What moves? What is still? Your Unchanging Awareness – The Buddha in the Shurangama Sutra

This is a very important question you can reflect upon in your meditation:

“What moves?  What is still?”

Because it allows you to notice the movement of thoughts in your mind, as well as to notice the stillness that pervades those thoughts.

The key thing to remember is that your awareness – “That which is knows”, that which is aware – is unmoving, unchanging – that is the stillness within your mind that you can tune into and access anytime, any place.

Example 1

In the Shurangama Sutra, the Buddha opens and closes his hand and asks his cousin, Ananda:

  • “Was it my hand that opened and closed, or
  • Did your visual awareness open and close?”

Ānanda said,

  • “It was the World-Honored One’s resplendent hand that opened and closed before the assembly.
  • Although I saw his hand open and close, my visual awareness neither opened nor closed.

The Buddha said, “What moved and what was still?

Ānanda said,

  • The Buddha’s hand moved, but
  • My awareness is beyond even stillness; how could it have moved?

The Buddha replied, “So it is.”

A New Translation Buddhist Text Translation Society. The Śūraṅgama Sūtra With Excerpts from the Commentary by the Venerable Master Hsüan Hua (Kindle Locations 1405-1409).

Now what is meant by “My awareness is beyond even stillness”?  Ananda here is talking about the duality of the movement of visual objects that lie in front of the awareness – the movement and stillness of the visual objects that the awareness falls upon.  These objects can either be moving or they can be still (the absence of movement).

But here, Ananda is talking about a different type of stillness to the “absence of motion” type of stillness – as this type of stillness depends on the object being at rest.  Ananda is talking about a type of stillness that is independent of whether something is moving or not – it doesn’t have to rely on something needing to be at rest for it to be still.

The practical application of understanding this is extremely useful!

For example, imagine your mental thoughts don’t stop – the movement of those thoughts causes you agitation and restlessness – your mind can’t get any peace.  So you have to go to quiet place to relax and allow those thoughts to calm down – so your mind gains a bit more peace.  But this type of peace is dependent upon having quiet conditions – once those perfect quiet conditions is interrupted, you get angry that someone has disturbed your peace!  So this is the type of peace that relies on the absence of motion/disturbance.

But imagine instead, that you are within the space within the eye of the storm – outside of this eye of – this storm is fiercely raging on – chaos is happening all around you.  And yet, the space that you are in, is still and quiet.

It doesn’t matter that everything outside of you is chaos – you can tune into your own eye of the storm anywhere, anytime.  Wouldn’t that be useful?

Applying this eye of the storm analogy to your own mind, imagine once again that your thoughts can’t stop – there is chaos in your mind.  But notice… “That which is aware of the chaos” is not chaotic, is it?  You let go of attaching to those chaotic thoughts and you notice the awareness of those thoughts and you allow those chaotic thoughts to cease by themselves.

Another example – say reflected objects in front of a mirror can be moving or they can be still.  But the mirror’s stillness is a different type of stillness to the lack of movement of the reflected object – because this stillness is independent of the movment/stillness of any reflected object.

Similarly, the mental objects (thoughts) that you perceive are like the reflected objects in the mirror.  They can move or they can be still.  But that which is aware of those thoughts is beyond the stillness of those thoughts.

Example 2

The Buddha then shines a light past Ananda, causing Ananda to turn his head to glance left and right.

So the Buddha asked Ananda:

“Ānanda, when you glanced at the Buddha’s light and moved your head to the right and left:

  • Was it in fact your head that moved, or else
  • Was it your visual awareness that moved?”

“World-Honored One:

  • It was my head that moved.
  • The nature of my visual awareness is beyond even stillness; how then could it have moved?”

The Buddha said, “So it is.”

A New Translation Buddhist Text Translation Society. The Śūraṅgama Sūtra With Excerpts from the Commentary by the Venerable Master Hsüan Hua (Kindle Locations 1413-1416).

The Main Point

Then the Thus-Come One told everyone in the assembly:

All beings need to understand that whatever moves is like the dust and, like a visitor, does not remain.

Just now you saw that:

  • It was Ānanda’s head that moved, while his visual awareness did not move.
  • It was my hand that opened and closed, while his awareness did not open or close.

How can you take what moves to be your body and its environment, since they come into being and perish in every successive thought? You have lost track of your true nature, and instead you act out of delusion. Therefore, because you have lost touch with your mind’s true nature by identifying yourself with the objects you perceive, you keep on being bound to the cycle of death and rebirth.”

A New Translation Buddhist Text Translation Society. The Śūraṅgama Sūtra With Excerpts from the Commentary by the Venerable Master Hsüan Hua (Kindle Locations 1420-1425).

In other words – you need to find the host – don’t mistake the visitors for the host.  Don’t mistake the movement of thoughts to be your mind – they are just perceived mental objects.

The host is your True Mind, your True Nature – that always remains – the host doesn’t come and go like the visitors do.

Your body is like an inn, and you are like the host of the inn.

From the inn, you can see all sorts of visitors and guests, coming and going.  For example, your thoughts come and go – yet it is your mind that plays host to the comings and goings of those thoughts.  Thoughts flow in and flow out of the mind.  But the Mind, the awareness does not move – it does not flow in and flow out like the thoughts do.

Whatever you perceive that moves, that changes (anicca) is a visitor – it does not remain – allow them to visit and allow them to leave as they please.  With thoughts that flow in and flow out of your mind – allow them to flow in and allow them to flow out of themselves. All these things are like guests, like visitors, like dust floating around in empty space.

Whatever does remain is still – it does not move.  That is the host.

So once again, reflect, and notice in your own mind – what moves?  What is still?

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