Doing Things The Old Fashioned Way

This interesting article from the BBC shows a man from New York State who copied the entire King James Bible by hand. The KJB is quite long so copying the whole thing is really, really impressive.

After reading that, I thought it would be interesting to hand-copy a Buddhist sutra as well. After all, monks in the old days would travel a long distance to even see a sutra, then they would carefully copy it and bring it home. It made people appreciate the teaching. I’ve copied quotations before, but not an entire sutra.

Also, I’d have to consider a few things:

  • Should I copy in English or the original Chinese?
  • If English, which translation?
  • Which sutra would be suitable to copy?

What about you? If you were going to copy a Buddhist text (or any text), which would you do and in what way?


Author: Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.

8 thoughts on “Doing Things The Old Fashioned Way”

  1. One of our devotees in Penang has been writing the Heart Sutra (心經, 260 characters) every morning for the past 12 or 13 years. When another devotee died of a heart attack in Sri Lanka while taking temporary ordination, he gave all the notebooks, around 30, to be burned on the funeral pyre.

    He also writes the English translation of the Mangala Sutta.


  2. I am a fan of 写経 shakyo or sutra copying. The Heart Sutra, Hannya Shingyo, attracts a lot of copyists because it is only about 236 characters or something like that. However, it is quite acceptable to copy mantras or short prayers or even single characters. This kind of activity is, in a way, a form of meditation. I feel great appreciation for the thousands (millions?) of copyists through the millennia–they are the reason we have the sutras today! (Of course, the same is true for lots of ancient non-Buddhist texts.) Nowadays we have electronic files and copy machines, but copying by hand is the most satisfying. I prefer the Chinese character versions, but I think the language doesn’t make much difference. You can buy sutra-copying paper that has the characters already printed in light gray ink. All you have to do is trace over the characters with darker ink. Lots of people (including me!) appreciate this! The temple Sensoji in Asakusa has a shakyo set that is the Kannon Kyo, the 25th chapter of the Lotus Sutra. This includes both the prose and verse sections, and is in the 600-character range. It took me about six hours to do this (not at one sitting!). The verse section alone would also be suitable, I think. Just as a coincidence, I am planning to go to a shakyo class tomorrow. It is my first time to go there, so I am a bit nervous. Usually it takes me a long time to finish, so I am worried about delaying everyone else. Maybe they will let me take it home to finish it!


  3. I went to the temple this morning. All my worry was meaningless–it was stress-free and just a great atmosphere. Their method has lots of standard elements, including purifying the room (incense and candles I suppose), then wash your hands and rinse your mouth, do some prayers and bows, recite the sutra (usually the Heart Sutra, but you can do others if you want) and then begin to copy. They said if I didn’t finish in time, I could simply offer it as is, or take it home to finish it. I managed to finish it just in time! After everyone was finished, we went to the main hall to recite the sutra again after the priest offered our copies at the altar (reading everyone’s name). Then, the priest gave a short dharma talk about the seeming differences between southeast Asian Buddhism and Japanese Buddhism. He said it is not a question of who is right or wrong, but to go a bit deeper into it and find out for one’s self what works and what doesn’t. This is a once a month class. They gave me a temple stamp book (go shu in cho) which they will stamp every time I go, so I am looking forward to the next one!


    1. Hi John,

      Good to hear from you. Thanks for sharing your story. I plan to be in Japan in late spring/summer next year (after number 2 is born), so I would definitely like to try my hand at shakyo also.

      I have miserable handwriting in any language, but it sounds like a good experience. 🙂


  4. Flower Garland Sutra. Go big or go home! More seriously, the shorter Amitabha Sutra or the Sutra of the Medicine Buddha might not be bad considering your adherence to Pure Land Buddhism and interest in Baisajyaguru might be good choices.

    Copy in Chinese. It builds character[s].


    1. You know, I’ve thought about copying the Amitabha Sutra too (it is one of my favorites). That’s a good stretch goal: somewhat longer than the Heart Sutra, but not so long as to be a multi-year commitment.

      “Go big or go home”….. hee hee.


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