There is a way of serving tea which transforms tea into a spiritual practice
capable of creating the conditions for great awakening. It is called the
Dao of Tea, or Chado. There is a way of arranging flowers which
transforms this kind of decoration into a spiritual practice capable of
creating the conditions for great awakening. It is called the Dao of Flowers,
or Kado. There is a way of archery which transforms archery into
a spiritual practice capable of creating the conditions for great awakening.
It is called Kyudo. There is a way of exercise which transforms
exercise into a spiritual practice capable of creating the conditions for
great awakening. Such exercise forms include Tai Chi Chuan, Chi Kung,
and many other systems of bodily movement. There is a way of sitting in
silence and stillness which transforms that silence and stillness into
a spiritual practice capable of creating the conditions for great awakening.
It is called Zazen.
And there is a way of reading which transforms reading into a spiritual
practice capable of creating the conditions for great awakening. I refer
to this as the Dao of Reading. These Thirty Verses are written to assist
those who wish to transform the reading of the Buddhist Discourses into
a meditative practice and an opportunity for awakening and realization.
The Dao of Reading means to enter into reading with a state of mind such
that reading itself becomes a meditation, transforming reading into a spiritual
practice. To achieve this state of mind, to enter into the Dao of Reading,
consider the following guidelines:
1. Put aside thoughts of fame.
The Tao of Reading is not about accessing fame, or creating conditions
for fame. The Dao of Reading is about accessing wisdom. In the context
of the Buddhist tradition wisdom means transcendental wisdom, the deathless
and the unborn.
2. Put aside thoughts of gain.
The Dao of Reading is not about material acquisitions or material gain.
The Dao of Reading is about creating conditions conducive to realization.
The Dao of Reading is the integration of reading and realization, of reading
as a spiritual practice.
3. Put aside thoughts of power.
The Dao of Reading is not about the acquisition of power, particularly
not about the acquisition of political power. Should such power be offered,
refuse it. Once again, the Dao of Reading is to focus on the presence of
the transcendent and to awaken to the presence of that transcendence in
every moment of our lives.
4. Put aside thoughts of status.
The Dao of Reading is not about acquiring or enhancing our status. The
Dao of Reading is not about elevating ourselves above or over others. If
the Dao of Reading does not lead to kindness and consideration towards
others, then it has failed as a practice.
5. Put aside thoughts of winning.
The Dao of Reading does not have as its purpose filling our minds with
views and arguments so that we can expertly refute everyone who disagrees
with us. The Dao of Reading is a means of opening our hearts and minds
to the vastness of our actual condition.
6. Put aside the idea of finishing.
Because we learn how to read in a context which has a utilitarian approach
to reading, we all have a very strong habit of mind that views reading
as something that we do, when we have to, because the reading is assigned,
that has definite limits. I am referring primarily to school. In school
we are assigned books to read. We read them for the semester because they
are assigned and because we want to get a good grade. Often we have no
actual interest in the books, but we read them anyway because they are
required. When the course is finished, we put the books for that course
aside and, more often than not, never return to them.
The Dao of Reading differs from this approach. The Dao of Reading does
not have as its goal the idea of finishing with the Sutras. It
is not a matter of reading for 1, 2, 5, 10, 15 years and then stopping.
The Dao of Reading is itself a meditation, a spiritual practice. Just as
someone who practices Zazen, the Tao of Silence and Stillness, does
not view Zazen as something from which one graduates, so also the
Dao of Reading has no graduation date. Just as someone who chants the Daimoku
does not do so with the intent of chanting Daimoku a certain number
of years, and then stopping, so also the Dao of Reading is a limitless
practice. Just as someone who practices chado, the Way of Tea, does
not consider a certain number of tea ceremonies as the requisite number,
and then they don’t have to do tea ceremony any more, so also in the Dao
of Reading it is not a matter of reading a certain number of Sutras and
then stopping. In other words, in the Dao of Reading there is no end to
the practice. The Dao of Reading has not beginning and no ending because
the deathless and the unborn to which the Dao of Reading grants access
has no beginning and no ending.
7. Read slowly.
In school there is a lot of pressure to read fast. In business there is
also a lot of pressure to read fast. Newspapers are laid out for skimming
and jumping from article to article. This creates a habit of mind, an expectation,
that when we read we need to rev up the mind, get it in gear, and proceed
full speed ahead.
But just as the movement of tea ceremony are done deliberately, thoughtfully,
carefully, so also the reading in the Dao of Reading is done deliberately,
thoughtfully, and with care and attention.
Just as the movement of Tai Chi Chuan are learned by slowing down,
so also the wisdom of the Sutras is comprehended and realized by
reading slowly and with attention.
Linger over a phrase. Reread a sentence. Read a paragraph several times.
Savor a thought, letting it take root in one’s mind and heart. Follow out
a reference or a footnote if so inclined. Perhaps a commentary will help
with a puzzling passage. The Dao of Reading is about letting the reading
take root in one’s heart and mind. Keep a notebook and pause to write in
it those passages that one finds particularly helpful and meaningful. This
can become your private collection of Dharma sayings, a source of personal
After spending some time in the Dao of Reading I began to discover that
the Discourses of the Buddha have a holographic feel to them. By “holographic”
I mean that they reflect each other, and that one Discourse reflects all
of the other Discourses. Dwelling on the meaning of even a very short Discourse,
or just four lines of a Discourse, can, for this reason, open us up to
the vast realm of wisdom and compassion which is the heart of the Dharma.
Keep in mind that there is no competition here, no test, no graduation.
There is simply the manifestation of wisdom and compassion in the form
of the Discourses.
8. Read only a small amount at each sitting.
Because of the pressures surrounding our normal reading, we tend to be
gluttons of reading. This means that we rush through a book, gobbling up
100, maybe even 300 pages in a single day. This causes indigestion of the
mind, just as gluttony of food causes indigestion for the stomach.
I suggest reading only three to twenty pages at a sitting, as an average.
The Sutras are ideally suited for this kind of reading. Many of them are
very short and self-contained. Even the long Sutras, however, are broken
into short sections easily read in small amounts at a slow pace. This is
because of the conversational/ dialogue matrix of the Sutras. The Sutras
are in question and answer format. This means that it is possible to approach
even very long Sutras in portions that consist of a question and answer,
or several questions and answers, without feeling compelled to move forward
and gobble up the whole Sutra. By reading slowly and in small amounts,
the connections become clearer. Paradoxically, when we rush through a Sutra,
attempting to read it all very quickly, we often loose sight of the connections.
I think this happens because our attention to detail decreases with the
speed of our reading.
Reading only a small amount relaxes the mind and body. There is a kind
of tension in our normal reading that is related to the feeling that there
is going to be an exam after I finish this. By confining my reading to
only a small amount I greatly reduce that sense of tension. I no longer
feel a sense of being overwhelmed by the material because I am confining
myself to just a few pages of reading. This, in turn, transforms the reading
into a great pleasure instead of a dreaded task.
The Dao of Reading never ends, as a practice it just deepens and broadens.
The Dao of Reading is a practice, a meditation, which leads to the realization
of the cessation of sorrow and the blossoming of wisdom and compassion
in our hearts and mind.
9. Read as you would read a favorite poem.
We are not completely without experience in the kind of reading and studying
that manifests in the Dao of Reading. The most common experience people
have of this Way is when they read for pure pleasure and for the uplifting
quality of some particular poem that strikes them, guides them, and that
they find meaningful. We find a particular poem meaningful not because
it will enhance our fame, increase our wealth, increase our power, add
to our status or increase our capacity to win over others. Rather, this
kind of reading is meaningful because it uncovers a sense of meaningfulness
in life. That is why we can read and reread a particular poem. This sense
of meaningfulness derives from its being in the ocean of wisdom.
Similarly, when we read the Sutras, developing a mind towards the books
that resembles that mind that approaches poetry proves more efficacious
than a mind that approaches the books with a drive towards analysis and
categorization. The meaning lies deeper than that kind of analysis, but
we have to open our minds to that possibility in order to access that level
10. Treat the book as you would treat an honored guest.
Think of our attitude towards our books when we are in college. It is almost
as if they were an enemy. We slog our way through the books whether we
find them attractive or not. We take a pugnacious attitude towards them,
seeking to find errors and misrepresentation in order to best others in
the class and maybe even to best our teachers. It is all very competitive
and exhausting. At the end of the class we almost always get rid of these
books, hoping we never have to see them again.
This contrasts sharply with the attitude we take towards books we feel
contain wisdom. These kinds of books we honor. We put them on a prominent
shelf. We dust them. We reread them. This is the attitude and intention
we should cultivate in our relationship to our Buddhist study, and when
entering the Dao of Reading. This means physically treating the books with
respect so that one does not break the binding, fold the pages, or mistreat
the book in any way.
11. Treat the book as you treat a long-term friend.
In long-term friendships there is a foundation of sharing over a period
of time that builds trust. In long-term friendships there are areas of
disagreement; I don’t always agree with my friend about some specific idea
or issue. But, the friendship and foundation of trust transcend and at
the same time encompass these differences.
When I consider this and apply it to the Dao of Reading, I can drop the
demand that I agree with everything a book, or specifically the Buddhist
Discourses, says. I can drop the approach to a book that finds a book good
if it agrees with me and bad if it does not agree with me.
In any book there will appear passages with which I disagree. But this
is only natural since the books are written by people and people have many
different views and approaches to explanation. If I view the book as a
tool whereby I can attain power or wealth, etc., passages that I disagree
with will seem a hindrance to me. If, however, I view the book as a source
of wisdom, then such passages will seem simply irrelevant to me, but I
won’t view these passages as a hindrance. Just as with an old friend, the
fact that we may disagree on some things does not damage that friendship,
so also just because some passages in a book appear that I do not agree
with does not damage the book as a source of wisdom. As I engage in this
practice of the Dao of Reading, I develop a send of trust towards the Discourses
of the Buddhadharma. This trust expands so that I do not feel I
have to agree with everything this good Dharma friend has to say. In addition,
I do not feel defensive or compelled to change the Discourses, just as
I do not feel compelled to change a good long-term friend. As old friends,
I and the book can coexist, learn from and support each other on the great
journey to wisdom and compassion. The insights of the Discourses are offered
freely, like those of an old friend, no strings attached.
12. Approach the book with humility.
Approaching a book with humility means to remember that what I do know
and understand is very limited. What is possible to know is very great.
The principle is that when I come across something I do not understand,
I do not blame the author or the source of the book. Instead, I choose
to examine myself.
13. Approach the book with gratitude.
Until very recently books were very rare things, very difficult to make
and very difficult to track down. For example, in ancient Buddhist India
and China, if I had wanted to study the Perfection of Wisdom Discourses,
I would have had to travel many miles. Then I would have had to undertake
certain commitments in the form of precepts, etc., in order to have been
admitted to the facilities which housed the books. I would have had to
have training in reading and, perhaps, in writing.
In this kind of a situation the sense of gratitude for the book would naturally
arise. We have lost that kind of relationship to books. When reading a
Buddhist Discourse, it is helpful to take a moment to contemplate all who
have made this book possible. Ten thousand labors went into this book so
that it could appear in my hands today. From the original speaking of the
Discourse, through the centuries of recitations, to the putting it down
in written form, to the translators, to the centuries of copyists, to the
publishers and distributors; all of these are right there in this little
volume. It is because of all their efforts that I now have the opportunity
to understand, practice, and realize the wisdom of the Buddhadharma.
Knowing this, gratitude appears.
14. Remind yourself that the purpose of the Dao of Reading is to realize
I find it necessary to remind myself that the purpose of reading and studying
the Buddhist Discourses is wisdom. I find it necessary to do this because
of the strong habit developed over many years that regards study as a means
to material ends such as wealth and power, or simply getting a good job.
Wisdom in this context means transcendent wisdom. Transcendent wisdom means
ultimate nature. Ultimate nature means that nature which all things share.
That which all things share means that which makes all things equal. That
which makes all things equal transcends and at the same time unites particularity.
Transcendent wisdom is the door to liberation and the cessation of sorrow.
Reading the Discourses is the practice which not only leads to transcendent
wisdom, but is in and of itself a meditation which manifests, instantiates
and realizes the presence of transcendent wisdom. Reading can do this because
the transcendent is present in all existing things. As the transcendent
is present in all existing things, it is also present in reading. When
we read and study in a manner that awakens us to the presence of transcendent
wisdom, that is the Dao of Reading.
15. Listen to the book.
This kind of reading, the Dao of Reading, more closely resembles listening
than the kind of reading we routinely engage in. I mean the kind of listening
we do when we listen to some music that we really like. Certain compositions
we can play over and over again because we find them meaningful. We feel
we can always return to them and deepen our understanding.
When we truly listen we are not primed for comment, for interjection, for
judgment. We have all had the experience of conversing with someone who
does not really listen to us; they are simply waiting for the next opportunity
to speak. They may even be annoyed with us for taking so long to say what
we want to say because they already know what they are going to say next.
This is not listening; but it closely resembles the frame of mind we have
in ordinary reading, such as when we read a newspaper. True listening is
spacious, patient, accommodating. It is a kind of receptivity. This is
very different from when we read a textbook with our mind keyed to spot
contradictions, discrepancies, incorrect inferences, passages we consider
faulty either factually or stylistically. In a word, often our reading
is geared with our judgmental mind on high alert.
Listening to a book allows us to open our minds and hearts to whatever
wisdom the book contains. This process resembles listening to someone we
have respect for. For example if I want to know how to quilt, and I know
someone who is a superb quilter, then I will go to her, and I will listen
to her instructions, suggestions, and advice.
Similarly, if I regard the book I am reading as a source of wisdom, then
I will open to what the book has to say, what it has to offer. If I come
across passages I don’t agree with, I simply set them aside, without comment
or judgment. I may return to these passages later, after my understanding
has deepened and discover some wisdom in them. Or I may decide that in
this case the book falls short. But that does not render the book valueless.
Wisdom is a song, not a static state. In most songs there may be one or
two verses which are the ones that really strike me as making the song
worthwhile. The rest of the song may not interest me very much, but those
few verses make the song worthwhile, valuable, and helpful. Similarly,
the song of wisdom, as embodied in the Buddhist Discourses, has many verses.
Some of these verses will resonate with me and some will not. But the ones
that do will open my heart and mind to the realm of wisdom and compassion.
16. Put aside concerns over style.
This is a difficult one particularly for those with a strong literary commitment.
For example, the repetitiveness of the Buddhist Discourses may bring out
a feeling that we want to function as an editor. An awkward passage may
bring out the mind that wants something smother or more eloquent.
Spiritual discourse, however, is not primarily about esthetics. Consider
a parallel: The Way of Tea, Chado, is not primarily about the beauty
of the tea room, or the tea bowl. It is primarily about transforming the
making and serving of tea into an opportunity for realization. Similarly,
the Dao of Reading is not primarily about the beauty of the verse, not
primarily about literary esthetics. The Dao of Reading is about using the
reading of the Buddhist Discourses as a way of transformation such that
we can realize our true nature.
In a sense, esthetics is a kind of distraction. A parallel might help here.
In Tea Ceremony, Chado, the Way of Tea, the purpose is to place
one’s self in a situation so that one can experience/perceive the transcendent
which is immanent in all things. If one becomes concerned with the minutia
of the cup, the whisk, the design of the room, etc., this constitutes a
kind of distraction. The presence of the transcendent appears by itself
when our concerns with the evanescent fall away. For this reason, Tea Ceremony
has emphasized simplicity as a primary virtue, in order to keep distractions
to a minimum. This is also why meditation halls in general emphasize simplicity.
The same also applies to the Dao of Reading. If while reading one becomes
wrapped up in editorial comments surrounding a turn of phrase, the use
of certain structures, etc., one loses the opportunity to experience the
transcendent through the practice of the Dao of Reading. Diction, rhetoric,
poetic structures and flourishes; all of these are a kind of distraction.
It is interesting to note the difference here in wisdom literature verses
the literary field. Iris Murdoch, a rare example of someone who was able
to write in both fields, as a philosopher and as a fiction writer, in an
interview pointed out that most wisdom literature, when evaluated by the
canons of literary criticism, falls short. Much wisdom literature is pedantic,
stodgy, repetitious, and filled with the kinds of flaws that someone writing
fiction or poetry would avoid. The acceptance of a particular writing into
the wisdom Canon by a particular culture uses other criteria; such as universality,
insight, depth, clarity, meaningfulness. It is these kinds of things which
make a work of wisdom literature worthwhile.
Returning to the metaphor of a good friend, a good friend might not possess
eloquence. In spite of this, we value the advice of a good friend, even
if the good friend lacks the verbal flourishes which would make this good
friend a good public speaker. In other words, insight does not depend on
appearance, either physical appearance or the appearance of the voice and/or
words. It might even be the opposite in the sense that it is possible for
someone who is attempting to deceive to use esthetics and dramatic rhetoric
to cover their true intentions. This is often what propagandists do.
In spite of this, there emerges a certain kind of esthetic, a certain kind
of beauty, from wisdom literature, though it seems to take some time to
recognize it. It is not a consciously cultivated beauty. As in Tea Ceremony,
it is a certain kind of spontaneous simplicity, a certain plainness of
purpose, that becomes recognizable but is difficult to point to. One becomes
able to recognize it after extensive familiarity with such writing. This
is one of the virtues of the Dao of Reading.
17. Dedicate any understanding gained from the reading to the welfare and
benefit of all sentient existence.
This transforms the act of reading from an acquisition based approach to
the Dao of Reading whose purpose is to help others. In other words, we
read the Discourses in order to help other people, and, when our practice
matures, to help all sentient existence. In a sense, that is what wisdom
means; knowledge based on the direction of helping others, of comprehending
all as equal and therefore worthy of realizing the interdependent nature
of all things and that therefore I am infinitely indebted to others.
To establish this mind one can begin the reading with a simple contemplation
such as, “Whatever merit I receive from this reading, I hereby offer this
merit (or understanding) to all sentient existence.” Or one might conclude
the reading with such a statement, or both. This is referred to in the
Buddhist tradition as “transfer of merit.” Its importance lies in establishing
a mind that can transform an ordinary activity into the Dao of Compassion.
18. The Dao of Reading resembles panning for gold.
This is my favorite metaphor for the Dao of Reading, the one I feel most
at home with. I mean by this metaphor that in the Dao of Reading we sometimes,
even often, have to wade through a lot of material that isn’t particularly
interesting, or seemingly relevant. Instead of getting upset about this,
we should simply put it aside, the way a gold panner simply puts aside
the sand and gravel. This putting aside is OK because the scenery is nice,
I have the company of good spiritual friends, my sangha, which is supportive,
and the activity itself is relaxing and nourishing.
Every once in a while, though, a nugget of wisdom/gold appears. A flash
of insight. This is the kensho of reading. It is that feeling of
everything falling into place, of everything being just right. Karen Armstrong
refers to this kind of experience in her autobiography, Through the
Though particularly drawn to the study of mysticism, I knew from my attempts
at meditation in the convent that I did not have it in me to be a mystic.
Yet occasionally, when I am studying . . . I have what can only be described
as a glimmer of transcendence. It only lasts a fraction of a second, but
it gives one the sense that life has some ultimate meaning and value for
that brief moment, in much the same way as a great piece of music or an
inspiring poem. There is no way of categorizing that Something any more
than it is possible to explain why art or music has this power; it cannot
be summed up in a message or doctrine. But I now know enough to realize
that what I am engaged in is what the Benedictine monks call lectio
divinaain (divine study), which, they say, yields, occasionally an
inevitably brief second of oratio (prayer). . . .
I am not claiming any great visionary experience, yet occasionally while
studying theology, I . . . feel uplifted by a second of wonder and delight
that momentarily illuminates the whole page. This type of spirituality
would, it seems, have suited me better than the kind of meditation we learned
in the convent.
Through the Narrow Gate, Karen Armstrong, Book-of-the-Month Club
edition, New York, 1981, page XV.)
I consider what Karen Armstrong is describing a genuine enlightenment experience
with the same validity and meaning as that which people obtain through
other forms of meditation. I refer to this as the kensho of reading.
This is what makes the Dao of Reading not just a means to an end, but also
the realm of realization in and of itself.
19. The Dao of Reading resembles cultivating a garden.
The Dao of Reading is a path of cultivation. It is a gradual path, a step
by step approach. When I mentioned in the discussion on panning for gold
that we often seem to have to wade through passages that don’t speak to
us or seem meaningful, this is often because these passages have not yet
blossomed, or have not yet sprouted, that our hearts and minds are not
yet ready for them. Just as in cultivating a garden some plants grow in
spring, some in summer, others still in fall, so also in the Dao of Reading,
meanings and understandings also have their seasons.
This is why I think repetition is a good thing. Though Buddhist Discourses
are vast in number, and it takes many years to read through all of them,
there is still a great deal of repetition, themes that are brought up over
and over again. Ideas like impermanence, no-self, dependence, interdependence,
renunciation, nirvana, enlightenment. By having these themes repeated we
offer ourselves many opportunities for them to blossom in our hearts and
minds. Repeating the themes resembles cultivating the garden of the mind.
Just as the seasons repeat, so that themes of the Dharma also repeat.
There is an idea in Buddhism that is called the Udambara. Udambara
is a flower that blossoms only once in many thousands of years. Just as
cumulative conditions need to be present in order for any flower to bloom,
so also the Udambara needs cumulative conditions so unique that
they only come together in a cycle that spans thousands of years.
Similarly, when we enter the Dao of Reading, we need to exercise patience.
The blossom of understanding will eventually appear because the reading
itself creates the conditions that lead to such blossoming. It is the reading
which cultivates and makes possible the blossoming of the Udambara
20. The Dao of Reading resembles eating a nutritious meal.
This metaphor builds on the common saying, “food for thought.” The Dao
of Reading is about transforming reading into an occasion for nourishment.
A Taoist friend I was discussing this with said that reading pulls energy
into the brain, which under normal circumstances already has too much chi.
In turn, this kind of activity depletes the spleen by drawing chi
away from it.
I think this kind of observation is, in general, correct. That is why people
often feel very tired after cramming for an exam, or forcing themselves
to study something they really have no interest in. These are symptoms
of loss of chi, or imbalance of chi in the body system. The
Dao of Reading, however, transforms this negative situation into one in
which chi freely circulates and therefore provides the practitioner
with an opportunity for increased health and vigor.
To understand how this happens, consider that thoughts are a kind of energy.
Someone’s thoughts/energy are then transformed into a book. The book contains
these thought patterns and energies. When we read a book we are connecting
with the thought patterns/energies of the person/people whose thoughts
are present in the book.
This is similar to food. Food is a kind of energy. When we eat we are processing
and transforming energy which we have received from other people. A meal
can be healthy or harmful. Taoists, over a period of many centuries, have
investigated the health promoting nature of various kinds of diets and
herbs and this constitutes an aspect of their practice; to learn how to
relate to food in a manner conducive to one’s spiritual practice.
Similarly, reading can be healthy or harmful depending on what we read
and how we read. Both the how and the what need to be considered. A meal
gulped down, containing incompatible elements, will almost inevitably lead
to indigestion and over a period of time to other problems and imbalances.
When reading is done quickly, with haste, the mind does not have time to
digest the energy it is consuming and, just as in a meal that is not digested
well, this leads to cramping/indigestion of the mind. The mind becomes
clogged with thoughts that one has not had any time to consider. Under
these conditions it is difficult to attain clarity, or to develop insight.
The main principle is to read slowly, to not rush. In addition, the other
principles, such as treating the book like an honored guest, place us in
a relationship to the book that allows for a more flowing relationship
to the thoughts/energy that the book contains.
The Buddhist Discourses are a beneficent source of wisdom and compassion.
But if we approach the Discourses with the same mind that we used to cram
for an exam we will not be able to benefit from the Discourses. The Dao
of Reading teaches us how to transform reading from a duty into an opportunity
21. The Dao of Reading resembles receiving a gift from a kind friend.
When I consider all that has gone into the creation of this book that I
now hold in my hands, the book becomes a wonder. The way we obtain books
sometimes makes it difficult for us to recall this. I go to the store,
pick a book off the shelf, pay for it, and bring it home. It is very impersonal.
I do not meet the author, the printer, the distributor, the shelver. For
these reasons, my relationship to the book lacks depth. For these reasons,
it is good to occasionally bring to mind all that has gone into the production
of this book so that I can have the opportunity to access the wisdom therein.
Because, for the most part, I obtain books through purchase, I tend to
look upon books not as a gift, but as a commodity. But that relationship
only touches the surface. In the case of the Buddhist Discourses, countless
people down through the centuries have made it possible for me today, at
this moment, to read this book. If I could measure the true value of all
this labor, from the first speaking, to the first writing, including all
the copyists, translators, editors, binders, printers, etc., the value
of the book would be truly astronomical. If I keep this in mind, if I recall
this, then I can begin to have a relationship to the book which is at the
same time more expansive and more heartfelt. This, then, gives me the opportunity
to practice gratitude. Gratitude for all who have made the presence of
this book, here in my hands, possible. Gratitude for all who have made
possible this gateway to wisdom. In this sense, the Dao of Reading blossoms
into the cultivation of heart wisdom.
22. This kind of reading resembles observing a full moon rising.
In my studies of Chinese and Japanese culture, I have read that at certain
periods these cultures developed a custom called “moon viewing.” On a full
moon night people would assemble in some charming spot, either a garden,
or perhaps farther out in the country, and spend the evening viewing the
moon. There would be tea and wine, and probably poetry. Good conversation,
of course, and always the moon.
To observe a full moon rising I must have patience. In an era where a sound
bite lasts about 8 seconds, the cultivation of this kind of patience may
seem strange. But most valuable things require some patience. Learning
to play a musical instrument requires patience and persistence. Learning
how to sew requires patience, etc.
In terms of the Dao of Reading, the virtue of patience is that when reading
I do not insist that I comprehend everything upon first reading. Once again,
this contrasts with the kind of reading most of us have lived with for
years, particularly in our school studies. Because of deadlines and looming
examinations, I feel a sense of irritation if I can not access the meaning
on the first reading of a textbook. I also feel that sense of irritation
when reading a newspaper if I find the writing obscure or incoherent.
The Dao of Reading, however, focuses on comprehending transcendent wisdom.
The cultivation of that wisdom often takes years; it is a path, an unfolding.
The full moon does not just appear in the sky in an instant; it rises slowly
over the horizon. Similarly, wisdom does not just appear in a blink; it
slowly blossoms in our heart. For this reason, in the Dao of Reading, when
I encounter passages I do not understand, I simply hold them for later
consideration, I simply pause, mentally take a breath, confident that as
the Dao of Reading unfolds, and my understanding deepens and broadens,
the meaning will become clear.
23. This kind of reading resembles learning a new language.
When first attempting to learn a new language as an adult, we fall into
the habits of our native language. This happens because we have built up
very strong expectations in the mind that verbal formulations will continue
to follow the patterns we already know. For this reason it takes a long
time to learn and acquire new patterns of linguistic meaning.
Similarly, this kind of reading, the Dao of Reading, differs in many ways
from the kind of reading we are accustomed to. For this reason, when we
first enter on the Dao of Reading, we often fall into the hold habits;
we may want to rush, or cram, or finish, with the reading, or read a lot
at one sitting, or we may try to use the reading in order to increase our
status, wealth, power. If, however, we recall the basic principles of the
Dao of Reading, we can eventually overcome these tendencies. When we do,
reading itself becomes a meditation as deep and profound and as insightful
as any other form of meditation.
24. This kind of reading resembles visiting a new country.
This metaphor is similar to the preceding one about learning a new language.
When visiting a foreign country it often happens that we make mistakes
in etiquette and offend people unintentionally. This happens because we
have developed strong expectations about how people normally behave, based
on our own upbringing and culture. When placed in a situation where people
do not have these expectations, but instead have other quite different
expectations, it can feel quite confusing.
Similarly, we have strong expectations regarding reading, the purpose of
reading, the pace of reading, why we do it. The Dao of Reading subverts
these expectations and it takes a while to comprehend the benefits of this
new approach. Nevertheless, after some time, this new approach to reading,
the Dao of Reading, opens up a whole new realm of understanding, a whole
new way of relating to the world and to reading. This is like becoming
at home in a new land, the realm of the Dharma.
25. This kind of reading resembles returning home.
This metaphor seems opposed to the previous one about the Dao of Reading
resembling going to a strange country. One of the nice things about metaphors
is that they can encompass contradictory expressions. Returning home means
bringing our energy back to center. Most of our reading is subservient
to exterior goals and therefore has a trajectory which constitutes an energy
drain. Study and reading in college is not for wisdom, self cultivation,
and compassion. It is primarily for getting a good job. There is, of course,
nothing wrong with that. But the Dao of Reading has a different focus.
Wisdom and compassion are part of our true nature, they permeate our existence
and constitute the ultimate nature both of ourselves and of all things.
The Dao of Reading functions to make me aware of this presence of the ultimate.
In this sense, this kind of reading leads me home, to my true home, away
from the distractions which fragment my existence.
26. This kind of reading resembles slowly baking bread.
This is another metaphor for patience. When baking bread I have to use
the right temperature. Too hot and I end up with burned dough. Too cool
and the bread doesn’t rise.
Similarly, in the Dao of Reading, reading too much and I simply clog my
brain with undigested information. Reading too little and my understanding
begins to wither and lacks depth.
It is for this reason that I recommend reading the Discourses of the Dharma
on a daily basis. A little reading every day and quite quickly, in a surprisingly
short time, one has developed a broad understanding of the Dharma.
27. This kind of reading resembles rowing down a stream.
I think this metaphor refers to the feeling one has when reading in the
manner of the Dao of Reading. This practice should not be a chore or a
duty or a burden. This kind of reading should be a delight. When done with
the correct intention, when I abandon fame, wealth, and power, and enter
into this kind of study, it feels very smooth, very relaxed. There is not
hurry, there is no goal. It is not a matter of finishing the book or cramming
myself with information. The Dao of Reading flows easily, with unhindered
28. This kind of reading allows wisdom to blossom.
29. This kind of reading frees the compassionate heart.
I think of spiritual practice as “creating conditions.” The purpose of
a music teacher is to create conditions conducive to acquiring the skills
and knowledge of a musician. There are two aspects to musicianship: one
is theoretical knowledge, such as knowledge of scales, harmony, rhythm,
etc. The other is what I refer to as the function aspect; which means actually
performing as a musician.
Similarly, there are two aspects to spiritual practice: a wisdom aspect
and a compassion aspect. The wisdom aspect means comprehending the core
teachings of the Buddhadharma such as interdependent transformation,
emptiness, compassion, the four noble truths, the nature of suffering,
the nature of cessation, etc. The function aspect of the Buddhadharma
is compassion. It is the equivalent of actually performing music on an
instrument. The compassion aspect is gradually learning to function in
a compassionate manner in the world so that one’s body becomes an expression
of the Buddhadharma.
The Dao of Reading is a means for creating the conditions that allow these
two aspects of the Buddhadharma to flourish. The Dao of Reading,
as a way and practice, gives me the means for a deep and broad theoretical
grounding in the core views of the Buddhadharma. This leads to the
establishment of Right View, the first aspect of the Noble Eightfold Path.
The Buddhist Discourses are the best resource for acquiring this profound
view. In addition, the Dao of Reading constitutes a meditation in and of
itself, when it is practiced in the manner outlined by these aphorisms.
In this manner the Dao of Reading is itself an expression of compassion,
a manifestation of compassion.
How can reading a Discourse be an expression of compassion? First, reading
a Discourse in a contemplative/meditative manner, as outlined herein, cultivates
both the wisdom of the mind and heart, providing us with the means for
clear and compassionate activity in the world. But more importantly, the
act itself is a compassionate act. Reading is an activity, and the reading
of the Discourses of the Buddhadharma is a specific activity. The
core comprehension of Interdependent Transformation means comprehending
that nothing in the world exists separately, independently, or by itself.
From this perspective of Interdependent Transformation, then, the Dao of
Reading intertwines with the rest of existence at that very moment in which
we are engaged in the Dao of Reading.
This resembles breathing. I breathe, but also the world breathes me. If
the world did not exist, I could not breathe. Breathing is not an independent
activity, but an activity which is a vivid expression of interdependent
transformation. Similarly, when I read, I am reading, but also all of existence
is participating in that activity. When I attain a moment of clarity through
the Dao of Reading, or when I experience the kensho of reading,
that means a moment of clarity for all sentient existence. Not that I am
granting that clarity to others; it is just clarity arising. In this manner,
the Dao of Reading is an expression of ultimate altruism, a great gift
for all, and the establishing of a causal ground for others from which
enlightenment may arise.
30. Practice daily.
It is best to practice the Dao of Reading every day. Just as in the way
of exercise, such as tai chi chuan, or chi kung, people practice
daily in order to deepen their understanding, so also in the Dao of Reading,
daily practice is best. Just as in the way of silence and stillness, or
committed practitioners practice daily, so also the Dao of Reading bears
fruit most easily when we enter into this practice every day. Just as those
who practice the chanting of mantra, such as “Namu Myoho Renge Kyo” practice
daily, so also those committed to the Dao of Reading enter into this practice
on a daily basis. Just as someone learning a musical instrument practices
every day in order to establish themselves in the realm of music, so also
the Dao of Reading thoroughly establishes the practitioner in the realm
of the Dharma when done on a daily basis.
First, consider the time of practice. This is best achieved by setting
aside a time of the day in which to practice the Dao of Reading. Most people
find that either early morning or just before going to sleep are the best
times. But this will vary with individual circumstances. For example, someone
raising several children might find their mornings and evenings crowded
with obligations and the best time will be after the kids have gone off
to school. The important thing is to set aside a time for this practice
and stick to it.
One of the benefits of setting aside a regular time for the Dao of Reading
is that if you are living with others who are not engaging in this practice,
it is easier for everyone concerned if they know that a particular time
is being set aside for this practice.
Once a day is excellent practice. Some may wish to practice the Dao of
Reading more than once a day. I would recommend before going to more than
once a day, establishing a once a day practice. Establishing means that
one has practiced the Dao of Reading every day for three months at a particular
time. If this has happened and one feels inclined to increase the practice
of the Dao of Reading, then adding another practice period makes sense.
Framing the day with the Dao of Reading gives a beautiful arch to the day;
waking in the morning to the wisdom of the Dharma, then closing the day
with another session of the Dao of Reading seems to give the day a very
restful and complete feeling.
Next consider the duration of the contemplation; how long should I engage
in the Dao of Reading? Most meditative practices last from 20 to 40 minutes,
and I have found that this is a good, rough, guideline. The reading itself
will at times determine the duration because the breaks in the Discourses
allow for a conclusion. If one is inclined for longer periods of the Dao
of Reading, say for one or two hours, or even longer, I would recommend
breaking up the periods of reading with walking meditation, or gentle stretching
exercises, such as yoga or chi kung. A tea break is also appropriate.
This is similar to what happens in long periods of Zazen, or other
forms of silent meditation; there will be about 30 minutes of sitting in
silence and stillness, followed by a short period of walking meditation.
Following this pattern, about 30 minutes of the Dao of Reading should be
followed by walking meditation, or some gentle exercise, or a cup of tea.
In this way the mind stays alert and fresh when returning to the Dao of
Reading for the next period of contemplative reading.
Next, consider the location. Find a comfortable place, well ventilated,
with good lighting, so you will not have to strain the eyes. The temperature
of the room should not be too warm, as that will induce sleepiness. If
you are comfortable sitting on the floor in some kind of meditation posture,
that will serve well. For most people, however, sitting in a chair is optimal.
Next, consider how to hold the book. Placing the book flat on the table
means that the top of the book is slightly farther from the eyes than the
bottom of the book. The result of this is that there is a subtle, but constant,
stress on the eyes during the reading as the eyes adjust their focus as
one reads down the page. That is why people naturally hold a book at a
tilt, in their laps, so that the distance from the eyes is roughly the
same throughout the entire page. Consider purchasing a bookstand that will
hold the book for you at a comfortable angle.
Another possibility is to read at a lectern. I first considered this when
I was looking at medieval monasteries and their ancient reading rooms.
The reading desks were tall, and had tilted surfaces, like a lectern. In
other words, the monks normally read standing up. In the last year I have
tried this approach and have found that it works very well. It helps keep
my back straight, frees my hands and arms, and in general I have found
it efficacious for this practice. I have found it important to remember
not to lock my knees while standing, as this will induce tiredness in the
legs. On the whole though, I think many will find this approach to the
Dao of Reading helpful.
Next, consider one’s posture. Remember to keep one’s back straight. As
in all forms of meditation, this is important. Slouching induces sleepiness.
There is also a tendency in this practice to strain the neck, leaning forward
towards the book. This tends to happen if one lays the book flat on a desk
or table. If, however, one places the book on a stand at a comfortable
angel, this tends to mitigate that tendency. If standing, remember to relax
the legs. Don’t be afraid to move, or to gently adjust one’s position,
if one feels any kind of strain or the mind begins to wander.
Next, consider how to keep one’s mind. The object of focus is the book.
If the mind wanders, simply bring the mind back to the words on the page.
The mind likes to wander, so this will happen while engaging in the Dao
of Reading. When one notices that the mind has wandered, simply return
to the reading, to the words on the page, without comment or criticism.
Many people who engage in the Dao of Reading integrate this practice with
other forms of meditation. Here are a few suggestions as to how to do this.
In silent forms of meditation, such as Zazen, Vipassana, Dzog Chen, or
Mahamudra, I suggest that the Dao of Reading should conclude the silent
sitting. For example, if one practices Zazen for 30 minutes, at the end
of the 30 minutes, conclude the Zazen, and then enter into the Dao of Reading.
This is an excellent way of bringing the mind back to the ordinary world.
From the silence of meditation, one steps into the words of the Dharma,
and then from the words of the Dharma one steps into the ordinary world.
For those practicing some form of mantra recitation, such as Vajrayana
mantras, or Nichiren Buddhism, or Pure Land Buddhism, I suggest framing
the Dao of Reading with the mantra recitation. For example, if you are
a Nichiren Buddhist, I recommend first chanting the daimoku, “Namu Myoho
Renge Kyo”, then enter into the Dao of Reading. When the Dao of Reading
is concluded, return to the mantra/ daimoku, “Namu Myoho Renge Kyo”.
My feeling is that the Dao of Reading is a complete practice in and of
itself, just as chanting and silent sitting are. However, it is possible
to integrate the Dao of Reading into other meditative forms.
I hope these Thirty Verses are of some assistance in opening the
wonderful Dharma to practitioners of all traditions. May the infinite blessing
of wisdom and compassion contained within the Dharma blossom in the hearts
and minds of all sentient existence.