Look! Up in the sky!" "It's a bird!" "It's a plane!" "It's Superman!" The people in Metropolis didn't have nearly as much trouble identifying Superman as eleven scholars had in trying to nail down a concrete answer to the theme question, "What is the Lotus Sutra?" at the fourteenth International Lotus Sutra Seminar held, for the second consecutive year, in Paradise (i.e., Rissho Kosei-kai, Kona Branch, Hawaii). Gene Reeves, one of the founding fathers of this conference series, even allowed for the ambiguity inherent in the topic by inviting participants to approach the theme from any particular point of view they desired to use. It will surprise no one, however, that sometimes there is no easy answer to what may seem to be a "simple" question.
Arrivals and official welcomes were completed on January 26, 2010, and the business of the seminar consisted of the presentation of papers from the twenty-seventh to the twenty-ninth, along with a panel presentation for members of the Rissho Kosei-kai Buddhist Church of Hawaii in Pearl City near Honolulu on the evening of the thirtieth. Papers presented at these seminars are not read during the meetings - they are prepared in advance, and participants receive copies of all of them prior to the conference. Each presenter gives only a brief summary of his or her work during the sessions. A respondent for each paper is also designated in advance. The purpose of the response is to be a catalyst for discussions - discussions within which all kinds of things might arise and from which come the electricity, the flavor, the substance, or, in a word, the "magic" of these seminars.
As the one charged with chronicling this investigation into the whys and wherefores of the Lotus Sutra, I also viewed the papers beforehand, and in reading them I realized that many of the writers (and I borrow here the confessional words of one scholar) "managed to avoid or skirt the issue" by "taking a page from Lotus Sutra itself and redefining the question. That's what the Lotus Sutra does." Therefore, during the opening orientation session, to redirect them a little bit I suggested (to a collection of teachers, no less) a "homework assignment" - a statement from everyone in the classic format of "twenty-five words or less" (thereafter expanded to twenty-eight words in homage to the sutra), beginning with "The Lotus Sutra is . . ." Although the word limit seemed to be an additional challenge for some of them, I think their responses bring to light the multitude of ways in which the Lotus Sutra can be, and is, perceived. So, then, "What is the Lotus Sutra?"
1. A Dharma of Undefined Content
Seeing various commentators on the Lotus Sutra describing it, for example, as "lacking content," or as "a lengthy preface without a book," Miriam Levering (University of Tennessee, Knoxville; specialist in Zen Buddhism and the history of Chan Buddhism in China) in her paper "Groping Through the Maze of the Lotus Sutra," wrote of her attempt to gain a perspective on the Lotus Sutra by putting aside what she knew about it from commentaries by other scholars and just looking at the sutra to see what was in it. Finding that the content of the sutra is not one particular thing - not one doctrine, but many pieces revolving around, for example, Shakyamuni Buddha; the bodhisattva path; and the ideas that all can be included, none should be despised, and all will reach buddhahood - the sutra for her becomes a whole series of stories, metaphors, scenes, and dramatic actions that are absolutely compelling and fascinating, which, at first sight, don't seem to cohere into any kind of organized structure. She finds the composition of the sutra to be not unlike that of the ever-popular cult movie Casablanca, with its collection of rather different chapters, scenes, and themes, and wonders whether it is that aspect of the Lotus Sutra - its structural similarity to movies like Casablanca that we particularly like to see over and over again - that has made the sutra so tremendously popular over so many different periods in Japan and China and everywhere it's been known.
In her twenty-eight words or less, Dr. Levering described the sutra as "a Dharma of undefined content," and also, equally succinctly, as "a life-affirming text; something that inspires faith." Her paper was an appropriate opening piece, as it provided several avenues for discussion that were frequently traveled throughout the seminar. [Editor's note: The full text of Dr. Levering's paper begins on page 5.]
2. An Encyclopedia
How is a text constituted? How is it formed? How is it received? How is it used in life? In his complex and intricate paper "A Sutra within a Sutra: The Litany of Avalokitesvara in the Lotus and in the Avatamsaka-sutra," Luis Gómez (El Colegio de México, Mexico City; professor emeritus, University of Michigan; specialist in Indian Buddhism) took up the issue of the current use of a text, and, from there, how one can explore its historical use along with the history of its transmission. In exploring an intertextual aspect of the Lotus Sutra, he looked at the appearance of the litany of Avalokitesvara (Japanese: Kanzeon) in chapter 25 of the Lotus with the intention of clarifying its history. Finding a similar situation regarding the same litany's appearance within the corpus of the Avatamsaka-sutra (Japanese: Kegon-kyo), Dr. Gómez concluded that this textualized form of the Avalokitesvara litany originally came from a ritual oral practice that was probably in existence in India even before the Lotus took final shape. Thus, the Avalokitesvara litany can be viewed as an "add-on" to the main body of the Lotus Sutra in a symbiotic way that at once gave prestige to the larger text (the Lotus) while at the same time increasing the prestige of that which was added on. An underlying theme of the paper was to emphasize the importance of practice - the virtue of actual devotion, what one actually does rather than the words one tries to understand - since it should be kept in mind that a "religious" text is something more than just a set of coherent arguments about truth or doctrine.
Coming up with a few more than twenty-eight words, Dr. Gómez described the sutra as "an encyclopedia of Buddhism which contains many different layers of meaning. It is an encyclopedia in the sense that one finds multiple teachings that one can access at any given time and use in one's life." For Dr. Gómez, the most important aspect of the sutra is what one does with it: "When one recites it, for example, it has an effect on you that is different from reading it in order to find a doctrine. What is important is how you make use of what the text inspires in you."
3. A Drama
"The Art of Overcoming: The Lotus Sutra and the Fetishization of Tradition" is a passionate offering by Alan Cole (Lewis and Clark College, Portland, Oregon; specialist in Buddhist narratives) that describes the Lotus Sutra as "art," and that details, in his opinion, the completely artful way in which the Lotus Sutra approaches readers in the telling of its tales. He writes of the "intersubjectivity" of the sutra, such that one can see a framing in which the reader is invited to watch two people talk and share language and come to some conclusions; and in that framing, the message that is exchanged between the two people in the text is also for the reader. Thus the sutra has "figured out" how to include the reader in the narrative and in the discussions so that the reader finds himself or herself, in a way, spoken of. It is crafted in such a way to have readers take a detour from their "traditional" paths and wind up thinking of the detour as the main road; and should one come to the sutra having never practiced, "old tradition" looks like the detour and the Lotus Sutra looks like the direct route, which is only one example of its being "good art" in its structuring of meaning and experience for the reader.
In talking with Dr. Cole about the "homework," his answer was brief and direct: "The Lotus Sutra is a drama!" But he spoke at some length about his appreciation of the "genius" that he thought was in the text with regard to the skill of its authors' language use and explained that he felt that there was an amazing amount of compassion and love in the text "because you don't make art for people you don't care about. One can say that [the Lotus Sutra] is a real stern attack on traditional Buddhism . . . but I would say that this text is maybe coming out of a real hope and commitment that the Buddhist tradition could re-found itself and re-ground itself."
4. Large, Rich, and Undefinable
In his paper "The Poets' Sutra," William LaFleur (University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia; specialist in Buddhist tradition and medieval Japanese literature) wrote that the Lotus Sutra was a major influence on medieval Japanese poets. Inasmuch as much of the substance of the sutra is itself in the form of poetry, Buddhist poets used poetry as their way to best respect it and saw themselves as responders to the Lotus Sutra in contrast to the Buddhist clerics and occasional laypeople, who saw their task as interpreting it. As poets, they were free to find their own meaning in the sutra and reveal it in their verse. He cited the poems of "two major poets who wrote entire sequences on the chapters of the Lotus" - Fujiwara no Shunzei (1114 - 1204), a devout lay Buddhist and the "dean" of court poets of that era, and the monk-poet Saigyo (1118 - 90) - and contrasted their views relating to chapter 5 of the sutra, "Medicinal Herbs." Shunzei's verse "Harusame wa / konomo kanomo no / kusa mo ki mo / wakazu midori ni / somuru narikeri" translates as "Spring's fine rain / both in the distance and right here / both on grasses and trees / is evenly dyeing everything / everywhere in its new green." Saigyo's poem "Hikibiki ni / naeshiro mizu o / wakeyarade / yutaka ni nagasu / sue o tosamu" translates as "Not allotting water / to some seedlings but not / others, I'd spread / it liberally, unstintingly / to every one of them." Dr. LaFleur points out that while both poems touch upon nondiscrimination, a central theme of the Lotus Sutra, Shunzei's verse was seen as traditional in that "new green" referred to the well-known (in elite aristocratic circles) process of dyeing of new kimonos as well as to the greening of the plants (from which the dyes were made). Saigyo's poem, however, was seen as quite a departure from the norm at that time in that he is referring to rice fields and farmers, thus widening the circle of Buddhism's message to include common people outside the aristocracy. In this instance, Saigyo, a cleric, could be viewed as an interpreter of the sutra as well as being a respondent to it.
For Dr. LaFleur, the sutra is too great a thing to be briefly described: "The vast and infinitely rich thing called the Lotus Sutra resists every attempt to confine what it is to a single sentence or single idea. To reduce it would be like trying to boil the ocean down to a handful of salt. I prefer to keep it large, rich, and undefinable."
(All of us who participated - his new friends and his long-time acquaintances alike - were extremely saddened to learn soon after the seminar that Bill LaFleur had died suddenly of a massive heart attack on February 26, 2010. He will be missed by many.)
5. A Way to Find the Ultimate Goal as Buddhists in the Buddha's Absence
The passing away of Shakyamuni Buddha clearly must have had a profound effect on his followers in ancient India, especially with regard to concerns over the transmission of the teachings in his absence. Thus, the first compilation of his teachings at the so-called First Council is thought to have been motivated by such concerns. Moreover, the impact of the Buddha's death would necessarily have continued to be felt with regard to the composition of sutras, including that of the Lotus Sutra, long after his passing. With his paper "The Lotus Sutra as the Teaching in the Age of the Buddha's Absence," Masahiro Shimoda (University of Tokyo; specialist in Indian Buddhist studies) examined several small sutras that focus on the topic of the nirvana of the Buddha in an effort to understand how the compilers of the Lotus Sutra took the Buddha's passing into account in the sutra's composition. These sutras belong to two different lineages of transmission: the sutra-pitaka (collection of doctrinal teachings) and the vinaya-pitaka (collection of rules of monastic discipline). He explains that the editors of the vinaya-pitaka clearly accepted the fact of the Shakyamuni Buddha's passing away and tried to maintain the continuity of Buddhism by showing the continuity of their lineage within the Buddhist community - starting from the Buddha's awakening, through his passing away, to the so-called First Council. The nirvana sutras in the vinaya-pitaka function to link Buddhism when the Buddha is physically present to Buddhism after his physical disappearance. The editors of the sutra-pitaka, on the other hand, developed the topic of nirvana such that all accounts subscribe to one and the same Shakyamuni. In following this format, it became necessary for the compilers-editors to affirm the Buddha's existence after his death. This inevitably led to a number of serious challenges regarding the authenticity of the Buddha, the nature of the Buddha, the relation between the Buddha and his words and teachings, and so forth - challenges that confronted the Mahayanists as well. In this style of narrative it becomes particularly necessary to cross distinctions of time between past, present, and future, which was accomplished by introducing such concepts as memory, observation, and prediction. The compilers of the Lotus Sutra framed the whole of its discourse by making the nirvana of Shakyamuni Buddha into a milestone - it became the pivotal point for redirecting the mode of the teaching. Shakyamuni's passing is, of course, not clearly mentioned, since the existence of Shakyamuni Buddha as mediator of the sutra is consistently affirmed as the primary characteristic. But it is undoubtedly clear from the context that the event of Shakyamuni Buddha's nirvana is taken into consideration in the composition of the sutra. And when looking at the mode of compilation of the nirvana sutras found in the lineage of the vinaya and the sutra traditions, it can be seen that the Lotus Sutra shows a remarkable resemblance with both traditions. Though the sutra makes a clear distinction in content between prenirvana and postnirvana discourse - a characteristic of the vinaya-pitaka lineage - it maintains throughout the consistency of the agent of the sutra's being the person of Shakyamuni, a characteristic appropriate to the lineage of the sutra-pitaka.
Describing his concept of the Lotus Sutra, Dr. Shimoda said: "If you look at the history of Buddhism, almost all Buddhists have lived in the absence of Shakyamuni. So the key teaching in the absence of the Buddha is a crucial question to virtually all Buddhists. In this sense the Lotus Sutra is an ideal that shows the deeper narrative frame - the deeper language - and the story in which we find the way to the ultimate goal as Buddhists in the Buddha's absence. To study the Lotus Sutra is to find the way for us to reach an ideal ultimate goal."
6. A Foundation for Expressions of Practice in Art and Architecture
In her paper "Some Thoughts on Early Practice and Art Forms Related to the Lotus Sutra in China and Japan, 6th to 8th Centuries," Dorothy Wong (University of Virginia, Charlottesville; specialist in Chinese Buddhist art of the medieval period) focuses on certain rituals and associated art forms that relate (although not exclusively) to the Lotus Sutra, such as meditation, recitation of Buddha names, and repentance. She details ways in which Lotus Sutra - related practices link to rituals associated with other texts such as the Golden Light Sutra, the various sutras of Buddha Names, and the Huayan (Japanese: Kegon) Sutra, and to the Guanyin/Kannon cult. Citing an example illustrative of such interrelationships, she describes a Buddhist stele (monument in the form of a stone slab) found in China, dating to 535. The design and imagery of this monument (connected to the Lotus Sutra and the Golden Light Sutra) led her to conclude that it was related to a repentance ritual of a lay devotional society. Dominating the space on the front of the slab is an image of Shakyamuni, flanked by Kannon Bodhisattva and Mañjusri Bodhisattva. Above them is a row of seven images depicting the Seven Buddhas of the Past. On the two sides of the monument are images of Amida Buddha. There are forty-two images in seven rows on the reverse side of the stele. The first two rows contain images related to the Golden Light Sutra (which was recited together with the Lotus Sutra). Shakyamuni Buddha and Abundant Treasures Buddha appear in the center of the third row, flanked by other prominent buddhas and bodhisattvas. The remaining images are of those who are predicted to become buddhas in chapters 6 through 9 of the Lotus Sutra. Dr. Wong concludes that these Lotus and Golden Light Sutra - inspired depictions indicate that the sponsors of this monument were most probably familiar with rites of repentance based on these two texts and that, by the inclusion of the names of those predicted to become buddhas in the Lotus Sutra, the stele also emphasizes the fulfillment of the Buddha's promise of enlightenment for all beings.
I asked Dr. Wong if there was any particular aspect of the Lotus Sutra that was most influential in the realm of Chinese art, and she replied that it was the chapter on the jeweled stupa - two buddhas appearing together, one from the past and one from the present, representing the most fundamental and simple way of explaining how the Buddha remains ever present and engaged in the world. For her, the Lotus Sutra is "a foundation that provides content as well as inspiration for expressions of practice in art and architecture."
7. A Wellspring of Information
"The Lotus Sutra is a text that excites very strong emotions in people, even today," said Paul Groner (University of Virginia, Charlottesville; specialist in Japanese Tendai) when summarizing his presentation, "The Lotus Sutra in East Asia." The paper is actually his proposed introduction to a forthcoming publication of the same name, edited by him, that will be a volume of essays about the Lotus Sutra. The content of the volume will be broad-based, with papers organized into four distinct realms: "The Compilation of the Text," "The Lotus Sutra in Pre-modern China," "The Lotus Sutra in Pre-modern Japan," and "The Lotus Sutra in Modern Asia." The introduction itself also spans a range of topics, as Dr. Groner discusses issues touched on in the collected essays under headings such as "The Lotus Sutra in India," "Why East Asians Viewed the Lotus Sutra as Being Important in India," "The Lotus Sutra and Emptiness," "Doctrinal Issues," "The One Vehicle," "The Eternal Buddha," "The Lotus Sutra and Religious Practices," and "The Lotus Sutra in Modern Religious Movements." In the section on religious practices, Dr. Groner notes that while many religious practices in East Asia are associated with the Lotus Sutra, the text itself lacks specifics. Indeed, many of the practices mentioned in the Lotus Sutra are echoed in many other Mahayana texts. The sutra says of itself that it should be upheld (internalized and spread), read, recited aloud, explained, and copied. And particular stories or passages from some chapters have been taken as guides for some type of religious practice - the actions of the Bodhisattva Never Disparaging, for example. Dr. Groner concludes by offering a few insights into why the Lotus Sutra was so popular and so influential in the realm of Sino-Japanese Buddhism, citing the sutra's flexibility, through which it could be utilized by a variety of traditions; the variety of its practices; and its capacity to be easily applied to daily life.
During his presentation, Dr. Groner said that the sutra "is this in one person's hands, and it is something else in another person's hands." When I asked him what the sutra was in his hands, he offered that the sutra is a wellspring of information with regard to the history of Sino-Japanese Buddhism. "It is a way to get into the minds and behaviors of people who lived a long time ago in Japan and China who I admire. There were people who I thought were marvelous human beings, and if you know the Lotus Sutra you can see how they interpret it and what practices they did, . . . and of course then it sheds a little bit of light back on my own actions."
8. A Teaching that Everyone Can Attain Enlightenment
In "A Huayanist Reading of the Lotus Sutra: The Case of Li Tongxuan," Jin Park (American University, Washington DC; specialist in Zen and Huayan Buddhism) gives a detailed summary of how Li Tongxuan (635 - 730) regarded the Lotus Sutra. Li was a seventh-century Chinese Buddhist scholar in the Huayan Buddhist tradition. A lay practitioner as a youth - an experience that heightened his sense of the importance of practice - Li was extremely knowledgeable about the various Buddhist scriptures and discourses of his time, although his views relative to the Huayan tradition were considered to be outside the mainstream. In the later stages of his life he wrote the Exposition on the Eighty Fascicle Version of the Flower Ornament Scripture (Exposition on the Huayan Sutra). At the beginning of this work he offered a tenfold classification of Buddhist teachings in which the Huayan Sutra (considered to be the "Buddha Vehicle") occupied the tenth, or highest, stage. The Nirvana Sutra (revealing the buddha-nature in sentient beings) occupied the ninth stage; the Great Collection Scripture (Chinese: Daji-jing; Japanese: Dai-ho-do-dai-jikkyo; [the stage to protect the Buddha's teachings]) held the eighth stage; and the Lotus Sutra (offering a way to reach truth through skillful means) occupied the seventh stage. Even though he located it in a lower stage, Li mentions the Lotus Sutra far more times in his exposition than the sutras in the eighth and ninth positions. His point of focus in the Lotus Sutra is the story of the dragon-girl in chapter 12, which he compares to the story of the youth Sudhana in the Huayan Sutra. To Li, both represent the core of their respective teachings. In the Lotus Sutra, the dragon-girl is a nonhuman being, a female, and only eight years old, but she was able to attain enlightenment in an instant. In the Huayan Sutra, Sudhana is a young truth seeker who is determined to practice the bodhisattva path. He seeks guidance from Mañjusri Bodhisattva, who directs him to a monk, who in turn directs him to another teacher. This process continues until he has met fifty-three Dharma teachers, representatives from all walks of life - all of the diverse existences in the phenomenal world - after which he is able to attain enlightenment. For Li, both stories indicate the possibility of attaining enlightenment in one lifetime (even instantaneously, in the case of the dragon-girl). They represent the actualization of the buddha-nature that is present in all sentient beings. Dr. Park proposes that Li Tongxuan's experience as a lay practitioner taught him the importance of having faith - faith in one's buddha-nature. For Li, believing in the fact that one has the buddha-nature and trying to actualize it in everyday life is the way to practice the Lotus Sutra.
The Lotus Sutra, for Dr. Park, is "a teaching about everybody being able to attain enlightenment, so there is no exception whatsoever. I think that is important in Buddhism; it works with Buddhist theory."
9. A Scripture that Invites Readers to the Buddha and the Dharma
With his paper "The Materiality of the Lotus Sutra: Scripture, Relic, and Buried Treasure," D. Max Moerman (Barnard College, Columbia University, New York; specialist in premodern Buddhist culture) addresses the materiality of the Lotus Sutra - the Lotus Sutra as an object - and one way in which Japanese Buddhists in the eleventh and twelfth centuries tried to practice the Lotus Sutra within that framework. At that time many Japanese Buddhists thought that they were living in the beginning of the age when the ability of people to encounter, have access to, and practice the Dharma would become increasingly difficult over a long period of time - until the appearance of the next Buddha. Thus, to preserve and protect the "treasure" that was the Lotus Sutra, they did the practices it encouraged - copying and venerating it; the sutra was copied in various ways with various materials, and the copies were enshrined in a reliquary. Then in a further effort to protect and preserve it for the future, copies were buried in the ground - a practice that is not mentioned in the sutra. Buried along with the copies were vows and prayers for the transfer of any merit gained through the production of the copies to their families, communities, country, and even to all sentient beings. This seemingly unusual practice thus reveals that the meanings of sacred texts are not necessarily limited to their narrative content.
In a precisely crafted twenty-eight-word statement, Dr. Moerman offered that the Lotus Sutra is "a scripture that invites its readers to recognize the Buddha and Dharma through the sutra and to celebrate the Buddha and Dharma by putting the sutra into practice." [Editor's note: The full text of Dr. Moerman's paper begins on page 15.]
10. An Inspiring, Enriching, Unifying, and Motivating Force
Noting that the first rule in interfaith dialogue is that one should "never try to tell another person what he or she believes," in "A Phenomenological Answer to the Question: 'What Is the Lotus Sutra?'" Donald Mitchell (Purdue University, West Lafayette, Indiana; specialist in Buddhist-Christian dialogue) seeks to explore what the Lotus Sutra conveys into the consciousness of the Buddhist practitioner. He acknowledges that trying to specifically define the Lotus Sutra is new ground for him, since in interfaith dialogue one uses one's knowledge of other traditions in order to form questions to people who belong to that tradition, or to more clearly explain one's own position, but not to try to answer questions about that tradition, which is exactly the challenge put to him by the theme "What is the Lotus Sutra?" Using the realm of perceptual experience as the focal point of his approach, Dr. Mitchell answers the question from three perspectives: The Lotus Sutra as a textual object; the Lotus Sutra in the horizon of subjectivity; and, finally, the Lotus Sutra in the horizon of interreligious dialogue. [Editor's note: The full text of Dr. Mitchell's paper begins on page 9.]
11. A Source of Ethical Guidance
Introducing his paper "What Is the Lotus Sutra as a Work of Ethics?" Charles Goodman (Binghamton University, Binghamton, Oregon; specialist in Indian and Tibetan Buddhist philosophy) began by saying that there are, unquestionably, a large number of stories in the Lotus Sutra in which wise and benevolent figures benefit people by misleading them or by outright lying to them. "And that is ethically interesting!" There are, of course, people who would find that highly problematic morally. In that regard, Dr. Goodman's paper aspires to answer a number of questions. The first questions are: Could such paternalistic deception actually be justified? Could the kinds of things that these compassionate figures in the Lotus Sutra "allegedly" do be morally permissible? What would be the context in which these actions could be viewed as morally permissible? The next question is: Who should get to perform this kind of skillful means or to act in such a paternalistically deceptive manner? Dr. Goodman turned to the writings of Immanuel Kant to provide ethical thinking adamantly opposed to benevolent deception. Kant reasoned against lying in two ways. The first idea was the conception of a universal, exceptionless moral principle that holds - in all cases - that one must never lie under any circumstances. But Dr. Goodman notes that Kant's reasoning to get to that idea is not widely supported. His second approach centers on human dignity. Since one has a noumenal self - a self outside of boundaries of space and time - one is at least capable of maintaining "rational autonomy" at all times, thus it must be presumed that one is acting rationally at all times. One must therefore be accorded a kind of "dignity." When you are deceived by someone who is acting for what is believed to be your own benefit, it is a morally impermissible affront to that "dignity" of your rational nature. Dr. Goodman notes that this approach has found more support than the first. However, if one is not always a perfectly rational being - and Dr. Goodman suggests that many Buddhist texts profess that to be the case, and that psychological research has shown predictable tendencies toward irrationality in human behavior - then one can be a candidate for the occasional paternalistic deception. Who, then, is allowed to engage in this kind of benevolent deception? According to Dr. Goodman, certainly not politicians. What about spiritual leaders? It seems evident that in order for Buddhism to "work the way it is supposed to," then spiritual leaders must be permitted to do so. They should be able "to tell this person one thing and tell that person another thing appropriate to their respective conditions, even if the two messages are contradictory." But spiritual leaders are not perfect; there is always a risk of misuse of authority, a risk that Dr. Goodman thinks must be tolerated if the Buddhist tradition is to function in its most appropriate way.
Thus, for Dr. Goodman, "The Lotus Sutra is a pointer to the unavoidable dangerous moral truth that teachers must sometimes tell students what they need to hear and not always the final truth."
12. "We Really Never Did Answer That Question, but We Had a Lot of Fun Discussing It"
So said Gene Reeves in his introduction to the panel presentation held at the Rissho Kosei-kai Buddhist Church of Hawaii on the evening of January 30. There were, indeed, lively discussions throughout the seminar, and several themes - such as narrative concepts, filmic comparisons, and the existence or nonexistence of doctrine in the sutra - were touched on repeatedly throughout the three days of presentations. The following excerpts from the discussions will reveal, I think, something of the dynamic of the seminar program and might inspire some reflection on what the Lotus Sutra may be for you.
Dr. Goodman: A point has been made by a number of readers of the Lotus Sutra that the text is all frame and no painting. Indeed, it is a very ornate frame, with wonderful images on it, but somehow its form is like an elaborately gift-wrapped box with nothing inside. It was said that the sutra's greatly disjointed narrative structure perfectly fits the most "culty" of all cult movies, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which is full of disjointed and disparate elements, both from a plot point of view and from a thematic point of view. It is the very paradigm of a cult movie. Some people have seen it hundreds or thousands of times, and it is used in ways that subvert or transform social practices of watching films. People do things with The Rocky Horror Picture Show that they don't do with any other movie, like opening umbrellas in the theater and throwing rice at the screen. And people do things with the Lotus Sutra that they don't do with any other Mahayana sutra, such as chant the title.
Dr. Moerman: The film door that the paper opens actually has to do with not the discussion of content but the discussion of the form. What was suggested in the new and different way of preaching the Dharma is that we have a different mode of narrative. I think the difference is filmic. I think the narrative that you have - both narrative time and space, the editing, the flashbacks and flash-forwards, the special effects, the different images that it opens up - is much more cinemagraphic than other narrative modes.
Dr. Gómez: Perhaps the payoff of the Lotus Sutra is the narrative itself, as it in some ways reflects our condition as human beings. I think the movie motif works very well, but we should be careful - it works well because that is our culture. So we can look at it and go, "Wow! The Lotus Sutra is really twenty-first century!"
Dr. Groner: One of the things we should be thinking about, too, is that I'm not sure people are looking at this as a narrative. It is a memorized text, and it is recited. And if you think about the repetition of reciting this again and again and again, or copying it again and again, it seems to me that probably what you have is that certain images would come to mind, and the person reciting realizes: "Now I finally understand that passage" or "This applies to a problem I'm having," or something like that. . . . It's like memorizing and reciting it and finally having certain parts appear. So I'm not sure there's a narrative structure in the same sense you have in film as much as it is certain visual images, perhaps that come to mind at certain times, connected to what is happening to me now.
Dr. LaFleur: I wonder, like Paul [Dr. Groner], about the appropriateness of considering it as a narrative, because unlike the way Christian tradition became formed, there is not in the sutra, or any other significant place in Buddhism to my knowledge, a kind of story of the whole thing. There is no beginning and end. It's not that kind of story. And that, in a sense of time, it is very hard to pinpoint where things started or where things will go.
Dr. Park: Narrative does not always have to be interpreted as a compact story line from beginning to end. Narrative can be in a way a kind of doctrine. In the Huayan Sutra there is Sudhana: His is not a story from beginning to end, and it is different from the telling of doctrine - what is going on is that the story is "happening." So, in that sense, it is like there is no distance between a kind of doctrine and what is actually happening to people. Can we see this kind of narrative in the Lotus Sutra?
Dr. Reeves: I think that there are even negative kinds of doctrines in play. Nirvana is an interesting case. Basically, the Lotus Sutra seems to say that nirvana is a teaching for sravakas and that it's a mistake for them to stay there. Though it doesn't mean it should be thrown away, it's just that you shouldn't stay there. I think there are other cases like that in the Lotus Sutra; you have a kind of flexibility. It's the same thing I think with respect to the question of whether awakening can be done quickly or not. Usually it takes a lot of work, it takes a very long time. But you get this naga princess who does it quickly. I think that's saying that there could be exceptions. So I think it's got doctrines. But it has a kind of flexible use of them. So I think that it does intend - that these things serve a certain kind of purpose - to move the reader in a certain kind of way. Even something like universal salvation can be put as a doctrine. But I think the Lotus Sutra really doesn't care about that doctrine. It only cares about it in the sense it wants you to believe that you can become awakened. And universal salvation is a way of persuading you - if everybody can become awakened, then surely you can. You can't get out of this.
Dr. Gómez: There is a sharp distinction between image and narrative. Narrative is whenever you have a sequence of images, and they don't have to be in any kind of logical sequence, or a beginning or end. In a lot of sutras, that is what you have. You have an expectation of coherence in the text, but coherence according to what?
Dr. Moerman: I think one of the things that perhaps makes the Lotus Sutra powerful, even in its incoherence - if we accept that it is not a completely coherent text - is the degree or the role of the reading community; the degree to which the reader or the auditor is implicated within the text itself. That is, you are constantly invited to enter the text and become one of the characters in there. And that is why it is exactly like The Rocky Horror Picture Show, because it is a text that asks you to enact it. In the telling of it, it asks you to enact it. It wants to fold you into the text; midway, even, it keeps asking you to do that. So, of course you are going to open umbrellas and throw rice, because now there is no longer that gap between us and the text. We are allowed into it, and if we are allowed into it, we are allowed into it for particular scenes. You don't have to worry that there isn't coherence. There are different parts of The Rocky Horror Picture Show that you enact because one person wouldn't play all of those roles. But in the ritual moment, in the moment of enactment, it is very powerful. Even if it is just a self-contained chapter or scene.
Dr. LaFleur: Let's go back to the film analogy. In film theory, of course, in early discussions there was a lot of talk about suturing - suturing the viewer into the film. It just happens that that is a cognate to sutra. So, specifically, I'm referring to the way in which the reader is meant to be brought into the text. That seems to me to be a not bad way to think about what the sutra does. It is doing something like the surgeon does, through a very clever way. It would seem to me that, depending on the personality and the desires of the individual readers, that suturing can take place at any juncture. They don't have to follow the entire sequence. As long as the connection happens, the sutra has succeeded.
Dr. Moerman: There is a degree to which the exposition of past and future keeps repeating - a program that is replayed. There are lots of places to enter the text. You have lots of opportunities. I often tell students who have trouble with the repetition that they find in the Lotus Sutra, I ask them to consider it as music, and [to consider] how repetition and patterning and rhythm work in music.
Dr. Groner: The sutra's request that appears translated as read - as in read the sutras - is not like reading it on a Kindle. You have to copy the thing. It is reading it aloud. It is a very different sort of business than the way we normally think of reading. That is important to bring out. When you think of it as music and repetition, then chanting it makes sure that you have that.
Dr. Gómez: In India you don't memorize by reading, you memorize by hearing. Your teacher will tell you the text, and you memorize it as he goes along. It is a memory culture. We don't have a memory culture; ours is very different.
Dr. LaFleur: I think that chanting also facilitates the suturing that I was talking about. Because if you try - have you ever tried to memorize a poem or anything without ever reading it aloud? It's virtually impossible. But once you read it aloud it becomes much more readily something you have memorized, which means it's become part of you.
Dr. Moerman: And then you quite literally have to embody it.
At the concluding panel program, Alan Cole said:
"It was in the evening, and we were on the balcony, and one of the staff, Rie, came to deliver these embroidered necklaces which I hadn't seen before. They were lovely. And I was the first to receive the necklace, so I was surprised at being given a gift, first of all. So, as she put this around my neck and said, 'Aloha.' I was looking down and suddenly I was being hugged, and I was so surprised. At first I didn't know what was happening - and this is a normal welcome hug - and later I thought that it was for me a moment of blindness almost. As we say, I was 'blindsided.' And reflecting on that moment, it occurred to me that I was experiencing someone's generosity and openness, a welcome that was really full and warm. And thinking about my reaction to it - for that split second I didn't know what was happening. So I'm really interested in perhaps thinking about this as proof that maybe I've decided the world is less friendly than it actually is. And in that moment I was reminded that it could be more friendly, and that there was reason for me to take that lesson with me. That, in fact, was a stunning moment in the four days for me."
All of which goes to prove, I think, that "Paradise" can be as much about people as it can be about place. On behalf of all of us, I wish to extend a sincere thank-you to all of the staff and members in Kona and in Honolulu who contributed to making our stay so memorable.
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 July - September 2010 issue of Dharma World.
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