The Surangama Sutra: Chapter One – Section 3

The Ordinary Mind and the Original Mind

Then Ānanda stood up in the midst of the great assembly. He uncovered his right shoulder, placed his right knee on the ground, put his palms together respectfully, and said to the Buddha, “Because of the special loving-kindness bestowed on me as the Buddha’s youngest cousin, I have the great fortune to enter the monastic life and become learned, but I am not yet free of outflows and therefore still not able to realize the true mind. That’s why I was unable to resist the Kapila spell and was lured into a house of courtesans. Now I can’t wait to embark on the path of calming the mind and realizing the true essence of mind! May all unenlightened people like me who have the tendency to succumb to wrong deeds also benefit from the Buddha’s instruction and guidance.” Upon finishing speaking, Ānanda bowed to the ground. And with keen anticipation, the rest of the assembly all readied themselves to receive the precious teaching.


Meanwhile, radiating from the Buddha’s face was an array of lights as brilliant as a hundred thousand suns. The lands were shaken by six kinds of quakes. And an infinite number of worlds manifested throughout all ten directions at the same time. Then the Buddha’s awe-inspiring power brought all worlds into one single realm, in which all the great Bodhisattvas — while remaining in their own lands — placed their palms together with utmost reverence to listen.


So the Buddha said to Ānanda, “Since beginningless time, all beings, due to the innumerable distortions in their minds, have been creating seeds of karma, which then grow and ripen like a cluster of sour fruits on a rūkṣa tree.”

“People who undertake spiritual practice but fail to realize the ultimate enlightenment, such as the Hearers of the Teaching, the Solitary Sages, the celestial beings, the demon-kings, as well as the demons’ retinues, who follow the wrong paths — they all fail because they do not understand two fundamentals, so they are mistaken and confused in their practice. They are like someone who hopes to make a delicious meal by cooking sands. Even if the sand were cooked for eons as countless as motes of dust, no meal would ever result from it.”

“Ānanda, what are the two fundamentals? The first is the ordinary mind, which is the basis of death and rebirth since beginningless time. It is this mind that all beings use to make discriminations and distinctions, and thus get themselves entrapped in all sorts of entanglements, mistaking it as their selves.”

“The second fundamental is the original mind, the primordial and pure essence of nirvana, which also has no beginning. It is the original light, the innermost nature of consciousness. All conditioned phenomena arise from it, and then beings lose track of it among the phenomena. This primordial light is always within each being, yet they are unaware of it and wandering off into various distractions.”


“Ānanda, because you now wish to know about the path of calming the mind and wish to be freed from samsara, I will then question you again.” Upon saying this, the Buddha raised his golden arm and bent his five fingers — each of them marked with lines in the shape of a wheel — and asked Ānanda, “Did you see something?”

Ānanda said, “I did.”

“What did you see?”

“I saw the Buddha raise his arm and bend his fingers into a fist that sends forth light, dazzling my mind and eyes.” Ānanda replied.

The Buddha said, “When you saw my fist emitting light, what did you see it with?”

Ānanda answered, “All of us in the great assembly saw it with our eyes.”

The Buddha asked, “Your eyes can see my fist, then how about your mind?”

Ānanda said, “Once again, now the Buddha is asking me about my mind’s location. I will say my mind is what I have been using to determine where it might be. Whatever that has the capability of making such distinctions is my mind.”

The Buddha exclaimed, “Ānanda! That is not your mind!”

Startled, Ānanda stood up, placing his palms together, and said to the Buddha, “If that is not my mind, what is it?”

“It is merely your mental processes that assign false and illusory attributes to the world of perceived objects.” The Buddha replied.

“These processes delude you about your true nature and have since beginningless time caused you to mistake a burglar for your own child — to lose touch with your own original, everlasting mind — and thus you are bound to the cycles of death and rebirth.”


Ānanda said to the Buddha, “I am the Buddha’s favorite cousin. It was my mind that loved the Buddha and led me to enter the monastic life. That mind of mine has been responsible not only for my serving the Buddha but also for my serving all Buddhas and all wise teachers throughout all lands. It has always been that mind that has mustered great courage to practice every difficult aspect of the Dharma. If I were ever to slander the Dharma and sever my good roots in it, that mind of mine would be the cause too. If such a consciousness is not the mind, then I suppose I have no mind, just like a clod of earth or a piece of wood. Apart from my mind’s awareness and its knowledge, I am nothing. Why does the Buddha say that it is not my mind? Now I am truly frightened and worried! Everyone here in the great assembly must be full of confusion too. I wish the Buddha would enlighten us all.”


So, in order to guide Ānanda and the great assembly into the state of mind where no mental objects arise, the Buddha reached out from the Lion’s Seat and circled his palm on the crown of Ānanda’s head, and said, “The Buddha has often explained that all phenomena that come into being are nothing more than manifestations of the mind. All things that are subject to the principle of cause and effect — from the largest world to the smallest dust mote — they come into being because of the mind. If we examine the fundamental nature of everything in the world, Ānanda, down to even the smallest wisps of grass, we can see that each has an entity. Even space has a name and attributes. Given that, how could this wondrous mind — the mind that is the basic nature of all mental states — lacks a reality itself?”

“But if, as you insist, that this thing which makes distinctions, which knows and understands is indeed the mind, then it would have its own essential nature independent of its entanglement with objects — with visible objects, as well as sounds, odors, flavors, and objects of touch. Yet now, as you listen to my Dharma, it is because of sounds that you can distinguish my meaning. Even if you were to withdraw into a state of quietude in which all seeing, hearing, awareness of tastes, and tactile awareness ceased, you still would be making distinctions among the shadowy objects of cognition in your mind.”

“I am not demanding that you just accept that this distinction-making capacity is not the mind. But examine your mind in minute detail to determine if a distinction-making capacity exists independent of its perceived objects of awareness. If indeed it exists independently, then that would truly be your mind. If, on the other hand, your distinction-making capacity does not have an essential nature apart from its perceived objects, then it would be a perceived object too — a shadowy mental object. Perceived objects are not permanent, and once this so-called mind ceases to exist as such, it would have no more reality than a turtle with fur or a hare with horns, and your Dharma-body would cease to exist along with it. Then who would be left to practice and to perfect patience with the state of mind in which no mental objects arise?”

At that point Ānanda and the others in the great assembly were utterly dumbfounded. They had nothing to say.

The Buddha said to Ānanda, “The reason why so many practitioners in the world do not succeed in putting an end to outflows and becoming Arhats — even though they may have passed through all nine of the successive stages of samādhi — is that they are attached to distorted mental processes that come into being and then cease to be, and they mistake these processes for real. That is why, even though you have become quite learned, you have not become a sage.”


When Ānanda had heard that, he again wept sorrowfully. He then bowed to the ground, knelt on both knees, placed his palms together, and said to the Buddha, “Ever since I followed the Buddha and resolved to enter the monastic life, I have been relying on the Buddha’s awe-striking power. I often thought to myself that there’s no reason for me to toil at spiritual practice, because I just expected that the omnipotent Buddha would transfer some of his samādhi to me. I never realized that the Buddha could not stand in for me, neither in body nor in mind. Though my body has entered the monastic life, my mind has not entered the Path. I am like that poor son who ran away from his father. Today I realize that if I do not practice on my own, I might have never really learned anything at all, just as someone who talks of food all day long never gets full.”

“I know all beings are bound by two obstructions,” Ānanda continued, “and as a consequence we are unaware of the mind that is everlasting and still. I hope the Buddha would take pity on us who are destitute and homeless, and disclose the wondrous mind that truly understands, so as to open our eyes to the Path.”

Then the Buddha poured forth resplendent light from the symbol of purity on his chest. The light, brilliant and radiant with hundreds of thousands of colors, shone throughout all ten directions simultaneously to illuminate the innumerable Buddha-lands, before it returned to shine upon the great assembly and Ānanda.

The Buddha said to Ānanda, “I now will raise for all of you a great Dharma-banner so that all beings in all ten directions can gain access to what is wondrous and subtle — the pure and luminous wisdom mind — and thus open your clear-seeing eyes.”