The Supreme Array Scripture: A Psychedelic Sutra for Buddhist Psychonauts
Composed sometime around the third century C.E., The Supreme Array Scripture (Sanskrit: Gaṇḍavyūha Sūtra) is one of the most psychedelic Mahāyāna sutras ever composed by Buddhists. Nearly every single one of its 500+ pages describes some type of cosmic vision of the universe. The Supreme Array exists as an independent text, but it also is found as the final chapter of the immense Flower Ornament Scripture (Avataṃsaka Sūtra), which Thomas Cleary translated from the Chinese in the 1990s (Cleary’s translation is over 1,500 pages long!). People who write about psychedelics and even scholars of Buddhism have noticed the psychedelic nature of the Flower Ornament and the Supreme Array. For example, Psychedelic Facilitator Erik Davis (author of Techgnosis and High Weirdness) writes, “I have not come across a canonical text that can approach the psychedelic majesty of the Avatamsaka Sutra, whose infinite details and ceaseless lists capture both the adamantine excess and fractal multiplicity of deep psychedelia.” Psychedelic artist Alex Grey also writes, “all through the Avatamsaka Sutras there are references to infinitely jeweled Buddha-fields. Many who have tripped have seen them. The subtle beings are alive. They are self-illuminating.” Even the Buddhist scholar Paul Williams has described the visionary imagery of the Supreme Array as “hallucinogenic.”
The Supreme Array is the story of a young man named Sudhana, who is on a quest to attain supreme enlightenment. In the opening scene of the scripture, the Buddha enters a deep trance (samādhi) called “The Lion’s Yawn” that transforms his palace and surrounding park into an infinitely vast jeweled space. Moreover, “buddha-fields” (worlds with buddhas in them) in every direction equal in number to the atoms in buddha-fields beyond description are also transformed in the same way. Bodhisattvas (Mahāyāna holy beings) from the ten directions witness this transformation and come to this world to pay homage to the Buddha. At the conclusion of the introduction, the bodhisattvas surrounding the Buddha are inspired by great compassion to disperse throughout all space in order to help all beings overcome suffering and attain enlightenment. Mañjuśrī, the Bodhisattva of Wisdom, travels to a city in the south of India and meets Sudhana, the son of a wealthy merchant. When Sudhana asks the bodhisattva how he should carrying out the course of conduct of a bodhisattva, Mañjuśrī sends the young man on his journey to visit the spiritual guides (Sanskrit: kalyāṇamitra). The remainder of the scripture is about Sudhana’s visits to fifty-three different spiritual guides. These guides represent a wide range of different occupations in ancient India; some are monks, merchants, kings, queens, princes and princesses. Some guides are gods, and goddesses; there is a nun and courtesan, the wife and mother of the Buddha, and advanced bodhisattvas such as Avalokiteśvara, Maitreya and Samantabhadra. Half of these guides are female. The story of the Supreme Array was immensely popular throughout all of Asia in the medieval period. Probably the most stunning example of its status are the reliefs of the story carved on the gallery walls of Borobudur in central Java. This structure, build at the end of the eighth or early ninth century, is the largest Buddhist monument in the world, and is a three-dimensional map of the cosmos.
The Supreme Array is much too complex to summarize adequately here. However, a good example of the Sudhana’s encounters can be found when he meets the sage Bhīṣmottaranirghoṣa. After Sudhana asks the sage his questions, the sage tells the hero that he has attained the liberation of the bodhisattvas called “Unsurpassed Banner.” When Sudhana enquires about its range, the sage stretches out his right hand, rubs our hero on his head, and grasps his right hand; Immediately, Sudhana sees as many buddha-fields as there are atoms in a million buddha-fields. Moreover, he observes himself sitting at the feet of all the buddhas in these buddha-fields, listening to their teachings, witnessing their past actions, and experiencing the spiritual qualities of their buddha-fields for countless eons. When Bhīṣmottaranirghoṣa releases Sudhana, he finds himself standing before the sage just as he had been. Bhīṣmottaranirghoṣa then asks him, “Son of Good Family, do you remember?” And Sudhana replies, “Noble One, by the power of the spiritual guide, I remember.”
The most famous and oft-cited passage by both ancient and modern commentators on the Supreme Array occurs when Sudhana meets the Bodhisattva Maitreya. Maitreya stands before a jeweled palace. When Sudhana asks about how he should carry out the course of a bodhisattva, Maitreya tells him he should enter the palace. Sudhana then asks for permission to enter; the Bodhisattva snaps his fingers and the doors to the palace open. Once inside, Sudhana sees that the palace’s interior is adorned with precious substances, many hundreds of thousands of leagues wide and as vast as the realm of space. Moreover, inside the palace are hundreds of thousands of other palaces arrayed in the same manner spread out in all directions. Miraculously, each dwelling remains distinct while simultaneously reflecting every other one and all of its objects. Experiencing this awesome vision, Sudhana is overcome with bliss and bows down in all directions. At the moment of prostration, through the power of Maitreya, Sudhana perceives himself simultaneously in each and every palace witnessing a different scene from Maitreya’s bodhisattva course of conduct. In a single instant, Sudhana sees countless eons, realms, beings, bodhisattvas and buddhas, and hears endless teachings. In the centre of all his, Sudhana sees one palace larger than the others. Inside it, he witnesses Maitreya in his final life performing the acts of a buddha, such as going forth to homeless life, sitting under the enlightenment tree, attaining omniscience and preaching the Dharma. While Sudhana is watching the endless and simultaneous practices of Maitreya in all the palaces, suddenly the Bodhisattva enters the dwelling, snaps his fingers once more and says,
Arise, Son of Good Family! This is the nature of conditioned factors. Son of Good Family, characterized by their non-fixity, all conditioned factors are controlled through the knowledge of bodhisattvas. In this way, lacking the perfection of an essence, they are like illusions, dreams and reflections.
The late Buddhist scholar Luis Gómez has pointed out that from the point of the view of the Supreme Array, all phenomena lack intrinsic existence (or are “empty” – this is the Buddhist notion of emptiness or śūnyatā), therefore everything is dreamlike or like an illusion. In this way, the magical projections of the buddhas and bodhisattvas are not only just as real as anything else, they actually reveal more accurately the true nature of reality. In other words, such visions were not considered by the authors of these sūtras to be what some might call “mere hallucinations” or products of an unbalanced mind; quite the opposite – they were thought to reveal the true nature of things, and were often exalted as special trance states called samādhis.
So how is the Supreme Array of use for the modern Buddhist psychonaut? First, it demonstrates how important visionary experience was for Mahāyāna Buddhism. Some modern traditions like Zen and Vipassana tend to downplay or disparage visions as at best distractions from the path, or as signs of mental imbalance. Why are visions so disparaged in these established forms of modern Buddhism? Because visionary spiritual is dangerous. It undermines the status quo of the institutionalized authority structures. If anyone can have a vision that reveals a higher order of reality, then the authority of the gurus is undermined.
The Supreme Array also describes the correct Mahāyāna intention toward visionary experience – Sudhana’s one goal is omniscient buddhahood in order to save all beings. In other words, he has the “mind of enlightenment” (bodhicitta) and therefore his intention is pure when he enters an altered state and has visions. In this way, the Supreme Array also supplies some insight into the goal of visionary experience – visions for their own sake (the fireworks) are pointless. The goal is to gain insight into the Mahāyana Buddhist path so one can be a better bodhisattva. Moreover, the scripture provides insight into how visionary experience reveals a higher order of reality. Because of their emptiness, phenomena are dreamlike and illusory. And because all things lack inherent existence or are “empty,” everything interpenetrates and inter-reflects every other thing in the omniverse. Space and time are endless, but as the Chinese Huayan masters say, “The one contains the all, and the all contains the one.” Finally, the indescribable vastness of time and space revealed in the sūtra function to deconstruct our ordinary linear ways of viewing time and space, and expand our vision to include the entire cosmos. In this way, the personal stories of our lives are connected to the cosmic story of the bodhisattva’s journey to enlightenment.
We have no evidence that early Mahāyāna Buddhists were tripping on mushrooms, but it is likely that they were entering altered states of consciousness induced through fasting, sleep and sensory deprivation, intense concentration, and visualizations practices. We now know that these technologies transform human brain chemistry in ways remarkably similar to psychedelics. For these ancient Buddhists such techniques were means of accessing other dimensions and receiving teachings from buddhas throughout all time and space. Their visions of infinitely inter-reflecting and interpenetrating spacetime deconstructed their limited, linear views of spacetime, demonstrated the dreamlike nature of all phenomena and reoriented them on a cosmic journey to complete awakening for the salvation of all. Over time these visionary experience became transcribed into their new scripture and functioned as inspiration and maps toward this ultimate goal.
In an important sense, Buddhism has always been “psychedelic.” Recall the meaning of psychedelic as “manifesting the mind.” The very first verse of the Dhammapada, one of the most ancient Buddhist texts, reads:
The mind is the basis for everything.
Everything is created by my mind, and is ruled by my mind.
When I speak or act with impure thoughts, suffering follows me
As the wheel of the cart follows the hoof of the ox.
It is said on the night of the Buddha’s enlightenment, he witnessed all of his past lives in complete detail. Since the cycle of birth and death is beginningless, this is a lot of past lives! If such a “data download” happened in “real time,” it would take as many lives to recall his countless past lives. This special power of recollection was a key insight for the Buddha into the nature of the karma and rebirth, cornerstones to Buddhist thought. In a similar manner, Mahāyāna Buddhists five century later strove to experience nonordinary states in order to access the deeper truths of Buddhism. Like these ancient Mahāyāna Buddhists, the modern psychonaut can find similar inspiration and guidance from the Supreme Array Scripture, the most psychedelic of Mahāyāna sutras.
You can find more on the Supreme Array Scripture here.
Douglas Osto PhD teaches Asian Philosophy at Massey University, New Zealand. He is the author of Altered States: Buddhism and Psychedelic Spirituality in America, as well as Power, Wealth, and Women in Indian Mahayana Buddhism. He has published articles in the Journal of Indian Philosophy, Journal of Religious History, Buddhist Studies Review, and the New Zealand Journal of Asian Studies.