Friday, July 16, 2010

How to Read the Buddhist Sutras (Part 1)

(This is adapted from my other blog on the Pure Land, "The Western Quarter)

I've often been asked for copies of the "Buddhist scripture" as a chaplain by people interested in Buddhism. They've read books about Buddhism, so they want to see what the "scripture" itself says. This is a natural result of our Western culture, and a very good thing - we are encouraged to study religions on our own, and one way to do that is to read what their scriptures, or the teachings themselves, say, whether it is the Bible, the Torah, or the Koran. When they read these sacred texts, it may be in the context as a "believer" or member of a specific faith, which will also inform them how to read them, whether as "infallible" or in some degree open to interpretation. Of course they may also come to it as a nonbeliever, or "undecided" meaning that they will read it skeptically, or in some other context which will allow them to decide for themselves what to believe. For those coming to the Buddhist sutras, it is also not different from these forms of readings.

Buddhism has many scriptures, today, we have many sutras available in English-language! Most sutras however are not readily available at the bookstore, even independent bookstores specializing in "New Age" or "metaphysical" titles. If you take a look at the "Eastern Religions" section in your local Borders or Barnes & Noble, the majority of titles available tend to be mostly popular books written about Buddhism and meditation, rather than ready translations of Buddhist sutras. You may have better luck online. Whatever sutra you decide to read first (if you are not practicing any specific tradition), find one with a commentary and introduction, most will have them.

Reading a Buddhist sutra can be very different from what might be expected, especially if you were raised with the Christian Bible, or it may be your only experience with reading a religious text. The Bible is laid out as a narrative story (Genesis to Revelations), except for several books that are about ancient Jewish ritual laws. A Buddhist sutra does not necessarily tell a "story" and many passages appear repetitive, or simply bizarre to the new reader. In some sutras, the Buddha manifests what we would describe as "supernatural" powers, and there are lots of otherworldly beings hanging about: devas, nagas, spirits, etc., who don't necessarily participate in a narrative "story." This can seem very confusing especially for someone who is curious about what the Buddhist "scriptures" say, to pick up and read and try to make sense of it. Even many Buddhists who do not read the sutras may find them hard to read! A person can open the Bible and read the story of Joshua and his wars or Moses and the wanderings of the Jews, or read in the New Testament and read about Jesus' life and ministry. In contrast, a person who open up in the middle, for example, the Lotus Sutra or the Larger Pure Land Sutra may have no idea what is happening, and not know when or why such events are taking place. Therefore, some guidance is necessary if a person wants to seriously engage in reading the sutras, and importantly, to make sense of them and acquire wisdom from them.

First, let us look at the physical text itself. Only a few sutras and commentaries (shastras) exist in English translations, and as with any translations into one language from another language (in our case Sanskrit, Tibetan, Chinese or Japanese to English) they can vary in style and quality. A translated sutra reflect the times they were written in and the author’s attempt to use English to translate some very difficult and different concepts. It’s not unusual to still find Buddhist sutras (especially early editions) translated such as “The Lord Buddha thus spake to his disciples…” This is not the translator’s trying to be obtuse, it is a reflection of what he thought would be the proper English usage. Until recently, only “King James” English was thought proper to use in Bibles and for “religious” language. Now there are dozens of Bible translations, most using contemporary English, but there are still people who belive only the King James translation is the accurate version. Unfortunately we do not have the luxury of having dozens of sutra translations to choose which is the most "readable", and unless we know the original language of the sutra, we cannot know ourselves how accurate or good it may be. We trust to the translator or translation committee that they are doing their best. However, we also have to be mindful that the translation, in an well-meaning attempt to be readable, does not sacrifice the meaning for the sake of "readability." We trust a sutra's translation usually in context of our own tradition, that is, Buddhists of our own tradition made the translations. This can be good in that they write for the better understanding, or also problematic, in that they may emphasize a specific reading rather than an "objective" or "academic" one.
(to be cont'd)

1 comment:

Christopher Mohr said...

I am putting together a variation on the Pocket Buddha Reader (Anne Bancroft, on Amazon for like $7). I plan on making it specifically tailored to military life. I often recommend the PBR for civilians, because it is important snippets from a variety of suttas and sutras. Some feedback as to what texts (or portions thereof) to include might be useful. Probably will have some from the Pali Canon, some Mahayana scriptures (decisions, decisions), and a handful of Vajrayana (probably Sino-Japanese) texts will be included.

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