Contemplation of Sutra as Practice ~ Jiken Anderson

Or “When you need a crowbar, use a crowbar.”

Thus have I heard—in some corners of the English-speaking Zen world: 

Study of the sutras is an obstacle to practice.  “Dogen said just sit,” it has been said, “so just sit.”   Our transmission is outside the sutras, not about letters or words.  And we know perfectly well what this means, right?

I do not know if this resistance to study and thought (and, concomitantly, to ritual) represents a traditional tendency in Japanese Zen or even a coherent reading of Dogen, or is a reflection of an uncritical embrace of the rhetoric of the Patriarchs of the ninth century, who rightly rejected the hegemonic and constipated piety of their own moment as counterproductive. 

I do know that we do things differently in the milieu of Tendai Buddhism among English-speakers.  And I have reason to think that a Tendai approach to practice and to the teachings offers a sensible, workable third path between two untenable positions: a nihilistic rejection of the sutras as Asian Puff from the Ancient Past Irrelevant to Us on one side; an eternalistic, uncritical, or fundamentalist veneration of the sutras as the Summum Bonum of the One True Faith and Mystical Wisdom Heritage on the other side. 

To get at what I am proposing, you need to have a handle on two interrelated concepts:  that of upaya or skillful means, and that of Buddha-garbha, or enlightened nature.  These are treated together in the Lotus Sutra, which is the central text of the Tendai tradition.  Buddha-garbha means that all beings, even you, have the potential to attain enlightenment and, further, will inevitably do so; upaya means that all the actions of the Buddhas, including the recorded texts of the sutras, are moments in which enlightened mind reaches out and meets deluded beings where they are, with whatever tool, trick, or gimmick is necessary. 

“Gimmick” is not too strong a word for this method:  in chapter four of the Lotus Sutra, for instance, we see an analogy made between the teaching situation of the Buddha and the disciple to that of an employer (hilariously in my view) tricking a man into shoveling shit for decades in order for him to feel better about himself and, ultimately, attain something that was already his from the start.  One might say upaya is about mitigating stupidity, specifically the stupidity of deluded beings who do not see their own inherent dignity and divinity, the stupidity of avoidance.  Upaya is the means by which Buddha-garbha is realized; Buddha-garbha is the rationale for upaya. 

Buddha Shakyamuni is credited in the Lotus Sutra (chapter two this time) with coming on out and describing this situational pedagogy:

“The Tathagathas save all living beings
With innumerable expedients.
The cause all living beings to enter the Way
To the wisdom-without-asravas of the Buddha.
Anyone who hears the Dharma
Will not fail to become a Buddha.
Every Buddha vows at the outset:

‘I will cause all beings
To attain the same enlightenment
That I attained.’

The future Buddhas will expound many thousands
Of Myriads of millions of teachings
For just one purpose,
That is, for the purpose of revealing the One Vehicle.”  Lotus Sutra p. 43.

And the One Vehicle, or Ekayana, is the Buddha-Vehicle (Buddha-yana):  the doctrine that all beings, here described as those who hears the Dharma, inherently have the potential to Buddhahood, with no exceptions, and that Buddhist practice amounts to eliminating defilements and drawing forth or manifesting from oneself enlightened qualities.  This is about the Buddha within. 

The purpose of the written Teaching is to give a pointer or, if you like, to create a situation or context in which one might have some insight into this.  It is a poke, a prod.  Brook Ziporyn describes it as being like the punchline to a joke:  first a context is established, and then undercut with a surprise that transforms the context.  The transmission is not in or of the words anymore than the laughter a good joke provokes is identical to the words of the joke.  This is not about making meaning, or having a meaningful life; this is not a semiotic or semantic game.  It is, in short, about practice.

There is a way in which the question of whether the claims made in sutras are objectively true or false is irrelevant.  Consider the hyperbole:  does it really matter how many kotis of nayutas of kalpas passed before the sky stopped spontaneously showering mandarava blossoms?  Only to such a one who seeks to understand Stravinsky or Bartok by measuring the mass and volume of a symphonic score.  No:  the written text is itself a series of upaya, or gimmicks, just as a piece of music is constructed serially to kick you here, caress you there, and achieve (if successful) a particular affective impact on the observer

Can the orchestration Stravinsky devised for the Rite of Spring be proven true or false?  No, but it can be understood nonverbally, transmitted outside the “words” or notes, if taken on its own terms and in an appreciative attitude.  This means stop jibbering your overconfident jabber and listen to the music, open up to it, let it work on you.   Another analogy:  if you are trapped in a cage, and someone offers you a crowbar with which to work your way out, does it matter if the crowbar is “true” or “false”?

The rest of the prescribed practices in post-Ekayana Buddhism, inclusive of Japanese Zen streams, are also upaya.  There is nothing singularly special about the effective but arbitrary practice of sitting on a zafu staring at a wall until your hips heroically turn arthritic.  That, too, is a device, something that works in a particular way under particular conditions.  Chanting?  A device.  Walking in the woods with an open heart?  The same, and just as authentic.  In short, quit worrying and contemplate the teaching in a meditative spirit, just the same as washing the dishes or shoveling the shit.  In all seriousness, why not?  Who are you to avoid the dirty work? 

This is the truth, not a lie:  this literature reaches people because it directs attention to a fundamental reality of our situation, in any situation.  With an open mind, you may also get in on it.  Namo Buddhaya!

“Those who do not study the Dharma
Cannot understand it.
You have already realized

The fact that the Buddhas, the World-Teachers, employ expedients,
According to the capacities of all living beings.
Know that, when you remove your doubts,
And when you have great joy,
You will become Buddhas!”
Lotus Sutra, pp. 49-50

Works Cited and Suggested

  • Murano, Senchu (trans).  The Lotus Sutra.  Tokyo, Japan:  Nichiren Shu Shimbun, 1974.
  • Ng Yu-Kwan.  T’ien-t’ai Buddhism and Early Madhyamika.  Honolulu, HI: University of Hawaii Press:  1993.
  • Swanson, Paul L.  Foundations of T’ien-T’ai Philosophy.  Berkeley, CA:  Asian Humanities Press, 1989.
  • Ziporyn, Brook.  Being and Ambiguity: Philosophical Experiments with Tiantai Buddhism.  Chicago, IL: Open Court Publications, 2004.

Other Upaya:

Jikan Anderson leads the Great River Ekayana Sangha in Arlington, Virginia.  Find more of his material at DC tendai. Follow him on twitter under the handle @JikanAnderson.


5 thoughts on “Contemplation of Sutra as Practice ~ Jiken Anderson

  1. I was always told that the Lotus Sutra was one of Dogen’s favorite and influential sutras, being constantly quoted and referred to in the Shobogenzo. This kind of squashes another misconception like “Dogen doesn’t do koans.”

    My reading on upaya in the Lotus Sutra, following logic at least, is that once the Buddha realized enlightenment, he became inseparable from any other being in the universe. If upaya is any action by the Buddha to point us towards the same, then any action by anyone is upaya; there is no distinction between skillful and unskillful means.

    This can be verified in that Dharma gates a bodhisattva vows to enter are boundless. In pursuing the truth, every experience, whether sutra study or zazen, helps us on the way. We just need to try a little bit of everything, not focusing on one particular method.

    Thanks for the post.

  2. Bottom line: if it works, it works. That’s not just the essence of Zen, it’s the essence of intelligence.

    Thanks for the post!

    Rusty Ring: Reflections of an Old-Timey Hermit (blog)

  3. The internet is an interesting place indeed! I recognize your writing, John. It has been a long time. And Doug M. too. Wishing you both well.

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