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Contemplation of Sutra in the Seon School

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Writer admin Date10 Aug 2006 Read10,880 Comment0


During Ven. Jiyul’s hunger strike, for the first time in years I had the chance to recite the Diamond Sutra communally. On the second floor of the Hall of Paradise at Jogyesa, the Union of Religious Leaders held a separate one-week hunger strike, while supporters gathered on the first floor to offer prayers.

If we bring our minds together, matching the rhythm and harmony while chanting, the sound touches our hearts. There is a difference between reading a sutra silently and reciting it aloud. The experience of being moved by the sutra is recitation; moving the sutra subjectively becomes reading.

Looking at the works of the master, we can better understand the student as well so let us look at how this is illustrated in the following story about Prajnatara, the patriarch who transmitted the Dharma to Bodhidharma.

The king of a country of East India invited the monks to perform a ceremony. According to custom, before accepting the meal that was offered, the monks would recite sutras and offer prayers for the host. While all the monks wholeheartedly recited the scriptures, Prajnatara simply sat quietly. Seeing this, the king was suspicious and asked warily,

“Venerable Master, why do you sit quietly and not recite the scriptures with the others?”

The master replied,

“"This poor wayfarer doesn’t dwell in the realms of the body or mind when inhaling, doesn’t get involved in myriad circumstances when exhaling–I always reiterate hundreds and thousands of such sutras, not just one or two."

He was saying that the reading of sutras of itself becomes a practice. That is, a life without clinging to objects and worldly defilements is itself no different from the reading of the sutras. Therefore only reciting the sutras at that moment was like reading one or two scriptures, but to always be reciting the sutras as one’s everyday life is to be reading hundreds and thousands of scriptures.

This story illustrates that keeping a mind that is always holding the sutras throughout daily life is more important that the outward formality of a sutra recitation.

A similar story has been told about the founder of the Guiyang lineage, Yangshan Hui, when he was a novice. One day, while studying under the lineage preceptor, he was reciting a sutra in the novices’ room when the preceptor came in and asked,
“Who was that reading the sutra?”
“It was me.”
“How can you read a sutra like that? It sounds like singing! Don’t you know how to chant properly?”

So Yangshan said,
“Master, if you know how, please chant for me and show me the proper way to do it.”

But as soon as the preceptor began to chant, “Thus have I heard…” Yangshan interrupted, “Stop! Please stop!”

As he was still a novice, the sound of his sutra chanting was not properly refined. Yet when the preceptor tried to demonstrate the proper smooth flowing rhythm for chanting, Yangshan disapproved. For him, the most important thing was not the melody, but the sincerity of heart with which the sutra was chanted.

Therefore the key to chanting is not to put weight on the posture and melody but rather the earnestness and sincerity which is instilled in the recitation. This is the correct contemplation of sutras in the Seon school.

Thus, the Joseon Dynasty Seon master Cheongmae Ino declared, “If you do not contemplate the mind, there is certainly no benefit in reading sutras (心不返照 看經無益).”

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