The author compares herself to an unprepared explorer who found that the sutra text lacked
a number of things she expected to find within its pages.
It turns out that no Mahayana Buddhist text other than the Lotus Sutra could display a greater lack of fit with the kind of Buddhism about which for many years I have been gradually acquiring knowledge and understanding, that is, Chinese Chan Buddhism. Everything I have been prepared to find in a Buddhist sutra or wisdom text, and even a number of things I expected to find specifically in the Lotus Sutra, are either not there at all or not unambiguously "there." The "eternal Buddha" appears in the sutra to be a buddha of an inestimably long life, but not exactly an "eternal" buddha; to say he is eternal would contradict the whole structure of Mahayana Buddhist cosmology. "Emptiness," a major Mahayana Buddhist theme, the profound personal recognition of which is the central goal of Chan Buddhism, seems to play a smaller role in the Buddha's teachings in the Lotus Sutra. And other things that do appear to be not only "there" but also important to some sense of what the Lotus Sutra is are truly unexpected from a Chinese Chan perspective. For example, Chan Buddhists discourage their followers from faith in a buddha who is always with us.
What follows then, is a collection of fragmentary notes collected by an unprepared explorer who may still be lost in the maze. The explorer, feverishly befuddled as she is, can only hope others will find them useful for discussion.
1. The first of many guides to the Lotus Sutra whom I consulted as I looked for a path into the unfamiliar wilderness of the sutra, George and Willa Tanabe, suggest in the opening paragraphs of their introduction to The Lotus Sutra in Japanese Culture that in the opening scene of the sutra the Buddha enters a state of deep concentration and emits a glowing light from the tuft of white hair between his brows. By that light he illuminates the thousands of worlds in all directions of the universe. Maitreya asks Manjusri what this means, whereupon Manjusri replies that given his own experience in the past that other buddhas have taught the great Dharma immediately following such a sign, at this moment the Buddha must be ready to preach the Lotus Sutra. In the past a buddha named Sun and Moon Light emitted such a light before a congregation of two million bodhisattvas and taught the Great Vehicle sutra called the Lotus Flower of the Wonderful Dharma. He remained seated for sixty small eons while he taught this Dharma, and so did his audience, which included not only the bodhisattvas, apparently, but also Brahma, devils, mendicants, brahmans, human and heavenly beings, and asuras (Gene Reeves, The Lotus Sutra: A Contemporary Translation of a Buddhist Classic, pp. 64 - 67). No one stirred, so entranced were they at these teachings. The Tanabes write that as the first chapter of the Lotus Sutra comes to an end, the assembly, having heard Manjusri's prediction, waits in expectation to hear the Lotus sermon for the first time. But (in subsequent chapters) the preaching of the expected sermon never takes place. "The text, so full of merit, is about a discourse which is never delivered; it is a lengthy preface without a book" (Tanabe and Tanabe, p. 2). "The Lotus Sutra is thus unique among texts. It is not merely subject to various interpretations, as all texts are, but is open or empty at its very center. It is a surrounding text, pure context, which invites not only interpretation of what is said but filling in of what is not said" (ibid.).
But there is a problem with this. Another guide who provides a map of the Lotus Sutra territory, Ryodo Shioiri, mentions that present-day scholars think that the sutra consists of three sections. The oldest are sections one and two; the first consists of chapters 2 - 9 of the current Kumarajiva translation into Chinese, a body of chapters that many believe form the core of the Lotus Sutra because they display a contextual coherence. Chapters 10 - 21 (except for chapter 18) of the current version of the Kumarajiva translation (but not including chapter 12) form the second section. They are also early but display some distinct differences from the first section. The last section, chapters 23 - 28, deals with specific beliefs in and practices related to specific bodhisattvas. These beliefs and practices were added later to the Lotus Sutra.
What matters for this current discussion is that it is thought that chapter 1, which includes the promise of a long explanatory Lotus sermon from the Buddha, was written to tie all the sections together. Thus the prediction of something that never happens was not an editing error but a trope that served as an editing device, and the text is not a lengthy preface without a book. The ensuing chapters must be the second preaching, or apotheosis, of the Great Vehicle sutra called the Lotus Flower of the Wonderful Dharma. Something else is being conveyed by the striking difference between the forms of the first and second preachings of the Great Vehicle sutra called the Lotus Flower of the Wonderful Dharma. But what?
A hypothesis: The first preaching of the Lotus Dharma is of exceedingly long duration, far longer than any currently extant Mahayana sutra could have taken to expound, yet totally enthralling, marvelous, and revelatory. It causes great astonishment and gratitude in the listeners. The second preaching as it turns out is a somewhat loosely related series of paeans in praise of the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sutra, as well as at least two important announcements by the Buddha. For its "content" it features visually dramatic scenes and stories, rather short explanations, and the important announcements. These too are totally enthralling, marvelous, and revelatory, and cause great astonishment and gratitude in the listeners. Perhaps what is at issue is not an empty center but rather simply a highly exaggerated but familiar trope of Dharma preaching used as a foil - but not a rejected option - against which is set an almost totally new and different way of preaching the Dharma. This way of preaching the Dharma also uses certain familiar tropes and exaggerates them. But it is not limited to the familiar tropes associated for centuries with the preaching of the Dharma.
2. At this point I came upon another guide, Dr. Jacqueline Stone, in conversation with Andrew Cooper of Tricycle: The Buddhist Review. Cooper asked Dr. Stone:
"What is the Lotus Sutra about? In it we read how to hear the sutra, how to preach the sutra, who was gathered to hear it preached, what happened before it was preached, why it is so important, how it was preached in the past, what will happen in the future to those who hear it, and so on. It is like an extravagant preamble to an event that never seems to arrive."
Dr. Stone replied: "Some scholars of the Lotus Sutra have noted just that point, and I think it is a fair reading. If we just read the sutra and set aside later interpretations, one thing we see going on is that the sutra is establishing its own authority. For example, at the beginning the Buddha emerges from meditation and begins to preach spontaneously, and not, as is usually the case, in response to a question. He says that he will soon enter final nirvana, and so he is now going to preach the true and unsurpassed dharma. The text suggests that not only is this the final teaching of Shakyamuni Buddha, or the historical Buddha, it is the final teaching given by all buddhas before they enter nirvana. It is, in other words, the final word on Buddhism.
"The sutra also presents itself as being extraordinarily precious. It is difficult to encounter it; it is difficult to believe it; it is difficult to understand it; it is difficult to preach it. So embracing the Lotus Sutra is something that is even more difficult than the most mind-boggling supernatural feats. . . . We can't know the intentions of the sutra's compilers, but one could read this as saying that the sutra is not about the dharma, it is the dharma - that is, it is the embodiment of ultimate truth" ("The Final Word," Tricycle: The Buddhist Review [Spring 2006], pp. 59 - 60).
Perhaps this is a clue to what the Lotus Sutra is: In its forms, in its words, in its fantastic tropes, in its stories and direct communications; in its depictions of the primordial and universe-wide universal Buddha who is majestic, powerful, and wise beyond all understanding and at the same time always totally accessible to and interested in every individual, teaching and guarding every being whom it touches or who is touched by the sutra's Dharma; and in its strong conviction that all are potential buddhas, it is the Dharma. But at the same time in crucial areas, as for example with respect to the precise meaning of the One Vehicle, its content is left undefined.
3. Still in search of a way into the Lotus Sutra that would lead me to some sense of what it is, I was fortunate to encounter yet another helpful guide: the March/April 2005 issue of Dharma World. As you know, Dharma World is published by Rissho Kosei-kai, so one would expect the Lotus Sutra to be featured rather prominently in its pages. One would expect to find some clue as to what the Lotus Sutra is and how to practice what it teaches so that one can develop one's potential for buddhahood. In this particular issue two clues to what the Lotus Sutra might be stood out for me. First, in the section of the magazine called "Buddhist Living" there was a collection of personal stories called "Small Trips of Self-Discovery." One by Satoe Takahashi (p. 34) struck me particularly. Satoe had a son who suffered from atopic dermatitis such that when his body was warm he itched intolerably. At a Rissho Kosei-kai training session in Ome in western Tokyo the hoza [group counseling] leader urged Satoe, "Serve the Buddha and your ancestors with sincerity and your son will get better." "You mean he will get well just through faith?" Satoe asked incredulously. She continues: "I was reminded of how grateful we should be for the life we have been given. 'Generation after generation of our ancestors have prayed for the happiness of their children. Life has been passed on to us from one generation to the next. Expressing our thanks to our parents and our ancestors is the starting point of our faith.'" Satoe's son that night slept through the night for the first time ever. Satoe ends her essay with these words: "Since that time, my son has become quite healthy. That day in Ome marked my first step in faith."
Does the urging of the hoza leader show us something of what the Lotus Sutra is? I think of Dr. Stone's words quoted above: "The sutra also presents itself as being extraordinarily precious. It is difficult to encounter it; it is difficult to believe it; it is difficult to understand it; it is difficult to preach it. So embracing the Lotus Sutra is something that is even more difficult than the most mind-boggling supernatural feats." Sufficient faith in the Lotus Sutra, its Buddha, one's own potential buddhahood, and the bodhisattva path has to begin somewhere. Perhaps the first step could well be gratitude for the manifestation of the caring of the Lotus Sutra's Buddha that comes to us through the family that gives us life. And the second step is practice - bringing that gratitude to mind over and over again and acting upon it. Reading Satoe's words, I realized that the precincts or boundaries of the Lotus Sutra can include awakenings of faith that are not explicitly described in the sutra but are linked in the life of faith of those who uphold the sutra today.
In the same issue of Dharma World is an essay called "Bodhisattvas of the Earth." It is a commentary by Dr. Gene Reeves on chapter 15 of the Lotus Sutra, in which, as the Buddha announces that in this "world of suffering itself there are as many bodhisattva great-ones as there are sands in sixty thousand Ganges [rivers]," an enormous number of bodhisattvas and their attendants spring up from the earth. Of this story Dr. Reeves writes:
"That the bodhisattvas are from the earth has traditionally been taken to be an affirmation of this world, usually called the 'saha world' in the Lotus Sutra, which means the world in which suffering has to be endured. There is a pattern in the Lotus Sutra in which some great cosmic and supernatural event demonstrates or testifies to the cosmic importance of Shakyamuni Buddha, and, since Shakyamuni is uniquely associated with this world, its reality and importance is also affirmed in this way; and, since what Shakyamuni primarily gives to this world is the Lotus Sutra, it too is seen as very special and important; and, since the Lotus Sutra is not the Lotus Sutra unless it is read and embraced by someone, the importance of the life of the hearer or reader of the sutra is also affirmed; and, since the most appropriate way of life for a follower of the Lotus Sutra is the bodhisattva way, it too is elevated and affirmed. These five - Shakyamuni Buddha, this world, the Lotus Sutra, the hearer or reader of the sutra, and the bodhisattva way - do not have to appear in this particular order. Any one of them leads to an affirmation of the others. But there is a pattern in the Lotus Sutra, wherein there is a radical affirmation of this world, this world of suffering, but an affirmation that is necessarily linked to the importance of Shakyamuni Buddha and the Lotus Sutra on the one hand and to the lives and bodhisattva practices of those who embrace the Lotus Sutra on the other" (pp. 10 - 11).
The rest of what Dr. Reeves writes in the subsequent paragraphs is also well worth quoting, but space does not allow me to do more than refer you to Dr. Reeves's essay. To me, as a relatively inexperienced reader of the Lotus Sutra, as a relatively new explorer of its precincts, Dr. Reeves's statement here captures much of what the Lotus Sutra is. Central to the sutra is the universal and primordial and yet ever accessible Buddha who guides and teaches all. Vital to the sutra is the Buddha who urges the bodhisattva path upon all and promises buddhahood to all who embark on it with sincerity and faith. The sutra presents a profound and inspiring depiction of the bodhisattva path, a path that involves not only preaching the Dharma but also relieving the sufferings of others and acting in this world. All can be Dharma-bhanakas, Dharma-preachers. All can be included. All can transcend their small selves, growing as future buddhas through faith, humility, commitment, and self-reflection. All will reach buddhahood. None should be despised. There can be, indeed will be, unity in diversity in the bond of peace.
As the last section demonstrates, I do believe there is "content" to the Lotus Sutra. The Lotus Sutra may not be a single sermon in which the highest Dharma is expounded in the way in which we expect given the trope invoked in chapter 1. It does, however, have a number of important and inspiring sermons.
But structurally the challenge of making some kind of sense of the Lotus Sutra remains. As a whole the Lotus Sutra seems on an initial reading to have a loose, even disjointed structure. As I was preparing this essay, an article in the New York Times reminded me of a 1984 essay by the Italian philosopher-novelist Umberto Eco called "Casablanca: Cult Movies and Intertextual Collage," and that essay, in turn, reminded me of the Lotus Sutra. In this essay Eco describes the movie Casablanca as follows: "It is a hodgepodge of sensational scenes strung together implausibly, its characters are psychologically incredible, its actors act in a mannered way. Nevertheless . . . it has become a cult movie."
Eco continues: "What are the requirements for transforming a film or a movie into a cult object? . . . A movie . . . must be ramshackle, rickety, unhinged in itself. A perfect movie . . . remains in our mind as a whole, in the form of a central idea or emotion; only an unhinged movie survives as a disconnected series of images, of peaks, of visual icebergs." (Eco believes that a movie or book, in order to become a cult book or movie, must offer these disconnected parts onto which fans can fasten.) "It should not display one central idea, but many. It should not reveal a coherent philosophy of composition. It must live on, and because of, its glorious ricketiness."
While the structure of the Lotus Sutra is hardly rickety, and the first two sections display more coherence and purpose than Umberto Eco felt that the director of the movie Casablanca attained, it does seem to display not one central idea but many. Would Eco not suggest that the structure of the Lotus Sutra and its wild profusion of archetypal tropes might have something to do with the sutra's becoming a cult book?
Just a thought.
Miriam Levering, an international advisor at Rissho Kosei-kai, is professor of Buddhism and of Chinese and Japanese religion at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. She received her PhD from Harvard University in 1978. She has edited a book called Rethinking Scripture, a study of the concept and use of sacred texts in the major religious traditions, and has written many articles on women and gender in Chan and Zen Buddhism.
This article was originally published in the July - September 2010 issue of Dharma World.
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