The first time I read the Lotus Sutra, I was utterly lost, overwhelmed by its extravagance—the florid symbolism, the parables, the simultaneous appearance of buddhas past and present, the improbably vast assembly of monks who inexplicably walk out on the Buddha just as he declares, from atop Vulture Peak, that he is about to deliver his one true and final teaching. The sutra’s break with the Buddhism of its time is dramatic. And in a tradition that grounds its claim to authenticity in buddhavacana, the words of the Buddha, the departure is startling. What to make of it?

In Two Buddhas Seated Side by Side: A Guide to the Lotus Sutra, scholars Donald S. Lopez Jr. and Jacqueline Stone unpack chapter by chapter not only the sutra as it was originally written but also its evolution in the centuries that followed. The Lotus Sutra’ s outsize influence on Buddhism in East Asia and, by extension, in the West is often overlooked. Yet the ideas at its core—for example, that there is “one vehicle” (Skt., ekayana) containing all the teachings, that the Buddha’s truth is inherent in all things, and that buddhahood is open to everyone, not just male monastics—are beliefs that run through the Tendai, Zen, Nichiren, and Pure Land traditions.

how to read the lotus sutra
Professors Jacqueline Stone and Donald S. Lopez Jr. | Illustration by Agata Nowicka

Buddhism has evolved and adapted over the millennia, of course. Even the early Pali teachings, the basis of the Theravada tradition, weren’t written down until centuries after the historical Buddha’s death. The notion of buddhavacana, then, is more belief than fact, making it difficult to argue  (although some do) that the teachings survived the centuries intact. That they might have remains largely a matter of faith.

The Lotus represents a radical trajectory in Buddhist thought, and the beliefs contained in the sutra eventually came to dominate and shape the Mahayana traditions in East Asia. In a podcast interview I conducted with Stone and Lopez, Stone said, “We conceived of the book as an introduction to this problem of how religions stay alive and readjust to changing circumstances.” (Read an edited version of the interview here.)

As Lopez points out, resistance to the idea that the Mahayana sutras were the Buddha’s words was strong from the outset and remained so for centuries to come; among defenders of the Mahayana were the revered Indian sages Nagarjuna (c. 150–250 CE) and Shantideva (685–763 CE). Although questions of authenticity and sectarian rivalries remain to this day, historical scholarship tends to expose self-serving bias and at the same time celebrate the variety and proliferation of evolving religious texts, as Stone and Lopez do.

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The idea of narrative has become ever present in contemporary discourse—politicians are told to “get ahead of the narrative,” for example. But narrative has been central in the study of religion for decades, and for good reason: it’s basic to human experience. We understand the world largely through the stories we tell about it. In religions with a founder, such as Buddhism, the ideas and lived examples  are nested in a story about the founder’s life and significance; the teachings derive their authority from the belief that they represent the founder’s words and deeds.

If Gautama or Jesus or Muhammad were each just one among the many religious figures of their time and place, then there would be little reason to so assiduously record, collect, edit, compose, and organize accounts of their words and deeds to create scripture. But it’s a very different matter to speak of the Buddha, the Christ, or the Prophet, figures who are largely the narrative creations of generations of followers. When their stories move and inspire—even enlighten—us, they serve a high human purpose. And when we put aside sectarian difference, despite accounts that claim to represent the one and only World Teacher, we might even imagine two buddhas seated side by side.

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