The 8th International Conference Buddhism & Australia
Chinese Buddhist Encyclopedia Illustrations
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by Natalie Gummer
If "reading" can lead to . . . radical transformations - if reading is a process of incorporating buddha-speech - then it entails much more than silent engagement with the meaning of the text. The practices advocated in the sutras offer the listener a pathway toward the progressive incorporation of the text, one that invites repeated and ever-more-intense engagement with its words.
What happens to us when we read? Mahayana Buddhist sutras present us with some provocative answers to this question. The sutras reflect keen awareness of the ways in which language shapes us and our world and offer striking alternatives to commonplace representations (at least in English) of language as a mere vehicle or tool for conveying human ideas. And while they were composed in times and places where "reading" as we know it in our digital and print culture didn't exist, they set forth sophisticated techniques for engaging with the power of language. Contemporary readers, Buddhist or not, have something important to learn from these ancient texts - both from the metaphors they use for their own power and from the practices they advocate. This essay explores the potent resources offered by the Sutra of Golden Light, the Teaching of Vimalakirti, and the Lotus Sutra for rethinking our own agency in relation to language and for reexperiencing that relationship. The metaphors and techniques employed in these sutras vary, but they share with one another a conception of reading (broadly defined) as effecting physical as well as cognitive and emotional-aesthetic transformation.
The metaphors and techniques set forth in the Sutra of Golden Light, for instance, represent reading (including listening, studying, holding in memory, reciting, and preaching to another) as a process of incorporation. The sutra's own oral substance is dharmam?tarasa, the liquid essence of the immortalizing nectar of the dharma (see especially chapters 6 and 10 of the Sanskrit text). This essence is like a perfect food that enters listeners and fills them with life, energy, prosperity, and pleasure. They want to hear it over and over again, and as they do, they begin to glow with the golden luminosity of the sutra.
A number of figures, including the Buddha himself, testify to the process that ensues thereafter: an avid listener of the sutra becomes a speaker and, eventually, a buddha - the ultimate speaker - with an immortal golden dharma body. And that body, the sutra tells us, is none other than the sutra itself. This is the transformation offered by the Sutra of Golden Light.
The core metaphor of consumption and incorporation here deserves closer examination. Eating involves taking something that is not oneself into one's own body. The process of digestion - understood in ancient South Asia as the progressive refinement of nutritive essences in a series of internal fires - makes food part of the body, but it also changes the body: the body now contains, incorporates, the food consumed. So if we consume a great deal of a particular food, our bodies are actually scented by it. When we eat, our food becomes part of us, but it also changes what we are. We become more like it. So it is with the sutra: it infuses its listeners with its golden light and eventually transforms them into buddhas whose bodies are identical with the sutra. And those bodies invite us to read the metaphor as alchemical as well: the liquid essence of the sutra is also mercury, which immortalizes those who embody it by transforming them into gold.
The metaphor of the dharma as transformative food is literalized in the Teaching of Vimalakirti. In chapters 8 and 9 of the Sanskrit text, the lay bodhisattva Vimalakirti sends a golden-bodied bodhisattva to a distant buddha-field called Sarvagandhasugandha (Where All Scents Are Sweet) to fetch an inexhaustible bowl of delicious-smelling food from the buddha Gandhottamaku?a (Pinnacle of Finest Perfumes). Vimalakirti and his entourage consume the ambrosial meal and emanate its exquisite scent throughout a forty-nine-day period of digestive cooking. At the end of this time, all those who partook of the food have advanced significantly on the path to buddhahood. As Ananda remarks, the food accomplishes the work of a buddha. The food is like the sutra, the teachings of the Buddha, and the sutra is like the food, entering the bodies of its audiences and furthering their progress on the path to buddhahood.
Like the Sutra of Golden Light, the Lotus Sutra evokes alchemical processes to depict its transformative power. It represents its own oral performance not as mercury, however, but as the fire through which listeners are transformed (literally, "cooked to perfection"; pari-pac in Sanskrit - a term that occurs more than forty times in the sutra). The golden-bodied bodhisattvas who emerge from the cracks of the earth in chapter 15, for instance, have been forged in the fire of the Buddha's preaching of the sutra. Images of heat and light abound in descriptions of the sutra's effects on its listeners and in the praise heaped on those preachers of the dharma (like Pur?a in the eighth chapter) who are particularly skilled in perfecting beings through their performance of the sutra. Preaching the sutra has even more astonishing physical effects than hearing it: witness the remarkable bodily transformations listed in chapter 19.
As with the redolent meal in the Teaching of Vimalakirti, the metaphor is literalized in the story of the bodhisattva Bhai?ajyaraja's fiery self-sacrifice. The bodhisattva wishes to make an offering to the Lotus Sutra and to Candravimalasuryaprabhasasri (Luster of the Spotless Moon and Radiant Sun), the buddha of his time, so he, like Vimalakirti's entourage, digests fragrant substances. After twelve full years of consumption, he has constituted himself as the perfect offering and sets himself alight. When he is subsequently reborn at the time of the same buddha's parinirvana, he is again inspired to make of his body a fiery offering: he burns off his arm. But by making a truth statement, he both restores the arm and gains a golden-colored body. The transformative effects of powerful language in this story mirror the effects of hearing the sutra itself. The story goes on to assert that even bearing in mind a single verse of the Lotus Sutra is just as powerful and meritorious as burning parts of one's body: the fire of the sutra is the ultimate technology for self-perfection.
The consequences of these representations of what it means to engage with a sutra are several. First, our attention is drawn to the material qualities of language, especially spoken language. We generally recognize (if sometimes with difficulty) that words on a page have material form, but the invisibility and evanescence of sound make it seem quintessentially insubstantial. The sutras, in representing their own oral substance as a kind of nourishment or a fiery crucible, challenge this assumption and help listeners to sense the sound as it enters them, to taste the sutra's sonorous substance or feel its transformative heat. They encourage speakers to cultivate an awareness of the visceral presence of the spoken sutra in the body as it resonates in the chest and pours forth from one's mouth to enter the ears of others. And it draws attention to its material effects, both manifest (a shiver down one's spine, hairs suddenly standing on end) and hidden (the changes wrought in one's mind through this encounter with language).
Second, the view of language in these sutras turns on its head the conventional metaphor of language as container or conduit for the communication of ideas. By contrast, the image of sutra language as food or fire represents the listener as the vessel or vehicle, filled with and transformed by the language of the sutra. Agency is located not in the listener or speaker but in the potent words that he or she embodies. In this way, the different practices advocated in the sutras - hearing, reciting, holding in memory, and so forth - can be powerful techniques for eroding the delusion of self and self-power. Paradoxically, then, agentive engagement with the sutra ideally leads to a kind of surrender to the text and its agency.
If "reading" can lead to such radical transformations - if reading is a process of incorporating buddha-speech - then it entails much more than silent engagement with the meaning of the text. The practices advocated in the sutras offer the listener a pathway toward the progressive incorporation of the text, one that invites repeated and ever-more-intense engagement with its words. Moving from listener to speaker necessitates committing the sutra to memory so that it literally becomes part of the mind. And that process epitomizes the paradox of agency: the volitional act of memorizing a sutra - no small feat, in most cases - results in a loss of control over the text. As Charles Malamoud notes in Cooking the World, "a text, once learned by heart . . . cannot be consulted, leafed through, put aside and taken up again like a book. It asserts its unmoving presence and ripens in the mind that welcomes it without that mind being aware of the stages of its maturation" ([Oxford University Press, 1996], 256-57).
Notions of the sovereign self are undermined in yet another way by engagement with these sutras: through the connection formed to all others, past, present, and future, who have engaged or will engage in the same bodily practices. The sutras themselves (especially the Golden Light and the Lotus) draw attention to this connection by anticipating their future audiences (including those now present) and recalling those of the past. In the world of the sutras, and in many contemporary contexts involving sutras, "reading" is a communal practice, one that enhances the formation of human relationships through shared ritual performances. When people chant together, they are both listeners and speakers, both producers and consumers of the food or fire of the sutra's sound. And by embodying the text together, they all become part of the perfect dharma body that is the sutra.
Significant strands of Buddhist thought identify language as the source of delusion, leading us to misperceive the constant flux of experience as discrete, nameable entities with static essences, separate from one another and from our "selves." The sutras illuminate the other side of the same coin: if language is so powerful as to obscure reality, then it is also powerful enough to liberate. In this sense, metaphors are never "just" metaphors. They make possible new experiences and understandings and draw attention to aspects of our experience that we might not have paid attention to before. Depicting the sound of the sutra as an ambrosial liquid enables listeners and speakers to taste it; depicting it as fire enables them to feel its golden glow. Depicting it as the body of the Buddha makes possible a series of practices aimed toward progressively erasing the distinction between one's own body and that of the Buddha/the sutra.
Recent research in the neuroscience of reading (see, for instance, Paul B. Armstrong, How Literature Plays with the Brain [Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013], and Maryanne Wolf, Proust and the Squid [Harper, 2007]) indicates that this activity we take so much for granted involves nothing less than the ongoing transformation of our brains: the creation of new neural pathways and structures and the development of new capacities for experience. Even works we no longer recall having read have left their mark on us, shaping us in ways of which we are largely unaware. In an important sense, everything we read changes who we are and what we are able to think and experience. But Mahayana Buddhist sutras had no need of a concept of neuroplasticity to recognize the tremendous power of our engagement with texts - the power to delude but also to liberate, to burn but also to illuminate, to poison but also to invigorate. The metaphors of transformation in these sutras suggest that when it comes to reading practices, you are what you eat.
Natalie Gummer is a literary and cultural historian of Buddhism with a PhD from Harvard University. She is currently Professor of Religious Studies at Beloit College, Wisconsin. Her research examines the performative aspects of Mahayana Buddhist sutras and the ethics of reading, with a focus on Buddhist literary culture in premodern South Asia. She is coeditor of Defining Buddhism(s): A Reader, and the author of several articles on Mahayana Buddhist sutras and textual practices.
This article was originally published in the October-December 2014 issue of Dharma World.