The Tower of Power

The Tower of Power

The Tower of Power’s Finest Hour: Stupa Construction and Veneration in the Lotus Sutra

The following article from the scholar John Thompson speaks volumes about the primacy of the stupa in the Buddhist tradition.
The Saddharmapundarika Sutra , also known as the Lotus Sutra, has a marked devotional orientation, with much of the devotionalism centering on the building of stupas, or Buddhist burial mounds. This article examines several important passages in the Lotus Sutra that center on the construction and veneration of stupas. In addition, the author provides examples of the influence that images of stupas found in the Lotus Sutra have had on the arts and cultures of East Asia. He argues that that the implications of stupa-related passages in the Lotus Sutra can reveal crucial aspects of East Asian Buddhism and can challenge Western stereotypes about the religion.

The Centrality of Stupas in the Lotus Sutra

Few texts have played as significant a role in Asian history as the Saddharmapundarika Sutra (The sutra of the lotus of the wonderful law, or Lotus Sutra). Although this text espouses most major Buddhist doctrines and has provided fodder for many Buddhist thinkers, including Zhiyi, Saicho P K and others, its primary importance lies at the folk level. Simply put, the Lotus Sutra is a major source of popular lore and practice for ordinary Buddhists. (1) Indeed, even a casual reading shows that the text has a strong devotional orientation, most of which centers on stupa (Buddhist memorial mounds). Throughout the Lotus Sutra, passages abound where Sakyamuni–the historical Buddha–recommends that his faithful followers build stupas, even providing detailed instructions for their construction and ritual veneration. At other times, exquisitely decorated stupas magically erupt on to the scene, much to the amazement of the assembled san, gha (Buddhist community). Clearly, stupas loom large in the Lotus Sutra. In this article, I examine several passages in the Lotus Sutra centering on stupa construction and veneration, as well as some examples of the influence that images of stupas from the Lotus Sutra have had on the arts and cultures of Asia. I contend that a careful examination of such passages can reveal crucial aspects of Buddhism that may challenge and expand common notions of what “Buddhism” actually is.

The Nature of Stupas in East Asia

Despite recent depictions in Western media as a somewhat exotic cross between psychotherapy and self-improvement, Buddhism, like most world religions, has traditionally had a strong devotional orientation, particularly among the laity; many Buddhists regularly visit holy sites to make offerings and pray. The most important Buddhist shrines are stupas, dome-like mounds housing relics, texts, or other precious articles. In the Dighanikaya, a collection of early discourses, the Buddha tells his followers: “Whoever lays wreaths of flowers, or puts perfumes, or adds color [to the stupas] with a devout heart will reap benefit and happiness for a long time” (Mitchell 2002, 31).
Across Buddhist tradition, several terms are used for such memorial structures–stupa, caitya, chedi, dagoba, tope, ta, gorinto, pagoda-the sheer variety of which may cause confusion. According to the early twentieth century Buddhologist Giuseppe Tucci (1988, xi-xvii), stupa is a Sanskrit term dating to the Vedas that originally referred to the top or upper part of a head (topknot hairstyle) or tree, pillar, or something “heaped up”–a summit. Caitya is another Sanskrit term that often refers to memorial mounds, although it and similar terms may refer more broadly to any object of veneration (1988, xiv). (The term seems to have originally been associated with Vedic fire altars, known as citi.) Caitya was rendered into Pali as cetiya and elsewhere in Southeast Asian countries as chedi. In Sri Lanka, the most common term is dagoba, which derives from the Sanskrit dhatugarbha (element or relic storehouse). In East Asia, the Sinhalese dagoba gradually became “pagoda,” although this derivation is subject to debate. (2) The latter term, perhaps most familiar to English speakers, also refers to towers constructed for reasons other than those that are strictly religious. Stupas, however, generally have commemorative religious functions. For the sake of simplicity, I will use the term stupa in its most generic sense, as an umbrella term encompassing all such Buddhist memorial structures.

Actual stupa structure has undergone various changes over the centuries. Numerous varieties of stupas abound; they vary by location, orientation, age, shape, materials, and whether they were designed to house relics, images, or texts. (3) Early stupas were simple mounds of earth or clay; but, over time, they became progressively larger and more dome-shaped. Other elements were gradually added until the stupa attained its “classic” form: a large structure surrounded by a vedika (fence, seemingly derived from fences surrounding Vedic-era villages) with access granted by way of four gates (torana) located in each of the cardinal directions. The main portion of the structure is the large hemispherical dome (anda) surmounted by a square railed platform (harmika) in the center of which is a pole (vasti) from which ascend a series of parasols (cattravali). Some scholars suggest that this pole derives from tree-cults commemorating the Buddha’s enlightenment under the Bodhi tree, since early depictions of stupas show them crowned by trees with parasol-shaped leaves (Harvey 1991, 77-79). The pole and parasols have strong associations with royalty (kings and princes are often depicted as being sheltered by parasols in Asian art); but they unfortunately tend to attract lightning, leading to the destruction of numerous memorial sites throughout history. One can frequently find one or two tracks around the stupa for circumambulation, usually in a clockwise fashion. The majority of stupas are freestanding; but stupas have also been incorporated into or inside temples and worship halls. (See fig. 1 for the progression from stupa to pagoda as Buddhism spread across Asia.)

Symbolically, stupas are very rich structures, and numerous interpretations of their symbolism have arisen over the centuries. One of the most common views is that the stupa is a stylized depiction of the Buddhist cosmos, laid out in the form of a great mandala (lit., “circle,” a symbolic diagram) centering on Mount Sumeru, the mythical mountain anchoring the world in which we live. More concretely, the stupa stands for Buddha’s simultaneous presence and absence. This paradox is important for understanding the dynamics of the stupa and its use in the Lotus Sutra. As a memorial, the stupa testifies to the Buddha’s absence (he is no longer alive) and is a vivid reminder of the impermanent nature of existence as well as a sign pointing toward nirvana, the ultimate goal of the Buddhist path. Yet as the physical repository for relics or other sacred objects, the stupa stands for the Buddha’s continual presence, providing a point of contact, a place for the sangha to assemble and meet Buddha. By journeying to a stupa, the faithful thus gain access to Buddha’s sacred power even long after his earthly passing.

Not surprisingly, stupas have proven to be extremely popular and can be found all over the Buddhist world. Stupas reside in most temple complexes and typically are the most conspicuous structures there. Moreover, abundant evidence points to stupa cults going back to the earliest centuries of Buddhist history. In various modified forms, such as the East Asian pagoda, we find stupas or stupa equivalents at almost all sacred Buddhist sites. (4)

The Rise of Mahayana Buddhism; the Significance of the Lotus Sutra

Stupa veneration enjoyed great popularity under the patronage of early Buddhist rulers such as Ashoka (304-232 B.C.E.) but became particularly prominent near the beginning of the Common Era, when a new religious movement, the Mahayana (“Great Vehicle”), began to appear, spreading northwest from India into Central Asia and eastward into China. From China, Mahayana Buddhism spread to Korea, Japan, and Vietnam–areas where it still dominates today. (5) From the beginning, the Mahayana movement was critical of the early Buddhist emphasis on monks and their personal spiritual development. Followers of Mahayana Buddhism perceived such “monkish” pursuits as not in keeping with the compassionate spirit of the Buddha, whose aim was to aid all beings. For Mahayanists, this meant that the laity needed a larger, more active role; and along with this elevation in status for the laity came a deeper emphasis on the veneration of stupas as well as a more devotional orientation toward such sacred sites. Lay Buddhists had already developed a tradition of making pilgrimages to holy sites marked by stupas. Over time, certain lay Buddhists attached themselves to specific stupas as caretakers and guides. Some scholars even surmise that the Mahayana tradition began at such sites, with the first bodhisattvas (“wisdom beings,” saintly figures) being especially devout lay people who took it upon themselves to maintain stupas and deliver sermons to those who came to worship (Hirakawa 1990, 270-74).

Scholars also mark the rise of Mahayana Buddhism by the appearance of “new” texts purporting to be sermons of the historical Buddha yet with a more expansive and inclusive style. Mahayana sutras stress the universal capacity of all beings to attain Buddhahood and depict the Buddha himself as a god-like being who, along with hosts of bodhisattvas and other cosmic beings, continually seeks to aid the myriads of beings enmired in samsara (the beginning-less cycle of birth and death). The Lotus Sutra is a prime example of such a genuinely Mahayana text. Mysterious in origin, it presents the historical Buddha seated on “Vulture Peak” (Mount Gridhrakuta), preaching an extended sermon to a rapt audience of myriads of monks, nuns, laity, gods, bodhisattvas, and numerous other supernatural beings. Unlike his early discourses (such as the Dharmacakrapravartana Am, or “Sutra on setting in motion the Wheel of Dharma,” wherein he lays out the basics of the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path), in the Lotus Sutra the Buddha reveals wondrous teachings on a truly cosmic scale, using soaring rhetoric to convey his messages, often punctuating his point with dazzling special effects (including radiant lights filling multiple worlds, hordes of bodhisattvas emerging from the depths of the earth, and a gigantic jeweled stupa appearing from nowhere to float suspended in the heavens). Moreover, in the Lotus Sutra, the Buddha proclaims that he is not just an Indian prince who attained nirvana under the Bodhi tree but a transtemporal being who, through unlimited wisdom and compassion, manifests in all times and places to lead all beings to salvation. Indeed, so powerful is this message that the Buddha states that even the text of the sermon itself can lead the faithful to Eternal Awakening.

Textual claims to the contrary, however, scholars generally agree that the Lotus Sutra is not the transcript of a sermon spoken by Siddhartha Gautama (at least not in toto) but rather an anthology of mini-sermons, hymns, parables, and stories assembled over the course of many years. Yet despite its composite character, the work is united by the Buddha’s acceptance of all beings–regardless of their flaws and differing levels of wisdom–and his repeated assurances that they will attain Buddhahood. By turns amazing, overwhelming, and deeply moving, the Lotus Sutra is a masterpiece of world literature that has fascinated scholars, monastics, and lay people for centuries. As the late Wing-tsit Chan (1990, 221) noted, “More lectures have been given, more research conducted into its subject matter and terminology, and more commentaries written on it [the Lotus Sutra] than on any other Buddhist scripture.” (6)

Passages on Stupas in the Lotus Sutra

Perhaps given the strong popular focus of both stupa worship and the Lotus Sutra, it should come as no surprise that the latter has a great deal to say about the former. Indeed, stupa construction and worship play an important role in thirteen of the twenty-eight chapters found in Kumarajiva’s (344-413) translation of the Lotus Sutra. (7) Because of their recurring appearances, citing only a few examples of stupas in the Lotus Sutra will suffice.

Chapter 1: Introduction

In this, the Lotus Sutra’s opening scene, we find the Buddha seated in deep samadhi (meditation) before his expectant audience. Suddenly a supernatural ray of light bursts forth from his brow to illuminate the eighteen thousand worlds, revealing multiple Buddhas preaching and inspiring numerous monks, nuns, bodhisattvas, laymen, and laywomen. Several miniscenes depict worship and devotion, clearly echoing events from the life story of the historical Buddha. Each of these scenes, moreover, has the same ending. As the text says, “Further, there could be seen how, after the Buddha’s parinirvana [final extinction], a stupa … of the seven jewels would be erected with the BuddhaSarira [relics of the Buddha]” (Hurvitz 1976, 4). At this point, the illuminating vision concludes with audience members exclaiming at such “extraordinary,” “lustrous,” and “wondrous and supernatural” signs.

This first chapter quite literally sets the stage for the rest of the sutra, and we see that stupas are already part of the scene. These stupas are clearly of importance in that the Lotus Sutra draws our attention to them with enticing descriptions–a theme that appears again and again whenever stupas are mentioned in the sutra–and shows the cast of characters engaging in proper ritual devotion to the stupas. Moreover, the fact that each mini-scene closes with the construction and veneration of a stupa underscores the centrality of stupas in Buddhist religiosity. From this point forward, the universe of the Lotus Sutra effectively surrounds its audience (and the readers) with a network of thousands of stupas.
Chapter 10: Instructions to the Bodhisattva Medicine King
Although stupas show up in various places over the next few chapters, until close to the sutra’s halfway point, the Buddha does not make absolutely clear that stupas are integral to the Buddha path, and, indeed, intimately related to the Lotus Sutra. Here the Buddha explains to the great bodhisattva “Medicine King” (Bhais ajyaraja) the proper way of preaching and honoring those who preach the Lotus Sutra:

O Medicine King! Wherever it [the Lotus Sutra] may be preached, or     read, or recited, or written, or whatever place a roll of this     scripture may occupy, in all those places one is to erect a stupa     of the seven jewels, building it high and wide and with impressive     decoration. There is no need even to lodge Sarira [relics     associated with a sacred person] in it. What is the reason? Within     it there is already a whole body of the Thus Come One. This stupa     is to be showered with offerings, humbly venerated, held in solemn     esteem and praised with all manner of flowers, scents, necklaces,     silk banners and canopies, music skillfully sung and played. If     there are persons who can see this stupa and worship and make     offerings to it, be it known that these persons are all close to     anuttarasamyaksambodhi [highest perfect enlightenment]. (Hurvitz     1976,178-79)

Once again, we have the insistence on stupa veneration, this time described in detail and explicitly connected to preaching, recitation, and general devotion to the Lotus Sutra itself. Moreover, those who engage in such activities are proclaimed as being close to enlightenment.

This passage, coming as it does from the very lips of the Buddha to one of the foremost bodhisattvas, is particularly important as a declaration of the centrality of stupa worship for the Buddhist faithful. Such sentiments are echoed elsewhere in the Lotus Sutra, for example, in chapter 2, where the Buddha praises anyone who worships or constructs stupas–even in the simplest, most playful manner–as having “achieved the Buddha path” (Hurvitz 1976, 38-39). Another similar passage comes in chapter 12, wherein the Buddha declares to his audience that the fantastic stupa to be constructed by Devadatta (a rival monk who even tried to the kill the Buddha on several occasions) in a future lifetime will be a major aid for many beings in achieving the stages of arhat, pratyekabuddha, and the “non-backsliding” stage of the bodhisattva path (Hurvitz 1976, 197). (8)

Chapter 15: Emergence of the “Pilgrim” Bodhisattvas

Slightly more than halfway through the twenty-eight chapters of the Lotus Sutra, we find yet another passage where a stupa plays a central role, in this case as the focus of pilgrimage. Here the Buddha has just finished assuring his devoted retinue of bodhisattvas from the far reaches of the cosmos who are anxious to preserve his wondrous sutra from being lost that their fears are unfounded; he has untold myriads of followers from within this very realm (the “Saha-world,” i.e., our world) who are already devoted to preserving and preaching the sutra’s message. At once, the earth splits open and innumerable (“incalculable thousands of myriads of millions” of) bodhisattvas burst forth from the hidden depths and head immediately to the gigantic central stupa that has previously emerged before the assembled faithful and in which Sakyamuni (along with the previous Buddha Prabhutaratna, “Many jewels”) temporarily resides. (9) The text then describes a near-perfect example of how high-ranking (royal?) (10) monastic beings should pay homage to their superiors, bowing to their feet and performing obeisance: “Doing three turns of rightward circumambulation and paying humble respects with palms joined, they lauded them [the Buddhas] with varied bodhisattva-praises, then stood off to one side, with joyful expectation looking up at the two World-Honored Ones” (Hurvitz 1976, 226).

This passage portrays a scene in marked contrast to the earlier, more celebratory, examples of stupa veneration. Although various reasons might exist for such contrast, the most obvious is simply the fact that the bodhi sattvas here are high ranking (they are explicitly given the title mahasattvas, “great beings”) and are monastic, hence bound by specific rules of decorum as laid out in the vinaya (monastic discipline). For example, in most branches of Buddhism, monks and nuns are forbidden to play music or own luxurious items of the sort presented to the stupas by worshippers in other passages of the Lotus Sutra. Thus, their veneration in this passage is more proper and sedate (as befitting those seeking to calm the passions), essentially mimicking the rituals of reverence displayed by monastic disciples when they approach the living Buddha. Still, however, the message is clear: even those of high rank or monastic standing can (and should) pay homage to the stupas; stupa veneration is open to (and recommended for–perhaps even required of) all members of the sangha. (11) Even more interesting, though, is that fact that such textual descriptions of veneration have striking parallels with accounts of stupa veneration by monastic pilgrims such as Xuanzang  (ca. 602-64), (12) suggesting that the sutra descriptions are based upon everyday practices, were treated as “instruction manuals” by real-life monastics, or both. In any event, this passage from chapter 15 offers us an intriguing (albeit idealized) view of the stupa as the focal point of religious pilgrimage–yet another devotional act that remains popular in Buddhism to this day. Implicitly, the Lotus Sutra is calling the faithful (both lay and monastic) to do the same.

Chapter 11: The Many Jeweled Stupa

Undoubtedly, however, the most famous example of a stupa in the entire Lotus Sutra appears in chapter 11, when a glorious multi-storied, jewel-encrusted structure suddenly manifests itself before the wondering eyes of the assembly. Generally regarded as the climax of the Lotus Sutra (it occurs roughly at the central point in the text itself), the lavishly described event is the literary equivalent of a Hollywood movie scene replete with all manner of special cinematographic effects. Here the miraculous appearance of the stupa itself appears to be the main attraction, only to be followed by the revelation that it houses within its depths the living body of a former Buddha, Prabhutaratna. So famous is this scene that it warrants an extensive quotation:

At that time, there appeared before the Buddha a seven-jeweled     stupa, five hundred yojanas [a large distance, measuring several     miles] in height and two hundred and fifty yojanas in breadth,     welling up out of the earth and resting in mid-air, set about with     sundry precious objects. It had five thousand banisters, a thousand     myriads of grotto-like rooms, and numberless banners to adorn it.     Jeweled rosaries trailed from it, and ten thousand millions of     jeweled bells were suspended from its top. Tamalapatracandana     [fragrant incense made from a rare flowering tree] scent issued     from all four of its surfaces and filled the world; its banners     were made of the seven jewels, to wit, gold, silver, vaidurya     [“cat’s-eye gem”: a precious substance, perhaps beryl or lapis     lazuli], giant clam shell, coral, pearl, and carnelian; and its     height extended to the palaces of the four god kings. The     thirty-three gods rained down on it divine manddroa flowers … The     other gods, dragons, yaksas, gandharvas, asuras … humans and     non-humans, numbering a thousand myriads of millions, made     offerings to the jeweled stupa of all manner of flower perfumes,     necklaces, banners, and skillfully played music, reverently     worshipping it, holding it in solemn esteem, and singing its     praises. (Hurvitz 1976, 183)

Following this spectacle, a voice erupts from inside the stupa, which then opens to reveal the former Buddha Prabhutaratna, who praises Sakyamuni, proclaiming that he has come from his own pure Buddha realm to hear Sakyamuni preach the Lotus Sutra. He then invites Sakyamuni to join him on his “lion’s seat” throne inside the stupa, which the latter does.

Even in print, this scene of the enormous jeweled stupa is dazzling. Hypnotic, even hallucinatory, it challenges our ordinary experience of space and time, transforming our visual field. The stupa here is the very center of the sutra. When it magically appears from the depths of the earth, the entire assembly, filled with “Dharmajoy” at a sight such as they have never seen before, sings its praises. Adorned with all manner of jewels–clear, hard, precious, shining substances–it is essentially a portion of the distant Buddha Realm “Jewel-Pure,” the paradise over which Prabhutaratna presides. Stretching through the heavens, the stupa’s radiant presence contrasts sharply with the polluted and decaying Saha world in which we normally dwell. As testament to the power of the Lotus Sutra, the former Buddha even promises to manifest himself (via his stupas, by implication) wherever the Lotus Sutra is preached; henceforth, intoning the sutra itself will suffice to bring forth the Buddha’s presence. Once again, we see the close alliance between stupas and the Lotus Sutra. Prabhutaratna’s invitation to Sakyamuni to join him on his throne underscores oneness of all Buddhas and the immense power of the Lotus Sutra: it has, as it were, the strength of two Buddhas (not just one).

Common Themes in Stupa Passages from the Lotus Sutra

Although the Lotus Sutra includes other examples of stupa worship, the examples discussed above rank among the most significant, for both their place in the sutra itself as well as their implications for the type of Buddhism the text presents. Probably the most obvious function of such scenes of stupa veneration in the Lotus Sutra is to illustrate basic Mahayana doctrines, most especially the increasingly transcendent view of the Buddha. Indeed, in the Lotus Sutra, we find the Buddha elevated to god-like status, far surpassing the view often presented in the early Buddhist scriptures. Yet this Cosmic Buddha is, if anything, even more compassionate than his earthly manifestation, constantly working to enlighten all sentient beings (monastic and lay, human and non-human) in all worlds. The stupa is a perfect expression of such universal compassion, as it provides ready access to the Buddha’s saving power. As a structure for housing sacred relics, the stupa is even the historical Buddha’s stand-in, his abiding presence in absentia. In addition, in the Lotus Sutra, the Buddha ties stupa veneration to promises of great reward, adding that veneration of stupas provides a concrete boost in practice for those striving along the Buddhist path.

Passages in the Lotus Sutra that focus on stupas are also consistently marked by lavish descriptions. Indeed, one of the hallmarks of the text is its vivid, enticing imagery surrounding stupas. To cite yet another example, at one point in the sutra, the Buddha predicts the future Buddhahood of his disciple Maudgalyayana because of his meritorious worship. In the Buddha’s words:

I now tell you that this Great Maudgalyayana with divers implements     shall make offerings to eight thousand Buddhas, doing them     deference and honor. After the Buddhas’ extinction, for each he     shall erect a stupa-mausoleum, whose height shall be a thousand     yojanas, whose length and breadth shall be each five hundred     yojanas, and which shall be filled with gold, silver, vaidurya,     giant clam shell, agate, pearl, and carnelian, these precious     seven. With a multitude of flower garlands, paint-scent, powdered     scent, burnt incense, cotton canopies, and banners he shall make     offerings. When that [time] is past, he shall again make offerings     to two hundred myriads of millions of Buddhas, in the same way.     (Hurvitz 1976,127)

The language is overwhelming, hyperbolic. Far from a simple, austere path of ascetic striving, we find that the stupa scenes of the Lotus Sutra exemplify what the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order term a “Buddhism of Abundance,” standing in marked contrast to the relative poverty of earlier forms of the Buddha Dharma (Madhyamavani Online). All told, such descriptions of abundance are stirring, powerful inducements to visit stupas not only to pay homage but also just to gaze in awe at one’s surroundings. Also within such passages may be hints of visualization practices (buddhanusmr ti, “remembrance of the Buddha”) that have been popular at both the lay and monastic levels for centuries, particularly in Pure Land forms of Buddhism (see Corless 1995).

Seen from another angle, stupa imagery in the Lotus Sutra forms the basic framework of the sutra itself. Rhetorically speaking, the examples of stupa veneration in the Lotus Sutra discussed above are positioned quite prominently within the text: at the opening, at the climax, at the start of the second half, and in other conspicuous locations. Moreover, several of these passages clearly echo other passages in the text concerned with stupa construction and veneration.” The result, from a strictly textualist perspective, is an intriguing and subtle thematic stupa network; one cannot, as it were, go far into the sutra without encountering a stupa, just as one cannot venture far into a Buddhist region without encountering a real stupa that symbolically marks the Buddha’s presence and influence.

It seems more than likely, as well, that the stupa passages in the Lotus Sutra, with their dazzling rhetoric and large-scale social context, also serve as liturgical guides by presenting idealized examples of stupa worship. That is, scenes such as we find in chapters 10 and 11 (Hurvitz 1976, 178-79, 183) are not necessarily descriptive (that is, describing actual situations) so much as prescriptive (presenting scenes that the Buddhist faithful should seek to enact): they have clear resonance with accounts of stupa worship found at different points in Buddhist history. (14) Going even further, we could argue that passages in the Lotus Sutra concerning stupas even have a strong per-formative dimension in that the text itself helps engender a properly worshipful state of affairs. The text not only enjoins the enshrining of an actual copy of the sutra in a stupa but also explicitly commands its readers (or listeners) to erect a stupa to commemorate those beings who have read, written, recited, preached, and practiced the sutra at the specific spots where such actions have taken place (Hurvitz 1976, 254-56). Reading, writing, reciting, preaching, and engaging in the practices outlined in the Lotus Sutra makes us worthy of veneration and commemoration with stupas, just like the Buddha. The clear implication, then, is that the Lotus Sutra can transform its practitioners into Buddha, a feat that entails the full consecration of stupas at all places where the Lotus Sutra has been manifested. Theoretically, this process of consecration could expand to encompass the entire cosmos.

Influence of the Lotus Sutra’s Supas on Asian Art & Culture

The influence of the Lotus Sutra on Asian culture–through literature, poetry, drama, art, and more–is, of course, quite well known. Famous novels such as, Journey to the West and The Tale of Genji are replete with references and allusions to the Lotus Sutra and its teachings. However, what is often overlooked is the fact that much of the explicit influence centers on images of stupas from the Lotus Sutra. Just as in the case of the stupa passages in the text itself, so here the examples are so numerous that I can cite only a few.

One of the most obvious examples of the influence of the Lotus Sutra on popular art and culture is in the numerous paintings and statues of the Buddhas Sakyamuni and Prabhutaratna found in Silk Road art at Dun huang, China, and at other sites throughout Buddhist Asia (see fig. 2). Such images often show both Buddhas seated side by side within the fantastic jeweled stupa. Although depictions of stupas enshrining Buddha figures are common in Buddhist art and may not necessarily point to any specific scriptural influence, inspiration for images of side-by-side Buddhas has clearly come directly from the chapters of the Lotus Sutra. Moreover, scholars maintain that, in some cases, such images were used as focal points for meditation and worship (Miya 1989).

The connection between stupa images inspired by the Lotus Sutra and ritual practice has been very strong, particularly in East Asia. Depictions of the Lotus Sutra’s great jeweled stupa (with the two Buddhas seated in the middle) have also found their way into mandalas constructed for special ritual meditation. In particular, monks from the Japanese Tendai  sect use such mandalas during the Taimitsu  ritual (a portion of the Hokke Ho “Lotus Rite”) to eradicate “sin,” create merit, and foster awakening. There is, in addition, evidence that such rites influenced Nichiren (1222-82), undoubtedly the most (in)famous devotee of the Lotus Sutra in Buddhist history (Stone 2004).

During Japan’s Heian period (794-1185), devotion to the Lotus Sutra expressed itself in a flurry of production of hand-inked copies of the sutra. In some cases, the entire text of the Lotus Sutra has been inscribed in the form of the great stupa enshrining both Buddhas (fig. 3). In other instances, the text of the sutra has been painstakingly transcribed with each Chinese character drawn seated in a lotus flower on a pedestal, or surrounded by a stupa. This artistic convention illustrates the popular view that “each character in the Lotus Sutra is a living Buddha” (Stone 2004, 474.)

Finally, various priests and scholars during the Middle Ages in both China and Japan compiled a number of collections of wondrous popular tales about the Lotus Sutra as part of their ministry. As to be expected, stupas appear quite frequently in some of them. One of the most intriguing concerns the Japanese poet-monk Jitsuin (late tenth century), who was devoted to reciting and expounding upon the Lotus Sutra to anyone who would listen. According to the tale, on his deathbed, Jitsuin had a vivid dream of the many-jeweled stupa from chapter 11 of the Lotus Sutra and was assured that this blessing was a sign of his imminent rebirth in the Pure Land (Dykstra 1983).

It is quite telling that each of the examples from popular art and culture discussed above centers on stupas, confirming their centrality to the Lotus Sutra. Artworks–both elite and popular-typically reflect their larger cultural contexts, and in many cases are major vehicles for the spread of religious ideas. Based upon these examples, we might suggest that the depiction of stupas in the Lotus Sutra is a major factor in the sutra’s popular appeal.

Implications for Understanding Buddhism

What, then, are we to make of all this? Does this popular, devotional orientation in the Lotus Sutra that so often centers on stupas mark a major shift in Buddhism from earlier forms? Certainly many scholars have concluded as much. Mahayana Buddhism in general is more lay oriented and was closely aligned with the growth of stupa worship along with the appearance of various “new” sutras (such as the Lotus Sutra) that have much more cosmic, even “theistic” characters. (15) Indeed, the Lotus Sutra, with its remarkable cast of divine characters and central attention to stupa devotion, may be the epitome of such works. One cannot extrapolate, however, that stupa worship is an exclusively Mahayana practice (as such veneration predates Mahayana Buddhism by centuries) or that stupas do not play a large role at the popular level in other forms of Buddhism, such as the Theravada tradition (16).

Still, one cannot deny that the Lotus Sutra exudes a distinctive ethos that differs tremendously from earlier, pre-Mahayana texts. And it is surely no coincidence that the Lotus Sutra continually focuses on the concept and practice of upaya (“skilful means”), both as an explicit topic of discussion between the Buddha and his interlocutors as well as through various illustrations (analogies, parables, and the like). Although the concept of upaya has multiple dimensions, it often refers to the manner in which Dharma is taught: those skilled in upaya pitch the teachings to their particular audiences with the intention of piquing their interest and spurring them on to further study and cultivation. At least initially, this practice will usually entail making the Dharma as attractive as possible to the widest population. In this regard, stupa veneration would seemingly be tailor-made to appeal to large numbers of ordinary people. The depictions and discussions of stupa construction and veneration in the Lotus Sutra, coupled with their promises of rewards (up to and including full-blown Buddhahood), would be enticements addressed to both the Buddhist faithful and potential converts. Such phenomena typically appear during inclusive and expansive phases of any major world religion. Perhaps, then, we could view the use of stupas in the Lotus Sutra as a subtle but ingenious form of religious marketing. Clearly it has proven quite successful, as reflected in widespread influence of the Lotus Sutra on Asian cultures and beyond. (17)

Invariably, of course, such discussion promotes critical reflection on what Buddhism actually is. Certainly, in the West, the prevailing image of Buddhism tends to be that of an exotic, otherworldly, and highly individualistic way of life centering on meditation and withdrawal while eschewing notions of “faith.” In part, this popular image is due to early Western scholarship, but it is still a rather common depiction in various world-religion texts. (18) Perhaps, as well, this image is encouraged by contemporary marketing of Buddhism as a form of “spirituality” geared toward individual cultivation and consumption–to say nothing of popular media fascination with “celebrity Buddhists” such as Orlando Bloom, Kate Bosworth, Leonard Cohen, Richard Gere, Herbie Hancock, Steven Seagal, and Tina Turner. Such depictions of “Buddhism,” while undeniably appealing to certain segments of the American population, promote a rather limited and skewed view of the Dharma. Such views often overlook the forms of Buddhism actually practiced in predominantly Buddhist societies–forms of Buddhism that are typically very communal and familial, with a strong practical (concrete and this-worldly) focus. Scholars are slowly compensating for this shortcoming, but we still have a long way to go. It is interesting to note, however, that the growing attention to popular forms of Buddhism by Western scholars parallels an increase in stupa construction at Buddhist sites in the West. Even more intriguing is the fact that several of these Western stupas are explicitly tied to the Lotus Sutra. (19)

In any event, what we see in the Lotus Sutra is far more messy and chaotic than either the common Western conception of Buddhism or the pristine scholarly version presented in many college textbooks. Within the pages of the Lotus Sutra, we are confronted not with the simple admonitions of a wandering Indian monk but with mind-blowing imagery and spectacle, recurring exhortations to have faith and to worship, and constant assurances that we are not alone: the Buddha and various divine beings know and care about us, and they repeatedly reassure us of our ultimate salvation. In the Lotus Sutra is a type of Buddhism that is highly exuberant and joyful, transcending lines of sex, ethnicity, sect, and class. It is an emotional religion that taps into and works with the primal power of joining with others in acts of worship. And it has enormous appeal for ordinary people. My students almost uniformly express shock and confusion when studying the Lotus Sutra and its devotional forms of Buddhism, but this initial reaction is inevitably replaced by curiosity and a childlike delight in the fantastic textual imagery. Many of them speak of their desire to see and visit stupas, perhaps even join in rituals of veneration, if only “for the heck of it.” Although we still might be seeing the lure of the exotic in such statements, I will suggest an alternative explanation: Perhaps studying the Lotus Sutra with an eye toward popular views and practices (especially those centering on stupas) can actually evoke a deep “Buddhist perspective” (adhimukti, the capacity to recognize and respond to the Dharma) that is more widespread than we might otherwise acknowledge.


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Christopher Newport University


(1) In this article, I use the terms folk, popular, lay, and ordinary interchangeably to designate the basic devotional aspect of Buddhism versus the “elite” or more scholarly/ intellectual levels–a common and useful distinction often made by scholars of religion. Although the latter has tended to manifest itself more often in monastic settings, I recognize that many (if not most) Buddhist monastics have actually had strong devotional orientations.
(2) Possible roots include the Dravidian term pagoda/pagavadi (itself derived from the Sanskrit bhagavadi, “goddess,” especially in reference to Kali) or the Persian butkada (temple). Liang (1984) maintains that it comes from the Chinese ba jiao to [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (eight cornered tower), a term that referred to the octagonal towers that were often constructed during the Middle Ages.
(3) According to Tucci (1988, 13-24), Tibetan tradition holds that there are eight fundamental stupa forms, each based on the original Indian prototypes erected at the eight major sites associated with the historical Buddha’s life.
(4) For a detailed discussion of the various types of stupas, including their symbolic meanings, see Snodgrass (1985).
(5) Historical evidence suggests that Mahayana Buddhism arose from early schisms among the sangha. It seems likely that early Mahayana Buddhism does not mark a sharp break with older forms of Buddhism but was the product of tendencies already within Buddhist tradition that were encouraged by the major social changes in India at that time. Certainly by the third and fourth centuries, new Buddhist ordination lineages were distinguishing themselves from older forms of Buddhism, which they referred to pejoratively as “Little Vehicle” (Hinayana). Nonetheless, Mahayana Buddhism continued to be practiced alongside these older forms for centuries.
(6) Several English translations of the Lotus Sutra have been made. The oldest, Kern (1884), was translated from an eleventh-century Sanskrit manuscript, although Henry David Thoreau (or, more likely, one of his acquaintances) translated a single chapter from an 1852 French translation some decades earlier. The version by Soothill (1931), while generally accurate, is abridged. Watson (1993) is very accessible. The most scholarly version, however, is Hurvitz (1976). A full, heavily annotated translation of the standard Chinese version of the Lotus Sutra that includes comparisons with Sanskrit versions, Hurvitz’s translation is a masterful piece of Buddhological scholarship. In this article, I cite Hurvitz’s translation.
(7) Several ancient versions of the Lotus Sutra are still extant. The oldest version, in fragments, is in Chinese and dates from the later third century. The translation by Central Asian scholar-monk Kumaraj iva is the most popular and has essentially remained the most authoritative version for the past fifteen hundred years.
(8) The arhat (“worthy one,” also rendered as arhant) is someone (usually a monk) who has achieved nirvana yet is inferior to a Buddha. Commonly understood to be the spiritual ideal of Hinayana Buddhism, Mahayana texts often denigrate the arhat. In the Lotus Sutra, however, the arhat is merely a temporary stopping point on the path to full Buddhahood. A pratyekabuddha, by contrast, is someone who has attained full enlightenment through his or her own efforts yet does not help others to progress. The “non-backsliding” (acala, “immoveable”) stage of the bodhisattva path is fairly self-explanatory, referring as it does to the point (usually the seventh or eighth stage) at which an aspirant will never regress, thus signifying a virtual assurance of impending Buddhahood.
(9) The appearance of this great-jeweled stupa occurs in chapter 11 of the Lotus Sutra and, in many respects, marks the climax of the work. Because of its importance as an example of stupa veneration, I have saved discussion of it for last.
(10) Traditionally, bodhisattvas are depicted with royal trappings in Buddhist art, as “Dharma princes” (or princesses) or “vassals” of the Kingly Buddha.
(11) This recommendation for stupa veneration on the part of monastics marks a significant departure from earlier Buddhist tradition; early texts stress that stupa worship is a “lesser” way, fit only for laity. In Buddhist artwork from the early centuries before the Common Era, monks are conspicuously absent from depictions of stupa veneration.
(12) See, for instance, Beat (2003, 57-58).
(13) For instance, in the passage from chapter 10 cited above, the centrality of stupa construction in the Buddhist path is echoed in both chapters 2 and 12.
(14) See, for example, accounts of stupa festivals found in the Sanboe (Illustrations of the three jewels), a collection of Buddhist tales complied by the medieval Japanese official Minamoto Tamenori [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (d. 1011) (Kamens 1998, 279).
(15) According to Kajiyama (1995, 144), a lay-oriented “Buddhism of faith” (versus the “Buddhism of truth” found in monastic circles) began to form among adherents of stupa cults relatively early in Buddhist history, prior to the rise of Mahayana Buddhism.
(16) Stupas are major sites of worship and pilgrimage in the predominantly Theravadin countries of Southeast Asia. Moreover, there is a strong devotional component to Buddhism in such countries. See Gombrich (1988,118-26).
(17) One example can be found in the spread of Soka Gakkai [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], a lay-oriented form of Buddhism focusing on veneration of the Lotus Sutra. Although it began as an offshoot of the Japanese Nichiren q sect, Soka Gakkai has become a truly international movement, claiming followers in practically every country of the world. For relevant commentary that has appeared in this journal alone, see, for example, Metraux (2003, 2007).
(18) See, for example, the depiction of Buddhism in Smith (1991, 82-153).
(19) For a good example, see Pine Mountain Buddhist Temple (listed in references).

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