Donald S. Lopez, Jr. The Lotus Sutra: A Biography. Princeton University Press, 2016

When Lopez, who for twenty years has taught a course at the University of Michigan called ‘Introduction to Buddhism’, was asked to write about The Tibetan Book of the Dead for Princeton’s continuing excellent ‘Lives of Great Religious Books’ series, he consented if they would let him follow it with an account of a ‘more authentically Buddhist’ text. They agreed on condition that he chose one that was sufficiently famous.  The only ones he could think of that are generally known by their English titles are the Heart Sutra, the Diamond Sutra, and the Lotus Sutra. (I suppose that he passed over the Dhammapada because it is only known by its Pali name.) Though the Heart Sutra is only one page long, he had already written two books about it. The Diamond Sutra is notoriously impenetrable.

Buddhist scriptures are all supposed to be the actual words of the Buddha. Originally they were all memorised, and chanted by monks in chorus on holy days. It was not until perhaps four centuries later that they began to be written down.

The Saddharma-Pandarika, to give its Sanskrit title, is one of the Mahayana or Northern Buddhist scriptures, which scholars consider were not composed at all, let alone written down, until many centuries after the time of the Buddha. Like many other Mahayana sutras, its own text insists that it is, in fact, an authentic discourse of the Buddha, ‘devoting many of its pages to the attempt to convince the reader of this, promising all manner of munificent rewards to those who believe and threatening all manner of misery to those who do not.’ It appears that the Buddha had supernatural foreknowledge of the eventual appearance of doubters, and guarded himself against them.

The Lotus Sutra is a boisterous work, quite unlike the solemn contemplation that one expects and usually gets from a Buddhist scripture. It is famous for its tale of the three chariots: a man saw that his house was on fire whilst his children were playing inside, but they ignored his shouted appeals to escape, being unaware of the danger. So he told them that awaiting them outside were three chariots, one drawn by a sheep, one by a deer, and a third by an ox. Eager to see these presents they came out, to find that there was only one, ox-drawn, chariot. This parable is often quoted as an example of how lying may be justified, but the original intention was to say that, though early Buddhism had taught that there were three paths to nirvana, in reality there is only one. This and other parables are interspaced with material that is meant to be understood as factual, such as that, whilst the Buddha is discoursing, ‘a massive stupa, miles high and miles wide, emerges from the earth and floats on the air above the assembly.’

Buddhism virtually died out in the land of its birth, but flourished in some other eastern countries. There were at least six translations of the Lotus Sutra into Chinese, and may have been as many as fourteen. Great merit was believed to accrue from writing or reciting it. Initially this meant in the afterlife, but miracles in this world also came to be attributed to it. A certain nun used to recite the whole Lotus Sutra twice a day (I estimate that, if you recited very fast, it would take about three hours to do it once). When a lustful man tried to enter her cell one night, ‘his lower extremities were seized with a burning pain and his male member dropped off.’

In Japan, the Lotus Sutra came to occupy a central place in the culture, inspiring artworks, poems, songs, and volumes of miracle tales. ‘On the Kunisaki Peninsula, there is a complex of twenty-eight temples, one for each of the chapters of the sutra. Connecting the temples is a path lined with 69,384 statues, one for each character in the sutra.’

By the thirteenth century, the most powerful Buddhist sect in Japan had become the Tendai, whose practice was based on both the Lotus Sutra, and the Pure Land school based upon visualization of the Buddha Amitabha. The latter came to be regarded as superior, since ‘in the degenerate age, the only possible path to salvation was to rely on the power of Amitabha by calling his name: Namu amida butsu, “Homage to Amitabha Buddha”.’

A monk who initially belonged to the Pure Land school, Nichiren (born 1222), became sceptical of the power of Amitabha when his teacher died writhing in pain. By the age of twenty-one he was ‘proclaiming the unique supremacy of the Lotus Sutra over all other Buddhist scriptures and sects that promoted them. Those sects, by holding other sutras to be equal or superior to the Lotus Sutra, were guilty of the grave sin of slandering the dharma. Nichiren took it as his task to rescue the devotees of other texts from this sin, whether they liked it or not.’

In medieval Japan, it was generally believed that religion helped to prop up the state, and rituals to this end were routinely commissioned by the emperor. In addition to the regular scriptures, such works were composed as The Promotion of the Zen for National Defence. Nichiren contributed a Treatise on the Establishment of Righteousness for the Peace of the Nation, which asserted that Japan would be conquered by the Mongols unless the government relied on the teachings of the Lotus Sutra, and averred that recent natural calamities (pestilence and famine) were the result of the rulers’ patronage of other Buddhist s
ects. This did not endear him to his rivals, and when, perhaps inevitably, he was arrested, he told the court that ‘he thought that those Buddhist temples that did not extol the Lotus Sutra should be burned down and that their head monks should be beheaded.’ He was sent to Sado Island, a brutal place reserved for the worst enemies of the state.

Here he was nevertheless able to write several major works. Previously, it had been supposed that reading the sutra, without necessarily following its precepts, was enough to bring miraculous good fortune and a place in heaven. Nichiren took this a step further and suggested that merely repeating the name of the sutra was sufficient. Hence, devotees chant ‘Hail to the Lotus Sutra’, in Japanese Nam Myoho Renge Kyo, over and over again.

In 1274 he was pardoned and released, in part because his behaviour had been so disruptive, even for a penal colony. He died in 1282, not before the Mongols had indeed twice tried to invade Japan, failing both times because typhoons had destroyed their ships. The country’s various Buddhist sects all claimed credit for this.

Factionalism, of course, seems to be inevitable in religion. Even among the Nichiren followers who accepted that the Lotus Sutra was all that mattered, there were ‘those who held that the two halves of the sutra were of equal value (called itchi) and those who held that the latter half was superior to the former half (called shoretsu). This latter group in turn split into several groups, divided over what parts of the second half of the sutra were superior to the first half.’

Things came to a climax in 1536, when a lecture by a Tendai was heckled by a Nichiren monk named Matsumoto: ‘This led to an extended debate, which Matsumoto apparently won. Angered by Matsumoto’s rudeness and chagrined by his apparent victory, the Tendai monks sought revenge . . . At the end of five days of fighting between tens of thousands of warrior monks, all twenty-one of the Nichiren temples had been destroyed by Tendai troops (allied with local aristocracy), and the southern district of Kyoto, the Nichiren stronghold, had been destroyed by fire.’

(In general, though, Japanese monks were forbidden to bear arms. This led to the development of martial arts, as they were obliged to devise ways of killing people using only their bare hands. This contrasted with European monks, who were merely forbidden to shed blood, so that they invented the mace, a metal club with which one could brain an opponent without actually shedding his blood.)

In the late nineteenth century Japan underwent a nationalist reaction in which Buddhism was vilified as a foreign import. In their own defence, ‘the various sects of Japanese Buddhism had to cooperate with each other, something that had not occurred in the many centuries of Buddhism in Japan.’ Nichiren had declared of his rivals that ‘Nembutsu followers will fall into the Avici hell, Zen followers are devils, Shingon will destroy the nation, and the Ritsu are enemies of the state.’ In an attempt to back-track on this, some of the characters were reread to give ‘Because we contemplate the Buddha, ceaselessly devils are quieted; because our words are true, traitors who would destroy the nation are subdued.’

Despite the best efforts of the religious sects, the Japanese were losers in World War Two. A leading Nichiren Shoshu (as they were now called) blamed the defeat on the failure of the nation to give proper reverence to the Lotus Sutra. In the years that followed, though, Japan was more subtly able to invade America with Judo, Mah Jongg and Suzuki motorcycles.

Though Lopez gives considerable space to the first appearance of the Lotus Sutra in the United States, in the form of an extract in a small magazine in 1844, this can have had little impact. But disciples of Nichiren had always thought that his version of Buddhism would or should conquer the world, and in 1975 the Soka Gokkai International was founded to facilitate this. To some extent it has succeeded.

I don’t know about America, but from personal observation it had a vogue in London in the 1980s. It had progressed from being a key tool for gaining liberation from material things of the flesh, to becoming a key tool for gaining material things of the flesh. The reader may recall the first episode of Absolutely Fabulous, where Jennifer Saunders’ character tells her daughter ‘I chanted for this place’ (her luxury apartment). In addition to Nam Myoho Renge Kyo, the more devout were encouraged to read daily part of the second chapter of the Lotus Sutra – in medieval Japanese, of course. If any one of them knew what it meant, or even what it was, they never explained it to me.

One woman told me that she had joined solely with the intention of picking up men, only to be frustrated to find that there weren’t any. The curious fact that in this country it appealed specifically to women is ironic, given that Buddhism has always been inherently sexist. In the early days, in India, it was said that the doctrine could have flourished for one thousand years, but thanks to the decision to admit women to the monastic order it would only last for five hundred. -- Gareth J. Medway

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