The life of the Lotus Sutra, with Donald S. Lopez, Jr. [MIPodcast #60]
BLAIR HODGES: It’s the Maxwell Institute Podcast. I’m Blair Hodges. Today we’re continuing our series on the Lives of Great Religious Books. Princeton University Press recently published the latest volume in that series. It focuses on a Buddhist text called the Lotus Sutra. The Lotus is a book that explains how you can be a Buddha, too. Donald S. Lopez, Jr. is the scholar who joins us from the University of Michigan where he teaches Buddhist and Tibetan studies.
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HODGES: Donald S. Lopez, Jr. joins us today from Ann Arbor, Michigan. Thanks for being here on the Maxwell Institute Podcast, Don.
DONALD S. LOPEZ, JR.: My pleasure.
HODGES: We’re talking today about a biography that you wrote for Princeton’s “Lives of Great Religious Books” series. It’s biography of the Lotus Sutra. I want to begin by talking about how you came to do this book.
Let’s go back in time to 1972. You’re at an apartment, I believe, and there’s a guy who reminds you of Matt Foley, the motivational speaker, from Saturday Night Live, there’s another guy talking to you about an “ounce of hash,” an intriguing scene you set the book up with.
LOPEZ: Yes. I was an undergraduate in the University of Virginia in the early 70s. And one of my friends said that his roommate was going to invite a Buddhist teacher over to the apartment that night and would I like to come over. So I did that. And as I say in the book, I was surprised to find a gentleman who was probably in his 40s, slightly overweight, jacket—I think it was a plaid jacket and a tie, white short-sleeved shirt. And he didn’t have long hair, he was not wearing Buddhist robes, and he was clearly an American, Caucasian. And so this immediately was very much at odds with my stereotypical view of the “Buddhist master” which was quite vague at that time.
And he had a little cabinet, a wooden cabinet, with him that he opened up and there was a small statue of the Buddha inside. And he got down on his knees and joined his hands and started to recite something in a language I did not understand. And it turned out that this was “Namu myōhō renge kyō.” He was chanting the title of the Lotus Sutra.
Afterwards, they were serving the usual tea and cookies and a guy came over in the standard the uniform of the day—a denim work shirt and jeans—who was a friend and I guess perhaps a student of the gentleman, and he was extolling the virtues of chanting Namu myōhō renge kyō. And he said at one point in our conversation, “I’m not sure you’re into this, man, but I was chanting the name as I was walking down the street in Richmond the other day and I looked down and I saw an ounce of hash.”
So that was, uh, very much—Of course I joined immediately—
LOPEZ: So this was my first encounter with a Buddhist teacher. And now, having written this book, I know exactly what he was doing, and I appreciate the history that brought us together in that particular moment. But at that time, I was quite baffled, I have to say.
HODGES: What were you studying at the time?
LOPEZ: Well, I went to college, I think, to be a Shakespeare scholar. This was the early 70s and as those of us who lived through those times so often say that when people talk about the 60s, they’re really talking about the 70s. And it was the time, of course, of the Vietnam war. A great level of student unrest on campuses and a general sense that Western civilization was entirely corrupt, that there was nothing there that was of any value to us.
And so there was a turn toward the mystic East among many students of my generation at that time. We just called it “oriental mysticism,” or “Eastern philosophy,” and the difference between Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, all of these things were unknown to us.
HODGES: I think that’s become kind of the stereotype now when people think—It’s interesting that you mentioned your first encounter wasn’t according to the stereotype you had. And now, I think the scene you described has sort of become a stereotype now that people would recognize.
LOPEZ: Yes, absolutely. So I took a course on Chinese philosophy out of just vulgar curiosity. And there I heard something about Buddhism, ended up taking whatever courses were available at the time—very few—at the university. And then began studying these languages like Tibetan and Sanskrit. And then once you go down that path, there’s really no career open to you other than the academy and hence, I ended up where I am today.
HODGES: At any point, did you become a practicing Buddhist? And was there a point when you —as you were getting into the scholarship—kind of separated yourself from that? What’s your relationship there?
LOPEZ: Well, yes. Certainly at that time, those of us who were studying Tibetan Buddhism were all practicing Buddhists and we really were thinking about ourselves as kind of closet bodhisattvas, that we were actually practicing Buddhists and we would use the academy as the place for us to study the dharma and teach it to others.
And so that was very much I think for—I won’t speak for the entire generation of Buddhalogists, but for many of us, many people who are great scholars today, were monks. But I think most of us came in to the study of Buddhism with what we called at the time a personal interest. And I think in my own case that has continued to the present day. But my relationship to the tradition is quite a bit more complicated probably than it was back then.
HODGES: And is that complication due to your subsequent study?
LOPEZ: Yes, uh-huh.
HODGES: Okay. And we’ll talk a little bit about that a little bit later on as we talk about views about how the text came to be created and its background. But the way it came about for you to write this biography for Princeton series, I think, actually suggests a lot about Buddhist literature, about Buddhist texts, about the Lotus Sutra, and about the current American context for this type of ancient text. You write in the introduction that “Buddhism has a huge canonical literature, but it doesn’t have a single signature text.” Talk about how this book came to be part of the Princeton series and what that suggests about Buddhist texts in general.
LOPEZ: So this series, which is called “Lives of Great Religious Books,” was the brainchild of the religion editor at Princeton, Fred Appel. And his idea was to have short nicely produced reception histories of various texts. Things like the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Book of Mormon, Genesis, the Book of Common Prayer, Job, Bonhoeffer’s Letters, Augustine’s Confessions. And Fred wanted to have a representative Buddhist text among all these other Christian and Jewish works. And so he asked me whether I’d ever do a book on the Tibetan Book of the Dead. His interest in that text was, of course, its great fame in the west.
So I reluctantly agreed to write that book because I was uncomfortable with that representing the entire Buddhist tradition. But it is famous and so I ended up writing that first book for the series. But I told Fred that I would do so if he would agree to allow me to write a second book of my choice. And so then it became my task to choose the second Buddhist work among all of these other Jewish and Christian texts. And I chose the Lotus Sutra.
HODGES: But narrowing it down was kind of an interesting task. You describe a little bit about it in the book itself.
LOPEZ: It was. So Fred, I think quite correctly, wants the work to be something with some name recognition in the population. And in Buddhism, we have three texts that have names in English. the Heart Sutra, the Diamond Sutra, and the Lotus Sutra. I had already written two books about the Heart Sutra despite the fact that it’s only one page long. And the Diamond Sutra is famously difficult. As I say in the book, one of my friends Gregory Schopen said that there is a scene in the text in which the Buddhist disciple Subhuti begins to weep at the Buddha’s words. And Greg has said that scholars weep also when they read the text because they can’t understand what it means.
LOPEZ: So the Lotus I think has more of a story to tell. It’s longer. And so I did choose the Lotus, although it does have questions of authenticity—the same kinds of issues that I had already raised in the Tibetan Book of the Dead volume.
HODGES: This is interesting to think about, because as you say, there’s a huge canonical literature in Buddhism, but in terms of what’s been transferred over into the American consciousness, or translated, there are only a few texts. Based on the huge amount of texts available, why do you think that is?
LOPEZ: Well, I think it’s just the way the tradition developed over such a long period of time, and the various canons came in to existence long after the Buddha’s death. The tradition then spread very quickly across Asia and different countries would kind of identify certain texts as most important to them, which may not be important in other parts of the tradition.
So as I think we’ll talk about later, we have the split among these works that are ascribed to the Buddha although written long after his death, and those that seemed to be somewhat earlier. And we have, geographically, what the 19th century scholars called “Northern Buddhism,” the Buddhism of Tibet, China, Japan, Korea, Mongolia, all accept these later sutras as the word of the Buddha, whereas those in the south—Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma, Cambodia, they reject those.
So there is no single text that everybody would agree upon, and there’s never been a sort of Buddhist Pope who could identify such a text. And so for those reasons, we’re left with these giant canons with different works being important at different historical periods and in different geographical locations.
HODGES: Okay, good. And as we go, we’ll talk about how the texts spread and about the different schools of thought within Buddhism. But let’s start with the name of the book right now. This provides a nice intro into the book: the Lotus Sutra. You write that in looking back at your choice of the text, you chose a text that is “obsessed with authenticity.” And that the book’s name itself is obsessed with authenticity. And I’ll probably need your help here, is it “Suh-darma-poon-dah-reek-ah” [Saddharmapuṇḍarīka]? Is that right?
LOPEZ: Very good!
HODGES: Okay! Yeah. So, “The Discourse on the White Lotus of the True Doctrine.” Go ahead and pull that name apart for us.
LOPEZ: Yes. Let’s start with the last word, sūtra. Sūtra is a Sanskrit word that just means “aphorism.” But in Buddhism, a sutra is regarded as a discourse spoken by the Buddha himself, or rarely, with his sanction. So once you see sūtra in the title of a Buddhist text, it means that it’s attributed to the historical Buddha.
Lotus, as you just noted, is a real abbreviation of the rest of the title. The rest of the title is Saddharmapuṇḍarīka. And it begins with the lotus itself, the lotus is one of the symbols of Buddhism, the flower that grows out of the mud but rises above it and blooms above the surface of the water, it’s untainted by the dirt and the water. And so it’s a symbol of enlightenment coming out of saṃsāra [or, the overall cycle of death and rebirth/reincarnation]. And it’s a white lotus. There are others names for different blue lotuses and sort of the generic lotuses. There are many words for “lotus” in Sanskrit and so “white lotus” has been chosen here.
But I think the most interesting term is Saddharma. So dharma is a word in Sanskrit which is famously untranslatable. It can mean doctrine, it can mean law, it can mean truth, it can mean duty. But in Buddhism, it typically means the doctrines, the teachings of the Buddha. And to that word dharma they have added the prefix “sad,” which means “true.”
Now, Buddhism was of course in competition with Hinduism over much of its history. And Hindus also call their religion dharma. So sometimes we’ll see Buddhists refer to their teaching as the Saddharma, the true dharma, to distinguish it from Hinduism. But in this case, Saddharma is used to distinguish the teachings of the Lotus Sutra from other forms of Buddhism, other Buddhist texts that had existed up to that time.
HODGES: So that signals the text’s obsession with authenticity. It’s this idea of being a pure representation of the truth of the Buddha, kind of thing.
LOPEZ: Yeah, what the Buddha really meant, and as the Buddha says, you’re right, yeah.
HODGES: Right. So in the first few centuries after the Buddha’s passing, various schools of thought developed and two major genres of texts took shape. This helps address the question of authenticity and where this text originated. Let’s talk about those genres to help situate the Lotus Sutra.
LOPEZ: Some scholars of Christianity and of the New Testament write scholarly articles about whether Jesus was born in 3 BCE or 1 BCE. We don’t have any of that specificity when it comes to the Buddha. When I was in school, we were always taught that the Buddha was born in 563 and died in 483. Over the course of my career, that date has changed a lot. So most scholars would today place the Buddha’s birth around 480 of the Common Era, and his death around 400 plus or minus twenty years. So we really are pretty vague when it comes to those dates.
But it seems to be the case—and certainly when we look at other Indian traditions—writing was not really considered a proper way to preserve sacred truths. Speech was the mode of communication. This word “Vach” which is a cognate of our word “voice” in English. The truth was conveyed orally. And so of course, the Buddha never wrote anything. Writing was known after the Buddha’s time, but that was often just for commerce. And so the Hindu Vedas were memorized, the teachings of the Buddha were memorized and chanted by monks. So we probably don’t have anything that the Buddha taught being written down until almost 400 years after his death, which is of course a very long time.
And so as those texts begin to be composed, at the same time we have an explosion of writing in Buddhist India in which groups of monks and nuns began composing texts which they call sūtras and which the texts themselves claim were spoken by the Buddha himself. They began with the standard formula, Evam mayā śrutam, “Thus did I hear,” the Buddha was at such-and-such a place, he was with such-and-such disciples. And so the format is exactly the same.
But we know for all sorts of reasons that these are very late compositions. And so the question becomes “who is going to accept these later works as the true word of the Buddha and who is not?” And the Lotus Sutra is perhaps the most famous of those early Mahayana sutras, and the one that makes the strongest case for its authenticity—sometimes rather defensively—against those who would reject it.
HODGES: So you say there’s some controversy, some different views about whether these texts go all the way back to the Buddha. Would a lot of practicing Buddhists disagree with that scholarly view of when the text was put together?
LOPEZ: Yes, they would. Yes. So certainly, in Tibetan Buddhism, Chinese, Japanese, Korean Buddhism, all of these Mahayana sutras are considered to be the authentic word of the Buddha. And that would also be accepted by many western followers of those traditions.
HODGES: It seems like—I mean, do they think the literal writing down of the text even dates that far back? Or is the argument more about like “Oh, well, the monks memorized it really well. So by the time it was recorded, it was just locked in”?
LOPEZ: Well, they would say that, yeah, it was just written down later. There are some texts that were supposed to have been discovered, that they were kept in a heaven by some gods, or they were kept under the ocean. There are many reasons that are given by the tradition itself for the late appearance of these texts. But they do all claim to be the word of Buddha.
HODGES: As you’re talking about this in a university setting, did you ever encounter students who come from a more traditional Buddhist background, that this kind of discussion is difficult for them to reckon with?
LOPEZ: Not so much. I mean I certainly have many Asian and Asian-American students who have some Buddhist background, but typically they would not know much of the history of the texts themselves. And so that has not come up so much.
HODGES: Ah, okay. So let’s talk about this self-praise that we see in the text. You talk about it in the biography. Like a lot of Mahayana sutras, the Lotus has a high opinion of itself. We repeatedly see self-promotion throughout the book. Since this is common in a lot of sutras, what are some things that made the Lotus stand out compared to all these other texts that do the same thing?
LOPEZ: Well, the Lotus does it quite eloquently and much of the content of the sutra itself is devoted to this self-praise. We can understand this historically because what we have is a very small minority of monks and nuns who are trying to proclaim a new vision of Buddhahood, and of the Buddha, and of the Buddha’s path in general. And so in order for them to make their case, the Buddha himself as they present him must be extolling his own teachings above precisely what he had taught before. And therefore the Buddha gives an elaborate argument in the early chapters explaining that: “I did say all these things about the Four Noble Truths and the nirvāṇa, and all these things that everybody knows about. But now, here, toward the end of my life, I’m going to explain that I didn’t really mean what I meant back then. I talked about that for very expedient reasons. And now I’m revealing the truth.”
And so in order for the text to have some authenticity with its readers or with its listeners, the Buddha himself has to explain—or explain away—the earlier tradition, and hence the self-praise becomes very important.
HODGES: So it shows development in the tradition while trying to avoid sort of cutting the head off of the tradition, but building on or adapting the tradition.
LOPEZ: Well, of course. I mean those previous texts we have, right, a tradition that’s already been going on for 400 years before the texts come into existence. And so they can’t say that the Buddha didn’t teach these things. They have to be accounted for and that’s one of the challenges, that’s one of the dilemmas for the authors.
HODGES: Okay. We’re about to dig in to the specific plot and overview of the book. But one other question before we do that is, why did this particular text rise to the top where it’s at in terms of its fame compared to a lot of these other texts.
LOPEZ: Well, it’s beautifully written. It is a work by authors whose names we do not know, who were very well-versed in the tradition. And so there is a kind of doctrinal and rhetorical power about their arguments.
Whether a text becomes important or not is due to all sorts of factors—of patronage, when it was spread, when it was translated. That’s a long story. But I think one of the reasons the Lotus Sutra has survived this long is, first of all, because it does make such a powerful case for its own efficacy. And secondly, just in terms of work of literature, it has many parables. It has an accessibility that some of the more sort of philosophically arcane texts do not.
HODGES: Okay. Good. So to get into an overview of the book a little bit more specifically here, you’ve hinted at this already, but you said that the Lotus Sutra contains two really big revelations or changes within the Buddhist tradition. So describe how the book is shaped, the genre, the parables. What does it look like compared to something like the Bible for example?
LOPEZ: Well, it begins with the Buddha seated on Vulture Peak which is a place in India, a historical place where we know that he—where many other sutras are set. And without him saying a word, which he would typically do at the very beginning, he emits a ray of light from between his eyebrows and illuminates a large portion of the universe. And there are some bodhisattvas in the audience who are puzzled by this. And one of the bodhisattvas says, “You know, I’ve seen this once before many, many eons ago. A different Buddha illuminated this portion of the universe and after that he taught the Lotus Sutra. So I think he’s about to keep the Lotus Sutra.”
And so this is a very clever device by the authors to show that what the Buddha is about to teach now, toward the end of his life, is something that previous Buddhas have taught eons ago. So it’s not new. It’s very old. And it’s so old that only this one bodhisattva remembers that.
So then the Buddha begins speaking and he says, “I’m going to talk about the nature of Buddhahood, but it’s so hard to understand I’m just probably not going to explain it to you,” he says to a monk. And the monks of course ask him to please explain it. And the Buddha then introduces probably the most famous term in the sutra, upāya, a term that’s translated as “method” or “expedient means.” And what the Buddha says is that, “Everything I’ve taught up to this point in my teaching career has been expedient. And there is a teaching beyond that, which I will reveal.” And so it’s at that point that he relates one of the most famous parables which I’m also happy to do.
HODGES: Yeah, let’s do that—
LOPEZ: Okay, yeah.
HODGES: —to give people an idea what these parables look like.
LOPEZ: So this is by far the most famous parable. It’s called the Parable of the Burning House. And so in the parable, a father who seems to be a widower has a large mansion in which his children are playing. And despite the fact that he’s a very rich man, this house is described as falling apart, and the children are inside playing their various games when a fire breaks out. And there’s only one doorway into the house, the father has so many children that he knows he cannot go in and save them one by one, so he has to call out to them and tell them there’s a fire. And despite the fact that he’s screaming “fire!” they don’t pay any attention.
So being a skillful parent, he tells his children that waiting for them outside are three carts—A cart drawn by a goat, a cart drawn by a deer, and a cart drawn by an ox. And when the children hear that there are these three carts, they are delighted at that and they all ran out of the house. They’re all saved. And when they get outside there’s just one cart. And it’s a fabulous cart with all sorts of bells and beautiful cushions and silks. And it’s pulled by one beautiful white ox. And so the children are all happy and that’s the end of the parable.
And the Buddha then says to his interlocutor, a famous monk, “Did the father lie? Was that a lie to say there were three carts when indeed there was only one?” And the monk says that no, it was not a lie. He wanted to save his children and it was fine for him to say that because he got them out and he saved their lives. And the Buddha says, “Well, this is like my teaching. I am the father. All sentient beings in the universe are my children. And this cycle of birth and death, this saṃsāra, this is the burning house. And so in order to free my children, to save them from this conflagration, I tell them that there are three different paths to enlightenment available to them. One is the path of what’s called “the disciple.” One is called the pratyekabuddha, this is kind of the solitary buddha. It’s a strange category in the tradition. And the third path is the path of the bodhisattva. And those indeed are the three paths that existed in the tradition up to that point.
HODGES: Before we encapsulate them within the one path the Lotus teaches, expand on those just a little bit. Does the path involve like the practice that they do in order to achieve enlightenment?
LOPEZ: Yeah. So the first one, the śrāvaka, which is a disciple, this would just be what we would consider a standard Buddhist monk in the ancient tradition who heard the Buddha’s teachings and then practiced the path and achieved nirvāṇa. And so what nirvāṇa means is going to be a big question in the second part of the Lotus Sutra. So we’ll put that on hold for a moment. But nirvāṇa in the early tradition meant the extinction of rebirth. That is, you die and you’re not reborn. And there’s no consciousness, there’s no physical form. It’s just a form of extinction of suffering.
HODGES: Yeah, and that’s preferred because you don’t have to go through suffering, right?
LOPEZ: Exactly. Yup. And the second path, the pratyekabuddha, is a variation on the first one. It has some differences we don’t need to go into. But anyway, those first two paths are individuals who are seeking nirvāṇa for themselves.
The third person, the bodhisattva, this is the rare individual who makes a vow to free all beings from rebirth, and that person follows the much longer path to Buddhahood out of compassion for the world. And in the early tradition, this bodhisattva is a very rare figure. We only need one Buddha per historical era. So our Buddha was a bodhisattva, now he’s the Buddha. There will be a Buddha in the future. And so these people who are taking this vow to achieve Buddhahood will do so in the far distant future. And they’re the rare individual. The first two are much more common. So those are the three.
HODGES: And those developed early on in the tradition—
HODGES: —then by the time the Lotus Sutra has developed, what this book is going to do is say, “okay, yeah, I said that there were these three paths but it’s really just this one.”
LOPEZ: Exactly. So those three were well known at the time of the Lotus and just accepted as doctrine, as orthodoxy.
HODGES: And what does the Lotus give for that one path now?
LOPEZ: What the Buddha says is that “I didn’t really mean that when I said there were three vehicles. There is only one.” And he calls it by two names. One is the Ekayāna, which just means “the single vehicle,” and the second one is the Buddhayana, the Buddha vehicle. And what he means by that is that there is only one path out of saṃsāra, and that is to become a Buddha oneself. And this is revolutionary.
HODGES: I am wondering why. With my limited background—I don’t know much about Buddhism, so when an audience would hear this or read this in the text, what would that say to them?
LOPEZ: Well it’s interesting that you respond that way because I think the Lotus Sutra is so famous that what I just described sounds like, “oh, that’s just Buddhism, everybody’s got to become a Buddha,” but at the time of its composition this was a very radical thing to say, because it was saying that the Buddha himself says in the sutra that “I keep Buddhahood myself. What kind of a teacher would I be if I taught a lesser attainment to these disciples that I love so much?”
And so he teaches that highest goal to everyone and it had not been taught that way in the past, so basically he’s saying that everybody will become a Buddha. And in another parable he suggests that there’s no such thing as nirvāṇa, that even the idea of nirvāṇa was an “expedient device,” and so these at the time were very radical statements.
HODGES: I mean do you think, in context, it would be similar to a Christian figure appearing later and saying, “I’m Jesus and you know, I talked about you going to heaven or what not, but really you are going to become a Jesus” kind of a thing? Would it be sort of like that—
LOPEZ: Exactly, yeah.
HODGES: —I mean, just a shock.
LOPEZ: It would be like that.
HODGES: Yeah, and so in your biography of the Lotus Sutra you talk about how the text has to engage in what you call “strategies of legitimization.” In other words, because the claim is so big and so revolutionary it’s got to legitimize itself. Talk about those strategies a little bit.
LOPEZ: So there are a number of strategies that the text uses, one of which is to use well-known figures from the earlier tradition and make them characters in the Lotus Sutra. The most famous of these is a monk named Śāriputra, and he is renowned in Buddhism as the wisest of the Buddhist disciples. He is a monk, so he should know everything, and yet he doesn’t know about this single vehicle and he is baffled by the Buddha’s statement. And it’s the Buddha who asks him, “was I telling a lie when I said there were three vehicles?” And he says no.
And so the heroes of the early tradition—the tradition that believed in three vehicles, the tradition that believed in nirvāṇa—they are drafted into the Lotus Sutra in a certain sense. They are made advocates of the Lotus Sutra and they all begin to clamor for prophecies that they themselves will become Buddhas. And so, one of the fascinating things about the text is that the characters in the sutra—despite its relatively late date—are all very well-known. They are taking the heroes, the saints of the tradition, and having them assent to what the Buddha says. And so Śāriputra and Ānanda, and the Buddha’s stepmother all are asking for prophecies and all wanting to become bodhisattvas, and that suggests that this late teaching—which is late historically, it’s also late in the Buddhist career, it’s supposed to be taught just a few years before his death—that gives a certain level of legitimacy because despite the fact that the teaching is new, the participants, the interlocutors, the characters in the work are well-known and old.
HODGES: Maybe it could even make a recipient of the text feel like, “well, if those great people didn’t even know about it, I shouldn’t be surprised that I didn’t at this point,” I would suppose.
LOPEZ: Exactly, exactly right. Everybody reveres Śāriputra so if Śāriputra is asking questions and Śāriputra is won over then I should be as well. Exactly, yeah.
HODGES: And you mentioned that the Buddha’s stepmother? Talk a little bit about the place of women in this text.
LOPEZ: Well so, the place of women in Buddhism is probably a topic for another conversation, but it is the case that the Buddha’s mother died seven days after his birth and he was raised by her sister. She was the one who asked him to establish the order of nuns, which—at least according to the story—he did only reluctantly, and so she became a nun. The Buddha was married as Prince Siddhartha before he went out in search of enlightenment, so his wife became a nun and both the Buddha’s stepmother and his wife are present in the audience. And at a certain point in the text, well let me just backtrack for a second.
So in the early tradition, one can only become a bodhisattva—that is, someone destined for Buddhahood—if one receives a prophecy from a living Buddha. So one actually makes the vow to keep Buddhahood in the presence of a Buddha and the Buddha says I make, I prophesize that in such-and such-an eon, by such-and-such a name you shall become a Buddha. So that was standard doctrine. So in the Lotus Sutra everybody wants to get this prophecy because the Buddha has said now “you will all become Buddhas.” And so he gives them to all the famous monks and then later on both his stepmother and his wife ask for prophecies, and those are also bestowed. So they will both become Buddhas. However, the text does want to say that one can only become a Buddha in a male body, and so they’re receiving the prophecy in this lifetime, they will become Buddhas in the far distant future and they will do so as males.
HODGES: So they will have to go through another cycle and…
LOPEZ: Well, the path of the bodhisattva is literally billions of lifetimes and so while he’s making these prophecies, he’s not saying they’re gonna become a Buddha tomorrow or during your next lifetime. He’s just saying at some point in the future they can, and that’s very standard.
HODGES: So today practicing Buddhists have to receive a similar kind of prophecy?
LOPEZ: Well, for example, the Dalai Lama in India will often give the bodhisattva vows to an audience of hundreds and sometimes thousands, and part of that ritual is for him to take on the role of the Buddha himself and make a prophecy en masse for everyone there that they will become a Buddha in the future. So at least in the Tibetan tradition that still goes on to the present day.
HODGES: That’s Donald S. Lopez, Jr. He is a professor of Buddhist and Tibetan studies at the University of Michigan, and we are talking today about the biography he wrote about the Lotus Sutra as part of Princeton University Press’s “Lives of Great Religious Book Series.”
So back in your biography’s introduction Don, you make a statement that I think could be applied to any book in Princeton’s series. I like this, you write that “the Lotus Sutra is important not only for what it says, but for what it does and what can be done with it.” That’s a good way to set the stage for the rest of the book. Let’s talk about student reactions, when you go through the Lotus Sutra with them, you say it tends to provoke outrage in your students. That’s a strong word, so talk about that kind of reaction.
LOPEZ: Well, I try to teach my Introduction to Buddhism class historically, so I began with what we know about the historical Buddha and I talk about the early tradition as we know it. And that is the tradition where there are these three vehicles and where nirvāṇa is the goal and where there is just a single Buddha. There is the eight-fold path, Four Noble Truths, all the basics are there. And that takes about the first half of the class, that is up until the midterm.
And then after the midterm I begin to introduce the later tradition, and I always begin with the Lotus Sutra. I actually have the students read the entire sutra and they are generally disturbed, sometimes upset, and in some cases outraged by this idea that everything’s being changed. That is what they see—and again, I think this is part of the stereotype of Buddhism in the west, of the Buddha as just an ordinary person who followed the path to enlightenment through his own efforts and then taught this ethical system and a practice of meditation. All these things that I think fit very well with our kind of modernist view of the Buddha. Then to have all of the kind of almost psychedelic moments in the sutra—the Buddha going back and saying “I didn’t mean this,” and shooting rays of light from between his eyes, all of this they find somewhat disquieting. They like the old Buddha and they don’t like what this new Buddha is having to say.
HODGES: Is it an aversion to sort of supernatural, and that’s discomforting?
LOPEZ: Part of this is because of the supernatural, but part of it is just the repudiation of the earlier tradition, which by this point they have become quite—they have come to admire.
HODGES: And they kind of would resent that in the culture change. So they would see that as a historical corruption of the tradition.
LOPEZ: Yeah, they’re sort of saying, you know, “they just made this stuff up. What right did they have four hundred years after his death to change everything and then to claim that he said it?”
So they are—they don’t like that.
HODGES: How do you respond to those type of reactions?
LOPEZ: Well, you know what I say is that it’s very difficult for us to recover what the Buddha really taught despite the fact that this text is clearly written late. Nothing is written down until about 400 years after his death, and religions evolve, and we know that texts are written at different times and yet they somehow become integrated into the tradition. And then we have many examples across various religions in which that happens.
And so I try just to get them to take perhaps a larger perspective on the issue and look at it in terms of the way religions change and evolve over time.
HODGES: And remind me again the exact time period in which the text was probably composed?
LOPEZ: Well, we think that the first chapters may have appeared sometime around 50 BCE but the Lotus Sutra is a work that really evolved and it may not have really reached the form that we have today until perhaps 220 of the Common Era, so almost 300 years later. We know chapters were added in and things were changed, so there’s a long evolution of the text.
HODGES: How do you gauge the significance of the Lotus Sutra in that original India context, way back then? How could you even tell if that was an important text compared to something else?
LOPEZ: Well, we look at the number of commentaries, with the Lotus Sutra there’s actually relatively few. We look at the number of manuscripts that are discovered, and in the case of Lotus Sutra there actually are some. But the Lotus Sutra was clearly not as important as in India as it would become in China and Japan, and actually not so important in Tibet in fact. It’s really in China and Japan that it really takes off.
HODGES: Let’s talk about that. But one other thing, too, you mentioned upaya, or how do you pronounce that?
LOPEZ: Yeah, upaya. Yeah.
HODGES: Yeah, you mentioned that earlier. This is interesting because you’re talking about challenging a tradition by using that very tradition, and there’s an ironic thing that happens in India where people take that step once again, they use that same strategy to sort of challenge what the Lotus Sutra does.
LOPEZ: Exactly. So the upaya is a slippery slope. I mean so if the Buddha is going to say “I didn’t really mean what I said before,” then someone can write another text in which the Buddha says “and I also didn’t really mean what I said in the Lotus Sutra.” And something like that happens in which the upaya and the single vehicle is itself presented as an expedient device, and the three vehicles are restored in a slightly different form.
HODGES: So as the Lotus Sutra is making its way to China in the first century of the Common Era or somewhere thereabouts, what’s something that stands out to you in how it’s received there?
LOPEZ: Well, so we have to remember that religions evolve historically in the place of their origin, and that historical evolution is not often known when that tradition moves to a different locale. And so in the case of China, they did not receive Buddhist texts in the historical order that we understand them to have been composed. They received them in a rather haphazard way. And so one of the benefits of the Lotus Sutra is that it explains what had come before, and in a certain sense explains it away. That is, all of these things about three vehicles, the Buddha says “don’t worry about that, I didn’t really mean it. What I have in this text is all you need to know.”
And so we find, then, Chinese Buddhism being very much of a sutra-based tradition, where a single sutra will provide the basis for an entire school. And that was the case with the Lotus. One of the most important schools of Chinese Buddhism, the Tiantai, took the Lotus as its focus and used that to interpret the rest of the tradition. And so it’s really the fact that the Lotus is a kind of self-contained world, and that kind of world is very appealing when all of these texts are coming in in different languages, teaching different things, and there’s no way to make sense of that, and the Lotus sort of provides a way of making sense.
HODGES: So from China it makes its way into Japan a few centuries later. Is there anything surprising that happens to the text there that people are surprised to hear about?
LOPEZ: Well, in Japan the Lotus becomes very popular and there are many commentators and the Chinese school of Tiantai becomes extremely influential in Japan in its Tendai form. But in the book I talk particularly about a 13th-century Japanese monk called Nichiren, who is the great proponent of the Lotus Sutra and who extols it above all other Buddhist texts and gets into trouble for doing so. He’s a fascinating character.
HODGES: People can read more about that in the biography of the Lotus Sutra, it’s from Princeton University Press, it was published just this year.
Don, in 1844 the Lotus Sutra arrives in Boston. Maybe instead of giving a chronological overview or something, you can talk for a minute about a few of the people who made that happen and what motivated them.
LOPEZ: Right. So this goes back to a British officer of the East India Company in Nepal named Brian Hodgson, who had nothing to do in Kathmandu and found out that there were Buddhists in the city. So he collected a bunch of Sanskrit manuscripts and sent them back to Europe, one of which was the Lotus Sutra. It arrived in Paris in 1837 and it was translated into French by a scholar named Eugène Burnouf, who held the only chair of Sanskrit studies at the College de France. Burnouf then wrote some articles about the Lotus Sutra. Those were read in Boston by the Transcendentalists—Emerson, Thoreau, and others. And Burnouf’s essays were translated by Elizabeth Palmer Peabody in 1844 and published in the Dial.
So a little essay about the Lotus Sutra and a chapter from it translated from Burnouf’s French by Elizabeth Peabody was published in 1844. So that was the first arrival of the Lotus Sutra in North America.
HODGES: As to why these people found it interesting, what motivated their translations and studies, one of those figures was interested in the parables, something he thought comparable to Christianity.
LOPEZ: Yes, Burnouf writes a letter back to Hodgson thanking him for sending these Sanskrit manuscripts and explaining very clearly that he was just kind of browsing through them and found a couple of very famous ones not that interesting, then started reading the Lotus. And pretty soon in the Lotus you get to “The Parable of the Burning House.” Then after that there’s the parable of what Burnouf called “The Prodigal Son,” which of course has its own resonance with Christianity.
And so it was actually the fact of the parables, I think, that caused Burnouf to translate the text. And he does say “I find a certain Christian spirit in this work which is different from what I see in other forms of Buddhism.” So I think that really was part of his inspiration for translating the text and that translation was published after his death in 1852.
HODGES: Is he the one that began using the word “parable” to describe parts of the Lotus?
LOPEZ: Yes, correct. He was the one who translated the Sanskrit term as “parable” and actually did call the story “The Prodigal Son,” despite the fact that it’s not quite the same as the New Testament version.
HODGES: That’s Donald S. Lopez, Jr. He’s the Arthur E. Link Distinguished University Professor of Buddhist and Tibetan Studies at the University of Michigan. Today we’re talking about his latest book. It’s part of Princeton University Press’s Lives of Great Religious book series. It’s a biography of the Buddhist text, the Lotus Sutra. We’ll take a brief break and come back for the rest of the interview.
HODGES: Donald S. Lopez, Jr. joins us today from Ann Arbor, Michigan. He’s a professor of Buddhist and Tibetan studies at the University of Michigan . We’re talking about the Buddhist text, the Lotus Sutra.
Don, in your final chapter you say that the Lotus Sutra is “a book of twos.” Let’s wrap things up by talking about what you meant by that.
LOPEZ: The early commentators in China noticed that the book sort of falls into two halves. They identified a central teaching to the first half and the second half, and then those two halves then took on kind of a life of their own in the later tradition. Eugène Burnouf, who translated the Lotus Sutra, wanted to make a distinction between the “simple sutras,” which he really considered to be the true teachings of the Buddha, and the “developed sutras” these more ornate, almost baroque works in which he placed the Lotus Sutra, which he thought were much later. So there’s always this dichotomy between the early tradition and late tradition, first half of the text and second half of the text, simple sutras and developed sutras. And it’s in the second half of the sutra that the Buddha reveals his true identity. And that has become—again, along with upaya, along with skillful means, along with expedient devices—the central teaching of the text.
HODGES: You know, it’s interesting to see this sort of “human” Buddha being presented and then this “cosmic” Buddha being presented.
LOPEZ: Correct. Yeah. So in the second half of the text, if I can briefly tell another parable, the Buddha describes a father who is a physician, and his sons have taken poison. And some of them—they haven’t died, but they’re sick, they’re crazed by this poison. He gives them the antidote and they won’t take it. So he’s in despair. How can I save my sons?
And so he goes off and says “I’m leaving town, I’m going away” and he sends a servant back to tell the children “your father has died.” And they’re so shocked by their grief that they sort of snap out of their delirium and they take the antidote and they’re cured. And then he comes back and he says “I’m not really dead. But I couldn’t really get your attention without your thinking that.”
The Buddha then explains the parable in this way. He says that “I am the physician father, you are my children. You think I’m going to enter nirvāṇa, and that gives an urgency to your practice because you know I’m not going to be around long. But in fact, my lifespan is immeasurable. I will not enter nirvāṇa for eons and eons and eons. In fact, essentially I will live almost forever—whether it’s forever or not, is something that is debated by the commentators. But what the Buddha says, then, is that “all the things that I did earlier in my life—I was the prince. I was depressed about life. I took the four chariot rides. I practiced asceticism for six years. I teach enlightenment under the tree. You think that that’s what I did. In fact, all that was a display, all that was an act. I was enlightened eons ago, and only for the sake of the world I go through the motions of pretending to have doubts about the nature of reality and I pretend to practice, pretend to meditate. But I’ve been enlightened for eons and eons, and my enlightenment, my Buddhahood, will also last for eons.”
So it’s just cosmic Buddha, this previously long, previously enlightened Buddha, who will live forever and ever, in a certain sense. That’s the cosmic Buddha. In the second half of the text that becomes a very central figure in later interpretation of the work. In the first half of the text, the Buddha sort of distances himself from his earlier teaching, right, explains it away in a certain sense and in the second half of the text he reveals his true identity.
HODGES: And it’s interesting to see especially in the American context or in the European context how they dealt with that division. Burnouf, for example, in his own words would focus more on that human Buddha. He looked at the historical Buddha as a social reformer fighting against the corruption of the priesthood, maybe looking at him through a Protestant lens and appreciating some similarities there. But then in his translation he sees the cosmic Buddha, but he just didn’t seem to highlight that when he was writing about it.
LOPEZ: He saw it. He didn’t like it. Yeah. Whether he was—to what extent he was even a Christian is a question. He was certainly very much anti-clerical, anti-Catholic. We know that from his life. So yeah, Burnouf really thought that the Lotus Sutra was written by monks with too much time on their hands. This way they were written in cloisters where monks could just sort of fantasize about the person of the Buddha, lacking the sort of social upheaval and political challenges that the Buddha faced in his early teachings, which Burnouf saw as the more authentic ones.
HODGES: You know, one other binary that I wanted to talk about, too, is that the text has been used historically to promote world war as well as world peace. I think a lot of people would be surprised to hear that because Buddhism is seen as a very peaceful tradition. To people who, you know, aren’t looking at the history or even some of the current global conflict that’s going on. So talk about how that text could be used to both promote world peace or world war.
LOPEZ: Well, so the world war—Both of these actually occur in Japan. And so as the Japanese Empire is building its military in the early part of the 20th century, there are proponents of the Lotus Sutra who believe that spreading the Lotus Sutra around the world militarily will help establish or bring about a kind of a millennium. And so we have rightwing figures even among the Japanese fascist government of the time who were devotees of the Lotus Sutra.
After the war, then, of course, the Lotus Sutra became seen as an instrument for peace and has also been used in that way. But during the early 20th century and especially leading up to the Second World War, there were advocates and proponents of the Lotus who felt that spreading the Lotus via Japanese militarism was a way of bringing about sort of, as I said, a millennium-like situation.
HODGES: Hmm. You know it’s fascinating to see how the same text can be used to such different ends and we see this again and again.
LOPEZ: Yes, we do. Yeah [laughs].
HODGES: Well, I appreciate you taking the time to talk about the book today. Before we go, what have you got cooking right now?
LOPEZ: I’ve just translated a text from Tibetan of a Jesuit missionary who went to Tibet in the early 18th century. His name is Ippolito Desideri, a Tuscan. And he wrote a detailed refutation of the doctrines of rebirth and emptiness in Tibetan. So those works—in very nice classical Tibetan—have languished in the Jesuit archives in Rome for quite some time, and a Tibetan friend of mine I have translated some selections from those works. Just to sort of look at the whole question of missionary activity, we have in many cases—in the case of Buddhism—dismissed what missionaries have said because we sort of concluded “Well, they don’t really understand what they’re talking about. And so we don’t have to take them seriously.” But Desideri understood Buddhism very well and wrote some quite interesting refutations of these two central doctrines. So that’s coming out from Harvard, I think in April.
HODGES: Excellent. Thank you. That’s Donald S. Lopez, Jr. He’s the Arthur E. Link Distinguished University Professor of Buddhist and Tibetan Studies at the University of Michigan. He’s written the Princeton Dictionary Buddhism, and a biography of The Tibetan Book of the Dead. And today we spoke about his biography of the Lotus Sutra in Princeton University Press’s Lives of Great Religious Books series. Don, thanks for taking the time to join us today.
LOPEZ: My pleasure. Thank you very much.
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