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Foundational sūtras of Zen
May 27th, 2013 (May 28th, 2013)

illustration (attribution, if any possible, is at the end of the article)

Foundational sūtras of Zen

Albert Low exposed [Low00] the five main sūtras relevant to Zen:
• the Heart sūtra (Prajñāpāramitā Hṛdaya sūtra),
• the Diamond sūtra (Vajracchedikā Prajñāpāramitā sūtra),
• the Vimalakīrti sūtra,
• the Laṅkāvatāra sūtra,
• the Śūraṅgama sūtra.

These sūtras laid the foundation for the Zen traditions. Not only do they provide a context for kōan practice, but they may also be referred to directly.

The Flower Ornament sūtra (Avataṃsaka sūtra) may also be mentioned in relation to Zen, with its focus on inter-dependence (and its consequences on establishing a link between Zen and the Japanese understanding of ‘Nature’). The sūtra however is the central text of the Kegon school of Buddhism in Japan, a fact which would taint the sūtra and limit how enthusiastic Zen masters might be willing to appear about the sūtra (for political reasons in relation to donations, etc.).


K. Tanahashi noted [Dōg-1]:
"Dogen (...) conducts a thorough investigation of phrases from a number of sūtras, which makes him unique as a teacher. His writings in the Treasury of the True Dharma Eye provide a synthesis of these two traditional aspects: studies of scripture that contain vast systematic expressions of the Buddhist teaching, and Zen, which emphasizes direct experience of the essence of Buddhist teaching through meditation."

An example of kōan relying on the sūtras is the dog of Chao-chou Ts’ung-shen (778–897):
A monk once asked master Chao-chou “Does a dog have Buddha- nature or not?”  Chao-chou said “Mu” (Not).

Quite obviously, the introspection in the kōan requires the pre-existence of not only the notion of Buddha-nature but also the mental fabrication that “all beings have Buddha-nature.” Both can so easily be reified, can so easily be made ‘certainties’, that the Zen masters use the concepts but with caution.

“Mu” can be seen as a rejection similar to the Prajñāpāramitā Hṛdaya: no suffering, no cessation of suffering… This is not to deny the conventional ‘form’ of phenomena, but to reject any belief in some ‘ultimate’ understanding of the expressible (i.e. conventional) teachings. This is also to reject any belief in “I know something,” as if this ‘I’ was real. The earlier sūtras had a similar notion with the Parable of the Raft.


In the Diamond sūtra, the Buddha uses paradoxical phrases such as “What is called the highest teaching is not the highest teaching.” This is relatively common to the Prajñāpāramitā literature, but one can easily see how this could justify the kōan practice, while also affirming that their contradictory nature is only a superficial appearance projected by a deluded or ignorant mind.

In the sūtra, the Buddha is generally thought to be trying to help the elder Subhūti unlearn his preconceived, limited notions of the nature of reality and enlightenment. This will naturally resonate again with the “Mu” kōan, but more generally it supports the cautious position of Zen vis-à-vis doctrinal knowledge.

The very opening of the sūtra presents the Buddha as an ordinary monk, and this will have important consequences in illustrating that Buddha-nature is no different from the ordinary mind. In this sūtra, it is even said that the Buddha did not reach Enlightenment! “Mu”! There is no Enlightenment to ‘reach’: one is not separate from Nirvāṇa.

The Diamond sūtra was also critical to the notion of ‘non-abiding’. Non-abiding relates to the “going beyond” (e.g. to not limiting “just sitting” to… sitting). ‘Non-abiding’ has played a significant role in the acceptance of Zen by warriors. This is exemplified in e.g. "The Mysterious Record of Immovable Wisdom" by Takuan Sōhō (1573–1645) [Tak86]:

"Abiding place means the place where the mind stops.

"In the practice of Buddhism, there are said to be fifty-two stages, and within these fifty-two, the place where the mind stops at one thing is called the abiding place. Abiding signifies stopping, and stopping means the mind is being detained by some matter, which may be any matter at all.

"To speak in terms of your own martial art, when you first notice the sword that is moving to strike you, if you think of meeting that sword just as it is, your mind will stop at the sword in just that position, your own movements will be undone, and you will be cut down by you opponent. This is what stopping means.

"Although you see the sword that moves to strike you, if your mind is not detained by it and you meet the rhythm of the advancing sword; if you do not think of striking your opponent and no thoughts or judgements remain; if the instant you see the swinging sword your mind is not the least bit detained and you move straight in and wrench the sword away from him; the sword that was going to cut you down will become your own, and, contrarily, will be the sword that cuts down your opponent.

"In Zen this is called “Grabbing the spear and, contrariwise, piercing the man who had come to pierce you.” (…) This is what you, in your style, call “No-Sword”."


The Vimalakīrti sūtra, part of the same Mahāyāna collection on the Perfection of Wisdom, does provide a few antidotes to classical hindrances one could blame on a ‘societal’ dimension of karma rather than an ‘individual’ dimension; it notably addresses directly any superiority complex of monastics over laypeople, and of men over women.

The sūtra also expresses the self-evident but easily forgotten fact that the cessation of suffering is conditioned by the arising of suffering: Enlightenment is realised by the ordinary mind, there is no superiority complex to have for any ‘achievement.’ The sūtra thus provides the basis for “going beyond”, the cultivation after Zen’s satori. It supports the practice of the perfection of compassion as a privileged form of “going beyond”, essentially relying on the realisation of non-self.

Several kōans are explicitly based on quotes from the Vimalakīrti sūtra.


Bodhidharma, the first Chinese patriarch of Chán, brought the Laṅkāvatāra sūtra to China. The sūtra constitutes what could be seen as Buddhist psychology, and is the basis of the Mind-Only school (Yogācāra). It does introduce the doctrine of “eight consciousnesses” and notably the ālaya-vijñāna or "store-consciousness." Naturally, the analysis aims to show how personality is indeed ‘empty’ of inherent existence, and to provide practical ways to purify the seventh consciousness (or ‘empirical’ ego).

Without hindrances, the ālaya-vijñāna is better described as “presence” rather than (discriminative) “consciousness”. This sūtra thus provides a strong basis for “just sitting” or “being one with a kōan”. It directly relates to the kensho, the entry into thus-ness. It also gives the basis for the analysis of ‘time’ in Zen (Dōgen notably wrote about ‘time’ [Dōg-1]), as time doesn’t exist independently from a presence to experience it.


Finally,the Śūraṅgama sūtra, cited in the 94th kōan of the "Blue Cliff Record," was important as a support for discipline and moral precepts in the context of Zen practice. It also covers how one may combat delusions that may arise during meditation. This is basically an antidote versus the delusion that emptiness dissolves the need for moral conduct. A narrative states that this sūtra will be the first to be forgotten, and importance is thus placed on fighting the decline of the Dharma by ensuring preservation of the teachings of this sūtra. The sūtra was influential on Dōgen, who defended its importance.

In a manner coherent with kōans, Zen often talks of “true nature” or even “true self” while de facto teaching emptiness (i.e. the lack of unique, ultimate ‘self’ separable from Saṃsāra). The Śūraṅgama sūtra addresses Buddha-nature in the same way: characterising the Buddha-mind as peaceful, perfect, permanent is only a teaching device to point to a Buddha-mind which cannot be found and shouldn’t be reified. The sūtra very much points to the role the ‘observer’ plays in ‘creating’ reality (in a manner compatible with the conclusions of quantum mechanics), but it avoids forgetting that the ‘observer’ also is influenced and somehow created by the said reality; dependent co-arising is not a new concept brought by the sūtra, but a new presentation is given.


Since the ‘self’ constitutes itself by appropriation of the aggregates (and other phenomena) as ‘mine’, the underlying assumption of sūtras and kōans is that, although the ultimate truth is unfathomable, words may still allow to appropriate Buddha’s wholesome intention inscribed in a text [Wri00]:

"Although kōan language differs rhetorically from sūtra language in its abandonment of instruction, doctrinal assertion, and argumentative style, nevertheless behind this difference is the more fundamental identity that both kōans and sūtras express the mind of enlightenment and, on that basis, may be taken as a means to and measure of enlightenment."

In relation to kōans, this explanation of their usage is called the “realisational model,” expressing the enlightenment experience through the use of —rather than by denying or negating— language [Hei04].

#Buddhism   #Zen   #Dharma  
[Low00] Low, Albert: "Zen and the Sūtras" Tuttle Publishing, 2000
[Dōg-1] Dōgen (ed. Tanahashi, K.): "Treasury of the True Dharma Eye — Zen Master Dogen’s Shobo Genzo." Volume One, Shambala publications, 2010
[Tak86] Takuan, Sōhō (tr. Wilson, W.): "The Unfettered Mind — Writings from a Zen Master to a Master Swordsman." Kodansha Intl, 1986
[Wri00] Wright, Dale: "Kōan History — Transformative Language in Chinese Buddhist Thought." pp. 200–212 in: Heine, Steven, Wright, Dale (eds.): "The Kōan — Texts and Contexts in Zen Buddhism." Oxford University Press, 2000
[Hei04] Heine, Steven: "Kōans in the Dōgen Tradition: How and Why Dōgen Does What He Does with Kōans." Philosophy East and West, 54 (1), 1–19, January 2004 (