Welcome to the Western Quarter!

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)

No comments:

Post a Comment

Creative Commons License
The Western Quarter by Jeanette Shin is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.
Based on a work at thewesternquarter.blogspot.com.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at http://thewesternquarter.blogspot.com/.