Donald Lopez and the de-mystification of Buddhist texts

A critical review by C. Derick Varn

The Lotus Sutra: A Biography (Lives of Great Religious Books) by Donald Lopez (2016, Princeton University Press)
The Tibetan Book of the Dead: A Biography (Lives of Great Religious Books) by Donald Lopez (2011, Princeton University Press)

I have been a fan of the scholarship of Donald S. Lopez Jr. for a long time: His Prisoner’s of Shangri-la and Tibetan Religion in Context shattered a lot of myths I had held on the topic and that permeated popular culture both within and outside convert Buddhist circles. Although he has two books on myths about Buddhism, The Story of Buddhism, and the Buddha, The Story of the Buddha, that go into little known elements of Theravada history, Lopez tends to focus on myths of Mahayana buddhism and the critical studies around it, particularly on Vajrayana variants and the actual uses of sutra texts.  This brings us to his two recent contributions to Princeton University Press’s Lives of Great Religious Books series.

In The Tibetan Book of the Dead: A Biography, Donald S. Lopez Jr. immediately hits the The Tibetan Book of the Dead out of the gate as not properly speaking a book, not really Tibetan, and not really about death.   Now, it must be clear, that the several different collections of terma texts that up the various editions of the Nyingma text, the Bardo Todol, are Tibetan, but it isn’t one text and there isn’t even a set collection.  Instead, The Tibetan Book of the Dead is largely a creation of theosophist and semi-professional orientalist, Walter Evans-Wentz. 

Lopez starts us with a history of American crypto-archeology around religious texts starting with Joseph Smith in New York’s “burnt over” district and the revelation of reformed Egyptian and lost golden plates.  This history comprises the first chapter, and the next chapters gives us context for Buddhism, and then compares implicitly compares the history of Mahayana textual “findings” and the specific Vajrayana traditions that involve finding “hidden” texts for later revelation and, again, the even more specific Nyingma traditions around terma, which were hidden scriptures that are found through reincarnations and access to Dakinis. 

In a way, this contrast is both a condemnation and apologia for Evans-Wentz’s theosophical creation of “The Tibetan Book of the Dead” based off some obscure manuscripts in Tibetan found in the British protectorate of Sikkim at the end of the Victorian period that played against the Victorian schemas placing Theravada as a purer form of Buddhism and making the original Buddha a rationalist.  This myth, one that still uses up today in popular Buddhist writings, is in some ways just as misleading as Evans-Wentz/Blavatsky theosophical story about Hindu hidden masters in Tibet. 

Lopez then goes through the origins of the various introductions–Western converts without proper ordination claiming to be Lamas, Jung’s psychologizing and mythologizing of the text, the 70s re-translations and introduction of depth psychology even by Tibetan exiles to make an otherwise hyper-obscure text more appealing.  The turning of the text into a self-help manual, and lastly, the more complete recent translation with a proper contextualization by the current Dalai Lama.

Now this is NOT a history of the Bardo Todol in Tibetan or its various manuscripts. That is handled by Bryan J. Cuevas’ The Hidden History of the Tibetan Book of the Dead. However, it is important to note that Cuevas and Lopez cite each other and are clearly in dialogue. Like so many of Lopez’s books, this is an excellent demystification if it can be dry in the minutiae it must go into to make its point.

Lopez’s second contribution is dedicated to the Lotus Sutra, unlike he did a treatment on the “Tibetan Book of the Dead” and its text, the Lotus Sutra is important to Tibetan and Chinese Buddhism as well as the Japanese schools of Buddhism such as Tendei, Shin, Shingon, and, most dramatically, Nichiren Buddhism.   The Lotus Sutra, among the other English named Mahayana sutras such as The Heart Sutra, which isn’t a sutra, and The Diamond Sutra, a key text for Chan/Seon/Zen Buddhism, is long and full of allegory and parable.

Lopez starts with the texts seem origins in the Sanskrit literature of the Indo-Greek world of Bactria. There is some speculations on the exact nature of the shift here. The secret doctrine elements of the text set it apart from the other two famous Mahayana sutras readily found in English. Lopez then talks us through the reception in China, the development of Chinese esoteric Buddhism, where The Lotus Sutra is put in a schema as revelation of doctrine it did not have in its Indo-Bactrian form. Then Lopez shifts focus to Japan, Japanese devotional and esoteric Buddhism(s), particularly in development of Tendai Buddhism and Nichiren Buddhism in particular, where it even plays a rule in quasi-religious wars before the Edo period.  Then Lopez moves the reception of the Lotus Sutra in French and American scholarship and its role in early Orientalist scholarship. Lastly he Development of the modern Nichiren sects, their consolidation in the Meiji restoration at the same time as French-English scholarship on the Lotus sutra begins, Nichiren nationalist role in the war, and then the post-war development of Nichiren outside of Japan with Soka Gakkai being a highly evangelical form of Buddhism outside of Japan.

Lopez’s treatment here is fascinating and brings up many of the problems of the history of Buddhism and the Mahayana developments outside of India and outside of their original Sanskrit context. In many ways, the contrast between the two texts Lopez focuses on are telling: the Lotus Sutra an early, but found, Mahayana text from the classical period of Buddhist development when both the Pali and sanskrit (so-called ”Hinayana” nikyana schools such as defunct Sarvāstivāda and Sthaviras/Theravadans) cannons.  However, these texts resembled gnostic texts in Christianity, a comparison Lopez notes, in that they are esoteric revelations that do doctrinally abnegate large portions of prior Buddhist doctrine.  The Bardo Todol is a similarly esoteric text, but with a very late lineage and not theologically/doctrinally nearly as important. Indeed, while many of the Bodhisattvas and Buddhas from the Lotus Sutra are actually key in the Bardo Todol, the Dharma protectors and largely quasi-demonic figures of the Bardo Todol are more relevant to the transitions to the rebirth and are largely rooted in local traditions in Vajrayana Buddhism.

Furthermore, Lopez’s almost philological precision on their reception and commentary indicates that uses of both texts in the West are somewhat anachronistic and decontextualized from their original and their contemporary Asian use.  The role of British and French colonialism and American obsession with Asian texts just after the US civil war to just before World War 1 play a huge role in the English-language reception and development of both texts. Both treatments are easily readable despite the obscurity of a lot of the topics involved, and offers a good history of Mahayana developments in America in particular through the lens of the textual reception.  Highly recommended.


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