Notes on the Practice of Copying Sutras by Karin Halvorson Hillhouse
The practice of sutra copying is called shakyō in Japanese. At Sky Above Zen we copy the Heart Sutra, using a template that comes from Saiho-ji (Kokedera or moss temple) in Kyoto. After preparing oneself there by copying the Heart Sutra with countless others in a large temple room, one is permitted to visit Muso Soseki’s garden, the first Zen garden designed for meditation (visit the Gallery here to see a photo of Saiho-ji).
Shakyō is a time-honored practice that originated in China. Sutra copying was then imported to Korea in the third century. In Japan, shakyō’s history dates back to the eighth century, during the Nara period (710–794), when the emperor had temples built throughout the country. That growth occasioned a great demand for copies of sutras, all of which had to be transcribed by hand.
Maezumi Roshi’s comments on sutra copying from his book Appreciate Your Life are especially illuminating:
"You are one with copying and one with the sutra, truly sensing and feeling it. The action and object are easily unified. When you are copying, there is a sense of copying and also of the sutra allowing you to copy it. The sutra is copying you, too!"
"When chanting, we experience it. When reading, we experience it. When writing and copying, we experience it. What are we truly copying? Literally we can say that I am writing my life through my action of copying this most precious subtle dharma."
"So what is truly the sutra? And how do you truly read or copy the sutra? How do you see it, hear it, and maintain it now as the subtle dharma? The sutra must be alive as the functioning of your life! Please trust yourself. Trust in yourself as the sutra, as the dynamic, boundless dharma itself....Trusting your life as the sutra is the best way to appreciate your life."
Practice shakyō silently and wholeheartedly. Shakyō calls for the same attention and focus that one gives to zazen or kinhin. Also practice shakyō with a deep sense of relaxation. Practice as if your life depended on it. In other words, enjoy the practice with both ease and dignity.
Don’t think about how the copying “is going.” In Zen we are always beginners. Each moment is utterly new. In shakyō “not knowing” is the way. The practice puts us squarely in the face of what are likely unfamiliar—unreadable—Japanese kanji characters. The paper and brush or pen may also be altogether new. At times it may be difficult to see through the thin rice paper to the sutra template underneath. No problem.
Hold the pen straight and firmly but not tightly. Aim for a steady and consistent handwriting. There is no handwriting that is not perfect for shakyō.
One does not judge the quality of one’s own copying or anyone else’s or how fast or slowly one proceeds. In zazen if thinking wanders or runs wild, you take note and come back to the breath. Do the same in shakyō.
A brief primer on shakyō mechanics: — Copy columns vertically from the top right, proceeding down the entire column of characters, and then begin at the top of the second column, and so on to the end. — Look carefully at each kanji (character) before you copy it. — Each kanji is made up of “strokes” that are “brushed” in a particular order, first, second, third, and so on. Don’t worry too much about the order, but in general the rhythm/order is left to right, top to bottom. — If you stumble, simply put a circle around the character or draw a line through it. Keep going.
Shakyō is done straight through without stopping. At the end of the shakyō period add your name, date, and place to the left side of your copy. It is traditional to add a simple dedication, petition, or prayer. According to tradition, one never destroys sutra copies. Consider saving yours along with the Heart Sutra template in a special portfolio.
Conclude your shakyō meditation with a simple bow, hands in gassho. If you finish copying the entire sutra, simply sit in zazen until you hear the bell.