Chen on Lopez Jr. and Stone, 'Two Buddhas Seated Side by Side: A Guide to the Lotus Sūtra'

Donald S. Lopez Jr., Jacqueline I. Stone
Hsun-Mei Chen

Donald S. Lopez Jr., Jacqueline I. Stone. Two Buddhas Seated Side by Side: A Guide to the Lotus Sūtra. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2019. 312 pp. $29.95 (e-book), ISBN 978-0-691-18980-2; $29.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-691-17420-4.

Reviewed by Hsun-Mei Chen (Kyoto University; National Taiwan University) Published on H-Buddhism (April, 2021) Commissioned by Ben Van Overmeire (Duke Kunshan University)

Printable Version:

For a long time, there has been a lack of an in-depth, chapter-by-chapter guidebook of the Lotus Sūtra from a scholar’s perspective in English, and this book, Two Buddhas Seated Side by Side: A Guide to the Lotus Sūtra, is precisely the road map needed by readers interested in the Lotus Sūtra. As if echoing the title of the book, also a famous scene that appears in chapter 11 of the Lotus Sūtra, this book on the Lotus Sūtra is written by two famous scholars in Buddhist studies: Donald S. Lopez Jr. and Jacqueline I. Stone. Except for the authors’ introduction at the beginning and the conclusion at the end, the chapters are ordered according to the Kumārajīva’s twenty-eight-chapter version of Lotus Sūtra. This volume has three main goals: First, the authors provide clear and concise chapter-by-chapter summaries with background explanations to help modern readers to comprehend the rich, but also abstruse, contents of the Lotus Sūtra. Then, in conjunction with the summaries, the authors illustrate the historical circumstances surrounding the compilation of the Lotus Sūtra, guiding the readers to understand the challenges faced by the compiler of the Lotus Sūtra and the narrative strategies used to confront those challenges. Finally, the authors examine how past commentators, primarily the Japanese religious innovator Nichiren, interpreted the Lotus Sūtra to meet the needs in their own time and space. Obviously, providing chapter-by-chapter discussions of this volume would make this review far too long, and therefore I will instead collectively summarize some important ideas and features of these three main themes and then provide some comments.

At the beginning of every chapter, the authors first summarize the narratives and main ideas of the corresponding chapter of the Lotus Sūtra. The authors regard the Lotus Sūtra as an ancient literary and philosophical text that can be appreciated more by modern readers if the historical circumstances of its composition are provided. Therefore, in addition to the summaries, Stone and Lopez also demonstrate how the main characters in the Lotus Sūtra and teachings of Buddha were understood in mainstream Indian (that is, non-Mahāyāna) Buddhism. From the authors’ summaries, the readers can clearly grasp major messages delivered in the Lotus Sūtra, such as the teaching of the one vehicle (一乘, ekayāna), skillful means (方便, upāyakauśalya), and Śākyamuni’s eternal abode in the Sahā world. Then by comparing the Lotus Sūtra with the background knowledge in mainstream Buddhism, modern readers, especially those who do not know much about Buddhism, can clearly see how the Lotus Sūtra reinterpreted mainstream Indian Buddhism and revealed a new Śākyamuni who ultimately never passes into parinirvāṇa.

The only dissatisfaction I have about this part is how the authors present the parable of medicinal herbs in the fifth chapter of the Lotus Sūtra. When explaining the parable, the authors obviously reckon that the idea of single truth in this parable contradicts the multiplicity of skillful means in previous chapters. While the authors do try to resolve some apparent inconsistencies in Nichiren’s explanations of the Lotus Sūtra, it seems that they have no intention to resolve this tension. However, there are some historical resolutions to this tension that I would have liked to see discussed here. For example, in his explanation of this parable in Miaofa Lianhua Jing Wen Ju (妙法蓮華經文句), Zhiyi commented that while sentient beings are unaware that all five vehicles (namely, the vehicles of humans, gods, śrāvakas, pratyekabuddhas, and bodhisattva) are all Mahāyāna, the Buddha does know.[1] According to Zhiyi’s commentary, the parable of medicinal herbs actually raises the idea of ekayāna to a more inclusive level: seemingly, there are different skillful means, but ultimately, they are all Mahāyāna.

Integrated with the summaries and background knowledge is an explanation of the narrative devices applied in the Lotus Sūtra. In brief, by placing other teachings as skillful means that guide the sentient beings to the Mahāyāna, the Lotus Sūtra referred to itself as the last and perfect teaching by the Buddha. Moreover, the Lotus Sūtra not only described itself as the last teaching by Śākyamuni Buddha but also referred to itself as primordial teaching taught by all previous Buddhas eons ago. By employing self-referential narratives and expanding the time scope in the sūtra, the Lotus Sūtra aimed to establish its credibility and legitimacy in the context of mainstream Buddhism, and by deploying the famous parables, it attacked mainstream Buddhism by suggesting that it is the mainstream version of Śākyamuni, who would have to respond to the charge of lying (instead of the cosmic, skill-in-means-using Śākyamuni in the Lotus Sūtra itself). Through the authors’ elegant elucidations, the readers can clearly see how the compilers/authors of the Lotus Sūtra applied those narrative devices throughout to legitimize the Lotus Sūtra and counter the criticisms from mainstream Buddhism. Readers familiar with other Mahāyāna sūtras can also appreciate how unique and creative the Lotus Sūtra is within this genre of Buddhist scripture.

The authors analyze the narrative strategies applied in the Lotus Sūtra primarily from the angle of the opposition between mainstream Buddhism and Mahāyāna texts. Furthermore, the authors implicitly suggest that the Mahāyāna sūtras are in the same camp in the Mahāyāna movement, facing the same opponent, mainstream Buddhism. This perspective may give the readers the impression that the narrative strategies used in the Lotus Sūtra only aimed to rebut criticism from mainstream Buddhism. Indeed, as the authors propose, the Lotus Sūtra had to counter strong criticisms from mainstream Buddhism during its composition. However, if the Lotus Sūtra could also be compared with other Mahāyāna sūtras, the narrative strategies of the Lotus Sūtra may be understood in a different way.

For example, the contemporary Japanese scholar Satoshi Hiraoka has argued in his book that “the Lotus Sūtra aimed to transcend the dualistic discrimination between Mahāyāna and other inferior teachings mentioned in the Vimalakīrti Nirdeśa Sūtra.”[2] Moreover, he suggested that “the intention behind the Lotus Sūtra was to surpass the Mahāyāna teaching advocated in Vimalakīrti Nirdeśa and Prajñāpāramitā Sūtras by proposing a new ekayāna teaching.”[3] Here I am not proposing that Hiraoka is correct but simply suggesting that if the relationship between the Lotus Sūtra and other Mahāyāna texts could also be taken into consideration, one may find that the criticisms the compilers of the Lotus Sūtra had to face were not only from mainstream Buddhism but perhaps also from the proponents of other Mahāyāna texts. Therefore, I would suggest that a more complete and richer explanation of the narrative strategies in the Lotus Sūtra could be obtained if the Lotus Sūtra could be examined in this broader context.

The last theme of the book is hermeneutics. The authors primarily focus on how Nichiren, an important advocate of the Lotus Sūtra in Japan, interpreted the Lotus Sūtra. As the authors point out, both Ongi kuden and Okō kikigaki, two works traditionally taken as Nichiren’s lectures on the Lotus Sūtra, cannot be cited as Nichiren’s own writings from a scholarly perspective. Therefore, sorting out how Nichiren interpreted each chapter of the Lotus Sūtra actually becomes a difficult task. Nevertheless, through their deep understanding of Nichiren’s works, the authors accomplish an admirable task identifying passages pertaining to each chapter of the Lotus Sūtra from a great number of Nichiren’s writings. They beautifully illustrate how Nichiren annotated various passages from the Lotus Sūtra to support his polemic advocation of chanting the daimoku (題目), the title of the Lotus Sūtra, as the only means to attain the liberation in the so-called decline of the Dharma (mappō 末法) period. To elaborate on how Nichiren grounded the act of chanting the daimoku on the principle of Three Thousand Realms in a Single Thought Moment (一念三千) by Zhiyi, the authors also provide lucid explanations of Zhiyi’s complicated philosophy.

Besides Nichiren’s philosophy, the authors clearly show how Nichiren linked his historical moment with the narratives in the Lotus Sūtra. Nichiren took the natural disasters, civil strife, and Mongol invasion that affected Japan in his lifetime as the result of disparaging the Lotus Sūtra. He then proposed that the Bakufu, the military government that ruled Japan in his time, should only support the Lotus Sūtra and abandon all other Buddhist sects. Because of his vehement way of propagating the Lotus Sūtra, Nichiren was exiled, persecuted, and even physically attacked. Nevertheless, those predicaments never shook Nichiren’s faith in the Lotus Sūtra but for him were proof of the statements in the Lotus Sūtra that people propagating the Lotus Sūtra may encounter hostility.

Taking Nichiren as a case study on East Asia Buddhist hermeneutics, the authors present how this Buddhist commentator engaged in “hermeneutical triangulation,” that is, Nichiren’s interpretation was informed by the scripture itself, his received interpretive tradition, and also the time and circumstances in which he was embedded. In this volume, the authors do not superimpose their personal evaluation on Nichiren’s hermeneutic activities. Instead, they provide a relatively objective and coherent illustration of those activities. I think the way they present Nichiren could inspire the readers to reflect more on Nichiren’s interpretation of the Lotus Sūtra.

Nevertheless, this book may lead some readers to think that the idea that the Lotus Sūtra can protect the nation originated with Nichiren. I would like to supply some historical background of chingo kokka (鎮護国家, literally means “to protect the nation”) to point out that the Lotus Sūtra was connected with the protection of the nation prior to Nichiren. Based on chingo kokka, Buddhism in Japan was understood as having the power to protect and stabilize the country. This idea can be found in Sūtra for Humane Kings (仁王經) and Suvara-prabhāsôttama-sūtra (金光明最勝王經), and in Japan, these two sūtras together with the Lotus Sūtra were regarded as “Three Sūtra of the Protection of the Nation” (鎮護国家三部経).[4]

Moreover, under the influence of chingo kokka, some Japanese Buddhist schools tended to argue for their own doctrine as the one that can protect the nation. For instance, before Nichiren’s Risshō ankoku ron, Eisai, the founder of Rinzai school of Zen Buddhism, wrote Kozen Gokoku-ron (興禅護国論) to establish the idea of “promoting Zen to protect the nation.” This competition led to some schools calling their rivals’ doctrines malignant heresies that would damage the nation. For example, in 1205, The Kofukuji Temple (興福寺) submitted Kofukuji Sōjo (興福寺奏状) to the imperial court, requesting the prohibition of Nembutsu practice advocated by Hōnen.[5] One reason mentioned in the Kofukuji Sōjo is that the flourish of Nembutsu practice would lead to the devastation of the land and the decline of the laws, and therefore Nembutsu should be stopped immediately. Eventually, it could be said that partly due to the influence of Kofukuji Sōjo, in 1207, four of Hōnen’s disciples were condemned to death by the emperor, and Hōnen, including seven of his disciples, were sent into exile.

According to the above-mentioned historical records, the Lotus Sūtra was connected with the protection of the nation prior to Nichiren. Furthermore, Nichiren was actually not the first one who harshly accused other doctrines and also not the first one who was exiled. There were already some similar radical religious activities prior to Nichiren. Nevertheless, compared to his predecessors, Nichiren took the stronger position that only the Lotus Sūtra can truly protect the nation and had faith that what happened to him and to his nation had already been truly described in the Lotus Sūtra. Hence, I think by supplementing those historical contexts, the readers could not only have a better understanding of how Nichiren was embedded and influenced by the religious, political, and doctrinal circumstances prior to him but also see how unique he was.

As I near the end of this review, one minor point I would like to address is a possible discrepancy between the historical record and the discussion of self-immolation in this volume. In the discussion of how the twenty-third chapter of the Lotus Sūtra influenced the Buddhist self-immolation practice in twentieth-century China, the authors describe a famous abbot in the early twentieth century, Bazhi Toutur (八指頭陀, literally means eight-fingered monk), who burned off a finger of each hand in reverence to the Lotus Sūtra. However, Bazhi Toutur’s practices might not be inspired by the Lotus Sūtra.[6] In a biography of Bazhi Toutur by Venerable Master Taixu (太虛), Bazhi Toutur burned 48 scars on the top of his head and 108 scars from his neck to his abdomen, and left his arms almost without any intact skin. According to the biography, those extreme practices were inspired by a self-immolation scenario in Great Skillful Means Sūtra on the Buddhaʼs Repayment of Kindness (大方便佛報恩經), not the Lotus Sūtra.[7]

Overall, this book is a must-have compendium for everyone interested in the Lotus Sūtra. With the help of this book, readers who are new to the Lotus Sūtra can appreciate the profound contents and beautiful narratives in the Lotus Sūtra. Experienced teachers can use this book for lectures on the Lotus Sūtra or even for seminars about Buddhist narratives and hermeneutics. Moreover, the notes in this book provide abundant resources for readers who want to explore further readings. Some Buddhist readers may feel uneasy when reading the authors’ statement that “The Lotus Sūtra, like all Mahāyāna sūtras, is an apocryphal text, composed long after the Buddha’s death and yet retrospectively attributed to him” (p. 56). But I think this statement is the challenge, based on numerous historical evidence, that modern apologists of the Mahāyāna sūtras need to respond to. As it stands, the authors demonstrate how one can still appreciate a Mahāyāna sūtra under the challenges from contemporary Buddhist studies. This invaluable book not only guides its readers to understand the Lotus Sūtra and Nichiren’s hermeneutic works but also presents a commentary by which two famous scholars interpret the Lotus Sūtra to fit our time.


[1]. The original quote is “亦不自知五乘之教皆是大乘,亦不自知同歸佛慧,唯有如來能知也。” Please see T34: 92c23-24.

[2]. Similar understanding on Vimalakīrti Nirdeśa can be found in Tiantai’s five periods system, in which Vimalakīrti Nirdeśa is classified as a sūtra criticizing “Hinayāna” in the period of the expedient teaching (方等時). Please see T38: 544b27-28 and T33: 800b05-06.

[3]. For the book by 平岡聡 (Satoshi Hiraoka), see 法華経成立の新解釈 : 仏伝として法華経を読み解 (A new explanation of the composition of the Lotus Sūtra: Interpreting the Lotus Sūtra as life stories of Buddha). 平岡聡. (Tokyo: Daizō Publication [東京:大蔵出版], 2012). The two quotations are from my book review of Hiraoka’s book: Hsun-Mei Chen, review of 法華経成立の新解釈 : 仏伝として法華経を読み解, by 平岡聡 (Satoshi Hiraoka), Harvard-Yenching Institute, New Frontiers in Asian Scholarship (September 2020),

[4]. Alternatively, Ennin, the third head of the Japanese Tendai Order, positioned the Mahāvairocana-sūtra(大日経), Vajraśekhara-sūtra (金剛頂経), and Susiddhi-kara-mahā-tantra-sādhanôpāyika-paṭala (蘇悉地経) as the Three Sūtra of the Protection of the Nation. In Soya Nyūdō dono gosho (曽谷入道殿御書),” Nichiren harshly rejected Ennin’s idea as it would destroy the protectorate that had been in place since Saichō and argued that this would eventually destroy Japan.

[5]. Prior to Kofukuji Sōjo, in 1204, Enryaku-ji (延暦寺) also submitted Enryaku-ji Sōjo (延暦寺奏状) to urge the government to stop Nenbutsu.

[6]. Please see 太虛 (Venerable Master Taixu), 中興佛教寄禪安和尚傳 (A biography of Venerable Buddhist Monk [Jing]-An, Ji-Chan who revitalized Buddhism), 海潮音 (Hai Ch'ao Yin monthly) 2 no. 4 (1990): 1-9.

[7]. In the scenario, to obtain the Buddha-Dharma, a king ordered others to cut a thousand holes on his body, and then turned those holes into lamps as an offering by filling them with oil and then lighting them up. Please see T03: 133b24-134c15.

Citation: Hsun-Mei Chen. Review of Lopez Jr., Donald S.; Stone, Jacqueline I., Two Buddhas Seated Side by Side: A Guide to the Lotus Sūtra. H-Buddhism, H-Net Reviews. April, 2021. URL:

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