Scholar offers illumination on the ‘Lotus Sutra’

by Angela Jeffs

Gene Reeves, who sounds like he might be an American cowboy but is in fact an internationally respected Buddhist scholar of the highest order, also ranks physically impressive: as tall as he is broad, with a fulsome beard used to going its own way.

Gene, who ministers to the International Buddhist Congregation of Rissho Kosei-kai in Tokyo’s Suginami Ward, and acts as international adviser to its associated Niwano Peace Foundation, is recently returned from China — a delegate at the four-day World Buddhist Forum in mid-April.

“It was amazing,” he recalls in the study of his apartment in Wada, just down the street from Rissho Kosei-kai’s headquarters. “Some 1,000 monks and nuns and experts spent two days in Hangzhou, with lectures and discussion on the theme of the forum: A harmonious world begins in the mind. After flying to Zhou-shan, where we prayed for world peace, we moved on to Shanghai for the first performance of a Buddhist symphony.”

Like many of the delegates, Gene returned loaded with gifts, which he points out around the room. Since this was the first major international forum on Buddhism in China since 1949, the three local governments responsible appeared to be in competition to win hearts and minds. Obviously the event had the blessing of the central government; President Hu Jintai is keen to improve China’s image on religious freedom — and with good reason.

Suppression of Falun Gong apart, and with its eye on the Olympics, China is keen to try to balance its export-driven economy with tourism. And in China, that means temples. “Unlike temples in Japan, those in China are thriving, practicing communities. I went to one in Shenyang on a Thursday afternoon and it was vibrant, with mothers teaching their children how to pray.”

He compares it to the biggest temple in the U.S., in Hacienda Heights in Los Angeles County, which is always packed. “Soka Gakkai are the largest sect in America and also in the U.K., I believe. A (SG) funeral I attended in Chicago was truly diverse, the most wonderful mix of humanity.”

Although he grew up in whiter-than-white New Hampshire, Gene’s roots are in black Chicago. A Unitarian majoring in psychology in the late 1950s, he decided on an academic career in religion after an African-American friend introduced him to black life and culture. It was Martin Luther King Jr. who suggested Gene go to Atlanta, where he became immersed in the civil rights movement.

Gene’s career took a more academic turn working as a professor at America’s oldest black college, Wilberforce University in Ohio. (Later he was made dean, then assistant to the president.) In brief he was head of Meadville Lombard Theological College from 1979 to 1988, and lectured in the Divinity School of the University of Chicago. (He is now professor emeritus.)

“By this time I had moved to Buddhism, with the “lotus sutra” as Buddhism’s core tradition. It had been suggested way back in 1983 by founder Niwano that I come to Japan to lecture. Keen to share religious experience, I had become friendly with Yoshiro Tamura, an authority on the “Lotus Sutra.” Sadly I did not get here until 1989, just before he died.”

The 2,000 year-old “Lotus Sutra,” Gene explains, teaches that we can all reach an awakened state, and places an emphasis on devotion and faith. Originally written in Sanskrit, it has been translated many times over the centuries. In Japan it is especially important because of its role in the mid-13th century Nichiren school of Buddhism. Nichiren places the “Lotus Sutra” at the heart of Buddhist teachings, to the exclusion of all others.

With a grant from the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science, Gene hung out at Tsukuba University. “I was encouraged to concentrate on reading and writing, and had some wonderful students. I ended up staying eight years. Eventually Tsukuba retired me, threw me out for being too old. (He laughs.) Seriously though, Tsukuba was good to me, good for me.”

Ten years ago he woke up to just how many foreigners in Tokyo were interested in Buddhism, and helped to found the International Buddhist Congregation. In the beginning, most of the congregation were Japanese, but now it’s half and half. “We meet on the fifth floor of Rissho Kosei-kai’s Fumon-kan on Sundays at 11 a.m. for dharma talks, sutra recitation and ‘hoza’ — a group circle that discusses personal problems from a Buddhist viewpoint.”

Also Gene gives talks in English about the “Lotus Sutra” at Joen-ji, near Shinjuku Station. (You may have seen ads in Metropolis and similar listings.) Unfortunately the next will not be until October. He will be in the U.S. over the summer with his wife, Yayoi, giving lectures in Chicago and California and visiting grandchildren and daughters from his first marriage (the eldest of whom is an ordained minister in a Unitarian Universalist Church).

When Gene says he is mostly retired, he laughs even more. The reason his lifework, a new translation of the “Lotus Sutra,” is still incomplete after so many years is that he cannot say no: no to invitations here and abroad to help make Buddhism — and the “Lotus Sutra” in particular — more accessible and better understood. “I’m hoping to have it ready for publication next spring. I have to be very careful; there are lots of sensitivities.”

His most recent book in print is “A Buddhist Kaleidoscope,” an anthology of essays on the “Lotus Sutra” published by the Kosei Publishing Co. A series of articles on the stories in the “Lotus Sutra” is currently being published in the magazine Dharma World.

“The ‘Lotus Sutra’ is central to Buddhist tradition. There was little interest in the West when I first came here. Now there are many scholars in the U.S., U.K. and Europe. It’s good to think I might have helped make a difference.”