The Shurangama Sutra with Commentary by Venerable Master Hsuan Hua

Buddhist Lecture Hall, San Francisco, 1968 


...I’m going to tell you first about Ananda’s elder brother Sundarananda, since I haven’t introduced him to you yet. Sundarananda got along very well with his wife Sundari; they stuck together like glue. All day long they stayed right beside one another, they were so compatible. In fact, to distinguish him from Ananda, Sundarananda was given the name Sundari’s Nanda - Sundarananda.

The day came when the Buddha went to cross Sundarananda over. He took up his bowl and went to Sundarananda’s home to beg for food. When Sundarananda saw the Buddha coming, he withdrew from his wife and said, “Wait a bit, I am going to make offerings to the Buddha.”

His wife said, “You are going to make offerings to the Buddha? Well, come back immediately. Don’t go and then not come back.” “Of course, I’ll come right back,” Sundarananda said.

Sundari then spit on the dirt floor and said, “You’d better be back before that dries, or I won’t let you go to bed.”

Sundarananda heeded the command and said, “I’ll be back right away, for sure.” And he took vegetables and rice to fill the Buddha’s bowl.

He went to fill the bowl, but how was he to know that the Buddha would act so strangely? The Buddha used his spiritual power. Every time Sundarananda took a step forward to place the food in the Buddha’s bowl, the Buddha backed up, so that Sundarananda couldn’t reach the bowl. Sundarananda kept advancing to keep up with the Buddha, and in just a few steps they arrived at the Jeta Grove, despite the fact that it was a long way from Sundarananda’s house. Once they got there, Shakyamuni Buddha said, “Don’t go back. You stay here with me and leave the home-life.”

Sundarananda was shocked; he got goose-flesh. “Impossible,” he said emphatically. “I can’t stay. Sundari is waiting for me. I can;t remain here and leave home.”

The Buddha said, “You can’t leave home? Let me show you some things and see what you think.” He took Sundarananda to a place where there were hordes of monkeys. “Which is more beautiful,” the Buddha asked him, “these monkeys or your wife Sundari?”

”Obviously Sundari is more beautiful,” replied Sundarananda. “How could Sundari be compared to a monkey?”

”Quite right,” the Buddha agreed, and took him to the heavens. As they strolled among they noticed one particular palace was bustling with activity as servants scrubbed and polished. There were also 500 heavenly maidens in that palace, each one exquisite beyond compare.

”Why are you doing all this cleaning?” Sundaranda asked one of the servants.

”We’re getting this palace ready for the Buddha’s cousin Sundarananda,” they replied. “After he cultivates he’ll come to heaven to enjoy his blessings. These 500 heavenly maidens will be his wives.”

Sundarananda was ecstatic.

”Tell me, Nanda,” the Buddha said to him, “which would you say is more beautiful, Sundari or these heavenly maidens?”

”These maidens, obviously,” Sundarananda replied. “Why, compared to these maidens, Sundari is as ugly as a monkey.”

”Fine,” said the Buddha, “this place is being readied for you.” After they finished touring the place the Buddha took his cousin down to the hells. There they saw two ghosts heating a cauldron of oil. One of the ghosts was sound asleep and although the other one was awake, he didn’t have his eyes open. Nanda sized up the situation and thought to himself, “These ghosts are supposed to be tending the fire under that cauldron, but they’re not doing their job at all. Boy, are ghosts lazy!” Then he meddled a bit and nudged one, saying, “What are you doing this for?”

The little one’s droopy eyes popped open and glared at him. “What’s it to you?” he snapped.

”I just wondered,” said Sundarananda.

”You gotta know, huh? Okay, I’ll tell you. The Buddha’s got a cousin who’s cultivating the blessings of people and gods. He’s going to get born in the heavens and enjoy 500 years of heavenly blessings before he falls. Once he topples, however, he’ll come all the way down to hell and when he gets here, we’re supposed to have this pot hot. He’s to be deep-fried alive.”

Sundarananda was horrified and his hair stood on end. He suddenly understood the whole picture and thought, “Those heavenly maidens are ravishing, but 500 years of bliss with them isn’t worth it if I’m eventually going to end up in a pot of boiling oil. I’d better follow the Buddha, leave home, and be a monk.” So he forgot about Sundari and left home.



Ananda was so taken aback that he jumped to his feet, looking stunned and alarmed. He stood to avoid being disrespectful when he addressed the Buddha. Startled, Ananda leapt from his seat, stood and put his palms together, and said to the Buddha, “If it’s not my mind, what is it? If it’s not my mind, what do you call it then?” Ananda didn’t know what to do. Suddenly he was without a mind.



The Buddha said to Ananda, “It is your perception of false appearances based on external objects which deludes your true nature and has caused you from beginningless time to your present life to recognize a thief as your son, to lose your eternal source, and to undergo the wheel’s turning.”


This section of text explains not only Ananda’s problem but the problem of you and me and everyone else. Everyone should know that from beginningless time we have all taken thieves to be our sons. We have covered over our basic nature so it cannot appear.

The Buddha said to Ananda, “Ananda, don’t be nervous. Ananda, don’t be upset. You’re asking what it is that is able to investigate, aren’t you? Now I will tell you in detail. It is your perception of false appearances based on external objects.” “False” means it is unreal. The mind that investigates is not your self nature; it is not your true mind. It is merely a more subtle form of false thinking which makes distinctions. The shadow of external objects deludes your true nature and has caused you from beginningless time to your present life to recognize a thief as your son. You have mistaken the false perception of externals for your son, and so you have lost your eternal source. You have lost all your gems, all your family heirlooms; your basic, permanently dwelling, unchanging true mind. The meaning here is the same as it was above: it’s not that you have actually lost it; it just seems to be lost. This causes you to undergo the wheel’s turning. Because you are unaware of your own family treasure, you do not know how to make use of it, and so you rise and sink on the turning wheel of birth and death. The wheel governs you and turns you, and you cannot transcend its cycle. That is why you are the way you are now. This life, next life, life after life will follow that same endless turning, suddenly high, suddenly low, suddenly above, suddenly below. Sometimes you are born in the heavens and sometimes you fall back to earth. There is a saying that goes:

Out of a horse’s belly into the womb of a cow.
How many times back
and forth have you passed by Yama’s halls,
As you go from Shakra’s palaces
down into Yama’s pot?

Sometimes you become a horse, at other times you are a cow. In front of Yama’s halls you trudge back and forth one knows not how many times. You are like Sundarananda, whom the Buddha took to the heavens, saying that if he cultivated the Way he would be rewarded with rebirth there, with 500 goddesses serving him. Sundarananda was beside himself with joy. But he forgot King Yama’s pot, for once your heavenly blessings are used up you fall again, perhaps into the hells, where you are boiled in a pot of oil. The path of the turning wheel is dangerous. Once you start spinning on it, you end up going the wrong way and if you are in the least bit careless, once you get started in the wrong direction it is difficult to get back. So now that you have been born a human being, you should hurry up and wake up from this dream. Hurry up and get enlightened. Don’t continue as Ananda did to recognize a thief as your son.


The Shurangama Sutra, Volume 1, Chapter 5: The false Consciousness Is Not the Mind with commentary by Venerable Master Hsuan Hua

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The Shurangama Sutra with Commentary by Venerable Master Hsuan Hua

Buddhist Lecture Hall, San Francisco, 1968 




...[T]he World Honored One, Shakyamuni Buddha, extended his tula-cotton webbed bright hand, opened his five-wheeled fingers. On the Buddha’s hand is the hallmark of the thousand-spoked wheel. His hand is extremely soft, like the finest cotton, and it is webbed and luminous. He told Ananda and the great assembly: When I first accomplished the Way. One evening, on the eighth day of the twelfth month, while sitting under the Bodhi tree, he saw a star and awakened to perfect the Way. I went to the Deer Park. This is a vast park devoted exclusively to raising deer. How did that come about? It all began limitless kalpas ago when Shakyamuni Buddha was a deer, the leader of a herd of 500. And guess who else was there? Devadatta, who was also a deer king with a following of 500 deer. In the later life when the Buddha realized Buddhahood, Devadatta became the Buddha’s jealous cousin and tried to kill him. But in that earlier life when both were deer kings, there was a king among the people who used a lot of manpower and machinery to corral vast numbers of wild animals into a certain area. He planned to hunt them all down and kill them on the grounds that there were too many wild animals. So then Shakyamuni Buddha, in the form he had taken of a deer king had a meeting with the deer king Devadatta. They said to each other, “We should save the lives of our retinue. We shouldn’t let the king kill us all. How can we save ourselves? Let’s go talk it over with the king and petition him not to kill us off.” Although they were deer, they could speak the language of people. So the two deer went to see the king, and when they encountered the armed guard at the gates they said in a commanding tone, “We would like an appointment with the king. Can you deliver our message?” When the guard heard that the deer could speak the human language, he went to repeat their message to the king.

The king also found it strange to hear that deer could talk, and he agreed to an audience with them so they could state their petition. The two deer kings went before the king and said, “We are deer. Every day you kill seven or eight of us - more than you can possibly eat in a single day. What cannot be eaten is left to spoil. Wouldn’t it be better if we did it this way: every day we will take turns supplying you with one deer, and in that way you can have fresh venison every day without killing us all off at once. If you use this method, your supply of venison will never run out. Several hundred years from now there will still be venison to eat.”

Because he saw the sense in their petition, and because the deer could speak, the king was moved to grant their request. So each of the deer kings, on alternate days, sent the king a deer. Now one day it happened that it was the turn of a pregnant doe in Devadatta’s herd to go sacrifice herself to the king. Her fawn was heavy in her belly and would probably be born in a day or so. So she pleaded with the deer king Devadatta, “Can you send someone in my place today, and then after the fawn is born I will go to the king and sacrifice myself?”

Devadatta replied, “Impossible. It is your turn, and you must go. There is no politeness in this matter. You don’t want to die. Who does? Not one of the deer want to go to their death. You want to live a few more days now that it has come around to your turn, but that is impossible.”

The pregnant doe’s eyes brimmed with tears and she went to talk to the deer king who was to become Shakyamuni Buddha. Although she didn’t belong to his herd, she went to plead with him and ask if he could work out a temporary exchange so she could live a few more days until her fawn was born. As he considered her request, Shakyamuni Buddha realized that not one of his 500 deer would want to go in her place. However, the Buddha said to her, “Fine. You stay in my herd; you don’t need to go.” Then the deer king Shakyamuni Buddha went himself to be sacrificed in her place.

The king asked him, “What are you doing here? Have all your deer been eaten? Is your herd all gone? Why have you come?. And since he could talk, the deer king Shakyamuni Buddha said, “King, you haven’t eaten all our deer; on the contrary, we are prospering. Day by day our herds are increasing. You only eat one deer a day, and in one day our does give birth to many fawns.”

The king said, “Then why have you come yourself?”

Shakyamuni Buddha explained, “There is a pregnant doe whose fawn will be born in a day or so. It was her turn to come today, but since she wanted to wait until she had given birth to her fawn before she came to let the king eat her, she came to me and pleaded to have someone sent in her place. I thought over her request and realized that none of the deer in the herd would want to die before they had to, so I came myself to substitute for her.”

When the king heard that, he was profoundly moved, and he said, “From now on, don’t send any more deer to the palace.” Then he spoke a verse:

You are a deer with a human head.
I am a person with a deer’s head.
From this day forward,
I will not eat the flesh of living beings.

He said, “Although you have the head of a deer, you are a human being and although I have the head of a human being, I am a deer.” And then he vowed never to eat the flesh of living beings again. Because of that, the deer population in the park increased significantly; and the park was called the Deer Wilds Park. It was also named the Park of the Immortals because the “wind and water,” the geomantic lay of the land and its location, were particularly fine, and many immortals came there to cultivate the Way. So when Shakyamuni Buddha became a Buddha, he went first to the Deer Wilds Park to convert the five bhikshus.

And for the sake of Ajnatakaundinya and all five of the bhikshus. Three of the five bhikshus were relatives of the Buddha’s father and two were relatives of the Buddha’s mother. When the Buddha first left the palace to leave the home-life and cultivate the Way in the Himalayas, his parents had sent these relatives along after him to try to convince him to return. At that time the five bhikshus were not bhikshus, but high officials, and although they exhorted the Buddha to return, he would not. The five of them couldn’t go back and face the king, the Buddha’s father, without having accomplished their mission, so they stayed with the Buddha instead and accompanied him in cultivating the Way.

Of the three who were his father’s relatives, one was called Ashvajit - the name means “horse victory”; one was called Bhadrika - the name means “little worthy”; and the other was called Mahanama Kulika. The two on the mother’s side were Ajnatakaundinya and Dashabala Kashyapa, “drinker of light”, so named because he was a fire worshipper. The five stayed with the Buddha and cultivated ascetic practices, but eventually it became so bitter that three of them couldn’t take it and left. They backed out. The other two continued to cultivate with the Buddha. At that time the Buddha was eating only one grain of rice and one sesame seed a day, and he became so emaciated that he was nothing but skin and bones. Then one day a goddess brought him some milk gruel as an offering. He drank the gruel, and his body began to fill out again. The two who were cultivating with him got upset when they saw this, and they said, “How can someone who cultivates the Way drink milk gruel?” and so they left too. There was Shakyamuni Buddha in the midst of bitter cultivation and the five people his father and mother had sent to be with him all left him, three because they couldn’t take the suffering, and two because they saw the Buddha enjoying his blessings. The Buddha remained alone to cultivate. After he had cultivated there for six years, he went to sit under the Bodhi tree, and on the eighth day of the twelfth month he saw a star appear and became enlightened. “At night he saw a bright star and awakened to the Way.” After his enlightenment, he looked into the matter of who he should convert first, and saw that it was Ajnatakaundinya, one of the five bhikshus, who in a past life had been the king of Kalinga and had cut the Buddha’s body limb from limb. In that life the Buddha had vowed that when he became a Buddha the first one he would save would be the king of Kalinga. That is why when Shakyamuni Buddha became enlightened he went first to the Deer Park and converted the five bhikshus.


The Shurangama Sutra, Vol. 2, Chapter 1: Seeing Does Not Move with commentary by Ven. Master Hsuan Hua