Is the Lotus Sutra authentic?

One of our commenters asked about whether the Lotus Sutra was considered authentic according to the Theravadin view.

To answer this from the traditional Theravadin point of view, all the Mahayana Sutras are inauthentic in the sense that they were not spoken by the Buddha. Historically, Theravada has tended to take a dim view of Mahayana, regarding it as a mere degeneration of the pure teachings.

That the Lotus Sutra and other Mahayana Sutras were not spoken by the Buddha is unanimously supported by modern scholarship. I don’t know of a single academic in the last 150 years who has argued otherwise. The basic historical background is given in Wikipedia. The upshot is that the Lotus Sutra was composed over a period of time, or in a number of stages. The oldest sources probably stem from a little before the common era, and it was finalized around 200 CE. This makes it one of the earliest Mahayana Sutras (and it is even argued that the earliest form of the sutra may not have even been Mahayana).

So there is no doubt that the Lotus Suta and other Mahayana sutras are historically late, dating from many centuries after the Buddha. When reading them as historical documents, rather than seeing them as spoken by the Buddha, we should see them as the response and articulation by Buddhists of the past to the conditions that they were in. They were addressing matters of concern for them, asking how the Dhamma is to be applied in these situations. Of course the same is true of many Theravdin texts, although in the case of the early Suttas and Vinaya there is still a core that probably stems from the Buddha himself.

Why were the Mahayana Sutras phrased as if spoken literally by the Buddha? This is a difficult question, and there is unlikely to be one answer. Partly it was just how the literary form evolved. But I suspect, given the visionary nature of many Mahayanist texts, that they often stemmed from meditation experiences; visions of the Buddha, memories of ‘teachings’ received while in samadhi. Perhaps the authors of these texts believed that the Buddha was really present to them in some sense – and this is indeed the theme of many Mahayana sutras. Or perhaps they more humbly believed that they had gained insight into the Dhamma in some direct way.

Mendicant tradition visit

We were just blessed by a visit from five senior abbots and one bhikkhuni from the Vietnamese Mendicant Tradition, together with a group of lay followers. This is a modern reform movement that aims to combine the best elements of Mahayana and Hinayana. I’ve met some of their monastics before, and have been very impressed with their openness and sincerity. They have one branch here in Sydney, the Minh Quang Meditation Center in Canley Vale The abbots who visited were:

Thich Quoc Anh (Giac Anh)
Thich Giac Diep
Thich Giac Thong
Thich Minh Chan
Thich Giac Ngan

We had a lovely conversation. The senior Venerable advised me that we in Australia should have the confidence to organize ourselves, with all the traditions together, without having to depend on the Buddhist organizations in other countries. Australia is one of the best countries for Buddhist practice, and we should develop in our own way. They were delighted when I told them that the Australian Sangha Association is already operating, and works along the lines he suggested.

He went on to say how the Mendicant Tradition aims to take the best of both Mahayana and Hinayana traditions. they were wearing Thai-style robes, they are vegetarian, they keep the 250 rules (of the Dharmaguptaka Vinaya), and they keep the vassa according to the Mahayana system (which is a different time to the Theravada vassa).

The Venerable then said that, whereas in Thailand and other countries, women were not allowed to practice renunciation fully, but had to wear white robes and act as laypeople, the founder of his order determined that women, being of spiritually the same nature as men, should have the full opportunity to ordain. I told them that we had just performed Australia’s first Theravada bhikkhuni ordination in Perth, and the whole group burst into applause. I told them that Santi FM is set up especially to support ordination for both men and women. They were specially delighted to learn that the original donor of this land, Elizabeth Gorsky, was one of the four recently ordained bhikkhunis.

We went around to the meditation cave, and I told them that the cave had been largely donated by the generosity of the local Vietnamese community. The senior Venerable went on to say that meditation is the heart of Buddhist practice, and we should try to have, as well as a training place, a place for deep meditation retreat. This would give people the chance to develop deeper insight. I mentioned that it was a common practice in the Thai forest tradition to have a training monastery and then a retreat center nearby.

I mentioned that Australia is in need of more teachers, so encouraged them to send more monastics. I also let them know that the ASA and FABC have just successfully lobbied the Immigration department to relax the $45 000 income requirement for Religious Worker visas, so that more monastics can come to Australia.

They ended up by inviting me to visit them, and saying that they would like their Sangha to take the chance to come to Santi for practice. Since we have some Vietnamese Sangha here already, there would be no problem, even if they did not speak English.

I found this little visit quite extraordinary. These monks had only been in Australia for a few weeks, and most had little English. Yet they had a perfect grasp of the issues facing our Australian Sangha, and a clear-headed and positive approach to knowing what needs to be done. I hope we see more of them.