Huseng wrote:One should never expect to be able to pick up a sutra in English, for example, and immediately understand what it means. Of course, it somewhat depends on the sutra. Some sutras have a narrative style that is conducive to relatively easy understanding, like the Saddharmapundarika. But this is not the case with most sutras.
It doesn't matter which language you read it in -- you often need commentary literature to fully grasp the import of the sutra.
With a commentary you are able to enjoy the distilled wisdom of some past scholar. More often than not the commentary will clarify ambiguous parts of the translation that even native readers centuries ago found difficult to read.
The unfortunate reality is that English there are relatively few commentaries to sutra. In the old days you read a sutra alongside a commentary. Most often this was done with the standard commentary literature within your tradition. Nowadays people just read translations and come up with their own ideas.
Namdrol and Huseng -
Unfortunately there are many problems with reading sutras. People can come up with strange ideas or fabricate their own views. However if people are sincere then eventually the sutras themselves will correct these views.
Unfortunately many TB lamas approach their Western students as if these students were also preliterate Himalayan people from the old days. This isn't the case. It is also true that many academics have produced translations and interpretations that are problematic. However the solution is not to restrict access to sutras but to teach them more openly. In the past 40 years this is what the Chinese traditions have generally done.
I was shocked and upset last year when a visiting Sakya khenpo said in response to a question from me concerning reading sutras that basically lay people should not read sutras. He went on to explain that sutras were carefully explained to monks over time and that monks generally did not read sutras without permission and prior teaching. Well I'm sure this was and is still true. But literacy was very low even in pre-invasion Tibet. Literacy with all it's implications is very high in the West and even in the US (it's what - 95% literate depending on how you measure it?). Many people are familiar with some sutras. I had expected this khenpo to say something somewhat cautionary concerning sutra reading but he basically closed it down in his comments. However at the same center we have been exposed to the traditional practice of sutra reading as blessing (i.e. reading out loud and not for content or reflection - not my favorite) - but we have also read the Tsedo Sutra. We have also had childern enact stories from some sutras. Telling dharma students today to not read sutras is somewhat damaging. Warning them and then following up with education would be the way to go (and this visting khenpo may have done that - I was not able to attend his further teachings but I have to tell you his extended admonition that day was very problematic for me).
It is also true that the commentarial material is lacking. However many translations do have some commentarial material. I am also serious that over time the sutras will tend to correct erroneous concepts in people who approach them seriously. They are after all a kind of nirmanakaya.
It is also counterproductive to not educate dharma students about sutras that they will definitely encounter in the Tradition. The Akashagarbha Sutra is just one of several sutras that people will definitely encounter if just in name. One cannot predict how people come to the Dharma in the West. Some people have encountered the Dharma even in the West because they grew up around it and/or because there were sutras in the home and they read sutra excepts growing up. There is too much diversity to assume that people come in as complete blank slates. So some focus IMO needs to be made on sutra study in a more modern sense.