IIAS | IIAS Newsletter Online | No. 17 | Regions |East Asia

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01:1-3 May 1998
Leiden, the Netherlands

The IVth International Conference on the Lotus Sutra

An International Conference on the Lotus Sutra, with the theme 'The Development of Lotus Thought and Practice in East Asia,' was held May 1-3, 1998, at Leiden University, under the sponsorship of the Centre for Japanese and Korean Studies. It provided a splendid opportunity for the coming together of Japanese, European, and American scholars who specialize in Buddhist Studies with a particular interest in the Lotus Sutra tradition.

By Paul Swanson


This meeting was the fourth international conference on the Lotus Sutra. This was the first time the conference was held in Europe, allowing greater participation by and co-operation between European and American scholars. A book based on papers from the first conference was edited by George and Willa Tanabe and published as The Lotus Sutra in Japanese Culture. A volume of essays based on the proceedings of this fourth Conference is also being planned for publication.

The conference opened with a reception at the Centre for Japanese and Korean Studies. A welcome address by Professor Erik Zürcher of Leiden University set the tone of high expectations for the conference with a stimulating talk outlining the importance of the Lotus Sutra in East Asian Buddhism and the role of the early translations of this text into Chinese. This opening address reflected the fact that this was the first time that the theme of an International Conference on the Lotus Sutra focused on East Asia as a whole; the themes of the previous three conferences had centred on the role of the Lotus Sutra in Japan.
The first theme of the conference focused on 'The text and its transformations'. Willa Tanabe (University of Hawai'i) provided insight into 'visual piety' by examining Lotus Sutra paintings in China and Japan and Daniel Stevenson (Kansas University) discussed the question of Lotus Sutra apocrypha and the problem of scriptural closure and authentification. One theme brought out in this panel, which reappeared many times during the following sessions, was the idea of the importance of the 'body' in Lotus Sutra religiosity.
The subject of another panel was 'Interpreting the Text'. Jackie Stone (Princeton University) looked at the hermeneutics of subjective 'mind-discernment' (kanjin) in the Lotus Sutra commentaries of medieval Japan. Jean-Noël Robert (Université Paris) analysed the 'Hundred Poems' (Hokkehyakushu) of Jien as a poetical commentary on the Lotus Sutra. The most surprising and satisfying aspect of this panel was the unexpected synergy among the papers; each brought out different aspects of how the Lotus Sutra has been used and interpreted by its followers, whether by reciting the title, expanding on the teachings of the sutra through an avowedly subjective hermeneutics, or literarily (not literally) building on the doctrine through Lotus-themed poetry.
The third panel followed the theme 'Doctrines of Buddhahood Drawn from the Sutra'. Paul Groner (University of Virginia) argued for the importance of physical manifestation of Buddhahood in asking 'What's physical in Tendai theories of sokushin jobutsu (the realization of Buddhahood with this very body)?' Brook Ziporyn (Chung-hwa Institute of Buddhism) gave a philosophical analysis of the question of time entitled 'How to Will Backwards: Time, Forgetting and Repetition in the Lotus Sutra'. This panel added further nuance to the meaning and place of 'body' in the Lotus tradition, a theme that was prominent during the first day. The papers also served oppositely to show the depth of the philosophical traditions that have grown from the Lotus Sutra.
The final panel examined 'Lotus-inspired Praxis'. Kitagawa Zencho (Rissho University) spoke of the figure of the bodhisattva, Sadaparibhuta from the Lotus Sutra as an ideal and guiding model. Saito Enshin (Taisho University) provided details on the support Ennin received from lay Buddhists during his travels in Tang China. Unlike some of the earlier sessions, these papers gave a sense of the practical aspects of the Lotus Sutra tradition.
The conference was brought to a fitting close with an informal reception where the participants were able to pursue issues raised during the conference at a more personal and detailed level. A spirit of lively exchange, discussion, and camaraderie attested to the great success of the meetings. Highlights included the suggestion by Ichishima Shoshin that we aim eventually to have a total of twenty-eight conferences to match the number of chapters in Kumarajiva's version of the Lotus Sutra.
I would like to make two remarks, firstly on the prominence of papers by Western scholars given at this conference from the perspective of the T'ien-t'ai/Tendai traditions. I believe this reflects the maturation of T'ien-t'ai/Tendai studies in the West, an area that is finally taking its rightful place in Buddhist Studies. Secondly, an unexpected and most welcome synergy emerged spontaneously as the papers and discussions proceeded. The papers seemed to build on each other, with similar themes reinforcing presentations and comments of previous sessions. The total result grew to be more than a mere sum of its parts: the themes that emerged during the session, and the personal contacts and relationships that developed during the conference, will surely bear fruit far into the future.
The conference was well organized by Lucia Dolce of the Centre for Japanese and Korean Studies. Financial support was provided by the International Institute for Asian Studies, the Faculty of Arts, Leiden University, Leids Universiteitsfonds, Minobusan University, Rissho University, the Royal Netherlands Academy for Arts and Sciences, Taisho University, and the University of Hawai'i.
Paul L. Swanson is attched to the Nanzan Institute for Religion and Culture.

   IIAS | IIAS Newsletter Online | No. 17 | Regions |East Asia