by Richard Josephson
If you want to understand the philosophy of the Tathagatagarbha School there are
better texts than the Surangama Sutra; if you want experience the Nature of Mind this
is the text for you. The Surangama Sutra is first and foremost a practice text. Its aim is
not to provide answers, but rather to teach us to ask the right questions. The basic
thesis is that enlightenment eludes us because we don't know how to inquire properly.
We approach enlightened knowledge the same way we approach any other form of
knowledge; after all, how else can we approach it? We are common people whose
minds are conditioned to think in a particular way. This is the way we have gained
knowledge of our world and the people in it life after life, and unfortunately we know
no other way of thinking. The Surangama Sutra aims to introduce us to a new way of
thinking that will open doors that have been locked for many lifetimes.
The Surangama Sutra is not a text for the arm-chair bodhisattva. It is a
no-holds-barred how to text for attaining self-realization. Its form is so conceptually
simple that unless we put the words into actual practice we may never realize its
intention. As an intellectual undertaking it is a walk in the park; the difficulty lies in its
application; which can take years if not lifetimes to master. It is therefore a text more
for serious practitioners than scholars.
The Surangama Sutra is a manual of meditation for all levels of understanding. If you
have been meditating for decades and have considerable skill, it will do two things for
you. One, it will help you go deeper. No matter what form of meditation you practice,
the wisdom of the Surangama can easily be woven into it. Two, and this is very
important, it can help us avoid meditative self deception, which causes us to grasp and
become attached to meditative states, thereby turning wholesome states into
If you are a novice, and bewildered by a path that seems so vast as to lack an entrance,
the Surangama's simplicity will bring you comfort by providing a beginning, something
you can sink your teeth into and do. You can begin right away meditating correctly,
what you achieve will depend entirely on your own sincerity and effort.
This particular translation of the Surangama Sutra, published by the Buddhist Text
Translation Society, is the best available for several reasons. First and foremost it was
done by a committee of translators, some of whom had the good fortune to listen to a
multi-year daily lecture of the Sutra by the Tripitika Master Hsuan Hua, an enlightened
master who until his passing was head of the Chan lineage of Chinese Buddhism and
himself a master of the Sutra. Hearing the entire text, with the Master's commentary,
was of great benefit to the translators, one that is passed on to us as readers. Moreover,
the principle translators are themselves lifelong Buddhists and practitioners of the
Sutra. One person on the committee of translators has memorized the entire Sutra.
Another holds a Phd in Buddhist studies and taught Asian Philosophy for thirty years
at San Francisco State University. In short, all on the committee of translators are
themselves, individually, qualified to translate this Sutra, all the more so as a team
working to honor the Sutra by producing a translation that accurately conveys the
meaning and is therefore a reliable practice text.
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