The Origins of Sutra Transcription

(English translation of excerpt from “Buddhism and Calligraphy”,
in Complete Works of Venerable Master Hsing Yun)

Since its introduction into China during the Eastern Han Dynasty, Buddhism has had an epoch-making influence on Chinese politics, culture, thought, and beliefs. The translation and circulation of Buddhist scriptures has shaped Chinese art and literature, enriching Chinese cultural history. More so, artists creatively expressed the Dharma through Chinese architecture, sculptures, paintings, arts and crafts, calligraphy, and music, spearheading a trend of artistic sophistication.

The Dharma became popular when Buddhism adopted calligraphy, a traditional Chinese writing method, as a method of practice. Under the influence of Buddhism, calligraphers often enriched their calligraphies using Buddhist themes, thus adding charm and significance to the art of calligraphy.

When Buddhism was first transmitted into China, the circulation of Buddhist scriptures relied on manual transcription with paper and ink since the printing technology then was primitive. Therefore, this prompted Buddhism to form an unbreakable affinity with Chinese calligraphy. For Buddhist disciples, sutra transcription is not only a form of self-cultivation, but also an aid in the propagation of Buddhism.

The Significance of Sutra Transcription

(English translation of excerpt from One Hundred Lessons on Monastery Languages and Affairs,
in Complete Works of Venerable Master Hsing Yun)

Sutras are essential to the beginning of cultivation — both upholding a single gatha or writing a single sentence can have immeasurable merits. The outcome of sutra transcription is akin to reading a book or practicing writing characters; every reading or transcription reinforces the memory. Through the repeated recitation of the Amitabha Sutra daily, the image of the Western Pure Land of Ultimate Bliss will gradually imprint into one’s eighth consciousness; the Pure Land will then be in one’s mind. Sutra transcription works similarly. Through transcribing every word, which is like taking many pictures and imprinting the Dharma into one’s mind, one eventually sees the Buddha within, and realizes that the Truth expressed in the sutras are inherent in one’s mind.

The Benefits of Sutra Transcription

(English translation of excerpt from “Buddhism and Calligraphy”,
in Complete Works of Venerable Master Hsing Yun)

  • The extraordinary merits of sutra writing:
    The Diamond Sutra mentions, “if someone were to hear this sutra, believe it, and not turn his mind against it, his merit would be greater—what of the merit of one who copies, receives, upholds, reads, chants, and explains it to others?” The Expounder of the Dharma Chapter in the Lotus Sutra states, “if a good man or good woman upholds, recites, explains, or writes even a single sentence of the Lotus Sutra, he or she should be looked upon with reverence by all people in the world and should receive offerings befitting the Tathagata.”
    Furthermore, the Fang Guang Bore Jing and the Yogacarabhumi Sastra mentions, “(sutra) writing not only places the first in the Ten (stages) of Dharma practice, it can also keep one away from evil and be protected by the Eight Divisions of Nagas; one will also soon obtain Bodhi.” For example, Venerable Mingxun (formally known as Hu Wenzhu), a palace secretariat during the Tianqi period, suffered from a human-face abscess one day; the pain was unbearable. Later, after transcribing the Lotus Sutra, Diamond Sutra, Shurangama Sutra, and the Samadhi Water Repentance Service, the disease was cured without medicine. Similarly, Wenzhou joined the army in the Song Dynasty. He transcribed a chapter of the Diamond Sutra and respectfully offered it at a Buddhist shrine. On his way back from the sea after buying a boat, he could safely reach the shore despite the bad weather.
  • Calms the body and mind easily:
    Calligraphy is different from usual writing; it requires great concentration from grinding ink, holding a brush, all the way to writing. Therefore, calligraphy can calm the mind and achieve tranquility where the body and mind are perfectly at ease. This is why calligraphy is also a method of cultivation.

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