The literal meaning of the word sutra is thread. At its most basic, the reference is to the thread which kept the pages of the sutra together and in order.
The root of the word sutra means ‘to sew together.’
We can see an association with the ordination practice in which, prior to the ceremony, a person sews together disparate pieces of material to create their rakusu, or kesa. This garment, which always has the same form, is also unique. It is unique because it is sewn by this particular person, with all this person’s skills, clumsiness, mistakes, and so on. Originally, the monk’s robe was sewn together from pieces of discarded material, so the symbolism, in terms of interdependence, the rich dialogue between particularity and universality and everything having value, is very rich.
Zazen is sewing together body and mind; self and world; past and present; practitioners seen and unseen.
That possibly throws light on one of the peculiarities of the Mahayana sutras.
At the start, the Buddha is gathered with an assembly of monks. And almost always, there’s also a huge number of Bodhisattvas.
In the Vimalakirti Sutra, for instance, the Buddha is said to be preaching on Vulture Peak to 8,000 monks and 32,000 Bodhisattvas.
Who or what are these Bodhisattvas?
If we read the Lotus Sutra does Vulture Peak appear or not? Are we there, or not?
When the Chinese determined upon a word for sutra they used, on the face of it, an identical word, thread. But in their genius ‘thread’ has a particular context. It’s the thread of the loom. Or rather, one of the threads: the vertical, or the horizontal.
The Chinese mechanical loom is a metaphor for constant activity; the full dynamic functioning of the universe. If the thread of the sutra is, as it were, one line of the fabric to be weaved, the vertical say, what is the horizontal line? What or who is woven with it to constantly produce the miraculous fabric of Buddhism?