May 8, 1974 , Wednesday evening
Being Familiar with the Principles in the Sutras
Ven. Master Hsuan Hua
[Editor’s note: The Master is recounting a trip to Asia .] Upon arriving back in Taiwan, I lectured on the “Chapter of Universal Worthy’s Conduct and Vows.” When I reached the passage that described how the Buddha “peeled off his skin for paper, split his bones to fashion brushes, drew blood for ink” in order to write out copies of the Flower Adornment Sutra stacked as high as Mount Sumeru, I asked them if they had any questions to bring up for discussion at that point. Do any of you have questions on this passage? I have explained this passage here before, and now I want to hear your judgment. What do you make of it?
Elder Layman Ma in Taiwan who was in his eighties but still had a resonant voice, asked about this passage. I won’t explain my answer until you have told me how you would answer his question. [Editor’s note: Various disciples discuss the passage in question.]
All of you have your own opinions, like the blind men who each felt different parts of an elephant and each drew their own conclusions about what elephants look like, based on whether they felt a leg or the trunk or the belly of the elephant. This is an excellent way to investigate the principles. Each person applies his wisdom and expresses his opinion for others to consider.
However, at that time, I didn’t have that many people to study the question with, so I answered it by myself. I said, “First of all, the Buddha was speaking hypothetically, supposing that there might be a person who’d make such a great resolve and use his bones to fashion brushes. He could have made brushes out of other material. Why did he use bone, which is not usually used to make brushes? It was to show his sincerity. Why did he use skin to make paper instead of using some other material? It was also to show his sincerity towards the sutra. Using his blood to write out the sutra was another way of demonstrating his sincere resolve, which made him unafraid of pain, suffering, and hardship. Although bone cannot be made into brushes, he was going to do it. Skin basically cannot be used as paper, but he used it as such. Blood is not used for ink, but he used it that way. He undertook ascetic practices that others could not do. The text says “bone,” but that doesn’t mean he used all the bones in his body. Just now one disciple said it would be enough to chop off a finger. He’s right. A brush made from the bone of a single finger can be used to write many characters. As for skin, he did not peel all the skin off his body to use as paper. Perhaps he peeled the skin off one arm or one leg. Since he has two arms and two legs, he can peel his skin four different times, sometimes peeling in one place and sometimes in another. After the skin is peeled off, the wound will slowly heal. When the skin is peeled off, one naturally bleeds. That blood can be used to write out the sutra. Therefore, the person would not die. This is only a hypothetical situation, but if a person really did those things, he would not die, for he is not using up all the skin, blood, and bones in his body.
Elder Ma agreed with my explanation. I said that this was merely a hypothetical case; there is no such person in reality. The sutra brings up this principle to encourage people to bring forth the resolve for bodhi by thinking, “Someone may use his bones to make a brush, his skin as paper, and his blood as ink. If he can undergo that much pain, what about us?” This thought exhorts them to resolve their minds on bodhi.
I gave him another explanation: There might be three brothers who accomplish the deeds mentioned in the sutra cooperatively. Perhaps the eldest brother offers some of his bone to make a brush, the second brother peels off some of his skin for paper, and the third brother says, “Fine, I’ll use my blood.” Not only will the three people not die, they will be able to cooperate like this in life after life.
This is similar to how the two monks from Gold Mountain Monastery are practicing “three steps, one bow” together. One of them bows every third step, and the other pulls the cart a hundred or so yards ahead and bows in place. They work as a team. It’s not that one monk carries the supplies and doesn’t get to bow, but only waits as the other monk bows.
In the situation mentioned in the text, if several people cooperatively carry out the task, how could they die? They would not be in danger of dying.
If the situation is hypothetical and there is no such person in reality, who would die? If a person uses only a small part of his body, then he would not die either. Further, if there were three people carrying out the task together, they would not die either.
When Elder Ma heard my explanations, his doubts vanished and he was very happy. He told me, “When I first heard the principles in the sutra, I could not sleep at night. I wondered, ‘How could it be this way?’ Now I’ll be able go to sleep when I go home.”
You should not underestimate the principles discussed today and think the question was a minor one. We should be very familiar with the principles in each passage of the Buddha’s sutras. You should not be unable to answer when people bring up questions for discussion. If you study on a regular basis, you will be able to resolve any problem that arises, like a sharp blade slicing right through something.
Timely Teachings, page 102 - 105