Thursday, February 2, 2012

New translation of the Lankavatara Sutra

It is said that when Hui-ko, the Second Patriarch of Zen, asked his teacher Bodhidharma what the essence of Zen was, Bodhidharma handed him a copy of The Lankavatara Sutra. Since then, this text has been revered as the seminal Zen sutra; in fact, it is commonly regarded as the only Zen sutra recited by the Buddha himself. For decades, the only major translation was D.T. Suzuki's 1932 edition. Red Pine--respected translator of the Platform Sutra, Diamond Sutra, and Heart Sutra--has just released his own translation of The Lankavatara Sutra, an edition I encourage everyone to read for themselves.

The Lankavatara Sutra is a must-read for any serious student of Mahayana Buddhism, and Zen in particular. Its Yogacarin Mind-Only doctrine enormously influenced the development of Zen. Several years ago I read the sutra, but couldn't make heads or tails of it, mainly because it is such an exhausting, mind-numbing scripture. But when I recently read Red Pine's edition, I found it surprisingly accessible.

Part of the reason is because of his excellent, and often humorous, footnotes. Two of my favorites are: "This section makes my head hurt," followed shortly by the lone "Amen!" For me, that alone made the edition worth reading. The notes are set on the left page, which makes them very easy to consult. I don't know about you, but when an author places the footnotes at the back of the book, I tend to overlook them, or scan them at best. But when they are set on the opposite page, I read nearly every one of them, mainly because Red Pine's notes are so helpful in understanding this challenging sutra.

All in all, I found Red Pine's latest translation to be refreshing, masterfully translated, engaging, and most importantly of all, enjoyable. It's an excellent complement to D.T. Suzuki's translation and a title I highly recommend. As the great Chan and Son masters Zongmi and Chinul point out, sutra study is an important facet of Buddhist practice, and for Zen practitioners The Lankavatara Sutra is virtually indispensable.

Special thanks to Counterpoint Press for allowing me the opportunity to review this wonderful book.

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