The Buddhist Mahayana sutras are very precise and detailed narratives of our life, even if at first they may not come across like that at all. The Pali Canon scriptures have a rather practical bent most of us can relate to relatively easily: the Buddha gives advice on a wide range of issues that, in general, seems highly conducive to living a just and fair life. But the Mahayana sutras paint such a grand and colourful spectacle of buddhas and bodhisattvas, all engaging in such mysterious events, that we may feel a little lost at times. We’re lifted out of our familiar individual environment and suddenly find ourselves participating in a startling process of universal awakening.
We are probably only ready to take this route if we’re willing to let go of the image we have of ourselves and the story of our life we have grown familiar with. This takes quite some daring – or desperation! It means I have to admit that I may not be the one and only expert on my life and that many alternative narratives may be possible. That is why the sutras are best read or recited in combination with zazen and ritual. Without the deep samadhi those activities engender, it is very difficult to go beyond our usual dualistic mindset and absorb the far-reaching consequences of the sutra narratives into our whole system. Yet, if we do manage to really let them in, it allows something in the mind to shift and thereby shift our perspective on our life.
Interestingly enough, as our perspective on our life changes, the actual circumstances of our life start to change as well. Suddenly, other opportunities present themselves or simply become more apparent. Things happen that you would never expect to happen. This, of course, changes our mind even more… so it works both ways, it is a two-way process. Over time, this seemingly very mundane and perhaps rather boring and lonely life starts to accord more and more with the exciting story lines of the sutras. The “Phantom City” of the Lotus Sutra, “The Lion’s Roar of Queen Srimala,” and “Vimalakirti’s Thunderous Silence” don’t strike us as so outlandish anymore, but rather as descriptions of occurrences that we now become more conscious of. We learn to identify with the pilgrim Sudhana of the Avatamsaka Sutra who, after a long journey, finally enters the realm of reality. Others around us also begin to take on very different characteristics.
According to Dogen Zenji, ‘When you follow and study a sutra, it emerges. A sutra means the entire world of the ten directions – mountains, rivers, the earth, grass, trees, self, and others. It is having a meal, putting on a robe, and engaging in activities. When you study the way, following a sutra, thousands and myriads of sutras that have never existed emerge and become present.’ *
Of course, we will need good examples of those who have gone through this process, so Dogen Zenji continues, ‘Thus, both following a teacher and following a sutra are following yourself. A sutra is no other than a sutra as yourself. A teacher is invariably a teacher as yourself. This being so, to visit teachers everywhere is to visit yourself everywhere. To take up one hundred grasses is to take up yourself. To take up myriad trees is to take up yourself. Study yourself that always endeavors thus. In this study, drop away, merge with, and realize yourself.’ *
Bringing the sutras to life, we bring ourselves to life – and vice versa. Are we ready for such an adventure?
* Treasury of the True Dharma Eye: Zen Master Dogen’s Shobo Genzo, edited by Kazuaki Tanahashi (Shambala, 2010), Chapter 75, Self-Realization Samadhi (page 696-697)