25 August 2010

Ideas on How to Work With Sutras

Let's start at the beginning.

The Buddhist teachings are recorded in documents called sutras. Depending on the tradition and the school, you will find a variety of attitudes and approaches to the sutras: some devotional, some analytical, and in a small number of cases, downright dismissive. In Tendai, we have a longstanding history of careful study of the sutras and debate over their real meaning and purpose, especially the Lotus Sutra; one might say this is an analytical or hermeneutic approach, trying to get at the real intention of the Buddha.

There are also devotional practices centered around the sutras. These are meditations: you read the text mindfully and contemplate it (not the same as analyzing it); you recite the text with the understanding that you are proclaiming the Dharma to all beings, giving voice to the Buddha-nature that is closer to you than your breath right now; and respecting the physical copy of the text by keeping it clean, generally protecting it as you would protect your eyes, and taking up the practice of copying the text longhand.

If you are interested in using the sutras directly in your meditation in this way, you can start like this:

Begin by reading it, but not as you would read a novel or the sports page. First gather your attention and your intention to practice, just as you would begin a session of seated meditation. Attend to your posture: you should be seated upright, not slouching or lying down, with clean hands. Breathe carefully and read mindfully with an open heart. It doesn't matter if you believe it or not; don't worry about the meaning; read for the impact the text has on your emotions and your mental state. Continue for a period of time, just as you would for any other kind of meditation, and then stop, breathe for several moments, and dedicate the merits. Do this at a regular time until you finish the sutra. Of the three gates, this practice of mindful reading corresponds to your mind; the next two deal with your speech and body respectively.

Next, start over from the beginning but read the text out loud. Keep your posture and your attitude the same as before, when you were silently reading, but now recite the text as though you were trying to get the essential meaning through a bad telephone connection: not soft, not loud, but steady and clear and purposive. Use your natural voice; this is not a time to be dramatic or to perform, so instead just read from the heart. When you complete a section of the text, breathe silently and mindfully for a spell, and dedicate your merits. Keep going like this in regular sessions until you complete the text.

At this point you will need to prepare a space for yourself to copy the sutra by hand. You will need a clean and well-lighted table or desk. If possible, set up a table in your meditation space and only use it for this purpose of copying sutra. If that is not possible, simply clear away everything that is not necessary to the task of copying and wipe the table clean before each practice session. You may also wish to set aside a particular tablecloth or other covering for the table so that it feels to you like you have a particular place just for this practice. You will also need a quality pen to write with, one that feels good in your hand and writes well on the page. For paper, use a bound notebook that you only use for copying sutra. I like to use Moleskine notebooks for this purpose; some may prefer fancier or thicker paper depending on your aesthetic and your penmanship. The idea is to use a book that is pleasing to the eyes, durable, and feels appropriate to the job.

When you sit down to copy, again gather yourself into a state of mindful concentration, as you would for seated meditation. Arrange your sutra text, your pen, and your notebook in such a way that you can write comfortably in an upright and relaxed posture. And copy slowly, one word at a time. Slowly. Gently. Word by word. Write as clearly as you can, but do not try to write in a way that is unnatural to you; do it in your own "voice." This practice takes time. I copy only two pages per practice session. The goal is not to conquer the text, but to take it into your body, to make the sutra inhabit you physically. Again, when you finish a session, close the books and cap the pen, tidy the space, and finish with a few moments of silent meditation. Dedicate your merits and come back to it tomorrow.

Your voice is very personal. Your handwriting is also very personal. No one can copy your voice or your writing style exactly. These things are yours. By reciting and copying this text, you are resonating the sutra and your own personality, planting the seeds of the sutra deep in the storehouse of your mind. You may notice this when you practice seated meditation, when you are washing the dishes alone, when your roommate's cat startles you at midnight.

To get started, I recommend getting a feel for the practice by starting with a short sutra, specifically the Heart Sutra (full text here). If you would like to develop this practice further, you may wish to continue with medium-length sutras such as the Diamond Sutra and the Sutra of the Past Vows of Ksitigharbha Bodhisattva before attempting the challenge of copying the Lotus Sutra or the Sutra of Golden Light.

One last guideline on analytic sutra study (as distinct from sutra recitation and copying): strive for a balanced diet of study, practice, and mindful life in the world. A good ratio is one part Dharma study, two parts meditation practice. If you spend an hour in the library, spend two hours on your meditation cushion or practicing nembutsu or whatever your practice may be.

Now would be a good time to turn off the computer and get to work, friends.

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