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Blog » Sweet Dews Of Dharma Talks » 2022 » Viewing the World’s Calamities Through the Lens of the Shurangama Sutra (I)

Viewing the World’s Calamities Through the Lens of the Shurangama Sutra (I)2022-01-05


A Dharma Talk Given by DM Heng Yun in the Online Sunday Evening Lecture Series on June 6, 2021 English Translated by DM Jin Jing and DM Heng Ching

I would like to give a brief introduction to the Shurangama Sutra. The Shurangama Sutra is a sacred text that unveils heaven’s secrets; it connects to the heavens and penetrates the earth. There is nothing it does not contain and nothing it does not include—from the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas down to below; everything is included and contained within the Shurangama Sutra. If you study the Shurangama Sutra, you will know from your present situation how you can return to the source to uncover your true mind until you realize Buddhahood.

In this sutra, the Buddha teaches us, step by step—within the six paths, the four kinds of births, and the twelve kinds of living beings— how to return to our true mind. The Shurangama Sutra very clearly shows how to practice from the ordinary state of a person all the way up to returning to the true source and the true mind; it specifies what you may encounter along the way, what needs your attention, and how to have a Dharma selecting eye.

I will really like to encourage everyone to study and recite the Shurangama Sutra. In the beginning of the sutra, it starts with very profound principles basically immediately after the introduction, which may be difficult for people to delve into the meanings, but having this frustration is quite alright, because understanding comes first from not understanding, so there is no need to worry. If you persist in studying this sutra, you will gradually understand the meaning of its principles.

I entered the monastic life in the 1980s. At that time, one of our requirements was to memorize the Shurangama Sutra. It was very hard for me to do so then, because I did not understand the meaning of the sutra. Every week, we had to recite aloud a passage of the sutra that we had memorized to one of our teachers. The teacher would sign off on a log of where we stopped each time.

The Venerable Master encouraged his disciples to memorize the Shurangama Sutra. There were several times when the Venerable Master came to the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas, and while on the stage, he would ask his disciples if anyone who had memorized the Shurangama Sutra to come up and recite what they had memorized in front of the great assembly. The lecture stage (in the Main Buddha Hall) at the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas has a row of microphones. People would go up and recite from memory different sections from the Shurangama Sutra in different languages. These people were able to memorize and recite it very well. The rest of the assembly really admired anyone who could recite the sutra from memory. According to the Venerable Master, sutra memorization trains people’s samadhi, but it takes a lot of time, a lot of sincerity, and a lot of heart. The fact that I can share some insights and experiences from what I have learned from the Shurangama Sutra is an accumulation of time and effort over many years. So this is what I’d like to introduce about the Shurangama Sutra, I would like to use this opportunity to encourage everyone to study the Shurangama Sutra.

The Shurangama Sutra breaks through the false to reveal the true. Breaking the deviant and revealing what is true and proper is uncovering one’s true mind through destroying the false one. Before we begin the main topic, I want to continue to expand a bit more on the introduction to this sutra. The Shurangama Sutra was lectured by Venerable Master Hua in 1968 and later during the 1980s. In the 1970s, he also gave some lectures that were initially missing. He also let us study “The Fifty Skandha-Demon States,” but this was also for translation purposes. All together in Chinese, there are nine volumes.

One Yin and one Yang is called the Way;

extreme Yin or extreme Yang is called illness.

You have to walk on the correct path in a correct way. Illness means sickness here. If yin and yang are in harmony, then the heaven and earth will also be in harmony, and we will have gentle winds and timely rains. But if yin is extreme or yang extreme, then all is off balance.

When the heaven and earth are sick, people also get sick. The sickness of heaven and earth are disasters such as floods, fires, hurricanes, earthquakes and tsunamis. For example, in Taiwan we had a drought that we have not seen in a hundred years, especially on the western side of the country. Yet in the past few days, it started to rain. It rained so hard, like cats and dogs. Even though it bought water, it is difficult for people to bear such storms. This shows that yin and yang are basically no longer in harmony.

When people get sick, they have illnesses. For instance, we have plagues going on, such as Covid-19 global pandemic.

Now we are investigating the sicknesses of heaven and earth, but where do these sicknesses come from? This is explained in the “Ten Habitual Causes”in Roll Eight of the Shurangama Sutra. These are unwholesome causes that people have. Roll Eight talks about habitual causes which trigger corresponding retributions, karmic results, and the type of path of rebirth. For example, based on one’s particular habits, one could be reborn as a certain type of being in a certain kind of realm, such as whether one goes down the path of ghosts or animals. If reborn as a human, then based on one’s habits, you would be born as certain type of person. This is explained very clearly in the “Ten Habitual Causes” section of the sutra.

The Ten Habitual Causes are

  1. Habits of lust

  2. Habits of greed

  3. Habits of arrogance

  4. Habits of hatred

  5. Habits of deception

  6. Habits of lying – i.e. people like to tell lies

  7. Habits of animosity

  8. Habits of views – e.g. people with wrong views

  9. Habits of injustice – i.e. you like to wrongly accuse people

  10. Habits of ligation – i.e. you like to be involved in lawsuits.

We are going to study two kinds of habits today. Every habit is related or pertinent to the disasters that we see, because while our body is our “proper retribution,” our external surroundings are also our dependent retributions. That’s our surrounding environment. Thus, what we do and say will actually change our surrounding environment, our dependent retribution. That’s what the Shurangama sutra also talks about: proper and dependent retributions. Today, we will study the “habits of lust” first because they are related to drought and fire.

The first consists of habits of lust and reciprocal interactions which give rise to mutual rubbing. When this rubbing continues without cease, it produces a tremendous raging fire within which movement occurs, just as warmth arises between a person’s hands when he rubs them together. Because these two habits set each other ablaze, there come into being the iron bed, the copper pillar, and other such experiences. Therefore the Thus Come Ones of the ten directions look upon the practice of lust and name it the “fire of desire.” Bodhisattvas avoid desire as they would a fiery pit.

Let’s briefly explain the sutra text. The first is the “habit of lust,” because the Shurangama Sutra, it talks about cutting off desire and getting rid of lust. Getting rid of lust is the number one priority and is also listed as the first of four in the “Four Clear and Definitive Instructions on Purity.” If you want to end birth and death, first we need to cut off lust.

First is the habits of lust —so this happens during intercourse, as there is mutual rubbing, and when the mutual rubbing does not stop then there is a blazing fire. When the rubbing continues without cease, it produces a tremendous “raging fire” within, which then causes movement to occur. This is a kind of very strong fire that will happen. The Buddha tells us how we can see proof of this. If you rub your palms together, together then a kind of warmth will arise.

When the two habits instigate each other—this refers to habits of the past and present. When the two habits burn, they feed off each other like lighting fire. Therefore the two habits will set each other ablaze—they burn and feed off each other. [When you need to undergo karmic retribution of sexual desires] there come into being the iron bed, the copper pillar and other such experiences. The iron bed comes from that happens on beds, and the copper pillar refers to the lust for such activities. When your karma occurs, you will see this copper pillar manifest as someone you desire, and when you proceed to embrace that person, you grab onto the copper pillar and burn. A person could also see an ordinary bed, but as soon as he or she gets in it, it becomes a burning bed. Such people have to undergo this kind of retribution, because they they engaged in too many lustful behaviors.

Therefore, all the Tathagatas of the ten directions look upon the practice of lust and call it the “fire of desire,” so Bodhisattvas avoid lustful desires as they would a fiery pit.

When we say excessive lust, this does not refer to activities between a legal husband and wife and the normal behaviors that they would have. The Buddha is not talking about this kind of lust. The Buddha is referring to excessive lust, too much yin or too much yang. Excessiveness unbalances the harmony in heaven and earth, and lust between the same sexes will cause yin and yang to not be in harmony.

This next section talks about the path of ghosts. If the ghost are lustful, what kind of ghosts they will become? The sutra text tells us:

If it was greed for lust that made the person commit offenses, then, after having finished paying for his crimes, he takes shape when he encounters wind, and he is called a drought-ghost.

Here it says that if one is greedy for lust then after going through retribution in the hells, that being will then become a ghost. What kind of ghost will they become? They will become a ghost that will take shape when it encounters wind, because lust belongs to the element of wind, and will thus be called a drought-ghost.

The Venerable Hua explained in this section, “If a person was greedy for lust and committed related offenses, then after having finished paying for his crimes, he will take shape when he encounters wind. In China, someone who is lustful is said to be greedy for “the wind and current”(風流). People like this end up as drought-ghosts. What are drought-ghosts like? Wherever they go, it doesn’t rain, and this is due to the “tricks of desert and drought-ghosts.” If you encounter a place where the rain does not fall, where the sprouts in the fields dry up and die, you know now that such a place is inhabited by a drought-ghost.

By listening to the Shurangama Sutra, you can unravel all the mysteries of the world. All the questions of physical science are clarified in this sutra. If you hadn’t heard this sutra, you wouldn’t understand the reason behind droughts and deserts. Basically, these are due to the tricks of the drought-ghost. This kind of person was greedy for “the wind and current”(風流), and so now when this ghost encounters the wind it takes its shape and is called a drought ghost. He causes drought wherever he goes. Pretty talented, huh?”

This kind of drought-ghost attaches to people who are greedy for lust or it “flutters and scatters in the clouds and rain.” They will appear in beautiful forms to confuse lustful people.

In different places of the world, we see that droughts cannot be apart from fire; they go together. When we have big fires, people must know the root causes of these problems— we should not indulge in improper lust and sex.

In Shurangama Sutra there is a chapter called “Fifty Skandha-Demon States.” In the Thinking Skandha section it talks about the drought-ghost. The Venerable Master says:

This is a drought ghost that in its old age has become a demon. It disturbs and confuses the good person. But when it tires of doing so, it will leave the other person’s body. Then both the disciples and the teacher will get in trouble with the law.

Venerable Master’s Commentary: This is a drought-ghost that in its old age has become a demon. Wherever a drought ghost goes, there will be no rainfall. The drought will last at least six months, and it may go on for one, two, three, or five years. As long as the ghost is in that area, there will be no rain. While young, it is a ghost. But as it ages, it becomes more crafty and villainous and turns into a demon. A derogatory proverb about old people says, “To be old and not died is to be a rascal.” So this is even more the case with ghosts. If a ghost grows old and doesn’t die, it becomes a demon.

In the Shurangama Sutra, it tells you the root causes of drought, which I wanted to share with everyone to learn.

Question: According to what the Master said, could the drought in California be caused by drought ghosts?

Dharma Master Yun: Yes, according to the Shurangama Sutra and Venerable Master’s commentary. This was stated very clearly earlier.

Question: The lustful person has undergone the retribution in the hells, but why upon finishing it he has to become a drought-ghost that causes suffering to people? In this way,

isn’t this ghost creating more karma then?

Dharma Master Yun: Yes, it’s because the ghost has  propelling habits that continues his karma. I’d like to stress again that the lustful behaviors that we are referring to here is not referring to what goes on between legal spouses. It doesn’t mean that husband and wife engaged in their activities will fall into hells. We are talking about people who excessively indulge in lust, or when there are abnormal Yin and Yang that are not in harmony that will cause these problems. Thus, when yin and yang are not in harmony then our surrounding environment will also take a dent.

Question: What practice will help end the drought?

Dharma Master Yun: We start with changing ourselves; we start by practicing on ourselves first. If we can have a pure mind and few desires, it would help the world. The most important thing is we need to have right views. Actually, the relations between legal spouses are necessary to have the next generation for humanity to continue, so this is permitted. In this world, we can also recite sutras, mantras, and uphold the precepts—all of this can help the world become a better place. So don’t think, “Oh! As Buddhists, we can’t really function in the world.” We actually have our functions. If we can put an end to greed, anger and delusion, and diligently cultivate precepts, samadhi and wisdom, then will help the world.