October 20, 2010

Part 3 of Buddhist History for Buddhist Practitioners: An Interview with Jacqueline Stone

At the Tricycle Community we're beginning part 3 of our "Buddhist History for Buddhist Practitioners" series. This time we'll be discussing an interview with Princeton's Jacqueline Stone about the place of the Lotus Sutra in Buddhist history.

Here's a small sampling of the interview:

To the modern reader, the fantastic events depicted in the sutra are self-evidently mythical. But in reading the traditional commentaries, it seems the sutra was understood as historically and literally true.

In other words, were these events understood as something that really happened, or were they seen as metaphors? You know, in my readings of traditional commentaries I have never seen the matter framed precisely in that way. But you do find that there are styles of interpretation that seem to reflect something similar to both those types of understanding. That is, there are commentators who clearly discriminate between a symbolic reading and a literal one. They differ from modern readers, however, in that both readings are affirmed as true. Indeed, the validity of one perspective reinforces the validity of the other.

For example, the middle section of the sutra depicts two Buddhas, Shakyamuni and Many Jewels, seated side by side inside a jeweled stupa, a shrine or holy monument, suspended in the air above sacred Vulture Peak. Not only that, but the entire assembly is also suspended in midair. When you look at the traditional commentaries, that episode is sometimes treated absolutely as a real event. But along with that, you will also find it interpreted metaphorically, sometimes even in the same commentary. The stupa emerging from beneath the ground and rising up into the air might be said to represent the practitioner breaking through ignorance and dwelling in supreme emptiness. Or the assembly might be described as representing the enlightened cosmos, the reality seen by a buddha. It is sometimes said that the assembly has never dispersed, precisely because it is the enlightened reality of the Buddha, and through faith or meditation, one can be there, be a participant.

Join the discussion here.

Image: Fragment of a Lotus Sutra, Middlebury College Museum of Art

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