The Buddhist Sutras

By Rev. Daigaku Rummé

The Buddhist religion is based on the teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha and the other enlightened people who have transmitted the Buddhadharma from generation to generation. The ritual of chanting these teachings in the form of sutras must be very old. The Sanskrit word “sutra” means “thread” or “string” and refers to the fact that the Buddha’s teachings were sewn together in a common theme and passed down orally. Chanting sutras on a daily basis would have been the way for Sangha members to remember and memorize the teachings. It wasn’t until several hundred years after the Buddha’s death that people began to write down these teachings.

It is often said that there are 84,000 sutras, which is surely an approximate number, but nevertheless indicates the great number of Buddhist scriptures. Many of the Indian sutras begin with the words “Thus have I heard.” These are the words of Ananda, a cousin of the Buddha who accompanied him as his attendant for more than 30 years and who had a word-perfect memory. At the first Buddhist council that was convened following the Buddha’s death, Ananda is said to have recited from memory all of the Buddha’s discourses. Many of these early sutras became the Pali Canon of Theravadin Buddhism, which is now found primarily in Southeast Asia.

Along with these sutras, a great many Mahayana sutras have also been preserved. Originally composed in Sanskrit, they mostly exist now in Tibetan, Chinese, Korean, and Japanese translations and are thought to have been written in the first centuries of the Common Era. This collection of sutras is more extensive and includes many lengthy works that can be divided into two currents of tradition: sutras based on faith and philosophically oriented sutras that have the theme of Emptiness, the central teaching of the Mahayana. These would include the Heart of Great Perfect Wisdom Sutra which is chanted daily in Zen temples and thought of as the essence of the wisdom sutras. They also include the Lotus Sutra, considered by Dogen Zenji to be the king of all sutras. It is also common in Zen temples to chant two verses taken from the Lotus Sutra: the verse from the “Universal Gateway” chapter and the verse from the “Life Span” chapter. The tradition of composing sutras continued with the spread of Buddhism to China and Japan. Other sutras that are often read in Zen temples include The Harmony of Difference and Equality and Precious Mirror Samadhi, which come from Chinese masters, while A Universal Recommendation for Zazen was written by Dogen Zenji, the founder of the Soto Zen sect in Japan, and The Meaning of Practice and Verification, which was compiled from Dogen Zenji’s masterwork the Shobogenzo.

While some schools of Buddhism emphasize the study and also memorization of sutras as a means to understanding the direction and nature of practice, or as a way to embody the Buddhist teachings, Zen emphasizes that we must not rely on words and that the practice of zazen is something transmitted outside the various Buddhist teachings. “If you say the word ‘fire’, why doesn’t it burn your lips? If you say the word ‘water’, why doesn’t it quench your thirst?” These are rhetorical questions that a Zen master could ask his or her students, prodding them to see that the teachings, whether sutras or otherwise, are only descriptions and not the thing itself. “Fingers pointing at the moon”, another well-known Zen expression that describes the function of the sutras as pointing at the objective of liberation, is used to encourage practitioners to not be overly concerned with the explanations provided by the sutras, but rather to realize that the moon of liberation we seek is the Dharma.

This isn’t to say that words are unnecessary, however. In order to verify the Zen teaching for ourselves, first we must understand that teaching. Simply understanding the teaching isn’t enough to help us realize the Dharma, but listening to the teaching in order to find the right direction is an important process through which we must pass. As Dogen Zenji taught us, “In the Buddhist sutras, there are teachings for bodhisattvas and teachings for buddhas. They are both tools of the great Way. The tools accord with the master and the master uses the tools. For this reason, the buddhas and ancestors of India and China sometimes followed a good teacher and sometimes followed the sutras. There has never been a gap between arousing the aspiration for enlightenment, training, and the fruit thereof. Arousing the aspiration for enlightenment depends on sutras and a good teacher. Training depends on sutras and a good teacher. The fruit of enlightenment is one and intimate with sutras and a good teacher. Before a question is asked and after the answer is given are simultaneous study of the sutras and study with a good teacher. The moment itself and the inside of a word are also simultaneous study of the sutras and study with a good teacher.” (Shobogenzo: “Buddhist Sutras”)

Chanting sutras is an integral part of Zen practice. One of the short sutras often read in a Zen temple is the Sankiraimon (“Taking Refuge in Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha”). In this short text are the following words: “We take refuge in the Dharma and vow together with all sentient beings to enter the storehouse of the sutras, wisdom like an ocean.” This means that through the study of Buddha’s teachings we will attain learning that is as deep and vast as the ocean. But this is like only one wheel on a cart. A cart cannot move with just one wheel. Zen is the other wheel. When the balance of these two wheels is well maintained, then we can say the Buddhadharma flourishes.