The Lankavatara Sutra and Cow Pies.


The Lankavatara Sutra is one of the pivotal texts of Mahayana Buddhism and one of a few that are central to Zen:  A school sometimes notorious for rejecting scriptural knowledge as a venue for realization.  The traveling Indian monk Bodhidharma, the first Zen patriarch, introduced the Lankavatara Sutra to China in the fifth century, and passed a copy of its teachings to his dharma-heir, Huiko.

The teachings in the Lankavatara Sutra were instrumental in shaping Ch’an, and continues to be relevant to modern Zen practice. These teachings explore the nature of mind, realization and the process for attainment, as well as the stages of development of the bodhisattva. Central to these teachings is the view that words and ideas are not essential for the transmission of the dharma. The words Bodhidharma used to describe Zen:

A special transmission outside the scriptures with no reliance on words and letters.  A direct pointing to the human mind and realization of buddhahood.

Bodhidharma was essentially saying that words are at best a description of reality and not the reality itself. The teachings must be realized by each individual through daily practice, and the only thing sutras can do is to point the human mind and experience in the right direction.  As such, the sutras play an important, but not central, part to Zen practice.  Central is the meditative practice itself.  But nor is it stating that sutras should play no part or should be avoided or ignored. 


Sutras are like cow-pies.  They can provide the necessary fertilizer for the growth of wisdom but on the Great Plains, where the bison have long since been regulated to ranches, the grasses still grow and bend in the wind.  Every once in a while there is a bloom of color.  From my experience, that explosion of color is only seen when you read the sutras/commentaries/books in conjuction with a daily meditative practice.  Otherwise you are just learning history and cosmology rather than an expression of the Dharma.  Meditation opens the mind.  Sitting in cow shit helps the mind bloom.

My best advise is to take advantage of whatever you have at hand.  Time to meditate? Do it.  Teachers to guide you?  Listen to them.  A sangha to support you?  Talk to them.  Blog that are nice enough to post sutras and generate discussions?  Read and subscribe to them.

The worst mistake you can make is to reject knowledge before enagaging it.

Suzuki’s Translation

Suzuki and Goddard Translation