The Perfect Enlightenment Sutra is one of the most popular and influential sutras in Zen. It was held in the highest regards by some of the greatest Zen Master’s like Zongmi and Chinul.
The sutra itself is twelve chapters and the introductory section describes the scene which is a state of deep meditative concentration. The Buddha and one hundred thousand great bodhisattvas are in attendance. Out of those hundred thousand, twelve eminent bodhisattvas act as spokespersons for all those gathered that day and for future generations of sentient beings.
Each one of the twelve gets up one by one and asks the Buddha a set of questions about doctrine, practice and enlightenment. The structure of the sutra is such that the most “essential” and suddenistic discussions occur in the earlier chapters and the more “functional” and gradualistic dialogues occur later.
The terminology that Zongmi and Gihwa use to describe these advanced practitioners is that they possess the capacity for the teaching of “sudden enlightenment”; a direct awakening to the non-duality of reality, which necessarily precludes gradualist, “goal-oriented” practice.
In the first two chapters (the chapters of Mañjuśrī and Samantabhadra), the Buddha holds very strictly to the sudden position, denying the possibility of enlightenment through gradual practice.
In the third chapter he begins to allow for a bit of a gradual view, and the next several chapters become mixtures of the two. The final few chapters offer a fully gradualist perspective.
About this translation
On this page you will discover my interpretation of the Sutra of Perfect Enlightenment. It may even be good to give it a new name like the Book of Awakening to Your Completeness.
The reason being is that most translators stick strictly to the original for their translations. But for this work I used the original as a launching pad to unleash a poetic version that helps the reader to connect to the words and their potential more easily. Instead of putting comments below or after sections I’ve woven them right into the sutra itself. As well, I have cut out superfluous sections of the sutra that are redundant. What’s left is the core essence of the Sutra of Perfect Enlightenment distilled down to the most potent of word medicine.
As I finish more and more of the sutra you will find it added here.
May you only go straight, achieve enlightenment and save us all.
Introduction to The Book of Awakening – The Sutra of Perfect Enlightenment by Chuan-deng Jing-di (John Crook)
How do we train to be Bodhisattvas, or at least baby Bodhisattvas?
The story tells us that a group of Bodhisattvas are puzzled by the new Mahayana teachings of the Buddha so they ask him to meet them all in a conference together.
So here they are assembling together to ask questions of the Buddha. These are questions we might be asking him ourselves since all of us are
We will find they are indeed puzzling questions. The Buddha’s replies are by no means completely clear, they need interpretation.
There are all sorts of fascinating Bodhisattvas gathered for the meeting. There are the great ones of course, Manjushri, Samanthabadhra, Maitreya and others more ‘junior’ but with wonderful names such as Bodhisattva-at-Ease-With-Himself and other titles like that. They all have a question to ask.
Manjushri is the Bodhisattva of Wisdom, so we might well expect him to set the ball going and indeed, he asks the first question.
There’s a lot of etiquette at the meeting. The Buddha is on his throne.
Manjushri arises and makes prostrations, then circumambulates the Buddha all the way round three times, makes another bow then asks his question,
“Oh World Honoured one of great compassion, how do we become Buddhas? What was the Dharma practice that you did to awaken to the original purity of Complete Enlightenment?”
The Book of Awakening
(The Sutra of Perfect Enlightenment)
The first Bodhisattva to ask questions of the Buddha is Manjushri. He is a Bodhisattva associated with Prajna (wisdom/insight) and is the oldest and most significant of the Bodhisattva’s in the Mahayana teachings. He is referred to in the Prajnaparamita Sutra, the Lotus Sutra and the Avatamsaka Sutra all of which hold the highest of status amongst the Mahayana teachings and the Zen tradition.
Manjushri is usually depicted as a male Bodhisattva and in his right hand he wields the flaming sword of transcendental wisdom which cuts through ignorance and duality.
In his left hand is a lotus that gently holds the Prajnaparamita teachings high which symbolizes Manjushri’s achievement of ultimate realization via the blossoming of wisdom.
Manjushri has used ultimate wisdom to tame the mind which is represented by him sitting on a lion or the skin of a lion.
Manjushri is the first to speak and the question he asks cuts right to the heart of the matter,
“Oh World Honoured one of great compassion, how do we become Buddhas? What was the Dharma practice that you did to awaken to the original purity of Complete Enlightenment?”
Manjushri asks the Buddha what is the fundamental, most essential thing that he did to achieve enlightenment? How did he discover that the fundamental ground or nature of his mind was originally pure?
That’s the flaming sword of wisdom in action right there. Cutting through all the clutter, all the fluff, all the unessential elements to reveal the very core of the truth.
Manjushri also asks,
“Please also share how Awakened Warriors (Bodhisattvas) may not only initiate this pure mind that is needed to save all beings (Bodhi Mind) and helps to free us all from suffering.
“Please Buddha show us the way, not only for ourselves but also for the sentient beings of the future, when times are tough, when daily concerns are many, when peace of mind seems far away, but there are people who aspire for another way.”
“Please share your wisdom so that these people who want to discover their own Buddha Nature and help save us all will not fall into erroneous views and lose their way.”
The Buddha’s answer to Manjushri initially is a confirmation and a mild elaboration of this originally pure state that is intrinsic within each of us.
The Buddha says,
“The Supreme Dharma King possesses the method which reveals the essence of Perfect, Complete Enlightenment, out of which emanates and spontaneously manifests as purity, suchness, bodhi, nirvana and the paramitas.”
“The fundamental pure casual ground of Perfect Enlightenment is the illuminating awareness that this original purity, suchness, bodhi, nirvana and even the paramitas are already possessed by you.”
“This illuminating awareness is pure in essence and free from ignorance.”
“Once this is realized you immediately accomplish the path of the Buddha’s.” 
These things are naturally present when we rest in Perfect Enlightenment which each of us posses just as a King possesses many riches and lands.
When we rest in this state, in this awareness, in this suchness, that illuminating wisdom permanently severs ignorance and we immediately accomplish the Buddha-way.
This isn’t the answer we probably were expecting from the Buddha. For the most part we’re sitting over here looking at the Buddha over there and it seems like there’s a giant chasm between us and the him.
But here, with these few short sentences, the Buddha uses the flaming sword of wisdom to cut through duality, and immediately reveals to us our own Buddha Nature. He collapses time and space, separation and concepts to reveal the essence in its full immediacy – that we are Buddha’s.
What is covering up this realization and truth? What is blocking or hiding our own Perfect Enlightenment? Why don’t we know this? Why can’t we see this easily?
The Buddha says that it’s ignorance.
This is where Manjushri’s left hand comes into play – where the Prajnaparamita teachings appear.
In this instance the Buddha then gives the fundamental teachings on Sunyata (emptiness). That we get caught up in believing in a separate, inherently existing self. That we take the four elements (earth, water, fire and air) as the actual attributes of our bodies and the Six Sense Objects (sights, sounds, smells, tastes, tactile sensations, thoughts) as the attributes of our minds.
But we must see these concepts or ideas as illusory like flowers in the sky.
The Buddha says,
“What is ignorance? Since beginningless time, all sentient beings have had all sorts of delusions, like a disoriented person who has lost his sense of direction.
“They mistake the four great elements (earth, water, fire and air) as the attributes of their bodies, and the conditioned impressions (sights, sounds, smells, tastes, tactile sensations, thoughts) of the six sense objects as the attributes of their minds.
“Just like a person who has a speck of dirt in his eye and because of that believes they are seeing illusory flowers in the sky or even a second moon.
“Really there are no flowers in the sky, but because you don’t know that there’s something blocking your vision you believe it to be true.
“Because you are sick and confused and you don’t know it you become deluded about the intrinsic space like nature of your mind and confused on how the flower in that space has arisen.
“Clinging to this illusion, to this ignorance, to this idea of a separate inherently existing self, you continually turn the when of birth and death.
“Ignorance has no real substance when you look deeply into it. It’s just like a person in a dream – in the dream the person seems real and has the appearance of existing – but – when the dreamer awakens there’s no dream person to be found or that can be grasped.
“Just like an illusory flower floating in the sky that vanishes into empty space – you can’t really point to a fixed place from which the flower has vanished. Space is without beginning or end. It’s all encompassing, all embracing and pervasive.
“Ignorance is attached to the arising and ceasing of appearances but does not perceive and know the space in which these appearances take place. Because of this clinging they do not perceive the un-arisen. And because they do not experience the non-arising they then experience birth and death.”
“Whoever wants to truly practice the way of the Buddha’s knows that these concepts and ideas of arising and ceasing, of coming and going, of birth and death, of samsara and nirvana, all of this dualistic grasping and thinking are like illusions, like flowers in the sky. Once that is realized and known then you go beyond birth and death and body and mind, existence and non-existent. All of these concepts and ideas are dropped. They all do not posses an inherent nature of truly existing or truly not existing.”
“Now look at the awareness that realizes this. It is boundless like empty space. Rest in this vast expanse of awareness and drop the faint whispers of knowing. Existence and non-existence are dispelled.
“This is the way of awakening. This is the way of enlightenment. This is the causal ground, the birthplace of all Buddha’s.
“Empty, changeless, neither arising nor ceasing – the matrix of suchness. There are no fixed points. No beginning or end. Free from conceptual knowledge and views. Ultimate, complete, perfect, all pervading.
“Awakened Warriors (Bodhisattvas), this is the practice of the Bodhi-mind of awakening. If sentient beings in the dharma ending age practice this they will be free.”
Once we can let go of our attachment to concepts and rest in the sky like(space like) nature of the mind, which is beyond concepts and constructs we can find the freedom of Perfect Enlightenment which is our natural state.
The Buddha goes on to say that these ideas we have and our clinging to them is ultimately dreamlike and illusory. There is no real birth and death, no coming and going, no arising nor perishing.
Perfect Enlightenment is beyond conceptual knowledge and views.
Perfect Enlightenment is “caused” by realizing our intrinsic natural state and dropping illusion.
At that time, the World Honored One, wishing to clarify his meaning, proclaimed these gathas:
Manjushri, you should know
that all Buddha’s,
from their original-arising causal ground,
with enlightened wisdom.
Realizing that ignorance is like
a flower in the sky,
they are then freed
from dualistic grasping.
Like a person
in a dream who
can’t be found
when the dreamer awakens.
is like empty space.
boundless, changeless, unmoving,
pervading the ten directions
The Way of Awakening
is already accomplished.
nothing to attain
the intrinsic nature
is already wholly complete
In it Bodhicitta naturally arises.
in the Dharma Ending Age
through this practice
will avoid falling into erroneous views.
The second Bodhisattva to step forward and ask the Buddha questions is Samantabhadra. The word Samanta means, “universally extending” and Bhadra means “great virtue.”
Samantabhadra is the Bodhisattva of meditation and practice. Practice here not only includes meditation but also encompasses the six paramitas (charity, moral conduct, patience, devotion, meditation and wisdom) and vows.
Samantabhadra Bodhisattva, was so moved the first time he heard the Buddha preach the Dharma that he made Ten Great Vows.
Samantabhadra is often depicted on an elephant (traditionally a white elephant with six tusks). The six tusks represent overcoming attachment to the six senses, while the elephant symbolizes the power of Buddhism to overcome all obstacles. 
I find it interesting that the second Bodhisattva to step forward is the Bodhisattva of Meditation and Practice as the Buddha just finished saying that the practice that leads to Perfect Enlightenment is to drop ignorance and see the illusory nature of things.
Samantabhadra, knowing well that this type of teaching will confuse almost everyone, steps forward and asks,
“Buddha, if everything is illusory including body and mind then who is it that practices?
“How can illusion remedy illusion?
“If all illusory characteristics were exhausted and extinguished, then there would be no mind. Who is it that practices?
“Why do you say that practice is illusory?
“If there’s no need for practice then sentient beings will remain trapped in their illusory projections and dualistic graspings. They will never discover the state in which everything is seen to be like an illusion. How can they be liberated from illusory conceptualization?”
Samantabhadra goes even further and asks the Buddha,
“I implore you on behalf of all the Bodhisattvas at this assembly, as well as for all sentient beings of the degenerate age, to teach the gradual practice of expedient means.
“What kind of expedient means of gradual practice should we introduce to cause sentient beings to be eternally free from all illusions?” 
It’s one thing to say that the fundamental nature of who we are is pure suchness beyond birth and death and another thing to experience that directly for yourself.
If you haven’t tasted suchness then what the Buddha replied to Manjushri sounds like pure craziness.
Samantabhadra knows this well and begs the Buddha to share the practices that will help wipe the mirror of mind clean to reveal it’s clear radiance.
The Buddha then replies to Samantabhadra saying,
“Excellent, excellent! Virtuous being, for the benefit of all the Awakened Warriors (Bodhisattvas) and sentient beings in the Dharma Ending Age, you have asked about the expedient, gradual stages of the Awakened Warrior’s practice of the Samadhi in which all is seen to be like an illusion, and which frees sentient beings from illusion. Listen deeply now. I shall explain it to you.” 
So things are are looking up for those beings that don’t really understand what the Buddha was talking about in his reply to Manjushri earlier. And right there, in his reply to Samantabhadra he says that he’s going to share a practice that will help them.
But Samantabhadra and the rest of the assembly get an answer that doesn’t quite hit the mark for them.
What the Buddha share’s isn’t necessarily a practice that they can really sink their teeth into so to speak. Here is the gist of the Buddha’s reply to Samantabhadra’s request for some fundamental practices,
“Samantabhadra, you should know that the beginningless illusory ignorance
of all sentient beings is grounded on the mind of Complete Enlightenment.
Like a flower in empty space, its appearance relies on the sky.
When the illusory flower vanishes, the empty space remains in its original unmoving state.
Illusion depends on enlightenment for its arising.
With the extinction of illusion, enlightenment is wholly perfect, for the enlightened mind is ever unmoving.
All bodhisattvas and sentient beings in the Dharma Ending Age should forever leave illusions far behind until all illusions are extinguished.
It is like producing fire with wood, when the wood is burned out,the fire is also extinguished.
Enlightenment has no gradual steps; the same applies to expedient means.” 
That last sentence must have reverberated throughout all the Dharma realms as the Bodhisattva’s sat there, mouth’s open in stunned silence. “Enlightenment has no gradual steps; the same applies to expedient means.”
You can’t really get any more direct of a direct statement than that.
If the Buddha ever had one of those mic drop moments it has to be this one here.
In response to the Bodhisattva of practice he flat out says that there is no practice that can be done to achieve enlightenment.
But what the Buddha offers IS a practice though a very subtle one – a mind practice “As-Illusion-Samādhi.”
This practice is more of a new perspective, a state of mind, a way of looking and being in the world that is really an extension of what he said to Manjushri earlier.
Pointing Out Instructions – Revealing the Nature: The Practice of As-Illusion-Samadhi
All appearances, including ignorance
Are dreamlike and illusory
Arising within the Buddha Mind
Of Complete Enlightenment
See all that arises as dreamlike and illusory
Like flowers in the sky
And with the power of that awareness
But the sky-like nature of mind remains, unaffected
Mind is vast and expansive
Like a clear blue sky
And like the sky,
Illusory, dreamlike appearances
Constantly arise and fall
But the Buddha Mind
The Buddha Mind or Mind of Enlightenment
Is beyond duality
Even to call it enlightened is to miss the mark
Or when you call it unenlightened,
This too means you have lost it
Be free from thought
When you are free from thought
When you are free from duality
You will find the ultimate freedom
Freedom from illusion
Resting naturally in Perfect Complete Enlightenment
Without the need for various expedient means.
All Awakened Warriors (Bodhisattvas) and sentient beings
Of the degenerate age
Who practice like this
Will be permanently free from all illusion. 
This practice is right in the middle of the Samantabhadra chapter. It’s not a chunky and earthy practice like mindfulness of breathing that we can really grab a hold of and “do” (which is what is taught in the next chapter for those of us who don’t really understand this chapter).
But it is a type of “mind-practice” that can help shift your perspective.
It’s subtle and ripples out affecting all of our life.
I believe as well, that this subtle practice is really brought to light as it contrasts well with what normally would come to mind for most people when they thought of Samantabhadra – ardent meditator, keeper of vows, practicer of the paramitas and proponent of enlightened action.
You have to see that you, me, this world and everything in it is like a fleeting dream. It arises, stays awhile then disappears into the space like nature of mind – illuminating suchness.
We have this precious human life, so hard to come by, and we never know when it’ll be taken from us.
When you’re young you feel like you have all the time in the world. But as you get older you see how time flies, how things change so quickly, how nothing is permanent.
Then you start to really know that it’s like the Buddha said that all that arises is illusory, like a bubble on the water. Fragile and delicate conditions have come together to give rise to “you” and at any moment that bubble can and will pop. And because it can “pop” at any time you’ve got to pour yourself into realizing the Awakened state.
The Buddha isn’t saying that things/people aren’t real – he’s saying that all of this life isn’t exactly as it appears.
All of it arises within the Buddha Mind – the free play of it – and compared to the expansive timeless nature of the Buddha Mind these appearances are illusory. Don’t cling to them. Don’t grasp at them. Don’t think that they will give you true and lasting happiness. Go beyond real and unreal. Rest in your natural state which is free from clinging, grasping and reifying life.
Look into the mind – what is it that is noticing people, cars, buildings?
What is it that realizes the illusory nature of all that arises?
Look into the mind – where is reading taking place?
Turn and look…