The Matrix - Surangama Sutra, The Matrix of the Thus-Come-One

The Matrix

Surangama Sutra: The Matrix of the Thus-Come-One

Our ordinary mind is self-centered - and our ordinary mind is our gateway to enlightened being. By recognizing our delusions, we can wake up to realize our true selves.

In Ordinary Mind Zen we chant:

Caught in a self-centered dream - only suffering;

Holding to self-centered thoughts - exactly the dream.

Every thought, feeling and sensation is a dream within a dream. As a neuropsychologist, I’m bemused by how meditators are willing to acknowledge thoughts are often misleading, but continue to believe their sense-perceptions are “really real.” In this section of the Sutra, Buddha dispels this illusion. Shakyamuni expounds on how we pile up not just thoughts but also sensations and all the factors of body-and-mind into heaps, creating the oneiric illusion there is a world separate from our selves. In each case, Buddha shows how the myriad things add up to no thing whatsoever. Every aggregate is an illusion.

In this section of the Surangama, Buddha takes each of the various components of being -

  • five aggregates (form, sense-perception, cognition, mental formations, and consciousness)
  • six faculties (eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, cognition)
  • twelve sites (eye-faculty and visible objects; ear-faculty and sounds; nose-faculty and odors; tongue-faculty and flavors; body-faculty and objects of touch; cognitive faculty and objects of cognition)
  • Eighteen constituents (eye-consciousness, ear—consciousness, nose—consciousness, tongue-consciousness, body-consciousness, mind-consciousness)
  • Seven primary elements (earth, fire, water, wind, space, awareness, consciousness)

and shows how each “does not come into being from causes and conditions, nor does it come into being on its own.” Rather, all these heaps, and their seeming components, are inherent in the Matrix of the Thus-Come-One, the field of enlightened nature far beyond form and emptiness. This

“true, wondrous, luminously understanding [G-B] Mind contains the body and everything outside the body — mountains, rivers, sky, the entire world…..Our enlightened nature can be involved with things throughout all ten directions, and yet it remains clear and still. It is eternally present. It neither comes into being nor ceases to be.”

This may seem wildly solipsistic or, at best, idealistic. We may intellectually acknowledge that our sense-perception and thought are sometimes fallacious, but protest they are usually pretty accurate guides. After all, the existence of our own bodies, our own minds, and the objects around us is “undeniable.” Perhaps not. When we delve more deeply into the neuropsychology of body-mind phenomena, we’re in from some surprises.

Consider asomatognosia, a syndrome some brain-injured patients experience where they do not recognize parts of their body as their own. The affected body part isn’t paralyzed or insensate, but it becomes alien. In some cases the patient insists the body part belongs to and is controlled by someone else (e.g. in alien hand syndrome, also called “Dr Strangelove hand”).

I had a brief taste of this after my CVA. It was an uncommon type of stroke, a cerebral venous thrombosis which produced intermittent symptoms, mostly problems with leg weakness and balance. One day while working at the computer I needed to use the mouse in my right hand to move the cursor to the menu bar. I gave the mental command to my hand….and was surprised when nothing happened. I didn’t have any sensory or motor problems: I could grip the mouse, I could move my hand (and the mouse) any which way. But when I told my hand to move the mouse to the menu bar, the hand simply didn’t respond. I looked at my hand, puzzled: wasn’t this my hand? But how could it be my hand if I could feel it, move it, but it didn’t do the simple movement I wanted it to do?

Neuropsychology calls this experience an agnosia: the “lower” nervous system sensations and movements are intact, but disconnected from the “higher” nervous systems of recognition and intention. I was relieved when, after several hours, my agnosia disappeared.. While it lasted, though, the feeling of body-mind disconnection was quite disorienting. It gave me a greater appreciation for patients who deal with more severe forms of this neurological disorder, and also for the depersonalization and derealization which occur in some psychiatric disorders.

A related phenomenon occurs in reverse: a person experiences their body in places where it isn’t. After a limb amputation, patients experience pain in the missing limb. You don’t need to sacrifice a limb to experience this. If you put your right hand in a box which has a rubber hand on top in line with your shoulder and arm, and someone strokes a finger of your real hand (unseen, in the box) while simultaneously stroking the same finger of the rubber hand you are looking at, after a few minutes it will seem like your “real” hand vanishes and the fake hand is your own.

We think of these as disorders or illusions. From a Buddhist standpoint, though, they illustrate how our sense of “my” body is always illusory: it is a brain image, a representation rather than a fact.

Letting go of “my” body need not be pathological; it can scrape away the belief of personal ownership and allow us access to luminous experiences of non-separation. Hopefully you’ve had experiences of this sort, where you’ve been so immersed in an activity “you” vanish. Perhaps, singing or dancing, you’ve felt the music doing the crooning, the dance itself capering through your limbs. It’s quite wonderful when, after a few years of practicing qigong or taiji, once in a while everything aligns and we feel it is not us, but the qigong/taiji which is performing the form “through” us.

Shunryu Suzuki used to say: “it is a big mistake to think you are doing the meditation.” When we sit down to meditate, it’s important to get out of the way and let the meditation meditate. If you are therapist, when you sit down with a client let the meeting give rise to the therapy; when you are a carpenter, let the wood grain, nails, and hammer secure the joint. As a teacher, simply make room to participate in the rekindling of wonder with your students. When you garden, don’t pull weeds out: reach down through the roots into the soil; draw on the whole earth and whole sky. Allowing the plant-in-the-wrong-place to find a new place in the light, it emerges effortlessly.

Our sense that my body-and-mind belongs to me is a culturally reinforced delusion regarded as “normal” by our individualistic society. However, in times of war your body belongs to the State and can be drafted into the army whether you want it to or no. In patriarchal societies, the legal system explicitly treated (alas, in many places, still treats) the bodies of women and children as belonging to their husbands and fathers. Our individualist society acknowledges sports teams win more games when individual players function as one organism, but treats this as requiring some degree of self-sacrifice rather than as the most natural way of being. Many social systems, though, treat bodies as existing only insofar as they belong to their communities, to be called on as needs arise. When I trek in Nepal, we give every crew member a sleeping bag, but they usually put these aside and prefer to huddle together under a shared blanket (which, actually, is much warmer).

What if we have it backwards in our culture? Buddha suggests our usual notion that “I have a body which I occasionally share or aggregate with others” is false: it obscures that fundamentally all being - including “mine” - is inter-being. Perhaps the sense of “my” body is merely a bothersome addition to our collective “being” body. Perhaps the sense of “my” body is an extra layer which gets in the way as much as it protects and serves us. I wonder whether dolphins playing in their pods or solitary snow leopards invisible in their white world experience a sense of “my” body, or if they function perfectly fine without it?

In the Surangama Sutra, Buddha discusses how each of the aggregates, faculties, and so forth are illusory in their own-existence: in reality they are manifesting the Matrix of the Thus Come One. In the case of the body-faculty, Buddha gives an example of a person who joins her hands together when one hand is cold and the other is warm: with the exchange of warmth and cold, she becomes aware of contact. This awareness of contact, though, is inextricable from, and depends on, a sense of separation. With no separation to compare it to, how can there be separation?

Actually, the dualism of separation-and-contact is illusory. Even when the hands are not touching each other directly, they are continuously connected with each other through the rest of the body, the nervous system and the environment. Even when the hands are resting on each other, which hand is touching and which hand is being touched? Jointly experiencing this recursive contact, are the hands separate or apart? The philosopher Merleau-Ponty suggests we come to know ourselves by touching ourselves touching. I would add: and through being touched by others.

Buddha explains that discriminating contact-and-separation as pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral imposes a strain, and distorts perception. However, Buddha also asserts this tactile body-awareness has no ultimate basis. How can this be? What is the nature of the distortion? It seems obvious that in contact-and-separation, touching ourselves or being touched by others, we close a spatial gap. So Buddha’s analysis of what constitutes “space” becomes crucial.

We all are certain we know what space is: it’s the physical thing which provides room for us to be ourselves, and also the chasm which isolates us from the intimate wholeness we yearn for. We also experience space as a mental phenomenon; meditators attend to the space between thoughts, to the “space in mind,” the infinite “room” in which consciousness seems to arise. On closer examination, though, space - whether physical or mental - is quite mysterious. Is space a thing? Buddha says to Ananda:

“Ānanda, consider the example of a person who takes up an empty pitcher and plugs up its two spouts so that it seems he has confined some space in the pitcher. Believing that he is carrying this pitcherful of space, he travels a thousand miles to another country with the intention of making a present of it. You should know that the aggregate of consciousness can be described in similar terms.

The space that is in the pitcher, Ānanda, does not in fact come from the place where the person began his journey, nor is it transported to the country he travels to. It is like this, Ānanda: if the space had been transported from the first country by being confined in the pitcher, there must have been a loss of space at the place where the pitcher had come from. Moreover, if the space had been brought to the second country, then if the spouts were unplugged and the pitcher turned upside-down, the space within it would be seen to pour out.

In this way you should know that the aggregate of consciousness is an illusion. It does not come into being from causes and conditions, nor does it come into being on its own.”

We’re continually plugging up our consciousness with thoughts and feelings, urges and sensations. Big-I mind is constantly making its pitch, with shows of self-esteem and self-humiliation funded by commercials for things which, if we acquire or remove them, promise to improve our selves. Meditation helps us empty the pitcher. This is quite a relief. But even when we quiet the skandhas of forms, feelings, perceptions, and formations, the beguiling skandha of consciousness has no more graspable essence than does physical space.

Buddha explains that space, in whatever amount, can never be accumulated. It’s easy to fall into the illusion that if we accumulate mental space, it will expand into enlightenment. But in that case enlightenment would come into being - which would imply enlightenment is subject to birth and death. To counter this, Buddha provides us the physical metaphor of digging a well. Buddha points out that if you dig out soil to one foot, space is discernible to one foot; when you dig a well to ten feet, space is discernible to ten feet. But

does the space in the well come into being out of the soil? Does it come into being because of the digging? Or does it come into being on its own…..

The soil that is removed is solid matter, while the space is insubstantial, so they cannot function together. They cannot be aggregated or combined with each other….

Given that the fundamental nature of space is all-pervasive and does not move, you should know that the real nature…[of space, and the other elements] is one with the Matrix of the Thus-Come One, neither coming into being nor ceasing to be.

If this seems confusing, you may take comfort from the fact that space confuses physicists as well: they cannot agree on the fundamental nature of space. When Isaac Newton was formulating his laws of motion, he was very aware that he left unexamined what might be the nature of the space “in” which motion occurs. When Einstein moved from the special theory of relativity (where he intuited that time was not invariable) to the general theory, he intuited that space is not invariable.

Just as time dilates and contracts, space bends and straightens. Space curves around objects with mass (though we don’t know whether the overall “shape” of space is flat or curved, negative or positive). Space could be flat and infinite, flat with an edge, or flat and curve around onto itself. Most modern physicists assume space did not exist prior to the Big Bang, but there are several countervailing models, such as the Big Crunch which treat space as eternal - i.e., in Buddhist terms, unborn and undying.

Physicists cannot even agree on whether or not space is a thing. They agree matter cannot exist without space, but cannot agree whether space can exist without matter. If space can exist without matter, space is a thing (in which case, physicists disagree on whether space is composed of small bits or is it an unbroken, smooth field). However, it’s entirely plausible space is “only” a relationship - that is defined by where matter isn’t, but has no qualities in and of itself.

We know there are “ripples” in space; we have observed gravitational waves. To call them “waves,” though, is a little misleading. When we see, hear, or surf ocean waves, we are enjoying energy propagated through the physical medium of water. In physics, though, the physical medium traversed by light waves, gravitational waves, and other forms of energy is mysteriously nonexistent. One hundred years ago, experiments failed to find the ether which was supposed to “fill” space and provide the medium conveying the electromagnetic energy of the sun to the earth. So instead of a physical medium, physicists talk about - and can compute - the effects of energy fields. “Empty” space is “filled” with fields - but while physicists can compute the effects that fields have on matter, they cannot say what fields are in themselves. As one physicist notes: we’ve replaced the ether with the field, but the field is “the tension in the membrane, but without the membrane.” These are fields far beyond form and emptiness.

I hope this has confused and unsettled you. That’s the point. As Master Hua says in his commentary to the Surangama Sutra, “reading this, you should feel terror.” In our society meditation practice has too often become commercialized and complacent, a form of relaxation, a coping mechanism. All of those are fine palliatives, but they don’t do enough to deconstruct the delusive sense of privileged separateness which is eating away at our interbeing, destroying species, insulating us from each other and raising our temperatures to fever levels. To experience true liberation, we need to drop all our assumptions and conditioned habits of “me” and “mine.” We need to take refuge by recognizing, respecting, and taking responsibility for our co-arising with all being.

This is simply how it is. This is The Matrix of Thus Comes One: a lattice with uncountable intersections, all the spaces in-between, each point a field far beyond form and emptiness, each and all free, yet mysteriously united. To realize liberation, we can join with Ananda and the rest of the assembly who, at the end of this section of the teaching,

felt that their bodies and minds were emptied and hardly seemed to exist…. that their minds pervaded the ten directions….that all things in all worlds are the wondrous, fundamental, enlightened, luminous mind that understands, and that this mind, pure, all-pervading, and perfect, contains the entire universe.

Freed from hindrances, Ananda exclaims:

No need to wait forever to attain the Dharma-body.

I vow to reach enlightenment and


rescue beings countless as the Ganges’ sands.

May the seven billion people of this maha world join in this vow. We can re-phrase it and expound the nature of The Matrix of Thus Comes One in a few familiar words:

All for One


One for All

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