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The Lotus Sutra

The Lotus Sutra is one of the most beloved Mahayana sutras especially in the East Asian countries of China, Japan and Korea. I recently read this sutra for the first time. Please note that the following is only my reaction to the text and that I am neither a practicing Buddhist nor an expert in Buddhist studies.

The overwhelming impression one gets while reading the Lotus Sutra is of bigness. every number given is incalculably large; every time period is incalculably long. Special archaic words are used , which no one seems to know the exact meaning of, except that they are incredibly large.  From the very beginning the action encompasses not only the material plane of our reality but also higher and lower planes and alternate realities, all brought together for the occasion by the transcendental powers of Shakyamuni Buddha. Here we see the awesome panoramic grandeur of Mahayana Buddhism at its finest, a Buddhism which has gone far beyond its original roots as a North Indian philosophy, to embrace infinity and eternity. Whoever wrote the Lotus Sutra had no fear of thinking big. I am reminded of something I read somewhere, that Buddhism of all the world’s religions is best suited for a space-faring race in the vastness of the universe, since it has accepted the reality of infinite spaces and countless worlds since the beginning. Here in this sutra received Buddhist thought embracing concepts of scale and time which Western Civilization has only recently  engaged with, and then mostly in science fiction.

Against this backdrop the central theme of the Lotus Sutra, that all living things have the potential to become buddhas, seems natural and fitting. in the Pāli Canon, those scriptures used by Theravada Buddhists, three paths/vehicles are offered to enlightenment: the vehicle of the hearer, the vehicle of the hermit, and the vehicle of the  Bodhisattva. In the Lotus Sutra it is explained that all three of these paths in fact one, and all lead eventually to bodhisattvahood, and ultimately buddhahood. The concept of three paths is merely an expedient offered to teach people who were not ready for the Mahayana philosophy. The word Mahayana itself can be translated as “one big vehicle”. The Lotus Sutra also shows examples indicating that not just monks but also lay people women children and in fact all sentients can follow the Bodhisattva path and eventually become buddhas.   In other words, the vehicle is big enough for everyone.

Prabhūtaratna and Shakyamuni in the treasure tower; wall painting, Yulin Caves. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Another major theme revealed in the Lotus Sutra is that of the Eternal Buddha. even though Buddha’s exists as living beings through numerous incarnations they also exist as Buddha’s outside of time. Shakyamuni might  have been born a man and lived for 80 years but he has always been the Buddha and always will be. Even a buddha who has extinction can still interact with those bound to the wheel. For much of the Lotus Sutra Shakyamuni is joined by a Buddha named Many Treasures (Prabhūtaratna) who entered extinction incalculable eons ago and yet has returned to hear the sutra. This is an area where Buddhism, considered a secular philosophy by many people here in the West,  definitely pushes into the realm of theology. The assertion of an eternal Buddha requires a doctrinal explanation which is dealt with differently in the various schools of Buddhism, generally by postulating three (or more) aspects of the Buddha in which the highest is perfect and eternal and the lowest is one of multiple physical emanations, 

The Buddha’s physical appearance as a human being such as Gautama Buddha is an emanation body, a form he assumed to suit the spiritual dispositions and needs of ordinary beings. An emanation body derives from a subtler body, an enjoyment body. An enjoyment body emerges from the omniscient mind of a buddha, the wisdom dharmakāya.  

Dalai Lama, Thubten Chodron. (2017). One Teacher, Many Traditions. Simon and Schuster. p.29

This arrangement calls to mind the three homeostases of Plotinus, not to mention the Christian Trinity. <1>

Besides these major teaching points, the One Vehicle and the Eternal Buddha, the Lotus Sutra, a long work compared most sutras that I have encountered, alludes to numerous minor points of doctrine, most of which I was probably oblivious to, not having enough background in Buddhism. It also gives many, many pages of exhortations to read, copy, memorize, recite, and preach the Lotus Sutra itself—a sort of circular reference which seemed strange to me as a Western reader.  It also contains short bios of several of the most important bodhisattvas (of which Avalokiteśvara, aka Kuan Yin, is probably the most well known to Westerners) and a great deal of poetry. In fact, most material in the sutra is repeated twice, once in prose, and once in poetry. There are also numerous repetitive passages—a sort of scriptural boiler plate. The translator of the edition I read, Burton Watson, explains in the introduction that these features are probably relics of the period when the Sutra was primarily preserved orally. They make for a long read. Curiously, though, the cadence of the language and the vividness of the imagery is such that it is not a boring read, at least not if you approach it in the right mental state. How much of this is due to Watson’s skill as a translator, and how much to the sutra itself, I can’t say. What is certainly true, though, that this is one of the most widely read sutras in the history of the world, which is indicative of a literary appeal that transcends mere doctrine.

Thousand-Armed Avalokitesvara, China , via Flickr user Triratna_photos, [CC BY-NC 2.0]

<1> It is far from sure, however, that Neoplatonism developed free from Buddhist influences. The Eastern Roman empire traded with Buddhist countries. Both Roman philosophers and Buddhist monks sometimes traveled widely. Plotinus himself, who was from Egypt, could easily have reached several large, cosmopolitan cities where he might have encountered Buddhists.; All of the above is also true, of course, of Jesus Christ—a possibility which I hope to address in a later post.

Hesse’s Siddhartha

Siddhartha by Herman Hesse - coverSiddhartha is Hermann Hesse’s best known novel in the English speaking world. Unlike his earlier works which are semi-autobiographical and describe young men in dealing with crises of faith in contemporary Europe, Siddhartha is set in ancient India during the lifetime of the Buddha. When the book came out in 1927 it gave many westerners their first exposure to Eastern philosophy and religion. It is frequently included on lists of influential books of the 20th century and is a good candidate for inclusion on a Great Books reading list.

The full name of the “Supreme Buddha”, the founder of Buddhism was Siddhārtha Gautama. In Hesse’s book, however, he is represented by two discrete characters: Siddhartha, the protagonist, and Gotama, the founder of the religion.

Please note that the remainder of this post contains spoilers.

Siddhartha is a gifted son of a brahmin who is being groomed for a career in the ancient Vedic religion. In his twenties he becomes disillusioned with his fathers’ faith, which he believes is unlikely to lead to enlightenment. He and his friend Govinda leave their village and join a band of Samanas, wandering ascetic holy men who reject the teachings of the brahmins. Historically, by the time of the Buddha, their were numerous Samana sects with widely differing philosophies and practices. As portrayed by Hesse, they are very similar to the Cynic philosophers of the ancient world, who rejected all materialism and lived in voluntary poverty under a strict moral code. This is only one of the points where syncretism creeps in between Hesse’s “Eastern” novel and the Western philosophy of his literary background.

After three years Siddhartha and Govinda become frustrated with the Samanas’ program. Hearing that a new spiritual leader, Gotama, has achieved enlightenment they decide to seek him out and hear his teachings. Govinda is soon convinced and becomes a Buddhist monk. Siddhartha finds he has tremendous respect for Gotama Buddha and truly believes he is enlightened. However, he concludes that it is not possible to learn wisdom from a teacher, but only through personal experience. The split between organized religion and received authority, symbolized by Govinda and individual spiritualism and inquiry, symbolized by Siddhartha, becomes the most important theme for the rest of the book. Readers of my blog will also recall that the question of whether virtue (wisdom) can be taught was also of preeminent importance to Socrates and Plato–another incidence of Hesse’s syncretism.

After taking leave of Gotama and Govinda Siddhartha has an epiphany in which he decides to embrace materialism and accept the beauty of the universe in all its myriad forms, rejecting the idealistic philosophy of the Vedic and Buddhist religions, in which the world is seen as illusion. The parallels between his internal dialogue and the writings of the Epicureans, like Lucretius, are obvious. The practices that Siddhartha adopts are more like the bourgeoisie Epicureanism of Claudian Rome than the pure philosophy of Epicurus; he follows his new acceptance of materialism to the nearest city. Here he immediately embarks on a love affair with a high-profile courtesan, goes into business, and spends the next couple of decades making himself a wealthy self-made man. In the process he picks up a drinking problem and a gambling addiction. Finally, disgusted with himself, he walks away from everything and becomes a simple ferry-man on the banks of a river. Here, under the tutelage of a wise older ferryman he finally achieves inner peace.

The idea that philosophers should experience the world in their youth also shows up frequently in Plato, particularly in The Republic where the Guardians were not to be taught philosophy until they were thirty, and afterwards were to be turned adrift to make their way in the world for fifteen years, at which time they could assume their roles as philosopher-rulers.

Statue of Hermann Hesse in Calw, Germany [public domain via Wikipedia]

Statue of Hermann Hesse in Calw, Germany [public domain via Wikipedia]

It is natural that Hesse, who was raised in the Western tradition and educated in a European seminary (until he suffered a crisis of faith and dropped out), would interpret Eastern philosophy through the lens of his own background. It is also probably that I, raised in the same tradition, would criticize his work through a similar lens–particularly since I have been working with Plato and Lucretius recently and their writings are fresh in my mind. It is also true that authors, once they have created an individual style and enjoyed some commercial success, tend to follow it in subsequent works. So is this just a “typical” Hermann Hesse novel, but simply told in a new setting? I thought so until I read the final two chapters, in which Siddhartha’s personal philosophy reaches an ultimate formation which is distinctly, unarguably Asian.

The opposite of every truth is just as true! That’s like this: any truth
can only be expressed and put into words when it is one-sided.
Everything is one-sided which can be thought with thoughts and said with
words, it’s all one-sided, all just one half, all lacks completeness,
roundness, oneness. When the exalted Gotama spoke in his teachings of
the world, he had to divide it into Sansara and Nirvana, into deception
and truth, into suffering and salvation. It cannot be done differently,
there is no other way for him who wants to teach. But the world itself,
what exists around us and inside of us, is never one-sided. A person or
an act is never entirely Sansara or entirely Nirvana, a person is never
entirely holy or entirely sinful. It does really seem like this,
because we are subject to deception, as if time was something real.
Time is not real, Govinda, I have experienced this often and often
again. And if time is not real, then the gap which seems to be between
the world and the eternity, between suffering and blissfulness, between
evil and good, is also a deception.

The acceptance of paradox is one of the major traits which sets Eastern thought apart from Western thought. Westerners have always sought to categorize the universe, to break it down into ideas which are either one thing or another. Easterners except that a concept can be two, apparently contradictory, things at once. Even the most famous and enduring paradoxes in Western thought, the doctrine of the Trinity, was a product of Eastern thinkers and has never sat entirely comfortably with the West.

Likewise, the acceptance of nonlinear time is a hallmark of Eastern thinking. In the East, time can be circular if not completely illusory,

The sinner, which I am and which you are, is a sinner, but in times to come he will be Brahma again, he will reach the Nirvana, will be Buddha–and now see: these ‘times to come’ are a deception, are only a parable! The sinner is not on his way to become a Buddha, he is not in the process of developing, though our capacity for thinking does not know how else to picture these things. No, within the sinner is now and today already the future Buddha, his future is already all there, you have to worship in him, in you, in everyone the Buddha which is coming into being, the possible, the hidden Buddha. The world, my friend Govinda, is not imperfect, or on a slow path towards perfection: no, it is perfect in every moment, all sin already carries the divine forgiveness in itself, all small children already have the old person in themselves, all infants already have death, all dying people the eternal life. It is not possible for any person to see how far another one has already progressed on his path; in the robber and dice-gambler, the Buddha is waiting; in the Brahman, the robber is waiting. In deep meditation, there is the possibility to put time out of existence, to see all life which was, is, and will be as if it was simultaneous, and there everything is good, everything is perfect, everything is Brahman.

When I read this last chapter I realized that everything which proceeded it was part of Hesse’s design to, masterfully, lead his Western readers to a place where they might be able to appreciate these viewpoints.