The Lotus Sutra vs. Elmore Leonard
This past July I began re-reading the Lotus Sutra.
The Lotus Sutra is what some schools of Buddhist thought proclaim as Shakyamuni/Sidartha Gutama Buddha’s highest teaching. Other schools beg to differ.
My first official socialization into Buddhist culture (albeit a wonky one) was said to be rooted in the Lotus Sutra, though I was never encouraged to actually read or study it. In fact, during my earliest days as a budding Buddhist when I asked what the words we recited as lengthy prayers twice daily actually meant, I was told I didn’t need to know – I just needed to say them.
When I continued to ask I was told “the words tell a story – they are in a BIG book – I don’t have one – but I’ll try to find it for you.”
That was in 1983. No one ever got me the book. Or maybe someone did, after I had decided they were mostly nuts and left the sangha. It wasn’t until 2006, when a bout of my own nuttiness lured me back for another go, that I purchased my own copy of the Lotus Sutra as translated by Burton Watson.
I read it from cover to cover rather quickly for its depth. Then I put it down and thought, okay I see why I was never encouraged to read or study it.
The Lotus Sutra is complex in places and simple in other places.
Some parts are reminiscent of Christian Bible parables. Other parts resemble Endora and Aunt Clara’s book of spells. I doubt that anyone from the sangha had even read it in 1983 and for sure didn’t want to have a real dialogue about it, even as they were programming me… I mean teaching me that it was from this very Sutra that my newfound Faith was based.
After reading it for the first time I had an egocentric sense of accomplishment but no profound enlightenment. It was more like a school yard I –read – book- you – didn’t – read –Nah –Nah –Na – Nah – Nah! It was nice to put some key phrases into perspective. Phrases like, the Nyo ze so. Nyo ze sho. Nyo ze sa. etc., in triplicate, business and the often quoted but rarely understood at all times I think to myself how can I cause living beings to gain entry into the unsurpassed way and quickly acquire the body of a Buddha?
But other than that my initial reading did not change me in the profound way I thought/hoped/expected it would. And after reading it again and again, of all 28 chapters I’m still unsure why chapters 2 and 16 are the only chapters that have morphed into daily prayers for some Buddhist practioners?
So this July, fueled by a discussion on another blog (Thanks Joe. Thanks Nancy.) I attempted to re-read it once again. It is now September and I have been stuck “middleway” all summer! The only thing I’m clear about is that I’m not clear.
Is the Lotus Sutra Shakyamuni’s highest teaching or is it a story about his highest teaching? Or is it a story about the moments leading up to his highest teaching?
Is everything (Life. Death. Fire. Famine. Love. Joy. Envy. EVERYTHING) all nothing but an expedient means to/for something else? How expedient are those means anyway? They all seem to take a long time…
And what’s up with the demon daughters? No, really?
At the end of the day/book how do we arrive at the common denominator of nam myoho renge kyo? I don’t mean the semantics of it – yeah – yeah, I get the whole Japanese translation of the Sanskrit title, but what I don’t get is how do the 28 chapters of this one Sutra translate into an entire Faith based on reciting 4 words over and over and over and over again? I used to think I did. I no longer do. Like I say on my about page, “I thought nam myoho renge kyo was the answer then I forgot the question.”
Since I embarked on my summer re-read I have finished 3 Elmore Leonard books, (Pagan Babies, Tishomingo Blues and Mr. Paradise – I enjoyed Pagan Babies the most. Obviously, right?) while my Lotus Sutra sits book marked “middleway”.