The Lankavatara Sutra

Preface

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Introduction

Mahamati asked the Buddha to expound upon his teachings so that he and the other bodhisattvas gathered in the assembly could attain complete, unexcelled, perfect enlightenment.

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You see how ignorant people distinguish things, things as fragile and impermanent as a clay pot. The distinctions among dharmas and non-dharmas are the projections of foolish people and not how things are viewed according to buddha knowledge. Foolish people see things in terms of characteristics, not the wise. 

Fire is seen as something uniform, but when it destroys such things as buildings or trees, its flames are distinguished depending on the shape and size of the material that burns. Can’t you see that dharmas and non-dharmas are distinguished the same way — just as a fire is seen as a singular continuity or as a diversity of flames. Consider the continuity of a seed as it gives rise to such varying forms as sprouts, stems, joints, branches, leaves, buds, flowers, and fruits. And as with external objects the same is true of internal objects, whereby ignorance gives rise to such dharmas as form, sensation, perception, memory, and consciousness, as well as to the varieties of existence in the three realms and to differences in terms of suffering and joy, good and evil, speech and silence. So, too, consciousness and its objects are the same but differ depending on distinctions as to which is superior, neutral or inferior, defiled or pure, good or bad. The different characteristics of dharmas and non-dharmas are the result of projection. 

A dharma (thing) is whatever ordinary people and followers of lesser and heterodox paths imagine. Basically, they think a dharma has existence and substance and arises from causes. Such things must be abandoned and avoided. Don’t engage in the projection of appearances or become attached to what are perceptions of your own mind. The things people grasp lack any real substance. To view dharmas like this is to abandon them.

Non-dharmas are things like horns on a rabbit, or the offspring of a barren women. Such things lack any form or appearance and cannot be perceived. They are merely names talked about according to convention. And just as what is discriminated as existing should be abandoned, what cannot be known by any form of consciousness should also be abandoned. This is why I say to abandon dharmas and non-dharmas.

What you call the past is, by another name, a projection. And just as the past is a projection, so are the future and present. The tathagatas do not project what amounts to reality. They transcend projection and fabrication and do not go along with distinguishing forms, except to instruct or to pacify the ignorant. It is by means of such wisdom that tathagatas practice a formless practice. Thus, tathagatas consider knowledge as their real body. And because they consider knowledge as their real body, they are free from projection or anything that projects, such as a self, a life, or a person, or any kind of consciousness that gives rise to forms dependent on an objective world.

The Essential Teachings

    There are several major teachings in the Lankavatara that bodhisattvas should be well acquainted with. Such principles are indispensable to an understanding of this sutra. They include:

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Mahamati asked the Buddha to explain these further,

May the Bhagavan please explain the essential distinguishing characteristics of the five dharmas, the three modes of reality, the eight forms of consciousness, and the two kinds of no-self. For as I and the other bodhisattvas distinguish these during the sequence of stages, we will penetrate the teaching of every buddha. And by penetrating the teaching of every buddha, we will eventually reach the realm of a tathagata’s own realization.

The Buddha replied,

The distinguishing characteristics of the five dharmas, the three modes of reality, the eight forms of consciousness, and the two kinds of no-self include name and appearance, projection, correct knowledge, and suchness. As practitioners cultivate these and reach the realm of personal realization of buddha knowledge, they transcend views of eternity and annihilation and existence and non-existence and dwell in the bliss of meditating on what is present and what appears before them. Mahamati, because they are unaware that the five dharmas, the modes of reality, the forms of consciousness, and the two kinds of no-self are perceptions of their own minds, fools imagine their external existence, but not the wise.

Mahamati inquired further,

Bhagavan, why do fools give rise to projections and not the wise?

The Buddha told him,

Fools let their thoughts wander among the names and appearances of convention to which they are attached. And as they wander among the multitude of shapes that appear, they fall prey to views and longings concerning a self and what belongs to a self, and they become attached to excelling. And once they are attached, they are blinded by ignorance and give rise to passion. And once they are inflamed, the karma produced by desire, anger, and delusion accumulates. And as it accumulates, they become enveloped in their own projections, like silkworms in cocoons, or submerged in boundless states of existence in the sea of birth and death, as if they were on a waterwheel. But because of their ignorance, they do not realize that their own existence is an illusion, a mirage, a reflection of the moon in water, and without a self or what belongs to a self, that it is devoid of the origination, duration, or cessation of what characterizes or what is characterized, and that it arises from the projections of their own mind and not from a creator, time, motes of dust, or a supreme being. Thus do fools wander among names and appearances.

As for appearance, what appears to visual consciousness we name ‘form’. What appears to auditory, olfactory, gustatory, tactile, or conceptual consciousness, we name ‘sound’, ‘smell’, ‘taste’, ‘feeling’, or ‘thought’. These are the names for appearances.

The projection of identity boundaries fabricates names and points to appearances as being ‘like this and not something else’. What we name an elephant or a horse, a charioteer or a foot soldier, a man or a woman, this is what is meant by projection.

According to correct knowledge, names and appearances are indistinguishable — like passersby. When the different forms of consciousness do not arise, and they are neither annihilated nor eternal, and one does not end up in the realms of shravakas, pratyeka-buddhas, or other paths, this is what is meant by correct knowledge.

Moreover, Mahamati, as a result of correct knowledge, bodhisattvas neither assert names or appearances, nor do they not assert names or appearances. They avoid dualistic views of assertion or denial because they know that names and appearances do not arise. This is what is meant by ‘suchness’.

Mahamati then asked the Buddha,

Bhagavan, are the three modes of reality part of the five dharmas, or do they each have their own independent characteristics?

The Buddha replied,

The three modes of reality as well as the eight forms of consciousness and the two kinds of no-self are all included in the five dharmas. Name and appearance are the imagined mode of reality. Because the mind and what belongs to the mind are dependent on projection for their existence and arise together with name, just as do the sun and its rays, and because they are supported by the differentiation of their various appearances, they constitute the dependent mode. And Mahamati, because correct knowledge and suchness are indestructible, they make up the perfected mode.

Moreover, the projections that are the perceptions of one’s own mind are of eight kinds, namely, those of the repository consciousness, volitional consciousness, conceptual consciousness, and the five forms of sensory consciousness. But their appearances are not real because they are projections. And when the twofold grasping of a self and what belongs to a self ceases, the two kinds of no-self arise.

Thus, Mahamati, the sequence of stages that lead shravakas, pratyeka-buddhas, bodhisattvas, and tathagatas to the self-realization of buddha knowledge and all the teachings of buddhas are included in the five dharmas.

The Eight Forms of Consciousness

    The Buddha spoke of eight forms of consciousness. They include:

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Mahamati asked of the Buddha,

Bhagavan, in how many ways do the various forms of consciousness arise, persist, and cease?

The Buddha told Mahamati,

There are two ways in which the various forms of consciousness arise, persist, and cease, both of which are beyond the understanding of logicians. The two ways in which the forms of consciousness arise are as a continuity or as a characteristic. The two ways in which they persist are as a continuity or as a characteristic. And the two ways in which they cease are as a continuity or as a characteristic. And the different forms of consciousness, Mahamati, have three aspects: an unfolding aspect, a karmic aspect, and an intrinsic aspect.

Mahamati, what we generally speak of as eight forms of consciousness can be summarized under three headings: true consciousness, perceiving consciousness, and object-projecting consciousness. Our perceiving consciousness functions like a clear mirror in which shapes and images appear. Although perceiving consciousness and object-projecting consciousness are the cause of whether they are separate from each other or not, perceiving consciousness is the result of imperceptible habit-energy and imperceptible transformations, while object-projecting consciousness is the result of grasping different phenomena and the habit-energy of beginningless projections.

When all the false projections obscuring our true consciousness cease, all forms of sensory consciousness cease. This is what is meant by the ‘cessation of characteristics.’ As for the ‘cessation of continuity,’ when the cause of continuity ceases, continuity itself ceases. It ceases when what it depends upon and what supports it cease. Mahamati, why is this so? This is because it is dependent. What it depends upon is the habit-energy of beginningless projections. And what supports it are the projections of the objects of consciousness perceived by one’s own mind.

Take for example a lump of clay and particles of dust. They are neither separate, nor are they not separate. The same is true of gold and ornaments. If the lump of clay and the particles of dust were separate, the latter could not comprise the former. But they do. Hence, they are not separate. And yet if they were not separate, the lump of clay could not be distinguished from the particles of dust.

Thus, Mahamati, if the intrinsic aspect of our repository consciousness and the unfolding aspect of consciousness were separate, the repository consciousness could not be its cause. But if they were not separate, the cessation of the unfolding aspect of consciousness would also mean the cessation of repository consciousness. And yet, its intrinsic aspect does not cease. Thus, what ceases is not the intrinsic aspect of consciousness, only its karmic aspect. For if the intrinsic aspect of consciousness ceased, repository consciousness would cease. And if the repository consciousness ceased, that would be no different from the nihilistic views proposed by followers of other paths.

The concepts discussed here can be seen to relate to each other in the following way:

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Thus it is taught that object-projecting consciousness creates karma, while perceiving consciousness receives it.

The Three Modes of Reality

    To further illuminate the meaning of his teachings, the Buddha told Mahamati about the three modes of reality. The three modes of reality describe the possible ways beings can experience their own consciousness. They include:

1) Imagined Reality – This mode is characterized by the projection of a world of self and other.

2) Dependent Reality – This mode is characterized by the projection of an objective, external, world governed by cause and effect, that functions independent of a subjective self.

3) Perfected Reality – This mode is characterized by the projectionless realm of undifferentiated perception.

The Five Dharmas

    To further illuminate the meaning of his teachings, the Buddha told Mahamati about the five dharmas. The five dharmas are put forth as the constituents of human reality, both before and after personal realization. They are:

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The Buddha said,

Mahamati, imagined reality arises from appearances. And how does imagined reality arise from appearances? As the objects and forms of dependent reality appear, attachment results in two kinds of imagined reality. These are what the tathagatas, the arhats, and the fully enlightened ones describes as ‘attachment to appearance’ and ‘attachment to name.’

Attachment to Appearance: This involves attachment to external and internal entities (object perception).

Attachment to Name: This involves attachment to the individual and shared characteristics of these external and internal entities (semantic differentiation).

These are the two kinds of imagined reality. What serves as the ground and objective support from which they arise is dependent reality. And as for perfected reality? This is the mode that is free from name or appearance or from projection. It is attained by buddha knowledge and is the realm where personal realization of buddha knowledge takes place. This is perfected reality and the heart of the tathagatagarbha.

The Buddha then repeated the meaning of this in verse,

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Mahamati, this is what is known as the teaching of how to view what characterizes the five dharmas and the modes of reality. This is the realm where the personal realization of buddha knowledge takes place and which you and other bodhisattva should cultivate.

The Two Kinds of No-Self

    The Buddha told Mahamati,

Bodhisattvas should become adept at examining the two kinds of phenomena that have no-self. Neither beings (subjects) nor dharmas (objects) have a self.

And what does it mean that beings have no-self? The assemblage of form, sensation, perception, memory, and consciousness, arises from ignorance, karma, and desire, and includes neither a self nor anything that belongs to a self. As the grasping and attachment of such senses as the eye to form give rise to consciousness, bodies, belongings, and the world of objects that are perceptions of one’s own mind, are fabricated and manifested from one’s own projections. They change and disappear every moment, like a river or a seed or a candle or the wind or a cloud. Restless like a monkey, attracted to impurities like a fly, and insatiable like a windblown fire, they move like a water wheel, through life after life and bodily form after bodily form, impelled by habit-energy without beginning, like figures produced by some sort of magic trick or spell or mechanical device. To be skilled in the knowledge of such appearances means to know that being have no self.

And what does it mean to know that dharmas have no-self? It means to be aware that the self-existence of the skandhas of form, sensation, perception, memory, and consciousness is imaginary; that the skandhas are devoid of a self or anything that belongs to a self; that the skandhas are assemblages tied to desire and karma and that they arise from the interplay of conditions but are themselves passive, and that all dharmas are like this. Through the power of imagination, fools give rise to erroneous projections devoid of individual or shared characteristics, but not the wise; because they transcend the mind, volition and consciousness, the five dharmas, and the modes of reality.

Mahamati, bodhisattvas should become adept at seeing no-self in anything at all. Bodhisattvas who become adept at seeing no-self in dharmas soon gain insight into the freedom from projections that characterizes the initial bodhisattva stage, and they delight in examining the characteristics of such awareness. As they continue their steady advance, they go beyond the ninth stage to the dharma cloud stage, where they create huge lotus flowers decorated with countless jewels and resembling jeweled thrones on which they sit and practice in this realm of illusory existence, and where they are joined by bodhisattvas of similar attainment and their retinues. From every buddhaland, tathagatas come and anoint there foreheads, just as a cakravartin anoints the forehead of the crown prince. Having gone past the bodhisattva stage, they attain the personal realization of the realm of buddha knowledge. And because they see no-self in any dharma, they acquire the incomparable dharma body of a tathagata. This is what no-self in dharmas means. You and other bodhisattva should cultivate this.

Relativity and Universal Negation

   Often, the Buddha responded to his disciple’s questions with the teaching of relativity, ‘birth only exists if death exists.’ Just as black cannot exist without white, birth is meaningless unless it is juxtaposed with its opposite, death. Each aspect only exists relative to the other. What transcends these merely relative existences is what we call the absolute, or suchness. The absolute cannot be comprehended with the same faculty of mind used to comprehend the world of relative existences. To help his disciples understand this, the Buddha spoke of that which ‘neither exists nor does not exist.’ In the present sutra, he assumes his listeners are familiar with this and thus forgoes the teachings of relativity altogether, jumping straight to a discussion of the transcendent, absolute, aspect of reality. Because suchness is outside the reach of conceptual thought, all that can really be said of it is ‘neither birth nor death.’ This is known as the teaching of universal negation: ‘to talk about anything is to talk about nothing.’

Thus the Buddha said,

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Mahamati, these myriad answers were spoken by the buddhas of the past. These are what you and the other bodhisattva should study.

Origination, Duration, and Cessation

    The Buddha said,

Mahamati, to account for how something that doesn’t exist comes to exist due to the presence of causation and how it persists in time with connection the skandhas of form, sensation, perception, memory, or consciousness, some monks and priests say once it arises, it ceases.

Just as a shattered jug no longer functions as a jug or a burnt seed no longer functions as a seed, likewise, if the skandhas exist then cease to exist in the present or the future, this is due to the projection or view of one’s own mind, not to a cause. This is why they don’t continue to arise.

Mahamati, when followers of other paths claim something arises because of the threefold conjunction of conditions, they are referring to the operation of cause and effect and to whether their individual characteristics exist then do not exist in the past, the present, or the future. But such claims are essentially the result of logic or speculation or views based on one’s habit-energy from the past. Thus, despite being infected by mistaken conceptions and misled by distorted beliefs, and despite their lack of knowledge, fools claim to be wise.

However, there are other monks and priests who see things as devoid of self-existence, as clouds in the sky or wheels of fire and as not arising, as illusions or mirages or dreams or moonlight on the water, and — regardless of whether they appear to be inside or outside the mind — as projections from the beginningless past and as not existing apart from one’s own mind. And when the causes of such projections cease and the repository consciousness becomes free from projections of a body, its possessions, and the world around it, and from what speaks and what is spoken, and from what sees and what is seen, they accordingly see what grasps and what is grasped as no longer interacting in the realm of consciousness and whatever the mind gives rise to as existing in a projection-free realm devoid of origination, duration, and cessation.

And once the perceptions of these bodhisattvas’ own minds are free of projections, they are able to dwell in the perfection of wisdom and to let go of their life and their practice and to enter the Diamond Samadhi that accompanies a tathagata’s body and that accompanies the transformation of suchness. Thus endowed with higher powers and masteries as well as compassion and skillful means, they enter the sanctuaries of other paths in every buddhaland. And transcending the mind, volition, and conceptual consciousness, these bodhisattvas gradually transform their body into the body of a tathagata.

Therefore, Mahamati, those who week the body that accompanies a tathagata should avoid the fabricated projections of origination, duration, or cessation regarding form, sensation, perception, memory, consciousness, causation, or forms of practice.

Existence and Non-existence

     There are followers of some paths attached to the projection of nothingness who imagine the non-existence of rabbit horns when what causes them ends and that, as with the existence of rabbit horns, the same is true of everything else. And there are followers of other paths, Mahamati, who distinguish each and every thing in terms of elements, tendencies, particles, substances, or shapes and, having seen that there are no such things as rabbit horns, become attached to the conception that ox horns exist.

Because they are given to such dualistic extremes, they don’t understand what is nothing but mind, and nourish instead the projection of realms of their own conception. But such things as their body, their possessions, and the world around them are nothing but projections of sensation. Mahamati, this is true of the existence of all things. They transcend existence and non-existence. You should not imagine such things.

Mahamati, since they transcend existence and non-existence, someone who thinks rabbit horns don’t exist suffers from a misconception. They should not think that rabbit horns don’t exist, because such a view would be relative. And if they were to analyze whatever does exist into the finest particles, they would not find anything there. Because it would be outside the realm of buddha knowledge, you should not imagine that ox horns exist.

You should avoid projections that view rabbit horns or ox horns, space or form, as separate. You and other bodhisattvas should reflect on projections as perceptions of your own mind. And in whatever lands you might find yourselves, teach bodhisattvas about the perceptions of their own minds.

Non-Arising

    The Buddha told his disciple,

Mahamati, nothing arises. This is what the Tathagatas of past, present and future teach. And how so? Because existence and non-existence are perceptions of one’s own mind, the existence or non-existence of which does not arise.

The non-arising that characterizes all that exists, this is the personal realization of the realm of buddha knowledge, not the dualistic projections of the ignorant. The existence that characterizes such things as your body, your possessions, and the world around you is the interplay of the grasping and the grasped of repository consciousness. Trapped by their dualistic views of origination, duration, and cessation, and their wish for things to arise, the ignorant give rise to projections of existence and non-existence, not the wise. Mahamati, you should reflect on this in your practice.

Causes and Conditions

    The Buddha told Mahamati,

Cause and effect are the projections of foolish people, and they do not occur sequentially or simultaneously. And how so? If they occurred simultaneously, there would be no difference between cause and effect, and it would be impossible to identify a cause. And if they occurred sequentially, it would be impossible to identify an individual entity. The non-occurrence of sequential occurrence is like having no word for father in the absence of children.

It is not true that what occurs sequentially is a continuity. It is merely projection of what produces or what is produced by direct, supporting, continuous, or contributing causes. Mahamati, a sequential occurrence does not occur because it is characterized by an attachment to an imagined reality. It does not occur sequentially or simultaneously because it belongs to the perceptions of your own mind. And it does not occur sequentially or simultaneously because the individual or shared characteristics of an external existence do not exist. It is only because you are unaware that the perceptions of your own mind are projections that forms appear. Therefore, you should avoid views of a sequential or simultaneous occurrence characterizing the operation of causes and conditions.

The Buddha then repeated the meaning of this in verse,

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Permanence and Impermanence

   The Buddha said to his disciple,

Mahamati, my teaching is that what arises is neither permanent nor impermanent. And how so? Because external existence cannot be determined, I teach that the three realms are nothing but mind and do not teach the arising or ceasing of their different characteristics. As for the four elements coming together and differentiating, the four elements and what they comprise are projections of the duality of subject and object. By understanding that dualist views are projections, one gets free from the dualistic views of external existence and non-existence, and one sees them as nothing but perceptions of one’s own mind.

Projections arise when you think about doing something, not when you do nothing. Avoid projections of the existence or non-existence of the mind. All mundane, metaphysical, and transcendent dharmas are neither permanent nor impermanent. Those who fail to perceive them as merely projections of their own mind end up attached to erroneous dualistic views.

Arising, Existence, and External Realms

    The Buddha spoke in verse,

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The Illusion of Characteristics

    Foolish people are infected by the habit energy of beginningless projections and fabrications and are inflamed by the fires of greed, hatred, and delusion. Delighting in worlds of form and beholding their origination, duration, and cessation and clinging to external and internal existence, they fall prey to grasping and imagining conceptions of their sameness or difference or both or neither, or of their existence or non-existence or neither existence nor non-existence, or of their permanence or impermanence.

It is like someone with defective vision who sees a strand of hair and asks others if they see it. The strand of hair does not actually exist. But neither does it not exist, because it is seen and not seen. The same is true of the fantasies and longings of the followers of other paths, which are based on views of sameness or difference or both or neither, or of existence or non-existence or neither existence nor non-existence, or of permanence or impermanence, and with which they slander the true Dharma and mislead themselves and others.

There are those who imagine that there is something in the personal realization of buddha knowledge that exists apart from the two modes of reality. Those who transform their mind, volition, and conceptual consciousness put an end to the projections of grasping and grasped that are perceptions of their own minds. But those who cultivate the personal realization of buddha knowledge do not think of it as existing or not existing. If those who cultivate should develop a perception of the existence or non-existence of such a realm, they would perceive and individuality, a self, or a person.

The Buddha then repeated the meaning of this in verse,

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Projections

  The Buddha then spoke in verse,

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Projections and Delusion

    By ‘delusion’ is meant what the mind gives rise to. When people add their projections to what the mind gives rise to, they cannot help but misrepresent it. And in so doing, they become attached to their misrepresentations. The wise don’t add projections to what the mind gives rise to but accept it for what it is, the mind. Hence, for them delusions become reality.

The Buddha told Mahamati,

Foolish people do not distinguish individual or shared characteristics, only a world of objects. Such objects, however, are delusions, mistaken judgments as to what is real. Shravakas distinguish characteristics rather than objects but cannot see past characteristics. The same is true of pratyeka-buddhas, who seek to get free of such characteristics. Only those wise enough to see objects and characteristics as delusions and merely the perceptions of their own minds can remain detached from them and cease creating the projections that conjure them into existence. Delusions, for the wise, thus become real by means of the transformation of their awareness.

The Seven Kinds of Self-Existence

    The Buddha then taught Mahamati of the seven kinds of self-existence. ‘Self-existence’ is a concept from Sanskrit which refers to something whose existence is not predicated or dependent on anything else in time, space, or mind. This concept can also be translated as ‘own-being,’ an inherently existing essence. In light of the interdependence of all things, nothing can truly be said to posses self-existence. Thus, the seven kinds of self-existence that the Buddha outlines are to be understood merely as the erroneous projections of followers of other paths. They are:

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The Seven Kinds of Higher Truth

    In complement to the seven kinds of self-existence, the Buddha taught Mahamati of seven kinds of higher truth. These seven refer to seven successive levels of understanding used in dealing with erroneous views arising from the preceding seven forms of self-existence. The seven kinds of higher truth are:

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The Buddha elaborated,

Mahamati, the realm of a tathagata’s personal attainment is the mind of the self-existent, higher truth of all tathagatas, arhats, and fully enlightened ones of the past, the present, and the future. It is by means of this mind of the self-existent, higher truth, that the mundane, metaphysical, and transcendent teachings of tathagatas are formed, while it is by means of their wisdom eye that their individual and shared characteristics are established — only the eye of wisdom exercised by a buddha can see without seeing and thus remain unattached to what is seen. However, what are thereby established are not the same as the doctrines and erroneous views of other schools.

And what are the same as the doctrines and erroneous views of other schools? These refer to projections and views of one’s own realm without realizing they are perceptions of one’s own mind. Due to their obliviousness, such foolish people maintain dualistic views and doctrines of existence and non-existence as their self-existent, higher truth.

Moreover, Mahamati, the cessation of the suffering that comes from giving rise to projections of the three realms and the cessation of ignorance, desire, and karma that result from seeing that the perceptions of one’s own mind are realms of illusion, this is what I will now teach.

The Three Realms

    The Buddha told Mahamati,    

Who sees that the habit-energy of projections of the beginningless past is the cause of the three realms — desire, form, and formlessness — and who understands that the tathagata stage is free from projections or anything that arises, attains the personal realization of buddha knowledge and effortless mastery over their own minds. And like gems capable of reflecting every color, they enter the subtlest thoughts of other beings, and in their apparition bodies teach them nothing but mind, while establishing them in the sequence of stages. Therefore, you should devote yourself to the cultivation of personal attainment.

The Functioning of Consciousness

    The bodhisattva Mahamati said,

May the Bhagavan teach us about the characteristics of the mind, volition and conceptual consciousness, the five dharmas, and the modes of reality cultivated by buddhas and bodhisattvas that differ from the external realms perceived by our mind.

The Buddha then told Mahamati,

There are four causes that result in the functioning of visual consciousness. They are:

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Mahamati, these are the four causes that give rise to the waves of consciousness in the ever-rolling sea of repository consciousness.

As with its visual form, consciousness arises together with the minutest sensory objects and sensory material of the various sense organs, and with it arise external realms as well like so many images in a clear mirror or like the ocean when a strong wind blows. And as the wind of externality stirs the sea of the mind, its waves of consciousness never cease. Whether there is any difference or not among the characteristics of causes and effects is due to a deep attachment to what arises from karma. Because people cannot understand the nature of such things as form, the five kinds of sensory consciousness function. And due to the differentiation of appearances, these five kinds of sensory consciousness serve as the cause of conceptual consciousness. But as they function, they do not think that they are the cause of changes in appearances, which change as a result of attachment to projections that are perceptions of one’s own mind. And as every appearance changes and disappears, the different realms that are distinguished themselves change.

The appearance of change in the content of conscious experience only arises as a result of the mind’s projection of identity boundaries. If the projection of identity boundaries ceases, then there will no longer be any entity in the mind to which change could possibly be attributed. When all that’s left is suchness, differentiation and changes in the content of consciousness are don’t arise.

Those practitioners who enter dhyana or samadhi but who remain unaware of the changes of the subtler forms of habit-energy think they enter dhyana or samadhi only after consciousness ceases. But in fact there consciousness does not cease when they enter samadhi. It doesn’t cease because the seeds of habit-energy are not destroyed. It ceases when they no longer grasp changes among objective realms.

Mahamati, those who dwell among mountains and forests, regardless of whether they cultivate lesser, normal, or greater practices, if they are able to see how projections flow from their own minds, they will have their foreheads anointed by buddhas from countless lands. And as they attain masteries, physical faculties, higher powers, and samadhis they will be surrounded by bodhisattvas and spiritual friends.

The Bhagavan then repeated the meaning of this in verse:

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Mahamati then asked,

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The Bhagavan replied,

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Mahamati then asked,

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The Bhagavan replied,

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Mahamati inquired once more,

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The Bhagavan replied,

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Knowledge and Consciousness

    The Buddha addressed Mahamati,

I will now explain the characteristics of knowledge and consciousness. For by becoming adept at distinguishing the characteristics of knowledge and consciousness, you and the other bodhisattvas will be able to understand their characteristics and quickly realize unexcelled, complete enlightenment.

There are three kinds of knowledge: mundane knowledge, metaphysical knowledge, and transcendent knowledge. What is mundane knowledge? This refers to that of all those ordinary people and followers of other paths who are attracted to existence and non-existence. And what is metaphysical knowledge? This refers to that of shravakas and pratyeka-buddhas who fall prey to longing for and becoming attached to individual and shared characteristics. And what is transcendent knowledge? This refers to that of buddhas and bodhisattvas who contemplate what is free from projections and see that it neither arises nor ceases, that it transcends categories of existence and non-existence, and that the tathagata stage and the absence of a self among persons and things depend on the occurrence of personal attainment.

What arises and ceases is consciousness. What neither arises nor ceases is knowledge. Knowledge is also characterized by the absence of obstructions, while consciousness is characterized by the obstruction of countless external realms. Furthermore, consciousness is characterized by what arises from threefold combinations, while knowledge is characterized by the absence of anything self-existent. Consciousness is characterized by attainment, while knowledge is characterized by non-attainment, for the realm of buddha knowledge that one attains is neither present nor absent, like the moon in the water.

Imagined Reality

   The Buddha then said,

I will now explain the different characteristics common to imagined reality. By becoming versed in distinguishing the different characteristics common to imagined reality, you and the other bodhisattvas will be able to free yourselves from projections and attain the personal realization of buddha knowledge and an insight into the paths of other practitioners. You will also understand how to put an end to projections of grasping and what is grasped and no longer project and imagined reality upon the various characteristics of dependent reality.

I speak of twelve different characteristics common to imagined reality:

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Mahamati, what those attached to dependent reality are attached to is the self-existence of the projection of the objects to which they are attached. Although they appear like so many illusory entities, foolish beings imagine them as different from illusions. The illusions and the objects are neither separate nor not separate. If they were separate, the illusions would not be the cause of the objects. If they were not separate, the illusions and the objects would be indistinguishable. But they are distinguishable. Hence, they are neither separate nor not separate. Therefore, you and the other bodhisattvas should not become attached to whether the illusions of dependent and imagined reality are separate or not or whether they exist or not.

Imagined and Dependent Reality

    The Buddha explained the relation between imagined and dependent reality in verse,

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The Equality of Samsara and Nirvana

    The Buddha told Mahamati,

Shravakas who are afraid of the suffering that comes from their projection of samsara seek nirvana unaware that the difference between samsara and nirvana, as well as their projection of everything else, does not exist. They conceive of nirvana as the cessation of all future sensory realms, not the transformation of repository consciousness through the personal realization of buddha knowledge. Thus, ignorant people speak of three paths and not of the projection free realm that is nothing but mind. Mahamati, they therefore do not know the realm of the mind perceived by the tathagatas of the past, present, and future. Instead, they are attached to the perception of a realm outside the mind and keep turning the wheel of samsara.

Icchantikas

    The Sanskrit word icchantika roughly means “pleasure seeker,” and is used to refer to beings who are deeply attached to desire. According to the four noble truths, desire is the cause of suffering. Thus, devotion to desire is seen as tantamount to a rejection of the Dharma and the possibility of liberation. The Buddha instructed Mahamati on these matter saying,

There are two kinds of icchantika, those who forsake good roots and those whose vows regarding others are without limits. The second of these are bodhisattvas whose practice includes the vow not to enter nirvana until all beings enter nirvana. However, Mahamati, what they mean by entering nirvana is characterized by not entering nirvana. Thus, they too, follow the icchantika path.

Mahamati asked,

Bhagavan, then which of these never enters nirvana?

The Buddha replied,

Bodhisattva icchantikas. They know that everything is already in nirvana. Thus they never enter nirvana. This is not true of those icchantikas who forsake their good roots. Mahamati, even though they forsake their good roots, through the power of the tathagatas, at some point their good roots reappear. And how so? Because tathagatas do not forsake any being. This is why bodhisattva icchantikas do not enter nirvana.

Assertions and Denials

    The Buddha spoke in verse,

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There are four kinds of assertions regarding what is non-existent. They include:

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These are the four kinds of assertion. As for denial, this means denying what is asserted because it cannot be grasped or observed. This is what is meant by assertion and denial.

As for the assertion of a non-existent characteristic, this refers to becoming attached to a non-existent individual or shared characteristic among the skandhas of form, sensation, perception, memory, and consciousness, as being like this and not other than this. This is what is meant by the assertion of a non-existent characteristic. Such assertions of a non-existence characteristic are the result of attachment to the habit-energy of different mistaken projections without beginning.

As for the assertion of a non-existent view, this refers to asserting the view of a self, a person, a being, a life, or individuality among such entities as the skandhas. This is what is meant by the assertions of a non-existent view.

As for the assertion of a non-existent cause, this refers to an original consciousness which does not arise from causes that would render it unreal or illusory and which does not subsequently arise by itself but only arises after eyes, form, light, and memory arise. And once it exists, it ceases. This is what is meant by assertions of a non-existent cause.

As for the assertion of a non-existent existence, this refers to attachment to assertions of the existence of what is uncreated, such as space, cessation, or nirvana. These neither exist nor do not exist. And any dharma that neither exists nor does not exist is like the perception of a rabbit horn or an eye floater (cataract). It neither exists nor does not exist. This is what is meant by the assertions of a non-existent existence.

Assertions and denials are the projections of fools unskilled in examining what are nothing but perceptions of their own minds. This is not true of the wise. Therefore, you should practice avoiding the pernicious views of assertion and denial.

Meaning Beyond Words

   The Buddha spoke in verse,

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The teaching of emptiness, non-arising, non-duality, and the absence of self-existence pervades all the sutras spoken by buddhas. Every sutra teaches these truths. But because every sutra responds to the longings of beings, they differ as to how they express these truths, which are not really in the worlds. Just as the sight of a mirage confuses a herd of deer, whereby the deer imagine the appearance of water where there is no water, likewise the teachings of the sutras are meant to gladden people’s hearts. But buddha knowledge is not to be found in the words. Therefore, trust the meaning and don’t cling to the words.

The Characteristics of Word Projection

    Mahamati asked the Buddha to explain the essential characteristics of word projection so that he and the other bodhisattvas would be able to penetrate the two kinds of truth regarding words and what they express.

The Bhagavan replied,

There are four kinds of word projection: object words, dream words, words for attachment to mistaken projections, and words for projections without beginning. These four correspond to the various forms of consciousness:

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Object words arise from attachment to the projection of forms and characteristics. Dream words arise from recollecting previously experienced realms that upon waking are found to be non-existent. Words for attachment to mistaken projections arise from hostility. And words for projections without beginning arise from the habit-energy of the seeds of past attachment to beginningless projections. This is what characterizes the four kinds of word projections.

Words and Ultimate Truth    

    Mahamati asked the Buddha to explain the relation between words and truth, to which the Bhagavan replied,

Words are not ultimate truth, nor is what they express ultimate truth. And how so? Ultimate truth is what buddhas delight in. And what words lead to is ultimate truth. But words are not ultimate truth. Ultimate truth is what is attained by the personal realization of buddha knowledge. It is not a realm known by means of the projection of words. Therefore, the projection of words does not express ultimate truth.

Words arise and cease and shift, with their occurrence depending on changing causes and conditions. What depends on changing causes and conditions for its occurrence does not express ultimate truth. Because of the non-existence of their own characteristics or of those of something else, words do not express ultimate truth. Moreover, because any characteristics of an external existence do not exist except as a perception of one’s own mind, the projection of words does not express ultimate truth. Hence, Mahamati, you should avoid the projection of words.

The Buddha then repeated the meaning of this in verse,

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Propositions

    The Buddha instructed Mahamati,

Bodhisattvas should not maintain propositions but should say instead, “Whatever exists is like an illusion or dream,” because it is seen and not seen, and because it is a mistake of perception. You should say that the existence of everything is like that of an illusion or dream, unless it makes people turn away in fear. Mahamati, foolish people are given to views of existence and non-existence. Don’t make them turn away in fear from the Mahayana.

Regimen of the Bodhisattva    

    The Buddha told Mahamati,

If bodhisattvas wish to understand the realm of projection in which what grasps and what is grasped are nothing but the perceptions of their own minds, they should avoid social intercourse and sleep and cultivate the discipline of mindfulness during the three periods of the night. And they should avoid the mistaken teachings and texts as well as the characteristics of the shravaka and pratyeka-buddha paths and become versed instead in the characteristics of the perceptions that are projections of their own mind.

The Three Aspects of Buddha Knowledge

    Once bodhisattvas have firmly established themselves in the attributes of wisdom, they should devote themselves to the cultivation of three aspects of the highest buddha knowledge:

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In the cultivation of these three, freedom from projections comes from the practices of shravakas, pratyeka-buddhas, and the followers of other paths. The power of vows comes from the vows made by all buddhas of the past. And the personal realization of the ultimate knowledge of buddhas comes from remaining detached from all appearances, from obtaining the body that accompanies the Samadhi of the Illusory, and from entering the place where all buddhas dwell. Mahamati, these are the three aspects of buddha knowledge.

Instant and Graudual Transformation

   Mahamati asked the Buddha,

How is the stream of perception of beings’ minds purified? By degrees or all at once?

The Bhagavan replied,

By degrees and not all at once. Like when people become proficient in such arts as music or writing or painting by degrees and not all at once, thus do tathagatas purify the stream of perceptions of beings’ minds by degrees and not all at once. Or just as a clear mirror reflects formless images all at once, tathagatas likewise purify the stream of perceptions of beings’ minds by displaying pure, formless, undifferentiated realms all at once.

Instructions for the Bodhisattva

    There are four practices the mastery of which enables bodhisattvas to become great practitioners:

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And how do bodhisattvas become adept at distinguishing the perceptions of their own minds? They regard the three realms like this: as merely distinctions of the mind, devoid of a self or what belongs to a self, as motionless and free from coming or going, the result of habit-energy of erroneous fabrications without beginning, and the various forms and phenomena of the three realms involving their body, their possessions, and the world around them as perceptions as of those fabrications.

And how do bodhisattvas become adept at perceiving the non-existence of external existence? Since everything is a dream or mirage, they regard the self-existence of everything that exists as the result of the habit-energy of erroneous projections without beginning.

And how do bodhisattvas become adept at avoiding views of arising, duration, and cessation. Since whatever exists is like an illusion or a dream and its existence does not arise from itself, from another, or from a combination of both, but as a distinction of one’s own mind, they therefore see external existence as non-existent, consciousness as not arising, and conditions as not combining but arising due to projections. When they see that all internal or external dharmas in the three realms cannot be grasped and are devoid of self-existence, their views of arising cease. And once they know that the self-existence of everything is illusory, they attain the forbearance of non-arising. And once they attain the forbearance of non-arising, they avoid views of arising, duration, and cessation. This is how bodhisattvas become adept at distinguishing and avoiding views of arising, duration, and cessation.

And how do bodhisattvas become adept at delighting in the personal realization of buddha knowledge? Upon attaining the forbearance of non-arising, they dwell at the eighth stage of the bodhisattva path, where they are able to transcend characteristics of the mind, volition and consciousness, the five dharmas, the modes of reality, and the two kinds of no-self, and where they acquire a projection body. The reason it is called a projection body is because it travels quickly or without obstruction, like a thought. Thoughts travel to other places countless leagues away unobstructed by rock walls because of the memory of something experienced in the past. And they arise without interrupting the functioning of one’s mind or interfering with one’s body. Mahamati, such projection bodies are acquired at one and the same time. Endowed with higher powers and spiritual masteries obtained in the samadhi of the illusory, the different projection bodies of bodhisattvas appear simultaneously, like unobstructed projections, in whatever realms they recall having vowed to bring those beings to perfection who delight in the personal realization of buddha knowledge.

These are the four practices the mastery of which enables bodhisattvas to become great practitioners and to which you should cultivate yourselves.

Non-Discriminating Wisdom

    Reflecting on the threefold bliss of personal realization that marks tathagata mediation, Mahamati asks the Buddha about the bliss of nirvana. The Buddha says that nirvana is not something outside birth and death but is rather the transformation of birth and death, the transformation of the eight forms of consciousness into the four kinds of non-discriminating wisdom. These four are:

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Bondages on the Path

    The Buddha warned Mahamati of three bondages he and other bodhisattvas might encounter on the path to awakening. They include:

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Mahamati, there are two kinds of belief in a body: that which is innate and that which is a projection, such as the projections of dependent or imagined reality.

The view of shravakas regarding the body corresponds to the imagined reality. They think that since persons have no self, by grasping its non-existence, they thereby put an end to their attachment to beginningless ignorance.

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Nirvana

    The Buddha taught that nirvana is the cessation of the consciousness that projects. But Mahamati was confused by this, and asked if the Bhagavan did not put forward eight forms of consciousness. The Buddha said that he did. Then Mahamati asked again,

If so, then why does the Bhagavan speak of getting free from conceptual consciousness and not the seventh form of consciousness.

The Buddha replied,

Because, Mahamati, it is the cause and the supporting condition whereby the seventh form of consciousness does not arise. And it is the division and attachment of conceptual consciousness regarding external realms that produces the habit-energy that nourishes repository consciousness. And it is volition, together with its attachment to a self and what belongs to a self and its reflections on causes and conditions, that gives rise to the characteristics of an indestructible body. And it is attachment to an external world that is a perception of one’s own mind that is the cause and supporting condition of repository consciousness. Thus the system of consciousness arises through mutual causation. It is like the ocean and its waves, which rise or cease as the wind of externality that is a perception of one’s own mind blows. Thus, when conceptual consciousness ceases, the seventh form of consciousness also ceases.

He then repeated the meaning of this in verse,

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Distillation of the Teachings

    The five dharmas include appearance, name, projection of identity boundaries, suchness and correct knowledge. Appearance is what is perceived as having physical shape and features. This is what is meant by appearance. If a certain appearance is referred to as a pot and not something else, this is what is meant by name. Designating names and pointing to appearances, as in the case of a pot, involve the mind and what belongs to the mind. This is what is meant by projection of identity boundaries. But names and appearances are essentially ungraspable and ultimately unknowable. What is not affected by anything and what transcends mistaken projections, this is what is meant by suchness. What is real, true, certain, ultimate, self-existent, and ungraspable, these are the characteristics of suchness. The characteristics I and all buddhas accordingly attain and truly explain and designate and indicate to others so that they are able to reach a true understanding of what is neither annihilated nor eternal and so that they do not give rise to projections but reach the realm of personal realization of buddha knowledge beyond the reach of shravakas, pratyeka-buddhas and followers of other paths, this is what is meant by correct knowledge.

This, Mahamati, is what is meant by how the five dharmas include the three modes of reality, the eight forms of consciousness, the two kinds of no-self, and all the teachings  of buddhas. Therefore, you should cultivate these in your practice and teach others not to follow anything else.

The Buddha then summarized his message in verse,

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This has been the School of Tathata’s summary of the Lankavatara Sutra (based on Red Pine’s translation). What’s been presented are merely small excerpts from an otherwise large and magnificent text. We hope this page provides at least a taste of the inexpressible wisdom which it contains. If these words have intrigued you, consider reading the sutra in full. Its message is best understood when one immerses themselves in it the way its authors originally intended almost 2,000 years ago. Below are links to a few of the versions available online:

The Lankavatara Sutra (Red Pine, amazon)

The Lankavatara Sutra (D.T. Suzuki, e-text)

Summary of The Lankavatara (School of Tathata, pdf)

Summary of The Lankavatara (D.T. Suzuki, pdf)

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