Reviews

 

Two Buddhas Seated Side by Side: A Guide to the Lotus Sutra


Lopez, D.S. Stone, J.I.
Princeton University Press
2019
pp.xiii+296, ISBN 978-0-691-17420-4

One sentence review
3/5: A highly readable commentary on the Lotus Sutra and its reception in medieval Japan suitable for a general reader or an undergraduate student.

Understanding the Lotus Sutra in thirteenth century Japan

I managed to purchase a hardback copy of the volume from a secondary seller on Amazon for a little under £20, and did so because a colleague had suggested it offered a comparison of the interpretation of the Lotus Sutra in the Kushan period and in medieval Japan. That is not really an accurate description of what this book is, so let me begin by describing the general contents.

According to the introduction Lopez and Stone (L&S) have taught the Lotus Sutra to students for a number of years and this book flows out of that. It offers a modern, secular, lightly academic, commentary on the text, chapter by chapter. The authors set up in the introduction an important comparison with how the text was understood when it was first written and how it was understood by later commentators, particularly the thirteenth century Japanese monk Nichiren who advocated its centrality in Buddhist teaching in opposition to contemporary ‘Pure Land’ teachings.

Most of the author’s introduction (21-34) is dedicated to telling us about Nichiren, indicating clearly it is that element which most interests L&S. There is also a short section on the role of commentary, obviously self-referential as the book L&S have written is itself a commentary. Each subsequent chapter parallels a chapter in the Lotus, first briefly explaining what happens in the chapter, then picking out a major theme from that chapter and Nichiren’s response to it. Occasionally where chapters seem less interesting to L&S they are combined, as is the case for eight and nine, seventeen and eighteen, twenty one and twenty two, and twenty four and twenty five. Readers interested in using L&S as a commentary can access the particular translation used online.

However L&S have no interest in the historical context in which the Lotus was composed. They often contrast Nichiren with what those who first heard the Lotus might have thought but when they do they are making inferences based on the text itself. Mostly this is harmless as their main interest is Nichiren and the topics they miss as are result do not detract (though they might have enhanced). For example in Chapter 2 they give no space to the Lotus’ discussion of image worship (Ch.II, 8c, 9a). The reason that is interesting, from a Kushan studies point of view, is that widespread use of Buddha images as objects of worship not only happened relatively late but it happened very rapidly. The earliest surviving images which can be precisely dated (a sculpture from Loriyan Tangai in the Gandharan style, several images made at Mathura and erected in the Gangetic valley, and coins depicting both Sakyamuni and Maitreya) belong to the reign of the Kushan king Kanishka I (c. AD 127-150). Earlier images are very rare while within a century images are found widely in huge numbers. Obviously the discussion of images in the Lotus might have been added quite late, though it occurs in the part most scholars take to be earliest, and that would still mean restricting this version of the Lotus to a relatively narrow period between those images and its first translation into Chinese by Dharmaraksha in c. AD 286.

And that dating of the historical context undercuts the assertions L&S make by purely reading the text. For example they write (p.59):

“Because the notion of universal Buddhahood now seems so obvious to those familiar with the Mahayana, it is difficult to imagine how radical this declaration of a single vehicle would have been in its own time.”

Difficult to imagine and pointless, since it is not true. I am not an expert on Mahayana texts but everything I have ever seen suggests Mahayana interpretations predate the Kushan period by centuries. The text internally makes a big sturm und drang about how new and radical this teaching is, but by the time anyone was reading this version of the text, even if they disagreed with it, it seems unlikely they would have been surprised by its general thrust. In contrast images might well have been new to the audience.

Again this is not a fundamental problem, L&S are not really interested in the historical context of the Lotus, they are focused on the text itself and how it was interpreted by Nichiren. Though they do keep nodding to the idea, as for example in the conclusion:

“… we have been guided by the conviction that the full genius of the Lotus as a literary and philosophical text comes to light only when the sutra is examined in terms of what can be known or even surmised about the circumstances of its compilation.’ (p.263) difficult to imagine how radical this declaration of a single vehicle would have been in its own time.”

Despite these kind of handwaves in the direction of an Indian context there is very little for the reader here. And that is pretty much the end of the review if you are interested in Kushan studies – this book has nothing of interest for you. On the other hand if you want a guide to the Lotus Sutra and Nichiren which is readable and light on technical academic discussion (there is no bibliography and the notes are very slight), this might well be the book for you. Though I feel inadequately qualified to comment on how well it does that. I came away feeling I understood Nichiren better but I knew so little at the start I cannot vouch to the accuracy of that information.

On the positive side the book is relatively short and very readable. On the negative side the chapter by chapter commentary gimmick is not as clever as L&S think it is, or perhaps it is but they do not use it as well as they should. The chapters often feel repetitive, rehearsing the same arguments which have occurred elsewhere, and sometimes as a result feeling a little superficial. And what follows is a digression to give an example of how much more the authors could have engaged with. That is the observation of how fundamentally childish the Lotus Sutra is.

Shah Abdul Latif’s Kapaiti and the Lotus Sutra’s metaphor of the Burning House

I do not intend childish in a derogatory sense but rather to indicate the nature and presentation of the Lotus teachings. And this can be illustrated by contrasting it with an unrelated religious text that I was also reading at the same time. Abdul Latif Shah is a seventeenth century Sufi poet who produced a famous work called the Risalo. The twenty-fifth section (the Kapaiti) is an extended metaphor, in about twenty verses, which equates religious practice with the spinning of cloth:

‘Spin while you can, this opportunity is fleeting. Every spinner is approved according to the thread that they have spun. Those who know this properly do not let go of their ball of cotton.’ 25.2

Shah is not subtle in the metaphor which is concerned with the need for constant practice, even in the face of distractions or adversity:

‘All you want to do today is relax, and you did not do any spinning yesterday. Your husband will show you no favors, you foolish girl.’ 25.5
‘Turn the broken wheel until the new one is fixed. You fool, do not let yourself fall into the bad habit of idleness. No one knows which girls will spin thread on the new wheel.’ 25.9

Does the broken wheel represent an impediment, or does it indicate doctrinal laxity? That is, does it matter less the exact practice you engage in than that you commit to it totally, as suggested in later verses where rewards are offered.

‘The spinners are filled with a love that makes them tremble when they spin. To make a profit, they come early in the morning to the spinning place. The dealers are keen for their fine thread, says Shah. Their thread gets sold without being put on the scales and weighted.’ 25.13

Shah might say the dealers are keen for fine thread but he is never explicit about how precisely to read the metaphor. Certainly readers (or listeners, this was originally spoken and is often sung today) have a meta-textual understanding, a community or teacher who explains the metaphorical nature (in my case I have the introduction to the Murty Classical Library volume I am reading), but there is still much you have to tease out for yourself. The general thrust is clear, practice is hard, it needs to be maintained assiduously, and if you fall short of this ideal you will miss out on the rewards.

Let me be clear about the characteristics which make the Kapaiti a ‘grown-up’ presentation – it promises rewards but only at a price, with the warning that you might fail because its hard and you are unexceptional, and the requirement that you tease out the meaning yourself, or at least get someone to help you. Now let us contrast this with the most famous parable in the Lotus Sutra, the story of the burning house in chapter 3. The Buddha has given a prediction of future Buddhahood to one of his disciples, explaining that his previous teaching of a lesser goal was a use of ‘skillful means’ adapting his teachings to the listeners capacity. He then makes sure the audience understands that he is about to employ a parable:

‘Moreover, Sariputra, I will now clarify what I mean with illustrations. Those with wisdom will be able to understand through these illustrations.’ (III.12b)

Note the comment about ‘those with wisdom’, we will come back to that. Then he goes on to introduce the inciting incident of the parable, a man realises his children are trapped in a burning building.

‘Suddenly and unexpectedly, fires break out everywhere, setting the house swiftly aflame. The children of this man, ten, twenty, or thirty in number are in the house.’ (III.12b)

He realises he cannot rescue the children as he has neither time nor strength to carry them to safety and they are unaware of the danger.

‘The children, who are immature and still unaware, are attached to their place of play.’ (III.12b)

Then he concocts a plan to rescue by promising the children that outside of the house are a set of exciting and interesting new toys:

‘Right now, outside the house, there are three kinds of cats. One is yoked to a sheep, one to a deer, and one to an ox. Go play with them.’ (III.12c)

The father rejoices at having saved the children, and the children (presumably because they are insufferable brats) immediately start pestering for the toys they were promised, and:

‘the affluent man then gave each child the same kind of large cart. These carts were tall and spacious, adorned with various jewels, and encircles with railings of hanging bells… each yoked to an ox with a spotlessly white hide. These oxen had beautiful bodies with powerful muscles, even gaits, and were as swift as the wind…’ (III.12c)

Noting that while even more impressive this is not what the father promised, the Buddha asks Sariputra if the father deceived his children, and Sariputra (presumably because he is not a simpleton) says he has not but that this is a use of ‘skillful means’ to help the children escape a danger. After which the Buddha explains the parable detailing how the Buddha had previously employed skillful means to permit his followers to begin the path to enlightenment, and is now revealing the true teaching, the great vehicle, in fact he explains the actually quite obvious metaphor Sariputra has already understood several times:

‘In the beginning the Tathagata teaches the three vehicles in order to lead sentient beings. And later he saves them through only the Mahayana.’ III.13c

Then, for good measure the Lotus Sutra has the Buddha give the parable again in verse, and explains it again, but now with an extra element. The Buddha’s explanation this time includes a lengthy warning of how difficult and profound the teaching contained in the sutra is:

‘This very Lotus Sutra shall be taught
Only to the profoundly wise.
Those of superficial awareness who hear it
Will become confused and will not comprehend it.’ (III.15b)

Which insistence gradually elides into a very defensive, and repetitive, account of those who disparage the teachings being punished. Note the important difference between the metaphor in the Lotus Sutra and the one in the Shah’s Risalo. In the Lotus Sutra the children do not do anything to earn a reward, they play with nice toys, they are tricked into leaving the building, and they are then simply given the ultimate reward, all while being congratulated for being ‘profoundly wise’ for understanding something which has been explained multiple times in simplistic terms. But in the Risalo the end of the section is rather different, the girl being evoked clearly has done some spinning even if she has fallen short of the rigorous target set out, and she is left bereft:

‘Those cotton plants have gone, and so have the spinners. The bazaars seem desolate without them, and my heart is greived’ 3.19

And that encapsulates fundamental difference between a very adult religious message, which doesn’t sugar coat that this is hard, and you might fail, and leaves you to work a lot of details out on your own, and a childish one, which also treats its audience like children who need constant repetition of basic explanations, which promises everything for the bare minimum of effort, and all the while panders to that same audience by telling them how smart they are for understanding it and how stupid anyone who points out its obvious deficiencies is:

‘To those who are arrogant and lazy,
Or to those who hold
False views about the self.
Never teach it to those people
Of superficial awareness,
Who are deeply attached
To the desires of the five sense,
Since even if they heard it,
They would not understand.’ (III.15b)

None of this is to disparage fervently held beliefs but it highlights a problem in L&S’s commentary. Even though the commentary is often inciteful and does on occasion read against the grain it fundamentally buys into an element of dishonesty both in the original text and in the later use of it. For example, the thirteenth century monk Nichiren’s hardships and exile are referred to at several points in L&S, of which this passage citing both the sutra and Nizhiren is typical:

‘Another reason why the Lotus Sutra is “difficult to accept and understand” is because those who propagate it may encounter antagonism. “People show great hostility toward this sutra, even in the presence of the Tathagata,” Sakyamuni declares in the present chapter. “How much more so after the parinirv-n.a of the Tatha-gata!” (169). Although cast here in the form of a prophecy of what will happen after the Buddha’s demise, this passage may point to opposition from the Buddhist mainstream encountered by the early Lotus community. For Nichiren, it foretold the hardships that he and his followers encountered in spreading the Lotus Sutra. Writing from his first exile, to the Izu peninsula, he confessed “When I first read this passage, I wondered if things would really be so terrible. But now I know that the Buddha’s predictions do not err in the slightest, especially since I have experienced them personally”. For Nichiren, this sutra passage carried a double legitimation, both of the Lotus Sutra to which he had committed his life and of his own practice in upholding and propagating the Lotus.’ (L&S, 134-5)

Except that Nichiren is lying. And no expertise on thirteenth century Japan is needed to detect the lie implicit in the passage, because L&S make clear that by his time the ‘mainstream’ (a term I dislike the use of in this book) is the Lotus Sutra. Everyone accepts it, and the Mahayana, as the word of the Buddha. Nichiren is being persecuted, but its not for believing in or for teaching the Lotus Sutra, and because L&S buy into that lie they never really get to grips with exactly what it is that Nichiren is persecuted for. They also don’t get to grips with how the Lotus Sutra’s claim to be very profound and difficult, accepted by Nichiren and contemporaries, is to be read against the text which is self-evidently neither of those things.

This discrepancy actually has a historiographical element to it. Earlier European scholars were obviously not blind to the childishness of the Lotus Sutra’s Mahayana message. They contrasted it with the Pali canon of the Theravadin tradition, which in general has a much more adult message, that this is hard, you might fail, and the reward you can expect is in any case limited, the Lotus Sutra’s ‘little vehicle’. They went on to conclude that the Pali canon represents the original teachings, what L&S seem to mean with their problematic use of the term ‘mainstream’, and the Mahayana represents a popular understanding distorted by the simplistic laity. Except, we know that is not true. In the 1980s and 90s that orthodoxy was overturned (if you are interested Gregory Schopen’s first set of collected essays Bones, Stones, and Buddhist Monks in 1996 is mostly concerned with this) and it was pointed out not only that the Mahayana does not seem to have been a popular movement, often being more associated with educated monks, but that it was probably in fact a persecuted minority. L&S adopt this new understanding but without reconciling the claims of profundity and difficulty the sutra and its commentators make with earlier readings of it.

It is important to make clear that none of this suggests the text is unsophisticated. It is probably this, a failure to grasp the difference between the simplicity of the message and the sophistication of the literary presentation that led the earliest European scholars into error. I will indulge myself with a pop-culture example to illustrate, and feel justified by L&S employing the movie Jason and the Argonauts in their own account. The Avengers (2012) is probably the most important, and certainly the most influential, movie of the twenty-first century, but there is no question it is childish. Not only is the story derived from stories written for children, based on characters intended to act as power fantasies for children, but its central message ‘making friends is nice’ is presented simply and without nuance. However, the presentation is very sophisticated, deploying subtle movie language to great effect, and giving its audience stakes to invest in even while it is obvious nothing of consequence is actually at stake, after all good will always triumph in a children’s story, that is one of the things that makes it childish. So The Avengers succeeds not because of the rather superficial story but because of the sophistication with which it is delivered (for a detailed account of the way the film succeeds in this see Chipman, B. (2015) ‘Really that Good: The Avengers’ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xSAp-QCHj_A).

And that analysis is what I miss in L&S account of the Lotus. The text, and its commentators, portentously thunder about the difficulty and profundity of a text that is simple and whose practice they constantly seek to make ever simpler. And I want to understand how the literary effect of the text, its constant revision and destabilisation not only of other texts but of itself, square that circle, how delivery compensates for content. I don’t feel it undermines the account of L&S but they seem very capable in the analysis they do give and so might have had something interesting to say about this kind of challenging question, which would have given more depth to their analysis.

Conclusion

I realise this review might feel quite negative but I do not feel particularly negative about this book. It seems to me to succeed quite well at being the easy to read account for the general reader it has clearly set out to be. On its own terms, and leaving aside that L&S clearly struggle with the ‘original’ context of the Lotus, it succeeds. The problem is really mine, I wanted a different book and reading this one convinced me that there is a very interesting account of the Lotus to be written. An account that engages with the questions I have just raised, that is genuinely interested in the composition of the Lotus, that actually cares about the historical context, and will critically engage with its commentators. That is not this book, and that is not the fault of L&S who clearly wanted to write a relatively basic introduction to Nichiren’s understanding of the Sutra in commentary form.



©Robert Bracey.