What is a Sūtra? Chirp, Buzz, Woof

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Zen doesn’t rely on words and Buddhism doesn’t have the equivalent of a Bible or Quran, although we have sūtras. Simply put, sūtras are Buddhist scriptures – and the plural there is important. Rather than just one book, we’ve got a large basket of teachings called “sūtra.”

How large?

That depends on what your definition of “sūtra” is. I’ll get to that in a moment.
Tanya Storch, if you’re interested, takes up many sūtra related issues in The History of Chinese Buddhist Bibliography: Censorship and Transformation of the Tripitaka. I’m working on a review, but finding it difficult to tie it up. So this post is a preface to that subsequent post.
Some scholars now think that Great Vehicle (aka, Mahayana) sūtras started to be verbally created and passed on sometime the century or two after the Buddha’s death, not four or five centuries later as was generally accepted last century. These Great Vehicle sūtras vary in length from one page to thousands of pages. Yes, ironically, people that spend a lot of time sitting down and shutting up in meditation, often have a lot to say. And although they’re often attributed to the Buddha, that seems unlikely. However, they’re not signed and so we don’t know who wrote them. Many went through multiple versions over decades or centuries with multiple authors and probably committees of authorship.
Despite (or because of) the difficulty in definition of what is and isn’t a sūtra, there have been various collections of texts, canons, especially in China (apparently the our Great Vehicle Indian predecessors weren’t interested in canons) that attempt to sort out what should be in and what shouldn’t. These canons ranged in size from hundreds to several thousand sūtra. Only a really small portion have been translated into English. For example, the Taishō Tripiṭaka, a Chinese Buddhist canon and its Japanese commentaries created in the 20th Century, has about 3,000 sūtra and commentaries. Only about .5% of these have been translated. I wonder how much difference it would make in our practice if the other .95% were translated. However we answer that question, it’s clear that we’re just at the beginning of this buddhadharma project in the nonChinese reading world.
It’s also important to note that our predecessors used sūtras not only for chanting and study, the primary uses in these parts today, but for their talisman qualities. The belief in sūtras for healing, protection, and miscellaneous magical effects was wide-spread, maybe even universal in the ancient world.

The word itself

In order to begin a reflection on sūtra, though, it is important to dig into the word itself. The Sanskrit word “sūtra” means “thread” or “cord” and it is related to the English word “suture.” So in Sanskrit, a sūtra was something that tied all of us together, stitched the wound of the separate self, and connected us with practitioners in the past, present, and future.
As the dharma moved northeast to China, they had a decision to make in terms of what word to use for this literature. They could transliterate the Sanskrit “sūtra” as they did with some other terms, but instead they chose the Chinese character 經, pronounced jīng, which happens to be the same character used for Confucian texts. It has a wide range of meanings, though, including “classics,” “sacred book,” “to pass through,” “warp (textile),” “longitude,” and “menstruation” (from the MDBG online dictionary).
David Hinton in Hunger Mountain: A Field Guide to Mind and Landscape has this about the etymology of sūtra/jīng /經:
“It was still very early in Chinese cultural history when these threads were first strung onto looms, and this idea of a warp became one of the culture’s foundational metaphors. The Shuo Wen graph for warp is composed of the image for silk on the left, together with those for water and earth (stylized version of the early oracle-bone form showing a lump of clay on a potter’s wheel). In the unnerving context of a Cosmos where everything is always in transformation and on its way somewhere else, even seemingly immutable facts like bedrock and mountain peaks, the threads of this earth-and-water warp were conceived as the enduring elements upon which the patterns of culture and consciousness are woven, and so the graph comes to mean such things as ‘the classics,’ ‘abiding concepts or principles,’ ‘customs.’”
If we were inclined, then, to find an English word or phrase for sūtra like the ancient Chinese, “earth-and-water warp” offers an interesting possibility. We could have “The Heart Earth-and-Water Warp,” the “Mountains and Rivers Earth-and-Water Warp,” and “The Sixth Ancestors Platform Earth-and-Water Warp.”

But to wrap up this warped post…

Back to the issue of what to include in the category “sūtra” or “earth-and-water warp.” Some see sūtra as the buddhadharma in the flesh. In Bukkyō (Buddha Teaching) Dogen said (Tanahashi translation), 

“Endeavor of the way in the practicing community, and the practice of sitting zazen, is unquestionably a buddha sūtra from beginning to end and from end to beginning. In this way, you inscribe sūtras on bodhi leaves, and you inscribe sūtras on the surface of the void…. You receive sūtras and expound sūtras by means of mountains, rivers, and earth, or by means of the sun, the moon, and stars. Likewise, you hold sūtras and transmit sūtras with the self before the Empty Eon, or with body and mind before the original face. You actualize such sūtras by cracking open particles. You bring forth such sūtras by cracking open the world of phenomena.”

What is a sūtra?

“Bodhisattva Inexhaustible Intent
Asked a question in verse:
‘Oh World-honored One, of wondrous form,
I inquire again of that Buddha-child:
What are the causes of the name,
Regarding the Cries of the World?'”

Chirp, Buzz, Woof.

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