Thirty Verses on Reading
as a Spiritual Practice;
or, The Dao of Reading


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, and 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 inspiration.

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 of meaning.

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 wisdom.

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 Narrow Gate.

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 of enlightenment.

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 for realization.

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 grace.

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 Zazen, 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.

Dharmajim's 16 Year Reading Cycle:
The Way of the Scholar Sage

Notice: Copyright 2000 by Jim Wilson, also known as Dharmajim. All rights reserved. Permission is granted to download and copy this document, provided this notice is kept as a part of the document.
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