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Reading Sutras, and Kigen Dogen
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Tips on Reading Sutras

In Sanskrit literature

Sri Brahmananda Saraswati

Sutra is a Sanskrit work. It stems from sutram, thread, and has come to mean thread of thoughts from a time and culture where texts were written down on palm leaves that were sewn together with thread. 'Sutra' is also akin to the Latin suere, to sew.

'Sutra' has taken on the meaning 'string of aphorisms', and a discourse. Aphorisms (or lines, rules, formulas) of this kind typically relate to some aspect of the conduct of life. Aphorisms get formed as manuals, or texts, both in Hinduism and Buddhism.

So sutras imply short and often long strings of aphoristic statements intended to be memorized by students in some of svadhyaya, ancient, formal ways of study. Because sutras are terse, they have given rise to a lot of commentaries bhasyas. It shows up that some old commentaries put a spin on the aphorisms they ideally should clarify and explain. As a result there are many forms of Vedanta, for example. But one well-known definition of a sutra from the Vayu Purana stands out anyhow:

Of minimal syllabary, unambiguous, pithy, comprehensive, continuous, and without flaw.
This suggests such as "terse, covering most of the relevant information involved, so clear in meaning that it can be understood in only one way". The vast amount of commentaries - many of them hold different view - highlights that terse literature easily gets several meanings interpreted onto it, just because it is condensed.

In short, sutras may be small aphorisms, longer verses, and even extensive discourses.

The older Vedas, on the other hand, were not put down in writing for very many centuries, but memorised and recited.

In Sanatan Dharma, Hinduism

In Sanatan Dharma, Hinduism, sutras or collections of sutras are in part aphoristic doctrinal summaries produced for memorization. They are Sanskrit sayings or collections of sayings on Vedic doctrine from 500-100 BCE - also called the sutra period - and onwards, and were in time incorporated into Sanatan Dharma's scriptures. The old primer called Patanjali's Yoga Sutras may serve as an example of such summary literature.

Sutras in Sanatan Dharma, or the Eternal Dharma, encompass old views on Jyotisha (astrology), Smarta Sutras, Dharma Sutras, and sutras covering domestic life, architecture, philosophy and further. Among old scriptures are found such as the Shiva Sutras, Yoga Sutras, and the Brahma Sutras (or Vedanta Sutra) of Vyasa (Badarayana). The Vedanta Sutras form the groundwork of Vedanta. However, there are six philosophical orientations of Vedanta.

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 nearly as aphoristic-cryptic as Hindu sutras. Also, they are most often longer, with many repetitions that could suit oral transmissions.

Treatment of ancient texts

Understanding of an ancient text depends on the manuscript or manuscripts used. Moreover, how different translators understand ancient phrases, may also differ much.

Adherents of intelligible or Plain English may or may not look down their noses at not really intelligible translations. They may, further, shake their heads at murky biases that seep into translations and tell such as:

If you translate, translate and why not make it intelligible? Further, you do well to make clear what is comment, and not insert irrelevant matter into the text or surrounding it. Reserve notes for relevant matter. Propagandists hardly align with fair scholarship.


Dogen on the Value of Reading

Sound meditation depends little on much reading.

There is a difference between "reading the talk and doing the walk" - You may ask "Should I desire to read into a canon?" A good question!

That might be your own choice. Reading may assist you up to a point, and a good meditation technique both alongside it and further upwards. Calm meditation does not depend much on reading. Maybe you can do without it for such an endeavour. That is about the best tip you get from the Zen teacher (roshi) Dogen. Other names get along with plain Dogen; Eihei and Kigen are much used.

Dogen (1200-1253) brought the Soto School of Zen Buddhism from China to Japan, and is known for his extensive writing. But he often discouraged reading a lot. He stressed sitting meditation, zazen, as the central practice instead. "Studying Zen ... is zazen", he wrote. [Wikipedia, s.v. "Dogen"]

Now, better make sure than get froggy by overly distorted notions, for Dogen contradicts himself in at least two ways: On the one hand he discourages reading a lot, and on the other hand he has written a lot for others to ignore or not . . . Also, he says in some places that reading about the Way (Dao) offers help, and in other places he talks against reading altogether. Thus: He deals in inconsistent teachings.

A solution: Let those who can profit from reading, read. They could need the knowledge. Dogen, adjusted 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.

Said more directly: If you want to progress in meditation, meditate - but soundly and well.

Views of Dogen on Reading

To read Dogen or not to read Dogen, that is the tough question. Verbatim Dogen quotations from A Primer of Soto Zen follow:

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. (p. 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. (p. 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. (p. 8)

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.

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. (p. 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. (p. 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." (p. 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. (p. 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. (p. 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.

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. (p. 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. (p. 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 tumed 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. (p. 36-37)

What does Dogen say? "Read much, read some, read little, read not." He touches on "Different strokes for different folks" also. Now, why did he write a lot?

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. I advocate such practice -

If you do want to profit from books, seek to go for the better and most reliable works as you do, for scriptures are very many, varied, some of them repetitive, in part made up, in that words are put in the mouth of the "hero". And lots of them hold conflicting views here and there too. Many such texts are around. And some contain good points.

Then the question is how well such good points are sifted out and put into practice, and for how long, how integrated they get, and how well they are executed, how the surroundings are, and so on, being alert to possible dangers.

Also, it is good bear in mind Buddha's fixed counsel against being duped. [Link].

It sometimes helps to discern between teachings that are in primary sources, and who the author(s) might be. Try to chew on much esteemed teachings a little to note the tastes that develop. Good and staunch teachings may assist you throughout life if you conform more or less to basic ideas of some of them. But how do to decide which spiritual paths and acclaimed sagacities are worth following and which are not? It depends in part on our circumstances, in part on ourselves, in part on the impressions that we are given. Yet, the stand of the Kalama Sutra of Buddhism hopefully sheds light on this rather common dilemma.

If we go for learning tall teachings about how to go for developing skills and gracious qualities through meditation, we can get it better throughout life.

Deep Meditation in Buddhism: Two examples

The meditation method called TM, was given by HH Shankaracharya Brahmananda Saraswati - aka Guru Dev - to Maharishi, who made it known in the wide world. The method has very many benefits according to extensive, modern research.

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 recent 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

Six million persons - Buddhists and others - have learnt TM, Transcendental Meditation, by now (2014). There is a Mahayana Buddhist sutra that tells of a meeting of Buddha with his leading followers. That Mahayana Buddhist sutra, the Shurangama Sutra, has been influential in the Chan [Zen] school of Chinese Buddhism. Sanskrit dhyana (meditation) became chan is Chinese, and the Japanese word 'Zen' is derived from chan.

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 glide inwards" by a method of meditation described in the text conforms very well with how Transcendental meditation is described and practised. [Shurangama Sutra 5:129-230] [◦Global Good News, 24 Jan. 2008]

[Wikipedia, s.v. "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. [More].

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." (p. 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. (p. 38) Buddhist Enlightenment and Awakening are synonoms. How many get it, and how fast, depends on much. As Maharishi once said, 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?" Buddha says:

A TEACHING You can search throughout the entire universe for someone who is more deserving of your love and affection than you are yourself, and that person will not be found: You yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe deserve your love and affection.

Reading sutras, Dogen verses, Literature  

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

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.

Nishijima, Gudo Wafo, and Chodo Cross, trs. Master Dogen's Shobogenzo. Book 1. Woking, Surrey: Windbell Publications, 1994.

Nishijima, Gudo Wafo, and Chodo Cross, trs. Master Dogen's Shobogenzo. Book 2. Windbell Publications, London: 1996.

Nishijima, Gudo Wafo, and Chodo Cross, trs. Master Dogen's Shobogenzo. Book 3. Windbell Publications, London: 1997.

Nishijima, Gudo Wafo, and Chodo Cross, trs. Master Dogen's Shobogenzo. Book 4. Windbell Publications, London: 1999.

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