The Vajrasamādhi Sutra


Our next text for study from our sūtra-series is the Vajrasamādhi Sūtra. Firstly, a thank-you is in order for one of our readers, JB, who recently brought this magnificent text to our attention. We are also indebted to Robert E. Buswell, Jr. for his excellent scholarly texts, The Formation of Ch’an Ideology in China and Korea, The Vajrasamādhi Sūtra—A Buddhist Apocryphon; and his Cultivating Original Enlightenment: Wŏnhyo’s Exposition of The Vajrasamādhi Sutra. His first work focuses on the doctrinal and historical position of this uniquely “Korean” Ch’an-Sŏn Sutra. (1) Buswell draws the conclusion that the Sutra’s author (circa 685 C.E.) was the legendary monk, Pŏmnang, who is reported to have studied under Daoxin, the primary founder of the East Mountain School. As we shall discover within this series its doctrinal and contemplative/meditative dimensions are highly attuned with the East Mountain School—particularly on the notion of “Keeping the One”—Shou-i:

In an apocryphal text, the Chin-kang san-mei ching, written toward the middle of the seventh century and closely related to the East Mountain School, the following definition of “keeping the One” can be found:

The bodhisattva sees to it that sentient beings “preserve the three and keep the One” and thus enter into Tathāgata-dhyāna (ju-lai ch’an). Owing to this dhyāna, the “panting” of the mind stops. What is “preserving the three and keeping the One” and what is “entering into Tathagata-dhyāna?” “Preserving the three” means “preserving the triple deliverance.” “Keeping the One” means keeping the suchness of the one mind. “Entering into Tathāgata-dhyana” means contemplating the principle (li-kuan) that the mind is purity and suchness. (Bernard Faure: “The Concept of One-Practice Samādhi in Early Ch’an”. Pg. 113)

We will indeed be focusing on this unique “Tathāgatadhyāna”, a Meditational Technique employing the ancient “single-taste” metaphor—“As the vast ocean, oh monks, is impregnated with a single taste, the taste of salt, so too, monks, is my Dharma and Vinaya impregnated with but a single taste, the taste of liberation.” (Pali Cullavagga). Of course this liberation is attained in the Vajrasamādhi Sutra via the vehicle of the One Mind, or the “fountainhead of the tathāgatagarbha that has a single taste.”

As Buswell states, “The fact that the sutra is entitled after the vajrasamādhi, or “adamantine absorption”, may well derive from its emphasis on the tathāgatagarbha and amalavijñāna.” This brilliant and wunderbar sutra is highly akin to the Lanka, which makes the earliest overtures to the ninth-consciousness; hence, the “vajrasamādhi is therefore closely allied with the Tathāgatagarbha- amalavijñāna constellation of ideals that is so central to the sutra.” (Buswell, The Formation of Ch’an Ideology in China and Korea…, pg.104). Also, the term is synonymous with “vajropamasamādhi” or “adamant-like samādhi”—which Buswell indicates as a final phase on the path to enlightenment, or Bodhi.

Most notably, the major star of this series is Wŏnhyo, whose own exegesis of the sutra we will be utilizing throughout; he came out of retirement to write it and it is arguably his best work. Wŏnhyo appeared in an earlier blog series on the Awakening of Faith. The following apocryphal tale best sums-up Wŏnhyo’s own awakening to the workings of the One Mind Absolute; it concerns one of his aborted trips to China:

As the story goes, when Wŏnhyo and Ŭisang arrived at their port of embarkation, their ship’s departure was delayed by inclement weather. Caught in the rain and without a place to stay, they took shelter for the night in a nearby cave, where they found gourds from which to drink and so were able to get a decent night’s sleep. In the light of the dawn, they realized that the cave in which they were staying was actually a tomb and that the “gourds” from which they had drunk were human skulls. The storm continued, delaying their departure for another day, and they were forced to spend another night in the same cave. During their second night in the cave they were unable to sleep, being plagued by ghosts and nightmares. As Wŏnhyo reflected on this experience, he suddenly became deeply aware of the extent to which his perception of the world was based on the limits of his own mind. He experienced a great awakening to the principle of consciousness-only, after which he decided that there was, after all, no need to go to China in search of the Dharma. He explained his experience thus: “Because of the arising of thought, various phenomena arise; since thought ceases, a cave and a grave are not two.” (This is a reference to the verse in the Awakening of Mahāyāna Faith that says, “When a thought arises, all dharmas arise, and when a thought ceases, all dharmas disappear.” And so he said: “Since there are no dharmas outside the mind, why should I seek them somewhere? I will not go to the Tang…(Charles Muller, Wŏnhyo’s Philosophy of Mind, pg.20)

It goes without saying that Wŏnhyo’s awakening to the One Mind transformed his life. He was then forever dedicated to scholarly endeavors pertaining to ITs Principles. Wŏnhyo is thus a premier proponent of the Amala-consciousness and Its revelations that are fully in coalition with Tathāgatagarbha Zen.


(1) Buswell does provide the following caveat to the sutra’s authorship:

As I concluded in Ch’an Ideology, we may never be able to prove definitively who composed the Vajrasamādhi-sūtra, but “in the absence of any definitive evidence to the contrary, the author may be called ‘Pŏmnang,’ provided, of course, that one understands by this name not the paleographic Pŏmnang but instead a historical shell with the requisite background to compose the Vajrasamādhi. While perhaps not the completely satisfying conclusion one might like to this story, more than anyone else it is Pŏmnang who deserves the prize of authorship.” Given the present state of the evidence, I believe this is still the most defensible conclusion. (Buswell, Vajrasamādhi Sutra: Wŏnhyo’s Exposition, pg. 20)

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3 Responses to The Vajrasamādhi Sutra

  1. JB says:

    You’re welcome. Thank you for initiating this series of articles. This surely is one sutra to study and meditate deeply. In addition to Buswell’s translations of both sutra and commentary, there are 2 free translations available online:

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