The Shurangama Sutra with Commentary by Venerable Master Hsuan Hua
Buddhist Lecture Hall, San Francisco, 1968
...Commentary: ...Every creature wants to nourish its own body. The greed cannot be stopped. As a result, in the world all the sentient beings born of eggs, wombs, moisture, and by transformation tend to devour one another for the nourishment of their bodies to the extent that their strength permits. Depending on how strong they are, they eat one another. You eat me and I eat you. Big worms eat little worms. Big fish eat little fish. Big beasts eat smaller creatures.
For instance, if a tiger
finds a being smaller than itself it will eat it. The weak become the food for
the strong. Snakes feed on mice. But that's in the summer. In the winter, snakes
are incapacitated by the cold. So then, the mice eat the snakes. You eat me; I
The great golden-winged Peng bird used to eat dragons from the ocean the way people eat noodles. The wingspan of the Peng bird is 330 yojanas. One small yojana is 40 li. [A li is about 1/3 of a mile.] A middle-sized yojana is 60 li. And a large yojana is 80 li. One flap of the Peng bird's wings would wash away all the water of the ocean and reveal the dry bed at the bottom. Its method for eating dragons was to flap his wings over the ocean, which would part the waters and reveal the dragons on the bottom; then he would help himself to a meal. So the dragons kept getting taken by surprise. With nowhere to hide and no time to disappear and no way to escape, their numbers were dwindling rapidly. Finally some dragons went to the Buddha to protest.
Buddha, you are one of great compassion, the greatly enlightened World Honored One. The great Peng bird is eating our children and grandchildren and soon our whole species will become extinct. What can be done?
The Buddha replied, "Don't worry. I'll think of a way to help you."
Next time the Peng bird came to see the Buddha, the World Honored One told him, "Don't eat dragons anymore. The dragons are becoming extinct because you eat so many of them."
The Peng bird argued, "But if I don't eat dragons, I'll starve. I won't
have anything to eat!"
"Don't worry," said the Buddha. "From now on every time my disciples eat, they will serve you a little food."
So in Buddhism, at the noon meal, a little food
is taken outside during the high meal offering. It is given to the great
golden-winged Peng bird to eat. This story is another example of the competition
for survival. And the basis for all of this is killing and greed. These kinds of
living beings kill one another off. The fundamental characteristics of their
karmic offenses come from greedy desire and a fondness for killing.
A person eats a sheep. The sheep dies and becomes a person. The person dies and becomes a sheep, and it goes on that way through ten births and more. Through death after death and birth after birth, they come back to eat one another. The evil karma becomes innate and exhausts the bounds of the future. And the basis for all of this is stealing and greed.
A person eats a sheep. People like to eat lamb and mutton. Although only the sheep is mentioned in the text, all the other animals are implied. Pigs, cows, chickens, and the like are all included. So the person eats the flesh of the sheep. The sheep dies and becomes a person.
I just recited Chan Master Zhi Gong's poem for you, and now the text verifies it. The person dies and becomes a sheep.
"I don't believe it," you say. 'There's no such principle. How can a person become a sheep and a sheep become a person?"
If you don't believe it,
there's nothing left but for you to try it out. Go ahead and give it a try! When
you die and go off to rebirth and wind up on the womb of a sheep, you'll think,
"The dharma that dharma master was explaining was true after all." But then it
will be too late. If you want to cultivate the Way then, it won't be easy to do
so in the belly of a sheep.
And it goes on that way through ten births and more. "Ten births" can be explained as ten of the list of the twelve kinds of rebirth mentioned. It can also mean one life, two lives, three lives, four, five, six, and so forth. So it is said:
Once you lose a human body,
You may not get it back in ten thousand rebirths.
If you lose the body of a human being and turn into an animal, it's not at all easy to get back into the human realm. It might take one life, two lives, three lives, up to ten lives, and even then it's not certain you will be able to get back to the human realm. And so it's also said:
A human life is hard to get.
The Buddhadharma is difficult to encounter.
At present, all of us have human bodies. Regardless of what nationality or race we are, we are all human. So now that we have the good fortune of a human life, we should quickly cultivate. Let us just look at America, with its millions of people. The number who are truly studying the Buddhadharma and hearing it explained every day amount to us dozen or so here in San Francisco. There may be other places, but none of them study and practice as intensely as we do. And how many people in the United States can explain the entire Shurangama Sutra? Not more than two or three, and it might be pushing it to say two. So wouldn't you say the Buddhadharma is difficult to get to hear?
Through death after death and birth after birth, they come back to eat one another. The sheep dies and becomes a person. The person dies and becomes a sheep. You eat me and I eat you. You fill my belly and I fill your belly. We keep changing places; you eat my flesh, I eat your flesh. So the sheep gets plump and the person gets paunchy, until it becomes a contest to see who can out-eat the other. Not only do they eat like this for one life, it goes on for ten lives and more. So, people, don't get too obese. Don't compete with the sheep to see who can get fatter. That's no way to even the score.
The evil karma becomes innate and exhausts the bounds of the future. The battle goes on: you take a bite of me in this life, next life I'll take two bites of you. You eat two bites of me, I'll help myself to four bites of you. The interest rate keeps multiplying. And this process never stops; it reaches to the bounds of the future. What are the "bounds of the future"? That means tomorrow. And tomorrow. Tomorrow and tomorrow. How many tomorrows are there? They exhaust the bounds of the future. They never cease. Now what about that? Dangerous or not? If you want to try it out, take my advice and don't. It's too dangerous to play around with.
And the basis for all of this is stealing and greed. Stealing
is taking what is not given. For instance, when you eat the flesh of a sheep,
the sheep certainly did not give it to you. It's not like the case of the deer
of the Deer Wilds Park who offered one deer to the king every day. They chose to
do that, and perhaps there wouldn't even be a retribution to repay in that case.
But if you capture and kill a sheep for no reason but to eat its flesh, you have
stolen. You eat his flesh and thereby take what is not given, and so he gains
rebirth as a person and you become a sheep in your next life and in this way you
keep stealing from each other. You stole his flesh so now he steals your flesh.
A sheep dies and becomes a person and his rebirth is a case of causal reward,
though you may not realize it.
So the whole situation is extremely dangerous. I hope my disciples won't flirt with danger and try things out, only to end up as sheep or pigs, because I don't want my disciples to fall. I want them all to become Buddhas a little sooner. So today I urge you, don't try out that dangerous path!
Karmic debts must be repaid.
"You owe me a life; I have to repay my debt to you." From these causes and conditions we pass through hundreds of thousands of aeons, in a sustained cycle of birth and death.
You owe me a life; I have to repay my debt to you. If you take my life, you must repay me for it; if I take your life I also have to return it to you in kind. If you borrow from me you must repay the debt; if I borrow from you I must also pay you back.
From these causes and conditions we pass through hundreds of thousands
of aeons, in a sustained cycle of birth and death. Even after millions of aeons
we are still caught in the perpetual cycle of birth and death.
"You love my mind; I adore your form." From these causes and conditions we pass through hundreds of thousands of aeons, in a sustained mutual entanglement.
As soon as this passage of text is read you should feel total fear. Look at what it says: You love my mind; I adore your form. The arisal of love is the birth of ignorance. "Adore your form" means there is activity. "From ignorance arises activity." This is again the topic of men and women. In fact, in this world, apart from the question of men and women, there's really nothing to say. Thus if the Buddha's sutras don't talk about it from one angle, they refer to it from another angle. But it's not the case that the Buddha advocated love when he said, "You love me and I love you.' He wasn't promoting free love which ignores all the rules. From these causes and conditions we pass through hundreds of thousands of aeons, in a sustained mutual entanglement. It is just as if you were glued together and can't get apart despite yourselves. You get really sticky. And you think the whole thing is just what you always wanted. But actually since you're stuck there, you can't get to the position of Buddhahood. And you still think it's not bad? Love, love, love, what?
P3 The result becomes continuation.
Killing, stealing, and lust are themselves the basic roots. From these causes and conditions comes the continuity of karmic retribution.
Where does karmic retribution come from? It is produced from killing, stealing, and lust. If you kill, you create the karma of killing. If you steal, you create the karma of stealing. If you lust, you create the karma of deviant sex. These three kinds of karma are also called the three evils of the body. They are themselves the basic roots. From these causes and conditions comes the continuity of karmic retribution.
The continuity of karmic retribution supports the continuity of living beings and the continuity of living beings supports the continuity of the world. The continuity of the world in turn supports the continuity of karmic retribution, and so the cycle completes itself and is endless. It ends and begins again, ends and begins again. That's the way this world is. If you think this world is really fine, exciting and beautiful, then go ahead and enjoy yourself. If you think it is not so good, you can come back home. Where's home? It's at the position of Buddhahood.
concludes his answer by showing the relationship among them.
Therefore, Purna, the three kinds of upside down continuity come from the light which is added to enlightenment. With this false enlightening of the knowing-nature, subjective awareness gives rise to objective appearances. Both are born of false views, and from this falseness the mountains, the rivers, the great earth, and all conditioned appearances unfold themselves in a succession that recurs in endless cycles.
After the Buddha finished explaining the continuity of the world, the continuity of living beings, and the continuity of karmic retribution, he called to Purna again. Therefore, Purna, the three kinds of upside down continuity come from the light which is added to enlightenment. The continuity of the world is the arisal, dwelling, change, and extinction of the world, which goes on perpetually. Living beings go through a similar process of birth, dwelling, change, and extinction, ceaselessly without end. Karmic retribution also occurs with production, dwelling, change, and extinction, forever and ever. These three kinds of continuity arise from ignorance.
The world is established because of ignorance. So there is the ignorance of the world, the ignorance of living beings, and the ignorance of karmic retribution. Every conditioned dharma arises from ignorance. Ignorance is the mother of all conditioned existence. Thus if people can smash ignorance, they can see the dharma-nature. Until you have smashed ignorance, you cannot see your dharma-nature.
Why is this world sustained by the three kinds of up side-down continuity? Adding light to fundamental enlightenment turns it into ignorance. With this false enlightening of the knowing-nature, subjective awareness gives rise to objective appearances. With the birth of ignorance, an empty and false knowing-nature comes into being and because of it, the objective realm is perceived. Both are born of false views, and from this falseness the mountains, the rivers, the great earth, and all conditioned appearances unfold themselves in a succession that recurs in endless cycles. Despite the vastness of the plains, forests, and all the myriad appearances, there is a definite sequence to it all, and never any randomness or disarray. Once this empty falseness arises, it goes on and on. It finishes and then begins again, ends and then starts over.
For instance, people die and then are reborn, and once born they die again, and after death they are born again. They keep turning around. Yet people never wake up and wonder, "Why do I get born and then die, die and then get born?"
They don't look into this question. They never figure out why
they get born and why they die. So when they're born they don't understand
what's going on and when they die they're even more confused. So the saying:
When you come you are disoriented.
When you go you are confused.
Since they are so unclear about their coming and going, you can imagine that their lives as people pass in a daze as well. And it's just in this lack of clarity that the process continues. They are born and die, die and are born. Pitiful? What ultimate meaning is there in all of this?
The ultimate meaning of being in this world is making a little money and eating a little food. You don't have any money so you have to go to work. You make money in order to buy food and clothes. Really, if all there is to this life is eating, wearing clothes, and living in a nice house, it's really meaningless! It would be better to die right this minute!
Think about it: you have to go to work
and when you come home you have to eat. You have to keep trying to fill that
bottomless pit. You fill it up today, and by tomorrow it all has flowed out
again. You fill it one day and the next day it's empty again, even to the point
that you fill it in the morning and it's hungry by noon. Again you fill the
hole, and by evening you're hungry yet again. You have to move out the old to
make room for the new. Going through such a lot of trouble every day seems
totally meaningless. There's a poem that goes:
From of old until today, few people have lived past seventy.
First subtract the early years and then the years of age:
Between the two there is not much time that is left at all.
And of that, remember, sleep takes up the better half!
From ancient times until the present day, the number of people who have lived past seventy are very few. And in the early years, before one is fifteen years old, one can't really do anything. Americans become of age at eighteen, but Chinese children still rely on their parents at twenty-five! So first you must subtract the early years.
Someone says, "My kid carries papers and makes money."
Sure, but he can't make much. You can't really count that as carrying on a
From the end of the lifespan you also have to subtract fifteen years, the years of old age. In the last fifteen years you are physically unable to do very much. Your eyes go bad, your ears get deaf, your teeth fall out, and your hands shake. You can't even get your legs to work right. Your four limbs are of no use any more.
So if one lives to be seventy, and we take off fifteen years at the
beginning and fifteen years at the end, there isn't much time left in between.
There are forty years left. But that is not forty years of productiveness. Half
of it is taken up in sleep. And then if you take into account going to the
bathroom, putting on and taking off clothes, you'll have to subtract some more
time. So at the very most a human lifespan has about twenty productive years to
it. So what's so great about it?
That reminds me of three old men who got together to celebrate New Year's. One was sixty years old, one was seventy, and one was eighty. These three old cronies went out dutch to ring out the old and ring in the new, and the sixty-year-old said:
"This year we celebrate with wine and cheer. I wonder next year who won't be here."
The seventy-year-old said, "You're thinking too far in the future."
"Oh?" said the sixty-year-old. "What do you say about it?"
The seventy-year-old said: "Tonight when I take off my shoes and socks, will I put them on again tomorrow or not?"
The eighty-year-old said, "You're looking too far ahead yourself."
"Well, what do you say about it?" asked the seventy year-old.
The eighty-year-old said: "I let out this breath of air, and then I'm not sure if I'll ever breath in again."
These three old-timers were looking into the question of birth and death. In the end, could they end birth and death? If they had met a good knowing advisor, a bright-eyed teacher, they'd still have had a chance. If they didn't encounter a bright-eyed teacher, I believe they couldn't have ended birth and death.
There's another koan [public record] that had bearing on this topic. Once there was a man who died and went before King Yama. So a soon as he saw King Yama, he started to argue his case. He said, "You are really inhumane. If you wanted me to come see you, you should have written me a letter. If you had informed me clearly in advance, I could have prepared.
"But you didn't write a letter or make a phone call or send a telegram to let me know. You just captured me without warning, and I find that totally unreasonable."
King Yama said to him, "I sent you lots of letters. You just didn't realize
"I never got any letters from you," the man protested.
King Yama said, "The first letter I gave you was when your neighbor had a child that died at birth. You were already quite old, and if a newborn child could die, weren't you even more vulnerable? You should have wakened up at that point and started to cultivate.
"And then didn't there come the time when your eyes went bad and you could no
longer see clearly? That was the second letter. In time your ears went deaf,
right? That was the third letter. Wasn't there a point when your teeth fell out?
That was the fourth letter."
'"I didn't recognize the words of your letters, Yama. What was the last one you sent?"
"Didn't you notice that your hair was getting white? That was the last letter. Now I see how much pork you have eaten, so you can go to rebirth as a pig."
So the man turned into a pig. When would he get to be a person again? Nobody knows.
Now that the continuity of karmic retribution has been explained, everyone should return the light and look within and figure out what he or she is going to do. Someone says, "I know. I'm going to leave the home-life."
You want to leave the home-life? That's fine if you really do it. Someone else says, "Hearing this, I think human life is really meaningless and I'd like to just lay down and die."
That's all right, too, but it's not for sure that you won't get sent off to be a pig like that old man was. Pigs are really doltish. So people who are dull-witted become pigs in the future. And the whole reason for studying the Shurangama Sutra is to learn how not to be a dolt. It is to help you open your wisdom. If you have wisdom, the three kinds of continuity won't have anything to do with you.
So you wonder, "Wouldn't it be lonely if the world and living beings and karmic retribution didn't have anything to do with me?"
No, because at that point you have a connection with the Buddhas. You are a relative of the Bodhisattvas, and a sibling of the arhats. So you certainly won't be alone.
Shurangama Sutra, Volume 4, Chapter 1: The Reason for Continual Arisal with commentary by Venerable Master Hsuan Hua