JANUARY 26, 2020
THE TITLE OF Donald S. Lopez Jr. and Jacqueline Stone’s book is startling. Two Buddhas? Anyone even vaguely familiar with Buddhism would think there is just one. His life story is famous: a prince gave up the pleasures of his life to become an ascetic. He gained enlightenment, and then went on to spread it to others. Who is the second Buddha, then? Is he a contemporary of the one we are familiar with? Why is he not as famous as the first one? It turns out, as we read the guide to the Lotus Sūtra by Lopez and Stone, that what we are familiar with is an illusion. The historical Buddha is not the only Buddha. He has been preceded by many, not so much in history, but in a mythical past.
Myth and history are in collusion in the Lotus Sūtra, inventive myths turning into vibrant history and hazy history turning into an illusory past. The book’s intention is to challenge the familiar world of early Buddhism. In that ancient world, there is the Buddha, his disciples, some wiser than others, some near enlightenment, some far. There are notions like karma, rebirth, the four noble truths, and dependent origination (nothing exists without a cause). These notions are not challenged by the Lotus Sūtra. What is challenged is the uniqueness of the Buddha, the exact meaning of his message, the state of wisdom of his disciples, and even, unusually, whether the Buddha attained parinirvāṇa (the final release from the karmic cycle upon death). All this is brought out with patience and understanding by Lopez and Stone. The authors do not present some eulogy or defense of the Lotus Sūtra. They use the views and opinions of earlier translators and monks, chief among whom are the highly original Chinese master Zhiyi (538–597 AD) and the rather combatively luminous Japanese monk, Nichiren Daishonin (1222–1282), to explain the Lotus Sūtra. The book, in their words, represents a “seismic shift” where “conventional expectations no longer apply.”
If early Buddhism was a spiritual revolution, the Lotus Sūtra is a rebellion arising from it. The chief rebel is the Buddha himself. He asserts that what he had said all along to his eager disciples had more to do with their ability to understand rather than with what he actually knew. He knew that there were not three roads to nirvāṇa and that nirvāṇa was not the real goal, and yet he taught otherwise. If that is not shocking enough, the Buddha says that the dramatic story of his attaining enlightenment has to be considered in the perspective of his having been enlightened all the time. His famous life story was merely a display of sorts.
The Lotus Sūtra is set in India, the Buddha seated on Vulture Peak. He is delivering a sermon. A vast audience, human and divine, is listening awestruck. Frustratingly enough, we are not told what the sermon is about. Then the Buddha goes into meditation. Now something miraculous happens, which we do not normally associate with the historical Buddha. A ray of light emerges from a tuft of white hair between Buddha’s eyebrows and lights many worlds. What does this mean? According to one of his disciples, it means that the Buddha is going to reveal the Lotus Sūtra. According to Lopez and Stone, this means that the Lotus Sūtra has not begun yet. And as the Sūtra unfolds, chapter by chapter, it is not exactly clear when the Lotus Sūtra begins, if at all, and when it ends, if it ever does. The Buddha repeatedly promises to deliver the Sūtra, but apparently he does not.
Also, the Sūtra is ominously long. A clue about the length comes from the fact that, countless ages ago, one of the Buddhas taught the Lotus Sūtra “for eight thousand eons, without stopping, in verses equal in number to the sands of the Ganges.” So the 28 chapters of the Lotus Sūtra will hardly do the job. Moreover, this is not the first time the Sūtra has been delivered. The Buddha is not the first fountainhead of wisdom. He is just repeating what his predecessors have said.
Promisingly enough, in Chapter Two, the Buddha comes out of his meditation, opens his eyes, and starts talking. What he says is so disturbing that 500 of his students leave the audience. The Lotus Sūtra was not exactly well received on Vulture Peak. The Buddha says that there aren’t three ways to nirvāṇa, as he previously taught. There is just one — the path of the bodhisattva — to the realization of Buddhahood. One does not want to put a full stop to the cycle of birth and death, and escape into nirvāṇa; rather, one wants to stay behind to lead the other suffering sentient beings to enlightenment. That’s what the bodhisattvas do. If you are an arhat (already enlightened), that is not good enough. For the last 40 years, the Buddha had been using “skillful means” to train his disciples, meaning that he had told them less than the truth. Now that his end is near he has to speak the truth.
What of the second Buddha present in the title of the book? In Chapter 11, an astoundingly large stūpa, miles in width and height, appears in the air. The Buddha rises in the air to open its door. Inside, one finds a living Buddha, Prabhūtaratna. He appears in his great stūpa wherever the Lotus Sūtra is recited. He graciously invites the Buddha to sit with him. The Buddha obliges. Lopez and Stone explain that apart from the miraculous occurrence of the stūpa, the event is significant for other reasons. Stūpas are supposed to contain relics of the Buddha after his death. To find a living Buddha inside a stūpa breaks all conventions: it means that the Buddha never dies, that he never attains parinirvāṇa. But the received tradition of earlier Buddhism was that the Buddha had attained parinirvāṇa.
Soon we learn that the Buddha not only never dies, but he has been in this realm — called the Buddha-realm — forever. In fact, he was never born. The original story of the Buddha, the one we are so used to, was a mirage, meant only to keep the disciples searching. One feels a bit deflated, no doubt, to read what Lopez and Stone describe as a “bombshell.” However, on reflection, it is also a comforting thought, as one realizes that the Buddha is still among us. The disciples have to choose whether they want the living Buddha to inspire them or the conventional story we all know. They have to choose between the Buddha’s compassion, which makes him stay in the world as a bodhisattva, and the personal nirvāṇa that he attains.
Lopez and Stone take Nichiren’s words on the Lotus Sūtra very seriously. Nichiren thought that the entire message of the Sūtra, and its secret meaning, were somehow captured in its Japanese title: Namu Myōhō-Renge-Kyō (“Homage to the Lotus Sūtra”). All one has to do is to recite this and have faith in its power. Not reciting it — neglecting it — leads to serious trouble. Nichiren thought that the earthquakes, epidemics, and the impending Mongol invasion of Japan were all due to the neglect of the Lotus Sūtra by the monks, the laity, and the authorities. Nichiren’s own life was hardly a happy one, even though he was never short of devotion to the Lotus Sūtra. He was against both Zen and Pure Land Buddhism practitioners, and he paid for his opposition: imprisoned twice, he was once nearly beheaded, and yet he interpreted everything that happened to him as having a resonance in the Lotus Sūtra. He makes the Lotus Sūtra approachable by any person, however ordinary. Remarkably for his time, he thought that females were as favored to achieve enlightenment as men.
There is not much metaphysics in the Lotus Sūtra. One would expect long discourses on dependent origination, emptiness, and the like, but such philosophical satisfaction is not to be had. However, what little it offers has been turned into something fascinating by both Zhiyi and Nichiren. The basic idea is that of “three thousand realms [being] contained in one single moment of thought.” This mysterious, formulaic utterance has its inbuilt logic. It follows from the fact that nothing has any essence — hence, all the realms are really interpenetrating and, therefore, all the realms are Buddha-realms. Divisions are illusory. To realize this is to enlighten oneself. Yet Zhiyi and Nichiren do not think that this insight can be understood conceptually.
Unabashedly fantastical as the Lotus Sūtra is, remarkable in equal measure is the reserve and insight the authors show in presenting the book. They are not overly critical — as it is easy to be with a book speaking of miraculous happenings — nor are they overly excited by the riches it offers. Lopez and Stone are well aware that the Lotus Sūtra is not the Buddha’s word — it was compiled a good four centuries after he died. They realize that the Buddha is presented here as the originator of the Lotus Sūtra because the rebellion would not have carried much justification without his involvement in it. The upheaval spread to China, Japan, and Korea.
The appeal of this book might well lie in the fact that, even if it contains little in the way of philosophy, it is riddled with absorbing stories and parables, with fascinating people and equally fascinating gods. In being so earthy in its presentation, the book transcends ordinariness. The missionary zeal with which Chinese monks would burn themselves, or parts of their bodies, while chanting the Sūtra is a mark of its influence.
The Lotus Sūtra, which is also not the Lotus Sūtra, is given a near perfect summary when the authors write that it is a “sūtra that never ends, an assembly that never disperses, and a mission that is ongoing.” The guide that Lopez and Stone have written might just add a few more admirers to that assembly.