Jacqueline Stone is professor of Japanese religions at Princeton University, and her main area of expertise is Buddhism of medieval Japan—a period of singular importance for the study of the Lotus Sutra. The Lotus was then firmly established as a preeminent text of the Buddhist culture of the time, and its influence was pervasive. Indeed, that influence has extended down through the centuries to significantly impact the development of Buddhism in the West. The Buddhist culture of medieval Japan gave rise to several of the movements—the Rinzai and Soto schools of Zen, the traditions of Nichiren, the Pure Land schools—that have been most formative in shaping the practice, discourse, and assumptions of Western Buddhists. Professor Stone’s book, Original Enlightenment and the Transformation of Medieval Japanese Buddhism, received the 2001 American Academy of Religion Award for Excellence in the category of historical studies. This past September, I interviewed Professor Stone by phone. It was for me a fascinating, edifying, and thoroughly enjoyable conversation, at the end of which much that was familiar about Buddhism had been made strange and much that had been strange made familiar.

—Andrew Cooper

What is the Lotus Sutra about? In it we read how to hear the sutra, how to preach the sutra, who was gathered to hear it preached, what happened before it was preached, why it is so important, how it was preached in the past, what will happen in the future to those who hear it, and so on. It is like an extravagant preamble to an event that never seems to arrive. Some scholars of the Lotus Sutra have noted just that point, and I think it is a fair reading. If we just read the sutra, and set aside later interpretations, one thing we see going on is that the sutra is establishing its own authority. For example, at the beginning the Buddha emerges from meditation and begins to preach spontaneously, and not, as is usually the case, in response to a question. He says that he will soon enter final nirvana, and so he is now going to preach the true and unsurpassed dharma. The text suggests that not only is this the final teaching of Shakyamuni Buddha, or the historical Buddha, it is the final teaching given by all buddhas before they enter nirvana. It is, in other words, the final word on Buddhism.

The sutra also presents itself as being extraordinarily precious. It is difficult to encounter it; it is difficult to believe it; it is difficult to understand it; it is difficult to preach it. So embracing the Lotus Sutra is something that is even more difficult than the most mind-boggling supernatural feats. The scripture is equated with the Buddha’s body, and so to hold the sutra is to hold the very body of the Buddha. We can’t know the intentions of the sutra’s compilers, but one could read this as saying that the sutra is not about the dharma, it is the dharma—that is, it is the embodiment of ultimate truth. Certainly this is one way it has been seen historically, at least in East Asia.

One of the central ideas in the sutra is that the Buddha taught the so-called Hinayana, or “lesser vehicle,” to some and the Mahayana, the “greater vehicle,” to others as “skillful means” adapted to the different capacities of his listeners. In reality, however, the sutra says, there is only one vehicle and this is what the Buddha will now expound. But the content of this One Vehicle is never explicitly disclosed.

In this sense, the sutra has no clear-cut doctrinal formulation. And it is precisely for that reason that the Lotus Sutra has been able to support such a huge range of interpretations. For some later commentators, the sutra is seen as illustrating the relationship between the One Vehicle and the various, sometimes contradictory teachings found in Buddhist tradition. The different teachings each have their own validity as skillful means; they are indispensable in leading toward the Buddha’s insight, but they are not the whole of it in and of themselves. Since enlightenment is beyond words and concepts, any doctrinal statement is going to be relative and incomplete, and that is why the One Vehicle is never formulated in words. According to this reading, the sutra is really not about anything. It is a direct presentation of how the Buddha’s teachings actually work, an enactment of Buddhism as a pedagogical system. This kind of reading is inclusive, in that any doctrine or practice can be seen as a “skillful means” leading toward enlightenment. Other readings, however, tend to be exclusive, in that they identify the One Vehicle with a specific teaching, which is then held to supersede all others.

To the modern reader, the fantastic events depicted in the sutra are self-evidently mythical. But in reading the traditional commentaries, it seems the sutra was understood as historically and literally true. In other words, were these events understood as something that really happened, or were they seen as metaphors? You know, in my readings of traditional commentaries I have never seen the matter framed precisely in that way. But you do find that there are styles of interpretation that seem to reflect something similar to both those types of understanding. That is, there are commentators who clearly discriminate between a symbolic reading and a literal one. They differ from modern readers, however, in that both readings are affirmed as true. Indeed, the validity of one perspective reinforces the validity of the other.

For example, the middle section of the sutra depicts two Buddhas, Shakyamuni and Many Jewels, seated side by side inside a jeweled stupa, a shrine or holy monument, suspended in the air above sacred Vulture Peak. Not only that, but the entire assembly is also suspended in midair. When you look at the traditional commentaries, that episode is sometimes treated absolutely as a real event. But along with that, you will also find it interpreted metaphorically, sometimes even in the same commentary. The stupa emerging from beneath the ground and rising up into the air might be said to represent the practitioner breaking through ignorance and dwelling in supreme emptiness. Or the assembly might be described as representing the enlightened cosmos, the reality seen by a buddha. It is sometimes said that the assembly has never dispersed, precisely because it is the enlightened reality of the Buddha, and through faith or meditation, one can be there, be a participant.

One thing I find striking is how deeply—although often invisibly—the Lotus Sutra impacts Buddhist practice in the West. Jan Nattier [A Greater Awakening] points out that many of the characteristics we associate with Mahayana Buddhism—its inclusiveness, its openness, its egalitarianism—derive largely and specifically from the Lotus and its traditions. What are some of the ways in which it has shaped Buddhist tradition? The Lotus Sutra is given explicit preeminence in two specific traditions: that of the T’ien T’ai (Tendai in Japan) school and that of Nichiren. But really the sutra’s influence is pervasive in East Asian Buddhism. It has profoundly affected Buddhist thought and practice at all social levels. Its ideas have served as a basis for doctrinal and meditative systems, and its parables and imagery have inspired ritual forms, the arts, and literature right up to the present. So while people sometimes associate it with particular schools, it must also be seen as part of the general Buddhist culture of East Asia.

But the foundational ideas and attitudes found in the Lotus are not necessarily found only in the Lotus. For Buddhists in the West, the Lotus is not the only source for the assumptions you allude to, but it is an important one. To my knowledge, the scripture was not very influential in Indian or Tibetan Buddhism, and yet you might find similar or compatible views expressed in those traditions. However, for virtually any form of Buddhism with roots in East Asia, theLotus has been extremely influential.

We’ll understand the influence of the sutra better if we look more specifically at some of its core ideas. One of these is the notion of universal Buddhahood. The sutra says that Buddhahood is the ultimate destiny of all beings. That is why the Buddha appeared in the world—to enable all beings to become buddhas equal to himself. And the promise of Buddhahood is explicitly extended to include even those who were traditionally thought to have strong karmic obstacles, like evildoers and, so it was said, women.

Closely aligned with universal Buddhahood is the idea of the One Vehicle. The understanding that all the Buddha’s teachings, despite apparent differences and contradictions, spring from a single unitary intent has been deeply influential.

Then there is the notion of the primordial Buddha, or as some prefer, the eternal Buddha. The second half of the Lotus presents a radically revised depiction of the Buddha, not as the historical figure who lived and taught in India, but as a Buddha who achieved enlightenment an incalculably long time ago. This Buddha is said to be always present in the world, teaching and guiding. Some Mahayana texts explain the Buddha as “always present” in the sense of being an all-pervasive dharmakaya—the “dharma body,” or Buddha as formless truth. But theLotus in effect transforms the Buddha into a fully realized Mahayana bodhisattva, constantly active in the world for the sake of suffering beings.

The Lotus is also very much connected with the idea of the decline of the dharma, which is, despite its influence in East Asia, unfamiliar to many Western Buddhists. The idea is that, following the final nirvana of Shakyamuni, the historical Buddha, Buddhism would go through several stages of decline, the last one being the degenerate age of the final dharma, or in Japanese, mappo, often said to last ten thousand years. This idea lent strength to the notion that practice should accord with the contingencies of time and place; it also supported new interpretations holding forth the promise that enlightenment was still accessible even in the most decadent of times. Buddhists in medieval Japan generally dated the onset of mappo to their own time.

Zen in Japan, along with Pure Land Buddhism and Nichiren Buddhism, both of which also have large followings in the West, has its roots in medieval Japan—a period in which the Lotus Sutra was, not incidentally, the preeminent scripture.Those three traditions did indeed all originate in medieval Japan, specifically in the Kamakura period, from 1185 to 1333, a seminal moment in the history of Japanese Buddhism. Their founders—Esai and Dogen for Zen, Honen and Shinran for Pure Land, and Nichiren [Single Practice Masters]—all lived during this time and were all rooted in the same Buddhist culture. More specifically, they all started out as monks in the Tendai tradition centered on Mount Hiei, and this was formative for all of them. Although practitioners in each of these traditions often see themselves as having little in common with those of the others, there are some important similarities.

The most striking similarity is that they all originate as what historians of Japanese Buddhism call single-practice movements. That is, out of the many forms of Buddhist practice, they each embrace one as being universally efficacious. For Nichiren Buddhists, this means chanting the daimoku, the title of the Lotus Sutra, Namu-myoho-renge-kyo. For Zen Buddhists, in particular those of Eihei Dogen’s Soto school, it means doing zazen, or seated meditation. For Pure Land Buddhists, it means reciting the nembutsu, the name of Amida Buddha, Namu Amida Butsu. The traditions agree in their exclusive belief in the effectiveness of a single practice; they disagree about what that practice is.

The idea that one particular practice is the only effective practice seems to contradict the Lotus Sutra‘s emphasis on the multiple means for reaching enlightenment. So how did the logic of pursuing a single practice develop, and why did it catch on? One might well say that inclusiveness is a defining characteristic of Tendai Buddhism and the mainstream Buddhist position at the time was that all Buddhist teachings have their own validity, depending on the capacity of individual practitioners. So the notion of abstracting a single form and giving it unique status and claiming that it was equally appropriate for all people was really a challenge to the dominant religious establishment. I strongly suspect that the logic of single-practice approaches has its roots at least in part in an exclusive reading of the Lotus Sutra‘s idea of the One Vehicle. For Nichiren and Honen and Shinran, though not for Dogen, single practice is also connected to the idea of mappo.

Honen was the first to clearly articulate a single-practice viewpoint. He was deeply concerned with how ordinary persons of limited capacity could fare in the final dharma age. The Pure Land teachings, which had been around for centuries, held that by chanting the nembutsu, the name of Amida Buddha, one could attain birth after death in his Pure Land, and from there complete enlightenment was assured. It was regarded as one among the many forms of practice. So Tendai Buddhists could chant Amida’s name; Vajrayana Buddhists could chant Amida’s name; and so forth. In fact, Honen was roundly criticized by others who did Pure Land practice for setting it in a single-practice context.

For Honen, however, chanting the nembutsu was uniquely suited to the degenerate age, since everyone could do it. He said, if birth in the Pure Land depended on accumulating merit by sponsoring temples, then wealthy people could be born there, but poor people could not. But the poor are numerous and the wealthy are few. If reaching the Pure Land depended on mastering Buddhist doctrine, then the educated could be born there, but the uneducated could not. But the uneducated are many and the educated are few. If it depended on keeping the precepts, then the virtuous could be born there, but the nonvirtuous could not, and so forth. Since the scriptures tell us that Amida Buddha vowed to lead to his Pure Land all who put their faith in him, there must be a single practice—namely, the nembutsu—that is available to everyone.

Honen’s disciple Shinran built upon the teachings of his master, especially by emphasizing the importance of letting go of one’s ego-centered expectations about making spiritual progress through one’s own efforts and instead just trusting oneself to Amida’s compassionate vow. For Shinran, chanting the nembutsu should be an expression of gratitude, not something done to effect a self-calculated result.

A single-practice approach has not always precluded other practices, but in such cases other acts would be seen only as supplementary to a central practice, whether it be the nembutsu, the daimoku, or zazen. Although the single-practice traditions tend to see themselves as fundamentally different from each other, they all share a common structure.

Although the Lotus Sutra ‘s idea of the One Vehicle may have influenced the great Kamakura figures Dogen, Shinran, and Honen, it seems that in Nichiren the scripture is elevated in a new way. In terms of doctrine, Nichiren stayed closer to the Tendai tradition than did the other three, and his teaching incorporates many Tendai views about the Lotus Sutra . He saw the Lotus as supreme among Buddhist teachings and regarded all other teachings as provisional. He claimed that the primordial Buddha of the Lotus is the one true Buddha, and all others are merely his provisional manifestations. All this has a foundation in Tendai tradition.

But there are also highly distinctive aspects to Nichiren’s teaching. In understanding Nichiren, it is important to appreciate his strong sense of the historical moment, his belief that he was living in the degenerate age of the final dharma. He sought to grasp in Buddhist terms the underlying cause of the numerous natural disasters, political upheavals, and other threats afflicting Japanese society. He concluded that not only were these symptomatic of mappo, but they stemmed more specifically from people’s rejection or neglect of the singular preeminence of the Lotus Sutra.

Nichiren believed that in the degenerate age only the Lotus could lead people to enlightenment. In prior times, lesser teachings might have been adequate, but that was no longer the case. Now only the Lotus was powerful enough, true enough, perfect enough to lead everyone to Buddhahood, and it was the responsibility of true teachers of Buddhism to bring out the heavy artillery, so to speak.

Nichiren linked faith in the Lotus Sutra to a distinctive form of practice, specifically, chanting the daimoku. He believed that the daimoku contains the essence and the entirety of the Buddha’s enlightenment, and that this would spontaneously be transferred to the practitioner in the act of faithful recitation. Nichiren was not the first to teach the significance of the daimoku, but no one before him had elevated the daimoku to such status or provided the practice of chanting it with a solid doctrinal basis.

Nichiren drew extensively on traditional Tendai formulations to express classical Mahayana views of nonduality, but instead of complex Tendai meditation techniques he taught chanting the daimoku as the way to realize this. One aspect of Nichiren’s genius was his ability to take the most subtle and recondite Tendai concepts and meld them into a form of practice that was accessible to anyone.

Nichiren taught faith in the Lotus Sutra and chanting the daimoku as an exclusive practice. But his claims for that practice were all-inclusive. In other words, chanting the daimoku will result in every good thing that religion in medieval Japan was thought to provide: realization of Buddhahood, healing, practical benefits, protection, assurance for the afterlife, and so forth. It is all there in the daimoku.

Now you are getting to something about Nichiren Buddhism that is extremely puzzling to so many. The first time I heard a talk by a Nichiren Buddhist, the speaker focused on two points: first, the daimoku was the only valid form of Buddhist practice; second, chanting was an effective way to get what you wanted, be it a new car, a lot of money, a girlfriend, or whatever. It seemed so, well, crude. Even after many years, and seeing that the matter is far more complex than I first thought, a certain suspicion has lingered. But what you say casts it in a different light. The point is not that chanting is good for getting this or that, but that it leads to the fulfillment of all good ends. That’s right. Keep in mind that praying for worldly benefits—healing, prosperity, the protection of the country—has been common throughout the Buddhist tradition, and it has a strong basis in Buddhist scripture. The Lotus Sutra , which is only one example, promises its practitioners ultimate Buddhahood, but also gives assurance that they won’t lack necessities such as food and clothing. Historically, most Buddhists have simply regarded worldly benefits as existing on a continuum with spiritual benefits, including the ultimate benefit of Buddhahood. Nichiren Buddhism is no exception in this regard. And because it’s a single-practice teaching, all types of benefit are said to be encompassed in the daimoku.

For Nichiren Buddhists, faith in the Lotus Sutra is considered an expression of Buddha-nature, which recalls Dogen’s teaching that zazen is an expression of Buddha-nature. They believe that, for ordinary people, faith is the cause that opens the door to wisdom. For many convert Buddhists in the West, the central place of faith in Nichiren Buddhism, as well as in Pure Land, might seem strange and even un-Buddhist. But this has little to do with how the religion has traditionally been practiced and much to do with how Buddhism has been interpreted for the modern West.

How would you say it’s been interpreted for us? The scholastic term Buddhist modernism refers to the style of representing Buddhism as rational, empirical, and dismissive of ritual, faith, prayer, and what to the modern mind might be seen as superstition. Buddhist modernism began in the late nineteenth century, as Asian Buddhist leaders and Western converts and sympathizers sought to present Buddhism as the answer to the so-called crisis of faith brought on by the alleged incompatibility of Christianity and the modern rational-scientific worldview. So certain elements were abstracted from the larger religious context and presented as constituting the core or essential teachings of Buddhism, and other elements—elements that always had been a vital part of the tradition—were marginalized.

The point is not that Buddhist modernism is wrong. Actually, I think it is part of Buddhism’s continuous interpretive effort to frame itself in accordance with the demands of time and place. So in that sense it mirrors what Dogen, Nichiren, Honen, and Shinran were doing. But it is well to know that, like other reinterpretive movements, it is partial and selective in its reading of tradition. Perhaps this points to one way the Lotus Sutra might be particularly important today. Because of its magnitude—its vision, its influence, its openness to interpretation—a historical understanding of the Lotus Sutra might be especially beneficial in helping contemporary Buddhists see what is truly distinctive in their different schools and also to identify common ground that had previously been unrecognized.

Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.

This article is only for Subscribers!

Subscribe now to read this article and get immediate access to everything else.

Subscribe Now

Already a subscriber? .