December 16, 2008
Buddhism’s history in America began in 1844, when Unitarian Elizabeth Palmer Peabody translated a section of the Lotus Sutra into English for the Transcendentalist journal The Dial. Since then there have been a number of complete translations of the Lotus Sutra, but translation is always an ongoing process and new versions often help reveal things obscured by earlier ones. Many sutras were translated repeatedly into Chinese, for example, with each version providing something new based on the training and viewpoint of the translator (or translation team, as was common in Chinese history). It’s a great thing to hear, therefore, of a new, complete translation of the Lotus Sutra now available from Wisdom Publications.
This new version is translated by Dr. Gene Reeves, who for many years has worked with the liberal Buddhist movement Rissho Koseikai, which focuses on study of and devotion to the Lotus Sutra. The Lotus Sutra has an unusual history in America—due to historical quirks, it has largely become associated with the minor Nichiren Shoshu sect and its 20th century spin-off Soka Gakkai, groups that have often taken an exclusivistic approach to Lotus Sutra interpretation that is at odds with how most East Asian Buddhists approach it. Indeed, the Lotus Sutra is a pan-sectarian text considered core for the Zen, Tendai, and Nichiren denominations, as well as exercising an important influence on the Shingon, Pure Land, and other groups as well. The Lotus Sutra is certainly the single most important scripture in East Asian Buddhism, rivaled only by the Heart of Perfect Wisdom and Larger Bliss Realm Adornment Sutras.
For readers who are not familiar with the Lotus Sutra, this is an excellent opportunity to acquaint oneself with a bedrock Mahayana text. Dr. Reeves brings a welcome perspective of both scholarship and sympathy to the text, which is extremely multifaceted and requires flexibility to fully represent its fascinating--and at times somewhat frustrating--elements. This new version is also particularly important because it includes the rarely translated Sutra of Innumerable Meanings and the Sutra of Samantabhadra Bodhisattva, which are traditionally considered to be the preface and appendix of the main text and hold an important place in the liturgy and study of the Lotus Sutra. And Dr. Reeves has made a strong effort to make the text truly accessible to anyone, including non-Buddhists and non-specialists.
After you’ve read the Lotus Sutra, with its revisionist revelations, influential parables, and mind-boggling imagery, you may want to pick up a copy of Taigen Dan Leighton’s timely book on how the Lotus Sutra profoundly influenced Dogen, the founder of Japanese Soto Zen. Just released in a new (and much less expensive) paperback format by Oxford University Press, Visions of Awakening Space and Time helps alleviate the unfortunate American Zen tendency toward anti-intellectualism and literal interpretation of the old chestnut about “no reliance on words or letters” (a phrase that itself originates with a scholar-monk). Dogen, Eisai, and the other great masters of Chinese and Japanese Zen were all counted as among the chief intellectuals of their day, deeply steeped in the classical Chinese scriptures, both Buddhist and otherwise. It is sometimes alleged that Dogen’s Shobogenzo is incomprehensible without a foundational knowledge of the Lotus Sutra; certainly much that seems “mysteriously Zen” to Americans actually results from cultural ignorance of the clear literary allusions that Chan and Zen writers make to texts and stories that would’ve been common knowledge to their compatriots. We owe a debt of gratitude to these two scholar-practitioners who are laboring on our behalf to help us shed a bit of our ignorance and learn more about the richness of the Buddhist heritage.