The recitation of Buddhist sutras is a very ancient tradition. After the Buddha passed away, his teachings were passed down orally for about three centuries. The master would recite and transmit the teachings to the disciple who will memorise, recite and pass it down again. Such line of oral transmission from mouth to ear is called nyengyü (སྙན་བརྒྱུད་) and people who are very learned were also called mangdutöpa (མང་དུ་ཐོས་པ་) or those who have heard a lot.
The followers of the Buddha used different methods and tools to help them memorize their scriptures and pass them down intact. This was important to avoid the decline of the teachings and serious variations. Besides, meditation helped the followers of the Buddha to cultivate powerful memory to retain knowledge. Repeated recitation of the scriptures certainly helped them to carry on the teachings intact.
In addition to such role of preserving the teachings, the recitation of the sutras is also said to bring great benefit. A clear and loud recitation of the scriptures is comparable to giving the teachings to human and non-human audience. The recitation helped invoke the blessings of the Buddha and the scriptures. It pleased the righteous gods and spirits and also exposed the human and non-human beings, who hear the recitation, to the noble teachings. Thus, recitation of the scriptures generates many forms of merits and benefits. As a result, such recitation of scriptures is believed to help dispel obstacles, cure illnesses, elongate life, overcome misfortunes and contribute towards the overall wellbeing of the people involved in the recitation process. It eventually helps in connecting the beings to enlightenment, the state of ultimate happiness.
For these benefits, the tradition of recitation continued even after the Buddhist scriptures were written down as books on palm leaves, birch barks and later on paper. Although people did not have to always recite from memories, they read the written scriptures aloud as rituals for the abovementioned purposes. People either read the entire corpus of the Buddha’s teachings such as the Kanjur or read specific scriptures such as the Perfection of Wisdom Sutras or the Sutra of Fortunate Aeons for specific purposes.
When people can afford, they read the entire sutra. This process if called dagtshar (དག་ཚར་) or clean set. If they cannot, they read the first few pages of the sutra. This is called zhelchéni (ཞལ་ཕྱེ་ནི་) or opening the face.
Reading and hearing the scriptures is also important because the scriptures are said to be the incarnation of Buddha in the degenerate times. So the Buddha has come in the form of letters and reading and hearing the sutras is a direct experience of Buddhahood. In addition to reading, sutras are also used to bless people, heal sick persons, guide the deceased and as objects of worship. Sometimes people carry scriptures around the valley to avoid draught, famine or natural calamities. There is a whole culture of worshipping and using the book as a holy object or being.
When a devotee reads or sponsors the reading of a sutra, the person must think that he or she is propagating the dharma by reading it out. One must know how reading a sutra leads to freedom from suffering because the sutras contain the real path to enlightenment. One must pray that all sentient beings hear the sutras, realize their message and follow the dharma to reach genuine happiness.
Karma Phuntsho is the Director of Shejun Agency for Bhutan’s Cultural Documentation and Research, founder of the Loden Foundation and the author of The History of Bhutan. The piece was initially published in Bhutan’s national newspaper Kuensel in a series called Why we do what we do.
Subjects Tibet and Himalayas