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.