History and controversies of the Surangama Sutra

The Surangama Sutra is a widely studied Sutra in Chinese Ch’an, especially during the Song and Tang dynasties. A lot of what Ch’an is today, and later Japanese Zen, is directly influenced by this Sutra.

This sutra has generated the most commentaries, furthers the doctrine of Yogācāra, Tathāgatagarbha, and Esoteric Buddhism. Some of the main themes of the Śūraṅgama Sūtra are the worthlessness of the Dharma when unaccompanied by samādhi power, and the importance of moral precepts as a foundation for the Buddhist practice. Also stressed is the theme of how one effectively combats delusions that may arise during meditation.

The Surangama Sutra has a very contentious history, in which:

  1. There is no Sanskrit original source that can be found,
  2. We do not know the original Sanskrit name of this Sutra,
  3. The Sutra first appears only in Chinese, later translated to Tibetan and back-drafted to Sanskrit
  4. The Sutra contains many teachings and positions that are outside of Buddhist doctrine.

There is another manuscript titled ‘Surangama Samadhi Sutra’ that is completely different from the Surangama Sutra, and teaches, among other related subjects, how to attain the Surangama Samadhi, which is the highest samadhi (state of meditative absorption) that is attained only by a Buddha or tenth-level Bodhisattva.

There are many version of this Sutra in Chinese, however, the version from Master Han Śhan (1546–1623) became the most dominate version of this sutra and is used in today’s translations. The Japanese version of this Sutra, which comes from a single copy from questionable origins is revieled:

Dispute about this text arose in the 8th century in Japan, so Emperor Kōnin sent Master Tokusei and a group of monks to China, asking whether this book was a forgery or not. A Chinese upasaka, or layperson(!), told the head monk of the Japanese monastic delegation, Master Tokusei, that this was forged by Fang Yong. Zhu Xi, a 12th-century Neo-confucian who was opposed to Buddhism, believed that it was created during the Tang Dynasty in China, and did not come from India. (Wikipedia)

Academically, this Sutra is deemed Apocryphal, and noted by some of the first translators such as Etienne Lamotte in 1965, who in the notes about this Sutra he asserts that the Surangama Sutra “is a Chinese Apocryphal work”. Ron Epstein, one of the original English translators of this Sutra notes:

Now let us turn to the controversy over its authenticity. The earliest evidence we have is from Japan where a doctrinal controversy over the Sutra erupted between two Nara sects in 754. Although the dispute was resolved in favor of authenticity, the dispute flared up again in 772, when a party was sent to China for further information. When the members returned, their leader claimed that a Chinese layman had told them that the Sutra was a forgery by Fang Yung. The Sutra was on the verge of being publicly burned when another monk returned from a long stay in China and said that the Chinese Emperor had just requested that it be explained in the palace, and so at the last minute it was saved, although it never became popular in Japan. We have little hard information about what was actually going on in Japan and so can do little more than speculate. However, it is interesting to note that the dates of the two controversies correspond to political upheavals directly affecting the Buddhist community there.

Apparently there was some ongoing controversy among at least some people in China from early times. The first extant reference to the Sutra in China is by the anti-Buddhist Neo-Confucian Chu Hsi, who condemns the Sutra as a forgery. Then, in the thirteen century, Dogen, the celebrated founder of Soto Zen, mentions that his teacher Ju-ching didn’t like it either because it was associated with the Buddhist syncretic movement (san chiao i chih). The first extant references in Chinese Buddhist works to the controversy appear in Ming commentaries.1

Epstein finely concludes:

“Preliminary analysis of the internal evidence then indicates that the Sutra is probably a compilation of Indic materials that may have had a long literary history.”

Compilations of manuscripts to form a single manuscript is not uncommon, for this was done with the Western Bible in 1604 with the command of King James where 14 men collected all known Christian Scriptures and decided what was canon, and what was not. Today, many cite that the Apocryphal Bible, being books that did not make it in to the KJV, contain the original teachings of Christ and KJV contains not only apocryphal writings but known forgeries such as: Ephesians, Colossians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy and Titus.

Hurvitz states that the Śūraṅgama Sūtra is “a Chinese forgery”[unreliable source?] but gives no reason, and Faure declares it to be “apocryphal” also without a rationale. Epstein gives an overview of the arguments for Indian or Chinese origin, and concludes:

[T]he Sutra is probably a compilation of Indic materials that may have had a long literary history […] [O]ne of the difficulties with the theory that the Sutra is apocryphal is that it would be difficult to find an author who could plausibly be held accountable for both structure and language and who would also be familiar with the doctrinal intricacies that the Sutra presents. Therefore, it seems likely that the origin of the great bulk of material in the Sutra is Indic, though it is obvious that the text was edited in China. However, a great deal of further, systematic research will be necessary to bring to light the all the details of the text’s rather complicated construction.

The 7th centruy monk Huai-Di, in where we first find this Sutra claims it came from an unnamed Indian source.2

Since the Tang Dynasty, there has been debate in East Asian Buddhism about whether the Surangama Sutra is a forgery or not. Though this Sutra contains many important teachings, it also contains many teachings and positions that are outside of Buddhist doctrine if not outright contrary.




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