September 30, 2014

Using the Sutras

We study the Sutras as a guide as we embark on our own spiritual adventures. They provide us strength in times of difficulties, give us solace in times of despair, and motivate us in times of apathy. Eventually, as we travel on our own unique journey, we learn to navigate the route in every kind of weather that circumstance may present - we learn from hard experience where the pitfalls are and when detours must be made -- or not -- in order to progress farther on the path. With experience we come to transcend the maps and we may, metaphorically, "throw them away", yet we still recognize their tremendous value in getting us to where we have come.

Sutras and written teachings are to the Dharma as a map is to journeying. In starting a journey, it is generally useful to read the map before starting out.

Having some idea of where we wish to go, we may tuck the map into a pocket and keep going for a while. Perhaps we may need to consult it frequently. Perhaps we may not need it again until we are "halfway there."

We may not need it after the first glance -- but it sure feels reassuring to know it is in the pocket if needed.

Do you have to have a map to make a journey? No.

If you get in a car in Florida, USA, and keep traveling west, you will eventually reach California. All you have to do then is get to your friend's house on 5th Street in San Francisco (for example). Assuming, of course, that you didn't start in Miami and drive straight into the Gulf of Mexico an hour or so later at Tampa.

One can guess one's way along or stop from time to time and ask directions from strangers. Eventually you would reach California and then San Francisco and then the intended house on 5th Street -- but this is usually the longest way around. Of course, this way might also be an "adventure."

Is it wrong to take this "adventurous" approach? No.

At best it will probably just take longer -- with more backtracks, detours and u-turns along the way; at worst, you might find yourself in very unpleasant, or even dangerous, territory.

On the other hand, it is not wrong for people to enjoy reading maps for the sake of reading maps. Maps can be a work of art. Beautiful in and of themselves. Maps can also be an enlightening adventure full of sudden flashes of knowledge -- like how far it really is from Houston to El Paso, or how tall and rugged that mountain range that travelers must pass through.

If our journey was pleasant, we might even pin the map to the wall and look at it from time to time as a reminder of the journey and the things we saw along the way. We might add our own little notes and arrows pointing to the little town where we enjoyed a small hotel. Or surround it with photographs of beautiful vistas and odd or meaningful roadside views.

In the end, however, a map is just a map. Whichever choice was made, very few people would reach the home of the friend on 5th Street, and shout "Hooray!!! I have duplicated the map!!!!"

The point of the journey is not always the destination. Neither does the point of the journey lie in the map itself. But the map is certainly a handy tool for those who wish to navigate fewer u-turns and backtracks.

This is the purpose of Sutras and the written word -- they are not ends in themselves. In Chan, if our spiritual experience tells us to turn left when the map says to turn right, we go with our spiritual experience.

We study the Sutras as a guide as we embark on our own spiritual adventures. They provide us strength in times of difficulties, give us solace in times of despair, and motivate us in times of apathy. Eventually, as we travel on our own unique journey, we learn to navigate the route in every kind of weather that circumstance may present - we learn from hard experience where the pitfalls are and when detours must be made -- or not -- in order to progress farther on the path. With experience we come to transcend the maps and we may, metaphorically, "throw them away", yet we still recognize their tremendous value in getting us to where we have come. And we find we have cultivated extreme gratitude for the generations of wise men and women who have sought to preserve and spread the teachings of the Dharma through them. We can remind ourselves that it was upon hearing the chanting of the Diamond Sutra that our sixth and last Patriarch, Hui Neng, was brought into the Dharma.

In Master Lin Chi's experience, "The leaver-of-home must study the Way. I myself was formerly interested in the Vinaya and diligently studied the Sutras and Treatises. Then I realized that they were only drugs suitable for appeasing the ills of the world, only relative theories. At one stroke I threw them away, set myself to learn the Way, started Zen training and met great teachers. Only then did my eye of the Way begin to see clearly, and I was able to understand all the old masters and to know the false from the true. Man born of woman does not naturally know this. But after long and painful practice, one morning it is realized in one's own body."

Contemplate the great sutras and spiritual commentaries, savor the flavors as you might a fine cheese or rare and delicate mushroom, and let the enlightened words of others help take you into new dimensions of awareness. Soon Lin Chi's experience will be your own and you will one day joyously realize that the ultimate map is yourself.