A Postcolonial Perspective on the (Mis)reading of the Inconceivable Sign in The Lotus Sutra as a World Literary Canon by Che-ming Yang

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Che-ming Yang Associate Professor

Department of Foreign Languages and Literature National Cheng Kung University, Taiwan


By employing the ideas of some key postcolonial theorists such as Said, Bhabha and Deleuze, this paper aims to survey from a postcolonial perspective how Buddhism has been misrepresented as a mysterious Oriental/exotic religion in the West (especially on the American cultural landscape) or even in Asia by exploring the secularization/Orientalization of the dominant symbol/image/sign Lotus in one of the major Mahayanist Buddhist Scriptures—Saddharma-pundarika Sutra (in Sanskrit), which literally means “The Sutra of the lotus of the Wonderful Law” or better known in the West as The Lotus Sutra (法華經). A dominant symbol in Buddhism, the lotus should not be superficially (mis)represented as a symbol/image/sign of purity specific to Buddhahood/nirvana. Instead, according to the Chinese Tiantai Patriarch/founder Ven. Zhiyi (538-597 A.D.), the lotus in this sutra signifies simultaneously four aspects of the dharmata (ultimate truth or reality 實相) that corresponds to the Tiantai philosophical threefold view of reality (一心三觀): (1) the co-existence of the flower and the fruit (lotus seeds)—coexistence of cause and effect; (2) the existence of the flower is intended for producing the fruit (3) the manifestation of the fruit with the blooming of the flower; (4) the very instant of the withering of the flower is the moment of the ripeness of the fruit. To illustrate, I intend to examine a 1993 English version (published by Columbia UP) of this canon translated by Burton Watson on the basis of the most widely-known and authoritative Chinese text of this sutra—the version done in 406 A.D. by the central Asia scholar-monk Kumarajiva so as to investigate the dharmata of the “Buddha-Only” Vehicle manifested in The Lotus Sutra from the perspective of the Chinese Tiantai Lineage.

Orientalization of the Lotus Sutra

The English translator—Burton Watson—points out in the “Introduction” that though there have been some other English versions translated from the Sanskrit text, they “differ considerably in places from the Kumarajiva translation, being often more verbose in expression, which suggests that the text Kumarajiva followed was earlier in date, and may in fact have been quite close to the original version.” There are mainly three reasons for me to take this English version of The Lotus Sutra as my target in this paper:

  1. Secularized approach to The Lotus Sutra based on Eurocentric values: This sutra has been considered by many westerners as “an important text of world literature,” as remarked by Burton Watson in his introduction of this English version. Consequently, while treating this sutra as “a text of world literature,” some secular approaches to ancient literary canons are appropriated. For instance, Watson argues that the fact that nearly all the 28 chapters of the sutra consist of “a combination of prose and verse passages” means that the verse sections probably came first whereas the prose passages were “added that incorporated the verse sections into a continuous narrative.” This argument is a serious violation of the process of how Buddhist canons came into being, for it imposes the idea of how the secular literary texts are formed in a process that evolves from an oral tradition to a later written form, just like Homer’s The Iliad and Odyssey. Besides, it is a phenomenon of what Derrida has been previously attacking—a discourse out of logocentrism that foregrounds the hierarchy of speech over writing with the proposition that the former is closer to the origin or to truth.
  2. Orientalization of Buddhism by imposing on the sutra a Christian or Western philosophical view: We know that the Western philosophical tradition since Plato has been metaphysical until Nietzsche challenged it with nihilism. In metaphysics, philosophers presuppose a universal law or origin—ontology. This phenomenon is reflected in Burton’s translation of the idea of sunyata (literally means “emptiness”), for he considers the idea as a “doctrine of Emptiness” that underlies the Buddhist idea of the universal law. As a result, Burton falls into the trap of an “ontological” concern of philosophizing Buddhism.
  3. Misinterpretation/mistranslation due to the translator’s poor command of some key Buddhist terminology in Chinese or his western values: Partly out of Burton’s western empirical view of evaluation of material things, he, throughout the English text, presents several mistranslated Buddhist terms such as the three periods of the spread or development of Buddhism—正法、像法、 末 法 . Burton translated the first two stages as “the Correct Law” and “the Counterfeit Law” (53). Maybe Burton considers 像 法 just as a fraudulent act of copying the “Correct Law” without realizing that 像 法 is still part of the “correct law” with some derivations. It is a result of the prevailing of Buddhism as times goes by. Burton is not supposed to consider the derivations caused by Buddhist diaspora from an empirical point of view as “something that is just a false copy.” Moreover, “the Correct Law” is also not an appropriate translation of 正 法 , for it may cause some misunderstanding of the Dharma as “opposing to some imagined universal law,” which is not the true meaning of sunyata or emptiness, because emptiness, according to the Buddha, is not any concrete or unchanging universal law that is in fact devoid of an intrinsic nature.
  4. Neglect of the essential differences between Buddhist philosophy and Western philosophy: A lot of Western (and non-Western) philosophers like to draw analogies between Buddhist philosophy and Western philosophy by basing their speculations on superficial terminologies between these two philosophical traditions. Here, I want to cite a recent publication on Deleuze and Buddhism, published by Macmillan in 2016. The contributors to this book are mainly scholars of comparative philosophy (Western cultural/philosophical theories). The objective of this interdisciplinary book on Deleuze and Buddhism, as one of the chief editors, Tony See, claims in the “Introduction,” is “to think of the various resonances between the philosophy of Deleuze and concepts in the Buddhist philosophical traditions.” In the first chapter, Tony See “examines the resonances between Deleuze’s idea of immanence and the doctrine of Buddha-nature that is found in the Lotus Sūtra” (11). Here See argues that there are some “resonances” or correspondences between Deleuzian immanence and Buddha-nature in the Lotus Sutra “in the sense that both philosophies reject transcendence and affirm the power of immanence” (12). However, their arguments seem to embark their theoretical points of departure by overlooking the subtle differences between the non-becoming essence/state of Buddha-nature and the impulse of becoming in Deleuzian immanence.

To further my discoveries in the studies of cultural translation (a postcolonial phenomenon according to Homi Bhabha) as illustrated in the English translation of The Lotus Sutra, in next section I will bring the focus onto the inconceivable message inherent in the Lotus as a dominant sign in this sutra.

II. Lotus as an Inconceivable Sign

In the second chapter of the Lotus Sutra the Buddha mentions the great challenge of fully comprehending the profundity of the wonderful law (the inconceivable message in the core teaching of the sutra) and thus declines one of His chief disciples Shariputra’s request of delivering the profound Dharma by saying, “止止不須說,我法 妙難思,” which in Watson’s translation, this statement is translated as “But stop, Shariputra, I will say no more. Why? Because what the Buddha has achieved is the rarest and most difficult-to-understand Law” (17). The translation here does not refer to the sermon as an inconceivable sign that demands further illumination for thoroughly understanding its mechanism of signification. Moreover, Watson’s phrasing “wonderful law” easily (mis)leads the readers to visualize the Buddha’s teaching as a “concrete” approach to reality/truth. Instead, I try to illustrate the Buddha’s teaching as a profound and inconceivable sign (in semiotician terms)1 ((1 According to the two major founders of semiology/semiotics Ferdinand de Saussure and Charles Sanders Perice, the sign is not equal to symbol. Saussure maintains that the sign is both a sound-image and a concept. Thus he divided the sign into two components: the signifier ( or “the sound-image”), and the signified (or “concept”): “For Saussure, the signified and signifier were purely psychological; they were form rather than substance. Today, following Hjelmslev, the signifier is interpreted as the material form (something which can be seen, heard, touched, smelled or tasted) and the signified as the mental concept” (Wikiipedia).)) that is beyond secular or literary explication, because a proper understanding of the title of this sutra is the key to encoding the potential signifieds of the perplexing/unpresentable signifier Lotus.

Though a proper understanding of the Sutra’s title is essential to deciphering its hidden messages, if we examine the existing Western/European translations of the Lotus Sutra, we can find that NONE of them corresponds to the proper connotations of the Lotus. Moreover, it is functioning as a complex and profound modifier/sign of the Dharma that aims to “refer extensively to” rather than “serving as an exclusive and secular label” on the Dharma. In addition, the Lotus is such a complex sign that means several things at the same time that it subtly depicts the profundity of the Dharma by using the modifier 妙 (miao, that is often translated as Wonderful). Most of the existing English translations of this sutra, to name but a few, takes the popular title of this sutra (The Lotus Sutra), just like BurtonWatson (1993), while adding to it a subtitle, such as The Sutra of the Lotus Flower of the Wonderful, Dharma (by Senchu Murano, 1974), and The White Lotus of the Marvelous Law (Tsugunari Kubo and Akira Yuyama, 1993). The oversimplified translation of the Sutra’s title (The Lotus) has some historical factors that persist for a long time, and the most possible factor, according to Gene Reeves (2008), would be due to the first Western translation of it in 1852 by Eugene Burnouf into French—Le lotus de la bonne loi. On the other hand, though making some inadequate analogy between the Buddha-nature and Deleuzian immanence, Tony See (20) has drawn our attention to the great impact of this sutra and the real Tiantai founder Zhiyi:

Historically, the doctrine of Buddha-nature in the Lotus Sūtra was highly influential in the development of Chinese Buddhism in the sixth century CE. Specifically, it has infl uenced the Tiantai, Tendai and Zen schools of Buddhism. In medieval China. Zhiyi ( 智 顗 ) (538–97), the founder of the Tiantai school of Buddhism, developed the idea of “Attaining Buddhahood in this Body” ( Chi-shen ch’eng-fo ) on the basis of the doctrine of Buddha-nature expressed in the Lotus Sūtra . If the Lotus Sūtra itself did not present us with a systematic philosophy on how we may become a Buddha, Zhiyi composed an important commentary called Verses on the Lotus Sutra ( Fa-hua wen-chü ) in order to explain how this can be done (Groner 1989 , p. 58).

Consequnetly, to further illustrate a proper reading of the Lotus Sutra by focusing on a thorough elucidation of the key Sign/symbol Lotus in its title, I would like to resort to Zhiyi’s Commentary on the hidden/profound messages in the The Lotus Sutra (Fa-hua xuan-yi 法華玄義). According to Master Zhiyi, there are several layers of meanings and a complex signification underlying the term Lotus, which should be seen as a modifier/adjective of the Dharma (fa 法), because the lotus in this sutra signifies simultaneously at least four aspects of the dharmata (ultimate truth or reality 實相) that corresponds to the Tiantai philosophical threefold view of reality (一心三觀):

  • (1) The co-existence of the flower and the fruit (lotus seeds)—coexistence of cause and effect (the potentiality of the expedient approach to the ultimate Truth/reality), either one of the two simultaneously illuminating the other.
  • (2) The existence of the flower (expedient approach) is intended for producing the fruit (Buddhahood)
  • (3) The manifestation of the fruit with the blooming of the flower, with the fruit signifying the ultimate phase (Buddhahood) that the practitioner should endeavor to reach, though s/he may be undertaking some expedient approach to the Dharma before converting to the practice of the Buddha-Only Vehicle.
  • (4) The very instant of the withering of the flower is the moment of the ripeness of the fruit. When the Buddhahood is consummated, there is no distinction between the expedient approach and the Buddha-Only approach to dharmata, because the former is inherent in the latter. Moreover, it also highlights the real meaning of sunyata (emptiness), because the practitioner of the Dharma is not supposed to have attachment to either the expedient practice of the Dharma or the Buddhahood.

Consequently, the adjective “miao” that modifies fa (the Dharma) foregrounds itself to be a profound system of signification underlying the Dharma, and thus miao should not be translated as either “wonderful” or “marvelous.” Furthermore, the Dharma to be delivered by the Buddha in this sutra, though mainly referring to the ultimate Truth/reality, includes both the expedient (quan 權 ) and ultimate (shih 實)Truth/reality; they are the two sides of Truth/reality, one underlying the other. Therefore, Zhiyi intends to makes use of the three phases/stages of the Lotus as a profound sign (co-existence, blooming, and withering), to illustrate the inconceivable messages hidden in the Dharma.

III. Conclusion

Therefore, though commonly known as The Lotus Sutra by its dominant symbol lotus, this well-known Buddhist Canon should be properly translated as The Sutra of Lotus-Like Profound Dharma. To sum up, in this paper I intend to pinpoint how the lotus has been trans-contextualized as a mysterious yet appealing and exotic religious symbol/image/sign whose profundity is never unveiled but distorted in various forms of media and academic publications (in European languages) so far.

Works Cited

  • Kubo, Tsugunari and Yuyama, Akira. The Lotus Sutra:The Wbite Lotus of the Marvelous Law. Tokyo and Berkeley:Bukkyo Dendo Kyokai and Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Reasearch, 1993.
  • Murano, Senchu. The Lotus Sutra:The Sutra of the Lotus Flower of the Wonderful Dbarma. Tokyo: Nichiren Shu Shimbun, 1991.
  • Reeves, Gene. The Lotus Sutra:A Contemporary Translation of a Buddhist Classic.Boston:Wisdom, 2008.
  • See, Tony, and Joff Bradlly, eds. Deleuze and Buddhism. London, Macmillan, 2016. Watson, Burton. The Lotus Sutra. New York:Columbia UP, 1993.
  • Zhiyi. Fa-hua-xuan-yi 《法華玄義》Commentary on the hidden/profound messages in the The Lotus Sutra