Reading Sutras as a Spiritual Practice
by Venerable Sheng Yen
READING SUTRAS TO BENEFIT OURSELVES AND OTHERS
Greetings, ladies and gentlemen of Tibet House. It’s been two years since we last met. I am very pleased to see you here again. Today, I am going to talk about the relationship between sutra reading and Buddhist practice. Just now you were chanting the Heart Sutra together, and that is of course a form of sutra reading. Buddhist sutras are about the Dharma as spoken by the Buddha. Among the Buddhist Tripitaka — the vinaya, the sutras, and the shastras — the vinaya are the precepts stipulated by the Buddha, the moral code regarding our bodily, verbal, and mental actions. The shastras are philosophical commentaries on the Buddha’s teachings as developed by his disciples. The sutras are the direct teachings of the Buddha that help us cultivate concentration and develop wisdom. Therefore Chinese Buddhists are expected to read sutras, regardless of which school or sect they belong to. The Chan School of Buddhism, which I learned and practice myself, is no exception.
You may have heard that Chan is a “transmission outside the teachings, not founded on words and language.” Chan masters of the past would often come up with astonishing remarks regarding the sutras. An ancient Chan master once said, “Buddhist sutras are nothing but pieces of paper for wiping us!” Chan master Yaoshan Weiyan (751 – 834) had a disciple who asked him, “Chan is not established on words and language, so why are you reading the sutras?” Weiyan replied, “I see them as something to cover my eyes.” These subtle remarks actually mean something beyond the mere words. On the surface, these two stories may suggest that the Chan School tends to ignore Buddhist texts, but this is not the case. Indeed, the Chan School places great emphasis on sutras, especially the Lankavatara Sutra and the Diamond Sutra. In addition, the Heart Sutra, the one you were reciting just now, is part of the daily practice in Chan monasteries. The Sixth Patriarch Huineng became enlightened after overhearing a phrase from the Diamond Sutra. So, just reciting the sutra may not make us become immediately enlightened, but it is definitely useful one way or another. Chances are that your reciting the sutra can inspire and trigger someone else’s enlightenment!
There are generally speaking four ways to “read” a sutra: silently, out loud, chanting it, and upholding it. For most people, reading the sutras means to finish reading one and then go on to another. Upholding the sutra is different in that one is required to read or recite a specific sutra over and over again, with patience and perseverance for a prolonged period of time.
REASONS BASED ON WHAT THE BUDDHA TAUGHT
What are the reasons for reading and upholding the sutras according to what the Buddha taught? Maybe you have this question. Let’s analyse this issue from an academic perspective. From the Theravada sutras, the vinaya, and early Buddhist texts, we can see that reading, upholding, and chanting Buddhist sutras are a form of group practice. The 52nd fascicle of the Majjhima Nikaya, twice mentions encouraging the upholding of the sutras, the vinaya, and the abdhidharma. The 4th fascicle of the Ten Recitations Vinaya says, “Those practising asceticism stay together with those practising asceticism, those upholding the vinaya stay together with those upholding the vinaya, those preaching the Dharma stay together with those preaching the Dharma, and those reading the sutra stay together with those reading the sutra.” The third fascicle of the Mahisasakavinaya says, “Those contented with few desires stay together with those contented with few desires, those happy in stillness stay with those happy in stillness, those reciting the sutra stay together with those reciting the sutra, those upholding the precepts stay together with those upholding the precepts, Dharma teachers stay with Dharma teachers… Those practising meditation stay with those practising meditation.” This shows that monks, nuns, laymen, and laywomen alike were all required to recite the sutras or the vinaya. Moreover, reading and reciting sutras is one of the three major practices.
Many Mahayana sutras further expound and advocate the merit and function of reading and reciting sutras. For example, the Lotus Sutra speaks of many different methods of practice, but 18 out of its 28 chapters are in praise of the merit of sutra recitation. For example, the chapter on “Merits Obtained by Teachers of the Dharma,” says, “If virtuous men and women can accept and uphold this sutra, read it, recite it, explain and preach it, or transcribe it … with these merits they will be able to adorn their six sense organs, making all of them pure.” By reading sutras we can purify our six sense organs — eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind, and this is stated in the Lotus Sutra. Also, the chapter on “Saraswati,” fascicle seven of the Golden Light Sutra (Sanskrit Suvarnaprabhāsottamasūtrendrarājaḥ Sūtra; Chinese Jin guangming zuisheng wang jing) says, “If there are monks, nuns, laymen, and laywomen who can accept and uphold, read and recite, transcribe and spread this wonderful sutra and practice accordingly… they will be able to soon go beyond the ocean of suffering and attain non-regression of bodhi-mind.” With a bodhi-mind that does not regress, one will thus be able to attain the fruit of bodhi that will not regress.
Two sutras promoting Amitabha Buddha’s Pure Land also mention the merit of upholding sutras. For example, the Amitabha Sutra says, “If virtuous men and virtuous women can hear the sutra, accept and uphold the sutra, as well as hear the names of various Buddhas… they can all attain the state of non-regression in anuttara-samyak-sambodhi.” Also, the Sutra of Immeasurable Life says, “One should imagine the great chiliocosm to be engulfed by a huge fire, which one should transcend by hearing this sutra and its teachings, joyfully believing in it, accepting and upholding it, and practising accordingly… one will never regress in the quest of the unsurpassed path. Therefore one should single-mindedly believe in it and accept it, as well as uphold it, recite it, share it, and practice it.”
Some Mahayana sutras also clearly point out that one can recite or chant Mahayana sutras or the vinaya for the purpose of remembering or delivering the dead. For example, the Brahma Net Sutra says, “On the day one’s parent, sibling, spiritual advisor, or Dharma teacher dies, and during 21 to 49 days of their passing away, one should read, recite, explain, and preach Mahayana sutras and precepts, as well as organise vegetarian meal gatherings to transfer the merit to them.”
At that time in India, reading or reciting Buddhist sutras was meant to help one understand their meaning and practice. However, after it spread to China, the practice of reading sutras gradually degenerated into a service for praying or merit transfer, or even worse, a service to pray for rain, ward off disaster, increase the well-being for the country and the people, or eliminate sickness and misfortune. As a result, from the Yuan Dynasty on there have been Buddhist monks making a living solely by chanting the sutras, which is absolutely against the original intention of the Buddha.
WHY READ THE SUTRA?
What is the function of reading, reciting sutras? In this regard, Master Shandao (613–681) compared sutras to a bright mirror we can use to reflect on our own minds. In his Commentary on the Sutra of Contemplation on the Buddha of Infinite Life, Shandao said, “To read or recite a Mahayana sutra is to use the sutra as a bright mirror for reflection, and through repetitive reading and searching, one is able to develop wisdom. By opening one’s wisdom eye, one will loathe suffering and long for true happiness, or nirvana.” So while reading a sutra, we should reflect on our speech, action, and mind, to check if they go against the Buddha’s teachings. If yes, then we should mend our ways soon and cultivate ourselves according to what the sutra teaches.
For reading or reciting as an individual practice, most people prefer upholding a particular sutra. Some uphold the Flower Ornament Scripture, while some the Lotus Sutra. Both sutras can evoke extraordinary spiritual responses. Once, a practitioner upholding and reciting solely the Flower Ornament Scripture evoked a spiritual response of causing a heavenly deity to provide him with offerings, and thus he didn’t need to make alms rounds anymore from then on. Another practitioner, having recited the Lotus Sutra more than a couple thousand times in his life, had a lotus flower form in his mouth when he died. People may wonder, is it just a form of tongue tumour? Aren’t lotus flowers supposed to grow in water? How can it possibly appear in a dead person’s mouth? As much as people may doubt it, this is exactly what is recorded and stated in the biography.
It is a practice for Chinese Buddhists to recite the Mantra of Purifying the Speech and the Sutra Opening Gatha, prior to chanting a sutra. After finishing the recitation of a sutra, you then recite the Mantra to Atone For Mistakes and the Gatha for Merit Transfer. Some people may have wandering thoughts more frequently while reciting the sutra, and so they may want to recite the Mantra to Atone For Mistakes a few more times. In Tibet, they have similar mantras to make up for the faults of not being able to concentrate their mind while reciting.
Before reciting the sutra, you must first wash your hands, rinse your mouth, wear clean and tidy clothing, and maintain decorum. And then prepare an altar with a Buddha image, and make offerings to the Buddha with fresh flowers, light, food, and so on. This is to help you recite with utmost sincerity. As to the posture in reciting sutras, it depends on how long it will take. For shorter time of recitation, you may kneel or stand. In Chinese monasteries, the morning and evening services, which can last two hours, are done standing up. Longer recitation is mostly done sitting, either in a lotus posture or on a chair. In Southern and Tibetan traditions, as well as in Japan, it is mostly done in the cross-legged or sitting-kneeling posture.
There is a way of practice which requires the practitioner to prostrate while reciting. Some Chinese practitioners recite the Lotus Sutra, the Flower Ornament Scripture, or the Diamond Sutra in this way. You must be thoroughly familiar with the sutra before engaging in this practice. You recite the sutra word by word, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, and page by page, and after each word you prostrate and recite a phrase of homage to the bodhisattvas who were in the assembly when the sutra was spoken. Take, for example, the phrase “Thus have I heard.” As you say “Thus,” you make a prostration and at the same time, chant “Hail (Skt. namo), the Lotus Sutra; hail, buddhas and bodhisattvas of the Lotus Sutra assembly.” If it is the Flower Ornament Scripture you are reciting, then you chant “Hail, the Flower Ornament Scripture; hail, buddhas and bodhisattvas of the Flower Ornament Scripture assembly.” I have done this practice myself.
The Japanese Nichiren School bases their teachings solely on two chapters of the Lotus Sutra: “Expedient Means” and “Life-Span of the Tathagata.” They chant and recite the title of the sutra without doing word by word prostration. When prostrating, you must not do it quickly, but with reverence and ease. If using the Chinese text, it takes more than 80 thousand prostrations to finish the Lotus Sutra. One of the four preliminary practices in the Tibetan esoteric Buddhism requires practitioners to do 100,000 prostrations. So in a way, prostrating to the Lotus Sutra word by word also serves as a preliminary practice.
FUNCTIONS OF READING SUTRAS
There are generally speaking six functions in reading sutras. Nevertheless, the Dharma is not fixed, so if any of you here know about another function or other functions, please let us know for discussion.
Sutra reading helps us illuminate our mind.
Reading sutras regularly can be likened to using a bright mirror to reflect, and to illuminate our mind at all times, thereby reducing our affliction and ignorance.
Sutra reading helps us realise its meaning
Every time you read a sutra, you will gain more understanding about the subtle meaning behind the seemingly mysterious language. In the Chinese tradition, the teacher normally just asks you to simply read it without explaining the text to you. When I was a novice I asked my master, “What are those sutras saying?” All he said was, “Just keep reading! By reading them more often you’ll understand. What other people tell you is always limited, but by familiarising yourself with the sutra text, you will gain much more understanding.” At that time I wasn’t quite sure about that, but now I have to say I cannot agree with him more. Now I tell my disciples the same thing, though they may not agree with the idea. Sometimes they will even protest and say, “Why don’t you explain the sutra first? How can it be of any use if we just read it without understanding the meaning?”
Sutra reading helps us cultivate concentration
I teach my disciples to rein in their six sense organs and concentrate their minds on chanting and reciting the sutra while using their ears to listen attentively without thinking about the meaning. When you are alone you have to listen to your own voice, but in group practice, it’s better to listen to other people’s recitation, either to the group chanting in harmony or to a specific person whose chanting is stable and smooth. In this case, it’s not very likely to attain concentration by listening to your own voice, since ordinary people are often attached to their own voice; so it’s better to recite the sutra with a group. I ask you, while chanting the Heart Sutra, were you listening to your own voice, or were you listening to other people’s? Probably both, I guess.
Sutra reading helps us spread the Dharma
As I mentioned in the beginning, the Sixth Patriarch Master Huineng became enlightened on hearing a lay practitioner recite a phrase from the Diamond Sutra: “Abiding nowhere, give rise to mind.” So, it doesn’t really matter if you yourself are not enlightened, since it would be a nice thing if somebody became enlightened by hearing you recite a sutra. So chances are your recitation will help someone who happens to hear it by eliciting their virtuous karmic roots. A friend told me that once while sitting in the cabin during a boat ride, feeling extremely bored and agitated, he heard a lady sitting next to him reciting the sutra, and was thus able to feel calm and settled eventually. So he thought to himself, “I can already benefit so much just by overhearing someone reciting the sutra. Wouldn’t it be more beneficial if I recite the sutra myself?” Thanks to this chance, he started to read sutras, and finally decided to become a Buddhist.
Sutra reading helps us safeguard the Dharma
In many of the Mahayana Buddhist texts it says that when and wherever a person recites and upholds the sutras, it can be regarded as a manifestation of the Buddha in the world, and therefore, buddhas and the Dharma-protecting deities from the ten directions will protect the person and the surrounding area. If we really want to safeguard Buddhadharma, then we should also uphold the sutras; it’s not enough to just have Buddhist sutras lay there.
Sutra reading to deliver the dead and pray for blessings
Buddhists in the Mahayana and the Theravada traditions believe that when people die, their family and friends can help deliver them through the merit of conducting Buddhist ceremonies and rituals, usually by chanting sutras. A Western practitioner at our Chan Meditation Center used to only know about investigating Chan and sitting in meditation. When his friend died he came to ask me, “Shifu, my friend has passed away. What should I do to help him? Can I help by sitting in meditation?” I told him, “You should chant sutras instead!” At that critical moment chanting sutras is a more direct and beneficial way to help, instead of sitting in meditation.
What is the use of chanting sutras for the sake of the deceased? Simply stated, it is to use the Buddha’s power to call back the deceased so that they can listen to the sutras, hear the Dharma, and thus gain liberation. If the deceased has been reborn in a Buddha Land or some other realm, it doesn’t really matter, because by chanting sutras we are actually engaged in practice ourselves, and thus will earn merit; moreover, there will be numerous invisible sentient beings around to listen to our chanting and so they can benefit as a result. Because they benefit, the one who passed away also benefits; after all we chant sutras for their sake. The Brahmajala Sutra says that bodhisattvas should explain the Mahayana sutras and vinaya for the sake of sentient beings. Beginning on the day when one’s parent, sibling, spiritual advisor, or Dharma teacher passes away, one should for the following three to seven weeks, read, recite, and expound the Mahayana sutras and vinaya for their sake. This will benefit the deceased and the invisible sentient beings in terms of the Dharma, enabling them to generate bodhi-mind and achieve Buddhahood in the future.
By chanting sutras, we can help deliver the newly deceased, as well as those who passed away long ago. However, the effect is less significant if they have already been reborn somewhere else and cannot hear the sutra. Nevertheless, by chanting sutras and conducting Buddhist rituals for the sake of the deceased, we can help them form good karmic affinities with other sentient beings, which is always beneficial. In addition, I would like you to bear two things in mind: first of all, we should listen to sutras and hear the Dharma ourselves on a regular basis, seeking blessings for ourselves instead of waiting for someone else to do this for us after we die. Secondly, as often stated in Buddhist sutras, for 21 to 49 days after someone’s death, we should practice generosity, make offerings, chant sutras, and recite the Buddha’s name for their sake, beginning as soon as possible. All in all, by chanting sutras we can benefit both the living and the deceased. All sentient beings, whether heavenly beings, humans, spirits, deities, or even animals, are actually still wandering in the three realms of samsara, and therefore need to read sutras and practice; this is the intention and purpose of my talk today.