Introduction to Two Methods of Enlightenment
In the chapter of ‘Self-Enlightenment’ in the Surangama Sutra, 25 Bodhisattvas were asked by the Buddha to explain the practices they used for realising enlightenment. The last two methods are as below, described by Mahastamaprapta (Dashizhi) and Avalokiteshvara (Guanshiyin) Bodhisattvas, followed by summaries of them and comparative comments.
Mahastamaprapta’s Method for Enlightenment
如染香 人，身有香气。此则名曰香光庄严。我本因地以念佛心，入无生忍。今于此界，摄念佛人归于净土。佛问圆通，我无选择，都摄六根净念相继，得三摩地，斯为第 一。《大佛顶首楞严经大势至菩萨念佛圆通章》
Great Power Arrived, the Dharma Prince, with his similar peers of 52 Bodhisattvas, immediately rose from their seats, prostrated at the Buddha’s feet, and said to the Buddha, ‘I recollect, in past kalpas ago, as numerous as the Ganges River’s sands, there was a Buddha who arose in the world, named “Immeasurable Light”. Twelve Tathāgatas arose in succession for one kalpa, and its last Buddha was named “Surpassing Sun And Moon Light”. That Buddha taught me the Samādhi from Mindfulness of Buddha.
For example, there are persons, of one focused on recollecting, and one person focused on forgetting. Such two persons, if they come across each other, it is as if they do not come across each other, or if they see each other, it is as if they do not see each other. If these two persons mutually recollect each other, with the duo’s mindful recollection being deep, thus, even from life to life, similar to form and shadow, they will not depart from each other. The ten directions’ Tathāgatas are sympathetically mindful of sentient beings, like a mother recollecting her child. If the child runs away, although there is recollection, what is the use? If the child recollects the mother, like when the mother recollects the child, the mother and child, in life after life, will not be far away from each other. If sentient beings’ minds recollect the Buddha [Amitābha], and are mindful of the Buddha, now or in the future, they will definitely see the Buddha. With the Buddha not far away, without use of expedient means, they will, by themselves, attain awakening of their minds.
Like a person perfumed by incense, whose body has fragrance, this is thus named “Adornment With Fragrance And Light”. I, when on the fundamental causal ground, with my mind being mindful of the Buddha, entered the Patience of Non-Birth. Now in this world, I gather those mindful of the Buddha, for return to his Pure Land. The Buddha asked about Perfect Penetration, and I have no other choice, than to gather in the six roots, with pure mindfulness of the Buddha in continuous succession, to attain Samādhi, as this is the foremost method.’ (The Great Buddha Crown’s Śūraṅgama Sūtra’s Section On Mahāsthāmaprāpta Bodhisattva’s Perfect Penetration With Mindfulness Of Buddha – Translated from Chinese into English in 2556 B.E. by Upāsaka Shen Shi’an from Singapore)
Summary of Steps of Mahastamaprapta’s Method
- When sufficiently mindful of Amitabha Buddha[‘s name], one will be reborn in his presence, be able to learn from him and be enlightened.
- Hence, be purely mindful of Amitabha Buddha continually to rein in the six senses, such that one will never be away from him life after life.
Avalokiteshvara’s Method for Enlightenment
Then Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva arose from his seat, bowed at the Buddha’s feet and said to the Buddha: ‘World Honored One, I remember when, as many kalpas ago as there are sands in the Ganges, there was a Buddha in the world named Contemplating the World’s Sounds [Avalokiteshvara]. It was under that Buddha that I brought forth the Bodhi-resolve [Bodhicitta]. That Buddha taught me to enter Samadhi through a process of hearing and reflecting.
“Initially, I entered the flow through hearing and forgot objective states. Since the sense-objects [sound-element] and sense-organs [ear-element] were quiet[ened], the two characteristics of movement and stillness crystallized and did not arise. After that, gradually advancing, the hearing and what was heard both disappeared. Once the hearing was ended, there was nothing to rely [abide] on, and awareness and the objects of awareness became [realised to be] empty [of substantiality]. When the emptiness of awareness reached an ultimate perfection, emptiness and what was being emptied then also ceased to be. Since production and extinction were gone, still extinction was revealed.”‘ (p.131, Surangama Sutra Vol.5, tr. BTTS)
Summary of Steps of Avalokiteshvara’s Method
- Be mindful only of the consciousness of hearing (ear-consciousness),
without attachment to the heard (sounds, including silence, which comes and goes) and the hearing (from the ear) itself, such that auditory ups and downs are not differentiated – till there is no concept of hearing (emptiness of hearing organ) or the heard (sounds).
- Be mindful of emptiness of both the above awareness and its objects.
- Be mindful of emptiness of above awareness till its emptiness itself is realised to be empty.
- When the rise and fall of phenomena is seen as illusion, still extinction (Nirvana) is realised.
More Concise Summary of Steps
- Be mindful of the ‘consciousness of hearing’; be detached from hearing and the heard.
- Realise emptiness of ‘awareness of “consciousness of hearing” and its objects’.
- Realise emptiness of emptiness of ‘awareness of “consciousness of hearing” and its objects’.
- Realise emptiness of the rise and fall of phenomena.
Manjusri’s Recommended Method
Manjusri Bodhisattva taught – ‘The Enlightened and World-honoured One has asked about the best expedients for those in the Dharma Ending Age, who wish from Samsara to escape in their search for Nirvana’s heart. It is best to contemplate on worldly sound [i.e. Avalokiteshvara’s method]: All other  methods [described by other Bodhisattvas in the same sutra] are expedients used by Buddha to keep disciples from occasional trouble… “Tis good for teaching Ananda and those of the Dharma Ending Age, who should use the hearing organ and with the True Mind accords.”‘ (p.149, Surangama Sutra, tr. Charles Luk)
Comparison of Both Methods
Mahastamaprapta Bodhisattva’s (MB) method was listed just before Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva’s (AB) method in the sutra. Note that both Bodhisattvas are assistants of Amitabha Buddha, and that their methods are related by use of sound.
- MB’s method pertains more towards chanting (which is a form of meditation when done mindfully, whether verbally or mentally only),
while AB’s method pertains more towards direct meditation.
- MB’s method relies on self-power combined with other–power, based on the great compassionate vows of Amitabha Buddha,
while AB’s method relies solely on self-power.
- AB’s method leads to liberation from Samsara directly (which is why it is harder to perfect), while MB’s method leads to birth in the safest place (Pure Land) for liberation from Samsara.
- MB’s method relies on skilful focused use of a form (e.g. the name of Amitabha Buddha), while AB’s method relies on graduated detachment from all ‘forms’ (e.g. sounds…).
- MB’s method uses mindfulness of the sound of Amitabha Buddha’s name, while AB’s method uses mindfulness of the hearing of sounds in general.
Which Method is Better for You?
Pure Land practitioners might wonder why Manjusri Bodhisattva stated that AB’s method is the best in the Dharma Ending Age, instead of MB’s method, which is directly linked to seeking birth in Amitabha Buddha’s Pure Land (which is highly recommended in the Dharma Ending Age). This is because Manjusri Bodhisattva was stating the best expedient for those ‘who wish from Samsara to escape in their search for Nirvana’s heart’. This does not deny that for those who find it hard to escape from Samsara directly, MB’s method should be used, which is as recommended in the Pure Land sutras, other sutras and great masters’ commentaries.
Also in the Surangama Sutra after sharing his method above, AB described how s/he will manifest in thirty-two forms (among countless more) in Samsara to guide beings to be free of suffering. As one of the Three Saints of Western Pure Land (Amitabha Buddha, AB and MB), s/he too, like MB and all other great Bodhisattvas, guides beings to be born there. After being born in Pure Land using MB’s method, AB’s method can be practised and perfected there too, thereby attaining liberation. (AB might be teaching his/her method in Pure Land!)
Note that AB’s method is generally taught to be profound but difficult, while MB’s method as also profound but much easier. As the Infinite Life Sutra will be the last scripture in the end days of the Dharma Ending Age, MB’s method is the one that will last the longest. This means it is effective for most practitioners, most of the time – including us now. Currently, there are many who practise and promote MB’s method, in comparison to AB’s method.
It is possible to skilfully practise MB’s method as a foundational practice of mindfulness before turning to AB’s method in this life, in a ‘Pure Land to Zen’ way. Under the right karmic conditions, it can happen ‘accidentally’ too. However, if personal practice of AB’s method brings no substantial results in good time, one should stick to MB’s method to ensure a safe rebirth in Pure Land (for the eventual attainment of enlightenment) – since enlightenment is yet to be realised by the end of this life. MB’s method practised well can lead to enlightenment in this lifetime too – when insight into the truths of emptiness are realised after attaining Samadhi of Buddha-mindfulness.