The Lotus Sutra: A Philosophy of Integration
Dr. Mischio Shinozaki

IIC Annual Autumn Lecture at Harris Manchester College

23 October 1997

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.

The IIC would like to thank the speakers, Chair, and Harris Manchester College for all their support and cooperation. Copies of the full papers are available from the IIC, will be posted on the IIC website, and will be published next year in World Faiths Encounter.

Sandy Martin


by Marcus Braybrooke

North American Interfaith Network (NAIN)

Energy and enthusiasm characterised the 1997 meeting of the North American Interfaith Network, which was hosted by Partners in Dialogue at the University of South Carolina, Columbia in August. Indeed the vitality of interfaith activity in North America both at a local and global level is encouraging.

NAIN now has 42 member organisations and participants in the conference numbered nearly 100. To begin, we gathered in a circle in the open air to the beat of an American Indian drum, whiffs of sage smoke, Gospel singing and a Hindu dance. Colourful banners with symbols of the world religions were carried to the auditorium. The conference ended with a beautiful cultural evening arranged by local communities.

There was much open space when people met to discuss their concerns. On the Friday evening a panel reported on international work and I spoke about the International Interfaith Centre.

On the Saturday evening I spoke on A New Agenda for the Interfaith Movement’. I suggested that since the 1993 Year of Inter-religious Understanding and Co-operation, the focus of interfaith work had changed from “trying to get people of different religions together to discovering what people of faith can do together for our world”. As Paul Knitter has said in One Earth, Many Religions, “concern for the widespread suffering that grips humanity and threatens the planet can and must be the ‘common cause’ for all religions”. IIC’s conferences have focused on ‘How effective is interfaith activity in halting and healing conflict?’.

I suggested that the circle of dialogue needs to grow to include minority voices, spiritual movements and more conservative members of faiths.

Just before the NAIN meeting, a well known public figure in South Carolina had called for the Ten Commandments to be displayed in public buildings. He had dismissed, in unparliamentary language, suggestions that this might offend Muslims and Buddhists. Yet, as was pointed out at a public meeting with local clergy, members of the interfaith movement are also concerned about moral values in public life. They believe, however, that this issue has to be addressed by the religions together, as for example, in the Global Ethic.

As people of faith engage with the major problems of today, they need also to enter into dialogue with experts in other relevant disciplines.

Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions (CPWR)

This is what the CPWR plans to do as it prepares for the next Parliament of the World’s Religions, which is to be held in South Africa in December 1999. Before the meeting it is intended to have ready a ‘Call to the Guiding Institutions’, articulating how the principles of the Global Ethic apply to Government, Business, Education, the Media and Religions. A preliminary meeting in Chicago in November has set in motion a process that will involve wide consultation.

The United Religions Initiative

The URI gathered 200 people in San Francisco in the summer, is also involved in wide consultation as it develops the process of charter writing. A number of task forces emerged from the June gathering.

The Peace Council

The Peace Council is also very practical. Its annual meeting in Victoria, Canada, concentrated on relations between China and Tibet and between North and South Korea, which next year will have been divided for fifty years. A public meeting was also arranged for Peace Councillors by the Center for the Study of Religion and Society at the University of Victoria.

Peace Councillors who discussed how people of faith can help bring reconciliation to the situations of conflict stressed that the chief resource is faith and spiritual practice. A concern for the major issues of the world requires a parallel growth in our own inner life. As I said in my talk to the NAIN meeting, “the hope and energy to address” the needs of the world “will come from the inner life of prayer and meditation”.

Representatives of many interfaith organizations met together at the URI, NAIN and CPWR meetings. They all expressed a wish for greater co-operation and recognized the importance of IIC. (The full text of Marcus Braybrooke’s NAIN keynote address, A New Agenda for the Interfaith Movement will appear in Faith and Freedom. There is an extended summary in Nain News.) (Fall 1997).

FAITH AND INTERFAITH IN A GLOBAL AGE, a revised and updated version of Marcus Braybrooke’s Faith in a Global Age, with new chapters on the history of interfaith work and on developments since 1993 is to be published by CoNexus Press in January 1998 at $11.50 plus postage from CoNexus Press, PO Box 6902, Grand Rapids, MI49516 USA or £7. 99, plus £1.00 postage from IIC.

ALL IN GOOD FAITH: A Resource Book for Multi-faith prayer, Ed by Jean Potter and Marcus Braybrooke, contains articles on prayer by representatives of different faiths, an anthology of quotations and a selction of interfaith services. It is published by the World Congress of Faiths and is available from IIC at £7.99 plus £1.60 postage or from CoNexus Press for $14.95.