Introduction to the Lotus Sutra - Selections
Are Sutras the Words of the Buddha?
Some of the Wonders of Buddhism
The Lotus Sutra in Sanskrit, like many other sutras, begins with the words evam maya shrutam—“This is what I heard.” The “I” indicates Ananda, one of the ten great disciples of the Buddha, for many years Shakyamuni’s personal attendant. He was first among the disciples in memorizing Shakyamuni’s sermons, and so was called “first and foremost in hearing the sermons.” At the meeting for compiling the sutras after the Buddha’s death, Ananda recited the teachings he had memorized, beginning with the words “This is what I heard.” That is why, they say, the words evam maya shrutam were added at the beginning of the sutras. It is also said that when Shakyamuni passed away, he ordered Ananda to add such a phrase at the beginning in order to distinguish Buddhist sutras from sutras of other faiths. But this is no more than a legend.
In some sutras, the “I” need not be identified with Ananda. But the Buddhist sutras are supposed to have been told as Ananda or other disciples heard them from Shakyamuni. In other words, the sutras are supposed to have been faithful records of the teachings and words of Shakyamuni Buddha, and so have been revered from ancient times as the “golden mouth” or “direct sermons” of Shakyamuni. It is a wonder, however, that there is such an extremely vast number of sutras that are direct sermons of Shakyamuni.
Collectively, the sutras are called the “Great Collection of Sutras.” This is the so-called tripitaka or “three baskets,” the three divisions of the Buddhist scriptures: the Buddha’s teaching (sutra); the precepts and rules of the community of monks and nuns (vinaya); and commentaries on the Buddha’steachings (abhidharma). A strict interpretation of the meaning of “sutra” should exclude vinaya and abhidharma from the Buddha’s teachings, the sutras. But the sutras, even when taken alone, constitute a great number of volumes. From ancient times, Chinese and Tibetan versions were translated, and Sanskrit and Pali texts were composed, thus producing a variety of lists and catalogs. If we count only sutras as such, excluding those that are only duplicates, the total number of sutras is over six thousand.
In Christianity there is only one Bible. A single sutra is often equivalent to several books of the Bible. Why were so many Buddhist sutras produced? This is one of the wonders of Buddhism. Modern readers, having a more critical stance toward the tradition, easily surmised that most sutras were produced over a long period of time following the death of Shakyamuni. We can see whether a sutra is full of fantasy and fiction if we read it, and the Lotus Sutra is no exception. We know that it is the product of a later period, and could not be the direct words of Shakyamuni Buddha.
Since we can readily see that later Buddhists freely produced sutras, why was it claimed, by labeling them “sutras,” that they were the word of Shakyamuni? We might find such use of the Buddha’s name very audacious. It is, in fact, audacious. There are several reasons for it. One is that Indians were not very interested in history. It is generally said that India does not have histories. Setting aside the question of whether this is actually true, it is the case, generally speaking, that Indians were more interested in the boundless and unlimited that goes beyond this concrete, historical world.
Study of and devotion to the Lotus Sutra have been popular since it appeared in India, China, and Japan, but the interest in it is quite different in each case. In India interest in it was particularly characterized by the universality and equality of truth. We can see the Indian way of thinking in such trans-historical interests. Thus, Indian Buddhists were relatively uninterested in historical facts about Shakyamuni, and so asserted without hesitation that later sutras were the words of Shakyamuni. This is not the only reason, but it does allow us to understand to some extent the phenomenon of attributing later sutras to Shakyamuni.
After the sutras were introduced into China and translated into Chinese, many Chinese translations were preserved. But the texts from which they were translated have completely disappeared, and we do not know what happened to them. At the present time we only have original Sanskrit texts—or to be more precise, copies of Sanskrit texts—discovered in Nepal, Central Asia, and other places, from the nineteenth century on.
The disappearance of the Sanskrit texts in China may have been due to such things as long periods of war or frequent anti-Buddhist movements. But even during those times, Chinese Buddhists contrived numerous ways of preserving Chinese sutras. Moving them to Korea or Japan was one; carving sutras into stone was another. When movements to revive Buddhism arose, the scattered Chinese sutras and commentaries had to be searched for in many places, even by dispatching people to Korea or Japan for that purpose. Yet we find no evidence of such an effort as far as the original texts are concerned. There were instances of people going to India to find additional original texts and successfully bringing them back to China after great hardship. But even these texts vanished once they had been translated. In any event, sooner or later they disappeared.
Other reasons must also be sought. One lies in the Sino-centrism of the Chinese. It was a matter of pride for the Chinese that China is called the center of the world—the Middle Kingdom. Under the influence of this kind of thinking, translated sutras gained authority, and once they were translated the original texts were probably discarded without a second thought.
There are probably other reasons as well. The Chinese, for example, are said to be a people who value a pragmatic, down-to-earth way of life. When Chinese wisdom, which is thought to consist of statesmanship and the art of living, is applied to sutras, sutras written in Chinese are deemed nearer to a practical way of life and more useful for the Chinese. Thus the texts that were chiefly used in China were in Chinese, and the texts from which they were translated became more and more distant.
These reasons for the disappearance of the Indian texts in China are little more than speculation. We have to await further research. In Japan, sutras inherited from China have been used as they are, and have never really been translated into Japanese. No wonder we call this another wonder! If we contrast the Chinese use of Indian texts with the Japanese use of Chinese texts in order to probe the reasons for both, we may discover a first step to understanding both of these wonders.
As we reflected on the Buddhist history of the three countries, we glimpsed various wonders, which we can count among the seven wonders of Buddhism. Although Buddhism is not supposed to be polytheistic, all sorts of buddhas have been recognized and worshipped in it. So much so that ordinary people may feel mystified by this. Even now, within a single sect we see different examples of the main object of worship from temple to temple.
Those within the Buddhist fold fear offending its authorities if they raise questions or point out its wonders, and they worry about drawing attention to themselves or having the purity of their faith questioned by their own sect. But ordinary people will readily notice that there are a number of such wonders within Buddhism.
Mahayana Buddhism is Not the Words of the Buddha
European and modern scientific research methods were introduced into Japan, and into the field of Buddhist studies during the Meiji period, and Japanese scholars undertook to study original texts and do historical research on them. Along with this came the theory that the Mahayana is not the words of the Buddha—that is to say, the idea that Mahayana sutras are not authentic sermons of Shakyamuni. There was a call for a return to an early, or fundamental, form of Buddhism.
Most distinguished Japanese scholars of Buddhism devoted themselves to the study of early Buddhism. Masaharu Anesaki (1873-1949), who founded the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Tokyo, said in the Preface to his Historical Buddha and Dharmakaya Buddha that the eternal truth is to be seen in concrete history. Further, in a book titled Fundamental Buddhism, he attempted to identify the authentic sermons of Shakyamuni in the original Pali canon.
However, there had already been others before that who advocated the idea that the Mahayana is not the words of the Buddha. One such person was Nakamoto Tominaga (1715-46). He was born into an Osaka family whose business for many generations had been the production of soy sauce. But his father was unusually fond of learning, and under his influence, Nakamoto set his heart on learning. He became the Confucian scholar of the town, had disciples, wrote several kinds of books, and did some publishing. He died at thirty-one due to a weak constitution, but his literary talent was such that he became quite famous and influential.
His most remarkable characteristic is that he was full of critical spirit. The rise of the merchant class after the Genroku period (1688-1703), and the new climate of freedom among Osaka merchants in particular, probably contributed to his critical spirit. In any case, Nakamoto’s grasp of Confucianism and Buddhism from the perspective of historical development, and his critical attention to prior traditional scholarly research were certainly remarkable. Though he lived in what was still the early modern period, in his attitude toward scholarship he already had a foot in the late modern period.
In Emerging from Meditation, his most characteristic book, he proposed the theory of “development through accumulation.” This is the idea that theories and ways of thought develop historically, in the sense that once a particular idea or theory is established, another distinct idea or theory is added in order to surpass it. Thus, theories and ways of thought continuously develop through history. In other words, new theories are always arising throughout history, piling up one on top of the other. This theory, when applied to Buddhist sutras, makes many of them into products of “development through accumulation,” which were not taught by Shakyamuni during his lifetime, but produced and added one to another during an orderly process of historical development. From this perspective, Nakamoto brought an historical order to the formation of the sutras.
In the first chapter of Emerging from Meditation, “The Sequence in which the Teachings Arose,” Nakamoto says that before Shakyamuni appeared, there were non-Buddhist teachings, and that Shakyamuni founded Buddhism by adding to and complementing such teachings. And after the death of Shakyamuni, the three baskets of Buddhist scriptures were compiled—the teachings of the Buddha, the precepts and rules of the monastic community, and the commentaries on the teachings—which led to the appearance of Small Vehicle Buddhism. Subsequently, followers of Manjushri Bodhisattva created the wisdom (prajna) teachings by adding to the Small Vehicle. Then, one after another, there appeared groups devoted to the Lotus, Garland, Nirvana, and Lankavatara (the Sudden School) Sutras, as well as esoteric groups, which are collectively called Mahayana Buddhism. Thus, he concluded that it is ignorant of Buddhist scholars to consider all of these teachings to be authentic words of Shakyamuni.
In the remaining chapters of the book, Nakamoto comments in detail on these teachings and theories, pointing out various divergences and discrepancies in them, and spelling out how impossible it is to think that Shakyamuni, alone, had taught all of them. He indicates that Buddhist scholars’ so-called “hermeneutic understanding of doctrine” was a far-fetched interpretation, used in order to make consistent the discrepancies and divergent theories that come with regarding them to be Shakyamuni’s teachings and ideas. He was very critical of Tiantai Zhiyi’s classification of the teachings into five chronological periods. Zhiyi placed all of the teachings or sermons that Shakyamuni had preached throughout his lifetime into five chronological periods, thereby giving an order to all of the sutras, and ranking the Lotus Sutra, which he placed in the fifth period, as the highest and ultimate teaching.
Nakamoto regarded only a small portion of the Agama Sutras to be authentic sermons of Shakyamuni. The Agama Sutras were transmitted orally until they were written down long after Shakyamuni’s death. Accordingly, Nakamoto made the logical claim that, since the verse (gatha) portions of the sutras were more suitable for oral recitation, the main body of a sutra is found there. His was a surprisingly great achievement, in that such insight and investigation into the formation of sutras is consistent with what modern research has now verified.
The theory that Mahayana Buddhism is not the words of the Buddha had been proposed long before in India and China, but in those cases it was mainly a matter of resistance to the Mahayana by Small Vehicle Buddhists. That is, Mahayana Buddhists called their school the “great vehicle (mahayana)” for attaining the truth and regarded other Buddhist schools as the “small vehicle.” Thus was born the term hinayana, or Small Vehicle. Small Vehicle Buddhists were naturally resistant to being crowned with this name, and countered their opponents by using the theory that the Mahayana is not the words of the Buddha.
Thus developed the theory that Mahayana is not the words of the Buddha, and not as a result of the kind of scientific, verifiable approach that Nakamoto would take. It is no exaggeration to say that the verifiable, scientific claim that Mahayana is not the words of the Buddha began with Nakamoto. In any case, his approach to investigation was a first in the history of Buddhist studies, a hundred years earlier than the appearance of textual criticism in Christianity arose in Europe.
Nakamoto also pointed out that individual subjective thinking influences thought and language, which appear differently according to the influences of the age, the society, and the regional ethos. He says, “In language there is a person. In language there is a world. In language there is variety.” And to sum this up, “In language there are three things.” The expression “In language there is a person” means that how anything is understood and expressed depends on personal character. Accordingly, thought tends to be colored by personal bias. “In language there is a world” means that thought and language change with changes in society. And “In language there is variety” means that words differ in meaning depending on the time and place of their use, which he goes on to classify as five types. He calls the entire proposition “three things and five varieties.”
Concerning the influence of the regional ethos, Nakamoto claimed that the characteristic ethos of India, for example, lay in its “fantasy,” and that it was according to this reliance on fantasy that Buddhist sutras were produced there. Here “fantasy” means without limits. The word was used by Indian non-Buddhists and is similar to a Buddhist term meaning “supernatural.” This use of “fantasy” was the driving force behind the various kinds of imaginative thought and expression that were brought together in order to produce the Buddhist sutras. An apt example of fantastic fantasy is found in the proclamation that Shakyamuni is the everlasting Buddha, made in the sixteenth chapter of the Lotus Sutra.
By the way, “letters” characterize the Chinese ethos, while “conciseness” characterizes the Japanese ethos. The Chinese favor eloquence and rhetoric, while the Japanese favor simplicity and straightforward expressions. Since Nakamoto said that “Confucians indulge in ‘letters,’ and Buddhists indulge in ‘fantasy,’” it appears that he preferred the “conciseness” of the Japanese. Yet, he was also critical of the Japanese, saying that their greatest fault is that they too highly value the esoteric and have a tendency to conceal things. In ancient times the Japanese were gentle, but under the influence of Shinto and the performing arts, which were prominent from medieval to early modern times, the Japanese life-style, schools, and so forth seemingly grew more strict, and systems of exclusive transmission and instruction were established. Nakamoto lamented this as a derailment of the way of sincerity.
Several books were written from the Buddhist side to refute Nakamoto’s Emerging from Meditation when it was first published. Yet anti-Buddhists of the time, who were rising in prominence, cherished his work. The Confucian scholar, Tenyu Hattori (1724-69) was motivated by it to write a volume called Nakedness, which criticizing Buddhism in a way similar to Nakamoto. In addition, the Japanese classical scholar Atsutane Hirata wrote a four-volume work, Laughter Following Meditation, in which he mimicked Nakamoto’s Emerging from Meditation and ridiculed Buddhism in crude and unrefined ways. Atsutane wrote movingly in this book that he had tried in every way possible to find Nakamoto’s Emerging from Meditation, after reading that Norinaga Motoori (1730-1801) had recommended reading the book in his eight volume Treasury of Essays.
Return to Early Buddhism
As previously stated, the theory that Mahayana is not the words of the Buddha appeared in Buddhist circles after European and modern research methods were introduced into Japan during the Meiji period. Buddhist scholars who wanted to study original Buddhist texts and do historical research on Buddhist scriptures introduced the idea. Because some of those scholars were themselves priests, criticizing the Mahayana scriptures revered within the very schools to which they belonged, and in which they earned their daily bread, was taboo. So they were reluctant to listen to and even closed their eyes to the theory that Mahayana is not the words of the Buddha. Some frowned upon such criticism. Among Buddhist scholars were some who, though they belonged to a school, agreed with the theory that Mahayana is not the words of the Buddha in their academic studies, yet adhered to traditional authority when returning to speak in sectarian contexts.
According to the theory that Mahayana is not the words of the Buddha however, early Buddhist sutras are held to be the very words of Buddha—the authentic words of Shakyamuni. Thus, one could hear among Buddhist scholars of the time a call for a return to early Buddhism. The terms “early Buddhist sutras” and “early Buddhism” have been used since Meiji times. “Early Buddhist sutras” refer to the Pali scriptures that came to be known during the Meiji period through Chinese translations of the Agama sutras—traditionally regarded as the Small Vehicle sutras—and through studies by European scholars.
The Pali scriptures were transmitted to Sri Lanka and throughout South East Asia. In Japan they have been referred to as “The Great Collection of Sutras Transmitted in the South.” The sutra portion of the three baskets (sutra, vinaya, abhidharma) consists of five collections (nikayas): the Long Discourses, (Digha-nikaya), the Middle Length Discourses (Majjhikma-nikaya), the Connected Discourses (Samyutta-nikaya), the Numerical Discourses (Anguttara-nikaya), and Miscellaneous Discourses (Khuddaka-nikaya).
The Chinese versions of the Agama sutras were transmitted from northwest India, via Central Asia, Nepal, and so on, to China, where they were translated into Chinese (the northern tradition). We assume that the original texts were written mainly in Sanskrit. The Sanskrit term agama means “traditional teaching.” The Chinese Agama sutras consist of four sets of texts: the Long Discourses, the Middle-Length Discourses, the Numerically Arranged Discourses, and Miscellaneous Discourses. These four, though not identical with them, correspond to four of the five Pali nikayas just mentioned.
The term “early Buddhism” refers to the Buddhism of the time when these early sutras were completed. Small Vehicle Buddhists devotedly followed these early sutras. However, since these sutras were completed prior to the period when Small Vehicle Buddhists split into several sects, thus falling into discord, the period in which the early sutras were formed, called the age of early Buddhism, is distinguished from it and placed at the beginning of the historical development of Buddhism. The period of sectarian division is considered to be the period of Small Vehicle Buddhism.
Some Buddhist scholars called the period of Shakyamuni and his disciples “fundamental Buddhism,” and placed it in the preeminent position, and so Buddhism came to be classified into fundamental, early, Small Vehicle, and Mahayana. But since “Hinayana” (Small Vehicle) is a pejorative term used by Mahayana Buddhists, and the peoples of Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia still believe in this form of Buddhism, these days it is called “sectarian” Buddhism to avoid using the pejorative term.
The formative periods of Buddhism are presumed to be approximately as follows. First, with respect to the dates of Shakyamuni’s birth and death, there are now two leading theories, one favoring the dates of approximately 560-480 BCE, the other favoring the dates of approximately 460-380 BCE In the case of the former, the period of early Buddhism is supposed to have lasted for about two hundred and fifty years, until the time of King Ashoka. According to the latter theory, it is supposed to have lasted for only about one hundred and fifty years.
Buddhism began to split into sects during the time of King Ashoka. When this dividing ended one hundred and fifty years later, around the first century BCE, about twenty different so-called sects had been established. So this period is called the period of sectarian (Small Vehicle) Buddhism. The disputes that arose among the various sects during that period gave rise to the creation of new treatises on abhidharma.
Reform movements opposed to the Buddhism that had existed until that time arose around the beginning of the Common Era. This was Mahayana Buddhism, and from approximately that time on we have the so-called period of Mahayana Buddhism. Sectarian Buddhism did not disappear with the coming of Mahayana, but continued to exist alongside, and occasionally opposed to, Mahayana Buddhism, as the latter grew in influence. As will be discussed in the next section, the development of Mahayana Buddhism is divided into four periods, and specific, so-called Mahayana sutras were produced or significantly enlarged in each of these periods.
When viewed from the perspective of the scheme of periodization, as “early Buddhist sutras,” the original Pali text versions of the Agama sutras or their Chinese translations become the earliest Buddhist sutras. And these, accordingly, must be the words of the Buddha, being the closest to the period of Shakyamuni. In contrast, the Mahayana sutras, which were produced around the beginning of the first century, naturally come to be seen as not being the words of the Buddha. Thus, the theory that Mahayana is not the words of the Buddha prevailed. Meanwhile, the call to return to early Buddhism developed, and research on early sutras flourished.
The Meaning of the Words of the Buddha
As recent research on early sutras has progressed, the idea that these early sutras, because they are the earliest, are the words of the Buddha has become suspect. Among the early sutras, the Pali sutras had been thought to be earlier than the Agama sutras that exist in Chinese translation, but research comparing the two has revealed that this is not necessarily so. Research has found that some components of the Pali sutras were formed somewhat later than the Agama sutras. In addition, there are definite indications that some components of both the Pali sutras and the Agama sutras were formed after the birth of the Mahayana sutras.
If this is so, the conviction that early sutras are the earliest, and thus the words of Buddha, cannot be firmly established. To be sure, among the early sutras there are a few that seem to be the earliest. But even within these seemingly earliest ones, analysis of the terms in them suggests that some parts were added later. Thus it is extremely difficult not only to maintain that the early sutras as a whole are the earliest, but to identify definitively the earliest parts within them, as well. Given these facts, it would be ridiculous to claim that the early sutras are the words of the Buddha.
Thus, even if we return to early Buddhism or to the early sutras, we reach the conclusion that we cannot confidently say that they are the earliest, or the words of the Buddha. If it is said that Mahayana is not the words of the Buddha, the same has to be said of the early sutras. Amazingly, Nakamoto Tominaga and Tenyu Hattori had already pointed this out. Nakamoto concluded that we can find something close to Shakyamuni’s words in the Agama sutras, but only in a few chapters. Following him, Tenyu argued that “Even many Small Vehicle sutras were, to a large extent, produced at the hands of people of a later period. Rarely are many authentic words of the Buddha within them.”26 Moreover, since they did not have the tools for doing so decisively, the authentic parts were not clearly identified.
When one hears the term “sutra,” something written immediately comes to mind. But this was not originally so. As Nakamoto says, Shakyamuni’s disciples transmitted his words through memorization. The Buddhist sutras were conveyed from mouth to mouth. After Shakyamuni’s passing, several meetings were held to compile the Buddhist teachings. For a while these meetings were convened for the purpose of verifying, through oral recitation, what had been memorized. According to legend, when Mahinda, the son of King Ashoka, was ordered to take Buddhism to Ceylon around the first century, some of the scriptures were written for the first time. As a result, the Pali sutras came into being.
Buddhist expressions were carved in the Brahmi and Kharoshthi scripts on King Ashoka’s stone pillars, but this does not mean that Buddhist sutras were already written down by the time of King Ashoka. We presume that the Pali language was established around the first century BCE, that Buddhist scriptures were first written in Pali, and that they were brought to the South and first appeared in writing there. Yet the Pali language does not have its own alphabet or characters, but has been written in the scripts of South Asian countries, such as Ceylon, Burma, Thailand, and Cambodia. The script of these South Asian countries, in turn, originated from the expressions carved in stone in Brahmi script.
Since the words of the Buddha were handed down through memorization in the beginning, it was likely put into a form that could easily be memorized. Such forms as rhymed gathas or verses were used, as Nakamoto said. Based on this, we surmise that the verse portions of sutras were typically formed prior to the prose portions. But since Shakyamuni himself did not teach in rhymed verse, we cannot conclude that the verse portions are the authentic words of Shakyamuni, just because they are earlier. Rather, the problem lies in transmission through memorization. Memorization is not necessarily less accurate than writing, but during the time when the memorized materials were being handed down, the meanings of expressions would have changed depending on how they were understood, such that, in the long run, meanings quite different from those of the original expression may have emerged. In fact, there are many among the early sutras that emerged from distinct schools that revered different sutras.
Another reason for there being so many early sutras lays in Śākyamuni’s way of teaching. We think that he did not teach fixed doctrine, but rather according to his audience’s ability to understand; that is, according to a person’s capacity. So a variety of teachings emerged that were eventually compiled into diverse sutras.
As far as texts are concerned, the Pali texts were put into their present form around the fifth century, when Buddhaghosha travelled to Sri Lanka and compiled them. We should be able to distinguish earlier sutras from later ones, but as mentioned earlier, materials thought to be from later generations are mixed in with them. There are some Mahayana manuscripts among the many copies of Sanskrit originals recently discovered in places such as Central Asia and Nepal, which appear to be old. The manuscript of the Lotus Sutra discovered at Gilgit in Kashmir is one example, but it doesn’t date back to earlier than the fifth or sixth century.
Most of the Sanskrit originals of these texts were written in the Gupta script, which was based on the Brahmi script used in the time of King Ashoka in the third century BCE. Gupta script was used in northern India beginning in the fourth century. The script that we usually see Sanskrit written in today is called Devanagari, which was derived from the Nagari family of scripts around the tenth century. The Siddham script, which was brought to Japan via China in the seventh century, was derived from the Gupta script, supposedly after the sixth century.
The translation of sutras did not begin in China until the second century, so the texts on which they were based were much earlier. But since they no longer exist, we cannot consider them here.
As indicated earlier, even if we were to return to early Buddhism, we would be faced with the incredible difficulty in finding authentic words of the Buddha, and discover that it is impossible to do so. Thus we can say that early Buddhism is not the words of the Buddha for the same reasons that Mahayana Buddhism is not the words of the Buddha. In the end, we may feel a sense of desperation, given that Buddhism as a whole is not the teaching of Shakyamuni Buddha.
But in recent years a new tendency has emerged in which an attempt is made to reaffirm the faith of Buddhism by reinterpreting the meaning of “the words of the Buddha.” Accordingly, “the words of the Buddha” need not necessarily be understood to be Śākyamuni’s exact words, but should be taken as what he truly meant. In other words, since terms and expressions vary from time to time depending on changes in society, the important thing is to address the content we have received via the vessels of words and expressions—that is, the ideas.
Two ways of thinking about or studying Buddhism emerge from this point of departure. The first is to dig down to the common stream that underlies the various sutras and forms of Buddhism to find what is called the fundamental spirit of Buddhism, the heart of Buddhism, or the teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha. Accordingly, the different sutras and schools of Buddhism boil down to nothing more than differences of expression due to differences in time, society, and level of understanding. The second way of thinking about Buddhism is to seek the depths of Buddhist thought. Even if Mahayana Buddhism, for example, was formed much later than the early and sectarian forms of Buddhism, if it conveys an authentic intent of Shakyamuni Buddha, we can say that it is truly the words of the Buddha.
Among those who long ago supported the first of these positions was Sensho Murakami (1851-1929) of the Otani sect of Pure Land Buddhism. He wrote A Treatise on the Unification of Buddhism, which advocated the idea that Mahayana is not the words of the Buddha while attempting to unify the various forms of Buddhism by making use of fundamental Buddhism. Because of this, he was excommunicated at one time. Yet his theory that Mahayana Buddhism was not the words of the Buddha was not intended to be a repudiation of the Mahayana. He was seeking, rather, to ferret out the underlying fundamental ideas shared in common by the various sutras and sects of Buddhism, in order to find Buddhism’s fundamental essence, and thus to unify it.
Such a way of thinking is very reasonable. Yet it assumes that a common stream deeply underlies the various sutras and sects, so that it is possible for all of them to amount to the same thing. This conclusion is not the result of examination of the sutras, but an assumption. Thus there is a limit to this kind of thinking. In fact, there are cases in which fundamentally incompatible or opposing things emerged between different sutras and sects. If this is the case, in the end we have to follow the second of the two ways of thinking about Buddhism. That is, it is only through deep reflection that we can argue and confront one another in order to seek the authentic intent of Shakyamuni Buddha.
Yet this second approach faces a different problem: on what basis can the depth of reflection be judged? Subjective opinions will probably influence such judgments. What’s more, as it is, even deep reflection may not necessarily yield Shakyamuni Buddha’s authentic intent. We lack adequate objective materials for regarding something as the authentic intent of Shakyamuni Buddha.
This being the case, the discussion veers the other way again, and we might once again give up out of desperation, or close our eyes and withdraw into the shell of traditional, sectarian doctrine. After all, religion is the crystallization of thinking, and while thought should be objective, in the end one has to choose according to one’s own convictions. This applies to Buddhism and Buddhist sutras as well. Yet, in order to avoid ending up with something purely subjective and arbitrary, we should take as objective a perspective as is possible, and try to look at things objectively. In the end, this will lead to discussions, conversations, and personal associations, in particular, that transcend sect, as well as to a reevaluation of Buddhism from a contemporary standpoint.
Whatever the case may be, since it is now obvious that the various forms of Buddhism and sutras are all products of development, the only option that remains is to accept them as they are while objectively tracing their development, clarifying the character of their thought, and selecting which we are to follow. We might find something common among them as a result of this kind of process.