Sections of the Lotus Sutra are among the earliest Indian Mahayana writings. Originally composed in Sanskrit, the sutra seemingly had little lasting effect in Tibet, although a Tibetan translation exists. But this scripture arguably became the most influential in East Asia. Although still-extant translations into Chinese were done by Dharmarakṣa in 286 and Jñañagupta and Dharmagupta in 601, the most popular historically was the translation of Kumārajīva from 406, source for all the English translations from Chinese. Literally the “Wondrous Dharma Lotus Blossom Sutra,” the Lotus Sutra’s many memorable parables, including children lured out of a burning house and a prodigal son rehabilitated by manual labor, illustrate key ideas of the sutra, especially that all spiritual approaches may serve as beneficial skillful means within the inclusive “One Vehicle” of universal liberation. A curiously self-referential text, central and influential Lotus Sutra images include the following: Śākaymuni Buddha’s prediction of many of his disciples’ future buddhahood, appearance in midair of the stūpa of an ancient buddha who arrives whenever the Lotus Sutra is being taught, a dragon king’s young daughter quickly arriving at enlightenment, ancient bodhisattvas bursting out from under the earth to teach the sutra in the future, and the pivotal revelation of Buddha’s inconceivably long lifespan. This sutra is considered the highest teaching for the inclusive Chinese Tiantai school, whose founder Zhiyi developed a synthesizing system for all the diversity of Buddhist teachings. Tiantai was adapted in Japan as the Tendai school, from which came the founders of the Japanese Zen, Pure Land, and Nichiren schools. The Nichiren school takes the Lotus Sutra itself as its sole object of veneration, including sometimes adamantly disapproving of other Buddhist approaches. New Religious movements inspired by the Lotus Sutra in Japan have become transnational.
Skillful means, important issues related to Śākyamuni Buddha’s inconceivable lifespan, and issues concerning body and gender are addressed under separate headings. Many other issues regarding the central ideas presented in the Lotus Sutra are raised in the following sources. Tsukamoto 2007 is a detailed study of many Lotus Sutra themes, including predictions, parables, and relationships to cult practices. This is a revised translation of a 1986 collection of the author’s works, presented with additional writings by Tsukamoto. Reeves 2002 is a wide-ranging anthology presenting discussions of many issues as informed by the Lotus Sutra, including its innumerable meanings, somatic realization, relation to temporality, and contemporary relevance. Shioiri 1989 presents a helpful analysis of the sutra’s significant literary structure, including informative discussions with helpful charts connecting the sutra’s formation with various Chinese theories of its structure. Essays in Teiser and Stone 2009 treat many aspects of the sutra, and especially its practice. Articles address controversial issues in the sutra such as the role of gender and hierarchy and the practice of self-immolation, as well as popular practices and artistic expressions inspired by the sutras. Tamura 1989 and Williams 1989 present surveys of key Lotus Sutra ideas and images. Niwano 1976 and Sugurō 1998 present accessible, Nichiren-influenced commentaries on the sutra and its implications, both including the opening and closing sutras.
Niwano, Nikkyō. Buddhism for Today: A Modern Interpretation of the Threefold Lotus Sutra. Tokyo: Kōsei, 1976.
An explication of the sutra chapters by the founder of the Lotus Sutra–based lay movement Risshō Kōsei-kai, one of the Nichiren influenced New Religious movements.
Reeves, Gene, ed. A Buddhist Kaleidoscope: Essays on the Lotus Sutra. Tokyo: Kōsei, 2002.
A rich anthology of essays by respected scholars considering many aspects of the sutra, such as its innumerable meanings, somatic realization, relation to temporality, comparisons to Kenji Miyazawa and Leo Tolstoy, and contemporary relevance to interreligious dialogue, ecological crisis, health-care ethics, and gender justice.
Shioiri, Ryōdō. “The Meaning of the Formation and Structure of the Lotus Sutra.” In The Lotus Sutra in Japanese Culture. Edited by George J. Tanabe Jr., and Willa Jane Tanabe, 15–36. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1989.
Reflects on aspects of the Lotus Sutra in Japanese culture and also connects the sutra’s formation with Chinese theories of its structure. Especially significant is Tiantai founder Zhiyi’s highly influential division of the sutra’s first and second half as, respectively, the practice or secondary aspect and the fruit of practice or primary gate.
Sugurō, Shinjō. Introduction to the Lotus Sutra. Fremont, CA: Jain Publishing, 1998.
A helpful chapter-by-chapter analysis of the sutra by a Nichiren-shu priest, with revisions by Daniel Montgomery.
Tamura, Yoshirō. “The Ideas of the Lotus Sutra.” In The Lotus Sutra in Japanese Culture. Edited by George J. Tanabe Jr., and Willa Jane Tanabe, 37–51. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1989.
Surveys fundamental ideas in the Lotus Sutra, especially as they relate to other Mahayana sutras and teachings. This article discusses the role of faith and, more than most treatments of the Lotus Sutra, its relationship to emptiness thought.
Teiser, Stephen F., and Jacqueline I. Stone, eds. Readings of the Lotus Sutra. New York: Columbia University Press, 2009.
Presents a range of essays dealing with aspects of the sutra, ranging over philosophical and practice issues in China and Japan.
Tsukamoto, Keishō. Source Elements of the Lotus Sutra: Buddhist Integration of Religion, Thought, and Culture. Tokyo: Kōsei, 2007.
This detailed study includes considerations of religious unity in the Mahayana, the concept of prediction related to the sutra’s many predictions of buddhahood, the role of parables, and the sutra’s relation to cultic activity, including for Avalokiteśvara and Amitābha’s Pure Land.
Williams, Paul. Mahāyāna Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations. London: Routledge, 1989.
This highly useful survey of Mahayana philosophy includes a chapter on the Lotus Sutra with discussion of many of its aspects, as well as its later expressions in East Asia.
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