Buddhists worldwide have been reciting the
Sanghata Sūtra regularly over the past three years. To view locations
around the world where the presence of the sutra has been established
through recitation and copying, view the Global Sanghata
Satellite Map, by
In the Words of the Sanghata:
At that time, at that moment, he was pierced
with agonizing pains and became distressed with terror. He said to the
Who will be my protector?
Since I have done wicked acts,
I will undergo suffering.
Then that man placed both knees on the ground and said to the sage:
All the wicked deeds I’ve done
and ordered done, I now confess.
May they not bring wicked results.
May I not experience suffering.
Let me become close to you.
Sage, please become my refuge.
Make me without regret and at peace,
and thus pacify my bad karma.
- Arya Sanghata Sūtra
Website of the Arya Sanghata Sutra
Guide for Readers
How the Sanghata Affects its Readers (continued)
We come now to our second question, what does this text do? We have
seen that the Sanghata
continually frustrates our attempts to find any
ground from which to exclude it, preventing us from refuting the claims
it makes about the tremendous power it has over those who encounter it.
In the process, the Sanghata
is forcing us to try to come to terms with
what it is doing to its readers. The Sanghata does this
by pushing us
as its readers to become what Umberto Eco calls ‘model
readers of the second-level,’ that is, readers interested in
watching how the text does what it does, as opposed to first-level
readers enjoying it as it flows by. Indeed, the Sanghata’s
first-level reading seems precisely aimed at turning us into
second-level readers. The Sanghata
seems to be training its readers to
examine their own experiences.
We can watch this training happening in the way that the Buddha and
Sarvashura appear to point out from within the Sanghata to us
in the world in front of the text by discussing, again and again, what
it does to the people hearing, or reading, it—that is, to us.
Its impact on its audience is in fact a dominant and recurring theme
within the Sanghata.
This thematization of the condition of the reader
situates us readers both in the world in front of the text as
witnesses, and in the world inside the text where we appear as objects
of discussion and concern, and there seems no way to keep these two
worlds apart. This is another instance in which the text seems to be
blurring its own boundaries, but here the effect of that blurring is to
problematize the location of us readers in relation to the text.
To put this slightly differently, the world that the Sanghata Sutra is
perhaps most interested in describing is the world receiving the
text—copying it, reciting it or even hearing its name
mentioned. Since we as readers occupy that very world—at the
very least because we are encountering the name Sanghata right
here—we are encouraged to wonder how to situate ourselves in
relation to the world that the text describes around itself. That is,
the Sanghata Sutra is openly inviting us to think about what it does to
Within the text, most of the impact that the Sanghata presents
as having on living beings is invisible and latent, coming in the form
of positive merit that will ripen in future lives or as the elimination
of negative karma from past actions. Obviously, this makes it hard for
us to perceive the way the text is acting on us. However, we do have a
number of episodes within the Sanghata
depicting how it effects those
who come before it. And here, one advantage of having a text as its own
main character is that the interactions between the readers within the
text and the text can serve as a sort of model for how the text
imagines itself as interacting with its readers outside the text, that
is with us.
In one such sub-story, a group of non-believers pays a visit to the
Buddha. They show him all the common signs of courtesy, much as we
ourselves might. But in response, the Buddha tells them they are
foolish and should not expect happiness—messages that the
text is sending us as well, as we’ll see in a moment. After
dazzling them with displays of his powers, the Buddha gives a brief
teaching on suffering in which suffering is presented as fear about the
“Friends, birth is
suffering. Birth itself is also suffering. Once one is born, there
arise many fears of suffering. From birth, fears of sickness arise.
From sickness, fears of aging arise. From aging, fears of death
“From being born as a human, many fears arise. Fear of the king
arises. Fear of thieves arises. Fear of fire arises. Fear of poison
arises. Fear of water arises. Fear of wind arises. Fear of whirlpools
arises. Fear of the actions one has done arises.” (page 10)
By listing the potential harms that threaten all those who are born,
this teaching seems designed to generate the experience of fear that it
describes. Indeed, we are told that those who heard these words of the
Buddha became ‘utterly terrified.’ That is, the
Buddha points out all there is to fear and thinking of this brings on
in this section works to transform its listeners into
people looking ahead with concern to their own
futures, even as they recognize that the immediate cause of that fear
lies in birth, that is, in something that has already happened. The
last fear, the fear of the actions one has done, links directly to the
teachings of karma that state that one’s own actions are the
cause of the experiences one will have. This teaching on karma takes
fear, ordinarily a forward-looking emotion, and inverts its temporal
dimension, making of it a fear of what is already done but still
lingering on in latent form, as uncompleted karma. Fear understood as
an orientation towards the future may lead to action to transform that
pending future. But fear understood as an orientation towards the past
leads nowhere but self-recrimination and guilt, and so can be
disabling, as we see in the examples of the king and the man taught by
the sage, both of whom are debilitated by anxiety and remorse over
actions they have done in the past. In short, knowledge of the theory
of karma itself seems to be causing suffering, and so appears to be a
problem and not merely a solution.
If we grant that the text is creating for itself a community of readers
who have been made painfully aware of the potential that they have
stores of negative karma waiting to explode into experience, then those
readers effectively are placed in the position occupied by the man who
had come before the sage full of anxiety over that pending explosion.
The sage’s treatment of the man then demonstrates the form of
relief that the Sanghata
offers. And this brings us to our third and
final question, that of the sort of power that the text posits for