The Surangama Sutra: Chapter Four – Section 1

A Meditative Study of Understanding and Enlightenment

The Purna (Purnamaitreyaniputra) arose from his seat in the midst of the Great Assembly, with his right shoulder uncovered, kneeling on his right knee, putting his palms together respectfully, and said to the Buddha, “Your True Holiness has expounded the ultimate truth for the sake of all sentient beings, with such sublime eloquence! The Buddha often appoints me as the primary speaker of the Dharma, but now as I hear such subtle and profound teachings of the Dharma, I am like a deaf person trying to hear a mosquito from a hundred steps away, failing miserably to see, let alone hear.

“Although the Buddha’s clear expressions have dispelled our doubts, we still have not realized the ultimate meaning that could enable us to rise above all delusions. Among the enlightened ones, those like Ananda who have not yet completely stopped the outflows of their habits, and those who have reached the stage of no outflows, still wonder about the Dharma taught by the Buddha today.

“Your True Holiness, World Honored One! If all the mundane sense organs, sense objects, skandhas, locations, together with realms, are non-exceptionally the Tathagata Store, then why do the mountains, rivers, and all other phenomena always arise, flow, change, end, and then repeat cyclically and perpetually?

“Also, the Buddha said that the basic natures of earth, water, fire and wind are perfectly interfused, tranquil and eternal, pervading throughout the Dharma Realm. But how could the earth contain water if its nature is so pervasive? And how would fire arise with the nature of water being so pervasive? Moreover, how could the natures of fire and water each pervade empty space without displacing one another? And since the nature of earth is solid, while the nature of emptiness is vacuous – how can they both pervade the Dharma Realm? I hope the Buddha will kindly clear the clouds of confusion that engulf us all.”

After saying that, Purna made a full prostration and respectfully awaited the Buddha to impart his unsurpassed compassionate teaching.


The Buddha then addressed to Purna and all the Arhats in the Assembly who had ended their outflows and who had reached the level beyond study, “Today I will explain in depth the most supreme truth. May those of you who are Hearers or Arhats of a fixed nature who have not yet realized the two kinds of emptiness and all who are dedicated to the Superior Vehicle reach the tranquility of the One Vehicle, the true aranya, the most proper state of cultivation. Listen attentively and I will explain it for you.” Purna and all the others awaited expectantly and quietly.


The Buddha then began: “Purna, you have asked why in fundamental purity the mountains, rivers, and all the rest suddenly arise. Have you not often heard the Buddha expound upon the wonderful light of the enlightened nature and the bright wonder of fundamental enlightenment?”

Purna replied, “Yes, indeed, I have often heard the Buddha expound upon that subject.”

The Buddha said, “You speak of understanding enlightenment, but does the nature understand? If yes, is that called enlightenment? Or does enlightenment itself lack understanding, and so you speak of understanding enlightenment?

Purna said, “If a lack of understanding could be called enlightenment, then there would be no understanding at all.”

The Buddha said, “Indeed, if there were no understanding at all, then there could be no understanding of enlightenment. If the understanding is added, then that is not enlightenment. If no understanding is added, then there’s no understanding. A lack of understanding, or in another word – ignorance, is not the lucid bright nature of enlightenment.

“Although the nature of enlightenment includes understanding, it’s redundant to say understanding enlightenment. Enlightenment is not understanding, as the latter involves setting up an objective. Once an objective is set up, you give rise to false subjective state, and suddenly discrimination appears from where there was originally neither sameness nor difference. Out of discrimination now comes difference, and what differs from that difference becomes sameness. Once sameness and difference both arise, here also comes something neither quite the same nor quite different.

“Such turmoil brings about weariness. Prolonged weariness gives rise to defilement. With weariness and defilement, everything becomes so murky and obscured, hence more weariness and more defilement, so on and so forth! The world of illusions comes into being through such unrest, while emptiness comes from serenity. In emptiness everything is sameness; in the world everything is distinction. Dwelling in a neutral state is the true practice.


“Adding the light of understanding to enlightenment outlines and highlights the darkness of the primordial emptiness, and the interaction between them brings about disturbance in the mind, which consequently propels the wheel of wind that sustains the world of perceptions and illusions.

“The disturbance generated by the persistent tension between the objective emptiness and the subjective light of understanding gives rise to a firm attachment to the light, which solidifies and hardens into the wheel of metal that preserves the earth.

“Thus, the wheel of metal comes from the attachment to the understanding, while the wheel of wind from the interaction between the light of understanding and the darkness of emptiness. Now with the wheel of wind and the wheel of metal rubbing against each other, the friction generates fire, which is highly transformative by nature.

“The flame of fire rises up and turns metal into liquid, hence the wheel of water comes into being and encompasses all realms in the ten directions. The meeting between rising fire and falling water brings about further formations – what is wet becomes the oceans, while what is dry becomes the continents. This is why sometimes fire rises from the seabed, and rivers and streams flow across the lands. Excessive fire over water results in the formation of mountains; rocks spark into flame when struck and melt into water when heated. Excessive earth over water results in in the growth of vegetation, while trees turn into earth when burned and exude water when squeezed.

“The interaction among these illusory four wheels in turn produces the seeds of causes and conditions, which perpetuate the continuity of this world of illusions.


“Further, Purna, you should know that delusion is due to the mistake of adding understanding to enlightenment – there is no other reason than this. Once the falseness is established, no ‘true’ understanding can ever transcend it. Because of that, hearing never goes beyond sound, and seeing is forever confined to form. All of the six faulty senses – vision, sound, smell, taste, touch, and cognition – are perceived through delusion in such way.

“Shared karma brings about entanglements: sentient beings are united or separate, being formed or transformed, all due to unenlightened activities. When a point of light is perceived, an illusory form arises; when an understanding is understood, a deluded view is generated. Different views result in hatred; compatible ways of thinking give rise to love. The flow of desire becomes a seed, the seed of thought grows into an embryo. The happenstance of intercourse leads to the entanglement of shared karma. From these causes and conditions, the kalaka, arbuda, and other fetal stages emerge and evolve.

“Therefore, the four forms of birth derive from corresponding causes: birth from an egg arises from thought, birth from a womb comes from emotion, the moisture-born are due to union, and the metamorphosis-born come about through separation. Emotion, thought, union, and separation go through further interchanges, and beings entrapped in karma go through different forms of birth and death accordingly. Thus, these causes and conditions perpetuate the continuity of samsara.


“Purna, thought and desire are tied together, and desires are so strong that no disengagement is possible. Hence in this world the births of parents, children, and grandchildren are forever successive and ceaseless, and the root of it all is desire and greed.

“Greed and desire feed on each other. Because greed is insatiable, the egg-born, womb-born, moisture-born, and metamorphosis-born tend to devour one another or are in turn devoured, according to the extent of their respective strength. The root of all this is the passion to kill.

“For instance, a human being eats a sheep, then the slaughtered sheep is reborn as a human, while the human in turn becomes a sheep when he dies. This pattern applies to all ten states of beings as they devour each other in an ever-repeating cycle of death and rebirth. This evil karma follows each of them to infinity. The root of all this is the desire to steal.

“If you are in debt to someone for having taken their life, they will want you to repay with your own life. Because of such causes and conditions, beings are entrapped in the cycles of birth and death through hundreds of thousands of eons.

“Likewise, if you admire my mind and I admire your looks, we will go through hundreds of thousands of eons being entrapped in mutual entanglement. The fundamental roots of all things are killing, stealing, and lust, which sustain the continuity of karma and retribution.

“Purna, all these three kinds of mixed-up continuity are due to adding understanding to the inherently perfect enlightenment. The additional understanding then gives rise to external manifestations – mountains, rivers, great lands, and all the other conditioned phenomena are consequently born of false views. Therefore, illusions and delusions are perpetuating in endless cycles, as on a turning wheel.”