THE SHURANGAMA-SUTRA (T. 945):
A REAPPRAISAL OF ITS AUTHENTICITY
by Ronald Epstein
(Presented at the annual meeting of the American Oriental Society,
March 16-18, 1976, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.)
What I would like to do in the next few minutes is to outline very briefly
some of my research on the authenticity of the Shurangama-sutra. Although
the material is rather complex, I'll do my best to omit what is tedious without
sacrificing important points. However, it will be necessary to omit most of the
details just in order to get through the material.
The first thing to get straight is that the Sutra I am discussing is not the Shurangamasamadhi-sutra (T. 642) in two rolls, which has been translated by Lamotte, rather it is, to give its full title, theTa-fo-ting-ju-lai-mi-yin-hsiu-cheng-liao-i-
chu-p'u-sa-wan-hang-shou-leng-yen-ching, which I have translated as follows: "The Summit of the Great Buddha, The Final Meaning of Verification though Cultivation of the Secret Cause of the Tathagatas, and [Foremost] Shurangama of All Bodhisattvas' Ten Thousand Practices Sutra." It is in ten rolls, and, according to the tradition, was translated in 705 by an unknown Indian bhiksu Po-la-mi-ti (which perhaps can be reconstructed as "Paramiti") and others, and then polished and edited by Empress Wu Tzu-t'ien's recently banished minister Fang Yung.
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. The theme of how one effectively combats demonic
influences over one's own mind continues throughout the Sutra.
In the immediately following section, on the location of the mind, the distinction is made between the mind characterized by discriminating consciousness and the true mind, which is found in all locations (i.e., underlying all dharmas). Also contained in the work are a discussion of meditational methodology in terms of the importance of picking the proper faculty (indriya) as a vehicle for meditation, instructions for the construction of a tantric bodhimanda, a long mantra, a description of fifty-seven Bodhisattva stages, a description of the karmic relationship among the destinies (gati), or paths of rebirth, and an enumeration of fifty demonic states encountered on the path. Generally speaking, the Sutra has a tantric/tathagatagarbha flavor with a dash of yogacara.
From the early Sung dynasty the Sutra was widely studied by all the Chinese Buddhist schools and was particularly popular among those of the syncretic movement. I have found reference to 127 Chinese commentaries on the Sutra, quite a few for such a lengthy work, including 59 in the Ming dynasty alone, when it was especially popular. The Sutra is connected with the enlightenment of the Sung Master Ch'ang-shui Tzu-hsuan and the Ming Master Han-shan Te-ching, both of the Ch'an school.
Now let us turn to the controversy over its authenticity. The earliest
evidence we have is from Japan where a doctrinal controversy over the Sutra
erupted between two Nara sects in 754. Although the dispute was resolved in
favor of authenticity, the dispute flared up again in 772, when a party was sent
to China for further information. When the members returned, their leader
claimed that a Chinese layman had told them that the Sutra was a forgery by Fang
Yung. The Sutra was on the verge of being publicly burned when another monk
returned from a long stay in China and said that the Chinese Emperor had just
requested that it be explained in the palace, and so at the last minute it was
saved, although it never became popular in Japan. We have little hard
information about what was actually going on in Japan and so can do little more
than speculate. However, it is interesting to note that the dates of the two
controversies correspond to political upheavals directly affecting the Buddhist
Apparently there was some ongoing controversy among at least some people in China from early times. The first extant reference to the Sutra in China is by the anti-Buddhist Neo-Confucian Chu Hsi, who condemns the Sutra as a forgery. Then, in the thirteen century, Dogen, the celebrated founder of Soto Zen, mentions that his teacher Ju-ching didn't like it either because it was associated with the Buddhist syncretic movement (san chiao i chih). The first extant references in Chinese Buddhist works to the controversy appear in Ming commentaries.
It may be helpful at this point to give you a brief line-up on both sides of the issue. Favoring the work's authenticity we have the entire extant orthodox Chinese Buddhist tradition, part of the early Japanese Buddhist community, and, among modern scholars, Lo Hsiang-lin and perhaps von Stael-Holstein, who doesn't totally commit himself. Against authenticity we have the other part of the Japanese Buddhist community, including Dogen, and Chu Hsi and some other Neo-Confucians; and among modern scholars 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.
Although I have probably spent a good deal more time with the Sutra than any of the above mentioned, I can hardly offer more than an interim report in terms of any definitive and final resolution of the issues, which I will try to outline now:
(1) Mochizuki and company attempted to show in two ways that the traditional account of the Sutra's transmission and translation is a phoney coverup for a Chinese apocryphum. First, they put great stock in the fact that there was controversy over the Sutra's authenticity in both China and Japan. Secondly, they point to contradictions in the first two extant catalogue accounts of the Sutra's transmission and translation, which are found in the Hsu-ku-chin-i-ching-t’u-chi (T. 2152) and the K'ai-yuan-shih chiao-lu (T. 2154), both by Chih-sheng, a noted and generally reliable cataloguer who assumed the Shurangama was genuine. Both catalogues were published in the same year, 730. It is true that the accounts show a certain amount of inconsistency that generated subsequent confusion, but a close and careful look at the meager evidence does not really justify the charge of fabrication. Futhermore, it is difficult to see why it would be more likely for an apocryphum with a fabricated "history' to generate conflicting accounts than for a genuine work.
(2) Through examination of the internal evidence, they also attempt to
demonstrate that the Sutra was written in China. It is really in the area of
internal evidence that the case must finally be decided one way or the other.
Their argument covers four main areas: language, doctrinal inconsistencies,
borrowing from other works, and what I would like to call "creeping Taoism" and
other references to things Chinese.
a. Language. Both sides agree that the language is of a more classical Chinese style than any other major translation. Traditionally, it is ascribed to extensive editorial rewriting and polishing by Fang Yung, who, as mentioned above, was a minister to Wu Tzu-t'ien and who was banished to Canton in 705 where he is said to have participated in the translation process. The beauty of the language creates such an overwhelming first impression that it is often the cause of other issues being overlooked.
b. Doctrinal inconsistencies. Many of the instances which have been pointed out as such are either erroneous or equivocal. Those areas in which the Sutra does not tally with the tradition of other well-established texts are ones in which one would not expect a Chinese sophisticated enough to write such a work to make a mistake, for example, simple inconsistencies in p'an chiao (lit. "judging the teachings"), that is, inconsistencies in terms of the traditional chronology of the Buddha's teaching, or, to cite another area, inconsistencies in well-known stories about the Buddha's chief disciples. Such inconsistencies in simple matters contrast strongly with doctrinal sophistication of the greater part of the Sutra. Of course such so-called inconsistencies are far from unknown in works about which authenticity is not an issue.
c. Borrowing. Mochizuki repeatedly uses the logically inconsistent ploy of claiming that if a particular idea appears in the Shurangama that is also found in another sutra, it proves that the so-called author of the Shurangama borrowed the idea directly from the other work and that the Shurangama is therefore apocryphal. Parallelisms may help to inform us about the doctrinal relationships between works or even about their comparative historical development, but they do not in themselves prove anything about authenticity.
d. "Creeping Taoism" and references to things Chinese. With the exception of one problematic section concerning hsien, a term which in Buddhist texts can stand for rsi or siddha in addition the usual meaning of Taoist "immortal", I have been able to locate ideas which Mochizuki and Demieville have called Taoist in other Buddhist works. The hsien section in the Shurangama is very brief and terse and could easily represent an adaptive Chinese translation of Buddhist tantric ideas. The whole area of the doctrinal relationship between the Taoist nei-tan, or so-called "inner alchemy", and early Buddhist tantra is a murky one, and until we know more about both, the issue probably cannot be resolved adequately.
As to things Chinese, there are various short references to them scattered throughout the text, but, just as well as indicating the work's Chinese origin, they also could be an indication of a translation style of substitution of parallel items, which would fit right in with the highly literary Chinese phraseology.
(3) Let us now turn to the other side and take a brief look at what we can find that might seem to point at the work's Indic origin:
a. Large numbers of Sanskrit words appear in the text, including some not
often found in other Chinese translations. Moreover, the transliteration system
does not seem to follow that of other works.
b. The Sutra's general doctrinal position, which is tantric/tathagatagarbha, corresponds to what we know about what was going on at Nalanda during the period in question.
c. Large sections, including the greater bulk of the Sutra text, definitely seem to contain Indic materials. Some passages could conceivably have been constructed from texts already translated into Chinese, although given the bulk and complexity of the material, to account for much of the text in that way would mean that the task of authorship would have had to have been an enormous one. About other portions of the work, such as the bodhimanda and mantra, there can be no doubt about their direct Indic origin.
(4) Preliminary analysis of the internal evidence then indicates that the Sutra is probably a compilation of Indic materials that may have had a long literary history. It should be noted though, that for a compilation, which is also how the Sutra is treated by some traditional commentators, the Sutra has an intricate beauty of structure that is not particularly Chinese and which shines through and can clearly be distinguished from the Classical Chinese syntax, on which attention has usually been centered. Thus one of the difficulties with the theory that the Sutra is apocryphal is that it would be difficult to find an author who could plausibly be held accountable for both structure and language and who would also be familiar with the doctrinal intricacies that the Sutra presents. Therefore, it seems likely that the origin of the great bulk of material in the Sutra is Indic, though it is obvious that the text was edited in China. However, a great deal of further, systematic research will be necessary to bring to light the all the details of the text's rather complicated construction.
(5) Now if you will allow me to indulge in a bit of self-criticism for a few
moments, it seems to me at this juncture that concentration on the problem of
authenticity, as I have done so far, distorts our view of the text in question,
and perhaps of others in the sense that the issue tends to get blown up out of
proportion and, therefore, directs attention away from, what to me anyway, are
probably more vital issues.
What I mean is this. In terms of trying to come to an understanding of a particular text's role in the development of Buddhism in China, as soon as we determine that it does not contain significant ideas of indigenous Chinese origin, i.e., that regardless of who actually wrote down the text, that the all ideas contained fall directly into the mainstream of the doctrinal developments of Indian Buddhism, then, in at least one sense, the whole authenticity issue becomes irrelevant.
What is of primary importance for understanding the Shurangama's role in China is how it was viewed and interpreted by the Chinese Buddhist community. I obviously have no time now for a systematic presentation of this complex subject, but I would like to just mention a few points:
First, I have already indicated that historically the authenticity issue was embroiled in doctrinal and perhaps also political controversies in Japan and in the controversy over the Buddhist syncretic movement in Sung China, and that it was attacked by Chu Hsi, who was undoubtedly worried about the impact of its rising popularity. Nevertheless, it was overwhelmingly accepted by the greater part of the Buddhist community in China. I know of no direct extant statement by a Chinese Buddhist monk that the Sutra is apocryphal.
If we wish to understand the thinking of that community that lead to the text's acceptance, it is necessary to look into the very different criteria which Chinese Buddhists used to determine authenticity. In closing, allow me to give a single example, which I hope will be somewhat provocative.
As already mentioned, the Shurangama is connected with enlightenment of the well-known Ming Dynasty Ch'an Master Han-shan Te-ch'ing. According to his autobiography, he used the work to verity his enlightenment. He explains in his autobiography that he had never heard lectures on the Sutra and did not understand its meaning at all. Then, according to his own account, he studied the Sutra using the power of yoga pratyaksa, or direct veridical perception, claiming that it is impossible to grasp the meaning of the work if one gives rise to a even a little bit of discriminating consciousness. After eight months of constant study, he tells us that he came to a total understanding of the work that was devoid of doubt.
In other words, I think we can say that, for Ch’an Master Han-shan, the Sutra
was seen as an imprint of a mind in which discriminating consciousness had been
totally eliminated. Of course, Han-shan did not ascribe to prevalent modern
Western scholarly ideas about the historical development of Buddhist texts and
believed the Sutra had come directly from Sakyamuni Buddha himself, but that is
not the point. What is important here is that Han-shan's experiential
verification that the text is written on the level of non-discriminative
awareness reinforced his belief in the genuineness of the text. Such a criterion
lies beyond the narrow band of historical and philological issues that have so
far dominated modern scholarly studies of textual authenticity. It seems to me
that further study of traditional criteria such as this their own terms must be
a prerequisite for evaluation of their relevancy, or lack of it, in terms of the
methodology and goals of modern Buddhological research.