The Sutra of Primordial Enlightenment

After years of gathering dust on a table full of books, awaiting its birth as a series here one day, The Sutra of Perfect Enlightenment was dusted-off and examined for possible entry this February. It was pleasantly satisfying to find a lot of insights that weren’t present before on previous goings-over and so the time was ripe for its exegesis to commence. This type of pattern has occurred for other series as well, it seems that when the time is ripe the Dharma-master will reveal a deeper-comprehension of these timeless texts that is beyond the wildest imagination. Certainly this present sutra is a notable one in the vast schema of the Buddhadharma. It has its origins within both Ch’an and Hua-yen schools and was most likely composed during the advent of the eighth century. It was hence most influential in these “meditation-oriented” schools, first within Chinese Ch’an and then later implanted within the rich soil of Korean Sŏn as it continues to be the most prevalent vehicle in its monastic-institutions to this day.

It’s Structure:

The Sutra of Perfect Enlightenment is arranged in twelve chapters, plus a short introductory section. The introductory section describes the scene of the sermon and lists the major participants. The location is a state of deep meditative concentration (samadhi) and the participants are the Buddha and one hundred thousand great bodhisattvas, among whom twelve eminent bodhisattvas act as spokesmen. Each one of the twelve gets up one by one and asks the Buddha a set of questions about doctrine, practice, and enlightenment. The structure of the sutra is such that the most “essential” and suddenistic discussions occur in the earlier chapters and the more “functional” and gradualistic dialogues occur later. This kind of structure reflects a motif associated with the doctrine of the Hua-yen school, which affirms that the Buddha delivered the abstruse Hua-yen ching as his first sermon, in an effort to directly awaken those whose “roots of virtue” were well matured. The terminology that Tsung-mi and Kihwa use to describe these advanced practitioners is that they possess the capacity for the teaching of “sudden enlightenment” a direct awakening to the nondual nature of reality, which necessarily precludes gradualistic, “goal-oriented” practice. In the first two chapters (the chapters of Mañjusri and Samantabhadra), the Buddha holds very strictly to the sudden position, denying the possibility of enlightenment through gradual practice. In the third chapter he begins to allow for a bit of a gradual view, and the next several chapters become mixtures of the two. The final few chapters offer a fully gradualistic perspective. (A. Charles Muller, The Sutra of Perfect Enlightenment, Korean Buddhism’s Guide to Meditation)

We also need to return again to our dear Tsung-mi, since this particular sutra played a dominant role in his spiritual development:

Indeed, it would be difficult to over-emphasize the importance that the Scripture of Perfect Enlightenment had for Tsung-mi. It was, to begin with, the catalyst for his first enlightenment experience. Shortly after having become a novice monk under Tao-yüan in Sui-chou (Szechwan) in 804, he came across a copy of the Scripture of Perfect Enlightenment for the first time at a maigre gathering (chai) at the home of a local official. After only reading two or three pages, he had an awakening, an experience whose intensity so overwhelmed him that he found himself spontaneously dancing for joy. (It is worth noting that Tsung-mi’s initial enlightenment did not occur while he was absorbed in meditation. Nor, as in the case of so many well-known Ch’an enlightenment stories, did it occur as a sudden burst of insight at the turning words or dramatic action of a master. Rather, it came about as a result of reading several lines of scripture.) The text that precipitated this experience was to dominate Tsung-mi’s life for the next two decades. Despite his later appropriation into the fold of Hua-yen patriarchs, Tsung-mi saw the Scripture of Perfect Enlightenment as superior to even the Hua-yen [Avatamsaka] Sutra, claiming that its straightforwardness was better suited to the needs of the times than the daunting scale of the Hua-yen Sutra. In fact, Tsung-mi went so far as to revise traditional Hua-yen classification categories in order to establish the supremacy of this text over the Hua-yen Sutra. (Peter N. Gregory, Tsung-mi’s Perfect Enlightenment Retreat)

What fascinated Tsung-mi was that the SPE was shorter, more tightly compact and hence concise, than related works such as the Suramgama and Hua-yen Sutras. In his exegesis of the SPE Tsung-mi relied heavily on the Awakening of Faith in the Mahayana, and while not so heavily philosophical as the latter its own singular bent-structure, accompanied with a most unique meditational emphasis, proved for him to be far greater than what the Hua-yen had to offer.

According to his commentaries, the first chapter thus deals with “sudden faith and understanding” (tun-hsin-chieh) as the basis for the “gradual cultivation” (chien-hsiu) elaborated in the subsequent chapters. Tsung-mi saw the first chapter as elucidating what the Awakening of Faith termed “intrinsic enlightenment” (pen-chüeh), the fundamental ground of enlightenment, insight into which provided the basis for further practice. The second chapter sets forth the proper mental disposition with which one should engage in practice. The next four chapters comprehensively explain the practice of contemplation appropriate for those of superior faculties. The following four chapters specifically explain the practice of contemplation appropriate for those of average faculties. The eleventh chapter (Perfect Enlightenment Bodhisattva) elaborates the ritual practice appropriate for those of inferior faculties. (ibid)

Tsung-mi also marvelously developed his own “meditational retreat” which was based on the eleventh chapter of the SPE. This retreat had much to do with the lessening of the karma-effect (the focus of our previous series):

The point that bears emphasis here, however, is that the Perfect Enlightenment Retreat falls not only within the domain of gradual cultivation but also within the type of practice appropriate for those of inferior faculties — that is, it is at the bottom of Tsung-mi’s scale of hierarchically graded levels of practice. Nevertheless, it still has an important, and in many cases necessary, role to play in helping the practitioner to overcome his most deeply entrenched karmic obstructions. “Even though one may have faith in and understanding of the previous teaching [of the intrinsically enlightened mind], yet, because one’s obstructions are heavy and one’s mind is agitated, one must engage in [this] ritual practice.”

Within the overall framework of Tsung-mi’s interpretation of the Scripture of Perfect Enlightenment, it should be recalled, the Perfect Enlightenment Retreat was specifically said to be efficacious for beings of inferior capacities as a means for overcoming their karmic obstructions (emphasis mine). Tsung-mi notes that although the eight ritual components as a whole enable one to enter the realm of sagehood, each component has its specific merit in terms of the obstacle it removes and the benefit that it brings, as schematically represented by the following chart:


For a full-analysis and breakdown of Tsung-Mi’s Perfect Enlightenment Retreat, one is strongly urged to read the full description in Peter N. Gregory’s article of the same name, which is now included in our Unborn Mind Library. The following is a portion of it to entice your appetite:

While the manual is divided into three sections, the actual ritual practice consists of two parts. The first is a preliminary three-week period of veneration and repentance in preparation for the much longer Perfect Enlightenment Retreat that is the central focus of the text. Tsung-mi gives few details on this preliminary three-week practice, presumably because it followed standard procedures and there was little that was specific to the Perfect Enlightenment Retreat per se. He does specify, however, that images of Vairocana, Manjusri, and Samantabhadra are to be placed on an altar and that one should engage in their ritual veneration, confess and repent of one’s sins before them, and solemnly vow to eliminate the obstructions caused by one’s sins so as to gain the merits of the practice. This preliminary three-week period is also echoed in the Perfect Enlightenment Bodhisattva Chapter of the Scripture of Perfect Enlightenment: (ibid)

When the Buddha is present in the world, one may truly behold [his form]. After the Buddha has passed on, [however,] one must install images [of him]; when [his form] is made present in the mind and pictured by the eye, true recollection is produced, and it will thereby be the same as if the Tathāgata were always alive. One should adorn [the sanctuary] with banners and flowers and, for three weeks, prostrate oneself before the Buddhas of the ten directions and call upon their names, beseech [the grace of their presence] and confess and repent one’s sins [before them]. If one [thereby] encounters an auspicious sign, one’s mind will be unburdened and put at ease. Even after the three weeks have passed, one should continue to maintain single-minded concentration. Thus, maintaining a one-pointedness of mind, (inclusion mine).

Also interesting to note that, “Seated meditation, which is the subject of the last two fascicles of Tsung-mi’s manual, is not a special practice to be undertaken apart from the Perfect Enlightenment Retreat but is rather the last phase in the ritual cycle, to be carried out six times a day in the performance of the Perfect Enlightenment Retreat itself.” (ibid)

Most importantly you will also notice that the title for this series has been amended to, The Sutra of Primordial Enlightenment. Yes, like many series before, this effort will be written in Light of the Unborn. Auspiciously rendered and inspired by the unparalleled aid of the Tathagatas, or the Primordial Mentor.

Frui legere!

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