Is the Surangama Sutra Authentic?

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This question never occurred to me when I first became aware of the Surangama Sutra in 2014. After all, there was a new translation of the text available that had been done by the Buddhist Text Translation Society under the guidance of the Venerable Master Hsüan Hua in 2009, replacing two earlier translations by Master Hua, as well as at least two other English translations, one by Dwight Goddard and Bhikshu Wai-tao, and another by Charles Luk (Leng Yen Ching), as well as many commentaries by Master Hua, and by Ch’an Master Han Shan (1546–1623), among others.⁠¹

More importantly, I happily found a very strong congruity of its depiction of the meditation practice of Avalokitasvara with my own spontaneous practice over 50 years, which made this sutra so very relevant to this project.

I started searching for a teacher of the sutra in January of 2017, because, of course, one does not know what one is ignorant of, and I had begun using substantial quotes from the sutra in my writing and I wanted to ensure that I thoroughly understood its meaning. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any teachers in 2017 who were holding courses on this sutra. My disappointment was intense.

In January of 2020, I became aware of a highly respected lama in the Tibetan Nyingma Lineage — Khenpo Sodargye of the Larung Gar Buddhist Academy in the Larung valley of Sichuan, China — who had started teaching the Surangama Sutra there in September, 2019. He had had an urge to teach the sutra starting in 2017, after being asked to do so for over two decades by his students. He described his change of heart this way:

Back in 2017, somehow I had this urge to give teaching on Surangama Sutra. 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 Surangama Sutra.⁠²

On Larung Gar’s website announcing the start of classes on the Surangama Sutra, is a description of the sutra that says this:

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.⁠³

Clearly then, this is an important and useful text, but Khenpo Sodargye is the first Tibetan lama to teach it. Why then, if it is such an important text and indispensable for gaining a profound knowledge of Buddhism, as well as being known and esteemed for over one thousand years, as he says, has it not been taught by other Tibetan lamas?

Tibetan Buddhism is also known as Vajrayana Buddhism, and this text, according to Khenpo Sodargye, who is a Dzogchen lineage holder, is like a Vajrayana tantric text. Given the congruence of some of its depictions of advanced meditation practices with some advanced Dzogchen practices — which are the very highest Vajrayana Buddhism contains — I accept his statement as being true. He points out that the Surangama Sutra 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.⁠⁴

So what’s going on?

Khenpo Sodargye mentions that there is controversy about this particular sutra based upon the belief of a single Japanese translator that it was a fake, which has since been parroted as truth by many academicians and translators of Buddhist texts. The story goes:

Dispute about this text arose in the 8th century in Japan, so Emperor Kōnin sent Master Tokusei and a group of monks to China, asking whether this book was a forgery or not. A Chinese upasaka, or layperson(!), told the head monk of the Japanese monastic delegation, Master Tokusei, that this was forged by Fang Yong. Zhu Xi, a 12th-century Neo-confucian who was opposed to Buddhism, believed that it was created during the Tang Dynasty in China, and did not come from India. (Wikipedia)

This, of course, calls into question the insights, ideas, practices, and statements of the Buddha expressed within this esteemed sutra. In reaction to this, and in the hopes of cutting off such unfounded slander against the sutra he was teaching, Khenpo Sodargye started his teaching with a long tangent on the rampant mistruths and outright slander of the Surangama Sutra, primarily by academics:

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

For example, Venerable Master Xu Yun (1840–1959) pointed out in a teaching he did in 1953–54 that the lay-scholar named Ouyang Jing Wu had mistakenly taught that the Surangama Sutra was false. Ouyang Jing Wu, 歐陽竟無 (1871–1943), was a key figure in the revival of Yogācāra thought in modern China. Master Xu Yun also (and importantly) added that in the Dharma-ending Age — which we are well within now — the Buddha’s true teaching will be despised and the first Dharma-text that will disappear will be the Surangama Sutra, followed by the Pratyutpanna Samadhi Sutra. These examples are the product of the delusions of the Dharma-ending Age, he said.⁶

In other words, although this might just be an academic matter and really of no import to earnest students who want to learn what the Surangama Sutra teaches, because of these erroneous and false opinions, the Surangama Sutra is considered suspect and is not otherwise taught in some traditions — for example, Tibetan Buddhism.

I myself have found this sutra to be perfectly suited to this time and absolutely valid — and sometimes surprising — in what it has to say. But this is a different standard of evaluation than that which the Surangama Sutra has been subjected to by academics studying Buddhism.

As a reformed academic, knowledgeable of the weaknesses and vices of the academy, I know the difference between factual knowledge and its proper evaluation, and outright lies and calumny based upon nothing but a desire to sway an audience’s opinion.

But you don’t have to have been an academic to know that swaying an audience with groundless assertions about something that ‘everyone knows is true’ is the simplest way to convince them of your point — the truth is often complex. But you don’t have to have been an academic to know this. In the public sphere today — worldwide — this is the norm for advancing one’s position, fame, and wealth: to lie, to cheat, to steal, to use words in bad faith. This is not a newfound vice of humanity, and its presence in academia is not surprising in the least — in fact, it would be very surprising if it were not present. Max Planck, the Nobel Prize-winning theoretical physicist and founder of Quantum Theory, remarked (over 70 years ago) that:

A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.⁷

and I don’t feel that it would be overstepping Planck’s very personal and informed knowledge of this phenomenon by pointing out that “science,” in this case, refers to academic scholarship in general. The practice of science is corrupted by dismissive attitudes towards minority opinions, is resistant to new evidence that undermines accepted theories, and is almost immovable when pet theories of powerful individuals are questioned.

An excellent example of this today, which is still ongoing after more than thirty years, is the controversy over the theory that an asteroid impact killed off the dinosaurs, in which an academic, Greta Keller, a professor of Geosciences, who counters the majority opinion with her factual evidence and logical arguments, is vilified, denigrated, slandered, and laughed at by her colleagues, rather than listened to. Her evidence does not seem to be given any credence whatsoever, so what hope is there that it might be found truthful, or that the accepted theory could be changed? This is kindergarten science. And we see the same phenomenon at play in the controversy about the Surangama Sutra.

There is little value to be placed on scholarly assertions about things only guessed at, or rumored to be the case. Such statements and slander as are being made, however, are malpractice and a slight upon the good name of science and scholarship. But because such actions have effects that are unknowable beforehand, and can endure for a very long time and be very difficult to root out, Khenpo Sodargye argues that it is important, especially in the case of such an important text, that these unfounded opinions and slanderous statements be addressed immediately and expunged from the public sphere.

There is another sutra, which is named the “Surangama Samadhi Sutra,” which is different than the “Surangama Sutra” in both content and title. The latter teaches, among other related subjects, how to attain the Surangama Samadhi, which is the highest samadhi (state of meditative absorption) that is attained only by a Buddha or tenth-level Bodhisattva.

The Surangama Samadhi Sutra, on the other hand, teaches about the transcendental nature, supernatural powers, and transformational feats bestowed upon the Buddha, or Bodhisattva, once the Surangama Samadhi has been attained through their meditation practice.

So the Surangama Sutra teaches how to attain the Surangama Samadhi, and the Surangama Samadhi Sutra explains what that samadhi brings to the meditator. Clearly, these are two subjects.

There are two translations of the Surangama Samadhi Sutra in English, one translated from the Chinese by John McRae in 1998, the other translated from the Chinese into French by Etienne Lamotte in 1965, and then into English by Sara Boin-Webb in 1998. There is no existing Sanskrit copy of the Surangama Samadhi Sutra — a point that is important in this story.

Only the Lamotte translation finds it necessary to mention the Surangama Sutra, asserting that there is a problem with it being confused with the Surangama Samadhi Sutra.

Lamotte’s half-page long “Note XI,” the “Additional Note” as it’s called, in Chapter Two of his book,⁸ says two things about the Surangama Sutra: he asserts that the Surangama Sutra “is a Chinese Apocryphal work,” meaning its authenticity is doubted, but which he provides zero evidence for, except an offhand comment that it was “probably” written by “Fang Jung,” followed by a complete condemnation of the sutra, which he calls “counterfeit.” These are not arguments. They are slander posing as authoritative pronouncements and are the kind of statement that we find widely today in modern public discourse, but should not find in the study of such important works as these. Unfortunately, today, they are accepted by other translators and scholars as true.

Khenpo Sodargye mentions in his first teaching video that the source of these opinions is the “belief of a single Japanese translator that is now parroted by academics who have never tried to research the matter.” Lamotte was merely parroting what he had heard, but what he wrote has caused great harm in that it has undermined the study of this very important sutra. Ron Epstein,⁠⁹ one of the original translators of the Surangama Sutra from Chinese to English notes that among those modern scholars denigrating this sutra:

… we find such names as Mochizuki, Demieville, and Lamotte. Mochizuki, Demieville, and Lamotte all in a row sounds very impressive, but it really boils down to a rather hasty article by Mochizuki, who obviously did not spend a long time studying the Sutra, a lengthy footnote in Le Concile de Lhasa by Demieville, who basically follows Mochizuki, and merely a brief mention by Lamotte, who concurs with Demieville. In other words none of them did any extensive systematic research on the Sutra.¹⁰

This explains why Lamotte states in his note that the Surangama Samadhi Sutra “is a text of certain authenticity undoubtedly based upon an Indian prototype.” It’s easy to overlook the word “undoubtedly,” which I highlighted. It flags his assertion as being based on second-hand information — “certain authenticity” would have been enough.

Unfortunately, there is no extant Sanskrit version of the Surangama Samadhi Sutra, and a Sanskrit version of the Surangama Sutra was found in 2010. The point isn’t whether or not a Sanskrit version of the text exists, but it does seem to carry more weight than the actual basis of the assertions of bogus authorship of the Surangama Sutra in China. Khenpo Sodargye states in his teaching that the basis for these assertions is that the Chinese translation is too beautiful.

What might be the motivation for these slanderous opinions against the Surangama Sutra to begin with, other than excessive scholarly intrigue?

Ron Epstein points out a singular characteristic of the Surangama Sutra that he feels would prejudice many “deviant spiritual teachers” against it. He argues that, perhaps out of a sense of discomfort in raising the issue, the modern Buddhist community has failed to address this possible source of some of the slanderous comments made against this sutra. In his words:

The Sutra’s particularly clear and graphic exposure of wrong practice, wrong views, the wrong use of spiritual powers, and the deceptions of deviant spiritual teachers is probably one of the major factors involved in the perennial attacks on its authenticity. It is clear that the types of people it criticizes have certainly been threatened by it, and in order to preserve their own authority and views, have attacked the Sutra. Unfortunately this primary motivation for discrediting the Sutra has been ignored by the modern Buddhist scholarly community. It is not, however, difficult to see why this is the case.⁠¹¹

In the end, whatever his merits may have been, Étienne Lamotte, who was considered the greatest authority on Buddhism in the West in his time (1903–1983), exhibited an obvious conceit in his scholarship, as his denigration of the Surangama Sutra, and slander of it, shows. And this was not the only case where he chose not to accept the traditionally accepted authorship of a sutra (see below). It is as if he felt his academic credentials and research into the distant past gave him greater insight than the clear vision of enlightened masters, both then and now, and their lineage histories of these sutras.

However, the Surangama Sutra itself makes the case right at the beginning of the text that sutra study and practice are two very different things, thus, being an authority on Buddhism would not have conferred on Lamotte, or anyone else, any exceptional ability to understand the meaning of any Dharma teaching, let alone the Surangama Sutra which is tantric in part; only a long-term meditation practice and accomplishment would instill such an ability. In a paper delivered in 1976, Epstein pointed out:

One of the main themes of the work is that in itself knowledge of the Dharma, that is the teachings of the Buddha, is worthless unless accompanied by meditational ability, or samadhi power. Also stressed is the importance of moral precepts as a foundation for the Path. These themes are established in the work’s prologue in which the erudite Ananda, who remembered everything the Buddha taught but never bothered to sit down and meditate, succumbs to an evil spell and is on the verge of being seduced by a prostitute, when he is saved by a mantra recited by the Buddha.⁠¹²

Also in the Surangama Sutra is found this exchange between the Buddha and his cousin Ananda which specifically points out the problem that occurs when we do not understand the difference between conceptual ideas that we may come to understand in our study of some subject, and actual insight gained through meditation:

The Lord Buddha continued: Ananda, if in this world disciples practiced meditation assiduously, though they attained all the nine stages of calmness in Dhyana, yet do not accomplish the attainment of Arhats free from the intoxicants arising from worldly contaminations and attachments, it is wholly due to their grasping this deceiving conception of discriminative thinking that is based on unrealities and mistaking the delusion as being a reality. Ananda, although you have learned a great deal, you are not yet ready for the maturity of Buddhahood.
When Ananda heard this solemn teaching, he became very sorrowful and with tears falling, with forehead, hands and feet touching the ground, he paid homage to the Lord. Then kneeling, he said:
Noble Lord! Since I determined to follow you and become your disciple, I have always thought that I could rely upon your supernormal strength and that it would not be difficult to put your teachings into practice. I expected that the Lord would favor me with an experience of Samadhi in this body; I did not appreciate that the body and mind were different and could not be substituted for each other, so I have likely lost my own mind. Although I have become a disciple of Buddha, my heart is not yet absorbed in Enlightenment. I am like a prodigal son who has forsaken his father. I now see that in spite of my learning, if I am not able to put it into practice, I am no better than an unlearned man. It is like a man talking about food, but never eating and becoming satisfied. We are all entangled in these two hindrances: knowledge and learning, and vexation and suffering.

Another important sutra that Lamotte criticized the provenance of was the Maha-Prajnaparamita Upadesa, which Lamotte felt was most likely composed by an Indian bhikkhu from the Sarvastivada tradition, who later became a convert to Mahayana Buddhism. The traditional attribution for this text is Nagarjuna, as it is for the Surangama Sutra, according to Khenpo Sodargye. Nagarjuna is considered to be one of the most important Buddhist philosophers, and who traditionally is credited with developing the philosophy of the Prajnaparamita sutras.

The important point here is that you cannot accurately translate that which is written during a much different time period, and in a very different culture, and as well in the case of spiritual texts as these, that often use techniques of exposition that differ from our modern cataphatic speech in which we simply assert facts about things, if you do not intuitively comprehend the meaning of the texts as they are read. That point may not be obvious if one has not already made sufficient progress along the path of meditative insights and clearly sees the weakness in all such beliefs as that held by those academics who stay solely on the surface of texts, dealing strictly with translation of the language, rather than the profound meaning, of the text. A conceptual understanding — which sets up a dualistic structure of something that is understood by someone understanding it — is the first step into ignorance of the truth, and not, as is often believed today, towards the ultimate discovery of truth.

Which is to say, either we accept the logic of these traditions, their sacred texts, and the descriptions of their foundation, inspiration, significant stories, and origins of the traditions’ practices and doctrines, or we will never achieve more than our own idiosyncratic interpretation, filled with our prejudices and firmly-held opinionated beliefs, about what we are reading.

And the only outcome of that is that we end up with a secular version of a spiritual tradition, based upon our interpretive ideas and theories, much as secular meditation, as taught today, is a thinned-out version of the much fuller, richer, and productive, traditional meditative practices.

Since 2010, when a Sanskrit version of the Surangama Sutra was discovered in China,⁠¹³ — which undermined the more palatable fact being used to justify the denigration of the sutra in Western academic thought — that no Sanskrit version of it existed — rather than the opinion that the Chinese was too beautiful which catalyzed this controversy — not a single printed negative opinion on the authenticity of this most important sutra has been corrected. Words in print can’t be taken back; but even easily modified electronic records still assert that the Surangama Sutra is a counterfeit, and people who should know better, continue to carry this belief that the sutra is a counterfeit in their heart.

In 1978, Master Hsüan Hua made a vow relating to the Surangama Sutra which does not seem to have confused others outside his school:

Today (the seventeenth day of the eleventh lunar month) is Amitabha Buddha’s birthday. I shall now make a vow regarding the Shurangama Sutra’s authenticity before the Buddhas of the ten directions.
Recently, some Ph.D.’s and scholars have criticized the Shurangama Sutra. They claim it was invented by later generations and not spoken by Shakyamuni Buddha. They have spread this rumor and tried to destroy this Sutra, causing Buddhists who lack true understanding to doubt. These people, who stir up a fuss by repeating what others say, are truly pathetic.
Today, I will vouch for the authenticity of the Shurangama Sutra before the assembly. Not only the Shurangama Sutra, but also the Shurangama Mantra is authentic. The Shurangama Sutra is the Buddha’s “true body,” and the Buddha’s sharira; no one can destroy it. If the Shurangama Sutra exists, then the Proper Dharma exists. If the Shurangama Sutra ceases to exist, then the Proper Dharma will also vanish. If the Shurangama Sutra is inauthentic, then I vow to fall into the Hell of Pulling Tongues to undergo uninterrupted suffering.⁠¹⁴

Ideas die hard, and knowledge advances one funeral at a time, as Max Plank observed. Those that are involved in the translation and interpretation of traditional texts would do well to understand that opinions expressed, like cancer, are very hard to eradicate, and these opinions move like wildfire, while intricate truth finds few receptive minds. Denigration of a text, especially one as important in Buddhism for a millennia as the Surangama Sutra, should never be accepted as an established fact, but rather an attack against the truth. Thus, it is incumbent on dedicated individuals to see for themselves whether such statements are true or not. Accepting knowledge from some authoritative figure is laziness and dangerous in the case of slanderous statements against texts such as this. As Khenpo Sodargye stated in his teaching on the Surangama Sutra:

When we look at this genuine sutra that is taught by the Buddha himself, and when there are people who would slander such a sutra, I think it would be very necessary for us to destruct — to eradicate — such kind of wrong view and wrong opinions. And by doing that, in fact, you are not making any mistakes. … it is not creating any negative karma for yourself. So… at the beginning, I really want to address the importance of recognizing that this is the genuine sutra, and we should all know that at appropriate time and appropriate situation, we should eradicate their wrong ideas. This is quite necessary.¹⁵
ཨེ་མ་ཧོ། ཕན་ནོ་ཕན་ནོ་སྭཱཧཱ།
👈 || UNSAYING | CONTEMPLATION | TRADITION | MEDITATION | DISCUSSION | BACK MATTER || 👉
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