images of the crossing over

사경: faith, written

Sa-gyeong literally means “to copy (the) sutras,” and it’s a popular practice in Korea. Entire sutras might be copied–I’m working my way through the Surangama Sutra in Chinese right now–or thousands of shorter dharanis or mantras might be written out over and over. In either case, these days most people choose to use a book designed specifically for the purpose of sa-gyeong, where the characters or words (in the case of doing sa-gyeong in the Korean alphabet) are printed in a light gray, allowing the practitioner to trace over them in ink.  Some famous examples of sa-gyeong are the Japanese prince who copied out the Lotus Sutra in gold ink on indigo-blue paper, or a Chinese Zen Master who copied out the Hwa Eom Gyeong (I believe) in his own blood–I think that story is in Bill Porter’s Zen Baggage. This isn’t merely copying lines in detention: sa-gyeong is faith, written.

Here, Aran Sunim is copying out “the luminious mantra” (광명진언) while Beom Seo Sunim looks on.


2 responses

  1. Another “famous” example of sutra copying occurs in the movie, “Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter, and Spring” when the old monk asks the young man to carve the Heart Sutra (I think) into the deck of the floating temple – a beautiful and deeply moving scene.

    Thank you!

    September 7, 2010 at 3:30 am

  2. Ah, yes–thank you, Barry, I’d forgotten about that movie. I was recalling historical examples of the practice, although that scene is certainly a vivid visual example of the practice. It is the Heart Sutra, and the monk asks his old student to carve it in repentence for the young man’s killing of his lover. The police arrive at the temple having tracked the young man, and the monk asks them to wait until he has finished carving the entire sutra before arresting him.

    Many sutras in the Mahayana canon explicitely advocate copying or printing sutras (or sponsoring the work thereof) as a way of building and/or proving faith in the teaching, and accumulating merit. One of the great-grand teachers of my home temple copied the entire Avatamsaka Sutra in Korean on mulberry bark paper–without the benefit of a “tracing book” like we use now to keep lines, letters, and spacing neat–and it’s a beautiful example of both art and religious devotion.

    September 8, 2010 at 3:31 am

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