The Surangama Sutra: Chapter Two – Section 5

Discriminative Perceptions Are Unreal

Having received the Buddha’s compassionate teaching, Ananda sobbed and said to the Buddha, “Upon hearing this profound instruction, I have now realized that the wonderful bright mind is fundamentally perfect; it is the eternally dwelling mind-ground. But it is my conditioned mind that I am using to contemplate this teaching reverently, which I dare not to recognize as the fundamental mind-ground. I pray that the Buddha will take pity on me and impart furthermore to eradicate my doubts by the roots and enable me to realize the unsurpassed Way!”


The Buddha told Ananda, “Now you still listen to the Dharma with the conditioned mind, and so the Dharma becomes conditioned as well, that’s why you do not realize the Dharma-nature. It is as if someone points his finger at the moon to show it to someone else. Guided by the finger, that person should see the moon. But if he looks at the finger instead and mistakes it for the moon, he neither sees the moon nor the finger. Why? Because he mistakes the pointing finger for the bright moon.”

“Not only does he miss out the finger,” the Buddha continued, “but also he fails to recognize light and dark. Why? He mistakes the substance of the finger for the nature of the bright moon, so he does not realize the natures of light and dark. The same is true of you. You take the sound of my speaking Dharma to be your mind. It is like mistaking the guest of an inn as the innkeeper: the guest who lodges overnight at an inn stops only temporarily before getting back on the road – he does not dwell in the inn permanently, whereas the innkeeper goes nowhere: he is the host of the inn.

“Likewise, if the mind you use listening to the sound really were your true mind, it would not go anywhere either. For, how could you explain that in the absence of sound, you would find this conditioned mind has no independent nature of its own? This applies not only to sound, but also to appearances of all sorts. Once being apart from forms, the conditioned mind has no independent attributes of its own.

“Even when the making of distinctions is totally absent, when there is neither form nor emptiness – the obscurity which Goshali and the others take to be the ‘profound truth’ – in the complete absence of causal conditions, the distinction-making nature of the mind ceases to exist. Since everything perceived by the mind returns to everything other than the mind, how could we say then, that the nature of this conditioned mind is not a guest, but the inn host?”


Ananda said, “If every state of our mind returns to something else as its source, then why does the wonderful, bright, original mind mentioned by the Buddha return nowhere? Please kindly enlighten us on this point.”


The Buddha said, “As you look at me now, the essence of your seeing is fundamentally bright. To make an analogy, if we take the profound bright original mind as the moon, the essence of your seeing is the second moon rather than its reflection. Now you listen carefully, for I am going to show you the place of no returning.”

Then the Buddha expounded: “Ananda, this great lecture hall is open to the east. It is flooded with light when the sun rises in the sky. It is dark at midnight during the waning of moon or when obscured by clouds or fog. Looking out through open doors and windows your vision is unimpeded; facing walls or houses your vision is blocked – your vision becomes conditioned in such places where there are forms of distinctive features. While in dull void, you can see only emptiness. And your vision will be distorted when the objects are shrouded in dust and vapor, otherwise you will perceive clearly if the air is clear.

“Ananda, bear all these transitory manifestations in mind as I now return each to its place of origin. The ‘light’ must return to the sun. For without the sun, there is no light; therefore, the light’s place of origin is the sun. ‘Darkness’ returns to the waning moon. ‘Penetration’ returns to the doors and windows. ‘Obstruction’ returns to the walls and buildings. ‘Conditions’ return to distinctions. ‘Emptiness’ returns to emptiness. ‘Dimness’ and ‘distortion’ return to the mist and haze. Bright ‘purity’ returns to clarity. And nothing that exists in this world goes beyond these kinds.

“Now, Ananda, to which of the eight states of perception does the essence of your seeing return? The answer lies in the fact that if it’s returned to brightness, you would not see darkness when there is no light. In fact, no matter what state of perception it is, what you see would remain unchanged.

“If the essence of your seeing can be returned to a source other than you, it is clearly not you; if it can be returned nowhere, then it is nothing but you.

“This is why I know that your true mind is fundamentally perfect, bright, and pure. You yourself are confused and deluded. You miss what is fundamental, and you are caught in the turning wheel of the six paths, tossing and floating on the stormy sea of birth and death all the time. No wonder the Buddha says that you are the most pitiable of creatures.”


Ananda said, “Now I realize that the seeing-nature does not return to anything, but how can I be sure that it is my own?”


The Buddha replied, “I can see that at this point you have not yet attained the purity of no outflows, although you’re blessed by the Buddha’s spiritual strength and able to realize the first dhyana heavens with such unobstructed clarity, just like Aniruddha being able to look at Jambudvipa as clearly as he might look at an amala fruit in his own palm.”

“Bodhisattvas can see hundreds of thousands of realms.” The Buddha went on, “And the Buddhas of ten directions can see everything throughout the pure lands as infinite as dust motes. Living beings’ sight, however, does not extend beyond a fraction of an inch.

“Ananda, as you and I now look at the palace where the four heavenly kings reside, and inspect everything that moves in the water, on the land, or in the air – some are dark, some are bright, in various shapes and appearances, yet all are nothing but dust before us – all are nothing but dualistic distinctions and obstructions.

“Among them you should distinguish which is the self and which is not. I ask you now to discern carefully, from what you see, which is the substance of the self and which is the appearance of things.

“If you take a good look at everything within the range of your vision, Ananda, extending from the palaces of the sun and moon to the seven gold mountains, all that you see is not you, but are things of different features in different lights. You see clouds floating, birds flying, wind blowing, dust rising, trees, plants, rivers, mountains, grasses, animals, people, all of which are things other than you.

“Ananda, all things, near or far, have the nature of things. Although each is distinctly different, they are seen by you with the same pure essence of seeing. Therefore, all things have their individual distinctions, but the seeing-nature has no differences. This essential, wonderful brightness is most definitely your seeing-nature. Otherwise, if seeing were a thing, then you should be able to see my seeing too. When we both look at the same thing, you may say you can see my seeing, but when I am not seeing, how come you can’t see what I am not seeing?

“If you do see my not-seeing, it is clearly not the thing that I am not seeing. If you do not see my not-seeing, then it is clearly not a thing, therefore how could you say it is not you?

“Furthermore, if the seeing were a thing, things would also see you when you see things. If we confuse substance and nature, everyone in the world will never be at peace.

“Ananda, when you see, it is you who see and not I, and your seeing-nature pervades everywhere you see – if it is not yours then to whom it belongs? Why do you doubt the true nature of your own seeing?”


Ananda said to the Buddha, “Your Holiness, given that this seeing-nature is truly mine and does not belong to anything else, I am wondering why that when we stayed at the palace of the Four Heavenly Kings, admiring its supreme collection of jewels, this seeing-nature could extend to all lands of the Saha world. But now upon returning to this smaller abode, I only see the monastic grounds and the eaves and corridors in the central hall. It happens all the time – outside the room the seeing may pervade everywhere throughout the whole realm, but once inside it fills one room only, as if the seeing itself shrinks from great to small, although I know it’s been cut off by the walls and buildings … What I meant to ask is how I should interpret this?”


The Buddha replied, “All the aspects of everything in the world, be it big or small, inside or outside, are considered dust before you. The seeing never stretches or shrinks. Let’s take the example of a square container, in which a square of emptiness is seen. Is the squared emptiness in the container a fixed square shape, or is it not fixed? If it is a fixed square shape, when it’s put in a round container the emptiness would not be round. If it is not a fixed square shape, then in the square container it is not really a square of emptiness.

“The meaning we can take from it is thus: how do we define the location of our seeing? Ananda, if we want to make the shape of emptiness inside the container neither square nor round, all we need to do is getting rid of the container. Since emptiness has no shape, we never would have to do anything about the emptiness itself.

“If, as you said, your seeing seems shrink and become small when you enter a room, then when you look up and see the sun, is your seeing pulled out and reaching the surface of the sun? If your seeing is cut off by walls when you enter a room, then why we don’t see a joining when we drill a small hole in the wall?

“Ever since the beginningless time, all living beings have been mistaking themselves for things and, having lost track of their original mind, their seeing is distorted by things. That is why they contemplate big and small in the midst of all this.

“If you can turn things around like the Buddhas do, with the body being tranquil and the mind reuniting with the primordial light, you can then stay unmoving in the non-dualistic way. Even presiding only at the tip of a single hair, you may completely oversee the lands of ten directions.”


Ananda said, “If this seeing-essence is indeed my true nature, and it is now being right here in front of me, then what is my body? Up to this point, my body seems to be the one who really makes distinctions. But if actually it is my mind which causes me to see, then the seeing-essence must be the true me, while the body is not me. Now again, we return to the previous question that if seeing is a thing, then the things I see would also be able to see me.


The Buddha replied, “What you have just said – that the seeing is in front of you – is not a correct way to put it. If it’s in front of you, it would be something you could actually see, that it would have a location. Now sitting in the Jeta Grove, we can see the grove, the ponds, the halls, as far as the sun and moon, with the Ganges River before us. You may identify the dark one as the grove, the bright one as the sun, the obstructing as the walls, the transparent as emptiness, and so on to the grasses, the trees, even the finest of hair. Everything big or small all has appearance, yet you can’t exactly locate anything, since all phenomena are empty. If like you said, your seeing-essence is in front of you, then you should be able to point it out with a finger. Ananda, you must know that if the emptiness in front of you is your seeing, then how could it be empty? Or if a thing in front of you is your seeing, how could it be an external object, since your seeing-essence is your inherent nature?

“In this way, you can peel away the myriad appearances of all things, until you uncover the innermost essence of seeing, thus achieving perfect clarity beyond any doubt.”


Ananda said, “From where I am now in this many-storied lecture hall, to the Ganges River in the distance, and the sun and moon overhead, everything my hand can point to, everywhere my eyes can see, all are objects and not the seeing-essence. It is indeed as the Buddha has said – not to mention someone like me who is merely a shravaka of the first stage, who still has outflows, even Bodhisattvas may not be able to peel away the myriad appearances before them and realize the essence of seeing.”

The Buddha said, “Exactly, exactly. It is as you said, there is no seeing-essence to be found within things. Whatever things you point to are merely objects, none is the seeing-essence. Now you and the Buddha sit in the Jeta Grove looking at the groves, gardens, the sun and moon, as well as all other great variety of different appearances, and it is certain that the seeing-essence is not in anything you turn to. Now you may also have discovered what is not your seeing.”

Ananda said, “I can see clearly all over the Jeta Grove, yet I do not know among all these things what is not my seeing, and I don’t know why. If trees are not my seeing, why do I see trees? If trees are my seeing, then what becomes of trees? The same is true of everything else, including emptiness – if emptiness is not my seeing, why do I see emptiness? If emptiness is my seeing, then what becomes of emptiness? Then I consider it again and realize that among the ten thousand things, down to the finest aspects of the myriad appearances, nothing is not my seeing.”

The Buddha said, “Exactly, exactly.”

By now in the great assembly, upon hearing these teachings of the Buddha, those who had not reached the stage beyond learning were all stunned and could not perceive where the meaning began or ended. They were agitated and taken aback at the same time, having lost what they had adhered to.

The Buddha, knowing people were anxious and uneasy in spirit, began to console Ananda and everyone in the great assembly: “Good people, what the supreme Dharma King says is true and real. He speaks things as they are. He does not deceive. He does not lie. He is not Maskari Goshaliputra with his four kinds of non-dying theories that are deceptive and confusing. You should consider this attentively. It is no disgrace to feel anxious and to implore.”