Introduction to the Śūraṅgama Sūtra


As a potentially useful text to introduce a perspective student to inner spontaneous sound meditation practices, I have found this Buddhist sutra to be without equal. I have used quotes from it liberally throughout this book to illustrate certain points, and to introduce certain subjects, simply because of the depth of the treatment of the use of inner spontaneous sound as a support for meditation that is given therein.

As well, this sutra goes beyond being solely a depiction of meditative practice by encompassing behavioral and cognitive changes necessary for obtaining the most authentic results. I have, therefore decided to include a complete version of the sutra here for the benefit of the reader.

However, although I have used extensive quotes from this sutra, having done so using the Buddhist Text Translation Society’s translation of the sutra, I have chosen a different translation to be included here. There are two reasons for this, the most important of which is that the translation that I have selected to use was specifically crafted to assist modern students in their efforts to develop their minds, rather than to fill them with obscure learning laced with Buddhist cultural accretions. This is a practical translation rather than an academic or strict one. The editor of this particular translation, Dwight Goddard, remarked that his goal was different than that of a traditional translation of an esoteric work:

The original texts of these Scriptures are very corrupt, disorderly, loaded with accretions and, in places very obscure. The purpose of the present versions is to provide an easier and more inspiring reading. For scholarly study, students are expected to refer to the more precise translations of linguists.
The rules that have been followed in preparing these versions are as follows:
To omit all matter not bearing directly upon the theme of the Sutra.
To arrange into a more orderly sequence.
To interweave and condense cognate teachings.
To interpret obscure words and teachings.
The need for this course will be apparent to any earnest minded person who goes to the Scripture for spiritual guidance, inspiration and comfort.¹

Until 2010, there was no extant Indian Sanskrit original for this sutra, a point that some used to justify discrediting its authenticity. Now that one has been found in China, its detractors no longer see the need for the absence of an Indian Sanskrit text in order to justify the claims of its inauthenticity, nor does the discovery of an Indian original dampen their enthusiastic claims that this sutra is a counterfeit. This is a sad affair that actually started in the 9th Century, one that will hopefully work itself out in the near future. There are three articles following after the text of the sutra, starting with “Is the Surangama Sutra Authentic?” which gives an overview of this controversy.

If you would like more detail about the history of this sutra in Tibetan Buddhism, the third article, “One of the Most Cherished Sutras in Ch’an and Zen Buddhism Has Never Been Taught in Tibetan Buddhism. Why Not?” recounts the whole affair, while pointing out the two specific reasons why some try to cast doubt about this sublime teaching’s authenticity, and why those two specific practical points will make all the difference in your own practice.

Personally, I find this sutra’s authenticity in the accuracy, and intrinsic truth, of its arguments and its exposition of the stages of meditation using inner spontaneous sound (which is referred to as “transcendental sound” in this English translation).

The Chinese documentation for this sutra says that it was translated during the Tang Dynasty by Shramana Paramiti from Central India, reviewed by Shramana Meghashikara from Uddiyana, certified by Shramana Huai Di from Nan Luo Monastery on Luo Fu Mountain (in China), and edited by Bodhisattva-precepts Disciple Fang Yong of Qing He, former Censor of State, and concurrently Attendant and Minister, and Court Regulator.

This English translation was published by Goddard in 1938, the year before his death. It was translated from Chinese by Goddard’s colleague, Bhikshu Wai-tao, and as you will learn, Goddard and Wai-tao went to great lengths to remove extraneous or obviously added material, possibly from Fang Yong’s hand. I mention all of this to introduce the second reason I am using his translation: it is in the public domain. The copyright was never renewed and it has long since become an unprotected text.

I have, like Goddard himself, made certain editorial changes as well. The most widespread is removing the archaic thou, thee, thy, and thine, and replacing them with their modern equivalents: you, you, your, and yours.

I have made one substantive change: in Manjushri’s Summation in the Second Chapter, I have substituted “great responsiveness” for Goddard’s use of “Passibility” there, and added the phrase “breaking through” from the Buddhist Text Translation Society’s 2009 translation. I did this because “Passibility” could be misconstrued as the rather arcane doctrine by that name from Christian Theology, and thus, I felt, not a good translation of the Buddhist doctrine of “Great Responsiveness.” As well, “breaking through” is a technical term for a very important step in the progression of meditation. For example, Trekchö in Tibetan, is the name of an important meditation technique in the category of the Great Perfection teachings (Dzogchen) within Tibetan Buddhism for the attainment of this step of breaking through the mundane stream of sense perceptions and thoughts about them.

In addition, I have underlined sections of text that I feel are critical to a proper comprehension of the text’s teachings and to the practice that is the focus of this text. Where appropriate, I have added my own commentary to the text at these points.

A natural question might arise in the reader’s mind: “Who was Dwight Goddard?” with the immediate sense of: “Who was he to be editing a Buddhist sutra?”

I am including a short biography of him at the end of this sutra text because I think he is an interesting person whose life exhibited definite heroic qualities. In Buddhism a hero is specifically someone that works for the accomplishment of a purpose above and beyond their own self-interest — that of helping others to reach enlightenment — rather than just someone exhibiting bravery, as we tend to use the word “hero” today. The Buddhist term for such a hero is bodhisattva, and Śūraṅgama, the name of this sutra, means “heroic progress.” Thus, this sutra is focused on the bodhisattva path.

Goddard was a student of Daisetz Teitaro (DT) Suzuki and Taiko Yamazaki, under whose guidance Goddard surely worked, but he also claimed a high level of accomplishment in his Editor’s Preface to his 1932 book, A Buddhist Bible, the second edition of which in 1938 contained this sutra text. In describing his efforts in creating The Buddhist Bible he explained:

The present editor has been guided in his selection of scriptures for this Buddhist Bible by a sincere purpose to make the selection as comprehensive as possible within its limits and to represent as truly as possible the original teachings of the Blessed One both as understood by the Southern and more primitive school and by the Northern and more philosophical interpreters. He has also humbly tried to have the choice vouched for by his own spiritual experience in his practice of the Noble Path and especially during its Eighth Stage of intuitive Dhyana.

This particular volume of Goddard’s was instrumental in bringing Buddhism to the United States through an interesting series of events involving Jack Kerouac, the founder and one of the primary influences of the burgeoning “Beat” movement in the United States in the post-war period of the late ’40s and ’50s. Jack praised this Śūraṅgama sūtra, calling it sublime. In a preface written for a later reprint of The Buddhist Bible, Robert Aitken³ described the events this way:

Most intellectuals can look back to a “first book“ that gave coherence to their interests and set them on their life’s course. … Students of Zen Buddhism come to me with a variety of “first books” in their past and among them, with some frequency, is Dwight Goddard’s durable anthology of translations, A Buddhist Bible, originally published in 1932 and then republished in its present enlarged form in 1938.
As the “first book“ for Jack Kerouac, A Buddhist Bible had a direct influence upon the American Beat movement of the 1950s — and thus upon the New Age movement that followed, with its efflorescence of Western Zen Buddhism, in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Allen Ginsberg wrote of Kerouac:
“He went to the library in San Jose, California, and read a book called a Buddhist Bible, edited by Dwight Goddard — a very good anthology of Buddhist texts. Kerouac read them very deeply, memorized many of them, and then went on to do other reading and other research and actually became a brilliant, intuitive Buddhist scholar… He introduced me to [Buddhism] in the form of letters reminding me that suffering was the basis of existence, which is the first Noble truth in Buddhism.”
In Jack’s book, Berry Gifford and Laurence Lee expanded upon the importance of A Buddhist Bible for Kerouac:
“In it’s 700-odd pages he found concepts of historical cycles so gigantic that they dwarfed Spengler‘s. He found, as well, the notion of dharma, the same self-regulating principle of the universe that he had proposed himself in the closing pages of Doctor Sacks… Using his sketching technique Jack converted the texts in A Buddhist Bible into his own words.”
This “translation” began a creative process of Americanizing Buddhism that manifested first in Kerouac’s San Francisco Blues (1954) and flowered in The Dharma Bums (1958), which itself became a “First book” for people growing up in the 1960s.
Jack Kerouac, cross-fertilizing with Snyder, Ginsberg, Phillip Whalen, and others who are still engaged in Americanizing Buddhism in their own ways, helped to establish a culture in which the Zen Center of San Francisco could grow and flourish in the mid-1960s. A number of Zen Buddhist centers in San Francisco and Berkeley have emerged in the generation that has followed. When I visit and give a public talk in one of those cities today, I find that I can, without watering anything down, use the same Sanskrit and Japanese terms and Buddhist concepts that I do in classes with my own students. Everyone is following along and even getting ahead of me. The bay area is Buddha land, and there are similar Buddha lands, less obvious perhaps, across the country and across the western hemisphere.
A Buddhist Bible was an important seed in this acculturation process. The book was composed, as Goddard states in his preface to the 1932 edition, to recount the adaptation of the original teachings of the Buddha from the rise of the Mahayana to the development of Dhyana Buddhism to the Platform Sutra of Hui-neng, the Sixth Ancestor of Ch’an or Zen Buddhism. He remarks that Buddhism “is the most promising of all the great religions to meet the problems of European civilization which to thinking people are increasingly foreboding.” He felt the Japanese Zen was “the purest form of Buddhism and the closest to the teachings of Gautama Buddha, its founder.”

According to Robert A.F. Thurman, the first Western ordained monk in Tibetan Buddhism and the senior student of the Dalai Lama, Jack Kerouac was a bodhisattva.

ཨེ་མ་ཧོ། ཕན་ནོ་ཕན་ནོ་སྭཱཧཱ།

Through a series of events, I discovered a Tibetan Nyingma Khenpo who started to teach the Śūraṅgama sūtra in late 2019. His name is Khenpo Sodargye, and he is from Larung Gar in the Larung valley of Sêrtar County, Garzê Prefecture, Sichuan Province in China. He was born in the Kham region of Tibet.

Although this sutra has been of great importance in both Ch’an and Zen Buddhism for over a millennia, there has been a marked absence of it in Tibetan Buddhism, which I found disconcerting.

I started actively searching for a teacher of the Śūraṅgama sūtra in January of 2017 because I had been studying its strong parallels with my own practice since sometime in 2014, and I had begun using substantial quotes from it in my writing, so I wanted to make sure that I was correctly understanding the text. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any Tibetan teacher, nor for that matter was I successful in finding an accessible Chinese teacher who taught in English.

I was searching for a Tibetan teacher because I live in the European center of Tibetan Buddhism, with two major schools, and many lineages, present here in my community.

At around the same time, Khenpo Sodargye explained that he was “moved” to teach that sutra in 2017. He described it this way:

Back in 2017, somehow I had this urge to give teaching on Śūraṅgama sūtra. I then felt this urge that (was) almost like I was ill and looking for a cure! So I’ve been looking for different kinds of transmissions, looking for the texts and started reading into it with lots of hunger for the content that’s included in the Śūraṅgama sūtra⁠.³

Khenpo Sodargye is a Dzogchen lineage holder and a strong supporter of the Rimé movement, and he points out in his second teaching video⁠⁴ that the Śūraṅgama sūtra is very much like the vajrayana teachings and in fact, it is a teaching that is infused with blessings. He says that Master Han Śhan (1546–1623) stated that this sutra belongs to the empowerment category, and in the Qianlong Tripitaka it is included in the vajrayana catalog. He also points out that it is in the Tibetan Tripitaka as well, although I later learned that only a fragment of one “scroll” and a complete copy of another scroll currently exist there.

I wrote and published an article titled: A Universal Direct Path to Enlightenment which I described as showing how Plotinus (the founder of NeoPlatonism), Jigme Lingpa (Tibetan Dzogchen master), Master Xu Yun (Ch’an Buddhism), and both Avalokitasvara and Buddha Shakyamuni (in the Śūraṅgama sūtra) described the same necessary “meditation moves” (as I put it) to reach enlightenment.

I had not planned to write such an article, but as I was working on presenting scriptural texts and commentaries from various traditions on the use of inner spontaneous sound as a meditation support, they suddenly coalesced for me.

I had been mulling over those texts for a few weeks, searching for the parallels that I knew must be there — based on my own practice (because studying and practicing are two different things) — and I was suddenly overcome with an impulse to write about what I had found. It was as if my life depended on it. The article’s 4,200 words just poured out of me in a few short hours.

When I published it, I had such a feeling of accomplishment come over me, which I don’t normally experience because there is always so much more to do. But this was clearly an important step along my path.

As I sat there happily contemplating the perfection of these Western and Eastern meditative traditions coming together, I idly opened my browser and started to close tabs that I had left opened, some for months, before moving on to other subjects, until I came across one that had sat open since I used it to search for a nice graphic of the Buddha to use when I published the two hundred pages of the Śūraṅgama text that I had transcribed. That browser tab contained a page full of images related to my search and suddenly a small image amongst all the rest captured my attention: it was of a Tibetan Buddhist Rinpoche seated on a throne teaching, which I thought was odd since the search term I had used was “Surangama.” I had not noticed that picture back in November because I was looking for the Buddha, but after clicking on the link, I saw that Khenpo Sodargye had just started teaching the Śūraṅgama sūtra in October of that year (2019).

He mentions in his first teaching video that there is controversy about this particular sutra based upon the belief of a single Japanese translator in the past which is now parroted by academics who have never tried to research the matter themselves. He said:

But I know nowadays that there are different kinds of opinions about this particular sutra, including opinions from different scholars in the West and the East; but I think when people have this discrimination towards this sutra, maybe they have a very biased idea, and their bias did not come from their wisdom, it comes from other people’s opinions, so it is a rather common idea that is circulated among the academics that is not based on factual matters.⁠⁵

Khenpo Sodargye said that it was Nāgārjuna who went to the Nāga (King’s) palace which had this text preserved. Nāgārjuna couldn’t bring the text back so he memorized the text and then brought it back that way, to the human world. And that is how the Śūraṅgama appeared in the human realm in India.

On his website, Khenpo Sodargye says this about the Śūraṅgama Sūtra:

For over one thousand years, the Surangama Sutra has been held in great esteem in the Mahayana Buddhism, especially in Zen Buddhism.

Theoretically speaking, this sutra contains teachings ranging from emptiness, Buddha-nature, to Vajrayana. From the practical aspect, it teaches about the Surangama Samadhi, which is associated with complete enlightenment, and also teaches practitioners how to avoid dangers that may be encountered when absorbed in meditation. This is an indispensable text for scholars who want to deepen their understanding of Buddhism, and for practitioners who want to improve their understanding of the nature of mind and achieve a profound state of meditation.

Without the reading of the Lotus Sutra, the buddha’s true path of salvation would be unknown;
Without the study in The Surangama Sutra, the crucial point of determining our fate in samsara or nirvana would remain veiled.

I was, frankly, overwhelmed by the synchronicity of my heartfelt desire searching for a Tibetan teacher of the Śūraṅgama sūtra, and the strong impulse that Khenpo Sodargye felt to begin teaching this sutra at the same time.

And then a few years later, after his own preparations for teaching the sutra, and my study of the sutra, culminating in the article that I wrote about the universal path that I found disclosed in it, which I now see as a kind of “thesis,” because I have never found such a path specifically written about elsewhere.

And then finding Khenpo and his teachings online after I had completed my transcription and publishing of the Goddard’s translation of the sutra as part of Tranquillity’s Secret — within a month of each other.

And finally, discovering the connection between this universal path to enlightenment and the practice of Avalokitasvara using inner spontaneous sound as the gateway to that path, as described in the Śūraṅgama sūtra, which endows the practitioner with the responsiveness that overcomes all egoic concerns, and which is specifically spoken of as a necessary practice for all of us today in Jamyang Khyentse Chökyi Lodrö’s “Lamp That Makes Things Clear” containing a prophecy for this period of crisis facing humanity today, I cannot fail to see clearly that this Sutra’s time has necessarily come.

Thank you for spending your precious time reading this.

ཨེ་མ་ཧོ། ཕན་ནོ་ཕན་ནོ་སྭཱཧཱ།


¹ “A Buddhist Bible,” Dwight Goddard, 1932, pg 6

² “A Buddhist Bible,” Beacon Press, 1994

³ Taken from the first video of Khenpo Sodargye teaching the Surangama Sutra: starting at time 11:08

⁴ Second video of Khenpo Sodargye teaching the Surangama Sutra: starting at time 15:50

⁵ Ibid, first video starting at time 12:29

⁶ Retrieved June 6, 2020 from:

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