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  • 2005 International Lotus Sutra Conference
  • Leo D. Lefebure

In May 2005 Rissho Kosei-kai sponsored its annual conference on the Lotus Sutra for the first time in China, at the new conference center of Beijing Normal University. Chinese Buddhist scholars Zhang Fenglei and Wei Dedong of Renmin University participated, offering discussions of "Earthly Orientation of Tiantai Buddhist Doctrine" and "Zhanran's Doctrine about the Nature of Insentient Beings and Its Ecological Implications," respectively. While the main focus of the discussions at the conference was on Buddhist interpretations of the Lotus Sutra in the T'ien T'ai and Tendai traditions, the organizers invited two Christian theologians, Ruben Habito and Leo Lefebure, to participate, thereby adding an interreligious dimension. An illness in his family prevented Habito from attending, but the paper he had prepared, "Ultimate Reality and Religious Praxis: The Lotus Sutra, T'ien T'ai, and Nichiren," was presented and discussed. On the morning of the first full day, Lefebure presented the paper "Wisdom, Compassion, and Charity: The Lotus Sutra and Augustine." In it he compared the rhetorical strategies of the Lotus Sutra and Augustine. The Lotus Sutra and Augustine articulate a dilemma of communication: the Sutra notes that only another Buddha can understand the wisdom of Shakyamuni Buddha, and Augustine warns that no human understanding is adequate to comprehend the mystery of God. According to the Lotus Sutra, the resolution of this difficulty comes through the use of upaya or, more specifically, upaya-kausalya, variously translated as "expedient" or "skillful" or "appropriate" means, including similes and parables. The wisdom of the Buddha that cannot be captured conceptually through pondering or analysis may nonetheless be conveyed in nonliteral form through concrete narratives, and the Lotus Sutra presents a number of celebrated examples. These narratives promise to transform human existence decisively, freeing humans from attachments and awakening them to wisdom (prajna) and compassion (karuna). Through [End Page 195] wisdom and compassion the Buddha establishes skillful means in order heal the suffering of human beings and to lead them into these virtues.

During the same time that Kumarajiva and his companions were translating the Lotus Sutra into Chinese, Augustine of Hippo proclaimed that the gospel of Jesus Christ offered humans the possibility of victory over ignorance, sin, and death and supreme bliss in union with God in heaven. But he also insisted that God is strictly incomprehensible and the divine reality cannot be captured in any concept or image. Pondering and analysis cannot grasp the meaning of God, and so Augustine warned his congregation, "If you have comprehended, what you have comprehended is not God." Despite the inadequacy of all human thought and language to comprehend God, Augustine trusted that God has used finite signs, like the narratives of the Bible, to communicate the saving knowledge of God's love. Signs point to realities; even though the signs posited by God never express the divine reality adequately and literally, they can nonetheless reorient human life away from untrammeled, self-destructive desire (cupiditas) and toward the self-giving love that Augustine calls charity (caritas). The wisdom and charity of God are the origin and content of the salvific signs, whose goal is to lead humans into the wisdom and charity of God.

Other papers explored the journey of the Lotus Sutra on the Silk Road (Mariko Walter), Mind/Nature in Zhanran and Zhili (Brook Ziporyn), relative and absolute subtlety in Zhiyi and Jizang (Kanno Hiroshi), interpretations of the theory of Buddha-nature (Linda Penkower and Sandra Wawrytko), later Japanese Tendai interpretations (Paul Groner and Jacqueline Stone), and the making of vows in the Lotus Sutra (Shinozaki Michio). While Lefebure's paper was the only explicitly Buddhist-Christian discussion, comparisons between the traditions ran throughout many of the conversations.

On the morning of the last day of the conference, Lefebure responded to Shinozaki's paper and to many of the themes that had been circulating throughout the week. He agreed strongly with Shinozaki's insistence that "how we read the sutra, where we read it, when we read it, and for whom we read it are quite important." There is no view from nowhere or from everywhere. Our contemporary horizon increasingly includes the situation...


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