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The Testimony of Faith
VOLUME 1, Chapter 3
F1 First, the pravarana assembly gathers.
Bodhisattvas from the ten directions who desired counsel in order to resolve the doubts in their minds were respectful and obedient to the Awesome but Compassionate One as they prepared to seek the Secret Meaning.
Besides the two vehicles of sound-hearers and those enlightened by conditions, there were also Bodhisattvas from the ten directions in the Shurangama assembly. The “ten directions” are north, south, east, west, northeast, southeast, northwest, southwest, and above and below.
”I would expect there to be Bodhisattvas from the eight directions and from above,” you may say, “but do Bodhisattvas also come from below?”
Yes, Earth Store Bodhisattva, for example, watches exclusively over things below us.
I discussed the word “Bodhisattva” in the introduction, so now the explanation will be brief. Bodhisattva is a Sanskrit word; “Bodhi” means “enlightenment” and “Sattva” means “sentient being.” A Bodhisattva is one who enlightens those with sentience. He himself is a sentient being who was originally just like ordinary people, but who afterward became enlightened.
Bodhisattvas have attained the enlightenment of self and can enlighten others. They can benefit themselves and benefit others. But their enlightenment is not yet perfect, so they are called Bodhisattvas.
”How many Bodhisattvas came from the ten directions?” you ask.
An incalculable number.
“What did they get together for? Did they come together to cause a commotion? To see a play? To go to a fair?”
No, they came because there were some things they did not understand. They desired counsel in order to resolve their doubts in their minds. They had questions. They wanted to ask about doctrines they could not understand.
“What doctrines in particular?”
The doctrine of the Secret Meaning, which refers to the “secret cause” spoken of in this sutra.
They were respectful and obedient to the Awesome but Compassionate One as they prepared to seek the secret meaning. The Bodhisattvas did not understand the doctrine of the secret cause. Therefore they came wishing to learn of the dharma-door of the secret cause that leads to the complete meaning.
“Do you mean that the Shurangama Sutra that is now being explained is a sutra which even Bodhisattvas don’t understand?” you ask.
It is true that the Bodhisattvas desired counsel to resolve their doubts because they did not understand the doctrines of the sutra but if you now understand and become enlightened, then you are Bodhisattvas, too. Don’t disdain yourselves. Don’t say, “How can I understand doctrines which Bodhisattvas didn’t understand? I’d better quit now.” It is just because these are doctrines that Bodhisattvas don’t understand that you are now being taught to understand.
We have karmic connections with Shakyamuni Buddha and with the Dharma that he proclaimed and that remains in the world. So we now have the opportunity to come to understand doctrines that even the Bodhisattvas had not understood. We are now in an advantageous position, even though we have been born after Shakyamuni Buddha spoke the Dharma. Who knows how long a road those Bodhisattvas in the Shurangama assembly had to travel to get there? Not from our north, south, east, and west, perhaps, but from great distances from numberless other worlds.
Now we have encountered this sutra. We have great good roots and great affinities that enable us to listen to this Dharma. Don’t be afraid and think that since Bodhisattvas didn’t understand it, you shouldn’t attempt to study it. That’s a mistaken attitude.
Then the Tathagata arranged his seat, sat quietly and peacefully, and for the sake of everyone in the assembly proclaimed the profound and mysterious. Those in the pure assembly at the banquet of Dharma obtained what they had never obtained before.
Then refers to the time when the Shurangama Sutra was spoken. It was a time when the conditions were appropriate - a time when the Shurangama Mantra was about to be proclaimed.
The Tathagata arranged his seat. “Tathagata,” one of the ten titles of the Buddha, has been explained already.
Arranged his seat means that he opened his sitting-cloth, spread it out, and sat down on it.
Sat quietly and peacefully means the Tathagata sat “in purity,” in the manner of one absorbed in dhyana, that is, “still consideration.” “Peacefully” means at ease; he did not knit his eyebrows together straining to display the pose of one meditating but was very relaxed, with the faint trace of a smile on his face, making those who saw him feel happy. This quiet peaceful style pleased those who looked at him and made them become resolved to learn from him.
And for the sake of everyone in the assembly. Why did the Buddha arrange his seat and sit quietly and peacefully? It was because he wished to enter samadhi, and, in peace and quiet, contemplate the basic natures of living beings. In the “assembly” there were twelve hundred fifty bhikshus, countless pratyekabuddhas who were beyond learning,
Bodhisattvas from the ten directions, and many more, countless hundreds of thousands of myriads of millions who circumambulated the Buddha. Although the number of people attending our dharma assembly is not nearly as great, the assembly is still vast because there are limitless, boundless numbers of ghosts and spirits who have come to join us. Countless ghosts are outside listening to the dharma, and vast numbers of spirits are standing outside protecting this place. If you don’t believe it, take a look; you won’t be able to count how many there are.
Proclaimed the profound and mysterious. “Proclaim” means to explain clearly and teach. “Profound” refers to the deep “secret cause.” “Mysterious” and wonderful refer to the “complete meaning.” He teaches the dharma-door of the secret cause that leads to the complete meaning. If the Buddha did not speak about the secret cause, you would have no way to know of it. If the Buddha did not explain the complete meaning, you wouldn’t be able to understand it. The mysterious and wonderful is whatever you don’t know. What you already know you consider quite ordinary, but if you see something you have never tasted before, you’ll want to have a taste of it no matter what.
The Bodhisattvas came desiring to understand the doctrine more fully, and Shakyamuni Buddha, knowing what was in the minds of those in the dharma assembly, proclaimed the profound and mysterious principle.
Those in the pure assembly at the banquet of Dharma obtained what they had never obtained before. Speaking Dharma is compared to giving living beings flavorful Dharma to taste. When you have eaten your fill of flavorful Dharma, you will realize Buddhahood. The banquet does not refer to an ordinary feast where wine is drunk and the like.
”Pure assembly” means that not one being who came to the assembly was unclean. All were pure in body and mind, without defilements. They did no evil and respectfully offered up good conduct. Since they did not engage in any improper or unwholesome behavior, they are referred to as the “pure assembly.” This is the first time they had heard the wonderful dharma, and so what they obtained was unprecedented. Unprecedented teaching also refers to the ninth of the twelve divisions of the Buddhist canon, dharma that has never been spoken before.
F2 The assembly that arrived later after hearing the Buddha’s voice.
The Immortal’s kalavinka-sound pervaded the ten directions and Bodhisattvas as numerous as the sands of the Ganges gathered at the Bodhimanda with Manjushri as their leader.
Kalavinka is Sanskrit for “wonderful sound”; it is the name of a bird whose cry can be heard at a great distance, even while it is still in the egg. Once the bird is hatched, its call can be heard even more clearly, and the sound is very pleasing to the ear. Here the reference is not to the bird’s call but to the sound of the Buddha’s voice, which is as pleasing, clear, and penetrating as the kalavinka’s.
The Buddha is called the Immortal because in the past, Shakyamuni Buddha cultivated as a patient immortal and upon realizing enlightenment, he was known as the Great Enlightened Golden Immortal.
The Buddha’s voice pervaded the ten directions: it can be heard everywhere. For example, the Buddha spoke dharma in India and we in America can hear it. Under the right conditions, it can be heard more clearly than a radio, and it arrives faster than a telegraph message.
Once, the Buddha’s disciple Mahamaudgalyayana, who was foremost of the Buddha’s disciples in spiritual penetrations, became curious to know just how far the Buddha’s voice reached. So he used his spiritual penetrations to travel east through numberless unreckonable lands, through hundreds of thousands of millions of Buddhalands. But when he had reached a land an enormous distance away, he still could hear the Buddha speaking dharma as if it were spoken right into his ear. It was still perfectly clear.
The inhabitants of that far-off eastern land were huge. The shortest of them was thirty or forty feet tall. Maudgalyayana arrived at lunch time, and the bowls they were using were as large as our houses. The amount they ate far surpassed what we consume. Maudgalyayana perched on the edge of one of the bowls and stood watching the giants eat. Eventually one of them noticed him and exclaimed, “Oh? Where did that human-headed bug come from?” He was so tiny that they called him a human-headed bug.
But the Buddha of that far eastern land told them, “You must not speak like that. That is Maudgalyayana from the Saha world. He is foremost in spiritual penetrations among Shakyamuni Buddha’s disciples. Don’t ridicule him. He’s not a human-headed bug.” The disciples of that land were surprised indeed to learn that Shakyamuni Buddha’s disciples were the size of insects.
Bodhisattvas as numerous as the sands of the Ganges gathered at the Bodhimanda. The Ganges River in India is about fifteen miles wide and its sands are as fine as flour. So they are used as an analogy for the unreckonable number of Bodhisattvas who came to the Dharma assembly. The Bodhisattvas came to protect the place where Shakyamuni Buddha spoke the Shurangama Sutra. The Way-place referred to is also this present Way-place where the Shurangama Sutra is now being explained. The Bodhisattvas from the former assembly are also here.
You should not look lightly on this place just because the room is small. There are also many great Bodhisattvas here listening to the sutras, protecting this Way-place, and enabling it to become more flourishing every day. Would you like to meet them? I will tell you that they have Manjushri as their leader. Manjushri is a Sanskrit name that means “wonderful virtue,” referring to his subtle, wonderful, inconceivable virtuous practices. He is also called “wonderfully lucky,” because every place he goes becomes auspicious. Every time he comes to a Way-place, the Way-place becomes very auspicious.
In China, the Bodhimanda of Manjushri is at Wu Tai mountain. He is referred to as the Greatly Wise Manjushri because he is foremost among the Bodhisattvas in wisdom. Among the arhats, Shariputra is foremost in wisdom, but his wisdom is small compared to that of the Bodhisattvas.