Introduction to the Lotus Sutra - Introduction
“An elegant historical, textual, and philosophical overview of what is arguably the most widely disseminated scripture of Mahayana Buddhism.”
—Mark Unno, editor of Buddhism and Psychotherapy
On a visit to Japan in the autumn of 1983, I had the good fortune of being introduced to Yoshiro Tamura (1921-90) through arrangements made by Nikkyo Niwano, the founder and then President of Rissho Kosei-kai. Soon we were able to arrange for Prof. Tamura to come to Chicago the following Spring to give a series of lectures on the Lotus Sutra at Meadville Lombard Theological School at the University of Chicago. Since those lectures were very well received, Tamura was invited back to the University of Chicago as Numata Professor in the spring of 1985. During subsequent years I met Tamura many times, both in Chicago and in Japan. He was a key member in a series of small conferences that I had organized in Chicago and in Japan. It was partly on account of Tamura’s encouragement that my own interest in the Lotus Sutra grew enormously during that time. Together, Tamura and I cooked up a few projects related to the Lotus Sutra, which led to my eventual move to Japan in January of 1989, in part to work with and to continue to learn from him.
Unfortunately, our collaboration was not to be realized. Just before I left Chicago to go to Japan, Tamura was diagnosed with liver cancer. He passed away less than three months later. It was shortly after this that Michio Shinozaki, then Dean of Rissho Kosei-kai’s Gakurin Seminary, and I committed ourselves to translating Tamura’s small introduction to the Lotus Sutra, The Lotus Sutra: Truth • Life • Practice.
Tamura was not a popular writer. When we met he was a Professor at Rissho University, Nichiren-shu’s university in Tokyo. This followed his retirement from the University of Tokyo in 1982, where he held the Chair in Japanese Buddhism. He was an academic and a historian. Yet he also had a kind of layman’s love of the Lotus Sutra, which is reflected in his Preface to this book. He knew as well as anyone that the Lotus Sutra was not merely famous for his controversial appraisal of Tendai thought, particularly of “original enlightenment thought.” In this introduction too, Tamura claimed that Buddhist philosophy reached its zenith with Tendai original enlightenment thought. He was, in fact, an advocate of this way of thinking, not only as a way of thinking within Buddhism, but as a positive influence on Japanese thought and culture. In more recent years, this aspect of Tendai thought has received a good bit of criticism, primarily for fostering an uncritical attitude toward the status quo, and thereby sanctioning discrimination and injustice. Noriaki Hakamaya, whose critical Buddhism is aimed more squarely at the Kyoto school of Nishida and Nishitani than at Tamura, finds in original enlightenment thought an instance of what he calls “topical Buddhism”: a Buddhism that embraces a kind of monistic, absolute, unchanging, substantial ground of all things. Hakamaya finds such views more akin to Hinduism or Taoism than to “authentic” Buddhism, or to what one finds in the Lotus Sutra.
Some might think that the section of this book dealing with Tendai thought should be updated somehow to reflect how Tamura would have responded to recent critiques of Tendai original enlightenment thought. In fact, we can only speculate on how Tamura might have responded to such developments. My own guess is that he would have rejected any form of monistic ground, while supporting the affirmation of the reality of all things, a notion found both in the Lotus Sutra and some forms of Tendai original enlightenment thought. But, since this is simply speculation on my part, it would seem inappropriate to change Tamura’s text to reflect developments of which he was not a part.
Though Tamura does discuss Tendai thought in this book, it is really about the Lotus Sutra, and very little of what is known about the Lotus Sutra has changed since Tamura wrote it. There are a variety of opinions on certain matters related to the history of the sutra, such as why the Sanskrit originals of the Lotus from which Chinese translations were made have never been found, some of which differ from Tamura’s view. But this would be true even if Tamura were writing the book today.
This translation does revise Tamura’s text in some ways. In a few places, relatively minor things have been brought up to date, and a few of the more obscure references have been omitted. The biggest change is the omission of something fit for academic scrutiny, but a religious text very much alive in the contemporary world.
His small book, first published in Japan in 1969, was intended for a popular audience. It introduces the teachings of the Lotus Sutra, some of the scholarly work on its composition, and the role it has had in East Asian, especially Japanese, history. Part of a popular but sophisticated series, the book was intended to inform educated, non-specialist Japanese readers about the Lotus Sutra and its uses and evaluations in history. Since the Lotus Sutra is the primary Buddhist text for several traditional Japanese Buddhist denominations of the Nichiren and Tendai traditions, as well as for several new Buddhist organizations that emerged in the twentieth century, particularly for the Reiyukai, Rissho Kosei-kai and Soka Gakkai, the number of potential readers in contemporary Japan would have been very substantial. Well over twenty million Japanese recite regularly from the Lotus Sutra.
So the audience Tamura intended for his book was not made up of his fellow academics—at least not primarily—but of serious lay Buddhists who already had some familiarity with the Lotus Sutra. Of course, we cannot assume as much familiarity with the Lotus Sutra on the part of an English reading audience. But with the growing popularity of many varieties of Buddhism in the United States and Europe, the number of people in those lands that know of the Lotus Sutra can be presumed to be growing, too. We hope that this revision and translation of Tamura’s introduction to the Lotus Sutra will deepen for many their understanding of the Sutra, and broaden their understanding and appreciation of Buddhism in general by historically situating the sutra and surveying its contributions to the development of East Asian Buddhist thought.
Tamura was raised in a Christian family, but soon grew dissatisfied with Christianity for a variety of reasons, and did not maintain any affiliation with the church as an adult. While it would be fair, I think, to say that he was deeply impressed by teachings of the Lotus Sutra and enjoyed friendly relations with several Buddhist organizations, including the traditional Nichiren-shu and the modern Rissho Kosei-kai, so far as I know, he never became a practicing member of any religious organization. Like many of his academic colleagues, Tamura was religiously unaffiliated.
In Japan and among students of Japanese Buddhism, Tamura is most substantial biographical sections from the latter part of the text. Tamura had included there several brief biographies of Japanese men who were prominent followers of the Lotus Sutra in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Almost none of these figures are well known outside of Japan. I hope to include the excised biographies in another work that will be a collection of biographies of Chinese and Japanese men and women whose lives were greatly impacted by the Lotus Sutra. Tamura’s intent in this part of the book was obviously to show the variety of ways in which devotion to the Lotus Sutra had been put into practice, that is, how it had been embodied in social and political life.
Introduction to the Lotus Sutra is, I believe, a superb introduction to the Sutra. While it is not a substitute for delving deeply into the Sutra itself, or for studying other scholarly and non-scholarly views of it, it is a fine introduction to the work. Tamura introduces the main teachings found in the Lotus Sutra, the generally accepted scholarly account of how the sutra was compiled in stages, an outline of traditional interpretations of it, and a survey of its importance and influence in Japanese life and culture. One could, of course, ask for more in any of these areas, but supplying more details, more extensive discussion, and greater treatment of contemporary scholarly views would call for a different kind of book. This book serves as a wonderful introduction to the Lotus Sutra and its place in history, and will be of value to people interested in the Sutra for religious reasons and for students interested in enriching their understanding of Mahayana Buddhism.