The Surangama Sutra: Chapter Two – Section 3

Visual Awareness Does Not Perish

Having heard the Buddha’s teachings, Ānanda and the great assembly all felt calm and serene, their bodies at ease and their minds in peace. They realized that since beginningless time they had strayed from the primordial mind. They had been mistaken about conditioned objects, and they had made distinctions about mental formations, which are empty in essence. Now they all had awakened, and each was like a lost infant suddenly reunited with its loving mother. Putting their palms together, they bowed to the Buddha. They couldn’t wait to hear the Buddha reveal the contrasting qualities of body and mind — what is true and what is false, what is real and what is insubstantial, what comes into being and then ceases to be, and what neither comes into being nor perishes.


Then King Prasenajit stood up and said to the Buddha, “Before I became a disciple of the Buddha, I met Kātyāyana and Vairāṭiputra, both of whom said that when this body dies, we cease to exist and become nothing. That very nothingness itself is what they called nirvana. Now, though I have met the Buddha, I am still wondering about what they said. How can I come to realize the true and fundamental mind that neither comes into being nor perishes? All others in this great assembly who still have outflows wish to hear the answer too.”


The Buddha said to the king, “Now I ask you, is your body as indestructible as vajra, or is it subject to decay?”

The king answered, “Your Holiness, this body of mine will keep on changing till it perishes in the end.”

The Buddha said, “Great King, you have not perished yet. How is it that you know you will perish?”

“Your Holiness, my body is impermanent and subject to decay, although it has not perished yet.” The king said, “But now, upon reflection, I can see that each one of my thoughts just fades away, followed by a new thought which also does not last, like fire turning into ash, constantly dying away, forever perishing. By this I am convinced that my body, too, must perish.”

The Buddha said, “So it is, you are in your declining years. How do you look now, compared to when you were a boy?”

“When I was a child, my skin was firm and smooth, and I was full of vital energy in my prime. But now in my later years, as old age presses upon me, my body has become withered and weary. My vital spirits are dulled, my hair is white, my skin is wrinkled. Not much time remains for me. How can all this compare to the prime of life?”

The Buddha said, “Great King, your body’s appearance cannot have deteriorated suddenly.”

The king replied, “Your Holiness, the change has in fact been so subtle that I have hardly been aware of it. I’ve reached this point only gradually through the passing of the years. When I was in my twenties, I was still young, but I already looked older than when I was ten. My thirties marked a further decline from my twenties, and now, at two years past sixty, I look back on my fifties as a time of strength and health.”

“Your Holiness, as I observe these subtle transformations, I realize that the changes wrought by this descent toward death are evident not only from decade to decade; they can also be discerned in smaller increments. Examining more closely, one can see that changes happen year by year even. In fact, such changes happen every month. But how could they occur from month to month only? These changes must be happening day by day. And if one contemplates this deeply, one can see that there is change from moment to moment, constantly, along with each successive thought. Therefore, I know that my body will keep on changing till it perishes.”


The Buddha said, “Observing these changes — these never-ceasing transformations — you know that you must perish. But do you also know that when you perish, something in you does not perish with you?”

Putting his palms together, King Prasenajit replied to the Buddha, “Indeed I do not know.”

The Buddha said, “I now will reveal to you what it is that neither comes into being nor perishes. When you first saw the River Ganges, how old were you?”

The king replied, “I was three when my beloved mother took me to pay respects to the goddess Jīva. When we went past a river, I knew that it was the Ganges.”

The Buddha said, “You said that when you were in your twenties, you already looked older comparing to when you were ten. Year after year, month after month, day after day, until you have reached sixty now, there have been always changes about your looks along with each thought coming and going. Now consider this: when you were three years old, you saw the river for the first time; ten years later, when you were thirteen, what was the river like?”

The king replied, “It looked the same when I was thirteen as it did when I was three, and even now, when I am sixty-two, it is still the same.”

The Buddha said, “Now you are mournful that your hair is white and your face more wrinkled than when you were in your youth. But when you look at the Ganges now, is your visual awareness any different from your visual awareness as it was when you saw the river in your boyhood?”

The king replied, “No difference, Your Holiness.”

The Buddha said, “Great King, your face is wrinkled, but the essential nature of your visual awareness has not wrinkled. What wrinkles is subject to change. What does not wrinkle does not change. What changes will perish. But what does not change neither comes into being nor perishes. Then how could it be affected by your being born and dead? So you have no need to be concerned with what such people as Maskari Gośālīputra say: that when this body dies, you cease to exist.”

The king believed every word he had heard to be true, and he now realized that when we leave this body, we go on to another. He and the entire assembly were elated at having gained a new understanding.