Ajahn Chah explains a principle from the Shurangama Sutra

When a Theravadan Buddhist teacher can explain a principle from a Mahayana Sutra just from his own wisdom without ever having read the Sutra – then this means that the teaching is correct – Theravada and Mahayana are in harmony and are mututally supporting and strengthening each other.

The Shurangama Sutra reveals the crucial difference between the mind and the thoughts/sense impressions that come and go WITHIN the mind – they are 2 separate things.

“World-Honored One, suppose:

  • A visitor stops at an inn for a night or for a meal. Once his stay is ended or the meal is finished, he packs his bags and goes on his way. He’s not at leisure to remain.
  • But if he were the innkeeper, he would not leave.

By considering this example of:

  • The visitor, the one who comes and goes, and
  • The innkeeper, the one who remains,

I understood what the visitor signifies. He represents transience.

– A New Translation Buddhist Text Translation Society. The Śūraṅgama Sūtra With Excerpts from the Commentary by the Venerable Master Hsüan Hua (Kindle Locations 1388-1393).

In our own mind – all these things come and go – images, feelings, perceptions, processes and thoughts (i.e., the 5 skandhas) – they all come and go – they are transient, impermanent.


“That which is aware” of these transient processes remains.

The transient processes in a bit more detail are things like:

  • Images changing in front of us
  • Sensations that we feel through our body arising and ceasing
  • Perceptions forming and disappearing and
  • Thoughts flowing in and flowing out

These things come and go.  It is the mind that stays and is aware of it all.

“That which is aware” of these comings and goings does not come nor go with them.  “That which is aware” of these transient processes is not these transient processes:

  • That which is aware of mental images is not the mental images.  Mental images are visual “objects” that the mind observes but these images themselves can not do the observing.  It is the mind that sees, not the objects of vision that sees.
  • That which is aware of sensations is not the sensations.  It is the mind that feels the sensations but the sensations themselves can not do the feeling.
  • That which is aware of thoughts is not the thoughts.  It is the mind that is aware of the thoughts but the thoughts themselves can not do the thinking because thoughts are just mental objects of perception.

In your own meditation, it is crucial to understand this difference.  Otherwise, you make the mistake of thinking that you are your thoughts and feelings, when these things are really just perceptions that arise and cease – within the mind.

Anything that arises and ceases with the mind is transient and impermanent – you allow it to arise and you allow it to cease of themselves – watching them, allowing them to be, letting go of them.  You are not those transient perceptions.

That which is aware of the transient phenomena – is not transient, is it?  Because the awareness does not die out when those transient things die out.  If the awareness were no different from the thoughts, then when the thoughts die out, then the awareness too would die out with them – but this does not happen.

The awareness is the mind – that is the host, that is the innkeeper – who stays.  It is the guests/visitors that come and go (impermanent).

Ajahn Chah gets it – and I doubt that he had even read the Shurangama Sutra:

In any case, in our practice, no matter what aspect you refer to, you must always begin from the mind.

That which receives impressions, both good and bad, we call ”mind.” It’s like the owner of a house:

  • The owner stays put at home
  • While visitors come to see him.

He is the one who receives the visitors.

Who receives sense impressions? What is it that perceives? Who lets go of sense impressions? That is what we call ”mind.”

– Ajahn Chah – A Dhamma Talk “Still, Flowing Water”

So try that next time in your meditation or even with simple reflection – that which is aware of the thoughts is not the thoughts.  That which is aware of the feelings is not the feelings.  That which is aware of the movements within the minds is not those movements – the awareness itself is unmoving, yet it can observe the movements.

11 thoughts on “Ajahn Chah explains a principle from the Shurangama Sutra

    • The Shurangama Sutra is definitely authentic for these reasons:
      1. It has been considered perhaps the most important part of the Mahayana Canon for over 1000 years and is highly respected by eminent Chan Masters like Han Shan, Hsu Yun, Hsuan Hua. These Masters have used it in their own Buddhist practice. I too have used it in my own practice and the principles the Sutra speaks of holds true when I’ve put those principles to the test – so it is very practical. However, you’ve got to develop some skill in meditation in order to see the subteties and depths – as a beginner may not be able to see deep enough or the nuances. Master Han Shan for example didn’t understand it before he was enlightened but after his enlightenment, he read this Sutra again and he verified that it was correct.
      2. The people that I’ve met who have read it and understand it – are able to understand the deeper aspects of the Dharma far more easily than those who don’t. In fact, I would say this Sutra is crucial to Zen/Chan meditation and it forms one of the core texts for Chan.
      3. Once you read and understand this Sutra – you can see the principles in action when people with skill talk about their meditation.

      • Thank you for this explanation.

        Unfortunately I did not understand what it meant by ” direct inward” or “to original source” in this Sutra. Would you be able to explain ?

      • Yeah sometimes, words are a poor approximation of the actual practice.

        Depends on the context of “direct inward”, but I take it to mean letting go from getting absorbed into the external world that is conveyed to us through our senses.

        It means don’t let your attention flow out of your body and into external sense pleasures – like sights, sounds, smells, tastes, touches and even thoughts. Keep your attention either within your body (mindfulness of the body) or on a mantra, which sort of locks your attention in 1 spot, preventing your attention from wandering outwards to get dissipated in the senses.

        Once you can keep staying with your meditation object, you naturally let go of externals and are no longer so attached to imperfect, transient pleasures that the world constantly impinges us with. Give that a try.

  1. I would like to request from you to add a post/section on “Recommend Reading” . There are many books with misleading titles nowadays , so to protect spiritual seekers.

  2. Is there any other in detail source to describe the method in this sutra ? I’m trying the method of using ear faculty . I tried to detach from outside sounds/silence(or keep open ) while walking but this caused to hear sounds more vividly ; even my foot steps when in the city ! Need more guide to to ensure the practice is right.

  3. This method is for advanced students – like PhD level meditation. I’d suggest starting off by learning how to recite the Buddha’s name “Namo Amitofo” and gain some skill with that. There should be a few audio/videos on this site regarding that as well as Yin Kuang’s letters which is in the Links to Good Stuff.

    But if you do want to learn more about the Kwan Yin Bodhisattva’s method of enlightenment, here’s an excellent article:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s