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  • Print publication year: 1998
  • Online publication date: November 2009

2 - READING: the practice of insight


I am convinced that, if one were to read the Hua Yen Sutra – especially if it were by candlelight in some lonely place – and ponder its awe-inspiring imagery, a profound mystical experience might burst upon one unawares!

John Blofeld

You are too fond of reading all manner of books.

The Venerable Neng Hai to John Blofeld

In the massive corpus of Zen reading material, few stories are more fervently read than the account of how Hui-neng, the renowned Sixth Patriarch of Zen, could not read. As the Zen school gradually took shape and began to formulate the point of its heritage, great pride was taken in the thought that Zen arose as a powerful critique of the prevalent scholastic tradition. Although the historical accuracy of the traditional account of the origins of Zen is now questionable in a number of ways, it is nevertheless true that, in Sung dynasty textual images of the Zen tradition in Huang Po's time, a certain kind of anti-scholasticism was indeed a rallying point for Zen monastic communities. The practices of reading and textual study, which had been central to Chinese Buddhism up through the mid-T'ang, were exposed to a forceful critique. What, after all, did reading have to do with the enlightened comportment of the Buddha and other great sages? Textual images of Huang Po, along with his most famous teachers and disciples, reveal a condescending attitude toward the practice of reading:

The fruit of the path is not attained through textual study, which was cut off by the ancient sages.