THE LOTUS SUTRA
Translated by Burton Watson
Columbia University Press: New York, 1993. 352 pp., $34.95 (cloth).
AN ANTHOLOGY of sermons, stories, and devotionals of remarkable variety, the Lotus Sutra is the fundamental text of Mahayana Buddhism. In addition to containing the complete teachings of the Buddha, it introduces the ideal of the bodhisattva, the Four Noble Truths (that being in the saha-world is suffering; and that by putting into practice the discipline of the Eightfold Path, one may achieve enlightenment), the Eightfold Path itself (right views, right thinking, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right endeavor, right mindfulness, and right meditation), and the twelve-linked chain of codependent origination.
The original text was composed in an undetermined Indian or Central Asian language later translated into Sanskrit in order to gain "respectability." But the sutra has been revered over the centuries primarily through the translation into Chinese by Kumarajiva in 406 C.E. in the Chinese capital at Ch'ang-an. Burton Watson, like previous translators into English, works from the Kumarajiva Lotus Sutra. He presents verse passages in readable verse and gears his translation to the general reader who may have little or no background in Buddhist studies or Asian literature, achieving a clear, accessible combination of prose and poetry.
Opening with hymns of praise by Maitreya and Manjushri at a vast assembly of bodhisattvas before the Buddha, the introduction reminds us of
who knew that phenomena are marked by tranquility and extinction
each in his respective land
preaching the Law and seeking the Buddha way.
It is very difficult to encounter a Buddha—
you meet one once in a million kalpas.
A certain amount of skepticism is encouraged, as is a certain amount of faith. The fourth chapter, "Belief and Understanding," presents a famous parable about the "poor son" who resists being returned to his enormously wealthy father's estate until he is finally approached by servants in rags who offer him a job shoveling manure. Gradually, the son grows less skeptical until he is eventually acknowledged to be the true son and heir, whereupon he thinks, "I originally had no mind to covet or seek such things. Yet now these stores of treasures have come of their own accord!" This is a marvelous (one is tempted to say devilish) spin on the life of Sakyamuni, the prince who rejected his father's immense wealth. The closing verse for this chapter notes that
With regard to the Law, the Buddhas
are able to exercise complete freedom.
They understand the various desires and joys
of living beings,
as well as their aims and abilities,
and can adjust to what they are capable of,
employing innumerable similes.. .
In another simile, a man must entice his own children from a burning house to save them.
The various paradoxes of the Lotus Sutra have made it a paramount text among Ch'an and Zen sects. Ultimately, the Buddha of the Lotus Sutra taught that although there are many ways through which one may attain enlightenment, each of us already is the Buddha.
It's easy to stand at some remove and look at the handful of great religio-philosophical wisdom books and forget that the dialogues of Socrates and Confucius and Jesus and Mohammed and the Buddha and the scholar-translators of the Talmud were conversations among real human people. One of the functions of the Lotus Sutra is to remind us that we are made of the same stuff as the Buddha, that we are human. There are many parables.
For nearly forty years, Burton Watson has been translating Chinese and Japanese classics (Chuang-Tzu, the Tso Chuan, Meng Ch'iu, Confucian classics, literary masters such as Han Shan, Ryokan, Gensei, Saigyo, Su Tung-p'o, The Columbia Book of Chinese Poetry) and Buddhist texts (such as Daisaku Ikeda's interpretive biography, The Living Buddha, and The Flower of Chinese Buddhism). The list could go on and on. He is the preeminent translator of this kind of material in our time, and he brings to his vast scholarship a style that is flexible enough to capture the essence of his source while retaining a direct, uncluttered, and highly readable English that is dependably accurate. His Lotus Sutra will be the standard translation for a long time. Read it for pleasure and provocation and joy, as well as for wisdom.
Sam Hamill, a Contributing Editor to Tricycle, is a poet, translator, and editor of Copper Canyon Press.