Wednesday, December 14, 2011


In most Zen talks, including mine, the word “sutra” is frequently tossed
around. So, what is a sutra, and why does the word pop up like walnuts in a slice of fruitcake?

A sutra is a text that’s traditionally regarded as a group of words that were said by the Buddha.

“Sutra” is Sanskrit for “thread. It’s a moral or inspirational saying, that, as I said, is attributable to the Buddha. Here’s an example:

In emptiness there is no form nor feeling, nor perception, nor impulse, nor consciousness. No eye, ear, nose, tongue, body mind.
All right, all right. That is an interesting mouthful because it’s only a small part of what is known as the Heart Sutra. Can you imagine the Buddha, who was known for his reserve and silence, saying Hey folks, listen to what I have to report: In emptiness . . . and so on.

And if you think that’s a lot of words, consider a couple of sutra

Big inhalation.

The Dharani Sutra on Longevity, The Extinction of Offences, And the
Protection of Young Children

The Sutra about The Parents’ Deep Kindness and the Difficulty
In Repaying It

Some Buddhists, many lay people, and even certain scholars, claim sutras are prayers.

Such people should know better.

Quoting the American Heritage Dictionary, a prayer is a petition to God, a god, or another object of worship.

That’s about as far as you can get from the concept of Buddhism, and twice as far as you can get from Zen.

Zen doesn’t appeal. Zen doesn’t have a God or gods. Zen doesn’t have objects of worship.

Therefore, in Zen or in Buddhism, sutras are not prayers.

Oh, sutras are not fiendish. Reading them or reciting them won’t corrupt one’s Zen practice. They are as nontoxic as prayers, and just as useful as prayers.

However, memorizing or reciting sutras should not be a substitute for good-old zazen.

Dogen had mixed feelings about sutras. He didn’t claim they were wrong, but he did say that individuals who have researched sutras and are accomplished in secular texts should study at a Zen monastery.

He even credited several of the renowned masters who were learned, but who practiced with even greater masters.

Huisi practiced with Bodhidharma; Xuanjue practiced with Dajian; and so on.

Dogen said people who memorize texts, or quote sayings and try to match such words with a teacher’s explanations, are unwise. Such individuals only want to have their own views affirmed.

It’s like someone coming to you to ask your advice about a political candidate. If you say something that agrees with what the person has already cemented in his mind, he considers you a genius. If your view differs from his, he decides you are a weirdo.

Unfortunately, some people consider their own views as sufficient. They dip into writings, memorize what they regard as key phrases, and imagine they comprehend Buddha-dharma.

No way. They are mislead, and are miles off the Buddha way.

The Buddha way is beyond thinking, analysis, and clever explanations.

When you practice with a teacher or a master, open your mind. Just listen and soak up the teaching without agreeing or disagreeing, without mixing in your own opinions and judgments.

As Dogen said, “Your body and mind will be one, a receptacle ready to be filled. Then you will receive the teaching.”