The Sūtra on Dependent Arising
Degé Kangyur vol. 62 (mdo sde, tsha), folios 125.a–125.b
Translated by the Buddhavacana Translation Group
under the patronage and supervision of 84000: Translating the Words of the Buddha.
While the Buddha is residing in the Realm of the Thirty-Three Gods with a retinue of deities, great hearers, and bodhisattvas, Avalokiteśvara asks the Buddha how beings can gain merit from building a stūpa. The Buddha responds by stating the Buddhist creed on dependent arising:
The Buddha then explains that this dependent arising is the dharmakāya, and that whoever sees dependent arising sees the Buddha. He concludes the sūtra by saying that one should place these verses inside stūpas to attain the merit of Brahmā.
Translation by the Buddhavacana Translation Group, Vienna, under the supervision of Khenpo Konchok Tamphel. This sūtra was translated into English by Rolf Scheuermann and Casey Kemp with the aid of Tom Tillemans.
This translation has been completed under the patronage and supervision of 84000: Translating the Words of the Buddha.
The topic of this sūtra, as is evident from its title, is the Buddhist doctrine of the dependent arising of conditioned phenomena. This concept is considered by many Buddhists to be the essence of the teaching, the Dharma. Dependent arising is often presented as a series of twelve links (nidāna) of causes and effects that begins with ignorance and ends with death. This schema is found in many canonical texts, and is the principal topic of the two works that precede the present sūtra in the Degé Kangyur, the Rice Seedling Sūtra (Śālistambhasūtra, Toh 210), and the Sūtra Teaching the Fundamental Exposition and Detailed Analysis of Dependent Arising (Pratītyasamutpādādivibhaṅganirdeśasūtra, Toh 211).1
The teaching on dependent arising is epitomized by the famous “creed” (dhāraṇī) in verse-form, stating that the Buddha teaches the causes for the arising of phenomena as well as that which is their cessation. This verse formula is perhaps best known from a narrative in the Vinaya recounting Śāriputra’s life. The story tells of Upatiṣya (as Śāriputra was called before he met the Buddha) first hearing about the Buddha from Aśvajit, one of the Buddha’s five erstwhile companions and earliest disciples. When Upatiṣya asks Aśvajit to summarize the very essence of the Buddha’s teaching, Aśvajit answers him by reciting this verse. As soon as he hears it, Upatiṣya immediately attains a preliminary state of realization.2
In the sūtra translated here, however, these same lines are taught to Avalokiteśvara by the Buddha himself.3 The Buddha then instructs his followers to insert them into stūpas in order to generate the merit of Brahmā, an extraordinary type of merit.4 The practice of inserting these verses, as well as impressing or inscribing them on religious images, appears to have become popular during the second half of the first millennium,5 and was observed by Xuanzang in the seventh century.6 The creed can be found inscribed on, or inserted within, miniature caityas or stūpas at holy sites throughout the Buddhist world such as Sarnath, Bodh Gaya, and Rājagṛha, as far east as Kedah and Java, and as far west as Afghanistan.7 This practice was continued by the Tibetans into the second millennium and to this day it is considered by Buddhists to be a meritorious act.8
Xuanzang mentions that these objects were considered relics of the Dharma (dharmaśarīra). Buddhist scripture came to be identified as a type of relic of the Buddha from the time of early Mahāyāna discourse, according to which worshipping the words of the Buddha was considered to be equivalent, if not superior, to worshipping the Buddha himself.9 Canonical sources, such as the Rice Seedling Sūtra (Toh 210), have furthermore equated dependent arising with the Dharma itself.10 Thus, inserting or inscribing the verse of dependent arising empowers an object just as a fragment of the Buddha’s remains would.11 Included in the Tibetan text of this sūtra is the Sanskrit transliteration of the verse, implying that they were used like a mantra or dhāraṇī;12 the Sanskrit syllables are considered potent in their own right as a manifestation of the Dharma and thus of the Buddha himself.
The sūtra is found in three places within the Degé Kangyur: in the General Sūtra section (Toh 212), the Action Tantra section (Toh 520), and the Dhāraṇīs (Toh 980).13 In two of those locations, it is followed by duplicates of a short separate text (Toh 521, Toh 981)14 containing the verse of dependent arising, which is also, of course, cited in numerous other texts. To date we do not know of any extant Sanskrit original version of the sūtra,15 and although there appear to be a few minor spelling mistakes and inconsistencies found in some versions, there are no significant variations among the available Tibetan texts. One modern translation of the sūtra that should be mentioned is that of Peter Skilling, who published it along with some helpful notes on it in his 2021 collection, Questioning the Buddha: A Selection of Twenty-Five Sutras.16
Homage to all buddhas and bodhisattvas!
Thus did I hear at one time. The Blessed One was in the Realm of the Thirty-Three Gods, seated on the throne of Indra. With him were great hearers such as the venerable Aśvajit; bodhisattva mahāsattvas such as noble Maitreya, noble Avalokiteśvara, and Vajrapāṇi, who were adorned with immeasurable precious qualities; as well as various gods such as the great Brahmā, who is the lord of the Sahā world, Nārāyaṇa, the great Īśvara, Śakra, who is the chief of the gods, and Pañcaśikha, who is the king of the gandharvas.
On that occasion, the bodhisattva mahāsattva Avalokiteśvara rose from his seat and, having draped his upper robe over one shoulder, knelt down with his right knee on the peak of Mount Meru. His palms together, he then bowed toward the Blessed One and addressed to him these words:
“Blessed One, these gods all really wish to build a stūpa. Now that they are present in this entourage, please teach them the Dharma in such a way so that their merit of Brahmā [F.125.b] will increase, and the merit of the monks, nuns, laymen, and laywomen will increase much more than that of all types of beings in the world of gods, māras, and Brahmā, including renunciants and brahmins.”
“Avalokiteśvara, it is like this. This dependent arising is the dharmakāya of all the tathāgatas. A person who sees dependent arising sees the Tathāgata. Avalokiteśvara, if a faithful son or daughter of a noble family, who has built in an uninhabited place a stūpa—even one no bigger than a gooseberry fruit, with a central pillar the size of a needle and a parasol the size of a flower of the bakula tree—inserts into it this verse of dependent arising which is the dharmadhātu, he or she will generate the merit of Brahmā. When such persons pass on from here and die, they will be reborn in the world of Brahmā. When they pass on from there and die, they will be reborn with fortunes equaling those of the gods of the Pure Abodes.”19
After the Blessed One had thus spoken, the hearers, bodhisattvas, the whole assembly, and the universe of gods, humans, asuras, and gandharvas rejoiced and praised his words.
Note that there is a discrepancy among various databases for cataloging the Toh 980 version of this text within vol. 101 or 102 of the Degé Kangyur. See Toh 980 note 13 for details.
In the Toh 520 version of the text there is a slight discrepancy in the folio numbering between the 1737 par phud printings and the late (post par phud) printings of the Degé Kangyur. Although the discrepancy is irrelevant here, further details concerning this may be found in note 17 of the Toh 520 version of this text.
’phags pa rten cing ’brel bar ’byung ba zhes bya ba theg pa chen po’i mdo (Āryapratītyasamutpādanāmamahāyānasūtra). Toh 212, Degé Kangyur, vol. 62 (mdo sde, tsha), folios 125a–125b. Cf. also Toh 520, vol. 88 (rgyud ’bum, na), folios 41a–42a (in par phud printings), 58a–59a (in post par phud printings); and Toh 980, vol. 101 (gzungs ’dus, waM), folios 99a–99b.
’phags pa rten cing ’brel bar ’byung ba 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 Tripiṭaka 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. 62, pp 342-344. Cf. also vol. 88, pp 183–185; and vol. 98, pp 324–326.
’phags pa rten cing ’brel bar ’byung ba’i snying po zhes bya ba theg pa chen po’i mdo (Āryapratītyasamutpādahṛdayanāma). Toh 521, Degé Kangyur, vol. 88 (rgyud ’bum, na), folio 42a (in par phud printings), 59a (in post par phud printings). Cf. also Toh 981, vol. 101 (gzungs ’dus, waM), folios 99b–100a.
’phags pa rten cing ’brel bar ’byung ba’i snying po 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 Tripiṭaka 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. 88, p 187. Cf. also vol. 98, p 328.
Bentor, Yael. “On The Indian Origins of the Tibetan Practice of Depositing Relics and Dharanis in Stupas and Images.” In Journal of the American Oriental Society 115.2 (1995), pp 248-261.
Bien, Annie. The Sūtra Teaching Dependent Arising with Its Beginning and Divisions (Pratītyasamutpādādivibhaṅganirdeśasūtra, Toh 211). 84000: Translating the Words of the Buddha, 2020.
Boucher, Daniel. “The Pratītyasamutpādagāthā and Its Role in the Medieval Cult of the Relics.” In Journal of the International Association for Buddhist Studies 14.1 (1991), pp 1-27.
Dharmasāgara Translation Group. The Rice Seedling (Śālistambhasūtra, Toh 210). 84000: Translating the Words of the Buddha (2018).
Mejor, Mareck. “On the Formulation of Pratītyasamutpāda: Some Observations from Vasubandhu’s Pratītyasamutpādavyākhyā.” In Agata Bareja-Starzyńska and Mareck Mejor (eds.). Aspects of Buddhism: Proceedings of the International Seminar on Buddhist Studies (June, 1994). Warsaw: Instytut Orientalistyczny, Uniwersytet Warszawski (1997a), pp 125-138.
———. “On Vasubandhu’s Pratītyasamutpādavyākhyā.” In Agata Bareja-Starzyńska and Mareck Mejor (eds.). Aspects of Buddhism: Proceedings of the International Seminar on Buddhist Studies (June, 1994). Warsaw: Instytut Orientalistyczny, Uniwersytet Warszawski (1997b), pp 139-148.
Miller, Robert. The Chapter on Joining the Renunciate Order (Vinayavastu Pravrajyāvastu, Toh 1). 84000: Translating the Words of the Buddha (2018).
Oldenberg, Hermann (ed.). The Vinayapiṭakaṃ: One of the Principal Buddhist Holy Scriptures in the Pāli Language, Vol. I: The Mahāvagga. Oxford: Pali Text Society (1997).
Reat, N. Ross. The Śālistamba Sūtra. Delhi: Banarsidas (1993).
Sakaki, Ryōzaburō (ed.). Mahāvyutpatti, 2 vols. Kyoto: Daigaku Shingonshū (1916 ).
Salomon, Richard and Gregory Schopen. “The Indravarnam (Avaca) Casket Inscription Reconsidered: Further Evidence for Canonical Passages in Buddhist Inscriptions.” In Journal of the International Association for Buddhist Studies 7.1 (1984), pp 107-123.
Skilling, Peter. (2003). “Traces of the Dharma: Preliminary reports on some ye dhammā and ye dharmā inscriptions from Mainland South-East Asia.” In Bulletin de l’École Française d’Extrême-Orient, 90-91 (2003-2004), pp 273-287.
———. (2021) Questioning the Buddha: A Selection of Twenty-Five Sutras. Somerville: Wisdom Publications.
Sykes, Lieutenant-Colonel. “On the Miniature Chaityas and Inscriptions of the Buddhist Religious Dogma, Found in the Ruins of the Temple of Sárnáth, near Benares.” In Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland (1856), vol. 16, pp 37-53.
- rta thul
One of the five ascetics who became the first disciples of the Buddha.
- spyan ras gzigs
First appeared as a bodhisattva beside Amitābha in the Sukhāvativyūha. The name has been variously interpreted. “The lord of Avalokita,” Avalokita has been interpreted as “seeing,” although, as a past passive participle, it is literally “lord of what has been seen.” One of the principal sūtras in the Mahāsāṃghika tradition was the Avalokita Sūtra, which has not been translated into Tibetan, in which the word is a synonym for enlightenment, as it is “that which has been seen” by the buddhas. In the early tantras he was one of the lords of the three families, as the embodiment of the compassion of the buddhas. The Potalaka Mountain in South India became important in Southern Indian Buddhism as his residence in this world, but Potalaka does not feature in the Kāraṇḍavyūha.
- ba ku la
Indian tree with a very fine flower.
- tshangs pa
The personification of the universal force of Brahman, who became a higher deity than Indra, the supreme deity of the early Vedas.
- srog shing
- rten cing ’brel bar ’byung ba
- chos kyi dbyings
In combination with pratītyasamutpāda (in this text rten cing ’brel bar ’byung ba chos kyi dbyings), the term dharmadhātu can refer to a type of Buddhist relic which is said to embody the essence of the Buddhist doctrine.
- chos sku
Dharmakāya or “body of dharma” refers to the Buddha’s realization of reality.
- dri za
Gandharvas, lit. “smell-eaters.” A class of deities known for being skilled musicians. Also the name of spirits in the bardo state.
- skyu ru ra
- dge sbyong chen po
Epithet of the Buddha.
- dbang phyug
One of the most frequently used names for Śiva. A deity of the jungles, named Rudra in the Vedas, he rose to prominence in the Purāṇic literature at the beginning of the first millennium.
- dge bsnyen
Male lay devotees who have taken the five precepts.
- dge bsnyen ma
Female lay devotees who have taken the five precepts.
- byams pa
Bodhisattva of loving kindness; the next buddha to follow Śākyamuni.
Demon who creates obstacles to practice and enlightenment.
Merit of Brahmā
- tshangs pa’i bsod nams
Brahmic merit or pure merit refers to an extraordinary type of merit which leads to rebirth in the realm of Brahmā.
- dge slong
Fully ordained Buddhist monk.
- ri rab
According to the ancient Indian cosmological system, Mount Meru is a mountain which forms the centre of the universe.
- sred med kyi bu
An alternate name for Viṣṇu. The Sanskrit is variously interpreted, including as “dwelling in water,” but is most obviously “the path of human beings.”
- dge slong ma
Fully ordained Buddhist nun.
- gnas gtsang ma
Name for the five highest levels of existence within the form realm.
- mi mjed
Indian Buddhist name usually referring to the trichiliocosm, the world system that is the universe of ordinary beings, but sometimes only to our own world with four continents around Mount Meru. It means “endurance,” as beings there have to endure suffering.
- brgya byin
Alternate name for Indra, the king of the gods in Hindu mythology.
- mchod rten
Reliquary for the remains of the Buddha or holy beings that represents the body of the Buddha.
- sum cu rtsa gsum
Name of a class of gods in the desire realm. There is also an associated heavenly realm, the Realm of the Thirty-Three Gods, which is named after these.
Throne of Indra
- ar mo nig lta bu’i rdo leb
A huge flat rock, Indra’s throne in the Realm of the Thirty-Three Gods; it is called Pāṇḍukambala, “like a blanket,” because it is made of a pale stone reminiscent of thick wollen cloth. Sakaki 7127 in the Mahāvyutpatti.
- phyag na rdo rje
- lag na rdo rje
First appeared in Buddhist literature as the yakṣa bodyguard of the Buddha, ready at times to shatter a person’s head into a hundred pieces with his vajra if he speaks inappropriately to the Buddha. His identity as a bodhisattva did not take place until the rise of the Mantrayāna in such sūtras as the Kāraṇḍavyūha (Toh 116). However, although listed (paradoxically along with Avalokiteśvara) as being in the assembly that hears the teaching of this sūtra, in the sūtra itself he is grouped with the worldly spirits that Avalokiteśvara frightens.