Why another English translation of the Lotus Sutra, one may ask, when there are several already in existence? First, I would reply, because language changes and translations grow old. The great works of world literature deserve to be translated again and again so that they will continue to be in language that is appealing to contemporary readers. The earliest English translation of the Lotus Sutra, that done by Jan Hendrik Kern from a Sanskrit version and published in 1884, assuredly no longer is.
Second, because each translator has a certain kind of reader in mind as the work progresses, and certain aspects of the text he or she is especially concerned to do justice to in the translation, perhaps at the expense of other important aspects of the original. The present translation, as should be apparent from the translator’s introduction, is designed for readers who have no special background in Buddhist studies or Asian literature. Thus, for example, Sanskrit names and terms have been romanized in a form that differs slightly from the standard form used in works intended for specialists, a form that it is hoped will help guide them to the correct pronunciation; standard romanization for all such words may be found in the glossary at the back of the book. The glossary will also provide background information on personal and place names and technical terms that recur frequently in the text.
The translation, it is hoped, will not only convey the ideas for which the work is so important, but at the same time give some sense of its rich literary appeal. The translation is intended to be in straightforward modern English. No attempt has been made, as in some translations of Buddhist scriptures, to impart a “religious” tone by employing an archaic or biblical-sounding style. Despite the often-noted resemblance between one of its parables and the New Testament story of the prodigal son, the Lotus Sutra, particularly in its thought, is rather far removed from the world of the Bible.
Why, one may also ask, if the Lotus Sutra is a work of Indian Buddhism, has the translation been made from the Kumarajiva Chinese translation of the text rather than from one of the Sanskrit versions? First, as already mentioned in my introduction, though we do not know what language the Lotus Sutra was first composed in, it was clearly not Sanskrit, and therefore the Sanskrit versions of the text are already several steps removed from its first written form. Second, none of the extant Sanskrit versions are as early in date as Kumarajiva’s Chinese translation, done in 406, and all but the earliest differ in some respects from his version. Thus his almost certainly represents an earlier version of the text, one nearer to the first written form. But most important of all, Kumarajiva’s Chinese translation is the version in which the Lotus Sutra has been known and read over the centuries throughout the countries of eastern Asia. Buddhism died out in India long ago and the Sanskrit versions of the text were lost for many hundreds of years, only coming to light again in recent times. Today no one but a handful of scholars reads the Lotus Sutra in its Sanskrit versions, whereas Kumarajiva’s text is read and recited daily by millions of priests and lay believers of East Asia. It is the language and imagery of the Chinese Lotus Sutra that has molded the religious life and thought of the peoples of that part of the world and made its way into their art and literature. So it seemed wholly justifiable to make the English translation from this still living and vital version of the scripture.
For readers not familiar with the remarkable story of Kumarajiva’s life, it may be mentioned here that he lived from 344 to 413 and was a native of the small state of Kucha in Central Asia. His father was an Indian of distinguished family who later in life became a Buddhist monk. His mother was a younger sister of the ruler of Kucha. He entered the Buddhist Order as a boy, and with his mother, who had become a nun, traveled extensively around India, acquiring a profound knowledge of Buddhist texts and teachings. Returning to Kucha, he devoted himself there to the propagation of Mahayana Buddhism.
In time his fame as a Buddhist scholar reached China. The Chinese ruler, eager to have so distinguished a religious figure at his own court, dispatched one of his generals to invade Kucha and bring Kumarajiva to the Chinese capital at Changan (now Xi’an, Shaanxi Province). Because of a change in the ruling dynasty, Kumarajiva was detained for a number of years in Liangzhou (now Wuwei, Gansu Province), but finally reached Changan in 401. There, with the support of the ruler, he immediately embarked on a strenuous translation program, producing in rapid succession a series of authoritative Chinese versions of important Buddhist sutras and treatises, thirty-five works in all, among them the Lotus Sutra. He was greatly aided in his work by a large body of Chinese disciples and scholar-monks who carefully checked his translations against earlier versions, discussed the meaning with him, and helped him to polish the wording of his own versions. This is no doubt one reason why Kumarajiva’s translation of the Lotus Sutra is so superior to other Chinese translations and why it has been so widely and enthusiastically read.
The origin of the present translation goes back to a day in Tokyo in December 1973 when I had an opportunity to meet and talk with President Daisaku Ikeda, head of the Soka Gakkai International and a world leader in the Buddhist movement. When President Ikeda learned that most of my translation work was from texts in classical Chinese, he said, “In that case, you must do us a new translation of the Kumarajiva Lotus Sutra!” The project appealed to me immediately, and though it was some years before I could begin actual work, I am extremely grateful for the opportunity it has afforded me to deal with a text of such lasting importance.
The translation was prepared with the assistance of the Translation Department of the Soka Gakkai. It is based on the Chinese text and Japanese reading found in the Myōhō-renge-kyō narabi ni kaiketsu, compiled and edited by the Soka Gakkai and published in Tokyo in 2002. (My earlier translation of the sutra, published by Columbia University Press in 1993, was based upon a slightly different version of the Myōhō-renge-kyō narabi ni kaiketsu published by the Soka Gakkai in Tokyo in 1961. Minor changes in that translation have been made in order to bring it into line with the 2002 Myōhō-renge-kyō narabi ni kaiketsu.) The Chinese text of the Kumarajiva translation was fixed long ago and there are no significant textual variations. I would like here to express my deep gratitude to the many persons associated with the Soka Gakkai who lent their assistance to the undertaking. They not only checked over my translation with care and thoroughness, but offered invaluable advice at many points on questions of interpretation and presentation.
A word may be said here as to the sort of problems in interpretation that arose. Classical Chinese, the language of the Kumarajiva Lotus, is highly spare and compressed in style, and hence often ambiguous in meaning or construction and open to varying interpretations. Thus, for example, it is easy to tell where a passage of direct speech begins, but often difficult to determine exactly where it ends. Verbs frequently lack an expressed subject, and a quite legitimate case can be made for several different interpretations of a passage. One must often guess at the tense of a verb, or whether a noun is to be taken as singular or plural. Particularly in the verse sections, where the language has been unusually compressed or distorted in order to fit into lines of uniform length, the meaning can sometimes scarcely be made out at all without consulting the parallel passage in the prose section.
Because of such recurring problems and ambiguities, no two translators of the Chinese will ever come up with exactly identical renderings of the text. This does not mean in most cases that one translator is wrong and the other right, but simply that they have made different choices in their interpretation. In the present translation I have tried to render the text in the way that it has traditionally been understood in China and Japan. That is why I have carefully taken into consideration the Japanese reading in the edition cited above, which rearrange the Chinese characters of the text so that they conform to the patterns of Japanese syntax. These reading are based on the interpretation of the text followed by Nichiren (1222–1282), the founder of Nichiren Buddhism in Japan, who throughout his life constantly lectured on the Lotus Sutra to his disciples and lay followers and gave detailed expositions of its teachings. His interpretation is in turn based on the commentaries on the Lotus Sutra by the great scholar of Chinese Buddhism, Tiantai or Zhiyi (538–597), the founder of the Tiantai school.
It may be noted here that Zhiyi in his commentaries on the Lotus Sutra developed an extremely complex and sophisticated hermeneutical system by which he attempted to bring out the sutra’s deepest meaning and define its position and importance in the body of the Buddhist writings as a whole. This system was further elaborated and refined in subcommentaries on Zhiyi’s works written by his disciples or later scholars of the Tiantai school. To fully appreciate the way in which the Lotus Sutra has traditionally been interpreted in East Asian Buddhist circles, one would ideally have to master the ideas and terminology of this system of exegesis. But simply to describe the system adequately would require almost as much space as has been devoted to the translation itself, and would no doubt deter readers from responding to the translation in a direct and personal manner. In the translator’s introduction and glossary I have therefore made little reference to this system, but have tried to concentrate on doctrines and motifs that are explicit in the Lotus itself.
But to return to the translation, the single most troublesome problem faced in the translation was how best to handle the Chinese word fa, which is used to render the Sanskrit word dharma. Sometimes in the Chinese Lotus the word fa seems to refer to the Truth as taught in Buddhism or the doctrines as a whole, in which cases it has been translated “Dharma” or “the Law.” But sometimes it is preceded by the pluralizing word zhu; to translate it in such cases as “the Laws” would give, it was felt, too legalistic a tone, and it has therefore been rendered as “doctrines” or “teachings.” The word dharma in Sanskrit can also mean a “thing” or a phenomenon, one of the elements that make up existence, and there are places in the Lotus where this meaning is clearly intended. Indeed, one of the most famous phrases in the Chinese version of the sutra is zhufa-shixiang (in Japanese shohō jissō), which occurs in chapter two and which in the present translation has been rendered as “the true aspect of all phenomena.” In still other cases fa seems to mean merely a rule, a method, or an approach, and has accordingly been rendered by some such equivalent.
One hates to impose distinctions on the translation where they do not exist in the original. But to translate fa as “Dharma” in all these different cases would not only make for awkward English in places but would fail to convey the real meaning of the passage. I therefore decided to translate the word differently in different contexts. I may not always have made the best choice in deciding what English equivalent to use, but the reader may be assured that I gave careful thought to all such places.
Other Complete English Translations
of the Lotus Sutra
The Saddharmapundarika or The Lotus of the True Law. Tr. by Jan Hendrik Kern. Sacred Books of the East, vol. 21. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1884.
The first English translation, done from a Sanskrit version of the text that is dated 1039.
The Sutra of the Lotus Flower of the Wonderful Law. Tr. by Senchu Murano. Tokyo: Nichiren Shu Headquarters, 1974.
Translation of the Kumarajiva version of the Lotus Sutra. Brief introduction, very extensive glossaries, particularly useful to readers with a knowledge of the Japanese readings of Buddhist names and terms.
The Threefold Lotus Sutra: The Sutra of Innumerable Meanings; The Sutra of the Lotus Flower of the Wonderful Law; The Sutra of Meditation on the Bodhisattva Universal Virtue. Tr. by Bunno Kato, Yoshiro Tamura, and Kojiro Miyasaka. Tokyo: Kosei, 1975.
Translation of the Kumarajiva version of the Lotus, plus two other short sutras that, from the time of Zhiyi, have been regarded as an introduction and postscript to the Lotus. Brief introduction and extensive glossary.
Scripture of the Lotus Blossom of the Fine Dharma. Tr. by Leon Hurvitz. New York: Columbia University Press, 1976.
Translation of the Kumarajiva version of the Lotus. Contains a preface, glossary, and extensive section of passages translated from a Sanskrit version of the text to show where and how that Sanskrit version differs from the Chinese translation of Kumarajiva. An invaluable work of scholarship.
The Lotus Sutra: The White Lotus of the Marvelous Law. Tr. by Tsugunari Kubo and Akira Yuyama. Tokyo and Berkeley: Bukkyo Dendo Kyokai, 1991.
Translation of the Kumarajiva version of the Lotus. Brief translator’s introduction, Sanskrit glossary, and selected bibliography.
The Lotus Sutra. Tr. by Burton Watson. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.
(A slightly revised version of this work is found in the present volume, The Lotus Sutra and Its Opening and Closing Sutras.)