Light on the Lankavatara Sutra

by L. Ron Gardner

The Lankavatara Sutra (LS) is a profound and important Mahayana Buddhist sutra. It propounds the doctrine of Cittamatra, a sub-system of Yogacara which asserts that a single universal Mind (or Consciousness) has become everything. As such, the LS is akin to Hindu Kashmir Shaivism and Tibetan Dzogchen, which likewise assert that a single omnipresent Consciousness or Awareness (Siva or Dharmakaya), has manifested as all existents.

Unfortunately, if an impressive LS text has been penned since D.T. Suzuki’s “Studies in the Lankavatara Sutra” in 1930, I haven’t encountered it. And I would be much obliged if someone can point me to worthwhile LS work I might have missed.

Below, in order, are my four-star reviews of D.T. Suzuki’s translation/commentary of “The Lankavatara Sutra” (The Invasion of Buddhism by Samkhya) and “Studies in the Lankavatara Sutra” (One-of-a Kind Studies in the Lankavatara Sutra”), and my two-star reviews of Florin Giripescu Sutton’s “Existence and Enlightenment in the Lankavatara Sutra” (The Jungianization of Yogacara) and Red Pine’s “Lankavatara Sutra” (the Work of a Butcher with Large Thumbs).

The Invasion of Buddhism by Samkhya

I'm going to begin this review by suggesting that readers also check out my (two-star) review of Red Pine's "Lankavatara Sutra" to get a more complete picture of this important Mahayana text. Although D.T. Suzuki's text has flaws, at least he, in contrast to Red Pine, understands the essential points in this text - that it is all about Mind (the Alaya, the Unborn Substratum), that this Mind is a metaphysical substance, and that the world is the objectification, or manifestation, of this Mind. This point of view, called "cittamatra" (or Consciousness-only), is in diametrical opposition to Red Pine's point of view, called "vijnaptimatra," which is that the world is nothing but ideas, with no Reality or realities behind them, and that all "dharmas" (or things) are mere mental projections, or cognitions, or representations, of one's individual mind.

The Lankavatara Sutra is a hybrid, or mishmash, of three different schools: Yogacara, Madhyamika, and Samkhya, which is the yoga philosophy of Patanjali. If you really want to understand the Lankavatara Sutra, you need to study Patanjali, and the text I recommend for this is "Yoga Philosophy of Patanjali" by Swami Hariharananda Aranya. To anyone who has has studied Patanjali and Advaita Vedanta, it is obvious that the Mind that the Blessed One (or Buddha) discourses on in the Lankavatara Sutra is the same Metaphysical "Substance" as the Self, or Atman, or Siva. In fact, throughout this "Hinduized" text, awakening to, and as, Mind is equated to Self-realization, which is a synonym for Nirvana, or Buddhahhood.

The Lankavatara Sutra is not an easy, amenable read. It is, as Buddhist scholar Edward Conze puts it, "an unwieldy system of viewpoints, paths, and categories, explained in difficult technical terminology." It is convoluted, repetitious, replete with contradictions, and flies off on speculative metaphysical tangents that have no bearing on the central theme of Mind-realization. A major reason for the contradictions is that the text is the work of more than one author, at differerent times. For example, as Suzuki points out, the section against meat eating is clearly a later addition to the root text, and was added to mitigate criticism against Buddhism for condoning flesh consumption.

A major problem with this text is that it briefly mentions, but fails to elaborate and integrate, important elements of the Buddhahood project, such as baptism and the Dharmamegha (or Dharma Cloud). A couple times in the text, the Blessed One, in a sentence, mentions Buddhas baptizing Bodhisattvas, but nothing more is said, and no details are provided, about this Spirit (or Shakti)-transmission.

The Blessed One equates Mind Awakening with the Tenth or final stage of Buddhahood, known as the Great Dharmamegha. This is likewise the final stage of Self-realization in Patanjali's Yoga system; hence Buddhism coincides with Hindu yoga at this point.

What is the Dharmamegha? Although I'm not a fan of the late Osho (Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh), he summarizes it nicely: "Dharmamegha means that the Self-nature has started showering you, and you yourself become bathed in it, drown in it."

In the Lankavatara Sutra, the Blessed one describes the Bodhisattva's final stage thus: "Going through the successive stage of Bodhisattvahood, he finally reached the state of the Dharma Cloud [Dharmamegha]."

To the spiritual cognoscenti, The Dharmamegha (or Dharma Cloud) is the unobstructed descent of Anugraha Shakti, or the Holy Spirit, or the Sambhogakaya: the Blessing/Blissing Power that makes a Buddha a Blessed One. When this Clear-Light Energy unites with contracted Mind or Siva (mano-vijnana and klista-manas, which Suzuki improperly designates as just "manas") in the Tathagatagarbha (the womb of the Buddhas, which is akin to the Hindu Heart-cave, or "Hridayam"), then Mind shines freely as Bodhicitta, or Siva-Shakti, or Cit-Ananda.

If you really want to deeply grok the Lankavatara Sutra, you will have to expand your spiritual horizons beyond Madhyamika and Zen, and in addition to Patanjali, also study Dzogchen, Hindu Kashmir Shaivism, Ramana Maharshi's esoteric teachings, and Adi Da's Daism.

A final point: In this text, the Blessed One repeatedly depicts people as "ignorant, "stupid" and "simple minded." But we now live in a dumbed-down, politically correct world, and when I do this in my Amazon reviews, I catch hell. If you don't believe me, check out the reactions (comments and negative votes) to my review of Red Pine's "Lankavatara Sutra."

One-Of-A-Kind Studies in the Lankavatara Sutra

f you’re interested in scholarly studies in the Lankavatara Sutra (LS), you’ll want to get this book, because if there are any other LS studies that impress, I haven’t encountered them. Various well-known Buddhism authors, such as Florin Giripescu Sutton, Dan Lusthaus, and Red Pine (see my reviews of their books), have attempted to hermeneutically decipher the cryptic LS – and they have failed miserably. Hence, we are left with the iconic D.T. Suzuki’s studies on the subject, which, though flawed, are a quantum leap better than anyone else’s in the Buddhist mainstream.

This text should be read either in tandem with or after Dr. Suzuki’s translation of and commentary on the Lankavatara Sutra. Dr. Suzuki’s writing is clear, concise, and elucidating. But this isn’t surprising, given his status as a Buddhist scholar for the ages.

What separates Dr. Suzuki’s studies from those of other LS exegetes is his understanding of LS’s Cittamatra philosophy. Unlike other authors on the said subject, he groks the distinctions between the Yogacara Cittamatra of the LS and the Yogacara Vijnaptimatra/Vijnanavada of Asanga, Vasubandu, and others. Most importantly, he understands that the LS is about a single, absolute, universal Mind that has become everything. Per this philosophy, all existents are manifestations of this universal Mind, and not projections of one’s individual mind, as other Yogacara schools have it.

Dr. Suzuki makes the important point that the LS does not represent an end point in the development of Yogacara philosophy, but rather a transitional one. For example, he informs us that “the Trikaya is not yet systematized in the Lankavatara Sutra.” Regarding the LS’s stage of development, he writes:

“The Lankavatara Sutra is not a systematized treatise devoted to the exposition of a definite set of doctrines, but a mine containing all assorts of metals still in the state of requiring analysisis and synthesis. It is full of suggestive thought which must have been fermenting at the time in Mahayana thinkers’ minds and hearts. The two great schools of Mahyana Buddhism, the Madhyamika and the Yogacara, lie here in an incipient stage of development and differentiation.”

If D.T. Suzuki were still with us, I would contact him and clarify for him what some terms in this text, such as “Lankavatara” and “Dharmamegha,” really mean. I would also point out that he mentions “Buddhas baptizing Bodhisattavas” in his translation/commentary of the LS, but doesn’t elaborate upon this in this text. Most importantly, I would let him know that to more deeply explicate the LS, one would need to consider it in the contexts of Tibetan Dzogchen and Hindu Kashmir Shaivism.

Just as the LS does not represent a final stage in the evolution of Yogacara, likewise Suzuki’s “Studies in the Lankavatara Sutra” does not represent the final word on the LS -- and Suzuki himself would be the first to admit this. But despite its flaws, which I would further elaborate if I were writing an article on the subject, this is an important, one-of-a-kind text for serious students of Yogacara and the Lankavatara Sutra.

The Jungianization of Yogacara

The "Lankavatara Sutra" is the most authoritative and influential text of the Yogacara (or "Mind-only") school of Indian Mahayana Buddhism, but it is a deep and abstruse work--and this has led to very different interpretations of its core tenets pertaining to the true nature of Mind (or Consciousness). And in "Existence and Enlightenment," author Florin Sutton (a professor of Asian studies) argues (as his core thesis) that "Universal Consciousness [or Mind]" is best understood as the consciousness which is common to all men, and, in this sense, universal (i.e., the subconscious in its most basic or pure state, the `Alaya'), rather than some universally present `stuff', `entity,' or `substance,' existing independently outside the realm of human mental activity."

From my perspective Dr. Sutton, couldn't be more wrong regarding Universal Consciousness, the Alaya. Universal Consciousness is the universal, transcendental, divine "Mind-Stuff," the unmanifest "All" that has manifested as the "all" (the universe of existents), but yet is utterly and forever independent of it.

Elsewhere, Dr. Sutton writes: "the undefiled Tathagata-garbha [Womb of Buddhahood] (when taken as essence) [can be] understood to designate the Unconscious in its original state." This is reminiscent of Carl Jung's westernized psychological nonsense in his foreword to W.Y. Evans-Wentz's "The Tibetan Book of the Great Liberation."

Dr. Sutton's misunderstanding of Yogacara is hardly limited to the Alaya and the Tathagata-garbha; it extends into other areas of Buddha Dharma as well. For example, a chapter in his book is entitled "Dharmadhatu; the Spacial or Cosmic Dimension of Being." Unbeknownst to Dr. Sutton, the Dharmadhatu is not a cosmic dimension or space; it is the hypercosmic Dharmakaya as the spaceless "context" in which phenomena arise.

Dr. Sutton not only has problems understanding Yogacara, he also seems to lack even a rudimentary understanding of Hinduism. For example, he defines the Atman as the "empirical Self." Anyone with a clue about Hinduism knows that the Atman is the metempirical (or noumenal) Self, not the empirical (or phenomenal) Self.

In short, this is a deeply flawed text by an academic lacking real insight into Buddha Dharma; but because there are such few studies on the "Lankavatara Sutra," scholars might find some useful nuggets in it (such as Dr. Sutton's etymological analysis of Sanskrit terms germane to Yogacara). General readers, however, should look elsewhere for enlightenment on Yogacara and the "Lankavatara Sutra."

The Work of a Butcher with Large Thumbs

The Lankavatara Sutra is a profound and wonderful sutra--but unfortunately, Red Pine's translation and commentary does not do it justice. In fact, it utterly besmirches it, grossly distorting and de-esotericizing it. My suggestion to Red Pine is: get a job in a McDonald's or something; you are in over your head attempting to decipher Buddha Dharma.

Red Pine has no clue what the Lankavatara Sutra is really about--descent of the Divine (or Dharma Cloud) into the Tathagata-garba (or Heart-cave). The term "Lankavatara Sutra" means "descent into Lanka," and Lanka (a solitary, or sacred, "island," like Sri--meaning "Holy"--Lanka) is a metaphor for the Tathagata-garba, the "place," or "locus", or "womb," where one is "reborn" as a Buddha. In Hindu Raja Yoga (Patanjali), reaching this "island,"(a.k.a. "Hridayam," or Heart-center) is termed "kaivalya," which means "isolation" from the defilements that taint the seven forms of consciousness that precede the en-Light-ening eighth one (alaya-vijnana) in the Yogacara system or schema. Yogacara means "the practice of yoga," and the highest yoga, Di-"vine" yoga, is the union of the "vine" of the Dharma Cloud (or Shakti, or Sambhogakaya, or Clear-Light Energy, or Holy Spirit, or Mother Light) with the "vine" of the yogi's consciousness (or soul, or complex of psychical seed tendencies, or son light) in the Heart-cave (or Tathagata-garba). This union results in the severing of the Heart-knot (what Gautama called the Heart-release), thus permanently disentangling one's Self (or Buddha-nature) from the defilements of the first seven forms of un-en-Light-ened consciousness. Red Pine, however, has nothing to say about this yoga, which, like Patanjali's Raja Yoga, describes final enlightenment as the yogi's union with the Dharmamegha (or Dharma Cloud) in one's Heart-center (Hridayam, not Anahata), which equates to the Tathagata-garba.

Who or What descends into Lanka to en-Light-en the bodhisattva (the enlightenment-seeking disciple)? The Bhagavan (Red Pine's term), which D.T. Suzuki, in his translation of the "Lankavatara Sutra," translates as the "Blessed One." The Bhagavan, or Blessed One, as Blessing Power (the Sambhogakaya, or Clear-Light Energy, or Dharma Cloud, or Shakti) does. In the first page of Chapter One, Red Pine writes, "the Bhagavan had been expounding the dharma for seven days in the palace of Sagara, the Serpent King. The seven days represent the seven forms of consciousness prior to the en-Light-ening eighth. Sagara is one of eight serpent kings who acted as protector of the Dharma [really, protector of the realization of the Dharmakaya]. Sagara's residence was at the bottom of the ocean, which is analogous to the Tathagata-garba, the irreducible root of consciousness. Sagara, the eighth Serpent King represents the Heart (or Gordian) Knot, the final guardian of the Gate to the Dharmakaya. The Serpent King is another name for Kundalini, the "Coiled One"--and when the final, Heart "coil" is "straightened " by the Blessing Power (or Clear-Light- Energy) of the Blessed One, then the bodhisattva morphs into a Buddha, a Tathagata dwelling timelessly in, and as, the Dharmakaya, universal, transcendental Mind, or Awareness.

It's bad enough that Red Pine is oblivious to the the implicit Energetic, or Spiritual, dimension of the Lankavatara Sutra, but it is even worse that he has no grasp of Yogacara's Mind-Only (Citta-Matra) Dharma. In the first paragraph of the first page of Chapter One, he translates a sentence in the sutra: "[Bodhisattvas] skilled in the knowledge that external objects are perceptions of one's own mind...." Contrast this with D.T. Suzuki's translation: "The Bodhisattva-Mahâsattvas... all well understood the significance of the objective world as the manifestation of their own Mind."

Red Pine's translation is wrong. He doesn't understand that universal, transcendental Mind (with a big "M"), the Unmanifest Dharmakaya, has spontaneously manifested as the universe of existents. In other words, the All, which is Mind-"Substance," has spontaneously modified itself, via its Sambhogakaya-Nirmanakaya "phase," as stepped-down vibrations of energy and matter into the totality of phenomena. And this gross and egregious misunderstanding effectively destroys his entire analysis of the Lankavatara Sutra, rendering it essentially worthless. Red Pine has read Buddhist scholars like Florin Sutton (see my Amazon review of his text "Existence and Enlightenment in the Lankavatara Sutra") and Dan Lusthaus (whom I've read on the web), and these so-called "experts" on Yogacara have doubtless infected his brain with their exoteric, non-Spiritual, hyper-psychologized interpretations of the Mind-Only teaching. A final point regarding Red Pine's view of the mind: External objects are not, as Red Pine asserts, perceptions of one's own mind. If you believe that the computer you're using now wouldn't exist just as it is after you stopped perceiving it, then I feel sad for you. If you took a gun and shot yourself, your gun, house, car, etc. would continue to exist just as they were sans your being around to cognize them.

The viewpoint of Mind, the Dharmakaya, or timeless Awareness, becoming everything is hardly heterodox. It is the same one espoused by--just to name a handful of legendary gurus--Zen masters Hui Neng and Huang Po, Yogacara masters Saraha and Padmasambhava, and Dzogchen master Longchen Rabjam. Here's a quote from Saraha, page 98 of "Principal Yogacara Texts," (another book I've reviewed at Amazon):

"Thus know that the whole appearance is the Dharmakaya. All sentient beings are the the Buddha. All cosmic arisings and events are from the beginning not other than the Source of Phenomena (Dharmadhatu). For this reason, everything that one can identify conceptually is as unreal as are the horns on a rabbit."

In addition to his failure to understand the distinction between Mind and mind, Red Pine also lacks a clear grasp of Yogacara's eightfold network of consciousness. For example, he describes the seventh consciousness (klista-manas) as self-identity and reasoning, and this is wrong. Reasoning (which includes conation) is encompassed within the sixth consciousness (mano-vijnana), conceptual consciousness or cognition; and the seventh consciousness is "affection," the afflictive emotions resulting from one's faulty premises and value-judgments. Anyone who has studied Plato would see the sixth and seventh consciousnesses of Yogacara as representing man's (conditioned) soul.

A big problem with this book is Red Pine's failure to use capitalization when necessary; he seems to have some sort of Zennish fetish of keeping words uncapitalized. For example, he describes enlightenment as the denial of "self-existence," then uses the terms "self-existent-mind" and "self-realization" to describe enlightenment. This is contradictory and confusing. It should be "Self-existent Mind" and "Self-realization."

A final point regarding this book: it suffers without an index. This type of quasi-scholaly text has to have one; but given that the publisher, Counterpoint, seems to skimp on their books (for example, microscopic-size print in Red Pine's Heart Sutra), the lack of one doesn't surprise me.

Because this is a book review and not a book, I will stop my critique short and summarize it: This book is, in a word, bad. But because it is the Lankavatara Sutra and does contain some useful notes and information, I have, after some deliberation, decided to give it two stars rather than one.

Regarding my critique, you'll see that plenty of people (really just collections of adventitious taints) give my review a thumbs down, but not a single one of the thirty-six (and counting) seems capable of deconstructing my arguments. Come on, people! My razor-sharp Dharma sword is rusting while I await you in Lanka.

Oh, yes, regarding Red Pine, I might be able to get him a job at a local McDonald's, but with a caveat: After the Mc Donald's manager read Red Pine's "Lankavatara Sutra," he characterized him as a "butcher with large thumbs." Hence, Red Pine will have to start as a floor sweeper instead of a burger builder.

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