New weekly reading group on the Lotus Sutra

February 3 to May 11 | Mondays | 5-6 p.m. | MacLean 268

I would like to announce a new, weekly reading group, the Bodhi Salon. Starting this spring semester, we will be studying on the Lotus Sutra. This group is open to all who have any interest in — or are merely just curious about — East Asian culture and/or Buddhism. Whether you’ve ever heard of the Lotus Sutra or not, no prior acquaintance with it will be required or assumed. In fact, no background or previous knowledge about Buddhism, its beliefs, or its practices is expected or necessary. We will be meeting Mondays at 5:00 PM in MacLean 268 (the Presidential Room). Our first meeting will be Monday, February 3rd. I look forward to seeing you there. For further details or questions, contact me at: Dr. Andrew Ellett

Here’s a brief peek at the sutra:

The Lotus Sutra seems to be fairly unique in the extreme contrasts it brings forth. Practically from the moment the sutra entered the world stage, there have been those passionately devoted to it and others who equally passionately reviled it. Sometimes these contrasts are found within the same individual: for example, Hakuin (1687–1768, Japan) who found the sutra both to be nothing extraordinary and a disappointment upon reading it in his youth, yet later found the sutra to be profoundly moving, meaningful, and significant in his practice.

Unlike most other texts of the Buddhist cannon, the substance and teaching of the Lotus Sutra at first seem rather elusive, if not entirely absent. It reads dramatically differently from the ancient Pali Suttas, which are some of the earliest teachings of the Buddha that were recorded, and are also very lucid, yet highly technical texts. The Lotus Sutra, while recognizably Mahayana, nevertheless differs greatly in both style and form from other texts of the Mahayana tradition, which often verge on being philosophically technical or so fantastical as to defy comprehension without a well-established foundation in Buddhist teachings. There is an element of the fantastical in the Lotus Sutra, but the build up is gradual and, when it does break forth, it is much easier to digest. (In fact, the sutra often explains the meaning of what unfolds.)

The Lotus Sutra can read like an enigma. Turn to a random page in the sutra and more likely than not you’ll discover the text unabashedly praising its own merits. Throughout the text, it’s announced that the Buddha is about to teach `The Lotus Sutra’ and yet no sermon can be found. The chapters may even seem disjointed. All of this can be quite off putting. However, if you take the time to slowly digest the sutra, read it, put it down, come back to it and read it again, more likely than not you will discover something of value in its pages: hopefully you will come to see how it does actually hold together and, in fact, has a consistent and clear message.

The signature mark that distinguishes the sutra from all others is its narrative style. This is also what makes the sutra an ideal text for those venturing for the first time into the world as conceived by Buddhism. Incidentally, if you are familiar with any Buddhist parables, very likely they are from the Lotus Sutra.

The Lotus Sutra is unmistakably Buddhist in terms of the characters and cosmology you will encounter; it is quite clearly a religious text. However, it needn’t be read as a religious text; it can be read and thoroughly enjoyed as a work of world literature. If you’ve ever picked up and read JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings Trilogy, then you are perhaps aware how drenched that massive work is in both the history of medieval Europe and Christian doctrine. Yet, it is possible to read and enjoy Tolkien without understanding the history of Europe or becoming a devout Christian. Likewise with the Lotus Sutra.

While I have no extensive, formal academic training in Buddhism (outside of a religious studies major as an undergrad) and hold no official `transmission’ from within a particular tradition, I have been an ardent student of Buddhism for over 35 years: not just in terms of meditation practice but also in terms of studying its literature, history, and philosophy. My interests have also included studying some of the languages in which this literature has historically been conveyed: namely, Japanese and Sanskrit. Regarding the Lotus Sutra itself, I bought my first copy of it in my early twenties if not earlier; in fact, it was the first sutra I ever picked up to read. Much more recently, I have been seriously studying and closely reading it the past five years. It has been a dream of mine for quite some time now to create a forum in which I can share my passion for this text.

I would like the Bodhi Salon be a place where others can join and share their ideas, impressions, and understanding. My hope is that the Lotus Sutra can be a catalyst to discussions on a wide range of topics related to Buddhism, its history, philosophy, practices, and its own self-understanding. But, I believe the Lotus Sutra speaks to far more than just Buddhist ideals. Despite being a text written over 1800 years ago in a world and culture very different from our own, I believe it has much of value to say to us today.

PS. I have multiple copies and translations of the sutra which I will bring to the reading group; you needn’t own your own copy. If you are interested, I recommend Gene Reeves’ translation. While there are several other excellent translations out there, what sets Gene Reeves’ apart are two things: The first is the matter of translation where, except on some very minor points, his translation adheres to the idiom currently used and preferred within the Buddhist community of the English speaking world. This means that, if you pick up other works on Buddhism published in the past 20 years, you will find a very similar vocabulary. The second is Gene Reeves also wrote a companion text, The Stories of the Lotus Sutra. You do not need this second text to read or understand the sutra, but I will be referring to it not infrequently. At our first meeting, I’ll have more to say about the texts and resources I will be using as I prepare for each week’s gathering.