Filed in History

The Final Word: An Interview with Jacqueline Stone

Princeton's Jacqueline Stone explains the unique place of the Lotus Sutra in Buddhist history

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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.

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