The Merit of Words and Letters: Sutra Recitation in Japanese Zen

Lecture: Center for Japanese Studies: Center for Buddhist Studies | February 15 | 5-7 p.m. | 180 Doe Library

 Erez Joskovich, UC Berkeley

 Institute of East Asian Studies (IEAS), Center for Japanese Studies (CJS)

Classical Chan/Zen literature is famous for its disparagement of scriptural authority, ranging from the well-known slogan “separate transmission outside the scriptures...,” attributed to Bodhidharma, to stories of renowned Zen masters abusing Buddhist scriptures. Nevertheless, similar to other Buddhist schools, incantations of sutras and invocation of dhāranī have been a significant component of Zen monastic life throughout history. Not only do Zen monks not burn sutras, but in fact daily and monthly sutra-recitation services, including different offerings and prayers, take up more of the monks’ time and effort than does any other activity, including zazen.

This talk examines the liturgical function of Buddhist scriptures within the Japanese Rinzai Zen School. Specifically, it aims to better understand how Zen practitioners interpret the meaning and purpose of sutra recitation, and how they bridge the apparent gap between the disparagement of scriptural authority and the pervasiveness of Buddhist scriptures in their monastic life. To achieve this goal, we will explore the Kankinbō 看経榜 (“Reading Sutra Placard”) chapter of Goke sanshō yōromon 五家參詳要路門 (“An Examination of the Essential Teaching of the Five Houses”; T 2576), written by the eminent eighteenth-century Japanese Rinzai monk Tōrei Enji (東嶺圓慈, 1721–1792).

Tōrei discussion combines various mental and physical benefits of sutra recitation, as well as its power to positively affect natural and supernatural environments. Thus, this work highlights the multifaceted understanding of texts as ritual objects, one that challenges any strict distinctions between worldly benefits and spiritual cultivation. Moreover, Tōrei exegetical efforts to explain the function and to justify the legitimacy of sutra recitation clearly indicate that the tension between antinomian rhetoric and worship was a major concern for pre-modern Zen masters, and not, as some scholars have argued, merely the result of projecting Western categories on traditional Zen practice. Accordingly, I contend that the Kankinbō can advance our understanding of the relations between the orthodox view of rituals within the Rinzai Zen tradition and its modern interpretations in Japan and elsewhere.