Introduction to the Lotus Sutra - Preface
“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
Soon after entering university in December of 1943, I was sent to the front as a student soldier. I wondered if I were allowed to bring but a single book on the trip, possibly to my death, which would I want to bring. Many of my fellow student soldiers were thinking the same thing. We all worked at part-time jobs in order to be able to buy books, and often lent them to each other. Yet we were perplexed by the idea of selecting only one. One fellow insisted on bringing Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. Some Christian students, not surprisingly, chose the Bible, as was natural for Christians.
Since in those days my own interest was shifting from Western philosophy to Buddhist thought, I decided to select one appropriate book from among the many related to Buddhism. It was the Lotus Sutra.
The Lotus Sutra—the so-called Buddhist Bible—has long been read by people of many different Buddhist sects. It has so influenced the literature and thought of Japan that a new genre of “Lotus literature” was created. It has also spread among common people, providing spiritual support in their daily lives. In modern times, several thinkers and literary people have appeared who based their lives on the Lotus Sutra.
When the Lotus Sutra was translated and introduced to China, it was called the teaching that unifies all ideas. Zhiyi (538–597) later attempted to establish a unified Buddhism based on the Lotus Sutra, just as the Sui dynasty was attempting to unify all of China. By establishing a unified Buddhism, Zhiyi sought to provide a comprehensive and unified worldview and philosophy of life based on Buddhism. The Lotus Sutra was seen as an excellent systematic theory to that end. The rediscovery of the truly profound thought contained in the narrative and literary expression of the Lotus Sutra brought forth, in a sense, the so-called Tiantai Lotus philosophy.
Tiantai Lotus philosophy came from China to Japan along with the Lotus Sutra, and was further transformed by new developments there. Dengyo Daishi, Saicho, founded the Japanese Tendai school at Mt. Hiei. Mt. Hiei was later to become a temple of truth, and played a central role not only within Japanese Buddhism, but with respect to intellectual thought in Japan in general as well. There, under the influence of the Lotus Sutra, various typically Buddhist ideas were collected, edited, and sometimes intensified, and Buddhist philosophy reached its highest level, known as “Tendai original enlightenment thought.” This was a “breakthrough,” going beyond the limitations of ordinary human thinking. As a result it evolved into an exposition of a monistic worldview. We could say that it carried Buddhist thought to an extreme. This original enlightenment thought has been influential not only on Japanese Buddhism, but also on various branches of Japanese art and culture.
The founders of the new Buddhism of Kamakura—Honen, Shinran, Dogen, Nichiren and others—had all once been student monks at Mt. Hiei, just outside of Kyoto, and had learned Tendai Lotus or Tendai original enlightenment thought there. Among them, Dogen and Nichiren retained a close relationship with the Lotus Sutra to the end. In Dogen’s great work, Treasury of the True Dharma-Eye, among citations from many sutras, those from the Lotus Sutra are most frequent, and we can also identify additional passages that seem to teach Lotus philosophical theory. In this sense, it can be said that one cannot understand the Treasury of the True Dharma-Eye without knowing the Lotus Sutra. And, as the story goes, when Dogen himself realized that he had a serious illness, he prepared himself for death by reciting passages from the Lotus Sutra.
Nichiren also devoted himself to the Lotus Sutra, and relied on Tendai Lotus theory in his everyday life. Yet, suffering from several persecutions during his life, such as being exiled, he gradually changed his perspective toward the Lotus Sutra. The Sutra consists of three major parts: the first elucidates a unifying truth of the universe (the Wonderful Dharma of One Vehicle); the second sheds light on everlasting personal life (the everlasting original Buddha); and the third emphasizes the actual activities of human beings (the bodhisattva way). In brief, there are three major kinds of teaching in the Lotus Sutra, which correspond to truth, life, and practice. Nichiren shifted the focus of his attention to the third.
In this third part, emphasis is placed on the practice of devoting one’s life completely to the Sutra, and those who practice it are praised and presented as apostles of the Buddha, dispatched by him to this world with the mission of embodying the Buddha’s Truth in this world. Though grief stricken by hardship, by reading this part with his whole heart and mind, Nichiren was inspired, gained courage to live and be joyous, was enabled to accept suffering with a self-respecting, even elitist, consciousness of being the Buddha’s disciple, and could fight against the secular authorities. He also grew eager to reform the world socially and to establish an ideal state of world peace. This idea has been passed down to followers of Nichiren who are devoted to the Lotus Sutra, giving rise to powerful Nichiren movements in modern and recent times.
The Lotus Sutra, however, is also a mysterious sutra. This is because on the one hand, it has been highly revered, and on the other, has had the opposite reputation. During the Tokugawa period a variety of theories critical of Buddhism arose, and others that were outright anti-Buddhist. One was the theory that the content of the Lotus Sutra is vacuous. Atsutane Hirata and others criticized the Lotus Sutra as being empty puffery, nothing more than snake oil medicine. Hirata’s snake oil theory subsequently grew in fame and is still known today. Some modern Buddhist scholars, as well, criticize the Lotus Sutra for having no theory and for emphasizing martyrdom, saying that by giving an exclusive and closed impression it has created a group that is estranged from mainstream society. Thus there is the strange situation in which the Lotus Sutra has reputations at opposite extremes. As I will discuss some of the seven wonders of Buddhism at the beginning of this book, we can count this matter of having reputations at opposite extremes as one of those wonders.
Leaving ten soldiers behind, my military unit was moved to the Philippines, and suffered a crushing defeat just before landing there. I was one of the ten who remained behind. As he was leaving, the commander of my company asked me to teach him a few passages from a sutra that would be suitable for mourning the dead. I gave him some famous verses taken from chapter 16, “The Lifetime of the Tathagata.” I imagine that that company commander died with his soldiers before he had time to mourn them. Later, I was ordered to transfer several times, and sometimes had to face death. But I was never without the Lotus Sutra. When I was discharged, my copy of the Sutra was more worn out than I was.
I am filled with deep emotion as I set out to explain the Lotus Sutra, the book that has been the most important in my own life.
End of June, 1969