By Rev. Jon Turner
Shinran Shonin’s teacher, Honen Shonin, is said to have read all of the Buddhist sutras and commentaries five times each as well as reading the complete works of Shan-tao eight times. This is likely a bit of an exaggeration if taken literally but it is meant to convey the depth of his study. An exaggeration because Buddhist scholar Jan Nattier has stated that if we “put together in book form, the scriptures contained in the Chinese Buddhist canon alone would amount to some 500,000 pages in English.”
So if you do the math that would be 2.5 million pages for merely reading the canon five times. For Honen, that would be 100,000 pages a year for 25 years. This does not even include the pages necessary for reading Sha-tao eight times. But what we should take from this is that Honen read and studied a lot. He was one of the greatest Buddhist scholars of his time.
For me to read the entire Buddhist canon – if it was all already translated into English – would reasonable take me 50 years, reading 10,000 pages a year. That might be doable if I was in my twenties. So what am I to do? There is actually a wonderfully constructed book that comes to the rescue for busy modern people. It is entitled Buddha-Dharma: The Way to Enlightenment. It is an $18 paperback on Amazon that consists of only 830 pages. I say “only” because 830 pages is so much less than the staggering 500,000 page estimate by Nattier.
This book is an anthology of the entire Buddhist canon. It is also in chronological order. Think of it as a Reader’s Digest version of all the Buddhist sutras. It starts with the historical Buddha’s birth, using many excerpts from the Pali canon. Then it moves into the Mahayana texts as we begin to move through his life, visiting each milestone. For example, leaving home at 29, awakening at 35, and reconciliation with his family in his late 30’s or early 40’s. The growth of the sangha and his teachings until his death at 80.
The Buddha taught for 45 years; from the time of his awakening until his death which explains why the Buddhist teachings are so voluminous. Now we have a convenient, complete, self-contained source for the entire Buddhist canon in English. One that is eminently manageable. Allowing one to read perhaps as little as 15 to 20 pages a week for only one year. We are now able to complete this task at any age or work load. Maybe by reading just a couple pages each night before going to bed.
The book moves seamlessly from sutra to sutra. Unless you are really trying to track the source of each reading, it is very difficult to discern which sutra you are currently reading from. Another benefit is that you get some perspective since you are able to see the entire canon at 10,000 feet. Overarching themes begin to appear. For example, the Buddha repeatedly stresses the teachings of the Four Noble Truths along with encouraging others to begin to follow the Way. In other words, the Buddha is really trying to get his followers to recognize the problem of suffering and enthusiastically adopt the solution of Buddhist practice.
The book also reads a bit like a historical novel. You get to know intimately all of the disciples surrounding the Buddha; how they behave and interact with one another. Their personalities become more fully developed. You begin to feel like you are there as part of the Sangha. There is also friction with other teachers and movements. At one point the Buddha actually declines to speak to a Brahman who merely wishes to engage in debate. I found this very interesting. The Buddha is willing to speak to anyone who poses an authentic question but not willing to engage in endless argumentation.
The reconciliation with his father, wife and son is also quite touching. Imagine being the Buddha and a family man. Father, wife and son were all very important to him and they all took refuge in the Buddhist path. In fact, his father King Suddhodana is considered to be the first ordained layperson in the tradition. And the first person to realize complete enlightenment prior to death by virtue of the Buddha’s instructions. His son is also ordained as a Buddhist monk.
If you read closely, you will begin to recognize excerpts from the Larger Sutra, the Lotus Sutra and the Nirvana Sutra. These are three of the most important Mahayana sutras. In this book, they are a much easier read. It must be due to the freer and more modern translations. Or perhaps it is the exquisite editing at play. The book is full of life without any stilted, formal language.
People often ask me what practices they should do as Jodo Shinshu Buddhists, especially when it is not Sunday. One suggestion is to merely read this book, a couple of pages a day. In the beginning it is a little like reading Shakespeare, but just like with Shakespeare your ear will begin to develop and you will get used to the cadence and the cast of characters. Much like when streaming a new Netflix drama. You have to give it at least three or four episodes before you decide to stick with it or not. You have to get to know all the names of the characters and wait for the story to develop. You have to wait until you become invested in the story. Then you will find that you “want” to watch rather than “have” to watch. Then you will just focus on the next episode rather than the 65 that are queued up before you. It is the same with this book. Ignore the 830 pages and just focus on the next two pages for tonight.
Rev. Jon Turner
Shin Reader note: the book Buddha-Dharma: The Way to Enlightenment is available at the BCA Bookstore website and at other online booksellers.