Many Sanskrit versions of the Lotus Sutra exist today, and each of them is written in a style that incorporates vernacular elements of the different regions from which they originate. Buddhist scriptures, of course, did not begin as written texts; they were transmitted orally. As they were transmitted from person to person, over many years and through many countries, expressions unique to each region, time and people were incorporated into the scripture, and in the process many transcriptions, each with a distinct personality, were produced.
Though we may be straying a bit from the subject, I think that the view of the Lotus Sutra existing in many differing versions sheds light on the question as to whether the twenty-eight-chapter Lotus Sutra actually contains the direct teaching of Shakyamuni himself, or whether is in fact the creation of later editors and compilers. In other words, could we regard the core thought of the Lotus Sutra as Shakyamuni's direct teaching but still say that the form in which that thought is presented reflects the conditions of the times in which the sutra was compiled?
I think we can say that Shakyamuni's thought, which forms the core of the sutra, assumed a certain shape in response to the conditions of the time and the prevailing state of philosophical thought in society when the sutra was compiled.
The age seeks Shakyamuni's thought, and Shakyamuni's thought appears in response to that need. What we see at work here is the mutual response, or communion, between the people and the Buddha. This is how a universal philosophy comes into being. We could also describe it as the dynamism of a true philosophy. Though the philosophy may appear in a new form, it does so because that form articulates the truth of that philosophy better in that particular circumstance of time. In that sense, I believe we can answer the question you posed earlier, about whether the Lotus Sutra is the direct teaching of Shakyamuni or a creation of its compilers, by saying that it is the direct teaching of the Buddha.
Of course, the form in which the teaching finds expression reflects the historical circumstances of the period in which it was compiled, and historical research into that period can reveal many things about the sutra. We should welcome the results of sound academic research. But I am also convinced that such research can do nothing to undermine the philosophical value of the Lotus Sutra, and that in fact any revelations will only serve to make it shine all the more brilliantly.
Many scholars today support the theory that the Lotus Sutra was compiled around the first century A.D., several hundred years after Shakyamuni's death.
At that time, the different schools of Hinayana Buddhism had come to think of themselves as the orthodox lineage of Buddhism and had become closed, authoritarian and divorced from the people. Against that background, a movement to express faith in the Buddha by worshiping or erecting stupas dedicated to him arose among the laity. Their faith led them to try to establish direct communication with the Buddha rather than accepting the authoritarian monks as intermediaries. This became the Mahayana Buddhist movement, and scriptures such as the Hannva sutras, the Kegon Sutra and the Lotus Sutra were compiled at this time.
The Hinayana schools criticized the new Mahayana movement, saying that the Mahayana scriptures were arbitrary creations and not the teaching of the Buddha. The criticism that Mahayana Buddhism is not the Buddha's teaching existed from the Mahayana movement's very inception. The new Mahayana movement must have appeared a sham, a fraudulent new religion to the traditionalists of Hinayana Buddhism.
But even though centuries had passed since Shakyamuni's passing, it does not follow that the new Mahayana scriptures were arbitrary fictions that had no link with him. They may have been recorded many years later, but it is quite possible that they were the Buddha's teachings that had been handed down as part of the oral transmission. This is true not only of the Lotus Sutra but of the other Mahayana sutras set down in writing at about this time.
In ancient India, it seems to have been customary not to write down important teachings, but to memorize and transmit them orally. The great Buddhist scholar Nagarjuna 10 writes in his Daichido Ron (Treatise on the Sutra of Perfection of Wisdom): "The Buddha's disciples recited the Buddha's teachings and recorded them as scriptures." These "scriptures" are the Mahayana sutras.
Be that as it may, we can only praise the genius of the compilers of the Lotus Sutra. For they were able to extract the essence of Shakyamuni's thought from the teachings which had been handed down both orally and in writing and restore that essence magnificently to life. I can't help but think that among the compilers there was a brilliant individual who pursued and grasped Shakyamuni's enlightenment and demonstrated superlative leader-ship in the task of setting the sutra down in words.
As research on Buddhist texts proceeds, scholars have discovered the seedlings of later Mahayana teachings in the earliest Hinayana texts and have come to emphasize that indeed the Mahayana resulted from developing the Buddha's ideas in a correct and orthodox fashion. Clearly, then, the assertion that "only the Hinayana scriptures are the Buddha's teachings and the Mahayana scriptures are not" is no longer tenable. Both Hinayana and Mahayana scriptures derive from a single source: Shakyamuni Buddha.