Your own Pure Self – The Lankavatara Sutra

The Lankavatara Sutra is THE Sutra that Bodhidharma used to transmit Chan/Zen Buddhism from India to China.  You might have heard of Bodhidharma, who is famous for Shaolin Temple where most of Chinese martial arts and Qigong breathing/energy cultivation started.  Well, Bodhidharma was the first Chinese Patriarch of Chan Buddhism, which later spread to Japan to be called Zen Buddhism.

Chan is short for Chan-na, which is Dhyana (Sanskrit) or Jhana (Pali).  But Chan Buddhism doesn’t just mean entering the 4 Jhanas in meditation (which are deep meditation states, free from the 5 Hindrances) – Chan means the highest Chan – which is seeing your own True Nature, your own real mind, your own real self!  You’ll read Zen stories about seeing your own “Original face” – this is what it means – seeing your own Buddha Nature – your own True Self!

In the “Verses” section of the Lankavatara Sutra, which is perhaps the oldest preserved part of the Sutra, the Buddha teaches:

The pure self has to be realized first hand; that is the matrix of realization, inaccessible to speculative thinkers.

Cleary, Thomas (2012-12-05). The Lankavatara Sutra (Kindle Locations 5023-5024). . Kindle Edition.

This means that your own pure self, who you really are – is to be realized first hand through your own direct knowledge.  It is not found through speculation and it is also not within the realm of logical thought.

The shining self is defiled by adventitious afflictions without beginning; and when in that condition is cleaned like a garment. Just as clothing, or gold, freed of defect by the absence of impurity do not disappear but remain, likewise the self without faults.

Cleary, Thomas (2012-12-05). The Lankavatara Sutra (Kindle Locations 5040-5043). . Kindle Edition.

The Shining Self is another name for your own pure self mentioned above – your own Buddha Nature.  It is defiled by afflictive emotions which constantly “desire to get” and “get rid of” impermanent externals (things which are not self, they are alien to you, foreign substances, not essential, they are impurities).

  • These externals are just like dirt in clothing – they are not inherently part of the clothing itself – wash it out and the beauty of the pure cloth material reveals itself.
  • It’s also like impurities in gold – smelt it and purity of the original gold that was always there shines forth.

The stages, masteries, and superknowledges, and the supreme consecration as well as the special concentrations, do not exist if the self is nonexistent.

If a nihilist should go and say, ‘If it exists, let it be shown,’ that clever one should be told, ‘Show your own imagination.’

Preachers of selflessness are not worth speaking to; abandon the occupations of mendicants who hinder the teachings of Buddha having biased views of the real and unreal. This explanation of self, standing out like the blaze at the end of an eon, outshines the forest-fire of selflessness freed from the faults of dogma.

Cleary, Thomas (2012-12-05). The Lankavatara Sutra (Kindle Locations 5055-5063). . Kindle Edition.

This means that if you do not have a pure, real, true self – then the stages of progress towards enlightenment and even enlightenment itself would not exist.

Nihilists are those who say that you don’t have a self.  There are a lot of Buddhists who mistakenly think like this these days – but right here in the Lankavatara Sutra, the Buddha is saying that if there really is no self, then enlightenment would not be possible.

Many Buddhists these days mistakenly think that all we are is the 5 skandhas – a collection of flesh, thoughts and emotions bundled up into a me.  So they think that all we are is our body with its mental and physiological processes – but in the Anattalakkhana Sutta – the Buddha explicitly states that our body along with its mental and physiological activity is not worthy to be regarded as who you really are precisely because they are impermanent:

“Now is what is impermanent, what is painful since subject to change, fit to be regarded thus: ‘This is mine, this is I, this is my self'”? — “No, venerable sir.”

So anything impermanent is painful (dukkha) because it is subject to change – and so, it is not fit, not worthy to be regarded as who you really are – not fit to be regarded as yours, not fit to be regarded as you, not worthy to be regarded as your self.

Like the analogy of the pure, shining gold which remains after smelting the impurities from gold ore that you’ve just dug out from the ground.  It is the afflictions that are removed from us – the Enlightened Mind/Self remains after purifying the kilesas/kleshas (afflictions like greed, hatred and delusion) from us.

The comparing and contrasting observations regarding the skandhas vs your real self is:

When the kleshas (negativities) are removed, the Self remains, untarnished. It is not an assemblage of skandhas that just disappear once the dirt of the kleshas has been removed. The skandhas are impermanent – but not the Self.

Now we know that the skandhas are impermanent – our body, along with it’s physiological and mental activity will eventually die.  Even as we read this page, cells in our bodies are born and dying, thoughts and emotions are born and dying.  Yet that which is aware of these changing processes is itself unchanging whilst it observes these changes.

Now let’s “suppose” the view “that we really are just an assemblage of flesh, thoughts and emotions” is correct.  Then when your living body dies, nothing will be left – your self will be annihilated (hence why this view is called annihilation) and nothing would be left, not even enlightenment would be left.  But the Buddha didn’t teach annihilation/nihilism.

And indeed, the Lankavatara Sutra is clear on this matter regarding the 5 skandhas/clusters:

No one has ever seen anyone who became completely awakened based on the clusters; what has never been seen by anyone, how can it be contemplated?
Cleary, Thomas (2012-12-05). The Lankavatara Sutra (Kindle Locations 3686-3687).  . Kindle Edition. 
Here, the Buddha is saying that no one has become a Buddha just based on the 5 skandhas – it is not possible to use the 5 skandhas as the basis for enlightenment.  Rather, you need to break through the 5 skandhas, you need to be liberated from the 5 skandhas in your cultivation to see the Pure, Shining, True Self of your own Buddha Nature which was never created and so can never be destroyed – this is the basis for enlightenment.
So don’t rely on the impermanent skandhas as the foundation for your enlightenment – they only lead to non-ultimate, death-bound states because the skandhas themselves are constantly in flux, unreliable – so the skandhas themselves are subject to decay and death.  The Buddha wanted us to escape from decay and death – so how can you rely on something which is itself subject to the realm of transience, decay and death and expect to escape from this realm?!
Instead, rely on that which not subject to birth – because that which is not born, not created will never change, and so will never decay and never die – this unconditioned, uncompounded nature is what you should rely on to escape from the samsaric realm (characterized by impermanence).

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