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Writing the Sutras of Our Lives

September 26, 2012

by Stephen Damon

Tetsugen, a devotee of Zen in Japan, decided to publish the sutras, which at that time were available only in Chinese. The books were to be printed with wood blocks in an edition of seven thousand copies, a tremendous undertaking.

Tetsugen began by traveling and collecting donations for this purpose. A few sympathizers would give him a hundred pieces of gold, but most of the time he received only small coins. He thanked each donor with equal gratitude. After ten years Tetsugen had enough money to begin his task.

It happened that at that time the Uji River overflowed. Famine followed. Tetsugen took the funds he had collected for the books and spent them to save others from starvation. Then he began again his work of collecting.

Several years afterwards an epidemic spread over the country. Tetsugen again gave away what he had collected, to help his people.

For a third time he started his work, and after twenty years his wish was fulfilled. The printing blocks which produced the first edition of sutras can be seen today in the Obaku monastery in Kyoto.

The Japanese tell their children that Tetsugen made three sets of sutras, and that the first two invisible sets surpass even the last.

Reading this wonderful story, I was struck by how well it expressed the heart of our Bodhisattva practice, specifically the Four Methods of Guidance or Four Ways of Leading Sentient Beings to Enlightenment : generosity, kind speech, beneficial actions, and identity action. These methods are described in the Daichido-ron and mentioned in the Devadatta chapter of the Lotus Sutra, where the Buddha says they are one of the teachings given to him in a past life by his cousin Devadatta.  Dogen lists them as the 93rd step of the “108 ways to Enlightenment.”

This morning, I’d like to say a few things about “identity action,” which is, I think, the most basic of all actions of a bodhisattva. In Japanese, identity action is doji, which can be translated as “identity of task.” Do means “same” and ji means “thing,”  “matter,” or  “task.” But to Dogen, this “ji” specifically means manner and posture, dignity and presentation.

This is not just behavior, but includes our attitude, perspective, thoughts, judgments, and ideas. Identity action is action that proceeds from the point of identification—not with our “small I,” but with everything. When we let go of all attachment to the self, we are naturally and spontaneously intimate with everything and in accord with the real state of things. When we let go of our usual sense of being separate from other things, we are able to give freely.  The usual distinctions of “giver,” “receiver,” and “gift” disappear and everything becomes a gift; all actions are pure giving.  Just think about how you feel when you unclench your fists and turn your palms up.  You feel as though you are offering everything that you have, everything that you are, to the universe.  When you “unclench” the fist of your ego, you lose your sense of separateness and everything you do becomes a beneficial action and everything you say (or don’t say) is kind.  You are a Buddha and everything you do is enlightened activity. 

When we act in this way, we are expressing the Dharma as articulately and fully as any of our revered sutras.  Yes, we can chant “form is emptiness, emptiness is form,” but we can also give everything that we have and everything that we are for the benefit of all sentient beings. In the deepest sense, they are both ways of expressing what the Buddha taught.  In this light, giving money to the poor is a sutra of compassion.

What a sutra is has evolved over the centuries. Originally, sutra, which is Sanskrit for a thread or rope that holds things together was given to the sermons and aphorisms of the historical Shakyamuni Buddha. They were recited from memory by the Buddha’s disciple, Ananda, at the First Buddhist Council. The Mahyana sutras, such as the Heart of Great Wisdom Sutra, were add at least five hundred years after the Buddha’s death and so were most likely not the original sermons of Shkayamuni. 

Whether or not the historical Buddha actually recited the Mahayana sutras, it is believed that each of them expresses the truth of his teaching.  The title “sutra” was  given as an honorific to other texts which clearly expressed the Buddha’s teachings.  The Platform Sutra, by the Sixth Ancestor, Hui Neng, is an example of this use of the word, “sutra.”  It is in this sense, that “sutra” was given to Tetsugen’s first two unpublished sets of sutras, which clearly expressed the wisdom and compassion of the Tathagata’s teachings.

Tetsugen’s first two sets of sutras were, indeed, silent, but so was the Buddha’s flower sutra on the occasion of Mahakashyapa’s Dharma transmission: Toward the end of his life, the Buddha took his disciples to a quiet pond for instruction. But this time the Buddha had no words. He reached into the muck and pulled up a lotus flower. And he held it silently before them, its roots dripping mud and water. None of the disciples understood this wordless sutra, except MahaKashyapa who smiled. 

So, “sutra” has been used to refer to not only what Shakyamuni actually said but also to teachings that express the meaning of what he said.   Some of these teachings have used silence and activity rather than language.  In all cases,  the word has been used to designate a “unique” expression of the Dharma. In this sense, you might think of your life, as a Buddhist practitioner trying to follow the way of a bodhisattva, as a presentation of a new, or maybe an ancient unpublished sutra of the teaching of Shkayamuni Buddha.



From → Zen Buddhism

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