Thursday, March 17, 2016

Falsehood and the Lotus Sūtra

Filed under "More stuff that is likely to get me in trouble".

So, if you haven't heard, I'm taking a course in East Asian Buddhism. Which, of course, entails reading the Scripture of the Lotus Blossom of the Fine Dharma, a.k.a. the Lotus Sūtra.

And, as per usual, I've been giving my thoughts on things that I probably shouldn't and getting into some modest trouble for those thoughts.

There's not much I can do about that. I have serious and irreconcilable problems with this text from so many angles that it's hard to know where to start... beyond, I suppose, the idea that it considers the entire forty-five years of the Buddha's ministry to be lies.

Now, it specifically disagrees with me on this point - as Grace Grace pointed out, the text makes sure to deny the lies before anyone might suggest them.

Anyway, this article is an attempt to show, no matter what side of the fence you fall on, it is pretty hard to deny that the Lotus Sūtra does indeed claim that the Buddha intentionally lied for forty-five years.

Now, as a disclaimer, I don't read Chinese and don't have a Sanskrit version of the text handy, so I'm going by Hurvitz's translation, which I understand is accepted as authoritative. So, whether there is substantial meaning lost in translation I can't say. When referring to the Lotus Sūtra, I am referring to the 1970 English translation by Leon Hurvitz.

Anyway, the lying matter, which really is the heart of the LS, appears in the third chapter of the text. It is at the core of the new doctrine of the LS called "expedient means" (upāyakauśalya). On page 55, the text launches into a parable about a burning house full of children playing with their toys and a father standing outside trying to get the kids to come out. Here is a list of the comparisons made:

The father = the Buddha

The burning house = The three worlds

The fire = suffering and defilement

The toys = wealth and wordly pursuits

To convince the children to leave the burning house and their toys, he tells them "Things like these, a variety of goat-drawn carriages, deer-drawn carriages, and ox-drawn carriages, are now outside the door for you to play with." (p. 56) The new comparisons are:

Goat-drawn carriages = The vehicle of disciples (voice-hearers)

Deer-drawn carriages = The vehicle of private buddhas

Ox-drawn carriages = The vehicle of fully-self-enlightened buddhas

In other words, he tells them that there are three types of vehicles waiting for them outside. Scholars note (can't remember which, but I'll look it up again if desired, since I'm doing a paper on the text) that the parable is imperfect, given that the three vehicles are already outside of the realm of suffering, for which at least the first two types of vehicle are designed, but hey.

All this is fine but then, when they rush outside and demand a specific type of carriage, some of them wanting goat-drawn carriages, some wanting deer-drawn, some wanting ox-drawn, the father gives them all ox-drawn carriages - granted, more magnificent than any carriage they could have imagined, but still, all drawn by oxen.

The Buddha then asks Sariputra: "When this great man gives equally to all his children great carriages adorned with precious jewels, is he guilty of falsehood or not?" (p. 57)

Now, we can potentially excuse the man in the parable, because the language does seem somewhat finessed to say "things like these", in other words, perhaps he originally meant to say in a somewhat deceptive fashion that "things like deer- and goat-drawn carriages, i.e., ox-drawn carriages, are waiting for you..."

That is an argument we could have. Two problems, though. First, it doesn't hold in relation to the forty-five years of deception; I'm pretty sure everyone agrees that the Buddha used explicit language to describe the distinct identity of the three vehicles. So, when arahants and pacceka-buddhas (though the latter were never thought to come in contact with a fully-enlightened buddha) find out that the vehicles they "were promised" (or, more accurately, have ridden to their destination) do not exist, how can we say they have not been lied to? And so we come to the second problem, and that is Sariputra's supposed reply (or the important part for our purposes):

"Had this great man given them not one tiny carriage, he would still be no liar. Why? Because the great man first thought: 'By resort to an expedient device I will enable the children to get out.' For this reason he is guilty of no falsehood." (p. 57)

It points out that the father is better than this, giving them all carriages better than they could possibly dream of, but still, the above passage stands as the doctrine of the Lotus Sūtra; the Buddha affirms Sariputra's speech in the following paragraph.

So, there really isn't any way of interpreting this that escapes the fact that the text presents the following argument:

A: If someone says something that is not true thinking of it as an expedient device for a greater good, they are guilty of no falsehood.

Now, if the argument were:

 B: If someone says something that is not true thinking of it as an expedient device for a greater good, they are guilty of no evil deed.

It would be at least recognizable as a Mahayana doctrine, with which I could disagree but respect as cogent. This is not the case, however. Parsing argument A, we have the form:

A': If someone performs action X thinking of it as Y, they have not performed action X.

This is an important abstraction, and perhaps open to the argument that if one doesn't think of lying as lying it is not lying. This would only hold if the father did not know he was lying, and the text makes it clear in multiple instances that the father knows he is saying something that is not true; there is no suggestion that he was unaware of the non-existence of the other carts. It doesn't matter whether you think of what you are doing as a lie; if you know that what you are saying is not true, you are telling a lie.

So, say what you will about the rightness or wrongness of telling a lie in a specific context, that is not what is most objectionable about the Lotus Sūtra. The two most objectionable aspects - though there are many others that could get me in more trouble if I were to talk about them here - are:

1. That the Lotus Sūtra claims that core doctrines of the Buddha's ministry over forty-five years are lies designed to bring ordinary beings to the point where they can understand his true teachings (supposedly in the Lotus Sūtra which is noticeably lacking in actual doctrine).

2. That the Lotus Sūtra claims that lying is not lying if it is done for the right reason, and therefore the Buddha did not in fact lie for forty-five years, because he lied for the right reason.

Now, I'm not trying to be argumentative, and if anyone has a refutation of the above analysis, I'm happy to hear it. Otherwise, I'm going to stick by the view that this text calls mainstream Buddhist doctrine lies and then denies doing that very thing.

Why is this important? Well, I suppose for most people it's not, really. For me, pointing out misrepresentations of the Buddha's teaching is important, and I think the Lotus Sūtra is a misrepresentation of the Buddha's teaching. I do not think it is proper to lie for any reason, and I don't think the Buddha ever taught that it was. More importantly, you can't pretend a lie isn't a lie just because you did it for the right reason. And of course, I don't think the Buddha lied for forty-five years just because we couldn't understand this disappointingly vague (and terribly self-absorbed) text.

Interesting may be how the doctrine of expedient means has been used in Buddhist circles that subscribe to this doctrine - in China and Japan it was used to synthesize the vast quantities of often contradictory Buddhist texts flowing in from India, and according to one scholar (Whalen Lai), the Lotus Sūtra might be seen as "important more for the template it provided that explained how the multifarious doctrines of Buddhism fit together than for the doctrinal teachings of the text itself."

Another scholar (Carl Bielefeldt) points out that some have likened the Lotus Sūtra to a “medium without a message—that is, a work that has no message apart from the celebration of its own importance.” As an inspirational text, I guess it could be argued that the Lotus Sūtra is... powerful, but that it does so at the expense of mainstream Buddhist doctrine like the three vehicles makes it entirely unpalatable to mainstream monks like me.

So. Hopefully I haven't ruffled too many feathers with what this toned-down critique of a text that I consider to be a misrepresentation of the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. After all, it's only the Internet, right?