When Fred Appel, now executive editor at Princeton University Press, needed a Buddhist selection to include in his new series “Lives of Great Religious Books,” which tracks the stories of great texts rather than those of great people, he naturally turned to Donald S. Lopez Jr., Professor of Buddhist and Tibetan Studies at the University of Michigan. Lopez is the author of a dozen books on Buddhist history and philosophy and the translator or editor of a dozen more. The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism, which he compiled with Robert Buswell Jr., is the most comprehensive Buddhist dictionary in the English language.
Appel’s idea for the series was to present a “reception history,” or biography, of some of religious literature’s classics, examining the ways in which a single text has been understood over time (sometimes being put to uses that the author never intended). His choice for Lopez was The Tibetan Book of the Dead, because of the text’s marked fame.
Lopez agreed to do it—The Tibetan Book of the Dead: A Biography was published in 2011—but on the condition that he could choose “a more authentic Buddhist text” as the next Buddhist inclusion in the series, since Walter Evans-Wentz’s 1927 classic contained only selections from the Bar do thos grol, as the text is known in Tibet, alongside his own Theosophical musings.
That “more authentic” text turned out to be the Lotus Sutra. Hugely popular in China, it was the first Buddhist sutra to be translated from Sanskrit into a Western language (French). In Japan, it found its most eloquent devotee in the 13th-century monk Nichiren, whose tradition of chanting the title of the sutra continues today in groups such as Soka Gakkai. But beyond its historical importance, Lopez says, “it is an ideal text for exploring the question of textual authority, because the text is so concerned, some might even say obsessed, with the question of its own authority.”
The Lotus Sutra: A Biography was published in September 2016 as the latest addition to the “Lives of Great Religious Books” collection. It traces the text through its life and outsize influence across Asia, Europe, and the United States. Tricycle’s editor and publisher, James Shaheen, spoke with Lopez by email about the conditions in which this remarkable text was created and the contradictions that it presents for the Buddhist tradition.
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