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.

The Lotus Sutra and other Mahayana sutras claim to be the word of the Buddha. What is at stake in that claim of textual authority? About four hundred years after the death of Buddha, texts began to appear that we today call the Mahayana sutras, texts that claim to have been spoken by the Buddha. These include many of the most famous works in the history of Buddhism: the Lotus, the Diamond, the Heart, the Vimalakirti, the Perfection of Wisdom in Eight Thousand Stanzas, the Lankavatara, the Flower Garland, the Pure Land sutras. The list goes on and on. Up to that point, it appears that the Buddhist “canon” was largely preserved orally. But these new sutras were composed in writing, something of an innovation in the history of Buddhism.

These texts insist that they are the word of the Buddha. That insistence (along with a host of other factors) has led scholars to conclude that they are not. The Lotus is particularly famous in this regard, constantly exhorting its devotees to copy it and preserve it, with the Buddha offering all manner of future rewards—including buddhahood—for those who do and threatening horrible fates in hell for those who don’t.

Still, you have to sympathize with the authors of these sutras. The Buddha’s enlightenment is said to encompass all knowledge, and he is said to have taught everything that was necessary to reach enlightenment. He left no successor, and it will be billions of years before Maitreya, the next Buddha, comes. From that perspective, when he passed into nirvana the canon was closed. Yet religions change and innovations occur. How can those who seek change, who have a new vision of the path, articulate that vision without placing it in the mouth of the Buddha?

And so they composed these works, adopting many of the conventions of the earlier tradition. They typically begin with the words, “Thus did I hear,” a traditional marker indicating that it was heard by Ananda, the Buddha’s personal attendant, and recited by him at the first council, the gathering of five hundred arhats in a cave three months after the Buddha passed into nirvana. Just as earlier sutras do, the Mahayana sutras then say where the Buddha was, naming a traditional place such as Vulture Peak, and who was in the audience, usually listing the Buddha’s immediate disciples—Shariputra, Maudgalyayana, Upali, Mahakashyapa, and so forth. In other words, the Mahayana sutras go to great lengths to give their compositions that aura of authenticity before going on to present a doctrine that is often at variance (and the angle of that variance may be acute or obtuse) with the earlier teachings.

But doesn’t the Lotus Sutra itself provide an answer to the problem of a single, unchanging truth, a fixed meaning across time and culture, with its doctrine of upaya, often translated as “skillful means”? In the third chapter of the sutra, with its famous parable of the burning house, the Buddha reveals one of the most inspiring doctrines in the entire Buddhist tradition: that there are not three vehicles to enlightenment as he had taught in the past—the shravaka vehicle, the pratyekabuddha vehicle, and the bodhisattva vehicle—but in fact only one, called the single vehicle or the Buddha vehicle, which will carry all sentient beings in the universe to Buddhahood. The Buddha says that he would never offer his disciples an attainment that was not equal to his own.

We can be inspired by this vision of universal Buddhahood, but we can also recognize that it serves an important polemical purpose. In order for the Lotus to be legitimate, it must take into account the received tradition. It cannot reject it outright. Since the Buddha is enlightened, he can never be wrong; everything that he teaches has to be right in one way or another. Thus, in order for an innovation to occur in the tradition, it must not only be placed in the mouth of the Buddha; the Buddha has to account for why it varies from what he had taught before. The earlier teaching has to be incorporated into the new vision of the dharma. In the Lotus, the Buddha declares that although he taught three vehicles in the past, he didn’t really mean it. Now he is revealing his true teaching, one that incorporates the previous tradition by placing it in the inferior position as an “expedient” or a “skillful method.” It is akin to taking the Hebrew Bible, renaming it the Old Testament and reading it in such a way that it seems to anticipate the New Testament.

The Lotus Sutra was the first Buddhist text to be translated from its original Sanskrit into a European language. What is the significance of that? In 1836, Brian Hodgson, then British Resident at the court of Nepal in Kathmandu, sent 24 Sanskrit manuscripts to Paris. Among them was the Lotus Sutra. A young French scholar, Eugène Burnouf, chose the Lotus almost at random and started translating it, probably because he liked the parables. He had no idea of its importance in the history of Buddhism. He ended up translating the entire text, but did not publish it because he thought he needed to write an introduction to it first. That huge work, published in 1844 as Introduction à l’ histoire du Buddhisme indien, is today considered the founding text of the academic study of Buddhism in the West. In fact, as Burnouf continued to read Buddhist texts, he grew to dislike the baroque style and fantastic imagery of the Mahayana sutras, including the Lotus. He preferred what he called the “simple sutras,” which he felt more accurately reflected the Buddha’s life and original teachings. In some ways, the prejudice in favor of the Pali canon as more authentic comes from this time. Meanwhile, Burnouf kept putting off the publication of his translation of the Lotus: it was issued only after his death, under the title Le Lotus de la bonne loi (1852). 

But a chapter from his translation had appeared in 1844 in The Dial, the famous journal of the New England Transcendentalists. Printed under the title “The Preaching of Buddha,” the excerpt was translated from French into English not by Thoreau, as was long believed, but by Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, who thus deserves a special place in the history of Buddhism in America. 

Woodblock print frontispiece for the Lotus Sutra, Joseon dynasty (1392–1910), Korea, dated 1794. MCLA Collection/Alamy Stock Photo.
Woodblock print frontispiece for the Lotus Sutra, Joseon dynasty (1392–1910), Korea, dated 1794. MCLA Collection/Alamy Stock Photo.

Let’s get back to the question of authority and authenticity. You said earlier that someone can be inspired by the doctrine of the single vehicle and still recognize its polemical quality. But isn’t it a violation of the bodhisattva vows to say that the Mahayana sutras are not the word of the Buddha?
Historical scholarship states that they are not. How can contemporary Buddhists deny the authenticity of the Mahayana sutras and still be Buddhists? It seems like a fairly straightforward case of either/or: either you accept the Mahayana sutras as the word of the Buddha or you don’t. It is indeed the case that denying that the Mahayana sutras are the word of the Buddha is a violation of the bodhisattva vows. And it is also the case that many of the great Mahayana masters in India, including Nagarjuna and Shantideva, included defenses of the Mahayana sutras in their works. We can conclude at least two things from this: first, some very important figures in the history of Buddhism believed that the Mahayana sutras were the word of the Buddha, and, second, many other Buddhists believed that they were not. Rules are not made to prevent something that no one does, and writers do not defend something that everyone believes. So modern Buddhists who accept that the Mahayana sutras are the authentic word of the historical Buddha would need to recognize that throughout more than a thousand years of the Mahayana in South Asia, many Buddhist monks denied their authenticity.

This entire question depends, of course, on how one defines authenticity. In Buddhism, it has traditionally meant that a teaching derives from the Buddha himself; in the case of a sutra, that the text in question is buddhavacana, the “word of the Buddha.” The huge need for this authenticity long after the death of the Buddha is confirmed by the fact that even the tantras, many of which postdate the Buddha by a millennium, claim to be spoken by him.

However, the fact that scholars of Buddhism do not regard the Mahayana as having been taught by the Buddha does not mean that they necessarily see the Pali canon as more authentic. Burnouf’s prejudice in favor of the “simple sutras” has also been called into question. Although it is possible now to establish a chronology of texts using historical linguistics and other methods, it does not follow that such a chronology can be confidently traced back to the Buddha himself. For many scholars of Buddhism, a definitive answer to the question, “What did the Buddha teach?” cannot be answered. Or at least it has not yet been answered convincingly.

So how does Buddhism understand itself? One of the perennial challenges of the modern age is the need to recognize that texts that teach the timeless arise in time. Whatever the Buddha taught, he was setting forth what he saw to be universal and timeless truths, not just things that he thought were true for northeast India in the fifth century BCE. Yet he was inevitably a product of northeast India in the fifth century BCE. And despite that, what he taught spread to China. Jesus was teaching what he saw to be universal and timeless truths, not just things that were true for Jews in Palestine in the first century CE. Yet he was inevitably a product of Palestine in the first century CE. And despite that, what he taught spread to Gentiles in Rome not long after his death.

All religious traditions have had to come to grips with the results of scholarship examining the historical origins of their scriptures. Some members of those traditions have come to grips with that scholarship by simply rejecting it. There is a long tradition of scholarship examining the origins of the Gospels; one of the most important, and controversial, works in this tradition is David Strauss’s The Life of Jesus Critically Examined, published in German in 1835 (and translated into English by George Eliot). We don’t have such a book about the Buddha. There are many reasons why we don’t. That’s another conversation.

But one reason that we don’t is the ineffable nature of Buddhism’s origin. This same ineffability, however, provides endless occasions for interpretation. Buddhism is endlessly interpretable because its central event is unrecoverable. It is not an attested historical event, like the crucifixion of Jesus by the Romans. It is not verbal, like Moses’ encounter with the burning bush on Mount Horeb, or like the angel Gabriel’s command to Muhammad, “Recite.” It is silent and it is private, a sage seated alone beneath a tree in a forest. In Buddhism, the tradition itself recognizes the issue in the famous story of the god Brahma coming down from his heaven to beg the newly enlightened Buddha to teach, to verbalize his enlightenment.

On the modern Buddhist scene, there has developed what to me is an unfortunate divide between “scholars” and “practitioners,” with each group skeptical of the other, often going so far as to say about each other, “Those people don’t understand Buddhism.” The origins and implications of this divide are worth talking about, but again, that’s another conversation. For now, I would suggest that a text like the Lotus Sutra provides an opportunity to map this divide, maybe even to begin to bridge it. Speaking personally, I find it much more inspiring to think of a work of genius like the Lotus Sutra as the product of a community of visionary monks and nuns, struggling to understand what it means to be a Buddhist, than as the spontaneous speech of an enlightened being. By seeing the Lotus as the work of humans rather than the work of a superhuman, we are suddenly allowed to ponder a wide range of new and important questions. Historical consciousness is not a fetter but a key.

Among the lesser-known inhabitants of samsara are beings called lokantarika, literally “those between the worlds,” beings who live in the dark places between worlds where the sun and moon never shine. So deep is the darkness where they dwell that they are unaware of each other’s presence. They are mentioned only rarely in Buddhist texts, and when they are mentioned, it’s almost always in the same circumstance. When a Buddha achieves enlightenment, there are all manner of portents. For example, the earth quakes in six ways, and all the dark places of the world are illuminated by a supernal light. At that time, the beings who live between the worlds see each other for the first time, and they say, “How is it possible that sentient beings have suddenly appeared here?” This happens in a number of texts, including in the seventh chapter of the Lotus Sutra, a text that may ultimately cause scholars and practitioners to say the same thing.

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