The Lotus Sutra and Process Philosophy. (News and Views)

By Devenish, Philip E. | Buddhist-Christian Studies, Annual 2001 | Go to article overview

The Lotus Sutra and Process Philosophy. (News and Views)


Devenish, Philip E., Buddhist-Christian Studies


In 1994, Rissho Kosei-kai began to sponsor an annual summer conference to which international scholars were invited to discuss and explore the Lotus Sutra. Some of the earlier conferences focused on themes such as "The Lotus Sutra and Ethics" and "The Lotus Sutra and Social Responsibility." These conferences have encouraged a more widespread understanding of the Lotus Sutra among Western scholars and, as a result, a greater exposure to the Lotus Sutra on the part of students in the universities where these scholars teach. An additional feature of the conferences is the exposure of these scholars to Rissho Kosei-kai as a significant religious organization in modern Japan.

This year's conference involved eleven scholars, six from the United States and five from Japan. It was held at Bandaiso, Rissho Kosei-kai's retreat center, about four hours north of Tokyo by bus. Its theme was "The Lotus Sutra and Process Thought." Process thought is a kind of philosophical thinking developed primarily in America over the last century that shares certain features with the basic point of view expressed in the Lotus Sutra.

The Lotus Sutra is not primarily a philosophical or theological text, but rather a religious one. It focuses less on analyzing reality than on coming to terms with it, responding to it, and also on changing it. However, a religious text always presupposes concepts and ideas that it employs in order to express its intuitions about what is important in life. Professor Gene Reeves, the organizer of this and the previous conferences in the series, has shown in his writings that Lotus Sutra Buddhism shares with process thought several basic commitments. One is to what he calls "a philosophy of integration" of teachings and practices, of people with nature, and of wisdom, compassion, and practice. Another is their shared "philosophy of becoming," according to which everything that exists depends on the basic process of causal relations, which makes it possible for anything at all to exist. Lotus Sutra Buddhism and process philosophy also agree that all individual realities exhibit a basic character of creativity an d that creativity characterizes ultimate reality, whether this is understood in some sense as "the Buddha" or as "God." Moreover, both movements teach the possibility of religious salvation for all people as well as an ethics grounded in universal respect and compassion.

Many of the participants in the conference expressed their conviction that process thought, as it is developed particularly in the writings of the philosophers Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947), Charles Hartshorne (b. 1897), and John Dewey (1859-1952), provides an especially clear and rich articulation of these themes and that Lotus Sutra Buddhists have much to gain from the study of this philosophy. At the same time, there was equally deep appreciation for the type of Lotus Sutra Buddhism given social and religious expression in Rissho Kosei-kai and, in particular, for its stress on the practice of "appropriate" or "skillful" means (upaya).

Professor Joseph Grange, of the University of Southern Maine, drew attention to the overall consonance of the Lotus Sutra and Whitehead's later writings in overcoming dualism in thought and life. Professor Steve Odin, of the University of Hawai'i, discussed the ways both Lotus Sutra Buddhism and Whitehead formulate an interrelational vision of reality wherein each event is a microcosmic reflection of a macrocosmic whole, especially in the doctrine of the Lotus Sutra tradition of ichinen sanzen, or "three thousand realms in one thought." The present author, an independent scholar, focused on the convergence of the two movements of thought in the religious and ethical notions of peace and compassion.

Professor Yoshitaka Goh, of the Japan Biblical Seminary, stressed the specifically historical character of human salvation, in which the past shapes the possibilities for our lives in the present. …

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