one of the principal elements of Yamada's determination that led to the realization, as a practice of the Lotus Sutra, of the 1987 Religious Summit on Mount Hiei to mark the twelve hundredth anniversary of the opening of Mount Hiei by Saicho. A key point that emerged in the general discussion was Yamada's great emphasis on the power of prayer: people's general impressions of Buddhism often reflect the aspects of tranquillity and peaceful sitting but not prayer. Dr. Covell stated that Yamada placed great faith in the power of prayer and in connecting through prayer to bodhisattvas, and to buddhas and deities, and then being able to draw on that to effect change in the world.
Dr. A. Charles Muller (Toyo Gakuen University, Tokyo and Nagareyama, Chiba Prefecture) profiled the life and work of Wonhyo, a Korean Buddhist scholar, in his paper "Wonhyo on the Lotus Sutra." Wonhyo was an independent scholar and a prolific writer who "conducted extensive research on most of the major Mahayana scriptures and treatises of his time, along with their associated doctrines." His distinctive way of approaching analyses of texts was that of reconciliation of disputes, or "harmonization," and his writings were intended to deal with what he perceived to be particularly interesting, problematic, or controversial aspects of a given text. Wonhyo singled out the relationship between the One Vehicle and the Three Vehicle teachings in the Lotus Sutra as his point of departure to discuss the issue of that relationship in various Mahayana traditions - in Wonhyo's way of thinking, since the Buddha spoke of both of them, they both had to be correct. His primary approach to dealing with arguments and differences between doctrinal systems of a scripture was to test their agreement with the basic Buddhist principle of cause and effect. Thus, regarding the Lotus, the "doctrines of attainment of the effects (i.e., realizations) of the three vehicles, and of the one vehicle, must also be shown to be commensurate with basic karmic principles." Responding to Dr. Muller's paper, Dr. Sun Jin Song eloquently brought the essence of the paper into the realm of the theme of the seminar, noting that "one's affection for and loyalty to one's religion must not lead to precluding the need to critically reflect on the doctrines of one's religion," nor must it lead to neglecting "the responsibility to understand other religions as fairly and deeply as possible."
The Lotus and Other Religious Traditions
"Taoist Influence on Buddhist Mummification," by Dr. Haiyan Shen (Shanghai University), discussed the concept of the "flesh-body bodhisattva" in Chinese Buddhism and explored the Lotus Sutra's influence on the tradition within the process of Buddhism's cultural transformation in China. "Flesh-body bodhisattva," a peculiar phenomenon in Chinese Buddhism, refers either to eminent living Buddhist monks who, because of their diligent practice and great religious achievement, are regarded as living, that is, "flesh-body," bodhisattvas, or to accomplished monks, now deceased, whose bodies became mummified "purportedly entirely on their own" as a result of their spiritual practice and whose images became objects of veneration.
Dr. Shen noted that the ancients attached great importance to the flesh-body, in part through funeral rituals, and it was also their task to keep the flesh-body of the dead uncorrupt for the purpose of securing the soul's eternal life - thus the importance of mummification. Suggesting contributing influences to the flesh-body phenomenon from the prevalence of the Lotus Sutra, Dr. Shen noted that a connection between the sutra and incorruption and immortality stems from an incident concerning incorruption of the tongue related to the great translator Kumarajiva in the fourth century CE, who allegedly made a vow that after his death his tongue would survive his cremation as a testimony to his correct translation of Buddhist scriptures; the tongue, indeed, was not burned. A further notion of the incorruption of the tongue found in the sutra is its declaration of the merits of expounding, from which one attains perfection of the eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind, with perfection of the tongue surpassing that of the rest of the organs (from chapter 19, "Blessings of the Dharma Teacher": see The Lotus Sutra, trans. Burton Watson [New York: Columbia University Press, 1993], pp. 259-61; The Lotus Sutra, trans. Gene Reeves [Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2008], pp. 330-32).
In "Liquid Light: The South Asian Ritual Cosmos of (and in) the Lotus Sutra," Dr. Natalie Gummer (Beloit College, Beloit, Wisconsin) offered that the Lotus Sutra effectively adapts ideas, practices, and terminology of "sacrificial cooking" from the Vedic tradition in the way the sutra represents its own powers to transform. Vedic cosmology is founded in the relation between fire and fluid, a relationship that can metaphorically be seen at three levels: a macrocosmic level at which fire (representing the sun) cooks everything in the world; a mesocosmic level at which sacrificial offerings to the gods are cooked by a sacrificial fire; and a microcosmic level of "digestive cooking" through which the nutrients from the sacrifice are processed and distributed. Dr. Gummer asserted that these three levels of the "culinary cosmos" are reflected in the Lotus Sutra: when the Lotus Sutra is preached, for example, it is like a "fiery fluid" that "cooks" the bodies of the hearers, as in the process of Vedic sacrifice. One of many references to such cooking in the Sanskrit version of the sutra is found in chapter 14, "The Emergence of Bodhisattvas from Clefts in the Earth," wherein the Buddha tells his audience that the emergent bodhisattvas "from the beginning were incited, inflamed, completely cooked, completely transformed by me" (see Watson, p. 219; Reeves, p. 286).
Responding to Dr. Gummer's paper, Dr. Matsumoto noted that the verb paripacayati, translated in the paper as "completely cook[ed]," and denoting the Vedic cosmological idea of cooking or kitchen, "is normally translated by Buddhist scholars as 'to ripen completely,' a translation also supported by Kumarajiva's Chinese translation." In the discussion, Dr. Reeves mentioned that he was "a little troubled" by the use of the word cooking: "I think, normally, we only cook things like food, and medicine, and you seem to put together all burning as cooking." Thus began quite a few minutes of lighthearted banter regarding symbols and metaphors across various religious traditions used to indicate development and transformation involving fire, heat, ripening, and cooking, and as this was actually the first paper presented, the table was effectively set for a feast of culinary wordplay throughout the rest of the program.
Sixth-century Chinese Buddhist philosophers and practitioners Huisi and Zhiyi looked extensively at the meditative aspect of the Lotus Sutra, which Dr. Ching-wei Wang (National Yunlin University of Science and Technology, Douliou, Yunlin County, Taiwan) discussed in her paper, "The Meditation Aspect of the Lotus Sutra and the Role of the Lotus Sutra in the Social Purification Movements Initiated by the Dharma Drum Chan School." Dr. Wang offered that the connection between the Lotus Sutra and meditation is also attested by the Dharma Drum Chan School, a connection superficially seen in the organization's having named itself after a passage in the Lotus Sutra and having created, as its symbol, a huge Lotus Bell on which the complete Lotus Sutra is carved.
An example of specific mention in the sutra of the need to do meditation is found in chapter 14: "[a bodhisattva should also] constantly take pleasure in sitting in meditation, being in quiet surroundings and learning to still his mind" (Watson, p. 198; Reeves, p. 262). Seeking to identify what type of meditation is essential, Dr. Wang cited chapter 4, "Belief and Understanding," where the following comment to the Buddha from a disciple is found: "It has been a long time since the World-Honored One first began to expound the Law. During that time we have sat in our seats, our bodies weary and inert, meditating solely on the concepts of emptiness, non-form, and non-action. But as to the pleasures and transcendental powers of the Law of the bodhisattva or the purifying of Buddha lands and the salvation of living beings - these our minds took no joy in" (Watson, p. 81; Reeves, p. 141). According to Dr. Wang, this showed great arhats and bodhisattvas' being differentiated by the types of meditation that they practice: arhats focusing only on the three samadhis of emptiness, nonform, and nonaction; bodhisattvas being involved in a much more active type of meditation - purifying the buddha-lands and saving living beings. An animated discussion arose over whether or not the bodhisattvas' activities in the example passage were meditative practices. It was claimed that their actions were, of course, based on meditation but did not consist of meditation as normally conceived. In counterargument it was noted that Zhiyi talked of Tiantai meditation as "not thinking, not acting," that is, that active meditation consists of whatever one is doing.
What is the Threefold Lotus Sutra's concept of ultimate reality? Are there theistic ideas in the sutra? How does ultimate reality in the sutra work for our salvation? What is the sutra's understanding of the nature of authentic human existence? In "A Theological Interpretation of the Threefold Lotus Sutra," Dr. Sung Jin Song (Methodist Theological University, Seoul) derived a Christian perspective from the Lotus Sutra: "The ultimate reality of the Threefold Lotus Sutra has many characteristics in common with the God of Christian religions," and it "has many elements in common with Christian thought." Central to Dr. Song's interpretation was seeing the meaning of dharma as "being" (derived from phenomena, things, facts, or existences) rather than "Law" or "Body of the Teachings."
Thus, the saddharma of the Lotus is a truly real being - "subtle and mysterious," "hard to comprehend and describe" - comparable to the God of Christianity. Salvation was seen as a realization of authentic human existence, that is, a personal faith relationship with the Wonderful Being: as the Wonderful Being is always the "parent" of all sentient beings, salvation consists of an existential realization that everyone without exception can realize and is thus a universal possibility open to all human beings. The nature of God as understood by the Christian faith also calls for the idea of the universal possibility of salvation. Dr. Song suggested that the Lotus Sutra's own mention of many Lotus Sutras, preached at different times and in different contexts, could be taken to mean that the sutra's essence is that of representing the saddharma, the Wonderful Being, in ways in which we can perceive this being's role in our salvation. When asked in the general discussion if there was a particular purpose to be served by having such a Christian interpretation of this Buddhist text, Dr. Song simply (and perhaps inadvertently motivatingly) replied, "This is basically me having a sincere conversation with the Lotus Sutra. I'm listening to what the Lotus Sutra says to me."
The Lotus's Interfaith Connections
In "Truth and Illusion in the 'Parable of the Phantom City' and its Significance in the Context of Interfaith," Dr. Hans-Rudolf Kantor (Huafan University, Shihding, Taipei County, Taiwan) sought to uncover strategies developed or used by religious traditions to mitigate the tension between truth and falseness and suggested that the Lotus Sutra can be mined for such information because it "expresses an evaluation of falseness and truth," and it has inspired Chinese Buddhist traditions like Tiantai to elucidate the value of falseness with regard to salvation. The teachings of the Lotus Sutra are composed in a way that allows followers to avoid attachment to them, and there are no direct and clear statements that exactly define ultimate truth; thus its teachings, its similes and parables - and even the Buddha - only point to it. Though not the ultimate truth in themselves, these methods are regarded as truly skillful means that allow one to move toward an individual experience of the ultimate meaning, and Dr. Kantor offered that such a differentiation between skillfulness and the ultimate truth, akin to a relationship between falseness and truth, is at the heart of the sutra's intent to lead followers toward salvation.
A clear example of this is shown in chapter 7, "Phantom City," in which a wise leader (the Buddha) creates an illusion for his discouraged followers in midjourney toward a goal so that they might become refreshed and continue to strive until their ultimate goal is reached. Though the followers are told of the illusion used to inspire them, the ultimate goal - the ultimate truth, the Buddha-wisdom to be attained - is still not concretely explained, although an aspect of Buddha-wisdom is shown to be how an enlightened person acts and interacts with the unenlightened. The enlightened being, clearly seeing illusion as such, lives in the same illusory world as other sentient beings but, being constantly aware of it, is not affected by it. Instead, he or she is highly skilled at revealing and making use of the wholesome potential of falseness and illusoriness to respond to and transform sentient beings striving for awakening.
In "The Lotus Sutra's Inclusivism and the Dialogue of Religions," Dr. Hiroshi Kanno (Soka University, Tokyo) discussed how the Lotus Sutra can be understood within the frameworks of three theoretical approaches to interfaith relations and dialogues: pluralism, a view that all major religions are equally valid and lead to salvation; inclusivism, a view that one religion is uniquely true but salvation is accessible to those outside of that faith; and exclusivism, a view that there is only one way to salvation and therefore that one religion is uniquely and supremely true and others are not. While Dr. Kanno showed through various examples that it is possible to see all three approaches at work in the Lotus Sutra, he sees the sutra as being basically inclusive in nature. Its pluralistic aspect can be shown in the idea that the Dharma can be realized by anyone, a perspective that "recognizes the dignity of all people" and is exemplified in the sutra by the practice of the bodhisattva Never Disparaging. On the other hand, descriptions of the woes that will befall those who slander the Lotus Sutra, seen in chapters 3 and 28, could be seen as reflecting a very exclusivist attitude. Seeing the Lotus Sutra from a broad perspective, Dr. Kanno suggests that it can be described as "Buddhist Inclusivism," an attitude particularly seen in chapter 2, wherein anyone who does the most trivial of good actions in the name of Buddhism is said to be destined to become a buddha, that is, to achieve Buddhism's ultimate purpose. Seeing chapter 14, "Easeful Practices," as a source of lessons from the sutra that can be taken to the table of interfaith dialogue, Dr. Kanno offered that, based on the concept of emptiness, we can see our own religion and other religions as changeable and fluid rather than fixed, that it is important to pay proper respect to others, and that religious dialogue is enriched by a commitment to bodhisattva-like compassion and forbearance.
"Let's make others recognize our absolute truth!" (proselytizing dogmatism). "Forget about it! We can't even begin to grasp absolute truth!" (nihilistic skepticism). "But everything is equally valid!" (tolerant relativism). "Why don't we just agree on what we can agree on and leave the other stuff alone!" (agnostic pragmatism). In "Truth's Past Remembered: Interdoxic Regard in the Lotus Sutra," Dr. Brook Ziporyn (Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois) suggested that if one looks at isolated parts of the Lotus Sutra, implications of all of these views can be found. Based on Kumarajiva's translation, however, if one looks at the Lotus Sutra as a whole - within a framework of specified fundamental interpretive principles - one may find a different way to mediate or bring together conflicting implications within interfaith relations.
The basic principles are (1) the Lotus is a Mahayana sutra; (2) the sutra suggests to us that it is perhaps meant to be taken as a whole; (3) the sutra promotes skillful means, and thereby the meaning of something can change in relation to a different set of circumstances; and (4) the sutra uses contexts of space and time within which people, things, and practices can assume different identities within different time frames. Under these guidelines Dr. Ziporyn fashions a kind of "holistic Lotus Sutra microscope" through which one might discern that (a) all sentient beings are potential Buddhists, even certified as buddhas-to-be, since all sentient beings can attain buddhahood who hear the Dharma - the teachings of Buddhism thought to describe the words and deeds of Shakyamuni Buddha; and (b) as all dharmas in the realm of experience are "referents" of the One Vehicle, to experience anything as a sentient being is to have contact with the Dharma; thus, (c) to see someone, that is, any being, who will become a buddha is to see such a person as a source of the very teaching one aspires to; and therefore, with regard to interfaith relations, (d) things that others are seen to do in pursuit of their ideal are things that are contributing to one's own realization, and vice versa; thus, (e) one can fully realize one's own identity by affirming another's identity as an integral moment and part of one's own realization process.
Through his microscope Dr. Ziporyn sees that buddhahood, the ideal of the Lotus Sutra, is the "point of convergence" of the universe of all values, beliefs, and practices, and that apparently conflicting values turn out to be additional attributes of one another - themselves becoming part of something greater - when each value is held fully and completely to its own convictions and explored to the very end.
"The nature of the sutra itself is skillful means," said Dr. Joseph S. O'Leary (Sophia University, Tokyo) in "Skillful Means and Religious Pluralism," an impassioned presentation that could well have been titled "An Ode to Skillful Means." According to Dr. O'Leary, understanding the Lotus Sutra as being a skillful means in itself increases rather than reduces its power, because seeing it as such shows its orientation and its purpose to bring salvation to sentient beings. The primary focus of skillful means in the Lotus Sutra is the topic of the three vehicles, which are seen as provisional expressions of the One Vehicle: "It is by my superior skillfulness that I explain the Law at great length to the world at large. I deliver whosoever are attached to one point or another and show the three vehicles" (chapter 2, verse 21, translation by Hendrik Kern; see also, Watson, p. 26; Reeves, p. 79).
Identification with one religious denomination or another can be a way of remaining attached to "one point or another," but an awareness of religious pluralism can bring release from this, particularly if one considers that "the plurality of religions testifies to a universal revelatory activity at work in all of them." The Buddha puts his perfection in skillful means to use because the Dharma cannot be grasped by human reasoning; one must instead open to it by "accepting the testimony of the numerous skillful means that speak of it."
In the sutra, skill in responding to skillful means is called adhimukti, that is, a disposition to let the sutra, the message, enlighten us: it is a trust that is an opening of the mind; it is a willingness to let the sutra do its work. Dr. O'Leary found this to be a challenge: "To me the big obstacle to having adhimukti is being an academic. An academic is going to treat the text in such a way that it by no means is going to conduce to enlightenment." Dr. O'Leary sees that religious teachings gain function and validity through a relationship of communication, and that they should therefore be listened to as the "Ultimate Truth" attempting to make itself known. Thus, instead of then asking if these messages are true, one should rather seek to determine what they are trying to say.
In "Interfaith Unity and Metaphoric Ontology - Speaking from the Lotus Sutra," Yifa (The University of the West, Rosemead, California) drew upon her personal experience as a Buddhist nun actively engaging in interfaith dialogues to propose a Buddhist approach to interfaith unity. Working from the basic premise that all religions provide slightly different perspectives on the same underlying Truth, she isolated the fact that religions offer differing ontologies - different theories about what is real - as being the root cause of conflicts. Seeking possible points of compatibility with other religions from Buddhism and the Lotus Sutra, Yifa suggested that one such idea is that sentient beings possess the buddha-nature of awakening, which is seen as a universal Truth that holds for all beings; and a fundamental concept of Buddhism is that such Truth cannot be grasped by language or conceptual thinking, which puts it on common ground with Ultimate Truths of all religions.
Another compatible idea is that Buddhism is concerned with the elimination of the problem of suffering, a problem that also transcends barriers of faith or belief. As common ground for dialogue, Yifa offered that all teachings could be seen as paths to the Truth - as metaphoric ontologies - rather than as Truth itself, and that the only way to access Ultimate Reality is through direct personal experience that transcends the rational process of thought. A step to take toward improving interfaith relations would then be for all parties to treat all ontology as metaphoric means designed to guide one to an experience of God or buddha-nature.
To facilitate this it is helpful to distinguish Ultimate or Absolute Truth from conventional truth, which is limited to the world of actual experience that our concepts can concretely explain; differences in conventional truths therefore represent only differing experiences, which are differences that can coexist without conflict. The Absolute Truth that remains is still beyond conceptual grasp; it is pointed to by all the various religions in variously effective ways - or perhaps even in equally effective ways - through the particular experiences described in their conventional truths, and in the end, each can know Ultimate Truth, the Divine, through his or her own unique personal experience of it.
Individual presentations were completed during the morning session on Friday March 20, and the balance of the afternoon featured a tour to Pu'uonua o Hanaunau, a National Historic Park that was once the location of an ancient place of refuge and religious sanctuary where absolution could be gained by breakers of sacred laws (violations of which, intended or not, were capital offenses) who were fortunate enough to evade capture and arrive there safely. Returning to the Retreat Center in the early evening, the scholars were treated to an informative historical and organizational overview of Rissho Kosei-kai and its international activities by Rissho Kosei-kai staff members Michiko Tomizawa and Nick Ozuna. The crowning activity of the day for the seminar group was joining a "modernly traditional" Hawaiian luau - a feast of food and Pacific Island fashion and dance.
Saturday morning was devoted to travel, as everyone moved from Kona to Honolulu, on the island of Oahu. After arrivals, the afternoon was free for shopping and leisure, and the evening featured the last official activity of the seminar program, a shared event with Rissho Kosei-kai members at the Rissho Kosei-kai Dharma Center in Pearl City, during which seminar participants had the opportunity to introduce themselves to the members and briefly describe their presentations. An open discussion period followed, and many members demonstrated a keen interest in enriching their understanding of Buddhism with their concise and penetrating questions. An informal but intimate dinner and reception with the assembled members brought the seminar to a warm and successful conclusion.
While Sunday was departure day for most participants, those who had evening or next-day departure times had an opportunity to attend an optional event in the morning, the fiftieth-anniversary celebration of Rissho Kosei-kai in Hawaii. The event at the Dharma Center was a memorable one - a pageant of local color and culture blended with the formality of organizational rites and rituals of ceremony. It was at once solemn and joyous, emotional and uplifting, and clearly a heartfelt celebration by Rissho Kosei-kai members in Hawaii of their fifty years of perseverance and progress.
A few final words: Many thanks to all of the staff and members of Rissho Kosei-kai in Japan, Kona, and Honolulu, whose tireless background work and logistical support helped make the seminar successful in every regard. And a special "thank you" to Mr. Hiroshi Hirayama, the supreme master of cooking at the Retreat Center in Kona.
Joseph M. Logan is a senior fellow at the Essential Lay Buddhism Study Center in Tokyo. His work as a member of the center's translation team focuses on English wording and cadence with the goal of making recitation in English a more effective practice for internalizing a sutra's teachings.
This article was originally published in the October-December 2009 issue of Dharma World.
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