Jul 17, 2022
Martin Goodson

The Story of Sanakavasa | Part I

What is the ‘great comfort’ that causes the remarkable transformation of the heart and how do we come to realise it?



Sanakavasa, also known as Shanavasa, was a disciple of Ananda and is the Third Indian Patriarch in the Chan/Zen School. His life and deeds are recounted in the Records of the Transmission of the Lamp.

“Sanakavasa, the third patriarch, was from the country of Mathura…

He was six years in the womb before emerging into the world. From the Sanskrit, ‘Shangno Jia’ meaning ‘natural robe’ , which is to say it was the name of a nine-tufted fine grass in India. When an Arhat or sage descended into birth, this grass would grow on pure ground, which happened at the time of Sanakavasa’s birth when this auspicious grass manifested just like this.

(The Records of the Transmission of the Lamp vol. 1 - tr. Randolph S. Whitfield)


The American mythologist, Joseph Campbell, in his book ‘The Hero with a Thousand Faces’, cites the miraculous birth accompanying the emergence of a spiritual figure into the world.

Here in the West, we have the ‘virgin birth’ myth and over in the east this this is also the case with the Buddha. To begin with, his mother, Queen Maya, dreams of a white elephant merging into her left side. Months later as she stands grasping a tree for support, a child is born from her right side.

 So too, Sanakavasa’s birth is auspicious, taking six years before emerging into the world. It is also interesting to note that this is the same amount of time it took for Prince Gautama to awaken under the Bodhi tree after he renounces his life as an earthly prince.

We must remember that the Transmission of the Lamp comes from the Mahayana tradition, so the style of these teachings perfume and inform the biographies of its major figures.

When we read the accounts and stories of Buddhas, Bodhisattvas and Patriarchs, we must be mindful of the fact that all beings are ‘fully and completely endowed with the wisdom and strength of the Buddha-nature’. Hence these stories are relating to our own nature and our own qualities. In Buddhist thought, these are the results (or fruits) of our ‘gotra’ (spiritual lineage).

The Jakata Tales are a collection of stories that chart the previous lives of the Buddha. From theses stories we can see that the Buddha’s awakening and his knack for practicing non-attachment, were not the result of a natural brilliance, but were the result of many live times worth of practice. He trained diligently, accumulated merit and handed back that merit twice fold. He was already a Great Bodhisattva before becoming the Buddha.

While these texts are used as teaching tools on the principles of Buddhist practice, they do also show the existence of a super-normal power that goes beyond anything ‘I’ can do. They make it clear that the fruits of a well rounded spiritual training are the result of a long period of continuous cultivation.

Sanakavasa’s birth is also accompanied by auspicious events – such as the appearance of a fine nine-tufted grass, a sign that indicates this birth is recognized by the universe itself. This is rather surprising.

The deepest and most profound aspect of spiritual power in Buddhism is called Dharma. This is the word commonly used to describe the Buddha’s teachings, but it also refers to an inherent Law, Principle, or Nature in all things. It is all things coming into birth and then ceasing to be. What is more, this Nature is inherent in all phenomena and does not exist in some metaphysical realm. It is the way things are right now.

For this reason Zen training is always turned towards the phenomenal world. This makes it all the more important to able to place the palms of the hands together and bow towards all beings. As it says in the scriptures:

‘All things are Buddha-things’.

Thus, if we can bow down towards all beings we can give ourselves wholeheartedly into the world of appearances without being trapped by them, both outwardly and inwardly. We are aware of the fleeting nature of what appears in the Heart-Mind. We witness the realization that all things are inherently inter-connected. Even Buddhas only appear because there are beings to be saved.

However, despite the activity of all this coming-and-going there is the ever- present Dharma:

‘Whether or not Buddhas and sages arise in this world, the Dharma is ever present.’

The Dharma is the deepest part of our nature and is the inter-connectedness of all things. It is also the harmony that results from the warmth of the heart and the cool clear awareness of the mind. These elements of fire and water inter-penetrate themselves and thus create the whole.

Zen practice is giving ourselves into the situations we find ourselves in, that situation will then come alive and miraculously speak to us. Our task then is to listen what’s being said, doing so is called ‘walking The Way’. It is the situation (ed.or Dharma) that is our guide, instead of the 'I' making decisions that are best for 'me'. This is the neurotic complex that developes from being an ‘I’, the quality of this consciousness can be described in terms of what-I-like and what-I-don’t-like. When this error in seeing arises (and it most certainly will) we simply bow ourselves into the situation once again.

The calming power of wisdom and the warming quality of compassion in Buddhism, both arise from that very realization. These qualities are not things that have been added on to the practice, nor are they things which ‘I’ have to learn or attain. They are qualities that are already inherent within me, as is the Buddha nature and the Dharma, but blinded by the delusion of ‘me’, ‘I’ become like a great emperor who believes he is convinced he is a pauper.

The auspicious events accompanying such a realisation are truly miraculous. They go beyond what can be comprehended by the small, cut-off world of ‘I’. I  who looks at everything through the eyes of this-and-that, high-and-low, light-and-dark. The 'I' who views itself and the whole world as something inherently separate and even in opposition to each other.

In earlier times, when the Tathagata was teaching in Mathura, he saw a verdant forest with luxurious vegetation and said to Ananda, ‘This forest will be called Uruda. One hundred years after my demise there will be a monk Sanakavasa, who will turn the wonderful Wheel of the Dharma on this spot.’

Trees have a long represented history in Buddhism. It was a tree that eased the suffering of Gautama’s mother when she gave birth to him, it was a under a tree that Gautama became the Buddha and rediscovered the way. As Buddhism stresses the importance of interconnectedness, it is perhaps then no surprise that in becoming enlightened the Buddha was able to ease his mother's affliction of suffering dis-ease and death.

In the Zen tradition, Master Rinzai (founder of the Rinzai Zen school) was referred to as ‘a great tree that gave shelter to many’. Trees have a longevity that connects two distant points in time and can represent the cyclical nature of events through time. Every Buddha awakens under the Bodhi Tree; it is the trees that are continually recurring . Looking at the great matter of life and death from the point of view of a tree, we see the events of our little lives are forming the branches of a much larger organism.

Looking back across the countless rebirths we have already had, we can see a nice view of the trunk and the root of the tree. Looking forward into the branching narratives of the future we can see the space into which future generations will climb.

A tree can also represent the lineage of a tradition. In Zen temples, each morning the line of transmission is chanted, from the Buddha all the way down to our own age. With each name of the patriarch we sing, we arrive one step closer to our own teachers who have transmitted the lamp. Through the power of this chant the heart remembers the continuity of all sentient beings, and in a temple setting it lends authority to the day’s events.

When we remember where we have been and where we are going, we experience in a very real sense, that each one of us sits on a branch of that very same tree.

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