This is an English translation of Nan Huai Jin’s ‘Lectures on the Surangama Sutra’. Please note that my translations are amateur and you need to do your own research, do not believe what I write here and please test it out for yourselves. I welcome any corrections if you spot any.
Today, we start our study on the Surangama Sutra. In the Buddhist scriptures and the entire Chinese culture, the Surangama Sutra is the most infamous scripture. However, it has a lot of controversy.
On the good side, from the Tang dynasty onwards, the Surangama Sutra has become separable from Chinese Buddhist teachings and doctrine, especially in the Chan sect. There is a very popular saying in Chinese monasteries, influenced by the Chan sect, saying that the Saddharmapundarika-sutra (Fa Hua Jing) and the Surangama Sutra includes practicing Chan, to see one’s true nature, to learn Buddhism and realize the Tao. These two are also standards to seal/verify the path of one’s cultivation.
At the same time, in the Ming dynasty, China’s Li-Xue (School of Principle), which are Confucians influenced by the Chan Sect producing logic-scholars, once had a saying: “Ever since I read Surangama Sutra, I do not read the human world’s rubbish books.” It was thought so highly of. These promoted the Surangama Sutra as an unsurpassed sutra. This is from the good perspective.
Therefore, the Surangama Sutra and Diamond Sutra, since the Tang-Song dynasty, became the study of self-nature for the Chinese people. What is called learning Buddhism, cultivating the Tao, Chan meditation – You can see this sutra everywhere and in everyone’s hands. This is promoting its value as extremely huge.
Simultaneously, the Buddhist teachings say that Shakyamuni Buddha predicted: The Surangama Sutra will eventually disappear from the world, especially in China. The Surangama Sutra eventually circulates to China. During the Dharma-ending age, when there is no more Dharma, the world’s Buddhist teachings will only remain with two sects: One is Pure Land, one is Esoteric Buddhism (Secret Sect), the rest of the proper Dharma is gone. It is not saying that these two sects are not proper methods. I have said it wrongly! The rest of the Dharma is almost gone, in the Dharma-ending age, there are only these two sects that are especially circulated. In that case, the Surangama Sutra was the last to reach China. In the Dharma-ending age, the Surangama Sutra will be the first to disappear in China. In the future, when the sutras are lost in humankind, these things can no longer be seen. According to the legend, it is like this, wait until a few ten millions years later to slowly seek proof.
The Surangama Sutra is looked highly upon, it is this valuable, and also this mighty. However, this sutra really came very late. When it was revealed, it was around the Song to Yuan dynasty. People start to suspect, thinking that this Buddhist scripture is translated too well. Too well! They say it is not from India and not the words of the Buddha. Because all of the Buddhist scriptures, their translating literacy, scripture literacy, are not as brilliant, but this sutra was too brilliant! In China’s Buddhist literature, the literacy worth within was number one. Assuming that we learn the style and technique of writing of the Surangama Sutra, not only is it written well in ancient language, but if we use modern words it will also become number one. The words are indeed too beautiful! It is too good! Why is that so?
Because Buddha’s way of speaking is mostly leaning towards debating discussion, this requires the use of logic. It is something that requires logic and philosophy, deep thinking. Therefore it is extremely difficult to turn them to beautiful phrasing. It is like when we study science books like chemistry, physics – it is impossible to read them as novels or literature. If a science book becomes literature, art or a novel, then I think that 80 to 90 percent of people will become scientists. It is too uninteresting to read scientific books, especially those formulas.
There were similar situations about the Buddha’s dharma. However, when the Buddha’s dharma became like the literacy in the Surangama Sutra and Diamond Sutra, then everyone would be willing to accept. Especially our ancestors, about 1000 years ago, these intellectuals had very high levels of literacy. Their demands are very high, the realm of the common sutras were not high and nobody would accept them. The Surangama Sutra‘s literacy alambana (realm) is very high. I often tell a joke to my friends outside of Buddhism like Catholicism and Christianity, I say you guys must think of a method to write the “Holy Bible” better and more beautifully. That spoken language invites dislike! It says “You have sin when you are born”, I say my parents gave birth to me, I definitely don’t have sin! Don’t talk nonsense! The first few words and I do not believe. Ah, then what did the Buddha say? He did not say humans have sin when they are born – They have ‘karma’. Ah, I believe this! Because ‘karma’ might not be a ‘sin’! I say you insist that I have sin, I do not believe! However, in the Chinese language, if you say I have ‘karma’ when I am born, this is good! However the Buddha already used this so you can’t use it for your Holy Bible, that’s why you have no choice but to write ‘have sin’. Also, many phrasings do not make sense. They look nice but have problems.
If you want to promote a religion, philosophy or good things, firstly pay attention to the literature, it is very important. Therefore, the Surangama Sutra‘s literacy alambana (realm) enhanced the profound Buddha Dharma, and that is why everyone is willing to accept it. It especially includes teachings of the Chan sect, Tian Tai sect, Pure Land sect, Hua Yen sect – not a single sect does not return to the Buddha’s dharma. At the same time, importantly, the secret methods of cultivation are many. In the middle it speaks about cultivation methods, especially when 25 great bodhisattvas talked about their own cultivation experience and reported what they have learnt. This extremely surprises people. Therefore, the Surangama Sutra‘s benefits are too numerous.
However it is too good, that is why people will think of ways to dig at a corner of it! “Ah? This ordinary human does not have such a good realm!” The sutra reached the Republic of China, especially Liang Qichao, who was a buddhist. He was a venerable, a disciple of Mr Ouyang Jingwu. Mr Liang’s knowledge is good, influencing a generation, not only influencing our 80s period, but also a few hundreds years later. Kang Youwei and Liang Qichao’s thoughts influenced China culture to a huge degree. However, Liang Qichao’s Buddhism, no thank you. It is very superficial. He walked the typical path of the scholars in the later Qing dynasty, being influenced by Western culture, having suspicion on ancient people. On the surface it is nice to hear, saying that you emphasise textual criticism, but naturally, textual criticism will lead to suspicion on everything.
Especially before the Second World War, foreign and Japanese scholars intentionally tarnished the tradition of Chinese culture, believing that many things were bogus. Particularly the Japanese people were radical, for example, they believed that our old ancestors’ Yao, Shun , Yu, these historical sage emperors, saying that the Ming dynasty sage emperor did not exist. What is Yao? Yao is an incense burner, those that you use mud to make. What is Shun? Shun is a candle table to insert candles. Yu the Great is said to be a big reptile that crawls from the Yellow or Yangtze River. They say they are not humans.
Other people intentionally tarnished our culture, thinking of invading. How about Confucius? Confucius became a Japanese person! Socrates became Japanese! All the good people became Japanese. However, before the 80s, we were pitiful, the typical Chinese scholars including Liang Qichao, all suffered from this contagious disease, all following the path of suspecting the ancients. As long as it is our ancestry then it cannot be right, in the end our ancestors are considered not humans, then we followed Charles Darwin’s thought where humans come from monkeys. This is a thought which is unfathomable!
However when this happens, it caused a problem, therefore Liang Qichao said that the Surangama Sutra was a forged scripture, fake, made by the later generation. Who made it? Liang Qichao could not say, he said that it should roughly be made by the Chinese people, someone who has deep knowledge. The reason being that in the middle the Surangama Sutra talked about Immortals (or spirits). Liang Qichao thought that there were no Immortals (spirits) in India, so why did Shakyamuni Buddha talk about them? His only conclusion is that the Chinese people forged it. He raised three evidences, all of which were not accurate.
Then in the past there was a person called Mr Luo Xiang Lin who wrote an essay. Inside the “Modern Buddhist Academic Collection”, he criticised Liang Qichao’s ideology. He rebuted that the Surangama Sutra was genuine, and in addition it was the Tang Dynasty’s prime minister Fang Rong who personally did the writing. He was not the one who translated it. Ancient translation is not like today. Now we graduate from university, work a little harder, learn a few years of English and now how to translate sutras. In actual fact, one’s English is not penetrating, Chinese is not penetrating, and it becomes fruitless and unclear.
To think of a genuine translation, both writings must be “clear”, but this is very difficult! Knowing how to write an essay is not making it clear! When we were small, we asked, “Ah, have you read clearly your books?” Clear does not mean being in a daze like wood! Wearing 1000-degree glasses, only seeing a small distance in front of you, and you cannot see anything further. If you cannot even tel the difference between a document and straw paper, then you are reading without clarity. When reading you must understand clearly. Just like the ancient people said, without doubt these two sentences are from the “Dream of the Red Chamber”, but these sayings are real: All things in the world, at all times and places, must be prepared; Being a person and doing things must be brilliant. This then means that you read books with clarity and not become a bookish fool.
When translating, it must be when the knowledge on both sides are at its finest, then it is good enough to write – but only good enough, it is not completely accurate! For example when we translate the Buddhist scriptures, the most brilliant is Dharma Master Kumarajiva. He is not from China, but from India. At that time the northern Indians stayed at the south of Tianshan. When he came to China, he was good at Indian words and Sanskrit. In just a few years he became extremely good at the Chinese language. As a result, he has four great disciples (China monks), these four great disciples are very learned in Chinese literature, especially one who wrote a literary work that greatly influenced the chinese culture and philosophical thinking. Kumarajiva’s disciples were Chinese monks, young and smart, called Seng Zhao. So that book is called the <Zhao Lun>, very infamous, greatly influencing Chinese philosophy and cultural thinking. His knowledge blended the three schools of Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism, with deep prajna (wisdom), therefore his literacy work and thinking were good. This is Kumarajiva’s disciple.
Therefore, the Dharma Master Kumarajiva’s translated sutras are very clear and extremely brilliant. For example, we often chant the Diamond Sutra, and it has 7 types of translations, the one that we often chant is Kumarajiva’s translation. There are some types of translations that are unclear. Because some people feel unsatisfied with Kumarajiva’s translation and are afraid of its inaccuracy, they retranslated it again. When it reached the Song dynasty, Dharma Master Yi Jing, apart from Kumarajiva by 7 to 9 hundred years, translated another called the <Severing Diamond Prajnaparamita Sutra>, feeling that it is even more accurate. However it did not propagate. Why not? Because the literacy of Kumarajiva is more talented. The flow, conciseness and clarity are very brilliant.
[section omitted for now, will translate in future]
This is because we are talking about how beautiful the literacy of the translation is for the Surangama Sutra. So we will speak until here.
Now we will talk about the actual sutra. Firstly, the method that we are studying, because for this sutra, I am resentful and wish to overthrow Liang Qichao. Therefore I became mad! 30 years ago, my old friend Mr. Yang Guan Bei (now deceased) told me: Oh Master Nan! We two have done a good thing. You explain the Surangama Sutra, we have also understood; We don’t know how much we do understand; Ah! Translating it to spoken language! I say this matter cannot be done. Translating Chinese old language to speaking language? This sutra is when our mothers bit food to feed us, and now we spit it out from the intestines as spoken words, we don’t know what becomes of it! And it is also difficult! Translating ancient words, you see “Shan Bing Gong Qiu”, this is ancient words. How do you translate this to spoken language? You can only say “this person is susceptible to sicknesses, and also is susceptible to get angry.” — This is not right! It is not the meaning of “Gong Qiu”. Saying that this person is most susceptible to worry? This spoken language is not clear! What can we do then? This sentence is beautiful, it is difficult to translate it to spoken language.
… To be continued…
Translated from http://www.shixiu.net/nanshi/zhuzuo/lyjjz/