Special Topics

Transcribing Sutras

Sutra transcribing is not simply a matter of writing characters; it's also a method to calm the body and mind. Transcribing Buddhist sutras in particular can help us cultivate our concentration and wisdom. In our fast paced era of digitization, the sutra transcribing method is more precious than ever.
Can you imagine? Before the invention of the printing press, sutras of hundreds, thousands and tens of thousands of characters were manually transcribed and passed down across generations. Even though in today's digital age, the complete text of Buddhist Sutras can be downloaded to computers or mobile devices within seconds, there are still people who are willing to take the time every day to sit in front of their desks and transcribe the sutras stroke by stroke. Why are they doing this?
Sutra transcribing method that cultivates concentration and wisdom
In "The Exquisite Dharma: Commentary on Lotus Sutra", Master Sheng Yen pointed out that transcribing sutras has two major benefits for people in modern times. The first is that it improves the memory; that is, transcribing once is better than reading ten times. Second that it gives rise to the respectful mind. "Seeing the Sutra is like seeing the Dharma; seeing the Dharma is like seeing the Buddha". While transcribing the sutra, one will purify one's thoughts. On the other hand, transcribing the sutra is equivalent to practicing meditation due to its focus and concentration. Transcribing Buddhist Sutras can also help us become familiar with the content, learn the wisdom of the Buddha, and can help our minds become naturally calm during the process.
In addition, transcribing the sutra is one of the ten methods of Upholding the Sutra. Many Mahayana Sutras speak of the extraordinary merits of transcribing sutras. Since ancient times, sutra transcribers have left us all sorts of manually transcribed sutras written on white paper with black ink or blue paper with gold ink, and even pricking the fingers to use the blood as ink-- for the purposes of collecting sutras, for blessings, or for self-cultivation. Every one of these manually transcribed sutras can make us feel the devotion of the transcribers, in turn raising our respect for the Dharma and desire to learn it.
If one has deluded thoughts when transcribing sutras, these mental traces will be revealed in one's handwriting. So, the more time one spends in transcribing sutras, the sharper one's awareness becomes and, thus, the deeper the self-understanding one acquires.
The deputy director of the National Palace Museum, Hu Jin Shan said, "Sometimes when transcribing you will have wandering, deluded thoughts. Also, if you lose concentration, it is common to make mistakes or write crooked and inconsistent sizes. From these writings, you can clearly see your own habits and tendencies, and this is where you begin to cultivate the practice.”
Sutra transcribing from the perspective of brain science
If you analyze the process of transcribing sutras from the perspective of brain science, the series of movements can be viewed as a way of stimulating mental functions. First, the eyes must see the characters, then memorize their forms. Next, while using willpower to control the muscles of the hands to write each stroke, at times the mouth may utter the sounds of the words. These movements involve the eye, hand, and mouth, and thus require the coordination of the motor, thinking, language, and memory areas of the cerebral cortex.
Transcribing sutras is different from ordinary writing, as it requires neat and precise penmanship. Chief physician of Linkou Chang Gung Memorial Hospital's Children Psychiatry Department, Zhan Xiang Lin said, "Transcribing sutras requires more patience than ordinary writing. It can train the ability to concentrate; moreover, the contents of the sutra text can cultivate the mind. Therefore, it is the perfect spiritual healing method!”

Extended Reading:

Transcribing Sutras

Sutra transcription: A practice that enhances our health

Transcribing Buddhist Scripture as a Method of Practice for the Benefit of Self and Others

The Exceptional Merits of Transcribing Sutras

A Guide to Hand Copying Sutras

Reminders for Sutra Copying

Resource: Issue 371 of Life Magazine, Dharma Drum Publishing Corporation
Photos: Issue 371 of Life Magazine, Dharma Drum Publishing Corporation
Translation:  Berggren Qing 
Editing: Glen Sha, Keith Brown