QUESTION: What is the best way of reading and interpreting a sutra?
SHORT ANSWER: One tries to understand the Dharma contained in it and let the images bring that Dharma to life deep within.
LONGER ANSWER: I think one of the points in the questioners mind is the question of how literally to take such things as descriptions of the Pure Land. Different readers certainly do differ in such matters and there is not really a strong orthodoxy on the matter. If we take the descriptions of the Pure Land, I think we have to take it that these are descriptions of visions. They do not necessarily correspond in detail to the geography. If you plan to emigrate to New Zealand you no doubt have an image in your mind of what it is like but this image will not correspond exactly to what you find when you get there. Nonetheless, the image does, in a certain way, correspond to the aspiration that is in your heart. So Pure Land Buddhists expect to be somewhere after death and they expect it to be a place close to the Buddha that is inspiring and some have been so inspired that they visualise that land and some of those visions have found their way into the texts.
Not just in the Pure Land schools. Much of Mahayana Buddhist literature from the Avatamsaka Sutra onwards is visionary. These visionary samadhis are themselves important practice. If you cultivate that vision it will work magic in your soul.
I am in Korea at the moment. There are lots of depictions of Buddhas here with Korean facial features. Now we know that Shakyamuni was not Korean, but never mind, we all know what the picture or statue is about.
So what matters is, on the one hand, the Dharma within the imagery and, on the other hand, the way that the imagery itself gives life to Dharma. Dharma is not just intellectual, it is supposed to lodge deeply within you. It is not just something to think rationally about, but, rather, something that should enter into one’s dream body. When Dharma has penetrated and permeated the unconscious mind then one is somewhere near to being a practitioner and to get to that state poetry, imagery and story are more effective than reductive literalism.
Thank you ever so much for this answer. This really made a lot of sense to me. Very similar to the way Ive heard hexagrams in the I Ching are best approached. Would you say that perhaps understanding the symbology in a sutra is important? For example in the Larger Pure Land Sutra it mentions sandalwood and different precious stones etc..?
Precious stones probably means that things are radiant. The awakened person experiences even this world as sharper, crisper, brighter, how much more so the next! There are big dreams and mundane dreams. The big dreams have a more radiant quality. Similarly with big visions.