Is the Shurangama Sutra an Inauthentic Sutra?
the Venerable Master Hsuan Hua
The Great Master Han Shan (Silly Mountain) once said: "Unless you read the Lotus Sutra, you won't know of the pains the Thus Come One took to save the world. Unless you read the Shurangama Sutra, you won't know the key to cultivating the mind and awakening from confusion." This says it exactly right, because every dharma that exists is found within the Shurangama Sutra, so there are no potentials it fails to attract. It is the essential Dharma for all generations: It is the right seal for becoming a Buddha or a Patriarch. A Chan cultivator must thoroughly master this text and understand the Fifty Skandha‑demon States that it explains, in order to escape the snares of the demon‑kings. Otherwise, he won't recognize states when they arise, and he will become attached to them and join the retinue of demons. This is extremely dangerous!
We want to be able to recite the Shurangama Mantra from memory, and we also want to memorize the Shurangama Sutra. As the saying goes, "Familiarity leads to expertise." When the time comes, we will gain infinite advantages and inconceivable responses. Anyone who studies Chinese literature simply must read the Shurangama Sutra. The literary quality of this Sutra is excellent, and its meanings are profound; it is the most perfect Sutra.
There are some pretentious scholars who possess no deep understanding of Buddhism and yet consider themselves experts in the field. They see themselves as authorities when they are not. Without a thorough grasp of the principles of Buddhism, they freely criticize the Shurangama Sutra, recklessly asserting that it is an inauthentic Sutra. Still others who may be more conscientious, nonetheless, parrot the false claims of the scholars, like the blind following the blind. The situation is truly pathetic!
Why would anybody claim that the Shurangama Sutra was not spoken by Shakyamum Buddha? It's because the principles explained in this Sutra are simply too true. They thoroughly describe people's problems, thus preventing the goblins, demons, "cow‑faced ghosts," and "snake‑bodied spirits" from running amok and exposing them for what they are. That's why certain individuals defame the Sutra by claiming that it is fraudulent, destroying people's faith in the Shurangama Sutra so that they themselves have a chance to survive. If they acknowledged that the Sutra was, in fact, spoken by the Buddha, they would have no way to follow its Dharma. First, they cannot uphold the Four Unalterable Aspects of Purity. Second, they cannot cultivate the Dharma‑doors of Perfect Penetration of the Twenty‑five Sages. Third, they cannot face the Fifty States of the Skandha‑demons.
If everyone reads the Shurangama Sutra and understands it, then the spiritual powers of the externalists will lose their magical gleam; they will seem powerless and people will no longer believe that they possess spiritual powers. That's why the celestial demons and externalists have no recourse but to slander the Shurangama Sutra and circulate the spurious claim that it is an unauthentic text.
Not only do laypeople slander the Shurangama Sutra as false, even left‑home people perpetuate the rumor. Why? Because most left-home people have received limited education; some are even illiterate and cannot understand the Buddhas' Sutras. This is especially the case with the Shurangama Sutra: its text is deep, its principles are profound, so many cannot understand it or judge its authenticity. Thus, whenever someone claims that a certain Sutra is unauthentic, these ignorant people simply repeat what they hear without giving it any consideration. This is how the Shurangama Sutra has comes to receive its undeserved bad reputation.
In the past, the rulers of India considered the Shurangama Sutra a national treasure and forbade its being carried out of India. Travelers were stopped at the borders and thoroughly searched, out of fear that the Sutra would circulate. Sangha members who were leaving the country were especially subject to the scrutiny of the border guards.
In those days (during the Tang Dynasty in China) the eminent monk, Master Paramiti of India, after racking his brains and thinking up every possible means, finally hid the Sutra beneath the skin of his arm to fool the customs inspectors so that it could come to China. He arrived in Canton, and met a Prime Minister named Fang Rong, who had been exiled by the Empress Wu Zetian and was serving as a Magistrate in Canton. Magistrate Fang Rong requested the Venerable Paramiti to translate the Sutra. He himself acted as editor and turned out a masterpiece of literature, which he then presented in offering to the Empress Wu Zetian. Just at that time, China was experiencing a scandal regarding the Great Cloud Sutra, a fraudulent text. Empress Wu Zetian concealed the translation in the palace and did not allow it to circulate.
Later, when Dhyana Master Shenxiu was appointed as National Master, he sat in the palace to receive offerings. One day he discovered the Sutra, realized its value for meditators in the Chan School, and put it into circulation. Only then did the Shurangama Sutra finally become known in China. The Shurangama Sutra is said to be the last of the Buddha's Sutras to reach China, but during the Dharma‑ending Age, it will be the first Sutra to disappear into oblivion. Following it, the other Sutras will gradually disappear as well, until only the Amitabha Sutra will be left.
Editor's Note: The Venerable Master Hua endorses the Shurangama Sutra's absolute authenticity, and strongly asserts that it bears, without question, the "mind‑seal" of all Buddhas. Upon arriving in America, the first major Sutra he explained was the Shurangama Sutra. Why did he choose that Sutra? Because when the Dharma is transmitted to America it transforms the Dharma‑ending Age into the Proper Dharma Age. It represents the Venerable Master's lifeblood, given for the purpose of carrying on the Buddha's "wisdom‑life." The Buddhist Monthly‑Vajra Bodhi Sea has been serializing A Brief Explanation of the Shurangama Sutra in Chinese and English, and will continue to offer this text to readers.