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.”

[The following are extracts from Chapters 1 and 2]

(p. 20) Lord of Lanka, beings are appearances; they are like figures painted on a wall that is unmoved by them. Lord of Lanka, all that is in the world is devoid of work 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 comprehended by the philosophers and the ignorant. Lord of Lanka, he who thus sees things is the one who sees truthfully. 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 one’s own shadow in the water or the moonlight, or seeing one’s shadow in a house, or hearing an echo in a valley. People grasping their own shadows of discrimination (p. 21) 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-matrix (Tathagata-gharba), which is the realm of noble wisdom realised in one’s inmost self. (Suzuki, 1932)

* * *

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

(90) The Blessed One said this to him: Mahamati, since the ignorant and the simple-minded, not knowing that the world is what is seen of Mind itself, cling to the
multitudinousness of external objects, cling to the concepts of being and non-being,
self-ness and otherness, bothness and not-bothness,* existence and non-existence,
eternity and non-eternity, a self-nature, all of which rises from discrimination based on habit-energy (vasana), they are addicted to figments of the imagination (parikalpita). [*There may have been some clever philosophers teaching that there was both a self (atman) and others, but that at the same time they were not both.]

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

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

It is like a man dreaming in his sleep of a country that seems to be filled with various men, women, elephants, horses, cars, 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, he is not, Blessed One.

The Blessed One continued: In the same way the ignorant and simple-minded who
are bitten by erroneous views and are inclined toward the philosophers, do not
recognise that things seen of the Mind itself are like a dream, and are held fast by the
notions of self-ness and otherness, of being and non-being. Mahamati, it is like the
painter’s canvas on which there is no depression nor elevation as imagined by the
ignorant. In the same way, Mahamati, in the future, some people brought up in the habit-energy, mentality, and imagination based on the philosophers’ erroneous views, who cling to the ideas of self-ness and otherness, bothness and not-bothness, may bring themselves and others to ruin. They may declare to be nihilists those who hold the doctrine of no-birth, [which is] apart from the alternatives of being and non-being. They deny cause and effect. They are followers of wicked views whereby they uproot meritorious causes of unstained purity. They are to be kept at a distance by those whose desires are for things excellent. They are those whose thoughts are entangled in the errors of self, other, and both, (92) being and non-being, assertion and refutation; hell will be their final destination.

Mahamati, it is like the dim-eyed 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 been brought 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 addicted to discrimination of the erroneous views as cherished by the philosophers, and who are also given up to the realistic ideas of being and non-being, self-ness and otherness, bothness and not-bothness, 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 of such character 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 rise of all beings self-ness and otherness, bothness and not-bothness. . . .

Further, Mahamati, . . . the philosophers make the discrimination that there is a reality
existing by itself, which is attained by the realisation of noble wisdom, and devoid of
the two svabhavas. This discrimination however is incorrect. Mahamati, when a turning-about takes place in the citta, manas and vijnana of the Yogins, they cast off the discrimination of grasped and grasping of what is seen of Mind itself, and entering the Tathagata-stage attain the realisation of noble wisdom. In this there is no thought of existence and nonexistence. Again, Mahamati, if there is the grasping of existence and nonexistence in the realm attained by the Yogins, there will be in them the grasping of an ego, a nourisher, a supreme soul, or a person. Again, Mahamati, the teaching pointing to self-nature, individuality and generality of things, is that of the Transformation Buddha and not that of the Dharmata Buddha. Again, Mahamati, such teaching is meant for the ignorant, being in conformity with their mentality, their way of thinking and viewing things; any establishment that favours the way of self-nature fails to reveal the truth of self-realisation to be attained by noble wisdom and the blissful abode of the Samadhi.

Mahamati, it is like the trees reflected in water; they are reflections and yet are not reflections, the trees are [real] forms, and yet not forms. In the same manner,
Mahamati, those who are impressed by the habit-energy of the philosophical views
carry on their discrimination regarding self-ness and otherness, bothness and not bothness, 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 (p. 94) according to
conditions and without discrimination: they are neither images nor not-images,
because they are seen as images and also as not-images. And, Mahamati, they are
discriminated forms of what is seen of Mind itself, which are revealed to the ignorant as images. In the same manner, Mahamati, self-ness and otherness are reflected images of 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 Mind and habit-energy.

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

Mahamati, it is like Pisaca who by means of his spell makes a corpse or a wooden figure throb 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, (95) the ignorant and simple-minded, following the erroneous philosophical views, are thoroughly devoted to the ideas of self-ness and otherness, but their assertion is not at all well grounded. 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, bothness and not-bothness, being and non-being.

Therefore, it is said:
149. The skandhas, of which the vijnana (consciousness through the senses) is the fifth, resemble the reflections of the trees in water. They are to be regarded as Maya and a dream; they are so by thought-construction. Make no discriminations!
150. This triple world resembles a halo, or water in a shimmering mirage; it
is like a dream, Maya, and by thus regarding it one is emancipated.
151. Like a mirage, the mind is bewildered; travelers imagine water but there is no reality to it.
152. Thus the vijnana-seed is evolved and the world comes into view. The ignorant
imagine it is born, just like dim-eyed ones perceive things in the darkness.
153. Throughout beginningless time, the ignorant are found 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 a machine,
or like a dream, or lightning, or a cloud, (p. 96) the triple continuation is torn asunder
and one is emancipated.
155. There is  nothing here of thought-construction, which is like a castle in the air; when they thus understand it all, there is nothing to know.
156. There is nothing here but thought-construction and name; you seek in vain for
individual traits. The skandhas are like a halo wherein discrimination carries 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 throughout beginningless time.
159. In a mirror, in water, in an eye, in a smooth dish and on a gem, images are seen, but
in them there are no things anywhere to take hold of.
160. Like a vision in the air, 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 traits; their minds move along [these channels]. As thus they move along, they feed on multiplicities of objects, fall into the notion of “me and mine” (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 folly is accumulated. As karma is accumulated again and again, their minds become enveloped in the cocoon of discrimination like the silk-worm, and transmigrating in the ocean of birth-and-death they are unable, like the waterwheel, to move forward. And because of folly, they do not understand that all things are like Maya, a mirage, the moon in water, and have no self-substance to be imagined as “self and what it has” (atmatmiya); that things rise from their false discrimination; that they are devoid of qualified and qualifying 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.



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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