This author has found the Lotus Sutra to be a source of transformative goodness in the lives of
and a motivational force to bring healing and unity to the world.
Rudolf Otto (1869 - 1937) was responsible for foundational advances in the phenomenology of religion in the early part of the twentieth century. In his The Idea of the Holy (1917), Otto sought to explore the category of the Holy through what he referred to as the "numinous consciousness." Blending the objective and subjective dimensions of the experience of the numinous, Otto proposed his famous phenomenological description of the "object" of such consciousness as "mysterium tremendum."1 For Otto, the biblical texts are conveyors of this object into the consciousness of the reader. They convey into the horizon of consciousness the mystery, power, and attraction that are fundamental dimensions of the experience of the Holy.
Following Otto's lead, I will use his phenomenological method in answering the question we are being asked to address in our symposium, namely, "What is the Lotus Sutra?" That is, I will try to locate the Lotus Sutra in the horizon of the subjective experience of the reader in order to explore what the text conveys into the consciousness of the Buddhist practitioner. I will also examine the Lotus Sutra as it has entered a collective horizon of consciousness through the Buddhist-Christian dialogue. In this latter regard, I will make comparisons with what is conveyed by biblical texts - the Gospels - in the Christian experience of Focolare practitioners. This comparative phenomenological exploration also follows the lead of Rudolf Otto, whose later comparative philosophy included Eastern religions. In this way, we may more clearly see a universal element in the particular Buddhist experience of the Lotus Sutra, thus expanding the answer to the question we are here to address.
The Lotus Sutra as Textual Object
In the early Buddhist tradition, the word sasana was used to indicate what a sutra is; namely, it is a "message" of the Buddha. A sutra is the carrier or conveyer of a message from the Buddha to his disciples. Different sutras convey different messages. But their common trait is that the messages convey an aspect of the Dharma of the Buddha. More than this, it is said that what is conveyed is also the Buddha: "Who sees the Dhamma sees the Master, and who sees the Master sees the Dhamma" (S.III.120). So, one can conclude that the message of a sutra conveys a teaching of the Buddha, and in that teaching one also comes to know the proclaimer of the message, namely, the Buddha himself.
In Mahayana, sutras can be seen as texts that convey messages concerning aspects of the Dharma, and through these messages, the Mahayana practitioner encounters the Buddha. In the Lotus tradition, the Lotus Sutra is seen as the conveyer of a "final" message revealing the Dharma and the Buddha. This message conveys the Eternal Buddha and the Dharma concerning his activity in the world. In its deepest sense, the Lotus Sutra is seen as the final, complete, ultimate, perfect, and fundamental message conveying the full meaning of the Buddha's appearance in this world. This message/revelation involves the One Buddha Vehicle (ekayana). Or following Chih-i, it is a message that opens up the three vehicles and reveals the One Vehicle.
In the Parable of the Burning House in chapter 3 of the Lotus Sutra, the three vehicles of the sravakas, pretyekabuddhas, and bodhisattvas are seen to convey teachings to suit differences in time, culture, and human capacities. The One Vehicle revealed in the Lotus Sutra conveys the message that in all three vehicles, one finds the compassionate activity of the Eternal Buddha causing all beings to become buddhas. This compassionate activity leading to buddhahood is portrayed in the Parable of the Burning House as the activity of a "father" caring for his children. The message here implies that this compassionate parenting by the Eternal Buddha is causing all beings to progress toward the attainment of buddhahood. When you "open up" the three vehicles of Buddhism, you find one fundamental and compassionate force leading all beings to buddhahood. It is the conveyance of this truth that is at the heart of the final message of the Buddha conveyed in the Lotus Sutra.
A correlate to this fundamental truth is the message that all beings have the potential to become buddhas: all beings have buddha-nature. In terms of the Parable of the Burning House, all beings are the children of the Buddha, all have the same nature as their parent, and so all can grow up to be like that parent. Their true nature is buddha-nature, and so they are members of the family of the Buddha. In chapter 2 of the Lotus Sutra, it states: "Of these who hear the Dharma, not one fails to become a buddha. The original vow of the buddhas is: 'By the Buddha-way which I walk, I desire universally to cause all beings to attain the same way along with me.'" The eternal life of the Eternal Buddha is the constant activity of the bodhisattva way of compassion bringing all beings to a realization of their buddha-nature and buddhahood. Bringing this eternal life, this compassionate action, into the consciousness of the reader of the Lotus Sutra and stirring it into realization is the purpose for its proclamation. The cause of both this revelation to, and realization in, consciousness is the compassionate activity of the Eternal Buddha.
Finally, Michio T. Shinozaki has pointed out that the "underlying logic in the Lotus Sutra is integration or unity."2 Underlying the textual messages and the compassionate activity of the Eternal Buddha behind them is an integrating or unifying reason for the message and its effect on the reader. The vision and transformation conveyed by the Lotus Sutra involves integration on many levels. The first is at the ontological level, where the vision of the Eternal Buddha conveyed by the Lotus Sutra reveals buddha-nature. This means that all beings are united in one family owing to their having buddha-nature, and the realization of this ontological "fact" brings unity to that family of all beings.
The second level of integration is institutional. Here one finds the vision of the integration of all schools of Buddhism wherein each school is seen as a "skillful means" (upaya) providing the environment for the discovery of our common buddha-nature and its realization in lived experience. This vision provides the ideal of unifying Buddhism's institutions or schools. The third level of integration is textual. In light of the Lotus Sutra, one finds an integration of all Buddhist scriptures, in that each scripture plays a role in the propagation of the Dharma according to the historical process of that propagation and the capacities of time and place in that process. This hermeneutic provides a basis for integrating the diversity of Buddhist texts.
What is behind this logic of integration or unity? Dr. Shinozaki suggests that it is the causal power of integration itself found in the One Dharma of the One Vehicle.3 I would add that since it is true that when one finds the Dharma one discovers the Buddha, the actual integrating force of the Dharma that causes unity in diversity is the Eternal Buddha. The diversity of Buddhist scriptures preached by the Buddha is integrated in the One Dharma. The diversity of paths or schools in Buddhism is integrated in the One Vehicle. And the diversity of living beings is integrated through buddha-nature into the One Family of the Eternal Buddha. It seems to me that from the point of view of the Lotus Sutra, the Eternal Buddha brings unity to the diversity of scriptures through the process of propagation, unity to the diversity of paths through skillful means, and unity to the diversity of living beings through the realization of buddha-nature.
So now we come to the question: What is the Lotus Sutra? I would suggest that when looked at as a textual object, the Lotus Sutra is a textual vehicle of the fundamental Dharma conveying the power of the luminous, compassionate, transformative, and unifying force of the Eternal Buddha.
The Lotus Sutra in the Horizon of Subjectivity
In his article on the place of Theravada scriptures in personal experience, Bhikkhu Dhammavihari states that the stories concerning the experiences of the Elders related in the sutras "reflect the natural and spontaneous personalized growth of the scriptural tradition, like an oak out of an acorn."4 Dhammavihari goes on to say that the personal growth produced through the Dharma conveyed in the scriptures frees one from "samsara-binding" entanglements of the mind. As one's awareness deepens concerning the vision conveyed by the scriptures, there is a "restructuring" of the patterns of thinking, with the outcome of "correct views" that generate the nirvanic "change of lineage consciousness." He notes that this restructuring is like an acorn growing into an oak. The Dharma conveyed through the scripture is the cause of spiritual growth in the subjective horizon of consciousness. The receptivity of mind and the monastic environment are the conditions for such growth.
I am reminded here of a passage from Hebrew scripture:
Thus says Yahweh. . . . Yes, as the rain and the snow come down from the heavens and do not return without watering the earth, making it yield and giving growth to provide seed for the sower and bread for the eating, so the word that goes from my mouth will not return to me empty, but will accomplish that which I propose and cause to prosper that for which I sent it. (Isaiah 55:10 - 11)
In the preceding Buddhist and Jewish metaphors, the point is made that there is a power to the words of scripture, namely, the power to produce transformative growth in the persons who hear or read the texts. The scriptures enter the subjective horizon of consciousness with the causal force that effects transformation. In considering phenomenologically what the Lotus Sutra is, we need to turn our attention to what I see as three transformative effects of the Lotus Sutra in the horizon of human consciousness.
The first effect is the awakening of the luminous vision of, and deep reverence for, the buddha-nature. In terms of the objective dimension of the reception of the Lotus Sutra, there is an "opening up" of this vision of, and reverence for, the buddha-nature of all beings in the consciousness of the practitioner. In a sense, it is a conveyance of the cognitive and emotive consciousness of the Buddha into the consciousness of the practitioner that causes, like rain, growth in the practitioner's realization of the buddha-nature. In terms of the subjective dimension of the practitioner's receptivity, the degree to which the consciousness is "opened up" is due to a number of conditions. Here the "Five Categories for Propagation" of Nichiren are helpful.5
Nichiren taught that a person's subjective reception of a "teaching" is conditioned by the "capacity of the hearer," the "time" when the teaching is heard, the "country" or environment in which the teaching is heard, and the "sequence of propagation" that prepares the hearer for the message of the teaching. These conditions of the "soil" of the practitioner's consciousness influence his or her receptivity to the message of the Lotus Sutra. If the soil is good, then the Lotus Sutra can more easily engender a transformative realization of the vision and reverence of the buddha-nature in all beings.
The second effect is the awakening of the Great Compassion through the compassionate force of the Eternal Buddha. The Lotus Sutra opens the horizon of consciousness to the parental power of the Buddha's compassion. The conveyance of the compassion of the Buddha into the consciousness of the practitioner nourishes the seeds of compassion of his or her buddha-nature. In terms of the metaphor of Isaiah, words are like rain that produce growth of the seeds of the Great Compassion in the ground of one's true nature. With this second conveyance, the reverential vision of the buddha-nature in all living beings is enriched with the "treasure" of compassionate, parental-like care. One's heart and mind are moved by the influence of the Eternal Buddha's compassion in the horizon of consciousness that generates compassionate actions that benefit all beings.
The third effect is the awakening to the power of integration or unity of the One Vehicle. In the horizon of subjective experience, this means the opening up of an appreciative awareness that Buddhist scriptures, traditions, and paths are integrated by the power of the Eternal Buddha. Phenomenologically, I would suggest that this appreciative awareness may not be a matter of actually knowing how these different dimensions of Buddhism are in fact integrated. It may be, rather, a subjective certainty that they are integrated by the power of the Eternal Buddha. This appreciative certainty leads one to value each member of the One Family of the Buddha in a manner that also extends to their scriptures and paths. Later, I will suggest that this appreciation of unity extends to other religions as well.
In short, the text of the Lotus Sutra conveys and reveals a dynamic force of the luminosity, compassion, and integration of the One Vehicle into the horizon of human consciousness, bringing about the three effects discussed above. In the words of Dr. Shinozaki, the "radical openness of the One Vehicle," as in the Parable of the Burning House, "emerges unexpectedly," and is an "unexpected gift . . . which is beyond the one they seek and experience."6 Like a buddha-image in a mirror, the Lotus Sutra conveys the One Vehicle into the minds of the practitioners through whom the One Vehicle can realize the luminous and compassionate, transforming and integrating dynamic of the One Family of all beings.
So again we come to the question: What is the Lotus Sutra? Looked at from a phenomenological point of view, I believe one can say the following: The Lotus Sutra is the luminous, reverential, compassionate, transforming, and integrating force of the Eternal Buddha through the Dharma of the One Vehicle revealing and realizing the One Family of all beings.
The Lotus Sutra in the Horizon of Interreligious Dialogue
The "opening up" of the Lotus Sutra within human consciousness reveals the Buddha's vision with reverence, integration, and compassionate care for all beings. This vision, I would suggest, expands the practitioner's understanding and attitude toward other religions. Since the practitioner is enabled at a deeper level than before to appreciate and respect the fact that all beings are the Buddha's children, the practitioner is also enabled at a deeper level to appreciate other religions and the aspects of those religions that contribute to the global integration or unity of all beings. With this appreciative understanding the Lotus Sutra can expand the subjective horizon of the practitioner into a collective horizon of interreligious dialogue leading to active participation in interreligious collaboration for a more united and peaceful world. In this way, the essential unity of all beings can be realized in social, economic, and political forms of interaction between humans and with nature.
In light of the possibility of this collective and collaborative effect of the Lotus Sutra, I would like briefly to present aspects of a spiritual tradition in Christianity that are similar to what we have been exploring in the phenomenology of the experience of the Lotus Sutra. This is the Focolare Movement, based in the Catholic Church but with a membership including persons from other religions, including Buddhism. The Focolare Movement has engaged in dialogue for decades with the Lotus tradition of Rissho Kosei-kai in Japan. My reason for doing this is to provide a concrete interreligious horizon within which one can address the question of what the Lotus Sutra is in the horizon of interreligious dialogue.
We have seen that one effect of the Lotus Sutra in the subjectivity of the Buddhist practitioner is the unexpected opening up of the mind of the practitioner to the Buddha's luminous vision of, and reverence for, the buddha-nature. Chiara Lubich, founder of the Focolare, has said that she did not seek the truth by just reading and reflecting on scripture, but she sought God's vision of the truths conveyed in scripture.7 Through the charism of the Focolare, Lubich discovered a "light" to understand the truths in the scriptures. Lubich said, "And thanks to God, when we study [the Gospels] with the presence of Jesus among us . . . we often find ourselves immersed in a light from above."8
Lubich here refers to "the presence of Jesus among us," the communal presence of God experienced through the charism of the Focolare, as "light" by which she understood what God was conveying to her through scripture. She quotes Hans Urs von Balthasar about this kind of mystical experience and the unexpected nature of its discoveries: "Charisms . . . can receive glimpses into the center of revelation, glimpses that enrich the Church in a very unexpected and yet everlasting way."9 This unexpected and luminous opening up of the mind of Chiara Lubich and the Focolare practitioners is, Lubich says, caused by God's luminosity itself: "This awareness of a light and, at the same time . . . of the Absolute Being, of the most pure Light which knows neither shadow nor error . . . shines forth in the consciousness of human beings invoking them to seek this most pure Light as its final destination."10
It was, and continues to be, this luminous communal presence of God that opens up certain aspects of the biblical texts that have become the cornerstones of the Focolare spirituality. What Lubich saw concerning creation through this light is in some ways similar to the unexpected vision of the original buddha-nature seen from the luminous standpoint of the Eternal Buddha. She says, "Penetrating [beings] to their original depth [with] loving understanding . . . grasps the truth and beauty of creation at its roots, that is in God who contains creation within himself and nurtures it with himself."11
A second effect of the Lotus Sutra is the unexpected opening up of compassion though the compassionate force of the Eternal Buddha. For Lubich, the vision of God reveals God as love, "God-Love," as the essence of the Trinity: "In the light of the Trinity, Being reveals itself, if we can say this, as safekeeping in its most inner recesses the non-being of Self-giving, not the non-being that negates Being, but the non-being that reveals Being as Love: Being which is the three divine Persons."12 When God opens up the mind of the Focolare practitioner, Lubich says that there is a Trinitarian dimension to the love that is conveyed. In creation, this Trinitarian self-emptying/self-giving love is the foundation of, and dynamic pattern between, all beings. All beings are seen as a collective image of the Trinity interrelated in a dynamic pattern of kenotic love and unity. The Trinity seen in this way provides an ideal of love and unity wherein all three persons empty themselves (the positive non-being of kenosis) in loving and reverential affirmation of the other so that each one is "mutually indwelling in an eternal selfgiving."13 For Lubich, this Trinitarian love is not just something to be "seen," but is an ideal to be "lived." In the consciousness of the person, it becomes caritas, the kenotic charity lived in each moment as a realization of God-Love in relationships.
The third effect of the Lotus Sutra is the opening up to a parenting force of integration, to a compassionate unity that extends ultimately to all beings. For Lubich, the vision of God-Love as Trinity opened up her horizon of consciousness so she could see with reverence a "golden thread" of love connecting all beings in a cosmic tapestry of unity. Here we find a parallel, though not without differences, to the opening up of the compassionate and unifying force of the Eternal Buddha through the conveyance of the Lotus Sutra in the mind of the Buddhist practitioner. In the phenomenology of this experience of the Lotus Sutra, I claimed earlier that one can say that the Lotus Sutra is the luminous, reverential, compassionate, transforming, and integrating force of the Eternal Buddha through the Dharma of the One Vehicle revealing and realizing the One Family of all beings. I think it might be fair to say that the unexpected opening up of the collective mystical experience of the Focolare, through the charism of Chiara Lubich, conveys a Gospel-based revelation of the luminous, reverential, loving, transforming, and integrating Trinitarian power of God-Love that reveals and realizes the unity of all creation.
Just as the Lotus Sutra opens up in Buddhists a new and unexpected experience of, attitude toward, and relation to the world, so the Gospels opened up a surprising experience of, attitude toward, and relation to the world in Chiara Lubich and her companions. Concerning this surprise, Maria Voce, president of the Focolare, said the following: "Chiara stated: 'the novelty flashed through my mind,' and again, 'for us it was an absolute novelty' which determined a radical change, a conversion in the first focolarine [Lubich and her female companions], in the way of seeing the world, history and consequently, in their behavior. . . . God-Love opened 'our eyes to see all people as our brothers and sisters' . . . because they are all children of the one Father."14
Here we find a Christian parallel to the surprising discovery of the One Family of the Eternal Buddha conveyed in the Lotus Sutra Parable of the Burning House.
One aspect of the behavioral change due to the experience that Voce speaks about here is the development of a "fraternal communion"15 in interreligious relations contributing to dialogue and collaboration for a more united and peaceful world. I would suggest that a similar behavioral change takes place in Buddhists through the vision of the Lotus Sutra. Therefore the question arises: What happens when these two religious traditions enter the horizon of interreligious dialogue with each other? I suggest that there is a mutual entering into, and contributing to, a horizon of fraternal communion wherein people gather as family with a common understanding and attitude toward each other and the world, moved and guided in that horizon by love and unity, or compassion and integration.
What would be the effects of this kind of dialogical engagement of fraternal communion? Here, I can only suggest some examples based on anecdotal evidence from persons who have engaged in dialogues and other events of the Focolare and Rissho Kosei-kai. At the first such gathering that I attended, in the late 1970s in New York City, I noticed that the participants seemed to know each other personally even though they had just met. Speaking later to Focolare and Rissho Kosei-kai members about this impression, they said that they "felt" a kinship with each other that was like an "instant recognition."
At that same gathering, I also sensed a family-like atmosphere in which people seemed to feel comfortable with each other and enjoyed being together. The occasion was marked by joyfulness and, at times, even exuberance. I must say that I felt surprised by this fellowship across barriers of language and culture. Again, what the Focolare and Rissho Kosei-kai members said about this second impression was that they felt the community to which they belonged was "expanded" to include the other community. The sense of family was not just a personal experience but a collective one as well.
A third impression from that first meeting was that the event was not self-enclosed. Rather, in the presentations, the participants seemed to have a global vision of what their coming together represented. For me, the event broadened and enriched my view of "unity" that I had formed from purely Christian sources. Hearing a similar message based on Buddhist sources and experiencing interreligious unity concretely gave me a new perspective of the interreligious and intercultural collaborative possibilities for building unity within the diversity of the human family today. This new perspective has continued to be an inspiration to me: namely, that it is possible for a fraternal communal horizon of interreligious engagement to contain "seeds" for a common sense of "mission" in the world. Over the years, I have witnessed the fruit of these seeds as Rissho Kosei-kai and Focolare members around the world collaborate in activities that have contributed to a more united and peaceful world. This has been especially true of joint efforts through the World Conference of Religions for Peace. Chiara Lubich herself was an honorary president of Religions for Peace, something that she was very proud of and took very seriously.
Finally, I would just say that through fraternal dialogue, I have found the Lotus Sutra to be a source of transformative goodness in the personal lives of Buddhists and a motivational force to bring healing and unity to the world through dialogue and collaboration. I have also been personally enriched by the Lotus Sutra. Dr. Shinozaki drew my attention to the Bodhisattva Never Despise as a model for behavior presented in the Lotus Sutra. This model has continued to inspire me, especially in difficult relationships. I also expect that Rissho Kosei-kai members have found some aspects of the Focolare spirituality to be enriching as well.
So, again we return one final time to the question: What is the Lotus Sutra? I would venture to say that within the horizon of interreligious dialogue, the Lotus Sutra is an unexpected, inspiring, enriching, unifying, and motivating force that contributes to fraternal interfaith communion and engagement, and is an impulse for practical collaboration for the good of the world, the One Family of all beings.
1. Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1958), pp. 12 - 41.
2. Michio T. Shinozaki, "The Lotus Sutra as the Final Revelation of the Buddha and Its Attitude Toward Other Religions," Pro Dialogo 100, no. 1 (1999): p. 84.
4. Bhikkhu Dhammavihari, "Scriptural Tradition and Personal Experience in the Buddhist Tradition," Pro Dialogo 100, no. 1 (1999): pp. 64 - 65.
5. "The Teaching, Capacity, Time, and Country," in The Major Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, vol. 4 (Tokyo: Nichiren Shoshu International Center, 1986), pp. 7 - 21.
6. Shinozaki, "Lotus Sutra," pp. 99, 102.
7. Chiara Lubich, "Toward a Theology and Philosophy of Unity," in An Introduction to the Abba School (New York: New City Press, 2002), p. 19.
9. Hans Urs von Balthasar, Theology III (Milan: Jaca Books, 1992), p. 22.
10. Lubich, "Toward a Theology," p. 32.
14. Maria Voce, "God-Love in the Thought of Chiara Lubich," talk presented at Rocca di Papa, Italy, September 21, 2009, pp. 3, 7, 8.
15. Pope Benedict XVI, Caritas in Veritate, n. 34.
Donald W. Mitchell is a professor of comparative philosophy of religion at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana. He has served the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops as a consultant for dialogue with Buddhism and is active in the Focolare Movement. One of his most recent books is Buddhism: Introducing the Buddhist Experience.
This article was originally published in the July - September 2010 issue of Dharma World.
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