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The Division and the Vehicle

VOLUME 1, Chapter 1


A3 The division in which the sutra is included and the vehicle to which it belongs.

The “division” refers to the tripitaka, the three treasuries of the Buddhist canon: the sutra treasury, the vinaya treasury, and the shastra treasury. The three treasuries correspond to the three nonoutflow studies: precepts, samadhi, and wisdom. The sutra treasury teaches samadhi, the vinaya treasury teaches precepts, and the shastra treasury teaches wisdom. In sutras one often sees the title “Tripitaka Master.” This refers to one who has mastered all three treasuries.

Although sutras may include sections dealing with the vinaya or with wisdom, they predominately deal with the study of samadhi. For instance, the Shurangama Sutra teaches people how to cultivate dhyana concentration. This has already been mentioned as the fourth reason that the Buddha spoke this sutra: to display the samadhi of the nature and to exhort us to actual accomplishment. There is one section in this sutra known as the four unalterable aspects of purity, and this is an explanation of vinaya. But since the sutra is primarily devoted to a discussion of samadhi, it is not classed as vinaya, but as a sutra.

The “vehicle” refers to the two vehicles in Buddhism: the great vehicle (mahayana) and the small vehicle (theravada). The small vehicle is like a very small cart, which can only seat a few people. It is the vehicle of the sound-hearers and pratyekabuddhas. The great vehicle is the Bodhisattva vehicle, that is, like a limousine, which can seat many people. This sutra expounds great vehicle dharma for teaching Bodhisattvas, of whom the Buddhas are protective and mindful. As instruction for Bodhisattvas, it causes arhats to turn from the small and go toward the great, to resolve their minds on Bodhi and cultivate the Bodhisattva Way.

For instance, when Ananda returned from the house of Matangi’s daughter to where Shakyamuni Buddha was, he respectfully requested the Buddha to instruct him in the “path to Bodhi, which all Thus Come Ones of the past have cultivated.” Shakyamuni Buddha’s answer to his question is the Shurangama Sutra, a dharma cultivated by Bodhisattvas. Therefore this sutra is classed as a great vehicle rather than a small vehicle dharma.

The Depth of the Meaning and Principle

A4 The examination of the depth of the meaning and the principle.

To which of the teachings do the principles discussed in the sutra belong? The Tian Tai school describes the following four teachings:

  1. the storehouse teaching;
  2. the connecting teaching;
  3. the separate teaching;
  4. the perfect teaching.

The storehouse teaching, or tripitaka teaching, refers to the dharmas of the small vehicle. It includes the abhidharma and the agama sutras. Agama is sometimes interpreted as “incomparable dharma” but even so it is still the teachings of the small vehicle.

The connecting teaching connects with the storehouse teaching that precedes it and with the separate teaching that follows it.

The separate teaching differs from what comes before and after it. It is not the same as the connecting teaching that precedes it nor the perfect teaching that follows.

The fourth of the teachings as described by the Tian Tai is the perfect teaching. Of these four, the Shurangama Sutra belongs to the separate teaching.

The Xian Shou school makes five divisions:

  1. the small teaching;
  2. the beginning teaching;
  3. the final teaching;
  4. the sudden teaching;
  5. the perfect teaching.

The small teaching coincides with the storehouse teaching of the Tian Tai division. The beginning teaching includes both the connecting and the separate teachings of the Tian Tai. The final, sudden, and perfect teachings are all contained in the perfect teaching division of the Tian Tai. Although the names differ, the principles are the same.

The small teaching refers to the small vehicle teachings. The beginning teaching refers to the beginning of the great vehicle teaching. It was spoken for those who understood only the emptiness of people and had not yet realized the emptiness of dharmas. They were not yet free of their attachment to dharmas.

The final teaching is the great vehicle dharma. It is for those who understand the emptiness of people and the emptiness of dharmas, the doctrine of the great vehicle. Speaking of the emptiness of people and dharmas, I am reminded of a story that is on the public record.

When Shakyamuni Buddha lived in the world, people often asked him to accept vegetarian meal-offerings. Following the meal it was customary for the host to go before the Buddha, bow, and request dharma. If the Buddha was not present, then the host would ask the Buddha’s disciples to accept the offering and in turn the disciples would speak dharma for the host.

One day the Buddha and his great bhikshus left the Jeta Grove at the city of Shravasti, where they were living, and went out to accept an offering of food, leaving behind only one small shramanera (novice monk) to watch the door. After the Buddha had departed, an upasaka (layman) came to the monastery to request that a member of the Sangha come and accept offerings at his home on behalf of the Triple Jewel.

Finding that the bhikshus and the Buddha had all gone out, he said to the one small shramanera who was left, “That’s okay, I’ll invite you, shramanera, to come and accept my offering. Come with me.” The small shramanera nervously consented to accompany him: nervous because he had never gone out by himself to accept an offering before. He’d always gone with the other bhikshus. Once he found himself obligated to speak dharma, he realized he didn’t have any idea what to say.

Although this concern weighed on him, he accompanied the host who had so sincerely asked him to go and accept the meal-offering. After they had eaten, the inevitable happened. The host very respectfully turned to the small shramanera, bowed deeply, and requested dharma. As an expression of his sincerity, the host kept his head bowed as he knelt before the small shramanera, waiting for him to speak dharma. There sat the small shramanera staring at his host prostrate before him. And then what do you suppose happened? Without uttering a word, he slipped off his chair, tip-toed outside, and beat a hasty retreat back to the Jeta Grove. Naturally he felt ashamed at having eaten his fill and then run away without speaking the dharma.

For a long time the host knelt with his head bowed. But finally, having heard nothing, he lifted his head to steal a peek and he saw that there was no one in the seat before him. The small shramanera had disappeared. At the moment he saw that the shramanera was gone, he became enlightened. He awoke to the emptiness of people and the emptiness of dharmas. “Haaaa! So that’s the way it is!” he exclaimed, and wished immediately to seek certification of his enlightenment. Naturally he headed for the Jeta Grove in search of the small shramanera.

Meanwhile the small shramanera, petrified that his host would pursue him in quest of the dharma, had run back to the Jeta Grove, headed straight for his room, slammed the door, and locked himself in. Who would have guessed that not long after he had locked the door, he would hear a knock? The little shramanera stood frozen with fear without making a sound on the other side of the door. He was totally panic-stricken. After all, he had eaten the host’s food and now the host had come demanding the dharma. His nervousness reached such an extreme that at the height of his anxiety, suddenly he became enlightened and also awakened to the emptiness of people and the emptiness of dharmas.

This story illustrates that it is not certain under what circumstances one will become enlightened. Perhaps you will become enlightened by getting nervous. Or perhaps happiness will cause you to become enlightened. Any experience you stumble on may bring enlightenment. Some hear the sound of the wind and become enlightened. Some listen to the flow of water and become enlightened. Some become enlightened upon hearing a wind-chime; others upon hearing a bell ring.

”I have heard all those things many times. Why haven’t I become enlightened?” you may ask.

How should I know why you haven’t become enlightened? You must wait for enlightenment until your time arrives, just as you must wait for food to be cooked before you can eat it. You must wait for the opportunity to ripen. When the opportunities are ripe, then anything you run into can cause you to become enlightened.

The patriarchs of the past in China have become enlightened under many different circumstances. It is only necessary that you continue to cultivate and investigate the Buddhadharma with determined and concentrated effort. If you do that, then one day you will become enlightened. If you are already enlightened, so much the better. If you aren’t enlightened, you should go slowly and wait. Don’t be nervous. Don’t be so anxious that you can’t sleep or eat.

The final teaching is for those who have awakened to the emptiness of people and dharmas. It is the entrance into the great vehicle teaching. The final teaching instructs Bodhisattvas. It is not however the ultimate teaching. It is surpassed by the sudden and perfect teachings. The perfect teaching explains the unobstructed perfect interpenetration of all things. Everything is originally the Buddha.

The Dharma Flower Sutra, a perfect teaching, says that all living beings will become Buddhas in the future. That sutra says: “If people who are very scattered and confused enter a stupa or temple and say ‘Namo Buddha’ but once, they can all realize the Buddha’s Way.” When people enter stupas or temples to bow to the Buddha they should be sincere and intent upon what they are doing.

But here, the Dharma Flower Sutra refers to an insincere person who enters a temple and casually recites “Namo Buddha.” Due to just that one recitation of “Namo Buddha” he will become a Buddha in the future.

I am reminded of another story that is a matter of public record. When you recite the Buddha’s name, you should transfer the merit to all living beings; you shouldn’t just recite for your own sake. When you recite the name of a Buddha even once and dedicate the merit and virtue from your recitation to all living beings, you thereby increase the merit and virtue of the recitation, and you make it penetrate without obstruction.

Once, Shakyamuni Buddha went to a certain country to collect alms, accompanied by all of his disciples except Mahamaudgalyayana only to find that no one there would give them offerings. Neither the king, nor his government officials, nor the citizens made offerings to the Buddha or his disciples.

Later, however, when Mahamaudgalyayana arrived in that country, there was a complete change of heart. The king, the officials, and all the citizens very respectfully gathered around to welcome Mahamaudgalyayana and to bow to him. They beseeched him to let them know what he needed so they could make offerings to him. The Buddha’s disciples did not understand why the Buddha, one of such great virtue, received no offerings from the people of this country, while when the Buddha’s disciple arrived, the whole town turned out to greet him and everyone made offerings to him. “What’s the meaning of this?” the disciples asked the Buddha.

The Buddha told his disciples: “The great officials and the citizens made no offerings to me because in a past life I failed to set up conditions with them and consequently we have no affinity with one another. Once long, long ago, ages prior to this one, Mahamaudgalyayana was a firewood gatherer. One day while picking up firewood he bumped against a nest of bees, and they swarmed out to attack him.

Mahamaudgalyayana simply recited the Buddha’s name and made a vow saying, ‘Namo Buddha. You bees, don’t sting me! In the future when I have realized the Way, you will be the first ones I take across to Buddhahood. Renounce your evil thoughts and stop harming people.’ As a result of this vow, the bees did not sting him. Eventually the queen bee became the king of this country and the drones and workers became the officials and citizens. When Mahamaudgalyayana, now a bhikshu, came to this city, the former bees whom he had to take across all bowed and welcomed him. Such is the power of his former vow.”

Taking this situation to heart, we should always establish wholesome affinities by being kind to everyone. We should vow to lead all people and all creatures to Buddhahood. A vow is invisible, but living beings have the equivalent of a radio receiver in their minds, so they can tune in to it. A vow is not tangible or visible, but beings will instinctively know if you are good to them. You should resolve to rescue all living beings. Anyone who maintains this frame of mind will have affinities wherever he goes.

”I went to a certain place and no one came to my aid. Why was that?” someone may ask.

It is because you didn’t develop any affinities with the people there in the past. Creating affinities is especially important for cultivators of the Way. So it is said, “If you haven’t harvested the fruit of Bodhi, first create affinities with living beings.” How? By being good to everyone. Why is this necessary? Living beings are the Buddha. Being good to them is simply being good to the Buddha. If you’re not good to them, you’re not being good to the Buddha.

Every thought ought to arise
for the sake of living beings.
Every good deed should be done
for the sake of all living beings.

One should use all one’s strength to do good deeds. Such is the resolve of a great vehicle Bodhisattva. Don’t be a small vehicle “self-ending” arhat who only takes himself across to enlightenment and doesn’t take others across, too.

If you can see all living beings as Buddhas, living beings will see you as a Buddha. If you see all living beings as demon kings, living beings will see you as a demon king. It’s just like putting colored glasses on. If you put on green glasses, everything you see is green. If you wear red glasses, everyone turns red. Not only that, but the way you see others is the way they see you. That’s why I said earlier that living beings have radio receivers in their minds, which let them tune into each other. Don’t think the other person is not aware of your bad thoughts. Although he may not actually know what you are thinking, his self-nature senses it. Being good to people is yang-light. Not being good to people is yin-shadow.

The meanings and doctrines of the Shurangama Sutra are as deep as the sea. Although some people claim to have fathomed the depths of the ocean, actually its depth varies so much from place to place that it’s impossible to say just how deep it is. The doctrines of the Shurangama Sutra are the same way. It’s not easy to fathom them. Each person gains his or her own particular advantages from the sutra. From person to person the advantages differ, but all come forth from the wisdom of the sutra. Because the sutra is deep, the wisdom we can obtain from it is great and the samadhi-power we gain is durable, and so it is called “the ultimate durability of all things.”

”If each of us obtains something from the sutra, are its meanings and doctrines diminished?”

No. The meanings and doctrines are like water in the sea. When someone goes to the shore and dips out a bucketful of water, the amount of water left in the sea is still great. If another person takes some water for his purposes, the water in the sea is still abundant. The sea is inexhaustible and unending. The doctrines of this sutra are also inexhaustible and unending. When you become enlightened, the sutra’s doctrines are still as complete as they were before your enlightenment. You can extract any amount of wisdom, but the wisdom obtainable from the sutra remains the same - it neither grows nor diminishes.

The Teaching Substance

A5 The expression of the teaching-substance.

All dharmas spoken by the Buddha have a teaching-substance. What is the substance of this sutra’s teaching? It consists of words, sentences, writings, and sound. Manjushri Bodhisattva suggests to the Buddha that when the Thus Come One appears in the world the “true teaching-substance of this region resides only in sound.” The region meant is the Saha world, our world of suffering. However, sound alone cannot be considered the substance of the teaching. Wind and water also make sounds, but they cannot be called the substance of the teaching.

More specifically, then, the substance of the teaching consists of sound, words, sentences, and writings. The sound is that of the Buddha’s first speaking this dharma. Once it was spoken, sound became words. And the words formed sentences, which were then written down. Once it was written down, the teaching became available. So the sutra’s teaching-substance is composed of sound, words, sentences, and writings.

The teaching-substance can be divided into four doors. The first is the door of accompanying phenomena; in this case, the sound, words, sentences, and writings. The Shurangama’s teaching-substance is based also on the door of consciousness-only, and on the door of returning to the nature, which is not concerned with appearances but returns directly to the nature. The sutra also takes the door of unobstructedness as its teaching-substance.

The door of consciousness-only discusses how the “three realms arise only from the mind and the myriad dharmas only from consciousness.” Shakyamuni Buddha contemplated the conditions to see which dharmas he should use to rescue beings. Then from within pure consciousness he spoke the dharma to teach and transform living beings, and their consciousness gained the benefit. This is the door of consciousness-only, taking consciousness-only as the substance of its teaching.

The door of returning to the nature is completely interpenetrated without obstruction. In it the consciousness disappears and returns to the nature. Returning to the nature is also the substance of the teaching.

What is the door of non-obstruction? The former doors include both phenomena and noumena, with the door of returning to the nature being noumena. When the four doors combine, phenomena and phenomena are non-obstructive. This non-obstruction, then - the perfect fusion and unobstructedness of all phenomena and of noumena - comprises this sutra’s teaching-substance.

Individuals Able to Receive the Teaching

A6 The identification of the appropriate individuals able to receive the teaching.

This refers to the living beings who are taught and transformed. To whom is the teaching of this sutra directed? The Shurangama Sutra causes sentient and insentient creatures to perfect all-wisdom at the same time. Both sentient and insentient beings can realize Buddhahood. Those who are taught specifically here are the sound-hearers, ones enlightened to conditions, and those with something left to learn.

Sound-hearers, arhats, hear the Buddha’s sound and awaken to the Way. They cultivate the dharma-door of the four truths: suffering, accumulation, extinction, and the Way.

Ones enlightened to conditions are pratyekabuddhas born at a time when there is a Buddha in the world. They cultivate the twelve links of conditioned causation and awaken to the Way. When there is no Buddha in the world, pratyekabuddhas are called solitary enlightened ones. Solitary enlightened ones live deep in the mountains in the remote valleys where they hide away in caves. There they watch the myriad things between heaven and earth continually live and die. In the spring the hundred flowers open, in the autumn the yellow leaves fall. Watching these changes, they awaken to the Way.

Besides teaching the sound-hearers and the ones enlightened to conditions, this sutra also teaches those with something left to learn, which in this case refers to the Bodhisattvas. The Buddha is the only one who has nothing left to learn. The sutra also transforms the fixed-nature sound-hearers, those who do not wish to turn from the small vehicle toward the great. A sound-hearer whose nature is flexible turns from the small toward the great and can pass from the position of sound-hearer through that of one enlightened to conditions on to become a Bodhisattva.

Although sound-hearers, ones enlightened to conditions, Bodhisattvas, and fixed-nature sound-hearers can be said to be the primary recipients of the sutra’s teaching, all living beings of the three realms - the desire realm, the form realm, and the formless realm - are the primary recipients of the teaching. This sutra accords with all opportunities and takes everyone across without exception.

Similarities, Differences and Determination of Time

A7 The similarities and differences between the principle and its implications.

The principle is that which is held in honor. What the principle leads us back to is called its implication. The teaching of the two vehicles (sound-hearers and pratyekabuddhas) is concerned primarily with cause and effect. This is a provisional dharma. The dharma the Buddha spoke includes both provisional and actual teaching. The provisional is temporary, the actual is everlasting. With the provisional dharma, cause is principle, the entering is its implication. When true appearance is reached, the provisional becomes actual. When the actual is reached, one is said to have awakened and entered. Thus the awakening is the principle, the entering is its implication.

When Ananda, the protagonist of this sutra, ran into trouble, the Buddha rescued him and then taught him to turn from the small toward the great. That is the principle. Ananda’s arrival at the ultimate fruit is its implication. The principle and its implication thus penetrate to the Buddha-Way, and are the Way to Buddhahood, and are thus distinguished from the various small vehicle sutras which discuss only the small vehicle and cannot penetrate to the Buddha-position.

A8 The determination of the time.

This refers to the time when the sutra was spoken. The Buddha spoke dharma for forty-nine years. When he spoke the Shurangama Sutra, King Prasenajit was sixty-two years old, and since the Buddha and King Prasenajit were the same age, this would place the sutra in the prajna period. But if we judge the sutra by its teaching, it is classified as vaipulya. Vaipulya, a Sanskrit word, means “broadening passages” and refers to the third period of Shakyamuni Buddha’s teaching, according to the Tian Tai classification. Therefore the previous classification of this sutra as a final teaching, according to the Xian Shou classification, was correct.

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