Buddhism in the West began in 1844, when Unitarian Elizabeth Palmer Peabody translated a section of the Lotus Sutra into English. Now the tidal wave that began modestly with that first ripple has finally reached the shore. Wisdom Publications has just released Rev. Dr. Gene Reeves’ complete translation of the Lotus Sutra, a strong contender for “most important Buddhist text.”
Rev. Reeves was for many years the head of Meadville-Lombard, one of the Unitarian-Universalist seminaries. He has long been a main figure in the UU/Buddhist dialogue, largely because of his initial fascination with the Lotus Sutra and the subsequent relationship that he helped build between UUism and Rissho Koseikai, a liberal Japanese Buddhist group that focuses on study and devotion to the Lotus Sutra. Rissho Koseikai ministers have been trained at Meadville-Lombard and a number of joint conferences were held in Chicago and Japan by the two religions; Rissho Koseikai also regularly sends speaking and participants to the annual General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association. For many years, Rev. Reeves has lived in Tokyo and worked with Rissho Koseikai in various capacities.
A new translation of a major sutra like the Lotus is a very significant event for Buddhism in the West. Rev. Reeves’s work is perhaps especially important because of his liberal religious connections. He brings a perspective of both scholarship and sympathy to the text, which is extremely multifaceted and requires flexibility to fully represent its fascinating and at times somewhat frustrating elements. In North America, the Lotus Sutra has become associated with an unfortunate exclusivity, because it was initially promoted to Westerners by dogmatic sectarians (whose interpretation was considered fringe in Japan). Having a new and in some ways better translation by a scholar associated with more liberal hermaneutical approaches to the text will help to re-introduce this text (which, among other things, is a core part of Zen and many other Buddhisms in Asia).
This translation is also particulalry important because it includes the Sutra of Innumberable Meanings and the Sutra of Samantabhadra Bodhisattva, which are traditionally considered to be the preface and appendix of the main text and hold an important place in the liturgy and study of the Lotus Sutra. And Rev. Reeves has made a strong effort to make the text truly accessible to anyone, including non-Buddhists and non-specialists.
It took 164 years for Unitarians to finally complete their initial translation of the Lotus Sutra. A lot has changed in both Unitarianism and Buddhism since then. But in a way, both translations fit their times. Peabody was part of a Unitarian-derived Transcendentalist movement that was just beginning to initiate the West into the spiritual resources of non-Christian traditions. They were only able to absorb a small amount of Buddhist thinking (and even that was often misunderstood). There were no Buddhists in North America at the time. Today, there are millions of American and Canadian Buddhists, and the Western Buddhist community has largely reached a level of sophistication with key Buddhist concepts and practices. Thus it is ripe for new, full translations of the major texts.