[/i]Disagree with Watson's whole approach and his suggestion. I would suggest he doesn't get it.
I dunno. I got the same feeling after reading the text of the Lotus Sutra for the first time some years ago; that it was leading up to something but not revealing it. For me, after a lot of study and pondering, it's still not satisfactorily resolved.
Maybe its because you had an expectation of what it was supposed to convey rather than being open to what it actually does say? I think some people pick up Buddhist texts and expect some direct, practical instruction. You do get a direct explanation in the Lotus Sutra, but that's not the teaching so much as the implication of what it says.
Look at chapter 16. Here is the profound teaching of the Lotus Sutra:
“Listen carefully to the Tathāgata’s secret and transcendent powers. The devas, humans, and asuras in all the worlds all think that the present Buddha, Śākyamuni, left the palace of the Śākyas, sat on the terrace of enlightenment not far from the city of Gayā, and attained highest, complete enlightenment. However, O sons of a virtuous family, immeasurable, limitless, hundreds of thousands of myriads of koṭis of nayutas of kalpas have passed since I actually attained buddhahood.
“Suppose there were a man who ground five hundreds of thousands myriads of koṭis of nayutas of incalculable great manifold cosmos into particles. While passing through five hundred thousands of myriads of koṭis of nayutas of incalculable lands to the east, he dropped just a single particle; and in this way he continued to drop the particles as he went toward the east, until they were all gone.
“O sons of a virtuous family! What do you think about this? Can all of these worlds be calculated or not? Can one imagine all of these worlds, calculate, and know their number or not?”
Bodhisattva Maitreya and the others together addressed the Buddha, saying: “O Bhagavat! These worlds are immeasurable, limitless, incalculable, and beyond our powers of conception. Even all the śrāvakas and pratyekabuddhas, with their knowledge free from corruption, are not able to comprehend them, or know their number. Although we abide in the stage of nonretrogression we cannot understand it. O Bhagavat! Such worlds as these are incalculable and limitless.”
Then the Buddha addressed the assembly of the great bodhisattvas, saying: “O sons of a virtuous family! I will now explain it clearly to you. Suppose all these worlds, whether or not a particle was left in them, were reduced to particles, and each particle represented a kalpa. The period of time since I became a buddha would exceed this by hundreds of thousands of myriads of koṭis of nayutas of incalculable kalpas. Since then I have constantly been residing in the sahā world, teaching the Dharma and inspiring sentient beings. I have also been leading and benefiting sentient beings in incalculable hundreds of thousands of myriads of koṭis of nayutas of other worlds.
The Earth shaking idea here is going to be lost on you if you are not familiar with the rest of the Buddhist canon. Shakyamuni is not what we have assumed him to be all along. The next chapter goes on:
“O Ajita! Those sentient beings who hear about the great length of the Buddha’s lifespan, and can awaken even a single thought of willing acceptance, will all obtain immeasurable merit. If there are sons and daughters of a good family who, for the sake of highest, complete enlightenment, practice the five perfections of giving (dāna), good conduct (śīla), perseverance (kṣānti), effort (vīrya), and meditation (dhyāna), with the exception of the perfection of wisdom (prajñā), for eighty myriads of koṭis of nayutas of kalpas, their merit is not even a hundredth, a thousandth, a hundred thousandth of a myriad of a koṭi of the former person’s merit. It is so small that it cannot be conceived of through calculation or illustration. If there are sons and daughters of a virtuous family who possess such merit as the former, they will never revert from highest, complete enlightenment...”
“Furthermore, O Ajita, those who hear of the great length of the Buddha’s lifespan and understand the intent of these words will obtain limitless merit that will give rise to the highest wisdom of the Tathāgata. How much more merit will they gain who extensively hear this sutra, move others to listen to it, preserve it, move others to preserve it, copy it, or move others to copy it; and pay homage to the sutra by offering flowers, incense, necklaces, flags, banners, canopies, lamps of scented oil, and ghee! The merit of these people will be immeasurable and limitless. They will be able to achieve omniscience.
And so on. BTW, Zhiyi derives his "Four Depths of Faith and Five Stages of Practice" from this chapter.
The implications of the Buddha's lifespan are profound. Zhiyi's Three Thousand in a Single Thought is an explanation of this profound teaching.
Some suggest that more broadly, the Lotus Sutra itself is, the way it is set up, the teaching when it is read - in that interaction. Gene Reeves, I think, suggests this in an essay in the collection, Buddhist Kaleidoscope. My take is that reading is the teaching sort of in the same way Jackson Pollack's actions in creating his paintings were part of the painting as well as our participation when we look at it. The Sutra is, as it is, the Buddha's awakening directly - not necessarily in any particular narrative sense. When we read it, we're like that kid in Never Ending Story who gets to a point in the book where he reads about himself reading the book, and we enter into the Buddha's own mind.
That's the far out, doobie smoking side of the Lotus Sutra exegesis. But, I'm not just being a stoner in relating this. This is actually what these Lotus philosophers seem to be talking about. If they were alive today, they could probably make livings as art critics and post-post modern philosophers. For those interested in this angle, check out Brook Ziporyn's Being and Ambiguity. Nichiren seems to have taken these sorts of implications seriously and fashioned them into a new approach to practice. A long discussion.
I'm not saying this is the only correct way to read the Lotus. This is how it seems to be read and interpreted in the East Asian Lotus tradition.
Maybe Watson is right and the Lotus Sutra is just an empty vortex. If that's the case, run before you cross the event horizon!