For over a thousand years, the Surangama Sutra, or the Sutra of the Indestructible, has been held in great esteem in the Mahayana Buddhist countries of East and Southeast Asia. Traditionally regarded as a practical manual for spiritual practice that will eventually lead to enlightenment, it gives instruction in the correct understanding of buddhanature, the potential within all beings to become a buddha. The sutra explains how and why this true nature is hidden within our ordinary experience of ourselves and of the world, and it shows how we can uncover this nature—and learn to recognize that it is our own true mind.
Much of the sutra consists of the Buddha Sakyamuni’s instructions to the monk Ananda, whose personal story provides a narrative frame for the entire discourse. Joined by several of his enlightened disciples, the Buddha shows Ananda how to turn the attention of his sense-faculties inward in order to achieve a deeply focused state of meditation known as samadhi. He tells Ananda that by practicing a particular form of samadhi—the aptly named Surangama Samadhi—he and anyone else who also maintains purity of conduct and develops right understanding, an element of the Buddha’s eightfold path, can gain an awakening that is equal to the awakening experienced by all buddhas.
The Buddha asks Ananda to consider where his mind is located. Ananda says that his mind is to be found in his body, but the Buddha quickly disposes of this supposition. Ananda is left with the bewildering conclusion that his mind is neither inside his body, nor outside it, or somewhere between, or anywhere else.
The Buddha then compounds his cousin’s confusion by stating that there are fundamentally two kinds of mind—first, the ordinary mind of which we are aware and that is entangled, lifetime after lifetime, in the snare of illusory perceptions and deluded mental activity; and second, the everlasting true mind, which is our real nature and which is identical to the fully awakened mind of all buddhas. The Buddha adds that it is because beings have lost touch with their own true mind that they are bound to the cycle of death and rebirth.
Now that the existence of a true mind has been established, the Buddha explains a way of practicing samadhi that leads to the true mind. He begins by bringing our attention to the simple fact that we are aware. Taking visual awareness as the paradigm, the Buddha examines awareness itself and demonstrates that, though things move in and through and out of the field of our visual awareness, the essence of our awareness itself does not move. Our awareness teems with objects but is not itself an object. In short, the essence of our sensory awareness is unchanging. It does not arise and disappear in response to objects that enter its scope, including the thoughts in our minds.
The logical implication is that, given that our various awarenesses exist independent of their objects, it ought to be possible to disentangle those awarenesses from their objects. Then we will be free to redirect our attention inward, separate ourselves from the conditioned world, and establish ourselves in the highest level of samadhi, the Surangama Samadhi.
The following short excerpt from a 2012 translation of the Surangama Sutra, with commentary from the late Chan Buddhist master Ven. Master Hsuan Hua, illustrates the contrast between the mind’s true nature and sense objects through use of analogies.
—The Buddhist Text Translation Society
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 Surangama Samadhi 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.”
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.
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.
Excerpted from The Surangama Sutra with Excerpts from the Commentary by Venerable Master Hsuan Hua © 2009 Ven. Master Hsuan Hua. Reprinted in arrangement with the Buddhist Text Translation Society.
The Surangama Sutra is by the Surangama Sutra Translation Committee of the Buddhist Text Translation Society: Rev. Bhikshu Heng Sure (certifier); Bhikshu Jin Yan, Bhikshu Jin Yong, Bhikshuni Jin Jing, Bhikshuni Jin Hai, Ron Epstein, David Rounds, Joey Wei, Fulin Chang, and Laura Lin.
This article was originally published on April 12, 2021.