Finished Reading: The Lotus Sutra


A Goryeo-illustrated manuscript of the Lotus Sutra, c.1340 (wiki)

I’ve spent a great deal of the last three months reading The Lotus Sutra. Unlike many books I’ve read in my life, I feel I have to make sure I specify that I’m talking about this one, translated by Burton Watson and originally published in 1993*. Availible at the library, and thusly free to obtain, it was the logical choice when it comes to reading such an expansive text without knowing whether I felt like it was applicable to my spiritual practice.

The thing that really boggles me is, after reading the 324 page book, I’m not entirely sure how I feel about it. Don’t get me wrong, I think it is a beautifully written text that attempts to illustrate the apparent immeasurable timelessness of the Buddhas, but it isn’t clear to me whether it is to be taken as scripture (as the Mahayana tradition maintains) or not (as viewed by the Theravada). From the perspective of the pro-scripture school, the Lotus Sutra is seen as having been written (or at least conceived) at the time of the Buddha and then stored in the realm of Nāgas (mythological snake-like beings), who safeguarded the text for nearly five centuries until reintroducing it to the human realm.

The Lotus Sutra is filled with such mythos; the text implies a huge number of dimensions to the universe that are not directly observable from the human realm in which beings such as nāgas, gandharvas, and asuras reside and from which many such beings are able to influence humans to varying degrees. A number of such circumstances, places, and events are depicted, including one in which lands are transformed and living beings moved about by fiat as the innumerable Buddhas congregate for a grandiose meeting which is attended by billions of Bodhisattvas that lasts a seemingly infinite period of time.

Some of the mythic and supernatural constructs are some what off-putting to a mind that is conditioned towards a more scientific understanding of the world, but I’ve learned to be open minded to the unknown in recent months. It is true that many such ideas may be impossible to prove, but similarly, many are impossible to disprove, and a healthy respect and appreciation of the unknown is always reasonable.

I do want to take a moment and say that I am very interested in fully understanding this text from both Theravada and Mahayana points of view. The mental imagery is amazing and the subject matter is deep and thought provoking, but, as the text of the book seems to freely admit, it is difficult to understand. I am sufficiently curious about it, however, to consider reading the whole thing again, picking up another translation (of course). Further, I really hope that my commentary this morning hasn’t somehow seemed offensive to those who very reverently praise the book. I’m very serious about treating this subject with the respect it is due, and that is precisely why I am making certain to give it the appropriate allotment of time for study.

Before picking up The Lotus Sutra again, however, I do have some other books in the queue that need to be wrapped up. I intend to spend some of the morning with The Dhammapada and the Sutta Nipata [link], and eventually my copy of Udana [link] is begging to be finished. I imagine that the time to mature in my practice may be beneficial in helping me piece together a more complete understanding of The Lotus Sutra, and as such a break from it is warranted now that I have completed it.

Thank you for reading and I hope you are happy and well this morning, friends.

*Note to my wife:  Yes, I remember we talked about this book a bit yesterday, at which time I errantly said that it had been published in 1925. Upon further investigation, I have realized that I read the publication page incorrectly — I didn’t expect the translators date of birth to be on it, and I guess I assumed the earliest printed date on the page had to be in reference to the date it was originally published. Silly me… 

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