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Transcribing Buddhist Scripture as a Method of Practice for the Benefit of Self and Others

In ancient times, transcribing Buddhist scripture was mostly intended to promote and propagate Buddhist teachings. As shown in many sutras, transcribing sutras is a praiseworthy and meritorious act. Over time, copying sutras has become a method of practice in itself, as a method of praying for blessings and making offerings. The process of washing our hands prior to sincerely copying the Buddha's words with utmost reverence helps us rein in our mind and cultivate concentration. Indeed, it is a method of practice that benefits both self and others.

The Diamond Sutra and the Avatamsaka Sutra, among other Mahayana scriptures, include words of praise regarding the merit of transcribing Buddhist sutra. Particularly at a time when print technology was less advanced, sutra transcription played a significant role in the circulation of Buddhist texts. In addition, sincerely transcribing a Buddhist sutra with great reverence—as though one were facing the Buddha and listening to his teachings in person--- certainly serves as a method of practice for us to gather our mind and cultivate concentration by immersing ourselves in the Dharma.

The historical origin of sutra transcription

The earliest recorded handwritten sutras appeared in the 1st and 2nd century BCE. In India and areas where Theravada Buddhism prevailed, pattra leaves were used as writing materials on which the content of sutras and sīlas were written down in Sanskrit or Pali.  Referred to as "pattra-leaf scriptures", these sutra transcriptions ensured that some scriptures that had been passed down through oral traditions wouldn't be forgotten and thus lost in history.

When Indian Buddhist scriptures started to be translated into Chinese in the Eastern Han Dynasty of China, they were first recited and translated by seasoned monks from the Western Regions, and then written down by the transcriber according to what was dictated. The practice of sutra transcription became increasingly popular during the Wei, Jin, Southern and Northern Dynasties, particularly when Buddhism flourished and Mahayana sutras strongly encouraged expounding the Dharma for others and transcribing the sutras to enhance their circulation. Form the Eastern Jin Dynasty, state-sponsored translation centers were set up, to carry out large-scale work for sutra translation and transcription. In the Tang Dynasty, the practice of copying sutra also became popular with the general public. In addition to personal study, recitation, and cultivation purposes, sutra transcription is also meant as a way to make offerings and pray for blessings. Transcribers were exhorted to observe fasting for a certain period of time, purify their bodily, verbal, and mental actions, and treat the task of transcribing itself seriously as a solemn Buddhist practice. It was common for monasteries to set up their own sutra transcription studios, whereby patrons could pay to hire transcribers to do the job for them. The finished transcriptions were then sent to the monastery as an offering to the Dharma, a prayer for their relatives and friends, or as a merit dedicated to their deceased loved ones for their deliverance.
During the Tang Dynasty, some sutras started to become widely popular particularly for the purpose of sutra transcription, since they incorporate benefits such as praying for blessings and transferring merit. For example, the Diamond Sutra is used for prolonging life span, eliminating misfortunes, and developing in wisdom; the Golden Light Sutra (Suvarṇaprabhāsottamasūtrendrarājaḥ Sūtra) for practicing repentance and eliminating transgressions; the Medicine Buddha Sutra, or the Bhaiṣajyaguru-vaiḍūryaprabhārāja Sūtra, for praying for a speedy recovery from illness; as well as the Amitabha Sutra and the Infinite Longevity Sutra for dedicating the merit to deceased loved ones.

With the invention of movable print in the Song Dynasty and the prevalence of printed Buddhist scriptures, circulation was no longer the main purpose for sutra transcription. Nevertheless, its fundamental idea as a way of practice, giving, making offerings, making an aspiration in Dharma, and dedicating the merit, remains to this day.

Extended Reading:

Transcribing Sutras

Sutra transcription: A practice that enhances our health

Transcribing Buddhist Scripture as a Method of Practice for the Benefit of Self and Others

The Exceptional Merits of Transcribing Sutras

A Guide to Hand Copying Sutras

Reminders for Sutra Copying

Resource: Issue 371 of Life Magazine, Dharma Drum Publishing Corporation
Photos: Issue 371 of Life Magazine, Dharma Drum Publishing Corporation
Translation: James  
Editing: Chia-cheng Chang (張家誠), Keith Brown