A New Explanation of the Composition of the Lotus Sutra- Interpreting the Lotus Sutra as Life Stories of Buddha

Hiraoka, Satoshi平岡聡. A New Explanation of the Composition of the Lotus Sutra- Interpreting the Lotus Sutra as Life Stories of Buddha  (法華経成立の新解釈 : 仏伝として法華経を読み解く), by . Tōkyō : Daizō Publication (東京:大蔵出版), 2012.

Reviewed by Hsun-Mei Chen (PhD candidate, Kyoto University/ National Taiwan University; Harvard Yenching Visiting Fellow)

As the title suggests, Professor Hiraoka explores issues pertaining to the formation of the Lotus Sutra (妙法蓮華経, Saddharma Puṇḍárīka) from the perspective of the Buddha's life stories (仏伝). In brief, Hiraoka develops three arguments in the book: 1. The composition of the Lotus Sutra was based on the stories of Buddha. 2. The intention behind the Lotus Sutra was to transcend the Mahāyāna teaching in Vimalakīrti Nirdeśa and Perfection of Wisdom Sutras. 3. The development of the Lotus Sutra had an inseparable connection with Sarvāstivāda (説一切有部).

Before developing the first main argument, Hiraoka indicates that in 28 previous Japanese studies on the formation of the Lotus Sutra, none of them discussed issues from the perspective of Buddha's stories. Despite those studies, although some famous scholars (such as Enichi Ocho (橫超慧日), Masahiro Shimoda (下田正弘), and Hiroshi Kanno (菅野博史)) have already started to connect some scenarios in the sutra with the stories of Gautama Buddha (hereafter: Buddha), they did not conduct complete inquiries into the entire 28 chapters of the sutra. Given the shortcomings of previous studies, in Chapter 2, Hiraoka embarks on his detailed examinations of Buddha's life stories recorded in 6 different kinds of Buddhist texts compiled before the Lotus Sutra. Judged by the stories in the Lotus Sutra, among all the life stories, Dipamkara Buddha's prophecy (story of Buddha's previous life) and the stories of how Buddha converted his disciples along his religious journey after enlightenment are highly relevant to the Lotus Sutra. Hiraoka also confirms that all the disciples prophesied future Buddhahood in the Lotus Sutra were all arhat in those older stories. It should be noted that Hiraoka does not intend to investigate whether those stories are genuinely about the historical Buddha, but instead, he mainly focuses on how those narratives, no matter actual or not, connect to the Lotus Sutra.

 In Chapter 3 and Chapter 4, Hiraoka carefully investigates the narratives in the Lotus Sutra. In Chapter 3, Hiraoka analyses chapters 1 to 6, chapters 8, 9, 12, 13, 16, and chapter 17 to 28 of the Lotus Sutra, disclosing how those narratives developed upon the original Buddha's stories. According to Hiraoka, while chapter 1 extended the tale of Dipamkara Buddha's prophecy, chapters 2 to 16 extended the arhathood of those disciples to Buddhahood. The latter part of the sutra, from chapters 17 to 28, mainly depicted the situation after Buddha's nirvana, and therefore are relevant to the stories after Buddha's death. In Chapter 4, Hiraoka reveals the strong connection between other Buddha's stories and the interludes in chapters 7, 10, 11, 15, 23, 27 of the sutra. To sum up, the main point of Hiraoka's first argument is that the entire Lotus Sutra can be taken as a collection of Buddha's stories across Buddha's previous life, present life, and after nirvana, chronologically. 

The second and third arguments are developed in Chapter 5. In section 3 of Chapter 5, Hiraoka discovers the similar orders of famous Buddha's disciples in the Lotus sutra's prophecies and the Vimalakīrti Nirdeśa. Based on this finding, he argues that by employing the similar order but changing the role of those disciples, Lotus Sutra aimed to counter the dualistic discrimination between Mahāyāna and other "inferior" teachings mentioned in Vimalakīrti Nirdeśa. Furthermore, by closely examining the oppositions between Mahāyāna and other Buddhist teachings in the Perfection of Wisdom in Eight Thousand Lines Sutra (八千頌般若経, Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā), he suggests that intention behind the Lotus Sutra was to surpass the Mahāyāna teaching advocated in Vimalakīrti Nirdeśa and Perfection of Wisdom Sutras by proposing a new One Vehicle (一乘, ekayāna) teaching. Then in section 4, Hiraoka argues that since the genealogy of many of Buddha's stories adapted in the Lotus Sutra can be traced back to Sarvāstivāda, the formation of the Lotus Sutra may be highly relevant to Sarvāstivāda. However, as Hiraoka points out, there are some noticeable discrepancies between the stories in the Lotus Sutra and in the Sarvāstivāda tradition, and therefore the issues about the origin of the Lotus Sutra are very intricate and require future investigation. It is evident that Hiraoka spends much less space making the second and third arguments, and leaves many unanswered questions that need to be solved in the future. However, these two preliminary arguments and even the remaining puzzles actually point to promising directions and open new possibilities not only for the studies of Lotus Sutra, but also for the studies of other Mahāyāna sutra.

Unfortunately, despite Hiraoka's successful and rigorous arguments in the book, he, like most of the scholars in the past, overlooks the importance of the Dragon Princess Episode in the Lotus Sutra. After Devadatta was prophesied in the first half of chapter 12, the Devadatta chapter, the sutra then inserted a plot of the Dragon Princess who immediately attained enlightenment in the story. In the book, Hiraoka only summarizes the story and mentions that previous scholars have tended to view this episode as an odd insertion after Devadtta's story or as support for the idea that women can become Buddha. In note 12 of chapter 5, Hiraoka explicitly stated that all the Buddha's disciples in the sutra who were prophesied future Buddhahood were taken as arhats, which are always adult human beings, when the sutra was compiled. Thus, it is clear that Hiraoka was not fully aware of the unique identity of the Dragon Princess as a female, a child, and even a nonhuman.

However, as Abe rightly observes in Revisiting the Dragon Princess: Her Role in Medieval Engi Stories and Their Implications in Reading the Lotus Sutra, the Devadatta chapter reached the climax in the story of the Dragon Princess. After all, as pointed out by Zhiyi (智顗), Jizang (吉蔵), and Kuiji (窺基), she is the only character who did not receive One Vehicle teaching directly from the Buddha on the Eagle Peak, but was able to attain unsurpassed perfect enlightenment (無上正等覚). Indeed, this story cannot be found in the stories of Buddha, and maybe that is the reason why Hiraoka does not delve into this story. Although this exceptional story may not undermine the main argument that the compilation of the Lotus Sutra was based on the life stories of Buddha, the oddness of this story may signal its importance in the sutra. Moreover, the Dragon Princess episode may imply that the compiler(s)/ writer(s) of the sutra not only intended to unify all Buddhist teachings into One Vehicle, but also to propose that all sentient beings of any gender, age, and even species can achieve the Buddhahood. 

Nevertheless, one tiny flaw cannot obscure the splendor of the jade. Hiraoka’s book does hugely contribute to Buddhist studies, at least in Japan. Hiraoka's contribution lies in his originality on viewing the Lotus Sutra from the perspective of Buddha’s stories. Before Hiraoka, the studies of the Lotus Sutra mainly presupposed Zhiyi's (智顗) dichotomy dividing the Lotus Sutra into original aspect (本門)/derivative aspect (跡門), or Dao-an's (道安) trichotomy dividing the sutra into introduction (序品)/ main content(正宗分)/ dissemination (流通分). Hiraoka boldly abandons these two long-standing classifications and creatively links the narrative structure of the sutra with different stages of Buddha's stories. This innovative perspective can reveal the intimate and complicated relationships among the Lotus Sutra, the stories of Buddha and early Buddhist schools. Besides those significant contributions to Buddhist studies, for readers, especially students in Buddhist studies, this book demonstrates how an excellent scholar rigorously builds up arguments. Moreover, since Hiraoka thoroughly summarizes critical philological and historical studies of the Lotus Sutra and Buddha's stories in the footnotes, readers can benefit significantly. In view of the above-mentioned academic contributions and merits, the Sakamoto Nichijin Academic Award (坂本日深学術賞) in 2013 for this book is well deserved.