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This blog is devoted to the propagation of Jodo Shinshu Buddhism, a 750-year-old Buddhist tradition.

Friday, July 16, 2010

How to Read the Pure Land Sutras: Reading (Part 1)

Reading the Pure Land sutras, or any Buddhist sutra, can be an eye-opener! Historically, probably not many Buddhists read the sutras, especially if they were from the lower strata of society; typically portions of it would be read to them, or created as part of a shomyo (chanting liturgy). Typically only monastics engaged in the study and exigesis of sutras may have bothered to read the sutras, and write commentaries on them. We have few instances of lay Buddhists doing the same.

Today, we have many sutras available, including the three Pure Land sutras regarded as primary in the Jodo Shinshu tradition, including editions available in English-language (see earlier posts). Unlike other sutras, like the Heart Sutra or the Lotus Sutra, they're not readily available at the bookstore, even independent bookstores specializing in "New Age" or "metaphysical" titles. Even in our American Shin temples, the sutras are not exactly the preferred reading choice for many members. One possible reason for this is the lack of easy availability of the titles (even with Amazon), and also that the Pure Land tradition in general has not really gained the popularity that sutras more familiar to Zen or other forms of Buddhism use. But also, if you take a look at the "Eastern Religions" section in your local Borders or Barnes & Noble, the majority of titles available tend to be mostly popular books written about Buddhism and meditation, rather than ready translations of Buddhist sutras.

I've often been asked for copies of the "Buddhist scripture" as a chaplain by people interested in Buddhism. They've read books about Buddhism, so they want to see what the "scripture" itself says. This is a natural result of our Western culture, and a very good thing - we are encouraged to study religions on our own, and one way to do that is to read what their scriptures, or the teachings themselves, say, whether it is the Bible, the Torah, or the Koran. When they read these sacred texts, it may be in the context as a "believer" or member of a specific faith, which will also inform them how to read them, whether as "infallible" or in some degree open to interpretation. Of course they may also come to it as a nonbeliever, or "undecided" meaning that they will read it skeptically, or in some other context which will allow them to decide for themselves what to believe. For those coming to the Buddhist sutras, it is also not different from these forms of readings.

For Buddhists, we have a multiplicity of "scripture!" But even reading one, takes some dedication - a willingness to open one's mind, and to have patience with a translated text, and also, together with an open mind, not have it be too open. We should acknowledge: 1) That the Buddha, nor his immediate disciples (Ananda, Sariputra, Maudgalyayana, et al.) did not write down their teachings; 2) That we only have sutras passed down from an oral tradition; 3) That these oral teachings were only committed to writing several generations, at earliest, after the Buddha's Parinirvana, or at least the ones extant today. Therefore, we can never say we have the Buddha's exact words, either in his own language, or correctly translated by later scribes. At most, we can accept we have the Buddha's intent, passed down through his disciples via the oral tradition, and also via samadhi, by later monks gifted in that ability. If you are skeptical about the latter, then accepting the Pure Land tradition can certainly be awkward! Like other sacred books, to read it as a believer takes faith, in that the Buddha's intent was passed down correctly. Unless we obtain a time-machine and tape-recorder, we cannot say we have the Buddha's exact words.

You may also see that the sutras may not seem interconnected, in the way the book of the Bible can be. Buddhists may read one particular sutra, or as a group. In Shin Buddhism, we can read the Three Pure Land Sutras as a group.

Let's look at the Larger Pure Land Sutra. As a sutra, it opens with the traditional statement "Thus have I heard" (Evam me sutam), signifying that the author has heard the teaching. In the ancient Indian tradition, the oral tradition was considered more "pure" than the written text, or less corruptible. The sutra is therefore this anonymous author's faithful account of events he heard and witnessed .
(to be cont'd)

Sunday, July 4, 2010

How to Read the Pure Land Sutras: Translation (Part 2)

Shinran Shonin recognized three specific sutras on the Pure Land as primary: these are The Larger Pure Land Sutra, the Contemplation Sutra, and the Smaller Sutra (or Amida Sutra). Several different English translations exist of these sutras. These sutras are physically placed within the Shinshu onaijin, or alter space, in the form of scrolls with text in the classical Japanese format. They become part of the ritual element during a Shin service, although these are rarely chanted in American temples (with exception of the Amida Sutra for memorial services, and the others only for certain services in Japan.

These three sutras have also been translated by both Japanese and American Shin ministers and priests. Other translations may be authored by scholars unaffiliated with the Jodo Shinshu. The early Buddhist scholar Max Mueller made a translation which was published in the "Sacred Books of the East" series and is available in reprint. Dr. Luis O. Gomez also made a translation of the Sanskrit and Chinese Larger Sutra, published as The Land of Bliss. There are also other translations by scholars affiliated with other Buddhist or Pure Land traditions like the Buddha's Light Publishing Amitabha Sutra Chinese/English edition, which is affiliated with the Fo Guang Shan school and available at their temples at no cost.

For those wishing to study these sutras, I would recommend that the student study all the sutras one can to further their understanding of Buddhist sacred texts, although with an eye to understanding how the translations may differ due to the author's intent. Not all of these translations will necessarily translate the meaning of the sutra as we would understand in the Shin tradition. A translation made by Shinshu scholars, such as Hisao Inagaki or others, will use the accepted Chinese text (translated by Samghavarman) as contained in the Taisho Tripitaka, and the translation will be directed at the Shinshu audience with the objective of making the sutra understandable to Shin followers or those interested in Shin Buddhism.

Other translators, like Mueller and Gomez, aimed to make their translations available to a wider audience, not necessarily only for the Shinshu, or Buddhist, follower, but also for other scholars. Therefore the translators may place different emphasis on some passages, or use different English words for certain concepts, such as saying the Name of Amida. For a Shin follower, reading a text that is translated with the intent of making the Vow of Amida clear and comprehensible is the primary importance. This is not to claim other translations are incorrect, but only that the intent of translation is not directed at the Shinshu Sangha audience. As with any translation of a religious text, it is also left to the individual reader to accept that translation as his or her one for devotional use, similar to how a Christian may prefer a KJV over an NIV translated Bible.

Next, will be a post on how one should read a sutra with the goal of understanding the overall meaning for the Shin follower.
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