The Lotus Sutra by Anonymous

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is an excellent example of a text that is interesting as a historical document, but not as literature. To put the matter more bluntly, The Lotus Sutra has much to teach but is not very fun to read.

Having recently finished The Platform Sutra, I was struck by how different these two Buddhist scriptures are. The former is dense with doctrine and often quite deeply philosophical, whereas this text is full of revelations, miracle stories, and parables. And whereas The Platform Sutra accords pretty well with the Western conception of Buddhism as a secular, humanistic philosophy, The Lotus Sutra is frankly and powerfully religious.

This is not a world of quietly meditating monks, but of divine beings, hungry ghosts, endless eons of time, and extravagant promises of salvation. Indeed, the many layers of heaven and hell—the rewards and punishments doled out by Karma—reminded me very much of Dante’s cosmos (though here, neither state is permanent). Believers are promised to enjoy excellent senses of hearing and smell in their next lives, as well as good health and handsome noses; whereas nonbelievers will have crooked noses, bad skin, and halitosis. In short, no New York City atheist could really get behind the message of The Lotus Sutra.

One of the book’s most curious features is its meta-commentary. It is a story of itself—ceaselessly telling us how many sentient beings were saved by hearing its message. And yet, the book does not appear to have much of a message other than to inform us that it is very important. But I do think that The Lotus Sutra contains at least a few important doctrinal innovations.

Quite significant, for example, is the idea of “skillful means.” This is the notion that a Buddhist teacher may use any strategy to enlighten his pupils, even if that involves telling a lie. Closely related to this is the idea of the “one vehicle,” which holds that every strategy—meditating, memorizing sutras, repeating mantras, donating to monasteries, preaching sermons—are all merely aspects of one great effort to enlighten the world. This may sound harmless enough, but the implication is that the previous preachings of the Buddha were merely a half-truth, tailored to the low capacities of his first followers.

For example, the original doctrine held that the Buddha died and achieved enlightenment; that he was the first discoverer of the way; that there is only one Buddha; and that the path to enlightenment is to be attained only by those who diligently follow the path the Buddha laid for them. But The Lotus Sutra informs us that the Buddha never died; that there have been innumerable Buddhas; and that virtually everyone can become enlightened.

In other words, this sutra turns Buddhism into a kind of universalist religion, wherein merely repeating one line of a sutra or thinking one pious thought is enough to guarantee ultimate salvation. It reminds me very much of the transformation of the original Christian message (love your neighbor, abhor wealth, forgive your enemies) into the medieval Catholic church, wherein absolution could be bought and sins confessed away. In this case, Siddhartha Gautama’s demanding eightfold path is turned into an all-embracing highway, wherein anyone can drive straight to Buddhahood with a bit of goodwill.

This new, welcoming doctrine is not exactly so keen on women, however. The perfect future state of universal enlightenment is pictured as a world without women. And the one woman in the text who achieves Buddhahood—the daughter of the dragon king, Longnü—turns into a man the instant she does so. To be fair, Buddhism is hardly the only major religion with a misogynist streak; and I supposed it may have even been “enlightened” at the time to allow the possibility that a woman may transform into a man.

Thus, despite the text being rather repetitive and mystical, I would recommend it to anyone hoping to learn more about Buddhism. If you like it, you may have secured your future Buddhahood—though, I fear I may have attracted some grave karmic consequences with my review. If you meet a snake with very bad breath in the future, you know what happened.

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