Special Topics

Methods of Reading the Sutras

Preparation for Sutra Reading

1. Mindset
Why do we read sutras? The main purpose of reading sutras is not to acquire Buddhist knowledge or for academic purposes. Rather, we take the sutra as a mirror to reflect on our own speech and actions, to determine whether they are in accordance with the Buddha’s teachings. We are then able to adjust our behavior accordingly. This is why we read sutras.

2. Approaches
As Master Sheng Yen mentioned in his book, Chan Gate (禪門), there are four ways to read the sutras: silent reading, reading aloud, chanting, and upholding. In his book, The Exquisite Dharma: Commentary on Lotus Sutra (絕妙說法──法華經講要), Master Sheng Yen explained the difference between reading and chanting: whereas reading sutras out loud is considered a form of reading, those who chant do so without looking at the sutra. Both can be accompanied with the striking of the wooden fish. The main difference between reading and chanting is that, by chanting, a sutra can be  sung. It is a common practice to chant the sutras during morning and evening services, or during Dharma ceremonies. 

It is customary to recite the Mantra of Purifying the Speech and the Sutra Opening Verse before the main body of a sutra. The Mantra to Atone for Mistakes in Recitation and the Verse of Merit Transfer are recited towards the end of sutra chanting. What is the difference between reading and upholding a sutra? The former refers to finishing reading one sutra off before starting another, whereas the latter refers to repeatedly reading and studying the same sutra over an extended period of time, both as a personal method of practice and a regular practice. 

3. Posture
The posture for reading a sutra depends on the required duration of time. We can choose to stand or kneel when reading for a shorter duration. For example, we alternate between standing and kneeling for chanting in the morning and evening services, whereas we often sit for a longer period of reading.

4. Venue
Wash your hands, rinse your mouth, and groom your appearance prior to reading the sutras. Set up an altar for the Buddha statue with offerings of flowers, incense, lantern candles, and food. This helps us generate a mind of respect. Apart from a home altar, we can also find a quiet place to settle our mind into a proper state for reading the sutras.

5. Time of Day 
What is the appropriate time of day to read the sutras? How long should we read for each period? There are no set rules in this regard, since it is a personal choice. In fact, any time can be a good time, and the duration depends on the text length. Longer sutras, such as the Sutra on the Fundamental Vows of Kṣitigarbha Bodhisattva and the Lotus Sutra, can be read in chapters. Shorter sutras, such as the Chapter on the Universal Gate of Avalokiteśvara in the Lotus Sutra, the Amitabha Sutra and the Diamond Sutra, can be read through in one sitting.

Extended Reading:
Receive and Uphold the Buddha's Teaching by Reading Sutras
How Were Buddhist Sutras Formed?
Characteristics of Buddhist Sutras: Their Fundamental Structure
Sutras Mahayana

Resource: Issue 327 of Life Magazine, Dharma Drum Publishing Corporation
Photos: Lee fan (李東陽)
Translation: Vicky Wei (韋徵儀)
Editing: Leefah Thong, Chia-chen Chang (張家誠), Keith Brown