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Excerpts from The Surangama Sutra IV

Sutra

The Buddha said to Ananda, “You are very learned, but you have not yet put an end to your outflows. You know the reasons for delusion, but when you encounter delusion you fail to recognize it. It is to be feared that, though you are sincere, you still do not quite trust the teaching. I will have to make use of another everyday situation to dispel your doubts.”

The Buddha then instructed Rāhula to strike the bell once, and he asked Ananda, “Do you hear?”

Ananda and the others in the assembly answered, “We hear.”

When the bell had ceased ringing, the Buddha asked again, “Now do you hear?”

Ananda and the others in the assembly answered, “We do not.”

Then Rāhula struck the bell once more, and the Buddha asked once again, “Now do you hear?”

Ananda and the others again replied, “We hear.”

The Buddha asked Ananda, “How is it that you heard and then did not hear?”

Ananda and the others said respectfully to the Buddha, “We heard the bell when it was struck, but when at length the sounding of the bell had died away and its reverberations had faded, we no longer were hearing.”

The Buddha then instructed Rāhula to strike the bell yet again, and he asked Ananda, “Is there a sound now?” 

Ananda and the others in the assembly answered, “Yes, there is a sound.”

In a little while the sound faded, and the Buddha asked, “And now is there a sound?”

Ananda and the others replied, “There is no sound.”

After a moment Rāhula again struck the bell, and the Buddha asked again, “And is there a sound now?”

Ananda and the others said, “There is.”

The Buddha asked Ananda, “How is it that there was a sound and then no sound?”

Ananda and the others in the assembly answered respectfully, “When the bell was struck, there was a sound, but when at length the sounding of the bell had died away and the reverberations had faded, there was no longer any sound.”

The Buddha said to Ananda and the others in the assembly. “Why have you given such muddled answers?”

Ananda and the others thereupon asked the Buddha, “Why do you say that our answers were muddled?”

The Buddha replied, “When I asked you whether you heard, you said that you had heard. When I asked if there was a sound, you said that there was a sound. Since you did not clearly distinguish between hearing and sound in your answer, how could I not say that your answer was muddled?

“Ananda, once the sounding of the bell and its reverberations had faded, you said that you no longer heard. If it were true that you had stopped hearing, your essential capacity for hearing19 would have ceased to exist. It would be like a dead tree that is unable to grow again, in that you would have been unable to hear the bell if it were struck again. You knew when the bell’s sound, which is a perceived object, was present and when it was absent. But how could it be that your essential capacity for hearing was present and then absent? If your essential capacity for hearing were in truth no longer present, what then would be aware that the sound had ceased? Therefore, Ananda, although the sounds you hear come into being and cease to be, neither the presence nor the subsequent absence of sound can cause your essential capacity for hearing to come into being and then cease to be.

 

Commentary

Ananda and the members of the great assembly all said that they did not hear once the bell’s sound died away. That’s where their problem lay… They thought that when there is no sound, there is no hearing. But actually, when there is no sound, what is it that perceives that there is nothing to be heard?... If you were really without hearing, then you would not know whether there was sound or not. (IV, 215)

Although the sound ceases, the enlightened nature of hearing has not ceased to function. It is still in operation, because the enlightened nature of hearing neither comes into being nor ceases to be. It is sound that comes into being and ceases to be. Thus when the sound ceased and Ananda said that he did not hear, he was mistaken. (IV, 218)

 

Sutra

“You are still deluded. In your confusion you take hearing and the presence of sound to be the same thing. You consider something everlasting to be something that will come to an end. In the final analysis, it cannot be said that hearing in its essential nature is dependent on the presence of sound or silence, or dependent on whether the ears are obstructed or unobstructed.

“Consider someone who has fallen deeply asleep on his bed. While he is sleeping, someone in his household starts beating clothes or pounding rice. The dreamer hears the sounds of the beating or the pounding and mistakes them for something else, perhaps the striking of a drum or the ringing of a bell. In his dream he wonders why the striking of the bell or drum sounds like clothes being beaten or like rice being pounded. He wakes up suddenly, and he immediately recognizes the sound of the pounding. He tells the people in his household, ‘I just had a dream in which I mistook your pounding rice for the beating of a drum.’

 

Commentary 

He is so sound asleep that he does not wake up when someone calls him. But even though he does not awaken, the enlightened nature of his hearing is still present. He perceives sounds, albeit mistakenly, even though he is asleep. The mistake is not made by the enlightened nature of hearing but by the sixth consciousness, the mind-consciousness. (IV, 221)

 

Sutra

“Ananda, how was it that this dreamer could have been conscious of sound or silence? How was it that his ears were unobstructed and functioning? Although his body was asleep, the enlightened nature of his hearing did not sleep. Even when the body wastes away, its energy dissipates, and its life force moves on, how could that essential capacity to hear dissipate along with them?

“Nevertheless, since beings have allowed their attention to be drawn to sights and sounds and have allowed themselves to be carried along in their streams of thought, as it has been since time without beginning, they have not yet awakened and do not yet understand the purity, the wondrousness, and the permanence of their own essential nature. Instead of attending to what is everlasting, they attend to what comes into being and perishes, and as a result, in life after life, they are mired in impurity and are bound to the cycle of death and rebirth. But if they turn away from what comes into being and perishes and hold fast to what is true and everlasting, then the light of the everlasting will appear, and as a result the faculties, their objects, and the sense-consciousnesses will fade away and disappear.

“By entirely disengaging yourself from two impurities — defiled mental processes and defiled emotional attachment to those processes — your Dharma-eye will become clear and bright. How then could you fail to go on to realize a supreme understanding and awakening?”

 

Footnotes:

19 This is another way of expressing the meaning of Ch. wen xing 聞性, earlier rendered as “the enlightened nature of hearing.”

 

 

The Surangama Sutra

The Surangama Sutra with Commentary