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Words and Letters

June 2, 2012

by Stephen Damon

As I was straightening the stacks of books around my desk this morning I remembered that Bodhidharma, the first ancestor of Zen, said our practice is a special transmission outside the scriptures; No dependence on words and letters; Direct pointing to the mind of man; Seeing into one’s nature and attaining Buddhahood.  I looked around the bookcases in my room, filled with books on Zen and Tibetan Buddhism as well as Judaism, Christianity and western philosophy.  Of course, I haven’t read every one of the books on my shelves, but I have read at least parts of most of them. 

I remembered spending an entire semester reading and rereading Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, now completely dog-eared.  Next to me was a worn, hard-covered copy of Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind that I have read and reread for nearly forty years. Every time I pick up Suzuki Roshi’s collection of informal talks on Zen I find something new in the text as well as in myself.    In a way, these two books serve as sign posts on my long and circuitous path toward what still remains elusive and unknown: my self.

To be honest, I have spent many more hours reading books on Zen than I have on my zafu.  So I have to ask, if Zen is truly a transmission beyond words and letters, have I wasted my time?  Should have I spent more of my time going to retreats and sitting several times of day and less on reading primary texts such as the Lotus Sutra as well secondary texts and commentaries?

I studied philosophy and comparative religion in grad school and I have given many lectures to college students about Buddhism and the other sacred traditions, but I have never considered myself a scholar.  Nevertheless, I spend a lot of time reading and rereading Bodhidharma and Dogen as well as contemporary masters such as Suzuki Roshi.  And I don’t feel like I’m wasting my time.  Instead,  I see how reading a text such as Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind  or Uchiyama’s Opening the Hand of Thought has helped deepen my sitting practice over the years.    

Reading books on Buddhism, especially Zen Buddhism, has become an integral part of my practice.  Reading, however, can never replace time on a meditation cushion, but it can help prepare a person to make better use of meditation by offering instructions and giving a larger, historical, and religious context to one’s practice.  But what is almost never talked about in discussions like this one, is the practice of how to read a spiritual book. In Zen, we are taught how to eat mindfully, using the complicated ritual of oryoki, but we are not taught how to read a book.  

We might start a study of how to read by addressing a few basic questions.  Can we read  The Lotus Sutra  in the same way that  we read a novel or latest book on neuroscience or is something else required if we want to understand it? Do we need to bring something more than thought to what we are reading?  Can reading become a study of attention in the way that meditation is?  Is it better to read with a stable posture in silence the way one sits in the morning?  Is it helpful to spend some time with a book on Zen after you sit in the morning?  Is it enough to read a spiritual book just once or should one read it over and over again, the way that one sits over and over again?  Here I would quote a teacher from another tradition who advised his students to read what he wrote three times:  first as you are mechanized to read, second time aloud as if you were reading to another person and third time to try to fathom the gist of my writings.

Uchiyama Roshi addressed questions about how to read and study a Buddhist text: I don’t read  [Dogen’s]Shôbôgenzô as a Buddhist scholar who is only concerned with bringing order to the labyrinth of Chinese characters. Nor do I read it as a sectarian to whom every single word is so holy that he puts it on a pedestal, like a tin of canned food that will never be opened, and throw himself to the ground before it. Here it is important to remember that Buddha said that we should not accept any part of his teaching until we have verified it in our experience. We must carefully “open” the teaching and then watch how it reacts with the different levels of our minds.  If we do not understand what we are reading we need to hold it as a hypothesis for further investigation and not as an axiom that doesn’t need to be proven.

Uchiyama goes on to say, Instead, I read it with the eyes of a person who seeks the Way, who is concerned with getting to the bottom of an entirely new way of life. And I believe that is exactly what is meant by “seeing the mind in light of the ancient teachings” or “studying the Buddha Way means studying the self.”

Keeping these questions in mind, it might be interesting to schedule a time to read that book on Zen, sitting on your bedside table when you won’t be bothered by any demands of the world.  In my own practice, I have found it most helpful to devote time for reading after I sit every morning. Before opening the book I have also found it helpful to recite the chant we say before listening to a Dharma Talk:

The unsurpassed, profound, and wondrous Dharma

Is rarely met with, even in a hundred, thousand, million kalpas.

Now I can see and hear it, accept and maintain it,

May I realize the meaning of the Tathagata’s truth.



From → Zen Buddhism

  1. Nick permalink

    À fascinating subject with sparse information scattered across the web. We all read countless books on spiritual topics, but are clueless HOW to read them. Now I don’t mean understanding what’s written or getting the main point of a text but the act of reading itself.

    After reading your article there is still a questions left unanswered for me. Should we read mindful or can we let ourselves get caught by the book getting oblivious for our surroundings, which happens to me most of time but doesn’t feel right. Then again slow reading and active processing should be part of the act of reading I suppose, and that does mean using your creativity and imagination, making it easy to lose yourself in a text.

    This is basically my dilemma for the moment. I was wondering what your view is in this matter.



    • korinstephen permalink


      Thank you for your comments. I think that if we are reading a serious book on the inner life, we should try to be alert to not only the text but also to our reactions to it. This is very similar to what we try to do in our sitting practice. In Zen, we always keep our eyes open when we sit so that we never forget our surroundings. It is important for us never to get lost in the “inner monastery” of ourselves. We need to always be in relation to others and the world around us.

      I hope this helps with your question.


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