Scriptures change the lives of those who hear them

See, Hear, Understand, and Sit On

The huge body of Chinese Buddhist scriptures, which include not only translations of many Indian texts which have disappeared in India, but also many texts which originated in China, are sometimes put together in an enormous revolving bookcase, in the form of a great drum. There is a belief that modern man – beginning presumably with the modern men in China of the first century AD when Buddhism arrived there – cannot be expected to study them all. Or even half, or even a quarter, or even a fraction of them. But if he has the faith, and stands before that great drum of the scriptures, and simply turns it round a complete revolution – why then, he will get the same merit as if he had studied them.

It is a bit like the Tibetan prayer-wheel, though that has only one scripture, or sentence from a scripture, in it. But it can be revolved many times without much effort. With the Chinese one, you have to give a steady push to the spokes which stick out ofthe drum. You can’t be expected to read them of course, but you push them, and by pushing the drum on its pivot, which I have done several times, you get the merit of studying them. You get the merit, but I must add from personal experience that you do not seem to end up knowing any more about them than before.

A critic, looking at this little ceremony at the great temple of Narita in Japan, said to one of the priests: “The faith of such Buddhists is thinner than paper. Because it’s all based on what they’re supposed to have read, which is paper-thin after all; and they don’t believe all that is written on the paper anyway, so it’s thinner even than paper.”

The priest replied: “No. These scriptures are not just theories. They changed the lives of those who heard them and founded living traditions which civilized half the world and led also to unparalleled achievements even outside religion – in the arts, for instance. Again, the people who compiled these texts invented paper, and printing, a thousand years before you thought of them in Europe.”

Still, the comment about paper-thin belief has some force. The original texts – of Hinduism and Buddhism and other sects – were preserved by memorizing them. The doctrine was, that impregnation takes place through the ear, not through the eye. Experience shows that in reading, the words of the text are at the mercy of the reader, who can read them very fast, or skip some of them, or simply read down the middle of the page till some word happens to catch the eye. In general, the reader’s mind, which by definition is untrained and has little spiritual judgment, will skim parts of the text which it does not care for. In the same way, those who try to train themselves in some physical activity will tend to avoid what they find difficult, on the ground that it does not suit them; in fact, it is these very weaknesses which the teacher first begins to correct.

When a great text is spoken by one who knows what it is, the listener is held to the pace of the speaker, and also learns from the very utterance itself, apart from words. The former head of a great Japanese training monastery has remarked: “An absolute amateur of Zen can write an essay about it without any mistakes. He is adapting what he has read in the works of expert professionals. But let the amateur speak even a single word, and his spiritual state is clear to all who know Zen.”

An inquirer into yoga, invited to have tea with a teacher, spoke out his doubts forcibly about ancient texts: “I can’t see much point in studying those ancient texts as you recommend. The Upanishads were, I suppose, living truths to those who heard them, and perhaps for some time afterwards. But now they have died. And what is dead cannot live again.”

“It can,” replied the teacher. “I saw you put three teaspoonfuls of sugar in your tea. Why did you put in so much? You do not need all that just to sweeten tea.”

No of course not, in the ordinary way. But I do a lot of strenuous sport, and I need that sugar for energy. I am going on to the sports centre this evening.”

The teacher held out a spoon of sugar. “Look at this. It was living in the plant, but now it is dead. If you just look at it, it does nothing for you. But when you take it into yourself and digest it, so that it becomes part of you, then it is transformed into the energy and vigour which you need for your physical achievements. It was living, then it seemed to be dead, but it lives again.”

The inquirer blinked, and was silent for quite a few minutes.

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