Sunday, April 27, 2014

How to Read a Sutra

[This is a section from the introduction to my work in progress of a new translation of The Sutra of Queen Srimala's Lion's Roar.]
How to Read a Sutra
          A Sutra should be read with reverence and faith, not preconceived beliefs.  Reverence means to read with an open mind.  Faith means to read with the trust that the Sutra has a purpose and reading with an open mind will make that purpose real in our lives.  There are two kinds of preconceived beliefs that will hinder our receiving the Sutra: the preconceived beliefs of true believers and the preconceived beliefs of doubters. Academic scholars come to the sutra with the preconceived belief that reverence and faith are to be put aside in order to be able to read the Sutra objectively.  However, this academic view is itself a subjective preconceived belief that also prevents reading the Sutra objectively.  The academic scholar misses the forest for the trees.

On the other hand, it is just as wrong to read the Sutra with the uncritical views of a fundamentalist true believer. Faith does not mean to be uncritical of what is heard, but to listen critically knowing that the meaning is not contained in the words but in the import that the words are pointing at.  Faith in Buddhist Sutras means the trust that the Sutra is speaking of our own mind, not something foreign to us or outside of our own mind.  A fundamentalist reading is not a faithful reading because it posits a literal meaning outside our mind and calls this the literal objective truth. Reading like that misses the trees for the forest. That is not objectivity any more than the academic.

The reverential open mind means to read the sutra in a manner to receive it and hear it on its own terms and the faithful mind means to read it critically with an ear to hear and to become aware of the nature of mind that the speaker is actually pointing toward.  Thus to read a Sutra requires reading form perspective the Middle Way between the academic and the fundamentalist. 

            A Sutra is always spoken to an audience that always has preconceived ideas and views that characterize and distinguish them.  That is, a Sutra is always responsive, and if there were no preconceive ideas, there would be no need to speak the Sutra.  The Sutra is addressed with the purpose of articulating the corrective medicine for the audience’s specific imbalance or one-sidedness of antithetical conceptions (vikalpa).  The Buddha is the Great Doctor.

            For example, the first “Turning of the Wheel of the Dharma,” that is, the initial articulation of the Dharma after the Buddha’s enlightenment, was given to the Five Companions, who were his immediately preceding practice partners before he left them to meditate alone.  The practice they shared was the practice of austerities, which the Buddha had turned to after succeeding with two previous teachers but finding their ways and teachings lacking.  Upon finding the practice of austerities lacking as a lopsided approach, the Buddha realized the meaning of the Middle Way and sat resolutely in meditation to directly investigate with this new method. 

            Upon his enlightenment, the Buddha sought out the Five Companions and addressed their preconceived idea that human suffering of the imbalance or off-centeredness (duhkha) of life could be remedied and relieved by the practice of the one-sided embrace of extreme suffering through austerities.  The teaching of the Four Noble Truths was the medicine that the Buddha taught the Five Companions for their disease of practicing austerities. It is in that context that the teaching of the Four Noble Truths culminates in the articulation of the Eightfold Path as the alternative path to their prior path of attachment and grasping at austerities.

            Similarly, Bill Porter, known as the translator Red Pine, points out in talks about his translation of the Heart Sutra[1] that the Heart Sutra is spoken by Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva to the Bodhisattva Shariputra who is the representative stand-in for the Early Schools’ abhidharma practitioners, specifically in Shariputra’s case, the Sarvastavadin school of abhidharmists.  In the Heart Sutra, Avalokiteshvara presents the emptiness (sunyata) teachings as the medicine to practitioners who have the preconceived notions of the abhidharma obstructing their views by applying the view of emptiness to the abhidharma’s analytical categories, in the Sarvastavadin order, of the Five Skandhas, the Twelve Ayatanas, the Eighteen Dhatus, the Twelve Linked Chain of Causation, the Four Noble Truths, and the attainment of innate-knowledge (jnana). 

            To view the Heart Sutra as an exegesis or exposition asserting the doctrine of emptiness is the kind of mistake made by academic scholars who are blind to the purpose of the Sutra as medicine for a preconceived idea and perverts the Sutra into the assertion of a doctrine to be made into a subsequent preconceived idea. This is turning the medicine into a disease, like becoming addicted to morphine after using it as a pain medication.

               Any aspect of universality in the Buddha’s Dharma is not discovered by turning the medicine into a “doctrine” as the academic scholars do, but by seeing the application presented in the sutra to other similar disorders. Thus, while the Heart Sutra applies the medicine of emptiness to the disorder of taking the abhidharma as doctrine, the Heart Sutra’s medicine of emptiness may be applied to other similar disorders of mistaking Dharma as doctrine. Likewise, the medicine of the Four Noble Truths as applied to the  disorder of attachment to austerities, may be applied to other similar disorders of one-sided attachment to mistaken methods of treating the suffering arising from the imbalance and off-centeredness of living, such as treating suffering by addiction to pleasures, rather than by clinging to austerities. 

               The medicine that is applied by The Sutra of the Lion’s Roar of Queen Srimiala is the One Vehicle, not the Tathagatagarbha.  The One Vehicle is applied to the views of the Tathagatagarbha, as well as to the Four Noble Truths, Emptiness, etc., to treat the underlying bias of separate vehicles that were leading to sectarian views of these most important topics of Buddha Dharma.

[1] Heard personally by the translator in a talk given at Zen Center of Los Angeles on July 22, 2012, and also heard in a recorded talk sponsored by the Bodhi Mind Center given at Colorado College, Colorado Springs, CO, on February 2, 2013, .