Donald Lopez on the Lotus Sutra

Lopez, Jr. In The Lotus Sutra: A Biography, Donald Lopez traces the many roles of what is perhaps the most famous of Buddhist historical texts, the Lotus Sutra.  Examining the history of the famous scripture that was composed in India in the first centuries of the Common Era, Lopez’s biography provides an engaging background to the enduring classic. Lopez recently took the time to answer some questions about his own early encounters with the text, and why its proclamations remain so important today.

What is the Lotus Sutra?

DL: The Lotus Sutra is arguably the most famous of all Buddhist texts.  It is one of only three Buddhist works, among a vast canon, that is well known in the West by its English title (the other two being the Heart Sutra and the Diamond Sutra). The Lotus Sutra was composed in India, and in the Sanskrit language, where its title is Saddharmapuṇḍarīka Sūtra. This might be translated as the Discourse on the White Lotus of the True Doctrine. As I explain in the book, this title is rather “loaded” from a Buddhist perspective. It is not just a lotus (the traditional flower of Buddhism), but the white lotus, the best of lotuses. It does not just teach the dharma, the doctrine, but the true doctrine. As a sutra, or “discourse,” it is traditionally attributed to the Buddha himself.

Why is it so famous?

DL: Although composed in India, the Lotus Sutra became particularly important in China and Japan.  In terms of Buddhist doctrine, it is renowned for two powerful proclamations by the Buddha.  The first is that there are not three vehicles to enlightenment but one, that all beings in the universe will one day become buddhas. The second is that the Buddha did not die and pass into nirvana; in fact, his lifespan is immeasurable. The sutra is also famous for its parables, like the Parable of the Burning House and the Parable of the Prodigal Son. It was because of these parables that the Lotus Sutra became the first Buddhist text to be translated from Sanskrit into a European language (French). The Lotus Sutra has several dramatic scenes; perhaps the most famous is when a giant bejeweled stupa (a tomb of a buddha) emerges from the earth and a living buddha is found inside. Such scenes inspired hundreds of works of art across East Asia.  At the Dunhuang cave complex in China, scenes from the Lotus Sutra are found in some seventy-five caves.

What was your first encounter with the Lotus Sutra?

DL: When I was in college in the 1970s, a friend invited me over for a meeting with a Buddhist teacher. I was surprised to find not a monk in saffron robes but a white guy in a business suit. After a brief talk, he knelt down in front of a small altar that he had brought with him and started chanting something that I couldn’t understand. In retrospect, I realize that he was chanting in Japanese, saying Namu myoho renge kyo, “Homage to the Lotus Sutra.” He was likely a member of Nichiren Shoshu of America, the “Orthodox Nichiren School of America.” The Buddhist monk Nichiren (1222-1282) was the most famous of the many devotees of the Lotus Sutra in Japan. He is a central figure in the book.

This is the second book you have contributed to PUP’s Lives of Great Religious Books series.  How did you choose the Lotus Sutra and what is it about the text that lends itself to a reception history?

DL: My first book for the series was about The Tibetan Book of the Dead. The famous version, first published in 1927, is an odd work. For example, it is not called the “book of the dead” in Tibetan; it is called Liberation in the Intermediate State through Hearing. It is not a translation of the entire work, and it includes all manner of rather eccentric prefaces, appendices, addenda, and notes by the editor, the American Theosophist Walter Evans-Wentz. Because of its strange history, it was a perfect candidate for Lives of Great Religious Books, but it would have been unfortunate had it been the only Buddhist work in the series. The series editor, Fred Appel, thus agreed to include a second Buddhist text, and I chose the Lotus Sutra.

I chose it in part because of its great fame in the Buddhist world. I also chose it because it is obsessed with the question of how its teachings are received, making it an ideal candidate for a reception history. That obsession derives from the fact that although the Lotus Sutra purports to be the words of the historical Buddha, it is not. It was composed some four centuries after the Buddha’s death. It is thus the most famous of the Mahayana sutras, or “Great Vehicle” sutras, works that set forth a different vision of the Buddhist path. In order to have authority, however, they must claim to have been taught by the Buddha himself.

In researching the book, what did you find that was unexpected?

DL: The anonymous authors of the Lotus Sutra presented a radical re-vision of both the Buddhist path and of the person of the Buddha. They did this with remarkable skill; they were clearly monks who were deeply versed in traditional Buddhist doctrine but were also deeply dissatisfied with the state of the Buddhist tradition as it existed around the beginning of the Common Era. One of the things that I saw again and again in the text was a concern with legitimation. The authors were determined to portray their work as the words of the Buddha and thus have the Buddha constantly praise the Lotus Sutra, promising rewards to those who embrace it and punishments to those who reject it.

If you could write a second book about the Lotus Sutra, what would it be?

DL: Funny you should ask. One of the attractive features of the titles in the Lives of Great Religious Books series is their beautiful production and their compact size, only about 60,000 words. In researching the book, I found that there was much more that I wanted to say about the content of the sutra. Each of the twenty-eight chapters is fascinating in its own right; the Lotus Sutra is a masterpiece of Buddhist literature, but the mastery of its authors is not fully evident without knowing something of the historical and doctrinal background. Professor Jacqueline Stone of Princeton (a leading expert on the Lotus Sutra in Japan) and I will be writing a guide to the Lotus Sutra (also to be published by Princeton University Press). The goal of both books is to bring this remarkable text, already so famous in the Buddhist world, to a wider readership.

Donald Lopez is the Arthur E. Link Distinguished University Professor of Buddhist and Tibetan Studies at the University of Michigan. He has contributed other books to the PUP Lives of Religious Book series with titles such as The Tibetan Book of the Dead: A Biography (Princeton). He is also the author of the book The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism (with Robert E. Buswell, Jr.). Lopez currently resides in Ann Arbor, Michigan.




Happy birthday, Gita

001_Davis_figEvery great living religious work must have had a birth, but not many celebrate their birthdays. The Bhagavad Gita, a classic Hindu scripture, does. This year Hindus are celebrating the Gita Jayanti today, December 2.

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The Bhagavad Gita records a conversation on the battlefield of Kurukshetra between two figures, Krishna and Arjuna, just before the start of a great eighteen-day battle. The warrior Arjuna is distraught over the prospect of fighting against his relatives and teachers, and Krishna seeks to persuade him to engage in the upcoming battle. The discussion deals not just with the propriety of war, but also with the ethical dilemmas, the religious practices, and the philosophical issues that concerned Indian elites at the time of its composition. And we are told in the Mahabharata, the massive epic poem of which the Bhagavad Gita is a small portion, that their dialogue took place on the eleventh day of the waxing moon in the lunar month of Marghashirsha. This year, that day falls on December 2 of our solar calendar.When I visited Kurukshetra in 2011 for the Gita Jayanti, a local official told me with great confidence that the Gita was celebrating its 5103rd birthday. That would make the Gita 5106 years old today. Textual historians are more circumspect. According to current scholarship, the Bhagavad Gita was composed in the century or two before or after the time of Christ. But scholarly skepticism does not diminish the observances that mark the birth and life of this classic text.Around the world, in Singapore or Malaysia, the United Kingdom or the United States, wherever Hindus have come to live, the Gita Jayanti is celebrated. Most often it is a modest festival. It may consist entirely of a collective recitation of the seven-hundred verses of the Bhagavad Gita text. Some communities organize competitions for children in Gita recitation. One group, the Swadhyay Parivar, arranges for young people to give speeches on the philosophy of the Gita. According to its website, 2.2 million children participated last year. For the International Society of Krishna Consciousness devotees, recitation of the text is combined with distribution of copies of the Gita, as translated by the founder of ISKCON, Swami Prabhupada.Nowhere is the Gita Jayanti celebrated with greater élan than in Kuruksetra, a small pilgrimage town in the state of Haryana, where according to tradition the Gita took birth. Since 1989, the Kurukshetra Development Board has organized and promoted the celebration of Gita Jayanti as part of a larger five-day Kurukshetra Festival. In addition to recitations and discourses on the work, Kurukshetra hosts a procession of musician and holy men, cultural performances in several great tents, political leaders being felicitated, fireworks, an enormous crafts fair of over five hundred displays from throughout India, and a lovely Deep Daan, where hundreds of dainty clay oil-lamps are set afloat at nightfall in the water-tank at the center of town. My teenaged friend Akash Rana writes that he and his friends are “enjoying too much” the festival this year, with the dances of all the different states and the spicy foods from all around India. He wishes I could be there.Like many great religious works, the Bhagavad Gita has lived a long and varied life since its time of birth. Readings and recitation, translations and commentaries have reinscribed this classical Sanskrit work into new currents and disputes for two millennia. Medieval Brahmin scholars and Krishna devotees, British colonial scholars and German Romantics, globe-trotting Hindu gurus and Indian anticolonial freedom fighters, and modern spiritual seekers in India and around the world have all kept the work alive through their own dialogues with the Gita. In celebrating the birthday of the Bhagavad Gita today, we can also celebrate this long interpretive history.

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This is a guest post by Richard H. Davis, professor of religion at Bard College and author of The Bhagavad Gita: A Biography.

The Marginalia Review of Books announces the “Lives of Great Religious Books Essay Competition”

From The Marginalia Review of Books web site:


The Marginalia Review of Books announces the “Lives of Great Religious Books Essay Competition.” We invite essay submissions of up to 3,000 words related to the theme of the reception of religious books, broadly conceived. Those interested should read past essays to ensure their submissions correspond to MRB‘s style. The eminent philosopher Roger Scruton will join the MRB editors to judge the competition. The winner will receive Princeton University Press’s entire Lives of Great Religious Books series, and we will consider all submissions for publication in early 2015.

The competition closes on November 1 and the winner will be announced in January 2015.

For details on how to submit an essay for consideration, please visit The Marginalia Review of Books web site.

About the Lives of Great Religious Books series:

Lives of Great Religious Books is a new series of short volumes that recount the complex and fascinating histories of important religious texts from around the world. Written for general readers by leading authors and experts, these books examine the historical origins of texts from the great religious traditions, and trace how their reception, interpretation, and influence have changed–often radically–over time. As these stories of translation, adaptation, appropriation, and inspiration dramatically remind us, all great religious books are living things whose careers in the world can take the most unexpected turns.

Carlin Romano called the series “innovative,” in his earlier article for The Chronicle of Higher Education and Bruce Elder, writing for The Sydney Morning Herald praised the series as an “inspired publishing idea.”

For a list of the books currently available in the series, please click here.

To see the list of forthcoming volumes, please click here.


What do Leibniz and Bob Dylan have in common? The I Ching

How can you not like an author who writes this “crazy” recipe:

Here’s a crazy idea. First, you find an ancient Chinese philosophical text–let’s say the most influential book in China’s entire cultural tradition (and also pretty damned important in Korea, Japan, Vietnam and Tibet). Then you put it in the hands of some eighteenth century Jesuit missionaries in China who think it is a corrupted version of the Bible. After that, you go looking for a second group of Jesuits who hate the first group, even though they all call each other “brother,” and convince them to translate the book into Latin. Now Latin, as we all know, is a dead language and of no use to anyone (keep those cards and letters coming!), so you find additional people to translate the book into dozens of other languages, including English. What happens next? Well, suppose a counter-cultural movement develops in Europe and the Americas during the 1960s. Wouldn’t it be great if you had an exotic Asian text that you could embrace in order to show your disdain for conventional middle-class values and frozen TV dinners? And wouldn’t it be especially nice if you could use that text to tell fortunes, write poems, produce novels, compose music, choreograph dances, and create art? Boom! That’s exactly what has happened to the I Ching (also spelled Yijing), or Classic of Changes (also known as the Book of Changes).

Go read the rest of Richard Smith’s ruminations on the I Ching and 7 of the thinkers it has inspired at the Huffington Post:

A “gem of a little book” — Augustine’s Confessions: A Biography reviewed in New York Review of Books

It’s always nice to discover a review like this on a Monday morning:

In a round-up review of several books about Augustine and The Confessions, Peter Brown has very nice things to say for the inaugural book in our Lives of Great Religious Books series. Brown says the biography is “another gem of a little book by Garry Wills.”

He continues, writing that “Wills describes brilliantly the manner in which this strange work seeped slowly through literary circles…His book is a passionate plea that we should read Augustine’s strange book as it was first heard, and in the light of the purposes for which it was first written.”

Happily his review dovetails nicely with the purpose of the series which is to examine the history and “life” of major religious texts — tracing generation, interpretation, uses, and misuses over time. We are gearing up for the launch of the next two books in the series — biographies of The Book of Mormon and The I Ching — in April.

This Week’s Book Giveaway

We’re back with another giveaway, and this is one you don’t want to miss! This week, we’ll be selecting 2 winners—one from our Facebook page and one from our Google+ page. Each winner will receive three great prizes:

— A copy of The I Ching or Book of Changes edited by Hellmut Wilhelm and translated by Cary F. Baynes

The I Ching or Book of Changes interactive app featuring coins, yarrow stalks, quick and manual input oracle methods, related Hexagrams, and more

— Plus one of the first copies of the forthcoming book The I Ching: A Biography by Richard J. Smith

We’ll select our random winners on Friday, 2/17 at 3 pm. Be sure to like us on Facebook and add us to your circle on Google+ to be entered to win. Good luck!

Martin Marty at the Chicago Tribune’s Printers Row Lit Fest

Maybe you were lucky enough to be there, or perhaps you caught it live on C-Span, but Martin Marty was interviewed at the Chicago Tribune’s Printers Row Lit Fest over the weekend. You can watch the program here:

Marty was on hand to discuss the new series The Lives of Great Religious Books and specifically his new book in that series, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison.

The surprising origins of an “accidental” book — Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison

Dietrich Bonhoeffer has steadily gained prominence through the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, but his most famous book — Letters and Papers from Prison — was never really conceived of as a book. It is, as the title suggests, a collection of letters and papers smuggled out of prison, addressed to loved ones and intellectual colleagues. These papers were hidden away and only collected into their current form posthumously–a process Martin E. Marty describes in this article at Berfrois:

“Only a zealous and informed scavenger could have found and assembled scribbled fragments which eventually became the published prison letters by the best-remembered German cleric who gave his life in the anti-Nazi cause,” writes Marty. “There was no manuscript of the book which later appeared in many languages around the world. The gallows took its author, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, before he had a chance to shape a book.”

Marty notes that merely possessing one of the letters could have been a crime or have lead Nazis to conspirators, so, how did these letters survive?

According to Marty, they were secreted “in various hard-to-find locales, including in gas-mask canisters hidden in the garden of Dietrich’s mother; while others were tucked into scattered books and files.”

Fortunately, Eberhard Bethge, a friend of Bonhoeffer’s, “was farseeing enough to recognize that though his friend was writing sometimes casual notes, there were also more formal little treatises which might be cherished by scholars and others who were left behind….So Bethge saved all that he could, even though he had to report regretfully in the book he edited that…in order to protect some people mentioned in the letters, he had no choice but in haste to burn some of them. So the trail of letters ended abruptly, a fact that contributed further to the apparently random character of the book.”

Read the rest of Marty’s article here:

Donald Lopez at Crazy Wisdom

If you will be anywhere near Ann Arbor tomorrow evening, be sure to stop by Crazy Wisdom Bookstore & Tea Room to see Donald Lopez, author of The Tibetan Book of the Dead. As Crazy Wisdom points out, this is a rare opportunity (unless you’re his student) to listen to the University of Michigan’s foremost Buddhist scholar as he talks about his new book and interacts with the Salon audience on Buddhist topics!

Location: Crazy Wisdom Tea Room, 114 South Main Street, Ann Arbor, Michigan

Date: Thursday, May 12th

Time: 7:00 PM – 9:00 PM

More Info: Here.

Hope to see you all there!

Fred Appel on The Lives of Great Religious Books Series

Fred Appel, editor of the new religious series, The Lives of Great Religious Books, wrote a piece for The Front Table this week:

“Lives of Great Religious Books” was born in the faculty lounge of the NYU Law School in the early spring of 2005, in a conversation over tea with the eminent Israeli philosopher Avishai Margalit. I had come to NYU to meet with Margalit, then a visiting scholar in the Law School, to ask him about his current research and writing, and talk more generally about trends in the humanities. This is one of the great privileges and joys of being an acquisitions editor at a distinguished scholarly publishing house: being able to engage smart and imaginative people in conversation on topics that preoccupy them. After talking about his own work – including a book he had begun that we eventually published in 2009 – the topic of conversation turned for some reason to memoirs. Margalit was of the opinion that too many were being published – or more precisely, that too few were worth reading. Then he tossed his head back and said dreamily, “you know what I’d like to read? A biography of an important book – the story of its reception across time. That’s the sort of memoir we need more of.”

Read on…

Fred Appel is Senior Editor at Princeton University Press. The Lives of Great Religious Books is being launched this spring with the release of the following three titles: Augustine’s Confessions: A Biography, by Garry Wills; The Tibetan Book of the Dead: A Biography, by Donald S. Lopez, Jr.; and Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison: A Biography, by Martin E. Marty.

Garry Wills on Between the Covers podcast

Tune in to Between the Covers to hear John Miller interview Garry Wills on his new book Augustine’s Confessions: A Biography.

“[Augustine] doesn’t really talk about the things you expect in an autobiography. He doesn’t talk about his sister, his brother. He talks about his mother just briefly, when she dies…He was the court orator for the emperor in Milan. Never mentions his activities there, except to say ‘I was paid to tell lies’…He’s not interested in all that. He’s interested in internal spiritual growth and struggles,” says Wills in this fascinating interview.

Listen to more here and then go pick up this week’s New Statesman to read a terrific excerpt from the book.

“I would love to read the biography of a book…” Q&A with series editor Fred Appel at The Immanent Frame

Our new series, the Lives of Great Religious Books is based on the idea that books, like people, are born and live fascinating lives worthy of biographical treatment. Now to get truly meta — can we then extend it out to say that series are like books are like people in the same way?

That is one way to look at this Q&A between religion editor Fred Appel and Ruth Braunstein at The Immanent Frame in which Fred reveals how the idea behind the series was actually born of a discussion with Avishai Margalit many years ago in a faculty lounge at NYU Law School.

If we accept that series are like books are like people — perhaps this closing paragraph in which Fred reveals his “wish list” of future biographical subjects can be viewed as the series version of a personal ad (“Established series seeks unattached authors for fun and stimulating conversation, must like dogs.“).

I would love to commission an accessible, lively biography of the Daodejing, and I’m also looking for a biography of the Talmud. I’ve been talking to one or two people about that. It is a tremendously important book in the Jewish tradition, and one that has had a fascinating history, not just within Jewish communities in Europe, in the Sephardic world, and in this country, but also in the Christian and Islamic worlds. I would love to commission a biography of Exodus as well. The liberationist story has been so very important. Michael Walzer, as I mentioned, wrote an important book about Exodus from the perspective of political theory and the history of political thought, but I think it’s time for a new book, and perhaps one written from a different perspective. The Koran is of course something that I’ve been thinking about a lot as well. There are a lot of fine Koranic scholars out there, but the state of that field, or subfield, is such that most people are writing in very specialized modes, for other specialists. So finding someone who can write engagingly and accessibly for the general educated public is something of a challenge. But that’s what keeps me busy, and that’s what makes it fun.