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Transmission Outside of Scripture

September 29, 2013

by Stephen Damon

Often a person who hasn’t sat in a formal Zen setting, like the one we have on Monday nights, will ask me why we chant the Heart Sutra.  Often, he or she will ask if the Heart Sutra is like a Christian or Jewish prayer that needs to be accepted as truth even if she can’t understand it, in order to take part in our group.  I tell them that we are not trying to exchange one belief system for another or trying to pray to Buddha instead of Jesus or Allah. I tell them that Zen is a transmission of truth outside the scriptures and as such is concerned not with studying or believing scriptures as much as it is with direct experience of things as they are. This kind of experience can be had by sustained meditation practice.

Zen scholars have said that sutras were originally written by Shakyamnuni Buddha and other ancestors as descriptions and explanations of their enlightenment. Another way of putting that is to say that the words and phrases of a sutra are expressions of how a buddha or ancestor experienced things when they were in a higher state of being. As such, they offer us guidelines for what appears in our sitting practice. For example, the Heart Sutra begins: Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva when practicing deeply the prajna paramita, perceived that all five skandhas in their own being are empty and was saved from all suffering.  It doesn’t say that Avalokitishvara believed in the emptiness that Buddha taught; it says that he perceived it when he was practicing the paramita of wisdom.  We shouldn’t believe in what Avalokiteshvara is saying until we have experienced it for ourselves, in our sitting practice.  We should take the sutra as a guideline for our practice.  It might be helpful to think of the ideas the Buddha taught as hypotheses that need to be proved or disproved in our meditation practice.  In this sense, our practice can be likened to the scientific method.

A few days ago I attended a lecture by a Zen priest in which he alluded to various elements of sutras, often using the original Sanskrit phraseology.  While listening I was very impressed by how much he had studied Buddhism.  If I had a notebook I am sure I would have taken a lot of notes. But I didn’t have a notebook so I just listened as fully as I could.  After a while, I noticed that I wasn’t as interested in what he was saying as much as I was in how he was saying it.  I was not taken by his words as much as I was by his posture. After a few days I really couldn’t remember much of what he said, but the image of his upright posture was very fresh in my mind.

Here is an example of Zen being outside scriptures from the classic Dento-roku, or The Transmission of the Lamp:

A scholar monk who was known as a good commentator on the sutras once came to see Zen Master Enkan.  Enkan asked the visitor, “What sutra do you prefer to comment on?” I like to lecture on the Kegon Sutra,” he replied.  Enkan then asked, “In the Kegon Sutra, how many Dharma worlds are mentioned?” The scholar monk elatedly replied, “Four kinds of Dharma worlds are mentioned in it,” and then went on to talk eloquently of Kegon philosophy.  Enkan listened silently.  When the scholar monk finished talking, Enkan rasied a fan he happened to be holding and asked, “To which Dharma world does this belong?” The scholar monk could not even utter a word in reply.  Enkan said, “Your knowledge is not of any use, is it.  It is like a small lamp under the shining sun.  It seems to have no light.”

So when it comes down to it, all the words and letters written by all the saints and masters of the past mean nothing by themselves.  Their value is to offer support for our practice in trying to see our life exactly as it is, from moment to moment.



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