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A Brief Introduction on the Essence of Shurangama Sutra

Rescuing Ananda: The Conceptual Framework and Instructions for Practice in

therangama Sutra By David Rounds
1. General Characteristics of the ra gama 2. The Conceptual Framework of the
Discourse 3. Instructions in Practice 4. Guidelines for Advancement 5.
ConclusionFootnotes About Author: David Rounds
1. General Characteristics of the ragama
Of the worlds religious masterpieces, the Buddhas discourse known the ragamaSutra[1] is
perhaps the least familiar to Western readers. Unlike such discourses as theLotus Sutra, the Heart
Sutra, and the Diamond Sutra, which survive in their original Sanskrit versions, and which have been
studied in the West for well over a century, the ragama is no longer extant in an Indic original,
and the text is preserved only in an eighth-century translation into Chinese. The text as we have it,
consisting of some 63,000 characters in ten rolls, is tersely expressed, densely argued, and subtly
allusive, resorting often to rare characters and to transliterations of Sanskrit terms, such that even
devout and erudite Chinese readers are not infrequently puzzled as to the meaning. It is perhaps not
surprising, then, that there have been few attempts at translation of this text into the European
Buddhists in the Chinese tradition, however, have long considered the ragama to be of central
importance. The Sutra is valued, first, for a unified sequence of teachings that elucidate a series of
fundamental religious questions. The text first develops a philosophy of mind and of perception, and
then bases on that foundation a series of instructions in spiritual practice, in particular in the deep
mental absorption known as samdhi. To this end the sutra offers in great detail a precise prescription
for the systematic withdrawal of the sense-faculties from engagement with the physical world. Such a
disengagement, when carried out correctly, can result in lasting illumination -- a teaching that is
central to Buddhism and that appears in some form in the esoteric traditions of all the other great
The philosophical density of the ragama discourse is lightened by the manner of its general
presentation. The first two thirds of the Sutra consist of a dramatic dialogue between the Buddha and
his young cousin and attendant nanda. Other interlocutors intervene at critical moments, each
speaking in a distinct voice as they give testimony to their experience with spiritual practice, or as
they pose a question that nanda does not yet have the spiritual depth to ask. But most of the
philosophical argument, and the spiritual guidance that follows it, are conveyed to the reader through
the drama of nandas personal story. During the long hours of his conversation with the Buddha, we
see the young monk seesaw between impertinence and remorse, between astonishment and gratitude,
between bewilderment and enlightened understanding. His plucky earnestness adds to the discourse
the unexpected element of charm. Despite the focus on nanda, however, his story is explicitly
presented merely as an example; it is itself a parable. From the beginning, the Buddha makes it clear
that his instructions are meant not only for nanda but for beings of the future that is, for us.
Accordingly, nandas gradual and successful struggle to understand and to awaken brings to
dramatic life the struggle that can still be expected by anyone who sets foot on a spiritual path.
To the Western reader, the ragamas format suggests a similarity to the dialogues of Plato. But
Platos manner of uncovering truth through Socrates sly cross-examinations of his hapless
interlocutors is in fact very different from the pattern we encounter in theragama. The Buddha
and nanda engage for much of the Sutra in formal debate, according to the rules of what is now
called Buddhist logic. In the monastic universities of classical India, Buddhist monks were trained in
logical debate in order to sharpen their minds and also to win over adherents from other schools and
sects. To some extent it was an intellectual sport. Buddhist debate was transmitted to Tibet, where

young monks are still trained in it. In China it was championed by the great seventh-century
translator Xuan Zang, who brought back several texts on logic from India.[4]
Briefly, Buddhist logic (Skt. hetu-vidy; Ch. yin ming , literally, the clarification of causes),
originally followed five steps:
1. A proposition that one is undertaking to prove;
2. The reason that the proposition is claimed to be true;
3. One or more instances of the proposition at work in ordinary experience;
4. Application of the instances to the proposition;
5. Conclusion, usually by restatement of the proposition, now demonstrated.[5]
These five were later reduced to three, in effect leaving out the last two of the five:
1. Thesis
2. Reason
3. Examples
a) positive instance
b) negative instance [6]
The Buddha uses elements of both these procedures in the ragama.
It was permissible, when using the five-step sequence, to omit the first step, and the Buddha does so
often in the Sutra. He merely hints where he is headed by raising an issue in terms of a question. The
result is that the last two of the five steps the application of the examples and the conclusion
frequently come to nanda and the others in the Buddhas audience as a surprise, which may be
accompanied by astonishment, confusion, or delight in finally understanding. Here is a summary of
one of many instances of the clarification of causes in the ragama:
1. Proposition: it is the mind, not the eyes, that see (in the text this step is implicit rather than stated);
2. Reason: our visual awareness is active even if nothing is being seen.;
3. Instance found in ordinary life: In the Buddhas words, If you asked a blind man on the street,
Do you see anything? he would no doubt answer, All I see is darkness.
4. Application of the instance: Reflect upon what that might mean. Although the blind man sees only
darkness, his visual awareness is intact.
5. Conclusion: The eyes themselves simply reveal visible objects; it is the mind that sees, not the
This sequence comes early in the discussion, and Buddha does not at this point explain its
Later he will point out that since seeing is actually a function of the mind, not the eyes, our visual
awareness is fundamentally independent of the presence of visible objects. Therefore it must be
possible to withdraw our visual awareness from the grip of visual objects and the same must be
possible for all the other senses as well. Awareness, thus freed, may become purified, and may
eventually be transmuted into illumination.
One aspect of Buddhist logic in particular lends to the ragama much of its distinctive style. This
is the reliance on positive and negative instances as proofs of a thesis. While the positive instances,
like the encounter with the blind man in the street, serve to prove an assertion by showing how it is at
work in daily life, the negative instances are given as proof that any assertion contrary to one being
defended would result in absurdities. Most important here is that the rules of logic required that the
instances be drawn not from doctrine or theory, which ones opponent in debate might find
unpersuasive, but rather from the experiences of ordinary life -- experiences which an opponent could
not plausibly discount. It is to this requirement that we owe many of the glimpses that the Sutra gives
us into the daily routines of the monastic community and of the citizens of the nearby city of rvast.
[7] We read of the monks seated with their alms-bowls, busy rolling up their food into balls to be

eaten with the fingers, in the Indian manner. We hear of householders digging wells for new
dwellings and local healers holding up bowls to the full moon to collect dew that they will mix inito
their herbal potions. We meet a monk who has spent his life repairing potholes in the public roads and
a king who despairs because he is growing old. However abstract or subtle the discourse may
frequently seem, then, it is deeply colored with a sense of time and place, with the sights and sounds
and people of Northern India in its early classical era. This underlying Indian tint keeps seeping up
into the Chinese surface of the translated text -- reminding the reader that the nearby river, often
invoked in the flow of argument, is not the Yangzi but the Ganges.
Considered as a whole, the entire edifice of the Buddhas discourse is a masterwork in the
architecture of logical argumentation. Each level of theory established by the Buddha elegantly
supports the next level.
The entire discourse is girded together by cross-references, parallelisms, reiterations of previous
assertions, and anticipatory summaries of what is to come. The present essay is a preliminary attempt
to read the plans of this exemplary scriptural edifice.
Many generations of Chinese readers, Buddhist and otherwise, have admired and esteemed one
further aspect the ragama Sutra, namely, the virtuosic literary elegance of the translation itself.
Except for a few verses, the entire Chinese text unrolls in a sequence of four-character phrases, which
are in effect a metered prose. This four-character pattern imbues the discourse with a vigorous and
stately majesty. For all these reasons, then, in China the ragama Sutra has for many centuries
been the subject of written commentaries by illustrious monastic scholars,[8] a topic for public
lectures and spoken exegeses, and the object of devout private study, recitation, and memorization.
It should be noted, before proceeding further, that the authenticity of the ragama has been
challenged by some modern scholars, who have held that, since no Indic original is extant, the text is
no translation at all, but rather an original composition in the Chinese.[9]The timing of the translation
has been questioned, and textual anomalies that might suggest the interpolation of purely Chinese
cultural elements have been identified. There are strong reasons to believe, however, that the original
text can only be Indian. It is true, for example, that during Buddhisms earliest centuries in China,
spurious or corrupted Buddhist texts were circulated; but by the early eighth century, when
the ragama translation appeared,[10]Chinese monastic scholars had become sufficiently vigilant
to denounce inauthentic texts.[11] Further, while some details in the text do seem to arise from a
Chinese context, these could merely represent choices made by the translators to substitute Chinese
equivalents or analogues for unfamiliar Indian elements that were present in the original.[12] There
are, besides, a least an equal number of details that point to an Indian substratum beneath the Chinese
The most persuasive internal trace of a South Asian original, however, is the presence of two
indisputably Indian elements that play leading roles in the text. One of these, already mentioned here,
is the clarification of causes in Indian Buddhist logic. The other is the ragama Mantra, which
the Chinese text leaves untranslated, and which lies at the heart of the Sutras instructions for spiritual
practice. Last, and most important of all in this dispute as to the Sutras authenticity, is the fact that
the ragama has been widely accepted in China as canonical for well over a thousand years. Such
acceptance reflects the view that a religious texts authenticity must be measured by its effectiveness
as a guide to spiritual and moral practice. From this orthopraxic point of view, the ragama may
be correctly deemed to be authoritative simply because generations of advanced practitioners have
revered it, have followed its instructions, and have explained it to others as a reliable prescription for
moral purification and spiritual advancement, even as far as enlightenment.[14] To
the ragamas many admirers, then, the history of the text is, in the end, of no great importance,
and the dispute surrounding its origin is irrelevant.[15]

2. The Conceptual Framework of the Discourse

As the Sutra opens, nanda, alone on the road, falls under a spell that is recited by a courtesan, and
he is on the brink of breaking his vow of celibacy. The Buddha senses from a distance his young
cousins distress, and, having made a transfiguration of a Buddha appear above his head, he recites
through this transfiguration a mantra[16] -- the ragama Mantra -- which defeats the courtesans
spell. The Buddha then sends a senior member of his assembly, the Bodhisattva Majur, who in the
Mahayana tradition embodies wisdom, to rescue nanda and to bring both monk and courtesan
before the Buddha. Amidst the assembly of monks and a throng of lay adherents, nanda now finds
himself face to face with his teacher. Deeply mortified, he requests instruction so that he can avoid
further error. This is the request for
Dharma with which most of the Buddhas discourses begin.
In his answer, the Buddha makes clear that nandas error was not entirely that he permitted sexual
desire almost to overwhelm his monastic resolve. Equally in error was his laxity in his practice of
mental concentration, a laxity that left him vulnerable to enticement by the courtesans spell. What
nanda lacked was samdhi, a concentration firm enough to resist disturbance and intrusion. The
Buddha proposes, then, to answer nandas request for instruction by teaching him how to perfect his
samdhi. The Sutra says,
Then the World-Honored One, before the great assembly, extended his golden-hued arm, [comforted
nanda by] passing his hand over the crown of nanda's head, and said to nanda and to all
gathered there, "There is a samdhi called 'The Great and Royal ragama that is Proclaimed from
Above the Buddhas Head and is the Perfection of the Myriad Practices.' It is a wondrous and
magnificent Path, the unique portal through which the Buddhas in all ten directions have passed in
order to transcend the conditioned world.[17]
The Buddha then launches a dialogue which continues on throughout most of the Sutra. He begins by
asking nanda to consider where his mind is located. nanda offers the evident answer that his mind
is to be found in his body. The Buddha, however, with his superior command of logic, quickly
disposes of this widely held supposition, and of six more possibilities that nanda offers. The young
monk is left with the bewildering conclusion that his mind is neither inside his body, nor outside it,
nor somewhere between, nor anywhere else. The Buddha then compounds his cousins confusion by
stating that there are fundamentally two kinds of mind first, the ordinary quotidian mind of which
we are aware and which is entangled, lifetime after lifetime, in the snare of illusory perceptions and
random thoughts; and, second, the everlasting true mind, which is our real nature, and which is the
state of the Buddha.
nanda, what are the two fundamentals? The first is the mind that is the basis of death and rebirth
and that has continued for the entirety of time, which has no beginning. This mind is dependent on
perceived objects, and it is this that you and all beings make use of and that each of you consider to
be your own nature.
The second fundamental is enlightenment, which has no beginning; it is the original and pure
essence of nirvana. It is the original understanding, the real nature of consciousness. All conditioned
phenomena arise from it, and yet it is among those phenomena that beings lose track of it. They have
lost track of this fundamental understanding, though it is active in them all day long, and because
they remain unaware of it, they make the mistake of entering the various destinies.
nanda will at first have none of this. Here he speaks for all who pride themselves, as he does, on
their discursive intelligence. When the Buddha, seeing nandas skepticism, asks him what he takes
to be his mind, nanda answers,
The [Buddha] has just now been asking me about my minds location, and my mind is what I have
been using to determine where it might be. My mind is that which has the capability of making such

The Buddha exclaimed, "nanda! That is not your mind!"

nanda protests:
If this activity of comprehension is not the mind, then I have no mind, and I am the same as a clod
of earth or a piece of wood.
The Buddha reassures his cousin that there is indeed another kind of awareness. It is the true mind
that original and pure essence of Nirvana just mentioned. It is given a number of other designations
in this discourse, among them the Buddha-nature, the Matrix of the Thus-Come One (that is, of the
Buddha), and the Suchness of Reality. This ultimate reality is also the enlightened mind inherent in
all beings. However, it has remained outside of nandas calculations. He has simply not been aware
that he is endowed with it, because he is immersed in the disordered activities of his mundane
thoughts and is distracted by his unrelenting interactions with the sense-data that he takes to be the
world. Absorbed in his own drama, he cannot enter samdhi, much less proceed through samdhi to
awakening. In this he stands in for us.
Since nanda is someone who proudly identifies himself with his ability to think, he is at a
disadvantage in his search to awaken to his true mind. One cannot think ones way into
enlightenment, because the awakened mind is beyond thought. Put otherwise, what is most worth
understanding is beyond conception; what most needs describing cannot be described. Nevertheless,
the Buddha in the ragama discourse is willing to take exception to this generally recognized
conundrum. Since words are what nanda trusts and understands, and since thinking is what nanda
relies on, the Buddha is willing to make use of words and thought to wake his cousin up. The Buddha
concludes this first section of
the Sutra with this promise:
I now will raise for all of you a great banner of Dharma, so that all beings throughout all ten
directions can gain access to what is wondrous, subtle, and hidden: the pure mind that understands.
The Buddha proceeds by bringing to our attention to the simple fact that we are aware. Taking visual
awareness as the paradigm, he examines awareness through a series of illustrative vignettes, several
of them involving other speakers. He demonstrates that, while things move in the field of our visual
awareness, our awareness itself remains still. The body ages, but our awareness endures. What lies
within our field of awareness may be in daylight or in darkness, may be obscured or clear, but our
awareness itself is unchanged, no matter what conditions appear within its scope. Our field of visual
awareness encompasses visible objects but is not itself an object; it lacks both shape and extension.
Still, it cannot be said to be clearly distinct from the things which are in it, at the same time that it is
cannot be said to be identical to them. Our visual awareness is active even amidst total darkness, as
the Buddha shows with the already cited example of the blind man who is nevertheless aware of the
darkness around him.
All this applies not only to visual awareness but also to the five other kinds of awareness: our
awareness of sounds, of smells, of tastes, of tangible objects, and of the thoughts in our minds. A
plenitude of sense-objects exists within each of these fields of awareness, but the awareness itself is
independent of them. As the Buddha says later, The essential capacity to hear is never absent, no
matter whether there is sound or silence.
Gradually during this investigation, the Buddha gives hints that our capacity for awareness is more
central than we may have supposed. Having shown nanda that his visual awareness is independent
of the phenomena of which it is aware, the Buddha concludes that this awareness must be at least an
aspect of that true mind that nanda has lost track of. What is not affected by conditions must be
what you fundamentally are. If that is not you, what is? For one thing, as he gently reassures the
aging King Prasenajit, who is frightened at the prospect of his mortality, since our visual awareness is
independent of conditions, it must belong to what survives the traumas of death and rebirth.

nanda, surrendering to the force of the Buddhas logic, grants, My awareness is indeed my
wondrous true nature. But, of course, it is not that simple. It is the essential nature of awareness that
is the enlightened mind, not our ordinary awareness that we experience day after day. This ordinary
awareness has been distorted; it is diseased. The Buddha compares us to a man who sees circles of
color around a lamp because he suffers from a disease of the eyes. Yet it is possible for the mans
eye-disease to be corrected, so that he can see clearly, and it is possible for our distorted awareness to
be purified, so that we see the world as it really is.
It is probably worth noting at this point that the radical skepticism expressed in this ancient document
in modern times, no longer radical at all. The speculations of David Hume and Immanuel Kant not
to mention the invention of the microscope and telescope and every other device that sees and hears
better than we do have long made it clear that the world we see with the naked eye and hear with
the unaided ear is not the world as it really is. We do not hear the high and low frequencies and do not
see beyond the visual spectrum. Our visual and aural fields are distorted by the limitations to our
visual and aural awareness. These limits are not merely those of scope, but of value and of
perspective. As the Buddha will explain to nanda later on in the ragama discourse, we also
allow ourselves to be fooled in that we interpret everything we perceive as good, bad, or indifferent,
assigning it a value measured by what it will mean to us. In this way, we distort the world by
responding to it with desire or revulsion. Further, we divide the contents of our experience into what
is us and what is not us what is self and what is other. Everything is colored by the perspective of
self, just as the lamp is distorted by the eye-disease of the viewer in the Buddhas analogy
What, then, is this enlightened mind that is the purified essence of our awareness, and what might it
mean to purify it? To prepare nanda for an answer to these questions, the Buddha turns next to one
of the doctrines that is most distinctive to Buddhism the doctrine of emptiness. All the things that
we perceive in this world are impermanent, and, furthermore, all things are merely concatenations of
ingredients and circumstances. They exist, but they have no reality that is their own. They are
constructs; ontologically they are empty. Our very selves are merely mental constructs, which as
modern developmental psychology confirms we put together as children in order to navigate among
our experiences. In the ragama Sutra, the Buddha approaches this doctrine through our senseapparatus. In a series of arguments that follow the pattern of the clarification of causes, he briefly
examines in turn our six senses (eyes, ears, nose, tongue, skin, and mind), then the six kinds of senseobjects (visual objects, sounds, smells, tastes, tactile objects, and thoughts that is, objects of mind);
also the six kinds of sense-consciousnesses that arise when the sense-faculties encounter senseobjects (that is, seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching, and awareness of the mental contents);
and finally the elemental qualities that characterize the world of sense-objects (fire, or heat; earth, or
solidity; water, or liquidity; wind, or movement; space; living beings ordinary sense-awareness; and
beings consciousness). All these, the Buddha says, are illusory and unreal. They do not exist as
independent natures with their own being. Thus the universe of objects that we perceive is, in this
sense, empty.
And yet, at the same time that mind and world are empty, in that they are unreal and have no
independent being, one cannot say that they do not exist. The universe is empty, but this emptiness is
not the same thing as a void. It is not only that the universe teems with all manner of sentient beings
and insentient things, contingent and impermanent thought they may be. It is also that, at a more
profound level, this empty universe, and all beings in it, are suffused with an ultimate reality. In
the ragama Sutra and elsewhere, the Buddha calls this ultimate reality the Matrix of the ThusCome One in Sanskrit, the Tathgata-gharba, literally, the womb of the Buddha. It is from this
Matrix that the world and the mind come forth.[18]

Enlightenment, then, brings not only an awakening of the fundamental Buddha-nature within ones
own mind that original true mind which we have forgotten. It brings also an apprehension of
ultimate reality, because these twothe true mind and the reality of the universe otherwise named
the Buddha-nature and the Matrix of the Thus-Come One are one and the same. Thus in
the ragama, numerous terms of praise apply equally to the true mind and to the reality of the
universe: wondrous ( miao), original ( yuan,) fundamental ( ben), true ( zhen), genuine (
shi), enlightened ( jie), illuminative understanding ( ming), luminous ( guang), unchanging (
chang), pure ( qing jing), the suchness of reality ( zhen ru); and -- most important to
the ragama discourse -- the enlightened nature of our awareness ( jian xing). The Buddha
tells nanda:
In the Matrix of the Thus-Come One, the nature of your visual awareness is your enlightened
understanding, and the essence of enlightenment is your awareness that understands. Fundamentally
pure, it extends throughout the Dharma Realm. The extent to which beings are aware of its real
nature depends on the capacities of their minds. Just as the awareness of one sense-faculty, the eye,
extends throughout the Dharma Realm, so also do the wondrous, resplendent powers of hearing,
smelling, tasting, tactile awareness, and mental awareness extend throughout the Dharma Realm.
They fill up the entirety of empty space. [19]
How, then, is it that we have lost sight of our origins in this Matrix, which is it say, how is that we
have forgotten our true minds? Another of the Buddhas senior disciples, Prn a-maitryani-putra,
now rises to ask this question.
World-Honored One, if in fact the skandhas,[20] as well as the twelve sites, which consist of the
sense-faculties and their objects, and also the eighteen capacities [for perception] and the rest, are
all the Matrix of the Thus-Come One, which is itself fundamentally pure, then how is it that the
mountains, the rivers, the earth, and everything else in the world of perceived objects -- all
conditioned phenomena suddenly come into being?
The Buddhas answer focuses on one essential event: the separation of the perceiver from the
perceived, of the self from the other. He describes it as adding an understanding to an already existing
Although nothing need be added to enlightenment, once an understanding is added, that
understanding must understand something. Once the category of something understood is
mistakenly established, the category that which understands is mistakenly established as well.
As a result, the original, enlightened awareness, which had been a single unity, divides into six sensefaculties and their six objects. What is now a perceived universe is further divided into the desirable,
the undesirable, and the neutral, and as a result there is disgust and desire. Karma is now in play, and
with it emerge the various levels of being and the cycle of death and rebirth.
This account, summarized here, of the separation of ultimate reality into subject and object is all the
Buddha is willing to offer as the original impetus for the coming into being of mind and world. He
gives us no Creation myth and imagines no Creator. If the primordial separation into subject and
object is our fall, it is a psychological one, a rift at the foundation of consciousness, not a moral fall.
There is no original sin; there is only the original loss.
While the Buddha is willing to explain how this loss comes about, he does not offer a similar
explanation as to why it comes about. Prn a-maitryani-putra requests that the Buddha shed light on
this mystery:
I venture to ask the Tathgata why all beings are deluded.
The Buddha replies with a parable. In nearby rvast, a neighborhood idiot named Yajadatta thinks
that the head he sees in the mirror one morning is not his own. In a panic he concludes that the head
he does see in the mirror belongs to a ghost. He runs madly out into the street. The Buddha asks
Prn a:

What do you think? What caused this man to run madly about for no good reason?
Prn a replied, He was clearly insane. That and nothing else was the cause.
The Buddha said, Wondrous enlightenment is perfect understanding, a wondrous understanding
that is fundamentally perfect. How then could it be the basis of the delusions we have been
discussing? This, then, is the cause of delusion: it arises from delusion. Merely realize that your
delusion has no ultimate basis, and the basis of your delusion will disappear The same may be
said even more emphatically of Yajadatta. What he experienced that day in the city had no basis and
so was fundamentally unreal. Was there any reason for him to have become afraid that he had lost
his head and to have rushed madly about?...The same is true of delusion. How could it be based in
There can be no reason for our slipping from enlightenment into delusion. First, it contradicts logic to
suppose that perfect understanding could be the cause of delusion; and, second, delusion would not
be delusion if it had a rational basis. And that is all the Buddha will give us here. The Sutra does not
offer an elaborate account of cosmological origin. The Buddhist view is that the universe is created
not by a deity but by karma. Unlike the Western religions, Buddhism does not see the universe in
terms of a finite and linear narrative guided by the purposes of an ultimate purposer. The impetus of
the Buddhas ministry was simply the plain fact that we are caught up in an unsatisfactory existence,
and he offers nothing more nor less than a way out. Thus in the ragama, the Buddha concludes
his parable of Yajadatta with a prescription:
All that is needed is for you not to follow after the distinctions you make concerning the world,
beings, and retribution in accord with karma.
3. Instructions in Practice
Not to follow: this prescription to declare our independence from sense-objects leads us back to the
occasion for the Sutra itself. nandas lack of samdhi left him vulnerable to disaster because he
permitted his hearing to take in the courtesans spell. He shouldnt have been listening to the spell.
He should have been focusing his hearing inward. The ragamadiscourse has now reached its
second stage. The Buddha has erected a conceptual framework, and he is ready to clothe the
framework with instructions for practice. nanda does not immediately perceive this, and he now
speaks up to challenge the Buddhas argument that no cause can be ascribed to the primordial
division between self and other. Briefly the
Buddha revisits the parable of the foolish Yajadatta, and then he gives nanda a sound scolding:
Despite your many eons of accumulated learning, you were not able to escape your difficulty with
the young Matanga woman [the courtesan]. Why did you need me to recite the ra gama Mantra
for you? In the young Matanga woman the fires of lust have been extinguished, and instantly she has
become a Sage who must return only once.[21]
In other words, the courtesan has surpassed nanda in her level of enlightenment. Listening to the
ragama discourse has lifted her quickly to the third level of the Sage. nanda has long been stuck
at the first stage.[22] This is sufficiently mortifying to sap the young monks appetite for
argumentation. For the remainder of the Sutra, he largely confines his remarks to requests for further
teaching. The young intellectual is now ready to be taught how to practice the ragama Samadhi.
He tearfully confesses:
The Thus-Come One has also admonished me for pursuing erudition at the expense of spiritual
practice. Now, therefore, I am like a wanderer who unexpectedly meets a celestial king, who bestows
upon him a magnificent house. The house is his, yet in order to go in, he will still need to find a door.
I only hope that the Thus-Come One will not withhold his compassion from all of us in this assembly
who are covered in darkness, and that he will show us the road that leads from our original resolve
to certain attainment of the Thus-Come Ones complete nirvana.

The Buddha responds by returning to the subject of sense-perception. He points out that some of the
six senses have a wider range than others; for example, we cannot see behind us, but our hearing is
omni-directional. He then reassures nanda that he needs to concentrate in his practice on only one
of the senses, since when one of them is purified, all of them will be purified. The work of samdhi,
he repeats, is not to follow. That is, it is to learn not to allow ones attention to be distracted by
sense-objects, not to allow ones mind to evaluate these objects as good, bad, or neutral, and not to
allow ones emotions to respond with desire or revulsion. He says:
Extricate one sense-faculty by detaching it from its sense-objects, and redirect it inward so that it
may return to what is original and true. Then it will radiate with the light of your original
understanding. This brilliant light will shine forth and detach the other five sense-faculties until they
too are completely free of sense-objects.
The Buddha then asks his son Rhula, who has joined his monastic retinue, to strike the temple bell,
in order to demonstrate once again that hearing continues whether there is sound or silence. Finally,
he asks the enlightened sages in the assembly to tell nanda how they became enlightened.
When you first made the commitment to realize enlightenment, which one of the eighteen constituent
elements of perception did you waken in order to break through all obstructions? By what method did
you enter samdhi?
Thus begins what is perhaps the most celebrated passage in the Sutra: the testimony of the twentyfive sages, of whom the last is the Bodhisattva Avalokitevara. Each sage identifies as his avenue to
enlightenment one of the six sense-faculties, six sense-objects, six sense-consciousnesses, or seven
elemental qualities (thus a total of twenty-five.) Each explains how, by contemplating their awareness
as ultimately independent of sense-faculties and sense-objects, they broke their attachment to the
world of the senses. The sage Gavmpati, for example, testifies in part:
My contemplation was that the knowledge of flavors does not come from the tongue-faculty and
does not come from any object of taste Within, I let go of my mind and body, and without, I took my
leave of this world. I left the three realms of existence far behind, like a bird escaping from its cage.
I departed from all impurity and was done with all sense-objects, and my Dharma-eye became clear.
So it was that I became a Sage. The Thus-Come One himself verified that I needed no further
instruction. The Buddha has asked us how we broke through all obstructions. I believe that turning
our awareness of flavor around to reflect upon itself is the best method.
As for the seven sages who focused on one of the seven elemental qualities, their contemplations
were of the identity of body, mind, and world, and therefore the ultimate unreality of the division into
subject and object. The youth Moonlight testifies:
I saw too that the water inside my body was no different from the water outside of my body. Even as
far away as the fragrant seas of the Royal-Floating-Banner Buddha-land, the fundamental nature of
water is one and the same. My body vanished. Then the fundamental nature of the water in my
body and of all the waters of the fragrant seas in worlds throughout the ten directions merged into
true emptiness.
Finally, the Bodhisattva Avalokitevara describes his practice for purification of the ear-faculty. He
First I redirected my hearing inward as if to go against a stream ,and then external sounds
disappeared. With its direction reversed and with sounds stilled, both sounds and silence cease to
arise. So it was that, as I gradually progressed, what I heard and my awareness of what I heard came
to an end. Even when that state of mind in which everything had come to an end disappeared, I did
not rest. My awareness and the objects of my awareness were emptied, and when that process of
emptying my awareness was wholly complete, then even that emptying and what had been emptied
vanished. Coming into being and ceasing to be themselves ceased to be. Then the ultimate stillness
was revealed. All of a sudden I transcended the worlds of ordinary beings, and I also transcended the

worlds of beings who have transcended the ordinary worlds. Everything in the ten directions was
fully illuminated.
Here we have the esoteric teaching that is central to the ragama: freeing the sense-faculties from
the world of sense-objects leads first to everything disappearing, and then to illumination. As the
Bodhisattva Avalokitevara puts it:
Once perceived objects had disappeared from my mind as I turned the light of my understanding
inward, my body and mind and the entire Dharma-Realm [that is, the universe] were as bright and
translucent and flawless as crystal.[23]
When his hearing, as he says, became all-pervasive, he was able to hear the cries of beings
everywhere: thus one Chinese translation of his name is Guan Shi Yin ( , The One Who Hears
the Voices of the World). He is Buddhisms exemplar of compassion, and when Buddhism traveled to
East Asia, he became an object of worship and petition in his feminine form. He tells
the ragama assembly that he is able to appear before various classes of beings in their own forms,
to grant their wishes, and to deliver them safely from fearsome situations. The celebrated twenty-fifth
chapter of the Lotus Sutra (On the Universal Doorway) similarly celebrates the Bodhisattva
Avalokitevaras salvific powers; the difference is that in
the ragama, he explains how those powers were gained.
Because I did not listen to sounds, I was able to contemplate the listener within. Now I can hear the
cries of suffering beings throughout the ten directions, and I can bring about their liberation.
Once sounds were so purified that they ceased being perceived objects, the sense-faculty and its
objects were completely interfused, so that there was nothing that perceived and nothing that was
perceived. Therefore, I can cause beings burdened by anger and hatred to be free of their
When Avalokitvara has finished speaking, the Buddha asks the Bodhisattva Majur to recommend
one of the methods described by the twenty-five sages, so that nanda and beings of the future can
know which method will lead them most easily to success. Majur responds with a 250-line
verse in summary of the ragama teaching and the sages twenty-five methods. He concludes by
recommending the hearing-practice of Avalokitevara:
I now respectfully say this to the World-Honored-One -Who is the Buddha that appeared here in this Sha World
In order to transmit the essence of true teaching
Meant for this place--: it is that purity is found through hearing.
Those who will wish to gain a mastery of samdhi
Will surely find that hearing is the way to enter.
And a little further on:
Great Assembly! nanda! Halt the shadow-play
Of your distorted hearing!. Turn your hearing round and listen
To your true nature. Then youll realize the unsurpassed
Enlightenment. This is the genuine way
To break through all obstructions.
The instruction of nanda is not yet quite complete, however. One crucial point remains to be made.
How is it possible, after all, to turn the hearing around and listen to ones true nature? How can one
stake out an independence from the data of the senses? The Buddha is now ready to offer a frank
answer to this question.

No matter how much you may practice in order to transcend the stress of experiencing senseobjects, you will never transcend that stress until you have freed yourself from sexual desire.
In the Chinese the word is yin (), literally, lust: lust not only for sexual experience, but for senseexperience in general. What keeps us tied to sense-objects -- what prevents us from being able to
liberate our awareness and gain illumination is simply our desire for sense-experiences, of which
sexual experience is the most compelling of all. Thus the Buddha returns to his initial teaching, the
Four Noble Truths, which he transmitted to the five ascetics in the Deer Park soon after his own
enlightenment. These truths tell us that this life of ours is unsatisfactory and that the root of our
dissatisfaction is our habit of craving sensation and experience. Only by extinguishing this craving
can one gain freedom..
You must purge yourself of the most subtle promptings of lust, both physical and mental Then
there will be hope that you may realize the enlightenment of the Buddhas.
To this the Buddha adds three other prerequisites necessary for success in ones spiritual practice.
First, one must free oneself of violence, both in ones actions and in ones thoughts (included in this
instruction is an injunction against eating meat). Second, there must be no coveting and no theft; and,
lastly, one must never make prideful false claims to spiritual accomplishment.
Finally, the Buddha offers an expedient for hastening the practitioners entry into the ra gama
Samdhi. This expedient is recitation of the ragama Mantra, that same counter-spell by which, at
the outset of the Sutra, the Buddha rescued nanda from what he delicately refers to as your
difficulty with the Matanga woman. The Buddha himself calls the mantra The Great White
Canopy, because it takes those who recite it under its protection. At nandas request, the Buddha
now proclaims the mantra for a second time, and this time its 544 lines are given in the text. The
Buddha giv
Edited by An Eternal Now 07 Jun `09, 1:22AM

07 Jun `09, 1:22AM

4. Guidelines for Advancement
With the teaching concerning the ragama Mantra, the Buddha has now completed his instructions
for entering the ragama Samdhi. The goal of the narrative has been gained: nanda has been
granted what he needs to avoid further error. But the Sutra itself is not complete. Confident that he
can at last make spiritual progress, nanda asks for an explanation of the various levels of
enlightenment through which he hopes to soon begin his advance. In answer, the Buddha first backs
up to briefly describe twelve levels of unenlightened beings, which he categorizes according to the
manner of their being born. Next, in a passage of daunting terseness, he summarizes fifty-five stages
of the Bodhisattvas progress toward Buddhahood a topic treated expansively in the Avatamsaka
Sutra. Next, having heard about the highest levels of being, nanda, ever curious, asks about the
lowest levels, that is, about the hells, of which, he says, he and his fellow monks are ignorant. The
Buddha complies by launching into a hair-raising description of the tortures of the nether regions,
which beings experience as the karma incurred by their misdeeds in their lives as people. The Buddha
continues by summarizing the gradual ascent through other levels of rebirth, as ghosts, animals,
people, adepts, gods, and beings addicted to violence (asuras).
Finally, in a lengthy and important section that can stand alone,[25] the Buddha warns against fifty
negative states of mind in which serious practitioners can become trapped if they fall prey to greed,
pride, or confusion. This last teaching serves as a warning that the ragama practice of entering
samdhi through redirecting the senses inward carries with it some degree of peril. It is essential to
recognize that, to avoid not only error but serious mental endangerment, any intense spiritual practice
must be pursued in the context of a proper spiritual community, surrounded by others devoted to pure
conduct, under the guidance of a wise and skillful teacher.

5. Conclusion
It is perhaps appropriate for me to conclude on a personal note by lamenting the obscurity into which
this magnificent scripture has fallen, while, at the same time, many lesser works have been translated
by Western scholars and widely circulated. The charge that theragama Sutra is inauthentic and
apocryphal has not been without its effect. The discourse is rarely if ever taught, for example. in
university courses on Buddhism, and it is probable that the great majority of Western Buddhists have
neither read it nor even heard of it. To speak frankly, it is unclear what legitimate grounds there can
be for scholars who are not themselves Buddhist masters, or even Buddhist practitioners, to
confidently present themselves as qualified to rule on the proper place that a scripture should hold in
the Buddhist canon. One can only be puzzled by the easy but unstated assumption that uncertainties
concerning textual history should be sufficient to diminish the immense religious and literary stature
that a scripture has maintained for 1,300 years in its own tradition. There is here a whiff of the
Western cultural arrogance that Edward Said famously characterized as orientalism.[26] I can only
venture to hope that the new translation being prepared by the team of which I am member will serve
some small role in bringing theragama more into the light.
[1]The Sutra (T. 945) is generally known in Chinese as Da fo ding shou leng yan jing,
.; the complete title is Da fo ding ru lai mi yin xiu zheng liao yi zhu pu sa wan heng shou leng
yan jing . It is not to be confused with
the ragamasamdhi-stra (T. 642, in two rolls), which has been translated by tienne Lamotte,
[2] The only complete translation in English is that by the Buddhist Text Translation Society, with
commentary by the Ven. Master Hsan Hua, in eight volumes, revised edition 2000. An earlier,
incomplete translation by Charles Luk, with excerpts from the commentary of Han Shan Deqing, was
published by Rider in 1966. There is also a Tibetan translation of the Chinese text. A group of
colleagues, including the author of the present paper, is engaged in a revised translation for the
Buddhist Text Translation Society, to be published in 2008 in tandem with a translation into Spanish.
[3] As admirably demonstrated by Frithjof Schuon in his De lunit transcendante des
religions, translated as The Transcendent Unity of Religions, Wheaton IL: Theosophical Publishing
House, 1984, reissued 1993 under the Quest Books imprint.
[4] For example, The Nyyamuka of Dignga, translated by Xuanzang as (T 1628)
(The Chinese title means Treatise on the Illumination of Causes as a Method for Arriving at Correct
[5] See the Digital Dictionary of Buddhism, under the entry for .
[6] See the Digital Dictionary of Buddhism, under the entry for .
[7] The capital city of the ancient kingdom of Kosala, on the Gangetic plain in northeastern India, in
what is now Uttar Pradesh.
[8] Including the late Ming master Han Shan Deqing, and more recently the Ven. Masters Xu Yun,
Yuan Ying, and Hsan Hua. According to a study by Ronald B. Epstein 127 commentaries exist in the
Chinese, the earliest dating from 767 CE, the most recent that delivered by the Ven. Hsuan Hua in
1968. (Ronald B. Epstein, The Surangama-Sutra (T.945): A Reappraisal of its Authenticity,
unpublished ms., pp. 93ff). I am grateful to Professor Epstein for steering me to this and other
references and sources cited in the present article.
[9] For example, Peter Gregory, in Tsung-Mi and the Sinification of Buddhism, Univ. of Hawaii Press,
2002, p. 57.
[10] 705 CE.
[11] Beginning with Dao An in the fourth century. (Epstein, op. cit., p. 6ff.).
[12] Chinese concepts in the translation which seem to act as analogous representatives of analogous
Indian concepts in the original may iinclude the references to parahelial phenomena and other
atmospheric or celestial events considered to be malign astrological influences. In other cases, what

is Chinese is Indian as well. For example, the Buddha cites an owl that lays its eggs on the ground;
this could easily be the Grass Owl, which is found in both India and China.
[13] There is mention, for example, of seven categories of flavors, rather than the Chinese five. In
another place, the text says that a verse the Buddha has spoken was in two Sanskrit verse-forms
(geya and gatha), but in the Chinese the verse is reduced to one form (all four sets of verses in the
Sutra are in five-character lines).
[14] So Han Shan De Qing, in his Nien Pu (autobiography), in the entry for his thirty-fist year (157667): After my great awakening, having no one to confirm and testify to it, I opened the ragama
Sutra to verify my experience. I had not listened previously to lectures on this sutra and so did not
know its meaning. Now by using the power of the direct reasoning of the non-discriminating mind
and without even the slightest use of its consciousness since there was no room for thinking, I gained
after eight months a complete comprehension of its profound meaning without having a single doubt
left. Tr. Charles Luk in his Practical Buddhism, Rider, 1971, p. 83. Also Ven. Hsuan Hua: Where
the ragama Sutra exists, then the Proper Dharma exists. If the ragama Sutra ceases to exist,
then the Proper Dharma will also vanish. If the ragama Sutra is inauthentic, then I vow to fall
into the Hell of Pulling Tongues to undergo uninterrupted suffering. (On the Authenticity of
the ragamas Sutra,
[15] Dogen, in his Nihon Shiso Takikei, says of the ragama, Even if it were a forgery, if the
Buddhas and Bodhisattvas have taken it up, it is a true Buddha-sutra, a true Patriarch Sutra. You
should understand and realize that sentient beings, if they transcend and realize correct awakening,
are the Buddhas and Patriarchs. Quoted in Epstein, op. cit., p. 82.
[16] The mantra is given in full later on in the text in its transcription from the Sanskrit into Chinese
monosyllables. In this form the mantra is still recited every morning in certain monasteries in the
Chinese tradition.
[17] This and the excerpts that follow are from the Buddhist Text Translation Societys translation in
progress (forthcoming in 2008). The translations are still tentative and are not for reproduction.
[18] in Chinese. The Thus-Come One, (Sanskrit Tathgata, Chinese ru lai ) is one of
ten epithets of the Buddha. The translation of the Chinese zang (storehouse; canon or collection;
viscera) given here is matrix (womb in Latin), in its proper English sense of a place or
enveloping element within which something originates, takes form, or develops (Merriam-Webster).
[19] This is as close as Buddhism comes to the idea of divine immanence as it is described in the
Abrahamic religions. But the Buddha never ascribes to the Tathgata-garbha any of the qualities of a
personal God. The Tathgata-garbha has no personality, no history, no intention, no self. It is, above
all, empty.
[20] That is, the five branches (Skt. skandhas) of the conditioned mind and world: the physical world,
perception, cognition, mental formations, and consciousness.
[21] Skt. Angmin.
[22] The rota-pana, (Skt.) one who has entered the stream; this is the first level of the
enlightened Sage. An adept at this level can expect only seven more rebirths.
[23] Numerous passages in the Sutra make it clear that it is not merely a metaphor to say that spiritual
awakening is experienced in part as illumination. Frequently the assembly is treated to displays of
light, often from the Buddha himself. He emits light from his hands, from his chest, from his face,
and from a transfiguration of a Buddha which he makes appear above his head
[24] Presumably by showing that anger and hatred require an object that is seen as real, whereas all
objects are ontologically empty, and the dualities of self and other, mind and world, us and them
are ultimately false.
[25] This is the section on the demonic states associated with the five skandhas.
[26] In his classic of post-colonial studies Orientalism (1978), available in a Penguin Books reprint,
New York, 2003. Saids argument is directed particularly at the Wests distorted views of Arabs and
Islam, but it is no less applicable to India (and China) and Buddhism.

David Rounds, editor of Religion East and West, holds a B.A. from Harvard College and an M.A. in
Buddhist studies and translation from Dharma Realm Buddhist University. A disciple of Master
Hsan Hua for over thirty years, he has authored five books and has collaborated in the translation of
several Mahayana texts, including theShurangama Sutra.