The Way to Engage with the Sutras
by Venerable Tenzin Priyadarshi
THE WAY TO LISTEN OR READ A SUTRA
Reading the Diamond-Cutter sutra for the first time, one will initially be baffled because one is conditioned by a ‘conventional self’ and approaches it from a conceptual framework. It is only through frequent recitation and contemplation of the sutra that one can move one’s mind beyond a conceptual framework and conventional mindset and thereby gain an understanding of the sutra.
One should not read or listen to a sutra to find validation or negation of one’s views or beliefs of the Buddha’s teachings. Instead, read or listen to the sutra to observe the biased cues in one’s conventional mindset and constantly question one’s own biases and conditioned responses to stimuli, both external and internal, from reading or listening to the sutra.
THE WAY TO RECITE A SUTRA
When one recites a sutra it should be done with the motivation of unravelling the profundity of the Buddha’s teaching. A sutra should not be recited mechanically without the right motivation. The recitation is only beneficial to the mind when one understands the motivation behind its recitation. If one recites the sutra with devotion, it would allow greater fervour, and promote new and deeper insights. As one’s mind becomes more engaged and involved with the sutra, its profundity becomes clearer and its meaning grows deeper.
DIFFICULT TO DE-CONSTRUCT ONE’S DEEPLY INGRAINED ‘CONVENTIONAL SELF’
No matter how many layers one peels through one’s idea of a ‘conventional self’, the sense of ‘I’ remains. One must recognise that this ‘conventional self’ is not newly established in this life but imprinted through many lifetimes, which gives rise to deeply ingrained or habitual patterns of mind that are not conducive to deconstructing this ‘conventional self’ and the true understanding of the sutra. The frequent recitation and contemplation of the sutra pushes one’s mind to go beyond these layers of ‘conventional self’ or ‘mindset’.
THE DHARMA TOO MUST BE ABANDONED
The sutra alerts us to the ‘self’ that is constantly bound to or enamoured by rotating objects of attachment. One is always in the ‘market’ in search of novel entertainment, stronger stimulation and new objects of attachment. Hence, it is important to dismantle what it is that one is attached to. Even spiritual practice can become an object of attachment. Ultimately, one needs to move beyond the attachment to spiritual practices and enter the next stage of one’s practice, free of Dharma. The Dharma, too, must be abandoned. It’s like taking medicine prescribed for a particular symptom. Once that symptom has subsided, then one must stop taking the medicine. Otherwise, the overdose will result in unintended consequences.
A TRUE ACT OF GENEROSITY MUST BE FREE OF ALL FORMS OF TRANSACTIONAL VALUE ATTACHMENT
According to the sutra, in the practice of generosity (and the other five Perfections), one is guided to investigate the motivation behind its seemingly virtuous and wholesome nature. Does one question what is truly useful to oneself, or the recipient? Can one, when performing acts of generosity, recognise one’s selfless and egoless nature? A true act of generosity is one free from expectation of praises and fame, free from rewards tied to the value one places on that act, i.e. free from all forms of transactional value attachment.
One should note the subtle distinction between conventional compassion and Buddhist compassion. Buddhist compassion is not biased compassion. It does not come naturally. Unbiased Buddhist compassion requires training and determination to manifest.
ONE’S HABITUAL MINDSET IS ALWAYS LOOKING FOR NEGATION AND PRESERVATION OF THE ‘SELF’
The untrained mind can only acknowledge and understand ideas, signs, patterns, language, etc., within one’s own conceptual framework, which inevitably leads to attachment or grasping, biases and prejudices. A conventional mindset that’s usually looking for either negation or preservation of the ‘self’ cannot easily understand the simultaneous negation and preservation of the existence of any object. The sutra therefore initially baffles the mind of the reader. Understanding the sutra will help to move the mind beyond its habitual conceptual framework to embrace ‘non-self’ and ‘impermanence’.
THE ‘SPIRITUAL EGO’ IS VERY ILLUSIVE
Spiritual practice requires a vigilant mind to be able to investigate and dismantle the disguise of one’s spiritual ego, which is more dangerous than one’s conventional ego. This spiritual ego manifests in many forms and justifies its manifestations even in a meditation retreat environment. One should be aware that within the spiritual domain there are many opportunities for spiritual correction. A complacent attitude and a mind without vigilance will, the sutra suggests, lead to stagnation in one’s spiritual cultivation. Mosses will gather and the whole spiritual practice becomes heavy, stuffy, devoid of joy and will not grow or flourish.
AN IGNORANT MIND OF ‘MIS-KNOWING’ COMPLETELY DISALLOWS SELF-CORRECTION
It is difficult to live a non-judgmental life. Strictly speaking, one can’t even live one’s life that way. The important question to ask is, “What’s driving the judgment and causing the discomfort?” Even when one thinks or says, “I am open-minded”, this open-mindedness is once again subjected to one’s own conceptual framework and biases. Even the Buddhas are not spared when it comes to one’s conventional perception and unevenness of the mind – for instance, one thinks that a particular Buddha is more powerful than another! We spend a large amount of our time dwelling on the past and anticipating the future without realising that even the present cannot be grasped. We never engage the ‘present mind’ in the present. We engage the ‘present mind’ for the past and future. Therefore, one’s present or ‘real time’, the only time truly available to us, is not used constructively or appropriately.
To become ‘aware of the present’, one needs to enter a state of mind, even for a moment, where one can suspend one’s habitual conceptual mind or ‘the state which one’s mind is most familiar with’, and then check what the ‘present’ is like.
The sutra suggests that in one’s preliminary spiritual practice, these stages and signposts are useful; they are the structures and scaffolding that guide and support one to the next stage, assuring that one is heading in the right direction. A ‘beginner’s mind’ should be a mind of curiosity. An ignorant mind of ‘not knowing’, where one accepts the gap in information and still maintains that sense of curiosity is better than an ignorant mind of ‘mis-knowing’, which kills curiosity, strengthens mental rigidity and reinforces ignorance. An ignorant mind of ‘mis-knowing’ completely lacks curiosity for self-correction, which means the opportunity to reverse the state of an ignorant mind, to ‘re-learn’, is completely absent.