Getting to Know the Buddha

Review: Donald S. Lopez, Jr., 'The Lotus Sūtra: A Biography'

Bronze Buddha in Kamakura, Japan / New York Public Library
February 12, 2017

Much as I have enjoyed two other titles in the Lives of Great Religious Books Series—John Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion and C.S. Lewis' Mere Christianitythis one was a slog to read. It is not that Professor Donald S. Lopez did a poor job or that I am unsympathetic to the topic—I am a Catholic fascinated by Buddhism, in an unforeseen Thomas Merton sort of way. It's just that the Lotus Sūtra, for this Western reader, is a hard scripture to understand or enjoy. Which is why, despite my fascination with Buddhism, I never finished Burton Watson's translation of it.

My problem, I think, has to do with differences between Christian and Buddhist scriptures. Christian scriptures, for the most part, purport to describe historical events listed in its creeds. Buddhist religious texts are called sūtras, from the word that "literally means 'thread' in Sanskrit." Lopez writes,

By extension it means an aphorism or rule and works in which those aphorisms are collected, often ascribed to a particular founder of a tradition. Thus, in Buddhism, the sūtras are the discourses of the Buddha (often much longer than aphorisms). However, we know that nothing that the Buddha taught was committed to writing until some four centuries after his death, making it difficult to know what constitutes an authentic sūtra.

It's as if all we had were the words of Jesus, but these had been collected and written down four hundred years after his death. It wouldn't really matter then what happened historically; what matters is the teaching.

Then Lopez describes the plot of the Lotus Sūtra, which begins, as sūtras often do, with the Buddha teaching his disciples. Many stories and parables are told, five thousand disciples get up and walk out (something that usually doesn't happen in a sūtra), and very strange things transpire when a ray of cosmic light beams out of the Buddha's forehead. The plot boils down to two principles the authors wanted to teach: that there is only one valid version of Buddhism, the Mahāyāna (Greater Vehicle) version (the other being the Hīnayāna, the Lesser Vehicle, at least according to the Mahāyāna), and that the historical Buddha—the prince who left home after viewing suffering, vowed to figure out what was up with that, and achieved enlightenment—was only a sort of ruse to teach the world the truth of things. "In fact," Lopez recounts, "he [the Buddha] achieved buddhahood incalculable aeons ago, and the life story that is so well known is yet another case of his skillful means; he was enlightened all the time, yet feigned those deeds to inspire the world." In other words, the historical Buddha gives way to the cosmic Buddha.

After this summary of the Lotus Sūtra, Lopez describes its winding travels through Asia and then the West. In the nineteenth century it arrived on the east coast of America in the literary vehicle of Transcendentalism, The Dial, and migrated to the west coast in the twentieth. Another chapter of the book focuses on the Lotus's tangled history in Japan, which rivals the Reformation period for divisiveness; the followers of Nichiren, a thirteenth-century Japanese Buddhist who extolled the Lotus Sūtra above all others, "split into their own sects and subsects and sub-subsects" after his death.

The stories of two figures in the Lotus's history—Nichiren and Eugène Burnouf, the sūtra's nineteenth-century French translator—make for the most fascinating passages in this book. Burnouf admired the historical Buddha while Nichiren lauded the cosmic Buddha.

One mark of a great religious text, the kind of text worthy of a biography in this series, is its capacity to be read in many ways, even in ways that strike us as unseemly. As Shakespeare reminds us, 'The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.' Nichiren and Burnouf read the Lotus Sutra, in very different languages, in very different times, and in very different places, and saw two different Buddhas there, extolling one and rejecting the other. Both of those Buddhas are with us today.

Lopez notes his students like the historical Buddha, not the cosmic one, because he smacks of religion. He ends his work by exhorting readers to go back to the Lotus itself, "to live in the darkness of the fissures that seem to scar it." Perhaps a light will shine in that darkness.

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