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The Mayahana Shurangama Sutra Explained

The Mayahana Shurangama Sutra Explained

According to the Mahāyāna-tradition, the Buddha has told the Shūraṅgama Sutta especially for Ananda, who at that time already was a Sotāpanna (a person who achieved steam entry).

The Shūraṅgama Sutta is based on the Perfection of Wisdom Sutta in Eight Thousand Lines (Ashtasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sutta) en de Perfection of Wisdom Sutta in Twentyfive Thousand Lines (Pañcaviṃsatisāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sutta).

First some background information. The following text can be slightly intimidating, it might require reading it over a few times. Please do so and if needed, take some time to let it all sink in. In the Mahāyāna-tradition is is stated that reality can not be described in terms of existence of non-existence. Reality is empty, radiant and pure, and supersedes existence since all existence is relative and dependent. Reality however also superseded non-existence because, despite its emptiness and transience, it still appears to us and is being experienced. It therefore can not be described in terms of existence or non-existence.

There is no need for confusion. In essence, this merely restates what is mentioned in the Heart-Sutta, as: “Emptiness is form and form is emptiness”. Reality is not only empty, it also is form as well as radiant and clear, with the potential to appear. The aspect of radiance – this potential inherent in the true nature of things –  manifests itself to the impure, tormented mind as samsāra, but at the same time it manifests itself to the purified mind as Nibbāna (Nirvana), the unconditioned. Hence its emptiness and radiance, the characteristics coming from the Mahāyāna-research into the subject-object experience.

The purpose of the Buddha’s teachings is to liberate all conscious being from samsāra, the endless circle of reincarnation. The essence is that all human suffering comes from attachment and clinging (taṇhā-upādāna), which in turn comes from our mind (nāma) which clings to objects.

In this model, ‘object’ refers to all objects within our conciousness (viññāṇa), encompassing both forms and appearances in the external world as we percieve them via our senses and our inner world with our thoughts, ideas etc. Clinging means that you get attached via desire. The mind that is attached to objects reached the misconception that these objects also have an actual reality (whereas in reality they are empty). Attachment therefore causes an error prone judgement. Resulting in ignorance, desire, hate and suffering.

As a result of this, many of our experiences in life are based on false assumptions, that in fact are in conflict with reality. The Buddha has taught several methods to reverse the process of clinging to objects and to see actual reality using one-pointed concentration. This is a key concept related to vipassanā-meditation. One-pointed concentration means that you learn to concentrate your mental energies to a level of absorption, a very high level of concentration, that allows you to perceive the rise and fall of things directly.

With this in the back of our mind, we can look at the Shūraṅgama Sutta. I will first recall the relevant passages from the sutta and will give explanation afterwards.

The sutta tells the story of Kuan-yin, who in his own way tried to fathom reality by using the sound of the sea. So he chooses the ear-awareness as an entrance by listening to the sea.

“I. In the beginning I concentrated on the ear-consciousness and allowed the sounds that made contact with the ear to slip away, so sound objects diminished and disappeared. Because the ear contact and sound objects had no effect, the consciousness remained in a state of clarity and the phenomena of movement and silence no longer occurred.

II. Meditative absorption gradually deepened and eventually the distinction between consciousness and the objects of consciousness (both object and subject) disappeared – they disappeared together in the void. Although there was no sound consciousness, the meditative absorption continued to deepen. Then consciousness and all the objects of consciousness became empty.

III. Awareness of emptiness expanded without limits; then emptiness and that which is empty ceased to exist. Because all appearing and dissolving had stopped, equanimity became manifest. Suddenly, in transcending the secular and the non-worldly, an all-encompassing enlightenment appeared in all ten directions”.

Kuan-yin begins his teaching by saying, “In the beginning I concentrated on the ear-awareness”. It is clear that the method of Kuan-yin is based on the process of hearing. However, there must be a clear understanding of the following five terms:

  1. I (the ‘self’)
  2. the natural ability to hear
  3. ear-awareness
  4. hearing
  5. sound

It is important to indicate that Kuan-yin did not differ from any of us in this first phase. He had a strong sense of a ‘self’, a strong ‘I’. He had the innate ability through a good ear and ear consciousness, and he heard sounds, the sound of the tide as mentioned above. We also possess these abilities and share the illusions that go with them. This is important to establish because we will see that Kuan-yin made progress from his ordinary consciousness to destroy his deceptive attachments one by one.

As we reflect further on these five terms, we realize that these five terms correspond to five degrees of deceptive attachment. The coarsest and the weakest is sound and the subtlest and the strongest is “I”. The latter, of course, is the most difficult concept to eradicate. Usually we tend to confuse sound, hearing, ear-awareness and the ability to hear. However, in reality there are important fundamental differences and Kuan-yin began his development of realization through these differences.

As indicated, Kuan-yin practiced meditation using the sound of the sea. Every morning when he woke up and everything around him was silent, he could hear the sound of the tide coming in from afar, breaking the silence. After a while the sound of the tide retreated and he could hear how silence was restored. Then the sound of the tide came back and the silence was gone again. Kuan-yin studied the coming and going of the sound of the tide and discovered that there were two objects. There was the sound of the tide and there was the silence. They shut each other out because he couldn’t hear them at the same time. When the sound of the tide appeared, the silence disappeared. Nevertheless, he discovered that they also had something in common: both appeared and both disappeared – so they were both transient.

But this did not apply to his ability to hear. It was always there. It was his ability to hear that enabled him to hear the sound of the incoming tide, but this did not go away when the tide retreated, because he then heard the silence. If things were different, and his ability to hear would have disappeared at the same time as the tide, not only would he not have heard the silence, but he would not have heard the next tide. So, although the sound of the tide came and went, the ability to hear did not seem to be subject to these changes. It is important to realize that as sound comes and goes, appears and disappears, we usually follow the transient pattern of rising and falling. Because we grasp it as if it were completely real, we develop deceptive attachment.

By listening to the sound of the rising and falling of the tide, he realized that sound is neither permanent nor substantial, but rises and disappears every moment within the field created by the innate ability to hear. Nevertheless, we become attached to sounds and the result is illusion. By allowing the sounds that touched his ear to slip away from it, and thus become detached from the object sound, Kuan-yin was able to eliminate this illusion.

The sentence: “allowed the sounds that made contact with the ear to slip off, and thus sound objects decreased and disappeared” contains two aspects that require further study.

First, we will examine the first part “allowed the sounds that made contact with the ear to slip off“. Here reference is made to “contact” (phassa), a technical term which can be found as the sixth link of dependent appearance (paṭiccasamuppāda). It describes the contact between a sensory organ and its object in the outside world. The “phassa” we consider here is that of the ear, and the contact in this case is the appearance of the perception of sound. The meaning of ‘allowing sound to slip’ is not grasping it, not holding on to it, but letting it go. This means that you do not hold on to the sensation but let the flow of consciousness continue freely even after contact has been made with the subject. To be precise, ‘slipping’ means not clinging to any sound heard by the ear that is in contact with the outside world. You have to allow every sound to pass, just like water flowing away.

However, it is easy to say ‘allow the sound to slip’, but mastering this skill is quite a feat, because it involves swimming against the natural flow. The difficulty lies in the fact that we have a fixed habit of picking up separate sounds, sticking them together to make words and sentences and then assign meaning to them. From this process, deceptive attachment, turbulent emotions and suffering arise.

Arriving at this point, you might argue that it is simply not possible to let the sounds slip away from you without holding on to them. For it seems as if consciousness is so attuned that it involuntarily ties itself to the sounds. When we think like this, it’s not quite right. Because if we carefully consider what happens when we are immersed in deep one-pointed concentration, we see that letting sounds slip away is not at all impossible. Apart from meditation, even in normal circumstances people are used to ‘filtering out’ external sounds. Take the case of a person walking in a park who is engaged in an intense discussion with another person. They won’t hear the sounds of cars passing by, children shouting at each other, dogs barking or the sound of the ice cream truck passing by. It’s important to realize that cultivating the practice of “letting the sounds slip away from you” can lead to deep insights.

Back to Kuan-yin, where we then need to pay attention to the word “disappeared” in the sense “and that’s how sound objects diminished and disappeared”. This refers to the elimination of any consciousness related to the object. That is, the letting go of the object, the letting go of the sound object, and all other objects that appear in connection with the sound object. As a result, the sound objects diminish in intensity and disappear.

Kuan-yin continues with ‘Because the ear contact and sound objects had no effect, the consciousness remained in a state of clarity and the phenomena of movement and silence no longer occurred‘.

These words indicate that through incessant training to make the sounds slip and the objects disappear, a state is slowly reached in which the innate ability to hear is released from the sound object and the ear’s contact with the outside world. At this point, the ability to hear becomes silent and consciousness becomes very clear. Consciousness is therefore not apathetic but very lucid. When this occurs, you feel neither the experience of movement, because sound is the result of movement or vibration, nor do you feel the experience of silence, because silence is perceived in relation to movement. At this point, samādhi (concentration) or jhāna is attained. This stage may therefore be called the initial stage of meditative absorption. The deceptive attachment to sound and to hearing have both been removed. In practical terms, this means that at this stage we will experience the happiness and freedom that comes with it. And at this point in the teaching of the Buddha, ‘stopping to hold on to objects’ has been achieved. Here there is a clear similarity to the jhāna experiences of the Theravāda tradition as found in the Ānāpānasati Sutta.

The next step is to contemplate reality with this one-pointed consciousness. Kuan-yin made great efforts and made great progress in his practice, in which his samādhi deepened every day. So he said, “Meditative absorption gradually deepened”.

Kuan-yin continued, “and eventually the distinction between consciousness and the objects of consciousness disappeared”. While Kuan-yin remained in meditative absorption, he continued to explore the difference between the concept of the ‘I’ hearing and the object of hearing, because at the level he had reached so far, both the ear-consciousness and the ability to hear were still present. In this case, the word ‘ear consciousness’ is used to denote the ‘I’ that hears or has the ability to hear. The object of the ear consciousness is sound. In the final analysis there is no distinction between the two. Therefore, the individual who was listening, and his object, stopped completely. In other words, they melted together. At that moment, because the concept of hearing and the ability to listen were no longer present, his consciousness was filled with freedom and pure happiness. All suffering was destroyed.

However, Kuan-yin did not stop meditating, but continued his one-pointed contemplation and determined, “The consciousness and the object of consciousness became empty. The awareness of emptiness expanded without limits”. This is a higher level of meditative absorption where there is nothing left but consciousness. But who is the one who is aware? It is the ‘I’. So as long as there is consciousness, the “I” remains present.

Kuan-yin continued his research to find the difference between the “I” that is sensed and the object of consciousness. Finally, he came to the conclusion that there is no difference between the two, because they are both without self, and not to comprehend empty. That’s why he said, “that he realized that consciousness of this state and this state itself were empty”.

In this state of meditative absorption, he no longer felt the presence of his physical body, and was freed from the pain of birth and death. The feeling of emptiness was so penetrating that it felt as if the outer limits of the three dwelling places had been reached and the infinite past and future. It was everywhere and it had no time or spatial limits. That’s why Kuan-yin described the state he had reached as borderless.

This level of meditative absorption was higher than the previous one, but even at this stage a sense of emptiness remained. Who was it who experienced the feeling of emptiness when the emptiness was reached? Although he had lost the feeling of a physical ‘I’, there was still a vague feeling of an ‘I’ present in his consciousness. In other words, there were still remnants of deceptive attachment. This phase could easily be confused with the highest degree that could be achieved, but one important step still had to be taken. Therefore, instead of stopping here, he took one more step and redoubled his efforts to investigate the difference between the ‘I’ that was empty and the emptiness itself, which was his object. Finally, he came to the conclusion that there was no difference between the two, but that even the experience of emptiness did not exist. That is why Kuan-yin said: “then emptiness and that which is empty ceased to exist”. The emptiness and its object had both been released and thus destroyed.

Now everything that is subject to appearance and decay, everything that could appear and then disappear, such as thoughts, feelings, mental reflections, hearing, consciousness, emptiness and ego, had completely stopped. Not even an ounce of deceptive attachment was still present. Darkness had been dispelled and nothing remained, the state of Nibbāna (Nirwana) had been attained.

Advanced vipassanā-meditation practitioners might now realize that Kuan-yin was someone who had reached his path to Enlightenment meditating on his own without the help of a supreme enlightened Buddha. His parami’s had matured and self enlightenment had therefore become possible. As a reader, you might further realize that the techniques he used do not differ in any way from those of the Theravāda tradition with the exception that the methodology is expressed in simpler language.

If, after reading this sutta, you still have questions, do not hesitate to ask them!

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