In this story Ananda (a monk, remember) is about to get seduced by a beautiful woman and the Buddha stops it from happening. The Buddha takes Ananda away and gives him a really long teaching. That is the teaching of the Surangama Sutra. The Buddha explores why it’s bad to just throw away your vows at the first opportunity, why the pleasures of the senses are usually not what they seem, and how we can train our minds to reach our full potential. The sutra is a beloved text because it explores those things.

 

By Daniel Scharpenburg

 

“Nothing is hidden, but there is an infinite field we cannot see.”

Many modern Buddhist authors have written books where they explore ancient texts like the Surangama Sutra.

It’s a hard thing to do. A person has to figure out how to get old teachings to come alive and to place them in a context where they mean something to us in the modern world. A lot of authors struggle with this and put out works that may be technically accurate, but also hard to read and confusing. Bringing ancient teachings to life is hard.

Robert Meikyo Rosenbaum has written a book, That is Not Your Mind! Zen Reflections on the Surangama Sutra exploring an old Buddhist text called The Surangama Sutra. This is a foundational text that lays a lot of the groundwork for what we know as Mahayana Buddhism today. The text is known for it’s teachings on ethics and the senses.

Robert was a neuropsychologist for 30 years, so he has a lot medical training in exploring the mind as well as decades of experience practicing Buddhism. He is able to weave together scientific discoveries with the deep and challenging teachings with the text. He also includes stories from his own life and his decades of teaching experience. All of this comes together to make a compelling book.

What is the Surangama Sutra?

Most texts that are called “sutras” involve some story of the Buddha doing something and giving a teaching. There’s usually some action and a lot of talking. This one is a story that features the Buddha’s assistant Ananda. He happened to be the Buddha’s cousin as well.

Ananda was a monk and probably the person that spent the most time with the Buddha when he was teaching. There are lots of stories about the Buddha and Ananda.

In this story Ananda (a monk, remember) is about to get seduced by a beautiful woman and the Buddha stops it from happening. The Buddha takes Ananda away and gives him a really long teaching. That is the teaching of the Surangama Sutra. The Buddha explores why it’s bad to just throw away your vows at the first opportunity, why the pleasures of the senses are usually not what they seem, and how we can train our minds to reach our full potential. The sutra is a beloved text because it explores those things.

We’re all like Ananda sometimes.

Temptations appear and we sometimes give in, even when we know we shouldn’t. We do this because we’re all human. And unfortunately we don’t have the Buddha around to come grab us and take us away from the temptation. We have to rely on the teachings that have come down to us and our own self control instead. We have to remind ourselves that a lot of these things are fleeting anyway.

The Buddha takes Ananda away and shows him various teachings and practices. And that is what the sutra is about.

Rosenbaum weaves in his knowledge about neurology throughout the book too, exposing the teachings in the text to modern scientific scrutiny. It’s a little bit more science than I usually like to read about in books like this but I know that’s something a lot of people like. I would have liked more sutra and less science.

If you like books like Hardwiring Happiness by Rick Hanson or The Science of Enlightenment by Shinzen Young then this is probably something you would like. But this book feels a tiny bit deeper than those to me.

It’s a solid effort to make an old boring text come to life for us. I hadn’t heard of Robert Rosenbaum before reading That is Not Your Mind! but I’m going to start following his work now.

 

Photo: Shambhala Publications

 

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