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《Surangama Sutra》- a scientific, logical and practical guide to find peace in life

The mind is itself beyond duality… It is not the phenomena we see, hear, smell, taste, touch and think, but it has the functions of seeing, hearing, smelling, touching and thinking. The mind exists at all times and at all places.

From August 3rd to September 4th, 2013, at the Dharma Drum Mountain Vancouver Center, Venerable Guo Xing, Abbot of Dharma Drum Retreat Center & Chan Meditation Center in New York, skilfully applied scientific and logical approaches, led us on a journey to explore the mind through analyzing and dissecting the questions like: “What is the Mind?”, “Where is the Mind?” and “How are the universe and the world created by the mind?”. With plain language, the Venerable succinctly and humorously presented the lectures by telling stories, drawing from his personal experiences and the circumstances that often occur in each and every one of our daily lives as examples. He thoroughly answered our questions, and provided us with guidance on how to incorporate the concept and meditation practice in every moment of our life to help us actualize our full potential (i.e. Buddha mind; our innate nature; the complete enlightenment).

The Venerable explained that the mind is also commonly known as the true mind, the Buddha nature, the nature of emptiness, and the essence of enlightenment.

The mind is unmoving. Within the moving phenomena, there is the unmoving mind. The mind is beyond duality (subject and object; where ‘subject’ means perceiver, and ‘object’ means what is being perceived). The mind has no form; it is not other than objects, but it is not objects. The Surangama Sutra describes the characteristics of the mind as being unmoving, non-perishing, not lost, nowhere to return to (the essence). And, the mind is not object but having the function of awareness, is non-obstructive, is not separating from phenomena, transcends the ordinary (sentient beings), and is beyond duality. And, the Platform Sutra illustrates the mind as being innately pure and tranquil, unmoving, not arising and not perishing, complete, and able to give rise to all phenomena.

Each of the mind’s forms, sensations, perceptions, volitions and consciousness is itself the essence of enlightenment! In each moment, our mind is in the state of no subject and object (non-duality). However, we ordinary beings habitually operate in the functions of subject and object. The Venerable further explains that the five skandhas (form, sensation, perception, volition and consciousness) is the manifestation whereby the mind continuously grasps to phenomena and sensations. Therefore, the deluded function of the interactions between the mind and the five skandhas leads to the five layers of turbidity (the turbidity of time, viewpoint, afflictions, sentient beings and life span). Nevertheless, sentient beings are always in the state of enlightenment.

The Venerable paused for a moment, and then he asked us a question: “Do you feel your mind is within your body?” We answer: Yes.” He then challenges us with this following question: “If your mind is within your body, then where is your body?” …Uh?!…

The Venerable drew an analogy between the mind and a mirror. He said, the mind is unmoving, like a mirror that reflects all phenomena as they are. All phenomena are the images manifested from the mind. This is the wondrous function of the mind, however, the mind itself is not like anything we know of. The Venerable went on to depict for us the differences between the (true) mind and the deluded mind. The Venerable said, the mind is like the sea, while phenomena are like the shape of waves. We habitually grasp to the shapes of waves (the deluded mind) and overlook the sea (the true mind) where waves rise above. We mistake what we perceive as the mind. The term, “transforming wisdom into consciousness”, means that at all times you think what you see is the mind when what you see is really only a reflection in the mind.

In the Surangama Sutra, phenomena are categorized into the Four Elements, the Five Skandhas, the Six Entries, the Seven Great Elements, the Twelve Links of Conditioned Arising, and the Eighteen Realms. The four elements are earth, water, fire and wind. The six entries are the entry of eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body and mind. The seven great elements are earth, fire, wawter, wind, space, seeing and consciousness element. The twelve links of conditioned arising are: (1) fundamental ignorance, (2) action, (3) consciousness, (4) name-and-form, (5) the six sense faculties, (6) contact, (7) sensation, (8) desire, (9) grasping, (10) coming into existence, (11) birth, and (12) old age and death. The eighteen realms are six sense faculties (eye, ear, nose, tongue, body and mind ), the six sense objects (sight, sound, smell, taste, touch and thought), and the six sense consciousness (the consciousness of eye, ear, nose, tongue, body and mind). These are phenomena that can manifest from the nature of the mind, yet are only some of the functions of the mind. While ordinary people’s experience is that the mind is aware of phenomena, the Buddha’s experience is that the mind is the phenomena (i.e. the mind is not other than objects and objects are not other than the mind).

The Venerable continued to illustrate the relationship between the mind and phenomena. The mind has no form; it is not an object and not a phenomenon, yet it is not other than objects, not other than phenomena. It has the functions of seeing, smelling, hearing, tasting, touching and thinking. The meditation practice of “Huatou” (the moment before the word is even uttered or before the arising of phenomena) is a practice to actualize the mind by investigating what is ‘the thing’ that is not an object, yet not other than an object, but at the same time has the ability to see, hear, smell, taste, touch and think. We often mistake objects for self, yet the mind itself is beyond subject and object. In every moment, we ordinary beings are in this state of non-duality. However, according to our present experience, we perceive there to be my body and my mind (the Original Retribution; subject), and, the external phenomena perceived by me (the Dependent Conditional Retribution; objects). In every moment, we operate with the Original Retribution and the Dependent Conditional Retribution separated (in duality). We operate in this way continuously to create karma and to receive the consequences. This is the fundamental cause why sentient beings are in Samsāra. The enlightened beings, however, see everything being the whole universe; they simultaneously see the moving phenomena and the unmoving mind.

The Venerable says: “The Mom we think of is not our real Mom.” Just because we mistake the images that arise in our mind as real, we cannot actualize that these images are merely reflections of the mind, and are not living beings. Also, language is the only material (form) that does not have the functions of seeing, smelling, hearing, tasting, touching and thinking. That is, language is merely a form of the sound we utter. It is the mind that recognizes the form of language. However, we mistake the form of language for the “I” (can see, smell, hear, taste, touch and think). In addition, we mistake the sensation that is felt by us for the “I”. For example, when we are angry with someone, we may kick his or her car, thinking that we are kicking the person. Also, we may cross off someone’s name that is marked on a piece of paper to ease our anger at the person. Behaviours such as these clearly indicate that we take phenomena for the “I”. There is no “I” in the Five Skandhas, however, ordinary people mistake their thoughts, sensations for the “I”.

The Venerable further explained that the mind hears the sound, and then connects to thoughts (images of pictures, faces or forms), that in reality have no connections to what is really out there. For example, I tell you: “I came from there.” Although you did not actually see me coming from there, you had already associated this sentence with your own thoughts upon hearing it. And, your thoughts of my coming from there are not the real occurrence. Therefore, at all times, we can only experience the images in our own mind. And, everyone’s experience is unique.

The Venerable then encouraged us to memorize the following passage, which is in Chapter Six of the Surangamma Sutra, as a reminder to incorporate our practice in every moment of our life...

“The innate nature of the sea of enlightenment is tranquil and perfect, the essence of this perfect and tranquil enlightenment is innately wondrous. When the innate illumination illuminates outwardly, objects thus manifest. Consequently, the essence of this perfect and tranquil enlightenment ceases to exist...” (pp. 348 – 366)

When we encounter adversity or success in life, or when we are praised or blamed, we often strive for a calm and peaceful mind. The Venerable clearly pointed out to us that this approach will never help us in actualizing the mind (no arising and no perishing). The Venerable explained that in order to actualize our innate nature, that is no arising and no perishing, we ought to practice with a mind of no arising and no perishing to begin with. After all, calmness (the sea without any waves) is only one of the functions of the mind, and it is not the mind.

In every moment, the first thought is the mind that transcends duality. If the second thought interacts with the first thought, the second thought is no longer the mind of non-duality. Originally, the first thought is the mind, but, from the perspective of the second thought, the first thought has become an object, being perceived by the second thought. And, the second thought becomes the subject that can perceive.

A passage from Chapter Four of the Surangama Sutra explains the mind is itself beyond duality:

…Buddha asked, “Is it because the Enlightenment Illuminating you described, innately self-illuminating, it is called the Enlightenment? Or, is it because the Enlightenment is not self-illuminating, it is called the Illuminated Enlightenment?” Purna Maitrayani- putra answered, “If the Enlightenment is not innately self-illuminating, then nothing is illuminated.” Buddha said, “If nothing is illuminated, then there is no the Illuminated Enlightenment. The objective world is not the Enlightenment; the non-objective world is not Illuminating. Non-Illuminating is not the essence of the Enlightenment Illuminating either. The essence of the Enlightenment is innately self-illuminating, but is erroneously mistaken for the Illuminated Enlightenment.” (pp. 203-204)

The mind is originally non-dual. Illumination is the innate nature of our mind. The mind is self-illuminating, and it does not need to illuminate external objects. Once we illuminate external objects, ignorance as described in the Surangama Sutra and the The Great Compassion Dharani Repentance thus comes forth. As a result, the subject that can illuminate and the object that is being illuminated are manifested. Thereafter, we circle in the Six Realms continuously.

“When we turn our attention inwardly, the objects shall cease to exist.“ That is, when the mind does not illuminate outwardly at the form, the sound, the smell, the taste, the touch, the dharma (thoughts), the unmoving true mind will gradually come forth. In other words, when the mind does not abide in anything and anywhere (that is, the mind does not abide in any particular forms or thoughts), the full potential can prevail. This is described in the Surangama Sutra: “When the grasping madness itself ceases, the cessation is Bodhi.”

Because we mistake the constantly grasping deluded mind for the true mind, and objects/phenomena for the self, we overlook the true mind, and have illusorily experienced samsāra. As a result, wisdom is transformed to consciousness. And, thereafter, delusion arises from the true mind. The Venerable informed us that only after we absorb our attention inwardly until the object and the subject transcend into non-duality, and the deluded mind transcends to the true mind, can the consciousness be transformed to wisdom, and can the mind backtrack to the true mind from the deluded mind.

How do we practice “not abiding in any phenomena in everyday life”? The Venerable answered by sharing with us Shifu’s conduct: “What can this person benefit from me when I interact with him/her?”

Let’s put the concept and practice we have learned into practice in everyday life, shall we?


Jen-ni Kuo
September 22, 2013


 Surangama Sutra Platform Sutra


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