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Lotus Stutra enlightenment

by Stephen Mansfield

THE STORIES OF THE LOTUS SUTRA, by Gene Reeves. Wisdom Publications, 347 pp., 2010, $18.95 (paper)

Gene Reeves is just the kind of preacher-teacher I like, one who lays his wares out, takes a step back and lets you appraise what he has to offer without obligation. Buddhism, like all religions, is best appreciated when free of enforcement, and the sound and fury of the zealous.

Originating in India over 2,000 years ago, the Lotus Sutra was memorized and then transmitted orally until it could be recorded in Sanskrit, Chinese and other scripts. The idea of a standard, authoritative version of the work does not exist. Its importance and centrality, in whatever form it has reached us, however, is not disputed.

In his book on the Lotus Sutra, Reeves presents the stories in digest form, supplementing the tales with interpretation and commentary. The author furnishes the uninitiated reader with analysis of a high order. Along the way, he clarifies a number of terms like dharma, samadhi, and nirvana, whose meanings are often only obtusely understood. There are also words we think we know, like “interdependence” and “mutability,” which, in the Buddhist context, may require a degree of readjustment.

One of the revelations in reading these commentaries is discovering that the Lotus Sutra offers practical guidance and imaginative solutions to problems of a very non-theological kind that are as relevant today as they were in the fifth century B.C. The classic parable of the burning house, for example, demonstrates how a father tries to save his children from the fires of suffering, which they are unable to disengage from because of excessive attachments.

A stumbling block to faith is often incredulity. The writer Ryunosuke Akutagawa, studying the Christian testaments, simply could not accept the existence of miracles. Rejection of faith is inevitable if religions are intractable about such things. Contemporary interpreters like Reeves appreciate that the “reader of the ‘Dharma Flower Sutra’ knows from the very first chapter that he or she has entered an imaginary world.”

When one parable states that as people assembled to hear the Buddha speak, “flowers rained down from the heavens and the Buddha emitted a ray of light from between his eye-brows, lighting up eighteen thousand worlds to the east,” we know we have entered a figurative domain, the world of metaphor. In the author’s view, the stories are “an invitation to exercise the imagination,” the use of hyperbole a means to expand the mind.

Reading these stories we realize that narration is as old as the history of ideas, that wisdom has always been discharged through anecdote, illustration and the medium of parables. Reeves deftly summarizes each story, interprets them, then when the spirit moves him, adds his own spin to the tales. In retelling these accounts, Reeves displays his own skills as a raconteur, one fully aware of both the value and shortcomings of Buddhist transmissions.

The author readily admits that the question of gender and sexuality has long vexed the faith, suggesting that the discrediting of women, the notion that a female could only achieve full awakening if reborn as a man, can be partially traced to the attitudes of celibate Indian monks two millennia ago who held, whether consciously or involuntarily, that women were morally inferior because they were responsible for male sexual desire.

While asserting that the Lotus Sutra helped to advance the position of women, Reeves is at pains to point out that it reflected the limitations of its age. Restricted by the temporal, the teachings are also, in one of those exquisite oxymorons associated with Eastern philosophy and religion, ageless. Just as Japanese stone gardens, resembling art installations, strike us as extraordinarily contemporary in conception, Buddhism’s body of teachings seems evergreen, the potential they offer to restart out lives, infinite.

Turning our cluttered existences into tabula rasa, however, is easier said than done, though Reeves offers a fresh perspective on leading a more meaningful life by portraying Buddhism as a faith less about achieving a state of transcendent detachment, than serving and helping others through the compassion generated by belief.

Ultimately, the Lotus Sutra and the faith it represents is not about a fabulist cosmos, but the human condition.