Early Ch’an – The Lankavatara Sutra

by layman k

When one looks back the earliest roots of Ch’an the primary question is “what is it?”  What was it that distinguished Ch’an from other forms of Buddhism that had already taken hold in China and just what was it’s nature and practices. There doesn’t really seem to be a definitive answer on just what Ch’an was at the very beginning as the documentary record is particularly sparse and the founding is shrouded in myth and legend.  The founding of Ch’an of course is attributed to Bodhidharma and there are a number of references to him using the Lankavatara Sutra as his primary or only text.  There was enough of these references along with others in the early historical record that I felt I needed to devote some time to this sutra. Happily Bill Porter (Red Pine) has just published a new translation of The Lankavatara Sutra based explicitly on the Chinese translation often referenced in these early sources.

The first two translations of the Lankavatara Sutra into Chinese occurred prior to Bodhidharma’s arrival in China the earliest surviving text by Gunabadhra. This is the text supposedly handed down by Bodhidharma and is the primary source for the translation by Red Pine. The only other complete english translation is by D. T. Suzuki and can be found online though as Red Pine notes in his entry it was made from rather dubious sources.  There has not been a version of the sutra found that is earlier than the Chinese translations and Suzuki used a Sanskrit translation that had been made from these older Chinese sources and are apparently rather error prone.  For the english speaker Red Pine’s translation is certainly quite welcome especially as it has extensive commentary as well as notes on how each translation handled certain sections. Additionally he also took advantage of both ancient and modern Chinese commentary on the sutra as aids to understanding (for much more on the translations of this sutra see Red Pines introduction).

“The meaning of the Lankavatara is so subtle and illusive and its language so unadorned and antiquated that the reader is often unable to read it, much less get past the words to the meaning or get past the meaning to its heart.”
— Su Tung-p’o quoted in Red Pine’s introduction (1, p. 12, pp. 3).

It is far beyond the scope of this post and the authors abilities to fully delve into the Lankavatara Sutra. It is a long, dense, convoluted and deep work, one that is said to require a teacher to fully engage with. While I found this sutra to be very powerful and challenging I alas only had Red Pines invaluable commentary and was not working with a teacher on this material.  However since my purpose here is to consider this sutra in light of early Ch’an this should not present too much difficulties. Of course one should excuse my glosses, incomplete explanations and outright ignoring of vast amounts of the sutra’s contents due to this focus. I should note that this is certainly a sutra that I’ll return to again and would hope to work with a teacher on some day.

Just as the Diamond Sutra teaches detachment from dharmas, and the Heart Sutra teach the emptiness of dharmas, the Lankavatara teaches the non-projection of dharmas, that there would be no dharmas to be empty or to be detached from if we did no project them as existing or not existing in the first place.” — Red Pine (1, p. 4, pp. 3)

The Lankavatara has two main teachings “nothing but mind” which is the basis of Yogacara but then moves beyond that to emphasize “self-realization” which is the most explicit connection to Ch’an. Much of the content of this long sutra is increasingly refined applications of these principles to various facets of Buddhist philosophy with considerable time devoted to pointing out the shortcomings of various other schools and paths toward understanding this. There is much in this sutra that you can find in the sayings and metaphors of the Ch’an teachers and a few sections that as Red Pine puts it “If there ever was a sutra that presented the underlying teaching of Zen, this is it.”  The following  quotations from Section LVI (p. 161-3) are an example of this. The sutra, as is typically the case, is presented as a dialog between the historical Buddha and in this case a bodhisattva named Mahamati.

The teaching known and passed down by the sages of the past is that projections are nonexistent and that bodhisattvas should dwell alone in a quiet place and examine their own awareness. By relying on nothing else and avoiding views and projections, they steadily advance to the tathagata stage. This is what characterizes the personal realization of Buddha knowledge. ” (1, p. 163, pp. 3)
“Mahamati, what characterizes the one path? When I speak of the one path, I mean the one path of realization. And what does the one path to realization mean? Projections, such as projections of what grasps or what is grasped, do not arise in suchness. This is what the one path to realization means.” (1, p. 163, pp. 4)

The cultivation of “personal realization” is of course the practice of Ch’an and here too we see some hints for how this was practiced at this time. As this is the primary theme to this series we shall return to that at greater detail in subsequent entries.  That the nature of reality is illusion is a core tenant throughout Buddhism but the Lankavatara goes beyond this with this notion that all objects are  projections of our minds and our attachments to these objects form “habit-energy” from which all reality springs.  This “mind-only” teaching is also at the core of Ch’an though the emphasis is placed more on attaining this realization as opposed to considering all of the ramifications of this teaching on the conceptual categories of Mahayana thought.

“Thus, Mahamati, you should focus your efforts on true meaning. The true meaning is subtle and silent. It is the cause of nirvana. Words are linked to projections, and projections are tied to birth and death. Mahamati, the true meaning is learned from the learned. Mahamati, those who are learned esteem meaning and not words. Those who esteem meaning don’t accept the scriptures and doctrines of other schools. They don’t accept them for themselves, nor do they cause others to accept them. Thus they are called ‘learned and virtuous’. Hence, those who seek meaning should approach those who are learned, those who esteem meaning. And they should distance themselves from those who do the opposite and who attach themselves to words.” (1, Section LXXVI, p. 221 pp. 1)

The above quote also gets at another of the canonical features of Ch’an which is the notion that it is “beyond words” and the emphasis is on direct transmission from a teacher. Thus in the Lankavatara we find the “mind only” teachings, the notions of direct experience, the primacy of realization and the importance of working with a realized master. Thus much of core teachings of Ch’an that have existed from the earliest days but continue to this day can be found in this sutra. Certainly it seems believable that monks bringing this sutra from India could spark that which would become Ch’an. It is certainly understandable why this text is still valued in Zen circles today.  Red Pine makes the argument that this sutra probably represented the teachings of a particular region in India was then brought to China. This bolsters the argument that Ch’an or something like it began in India and was developed in China. Furthermore he proposes that as Ch’an became more mainstream that the influence of the Lankavatara waned, supplanted by the Diamond Sutra. In the next entry in this series we shall examine what the historical record has to say of the Lankavatara and of it’s the influence in early Ch’an writings.

1) The Lankavatara Sutra: Translation and Commentary
Translated and commentary by Red Pine (Bill Porter)
Published by Counterpoint, February 12, 2013
ISBN-10: 1619020998 | ISBN-13: 978-1619020993

2)  The Lankavatara Sutra, A Mahayana Text
Translated by Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki
Original Edition Published in London in 1932.
Based upon the Sanskrit edition of Bunyu Nanjo (1923).
Published in Internet by © do1@yandex.ru,  May 2004, 2005. (Rev. 2)
For free distribution only.

3) Studies in the Lankavatara Sutra
by Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki
Published by Munshirm Manoharlal Pub Pvt Ltd (January 1, 1998)
ISBN-10: 8121508339 | ISBN-13: 978-8121508339