At that time, the Tathagata was preparing to leave the Dharma seat. From the lion throne, he extended his hand and placed it on a small table wrought of the seven precious things. But then he turned his body, which was the color of purple golden mountains, and leaned back, saying to everyone in the assembly and to Ananda: “Those of you with More to Learn, those Enlightened by Conditions, and those who are Hearers have now turned your minds to pursue the attainment of supreme Bodhi the unsurpassed, wonderful enlightenment. I have already taught you the true method of cultivation.
“You are still not aware of the subtle demonic events that can occur when you cultivate the practices of calming the mind and contemplative insight (shamatha and vipashyana). If you cannot recognize a demonic state when it appears, it is because the cleansing of your mind has not been proper. You will then be engulfed by deviant views.
“You may be troubled by a demon from your own skandhas or a demon from the heavens. Or you may be possessed by a ghost or spirit, or you may encounter a li ghost or a mei ghost. If your mind is not clear, you will mistake a thief for your own son.
“It is also possible to feel satisfied after a small accomplishment, like the Unlearned Bhikshu who reached the Fourth Dhyana and claimed that he had realized sagehood. When his celestial reward ended and the signs of decay appeared, he slandered Arhatship as being subject to birth and death, and thus he fell into the Avichi Hell.
“You should pay attention. I will now explain this for you in detail.”
Ananda stood up and, with the others in the assembly who had More to Learn, bowed joyfully. They quieted themselves in order to listen to the compassionate instruction. The Buddha told Ananda and the whole assembly, “You should know that the twelve categories of beings in this world of outflows are endowed with a wonderfully bright, fundamental enlightenment – the enlightened, perfect substance of the mind which is not different from that of the Buddhas of the ten directions.
“Due to the fault of false thinking and confusion about the truth, infatuation arises and makes your confusion all pervasive. Consequently, an emptiness appears. Worlds come into being as that confusion is ceaselessly transformed. Therefore, the lands that are not without outflows, as numerous as motes of dust throughout the ten directions, are all created as a result of confusion, dullness, and false thinking.
“You should know that the space created in your mind is like a wisp of cloud that dots the vast sky. How much smaller must all the worlds within that space be! “If even one person among you finds the truth and returns to the source, then all of space in the ten directions is obliterated. How could the worlds within that space fail to be destroyed as well?
“When you cultivate dhyana and attain samadhi, your mind tallies with the minds of the Bodhisattvas and the great Arhats of the ten directions who are free of outflows, and you abide in a state of profound purity.
“All the kings of demons, the ghosts and spirits, and the ordinary gods see their palaces collapse for no apparent reason. The earth quakes, and all the creatures in the water, on the land, and in the air, without exception, are frightened. Yet ordinary people who are sunk in dim confusion remain unaware of these changes.
“All these beings have five kinds of spiritual powers; they lack only freedom from outflows, because they are still attached to worldly passions. How could they allow you to destroy their palaces? That is why the ghosts, spirits, celestial demons, sprites, and goblins come to disturb you when you are in samadhi.
“Although these demons possess tremendous enmity, they are in the grip of their worldly passions, while you are within wonderful enlightenment. They cannot affect you any more than a blowing wind can affect light or a knife can cut through water. You are like boiling water, while the demons are like solid ice which, in the presence of heat, soon melts away. Since they rely exclusively on spiritual powers, they are like mere guests.
“They can succeed in their destructiveness through your mind, which is the host of the five skandhas. If the host becomes confused, the guests will be able to do as they please.
“When you are in dhyana, awakened, aware, and free of delusion, their demonic deeds can do nothing to you. As the skandhas dissolve, you enter the light. All those deviant hordes depend upon dark energy. Since light can destroy darkness, they would be destroyed if they drew near you. How could they dare linger and try to disrupt your dhyana-samadhi?
“If you were not clear and aware, but were confused by the skandhas, then you, Ananda, would surely become one of the demons; you would turn into a demonic being.
“Your encounter with Matangi’s daughter was a minor incident. She cast a spell on you to make you break the Buddha’s moral precepts. Still, among the eighty thousand modes of conduct, you violated only one precept. Because your mind was pure, all was not lost.
“This would be an attempt to completely destroy your precious enlightenment. Were it to succeed, you would become like the family of a senior government official who is suddenly exiled; his family wanders, bereft and alone, with no one to pity or rescue them.
When one considers demons one more or less thinks of the type that have appeared in horror films over these many years, like The Exorcist. Essentially, these are the type of creatures conceived largely within the Judaeo-Christian Traditions. These western notions of demons are quite different from what we encounter in the Sutras. Back in 2006, while writing the commentary for Tozen’s Dharmakaya Sutra, I wrote the following concerning this contrast:
“For we Lankavatarians within the Unborn Mind School of Zen, the world—as well as the “spiritual world”—“is a concrete intellectual synthesis highly visible and touchable.” We also have a mantra that states, “Whatever the mind focuses on determines its body of reality”. Hence, if one does immerse oneself into entertaining the reality of demons (in the western sense), then such denizens of the netherworlds will most certainly meet your acquaintance—remember, what the mind focuses on determines its body of reality. These demons emanate from densely-constricted “mind-fields” that are a creation, by and large, of the Christian imagination—but, they have evolved far beyond just imaginary entities and can and do manifest within the Christian-oriented-mind-set and yes, are a “creation” of this Christian milieu. Once entertained, they can only be expelled (exorcized) through Christian means since they are Christianized manifestations—thus only by the rules of the game can they be expelled. There’s a nonfiction text that was first published in 1980 entitled “The Demonologist” wherein such unwholesome entities are described as well as their diabolical possessions; the danger of such a text is that once read, it pulls the unwary mind into this densely constricted-mind-field…the “reading” of the text is more powerful and more suggestible than watching films like “The Exorcist”…it can be said that reading is somehow more intimate and thus stimulates what the mind focuses on into becoming demonized itself—if particularly read alone at night. Also, if this text is read, then mind becomes—as it were—enraptured and enslaved to its methodology–one that states that one needs to be “protected” from such demonic invasions “all the time” through Christian symbols. Indeed, many who have read this text were compelled to become Christian. This methodological intent is, in itself, insidious to say the least and actually becomes a tool of the demons themselves.”
Here in the Surangama Sutra, the whole notion of Evil that can manifest itself in harmful forms really encompasses the “entire milieu of the mind”; indeed, these are very much “demons within the mind itself.” This truly opens up a whole new and all-encompassing awareness that is sorely lacking in the West. Because what the Mind focuses on will indeed determine its reality:
“You are still not aware of the subtle demonic events that can occur when you cultivate the practices of calming the mind and contemplative insight (shamatha and vipashyana). If you cannot recognize a demonic state when it appears, it is because the cleansing of your mind has not been proper. You will then be engulfed by deviant views.”
This is no superficial statement, but indeed a serious warning: when one advances along the way of the Buddhadharma, in particular through the ongoing cultivation of Deep Samadhis, then those subtle demons—Mara’s henchmen as it were—will surely intervene to prevent your advancement. As the Sutra says, the “demon-palace” becomes alerted whenever one begins the cultivation of Spirit-United-with-the-Very Mind of the Tathagatas themselves—it’s like they are a spider sensing that someone is escaping from their Samsaric-Web. These are indeed “subtle”—a negative thought or feeling here or there; thoughts or feelings of laziness that urge you to just lay-aside your study and contemplation and just focus on “outside samsaric” data and nothing else; the demons incessantly feed on this “dark energy” created within you. If the ongoing cleansing of these influences is not faithfully undertaken, then you will be helpless and always give-in to these negative demonic events. Yea, even if one has reached the 4th level of Dhyana, this is no “bullet-proof” reassurance that one is automatically immune to these events. One can still suffer the pangs of Avichi Hell: the smug assumption that one has already attained Anuttara-Samyak-Sambodhi is very foolhardy indeed. The Tathagata teaches that continual mind-cultivation through deep and abiding Dhyana, your mind actually “tallies with the minds of the Bodhisattvas and the great Arhats of the ten directions who are free of outflows, and you abide in a state of profound purity.” This is exhibitive of the truth that you can’t go-it alone without the intervention of the Dharma-Protectors. Remember, the demons are always in the grip of their own ignominious passions, and they will have no-power over you when ongoing Dhyanic-Union with the Tathagatas is your fervent daily affair.
The main thing to keep in mind is that “an emptiness” always occurs when you make a concerted effort to procure ongoing Dhyana techniques—a veritable “space” that is free from the Web of Samsara; the demons will stop at nothing to fill that space with their negative energy, so it is imperative that you develop proper Recollection of Mind at all times. The clouded-mind is the Devil’s playground. They can succeed in destroying you through “the host of the Five Skandhas.” That’s why it’s crucial to be aware of how, when not properly attended, the Skandhic-Host will become your worst nightmare. It’s interesting how the Surangama Sutra next begins to, as it were, “exorcise” them, one by one….