The Sūtra Teaching the Four Factors
- Yeshé Dé
Degé Kangyur, vol.66 (mdo sde, za), folios 59.a–59.b
Translated by Adam Pearcey
under the patronage and supervision of 84000: Translating the Words of the Buddha
While Buddha Śākyamuni is residing in the Sudharmā assembly hall in the Heaven of the Thirty-Three, he explains to the great bodhisattva Maitreya four factors that make it possible to overcome the effects of any negative deeds one has committed. These four are: the action of repentance, which involves feeling remorse; antidotal action, which is to practice virtue as a remedy to non-virtue; the power of restraint, which involves vowing not to repeat a negative act; and the power of support, which means taking refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, and Saṅgha, and never forsaking the mind of awakening. The Buddha concludes by recommending that bodhisattvas regularly recite this sūtra and reflect on its meaning as an antidote to any further wrongdoing.
The The Sūtra Teaching the Four Factors (Caturdharmanirdeśasūtra, Toh 249) is the first of three short sūtras with similar titles, all referring to sets of four dharmas or factors, elements that contribute to accomplishing the goal of the path. In many Kangyurs (predominantly those of Tshalpa origin, including the Degé Kangyur), these sūtras are found grouped together.
Of the other sūtras in this set, The Four Factors (Caturdharmakasūtra, Toh 250)1 identifies four beliefs that a wise son of a good family should not accept as true, while The Noble Mahāyāna Sūtra on the Four Factors (Āryacaturdharmakanāmamahāyānasūtra, Toh 251)2 identifies four factors of the path which bodhisattvas must not abandon under any circumstance. Two further works, The Accomplishment of the Sets of Four Qualities: The Bodhisattvas’ Prātimokṣa (Toh 248) and The Fourfold Accomplishment (Toh 252)3 also concern themselves with various “sets of four” (catuṣka, bzhi pa), thereby forming a group of five sūtras in the Degé Kangyur that lay out key elements of the practice of the path in discrete sets of four factors.
In The Sūtra Teaching the Four Factors, translated here, the factors relate to the practice of confession (even though no equivalent of that word occurs in the sūtra itself) and the purification of misdeeds or negative, harmful actions (pāpa). The Bodhyāpattideśanāvṛtti (Commentary on the Confession of Bodhisattva Downfalls), for example, which is attributed to Nāgārjuna, cites the sūtra and elaborates on the four powers (stobs bzhi), as the four factors came to be known, despite the fact that only the final two are labeled “power” (stobs; bala) in the sūtra itself. Bhāviveka’s Tarkajvālā, too, refers to the sūtra in support of the view that even the very gravest of negative actions can be purified. And chapter eight of Śāntideva’s Śikṣāsamuccaya (Compendium of Training), on the purification of misdeeds (pāpaśodhana; sdig pa sbyong ba), not only quotes from the Caturdharmanirdeśasūtra, but even takes the four factors as its central theme.
Tibetan authors, too, make it clear that the four powers are the key elements of confessional practice (bshags pa). In his famous Ornament of Precious Liberation (dwags po thar rgyan), Gampopa Sönam Rinchen (sgam po pa bsod nams rin chen, 1079–1153) relates the powers to episodes in the lives of the Buddha’s contemporaries Nanda, Aṅgulimāla, Ajātaśatru, and Udayana, in order to demonstrate the necessity of each factor. Tsongkhapa Losang Drakpa (tsong kha pa blo bzang grags pa, 1357–1419) draws on both the Caturdharmanirdeśasūtra itself and Śāntideva’s discussion in the Śikṣāsamuccaya to explain the powers in some detail in his magnum opus, the Lamrim Chenmo.4 It is also common to find reference to the four powers in Tibetan purificatory rites and commentaries on them.5 There are slight variations in the spelling of the names and the sequence of these powers, and not all Tibetan works cite the Caturdharmanirdeśasūtra as their source, but the derivation is clear enough.6
At least two Sanskrit editions of the Caturdharmanirdeśasūtra exist today.7 One is a manuscript from a collection held in the Potala library in Lhasa, which recently became available in a critical edition.8 It exhibits several variations from the versions in the Tibetan canon, most notably in its inclusion, near the end, of a four-line verse that it attributes to the Buddha himself:
“Even minor transgressions prove the downfall of the foolish,Whereas even serious transgressions do not affect the wise.A lump of iron, though small, sinks in water;But even a great mass of iron, when made into a vessel, floats.”9
Some other minor differences are also noted below.
Recently, Peter Skilling has included a fine translation of the sūtra from the Tibetan along with some helpful notes in his 2021 collection, Questioning the Buddha: A Selection of Twenty-Five Sutras.10
The following translation was made primarily on the basis of the Degé block print and the Comparative Edition (dpe bsdur ma), although it follows the Peking Yongle and Kangxi recensions on one significant point, for reasons that are explained in a note. Otherwise, since the various Tibetan canonical versions vary among themselves only slightly in matters of orthography, such instances have not been specified here.
Homage to all the buddhas and bodhisattvas!
Thus did I hear at one time. The Blessed One was dwelling in the Sudharmā assembly hall in the Heaven of the Thirty-Three, together with a great gathering of five hundred monks,11 and very many bodhisattva mahāsattvas, including Maitreya and Mañjuśrī.
At that time the Blessed One said to the bodhisattva mahāsattva Maitreya, [F.59.b] “O Maitreya, bodhisattva mahāsattva, if you possess four factors, the misdeeds you have committed and accumulated will be overcome.
“The action of repentance is to feel intense remorse for any non-virtuous action you have committed.
“Antidotal action is to put great effort into virtuous actions once you have committed a non-virtuous action.
“The power of support is to take refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, and Saṅgha, and not to forsake the mind of awakening. By relying on such powerful forces, you will be immune to misdeeds.
“O Maitreya, bodhisattva mahāsattva, if you possess these four factors, you will overcome any misdeeds that you have committed and accumulated. The bodhisattva mahāsattva should continually read this sūtra, recite it aloud, and reflect and meditate on it, doing so many times. Through this, the effects of negative conduct will not come about.”
Once the Blessed One had said this, the whole assembly, including the bodhisattva mahāsattva Maitreya, the monks, the bodhisattvas, and the ranks of the gods, such as Śakra, were overjoyed and full of praise for what the Blessed One had taught.
This concludes the noble Mahāyāna sūtra entitled “Teaching the Four Factors.”
’phags pa chos bzhi bstan pa zhes bya theg pa chen po’i mdo (Caturdharmanirdeśasūtra). Toh 249, Degé Kangyur vol. 66 (mdo sde, za), folios 59a–59b.
’phags pa chos bzhi bstan pa zhes bya 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. 66, pp. 163–5.
Bhāviveka. dbu ma’i snying po’i ’grel pa rtog ge ’bar ba (Madhyamakahṛdayatarkajvālā). Toh 3856. Degé Tengyur vol. 98 (dbu ma, dza), folios 40b–329b.
Gampopa Sönam Rinchen (sgam po pa bsod nams rin chen). dam chos yid bzhin gyi nor bu thar pa rin po che’i rgyan. In bstan rim gces btus (Institute of Tibetan Classics vol. 10). Delhi: bod kyi gtsug lag zhib ’jug khang, 2009, pp. 45–243.
Losang Chökyi Gyaltsen (blo bzang chos kyi rgyal mtshan). stobs bzhi’i bshags bsdoms bya tshul. In blo bzang chos kyi rgyi mtshan dpal bzang po’i gsung ’bum, 5 volumes, bkra shis lhun po’i par khang. 199? vol. 4, pp. 527–32. (Cf. vol. 5, pp. 293–6).
———. stobs bzhi tshang ba sangs rgyas so lnga’i bya tshul. In blo bzang chos kyi rgyal mtshan dpal bzang po’i gsung ’bum, 5 volumes, bkra shis lhun po’i par khang. 199? vol. 5, 286–9.
Nāgārjuna. byang chub kyi ltung ba bshags pa’i ’grel pa (Bodhyāpattideśanāvṛtti). Toh 4005. Degé Tengyur vol. 116 (mdo ’grel, ji), folios 178a–187b.
Śāntideva. bslab pa kun las btus pa (Śikṣāsamuccaya). Toh 3940. Degé Tengyur vol. 111 (dbu ma, khi), folios 3a–194b.
Tsongkhapa Losang Drakpa (tsong kha pa blo bzang grags pa). skyes bu gsum gyi nyams su blang ba’i rim pa thams cad tshang bar ston pa’i byang chub lam gyi rim pa in rje tsong kha pa’i gsung ’bum. 18 volumes. Dharamsala: Sherig Parkhang, 1997, vol. 13, folios 1–521.
Skilling, Peter. Questioning the Buddha: A Selection of Twenty-Five Sutras. Somerville: Wisdom Publications, 2021.
Bendall, Cecil and W.H.D. Rouse. ŚikshāSamuccaya: A Compendium of Buddhist Doctrine Compiled by Śāntideva. London: John Murray, 1922.
Feer, Henri Léon. “Le Sūtra des Quatre Préceptes.” Journal Asiatique, sér. 6, tome 8 (1866): 269–357.
Gampopa. The Jewel Ornament of Liberation: The Wish-fulfilling Gem of the Noble Teachings. Translated by Khenpo Konchog Gyaltsen Rinpoche. Ithaca: Snow Lion Publications, 1998.
Goodman, Charles. The Training Anthology of Śāntideva: A Translation of the Śikṣā-samuccaya. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.
Ngawang Pelzang. A Guide to The Words of My Perfect Teacher. Translated by Padmakara Translation Group. Boston: Shambhala Publications, 2004.
Patrul Rinpoche. The Words of My Perfect Teacher. Translated by Padmakara Translation Group. Boston: Shambhala Publications, 1998.
Pearcey, Adam, trans. (2023a). The Four Factors (Caturdharmakasūtra, Toh 250). 84000: Translating the Words of the Buddha, 2023.
————, trans. (2023b). The Noble Mahāyāna Sūtra on the Four Factors (Āryacaturdharmakanāmamahāyānasūtra, Toh 251). 84000: Translating the Words of the Buddha, 2023.
Pruden, Leo M. Abhidharmakośabhāṣyam by Louis de la Vallée Poussin.English Translation. 4 vols. Berkeley, California: Asian Humanities Press, 1988.
Samten, Ngawang and Janarden Pandey (ed.). “Āryacaturdharmanirdeśasūtram.” Dhīḥ: Journal of Rare Buddhist Texts Research Unit, 35 (2003): 45–52.
Tseng, Vinita. A unique collection of twenty Sūtras in a Sanskrit manuscript from the Potala. Volume I.1. Austrian Academy of Sciences Press, 2010.
Tsong-kha-pa. The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment. vol. 1. Translated by the Lamrim Chenmo Translation Committee. Ithaca: Snow Lion Publications, 2000.
Wangchuk, Dorji. The Resolve to Become a Buddha: A Study of the Bodhicitta Concept in Indo-Tibetan Buddhism. Tokyo: The International Institute for Buddhist Studies, 2007.
action of repentance
- rnam par sun ’byin pa kun tu spyod pa
- gnyen po kun tu spyod pa
Heaven of the Thirty-Three
- sum cu rtsa gsum
- byams pa
- ’jam dpal
power of restraint
- sor chud par byed pa’i stobs
power of support
- rten gyi stobs
- brgya byin
- chos bzang
- su ren dra bo dhi
- ye shes sde