This piece appeared recently in the Wall Street Journal.
at thousands of Buddhist shrines in Japan—and at the Nichiren Temple in Queens, N.Y., the Rissho Kosei-Kai Center of Los Angeles, and the Daiseion-Ji temple in the small town of Wipperfürth, Germany—there rises the chant “Nam myoho renge kyo.” These five syllables don’t sound so lyrical in translation—“Glory to the wonderful Dharma of the Lotus Flower Sutra”—but for those who utter them they proclaim the enduring mystery, wisdom and salvific power of one of the most important and ancient books of Buddhist teachings, the Lotus Sutra.
The lotus, which roots in mud, rises up through water and raises its beautiful petals towards the sky, is the most ubiquitous of Buddhist motifs, an image of the ascent from the morass of worldly desires and suffering to beauty, peace and virtue. Sutra comes from the Sanskrit word “sutta” or “thread,” meaning a set of thoughts or aphorisms on a given subject (as in the Kama Sutra, a treatise on love and courtship). Since there is no written record of Buddhist doctrine from the time of the Buddha, the canon of Buddhist literature brims with hundreds of such sutras which purport to reveal his true teaching.
The Lotus Sutra has a special place in the Buddhist canon. A lively if often confounding grab bag of parables and proclamations told in both prose and verse, it is rich in narrative pleasure and contains more braggadocio than a Donald Trump speech. (“The Buddha is the king,” we read at one point, “this sutra is his wife.”) Indeed, many scholars trace its self-promotional tone back to the era of its composition, when it had to establish itself within a crowded market of religious texts and sects in India. The nature of the Lotus Sutra’s influence is taken up by the scholar of Buddhism Donald S. Lopez Jr. in the latest in Princeton University Press’s excellent series on the “lives of great religious books.”
As with so many religious works from antiquity, the Sutra has a history shrouded in uncertainty. Even its authorship is a mystery. By the time it was composed in Sanskrit early in the first millennium, the Buddha had been dead for 500 years. His striking message, at once austere and compassionate, offered a vision of liberation resolutely free of mythological content. The Buddha’s eerily convincing diagnosis of the nature of human suffering and the way to transcend it had achieved a wide currency in India and had extended to China and Sri Lanka. But Buddhism had begun to break up into sects over divergent interpretations of the teaching.
The major schism was between the Hinayana and the Mahayana. The Hinayana school stressed the importance of monastic life as the only real path to liberation. Mahayana Buddhism, on the other hand, was much more worldly even in its quest for transcendence. Its hero was not the “arhat,” or the being who has attained nirvana, but the “bodhisattva,” the enlightened person who perceives the truth but stays behind in the world to help others across to the far shore of peace.
The Lotus Sutra is a classic—and cacophonous—Mahayana text. The book unfolds as a series of dialogues between the Buddha and his followers, many of them men of great spiritual prowess themselves. The text slowly and artfully builds to a revelation: that of the “saddharma,” or true dharma. The Buddha reveals to his interlocutors that the “threefold path” that he teaches in other texts—a somewhat arcane theory of different streams of learning and discipleship that open out paths to liberation—is actually something of a deception.
In truth, there is only a single Way. But “this Dharma is indescribable / Words must fall silent.” (A very lucid account of the possible nature of this vision, which the Buddha says cannot be formulated in language, can be found in Heinrich Zimmer’s 1952 book “Philosophies of India.) The Buddha is so far gone, he explains, that had he taught such a difficult doctrine, he would have made himself clear to precisely nobody. Instead, he used the path of “skillful means” to set people off on the path to transcendence, preaching to each person according to his estimate of their capacity for enlightenment.
With this master stroke, the Lotus Sutra makes the goal of liberation at once more mysterious and more practicable (and, conveniently, knocks out other sutras competing for the attention of the faithful). The ultimate goal, so elusive, seems almost unattainable, but this makes every teacher a student and every student part of a great, throbbing chain of learning. Indeed, following the Buddha, any teacher must think seriously not just about knowledge, but the right way to transmit it. In this way, the Lotus Sutra makes itself indispensable not just as a teaching, but as a tool of pedagogy. As Mr. Lopez writes: “Perhaps the central teaching of the Lotus Sutra is to teach the Lotus Sutra.”
The allure of Buddhism eventually faded in the land of its birth, where Hinduism was too vivid and well-established to give way to this more introspective ideology. But the Lotus Sutra and other key texts gradually took root in others lands and languages. To the raft of entertaining characters found in the text itself—peasants and princes, initiates and religious masters, the Buddha as both truth-teller and deceiver—Mr. Lopez’s book adds a cast of historical figures across two millennia united only by their passion for the book, including the 13th-century Japanese monk Nichiren, whose fire-and-brimstone message declaring all other Buddhist texts but the Lotus Sutra to be heretical earned him a long incarceration on a lonely island, and Gustave Flaubert.
The author focuses on two especially interesting figures, both of them translators. The first, the Buddhist monk Kumarajiva, lived in eastern India in the 4th century, and had the misfortune of being taken hostage by an invading Chinese general. Over long years as a prisoner, he picked up enough Chinese to translate the Lotus Sutra for the benefit of the Chinese emperor, already a devout Buddhist. Thus the Sutra took root in China, and spread slowly through the Far East.
Just as fascinating is the story of how the book arrived in the West. The Sutra was among a large cache of Buddhist manuscripts sent early in the 19th century to the French Sanskritist Eugène Burnouf by Brian Hodgson, an enterprising young officer of the British East India Company. Burnouf immediately set to translating it, noting among other things the book’s “discursive and very Socratic method of exposition.” His French version, published posthumously in 1852, made its way across the Atlantic, where it was picked up and circulated in translation by Ralph Waldo Emerson and the Transcendentalists, who regularly published scriptures from Asia in their magazine, the Dial.
Mr. Lopez’s book shows us that translators are the unsung heroes of religious, as much as literary, history. Here he has serviced the text with yet another sort of translation—this one to a general audience.
The Lotus Sutra is a rejection, observes Mr. Lopez, of the kind of nirvana “that is a solitary and passive state of eternal peace.” Rather, we are all travelers on a long road, even the enlightened ones among us; we cannot see through to the end right from the start and must begin with small acts of compassion and caring. The inspiring message of the Lotus Sutra is that buddhahood is immanent in all of us.