The Authenticity of the Lotus Sutra

The word “authenticity” (of a doctrine) refers to “originality” and “truthfulness”.  When applied to Buddhist teachings, authenticity is about how a doctrine accords with the final Buddhist goal of overcoming sufferings and attaining enlightenment.

Some superficial views about the text of the Lotus Sutra argue that the events described in the sutra sound like a dream or science-fiction, and could not have happened in the physical world.  This view misses the point that the Sutra aimed at conveying its profound principles through metaphors and stories.  This literary style of the text created the atmosphere of a “magnificent dream” of attaining Enlightenment.  A wise reading of the sutra would focus on the message - describing the mind of enlightenment of Shakyamuni Buddha. Therefore, the described events in the Sutra should be taken as convenient metaphors aimed at encoding the background principles leading to enlightenment.  This literary style is common with almost all sutras.

All sutras, classified as Theravada or Mahayana - were compiled by the Buddha’s disciples after his passing.  This means that all sutras can be described as “teachings attributed to Shakyamuni Buddha”. 

Mahayana sutras appeared around the year 100 AD - giving a revival of Buddhist teachings. Theravada sutras are of introductory nature, and their capacity principles did not allow for attaining Buddhahood by ordinary people in their present form. 

The criterion of validity of a text as a Buddhist sutra

Validity of the Sutra depends on whether the text of Sutra accords with the spirit of Buddhism, acknowledged as the Three Dharma Seals, Dharma seal | Dictionary of Buddhism | Nichiren Buddhism Library

For any text to be consistent with Buddhism - its contents must acknowledge the basic three principles of Impermanence, Interconnectedness and attaining Enlightenment. The most essential aspect of the Dharma seal is attaining enlightenment, the goal of Buddhism. It is rather the Lotus Sutra among all others that teaches the possibility of enlightenment of the individual in their current life and present circumstances.

The Irony of “Expiry date” of Buddhist sutras

While the Lotus Sutra predicts its ceaseless future propagation - some Buddhist traditions who question the authenticity of the Lotus Sutra, themselves believe that their own sutras will become obsolete in the future.  Both Theravada and Mahayana traditions set the period of 5000 years for the expiry date of their teachings, and which they regard as “authentic”.

A truly authentic teaching would be consistent with the essence of Buddhist spirit of continuity in its power for offering benefit to humanity.  This teaching of consistency and universality is taught as being essential in the Lotus Sutra and Nichiren Buddhism, while all Pre-Lotus teachings predict the future decline of Buddhism.   Based on this - the only authentic and valid teaching that predict continuity of Buddhism - is the Lotus Sutra.

“Authenticity” in academic perspective

For hundereds of years, the Lotus Sutra remained as a fantastic text of poetry, without practical influence until the Chinese scholar Tien’Tai (c.500 AD) revealed its profoundness and superiority (in terms of capacity to save all people).  The study of the sutra gained momentum within a limited circle of  monks, but it did not go further than that, and for more than 700 years after Tien’tai - the Lotus Sutra did not find a way of practice among ordinary people, until Nichiren (1222 - 1282) established a concrete way of its practice by ordinary individuals.

As for scholars of Buddhism in the West, the Lotus Sutra gained a status of importance after the widespread propagation of its principles and practice of Nichiren Buddhism world wide, particularly in the second half of the 20th century. 

Academic study of the text of the sutra can explain the date of various original documents and translations of the sutra, but such study does not pertain to the core value of its principles.  Authenticity of a document in scholastic terms pertains to the external conditions of the text - but not to its validity or reliability as an authentic doctrine to transform sufferings and attain enlightenment.

“Authenticity” in practical perspective: application to daily life

Authenticity of a doctrine is its truthfulness in what it teaches, and is measured by benefit - or Actual Proof - of its application in daily life.

For example:   A medicine which produces beneficial effects and cures a problem or removes pain or suffering - such a medicine is regarded as authentic regardless of any other criterion.

It can be argued that Sutras which claim to be spoken by Shakyamuni - but do not offer the power of teachings of the Lotus, are in fact of less capacity and limited benefit - lacking in profound authenticity or reliability. As Nichiren described it, authenticity means giving the Actual Proof of validity of teaching in the practice of dailylife.

There are literally millions of experiences of ordinary people, who confidently assert the value they experienced in their daily life through practicing the Lotus Sutra as taught by Nichiren Buddhism.  Such confirmation of authenticity of the benefit derived from putting the Sutra in practice - is a fundamental factor that should be taken into account in judging the merits and truthfulness of the Sutra’s doctrines.


Author: Safwan Darshams

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