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Thread: Reading the Sutras

  1. #1

    Reading the Sutras

    How important is it, really, to read the sutras? I have a book called the Buddhist Bible and it is a compilation of sutras from several buddhis sources, and some of them say things like, "and Buddha said, if a person should even remember one line of this sutra, and speak it to others, the merit he will accumulate will be greater than all the grains of sand in all the river Gangees in all the worlds." and several of the masters make reference to the sutras. Dogen will often say, " the sutras say that....." so will other teachers. But, to be honest, some of the sutras read like stereo instructions to me. They are extremely complex and filled with the 10 this and the 34 that, and 495 sense organs, etc. And for our zen practice, obviously we place special emphasis on the Heart Sutra, but are there others that are "zen specific" that I should be reading?

  2. #2

    Re: Reading the Sutras

    Hi,

    There are several s?tras that come with commentaries, which (hopefully) makes the s?tras easier to understand. The Heart, Diamond, Vimalak?rti Nirde?a, Mah?parinirv??a and La?k?vat?ra s?tras e.g. come with such commentaries by different translators. Maybe that's a way to start, if you're finding them too complex? All those s?tras are usually studied in zen buddhism, as well as in the wider Mah?y?na context.

    As for the importance of reading (or not-reading) s?tras, I leave that question to others here.

    Myself, I read a lot of s?tras. Some s?tras are better than others. Some are redundant for my experience right now, and can be put aside. IMHO.

  3. #3

    Re: Reading the Sutras

    Hi CM and Philip,

    This is going to be a bit long ...

    Reading the Sutras is important at some point in the practice of a Buddhist, although there is something about them that we now understand which was not so well known even 100 years ago: Namely, none of them (and I mean none of them) were actually "written during the lifetime of the historical Buddha" (even the oldest that we have were not written down until several hundred years after his death, before which the tradition was passed from generation to generation orally). The teachings were passed down orally alone (which may or may not have been a sloppy process, with much corruption of the original), until somebody finally wrote them all down hundreds of years after he was dead ... and then all the Buddhists immediately set to disagreeing about which of them had the "authentic" teachings, and exactly what they meant!

    What is more, teachings evolved and developed in all schools (even the South Asian "Theravadan" traditions, which have the image of being "closer to the original" than the Northern Asian Mahayana traditions have themselves been evolving and developing for 2500 years, and don't even agree among themselves on important details).

    Nobody knows exactly what the original Buddha taught, not even the greatest Buddhist scholars, historians or monks. (I just finished a book by Bronkhurst (discussed here: http://www.westernbuddhistreview.com/vo ... ation.html), one of the great Buddhist historians ... they can only guess.

    What is more, the Mahayana traditions, of which China, Japan, Korea and much of Vietnam are part, including all the Zen schools (and don't even bring in Tibet and "Vajrayana Esoteric Buddhism"!), are a conscious break from the original flavor of Buddhism (with Sutras that are, each and every one, the works of later authors who pretended that what they were writing were "the revealed words of the Buddha". Of course, they don't say that they are a conscious break, but rather that they are teaching the "real" teachings of the Buddha, who did not really mean (or considered to be "lesser" teachings) everything else attributed to him. In fact, they are each the works of writers (sometimes a mix of many writers), each with a particular philosophical view, who put words in the Buddha's mouth. In addition, commentators on these Sutras come in 1001 flavors, depending on who the commentator is (for example, the Heart Sutra can be read several different ways ... and has been).

    In other words, anyone reading these Suttas/Sutras/Commentaries must be an educated reader about what they are reading, how it is translated, and what the philosophical bent of the true writer(s) was, and where that particular work fits in the complex universe of Buddhist writings. They can often (even within the same book) say things in complete disagreement, and from radically different philosophies of Buddhism.

    What is more, in Zen, we say that we are a "special transmission outside the scriptures, not bound by words and letters". This means that we sometimes burn our sutra books, and do completely without the "words" (we look down on people who just philosophize about Buddhism). Other times, we do not "read" the scriptures and philosophize about them, so much as try to "see through them" to their meaning as revealed by the insights of Zazen.Many Sutra are filled with arcane analysis, lists and obscure discussion that was rejected as unimportant by most of the Zen schools.

    In any event, if the Buddhist Teachings prove their worth in your own life and practice, that is all that truly matters.

    Please read Sutras from that perspective. I would agree with Philip's list, but add the Lotus Sutra as very important. I would also say that you should not expect those listed Sutras to be anything like a coherent whole, even within their own covers.

    Finally, about Goddard's "Buddhist Bible", which you are reading. I believe that most of those translations were done in the 1920's, can be pretty rough at times, and were by a translator who was making a conscious effort to use the style of the Old Testament Bible in his presentation. Handle with care, there are much more artful translations of most of the Sutras it contains that were done later.

    Gassho, Jundo

  4. #4
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    Re: Reading the Sutras

    Thanks for these comments they are helpful for my practice.

    Is there a similar list of Dogen and Keizan's writings which are also considered to be essential for A Zen practitioner to become aquainted with at some time in their practice. For example, is it essential to become familiar with Zazenshin

    http://hcbss.stanford.edu/research/proj ... ation.html

    by this I mean direct experience with the written text and commentaries rather than references in books?

    Gassho
    Shogyo

  5. #5

    Re: Reading the Sutras

    What is more, in Zen, we say that we are a "special transmission outside the scriptures, not bound by words and letters".
    Like with Mah?k??yapa and the flower?

  6. #6

    Re: Reading the Sutras

    Quote Originally Posted by JohnsonCM
    What is more, in Zen, we say that we are a "special transmission outside the scriptures, not bound by words and letters".
    Like with Mah?k??yapa and the flower?
    Yes. Although did that story "really happen"? Probably not.

    But does it matter, if truly experienced nonetheless?

  7. #7

    Re: Reading the Sutras

    I would say it doesn't matter if the experience were felt, whether the story is true or not. Personally, I searched and studied through most of the major religions out there. I have a copy of the Koran that I have read some of. I've read the bible cover to cover. I've learned about Hari Krishna's, Sikhs, Brahmans, Native Americans, the Songlines of the Aboriganies, etc looking for something that would strike a cord. I found that in Buddhism, and more so in Soto Zen, because of the acknowledgement that some truths can be transfered and understood without having dogma get in the way. So it sounds like what you're saying is, regardless of how "accurate" some of the sutras are, or whether or not an event happened as it has been recorded (long after the Buddha's worldly death) that as long as the spirit of the teaching is understood, I'm in good shape.

  8. #8

    Re: Reading the Sutras

    Quote Originally Posted by Jundo
    none of them (and I mean none of them) were actually "written during the lifetime of the historical Buddha" (even the oldest that we have were not written down until several hundred years after his death, before which the tradition was passed from generation to generation orally). The teachings were passed down orally alone (which may or may not have been a sloppy process, with much corruption of the original), until somebody finally wrote them all down hundreds of years after he was dead ...
    Well, they could have been written in the lifetime of the Buddha, and then kept by the inter-dimensional N?ga-beings for a few hundred years, and then released, so it looks as though they are new, but in reality they are not.

    Not the most plausible scenario, granted, but there's still the off chance that it is true. :wink:

  9. #9

    Re: Reading the Sutras

    Hi CM
    You certainly appear to be a man in hot pursuit of the "truth". It seems that you are looking for it through the written words of other men, who are well meaning but, imperfect just like you and me. I'm certain that in your search somewhere along the way you have tripped over this truth but perhaps didn't realize just what it was. While Sutra reading is great fun and very intellectually stimulating the truth appears in them as only a shadow. That which you are seeking has been with you through every step of your journey. That perfect peach that you are looking for will take some ripening and the process for the ripening is Zazen. Take good counsel from Jundo and Taigu and along with it "just sit". Dogen said," the true Pearl of Buddhism is Zazen", or something like that. Gassho Shogen

  10. #10

    Re: Reading the Sutras

    A past master says, "You delude yourself with the sutras, The sutras do not delude you.

    I'm not a big sutra reading fan, but have read books based on sutras. Seeing how people expressed Buddhist views in the past can be very helpful. Is just breathing a sutra?

  11. #11

    Re: Reading the Sutras

    Quote Originally Posted by zak
    Hi CM
    You certainly appear to be a man in hot pursuit of the "truth". It seems that you are looking for it through the written words of other men, who are well meaning but, imperfect just like you and me. I'm certain that in your search somewhere along the way you have tripped over this truth but perhaps didn't realize just what it was. While Sutra reading is great fun and very intellectually stimulating the truth appears in them as only a shadow. That which you are seeking has been with you through every step of your journey. That perfect peach that you are looking for will take some ripening and the process for the ripening is Zazen. Take good counsel from Jundo and Taigu and along with it "just sit". Dogen said," the true Pearl of Buddhism is Zazen", or something like that. Gassho Shogen
    I would say that most of that is a fair assessment. Though I feel that I have found "the Truth" as much as anyone could find such a thing, in Soto Zen. Let me ammend that, it's not so much the truth, per se, because all paths are The Path and all Dharmas are The Dharma, but that the truth that I have known all along is something that, because of my attachments and conceptions, "I" seem to have forgotten. I'm looking for something that will unlock the box, so to speak. I know that there is nothing out there that I will hear, and BOOM suddenly I've got it, but something that gives the part of "me" (for who am I really?) the nudge that sets the boulder on its course down the mountain side. I think that you are 100% right and that I need to "just sit", but when you look for something for so long, sometimes it's hard to believe you've found it right off the bat. I'm sure it will just take me a few months of sitting to calm my mind enough to realize that, the search for the key is over, and now I just need to practice turning it in the lock.

    This was not an attempt at really bad poetry, but it seems to have meandered down that path.......sorry ops:

  12. #12

    Re: Reading the Sutras

    CM One morning, sitting beneath the Bodhi Tree, Buddha saw the morning star and BOOM look what happened. Master Gudo Nishijima once said, " to begin one must have great determination to find the truth, and second great doubt". You seem to have the ingredients now enjoy each step of your journey. Gassho Shogen

  13. #13

    Re: Reading the Sutras

    I like reading sutras and spiritually inclined writing for their feeling and for whatever wisdom filters through. I don't read them for knowledge any more. Maybe I will be able to again someday.

  14. #14

    Re: Reading the Sutras

    Quote Originally Posted by Rich
    A past master says, "You delude yourself with the sutras, The sutras do not delude you.

    I'm not a big sutra reading fan, but have read books based on sutras. Seeing how people expressed Buddhist views in the past can be very helpful. Is just breathing a sutra?

    I'm really sorry to have missed this one Rich it rings with great depth. " Is breathing a Sutra" I feel it is the most important and frequently overlooked Sutra of them all. Authored by Who?
    Gassho Zak

  15. #15

    Re: Reading the Sutras

    I read a lot of spiritually inclined reading for the peace it brings, and inspiration to stay on the path.

    I think sometimes studying the sutras intently can become like that old saying about the finger pointing at the moon, don't mistake the finger for the moon. The teachings point the way, sometimes when caught up in intense study of them, people mistake them as the way.


    I am kind of tired, so I hope I am making sense..

    metta,
    ezz

  16. #16

    Re: Reading the Sutras

    Quote Originally Posted by ezzirah
    I read a lot of spiritually inclined reading for the peace it brings, and inspiration to stay on the path.

    I think sometimes studying the sutras intently can become like that old saying about the finger pointing at the moon, don't mistake the finger for the moon. The teachings point the way, sometimes when caught up in intense study of them, people mistake them as the way.


    I am kind of tired, so I hope I am making sense..

    metta,
    ezz

  17. #17

    Re: Reading the Sutras

    The Sutra of Breathing

    sssh
    wuuu

    sssh
    wuuuu

    ......
    ......



    /Rich

  18. #18

    Re: Reading the Sutras

    I've found the experience of reading certain sutras or sutra passages is almost a form of meditation itself. They can't always be read in a conventional, linear way.

    For example, going to something like the Avatamsaka Sutra with the hope of getting the "scoop" on Mahayana Buddhism will just leave one confused. How do you engage a text like that...so circular, dense, intertwining?

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