The sprawling nature of the Śūrangama Sutra belies a bounty of profound teachings. The Sutra, at times, reads like a “greatest hits” of pre-Mahayana and Mahayana ideas.
The sutra’s scattershot approach lends it a certain appeal for those who would like a handy quote or two about a particular topic within Buddhist philosophy. Ch’an Buddhism treasures the sutra. A theme of the sutra is the necessity of concentration (Samadhi) to activate the true power of the Dharma.
Like many sutras, the Sutra of the Indestructible begins with a claim about its own uniqueness and superiority. Then, the sutra turns to an examination of the nature of mind and visual awareness. These examinations occur mostly in the form of a dialogue between the Buddha and his cousin and disciple Ananda. Ananda’s near-acquiescence to sexual desire spark the reprimand and lesson from the Buddha. The lessons about the nature of mind and visual awareness hint at greater truths, like the necessity of ever-present concentration.
The eponymous teaching, the wondrous Śūrangama Mantra, is the centerpiece of the sutra. The mantra comes after extensive explorations of Buddha-nature, the forsaking of Buddha-nature, instructions in practice, testimonials from 25 sages, and a discussion of purity. The sutra concludes with harrowing expositions of the lower realms of Samsara and the delusional mental states that can arise from clinging to the Five Aggregates. The Sutra acknowledges the “Great Buddha” as not being the historical Shakyamuni, but the celestial Buddha Vairochana. The sutra urges practitioners to become a Buddha, using its teachings to partake in the all-pervading body of the Great Buddha Vairochana.
The sutra’s teachings contain aspects of various Mahayana schooled, such as the emptiness of the Madhyamaka school, the mind-only doctrine of Yogachara, the Pure Land teachings, the Buddha-Nature concept, and the esoteric teachings of Vajrayana. The latter two are most prominent in the sutra.1
Sanskrit: Śūraṅgama Sūtra
1Surangama Sutra, xxvii