Buddhist sutras generally begin with these words. Hearing is very important in Buddhism. In fact, the essence of Buddhism is to hear the Dharma.
These words can be taken in a simplistic way and quickly passed over or they can be reflected on to some benefit. Simplistically, one can take them as the introduction to a story that has been passed down from person to person. At this level, what is being passed on is simply information. The text often goes on, “once the Buddha was staying in such and such a place and there were with him the following people…” Thus, the story teller establishes where the action takes place and the names of the participants and witnesses. This gives evidence for the correctness of the story. In an oral tradition, it would have meant, inter alia, “If you don’t believe me you can ask them.”
Interestingly sutras usually do not say when the action took place. Time was not important. This omission has puzzled modern scholars who want to piece the story together with other stories to make a history. This aspect evidently did not interest those who transmitted the sutras. They were not concerned to give a historical account, they were concerned to transmit eternal truth. So a sutra tells us about eternal truth appearing somewhere specific in the world to particular people.
TWO WAYS OF HEARING
Although we might quickly pass over the initial words, many of the scriptural commentaries linger over them and give some analysis. This is because these words are important in their own right. “Thus have I heard” means “This is the way I heard it”. It is worth pausing to ask “Heard what?” In one sense the answer is obvious - heard these facts about what Buddha was asked and what he said, but sutras were not written for academic analysis nor for the obtaining of doctoral degrees. They were for devotees. The meaning is “This is how I heard the Dharma” or “The Dharma came to me in this way.” People who hear merely a story do not really hear the DHARMA.
There are two ways of seriously hearing the Dharma. The first way is to hear something that you realise is of great value to yourself. The person who hears in this way is called a shravaka. The word shravaka is commonly translated as “disciple”, but it literally means “hearer”. Shravakas have faith as a result of hearing the Dharma. Perhaps we should stress REALLY HEARING IT, not just having it go in one ear and then get filed away under “other useful information”. To really hear the Dharma is no different from what we mean by “being seized by Amida”. People with such faith go to the Pure Land.
The second way of hearing the Dharma is to hear and be penetrated by universal truth that saves all sentient beings. The people who sincerely hear this are called bodhisattvas. Sattva means “being” or “spirit”. Bodhi means the awakened Dharma. A bodhisattva is somebody whose being or spirit is no longer their own, no longer just the expression of their personal karma, but now is bodhi. Their being has been take over by Dharma. They live in the spirit of awakening.
This being penetrated by the eternal and universal Dharma is what is meant by the term tathagatagharba. Tathagata is another word for Buddha. Gharba means embryo. The person who has been penetrated by the Dharma in this way has within them the embryo of a future Buddha. Tathagatagharba often gets taken as a synonym for “Buddha nature”. If you take the language this way, then the original meaning was not that everybody has Buddha nature from the beginning, but, rather, that one only has it when one has been penetrated in this way, when one has truly HEARD.
There is clearly a sexual metaphor here. To truly hear the Dharma is to lose one's spiritual virginity. One cannot go back. Most people reading Buddhist texts may be engaging in some mild foreplay, but they do not risk committing themselves to the full act.
FOLLOWING THE CALL
The phrase, “Thus have I heard”, therefore, means “This is the way that I was awakened”. The Dharma is universal, eternal and lacks for nothing, but one only participates in it when one has been penetrated by it. Then one is no longer one’s old self. The practical momentum of one’s old self - karma - continues, but it is not what one identifies with any more.
There is an English usage that is valuable in this respect. In English we talk about “having a calling”. One’s calling is what one’s life is dedicated to. The phrase is generally associated with one’s life’s work. Of somebody who is truly dedicated to their work or mission, we can say, “He didn’t just do it for the money, like most people. For him, it was a real calling”. This idea of a calling is where the word vocation comes from, that being the Latin for calling.
I hope this makes it possible for us to appreciate the full significance of “Thus have I heard” and to understand why these words distinguish a sutra. This tells us what a sutra really is. The Dharma is infinite, but it enters and transforms us via some specific intimate encounter. The sutras tell of these encounters. They show the Dharma seed being planted in the world.
For the devotee, a sutra is not just another bit of historical information as it might be for the academic scholar. Much of what we read about Buddhism has been written by such scholars, not by devotees. Such material is useful, but it requires a shift of perspective to realise the power one is dealing with. This power may have passed through the hands of the scholar, but not penetrated her heart.
When one can truly say “Thus have I heard” then, as it says at the end of many sutras, “one has done what needs to be done”, and one will bring forth a Buddha in the future.