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Tips on Reading Sutras

Guru Dev, who taught Maharishi TM.

People differ. Greetings differ too. (1) Read as long as you benefit. Improve the reading if you benefit. (2) Stop reading if you benefit - and stop reading, in better ways, if you benefit. Consider:

It could also work well to go on from passive to active modes of dealing with words and ideas and clarify one's head. Study strategies are useful for students, for example all-round study schemes as those the psychologist Tony Buzan has come up with. (Cf. Buzan's Study Skills, 2011; Use Your Head, 2010)

"Hard-core" study of sutras is often by the traditional way of lojong. It is meditating deeply and focus on select thoughts, one thought at the time. The method is applied in traditional yoga too. In Patanjali's Yoga Sutras (verses 3.1 through 3.6) it is like doing samyama. And proper samyama engenders deep wisdom, says Patanjali. Tibetan traditions that teach the Great Perfection, Dzogchen, also use samyama: "Adi Yoga speaks of 'mula prajna' of (a) "listening/studying, (b) investigation/contemplation, (c) realization/meditation" - alll of which amounts to a near-samyama process. (WP, "Samyama"; see also Dzogchen")

Sutras in Sanatan Dharma, Hinduism

A definition of a sutra from the Vayu Purana:

Of minimal syllabary, unambiguous, pithy, comprehensive,
continuous, and without flaw.

This could easily be taken to mean sutras are "terse and clear". Many of them are not clear, but rather obscure, however, since "terse makes enigmatic sometimes." The very fact that verses are terse and Sanskrit words typically carry many meanings, may give rise to different interpretations of the verses.

Sutras may be small aphorisms, longer verses, and even extensive discourses. In Sanatan Dharma and Buddhism alike there are many quite long discourses called sutras (Pali: suttas).

Sutra is a Sanskrit word. It stems from sutram, thread. 'Sutra' has taken on the meanings 'string of aphorisms', and 'discourse'. Aphorisms (or lines, rules, formulas) of this kind typically relate to some aspect of the conduct of life. Aphorism texts exist both in Sanatan Dharma and Buddhism. Sutras or sutra collections were often made to be memorised, and even learnt by heart in the old days.

There are Sanskrit sayings or collections of sayings on Vedic doctrine from 500–100 BCE - also called the sutra period - and onwards. Such sayings were in time incorporated into Sanatan Dharma's scriptures. The old primer called Patanjali's Yoga Sutras may serve as an example of translated, terse sutra literature.

Sutras from old times often come with bhashyas, commentaries or expositions. Different old commentaries put different spins on the aphorisms (sutras) in question. (WP, "bhashya")

Sutras in Buddhism

In Buddhism a sutra (Pali: sutta is a scriptural story, especially a text that is traditionally regarded as a discourse of Gautama Buddha. In other words: any of the sermons of Buddha. Teachings attributed to Gautama Buddha were gathered in the Sutra Pitaka canon of Theraveda. Buddhist sutras also stand for dialogues and discourses of classic Mahayana Buddhism from 200-600 CE.

The early Buddhist sutras are not as aphoristic-cryptic as the Vedanta-sutras. Some Buddhist sutras (discourses) are quite long, which in part is due to their manifold repetitions through schemas that could aid the recall by often repeting essentials involved, and perhaps with slight variations.

Treatment of ancient texts

Translations differ, because translators interpret ancient terms and phrases in different ways, and in part due to biases or preferences. Such facets of translation activities are to be reckoned with.

Understanding of an ancient text also depends on the manuscript or manuscripts used.

A translator tends to do us a favour if he or she makes clear what is added comment or purport, and spends time on making apt notes for relevant matter, and so on.


Dogen and Reading in Some Detail

Sound meditation depends little or nothing on much reading.

To read and question might be of your own dear choices. Reading may assist you up to a point, and a good meditation technique can aid and transform a life both along with book study and further on. Dogen quotations below are from A Primer of Soto Zen (Masunaga 1975).

The Zen teacher (roshi) Dogen (1200-1253) of the Soto Sect of Zen Buddhism is also known as Dogen; Eihei Dogen and Kigen Dogen and more. In his writings he often discourages reading much. He teaches in different places: "Read much, read some, read little, read not." In some places he says that reading about the Way (Dao) offers help, and in other places he talks against reading altogether, and there is a middle ground too. He obviously touches on "Different strokes for different folks."

Why did Dogen write a lot? If you do not want others to read works, why write so many? Dogen explains it thus: "Long-winded dissertations are worthless. After reading Chen-ching's words, I realized that I myself was at fault here." (Dogen, in Masunaga 1975, 83)

Dogen's general advice is to go for sitting meditation, zazen, as the central practice. "Studying Zen ... is zazen", he writes. To sit in meditation is the thing for what it will bring, in other words.

It does not have to be an either-or, but a both-and; both meditation and study hand in hand, and adapted to one's needs, development, and circumstances, maybe.

Dogen relates to medieaval Japanese conditions: "A man who is born into a certain household and wants to enter the family occupation must first train himself in the family speciality (p. 7)." In endeavours where reading is not a must, much focus had better be on the Main Thing. In Dogen's life and conditions as a Zen teacher, roshi, the Main Thing was to progress adequately on the Way of Inner Accomplishments. More bluntly: If you want to progress in meditation, meditate - soundly and well, as Buddha is into in the Bhumija Sutta and in other sutras too. (WP, "Dogen")

Dogen Quotations on Reading and Meditating

1. "Study!" says Dogen

One day Dogen instructed:

When students are first moved to enter Buddhism, they should read the scriptures and teachings and study them thoroughly, whether they have the mind that seeks the Way or not. (Dogen, in Masunaga 1975, 66)

B. "Learn one phrase and meditate," says Dogen too

Many people today think that the making of statues and building of pagodas cause Buddhism to prosper. This . . . is not so. . . . Buddhism does not prosper if monks engage in such activites. If you learn one phrase of the Buddha's teaching or practice zazen (Zen sitting) even for a moment in a thatched hut or even under a tree, Buddhism will truly flourish. (Dogen, in Masunaga 1975, 32).

2. "Give up study and wide reading," says Dogen

[To Buddhist practitioners] Dogen instructed:

Nothing can be gained by extensive study and wide reading. Give them up immediately. Just focus your mind on one thing, absorb the old examples, study the actions of former Zen Masters, and penetrate deeply into a single form of practice. (Dogen, in Masunaga 1975, 8)

In the Bhumija Sutta, Buddha tells that results depend on a fit form of meditation and using it well; not just any practice. There are research findings that indicate which meditation methods tend to work best. [Some findings] - T. K.

3. Meditation is the Way, Dogen emphasises.

Although the old Masters urged both the reading of the scriptures and the practice of zazen, they clearly emphasized zazen. Some gained enlightenment through the koan, but the merit that brought enlightenment came from the zazen. Truly the merit is in the zazen. (Dogen, in Masunaga 1975, 97)

B. "Old sayings and cautionary words are needed" - Dogen

In the monasteries of China, only one or two out of several hunded, or even a thousand, disciples under a great Zen Master actually gained true enlightenment. Therefore, old sayings and cautionary words are needed. (Dogen, in Masunaga 1975, 38)

C. The helpful words and other helpful things, get them repeated a lot

The student, even though he may not possess the mind that seeks the Way, should associate with a good person, become involved in good circumstances, and hear and see the same thing any number of times. Don't think that, because you have heard or seen something once, there is no need to hear or see it again. For those who have al ready aroused the mind that seeks the Way, each hearing serves to polish the mind and make for progress, even though the subject may be the same. Those who do not have this mind may not gain very much on the first or second hearing, but if they keep listening steadily, it will slowly soak in . . . through the fog and dew. . . . Therefore, no matter how familiar they are to you, you must look at the sacred scriptures many times. Although you may have heard the words of your teacher many times, you must listen to them again and again. Gradually your mind will be stirred to greater depths. . . . Draw near to a good friend and practice the Way. (Dogen, in Masunaga 1975, 90)

4. Be warned of Dogen's inconsistencies, says the Dogen translator

Reiho Masunaga explains:

"The Shobogenzo Zuimonki does not give the full scope of Dogen's thought For that, one must look to his monumental Shobogenzo. . . . Often there are inconsistencies. At times the followers are exhorted to follow the conduct of their predecessors in Zen; a times they are cautioned to ignore them. . . . Although this problem is not met with to any great degree in the Shobogenzo Zuimonki it is often a trap for the unware reader that is to be found in most Zen writings . . . [And] the standpoint from which the Master speaks is frequently dificult to ascertain." (Masunaga 1975, 2-3)

B. Stop useless preacing, is one message

One day Dogen instructed:

When I was at a Zen monastery in China reading the sayings of the old Zen Masters, a monk from Szechuan asked me: "What's the use of reading these Zen sayings?"

I replied: "To understand the actions of the old Masters."

The monk said: "What's the use of this?"

I replied: "I want to be able to guide people when I return to Japan."

The monk asked: "What's the use of that?"

"To benefit all beings," I said.

The monk then asked: "But what's the use in the long run?"

I thought about this later. Reading Zen sayings and koans and understanding the actions of the Zen Masters of old to preach them to deluded people are all ultimately useless . . . [But:] If you clarify the Vital Principle in concentrated zazen, you have unlimited ways to guide others, even though you may not know a single word. This is why that monk spoke of "use in the long run." Accepting that his was the true principle, I later stopped reading the Zen sayings and other writings. I was thus able to gain awakening to the Vital Principle. (Dogen, in Masunaga 1975, 34)

5. Prefer not to read other scriptures than the cream ones, also prefer not to waste a lot of time - and write sincerely, says Dogen

On another occasion Dogen instructed:

Students of the Way should neither read the scriptures of other Buddhist teachings nor study non-Buddhist texts. If you do read, examine the writings of Zen. . . . Zen monks are fond of literature these days, finding it an aid to writing verses and tracts. This is a mistake . . . Just write what is in your heart. . . . I have loved literature since I was young and even now recall beautiful phrases from non-Buddhist works. I have been tempted to take up such books . . . but I have come to feel that it would be a waste of time and am inclined to think that such reading should be cast aside completely. (Dogen, in Masunaga 1975, 33-34)

6. Explain Buddhism in short, he says

If a sincere seeker after Buddhism asks you about the teaching, do not begrudge him an answer. Explain it to him for his sake. But . . . long-winded dissertations are worthless. After reading Chen-ching's words, I realized that I myself was at fault here. (Dogen, in Masunaga 1975, 83)

7. Study helpful teachings for your own sake, not for the sake of glitter

In a talk one evening Dogen said:

Students, it is useless to be known by the world as a man of knowledge. If there is even one person who sincerely wants to learn Buddhism, you must not withhold from him whatever teachings of the Buddhas and the Patriarchs you possess. . . . It is a terrible mistake to study the scriptures of Buddhism and other teachings in an attempt to widen your knowledge either because others think it is bad not to know things or because you yourself feel stupid. (Dogen, in Masunaga 1975, 35-36)

8. Steadily have no concerns about style, he adds

Steadily set down the truth as it comes to mind, without regard to vocabulary and style. Even though the sentences may seem ragged afterwards, you contribute to Buddhism if the truth is there. (Dogen, in Masunaga 1975, 36)

9. Forget things it is best to have forgotten, if you can. Have a go


There is a story about the late Ku Amidabutsu of Mount Koya. He was originally a famous scholar of exoteric and esoteric Buddhism. After abandoning the world, he turned to the study of Nembutsu [i.e., reciting the Buddha's name]. When later a Shingon priest came to ask him about the teachings of esoteric Buddhism, he replied: "I have forgotten everything. I don't remember a single word."

This is a good example. . . . Zen students today must have the same attitude. (Dogen, in Masunaga 1975, 36-37)


Alert to Good Points

In Tibetan Buddhism, lojong is a wholesome, helpful practice on lower levels of mind. If consists of relaxing and filling the mind with words of wisdom, or key utterances, one by one, slowly.

The better and most reliable works may be fine to read. Other works may contain several good points too, if we can find them. How to decide which spiritual paths and acclaimed sagacities are worth looking into? It depends in part on who we are, where we come from in a wide sense, our present circumstances, and also the impressions that we are given. It could do a lot of good to bear in mind Buddha's fixed counsel against being duped. [Kalama Sutta].

Deep Meditation in Buddhism: Two examples

The meditation method called Transcendental Meditation, has many benefits in its wake according to research. [◦TM researched (DLF)]

The Buddhist leader Bhikkhu Sanghasena, who practices Trancendental Meditation, has decided to introduce TM in his schools and monastery in Ladakh, Kashmir, in Himalayan India. People from all over the world formerly came to his international meditation center to learn his buddhistic meditation techniques. Sangashena has expressed great appreciation of Maharishi and his teachings, which he will implement in Ladakh.

During the last few years, Rev. Koji Oshima, a Japanese Buddhist monk who has practices TM for 9 years, has inspired Buddhist monks in Thailand and Sri Lanka to learn TM. Today over 3100 such monks have learned TM.

Cardinal Ratzinger, the later Pope Benedictus XVI, in 1990 signed a newsletter where TM and other eastern meditations were described as helpful for attaining peace "even amidst turbulence". [Source]

Meditation and a Buddhist discourse

Seven million people have learnt TM, Transcendental Meditation, by now (2017). There is a Mahayana Buddhist sutra that tells of a meeting of Buddha with his leading followers: The sutra, called Shurangama Sutra, has been influential in the Chan [Zen] school of Chinese Buddhism.

A number of scholars have associated the Shurangama Sutra with the Buddhist tradition at Nalanda, an ancient university centre of higher learning in Bihar, India. Nalanda flourished between 415 and 1193 CE, when it was destroyed by Muslim invaders. A vast amount of what came to comprise Tibetan Buddhism, both its Mahayana and Vajrayana traditions, stems from the late (9th–12th century) Nalanda teachers and traditions.

The doctrinal position of the Shurangama Sutra corresponds to what is known about the Buddhist teachings at Nalanda during this period. The text stresses moral and teaches about end results of deep meditation. Gradual ascent (a dive inwards" by a method of meditation described in the text conforms with Transcendental meditation. [Shurangama Sutra 5:129-230] [◦Global Good News, 24 Jan. 2008]

(WP, "Shurangama Sutra", "Nalanda")

Further Intricacies of Sutras

Different Buddhist traditions are oriented differently

For example, the Pali canon has nothing about the value of the boddhisatva vow. It looks like a later addition in Mahayana Buddhism. To be on the safer side, try and find the most reliable, most genuine Buddha words. It may not be easy. And not every text that is called a Buddhist sutra is of the same standing, and not of equal value to everyone. For example, many severe regulations for monks and nuns happily do not apply to lay followers. And Mahayanic texts (sutras), differ somewhat from many of the in the Pali canon, which may be older and more faithful to the exact words of Buddha - or maybe not. But regardless of differences, there are some similar teachings, and Buddha's ideas (as attributed to him in the old Pali canon) are held in high regard throughout Buddhism.

It may help a lot to meditate on selected utterances to absorb or integrate them better

It helps many to select and ponder on a core verse or three or more a day after meditating, sitting in the meditative poise. In fact, such a method is used to develop spiritual abilities in yoga. It takes little effort. Adding to that, a nifty recording device might truly help if you go for learning basics with very little effort. It helps toward living skillfully in the world. As there are many sides to living, there are many sayings that could come in handy. [Lojong mind-training].

A body of teachings is about proper conduct, Dharma, in such a sense of the word. Dharma is also justice, righteousness and law, natural law. It is a key concept and has many sides to it. As you reflect, you may discover from reading one sutra [SN 4.1] that your practice should be to avoid all desires. However, from another reading another [◦SN 51.15], you learn of someone who desired to get rid of desire. Further, that desire did him good, and was thus actually helpful, at least to him. Yes, there are many intricacies around. Go easy on yourself, therefore.

Refrain from conundrums at the onset, and take up deep meditation to improve your life

The amount of ◦Buddhist sutras is vast. And as for translated Buddhist sutras, there is no such thing as a "definitive" translation. Buddha's teachings appear with many variations throughout the ancient Pali Canon, and aligning all of them full well with texts of Mahayana Buddhism has hardly begun. The content of texts differ, attitudes are different, and Mahayana texts contain elements not found in the Pali canon. Parts of Mahayanic discourses (sutras) should be taken with a grain of salt rather than getting rash about them, in my opinion. One reason is that some such sutras are wordy and exaggerate blatantly here and there. As it is, Buddha expounds a Middle Way of avoiding extremes, which also can be applied to the baseness of exaggerating a lot.

Still, sutras from the main Buddhist traditions offer handy advice – and the Sigalovada Sutra Buddha offers a concise "instruction manual" for how lay persons can live happy and fulfilling lives. It helps to know who your real friends are, how children and parents can live happily together [◦DN 31], how to safeguard your material possessions [◦AN 4.255], what sorts of things are and are not worth talking about [AN 10.69], how to cope with grief [AN 5.49], and much else. They offer handy advice on how to find happiness, no matter what your life-situation may be, no matter what you call yourself, "Buddhist" or something else, and you get tips on how to meditate [e.g., ◦MN 118, DN 22].

Maybe you have already tasted the pleasure that comes to the fore in a well concentrated mind [AN 5.28]. Seeing your own personal experiences described and put into a wider scenario inspires confidence, and you get a feel of how things are going within yourself. It can take time.

For learning breath meditation, see the Anapanasati sutra; for practice of mindfulness, see the Maha-satipatthana Sutra. For learning TM, there may be a centre near you, or perhaps courses in some places.

Buddhism is for self-help, including a balanced life of work and meditation

TM offers substantial help in this line, research findings suggest. Buddha spoke of dukkha (suffering, stress etc) and nirvana (great happiness, not really dying out), concepts that have been filtered by translators and coloured by many of them. One translator equates dukkha with "suffering" and nirvana with "unbinding". Others find "stress" and "quenching" more to the point, and so on. - Mastery of Sanskrit and Pali is not required to live out Buddhism, but it helps against misleading and slanted notions and biases of translators.

As for Buddha's teachings, when you truly understand what he teaches, and what lies in it on all levels, perhaps you are a Buddha (Enlightened, Awakened One) yourself. Dogen says: "'Each of you should practice with utmost diligence. Out of ten of you, all ten should gain enlightenment. My late Zen Master, Ju-ching, encouraged his monks in this way." (Dogen, in Masunaga 1975, 15) However, Dogen also says (above): "In the monasteries of China, only one or two out of several hunded, or even a thousand, disciples under a great Zen Master actually gained true enlightenment. (Dogen, in Masunaga 1975, 38) Buddhist Enlightenment and Awakening are synonoms. How many get it, and how fast, depends on much. As Maharishi once indicated, an apple who has started to fall from the apple tree, is bound for the ground. Some reach the ground before others. I would say the gentle apple allegory is more encouraging than just suggesting something between 1 and 1000 permils "get there", as Dogen is into. So far, so good. Maybe you need to dig a little deeper.

There is no way to prove that a sutra contains the actual words uttered by Buddha. Anyway, try to receive the teaching as it appears to be. Maybe reading different translations help, maybe not. It depends on the translations too. And do not forget yourself in the matter. In trying to relate to Gautama Buddha's main teachings you can put an unhelpful verse aside temporarily, at least for the moment, and maybe come back to it next week, next month, next year, and so on. By the way, a good sutra is one that inspires you to stop reading it and practice it cleverly instead, or take up deep meditation, or practice both the sutra and deep meditation. An ounce of correct application in an upright life outweighs lots of books, presumably, unless you use them as shelter.

Many sutras offer lessons with relevance on several levels and with a relevance that can be applied in a wider range of settings. And Buddha says he practices what he teaches". As for the many repetitions and stock phrases that teem in the discourses, you may put "Refrain" and "Repetition" (:|:) and similar notes from the realm of song writing in the margin to help yourself. As with (other) songs, the refrains in the sutras can contain nice variations too.

If you are free to discuss a sutra with a friend or two, it is nice. It may speed up the understanding of the sutra, deepen the insight into it, or help seeing different sides to the topic under discussion in it.

To reduce the chance of faulty and wrong understanding, you may turn to a Pali-English dictionary and look up central terms in it, and find out of the building blocks (components) that go together to form words in Pali, much as in English. And it may be possible to study what different translators and commentators say about the sutra. You may also enjoy reading excellent introductions and endnotes that offer refreshing and unique perspectives. But basically, give the sutra an incubation period inside your own belly, so to speak. Let it ripen inside yourself, being aligned with your own hard-won life experiences thus. In the long run the sutra may tell of yoor everyday world and how to live in it. That would be nice, or what?

Mastication, impregnation, incubation, birth, grooming and ripening of a particularly valuable life lesson takes time. It needs fostering, like a healthy baby that is born. Allow much time to ruminate in an over-all pleasurable setting if you can. If not, make do with what you have and may get at at any time.

The Buddha tailored his teachings to meet the particular needs of his audience. Therefore consider the context of a sutra and what his original audience might be, before wanting to apply his words to your own life situation. For example, you are not asked to abandon healthy sex if you are not a monk or nun.

Having some sense of a teacher's maturation level is better than knowing of his or her formal credentials, but let both serve you as you seek to assess various modern teachings. You need to assess how appropriate this and that teacher, scholar, and teaching is for you.

As you explore the vast loom of Sanatan Dharma literature, or Buddha-aligned teachings, do not forget to ask such as: "What does this have to offer me? Why, how and when?"


Reading sutras, longer verses, extensive discourses, aphorisms, texts, svadhyaya study, Eihei Dogen verses, Kigen Dogen, Joyo Dogen, Literature  

Bielefeldt, Carl. Dogen's Manuals of Zen Meditation. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1988.

Buzan, Tony. Buzan's Study Skills: Mind Maps, Memory Techniques, Speed Reading and More!. Harlow, UK: Pearson Education, 2011.

Buzan, Tony. Use Your Head. Harlow: BBC Active / Pearson, 2010.

Cleary, Thomas, tr. Eihei Koroku I-V: Speeches of Zen Master Dogen Amazon Kindle ed. 2013.

Cleary, Thomas, tr. Shobogenzo: Zen Essays by Dogen. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1986.

Dogen, Eihei. Beyond Thinking: A Guide to Zen Meditation. Ed. Kazuaki Tanahashi. Boston: Shambala, 2004.

Hsuan Hua, ed. The Shurangama Sutra with Commentary. 1st ed. Burlingame, CA: Buddhist Text Translation Society, 2003.

Masunaga, Reiho, tr. A Primer of Soto Zen. A Translation of Dogen's Shobogenzo Zuimonki. Honolulu: University Press, 1975.

Nearman, Hubert, tr. Shobogenzo: The Treasure House of the Eye of the True Teaching. Mount Shasta, CA: Shasta Abbey Press, 2007.

Harvesting the hay

Symbols, brackets, signs and text icons explained: (1) Text markers(2) Digesting.

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