How to read a Sutra

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This topic contains 3 replies, has 4 voices, and was last updated by  Andrew Cheffings (temple host) 3 weeks, 6 days ago.

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  • #2988

    Dharmavidya answers this question :: link

    QUESTION: What is the best way of reading and interpreting a sutra?

    SHORT ANSWER: One tries to understand the Dharma contained in it and let the images bring that Dharma to life deep within.

    LONGER ANSWER: I think one of the points in the questioners mind is the question of how literally to take such things as descriptions of the Pure Land. Different readers certainly do differ in such matters and there is not really a strong orthodoxy on the matter. If we take the descriptions of the Pure Land, I think we have to take it that these are descriptions of visions. They do not necessarily correspond in detail to the geography. If you plan to emigrate to New Zealand you no doubt have an image in your mind of what it is like but this image will not correspond exactly to what you find when you get there. Nonetheless, the image does, in a certain way, correspond to the aspiration that is in your heart. So Pure Land Buddhists expect to be somewhere after death and they expect it to be a place close to the Buddha that is inspiring and some have been so inspired that they visualise that land and some of those visions have found their way into the texts.

    Not just in the Pure Land schools. Much of Mahayana Buddhist literature from the Avatamsaka Sutra onwards is visionary. These visionary samadhis are themselves important practice. If you cultivate that vision it will work magic in your soul.

    I am in Korea at the moment. There are lots of depictions of Buddhas here with Korean facial features. Now we know that Shakyamuni was not Korean, but never mind, we all know what the picture or statue is about.

    So what matters is, on the one hand, the Dharma within the imagery and, on the other hand, the way that the imagery itself gives life to Dharma. Dharma is not just intellectual, it is supposed to lodge deeply within you. It is not just something to think rationally about, but, rather, something that should enter into one’s dream body. When Dharma has penetrated and permeated the unconscious mind then one is somewhere near to being a practitioner and to get to that state poetry, imagery and story are more effective than reductive literalism.

    :: link

  • #2989

    Jason Harris
    Participant

    I absolutely love this answer 🙂. It reminded of an instruction I read sometime ago of how to interpret answers from hexagrams in the I Ching. I intend to ask this on the Questions In The Sand forum too if I can but I wonder if its important at all to have some idea of the meanings behind the symbology of the images in a sutra as well?..for example the significance, if any, of sandalwood mentioned in the Larger Pure Land Sutra? 🙏

  • #2991

    I’ve just started reading Prayers of the Cosmos by Neil Douglas-Klotz, as recommended by Andrew C. (Thank you) and in the introduction he talks about three different levels of reading a spiritual text.

    Narrative: what is actually happening in the story.

    Metaphorical: what does this tell me about the story of my life, or my community.

    Mystical: a reading that goes beyond words, connecting with the eternal in the present moment, etc.

    I guess dharma lodging itself in the dream-body is a mixture of the second and third levels, or perhaps it takes place in the third mystical level, but the second metaphorical level helps provide context and understanding and reasoning, which can all support faith.

  • #3000

    Hello, Kaspa – I found that part in the book very useful too; and, following on from what Dharmavidya writes, above, I found these ways of reading very useful in reading the Longer Pureland Sutra. I also found it easier to read Shinran as a result, which was particularly useful as I found myself having some psychological difficulties recently which corresponded to some Shinran texts (particularly, not being able to do any practice at all for a while due to ‘brain lock’ then finding Other Power intervening, and trying to do some useful Pureland practice after finding out someone I knew had recently died, only to find the practice so polluted with karmic difficulties that all it did was make me realise what a foolish and dependent being I am. Fortunately, there are so many different approaches in Pureland that I have found ways through, but different ways of reading religious texts has definitely opened up new and useful vistas for me in otherwise familiar texts.

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