IN THE SURANGAMA SUTRA
Dr. Bhikkhunī Giới Hương
ASKING ABOUT THE MIND
The Buddha said to Venerable Ānanda, “You and I are cousins in the same royal family. At the time you started to develop the bodhi mind, which characteristics did you admire in my religion that caused you to put away the deep cravings (trishna) in life?”
Ānanda replied to the Buddha, “I observed the Tathāgata’s thirty-two marks of excellence, which were so marvelously transparent, as gems. I thought that these characteristics could not be born from craving. Why? Sexual intercourse, with the blend of pus and blood is too turbid and foul to generate such a brilliant, wonderful, pure golden body. Thus, I devotedly renounced to practice under the Buddha’s guidance.”
The Buddha replied, “Excellent! Ānanda, you must know that since beginningless time, all living beings have been subject to birth and death continuously, because they simply have not yet recognized the bright, pure reality of the permanent mind. Instead, they attach to the illusory consciousness that causes the cycle of life. Now you hope to learn the supreme bodhi to return to your real nature. You should use your straightforward mind to answer my questions. Tathāgatas of the ten directions also used the straightforward mind to be freed from the birth and death cycle. Such a bright and unhindered mind would progress from the beginning to the middle to the end stages, and in the process never cheating.”
“Ānanda, now I ask you: ‘When you saw the
Tathāgata’s thirty-two marks of excellence and you aspired to develop a bodhi mind, what was it that made you prefer it?’ ”
Ānanda replied to the Buddha, “Tathāgata, the joy and gladness came from my mind and eyes, because when my eyes saw the Tathāgata’s good characteristics, in my mind arose wonderful feelings. That is why I renounced to practice the way of getting out the birth and death cycle.”
The Buddha asked Ānanda, “When the experience of joy and gladness arose in your mind and eyes, where did it come from? If you do not know the place where your mind and eyes come from, you will fail to conquer them. For example, if a country is invaded and the king commands the troops to fight, the troops must know where the invaders are in order to expel them. Now as you are stuck in the cycle of life as a result of your mind and eyes, I must ask you: ‘Where are your mind and eyes now?’ ”1
We can see the Buddha was very psychological and subtle in the way he comforted Ānanda, so he would not feel shamed, would have spiritual trust, rely on the Buddha, and avoid fear and sadness about his faults. The Buddha reminded him that “Ānanda and the Buddha are cousins in the same royal family. So, we love each other as real brothers.” The Buddha showed his friendliness to stabilize Ānanda’s mind. Then, he began asking him some questions, so he could experience for himself why Ānanda willingly left the palace to become a monk.
Since beginningless time, all living beings have been born and have died continuously. In the book, The Cycle of Life,”2 name and form are well illustrated by the picture of a ferryman sailing on the river of birth and death. The ferryman is the mind, the boat is the body, and the river of birth and death receives countless bodies (boats) from this life to the next, since ancient time, without end. It is our mind, the ferryman, who instructs us to sail. So, the Buddha asked, which mind transformed Ānanda to become the sage and which mind rose up to attach to Matangi?
Tathāgatas in the ten directions used the straightforward mind to get out of the cycle of birth and death, because the equivocal response is a foolish way to try and attain enlightenment.
The Buddha descended into the saha world with the aim to show us the unique way to be freed from transmigration. Because metempsychosis exists, there are endless births and deaths. Today, if we make merit in order to be reborn in a heavenly realm (deva realm); tomorrow we may commit unwholesome acts which will force us into the hell realms (niraya), ghost realms (pittivisaya), or animal realms (tiracchānayoni). The wholesome will go to the upper realms. In contrast, the unwholesome must always go to the lower lands. Both extremes make the wheel turn in life. The birth and death cycle is the root of all the oceans of suffering.
To get out of suffering, we must find the origin of suffering. For example, to defeat the enemy, we must know the shelter of the enemy; to gain stable happiness, we must plant the seed of permanent delight. Therefore, we must find the root or reason why we are subjected to the rebirth cycle and learn why the Buddha was able to avoid transmigration and attain permanent happiness.
Before leading Ānanda to enter Dharmas, the Buddha wanted him to realize and understand his thinking processes— rightly or wrongly. The Buddha asked several questions so Ānanda could realize his sickness and problems. As a result, Ānanda begged the Buddha to show the way of liberation.
What was it that turned Ānanda away from a life of ease as a prince? It changed him from enjoying the full credits of a human (manussa), entertained and waited on by servants, with delicious food, transported by carts or horses, living in the golden palaces with his beautiful wife and child, wearing expensive sandals, sitting on a silk throne, and sleeping in a golden bed, and other luxuries. But suddenly, he detached from all things to become a homeless monk who walked barefoot, begged for alms every day (the normal view at that time, especially to the royal family, was that begging for alms was a shameful thing that Ānanda had done). At that time, Ānanda was in a movable process. The moving cycle means to rotate from one state to another state or from this form to that form. Therefore, he had to find the reasons for this movement.
And what was the next movement? Whether he would leave the monastic order to return to lay life as a result of attaching to Maganti? If there were not the great Dharani mantra, Ānanda would easily lose his right mindfulness. So, the Śūraṅgama-Samādhi mantra saved him and his precepts.
The first question the Buddha asked him was why he ordained as a monk. Venerable Ānanda answered directly, quickly, and explicitly that “I observed the Tathāgata’s thirty-two marks of excellence, which were so marvelously transparent, as gems. I thought those characteristics could not be born from craving (trishna). Why? Sexual intercourse, with the blend of pus and blood is too turbid and foul to generate such a brilliant, wonderful, pure golden body. Thus, I devotedly renounced lay life to practice under the Buddha’s guidance.”
Ānanda knew that objects arise naturally in an unstable mind. When he met the Buddha, the pure awakened one, he was converted to follow the wholesome way and left the royal palace for the holy life. When Ānanda encountered Maganti, a prostitute, she tempted him to follow lust of the flesh. Thus, he seemed to lose his mindfulness and began to surrender to craving. Ānanda’s answer made it clear that he knew the symptoms of an unstable mind. Guessing the correct cause or symptom of lack of mindfulness can cure the sickness of rebirth.
When we want to defeat an enemy, we must know where their lair is located. Realizing the reason for Ananda’s shifts between good and evil, mundane and transmundane life, he realized that he must know where the mind was located. So, the Buddha asked Ānanda when he observed the Tathāgata’s thirtytwo characteristics and admiration arose in his mind, where were his mind and eyes? Similarly, when he saw the sexual beauty of Maganti and craving arose in his mind, where were the mind and the eyes then?
Ānanda tried seven times3 to look for the mind in seven places as follows:
1. The mind is inside the body: Ānanda declared ten categories of living beings who recognize that the mind or heart are clearly inside the body.
The Buddha refused the idea that the mind understands everything in the universe and and dwells inside the body. If it is located inside the body, it must be aware of Ānanda’s heart, liver, spleen, and stomach inwardly before seeing the outside. If it fails to do that, we cannot conclude that it is inside. It is impossible to state that the mind is inside the body.
2. The mind is outside the body: Ānanda presented the idea that the mind is outside the body because it is not aware of the inside. For example, if a lamp is luminous outside, then the room inside must be dark. Likewise, if the mind dwells outside the body, then it will understand and know everything in the universe. It fails to be aware of the stomach, liver, and other organs inside the body, so that means it is not inside.
The Buddha argued that it is outside the body. Just as the body belongs to a person but the mind belongs to another person, if one person eats, does everyone get full? So, it is impossible to state that the mind is outside.
3. The mind is behind the eyes: Since the mind does not perceive the stomach, liver, and other organs inside, it does not dwell in the inward body, and it can be aware of the outside. So, the mind may be hidden behind the eyes as the eyes can see and discriminate.
The Buddha debated that if it is like that, the mind must see the eyes before seeing the landscape. Likewise, the eyes must see the membranes covering the eyes before the eyes can see outside. So, this statement is not acceptable.
4. Closing the eyes to see darkness—that is to see within the body. Ānanda thought: “The viscera are within the body; the organ openings are outside. The viscera are darkness, the organ openings are brightness, so I think that opening the eyes to see the brightness is to see outside. Conversely, closing the eyes to see the darkness is to see within the body. How is this so? Please, World-Honored One, compassionately instruct us.”
The Buddha explained that when you close your eyes to see darkness, that is to see within the body. Thus, if the evening is without light, will the darkness in the room be Ānanda’s “three viscera”4 and “six internal faculties?”5 When you open your eyes to see the brightness of the light outside, why can’t you see your own face before you see the outside objects? Thus, it is impossible to state that closing the eyes to see darkness is to see within the body.
5. Whatever the mind clings to, it exists in response: Ānanda said to the Buddha, “I have heard the Buddha instruct that because the mind arises, all Dharmas arise, and because Dharmas arise, the mind arises. So, I think that whatever the mind clings to, it exists in response.”
The Buddha rejected the idea that the mind has no substance to cling to anything. “If it has its substance, Ānanda, when you pinch your head, does your mind perceive that it comes from the inside or outside? If it comes from the inside, then once again, it must be your internal organs (viscera) in your body. If it comes from the outside, it must see your face first. Furthermore, the Buddha said that if your mind, which is aware, understands and knows, is it a single substance or many substances? If the mind is a single substance, then when you pinch one limb with your fingers, the four limbs will be aware of it. If they all are aware of it, where is it that the pinch cannot be aware? If it is many substances, then you will be many people. Which substance will be Ānanda?”
6. The mind in the middle: Ānanda presented to the Buddha that “I also have heard the Buddha discuss true reality with the Dharma king’s sons like Mañjuśrī: the mind is neither inside nor outside, I think that it may be between the organs and objects.”
The Buddha argued that if it is in the middle, which is the middle? If there is no evidence of it, we cannot call it the middle. If there is evidence of it, the middle does not stay as it is. For example, we point a marker to indicate the middle. A person stays at the east and the marker will be to the west. If a person is at the south, it will be to the north.
If your mind is between faculties and objects, does the mind’s substance combine with the two or not? If it combines with the two, then the external objects and the mind substance will form a chaotic mixture—which is the mind? Are the external objects insentient without knowing; is the mind sentient at what you take as the middle? Therefore, you should know that for the mind to be in the middle is impossible.
7. Clinging to nothing is the mind: “World-Honored One, I have seen the Buddha turn the Dharma wheel with the four great disciples: Maudgalyayāna, Subhūti, Purna, and Śāriputra. The Buddha taught that the knowing nature of mind is at the place of neither inside nor outside, neither middle nor anywhere at all. That very nonattachment to anything is is called the mind.”
The Buddha asked: “Does your unattached mind exist or not? If it does not exist, it is the same as hairs on a tortoise or horns on a rabbit. How can you speak of nonattachment? If nonattachment exists, it has a location; how then can you call it unattached? Therefore, you should know to say Ānanda’s mind is at the place of nonattachment to anything is impossible.”
The Buddha rejected Ānanda seven times for looking for the mind in seven places. Ānanda and the assembly were frightened. If it is not the mind, then what is awakened? In fact, we are familiar with taking refuge. That taking refuge becomes our habitual karma. The mind does too. In fact, we are familiar with relying on something or someone. That leaning beomes our habitual karma. This happens in the mind too. We like to put our mind relying on something in order to know it exists and proclaims that it is our mind. However, the Buddha refused by declaring that it is not our mind. Ānanda and the assembly were so frightened that they prostrated to the Buddha to humbly receive his insight instruction to clear the ignorance.
SUMMARY OF CHAPTER III
In Chapter III the Buddha asked why Ānanda ordained and encounters Matangi’s accident. Ānanda answers that he admires the Buddha’s thirty-two good marks and wants to ordain under the Buddha. Ānanda is almost seduced by Matangi’s beauty. The Buddha refutes Ānanda’s seven attempts to find the location of his mind. He concludes that the mind is illusory. Wanting to cure illness, we must know the cause. As a result of clinging to his mind, his life is turned around: from a prince to a monk, and from a monk about to break his precepts. Now, he has only one job: to transform from delusion to truth.
1. What merits are the thirty-two good marks of the Buddha according to Ānanda’s thinking?
2. Please describe the meaning of the sentence: “The Tathāgatas are freed from the rebirth cycle due to all using the straight mind.”
3. Explain the seven attempts to search for the location of Ānanda’s mind.
4. Why are Ānanda and the Saṅgha very frightened when they hear the Buddha declare that it’s not his mind. It seems they do not possess minds as inanimate stone or wood?
- Adapted from The Śūraṅgama Sūtra, pp. 35–37.
- The Cycle of Life, by Dr. Bhikkhunī Giới Hương, NXB Phương Đông: Tủ Sách Bảo Anh Lạc. 2008. 2nd–3rd–4th reprint: 2010, 2014 & 2016, pp. 88–89.
- The Śūraṅgama Sūtra, pp. 16–27.
– Upper part contains heart, liver, lungs
– Middle part contains stomach, spleen, small intestine.
– Lower part contains bladder, large intestine
- Six inward sections: trunk, stomach, liver, small intestine, and large intestine.
Three digestions are smooth to support maintenance and circulation. Six inward sections are responsible for collecting food, performing digestion, excretion, and have the ability to reproduce, maintain the normal state of the body, that is, the balance of yin and yang in order to have a healthy body.