Sutra for the Illiterate


What is this?

This small, folding book contains the text of the Heart Sūtra (in Sanskrit Prajñāpāramitāhṛdaya) represented in pictures and was intended to allow illiterate people to recite this popular Buddhist sūtra.

How does it work?

The repeated chanting of texts is an important part of Buddhist devotion and is believed to be a way of acquiring religious merit. However, to be able to read a Buddhist text written in Chinese script, which was also used in Japan and Korea, requires a knowledge of many thousands of individual characters. In earlier times, when rates of literacy were much lower, this type of illustrated sūtra – known popularly as Mekura-kyō or Monmō-kyō (literally ‘Sūtras for the Illiterate’) – was a way to provide people who were unable to read with a way to gain the merit derived from chanting the texts. Mekura-kyō work on a rebus principle, whereby the sounds of the Chinese characters are represented by pictures of everyday objects that have the same pronunciation. By reading out the sounds of the images, the worshipper is able to repeat the text of the sūtra. An English example would be to represent the word ‘belief’ with a picture of a bee and a leaf.

Full title:
Hannya shingyō
early 20th century, Japan
Paper folding book
Usage terms
Public Domain
Held by
British Library
ORB.30/885 (3)

Full catalogue details

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