Excerpts from The Surangama Sutra
Then the World-Honored One stretched forth his arm and opened his shining, cotton-soft, finely webbed hand,2 revealing the wheel-shaped lines on his fingers. To instruct Ananda and the others in the great assembly, he said, “After my awakening, I went to the Deer Park, where, for Ajñātakauṇḍinya’s sake and for the other four monks,3 and also for all of you in the four assemblies, I said that beings in their multitudes have not become Arhats, nor have they become fully awake, because they are confused by afflictions that are like visitors and like dust. What in particular, at that time, caused the five of you to awaken and become sages?”
Then Ajñātakauṇḍinya’s stood up and said respectfully to the Buddha, “Of all the elders here in this great assembly, I was the one who was given the name ‘Ajñāta,’ meaning ‘one who understands,’ because I had come to realize what ‘visitor’ and ‘dust’ signify. It was in this way that I became a sage.
“World-Honored One, suppose a visitor stops at an inn for a night or for a meal. Once his stay is ended or the meal is finished, he packs his bags and goes on his way. He’s not at leisure to remain. But if he were the innkeeper, he would not leave. By considering this example of the visitor, the one who comes and goes, and the innkeeper, the one who remains, I understood what the visitor signifies. He represents transience.
“Again, suppose the morning skies have cleared after a rain. Then a beam of pure light from the rising sun may shine through a crack in a door to reveal some motes of dust obscuring the air. The dust moves, but the air is still. Thus by consideration of this example — the dust, which as it moves obscures the air, and the air, which itself remains still — I understood what the dust may signify. It represents motion.”
The Buddha said, “So it is.”
When the sun has just come up, early on a clear fresh morning, a morning after rain, the sun shines through a crack in the door or perhaps a crack in the wall, and it displays the fine bits of dust bobbing up and down in space, moving all around in the sunshine. If the sun doesn’t shine in the crack, you can’t see the dust, although there is actually a lot of dust everywhere. But while the dust moves, bobbing up and down, space is still. It doesn’t move. The ability to see the dust in the light that pours through the crack represents the attainment of the light of wisdom. When you reach the first stage of an Arhat and overcome the eighty-eight kinds of deluded awareness, you have the light of wisdom. Then you can see your ignorance, which moves like the dust in sunlight and which causes as many afflictions as there are sand-grains in the River Ganges. You will also see the unmoving stillness of your essential nature. (II, 17–8)
Thereupon the Thus-Come One, before the assembly, made a fist with his wheel-lined fingers, and having made the fist, he opened his hand again. Once his hand was open, he made the fist again and said to Ananda, “What did you see just now?”
Ananda said, “I saw the Thus-Come One, before the assembly, open and close his hand over his resplendent wheel-lined palm.”
The Buddha said to Ananda, “You saw me here before the assembly open and close my hand. Was it my hand that opened and closed, or did your visual awareness open and close?”
Ananda said, “It was the World-Honored One’s resplendent hand that opened and closed before the assembly. Although I saw his hand open and close, my visual awareness neither opened nor closed.”
The Buddha said, “What moved and what was still?”
Ananda said, “The Buddha’s hand moved, but my awareness is beyond even stillness; how could it have moved?”
The Buddha replied, “So it is.”
Then from his wheel-lined palm the Buddha sent forth a ray of resplendent light that flew past Ananda to his right. Ananda immediately turned his head and glanced to the right. Then the Buddha sent a ray of light to Ananda’s left. Ananda turned his head again and glanced to the left. The Buddha said to Ananda, “Why did you turn your head just now?”
Ananda said, “I saw the Thus-Come One send forth a wondrous ray of shining light which flew past me on my right; then another ray flew past me on my left. My head moved as I looked to the right and to the left.”
“Ananda, when you glanced at the Buddha’s light and moved your head to the right and left, was it in fact your head that moved, or else was it your visual awareness that moved?”
“World-Honored One, it was my head that moved. The nature of my visual awareness is beyond even stillness; how then could it have moved?”
The Buddha said, “So it is.”
Stillness comes from movement. If there isn’t any movement, then there isn’t any stillness. So it is said that there is no emerging from the Great Śūraṅgama Samādhi and no entering it. That’s the principle here… Thus Ananda said that his visual awareness, by which he sees the Buddha… is beyond the characteristics of movement and of stillness, its opposite. Without movement, there is no stillness; both are gone. They are fundamentally unattainable and nonexistent; they cannot be found. Then how could his awareness not be at rest? (II, 21–2)
Then the Thus-Come One told everyone in the assembly, “All beings need to understand that whatever moves is like the dust and, like a visitor, does not remain. Just now you saw that it was Ananda’s head that moved, while his visual awareness did not move. It was my hand that opened and closed, while his awareness did not open or close. How can you take what moves to be your body and its environment, since they come into being and perish in every successive thought? You have lost track of your true nature, and instead you act out of delusion. Therefore, because you have lost touch with your mind’s true nature by identifying yourself with the objects you perceive, you keep on being bound to the cycle of death and rebirth.”4
Here the Buddha scolds the great assembly. He tells them that they are unable to discern their own true awareness. They take their physical bodies and their bodies’ environment to be real… They cling tenaciously to the body and mind… Yet every thought of the conscious mind is subject to coming into being and perishing. One thought arises and perishes, and then the next thought arises and perishes… People concentrate their efforts exclusively on the realm of coming into being and perishing and have no real understanding of the true nature of their awareness. (II, 25–6)
Because you conduct yourselves in confused ways, your true nature and your mind do not work together, and thus you lose track of your true nature. You mistake external states for your real selves. You take that inn of yours as your self. You shouldn’t think of that inn as you. That would be to consider yourself a mere object. You create all kinds of attachments. You fail to see through things. You aren’t clear about truth. And because of that, you cling to death and rebirth. If you weren’t so confused, if you stopped mistaking a burglar for your own child by mistaking objects for yourself, you would be able to end death and rebirth.
To end death and rebirth is easy. All you need to do is turn yourself around. If you go forward, you head right down the path of death and rebirth. If you turn around and go the other way, you end death and rebirth. It’s not that difficult, but it’s up to you to do it. You simply turn around; you turn your head and pivot your body. That’s all that’s needed. It is said, “The sea of suffering is boundless; a turn of the head is the other shore.” (II, 26–7)
The Sutra says that the members of the assembly had renounced their fundamental minds and had relied only on their deluded minds, their conscious minds, their minds that make distinctions. They hadn’t understood external states; they’d taken their distinction-making minds to be true and real. They had engaged in confused activities at the gates of the six faculties and hadn’t the least bit of skill with regard to their true natures… You need to understand that the mountains, the rivers, the vegetation, and all the rest of the myriad appearances on this earth are the Dharma-body of the Buddhas, which neither comes into being nor perishes… You must recognize the pure, luminous essential nature of the everlasting true mind, and your mad distinction-making mind must cease. It is said, “The ceasing of the mad mind is full awakening.” The mad mind’s coming to a stop is the manifestation of our awakened mind. Because the mad mind exists and has not ceased, the awakened mind cannot come forth. The mad mind covers it over. The aim of this passage, and every other passage of the Sutra without exception, is to reveal everyone’s true mind. (II, 29– 30)
When Ananda and the great assembly had heard the Buddha’s teachings, their bodies and their minds were serene. They realized that since time without beginning they had strayed from the fundamental, true mind. Instead, they had been mistaken about the conditioned objects of perception and had made distinctions about what are in fact nothing but shadowy mental events.5 Now they all had awakened, and each was like a lost infant suddenly reunited with its beloved mother. Putting their palms together, they bowed to the Buddha. They wished to hear the Thus-Come One reveal the contrasting qualities of body and mind — what is true and what is false about them, what is real and what is insubstantial, what comes into being and then ceases to be, and what neither comes into being nor perishes.
2 Softness of the hands and fine webbing between the fingers are also among the thirty- two hallmarks that characterize of the body of a Buddha.
3 The other four monks who were staying with Ajñātakauṇḍinya at the Deer Park were Aśvajit, Bhadrika, Daśabala-Kāśyapa, and Mahānāma. After becoming fully awakened, the Buddha went to the Deer Park, where he taught these five ascetics; they were awakened by his teaching and became his first disciples.
4 Skt. saṃsāra, the continuous undergoing of the suffering of repeated deaths and rebirths. It is contrasted with nirvana.
5 That is, our experience of what seems to be an external world is in fact the experience of images produced in our minds.
Then King Prasenajit stood up and said to the Buddha, “Before I was instructed by the Buddha, I met Kātyāyana and Vairāṭiputra.6 Both of them said that after this body dies, we cease to exist and become nothing. That very nothingness itself is what they called nirvana. Now, though I have met the Buddha, I still have doubts that make me cautious. How can I come to realize the true and fundamental mind that neither comes into being nor perishes? All in this great assembly who have outflows wish to hear the answer.”
The Buddha said to the king, “May I ask, is your body as indestructible as vajra,7 or is it subject to decay?”
“World-Honored One, this body of mine will keep on changing till in the end it will perish.”
The Buddha said, “Your Majesty, you have not perished yet. How is it that you know you will perish?”
“World-Honored One, my body is impermanent and subject to decay, although it has not perished yet. But now, upon reflection, I can see that each one of my thoughts just fades away, followed by a new thought which also does not last, like fire turning into ash, constantly dying away, for- ever perishing. By this I am convinced that my body, too, must perish.”
The Buddha said, “So it is. Your Majesty, you are in your declining years. How do you look now, compared to when you were a boy?”
“World-Honored One, when I was a child, my skin was fresh and smooth, and I was full of vital energy when in my prime. But now in my later years, as old age presses upon me, my body has withered and is weary. My vital spirits are dulled, my hair is white, my skin is wrinkled. Not much time remains for me. How can all this compare to the prime of life?”
The king has reached a point where his body no longer helps him out. His body is oppressive and nags at him to move somewhere else. It will soon be unlivable. (II, 36)
The Buddha said, “Your Majesty, your body’s appearance cannot have deteriorated suddenly.”
The king replied, “World-Honored One, the change has in fact been so subtle that I have hardly been aware of it. I’ve reached this point only gradually through the passing of the years. Thus when I was in my twenties, I was still young, but I already looked older than I did when I was ten. My thirties marked a further decline from my twenties, and now, at two years past sixty, I look back on my fifties as a time of strength and health.
“World-Honored One, as I observe these subtle transformations, I realize now that the changes wrought by this descent toward death are evident not only from decade to decade; they can also be discerned in smaller increments. Considering more closely, one can see that changes happen year by year as well as by the decade. In fact, how could they happen merely year by year? Such changes happen every month. And how could they occur from month to month only? These changes happen day by day. And if one contemplates this deeply, one can see that there is ceaseless change from moment to moment,8 in each successive thought. Thus I can know that my body will keep on changing till it perishes.”
The Buddha said to the king, “Observing these changes — these never- ceasing transformations — you know that you must perish. But do you also know that when you perish, something in you does not perish with you?”
Putting his palms together, King Prasenajit replied to the Buddha, “Indeed I do not know.”
The Buddha said, “I now will reveal to you what it is that does not come into being and does not perish. Your Majesty, when you first saw the River Ganges, how old were you?”
The king replied, “I was three when my beloved mother took me to pay respects to the goddess Jı̄va.9 When we went past a river, I knew that it was the Ganges.”
The Buddha said, “Your Majesty, you said that when you were in your twenties, you had already aged compared to when you were ten. Year after year, month after month, day after day, in each successive thought there have been changes till you have reached your sixties. Consider, though: when you were three years old, you saw the river; ten years later, when you were thirteen, what was the river like?”
The king replied, “It looked the same when I was thirteen as it did when I was three, and even now, when I am sixty-two, it is still the same.”
The Buddha said, “Now you are mournful that your hair is white and your face is wrinkled. Your face is certainly more wrinkled than it was when you were in your youth. But when you look at the Ganges, is your visual awareness any different from your visual awareness as it was when you saw the river in your boyhood?”
The king replied, “No different, World-Honored One.”
The Buddha said, “Your Majesty, your face is wrinkled, but the essential nature of your visual awareness itself has not wrinkled. What wrinkles is subject to change. What does not wrinkle does not change. What changes will perish. But what does not change neither comes into being nor perishes. Then how could it be affected by your being born and dying? So you have no need to be concerned with what such people as Maskari Gośālı̄putra10 say: that when this body dies, you cease to exist.”
The king believed the words that he had heard, and he understood that when we leave this body, we go on to another. He and all the others in the great assembly were elated at having gained a new understanding.
6 Kātyāyana and Vairāṭiputra were contemporaries of the Buddha who taught forms of skepticism. This Kātyāyana is said to have been a fierce opponent of the Buddha; he is not to be confused with the Buddha’s disciple Mahākātyāyana.
7 A material of extreme hardness and durability.
8 Skt. kṣaṇa.
9 Skt. jīva means “the principle of life.”
10 The king mentioned above that the non-Buddhist teachers expressing this view were Kātyāyana and Vairāṭiputra. Here the Buddha mentions instead Maskāri Gośālı̄putra, presumably because Maskari was named first in a standard list of six major non-Buddhist teachers (Ch. wai dao liu shi, 外道六師) who were contemporaries of the Buddha.