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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
Zen in Japan, along with Pure Land Buddhism and Nichiren Buddhism, both of which also have large followings in the West, has its roots in medieval Japan—a period in which the Lotus Sutra was, not incidentally, the preeminent scripture. Those three traditions did indeed all originate in medieval Japan, specifically in the Kamakura period, from 1185 to 1333, a seminal moment in the history of Japanese Buddhism. Their founders—Esai and Dogen for Zen, Honen and Shinran for Pure Land, and Nichiren [Single Practice Masters]—all lived during this time and were all rooted in the same Buddhist culture. More specifically, they all started out as monks in the Tendai tradition centered on Mount Hiei, and this was formative for all of them. Although practitioners in each of these traditions often see themselves as having little in common with those of the others, there are some important similarities.
The most striking similarity is that they all originate as what historians of Japanese Buddhism call single-practice movements. That is, out of the many forms of Buddhist practice, they each embrace one as being universally efficacious. For Nichiren Buddhists, this means chanting the daimoku, the title of the Lotus Sutra, Namu-myoho-renge-kyo. For Zen Buddhists, in particular those of Eihei Dogen's Soto school, it means doing zazen, or seated meditation. For Pure Land Buddhists, it means reciting the nembutsu, the name of Amida Buddha, Namu Amida Butsu. The traditions agree in their exclusive belief in the effectiveness of a single practice; they disagree about what that practice is.
The idea that one particular practice is the only effective practice seems to contradict the Lotus Sutra's emphasis on the multiple means for reaching enlightenment. So how did the logic of pursuing a single practice develop, and why did it catch on? One might well say that inclusiveness is a defining characteristic of Tendai Buddhism and the mainstream Buddhist position at the time was that all Buddhist teachings have their own validity, depending on the capacity of individual practitioners. So the notion of abstracting a single form and giving it unique status and claiming that it was equally appropriate for all people was really a challenge to the dominant religious establishment. I strongly suspect that the logic of single-practice approaches has its roots at least in part in an exclusive reading of the Lotus Sutra's idea of the One Vehicle. For Nichiren and Honen and Shinran, though not for Dogen, single practice is also connected to the idea of mappo.
Honen was the first to clearly articulate a single-practice viewpoint. He was deeply concerned with how ordinary persons of limited capacity could fare in the final dharma age. The Pure Land teachings, which had been around for centuries, held that by chanting the nembutsu, the name of Amida Buddha, one could attain birth after death in his Pure Land, and from there complete enlightenment was assured. It was regarded as one among the many forms of practice. So Tendai Buddhists could chant Amida's name; Vajrayana Buddhists could chant Amida's name; and so forth. In fact, Honen was roundly criticized by others who did Pure Land practice for setting it in a single-practice context.
For Honen, however, chanting the nembutsu was uniquely suited to the degenerate age, since everyone could do it. He said, if birth in the Pure Land depended on accumulating merit by sponsoring temples, then wealthy people could be born there, but poor people could not. But the poor are numerous and the wealthy are few. If reaching the Pure Land depended on mastering Buddhist doctrine, then the educated could be born there, but the uneducated could not. But the uneducated are many and the educated are few. If it depended on keeping the precepts, then the virtuous could be born there, but the nonvirtuous could not, and so forth. Since the scriptures tell us that Amida Buddha vowed to lead to his Pure Land all who put their faith in him, there must be a single practice—namely, the nembutsu—that is available to everyone.
Honen's disciple Shinran built upon the teachings of his master, especially by emphasizing the importance of letting go of one's ego-centered expectations about making spiritual progress through one's own efforts and instead just trusting oneself to Amida's compassionate vow. For Shinran, chanting the nembutsu should be an expression of gratitude, not something done to effect a self-calculated result.
A single-practice approach has not always precluded other practices, but in such cases other acts would be seen only as supplementary to a central practice, whether it be the nembutsu, the daimoku, or zazen. Although the single-practice traditions tend to see themselves as fundamentally different from each other, they all share a common structure.
Although the Lotus Sutra 's idea of the One Vehicle may have influenced the great Kamakura figures Dogen, Shinran, and Honen, it seems that in Nichiren the scripture is elevated in a new way. In terms of doctrine, Nichiren stayed closer to the Tendai tradition than did the other three, and his teaching incorporates many Tendai views about the Lotus Sutra . He saw the Lotus as supreme among Buddhist teachings and regarded all other teachings as provisional. He claimed that the primordial Buddha of the Lotus is the one true Buddha, and all others are merely his provisional manifestations. All this has a foundation in Tendai tradition.
But there are also highly distinctive aspects to Nichiren's teaching. In understanding Nichiren, it is important to appreciate his strong sense of the historical moment, his belief that he was living in the degenerate age of the final dharma. He sought to grasp in Buddhist terms the underlying cause of the numerous natural disasters, political upheavals, and other threats afflicting Japanese society. He concluded that not only were these symptomatic of mappo, but they stemmed more specifically from people's rejection or neglect of the singular preeminence of the Lotus Sutra.
Nichiren believed that in the degenerate age only the Lotus could lead people to enlightenment. In prior times, lesser teachings might have been adequate, but that was no longer the case. Now only the Lotus was powerful enough, true enough, perfect enough to lead everyone to Buddhahood, and it was the responsibility of true teachers of Buddhism to bring out the heavy artillery, so to speak.
Nichiren linked faith in the Lotus Sutra to a distinctive form of practice, specifically, chanting the daimoku. He believed that the daimoku contains the essence and the entirety of the Buddha's enlightenment, and that this would spontaneously be transferred to the practitioner in the act of faithful recitation. Nichiren was not the first to teach the significance of the daimoku, but no one before him had elevated the daimoku to such status or provided the practice of chanting it with a solid doctrinal basis.
Nichiren drew extensively on traditional Tendai formulations to express classical Mahayana views of nonduality, but instead of complex Tendai meditation techniques he taught chanting the daimoku as the way to realize this. One aspect of Nichiren's genius was his ability to take the most subtle and recondite Tendai concepts and meld them into a form of practice that was accessible to anyone.
Nichiren taught faith in the Lotus Sutra and chanting the daimoku as an exclusive practice. But his claims for that practice were all-inclusive. In other words, chanting the daimoku will result in every good thing that religion in medieval Japan was thought to provide: realization of Buddhahood, healing, practical benefits, protection, assurance for the afterlife, and so forth. It is all there in the daimoku.
Now you are getting to something about Nichiren Buddhism that is extremely puzzling to so many. The first time I heard a talk by a Nichiren Buddhist, the speaker focused on two points: first, the daimoku was the only valid form of Buddhist practice; second, chanting was an effective way to get what you wanted, be it a new car, a lot of money, a girlfriend, or whatever. It seemed so, well, crude. Even after many years, and seeing that the matter is far more complex than I first thought, a certain suspicion has lingered. But what you say casts it in a different light. The point is not that chanting is good for getting this or that, but that it leads to the fulfillment of all good ends. That's right. Keep in mind that praying for worldly benefits—healing, prosperity, the protection of the country—has been common throughout the Buddhist tradition, and it has a strong basis in Buddhist scripture. The Lotus Sutra , which is only one example, promises its practitioners ultimate Buddhahood, but also gives assurance that they won't lack necessities such as food and clothing. Historically, most Buddhists have simply regarded worldly benefits as existing on a continuum with spiritual benefits, including the ultimate benefit of Buddhahood. Nichiren Buddhism is no exception in this regard. And because it's a single-practice teaching, all types of benefit are said to be encompassed in the daimoku.
For Nichiren Buddhists, faith in the Lotus Sutra is considered an expression of Buddha-nature, which recalls Dogen's teaching that zazen is an expression of Buddha-nature. They believe that, for ordinary people, faith is the cause that opens the door to wisdom. For many convert Buddhists in the West, the central place of faith in Nichiren Buddhism, as well as in Pure Land, might seem strange and even un-Buddhist. But this has little to do with how the religion has traditionally been practiced and much to do with how Buddhism has been interpreted for the modern West.
How would you say it's been interpreted for us? The scholastic term Buddhist modernism refers to the style of representing Buddhism as rational, empirical, and dismissive of ritual, faith, prayer, and what to the modern mind might be seen as superstition. Buddhist modernism began in the late nineteenth century, as Asian Buddhist leaders and Western converts and sympathizers sought to present Buddhism as the answer to the so-called crisis of faith brought on by the alleged incompatibility of Christianity and the modern rational-scientific worldview. So certain elements were abstracted from the larger religious context and presented as constituting the core or essential teachings of Buddhism, and other elements—elements that always had been a vital part of the tradition—were marginalized.
The point is not that Buddhist modernism is wrong. Actually, I think it is part of Buddhism's continuous interpretive effort to frame itself in accordance with the demands of time and place. So in that sense it mirrors what Dogen, Nichiren, Honen, and Shinran were doing. But it is well to know that, like other reinterpretive movements, it is partial and selective in its reading of tradition. Perhaps this points to one way the Lotus Sutra might be particularly important today. Because of its magnitude—its vision, its influence, its openness to interpretation—a historical understanding of the Lotus Sutra might be especially beneficial in helping contemporary Buddhists see what is truly distinctive in their different schools and also to identify common ground that had previously been unrecognized.