The Ontology of Sutras
The final chapter of the Lotus Sutra opens on a very curious scene. The bodhisattva Fugen (Sk: Samantabhadra), long abiding in the eastern quarter of the cosmos, has heard that a buddha is preaching the Lotus Sutra on Earth. He arrives, with a multitude of beings trailing him, at the foot of the historical Buddha. After circumambulating the Buddha seven times, he announces, "I have come to listen receptively. I beg of the World Honored One to preach [the Lotus Sutra] to us!" He immediately follows this request with a question: "After the extinction of the Thus Come One, how may a good man or good woman attain this" Lotus Sutra? The Buddha provides a brief answer to Fugen's question, and the bulk of the remainder of the chapter is then given over to the various vows Fugen makes to guard and protect anyone who accepts, keeps, reads, recites, copies, explains, or practices this scripture. In the course of these lengthy praises, Fugen goes so far as to maintain that if a person "forgets a single phrase or a single gāthā [verse] of the Lotus Sutra, I will teach him, reading and reciting together with him," so that he is able to remember it.
What is curious about this scene is that Fugen asks for something he clearly does not need. He arrives in great excitement and requests to hear a sutra that he presumably has not heard before. And yet a mere paragraph later-and still having heard nothing of the sutra-he vows to help other beings study the sutra, which he clearly already has completely memorized, down to the last phrase and verse. In the tiny gap of white space between Fugen's request and his question there is narrative slippage, a textual fissure that allows us to peer more deeply into the motivating concerns and pivotal themes of the sutra. On a narrative level, Fugen's false request produces a litany of desperation rather than the expected preaching of the Lotus Sutra. Each of Fugen's vows begins with the prefatory phrase, "In the last five hundred years, in the midst of a muddied, evil age ... if there is anyone ..."
Thus, Fugen's dramatic last-minute appearance underscores two fundamental things about the Lotus Sutra. First, it will be exceedingly difficult for any of us who live in this degenerate later age to encounter the sutra, and, second, we can never be certain that the text we have encountered is precisely the Lotus Sutra because what we have of the sutra consists largely of narrative about the sutra: we hear of its powers and its rarity, we hear bodhisattvas and buddhas from other lands praise it, we hear what happens to those who slander it, and so forth. Many of these narrative gestures concentrate on increasing readerly desire while constantly obscuring the object of that desire. Is the sutra called the Lotus Sutra-the book I can hold in my hands and read aloud-the same thing as the teaching called the Lotus Sutra-the thing Fugen was so eager to hear? I would argue that by denying the simple satisfaction of readerly desire, texts like these involve their readers in an insatiably desirous relationship to writing and, in doing so, thematize the reader-text relationship, marking this as one of the crucial concerns that the text is trying to explore and for which it is trying to script the rules of engagement.
Other scholars, on whose work I build here, have explored the various complicated and compelling ways that Mahāyāna sutras cut across oral and written modes of discourse, navigate between aural and visual sense worlds, and perhaps even disrupt various norms of mainstream Buddhist traditions. This last point, concerning a distinction between Mahāyāna and "mainstream" Buddhism, is tied into an abiding concern in modern scholarship with the origins of the Mahāyāna in India-not the intellectual focus of this book, but an issue that requires some clarification before we can move forward.
Imagining the Origins of the Mahāyāna
The last half century has seen multiple attempts to theorize or generalize the origins of the Mahāyāna and to define the core concerns that caused it eventually to split from the Buddhist mainstream. Survey materials, textbooks, and encyclopedia entries often characterize the Mahāyāna as a reform movement that arose out of "dissatisfaction" with perceived "shortcomings in the Theravada tradition," such as a primary concern with "individual salvation" rather than the liberation of all beings. Hirakawa Akira, starting in the 1950s, offers a second approach, stressing the importance of laity and the centrality of stupa worship in the formation of the early Mahāyāna. Though his theses have been heavily criticized and largely disproved, his work may be credited with generating sustained academic conversation about the shape of early Mahāyāna. Responding to Hirakawa, several scholars, particularly beginning in the 1980s and 1990s, advanced a third argument: that the Mahāyāna was "the work of a predominantly monastic order of meditators engaged in strenuous ascetic practices, people asserting, in short, that the Buddha is to be found in and through the realization of the dharma, not the worship of relics." Importantly, this third position re-centers the focus, from stupa to dharma, and reasserts the centrality of the Buddhist teachings as contained in the written sutras. In this sense, it bears a surface similarity to Gregory Schopen's early work on the "cult of the book," which provides a fourth angle on Mahāyāna origins: that the Mahāyāna distinguished itself by establishing cultic centers organized not around stupas, but rather around written sutra texts that were recited, worshipped, honored, and circumambulated.
It is absolutely essential, however, to decouple the question of origins from the culture of books. In his later work, Schopen moves beyond the analysis of the linguistic record (what sutras say) to an analysis of the material record (what given, datable sutra texts look like). He points out that sources do provide evidence of a working "book-cult" in India-manuscripts whose "covering boards or first leaves were often heavily stained and encrusted from continuous daubing with unguents and aromatic powders," for instance-but that this "evidence is almost a thousand years later than it should be" (at least according to his earlier thesis). That is, although the linguistic text of sutras, composed between the first and fifth centuries C.E., seems to call for book worship, material evidence for such worship dates to no earlier than the eleventh to fifteenth centuries C.E. in India. Arguing in a similar vein, Jan Nattier has noted that passages concerning sutra worship are often interpolations, sections and phrases that were stitched into the sutras in their later versions, and she concludes that "the emergence of the Mahāyāna ... does not begin with the cult of the book, but rather culminates in it at some point." The book-cult, then, while perhaps not part of the story of Mahāyāna origins, is nevertheless an aspect of Mahāyāna that became increasingly important over time, and which achieved particular significance in Chinese-language translations of the sutras and in East Asian cultures (such as Japan) that relied on these translations. An examination of the Mahāyāna "cult of the book" thus will tell us not about the Great Vehicle's origins in India but about the movement in some of its localized, East Asian forms.
In addition to distinguishing between the early years of Indian origins and later developments in the sinophone Buddhist sphere, we also need to make a distinction between "what sutras want" and "what sutras were given." Answering the question of what sutras want (for the purposes of this study) is a matter of examining what they ask for, in the Chinese translations that were consulted most often in medieval Japan-what they ask for, but may or may not have gotten. Inquiring into what sutras were given is a matter of examining the material record, which will provide evidence concerning when, where, and how sutras' desires were actualized. In response to the first question-"What do sutras want?"-we know that the Chinese translations of Mahāyāna sutras that were circulating in medieval Japan asked for a wide variety of things, including worship, circumambulation, and offerings; they asked to be read, recited, memorized, and held. In response to the second question-"What were sutras given?"-we know that by at least the tenth century in Japan they were being worshipped, read, recited, copied, expounded upon in sermons, and memorized. A similar array of praxes surrounding Mahāyāna sutras may have developed as early as the third or fourth century in China and as late as the eleventh to fifteenth centuries in India. As will become clear, throughout this study references to sutras treat only the first of these questions, the one concerning the abstract, idealized nature of desire as discernable in the linguistic record, while I use Japanese sources (texts written in Japan, using either the Japanese or the Chinese language) to examine questions about the actualization of sutras' desires and traces these actualizations leave in the material record.
To be clear, then, I come to Mahāyāna sutras specifically from the vantage point of medieval Japanese explanatory tales (setsuwa). My general purpose in this and succeeding chapters is to outline the textual attitudes of a certain body of literature that began in India, was translated into Chinese, and was then reinterpreted in Japan. Rather than speaking of the Indian origins of the Mahāyāna, I am interested in the idea of Mahāyāna textual culture as constructed by the authors of Japanese setsuwa. As a medieval genre, setsuwa are an often-miraculous form of literature that assumes sutras are living beings who may incorporate themselves into human form. Thus, my main interest in sutras has to do with exploring three questions. First, how did sutras come to be alive, that is, what narrative tools propel them into life? Second, now that they are alive, what do they want: as living beings, what are their requirements, their equivalent of food and shelter? And finally, what is the nature of the reader-text relationship they propose; in other words, what happens to human beings who decide to give sutras what they ask for? In short, I am interested in examining the rules and the stakes of sutra engagement and how we, as humans and as readers, play into them.
First, how is it that sutras come alive? Mahāyāna sutras use a variety of literary techniques that modern readers might most readily associate with metafiction. Taken collectively, these metafictional strategies impact the ontological status of Mahāyāna sutras in some important ways. The issue of textual ontology can be generally glossed with the oft-quoted question: "If the Mona Lisa is in the Louvre, where [is] Hamlet?" In other words, where, how, in what plane of action does a literary text exist? I suggest that by obscuring the authorial hand and complicating any notion of a simple origin in oral discourse, Mahāyāna sutras cut themselves off from their point of creation and establish a unique ontology for themselves. Instead of mooring themselves to an external source, as most literature does, Mahāyāna sutras seek to take the authority that might otherwise be invested in an author or in a speaker and invest it in themselves. We see this most plainly in the argument that sutras contain the entire body of the Buddha, and that they are, in fact, the entity that gives birth to buddhas. Mahāyāna sutras thus frame themselves as textual constructs that are alive and eerily self-aware.
Moving forward, now that sutras have a certain sentience, what do they want? I argue that sutras are, in essence, a nervous genre. Aware of their vulnerabilities to the ravages of time and convinced they are always in danger of dying, they evince a strong reproductive drive. Mahāyāna sutras are careful to include within themselves instructions about how they should be propagated, promises of reward for those who agree to do the propagating, and threats to inflict pain on those who do not comply. In short, having successfully placed themselves in a position of agency, sutras speak from this position, demanding very particular things from their readers, only one of which is actually to be read.
Finally, what is the nature of the reader-text relationship that Mahāyāna sutras propose? Here I explore the persistent rhetoric of the "vessel" or "container" through which the mind (Jp: kokoro) of the devotee becomes metaphorically linked to two other Buddhist sites: the stupa and the scroll. This word "mind" needs some explanation. Buddhism recognizes six "sense organs" (Jp: rokkon, literally the "six roots"): the eye is the sense organ that perceives form; the ear, sound; the nose, scent; the tongue, flavor; the body, the "touch" of external stimulus; and, finally, consciousness perceives dharma, itself a multivalent term that in its more specific instances indicates the Buddhist teachings, and at its most expansive encompasses the true nature of reality, the "laws" of the universe. The salient point here is that "consciousness" is embodied, firmly situated in the flesh. This means that the "mind" (Jp: kokoro) is at once the rational and logical center of thought (what in English we might associate with the "brain"), and it is part and parcel of the fabric of our bodies and sensual perceptions (what in English we might associate with the "heart"). This "mind" has a physical locale: it resides somewhere in the region of the chest, a detail that will prove important in the discussions that follow. Whenever I use the word "mind" in this book, this is the entity to which I refer. Considering the reader-text relation, then, ultimately I argue that what Mahāyāna sutras seek is nothing short of a mutually beneficial symbiotic relationship with the human body. In this relationship, the human body serves as a host organism for the sutra-as-symbiont. It is precisely this symbiotic relationship that establishes the ground rules of Mahāyāna textual culture and that becomes the subject of so much miracle literature in medieval Japan.
In this chapter I will be toggling between several early Mahāyāna sutras with the aim of creating a synchronic sketch of the genre as a whole and paying particular attention to what sutras say about their own textuality. All of the sutras I survey here were known in medieval Japan through their classical Chinese translations. My point in treating them as a group is to suggest the degree to which their themes and strategies overlap. I treat Mahāyāna sutras as a literary genre rather than as the intellectual property of any given spiritual school or group of schools. This approach reflects my grounding in setsuwa, a genre that transgresses sectarian bounds.
My basic criterion for deciding what sutras to include in this chapter is whether or not a given sutra appears in setsuwa. The Lotus Sutra clearly receives the lion's share of attention, with the Pure Land sutras following in a collective second place and the others considerably further behind. Properly speaking, the Flower Ornament Sutra, which I discuss at length below, did not attract much attention in Japanese setsuwa literature, possibly because its length made many forms of popular devotion (memorization, for instance) quite difficult. Nevertheless, when it does appear in the literature, it makes a powerful impact: Myōe (the monk who severed his ear) was a devotee of the Flower Ornament Sutra. Further, the sutra is particularly germane to this discussion because it is largely given over to describing the special characteristics of bodhisattvas, distinctions that helpfully illuminate the function of memory in the preservation of sacred text. The only other anomaly is the Heart Sutra. Because of its extreme brevity, this sutra was widely memorized and chanted even by illiterate believers. Although the Heart Sutra appears frequently in setsuwa literature, its 276 written characters say little about textual culture, so I omit it from my discussion in this chapter.
One distinguishing characteristic of Mahāyāna sutras is that they were composed in the early centuries of the Common Era, nearly half a millennium after the historical Buddha's death. Nevertheless, they all stage themselves as oral discourses, generally with the historical Buddha serving as the main character. The Lotus Sutra is typical in this regard and begins by placing the Buddha at Vulture Peak on the Indian subcontinent addressing a vast audience. The sutra centers on a series of lengthy dialogues between the Buddha and various interlocutors, the course of which produces a number of famous parables such as the parable of the burning house, which I mention in passing below. The Lotus was translated into Chinese a number of times, most famously by a team of translators led by Kumārajīva (344-413), and it is his translation (T 262) that I refer to in this study.
The Sutra of Immeasurable Life and the Sutra of Meditation on the Buddha Amitāyus (Jp: Amida) also situate the Buddha in the center of the Indian subcontinent at Vulture Peak in the realm of King Bimbisāra. In the Sutra of Immeasurable Life, our historical Buddha, speaking to a large audience primarily through his chief interlocutor and disciple Ānanda, describes how the buddha Amida achieved enlightenment, reiterating that buddha's vows and painting a detailed picture of his Pure Land. This sutra has many translations into classical Chinese, and I refer here to the one by Samghavarman (active third century, T 360). The Sutra of Meditation on the Buddha Amitāyus addresses similar subject matter from a different vantage point. While the Buddha has been at Vulture Peak, the son of King Bimbisāra has killed his father and imprisoned his mother, Queen Vaidehī. When Queen Vaidehī calls on the Buddha to aid her, he appears in her prison cell along with Ānanda and he teaches her to visualize the Pure Land of Amida. I reference the translation by Kumārajīva (T 366).
The Diamond Sutra and Nirvana Sutra move the locale northeast, closer to the base of the Himalayas. The Diamond Sutra places the Buddha at the Jetavana Grove in Śrāvastī. The subject consists largely of a dialogue between Buddha and his disciple Subhūti concerning the true nature of reality. Again, I reference the Kumārajīva translation (T 235). The Nirvana Sutra stages itself at the nearby town of Kuśinagar under a pair of teak trees in whose shade the Buddha has laid himself down to die. The sutra consists mostly of conversations the Buddha has with his disciples Kāśyapa and Manjuśri, and a lengthy dialogue with the bodhisattva Lion's Roar, in which he clarifies earlier teachings and explains the nature of nirvana. My references are to the translation by Dharmakśema (385-433, T 374).
The Vimalakīrti Sutra and the Flower Ornament Sutra depart from the previous patterns in that the Buddha is not the undisputed main speaker in either. The Vimalakīrti Sutra opens with the Buddha at the Amra Gardens in Vaishali near the northeast edge of the Indian subcontinent. Most of the narrative, however, concerns the layman Vimalakīrti, who has taken ill and who uses the opportunity of his illness to preach on a number of topics, most prominently the evanescence of the body. I reference Kumārajīva's translation (T 475). Similarly, although the Flower Ornament Sutra begins by placing the historical Buddha on the Indian subcontinent in the eastern kingdom of Magadha, the bulk of the discourse is carried out by "transhistorical, symbolic beings" who often speak through the power of the Buddha. The actual orator at any time may be the Buddha, two buddhas (the speaker and the Buddha who underwrites him), or even a myriad of buddhas all speaking in unison and often all sharing the same name. Early chapters wend from one topic to the next, though most are concerned with the special characteristics of bodhisattvas. The final chapter, which dwarfs most of the others, follows the progress of the devotee Sudhana as he enters into and pursues the bodhisattva path. The scripture was translated, in whole or in part, multiple times into classical Chinese. The one I reference is the lengthier Śiksānanda (652-710) translation (T 279), though I also consulted the earlier Buddhabhadra (359-429) version (T 278).
As several scholars have pointed out, while Mahāyāna sutras typically situate themselves as the direct discourse of the historical Buddha, they are in fact later compositions. This raises important questions about the literary nature of these texts and the particular ways in which they understand their fictions of place, presence, and orality. In the following sections I take up these arguments, examining the narrative strategies sutras employ and characterizing the genre as a metafictional enterprise.
Mahāyāna and Metafiction
Though metafictional elements have occasionally been identified in earlier works, metafiction is most closely associated with postmodernism, and the word itself was not coined until 1960, so it may seem odd that I am characterizing many Mahāyāna sutras, texts that were written in the first centuries of the Common Era, as metafictional. I use the term in the sense articulated by Patricia Waugh, who defines metafiction as "writing which self-consciously and systematically draws attention to itself as artifact in order to pose questions about the relationship between fiction and reality." While she characterizes metafiction as explicitly postmodern, many of the specific techniques she discusses as its core strategies can be found in abundance in Mahāyāna sutras. In addition to its rhetorical style, metafiction also concerns itself with a critique of genre, often calling attention to its own literariness by parodying or departing from oral convention. Thus, metafiction is both a set of narrative strategies and a reaction against a certain temporal frame, a desire to shake things up, to use literature as a way to depart from convention and, by critiquing convention, to create something new. While some may balk at my use of the word "fiction" to describe sacred texts, the point I mean to stress is that Mahāyāna Buddhism was born out of just such a desire to shake things up and that, furthermore, it chose written scripture-literature-as the primary tool through which to orchestrate that upheaval.
Where did Mahāyāna sutras come from? Did they originate in the teachings of the historical Buddha, kept, as some traditional sources maintain, beneath the sea under the watchful eye of the Dragon King until such time as land-loving beings were ready for them? Are they the latter-day revelations of inspired mystics? Or are they the conscious construction of "wily authors"? I think the last two speculations are the more tenable and, in both of these scenarios, Mahāyāna sutras are "fiction" in the sense that they were created and fashioned by human hands. Over the next several pages I will examine the ways in which metafictional strategies obscure the authorial hand while implicitly critiquing the notion that Mahāyāna sutras originate in the oral discourse of the Buddha. By invoking these strategies, sutras invest themselves with authority and begin to address their audiences directly, asking their readers to treat them in certain ways.
Let me be clear. By using the tools of fiction to think about sutras, I do not mean to question either their efficacy or their validity. Rather, I wish to point out two things. First, sutras as we have them today possess a complex textual history that we, as yet, understand imperfectly. Second, sutras employ a rich range of rhetorical and literary techniques. Drawing concerted attention to these may help us to understand better both the medium and the message: how sutras work and what they say. Approaching sutras in this way is a bit like taking apart a pocket watch. The objective is to understand how the watch functions, not to deny the forward march of time whose movement the watch was created to make visible and quantifiable. Assuming that sutras were created in order to make certain things visible, let us then look closely at how they do so.
Mahāyāna sutras make use of a host of metafictional narrative techniques, some of which operate at a surface level while others cut straight to the core of the Mahāyāna as a particular Buddhist path. As one of the more superficial techniques, many sutras make intertextual allusions to other sutras: the Flower Ornament Sutra references a sutra named Voice of the Cycles of Teaching of All Buddhas (T 10.279.381c19); the Nirvana Sutra glosses passages from the Contemplation Sutra (T 12.374.474a27 ff. and T 12.374.565.604 ff.) and the Lotus Sutra (T 12.374.471a28 ff.); while the Lotus Sutra alludes to the Sutra of Immeasurable Meanings (T 9.262.2b8), which appears to have been composed after the Lotus Sutra in the wake of this imaginative citation. These intertextual references establish a given sutra as a member of a recognized genre of texts. Further, these allusions often serve as the stepping-stone for the sutra at hand to claim its own supremacy, defining itself as containing all the previous teachings and going beyond them.
In addition, Mahāyāna sutras often include as part of their narrative passages detailing the reception of that narrative. These descriptions are sprinkled liberally throughout the text, and most sutras conclude with a scene of joyful reception. In fact, these scenes are such a staple of the genre that the Nirvana Sutra defines "sutra" as any text that "begins with 'Thus have I heard,' and ends with 'were overjoyed, did obeisance, and departed'" (T 12.374.451b22-23). In this way sutras establish what reactions they anticipate from their audiences. As readers, we are expected to receive the teachings with great happiness, to worship and make offerings to them, to vow to protect them, and to promise to teach them elsewhere in the world. Lest we forget, our role is almost always scripted for us in the final paragraphs of the sutra, so that as we turn from its closing lines to face the world outside, we remember the charge we have been given.
The Trouble with Entrustment
In a somewhat more complex gesture, Mahāyāna sutras typically include scenes in which the narrative is named and entrusted. In these interludes, the main character (the historical Buddha) charges a secondary character (usually Ānanda, but sometimes Kāśyapa or another disciple) with the duty of preserving and propagating the story in which they both appear. Imagine, for a moment, reading the final chapter of a novel in which a secondary character turns to the protagonist and asks him, "What's the name of this book we're in, and how would you like me to circulate it after you die?" When the naming and entrustment scene is successful, and when it occurs near the end of the text, it activates the traditional opening of sutras ("Thus have I heard") and reminds readers that they have been consuming a frame narrative. Readers can now identify that "I," who disappeared after line one, as a specific character in the story.
This frame narrative also establishes something of a phantom link between the sutra's authority and its purported origin in the word of the Buddha. The other metafictional strategies, however, largely work to undermine this tentative link and, in fact, naming and entrustment scenes are at times quite problematic. The Nirvana Sutra, for instance, is virtually a case study in everything that can go wrong with entrustment. Put another way, the sutra showcases a variety of ways in which a written sutra, by disrupting the smooth functioning of entrustment, can stop being merely the object that is passed around (orally entrusted by one person to another) and can instead begin to seize authority for itself.
When the Nirvana Sutra opens, the Buddha is on his deathbed. Myriad beings appear, all grieving and wailing that once the Buddha has passed into extinction, the teachings, too, will begin to die. Responding to these worries, Buddha encourages the monks in the assembly not to despair, because "I now entrust [Jp: fushoku] all the unsurpassed true dharma to Mahākāśyapa. This Kāśyapa will henceforth be the one on whom you may rely. Just as the Thus Come One is the refuge of all beings, so it is with Mahākāśyapa. He is now your refuge." The monks, however, have something else in mind and they make a counterproposal, arguing, "If this dharma treasure is entrusted to Ānanda or any other monk, it will not abide for long. Why is this? Because all of the voice-hearers including Mahākāśyapa will die.... Thus, you should entrust this unsurpassed buddha dharma to all the bodhisattvas."
At this point in the Nirvana Sutra narrative, the Buddha has not even suggested Ānanda as an option, though he was widely regarded in pre-Mahāyānic tradition as the monk who had heard and remembered more of Buddha's teachings than any other. The monks' point, though, is that any one of them may die at any moment, so it would be far safer to entrust the teachings to all of the advanced practitioners rather than any single person. The Buddha recovers quickly from this criticism and praises the monks' forethought, noting that he had already considered this contingency. He accepts their proposal and formally announces that he hereby entrusts the dharma to all bodhisattvas. The narrative continues, however, as if this protest had never been lodged, and a few pages later Kāśyapa formally vows to "protect and hold the true dharma," expounding it widely to all other beings and beating down those who do not have faith in it in the way that hail or frost beats down the tender grasses (T 12.374.382c20-23).
What we have here, in somewhat muted form, is something like a deathbed squabble over the inheritance. To whom will the treasure of the dharma be handed down? At this point, the treasure under discussion is the entire dharma, and not just any single named sutra, so whoever receives the formal assignment stands to become the next leader of the assembly. One faction stands behind Ānanda, another behind Kāśyapa, and yet another espouses pluralism. Though the Buddha, as developed in this sutra, agrees to pluralism in principle, in practice he anoints Kāśyapa. At least for now.
The troubles are not over. Though Kāśyapa may have been chosen as the receptacle for all previous teachings, the Buddha is clearly beginning another sermon. Although naming and entrustment scenes usually happen near the end of sutras, Kāśyapa moves preemptively in this case, asking the Buddha, "O World Honored One, what is this sutra to be called? How should bodhisattva-mahāsattvas make offerings to it and hold it?" (T 12.374.385a2-3). Kāśyapa here positions himself as the keeper of all the Buddha's teachings, up to and including this final dispensation. The Buddha, appearing to accept Kāśyapa's bid, names the sutra that he is in the process of delivering and then returns to his sermon, making a number of provocative points that seem to contradict some of his earlier teachings. Kāśyapa cannot help but point out several of these glitches, and eventually his persistence seems to annoy the Buddha, who replies somewhat testily, "If you have doubts in what I say, you should not be the one to accept [the teaching]!" (T 12.374.397b11), and he counsels Kāśyapa to throw off the deceptions of Māra, the Evil One. Kāśyapa does so and finally agrees to accept the teachings as given. The issue of entrustment appears to be resolved. The sermon draws to a close, and the layman Cunda is chosen to present the last offerings.
At this point, however, Manjuśri stands up, says that he has some questions, and engages the Buddha in a lengthy conversation, an addendum to the sermon, which Kāśyapa occasionally interrupts. The Buddha concludes the sermon a second time, saying, "Manjuśri and the rest of you, you should expound the great dharma widely, to all people. Now, I entrust this dharma to you [Manjuśri] and, when Kāśyapa and Ānanda arrive, you should entrust this true dharma to them, too." Haven so spoken, he lies down on his right side, succumbing again to the pain of his bodily illness.
This second entrustment scene raises a rather thorny question, under which is hidden an equally thorny textual problem. Where has Kāśyapa gone? At several points earlier in the sutra there have been references to the notion that, although virtually all beings in the cosmos appear to be gathered around the Buddha's deathbed, Kāśyapa and Ānanda are missing. In truth, Ānanda has not yet shown up as an active character in the narrative, but, as we have already seen, Kāśyapa has been serving for dozens of pages as Buddha's main interlocutor. He has already been entrusted with (a truncated version of) the Nirvana Sutra, he has already clashed with Manjuśri over who will receive the final teaching, and, to make matters particularly perplexing, the Buddha was just talking to him. In fact, after a few more chapters (dominated by a dialogue between Buddha and Manjuśri), Kāśyapa will interject himself into the conversation once again, seeming to have been present and listening all the while.
What this snag in the narrative tells attentive readers is that the text of the Nirvana Sutra that we now have is clearly a composite document, one that has been stitched together from at least two separate sources. It is ironic that the entrustment scene is the segment of the narrative that most obviously exposes the seams in that narrative's textual history. If the conventional work of the entrustment scene is to provide a clear point of oral origin for the written text of the sutra, that is manifestly not how this particular entrustment scene works. I would not go so far as to call it a parody of convention, but it is definitely a departure, and a critical one at that.
As if this were not enough, there is a third entrustment scene, this one properly situated very near the end of the narrative, but no less troubling for its place of prominence. Following the second entrustment, the Buddha engages in a series of intensive dialogues, first with Manjuśri and Kāśyapa, and then with the bodhisattva Lion's Roar. Buddha and Lion's Roar agree that Ānanda is the best candidate to receive the final teachings and make the final offering, and they discuss his memory skills at length. Buddha entertains several more questions from the assembly and then asks for Ānanda, presumably preparing to entrust him with the entirety of the Nirvana Sutra. Ānanda, however, has never arrived. One of the assembly informs Buddha that Ānanda has been waylaid by Māra, who has turned himself into sixty-four thousand billion likenesses of Buddha, each of which is preaching a different doctrine. Ānanda is "greatly pained" by this and by his inability to break free, and, though he stays his mind on the Thus Come One, strangely no one has come to his aid (T 12.374.600c25-26).
Manjuśri then makes what could be interpreted as a power play, assuring the Buddha that certainly, among all the beings congregated, there is at least one capable of receiving and retaining the teachings. He persists, "Why ask where Ānanda is?" (T 12.374.601a10). Buddha lectures Manjuśri at length about Ānanda's special qualities, and particularly his power of memory, before concluding, "That is why I ask where Ānanda is, [because] I desire for him to accept and hold this Nirvana Sutra." Buddha sends Manjuśri to rescue Ānanda and Ānanda returns, but he is never formally entrusted with the teachings and never takes a vow to preserve or propagate them. In narrative terms, all his appearance has done is to cast doubt on Manjuśri and Kāśyapa's powers of memory (which are inferior to his own) and draw attention to the fact that, at the sutra's close, Buddha still has not settled the question of who should be entrusted with preserving the teaching or if, in fact, different disciples hold responsibility for different portions of it. If Ānanda is, indeed, the Buddha's choice (or one of the Buddha's choices), then Ānanda will have to depend on the cooperation and memory skills of his fellow disciples since he, in fact, never heard any of the sutra with whose preservation he may have been charged.
Scenes like these reveal that Mahāyāna sutras draw on the narrative conventions of oral delivery and transmission while undermining some aspects of that structural logic. The point is that the way Mahāyāna sutras were created (through a writing process that at times resulted in a composite text) and the way they suggest they were created (through the transcription of a perfect memory of an entrusted verbal teaching) do not match up. It seems certain that at least some Mahāyāna sutras were stitched together from a number of disparate texts into a single literary document that comes apart at the seams when read attentively from beginning to end. Entrustment scenes can reveal these seams and some of the stitchwork done to conceal them. What they do not reveal, however, are the identities of the tailors: early Mahāyāna sutras have no (named) authors. Thus, they are severed both from a verifiable history of oral discourse and from an identifiable act of literary fabrication. Instead, they float free from both these traditional locales of textual authority.
The Anxiety of Text
If Mahāyāna sutras occasionally advert to unsettling questions about their textual pasts, in another metafictional strategy they are much more overtly anxious about their ability to survive into the future. A substantial portion of many Mahāyāna sutras consists of rhetoric built to engender fear that the narrative will be corrupted, destroyed, or otherwise lost to circulation. In the Sutra of Immeasurable Life, for instance, the Buddha maintains matter-of-factly that, in the ages to come, "all scriptures and paths will perish, but out of compassion and pity, I will especially preserve this sutra and maintain it in the world for a hundred years more." Similarly, in the Lotus Sutra the Buddha enunciates a lengthy verse concerned with the fragility of the teachings, studded throughout with lines like, "If after the Buddha's extinction / in the midst of an evil age / one can preach this scripture / that is difficult.... / If after the Buddha's passage into extinction / in the midst of an evil age / to read this scripture for but a moment / that is difficult.... / If after my extinction / one can hold this scripture / and preach it to even one person / that is difficult." Part of what makes these actions so difficult is the simple passage of time, during which memories fade, pages rot, and lineages of oral transmission tangle and break.
Mahāyāna sutras also worry about enemies other than time. The Lotus Sutra speaks of human adversaries who "malign the scriptures," acting on "hatred and envy" (T 9.262.15b26-27). The Vimalakīrti Sutra admits to similar anxieties, as when the Buddha instructs Maitreya to "employ supernatural powers to propagate sutras such as this, spreading them" throughout the world "and never allowing them to be wiped out [Jp: danzen]." The Nirvana Sutra provides the most explicit and extended nightmare of textual desecration. The Buddha suggests to Kāśyapa that a mere eighty years after his passage into Nirvana,
there will be many evil monks who will abridge this sutra and cut it into many pieces, so that the color, fragrance, beauty, and flavor of the true dharma are lost. All these evil monks ... will insert worldly phrases, grand and decorative, but devoid of the essential. Or they will chop off the beginning and add it to the end, chop off the end and add it to the beginning, or put the beginning and end in the middle and the middle at the beginning and end. You should know that evil monks such as these are friends of Māra.
This violent editorial cutting and pasting will obstruct beings' access to the scripture, Buddha argues, keeping them from getting at its true meaning. Like Roland trying to control the arrangement of his corpse on the battlefield, the Buddha wants his textual corpus to maintain a certain shape and order, lest the evidence be misread and his deeds misunderstood. The imagery supports the notion of a great physical battle in which sutras are unstrung, sliced and chopped, then sewn back together into unsatisfying semblances of their former selves.
Passages such as these work to establish an overarching atmosphere of desperation, and they stress the importance of the recipient in transmitting and preserving the text in these violent times. In addition to elaborating an anxious tone, these passages also suggest an important characteristic of sutras as material objects, namely, that they are not capable of sustaining themselves. With the Buddha having died, the sutras are in danger of dying, too, unless someone else makes special, even supernatural, efforts to preserve them. Even when these efforts are made, however, beings find them "difficult," and inevitably the sutras will all eventually perish. The world will pass through a spiritual dark age, which will end only when another buddha appears to start the cycle turning again.
The Sutra Library
Happily, there is an inverse to this nightmare. If the Nirvana Sutra imagines the tatters in which a material copy of a sutra may end up, the Vimalakīrti Sutra provides an equally extreme account of the opposite, a fantasy of completely perfect preservation. In the thirteenth chapter of the Vimalakīrti Sutra, the Buddha offers the following story. Long, long ago there was a buddha named Medicine King who lived and taught in a world called Great Adornment. His chief patron was a king who had one thousand sons, one of whom was named Moon Parasol. One day Moon Parasol, observing all the various offerings of his father and brothers (flowers, incense, banners, music, etc.), wonders to himself what the best of all offerings is. Suddenly, a heavenly being appears in the sky and tells him the most superior is the offering of the dharma. Neither Moon Parasol nor his father knows how to make this offering, so they ask Medicine King to explain. He says, "Good man, the offering of the dharma means the profound sutras preached by all the buddhas. The people of the world all find them difficult to believe and difficult to accept, for they are wonderfully subtle and difficult to see, clean and pure and without stain.... They are contained in the storehouse of the bodhisattva and are sealed with the dhāranī seal." Moon Parasol, the Buddha tells us, was one of his former incarnations and thus, in delivering the teachings of the Vimalakīrti Sutra, the Buddha completes the offering of the dharma that he, as Moon Parasol, desired to make. I will deal more closely with this sort of pretextual history soon, but for the moment let us concentrate on the issue of textual perfection.
In this story, the buddha Medicine King speaks of a vast storehouse filled with text, in other words, a library. The holdings of this library consist of every sutra ever given, each of which is preserved whole, with no smudges or stains, and each of which is stamped with a seal that marks it as genuine. This library is not exactly open to the public, however, because it exists inside the bodhisattva who has achieved such an advanced spiritual stage that he has the power of perfect recall (Sk: dhāranī). The bodhisattva's memory is thus a library that only he can read. This is just as well, because normal, worldly people have trouble seeing such a bright, clear text (a frustrating experience perhaps remotely akin to trying to read a glossy page under a high-powered fluorescent light). The offering of the dharma, therefore, consists of making the perfectly preserved sutras visible to everyday beings by expounding upon them in sermons. These sermons form the basis of various individually named sutras.
The Flower Ornament Sutra contains a similar passage that helps delineate between the perfect, and perfectly sealed, sutras of the bodhisattva and the sutras that we, as human beings, might hope to encounter in this world. In a section explaining the tenth and final intuition of a bodhisattva on the path to enlightenment, the sutra states that the Buddha's wisdom "exists within the body of every living being," a fact that often goes unrecognized, literally "unseen." The sutra glosses this situation as follows: "It is as if there were a single sutra scroll ... and on this scroll were recorded all things in the multi-thousand-fold world, [leaving] nothing not [recorded]." This sutra scroll is then envisioned as existing within a mote of dust, and in fact every mote of dust is similarly possessed of a sutra scroll. Sutras, therefore, are everywhere, millions upon millions of them within our very bodies, but they are obscured and hidden, illegible to the vast majority of living beings. We have a sutra library inside of us, but we do not have access to its holdings. Rendering the sutra scrolls legible requires nothing short of an act of readerly fission in which a person possessed of "penetrating wisdom" and a "pristine pure divine eye" (T.9.278.624a8)-in other words, a buddha or very advanced bodhisattva-trains the sacred optic on the mote of dust and splits it asunder, releasing the sutras into the world, where they can now be of benefit to living beings.
There is a distinction to be drawn, then, between the sutra as "text" and the sutra as "work." Editors of critical editions have long noted the various discrepancies that occur between different copies of a single work of literature. A copy may be illustrated or not, include marginalia or not; it can be produced as manuscript or as type, in different fonts, on different substances, with various page and line breaks; some authors, like Walt Whitman, published numerous versions of a single poem; and so forth. Proponents of textual studies assert that each of these differences, though they may at times seem to be superficial, exerts a subtle pull on the work, creating a greater or lesser sense of variability and pointing to the instability of literature as an art form. Thus the famous question comparing the singularity of Mona Lisa with the bewildering multiplicity of Hamlet.
Peter Shillingsburg provides a useful set of terms for grappling with the realities of textual dispersion. According to his terminology, a piece of literature that might be expressed in any number of forms (in folio or quarto, on vellum or paper, in various editions, etc.) but that is not reducible to any single one of those expressions should be termed the "work." Distinct apprehensions of the work that are expressed in words and punctuation form the "linguistic text." This linguistic text, in turn, may be housed in any number of material forms or physical "containers." The combination of linguistic text and physical container forms the "material text." While the work and the linguistic text exist in the abstract as inaccessible and intangible, the material text (any single iteration of the work expressed in language and contained in some physical form) is available to human senses. We only ever read material texts.
To gloss this terminology with respect to the literature at hand, the sutra as a linguistic text (a string of words and line breaks) exists abstractly in this world and may survive by lodging itself in a container, the most popular being memory or some sort of external surface (leaves or paper). This physically lodged material text is subject to the ravages of time and the violent attacks of editors or rivals and, even given the best efforts of its devotees, will eventually fade and die. The sutra as work, however, continues to exist, perfect and undamaged, and this abiding teaching is at least one of the concepts encompassed in the Sanskrit word dharma. In later chapters of this book I will tend to bracket the idea of the "dharma," the perfect "work," since it is inaccessible to the average believer. Instead, I will be focusing on the "material text," which is complicated enough. After all, this text can comprise any of the physical, material copies of that work that may be written on leaves, carved into bark or stone, brushed onto silk or paper, or inscribed on the surface of the mind. It is these interconnected surfaces that so intrigued the authors of medieval miracle literature and that found their ways into the sermons of medieval priests. Unless otherwise specified, then, I intend the word "text" to refer to the material text as housed in a specific container.
A number of Mahāyāna sutras contain within them stories of the Buddha's past lives. Occasionally, in yet another metafictional narrative move, these sutras tell us that the Buddha, over the course of one of these previous incarnations, has encountered the very sutra that he is currently preaching. In the Lotus Sutra, for instance, the Buddha explains to the assembly of monks that, in a certain kingdom long ago, there was a buddha named Victorious Through Great Penetrating Knowledge who often gave sermons to the king and his sixteen sons. Hearing the dharma expounded for the fourth time, all of the sixteen princes, along with myriad other beings in the kingdom, renounce their worldly riches and take up vows, embarking on a path of formal practice. Following a hiatus of twenty thousand kalpas, during which the princes have been perfecting their training, the buddha preaches again, this time finally delivering the long-awaited sutra entitled, of course, the Lotus Sutra. After expounding the Lotus for eight thousand kalpas, Victorious Through Great Penetrating Knowledge retires to a quiet chamber where he spends eighty-four thousand kalpas in meditation. In the meantime, those assembled have one of three responses: joyful acceptance (the sixteen princes), a wait-and-see attitude (some of the other voice hearers), and doubt (everyone else). The sixteen princes commit the sutra to memory, then preach it widely. Eventually they all become buddhas, the sixteenth of whom is none other than the historical Buddha Śākyamuni, who is telling his audience this story about his past. In other words, readers of the Lotus Sutra encounter a narrative in which the orator of the narrative tells a story about how he heard the story from someone else. The story that the "someone else" told, the story that the Buddha is now telling, and the narrative that we are now reading all have the same title.
One point these narrative backstories make is that the Buddha is not the author of any particular sutra, nor is he the wellspring from which the work originates. He is, rather, the latest in a long line of enlightened beings who have committed themselves to memorizing and spreading copies of the text. Another implication of these stories has to do with narrative drift. When the Buddha features as a character in his own narrative, the line between story and storyteller blurs. He claims to have memorized the sutra, the same sutra with the same title that he is now preaching, when he was a young ex-prince, but with two major (and unacknowledged) alterations. First, material has been added: the story of the sixteenth prince could not have been present in the sutra that the sixteenth prince originally heard, and therefore our text includes a later addition. Second, material has clearly been deleted. English translations run roughly four hundred pages, complete with notes. One would have to preach quite slowly indeed for this text to require eight thousand kalpas to transmit. Thus, the particular relation between the text of the Lotus Sutra and the abiding work remains ever in question, but in a promising and alluring way: the story can expand to include audience members as characters.
Three variations on the motif suggest how this metafictional strategy can encompass figures other than the Buddha, drawing an increasing range of beings into the textual organism. The first variation involves a question. The Nirvana Sutra includes a lengthy dialogue between the Buddha and the bodhisattva Lion's Roar, during the course of which Lion's Roar asks the Buddha about the accuracy of a typical metaphor that describes nirvana as a flame blown out. Rather than answer the question, the Buddha responds that ages ago a buddha named Well Gained delivered a teaching of the Nirvana Sutra that took three billion years. At that time, "I, along with you, was among those congregated. I asked that buddha this same question. At the time, that Thus Come One was in right samādhi for the sake of all beings and did not reply. Excellent, great one! You do well to remember this incident." Lion's Roar plays, in this textual generation, the same role that the Buddha played in the last generation with the unspoken promise being that, in a future iteration, Lion's Roar will be the buddha to whom the question is posed. While still operating within a very elite circle-a bodhisattva who is the chief interlocutor of a living buddha-this narrative move creates more room for play in the borders of the text.
The second variation works with the issue of expanding text in a different way, by using nominal sameness to refract time and space into an endless hall of mirrors. The Buddha, still speaking to Lion's Roar, recalls hearing a sutra called the Nirvana Sutra delivered by a buddha named Śākyamuni, who was born to a king and queen with the same names as the historical Buddha's mother and father. This doppelgänger buddha has disciples who also share names with the Buddha's disciples Śāriputra and Ānanda. After listening to that buddha preach the Nirvana Sutra, the Buddha Śākyamuni (our historical Buddha) makes the following vow: "If in ages to come I attain buddhahood, the names of my father, mother, country, disciples, and attendants shall be [the same], and I shall expound the dharma and teach, all just as it is with the World Honored One now. Nothing will differ." That is why, the Buddha says, "I am now expounding the Great Nirvana Sutra in this place" (T 12.374.540a20). The nominal sameness indicates a more profound identification of the here and now with the there and then. Time and space twist back on themselves, and the entire assembly is caught in a plot loop that repeats until everyone has played the lead part.
The third iteration of this motif suggests that what is true for the Buddha-role is also true for all members of the assembly. Many Mahāyāna sutras claim that they are difficult to hear, that the default position is to doubt the teachings. These sutras often go on to claim that a listener will need to have cultivated a store of "good roots" (Jp: zenkon) before he or she will be able to accept the teachings. The Lotus Sutra takes this one step further, arguing, "If there is one who believes and accepts this scripture dharma, that person has already, in times gone by, seen buddhas of the past, honored and made offerings to them, and has already heard this dharma." In other words, if anyone is able to accept these teachings the first time they hear them, that should be a sign that they have, in fact, heard them before and have done so in the direct presence of a buddha. The Lotus Sutra thus assumes that there are very important things about our past lives that we have forgotten. On a more positive note, these passages also provide a way for any reader to write themselves into the narrative, even if only as an unnamed and unremarked extra, one of those myriad of beings who walked away doubting the first time (or the first million times) around. Accepting the sutra quickly here and now proves retroactively that we must have been there, then.
The different varieties of this textual history motif all work to slice open the closed world of the narrative and to implicate the reader by drawing him or her into a lineage (actually, a repeating loop) of textual transmission. If the Buddha was the perfectly receptive listener in a previous audience, as proven by his ability to store and replicate the teaching, then we have the attractive option to serve in turn as the voice of the dharma. It may take us an incalculable length of time to reach his skill level, but eventually we can assume his position, our image mapped perfectly onto his. The motif, at least one variant of it, even accounts for the troublesome specter of narrative drift by encouraging its readers to take a vow to achieve enlightenment as a buddha named Śākyamuni. In short, the narrative encourages its readers to swear to become a character, preferably the main character, in the narrative being read.
The metafictional strategies surveyed thus far accomplish two main effects. First, they establish readerly desire for the sutra through a strategy of obscuring the object of that desire. Sutras suggest that their teachings exist on two planes: that of the work (which is largely inaccessible but perfectly preserved) and that of the text. Any given text is characterized by narrative drift and contains large sections that consist of metalanguage about the teaching, both of which techniques raise concerns about the location of the teaching itself. These concerns are amplified by repeated claims that the sutra as text may be damaged and will become extinct. Any devoted reader who is drawn into the textual project will want the sutra but will have problems ascertaining where, exactly, that sutra is, meaning that a devotee can never stop searching for the fuller text (ultimately, the work) to which he or she is devoted.
Second, these metafictional strategies have unmoored sutras from traditional points of authority (the author or orator). Troubled entrustment scenes reveal fissures and contradictions within the text and suggest that it has been imperfectly preserved, while textual prehistories defer oratorical creation into an ever-receding past (often, several pasts) that slips further and further over the horizon and ultimately is not visible. Mahāyāna sutras provide a response to this impasse by inverting the process of authorship, claiming that sutras are the generative entities that produce buddhas rather than the other way around. Very early in its narrative, the Diamond Sutra claims that "all of the buddhas and all of their teachings of supreme perfect enlightenment spring forth from this sutra." Similarly, the Vimalakīrti Sutra maintains that "the enlightened intuition of all the buddhas is born from this sutra" (T 14.475.556a29). Claims like these extend the hyperbole by which many Mahāyāna sutras claim places of supremacy for themselves, asserting that this sutra (whether "this sutra" is the Lotus, the Nirvana, the Diamond, or the Vimalakīrti Sutra) is the king of all sutras, that it supersedes all others, and that it represents the culmination and pinnacle of the Buddhist teachings. The next logical step for hyperbole of this sort, and one for which the various scenes of textual prehistory have prepared the reader, is the claim that "this sutra" is not simply the most powerful and comprehensive of all sutras, but that it is also the birthplace for all buddhas, the place from which all enlightened intuition (Sk: bodhi) springs.
The rhetorical claim that sutras give birth to buddhas tells us a great deal about what might be called the "ontological status" of sutras in the Mahāyāna Buddhist tradition. In 1956 René Wellek and Austin Warren opened the question of the ontological status of literature by noting that, in contrast to most of the plastic arts, a literary work of art was not coterminous with its artifact (words on a page), nor could one say that a work of literature was "an individual experience or a sum of experiences" (whether of author or readers), but rather "only a potential cause of experiences." They sought to understand literary ontology as "dynamic" and "intersubjective," existing in a network of "collective ideology." These highly abstract notions largely divorced literature from its material matrix. In the early 1980s James McLaverty, among others, sought to reunite literature with its artifactual iterations, arguing that "the existence of works of art as print and paper is not less but more important" than scholars had recently taken it to be, an idea that gave birth to the field of textual studies and to thinkers such as Peter Shillingsburg, whose idea of the "work" and the "text" I have already discussed above. The current state of the field understands literary works "both as artificial objects and as conceptual entities." That is, literature simultaneously exists in two interrelated places: on the printed page, and in the minds of a community of readers and authors who continue to think about the piece of literature and its meanings.
One crucial limitation of current understandings of textual ontology, at least in terms of trying to understand Mahāyāna sutras, is that they treat text largely as an object connected, however tenuously, to an author. While each Mahāyāna sutra must have been authored by someone (or a group of someones), these people are never mentioned, obscured behind the fiction of a narrative "I" that is itself unstable. A second limitation of these theories is that they treat literary texts as objects, dynamic and fluctuating to be sure, but devoid of agency. This understanding (which, to be fair, was articulated primarily in reference to Romantic poetry) may work perfectly well for many literary texts, but Mahāyāna sutras take the question of textual ontology to another level on which sutras, through a variety of literary techniques, seize agency for themselves and begin acting not just as "conceptual entities" but as embodied ones.
Approaching the question of ontology from a somewhat different angle, then, scholars of Buddhism have long argued that Mahāyāna understands the sutra as a site of living presence. As the Lotus Sutra puts it, "Wherever [this sutra] may be preached, or read, or recited, or written, or whatever place a roll of this scripture may occupy, in all those places one is to erect a stupa of the seven jewels, building it high and wide and with impressive decoration. There is no need even to lodge a śarīra [relic] in it. What is the reason? Within it there is already a whole body of the Thus Come One." Assertions like these have led Gregory Schopen to argue, famously, that Mahāyāna Buddhism is a "cult of the book," that devotion to the material form of sutras (scrolls, for instance) fundamentally defines Mahāyāna Buddhism and marks it as distinct from earlier Buddhist traditions. To gloss this detailed thesis rather quickly, sutras provide the germ, the seed, the catalyst that transforms a normal human into an enlightened being: the seed of the teachings, planted in the fertile soil of the mind, grows to fruition in the form of bodhi, the "enlightened intuition" that marks a buddha as a distinct species of life. The sutras, therefore, are a generative site, capable of producing not just one buddha, but presumably an unlimited number of them. In the end, sutra trumps buddha. Any place that a sutra has existed (even if only as a passing vocalization) is an even more vital site than the birthplace of the Buddha, the tree under which he gained enlightenment, the locale of his first sermon, or the grove in which he passed into nirvana.
Thus, sutras are revealed to be very complicated textual entities that, having obscured the authorial role almost entirely and having conjured the vision of oral delivery only to undermine it, take upon themselves the trappings of presence and the rhetoric of embodiedness. As the dominant half of the sutra-buddha binary, sutras inhabit a position of strength from which they can leverage their readers into action. As Paul Harrison has noted, "it is certainly the case that Mahāyāna sutras burst their bounds, that they range all over the place, unsystematic, exaggerated and larger than life. In short, they possess a kind of organic roughness and wholeness and vitality that is descriptive and constitutive of a total world, a world which obeys different laws from the one we normally inhabit, but into which we can enter."
What a Sutra Wants
As textual beings possessed of a certain agency (the power to invite us into their world), sutras issue very specific injunctions telling the reader what she or he is meant to do with their text. The typical demands require devotees to listen, accept, hold, read, recite, and expound the sutra for other people. Many sutras also require believers to write it down and make copies of it. With the exception of writing, all of these commands appear in all of the sutras I survey here: the Lotus Sutra, the Vimalakīrti Sutra, the Nirvana Sutra, the Diamond Sutra, the Flower Ornament Sutra, and the two Pure Land sutras (which are the ones that omit writing). The Lotus Sutra has garnered by far the most attention with respect to these textual commands, and its tenth chapter outlines the so-called "five varieties of dharma preacher" (Jp: goshu hōshi), namely: those who accept and keep the sutra, those who read it, those who recite it, those who explain it to others, and those who copy it in writing. These methods of textual engagement are not unique to the Lotus Sutra but are typical of most Mahāyāna sutras. (Even sutras that do not request any of these things, such as the extremely short Heart Sutra, commonly find themselves being memorized, chanted, copied, and expounded upon.) By treating this group of sutras together, I want to emphasize the very textual nature of Mahāyāna culture as a whole.
Most strings of textual commands begin with the injunction to "listen," which, in the context of Mahāyāna sutras, must be viewed with a certain amount of skepticism. As discussed above, these sutras were not composed until several centuries after the Buddha's death, even though they stage themselves as oral discourses that were delivered by the Buddha during his lifetime. What this reveals is that Mahāyāna sutras address themselves simultaneously to two audiences. Members of the assembly form the first (fictive) audience, and their reactions to that teaching provide the first models for correct and incorrect response patterns. The second audience comprises everyone who was not present to hear the oral teaching but who has, in the course of succeeding years, come into contact with the sutra through the medium of the written text and its expositors. While these later beings cannot "listen" to the teaching in the same way that the first audience did, they are nevertheless charged with similar duties of textual devotion.
The Diamond Sutra contains a scene that showcases this two-audience phenomenon quite clearly. The Buddha engages in a lengthy discussion, at the end of which his disciple Subhūti responds, "World Honored One, just now I have been able to hear scriptural canons like this one, and I do not find it difficult to believe, understand, receive, or hold it. But if, in the age to come five hundred years from now, there is a being who is able to hear this sutra, believing, understanding, accepting, and holding it, this person is indeed most rare." The disciple Subhūti here nominally addresses the Buddha, expressing concern about beings living in a degenerate age, but his words also speak to a second audience, challenging those readers who live in such a degenerate age to be that "most rare" person who will fully engage the sutra that has become available through the conduit of written text.
Other than the command to listen, the key distinction to be drawn with respect to injunctions of textual engagement pivots on the proximity to enlightenment, rather than temporal proximity to the supposed moment of oral delivery. Sutras direct their instructions toward specific types of being. In the following pages I will examine the vocabulary of textual engagement, suggesting that advanced spiritual beings (buddhas and bodhisattvas) receive subtly different instructions from those given to the much larger, less spiritually advanced contingent of monks, nuns, laymen, and laywomen. These differences primarily affect the command to "hold" the sutras, though the level of spiritual attainment has ramifications for some of the other categories of textual engagement as well.
Somewhat confusingly, Mahāyāna sutras maintain the fiction of orality while also speaking of themselves as material texts whose prose has been divided into chapters, whose verse comes in lines, and whose words have been recorded in writing. Ultimately, I suggest that this modulation between oral and written reflects the reproductive cycle of sutras, which may phase between written and oral forms as they move from one generation to the next. Human beings may first encounter a sutra either in the context of a sermon or in the form of a material text (a scroll, for instance). Regardless of what form the sutra assumes in this initial contact, it asks to be accepted, held, read, and recited (that is, internalized) before being either expounded or copied (that is, reproduced for a new generation of potential believers).
The first thing Mahāyāna sutras ask of all beings, regardless of their spiritual acumen, is to accept the sutras' teachings. Acceptance forms the basic threshold, passing over which beings enter into the bodhisattva path. As noted earlier, however, sutras generally assume that the default position is doubt. When Subhūti suggests that latter-day people who accept the Diamond Sutra will be rare, the Buddha heartily agrees, noting that if a person in that age is "neither surprised nor frightened nor afraid ... that person is rare indeed." In fact, many beings choose not to commit themselves to accepting the teachings, and the second chapter of the Lotus Sutra records that fully five thousand members of the assembly (all of them either monk, nun, or laity) simply stood up and walked out, a sign of their "deep and grave roots of sin and overweening pride."
A large part of acceptance, then, consists of emotional maturity and humility: the ability to face things that are frighteningly new and to consider that one might have something to learn from them. The importance of this attitude holds, regardless of temporal position (whether attending the assembly or encountering the sutra five hundred years later), and it becomes easier the further one advances spiritually. The Vimalakīrti Sutra maintains that one thing that characterizes a bodhisattva is that, "when hearing a sutra they have not heard before, they do not doubt it," while the Flower Ornament Sutra stipulates that bodhisattvas who still find themselves reluctant to praise excellent teachings and cause others to accept them are guilty of "conceited action." These claims reinforce one another. The more spiritually advanced a being is, the easier it will be for him or her to accept the teachings; the ease with which a being accepts the teachings indicates the degree of his or her spiritual advancement.
In addition to emotional maturity and confidence, the act of acceptance requires an attitude of faith. Sutras suggest that beings must be open to the new teachings and must be willing to accept them as true. Of course, this sort of faith is hard to come by, particularly in degenerate later ages, so to support the dharma preacher in his labors, the Buddha promises to send him "magically conjured" monks, nuns, laymen, and laywomen who will "hear the dharma, accept it in faith and follow it obediently without turning back," thus providing a model for other, unconjured beings to emulate. Of course, Mahāyāna sutras themselves virtually burst at the seams with precisely these sorts of conjured audiences. In their pages laymen and laywomen of all backgrounds, monks and nuns, advanced practitioners, Hindu deities, forest spirits, dragons, and even flesh-eating demons sing the praises of Mahāyāna scripture and accept their teachings as supremely valid.
The sutras are rather grim about other methods for causing beings to accept the teachings on faith, but they do offer a second course of action should pure faith not be an option, namely: harnessing desire. In the burning house parable from the Lotus Sutra, a father tries to rescue his sons from an inferno, but they are too distracted by the pleasures of their play to heed him. Devising an "expedient means" (Sk: upāya; Jp: hōben), he offers them magnificent carriages if only they will follow him outside. Glossing this parable as an allegory, Buddha claims that living beings "are all my children. / Yet now these places [where they live] / have many cares and troubles / from which I alone / can save them./ Even though I teach and command, / they do not accept [my words] on faith / but are profoundly addicted / to their tainted desires." The sutras do not offer their readers carriages or fanciful toys for their allegiance. Instead, they promise any number of other boons: fragrant skin, good breath, straight teeth, mental clarity, eloquence, and the promise of enlightenment, to name but a few.
We might therefore understand the transaction sutras offer as a kind of gift exchange. In return for our acceptance (whether motivated by pure faith or tainted desire), they offer to bestow us with various rewards. While many of these rewards are physical in nature, the most precious of all is the gift of the dharma. The perfect dharma (the "work") remains inaccessible to normal human beings but is available, in however imperfect a form, in the sutra texts. What this economy of exchange entails, then, is that the sutras give us themselves and we, in turn, give them the gift of accepting that gift. For this exchange to come off, readers must accept a subordinate position (the son role). Accepting the sutra as true, believers must simultaneously accept the sutra as dominant: the sutra is the rich and wise father, and we are the obedient children. This posture of confident humility has been choreographed countless times in the sutras as audience members kneel, bow their heads, and bring their raised palms together in supplication, whereupon they receive the teachings "on the crown of the head."
Most commonly, sutras yoke the act of "accepting" the sutras to the act of "holding" them by using a compound verb (Jp: juji). The semantic range of this term is enormous, and translators typically take one of two tacks, either treating each element of the compound separately or fusing them into a single semantic whole. The first approach yields translations such as "receive and keep," "accept and hold," or "absorb and retain," while treating the term as a compound has resulted in the English equivalents "uphold," "possess," "remember," and "memorize." I want to suggest that the reason this term is so very slippery is that, in fact, it means different things when applied to different kinds of beings who may access the sutra in different ways. The meaning of the term shifts subtly in tandem with the subtle shifts in subject (the being who accepts and holds) and in object (the thing being accepted and held). Is the being in question a buddha, a bodhisattva, a devoted monk or nun, or a layperson? How watertight is their memory, how firmly planted their good roots? Do they hold the sutra as "work" or as "text?" Do they meet the sutra verbally or in writing? The answers to these questions help determine more precisely what it is that sutras want when they demand to be "accepted and held."
The question of strong memory lies at the crux of understanding the command to "accept and hold" the sutras. Who, then, possesses this memorial power? The Flower Ornament Sutra, which is almost wholly dedicated to cataloging and describing the characteristics of bodhisattvas, clearly asserts that the power of total recall belongs only to buddhas and especially advanced bodhisattvas. According to this sutra, one core quality of buddhas is that they are all "endowed with mnemonic powers [Sk: dhāranī] able to accept and hold all buddha dharmas." Any buddha can at any time access any of the sutras as perfectly preserved works simply by consulting his own flawless and complete memory. For all other Buddhist practitioners, total recall remains an alluring vision-the Vimalakīrti Sutra describes perfect memory as a lush castle garden containing a grove of dharma trees (T 14.475.549c10)-and it remains a skill to be pursued over any number of lifetimes.
Aside from buddhas, bodhisattvas are closer than any other kind of being to attaining the state of total recall. Again according to the Flower Ornament Sutra, bodhisattvas engage in ten stages of concentration, the first of which focuses on "developing a boundless heart-mind [capable of] accepting and holding all the buddha dharmas without forgetting any." When bodhisattvas master the tenth concentration level, they become capable of "accepting and holding the buddha dharmas of past, present and future" and, having access to all the dharmas, they can "enter into them without impediment." Bodhisattvas have to work for this absolutely free, unhindered access to the dharma, and the ability comes only after countless lifetimes of cultivation, in particular cultivation of the mind, which they must purge from distraction and expand greatly until it is "boundless" (T 10.279.213b5) and "deep" (298c5), with the capacity to contain all dharma. While bodhisattvas begin their training in mental concentration like other beings-with access to the "text" (or "teaching," Jp: kyō; T 10.279.127c10)-they end with access to the "work" (or "dharma," Jp: hō).
The Flower Ornament Sutra describes in great detail just such a journey from text to work. Its lengthy final chapter follows the pilgrimage of the ideal devotee Sudhana. Having heard Manjuśri preach, Sudhana vows to take up the bodhisattva path. Seeing that Sudhana is wholeheartedly committed, Manjuśri instructs him to travel south in search of a teacher. This Sudhana does, studying under scores of masters, sometimes apprenticing with them for as long as twelve years. Each of the beings Sudhana meets on his journey acts as a conduit, pouring into him all of the teachings that they have heard, retained in perfect memory, and come to embody.
The later stages of this pilgrimage are particularly relevant to my argument because now that Sudhana is sufficiently advanced, his teachers often do not talk to him very much at all. Rather, they establish physical or mental contact with him-placing their hand on his head or holding his gaze-and cause him to see things directly. In one of these scenes, for instance, the teacher rubs Sudhana's head with his right hand. Instantly Sudhana sees multitudes of buddhas, each in his own land, stretching in every direction. Simultaneously standing before each of them, he hears their sermons and explanations and finds himself able to "completely penetrate every sentence and every verse, keeping [the teachings] distinct, accepting and holding them without confusion." Here Sudhana shows his ability to listen to multiple sutras at once and to transcribe each of them perfectly into his memory, without dropping a single word or transposing a single verse. Later in his journey a teacher performs a miracle for Sudhana in which he sees, pouring forth as light from her pores, "the vigorous energy to accept and hold the dharma-cycles of all buddhas." This crucial vision shows Sudhana how to move from cataloging individual sermons to accessing the entire dharma library. By the end of his journey Sudhana has become a bodhisattva. Memorizing teachings (text) has turned him into a storehouse of the dharma (work).
For buddhas and advanced bodhisattvas, holding takes place in the mind, and the object so held is the dharma in its entirety. This is what "accept and hold" means for them. Many Mahāyāna sutras employ slightly different Chinese characters to express more precisely this kind of mental holding. The Vimalakīrti Sutra, for instance, always distinguishes the bodhisattvic act of mental holding with the term "hold completely" (Jp: sōji), and other sutras also make use of this term. In the Nirvana Sutra, for example, Buddha explains that the sutra of that same name has always existed in unchanging form. In earlier ages, though, it was unnecessary to preach the sutra, to bring it forth into textual form, because beings were "less greedy and had much wisdom. All the great bodhisattvas were malleable and easy to teach. They had great virtue and held completely without forgetting, like great elephant kings." For bodhisattvas, the mind is the sense organ that retains the dharma, holding it tightly like a strong elephant might grasp something with its trunk. Lesser beings-those who are greedy and not so wise-do not have this pliability or strength of mind and must, in a sense, be hammered at with the tool of individual sutra texts if an impression is to be made.
On Fragments and Hands
On the whole, sutras leave a significant gap between figures like Sudhana and the vast majority of more typical devotees. While sutras do allow that some of these less single-minded beings will be able to memorize some portion of sutra text, they often suggest that even these comparatively minimal accomplishments must be buttressed by the vow of a bodhisattva or buddha who promises either to extend his powers of memorization to the devotee or to appear to the devotee in person to help him or her memorize the text. (In later chapters I will explore in detail how medieval Japanese authors take up these possibilities.) If sutras recognize the limitations of common memory, what does the command to "accept and hold" signify for those at the other end of the spectrum: monks, nuns, and laity possessed of only normal powers of mind? Generally, Mahāyāna sutras offer two humbler options.
One possibility is to memorize a fragment of the sutra text. At several points in its narrative, the Lotus Sutra extols the great merit accruing to one who "accepts and holds so much as a single four-line verse of this scripture" (T 9.262.54a18-19). The merit so gained far outstrips the merit to be garnered from countless lifetimes of other sorts of offerings and, in fact, is only outstripped itself when the dedication stretches to encompass the entire sutra. The Diamond Sutra makes similar claims as to the efficacy of this practice, and it offers precisely two four-line verses, both uttered by the Buddha. The first one reads: "Should one try to see me in form / or seek me in sound / this person follows a false path / and will not attain sight of the Thus Come One." If this first gāthā describes improper methods of seeing, the second gāthā provides the inverse: "All things are conditioned phenomena / like dreams, illusions, bubbles, and shadows / like dew or, again, like lightning. / You should regard them as such." Both of these verses capture succinctly the larger message communicated by the sutra as a whole, which concerns itself with criticizing the limitations of conceptual thought and language. The Diamond Sutra takes pains to point out a slippage that has delighted semiologists and deconstructionists for decades. Namely, the word is not the thing, and to imagine that the thing you seek (the Buddha, for instance) can be encompassed in language, concept, sound, or form constitutes a grave error, an illusion no more lasting than dew or lightning.
The rhetoric of "even a four-line verse" functions on the logic of synecdoche, part standing in for whole, but not just any part will do. Sutras never encourage devotees to choose four lines of prose, for instance. Sutra verse (Sk: gāthā) seems to have a special power, as fragment, to suggest the contours of the whole from which it was drawn. This special power appears to short-circuit any fears or anxieties that sutras normally have about being cut up, pulled apart, reassembled, or abridged. The shortest complete unit of a gāthā is four lines, and gāthā of this length are like the arm of a starfish. The whole is better, but the part is good enough because it contains, as it were, the genetic map necessary to regenerate the other arms.
Sutras provide a second, humble method, and that is to take the metaphor of "holding" literally, to actually, physically hold the material text of the sutra in your hands. The Flower Ornament Sutra instructs bodhisattvas who are active in the world to use various everyday events as triggers for the dedication of merit. When washing the hands, for instance, bodhisattvas "should wish that all beings / have pure clean hands / to accept and hold the buddha dharma." This would keep them from damaging the sutra with oils or smudging it with dirt, but this act of respect also acknowledges that the material text of the sutra is a great treasure. As Śāriputra asserts in the Vimalakīrti Sutra, "One who takes this sutra in his hand has thereby acquired the storehouse of the jewels of the dharma." Sutras typically use this image of the storehouse to describe the advanced bodhisattva's mind. While the bodhisattva holds all of the dharma in memory, one who possesses a sutra as a material object held in hand similarly holds part of that dharma, the key that can eventually unlock the library. Later in that same scripture Maitreya vows, "If in ages to come there are good men and good women who seek the Great Vehicle, I will see to it that sutras such as this one come into their hands, will lend them powers of memorization, and will cause them to accept and hold, read and recite, and expound them widely to other beings." Here we begin to see how the mimesis of holding the sutras in one's hand can transform into the more perfect grasp of total recall, as the devotee moves through the later steps of memorizing the sutra and then explaining it to others, growing their collection one sutra at a time.
Given that sutras often include injunctions to revere, worship, make offerings to, and circumambulate the sutra scroll-in other words, taking seriously the idea that Mahāyāna Buddhism is, in fact, a "cult of the book"-this physical holding of sutras is a central ritual concern of the religion as a whole. Additionally, physically holding the sutras is mimetic of the mental holding accomplished by advanced bodhisattvas. Significantly, sutras typically link the act of "accepting and holding" to the act of "reading and reciting," so that the words and phrases of the sutra move slowly from the hand to the mind by way of the eye and mouth. If all buddhas are born from sutras, then, by ingesting sutras and storing them within the mind, the reader catalyzes his or her own spiritual transformation.
Virtually all beings are capable of transcribing the sutras onto the mind. Bodhisattvas simply accomplish this at a faster rate and without the need for an external material text to prompt them and correct their memory. Thus, what a sutra wants when it asks a certain being to accept and hold it varies with the varying capabilities of that being. At its simplest, holding may entail only possession: keeping a physical copy of a single sutra on hand and protecting it from the elements. At its most intricate, holding requires a feat of memorization resulting in perfect access to the entire dharma. A large, vaguely defined territory of absorbing and remembering text lies between these two extremes.
To Read and Recite
The next devotional response that sutras typically ask for is chanting (Jp: dokuju). Once again, the two elements of this compound at times appear separately, in which case the first element (Jp: doku) means "to read" and the second (Jp: ju) "to recite." As a general rule, buddhas and very advanced bodhisattvas recite sutras, study and analyze them, and preach them widely, but they are less often to be found reading them, unless doing so for the sake of other beings. Others who do not possess the power of instantaneous total recall might learn to recite sutras through a process of repeated reading. This suggests that the key difference between reading and reciting has to do with the material location of the text being vocalized. When devotees pronounce the words of sutras that they know by heart, they are reciting the text, and when they must rely on an external prop (say, the sutra as written in a scroll), they are reading.
One goal of reading is clearly memorization. Some sutras indicate this by including the specific command to "memorize" (Jp: fū) as part of the devotional sequence. For instance, the buddha Amida's twenty-ninth vow reads, "If, when I attain buddhahood, bodhisattvas in my land should not acquire eloquence and wisdom in accepting and reading the sutras, in memorizing, reciting, holding, and expounding them, may I not attain perfect enlightenment." Other times, the goal of memorization becomes apparent only when the practice of reading goes astray. Near the beginning of the Lotus Sutra the disciple Manjuśri reminds Maitreya (who is destined to be the next buddha in this world) about his problematic past. In an earlier incarnation Maitreya was a bodhisattva known as Seeker of Fame. His mind was marred by pride, and, "though he read and recited a multitude of sutras, he derived no profit from them, completely forgetting most."
Memorization, therefore, is the bridge that allows the sutra to move from an external source (the Buddha's voice or the sutra scroll) to an internal one, the mind. When the mind is inadequately prepared, however, all that is so painstakingly written there may be erased. Medieval Japanese literature becomes fascinated with this process of writing and erasing the mind, a theme I will take up at length in later chapters.
In addition to moving the sutra inside the body, the process of repeated reading and recitation also refines and clarifies the text. The Nirvana Sutra offers a helpful metaphor for how this happens. The Buddha explains, "When washing dirty clothes one first washes with ash water, and then with clean water. If one does this, the clothes become clean. The concentration and wisdom of bodhisattvas is also like this. O good man! It is as a person first reads and recites, and later the meaning comes forth." Clean clothes, bodhisattvic knowledge, and meaning do not just appear; rather, they must be gained through repeated action. Reading a sutra is like washing dirty cloth with lye, and reciting a sutra is like rinsing away both lye and dirt to reveal the clean cloth underneath. Repeating the action enough times, the launderer comes to understand the warp and woof of meaning.
Furthermore, this interaction between reader and text (launderer and cloth) is almost alchemical, and the reader, too, undergoes a slow transformation. Earlier in the Nirvana Sutra, the Buddha has offered a different metaphor that more clearly highlights this subtle alteration in the reader. Here, the Buddha likens reading and reciting to the work of a goldsmith: "O good man! For example, with a goldsmith, from the day when he begins to learn his art up to those of his hoary old age, moment follows moment and what has come before passes away and does not last. But by repeated practice, what he makes is wonderful. Due to this, the person earns praise as the best goldsmith. Reading and reciting the sutras is just like this, good man." In this case the metaphor concerns the goldsmith rather than the gold, though surely he smelts his metal over fire to remove its impurities just as the washer uses lye to leach the dirt. What changes in this metaphor, though, is the person who manipulates the substance (the goldsmith, the reader). Moment by moment as he hones his craft, time and dedicated practice transform him from apprentice to master, his title primarily dependent upon the degree to which he has internalized his craft and purged himself of error.
When sutras ask to be read and recited, therefore, what they want is to be internalized. The repetition of reading and reciting leverages the sutras from "out there" to "in here" and, as the laundering and goldsmithing metaphors indicate, memorizing the sutras works on the mind analogous to the ways that bleaching works on cloth or smelting on metal. It wipes out impurities: the mind becomes a perfectly smooth surface on which the fabric or gold of the sutras can shine in its most highly burnished state. This melding of subject and object, of reader and what is being read, propels the devotee onward toward buddhahood, moving him or her from apprentice to master.
Spreading the Word
Finally, sutras require that their devotees propagate them, either by preaching or through creating written copies. The eight sutras I survey here all employ a standard pattern according to which they encourage their audience to accept, hold, read, recite, and then expound the sutra, teaching it to others. Everyone, from buddha and bodhisattva to lay believer, is expected to engage in this activity, and a certain missionary zeal imbues the exhortation to "expound the buddhas' words widely for the sake of the multitude of beings" (T 12.365.341c18). It does not matter whether the teachings expounded upon come directly from the Buddha's mouth or in the form of a written sutra; the efficacy, and the command, remain the same. In one instance, one of the historical Buddha's disciples listens to his teachings, then goes into the nearby village to share them with the townspeople (T 14.475.541a14-16). In another instance, a degenerate monk has abandoned his vows but continues to meditate on the meaning of the scriptures he has read and recited. When approached and asked about the teachings, he delivers a sermon (T 12.374.383b28-29). Again, a king may sit upon his throne, holding a copy of the sutra in his hand and expounding upon it to his assembled court (T 12.374.371a23-25). And finally the Lotus Sutra maintains that, in an evil age, there is even merit to be gained in "secretly preaching so much as a single phrase to a single person" (T 9.262.30c27). When sutras ask to be preached or expounded, what they want is for their believers to take the text that has been internalized and to reintroduce it into the world. Like so much seed cast upon the wind, even a single phrase of the sutra may find itself lodged in fertile soil.
The other way many sutras ask to be reproduced is in script. Sutras ask all varieties of being to engage in this activity, and, as later chapters will show, medieval Japanese literature is particularly interested in the kinds of merit that can be gained from copying out even a minimal portion of text or simply from wetting the inkstone to allow a literate person to write out a single word of a sutra. Combining a number of now-familiar motifs, the Lotus Sutra claims that, after the Buddha's extinction, "If there is a person who accepts and keeps, reads and recites, understands and expounds, or writes down or copies out even a single gāthā of the Lotus Sutra or who shall look with veneration on a scroll of this scripture as if it were the Buddha himself," it should be known that this person has already served myriad buddhas in earlier times. In a slightly later chapter from the same sutra, a host of bodhisattvas speaking in unison vow to "cause living beings to write and copy this scripture, to accept and keep, to read and recite it, [and] to expound its meaning" to others.
While accepting, holding, reading, and reciting all track the trajectory of the sutra as it moves from an external source into the devotee's mind, preaching and copying reverse the direction, now moving the text back out into the larger world, where it may encounter other potential devotees. We can see this process of propagation at work in the somewhat more flexible location of writing in the devotional sequence. Whereas each of the other varieties of sutra devotion typically maintains its same place in the sequence (listen-accept-hold-read-recite-preach), the act of writing may appear in one of two locations, either at the end of the list, alongside preaching, or at the very beginning. I would suggest that this indicates a logical cycle of textual engagement. Though rare, some sutra passages do explicitly acknowledge that while any variety of devotion may be practiced on its own, the ideal devotee would move through all of these stages in turn. In this cycle of textual devotion, the believer accepts the sutras and then embarks on a lengthy process of memorizing and nurturing them through contemplation and internalization before passing the teaching on to other potential believers via the spoken or written word.
When sutras ask their devotees to accept them, to internalize them in memory, and then to bear them forth again into the world, they treat the human body (particularly the mind) as a special type of container that they call a "dharma vessel" (Jp: hōki). Like all other living entities, individual sutra texts are fragile and destined to die. No single copy of a sutra, whether held in memory or written on paper, can defeat time (though, as an aside, it is worth noting that the world's oldest known, dated, printed text is a copy of the Diamond Sutra from the year 868). Therefore, if sutras are to last in this world, they must find a way to replicate themselves. The list of wants I discussed above speaks precisely to this reproductive drive and indicates the enormous role that humans must play. Leaving aside rather fantastic notions of demons, dragons, goddesses, and mythical animals such as the garuda and kinnara, in the day-to-day waking reality of this degenerate age, sutras are a highly specialized niche species that relies heavily on the human body. Sutras seek a symbiotic relationship with the human body that serves as their host or, as they put it, "vessel."
A capacious memory is the single most important characteristic by which sutras identify their ideal host organism. While a fully enlightened being, a buddha, provides the "supreme dharma vessel," other less enlightened beings are capable of containing viable amounts of dharma (the smallest measure of which would be one four-line gāthā). As I discussed earlier, the Buddha's disciple Ānanda has frequently been identified as the human who comes closest to approximating the ideal. In the Vimalakīrti Sutra, the Buddha praises Ānanda for being "foremost in hearing, in concentrating and in holding all" the teachings he has heard, while still noting that Ānanda's powers pale in comparison to those of bodhisattvas, of whom he remarks, "though the deepest places in the sea can be fathomed," bodhisattvas' powers of memory cannot be measured. Again, in the Nirvana Sutra, both the bodhisattva Lion's Roar and the Buddha describe Ānanda as a watertight container. Lion's Roar notes that expounding sutras to Ānanda is "like pouring water and filling another vessel," and Buddha praises Ānanda, saying, "hearing a sutra once, he never asks me about it again. It is like pouring water into a single vessel." Sutras frequently describe the Mahāyāna dharma in liquid terms, figuring it as an ocean of teachings, a great cloud filled with moisture, or a monsoon-like rain, so that preaching the dharma is like pouring water into the narrow aperture of the ear.
While Ānanda holds claim to the position of ideal dharma vessel among humans, others can perform this same function in a more limited capacity, and, though they have clear preferences, Mahāyāna sutras seem to take the "any port in a storm" view. As Buddha explains to his disciple Kāśyapa in the Nirvana Sutra, "Imagine that you have three vessels. The first is perfect, the second leaks, and the third is broken. When one wishes to put milk, cream, or butter into them, which would one use first?" Kāśyapa responds in the expected order and Buddha decodes the allegory, saying that bodhisattvas are the perfect vessel, śrāvaka (individual practitioners who may be uninterested in spreading the teachings to others) are the leaky vessel, and icchantika (beings who seem to be impervious to the teachings) are the broken vessel. Though their capacities differ widely, each of these vessels is capable of containing at least some dharma-milk, even if only a few ounces cupped in a shard or even if only for a limited duration before it all leaks away. While any vessel will do in a pinch, clearly sutras prefer a vessel that is whole, that can contain their full measure, and that holds the promise of one day emptying its contents into another vessel before it cracks and crumbles with time.
What is it, then, that makes a vessel "complete," capable of containing the vast storehouse of Mahāyāna teachings? In a particularly rich episode from the Vimalakīrti Sutra, the layman Vimalakīrti criticizes the Buddha's disciple Purna, who has been expounding older, pre-Mahāyānic teachings to a group of young aspirants. Vimalakīrti instructs Purna, "You should first enter into meditation and observe a person's mind before expounding the dharma to that person. One does not put rotten food in a precious vessel. You must determine what thoughts are in the minds of these monks. Do not treat precious lapis lazuli as though it were mere glass!" He goes on to reveal that in past lives these young monks vowed to follow the Mahāyāna path; thus, to fill them with inferior teachings is inappropriate and misjudges their capacities. As this story indicates, the primary factor in determining memory volume has to do with mental attitude. First, one must make a vow to pursue the Mahāyāna teachings, and then one must prepare a place to receive them.
This dedication and clearing of the mind is precisely what the Dragon King's daughter is able to accomplish with such startling speed in her famous appearance in the twelfth chapter of the Lotus Sutra. According to the story, the Buddha's disciple Manjuśri has been expounding the teachings in the dragon palace under the sea, where his best disciple has been the eight-year-old daughter of the Dragon King. Manjuśri praises her, exclaiming, "She has attained dhāranī and is able to accept and hold completely the deep and subtle treasure-houses of all the buddha dharma.... What she recalls in her mind and expounds with her mouth is subtle and broad." Another disciple, Śāriputra, objects, declaring, "A woman's body is filthy; it is not a dharma receptacle." In mimetic defense of her own accomplishments, the young girl suddenly appears and gives the Buddha a jewel, which he accepts straightaway. She points out to Śāriputra that when one is prepared to accept a gift, the actual exchange moves quite quickly, and she provides visual confirmation of this by transforming herself into a male buddha. The point of this amazing display is that although the mind is physically embodied, it is not defined by that body. Rather the opposite. Once the dharma has lodged within the mind, it is capable of working on the body from the inside out.
Mahāyāna sutras thus understand the human mind as a vessel into which they can pour themselves. While the ideal vessel is watertight, in the sense that none of the teachings leak out, its barriers do appear permeable in other ways. Given enough time, presumably even a miniscule volume begins to affect both the mind and the larger physical container (the human body) that surrounds it. The greater the volume of internalized text, the speedier and more noticeable the transformation. This almost chemical reaction that occurs through the permeable membrane of the mind-although definitely a by-product of the process and not its main objective (which is the preservation of sutras)-is nevertheless pleasurable and interesting, and it is a theme that medieval Japanese explanatory tales return to time and again.
Scroll and Stupa
In its capacity as vessel, the human body (or, more precisely, the embodied sense organ of the mind) functions in ways comparable to two other types of Buddhist container: the stupa and the scroll. Stupas contain relics of a once-living buddha (bones, ash, etc.), while sutra scrolls contain wisdom, the germ of enlightened intuition that transforms a being into a buddha. As discussed above, Mahāyāna Buddhism seeks to elevate the place of the scroll as a container of the dharma. While implicit in many sutras, the assertion of the scroll's primacy is particularly strong in the Lotus Sutra, which instructs adherents to "make offerings to the sutra scroll, venerating it, holding it in esteem, and singing its praises" (T 12.262.38b19-20), just the same as if it were a living buddha who had just finished delivering a teaching. Similarly the Diamond Sutra suggests circumambulating the sutra while scattering offerings of flower and incense (T 8.235.750c22-23). These passages place a great deal of emphasis on the container-the offerings are not given to the sutra but specifically to the sutra scroll-thus insisting metonymically on the identification between the concrete, material thing of the scroll with the more abstract sutra contained therein.
If Mahāyāna Buddhism recognizes the human mind as a similar sort of container for the sutras, then logically we would expect sutras to give comparable directives to revere, respect, and make offerings to people who are recognized dharma vessels and to commemorate their presence through the building of stupas. In other words, we would expect sutras to draw correlations between the stupa-as-container, the scroll-as-container, and the mind-as-container. This is, in fact, precisely what we see. In the Nirvana Sutra the Buddha tells his disciple Kāśyapa that he has included two gāthā in the sutra specifically for the purpose of ensuring that those who protect the sutra will be praised. The first of these verses maintains, "To any person versed in dharma, / no matter whether young or old, / offerings should be made; / one should respect and worship him / as the Brahmin worships fire." Even more specific, the Lotus Sutra declares that any place where anyone has accepted, held, read, recited, preached, or copied the sutra, "whether in a place where sutra scrolls are lodged, or in a garden, or in a grove," or in any other place, there one should erect a stupa in recognition of the fact that this place is "a Platform of the Path" on which buddhas have achieved unsurpassed supreme enlightenment.
Thus Mahāyāna Buddhism recognizes any place where a sutra has existed as a locale of enlightenment, whether the sutra existed in memory, in writing, or in spoken language. Like any literary work, sutras require physical form if they are to be accessible to people. Earlier Buddhist traditions stressed the entrustment and oral transmission of sutras, meaning that sutras were always bound up with the physical form-the memory and the body-of the person expounding them. Ideally, this orator would be a buddha and locales of his important life events would be marked with a stupa that identified the location of his physical trace (pieces of his corpse, items he had touched, ground he had trod). Mahāyāna Buddhism adopts the stupa, and the rhetoric of physical presence, but leverages the locale of that presence away from the Buddha's body and into the words (the "linguistic text") of the sutra. These words can exist in one of two almost endlessly reproducible media: the written text (as in a scroll) or the memory (as in a human mind). The fusion of the container (body or scroll) with the linguistic text of the contained (the sutra) creates a material locale of embodiedness that accrues the praise, veneration, worship, and offerings previously accorded to the Buddha.
As a type of container, the human body is particularly valuable because it is alive and therefore capable not just of containing the sutra, but of engaging the sutra as a living organism. Typical symbiotic relationships in the natural world offer three economies of exchange: parasitism, in which the symbiotic relation negatively impacts the host organism; commensalism, in which the host is largely unaffected; and mutualism, in which both symbionts benefit from the relationship. Sutras are at pains to show that they offer humans a mutually beneficial symbiotic relationship in which buddha-like respect and veneration is but one of many potential boons. For hosts who agree to accept them without doubt, Amidist sutras such as the Contemplation Sutra and the Larger Sutra of Immeasurable Life promise release from evil karma (T 12.365.345c14) and rebirth in the Pure Land (T 12.360.272c8), where believers can meet Amida face-to-face and be free of all hunger, illness, and pain. The Nirvana Sutra promises similar boons, including long life (T 12.374.382c25), and even suggests that belief in the sutra can change one's physical appearance, causing strength to increase daily and one's appearance to steadily improve (399b5-7). Finally, the Lotus Sutra, most loquacious in this regard, claims that it shall reward anyone who is able to encourage others to listen to its teachings with breath that never stinks, a mouth and tongue never diseased, teeth ever straight and white, lips never scarred, a nose never out of joint, a full and round face, and a perfectly formed male member, among other things (T 9.262.47a8-19). Many, and perhaps most, of these promises must await future incarnations to come to fruition, thus reducing the immediate allure of sutras' boons and potentially placing sutras in a tenuous position as they search for new hosts.
Of course, should persuasion fail to do the trick, sutras also occasionally employ a tactic of intimidation, placing threats in the mouths of characters that appear in the narrative as would-be protectors of the teachings. Facing the Buddha's death, a number of figures (laity, goddesses, and disciples) in the Nirvana Sutra vow to crush any being who slanders the Mahāyāna teachings "as hail does grass" (T 12.374.367c26, 368b16, 382c22). In the same sutra the Buddha himself proclaims that those who speak ill of the Nirvana Sutra in particular will suffer illness, financial ruin, friendlessness, and tyranny, such that they shall be "like a bird whose wings are broken and who cannot fly." With similar vindictiveness, the Lotus Sutra threatens those who malign it with deafness, dumbness, blindness, poverty, destitution, and general decrepitude, their bodies stinky, scabby, and covered with boils (T 12.262.16a3-7). Thus sutras promise to smite those who would slander or reject them or who would seek to part them from potential symbionts. Sutras offer a clear message to would-be hosts: "Accept me and live, perhaps in improved circumstances; reject me and suffer."
What Sutras Need
Given that they are willing to offer, and to threaten, so much, sutras clearly need a great deal from their symbiotic relationship with humans. Whereas the cycle of textual devotion I examined earlier describes what sutras want, in this final section I would like to turn to consider what it is that sutras need, their basic requirements for survival. In the natural world, for example, a host organism might provide its symbiont with any of several necessities of life, including nutrients, locomotion, shelter, or a place to incubate its young. As with its natural models, the human mind offers sutras many of these things, none of which sutras are capable of achieving on their own as material texts.
The first thing sutras need to continue to be viable in the world is shelter and protection. As we have already seen, sutras consistently proclaim the immanence of their extinction, whether at the hands of time, enemies of the faith, or overzealous editing. In this atmosphere, sutras not only want to be accepted, held, and internalized in the mind of a believer; they need it to survive as a literary species. This is why they so often include narratives about model beings who take great vows to protect, preserve, and guard the teaching. At times sutras even include scenes in which former enemies see the light, as when, in the Nirvana Sutra, a host of demons declares that they "now love Mahāyāna and protect Mahāyāna," vowing to subdue all non-Mahāyānists and to guard the teachings and all those who work to ensure that "the true dharma shall not die out." Elsewhere in the Nirvana Sutra, the Buddha tellingly proclaims that bodhisattvas must guard and protect their own bodies, caring for them properly, lest they be unable to make copies of the sutra, keep it safely in memory, chant it, and preach it widely to others (T 12.374.497c9-11). This passage frames the preservation of the body as a necessary step toward the ultimate goal, which is preservation of the sutras.
Cleverly, sutras often draw attention to the human side of the equation. Absorbing the sutras and providing them a safe haven, the human body acquires a certain magnetism, drawing in a host of beings (bodhisattvas, demons, goddesses, and so forth) who vow to protect and support the human as vessel of the dharma. In this somewhat solipsistic logic, sutras promise that supernatural beings will protect us if we protect them. Sutras thus seem to be offering humans precisely what they themselves need: shelter.
The second thing that sutras need from their exchange with humans is locomotion, and this is tied closely to their third requirement for survival, which is reproduction. In the "Fortitude" chapter of the Lotus Sutra, for instance, 8,500 people vow "to preach this scripture broadly in other lands," while some chapters later, in "Entrustment," the Buddha charges his auditors, saying, "You must all accept and keep, read and recite, and broadly proclaim this dharma, enabling all beings universally to hear it and know it." This is the closest Buddhism comes to a missionary imperative, and the propagation of faith has primarily to do with the movement and reproduction of text. As I discussed earlier with respect to sutras' wants, in the cycle of textual devotion the preaching and copying of sutras begins to move internalized text back into the external world, where it can encounter new hosts in the next generation of its diasporic spread.
In conclusion, in this chapter and the chapters to come I understand sutras as living textual entities. My goal thus far has been to examine the origins of this phenomenon by locating and tracing the techniques by which sutras identify themselves as the germ of Buddhist life. Through the concerted use of metafictional strategies, sutras unmoor themselves from both the authorial hand and the oratorical mouth, taking those powers unto themselves and drawing on the rhetoric of embodiment to invest themselves with a living palpability. Thus birthed into the world, they find they are subject to the same realities of death and decline as all other beings, and they survive from generation to generation by cultivating a symbiotic relationship with a human host organism in whose mind the sutras may lodge.
To the degree that a believer (a host, or "dharma vessel") engages them, the sutras live physically within that believer's body. Humans provide shelter, protection, locomotion, and a reproductive mechanism, ensuring that individual sutra copies do not disintegrate before they are able to replicate themselves, and that the species, the textual line, survives in this age of darkness. In return, sutras promise an array of benefits, including relief from illness, enhanced mental faculties, eloquence, and a more pain-free incarnation in one's next existence. Medieval Japanese vernacular literature refracts and reflects on the nature of this symbiotic relationship by creating a plethora of narratives in which the human body disintegrates into textual fragments and, now reversing the image, textual fragments incorporate themselves into human bodies.
Another implication of this symbiotic relationship is that the gendered position of the reader becomes very complex. We are meant to serve as womblike containers into which the seed of the teachings can be inserted. And we are meant to gestate those teachings, transforming ourselves before inserting the seed into others. This suggests a perhaps uncomfortable array of positions that we as readers must assume in relation to the sutra text, ranging from lover (receptacle of seed) to child (the new being born of that seed) and finally seducer (inseminating others). This may be one reason that explanatory tales often stress the reproductive capabilities and genital status of their protagonists, speaking in particular of prepubescent girls, sexually active monks, well-endowed hijiri (wandering ascetics), genitally malformed nuns, and so forth.
They key thing to glean from this symbiosis, however, is that Mahāyāna Buddhism understands paper (silk, bark, leaves, stone, or any other external writing surface) and the human body (which houses the memory organ of the mind) as intertwined locations for the inscription of sacred text. Reading is the process that allows the sutra-as-germ to break through into the membrane of the mind, while writing performs the inverse, as the body breaks open to produce the next iteration of scripture. Medieval Japanese setsuwa literature takes up this economy of flesh and text with considerable gusto, providing the material for an extended meditation on the particular ways in which one culture, distant in both time and place from the classical Indian subcontinent, made sense of and continued to build upon the rhetorical figures and life cycles of Buddhist textual culture.