I’m currently working on a scholarly translation (from Chinese to English) and book-length study of a scripture that is of crucial importance to the Chinese Buddhist tradition after the year 1000. This project is supported by a Standard Research Grant from the Social Science and Humanities Council of Canada.
The scripture is popularly known as the “Lengyan jing” 楞嚴經 or Suramgama sutra (Scripture of the Heroic March). Because of conflicting evidence regarding its provenance, and because the text seems to owe so much to other sources, modern scholars have concluded that the work is an apocryphal sutra that was fabricated in China at the beginning of the eighth century. That is to say, although it claims to be a translation from an Indian work that records the words of the Buddha, the scripture was in fact composed in literary Chinese.
This sophisticated and complex text drew heavily on non-Buddhist Chinese ideas and concerns and successfully promoted new forms of practice and ideas for which Indian Buddhist texts offered no real antecedents. My study will pay particular attention to the Chinese literary sources on which the scripture’s author drew, and will also trace the influence of the scripture on the religious and intellectual world of late imperial China.
The Suramgama‘s influence extended well beyond the period and milieu in which it originally appeared. It affected Buddhist monastic practice, especially in the Chan (Zen) tradition, by providing the source for a ritual that became standard in the Song dynasty (960-1279). The so-called “Suramgama assembly” was held semi-annually during monastic retreats, and there the participants chanted the long magical spell contained in the sutra. This spell was also recited at memorial services for Chan abbots and patriarchs. In Korea, the sutra was a required text in the monastic examination system. In the realm of doctrine, especially from the Song period onwards, the scripture attracted much commentary. My study will survey this vast body of literature, still largely unexplored, as it promises to illuminate the doctrinal vitality of Buddhism in later Chinese history, a period when the religion was supposedly in decline.
The scripture was also widely known and appreciated by thinkers and writers. The famous poet Su Shi (1037-1101) mentions it as a major source of poetic and spiritual inspiration. His brother Su Che (1039-1112) drew on it in his writings. The Suramgama was especially popular with Chinese laywomen and it had a particularly strong influence on the religious life of elite females of the eighteenth century.
My research traces the origins of the scripture’s unique doctrine and language, with particular attention to those elements borrowed from contemporary and earlier Chinese materials. I draw on the large number of later Chinese commentaries on the text to show how its ideas were received and interpreted. I am surveying the larger corpus of essays, poems, letters, treatises etc., in order to understand the importance of the text to the wider intellectual realm.