Sutra of Contemplation of the Dharma Practice of Universal Sage Bodhisattva (SAMANTABHADRA)

Presented to the members of the Riverview Dharma Centre on Monday, January 1, 2018

The Samantabhadra Meditation Sutra (referred to hereinafter as the Meditation Sutra) is a Chinese sutra translated in the first half of the 5th century by Dharmamitra. Two prior translations have been lost, and no Sanskrit original has been found. It is traditionally published as an epilogue to the Lotus Sutra proper, which is supported by the text of the Meditation Sutra itself. Unlike the other two sutras, it is not divided into chapters.

The sutra opens with the Buddha at the Great Forest Monastery of Vaisali, three months before his passing on (parinirvana). Vaisali was the capital of the Vajjian confederacy, an early quasi-democracy. The Buddha modelled the constitution of the sangha after the Vajjian confederacy. Vaisali was also the birthplace of the 24th guide (Tirthankara) of Jainism, as well as the location of the Second Buddhist Council (c 334 BCE). The Buddha announces to the monastics that he will die in three months.

Ananda, Mahakashyapa, and Maitreya all rise from their seats and, after circumambulating the Buddha, ask the Buddha how the bodhisattvas will be able to follow the path without the Buddha’s guidance. The Buddha replies that previously he has taught the way of one truth (ekayana), but now he will teach a method of meditation, beginning with an explanation of the Land of Pure Wonder, also taught in the Flower Garland Sutra (Avatamsaka Sutra), whereby one may see the material body of Universal Sage Bodhisattva (Samantabhadra, the bodhisattva of practice and meditation); the stupa of Abundant Treasure Buddha, which appears in the Lotus Sutra; Shakyamuni Buddha and the buddhas who embody him; and purify the six senses.

An interesting point about this exercise is that it is available to householders, not just monastics. Ananda, Mahakashyapa, and Maitreya all ask, “Without cutting off their afflictions and renouncing the five desires, how can they purify their sense organs and completely rid themselves of their sins? With the natural pure eyes received at birth from their parents, and without leaving the world of the five desires, how can they see past their hindrances?” This corresponds to a similar passage in the Prajnaparamita: “Having given but a little gift, having guarded but a little morality, having developed but a little patience, having exerted but a little vigour, having entered trance but a little, having developed wisdom but a little, a Bodhisattva, a great being, who wants by skilful conversion to make this small amount for all beings on account of the knowledge of all modes into an immeasurable and incalculable one, should train in perfect wisdom.”

All bodhisattvas are essentially householders, since the Bodhisattva himself, throughout all his past lives, is nowhere mentioned as having been ordained, including in his final rebirth (he was however reborn 83 out of 530 times [but only 16%] as an ascetic; see Rhys Davids, Buddhist Birth-Stories, Table VII, “The Bodhisats,” p. 246). Here we see an intimation of the fundamental premise of Tantra, that spiritual practice is reoriented toward the householders as the monastic age, which the Buddha said would be limited to a thousand years, recedes and the age of degeneration continues, using powerful compensatory techniques like seclusion, prostration, visualization, concentration, chanting, and invocations, vows, burning incense, scattering flowers, hanging paintings, flags, canopies, etc., etc. A thousand years after the Buddha’s passing on is about 600 CE. According to the Wikipedia, Buddhist Vajrayana tantras began to appear about the sixth or seventh centuries CE – right on schedule!

The Buddha states that those who practice for one day, 21 days, 49 days, or one to three lifetimes, will be able to see Samantabhadra, depending on their personal purity. However, Samantabhadra’s body is unlimited, manifesting in an infinite variety of different forms. He is represented as an enormous radiant white elephant with six tusks and seven legs moving through a field of seven lotus flowers. He holds a golden flower that has not yet blossomed in his trunk. The sutra implies that this is the form in which people will see the body of Samantabhadra, but it also has the appearance of a visualization exercise, such as we find in the Tantric tradition, with incredibly elaborate symbolic details that we will not go into here. The highly ritualistic character of the sutra confirms this interpretation, as we shall see. The golden flower is said to blossom because of the practice, suggesting the attainment of the clear light or Buddha nature (tathagatagarbha). Compare the Secret of the Golden Flower, a 17th century Taoist classic popularized by Wilhelm and Baynes and Carl Gustav Jung. Although nominally Taoist, the meditation technique described in the book has been described as “Zen with details.”

Samantabhadra is seated cross-legged on the back of the elephant that represents him, surrounded by a multicoloured aura. Every pore of his body radiates golden light.

The “follower” who wishes to see the physical body of Samantabhadra shows respect to the buddhas in all directions six times day and night, rather like the followers of Islam who pray five times a day. The sutra states that all people are to be regarded as the Buddha, and all living beings as one’s parents. The follower entreats the bodhisattvas to teach them the dharma, and because of the merit (“wisdom-power”) of the former, they will realize the dharma. This is the first stage of the meditation.

Followers are enjoined to meditate on the Mahayana to the point where they dream of it. Samantabhadra will inspire their minds and they will realize the dharma, until they see imaginary buddhas in all directions and experience bliss.

The followers are then enjoined to intensify their repentance, an interesting word with Judaeo-Christian associations. This and such subsequent translations as “confess” and “sin” I would very much like to see the Sanskrit and Chinese versions of. “Repentance” is achieved by meditating on “suchness” (tatha), “the true aspect of reality,” and the Mahayana sutras. In other words, “repentance” is equated to the realization of the “true aspect of reality.”

Master Chi Yii (538–597 CE), the founder of the Tiantai sect, further expanded the idea of confession through sutras, by establishing a self-confessional ritual consisting of nine steps. This is called the Dharma Blossom Samadhi Confessional Ritual.

Related imageIn any case, followers should prostrate to the buddhas in all directions, and then kneel with palms together and pray to the buddhas. Interestingly, this aspect of the practice implicit in the Meditation Sutra, in which the follower kneels and prays in the direction of Vultures Peak (Griddharaj Parvat) in India, anticipates the Muslim obeisance to the Qibla (first Jerusalem, then Mecca) beginning in 610 CE, less than two hundred years later. When completely purified, Samantabhadra will appear and teach them all the dharma in both waking and sleeping states. After 21 days of this, the follower will acquire the “revolving incantation.” Bunno translates this as “dharani of revolution.” As we discussed in connection with the Lotus, a dharani is a sort of mantra, inscribed on a charm, amulet, or talisman, often in circular or other geometric patterns similar to a mandala, by means of which the follower will acquire a perfect understanding of dharma.

Because of their purification of the senses, the follower will develop clairaudience, clairvoyance, and other psychic powers, also described in the Pali Canon. As a result of this practice the follower will experience a vision of Shakyamuni Buddha emitting infinite numbers of rays of golden light from the pores of his body, in each of which are hundreds of millions of transformed buddhas, numerous as the grains of sand of the Ganges. It is also similar to a fractal, referring to the infinite divisibility of phenomena, i.e., the principle of differentiation or proliferation and continuity that is also the essential principle of samsara. In other words, the dharma manifests in an infinite diversity of ways, corresponding to the doctrines of the 84,000 skilful means (upaya), “innumerable meanings,” infinite numbers of forms of Samantabhadra previously alluded to, etc.

Samantabhdara emits a ray of light from the centre of the forehead (ajna chakra) into the heart (anahata chakra) of the follower, resulting in a sudden and great awakening, including the memory of past lives. The follower will acquire the revolving dharani and billions of other dharanis.

The six methods to purify the sense organs are to meditate on the Buddha, dharma, sangha, virtue, selflessness, and the divine, which together express the aspiration to become a Buddha (bodhicitta), followed by confession and repentance. These concepts are also found in the Pali Canon of course, in connection with the lunar upavasatha (Pali uposatha) gathering, where the sangha meets and recites the pratimoksha, the rules of the order (a formulary for releasing monastics by penances, essentially a form of karma yoga). If anyone in the gathering has broken the pratimoksha, the sangha is purified by either the expulsion or confession of the monastic, by which the rift is healed, with certain unforgivable exceptions, like sex, stealing, murder, and lying, which result in automatic expulsion from the sangha. The Meditation Sutra is based on a similar premise for the individual and states that these six methods are essentially equivalent to bodhicitta. Such a person becomes a “follower” and their mind will become well-ordered. This is called the mark of the first stage of the purification of the eyes.

You may recall that when the Buddha was considering not teaching, he decided to teach for the sake of those whose eyes are less covered with “dust.” In the Meditation Sutra there is a direct allusion to the “dust of the passions,” suggesting that some people are more or less (dis)passionate. “Dust” also refers to matter or materiality, and the process of objectification by which we become attached to the objects of our imagination. This is another example of how the Lotus Sutra and the rest interpret the Pali tradition. More passionate people, regardless of gender, are reborn as women. The feminine is the somatic polarity according to Jung, the principle of the body and matter, but this does not mean that women are incapable of attaining nirvana. The Buddha explicitly said that they are, and established the bhikkhunisangha on this basis, at a time and in a place where women were regarded as chattel and inferior, despite the fact that many ancient rishis were women. The Buddha also said that a sangha that excludes women is incomplete and imperfect. Thus, the Buddha affirms reverence for the female, the essential principle of Tantra.

In addition, the Meditation Sutra teaches that the forms and bodies of buddhas do not become extinct. The Buddha taught this when he rejected nihilism, but misinterpreted by the Theravada, who equate nirvana with annihilation and the attainment of the Tathagata with literal extinction rather than with the transcendence of involuntary rebirth. Rather, their merit continues to inspire beings to purify themselves through aspiration. In the language of the sutra, the “dharma water” of the “wisdom eyes” that cleanse and purify are the merciful and compassionate tears of Avalokiteshvara, who hears the cries of the world.

Related imageIn what is now clearly a practice, the follower kneels on their right knee and repents six times a day. As a result, the stupa of Abundant Treasure Buddha springs out of the earth as in chapter 11 of the Lotus Sutra. Here we clearly see that the Lotus Sutra is being interpreted esoterically as a metaphor for the attainment of a series of spiritual states, culminating in enlightenment that is represented in positive rather than in negative terms, i.e., from the perspective of enlightenment itself rather than from the perspective of suffering. This is indeed the essential difference between the Hinayana and the Mahayana. The stupa of enlightenment represents a primal force that shatters the inertia of matter and manifests a luminous celestial phenomenon. Shakyamuni opens the “door” of the stupa and the follower experiences a vision of Abundant Treasures Buddha, as a brilliant, fractally self-proliferating being who is the real body (dharmakaya) of the Buddha.

By recognizing that consciousness is defiled through the influence of the senses, one can free oneself from attachment to each of the senses in turn by the exercise of repentance. The process is repeated for each of the six senses – eyes, ears, nose, tongue, mind, and body – that are each purified thereby. Similarly, this exercise is repeated six times per day.

These teachings are attributed to a “voice in the sky,” which encourages and instructs the follower. The “voice in the sky” is frequently found in ancient literature. Before we discount it as purely mythical, we should remember the daemon of Socrates, which he actually heard. Even as recently as the 18th century, we have the example of William Blake, showing that visions and clairaudient experiences are not inherently fictitious. Julian Jaynes argues in The Breakdown of Consciousness in the Bicameral Mind that ancient man commonly experienced such phenomena. The UFO connection can also not be discounted, in view of other evidence in the Pali Canon and elsewhere.

The sutra reiterates what I have mentioned frequently throughout these talks, that salvation is by the practice of wisdom. Wisdom, the cure for ignorance, is the inherently salvific principle. The Meditation Sutra’s teaching of mind is familiar:

If you contemplate your mind, you will find no mind, except the mind that comes from perverse conceptions. The mind with such conceptions arises from delusion. Like the wind in the sky, it has no grounding. Such a character of things neither appears nor disappears. … the thought of self is itself empty, nether sin nor virtue is our master. … all things are neither permanent nor destroyed. If one repents like this, meditating on one’s mind, one finds no mind. Things also do not dwell in things. All things are liberated, show the truth of extinction, and are calm and tranquil. Such a thing is called great repentance, sublime repentance, repentance without sin, the destruction of consciousness of mind. People who practice this repentance are pure in body and mind, like flowing water, not attached to things.

This language is worthy of Laozi or a Gnostic text. Previously we questioned the use of the word “repentance” in the sutra. Here we learn that “repentance” is actually meditation on “no mind,” whereby body and mind are purified. Zen Buddhism was doubtlessly inspired by this passage. Later on the sutra says that “If you want to repent, you should sit upright / And reflect on the true nature of things.” Clearly, what the sutra means by repentance, while it may include the Christian connotation of confession, also goes beyond this conventional definition, analogous to the original meaning of metanoia, conventionally translated “repentance” (e.g., in the King James Bible), but which literally means “change of mind.” It would be interesting to compare the Sanskrit and Chinese equivalent terms as well. Note the adumbration of Tantra in the vaguely libertine reference to the Buddha being beyond good and evil, which one also finds in the Pali. The Buddha transcends morality. Like the Taoist ruler-sage, he lives in a perfectly effortless and spontaneous accord with his environment. Note also that the enlightened mind’s perception of samsara has subtly changed. Without attachment to phenomena, the Buddha sees no difference between samsara and nirvana. The illusion of samsara has disappeared like a mirage, revealing the true landscape of reality. For the “destruction of consciousness of mind,” Bunno has “destruction of discrimination.” Postmodernism has caught up with the Buddha after only two and a half millennia.

the mind is like a monkey,
Never resting for a moment.

The body, master of its organs,
Dances freely amongst these six harmful faculties
Without obstacle,
Like dust swirling in the wind,

The so-called six methods
Purify the six sense organs.

The Buddha explains to Ananda how the sutras are the eyes of the Buddha, the reading and reciting of which are all that is needed to attain enlightenment (the salvific wisdom principle again). Five kinds of eyes and three kinds of bodies are distinguished but not explained. However, we know for other sources that the five eyes are the eyes of flesh; the divine eye, by means of which one perceives the operation of karmic causality; the wisdom eye, which perceives the essentially empty nature of phenomenal existence; the dharma eye, which sees (i.e., realizes) reality; and the Buddha eye, which sees (i.e., accesses) infinite information. The eye itself is a symbol of the vector of attention or the quantum “act of observation.”

The three bodies are the nominal, energetic, and real bodies of the Buddha (nirmankaya, sambhogakaya, and dharmakaya respectively).

The sutra recommends that the disciples (not followers, note) meet in a graveyard or under the trees of a monastery. It alludes to “the strong power of reflecting,” i.e., sati, mindfulness or “remembering,” and states that by this means they will see the body of the celestial buddhas and bodhisattvas and become buddhas themselves. The Mahayana has the power to destroy the karmic tendencies (samskaras) accumulated during “hundreds of myriads of thousands of billions of eons.” They should purify themselves by bathing, putting on clean clothes, burning incense, living in seclusion, and reading and meditating on the Mahayana sutras. One should meditate on Samantabhadra, the archetypal bodhisattva. This is, according to the sutra, the only true meditation (see appendix).

Facility in this meditation confers perfection in the bodhisattva precepts without the requirement of any special initiation, i.e., it is available to everyone, including monastics, householders, and those with or without a teacher. Through this powerful practice one will realize the fivefold dharma body consisting of precepts, meditation, wisdom, liberation, and insight into liberation, which are distinguished.

The sutra concludes with a recommendation to practice five repentances: meditation on the first principle of emptiness (shunyata), fulfilling one’s social duty, ruling justly, practising fasting and abstaining from killing, and believing in the law of karma, the ekayana (the ‘single’ or ‘universal vehicle’), and the non-extinction of the buddhas.

When one abstracts the actual instructions from the Meditation Sutra in a systematic way one discovers a synthetic eightfold and sixteenfold repetitive structure consisting of recitation, including (1) invoking the name of the Buddha; (2) concentration or meditation; (3) repentance and confession; (4) making vows or affirmations, of which there are sixteen (see appendix); (5) respect and reverence (probably implying prostration, kneeling, and joining the palms together); (6) offerings, consisting of burning incense, scattering flowers, and hanging flags, paintings, and canopies; (7) celebration, devotion, praise, and aspiration; and (perhaps separately) (8) circumambulating stupas. The rite implied is performed in the direction of Vulture Peak and is repeated six times daily, similar to the Islamic religion. A period of isolation or seclusion, as in a spiritual retreat, is also implied. This rite or retirement is held to purify the six sense organs, cultivate wisdom, and ultimately result in the attainment of buddhahood. The Tiantai have a rite of Dharma Confession that appears to be related to this.

I have appended the sixteen vows or affirmations.

The Sixteen Vows or Affirmations

First Affirmation

If I have any blessings stored up, surely I should see Universal Sage soon. Honourable Universal Fortune please show me your physical body!

Second Affirmation

Great kind ones, great compassionate ones, out of pity for me, please teach the Dharma for me!

Third Affirmation

Thanks to the Great Vehicle, I have been able to see great leaders. Because of the powers of great leaders, I have also been able to see buddhas. Though I have seen these buddhas, still I have not seen them completely. When I close my eyes I see the buddhas, but when I open my eyes I lose sight of them.

Fourth Affirmation

The buddhas, the world-honoured ones have the ten powers, courage, the eighteen unique qualities, great compassion, great kindness, and the three kinds of mental stability. These buddhas, always living embodied in this world, have the finest form. What is the sin that makes me fail to see them?

Fifth Affirmation

Due to what sin have I only seen earth of jewels, seats of jewels, and jewel trees, but have not seen the buddhas?

Sixth Affirmation

The Tathagata, the World’s Hero, is always in this world. Out of pity for me, please reveal yourself to me.

Seventh Affirmation

May I be cleansed and purified by the Dharma water of the buddhas and bodhisattvas of the wisdom-eyes!

Eighth Affirmation

I now repent for the heavy sins of my eyes. My eyes are such an obstacle and are so tainted that I am blind and can see nothing at all. With your great kindness, may the Buddha have mercy on me and protect me! Universal Sage Bodhisattva, accompanied by countless bodhisattvas from all of the directions, rides the ship of the great Dharma, the ship that carries all beings to the other side. My one wish is that out of pity for me my no-good eyes will be purified of the hindrances that come from the bad and evil things that have done in the past.

Ninth Affirmation

Why can I only see Shakyamuni Buddha and the buddhas who embody him, but not the stupa or remaining whole body of Abundant treasures Buddha? The stupa of Abundant Treasures Buddha is always living, never extinct. My eyes are polluted by evil. This is why I cannot see the stupa.

Tenth Affirmation

Great Teacher, teach me to repent of my faults.

Eleventh Affirmation

Truly enlightened World Honoured One, reveal yourself and beat testimony for me. With the sutras of the Expansive Teaching you are the master of compassion. My one request is that you look upon me and hear what I say. For many eons, until I had this body, because of my ears I was deluded by sounds and attached to hearing them, just as lacquer sticks to grass. When I hear evil sounds, a pervasive poison of affliction arises, deluding me and attaching me to everything, without resting even a little. Bad sounds wear on my nerves and make me fall into the three destinies. Now, understanding this for the first time returning to the world-honoured ones I confess and repent of it.

Twelfth Affirmation

Praise to Shakyamuni Buddha! Praise to the stupa of Abundant Treasures Buddha! Praise to all the buddhas in the ten directions embodying Shakyamuni Buddha!

Thirteenth Affirmation

Praise to the Buddha Good Virtue in the eastern direction and to the buddhas who embody him!

Fourteenth Affirmation

During the innumerable eons of my previous lives, I craved aromas, tastes, and feelings from touch and did many evil things. For this reason, for innumerable lives have always found myself born in various undesirable bodies, including those of beings in purgatories, hungry spirits, animals, begins in remote places, and people of wrong views.

Fifteenth Affirmation

The buddhas, the world-honored ones, are always alive in this world. Because of hindrances due to my actions in the past, even though I have faith in the Expansive Teaching, I cannot clearly see buddhas. Now I take refuge in the buddhas. Shakyamuni Buddha, truly enlightened, World-Honoured One, I beg you just to be my teacher. Manjushri, great compassionate one, I beg you to use your wisdom to instruct me in the pure teachings of bodhisattvas. Maitreya Bodhisattva, sun of superior and great kindness, out of sympathy for me, you should listen to my pleas to receive the teachings of bodhisattvas. Buddhas in all directions, reveal yourselves and testify for me. Great bodhisattvas, superior and great teachers, since we extol your names, protect all living beings. Help and protect us! Today I have received and embraced the sutras of the Expansive Teaching. Even if I should lose my life, fall into a purgatory, and suffer endlessly, I would never harm or slander the true Dharma of the buddhas. Therefore, Shakyamuni Buddha, for this reason and by the power of this blessing, be my teacher now! Manjushri, be my educator! Maitreya of the world to come, I beg you to instruct me in the Dharma! Buddha’s in all directions, I beg you to teach me true wisdom! Bodhisattvas of great virtue I beg you to be my companions! Due to the profound and mysterious meanings of the Great Vehicle sutras, I now take refuge in the Buddha, take refuge in the Dharma, and teach refuge in the monastic community.

Sixteenth Affirmation

Today I have aspired to awakening. May the blessings from this save all the living!

The example of a dharani below is not from the Lotus Sutra.