The Surangama Sutra: Chapter Three – Section 5

The Seven Primary Elements

Ananda said to the Buddha, “I often hear the Tathagata talking about the mixture of conditions, saying that all transformations in the world are due to the uniting of four elements. Why does the Tathagata negate all concepts of spontaneity? I do not know how to understand it now. Please be so compassionate as to explain it in full to save all living beings from getting stuck in idle theories.”


The Buddha replied, “You have renounced the Small Vehicle Dharmas of the Sound Hearers and have resolved to diligently seek unsurpassed Bodhi. I will, therefore show you the Supreme Truth. But why do you still bind yourself up in the false mind-patterns of worldly people? You are very learned, yet you are like someone who can talk about medicines but cannot distinguish real medicine from false ones when it is placed before you. Now listen attentively to what I am about to tell you, so that you all can cultivate the Great Vehicle, penetrate appearances and attain Reality.


“Ananda, as you have said, when the four elements mix and fuse, they cause all kinds of transformation in the world. But if it is against their nature, they cannot mix and unite, just as empty space cannot combine with form. If they do mix and unite though, they depend on each other for existence from beginningless to endless. In the process of transformation, they are subject to birth and death in endless succession, like the unbroken wheel of fire caused by a torch being spun in a circle.

“Ananda, the process is like water becoming ice and ice becoming water again.

“Now let us look at the element of earth, which ranges in size from the great earth to a tiny speck of dust. Then split this speck which is near to nothing and reduce it to the finest mote. Then split it again and again until it becomes the void. Ananda, if this mote can be reduced to nothing, you should know that form comes from the void.

“Now let us take the tinniest mote which is nearest to the void and see how much voidness should be mixed and united to produce it? We can then see it is absurd to suppose that it can be done by uniting motes. A mote can be split and reduced to voidness, but how many particles of form should be fused together to create the void? The union of form with form produces form but not voidness, and the union of void with void produces voidness but not form. Besides, although form can be split up, how can emptiness be massed together?

“You simply do not know that the nature of form is emptiness, and the nature of emptiness is form – both form and emptiness are identical, arising from self-nature. Pure at its origin, the element of earth pervades the Dharma Realm and manifests in response to living beings’ individual capacity of knowing, in accordance with the laws of karma. Ignorant worldly people wrongly attribute its origin to causes, conditions, or to spontaneity. These delusions, which arise from the discriminating and reasoning processes of the conscious mind, are nothing but the child play of empty words.


“Ananda, fire has no nature of its own but exists because of external causes and conditions. When people in a town are about the prepare their meals, they hold up a speculum to obtain fire from the sun. Now let us look into your suggestion that the fire comes forth from mixing and uniting. Take our community as example, which consists of you, I, and other bhikshus. Though the group is one, each member has his own body, clan and name, like Sariputra is a Brahman, Uruvilva is a Kasyapa, and you, Ananda, comes from the Gautama clan.

“Ananda, suppose fire came from the mixture and fusion of the elements, when a mirror is held up to obtain fire from the sun, would the fire come from the mirror, or the moxa tinder, or the sun? If it came from the sun, not only it would burn the moxa in your hand, but it should also scorch all the trees. If it came from the mirror, the mirror should get melt and your hand should get burned. If it came from the moxa, why would you need the sun and the mirror? Look at the speculum held in the hand, the sun high up in the sky, and the moxa grown from the ground – they are very far apart and obviously don’t mix and unite with each other. And fire cannot exist by itself either, without an origin.

“You simply do not realize that both fire and emptiness arise from the self-nature, and they are identical with each other – that the element of fire is fundamentally pure, that it pervades the Dharma Realm and manifests because the minds of living beings make distinctions about things. You should know that fire is generated wherever a person holds a speculum to the sunlight, and that if mirrors are held up throughout the Dharma Realm, fire would spring up everywhere. To what extent it will be experienced is dictated by the laws of karma. Ignorant worldly people wrongly attribute its origin to spontaneity without realizing that it is their consciousnesses making all the discriminations and distinctions. These delusions, which arise from the discriminating and reasoning processes of the conscious mind, are nothing but the child play of empty words.


“Ananda, water is unstable by nature. It is either flowing or being still. Kapila, Chakra, Padma, Hasta, and all other great magicians in Shravasti often obtain water to mix with their drugs by holding up a crystal ball to the light of a full moon at midnight. Does the water come from the ball, the moon or the void?

“If the water came from the distant moon, it would also flow through all the grass and trees on its way to the crystal ball. Since no water drips from the trees, obviously the water does not descend from the moon. If it came from the crystal ball, it would flow regularly, not only when the moon is full. If it came from the void of space, which is boundless, it would then flow everywhere, submerging everything – how could living beings still walk on the earth, fly in the air, and swim in the water? Yet meanwhile it would be absurd to say that the water does not come from any source.

“You still do not know that in the Tathagata Store the nature of water is true emptiness, and the nature of emptiness is true water. Pure in its origin, it pervades the Dharma Realm. It accords with living beings’ minds, in response to their capacity to know. Thus water flows wherever crystal balls are used to collect it. Since water can come forth throughout the entire world, can there be any fixed place to which it is confined? It is experienced in accordance with the laws of karma. Ignorant worldlings wrongly attribute it to causes, conditions or spontaneity. These mistakes, arisen from the discriminations of the mind, are nothing but the play of language which has no real meaning.


“Ananda, the nature of wind is emptiness. It is neither always in motion nor always still. As you enter the great assembly, you always adjust your robe, and when the corner of it brushes the person next to you, that person can feel a slight breeze. Does this puff of wind come from the corner of your robe? Or does it arise from the space? Or does it come from the person next to you?

“If the wind arises from the corner of your robe, you’re then clad in the wind, and your robe would billow out and fly off your body. Yet as I am now expounding upon the Dharma in the midst of the assembly, my robe remains still. Look at my robe – it hangs straight down, where is the wind? There is nowhere in the robe for the wind to hide.

“If the wind comes from space, then why wouldn’t it brush against the person when your robe did not move? Moreover, space is always present, so the wind should be constantly blowing if it comes from space. Besides, since we don’t see any wind now, does it mean that the empty space ceases to exist as well? But if it’s something that came into being and then ceased to be, it wouldn’t be called space or emptiness in the first place, would it?

“Suppose the wind comes from the person next to you, then it would be you rather than your neighbor feeling the breeze. Therefore it cannot be the case either.

“To sum up – it is you who adjust the robe; it is your neighbor who feels the breeze; space itself remains still. From where then does the wind come from? Wind and space cannot mix with each other; the wind has got to have an origin of its own. You still do not know that in the Tathagata Store, the nature of wind is emptiness, and emptiness is wind, which is fundamentally pure and pervades throughout the Dharma Realm. The extent to which a living being realizes this depends on each individual’s capacity of understanding.

“Ananda, in the same way that when you move your robe a puff of wind arises, it can arise anywhere throughout the Dharma Realm. How could it be confined to one particular place? The extent to which a living being can experience it depends on each individual’s karma. People in the world, due to their ignorance, mistakenly suppose that the wind comes into being from causes and conditions or on its own. These mistakes arise from the reasoning processes of the conscious mind, which produces all kinds of constructs, distinctions and discriminations – they are merely empty wordplays, devoid of any real meaning.


“Ananda, the nature of space is emptiness, which has no shape. It is discerned only in the presence of form. For instance, when the Brahmins and all the clans build their homes in the city of Shravasti, which is far from the river, they have to dig wells to find water. When a foot of earth is removed, a foot of emptiness is discerned. When ten feet of soil are dug out, ten feet of emptiness are discerned. How much space is discerned depends on how much earth has been removed. Now, does the space in the well come into being out of the soil? Does it come into being because of the digging? Or does it come into being on its own?

“Ananda, suppose it came on its own without any cause, then why it didn’t show up before the well was dug? If it came out of the soil, then we should have seen it entering the well as the soil was removed. If it came about because of the digging, then the digging should have brought the emptiness out of the well along with the dirt. The soil that is removed is solid matter, while the space is insubstantial matter – they simply do not function on the same plane.

“Although the nature of emptiness is all-pervasive, it is basically unmoving. You should know that the true nature of earth, water, fire, wind, together with space, which we may consider as five primary elements, are completely interfused with each other, and are one with the Tathagata Store, fundamentally devoid of production and extinction.

“When we discussed the first four primary elements, Ananda, you didn’t understand that their source is none other than the Tathagata Store, so you still have to wonder where the fifth primary element space comes from. You still do not realize that in the Tathagata store, the nature of space is emptiness, and emptiness is space. Pure at its origin, space pervades throughout the Dharma Realm. The extent to which a living being can realize this depends on the individual’s capacity of understanding.

“Ananda, when a place is dug and empty of earth, emptiness fills up that place. Likewise, when places in the ten directions are dug, emptiness fills up in the ten directions. Space is everywhere throughout the ten directions – it cannot be limited to one particular place. The extent to which a living being can experience it depends on each individual’s karma. People in the world, due to their ignorance, mistakenly suppose that space comes into being from causes and conditions or on its own. These mistakes arise from the reasoning processes of the conscious mind, which produces all kinds of constructs, distinctions and discriminations – they are merely empty wordplays, devoid of any real meaning.


“Ananda, one does not become visually aware unless space and visible forms are present. For example, you are now in Prince Jetri’s Grove, where it is light in the morning and dark in the evening. When there is a full moon, it is bright at midnight; when there is no moon, it is dark. You can discern light and darkness because of your visual awareness. Now, Ananda, is your seeing identical to light, darkness and space? Or is it separate from them? Or are they the same yet different? Or are they neither the same nor different?

“If seeing were one with light, darkness, and space, then it would disappear when it is light or it would cease to exist when it is dark, as light and darkness cancel each other out. Then again, once seeing ceased to exist, how could it perceive light or darkness? Besides, if light and darkness differ from each other, how could they form a unity with seeing in the first place?

“But if we say that seeing is separate from light, darkness, and emptiness, how could we then establish perception when those three qualities are absent? Without light, darkness, and space, how could your visual awareness come to exist? That wouldn’t seem right either.

“Further, since no boundary there is between seeing and space, how can we say they are not the same? On the other hand, since seeing always remains unchanged no matter it is light or it is dark, how can we say they are not different?

“You should examine this matter in great detail, investigate it minutely, contemplate it thoroughly. Light comes from the sun, and it is dark on a moonless night. We can see through space but not through earth. From what does our visual awareness arise? It cannot come into being on its own, without an origin. And it cannot mix with space either, since seeing has awareness, while emptiness is inanimate and insentient.

“Given that the faculties of seeing, hearing, and cognitive awareness are all-pervasive and unmoving, you should know that the stationary infinite space, as well as the moving elements earth, water, fire, and wind, which together are known as the six primary elements, are completely interfused with each other and all devoid of creation and cessation in the Tathagata Store.

“Ananda, your mind is so clouded that you have not yet realized that your seeing, hearing, and knowing are fundamentally the Tathagata Store. You should investigate deeply to see whether your vision awareness, your sound awareness, your touch awareness, and your cognition awareness are subject to creation and cessation or not – do they come into existence and cease to exist? Or do they neither come into being nor ever cease to be? Are they identical to each other or different? Or are they neither identical nor different?

“You still do not know that in the Tathagata Store the true nature of your vision is enlightenment, and the essence of enlightenment is your illuminating awareness. Fundamentally pure, it pervades throughout the Dharma Realm. The extent to which a living being can perceive this depends on their individual capacity of understanding. The same is true for the powers of hearing, smelling, tasting, touching, and knowing, which all extend throughout the Dharma Realm. They fill up the entirety of emptiness in the ten directions throughout the Dharma Realm. How could they be limited to just one particular place?

“To what extent a being can experience this is in accord with their individual karma. Ignorant of this fact, people in the world mistakenly believe that awareness comes into existence out of causes and conditions or on its own. These mental distinctions and discriminations, arising from the reasoning processes of the conscious mind, are nothing but empty wordplays without real meaning.


“Ananda, the nature of consciousness has no source, but is a false manifestation based on the six organs and their objects. It comes into being in response to the six faculties and their activities. The manifestation is nothing but an illusion. Look around now at the assembly here. As you glance from one to another, whatever you see is like what is seen in a mirror – it simply stares back at you, without any distinction. However, your consciousness will make distinctions and identify them one by one, for example, as Manjushri, Purnamaitrayaniputra, Maudgalyayana, Subhuti, and Sariputra. Now, does this distinction-making faculty, this primary element consciousness, come from your seeing, or from the objects perceived? Or does it arise from emptiness? Or does it arise on its own without a cause?

“Ananda, suppose your consciousness came from seeing. But in the absence of light, darkness, form, and space, your eye-faculty would not function, then how could your consciousness arise? If your consciousness came from form, then in the absence of light or darkness, since you would not see objects and space, where would your consciousness arise from?

“Now suppose the consciousness came from space rather than form or eye-faculty. But in the absence of seeing and all things perceived (such as light, darkness, and form), how could consciousness arise? The same applies to hearing, touching, and knowing. Even if space could cause your consciousness to arise, how would you be able to make distinctions about anything amid nothingness?

“As for whether consciousness comes forth on its own without a cause, let me ask you this – why doesn’t the moon start shining in the sun?

“You should look into this matter closely, investigate it in great detail. Seeing is a function of your eye-faculty. The perceived objects that appear in your environment have form, while space lacks form. Consciousness is active and the eye-faculty is still, so they do not mix. The same is true for consciousness and your ear-faculty, your nose-faculty, your body-faculty, and your cognitive faculty. Given that the primary element consciousness is not caused by any of these factors, you should know that the distinction-making eye-consciousness, ear-consciousness, body-consciousness, and mind-consciousness do not come from anywhere.

“So the true nature of consciousness and awareness, together with earth, water, fire, wind, and emptiness, which are called the seven elements, are completely pure and do not come from anything but perfectly interfused with each other in the Tathagata Store, fundamentally devoid of creation and extinction.

“Ananda, your mind is shallow, and your thoughts are too superficial. You simply do not know that inherent in the Tathagata Store there is a deep mind, which is bright and all knowing, and that enlightened brightness is your true consciousness. It is pure, tranquil and wondrous, pervading throughout the Dharma Realm. It encompasses all emptiness of the ten directions and beyond. How could it be confined to one particular location? To what extent a living being can experience it depends on their individual karma. Ignorant of this fact, people in the world try to assign its origin to causes and conditions or spontaneity. These are all limited distinctions and discriminations arisen from the reasoning processes of the conscious mind, merely empty wordplays devoid of real meaning.”


At that time, Ananda and everyone else in the Great Assembly were awestruck by such powerful teachings of the Buddha and felt that their bodies were emptied and minds opened. They were free of all concerns and impediments, realizing that their true consciousness extends to all ten directions, that they could see everything throughout the entirety of space as clearly as one might see a leaf in the palm of one’s hand, and that all things in the world are simply the luminous Buddha Mind that knows, and that this pure, pervading, perfect mind encompasses the entire universe.

Now looking back upon their own bodies born of their parents, they saw that the transient bodies are like dust motes drifting about everywhere in the emptiness, like bubbles floating on vast seas, appearing for a short while before vanishing without a trace, while the fundamental Buddha Mind – the light of the Buddha-nature is everlasting and never perishes.

Bowing to the Buddha with their palms placed together, they spoke verses in praise of the Buddha, for the sublime instructions they received:

“The Foremost Honored One, all-knowing and tranquil,
Surangama, the King of Mantras, most sublime in the world,
It extinguishes my distorted thoughts
Gathered in countless eons past.
So I no longer have to endure asamkhyeya eons
To attain the Dharma-body.

“Now I vow to reach enlightenment
And return as a Dharma-king
To rescue as many beings
As there are sand grains in the Ganges.
This firm resolve I offer in the myriad Buddha-lands.
By this may I repay the kindness shown me by the Buddha.

“I ask the Buddha to be witness as I take this vow
To enter first the murky realms of five turbidities,
If even just one being still has not become a Buddha,
Then I will not take the leisure of nirvana.

“Greatest in valor and in power! The Most Compassionate One!
I pray you’ll now eradicate even the most subtle of my doubts
And lead me to quickly attain the supreme enlightenment,
And sit in the Bodhimanda of the worlds.

“Should even the vast emptiness shatter,
This vajra mind will never waver.”


妙湛總持不動尊 首楞嚴王世稀有
消我億劫顛倒想 不歷僧祇獲法身
願今得果成寶王 還度如是恆沙眾
將此深心奉塵剎 是則名為報佛恩
伏請世尊為證明 五濁惡世誓先入
如一眾生未成佛 終不於此取泥洹
十雄大力大慈悲 希更審除微細惑
令我早登無上覺 於十方界坐道場
舜若多性可銷亡 爍迦羅心無動轉