The Lankavatara Sutra is a Mahayana Buddhist scripture that dates from the fourth century CE. The author (or authors) is (are) unknown. The text was originally written in Sanskrit and produced in India. The first Chinese translation was completed in 430 CE, and the second in 443.1 The second Chinese translation is probably the one given by Boddhidarma (c. 470-543), the first Chinese patriarch of Zen, to his student, Hui-k’o (487-593), the second Chinese patriarch of Zen. The sutra thus had an important influence on the development of Zen Buddhism, as well as on the development of other forms of Mahayana Buddhism in China, Japan, Tibet, and Nepal.
The Lanka consists of nine chapters of prose and poetry, and an additional chapter, called “Sagathakam” (which means “the one with verses”2), consisting entirely of poetry. The title, “Lankavatara Sutra,” may be translated as “Sutra of the Descent into Lanka” or "Sutra of the Entering into Lanka.”3 The setting of the text is the mythological city of Lanka, site of the castle of Ravana, king of the nature spirits and sea serpents. At an assembly of bhikkhus (monks) and bodhisattvas (enlightened beings), Buddha answers a series of questions posed to him by the bodhisattva Mahamati.
Throughout their dialogue, Mahamati humbly and respectfully addresses Buddha by his various honorific titles, such as Bhagava (“Blessed One”), Tathagata (“Thus Gone One”), Sugata (“Well Gone One”), Arhat ("Holy One"), Maitreya (“Compassionate One”), and Samyaksambuddha (“Fully Enlightened One”). Buddha kindly and patiently responds to each of Mahamati’s questions, and answers them successively in a very direct, thorough, and systematic way.
According to Buddha’s teachings in the sutra, all things are devoid of self-nature or self-substance (svabhava), insofar as they are not self-caused or self-existent. All things are unborn, because they are not born of themselves; they are born of causation.4 All things are empty of self-nature or self-existence, because their nature or existence is not inherent or self-caused; it depends on causes and conditions other than themselves.
Self-nature is merely a thought construction (vijnapti). The ego, individual soul, or personal self (atman) is also merely a thought construction. Indeed, the ego or personal self is merely an illusion (maya). Absence of self-nature (or egolessness) is the true nature of all things. Truth (satya) is to be found in emptiness (shunyata), egolessness (anatman), suffering (dukkha), and impermanence (anitya).
When things are falsely seen as having their own self-nature, wrong discriminations are made among them. Discrimination (vikalpa) arises from attachment (abhinivesa) to the notion that things can be differentiated according to their own self-nature, and that they can therefore be categorized according to their being or nonbeing, existence or nonexistence, individuality or generality.
When the world is understood to be nothing but mind (chitta), false distinctions among things are no longer clung to. When the egolessness of all things is recognized, wrong discriminations are no longer made. When there is perfect knowledge (parinishpanna), there is no longer discrimination regarding the various appearances of things, and the world is understood to be mind-only (chittamatra).
Ignorance (avidya) consists in attachment to distinctions among things. Ignorance also consists in attachment to dualistic notions of being (sat) and nonbeing (asat), self (atman) and non-self (anatman), individuality (avalakshana) and generality (samanyalakshana), unity (ekata) and multiplicity (bahulya), sameness (samata) and otherness (anyatya), cessation (nirodha) and continuation (prabandha). In order to see things as they truly are, we must avoid dualistic thinking, and we must remain within the realm of non-discrimination (avilkalpa). When mind-only (chittamatra) is understood to be the true nature of things, discrimination is abandoned.5 Non-discrimination is a state of understanding the non-duality (advaya) of mind-only.
Insofar as all things depend on causes and conditions of existence, they have no self-nature, and they do not exist inherently. They are devoid of self-existence. All things are empty (shunya), unborn (anutpanna), non-dual (advaita), and without self-nature (nihsvabhava).6 Things are not born of themselves; they are without self-nature, and thus they are in a constant state of becoming.7
Emptiness itself is devoid of self-existence, and has no self-nature. Thus, it transcends both eternalism (sasvatavada) and nihilism (ucchedavada). Eternalism may be described as the theory that all things are eternal and unchanging, and that there is an eternal and unchanging self. Nihilism may be described as the theory that nothing is eternal and unchanging, and that there is no eternal and unchanging self. Eternalism may also be described as the theory that things exist eternally, while nihilism may be described as the theory that nothing exists at all. Emptiness transcends such dualistic concepts, and is the true nature of things. Thus, it is the middle way (madhyama) between eternalism and nihilism. When things are seen as empty, they are recognized in their suchness (tathata).8
To be enlightened is to be free of such concepts as being (sat) and nonbeing (asat), existence (bhava) and non-existence (abhava), permanence (nitva) and impermanence (anitya), eternity (nityata) and non-eternity (anityata). Being and nonbeing, individuality and generality, and sameness and otherness cannot rightly be predicated of things. When such concepts are abandoned, egolessness (anatman) is attained. The appearance of difference between being and nonbeing is actually a result of maya (illusion).
The Enlightened One does not engage in dualistic thinking, and is able to comprehend the truth of mind-only (the truth that the external world is only a manifestation of mind). Buddhahood transcends discursive reasoning and attachment to the external appearances of things. Perfect knowledge is the essence of the Tathagata-garbha9 (the womb of Buddhahood, and the place in which Buddhahood is conceived, nurtured, and matured10). The Tathagata-garbha is emptiness, non-attachment, non-discrimination, and nirvana.
1Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki, Studies in The Lankavatara Sutra , (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, 1999, p. 4.
2Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki, The Lankavatara Sutra: A Mahayana Text, translated for the first time from the original Sanskrit (London: George Routledge and Sons, 1932), p.xliv.
3Suzuki, Studies in The Lankavatara Sutra, p. 3.
4The Lankavatara Sutra, p. 132.
5Ibid., p. 254.
6Ibid., p. 65.
7Ibid., p. 67.
8Suzuki, Studies in The Lankavatara Sutra, p. 446.
9The Lankavatara Sutra, p. 60.
10Suzuki, Studies in The Lankavatara Sutra, p. 405.