Lankavatara Sutra: Introduction


The Lankavatara Sutra, according to tradition, contains the actual words of the Buddha spoken in Sri Lanka (Ceylon). Nothing is known about its author, the time of its composition, or its original form. Scholars have tended to date the original compilation to early in the first century, and the written work to the fourth century C.E. The sutra was foundational in establishing the central tenets of Mahayana Buddhism, and especially Zen. This sutra formed the basis of the teaching of Meditation Master Bodhidharma, the first patriarch of Ch’an.

The Lankavatara was virtually unknown in the West until D.T. Suzuki’s Studies in the Lankavatara Sutra was published in 1929. Suzuki’s subsequent translation and publication of The Lankavatara Sutra in 1932 earned him the respect and gratitude of scholars and Buddhists worldwide. Professor Suzuki felt that an editing of the Lankavatara, for the sake of easier reading, would make the sutra more widely accessible. He encouraged the editor Dwight Goddard to take on the challenge, and the publication of the ‘epitomised’ version appeared in print also in 1932, under the title, Self-Realization of Noble Wisdom: The Lankavatara Sutra.

“The Lankavatara Sutra, which is praised by the Buddhas of the past, reveals the inmost state of consciousness realised by them, which does not depend on any system of doctrine.”

(Extracts from Chapters 1 and 2)

Lord of Lanka, beings are appearances; they are like figures painted on a wall that is unchanged by them.

Lord of Lanka, all that is in the world is devoid of effort and action because all things have no reality. The teaching is thus: there is nothing heard, no one hearing. Lord of Lanka, all that is in the world is like an image magically transformed. This is not understood by the philosophers and the ignorant. Lord of Lanka, he who thus sees things is one who sees truly. Those who see things otherwise walk in discrimination; as they depend on discrimination, they cling to dualism. It is like seeing one’s own image reflected in a mirror, or the reflection of the moon in water, or seeing one’s shadow in a house, or hearing an echo in a valley. People grasping their own shadows of discrimination uphold the discrimination of dharma and adharma (things and concepts) and failing to abandon dualism they go on discriminating and never attain tranquillity. By tranquillity is meant oneness (ekagra), and oneness gives birth to the highest samadhi, which is gained by entering into the Tathagata-womb, which is the realm of noble wisdom realised in one’s inmost self. (Suzuki, 1932, p. 20)

* * *

THEN MAHAMATI the Bodhisattva, the great being, said to the Blessed One: Pray tell me, Blessed One, about the attainment of self-realisation by noble wisdom by which I and other Bodhisattvas, great beings, may quickly attain supreme enlightenment and enable all beings to achieve the perfection of all of the virtues. (p. 89)

The Blessed One said this to him: Mahamati, the ignorant and the simple-minded, not knowing that the world is what is seen of the mind itself, cling to the multitudinous things, cling to the concepts of being and non-being, self-ness and otherness, duality and nonduality, existence and non-existence, eternity and non-eternity, self-nature, all of which rises from discrimination based on habit-energy (vasana). Thus they cling to figments of the imagination (parikalpita). (p. 90)

Mahamati, it is like a mirage, in which the springs are seen as if they were real. They
are imagined so by those who, thirsting from the heat, would chase after them. Not knowing that the springs are their own mental imaginings, they do not realise that there are no such springs. In the same way, Mahamati, the ignorant and simple-minded, their minds imprinted with various erroneous ideas and discriminations since beginningless time, their minds burning with the fire of greed, anger and ignorance, entranced by a world of multitudinous forms, their thoughts consumed with the ideas of birth, abiding and destruction, not understanding the truth of existent and non-existent, of inner and outer; thus the ignorant and simple-minded fall into the way of grasping at self-ness and otherness, being and nonbeing.

Mahamati, it is like the city of the Gandharvas, which the unwitting take for a real city, though it is not so in fact. The appearance of this city is arises from their attachment to the memory of a city preserved as seeds1 from beginningless time. This city is therefore neither existent nor nonexistent. In the same way, Mahamati, clinging to the memory of erroneous ideas and doctrines since beginningless time, they hold fast to ideas such as self-ness and otherness, being and nonbeing, and their thoughts are not at all clear about what is seen of Mind-only (Cittamatra). (p. 91)

The least change in our point of view gives the whole world a pictorial air. A man who seldom rides needs only to get into a coach and traverse his own town to turn the street into a puppet-show. The men, the women—talking, running, bartering, fighting—the earnest mechanic, the lounger, the beggar, the boys, the dogs, are unrealized at once, or, at least, wholly detached from all relation to the observer, and seen as apparent, not substantial beings. – Ralph Waldo Emerson (“Idealism”)

It is like a sleeping man dreaming of a country that seems to be filled with all sorts of men, women, elephants, horses, vehicles, pedestrians, villages, towns, hamlets, cows, buffaloes, mansions, woods, mountains, rivers and lakes, and who moves about in that city until he is awakened. As he lies half-awake, he recalls the city of his dreams and reviews his experiences there. What do you think, Mahamati? Is this person to be regarded as wise, who is recollecting the various unrealities he has seen in his dream?

Said Mahamati: Indeed not, Blessed One.

The Blessed One continued: In the same way the ignorant and simpleminded do not
recognise that things seen, which are only of the mind itself, are like a dream, and are bound by the notions of self-ness and otherness, of being and nonbeing. Mahamati, it is like a painter’s canvas on which there is no valley or hill as imagined by the ignorant. (p. 92)

The paint on the wall is maintained by the wall; thus all creatures are maintained in existence by love, which is God. If you took the paint from the wall, it would lose its existence: so all things would lose their existence if deprived of love, which is God.- Meister Eckhart (Sermon Five)

Mahamati, it is like the dim-sighted ones who, seeing a halo, would exclaim to one another, saying: “It is wonderful! it is wonderful! Look, O honourable sirs!” And the said halo has never come into existence. It is in fact neither an entity nor a non-entity, because it is seen and not seen. In the same manner, Mahamati, those whose minds are attached to the erroneous views of the philosophers, who are given up to the ideas of being and non-being, self-ness and otherness, duality and nonduality, will contradict the good Dharma, ending in the destruction of themselves and others. Mahamati, it is like a spinning firebrand, which is no real wheel but which is imagined to be such by the ignorant, but not by the wise. In the same manner, Mahamati, those whose minds have fallen into the erroneous views of the philosophers will falsely imagine in the rising of all beings self-ness and otherness, duality and nonduality, being and nonbeing . . .

Mahamati, it is like the trees reflected in water: they are reflections and yet are not reflections, the trees are forms and yet not forms. In the same way, Mahamati, those who are impressed by the memories of the philosophical views carry on their discrimination regarding self-ness and otherness, duality and nonduality, being and non-being, for their minds are not enlightened as regards what is seen of Mind-only.

Mahamati, it is like a mirror reflecting all colours and images  according to conditions and without discrimination: they are neither images nor non-images, because they are seen as images and also as non-images. And, Mahamati, they are discriminated forms of what is seen of the mind itself, which are revealed to the ignorant as images. In the same manner, Mahamati, self-ness and otherness are reflected images of the mind while they appear as if real. Mahamati, it is like an echo having the sound of a human voice, of a river, or of the wind; it is neither existent nor nonexistent, because it is heard as a voice and yet as not a voice. In the same way, Mahamati, the notions of being and non-being, self-ness and otherness, are the discriminations of the mind and memory. (p. 94)

Mahamati, it is like a mirage, which, because of the heat of the sun, appears in heat waves on the earth where there is no grass, shrubs, vines, and trees. It neither exists nor does it not exist, depending on whether one thirsts for it or not. In the same way, Mahamati, the discriminating vijnana (senses) of the ignorant, impressed with the memory of false imaginations and speculations from beginningless time, are stirred like a mirage even in the midst of reality revealed by means of noble wisdom, by the waves of birth, abiding and destruction; of self-ness and otherness; duality and nonduality; being and non-being.

Mahamati, it is like Pisaca (pishacha – a flesh-eating demon), who by means of his magic makes a corpse or a machine-man dance with life though it has no power of its own: the ignorant cling to the non-existent, imagining it to have the power of movement. In the same way, Mahamati, the ignorant and simple-minded, following the erroneous philosophical views, are thoroughly attached to the ideas of self-ness and otherness, but their views are unfounded. For this reason, Mahamati, in order to attain the noble reality attainable within yourself, you should cast off the discriminations leading to the notions of birth, abiding, and destruction, of self-ness and otherness, duality and nonduality, being and non-being. (p. 95)

Therefore, it is said: (From the Sagathakam–see footnote 3)

149. The skandhas, of which the vijnana (consciousness) is the fifth, are like the reflections of the trees in water. They are to be regarded as Maya and a dream; they are only thought-constructions (vijnapti or prajnapti).2 Make no discriminations!
150. This triple world is like a halo or water in a shimmering mirage; it is like a dream, Maya, and by thus regarding it, one is emancipated.
151. The triple world being like a mirage, the mind is bewildered. Travelers imagine water but there is no reality to it.
152. Thus the vijnana-seeds (bija) are evolved and the world comes into view. The ignorant imagine it is born, just as the dim-sighted perceive things in the dark.
153. Throughout beginningless time the ignorant have been transmigrating along the paths, enveloped in their attachment to existence. As one wedge is supported by another wedge, they are led to the abandonment of that which binds them.
154. By regarding the world always as a magically-moving corpse or wooden figure, or like a dream or lightning or a cloud,  the triple continuation4 is torn asunder and one is emancipated. (p. 96)
155. There is  nothing here of thought-constructions, which is like a castle in the air; when they thus understand everything, there is nothing to know.
156. There is nothing here but thought-constructions and name; in vain you seek
individual traits. The skandhas are like a nonexistent thing in which discrimination goes on.
157. A world of multiplicities is a halo, a vision, a dream, and the city of the Gandharvas; it is a wheel made by a firebrand, a mirage; it is a nonentity, only an appearance to people.
158. Eternity and non-eternity, oneness, too: these are discriminated by the ignorant who are confused in mind and fettered by errors from beginningless time.
159. In a mirror, in water, in an eye, in a shiny dish and on a gem images can be seen, but within them there is nowhere any thing to take hold of.
160. Like a hallucination, so the variety of things is mere appearance; they are seen in a diversity of forms, but are like a child in a barren woman’s dream.

* * *

(Suzuki, p. 225) THEN SAID MAHAMATI to the Blessed One: “Why is it that the ignorant are given up to discrimination and the wise are not?”

Said the Blessed One: Mahamati, the ignorant cling to names, ideas, and characteristics; their minds move along [these channels]. As thus they move along, they feed on multiplicities of objects, fall into the notion of self and its possessions (atmatmiya) and cling to desirable appearances. As thus they cling, there is a reversion to ignorance and they become tainted: karma born of greed, anger, and ignorance is accumulated. As karma is accumulated again and again, their minds, like the silk-worm, become enveloped in the cocoon of discrimination, and transmigrating in the ocean of birth-and-death they are unable to move forward. And because of ignorance they do not understand that all things are like Maya, a mirage, the moon in water, and have no self-nature to be imagined as a self and its possessions; that things rise from their own false discrimination; that things are not conditioned and do not condition, and have nothing to do with the course of birth, abiding, and destruction; that they are born of the discrimination of what is only seen of the mind itself. And thus they assert that they are born of Isvara (God, also called Brahman), time, atoms, or a supreme spirit, for they follow names and appearances. Mahamati, the ignorant are borne along by appearances.



1. Seeds:

When the Citta is thus considered in its specific sense, it may seem to be an abstract principle devoid of content. But, according to the Lankavatara, this is not the case: for the Citta is rich in content, and just because of this inner richness, it is able to evolve out of itself a world of infinite multitudinousness. It is, indeed, an inexhaustible reservoir of seeds (bija) which have been accumulated therein since the beginningless past. So the definition of Citta is as follows: Cittena ciyate karma. That karma is accumulated by Citta means that the latter takes in all that goes on in the mind and also all that is done by the body. Technically stated, every deed (karma), mental and physical, leaves its seeds behind which are deposited in the Citta, and the Citta has been hoarding them since time immemorial. It is the rich repository of all the thoughts, feelings, desires, instincts, etc., no matter how they have come to act, that is, whether merely stirred up in the inmost recesses of one’s consciousness, or carried out by the body into deed, or checked in the incipient stages of their activity. (Studies in the Lankavatara, p. 249)

2. Vijnapti or Prajnapti:

Vijnapti, or Prajnapti, means “construction,” or “elaboration”. Where the triple world (tribhavam) is said to be nothing but vijnapti or prajnapti, it means that the world is mere subjective construction, having no reality or self-substance (svabhdva). (Suzuki, Studies in the Lankavatara, p. 181)


(p. 96)
155. There is here nothing of thought-constructions, it is like a vision in the air; when they thus understand everything, there is nothing to know.
156. Here is nothing but thought-construction and name. You seek in vain for
individual signs; the skandhas are like a halo [a nonexistent thing] wherein discrimination goes on.
157. A world of multiplicity is a halo, a vision, a dream, and the city of the Gandharvas; it is a [whirling] firebrand, a mirage; it is a non-entity, only an appearance to people.

(p. 153)
26. The Dharma is the abode of self-nature, which has nothing to do with a world of causation; of this Dharma, which is perfect existence and the highest Brahma, I speak.
27. An ego-soul is a truth belonging to thought-constructions, in which there is no reality; the self-nature of the skandhas is also a thought-construction, as there is no reality to it.

(p. 168)
52. The triple world is no more than thought-constructions, in reality it is devoid of self-nature.
53. Individual form, reality, thought-constructions—these are but the stirrings of the mind; transcending all this, my children will walk where there is no discrimination.
54. Like a mirage in the air, the thought of water is craved where there is no water; thus the ignorant see things differently than the wise.
55. The insight of the wise, who move about in the realm of imagelessness, is pure, is born of the triple emancipation, is released from birth and destruction.
56. Where all things are wiped away, even a state of imagelessness ceases to exist for the Yogins; in the sameness of existence and non-existence, the fruit [of wisdom] is born to the wise.

(p. 169) It is said by the Blessed One moreover that knowledge is gained independent of any object supporting it, and whatever statements one makes about it are no more than thought-constructions. As these thought-constructions are not real and cannot be grasped, one ceases trying to grasp them. When there is thus no more grasping, the knowledge which is known as discrimination (samjna) evolves no more.

3. Sagathakam: 884 verses appended to The Lankavatara Sutra (pp. 264-306); possibly a collection of sayings of the Buddha, much like the Gospel of Thomas.

It should be noted in this connection that contrary to the claims of some persons, the final section of the Lankavatara Sutra, known as the Sagathakam (which speaks of the pure Self as of a garment that has been cleansed of its extraneous dirt) is likely to be the oldest portion of the sutra. Buddhist scholar, Stephen Hodge, has expressed this view in personal conversation with me. The fact that the numerous verses of the Sagathakam are not yet embedded in a narrative framework or structure strongly suggests that this is ancient material that has not yet been editorially worked upon; it is like some precious gold ore that has been extracted from the earth, but not yet shaped into something different. It is generally accepted that verse forms in Dharma texts tend to be older material–and that is most likely the case here too. So the claim that the positive utterances on the Self in the Lankavatara Sutra are a late concoction has very little to substantiate it. Tony Page (

4. Triple continuation: possibly birth, abiding and destruction; or past, present and future.


Goddard, Dwight (1932). A Buddhist Bible (First Edition). ( (

Suzuki, D. T. (1932). The Lankavatara Sutra: A Mahayana Text. Translated for the first time from the original Sanskrit. (

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