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Princeton's Jacqueline Stone explains the unique place of the Lotus Sutra in Buddhist history
Jacqueline Stone is professor of Japanese religions at Princeton University, and her main area of expertise is Buddhism of medieval Japan—a period of singular importance for the study of the Lotus Sutra . The Lotus was then firmly established as a preeminent text of the Buddhist culture of the time, and its influence was pervasive. Indeed, that influence has extended down through the centuries to significantly impact the development of Buddhism in the West. The Buddhist culture of medieval Japan gave rise to several of the movements—the Rinzai and Soto schools of Zen, the traditions of Nichiren, the Pure Land schools—that have been most formative in shaping the practice, discourse, and assumptions of Western Buddhists. Professor Stone's book, Original Enlightenment and the Transformation of Medieval Japanese Buddhism, received the 2001 American Academy of Religion Award for Excellence in the category of historical studies. This past September, I interviewed Professor Stone by phone. It was for me a fascinating, edifying, and thoroughly enjoyable conversation, at the end of which much that was familiar about Buddhism had been made strange and much that had been strange made familiar. —Andrew Cooper
What is the Lotus Sutra about? In it we read how to hear the sutra, how to preach the sutra, who was gathered to hear it preached, what happened before it was preached, why it is so important, how it was preached in the past, what will happen in the future to those who hear it, and so on. It is like an extravagant preamble to an event that never seems to arrive. Some scholars of the Lotus Sutra have noted just that point, and I think it is a fair reading. If we just read the sutra, and set aside later interpretations, one thing we see going on is that the sutra is establishing its own authority. For example, at the beginning the Buddha emerges from meditation and begins to preach spontaneously, and not, as is usually the case, in response to a question. He says that he will soon enter final nirvana, and so he is now going to preach the true and unsurpassed dharma. The text suggests that not only is this the final teaching of Shakyamuni Buddha, or the historical Buddha, it is the final teaching given by all buddhas before they enter nirvana. It is, in other words, the final word on Buddhism.
The sutra also presents itself as being extraordinarily precious. It is difficult to encounter it; it is difficult to believe it; it is difficult to understand it; it is difficult to preach it. So embracing the Lotus Sutra is something that is even more difficult than the most mind-boggling supernatural feats. The scripture is equated with the Buddha's body, and so to hold the sutra is to hold the very body of the Buddha. We can't know the intentions of the sutra's compilers, but one could read this as saying that the sutra is not about the dharma, it is the dharma—that is, it is the embodiment of ultimate truth. Certainly this is one way it has been seen historically, at least in East Asia.
One of the central ideas in the sutra is that the Buddha taught the so-called Hinayana, or "lesser vehicle," to some and the Mahayana, the "greater vehicle," to others as "skillful means" adapted to the different capacities of his listeners. In reality, however, the sutra says, there is only one vehicle and this is what the Buddha will now expound. But the content of this One Vehicle is never explicitly disclosed.
In this sense, the sutra has no clear-cut doctrinal formulation. And it is precisely for that reason that the Lotus Sutra has been able to support such a huge range of interpretations. For some later commentators, the sutra is seen as illustrating the relationship between the One Vehicle and the various, sometimes contradictory teachings found in Buddhist tradition. The different teachings each have their own validity as skillful means; they are indispensable in leading toward the Buddha's insight, but they are not the whole of it in and of themselves. Since enlightenment is beyond words and concepts, any doctrinal statement is going to be relative and incomplete, and that is why the One Vehicle is never formulated in words. According to this reading, the sutra is really not about anything. It is a direct presentation of how the Buddha's teachings actually work, an enactment of Buddhism as a pedagogical system. This kind of reading is inclusive, in that any doctrine or practice can be seen as a "skillful means" leading toward enlightenment. Other readings, however, tend to be exclusive, in that they identify the One Vehicle with a specific teaching, which is then held to supersede all others.
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.
One thing I find striking is how deeply—although often invisibly—the Lotus Sutra impacts Buddhist practice in the West. Jan Nattier [A Greater Awakening] points out that many of the characteristics we associate with Mahayana Buddhism—its inclusiveness, its openness, its egalitarianism—derive largely and specifically from the Lotus and its traditions. What are some of the ways in which it has shaped Buddhist tradition? The Lotus Sutra is given explicit preeminence in two specific traditions: that of the T'ien T'ai (Tendai in Japan) school and that of Nichiren. But really the sutra's influence is pervasive in East Asian Buddhism. It has profoundly affected Buddhist thought and practice at all social levels. Its ideas have served as a basis for doctrinal and meditative systems, and its parables and imagery have inspired ritual forms, the arts, and literature right up to the present. So while people sometimes associate it with particular schools, it must also be seen as part of the general Buddhist culture of East Asia.
But the foundational ideas and attitudes found in the Lotus are not necessarily found only in the Lotus. For Buddhists in the West, the Lotus is not the only source for the assumptions you allude to, but it is an important one. To my knowledge, the scripture was not very influential in Indian or Tibetan Buddhism, and yet you might find similar or compatible views expressed in those traditions. However, for virtually any form of Buddhism with roots in East Asia, the Lotus has been extremely influential.
We'll understand the influence of the sutra better if we look more specifically at some of its core ideas. One of these is the notion of universal Buddhahood. The sutra says that Buddhahood is the ultimate destiny of all beings. That is why the Buddha appeared in the world—to enable all beings to become buddhas equal to himself. And the promise of Buddhahood is explicitly extended to include even those who were traditionally thought to have strong karmic obstacles, like evildoers and, so it was said, women.
Closely aligned with universal Buddhahood is the idea of the One Vehicle. The understanding that all the Buddha's teachings, despite apparent differences and contradictions, spring from a single unitary intent has been deeply influential.
Then there is the notion of the primordial Buddha, or as some prefer, the eternal Buddha. The second half of the Lotus presents a radically revised depiction of the Buddha, not as the historical figure who lived and taught in India, but as a Buddha who achieved enlightenment an incalculably long time ago. This Buddha is said to be always present in the world, teaching and guiding. Some Mahayana texts explain the Buddha as "always present" in the sense of being an all-pervasive dharmakaya—the "dharma body," or Buddha as formless truth. But the Lotus in effect transforms the Buddha into a fully realized Mahayana bodhisattva, constantly active in the world for the sake of suffering beings.
The Lotus is also very much connected with the idea of the decline of the dharma, which is, despite its influence in East Asia, unfamiliar to many Western Buddhists. The idea is that, following the final nirvana of Shakyamuni, the historical Buddha, Buddhism would go through several stages of decline, the last one being the degenerate age of the final dharma, or in Japanese, mappo, often said to last ten thousand years. This idea lent strength to the notion that practice should accord with the contingencies of time and place; it also supported new interpretations holding forth the promise that enlightenment was still accessible even in the most decadent of times. Buddhists in medieval Japan generally dated the onset of mappo to their own time.