Inclusive and exclusive readings of the Lotus Sutra

Following this brief introduction are three different translations of a single passage, as an example of how translations can serve an exclusive or include view of the Supremacy of the Lotus Sutra. Make of this what you will – many others have already made of it what they would. The english versions of the Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, were produced by the SGI’s Gosho Translation Committee with the assistance of Burton Watson, so it’s easy to understand how his translation of the Lotus Sutra (produced prior to the excommunication) would be biased towards the exclusive dogma of the Shoshu priesthood. I don’t yet have a copy of Leon Hurvitz’ translation but will update this when I get it.

The point I’m trying to make here is that views are essentially empty of absolutes. They have to be – particularly views regarding the Buddha’s specific words. And, don’t forget, it is largely accepted that only a small part of the Lotus Sutra was recorded around the time of the Theravadan discourses and that the Sutra as we know it today dates from around the first century CE.

As with so much of this stuff – quit arguing about which teaching is supreme (dualist thinking) and get on with developing courage, compassion, wisdom, and a calm mind!

Kern (English direct from Sanskrit)

128. And when such as had heard the law of the Jinas, owing to the manysidedness of (their) skilfulness, had approached me and stood before my face, all of them with joined hands, and respectful;

129. Then I conceived the idea that the time had come for me to announce the excellent law and to reveal supreme enlightenment, for which task I had been born in the world.

130. This (event) to-day will be hard to be understood by the ignorant who imagine they see here a sign, as they are proud and dull. But the Bodhisattvas, they will listen to me.

131. And I felt free from hesitation and highly cheered; putting aside all timidity, I began speaking in the assembly of the sons of Sugata, and roused them to enlightenment.

132. On beholding such worthy sons of Buddha (I said): Thy doubts also will be removed, and these twelve hundred (disciples) of mine, free from imperfections, will all of them become Buddhas.

Bunno Kato, Yoshiro Tamura & Kojiro Miyasaka (from Kumarajiva’s Chinese translation of the Sanskrit)

When I saw the Buddha-sons
Bent on seeking the Buddha-way,
In countless thousands and myriads of kotis,
All, with reverent hearts,
Draw near to [me] the Buddha;
They had already heard from the buddhas
The Law which they tactfully explained.
Then I conceived this thought:
‘The reason why the Tathagata appears
Is for preaching the Buddha-wisdom;
Now is the very time.’
Know, Sariputra!
The stupid and those of little wit,
The tied to externals and the proud
Cannot believe this Law.
But now I am glad and fearless;
In the midst of the bodhisattvas
Frankly put aside tactfulness
And only proclaim the supreme Way.
[You] bodhisattvas hearing this Law,
Having all got rid of the nets of doubts,
[You] twelve hundred arhats
Will all become buddhas.

Burton Watson (from Kumarajiva’s Chinese translation of the Sanskrit)

When I looked at the Buddha sons,
I saw incalculable thousands, ten thousands, millions
who had determined to seek the way of the Buddha,
everyone with a respectful and reverent mind,
all coming to the place of the Buddha,
persons who in the past had listened to other Buddhas
and heard the Law preached through expedient means.
Immediately the thought came to me
that the reason the Thus Come One has appeared
is so he may preach the Buddha wisdom.
Now is precisely the time to do so.
Shariputra, you should understand
that persons of dull capacity and small wisdom,
who are attached to appearances, proud and overbearing,
are incapable of believing in this Law.
Now I, joyful and fearless,
in the midst of the bodhisattvas,
honestly discarding expedient means,
will preach only the unsurpassed Way
When the bodhisattvas hear this Law,
they will be released from all entanglements of doubt.
The twelve hundred Arhats,
they too will all attain Buddhahood.

So what of words?

So where does this leave us? Well, the Buddha himself left some guidance on the subjective discrimination of words in the Lankavara Sutra (which of course is negated if you accept an exclusive reading of the Lotus Sutra) – from Ch33:

Said Mahamati: Again, Blessed One, (87) are words to be considered different (anya) or not-different (ananya) from discrimination?

Replied the Blessed One: Mahamati, they are neither different nor not-different. Why? Because words rise, Mahamati, with discrimination as their cause. If, Mahamati, words are different from discrimination, they cannot have it for cause. Then if they are not different, words cannot express the sense, which they do. Therefore, words and discrimination are neither different nor not-different.

Then Mahamati said: Again, Blessed One, are words themselves the highest reality? or is what is expressed in words the highest reality?

The Blessed One replied: Mahamati, words are not the highest reality, nor is what is expressed in words the highest reality. Why? Because the highest reality is an exalted state of bliss, and as it cannot be entered into by mere statements regarding it, words are not the highest reality. Mahamati, the highest reality is to be attained by the inner realisation of noble wisdom; it is not a state of word-discrimination; therefore, discrimination does not express the highest reality. And then, Mahamati, words are subject to birth and destruction; they are unsteady, mutually conditioning, and are produced by the law of causation. And again, Mahamati, what is mutually conditioning and produced by the law of causation cannot express the highest reality, because the indications [pointing to the distinction between] self and not-self are non-existent. Mahamati, words are these indications and do not express [the highest reality]. Further, Mahamati, word-discrimination cannot express the highest reality, for external objects with their multitudinous individual marks are non-existent, and only appear before us as something revealed out of Mind itself. Therefore, Mahamati, you must try to keep yourself away from the various forms of word-discrimination.

Further findings

Chapter 10

I was reviewing Ch10, variously entitled (Teacher of the law). It’s subtle, but in all translations I have seen (including Burton Watson’s), the end of the first verse section states that of all the scriptures the Buddha has preached, the Lotus is foremost. Then, at the start of the next non-verse section he makes the distinction that of all he has preached, now being preached, or will be preached, the Lotus is the hardest to understand.

Somehow this gets transmogrified in into (paraphrased) “of all I have preached, am preaching and will preach, the Lotus is foremost” – which is not what the text says at all.


3 Responses to Inclusive and exclusive readings of the Lotus Sutra

  1. David June 27, 2012 at 7:31 am #

    Leon Hurvitz, “Scripture of the Lotus Blossom of the Fine Dharma,” translated from the Chinese of Kumarajiva

    Chapter Two “Expedient Devices”:

    Sariputra, be it known:
    I see the Buddha’s sons,
    Those who aspire to the Buddha Path,
    In the incalculable thousands of myriads of millions,
    All with deferential thought,
    All coming before the Buddha,
    Having formerly heard from the Buddhas
    Dharmas preached by resort to expedient devices.
    Then I had this thought;
    “The reason a Buddha emerges
    Is to preach Buddha-wisdom.
    Now is the very time for it!”
    Sariputra, be it know that
    Men of dull faculties and slight wisdom,
    They who cling proudly to signs,
    Cannot believe in this Dharma.
    Now I, joyfully and fearlessly,
    In the midst of the bodhisattvas
    Frankly casting aside my expedient devices,
    Merely preach the Unexcelled Path.
    When the bodhisattvas hear this Dharma,
    The network of their doubts is all cleared away:
    [I have said] “A thousand two hundred arhants
    Shall also become Buddhas, every one of them.

    In a footnote, Hurvitz presents an alternative Sanskrit translation to the lines you’ve highlighted: “Accordingly, with confidence and joy setting aside all clinging,/I speak in the midst of the sons of the Well Gone Ones and endow those very ones with enlightened intuition.”

    • steve June 27, 2012 at 10:47 am #

      Thanks, David. I am very grateful for you taking the time to copy type it for me. Again, it’s very interesting to see the diversity of the results Hurvitz obtained between Kumarajiva’s translation, and through a direct Sanskrit translation. It makes one wonder what Kumarajiva’s own leanings were with regard the supremacy of the Lotus.

      • David June 27, 2012 at 2:39 pm #

        You’re welcome, Steve. Get a book called “Buddhist Sutras: Origin, Development, Transmission” by Kogen Mizuno. There’s not a whole lot in it about the Lotus Sutra, but it gives a valuable overview to the history of the transmissions and translations in general, and is a fascinating read.

        I doubt Kumarajiva gave much thought to the idea of the supremacy of any sutra as most of the important figures in Buddhist history just weren’t into that whole idea. And while in theory they may have been somewhat sectarian, in actual practice they were often the opposite. Kumarajiva is usually identified as being part of the Madhyamaka, Nagarjuna’s Middle Way school.

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