The Heart of the Lankavatara Sutra

by Peter Holleran


   The Lankavatara Sutra is one of the great Mahayana Buddhist texts. It is essentially an argument for non-dualism. In sweeping scope the Buddha, in this case the ‘avatara of Sri Lanka’, systematically eliminates all views except that of radical insight, concluding that even if one has not 'ascended through all the stages', if one only realizes it, “all things are in Nirvana from the beginning.”

   Again, the avatara of Sri Lanka dismisses all philosophical and spiritual schools but non-duality, i.e., Sam‘ khya, ascending yogas, merger theories of soul and God, etc. While doing so he also argues for the bodhisattva ideal, and castigates those who would settle for the state of the Solitary Realizer, or pratyekabuddha, that is, one who would rest in the peace of nirvikalpa or inverted samadhi to the exclusion of the world.

   The Lanka rests its profound argument on two central points:

   (1) the need for a “turnabout in the deep seat of consciousness” (prajna), and

   (2) the ‘”inconceivable transformation-death of the bodhisattva’s individualized will control”.

   This is reflected in the writings of Paul Brunton, Ramana, Atmananda, and others on the need to pass beyond trance or nirvikalpa samadhi to sahaj, or likewise from the witness position -“awareness of awareness,” - to that of sahaj, or “pure awareness”. This is the 'turnabout in the deep seat of understanding" that the Lanka speaks about. One passes from objective to abiding subjective consciousness, a realization which even repeated nirvikalpa samadhi alone does not give.

   This second task is the harder, says PB: that is, recognizing the source of the world as the same as the source of the ego-I; the passage from nirvikalpa to sahaj; from the witness position to consciousness, and then, further, learning how to live from that position of pure consciousness or non-duality. As the Lanka concludes, the Bodhisattva lives solely for the liberation of others (due to “the inconceivable transformation death of his individualized will-control”), and therein finds his Nirvana.

   In such a stage, both confusion of identity as an ego-I and illusion of separateness from the world and others are overcome (via processes (1) and (2) above).

   PB says that Nature or the World-Idea will force you to come back until you become a philosopher or sage, that you cannot rest halfway in nirvikalpa or exhalted trance state as a Solitary Realizer.

   "When the mystic comes to the end of this phase of his career but believes he has come to the end of his career itself, he falls under an illusion from which it is hard to recover....Hence, one of the texts belonging to this teaching, the Lankavatara Sutra, says of those who have perfected themselves in yoga: "When they have reached the eighth degree they become so drunk with the bliss of inner peace that they do not grasp that they are still in the sphere of separateness and that the insight into reality is not yet perfect"....There is a fourfold evolution in humanity and it unfolds successively - physically, emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually. Hence the mystic has to return to rebirth to complete his evolution despite his "union" which is consequently temporary...The attainment of this deep state of oneness in meditation by an ordinary mystic may seem to be the end of the quest. Nevertheless the cycle of reincarnation will not end for him until he has become a philosophical mystic. For even though all earthly desires have been given a quietus, there will remain a latent desire to know, to understand his own experience and the world experience. To satisfy this desire, which will slowly come to the surface under the compulsion of Nature, he will have to develop intelligence to the proper degree...For nature is shepherding the human race not only along the road of spiritual evolution but also of intellectual evolution....Giving up the world does not lead to reality, but it leads to peace of mind. Men who lack intelligence...must take to mysticism and yoga, but only the mature and developed mind can enter the quest of enquiry into truth. This means therefore that pupils are not generally initiated into this enquiry by gurus prematurely. They must first have developed their egos and their minds to a high degree, and only after that should they be taught to renounce what has been fostered with so much pain. This is evolution: although truth is ideally attainable here and now, technically it is attainable only at the end of the pageant of evolution, when the whole man has been highly developed and is ripe to receive the greatest of all gifts." (1)

   This is not to say that the perfection of character traits is a prerequisite for liberation.  Not the perfection of character but rather the dissolution of identification with the personality - the sense of a separate "person" - which allows the Overself to shine through is what is necessary. Self realization, in this implied definition, is about seeing that you were never born and will never die, not that one is or feels free from the wheel of births and deaths or some other dualistically conceived idea of freedom, although such things can occur, according to scripture.

   One may conceivably come to realization or "enlightenment" or sahaj in many different incarnations before final liberation - since ignorance is part of the human condition, the price of human incarnation, even for the bodhisatva.  From the bodhisatva's point of view, moreover, such "final" liberation may not come about until ALL are liberated. The mind reels at such a conception.

   One might also argue, however, that the former mentioned "perfection of character" or its approximation happens throughout many incarnations along the way from enlightenment to such final liberation. In the Diamond Sutra it is written:

   "Subhuti, I remember that long ago, sometime during my past five hundred mortal lives, I was an ascetic practicing patience. Even then I was free from those distinctions of separated selfhood." (p. 107, Essential Writings on Non-Duality, ed. by Jerry Katz)

   [It is realized, too, that we are on tricky ground here using such words as "final" liberation, as that applies an end and a beginning and hence duality, but it perhaps cannot be helped if we are to converse on such ethereal topics].

   PB later goes on to say that freedom from reincarnation is initially held out as a lure, until the aspirant is mature enough to realize that for the sage his liberation is internal, while he remains bound like all others to perpetually reincarnate on the wheel of life and death until all are liberated:

   "For the sage who attains to knowledge of THAT which forever seems to be changing but forever paradoxically retains its own pure reality, for him as for the ignorant, the flux must go on. But it will go on here on this earth, not in some mythical heaven or mirage-like hell. He will repeatedly have to take flesh, as all others will have to, so long as duration lasts, that is, forever. [Anthony Damiani: "The sage is working for the World-Idea." (Living Wisdom, p. 242)] The escape into Nirvana for him is only escape into the inner realization of the truth while alive. It is a change of attitude. But that bait had to be held out to him at an earlier stage until his will and nerve were strong enough to endure this revelation. There is no escape except inwards. For the sage is to compassionate to withdraw into proud indifferentism and too understanding to rest completely satisfied with his own wonderful attainment. The sounds of suffering of men, the ignorance that is the root of these sufferings, beat ceaselessly on the tympanum of his ears. What can he do but answer, and answer with his very life - which he gives in perpetual reincarnation upon the cross of flesh as a vicarious sacrifice for others. It is thus alone that he achieves immortality, not by fleeing forever - as he could if he willed - into the Great Unconsciousness, but by suffering forever the pains and pangs of perpetual rebirth that he may help or guide his own." (2)

   Anthony Damiani said similarly:

   "The Buddha or a sage will continue to reappear periodically, for it is in the very nature of Soul to be represented by an ego. It is the very nature of Soul as an authentic essence to be a metaphysical wanderer in the infinitude of God's Being." (Astronoesis)

   The following excerpt from Dwight Goddard’s Buddhist Bible subtitled "What IS Nirvana?" might be considered the core teaching of the Lankavatara Sutra and is well-worth reading. My editorial commentary is included.


   Chapter XIII

   Nirvana


   THEN SAID MAHAMATI to the Blessed One: Pray tell Us about Nirvana?

   The Blessed One replied: The term, Nirvana, is used with many different meanings, by different people, but these people may be divided into four groups: There are people who are suffering, or who are afraid of suffering, and who think of Nirvana; there are the philosophers who try to discriminate Nirvana; there are the class of disciples who think of Nirvana in relation to themselves; and, finally there is the Nirvana of the Buddhas.

   Those who are suffering or who fear suffering, think of Nirvana as an escape and a recompense [most beginning seekers]. They imagine that Nirvana consists in the future annihilation of the senses and the sense-minds [Ed. - nirvikalpa samadhi, disembodied self]; they are not aware that Universal Mind and Nirvana are One, and that this life-and-death world and Nirvana are not to be separated [Ed. - sahaj]. These ignorant ones, instead of meditating on the imagelessness of Nirvana, talk of different ways of emancipation. Being ignorant of, or not understanding, the teachings of the Tathagatas, they cling to the notion of Nirvana that is outside what is seen of the mind [Ed. - lack of understanding of mentalism, and really a naive belief in materialism, i.e., independent matter in opposition to spirit] and, thus, go on rolling themselves along with the wheel of life and death.

   As to the Nirvanas discriminated by the philosophers: there really are none. Some philosophers conceive Nirvana to be found where the mind-system no more operates owing to the cessation of the elements that make up personality and its world; or is found where there is utter indifference to the objective world and its impermanency [dissociative yogas]. Some conceive Nirvana to be a state where there is no recollection of the past or present, just as when a lamp is extinguished, or when a seed is burnt, or when a fire goes out; because then there is the cessation of all the substrate, which is explained by the philosophers as the non-rising of discrimination. But this is not Nirvana, because Nirvana does not consist in simple annihilation and vacuity [Ed. - also, as in nirvikalpa samadhi, or abidance in some form of witness state, confusing it with sahaj].

   Again, some philosophers explain deliverance as though it was the mere stopping of discrimination, as when the wind stops blowing, or as when one by self-effort gets rid of the dualistic view of knower and known, or gets rid of the notions of permanency and impermanency; or gets rid of the notions of good and evil; or overcomes passion by means of knowledge;--to them Nirvana is deliverance. Some, seeing in "form" the bearer of pain are alarmed by the notion of "form" and look for happiness in a world of "no-form" [Ed. - more variations on the above themes; one might also include 'pseudo-advaita']. Some conceive that in consideration of individuality and generality recognisable in all things inner and outer, that there is no destruction and that all beings maintain their being for ever and, in this eternality, see Nirvana. Others see the eternality of things in the conception of Nirvana as the absorption of the finite-soul in Supreme Atman , or who see all things as a manifestation of the vital-force of some Supreme Spirit to which all return [Ed. - mysticism; kriya, shabd yoga as conventionally taught, but see the Surangama Sutra for a different perspective; this might best be gone through on a second reading to maintain the flow of the current article)]; and some, who are especially silly, declare that there are two primary things, a primary substance and a primary soul, that react differently upon each other and thus produce all things from the transformations of qualities [Sam’khya]; some think that the world is born of action and interaction and that no other cause is necessary; others think that Ishvara is the free creator of all things; clinging to these foolish notions, there is no awakening, and they consider Nirvana to consist in the fact that there is no awakening.

   Some imagine that Nirvana is where self-nature exists in its own right, unhampered by other self-natures, as the varigated feathers of a peacock, or various precious crystals, or the pointedness of a thorn. Some conceive being to be Nirvana, some non-being, while others conceive that all things and Nirvana are not to be distinguished from one another. Some, thinking that time is the creator and that as the rise of the world depends on time, they conceive that Nirvana consists in the recognition of time as Nirvana. Some think that there will be Nirvana when the "twenty-five" truths are generally accepted, or when the king observes the six virtues, and some religionists think that Nirvana is the attainment of paradise [Ed. - Pure Land school, etc.].

   These views severally advanced by the philosophers with their various reasonings are not in accord with logic nor are they acceptable to the wise. They all conceive Nirvana dualistically and in some causal connection [for more on this topic of non-causality, see A Brief Summary of Creation Views]; by these discriminations philosophers imagine Nirvana, but where there is no rising and no disappearing, how can there be discrimination? Each philosopher relying on his own textbook from which he draws his understanding, sins against the truth, because truth is not where he imagines it to be. The only result is that it sets his mind to wandering about and becoming more confused as Nirvana is not to be found by mental searching, and the more his mind becomes confused the more he confuses other people.

   As to the notion of Nirvana as held by disciples and masters who still cling to the notion of an ego-self, and who try to find it by going off by themselves into solitude: their notion of Nirvana is an eternity of bliss like the bliss of the Samadhis-for themselves. They recognise that the world is only a manifestation of mind and that all discriminations are of the mind, and so they forsake social relations and practise various spiritual disciplines and in solitude seek self-realisation of Noble Wisdom by self-effort [Solitary Realizer]. They follow the stages to the sixth and attain the bliss of the Samadhis, but as they are still clinging to egoism they do not attain the "turning-about" at the deepest seat of consciousness and, therefore, they are not free from the thinking-mind and the accumulation of its habit-energy [Ed. - they have not transcended objectivity]. Clinging to the bliss of the Samadhis, they pass to their Nirvana, but it is not the Nirvana of the Tathagatas. They are of those who have "entered the stream" [Ed. - they have 'had a glimpse', perhaps many glimpses, but not abiding non-dual samadhi]; they must return to this world of life and death.

   THEN SAID MAHAMATI to the Blessed One: When the Bodhisattvas yield up their stock of merit for the emancipation of all beings, they become spiritually one with all animate life; they themselves may be purified, but in others there yet remain unexhausted evil and unmatured karma. Pray tell us, Blessed One, how the Bodhisattvas are given assurance of Nirvana? and what is the Nirvana of the Bodhisattvas?

   The Blessed One replied: Mahamati, this assurance is not an assurance of numbers nor logic; it is not the mind that is to be assured but the heart. The Bodhisattva's assurance comes with the unfolding insight that follows passion hindrances cleared away, knowledge hindrance purified, and egolessness clearly perceived and patiently accepted. As the mortal-mind ceases to discriminate, there is no more thirst for life, no more sex-lust, no more thirst for learning, no more thirst for eternal life; with the disappearance of these fourfold thirsts, there is no more accumulation of habit-energy; with no more accumulation of habit-energy the defilements on the face of Universal Mind clear away, and the Bodhisattva attains self-realisation of Noble Wisdom that is the heart's assurance of Nirvana.

   There are Bodhisattvas here and in other Buddha-lands, who are sincerely devoted to the Bodhisattva's mission and yet who cannot wholly forget the bliss of the Samadhis and the peace of Nirvana-for themselves. The teaching of Nirvana in which there is no substrate left behind, is revealed according to a hidden meaning for the sake of these disciples who still cling to thoughts of Nirvana for themselves, that they may be inspired to exert themselves in the Bodhisattva's mission of emancipation for all beings. The Transformation-Buddhas teach a doctrine of Nirvana to meet conditions as they find them, and to give encouragement to the timid and selfish. In order to turn their thoughts away from themselves and to encourage them to a deeper compassion and more earnest zeal for others, they are given assurance as to the future by the sustaining power of the Buddhas of Transformation, but not by the Dharmata-Buddha [highest, non-dual Buddhist].

   The Dharma which establishes the Truth of Noble Wisdom belongs to the realm of the Dharmata-Buddha. To the Bodhisattvas of the seventh and eighth stages, Transcendental Intelligence is revealed by the Dharmata-Buddha and the Path is pointed out to them which they are to follow. In the perfect self-realisation of Noble Wisdom that follows the inconceivable transformation death of the Bodhisattva's individualised will-control, he no longer lives unto himself, but the life that he lives thereafter is the Tathagata's universalised life as manifested in its transformations. In this perfect self-realisation of Noble Wisdom the Bodhisattva realises that for Buddhas there is no Nirvana.

   The death of a Buddha, the great Parinirvana, is neither destruction nor death, else would it be birth and continuation. If it were destruction, it would be an effect-producing deed, which it is not. Neither is it a vanishing nor an abandonment, neither is it attainment, nor is it of no attainment; neither is it of one significance nor of no significance, for there is no Nirvana for the Buddhas.

   The Tathagata's Nirvana is where it is recognised that there is nothing but what is seen of the mind itself; is where, recognising the nature of the self-mind, one no longer cherishes the dualisms of discrimination; is where there is no more thirst nor grasping; is where there is no more attachment to external things. Nirvana is where the thinking-mind with all its discriminations, attachments, aversions and egoism is forever put away; is where logical measures, as they are seen to be inert, are no longer seized upon; is where even the notion of truth is treated with indifference because of its causing bewilderment; is where, getting rid of the four propositions, there is insight into the abode of Reality. Nirvana is where the twofold passions have subsided and the twofold hindrances are cleared away and the twofold egolessness is patiently accepted; is where, by the attainment of the "turning-about" in the deepest seat of consciousness, self-realisation of Noble Wisdom is fully entered into,--that is the Nirvana of the Tathagatas.

   Nirvana is where the Bodhisattva stages are passed one after another; is where the sustaining power of the Buddhas upholds the Bodhisattvas in the bliss of the Samadhis [Ed. - this asserts the need for enlightened help]; is where compassion for others transcends all thoughts of self; is where the Tathagata stage is finally realised. Nirvana is the realm of Dharmata-Buddha; it is where the manifestation of Noble Wisdom that is Buddhahood expresses itself in Perfect Love for all; it is where the manifestation of Perfect Love that is Tathagatahood expresses itself in Noble Wisdom for the enlightenment of all;--there, indeed, is Nirvana!

   There are two classes of those who may not enter the Nirvana of the Tathagatas: there are those who have abandoned the Bodhisattva ideals, saying, they are not in conformity with the sutras, the codes of morality, nor with emancipation. Then there are the true Bodhisattvas who, on account of their original vows made for the sake of all beings, saying, "So long as they do not attain Nirvana, I will not attain it myself," voluntarily keep themselves out of Nirvana. But no beings are left outside by the will of the Tathagatas; some day each and every one will be influenced by the wisdom and love of the Tathagatas of Transformation to lay up a stock of merit and ascend the stages. But, if they only realised it, they are already in the Tathagata's Nirvana for, in Noble Wisdom, all things are in Nirvana from the beginning.


1. The Notebooks of Paul Brunton (Burdett, New York: Larson Publications, 1988) Vol. 11, 2.222,238,241,250,124
2. Ibid, Vol. 16, Part One, 4.17