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MATSU, who died in 788, was one of the greatest Zen Masters of the Tang dynasty in China. One evening when he was enjoying the full moon with his disciples, he said: “What do you say, 0 Monks, of this delightful moonlight night?”
Ts’ang said: “Fine night for performing a religious rite.”
Hai said: “Fine for all night meditation.”
Yuan, without saying a word, quickly left the room. Thereupon the Master remarked: “The Sutra passes to Ts’ang; Zen goes to Hai; as to Yuan, nothing can put him into bondage.”
Fa-yen, who died in 1104, was another great Zen Master. He was enjoying an evening with three of his favorite disciples and being engrossed in conversation they forgot how late it was. When they were about to leave, there was no more light to see the way out. The Master, standing in the dark, said: “Each of you make a statement at this junction.”
Fo-chien said: “A phoenix is dancing, spreading its multicolored wings against the golden clouds.”
Fo-yen said: “An iron colored snake is lying in the ancient pathway.”
Fo-kuo said: “Look out for your own footsteps.”
The Master concluded: “It is Fo-kuo who will ruin our religion.”
Now let me ask, has Mr. Goddard ruined the Sutras? If he had really grasped the meaning (art ha), he would not have written it, for no chain of words (ruta) could then have bound him. However, he was too tender hearted, hence this epitomised version. But my warning is: Remember, words are no more than a finger pointing to the moon. Where is the moon now? Watch your step.
DAISETS TEITARO SUZUKI, 1932
The Lankavatara Sutra is one of the major texts of Mahayana Buddhism and one of a handful of sutras that are central to the study of Zen. It is said that the Indian monk Bodhidharma, the first ancestor of the Zen school, introduced the Lankavatara Sutra to China some time in the fifth century, and that he passed on its teachings — along with the robe and bowl of the transmission of the dharma — to his successor, Huiko.
Lankavatara Sutra is the Sanskrit title for the “Sutra on the Descent to Sri Lanka.” The scene of the sutra is an assembly in Sri Lanka where the Buddha responds to questions presented by the bodhisattva Mahamati. In responding to Mahamati’s questions, the Buddha expounded many of the essential teachings of Mahayana Buddhism, such as the inner enlightenment that transcends duality and the realization of the tathagata-garba (womb of suchness) that is present in all beings.
The basic teachings presented in the Lankavatara Sutra were instrumental in shaping Chinese Zen, but they continue to be highly relevant to modern day Zen practice in the West. These teachings explore the nature of mind, self–Realization and the process for its attainment, as well as the essential character and stages of development of the bodhisattva. Central to these teachings is the view that words and ideas are not essential for the transmission of the dharma. This view is a reflection of the well-known four tenets that Bodhidharma used to describe Zen. He said “Zen is”:
1) A special transmission outside the scriptures
2) With no reliance on words and letters
3) A direct pointing to the human mind
4) And the realization of buddhahood
Bodhidharma was essentially saying that words, letters, and scriptures are at best a description of reality and not the reality itself. The truth of the teachings must be personally realized by each individual, and the only thing sutras — and in fact, Zen teachers — can do, is to directly point to the human mind. This direct pointing is the basis of the ancestral lineage characteristic of Zen. The teachings are transmitted mind to mind from generation to generation from master to disciple.
The nine chapters of prose and verse that comprise the Lankavatara Sutra are, in the words of its first English translator, D.T. Suzuki, “A Mahayana text difficult in more than one way to understand perfectly as to its meaning…”
The present epitomized version by Dwight Goddard makes this important sutra more accessible to modern practitioners of Mahayana Buddhism and Zen. Goddard has rendered the text in a form that allows for easier reading, by condensing some sections and omitting parts that are repetitious or too obscure for the modern reader. Goddard skillfully accomplished this abridgment without compromising the full meaning of the text.
Dr Suzuki’s Studies in the Lankatavara Sutra was published in 1929 and his translation of the sutra was published in 1932. The essential teachings found in this important primary source have not been available in English for many years. The sutra’s reappearance in Goddard’s epitomized version will return it to its proper place as one of the central sutras in the training of Mahayana Buddhist practitioners.
JOHN DAIDO LOORI