The "Lotus Sūtra"

A Biography

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Donald S. Lopez
Lives of Great Religious Books
  • Princeton, NJ: 
    Princeton University Press
    , September
     2016.
     272 pages.
     $29.95.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780691152202.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Donald Lopez’s “biography” of the Lotus Sūtra is part of a series from Princeton University Press called “Lives of Great Religious Books.” Readers of this review will likely already be familiar with this excellent series of reception histories of classic religious texts written by contemporary experts. Of particular interest to scholars of Asian religions are Richard Smith’s The I Ching: A Biography (2012) and David White’s The Yoga Sūtra of Patanjali: A Biography (2014). Lopez himself contributed an earlier volume on The Tibetan Book of the Dead (2011). As he explains in his introduction, this book is contractually related to his previous book for Princeton. Like all the books in the series, itis compact—close to pocket size—but at two hundred and fifty pages, not short. It is intended for a non-specialist readership, but the tone is academic and the book contains scholarly apparatus, including notes and a bibliography. Indic languages are supported with diacritical marks but there are no Chinese, Japanese, or Korean characters.

This biography of the Lotus Sūtra contains an introduction presenting the author’s perspective on the purpose of the book, followed by seven chapters. Chapter 1 offers a plot summary of the Lotus Sūtra. Specialists should not be tempted to skip this chapter—I am relatively familiar with the Lotus Sūtra and teach it regularly, but I still learned a good deal from Lopez’s summary. Chapters 2, 3, and 4 cover the Lotus Sūtrain India, China, and Japan, respectively. Chapter 5 is entitled “Across the Atlantic”; chapter 6 covers the “Lotus Sūtra in the Twentieth Century”; while chapter 7 takes us “Across the Pacific.” In addition to the notes, there is a quite thorough index.

I teach a Lotus Sutra graduate seminar every few years, which obligates me to keep up with secondary scholarship on the text, and of course to re-read the sūtra itself. Even so, I discovered many fresh and original insights in this volume. I would not assign this book for that seminar, but I would certainly expect students to read it anyway since it offers an overview of the global reception of the Lotus Sūtra from Mahāyāna down to contemporary timesthat cannot be found elsewhere. I think the book would work in an undergraduate class on Buddhist scriptures. Throughout his discussion, Lopez draws on his own extensive experience of teaching the Lotus Sūtra in the undergraduate classroom.

The Lotus Sūtra itself is so rich and surprising, and its global influence so significant and varied, that one would expect Lopez (already a master at this kind of lively, intellectual approach to Buddhist texts) to be able to edify and entertain. From the vividly rendered account of Lopez’s encounter with his first Buddhist onwards, we are in the hands of a skilled and knowledgeable storyteller. But aside from the more personal content, Lopez’s erudition and broad interest in the totality of Buddhist literature bring to light no end of new information on the scripture and its influence on readers across the globe. 

This biography does cover pretty much everything one might want to know about the Lotus Sūtra. Lopez is not afraid to employ technical language where required, but he mostly guides us through doctrinal complexities with elegant economy. His discussion of how Indian Yogācāra thinkers consigned the Lotus Sūtra’s “one vehicle” doctrine to “provisional” status is probably the clearest explanation of the subject that I have ever read. That said, there is more on doctrinal and sectarian history—there is a great deal of Nichiren in the book—than on cultural history. I would have liked to read just a little more about the considerable influence of the Lotus Sūtra on art, literature, and culture. 

As we would expect from a scholar who has written both on Buddhism within Asia and the reception of Buddhism in the West, the chapters on the Lotus Sūtra in Asia and those that continue its story elsewhere are handled with equal skill. It is hard to think of another author who would be so well placed to manage this with such confidence. As Lopez shows, the story of the Lotus Sūtra in Europe and North America is just as complex as its reception history within Asia. 

My only complaint, and itis a minor one, is that Lopez misses a nice opportunity to relate the fact that the translator Kumārajīva’s tongue remained unburnt after his cremation to the Lotus Sūtra—devotees who chanted the Lotus Sūtra in East Asia were often said to leave behind unburned tongues, a claim made on the basis of the sutra itself. Also, although a later discussion of Lotus Sūtra self-immolation in China is promised on page 20, I could not find any mention of these auto-cremation practices in chapter 3.

In short, those working in Buddhist studies should definitely obtain this book, even if they know its subject well. Others in religious studies will find it a fascinating introduction to a quintessential Mahāyāna scripture.

About the Reviewer(s): 

James A. Benn is Professor of Buddhism and East Asian Religions at McMaster University.

Date of Review: 
June 22, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Donald S. Lopez, Jr. is the Arthur E. Link Distinguished University Professor of Buddhist and Tibetan Studies at the University of Michigan. His many books include The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism(with Robert E. Buswell, Jr.) and The Tibetan Book of the Dead: A Biography (Princeton). He lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

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