The Lankavatara Sutra

Yesterday I went to the office of the Thousand Stars Foundation and found that there were a number of new books waiting to be cataloged and arranged on shelves. The books were given to the Foundation by Anne Tuech, a friend of the Foundation who had helped us with a lot of things. She gave the books to the Foundation so that more could benefit from them. As we say in Thai, we “anumodana-ed” with her merits — that is, we rejoiced sympathetically with her good merits. 🙂

Now one of the books was a copy of D. T. Suzuki’s translation of The Lankavatara Sutra. It turned out that I was looking for this important text for some time and in fact I had been using the online text of this version for quite some time. Thus finding the book at the Foundation office was indeed a blessing.


The main idea behind the Sutra is that everything that we perceive is but a manifestation of our own mind. That is, when we perceive things around as being the things that they appear to be to the untrained, unpracticed eyes, we are in fact see our own projections. This is corroborated by a teaching on karma by Deshung Rinpoche, whose oral teaching on The Three Levels of Spiritual Perception I have been reading very closely. In that book, Deshung Rinpoche teaches that one of the results of the karma we did is that the environment in which we live is conditioned by that very karma that we did. This is very startling to me. The idea seems outrageous at first. In what way could it be the case that my own environment is conditioned by the karma or the action that I did?

But when one thinks about it, one begins to see how this is possible. Suppose somebody is full of anger all the time, his mind would then be filled with all the defilements and all the malices that go with anger. So he will very often meet with all these ill wills and hatred and things like that. This is just another way of saying that his environment is conditioned by his karma. Suppose you are full of anger, chances are that you will associate yourselves with those who share the same anger, or the same habit of mind that leads to anger and ill will. This is your environment.

On the other hand, it is quite easy to imagine that one whose mind is directed toward benevolence and compassion will find another environment which is very different from the one mentioned above. Moreover, our karma does more than that. It conditions the kind of life and the kind of world we are born into. Our environment then is conditioned by the karma.

The point is that the idea that the objectively existing environment is conditioned by the karma, which is action performed with intention, shows that there is an intimate connection between the subject and the object, so much so that it does not make much sense, ultimately speaking, to say which is which and how to distinguish among the two. This is also the message of the Lankavatara Sutra. In a way, the mind creates the world. In as much as our karma does condition the kind of environment we find ourselves in, our mind does create the world. Everything we perceive — rocks, trees, mountains, cars, traffic lights, and so on — are nothing but pictures that play itself out before our conceiving mind.

Moreover, deep down behind these pictures is what Suzuki calls “Mind” itself. This is neither subjective nor objective, since it is the condition by which both the subject and the object become possible in the first place. This Mind (with the big M) is not an individual mind, nor is it the case that ordinary things are made up of it in the Berkeleian sense. It is that the conception of the subject and the object itself owes its dependence to this primordial being which is self existing and has no beginning. Thus, when it is said in the Sutra that every individual objects are projection of the Mind, it should be understood as a projection of this universal, individual-transcending Mind, and not as individual minds in the Berkeleian sense. In Sanskrit the subject-object transcending Mind is the Alayavijnana and the individual, discriminating and conceptualizing mind is the manas.

Let us look rather closely at the text itself. On page 40 of the Suzuki version, which is on Section IX of Chapter Two, the Blessed One is speaking to the Bodhisattva Mahasattva Mahamati thus:

Then the Blessed One again speaking to Mahamati the Bodhisattva-Mahasattva said thus: The reasons whereby the eye-consciousness arises are four. What are they? They are: (1) The clinging to an external world, not knowing that it is of Mind itself; (2) The attaching to form and habit-energy accumulated since beginningless time by false reasoning and erroneous views; (3) the self-nature inherent in the Vijnaya; (4) The eagerness for multiple forms and appearances. By these four reasons, Mahamati, the waves of the evolving Vijnanas are stirred on the Alayavijnana which resembesl the waters of a flood. The same [can be said of the other sense-consciousnesses] as of the eye-consciouness. This consciousness arises at once or by degrees in every sense organ including its atoms and pores of the skin; the sense-field is apprehended like a mirror reflecting objects, like the ocean swepa over by a wind. Mahamati, similarly the waves of the mind-ocean are stirred, uninterruptedly by the wind of objectivity; cause, deed, and appearance condition one another inseparably; the functioning Vijnanas and the original Vijnana are thus inextricably bound-up together; and because the self-nature of form, etc., is not comprehended, Mahamati, the system of the five consciousnesses (vijnanas) comes to function. Along with this system of the five Vijnanas, there is what is known as Manovijnana [i.e., the thinking function of consciousness], whereby the objective world is distinguished and individual appearances are distinctly determined, and in this the physical body has its genesis. But the Manovijnana and other Vijnanas have no thought that they are mutually conditioned and that they grow out of their attachment to the discrimination which is applied to the projections of Mind itself. Thus the Vijnanas go on functioning mutually related in a most intimate manner and discriminating a world of representation.

The basic idea is that the physical things arise (this is only a metaphorical speaking, for the Sutra does not say that the individual mind has the power to create physical things ex nihilo) because of the discriminating and conceptualizing function of the five sense consciousnesses and one mental, discriminating consciousness. What is really important is that the consciousnesses or the vijnanas here are mutually dependence on each other. There can be no recognition and conceptualization of this as, say, a table without the conceptualizing mind or consciousness, and this conceptualizing mind itself would have no object to conceptualize if there were no object for it to do that. So both the mind (ordinary one) and object do indeed depend on each other. Without the mind, no object is even possible, and without the object, the mind has no content, which then means that it ceases to function as what it is, namely as a conceptualizing mind.


2 thoughts on “The Lankavatara Sutra

  1. Leroy Glinchy July 11, 2008 / 2:51 am

    This was really great explanation. I also bookmarked the link to the sutra. Thank-you. This is just the kind of blog I was looking for, one that would give me some Buddhist concept to think about everyday.

  2. soraj July 11, 2008 / 6:43 am

    I am glad that you find the blog interesting.

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