The Sūtra on Wisdom at the Hour of Death
Degé Kangyur vol. 54 (mdo sde, tha), folios 153.a–153.b.
Translated by Tom Tillemans’ class in the University of Vienna’s program of Buddhist Translation Studies
under the patronage and supervision of 84000: Translating the Words of the Buddha.
While the Buddha is residing in the Akaniṣṭha realm, the bodhisattva mahāsattva Ākāśagarbha asks him how to consider the mind of a bodhisattva who is about to die. The Buddha replies that when death comes a bodhisattva should develop the wisdom of the hour of death. He explains that a bodhisattva should cultivate a clear understanding of the non-existence of entities, great compassion, non-apprehension, non-attachment, and a clear understanding that, since wisdom is the realization of one’s own mind, the Buddha should not be sought elsewhere. After these points have been repeated in verse form, the assembly praises the Buddha’s words, concluding the sūtra.
Translated into English by Tom Tillemans’ class in the University of Vienna’s program of Buddhist Translation Studies in 2014. The introduction was written by Casey Kemp and Tom Tillemans.
This translation has been completed under the patronage and supervision of 84000: Translating the Words of the Buddha.
This sūtra, brief though it is, addresses central Mahāyāna concepts in relation to practices to be carried out at the hour of death. When the Buddha is asked how one is to consider the mind (or mindset) of a bodhisattva who is about to die, he replies by giving pith instructions on the nature of phenomena and the mind, and instructs that a bodhisattva should accordingly engender specific clear understandings. The Buddha points out that all phenomena are pure, subsumed within the mind of enlightenment, and naturally luminous. Entities are impermanent, and the realization of mind is wisdom. Consequently, a bodhisattva should arouse a clear understanding that no entities truly exist, a clear understanding of great compassion, a clear understanding of non-apprehension, a clear understanding of non-attachment, and a clear understanding that the Buddha should not be sought elsewhere than in one’s own mind. Although he refers to these instructions as the wisdom of the hour of death, the implication is that these teachings can be cultivated and realized throughout a bodhisattva’s lifetime in order to prepare for death and attain liberation.
The Sanskrit title of the sūtra is found transcribed in all Kangyurs as Ārya-ātajñāna-nāmamahāyānasūtra.1 This transcription, however, appears to have been truncated; as Sanskrit, it is not readily comprehensible, and certainly not equivalent to the Tibetan ’da’ ka ye shes. Another version of the Sanskrit title occasionally given is Atijñānasūtra,2 which, although certainly understandable, yields a meaning quite different from that of the Tibetan. The more likely Sanskrit phrase that would capture ’da’ ka ye shes is atyayajñāna (“wisdom at the time of passing away”), and this has been proposed as a revision of the Sanskrit title in several modern catalogues.3
There is no extant Sanskrit text to our knowledge, although it is clear that there was such an original at one time—the Tibetan colophon to Śāntideva’s commentary mentions that the Indian abbot Dharmarāja collaborated with Pakpa Sherab (’phags pa shes rab) in the translation of the commentarial text. The sūtra translation preserved in the Kangyur, however, has no colophon with the usual mention of the Tibetan translators and Indian paṇḍits, and was most likely made not from the Sanskrit but from an earlier Chinese translation, as the early 9th century Denkarma (ldan dkar ma) catalogue explicitly includes the Atyayajñāna in a list of sūtras translated into Tibetan from Chinese. Its inclusion in the Denkarma allows it to be dated to the first decades of the ninth century at the latest, and possibly earlier if it was indeed known to King Trisong Detsen (see below). The putative Chinese version, however, does not seem to have survived and the sūtra does not seem to figure in the Chinese canon.
There are two commentaries on this text written by Indian authors in the Degé Tengyur, one attributed to Śāntideva (c. eighth century) and the other to Prajñāsamudra (dates unknown).4 There are also six known Tibetan commentaries, four of which were written by seventeenth to nineteenth century Gelukpa (dge lugs pa) scholars, the longest and most detailed being one by the seventh Dalai Lama, Kelsang Gyatso.5 Our translation mainly follows the commentary of Prajñāsamudra and, to a lesser degree, that of Choné Drakpa Shedrub (co ne grags pa bshad sgrub, 1675–1748).
The Atyayajñāna is included in lists of sūtras known as the Five Royal Sūtras and Ten Royal Sūtras, two sets of profound, relatively short, and pithy works6 traditionally said to have been translated on Padmasambhava’s recommendation and used for daily practice by the eighth century Tibetan king Trisong Detsen (khri srong lde btsan). Their use is said to have contributed (along with other practices) to the king’s life being prolonged by thirteen years beyond the limit predicted by astrological reckoning. The texts recounting this incident list the applications or uses of each of these texts; in the case of the Atyayajñāna, this is meditation or cultivation (sgom pa). In the same accounts the sūtra is described as being of definitive meaning.7 Another Tibetan tradition explains that the Five Royal Sūtras each present the condensed, essentialized meaning of five of the major canonical texts, all much longer, known as the Five Sets of One Hundred Thousand.8 From this viewpoint, the Atyayajñāna represents the essence of the Mahāparinirvāṇasūtra (Toh 119–120). Yet another, more prosaic explanation sometimes found for the epithet “royal” being applied to these works is simply that each of them, compared to other works on similar themes, is of paramount importance.
The Atyayajñāna is considered particularly important in several Tibetan Buddhist traditions, including Dzogchen (rdzogs chen) and Mahāmudrā. Roger Jackson points out that it seems to be the only sūtra from the Kangyur that is included in indigenous Tibetan lists of Indian canonical texts on Mahāmudrā. As a search of the Buddhist Digital Resource Center (www.tbrc.org) data reveals, the Atyayajñāna is quoted by well-known Tibetan authors of all schools—including Gampopa (sgam po pa, 1079–1153), Sakya Paṇḍita (sa skya paN+Di ta, 1182–1251), Karmapa Rangjung Dorje (rang byung rdo rje, 1284–1339), Longchen Rabjampa (klong chen rab ’byams pa, 1308–1364), Shākya Chogden (shAkya mchog ldan, 1428–1507), Drukpa Padma Karpo (’brug pa pad+ma dkar po, 1527–1592), Tāranātha (tA ra nA tha, 1575–1634), and the Fifth Dalai Lama, Ngawang Lobzang Gyatso (ngag dbang blo bzang rgya mtsho, 1617–1682). The most frequent excerpt quoted is from the final verses on the mind (1.14):
Since the mind is the cause for the arising of wisdom,Do not look for the Buddha elsewhere.
Unsurprisingly, this brief yet well-known sūtra has been translated into English a number of times. Several translations can be found on the internet, including translations by Ruth Sonam and at least one anonymous version. Published translations include those by Roger Jackson (2009), Sherab Raldri (2010), Tony Duff (2011), and Erick Tsiknopoulos (2019). A translation of the sūtra together with translations of Prajñāsamudra’s and Śāntideva’s commentaries has been published online by Lhasey Lotsawa Translations (2015). We hope that our translation will contribute to readers’ appreciation of this remarkable and justly celebrated work.
Homage to all buddhas and bodhisattvas!
The bodhisattva mahāsattva Ākāśagarbha then paid homage to the Blessed One and asked, “Blessed One, how should we think about the mind of a bodhisattva who is about to die?”
The Blessed One then spoke the following verses:
This concludes the Noble Mahāyāna Sūtra on Wisdom at the Hour of Death.
’phags pa ’da’ ka ye shes zhes bya ba theg pa chen po’i mdo. Toh 122, Degé Kangyur, vol. 54 (mdo sde, tha), folios 153a–153b.
’phags pa ’da’ ka ye shes zhes bya ba theg pa chen po’i mdo. bka’ ’gyur (dpe bsdur ma) [Comparative Edition of the Kangyur], krung go’i bod rig pa zhib ’jug ste gnas kyi bka’ bstan dpe sdur khang (The Tibetan Tripitaka Collation Bureau of the China Tibetology Research Center). 108 volumes. Beijing: krung go’i bod rig pa dpe skrun khang (China Tibetology Publishing House), 2006–2009, vol. 54, pp. 23–24.
’phags pa ’da’ ka ye shes zhes bya ba theg pa chen po’i mdo. Also in Khomthar Jamlö (2014, see below), vol. 6, pp. 23–24.
’dul ba rnam par gtan la dbab pa nye bar ’khor gyis zhus pa (Vinayaviniścayopāliparipṛcchā). Toh 68, Degé Kangyur vol. 43 (dkon brtsegs, ca), folios 115.a–131.a. English translation in UCSB Buddhist Studies Translation Group (2021, see below).
Prajñāsamudra. ’da’ ka ye shes kyi mdo’i rnam par bshad pa. Toh 4003, Degé Tengyur, vol. 116 (mdo ’grel, ji), folios 171a–174a. Also in Khomthar Jamlö (2014, see below), vol. 6, pp. 25–32. English translation in Lhasey Lotsawa Translations (2015, see below).
Śāntideva. ’da’ ka ye shes zhes bya ba chen po’i mdo’i ’grel pa. Toh 4004, Degé Tengyur, vol. 116 (mdo ’grel, ji), folios 174a–178a. Also in Khomthar Jamlö (2014, see below), vol. 6, pp. 33–42. English translation in Lhasey Lotsawa Translations (2015, see below).
Choné Drakpa Shedrub (co ne grags pa bshad sgrub). ’phags pa ’da’ ka ye shes dang ’du shes bcu gcig bstan pa’i mdo gnyis kyi ’grel pa. rje btsun grags pa bshad sgrub kyi gsung ’bum (computer input, Taipei: The Corporate Body of the Buddha Educational Foundation, 2010) Vol. 8, pp. 452–456. Also in Khomthar Jamlö (2014, see below), vol. 6, pp. 118–125.
Kalsang Gyatso (bskal bzang rgya mtsho), Dalai Lama XII. ’da’ ka ye shes zhes bya ba’i theg pa chen po’i mdo’i ’grel kun mkhyen ye shes snang ba’i nyi ma. In his Collected Works [bskal bzang rgya mtsho gsung ’bum]. Gangtok: Dodrup Sangye (1975–1983). Vol. 1, pp. 341–406. Also in Khomthar Jamlö (2014, see below), vol. 6, pp. 51–105.
Kawa Peltsek (ska ba dpal brtsegs). pho brang stod thang ldan dkar gyi chos kyi ’gyur ro cog gi dkar chag. Toh. 4364, Degé Tengyur, vol. 206 (sna tshogs, jo), folios 294b–310a.
Khomthar Jamlö (khoM thar ’jam los), ed. rgyal po mdo bcu’i rtsa ’grel phyogs bsgrigs [The Ten Sūtras of the King, collected texts and commentaries]. 10 volumes. Sichuan: si khron mi rigs dpe skrun khang [Sichuan Minorities Publishing House], 2014.
Mahāparinirvāṇasūtra (yongs su mya ngan las ’das pa chen po’i mdo). Toh 119 Degé Kangyur, vol. 52 (mdo sde, nya), folios 1.b–343.a and vol. 53 (mdo sde, ta), folios 1.b–339.a.
Mahāparinirvāṇasūtra (yongs su mya ngan las ’das pa chen po’i mdo). Toh 120 Degé Kangyur, vol. 54 (mdo sde, tha), folios 1.b–151.a.
Nyangrel Nyima Özer (nyang ral nyi ma ’od zer). “Zanglingma” (slob dpon pad+ma ’byung gnas kyi skyes rabs chos ’byung nor bu’i phreng ba / rnam thar zangs gling ma. In rin chen gter mdzod chen mo. New Delhi: Shechen Publications (2007–2008), vol. 1, pp. 1–190. English translation in Tsogyal (1993, see below).
Orgyen Lingpa (o rgyan gling pa). Padma Kathang (o rgyan gu ru pad+ma ’byung gnas kyi skyes rabs rnam par thar pa rgyas pa bkod pa pad+ma bka’i thang yig). Xining: sku ’bum byams pa ling par khang, 2001. Translations: in French, Toussaint (1933); in English, Douglas and Bays (1978, see entries below).
Shākya Chogden (shAkya mchog ldan). blo mchog pa’i dri lan sogs. In Shākya mchog ldan gyi gsung ’bum, vol. 17 (tsa), pp. 619–636. Kathmandu: Sachen International, 2006.
Douglas, Kenneth and Gwendolyn Bays, trans. The Life and Liberation of Padmasambhava: Padma Bka’i Thang. Emeryville, CA: Dharma Publishing, 1978. See above under Orgyen Lingpa.
Duff, Tony, trans. The Noble One Called “Point of Passage Wisdom,” A Great Vehicle Sutra. Kathmandu: Padma Karpo Translation Committee, 2011.
Jackson, Roger. “Two Bka’ ’gyur Works in Mahāmudrā Canons: The Ārya-ātajñāna-nāma-mahāyānasūtra and the Anāvila-tantra-rāja.” Journal of the International Association of Tibetan Studies 5 (2009).
———. “The Study of Mahāmudrā in the West: A Brief Historical Overview.” In Mahāmudrā and the Bka’-brgyud Tradition: Proceedings of the Eleventh Seminar of the International Association for Tibetan Studies, Königswinter 2006, edited by Roger Jackson and Matthew Kapstein. Andiast: International Institute for Tibetan and Buddhist Studies, 2011.
Lhasey Lotsawa Translations, trans. The Noble Wisdom of the Time of Death Sūtra & Commentaries by Prajñāsamudra and Śāntideva. Kathmandu: Lhasey Lotsawa Translations and Publications, 2015. PDF e-book. https://lhaseylotsawa.org.
Lopez, Donald S. The Heart Sūtra Explained: Indian and Tibetan Commentaries. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1988. Reprinted, Delhi: Sri Satguru Publications, 1990.
Rhaldri, Sherab. “A Brief Introduction to the ’Da’-Ka Ye-Shes (Atijñāna) Sūtra.” In Universal Message of Buddhist Tradition (With Special Reference to Pāli Literature), edited by Radhavallabh Tripathi, pp. 339–356. New Delhi: Rāshṭriya Saṃskṛta Saṃsthāna, 2010.
Toussaint, Gustave-Charles, trans. Le Dict de Padma: Padma Thang Yig, Ms. de Lithang. Paris: Librairie Ernest Leroux, 1933. See above under Orgyen Lingpa.
Tsiknopolis, Erick, trans. The Sūtra on Deep Wisdom at the Moment of Death. Self-published, Amazon Digital Services, 2019. Kindle.
Tsogyal, Yeshé. The Lotus-Born: The Life Story of Padmasambhava. Translated by Erik P. Kunsang and Marcia B. Schmidt. Boston: Shambhala, 1993.
UCSB Buddhist Studies Translation Group, trans. Ascertaining the Vinaya: Upāli’s Questions (Vinayaviniścayopāliparipṛcchā, Toh 68). 84000: Translating the Words of the Buddha, 2021.
- ’og min
The eighth and highest level of the Realm of Form (rūpadhātu, gzugs khams), and thus part of the world of the Brahmā gods (brahmaloka, gtsang ris); it is only accessible as the result of specific states of dhyāna. According to some texts this is where non-returners (anāgāmin) dwell in their last lives. In other texts it is the realm of the enjoyment body (saṃbhogakāya, longs spyod rdzogs pa’i sku) and is a buddhafield associated with the Buddha Vairocana; it is accessible only to bodhisattvas on the tenth level.
(See also n.9).
- nam mkha’i snying po
An important bodhisattva, his name means “essence of space.” He is one of the “eight great close sons” (aṣṭamahopaputra, nye ba’i sras chen brgyad).
- ’du shes
The term is used in an ordinary sense in Sanskrit to mean “notion,” “sign,” “conception,” “clear understanding.” It is also used more specifically in Buddhist scholastic contexts in the phrase “the aggregate of perceptions” (saṃjñāskandha).
- bsgom pa
- nges don
Five Royal Sūtras
- rgyal po mdo lnga
(1) Bhadracaryāpraṇidhāna (bzang spyod smon lam, (Toh 44-45a) in chapter 45 of the Avataṃsaka); for aspiration (smon lam), and described as vast (rgya chen). (2) Vajravidāraṇādhāraṇī (rdo rje rnam ’joms, Toh 750); for ablution (khrus). (3) Prajñāpāramitāhṛdaya (shes rab snying po, Toh 21 and 531); for the view (lta ba), and described as profound (zab mo). (4) Atyayajñāna (’da’ ka ye shes, Toh 122); for cultivation (sgom pa) and described as of definitive meaning (nges don). (5) bya ba ltung bshags (part of Vinayaviniścayopāliparipṛcchā, Toh 68); for purification of karmic obscurations (las sgrib dag pa).
Five Sets of One Hundred Thousand
- ’bum sde lnga
- ’bum chen sde lnga
(1) The long Prajñāpāramitā (Toh 8), which contains 100,000 ślokas; (2) the Mahāparinirvāṇa (Toh 119–120), which contains 100,000 testaments given by the Buddha at the time of his parinirvāṇa; (3) the Ratnakūṭa (Toh 45–93), which contains 100,000 distinct names of the Buddha; (4) the Avataṃsaka (Toh 44), which contains 100,000 aspirations; and (5) the Laṅkāvatāra (Toh 107-108), which contains 100,000 discourses that are ways of subjugating the rākṣasas. These five sets of 100,000 features are also said to correspond to the Buddha’s body, speech, mind, qualities, and activities, respectively.
- ’od gsal
- mi dmigs pa
- dmigs pa med pa
- ’dus pa
Ten Royal Sūtras
- rgyal po mdo bcu
In addition to the Five Royal Sūtras: (6) Aparimitāyurjñāna (tshe dang ye shes dpag tu med pa’i mdo, Toh 674); for extending longevity (tshe bsring). (7) gos sngon can gyi gzungs, perhaps Bhagavānnīlāmbaradharavajrapāṇitantra (Toh 498) but possibly another of the several texts on this form of Vajrapāṇi; for protection (srung ba). (8) Uṣṇīṣasitātapatrā (gtsug tor gdugs dkar, Toh 590, 591, and 592); for averting (zlog pa). (9) Vasudhāra (nor rgyun ma, Toh 663 and 664); for increasing resources (longs spyod spel ba). (10) Ekākṣarīmātāprajñāpāramitā (sher phyin yi ge gcig ma, Toh 23); for the essence (snying po).
Wisdom of the hour of death
- ’da’ ka ye shes