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Why do we recite Sutras?
by Hakuun Yasutani Roshi
Eido Tai Shimano Roshi
Robert Chotan Aitken Roshi
(The founder of the Zen Center of Los Angeles, Maezumi Roshi, was a successor of Yasutani Roshi. Yasutani Roshi visited the United States each year from 1962 to 1969, holding a number of sesshins from coast to coast.)
There are three reasons why we recite sutras. First, we recite them to make an offering to Buddhist patriarchs; second, to create a noble relationship with all beings; third, to unite these first two actions with our Buddhist training.
Our action in displaying a Buddhist image and offering it incense, flowers, candlelight, and deep bows is such an expression. The greatest delight for Buddhist patriarchs is for their followers to respect, to maintain, and to spread the teaching. Therefore, we sit before an image and recite with sincerity the sutras which they composed. In this way, our sutra recitation is the expression of our gratitude to them.
Second, Buddhist followers want to have others know about and believe and realize the noble teaching of the Buddha. In order to do this, we must read sutras as often as possible. It is necessary and important to do this to establish a relationship with many people. You may ask why, then, we may read sutras alone, or before a dead person. Such recitation has value, and I will explain it to you.
We recite sutras before others as an education of their subconscious minds. On the surface, it may seem that effectiveness of teaching is limited by the extent of understanding. So, it may be thought, if we read difficult sutras, they will have no effect. However, only people who do not understand the power and subtlety of the subconscious hold such an opinion. If you have studied only a little about the subconscious, you will know that even though you do not grasp meaning with your conscious mind, you may understand very clearly with your subconscious. Or, if you do not get any conscious impression, you may already have a subconscious impression. Moreover, you will know, if you have studied the matter, that our conscious mind is influenced by our subconscious; indeed, that our subconscious operates absolute control over our character.
Now, reading sutras alone in a mountain temple is announcing Buddha's teaching to all the world, to all the universe. For our conscious minds, we need a radio station and a radio. However, on the subconscious level, all people in this world and all life in this universe receive perfectly the sutras recited by one person in a mountain temple, and they accept completely the doctrines of Buddhism.
Furthermore, if you know the grandeur and subtlety of the thinking process, you will realize that just thinking the sutras, without using the voice, has a great influence upon the people of the world.
Thus, whether or not others can see or hear, whether they are alive or long dead, if we recite sutras time and again with great conviction to the visible and invisible worlds, we permeate everywhere and guide many to Buddhism, saving all beings. Therefore, the recitation of sutras is very meaningful work.
I presume that you understand that the first two elements of sutra recitation are elements of Buddhist training. But I want to emphasize this point, that there is a great difference in effectiveness in both elements according to the way you recite the sutras--with great energy and single-mindedness, or half-heartedly.
At the same time, there is also a great difference in effectiveness in the third aspect of sutra recitation. This third element is this: if you recite sutras with great energy and single-mindedness frequently, then your own samadhi power will be strengthened and you will have a good chance for satori. Or, if you have already awakened, your satori will shine more brilliantly in your character and act more effectively in your everyday life. The most important attitude in reciting sutras is to recite with your whole spirit.
In conclusion, let me say that if you recite sutras with your whole heart, there will be no difference between zazen and your recitation.