The Lotus Sutra: A Philosophy of Integration

“The Lotus Sutra: A Philosophy of Integration.”

Presenter: Dr Mischio Shinozaki, Dean of the Rissho Kosei-kai Seminary in Tokyo
Respondent: Dr Elizabeth Harris, Secretary to the Methodist Church’s Committee for Relations with Other Faiths.
IIC Annual Autumn Lecture given at Harris Manchester College, 23 October 1997.
Summary of lecture and related discussion:

Dr Mischio Shinozaki, Dean of the Rissho Kosei-kai Seminary in Tokyo, set out to show the significance of the Lotus Sutra, the central scripture for RKK, as an appropriate vehicle for a Buddhist theology of religions.

Parable of the Burning House
To introduce the core message of the Lotus Sutra he retold the Parable of the Burning House where a father saves his three children, fearlessly playing inside their burning house, by tempting them to come outside and play with three carts. When they come out of the house and are safe, he gives each of them the finest cart. The parable symbolises the relationship between the Buddha, human desires, and different ways of enlightenment. The teaching of the Buddha encompasses and transcends other forms of enlightenment, providing One Vehicle of enlightenment, as revealed in the integrating philosophy of the Lotus Sutra.

Implications for religious plulalism
Dr Shinozaki identified four important concepts in the Lotus Sutra which can be understood as having implications for religious pluralism and interreligious dialogue. They are: Dharma or the Truth; the personal Buddha (the Teaching); Bodhisattvas (humans responding to the Teaching); the sameness of all humans and the potentiality for all to become buddhas. This One Dharma or Reality is present in all humans: “The one Buddha vehicle means all people can become buddha according to the Lotus Sutra. Everyone has the potential to be a buddha. This is the central message. It signifies inclusiveness and openness to difference and diversity. The important point is to waken to the One Buddha Vehicle. If the One Buddha Vehicle is understood as a single absolute religion, such as Buddhism or Christianity, then this doctrine becomes the justification for the unification of all religions. It, rather, should be understood as radical openness. Radical openness is based on the principle of working and living together while supporting each other in the reality of diversity.”

The Lotus Sutra integrates all buddhas into the trans-historical Shakyamuni Buddha. Because Shakyamuni Buddha was awakened to the one Dharma, a oneness between him and that Dharma was realised. Therefore, he remains the dharma-kaya, the everlasting dharma itself, as it appeared in this world. The Lotus Sutra teaches the lifetime of Shakyamuni as “infinite, ever existing, never perishing.” Thus the historical and trans-historical Shakyamuni are united by religious experience. For Dr Shinozaki, the Lotus Sutra thus takes an inclusive position: “Shakyamuni Buddha, before he attained enlightenment, practised the bodhisattva way. In the Lotus Sutra, the eternal life of the Buddha is revealed by relating the bodhisattva way. The historical Buddha is the historical appearance of the eternal Buddha in this world – the human form in which the eternal Buddha appeared in India. The activity of this historical Buddha was that of a bodhisattva. And now, not only the historical Buddha, but also the eternal Buddha continue to follow the bodhisattva way. It is through the infinite, never ending bodhisattva practice that the everlasting life of the Buddha is shown. It is through endlessly engaging in bodhisattva practices in this actual world that the everlasting or eternal life has vitality.”

This prompts him to see in the text a universal salvation for all living beings which he then explicates alongside exclusivist, inclusivist, and pluralist paradigms. Here the three different types of enlightenment in the parable are equated with different religious traditions and the paradigms above. The One Vehicle enables the resources of each religion to be “always open to possibilities” in which fresh understanding “occurs on the open ground over which our new ideas circulate.” The “true (fundamental) meaning of religions can be understood as the truth-through-relation” by such dialogue and cooperation. The One intrinsically within and yet beyond each tradition might be suddenly revealed in this “notion of open possibility.” This in turn will influence the “more meaningful and creative understanding” of our own traditions, the starting place of any dialogue with others.

Dr Elizabeth Harris responds
In her response, Dr Elizabeth Harris, Secretary to the Methodist Church’s Committee for Relations with Other Faiths, affirmed her appreciation of Dr Shinozaki’s central idea – that all human beings can become buddhas – and gave illustrations of similar concepts in Christian texts. However, she saw the central issue in the paper as a tension between “the urge to create unity between religions, to integrate, and the need to respect difference.” Dr Harris gave examples of Christian attempts at such integration, including Rahner’s ‘anonymous Christianity’, which she saw as limited at best in their effectiveness. She pointed to distinctions of language, even within a tradition, as in Mahayana and Theravada forms of Buddhism, which also restrict such a universalising integration. The value of distinctiveness was emphasised and held in tension against Dr Shinozaki’s ‘radical openness’. Here lies the opportunity for a “creative paradox and a sense of humility before ultimate truth which destroys arrogance and retains mystery.”

A dialogue then ensued between the speakers, guided by the Chair, Peggy Morgan, Senior Lecturer at Westminster College, Oxford. Dr Shinozaki confirmed that he saw in the Lotus Sutra a unifying position for all forms of Buddhism. Interreligious dialogue was a means to discuss this potential within the Lotus Sutra and its wider application. Dr Harris supported the challenges involved in such openness and radicality. Her own journey towards Sri Lankan Buddhism did not lead to conversion but did manifest irrevocable change in her understanding of Christianity.

The dialogue was then opened up to the audience and a further discussion on the dangers of integration followed. Dr Harris asserted her belief that the principle danger was in a projection of such a unifying urge from within one’s own tradition and its particular vocabulary out onto other traditions without due sensitivity to their different languages and the implications in that. Both speakers affirmed their view that differences in religious traditions are enriching not threatening and that the One Real lies ultimately beyond all those differences.