What began as a single planned "final" meeting between Japanese Buddhist scholars and
American Christian theologians, whose purpose was to explore aspects of
the Mahayana scripture that is one of the world's great religious classics,
has become an ongoing series of sessions that are increasingly
both intellectually and spiritually rewarding.
The International Conference on the Lotus Sutra has turned out to be a fairly long series of conferences. The papers in this issue of Dharma World are from the fourteenth.
But it did not start out to be a series. Beginning with the World Congress of the International Association for Religious Freedom (IARF) at the headquarters of Rissho Kosei-kai in 1984, I have been active in a variety of Buddhist-Christian activities. Among the most prominent of dialogue groups was the North American Theological Encounter Group, founded by the famous Buddhist thinker Masao Abe, and the equally famous Christian theologian John Cobb. Sometime in 1993 I learned that this "Cobb-Abe Group" had run out of funds and was about to be discontinued.
So I approached Dr. Michio T. Shinozaki with the idea of inviting the group to Japan for its final meeting. Various people were enthusiastic about the idea, and so the "final" session of the Cobb-Abe Group was held in northeastern Japan at a Rissho Kosei-kai facility known as Bandaiso, located on Mount Bandai, overlooking Lake Inawashiro. Initially there was no expectation that this would be more than a single conference. Thus, this final meeting of the Cobb-Abe Group became the first of the international conferences on the Lotus Sutra.
Later, under the leadership of Don Mitchell of Purdue University, the Cobb-Abe Group was able to secure additional funding from the Lilly Endowment and continue for several more years. And international conferences on the Lotus Sutra also continued for several more years at Bandaiso.
That first conference included, in addition to Dr. Shinozaki and myself, some eighteen very prominent Buddhist scholars and Christian theologians, including Masao Abe; Chatsumarn Kabilsingh, who would later become the first fully ordained Thai Buddhist nun; Rita Gross, the leading advocate for Buddhist feminism; David Chappell, the founder of the Society for Buddhist-Christian Studies and first editor of its journal of the same name; Sulak Sivaraksa, then and now the leader of the International Network of Engaged Buddhists; Seiichi Yagi, the most prominent Japanese Christian theologian; Schubert Ogden, along with Cobb the leading Christian process theologian; and John Borelli, then representing the U.S. National Conference of Catholic Bishops.
The conference was very rich, both intellectually and spiritually. And Bandaiso was an extraordinarily rich setting for it. The natural landscape overlooking the lake provided gorgeous views. In autumn the ski slopes became places for contemplative walks. The outdoor hot spring provided a superb place for after-hours conviviality. And the meals prepared by Yoshio Abe not only nourished our bodies but also delighted our sense of taste.
Bandaiso was so pleasant and appropriate for this purpose that we continued to hold the conferences there for seven years, before it was closed. At Bandaiso the trees and lake and general landscape became my good friends, and I learned what it means for nature to have the buddha-nature. After its closing had been announced, but before it actually closed, it was necessary for me to drive up from Tokyo just to bid farewell to Bandaiso, a place that has meant much to me spiritually.
Following the success of the first conference, organized by the leadership of the Cobb-Abe Group itself and hosted by us, we thought of holding a series of such conferences on the Lotus Sutra. Our purposes were basically two: to increase interest in the Lotus Sutra and to increase awareness of Rissho Kosei-kai.
Buddhism was already beginning to flourish in the West, especially in the United States. Buddhist temples of many kinds as well as meditation centers were beginning to spring up all over the country. The number of college and university courses on Buddhism was increasing dramatically along with scholarly interest. And scholarly interest was not limited to Buddhist scholars; many Christian theologians were also showing increasing interest in Buddhist teachings.
I felt, however, that too little of that interest was directed toward the Lotus Sutra and Lotus Sutra traditions. Soka Gakkai was growing rapidly, but in sections of society to which religion scholars paid little attention. Interest in Buddhism among upper-middle-class Americans was usually in Zen Buddhism. And, despite the fact that the most revered Zen leader, Eihei Dogen, loved the Lotus Sutra and was a devotee of it, American Zen Buddhists largely ignored the Lotus Sutra.
Our purpose was not to convert people, especially American and European scholars, to the Lotus Sutra, but rather to have the sutra be a part of their frame of reference when they talked about Buddhism. We wanted those who talked about Buddhism in classrooms and in public places to be aware of the Lotus Sutra and its traditions, including Tiantai/Tendai and Nichiren traditions and modern movements based on the Lotus Sutra.
One of the most impressive of the modern movements based on the Lotus Sutra is Rissho Kosei-kai. It was an overwhelmingly Japanese organization. Even its centers in the United States consisted mainly of people who were originally Japanese. Its way of interacting with people rooted in other religious traditions was through active participation in international, interfaith organizations, especially the IARF and the World Conference of Religions for Peace, of which it was a founder. To this day very little has been written about Rissho Kosei-kai in languages other than Japanese. And with the membership of its few, small centers in the United States being almost wholly Japanese-speaking people, Rissho Kosei-kai was virtually unknown in America, even among Buddhist scholars. We sought to change that, not by converting people to being members of Rissho Kosei-kai, but by having many more become aware of its existence.
This is the reason why we have not attempted to develop or sustain a community of people who participate year after year in these conferences. Except for Dr. Shinozaki and myself, I think no one has participated in more than two of them, and for many years, a prime consideration for being invited was not having participated in previous versions. Eventually, though, the themes we chose made it virtually mandatory that some scholars be invited back.
Over the years participants have come from over a dozen countries in Asia, Europe, and North America. Most have been Buddhist scholars, but not a few have been Christian theologians, some have been art historians, and one was an editor. A few have been priests or monks or nuns, but most have been professional academics. In addition to the scholars, in most years a graduate student from one of various universities has been invited to serve as a reporter, writing especially for Dharma World. In the past couple of years, this responsibility has been accepted by Mr. Joseph Logan of the Essential Lay Buddhism Study Center.
Though all were explicitly related to the Lotus Sutra, the themes of these conferences and seminars have varied enormously, thus attracting a variety of scholars with differing kinds of expertise. The theme for the 1995 gathering was simply "The Lotus Sutra"; the next one, in 1997, was on "The Lotus Sutra as Good News"; and the most recent one, recounted in this issue of Dharma World, was on the question "What is the Lotus Sutra?" But in most years the theme was the Lotus Sutra and something such as "ethics," "social responsibility," "Pure Land Buddhism," "Zen Buddhism," and so forth.
Though called "conferences," these meetings have never been large or open to the public. And so some years ago, we began to use the term "seminar" rather than "conference." The change in terms did not indicate any change in what we were doing, but rather a realization that what we were doing was more properly called "seminars" - a relatively small group of people contributing to each other's understanding of some topic.
One of the things that makes these seminars so successful, I think, is the somewhat unusual format for an academic conference, where people normally read papers to one another that may then be commented on and discussed. In these seminars, there has been no reading of papers. Papers are written, but they are collected, distributed, and read by participants well before the seminar itself. A little time is taken for responses to papers, but the great bulk of our time together is given to discussions, which often become discussions in much more depth than might be the case at an academic conference.
Given that we have focused more on conversation rather than, for example, seeking to produce books on the themes, it is difficult to assess the outcomes of these seminars. We know that people have benefited from one another, have learned from one another, and that interest in the Lotus Sutra among Buddhist scholars has grown enormously during this period.
I will never forget a session of the Parliament of the World's Religions in Cape Town, South Africa, in 1999. A panel of five theologians and Buddhist scholars engaged in Buddhist-Christian dialogue made presentations in which each spoke in part about the Lotus Sutra. I think it is not a mere coincidence that four of the panelists had participated in one of our International Lotus Sutra Seminars.
In 2002 was published A Buddhist Kaleidoscope: Essays on the Lotus Sutra, consisting of thirty essays, almost all of which had been initially presented at one of our seminars. Though it is probably impossible to count them, a great many of the papers initially prepared for a seminar have subsequently found their way into a variety of scholarly journals and books.
Though difficult to quantify, since 1994 interest in the Lotus Sutra has increased enormously, at least among Buddhist scholars. This is evident in the fact that several books on the sutra have recently been published as well as several new translations into Western languages from Chinese, and one from Sanskrit. New editions of older translations have also appeared.
It is very appropriate that these seminars have been sponsored by Rissho Kosei-kai, whose founders had a vision of the organization being a catalyst for worldwide appreciation of the Lotus Sutra. Rissho Kosei-kai has provided not only financial support, but a great deal of staff time and energy as well. Following each of the seminars there has been an opportunity for local Rissho Kosei-kai members to hear from the participants and interact with them. We hope these feedback sessions have given at least a few ordinary members some sense of the excitement generated among scholars by the seminars.
The next seminar will be held in the Tokyo area in the spring of 2011 on the theme of the Lotus Sutra and Confucianism. We trust that it will be as rewarding for participants as previous seminars. The need for such seminars will continue as new generations of Buddhist scholars and others interested in Buddhism enter the field. The Lotus Sutra, I believe, may be the most important religious text in the world. Certainly it is one of the most valued, and deserves ongoing scholarly attention.
Gene Reeves has done research and lectured on the Lotus Sutra worldwide for a quarter century. He is a consultant and teacher at Rissho Kosei-kai and is retired from the University of Tsukuba. Before coming to Japan in 1989, he was head of Meadville Lombard Theological School and a lecturer at the University of Chicago Divinity School. His The Lotus Sutra: A Contemporary Translation of a Buddhist Classic was published in 2008.
This article was originally published in the July - September 2010 issue of Dharma World.
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