Saturday, August 06, 2011

Thoughts on the Surangama Sutra

Here are some thoughts stimulated by a discussion at Zen Forum International regarding the Surangama Sutra (also spelled Shurangama Sutra).  There are three English versions easily available on the internet.  The translation by Lu K'uan Yu (Charles Luk) is in PDF format here.  Another translation is here but the translator is not attributed.  And the Buddhist Text Translation Society index to their PDF version is here.
Someone commented:
While the Shurangama Sutra has many beautiful and valuable parts ...  several important sections of the Shurangama Sutra are so questionable that, if the Buddha really did say such things ([i]fortunately, with our modern appreciation of history and text origins we can be pretty darn sure that he didn't[/i]) then the Buddha comes across perhaps as a fool.

I had a strong reaction to those comments.  I don't read the section discussing the "inside the room" analogy as foolish, silly, or as something Buddha wouldn't have said.  That section falls right in the middle of what "teaching by expedient means" is all about! Such "proof by analogy" is one of the entirely accepted and traditional forms of Indian logic which was the context of Buddha's dialogue. 

Another comment was,
In other words, a man "in a room" can see what is outside the windows of the room AND (in front of that) the objects and people in the room ... but we cannot see the inside of the body (heart, liver, spleen, etc.) so the mind cannot be in the body. In modern terms, the mind cannot see the brain, so we can assert that the mind is not in the brain.

Assuming (as I and most Buddhists do in one fashion or another) that "mind" is not something limited to within the body or brain, it is nonetheless simply silly to argue that the mind in not located there, in whole or part, because it cannot see the inside of the brain, let alone the spleen!
To understand what Buddha is saying here, one needs to investigate the phrase “the mind is not located there” or as the Sutra says “If you cannot perceive what is inside at all, how can you perceive what is outside?”   

Buddha is using the Socratic Method to bring Ananda around to understanding the egolessness of mind.  That as the Diamond Cutter Sutra says, the mind abides nowhere. This first step in the teaching is in direct response to Ananda saying he believed his mind was inside his body.  The Buddha taught the analogy that without an “outside” there is nothing to perceive at all and therefore there is no mind that can be mentioned, and likewise if the mind were inside it would perceive itself before it perceived anything outside. since there is no perception at all, and therefore no mind at all until there is the perception of an outside, it follows that the mind is not inside.  There is nothing faulty with this logic, that is, at least nothing faulty as far as logic goes.

Ananda is following along with this logic and therefore Ananda says, “Upon hearing such a Dharma-sound as the Tathagata has proclaimed, I realize that my mind is actually outside my body.”  So then the Buddha has to teach Ananda that the mind is not “outside” the body either.  As Ananda accepts the dialectic that the mind in not outside the dialogue continues

The Surangama Sutra says:
Ananda said to the Buddha, “World Honored One, it is as the Buddha has said, since I cannot see inside, my mind does not reside in the body. Since my body and mind have a common awareness, they are not separate and so my mind does not dwell outside my body. As I now consider it, I know it is in a certain place.”

The Buddha said, “Now where is it?”

Ananda said, “Since the mind which knows and understands does not perceive what is inside but can see outside, upon reflection I believe it is concealed in the organ of vision.

So of course the next section is Buddha leading Ananda to see the mind is not “concealed” in the organ of vision.   This dialogue may be very plain or pedestrian, but it is definitely not foolish or silly.  This is just the most traditional type of logic there is, as the Buddha goes from teaching that the mind is not located inside the body and not located outside the body. This is a style of teaching using dialogue and very simple analogy that is very appropriate for certain people. There are people who actually think this way.  Buddha teaches all people, not just those who are sophisticated.  Of course this style is not appropriate for some other people, and for them there are other expedient styles of teaching, such as analytical discussions of the 12-linked chain of interdependent origination, the 12 entrances (ayatanas) and the 18 realms (dhatus). In fact in this section the Surangama is making this exact analysis only it is not using the analytical jargon that turns off some people. In other sections of the Surangama there is more use of the jargon, such as discussion of the Five Skandhas.  There is also a very cosmically expansive jargon such as found in the Lotus Sutra with celestial Buddha Halls and cosmic Buddhas.  There are koans that take up each of these styles and points as well.

Each Sutra is a teaching for a specific audience with a more than less specific direction of purpose to what is being expounded as the way to bring that particular audience “across to the other shore,” which in Zen we call direct realization of our own true nature. 

Let’s not forget the analogy that Buddha uses to explain the relation of the One Mind to the six senses using the one piece of cloth tied into six knots.

The Surangama Sutra Says:

The Buddha told Ananda, "You know that this precious cloth is basically one strip, but when I made six ties in it, you said it had six knots. Carefully consider the substance of the cloth: it remains unchanged except for the knots in it. "What do you think? You identified the first knot I tied as number one. Now I am ready to tie the sixth knot. Will you also call it number one?" "No, World Honored One. If there are six knots, the sixth knot can never be called the first one. Even if I exhausted all my intelligence and eloquence in life after life, I could reverse the sequence of these six knots.

The Buddha said, "So it is. The six knots are not identical. Consider their origin: they are created from the one cloth and were tied in a certain order. It would be impossible to scramble that sequence. Your six sense organs are also like that. From what was identical, decisive differences arise." The Buddha said to Ananda, "Assuming you did not want these six knots and would like there to be just one cloth, how could you achieve that end?"

Ananda said, "As long as these knots remain, dispute about what they are and what they are not will arise. Their very existence will lead to such distinctions as this knot not being that knot and that knot not being this one. But if the Tathagata were to untie them all right now, so that none remained, then there would be no ‘this’ or ‘that.’ There would not even be anything called ‘one,’ how much the less ‘six.’"

The Buddha said, "That is also what happens when the six sense organs are freed: even the one is gone. Because from beginningless time your mind and nature have been insane and disturbed, you have created false knowledge and views. As that falseness continues to arise without respite, perception becomes weary and defilements arise. Just like the whirling flowers that appeared when the eyes grew tired of staring, these too are disturbances that arise without a cause within the tranquil, essential brightness. Everything in the world-the mountains, the rivers, the earth itself, as well as birth, death, and Nirvana-is these flowers that appear because of our being turned upside-down by insanity and weariness."

It is difficult to present in a few words the vast profundity of the Surangama Sutra.  It covers the entire spectrum of Buddha Dharma with direct and plain analogies and emphasizes that no amount of intellection or thinking about the Dharma is sufficient, but that only in the practice of samadhi and untying the knots can we truly experience liberation for ourselves.  Buddha teaches that the source of ignorance lies in these six knots and also that the source of enlightenment lies in these six knots!

Another comment was:

Perhaps my favorite section of the Sutra on the "bizarre" scale is the many pages discussing the very important topic of 'THE THREE GRADUAL STEPS TO ERADICATE THE FUNDAMENTAL SOURCES OF DISORDERED MENTAL ACTIVITY" Going up the list, "No. 3" is avoiding intentional engagement with sexual and other perceived objects, and "No. 2" is compliance with the Precepts and other fundamental rules of behavior.


Avoiding onions, of course!

The reference is to this part of The Surangama Sutra (in Lu K'an Yu's version).
‘Ananda, all beings live if they eat wholesome food and die if they take poison. In their search for Samàdhi, they should abstain from eating five kinds of pungent roots (i.e. garlic, the three kinds of onions and leeks); if eaten cooked, they are aphrodisiac and if raw, they cause irritability. Although those who eat them may read the twelve divisions of the Mahàyàna canon, they drive away seers (çùi) in the ten directions who abhor the bad odour, and attract hungry ghosts who lick their lips. They are always surrounded by ghosts, and their good fortune will fade away day by day to their own detriment.

Now, all this business about the five kinds of pungent roots, such as onions, garlic, etc., and ghosts is nothing to laugh about derisively.  As it should be clear from the outset, the Surangama is a Sutra intended to speak to people who are caught up in sexual intoxication and sexual addiction and it uses the devise of portraying even Ananda as being susceptible so such intoxication.  It speaks to people saying, “Hey, if even Ananda got caught up in that, then you are not such a bad person after all.” Why would that be necessary? Because people caught in addictions always have a very very low self-esteem and at some level think of themselves as undeserving worthless scum fallen to the gutter of life. With this in mind there is little help to get out of the addictive cycle. So here comes a Buddhist Sutra that recognizes the problem and even puts the Buddha’s cousin and “right-hand man” Ananda into the same boat as them! This is wonderful! The sex addict can say, “If Ananda is also like this then I too have a chance.”

Another very important aspect of this Sutra is the recognition that sex addiction goes along with a general feeling of fearfulness towards life.  This is why the Bodhisattvas in the Surangama talk about the use of mantras to protect against fear and the feelings of fearfulness.  When we have a basic instinct of fear toward life we are most susceptible to addictions. We are afraid of our own feelings and use whatever the addictive channel is to ward off these very palpable feelings of fear and anxiety by getting our next “fix” to make us feel “normal” because we don’t accept the feelings of fear and anxiety as being normal. 

Addiction and fear is what the teaching of the Surangama is centered upon.  If anyone can’t relate to having an addiction and the underlying fear of life that the addiction is based upon, then I advise just passing by the Surangama. But if you have ever had or still have an addiction and feel helpless and fearful of ever kicking the habit, then the Surangama might just be the ticket to cross to the other side of gutter. 

The medicine offered by the Surangama is to untie the knot of ignorance that is manifested in the knots of the six senses by the practice of samadhi to investigate the knot directly.  The Sutra acknowledges that the fears that are being undone by the practice of samadhi will arise as “demons” who want to protect their positions in relation to the knots of the six senses and that there are clans or classes of demons that are associated with each of the Five Skandhas.

So, what about the onions?   This is what is called a “sky hook.” in a children’s fable:. 

Once upon a time there was a little duckling who was afraid of the water because he believed he couldn’t swim.  Nothing his mother or brothers and sisters could say was able to get him to enter the water. He himself was very saddened by his condition and just felt like a misfit or mutant duck who didn’t know how to swim.  His father returned from a long trip and was told about the problem and talked with his son.  He told his son that deep in the woods was a wise old owl who would have the answer to his problem but that it was a perilous journey to get there.

The duckling son rose to the challenge and set off. Having many mishaps and near misses with catastrophe in the guise of foxes and other creatures, the young duckling finally arrived at the ancient tree where the wise old owl lived.  He told the owl his whole story, and the owl said he had just what the duckling needed. The owl told the duck to break off a limb of that very tree that had a branching fork in it near the base. When the limb was then held upside down, the branching sides with one long and the other short was like a hook. The owl called this a sky hook and assured the young duckling that if he used the sky hook to hook into the sky and hold onto it when he went into the water that he would not sink and could assuredly swim.

The duckling was filled with joy and rushed home excitedly. He ran straight into the water holding up his sky hook and miraculously he could swim!  Of course people made fun of him swimming around with his sky hook, but he didn’t care because now he could swim just like all the other ducks.

One day he was lounging on the shore with his sky hook beside him when he heard someone screaming. He rushed to see who it was and it was his favorite girlfriend duckling who was caught in the strong currents and being pulled toward the waterfall to her death.  No other ducks were close enough to help her except for him. Not caring about his own safety he dove into the water to her side and pulled her to the shore on the other side of the river.  After he had done so the other ducks had arrived and began shouting at him and pointing across the river. At first he couldn’t tell what they were shouting about but then it became clear.  In his urgency to save his friend he had left his sky hook on the other side of the river and there it was laying on the shore where he had left it.  After that, of course, he never needed his sky hook again.

People caught up in addiction have a belief at the core of their self-identity that they just can’t change.  It’s no joke to them.  They know from their own experience what it is to live in a world surrounded by ghosts and demons and no amount of mere words will convince them otherwise.  To this end the Buddha teaches the renunciation of the five pungent roots. 

To a person who is bound by their sexual addiction and who believes they can never be free of their sexual lusts, this is the perfect sky hook. If they can learn to live by giving up these tasty spicy plants, then they can learn to live unfettered by sexual lust. Giving up onions, garlic, and the rest with the belief that these plants stimulate sexual lust is a great way to focus the mind so the person can swim without being tormented by sexual lust.  In other words the person can demonstrate to themselves, “If I can give up these five pungent roots, then I can also give up being a slave to my desires.”

It’s very similar to the teaching of the Buddha to the woman who wanted him to bring her dead child back to life. He didn’t just say, “Sorry it can’t be done.” Those words would never be efficacious to a person in her condition of distraction. Instead he told her he would bring the dead child back to life if she brought a mustard seed from a household that had never had a death in the family.  Wasn’t that too a silly and foolish thing to say? Of course it was if said to a rational person who was not distraught with her dear child in her arms.  Similarly, the teaching about abstaining from onions is not for everyone. It is for people who are addicted to sex, and by extrapolation generally to anyone addicted to any of the desires of the senses, to show them a way to embody the discipline needed to begin the practice of samadhi.

It has to be taught as if it were absolute truth because that is what makes a sky hook effective.  If we are told, “I’m just telling you don’t eat onions because it is a trick to get you to focus your body on samadhi,” who would that work on? I would suggest it would be next to useless just as if Buddha told the woman holding her  dead child, “Oh I’m giving you this task because you are so disturbed I have to get your attention.” That would destroy the actual embodiment of the learning. The woman going around from house to house looking for a household not touched by death was embodying her samadhi practice in her single focused attention on her “koan.” Likewise, for people who are addicted to the senses and especial to the addiction of the bodily sense of sexuality, abstention from onions becomes a koan-like focus for our self-image as embodied persons. 

Lasly, for those who might read Master Hsuan Hua’s comments and be surprize by their literalness, I suggest that they should be taken with a good dose of salt. He is speaking as a Dharma Master, not as a Zen Master.  He is not talking to Zen students, but to people who never heard of Zen. He is talking to people who live with the presence of ghosts and demons as a normal part of their everyday lives. 

1 comment:

jundo cohen said...

Hi Greg,

Since I'm the fella you're quoting, I like to post my comment from ZFI here too.

First let me mentioned that I changed this ("the Buddha comes across perhaps as a fool") just right before you posted to "as foolish" ... in keeping with my feeling that we best criticize a person's actions, but not the person. Also, as I said, I do not think that the historical Buddha actually wrote or is speaking in the Sutra, so I do not really think the Buddha foolish ... only the authors of the Sutra.

Thank you for the lovely explanation of the Sutra, and where all the parts fit. When you explain it, it makes very good sense, and I see the subtle intent and hidden purposes behind the words if they are as you describe them.

And that is the problem.

It requires that the words mean what you say they really are trying to say, and not what they seem to more obviously say on their face.

Is there some small possibility that, like the rewriting of the Xemu myth, we can take any story no matter how strained ... and reinterpret it into something which makes sense, and are doing so here?


Now, I am not saying that you are doing that ... and I am not saying that your interpretation is an imposition on what the words actually seem to say. I am merely asking if there is a possibility that we are trying to "make it make sense" by imposing such interpretations ... such as of "hooks" for addicts and such. It may truly be what the authors intended (instead of what the words and story seems to be on its face), or it may be your imposing an interpretation to make the "not so sensible" to the 21st century mind "make more sense".

If you and others like you are doing the latter (like in the example of changing the Xemu myth to "make more sense" in the example above), there is no shame or problem in doing so. However, we should be honest that perhaps we are doing so.

Gassho, Jundo