The Sūtra on Reliance upon a Virtuous Spiritual Friend
Degé Kangyur, vol 71 (mdo sde, sha), folios 304.b–305.a.
Translated by the Sakya Pandita Translation Group (International Buddhist Academy Division)
under the patronage and supervision of 84000: Translating the Words of the Buddha
Just prior to his passing away, Buddha Śākyamuni reminds his disciples of the importance of living with a qualified spiritual teacher. Ānanda, the Blessed One’s attendant, attempts to confirm his teacher’s statement, saying that a virtuous spiritual friend is indeed half of one’s spiritual life. Correcting his disciple’s understanding, the Buddha explains that a qualified guide is the whole of, rather than half of, the holy life, and that by relying upon a spiritual friend beings will be released from birth and attain liberation from all types of suffering.
This sūtra was translated from Tibetan into English by Khenpo Ngawang Jorden and Christian Bernert, members of the Sakya Pandita Translation Group (International Buddhist Academy Division), Kathmandu.
This translation has been completed under the patronage and supervision of 84000: Translating the Words of the Buddha.
The setting for this sūtra is a grove near Kuśinagara, the capital of the Malla kingdom, where Buddha Śākyamuni spent his last hours before passing into parinirvāṇa, the final state of release from the suffering of worldly existence. Kuśinagara, situated in what is now the north-Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, is venerated by Buddhists as one of the four holiest shrines. The other three are Lumbini, his birthplace in what is now southern Nepal; Bodhgaya in modern Bihar, where he attained enlightenment; and Sarnath, near modern Varanasi, where he delivered his first sermon.
In this sūtra, the Buddha discusses the importance of following a qualified spiritual teacher as a support for one’s spiritual development. As it was delivered just prior to his passing away, we can see how highly the Buddha esteemed the role of a teacher on the path. Correcting his disciple Ānanda’s understanding, the Buddha explains that one’s spiritual development depends entirely on reliance upon a qualified guide or virtuous spiritual friend.
Indeed, teachers play an eminent role in all Buddhist traditions, and are respected and venerated accordingly in traditional Buddhist cultures. In different sūtras, the Buddha taught the four reliances,1 as one of which he advised his followers to rely on the teaching, rather than on the person. In Buddhism, no person—no teacher, that is—functions as an ultimate refuge. Even the Buddha’s physical form was subject to decay and thus not an ultimate object of refuge.
However, as the Buddha explains in this sūtra, without the help of a spiritual friend, progress on the path is very difficult, if not impossible. The teacher functions as a qualified and experienced guide, capable of guiding others along the arduous path to liberation. A teacher inspires students by embodying the results of the practice, guides them by pointing out the right direction, and supports their development by removing doubts and confusions. While genuine progress is impossible without a teacher, misguided advice could, even if well intended, be detrimental to one’s whole path. Consequently, the Buddha stresses the importance of a qualified spiritual friend, but counsels caution in choosing the teacher.
This sūtra is quoted at the end of two avadāna stories, which like the jātakas, are accounts of the great deeds of the Buddha and bodhisattvas in previous lives.2 The translators of the Tibetan version are not recorded in the Tibetan colophon, but the Degé Kangyur catalogue states that the text was translated by the (Indian) paṇḍita Dharmākara and the (Tibetan) translator Zangkyong (lo tsA ba bzang skyong). Dharmākara contributed to several Vinaya translations and, as a team, this pair was responsible for several other translations in this part of the Kangyur as well as two commentaries in the Tengyur (Toh 4015 and 4038). There is evidence that both were contemporaries of Kawa Paltsek (ska ba dpal brtsegs), a major translator of the early period and active in at least part of the 8th century. However, unlike two other works by the same translators (Toh 285 and 295), the translation of this text is not listed in the early 9th century Denkarma (ldan dkar ma) or Pangthangma (’phang thang ma) inventories, which means either that it was completed only later in the 9th century, or that it existed already but was listed as a canonical text only in later compilations.
In the Pāli canon, we find a corresponding sutta in the Mahā-vagga section of the Saṃyutta Nikāya, namely the Upaḍḍha Sutta (SN 45.2), where the Buddha further mentions the eightfold path of the Noble Ones, which those who are supported by a spiritual friend should follow.
There are corresponding sūtras extant in the Chinese (T 2.99) and the Korean (K 650) canons.
The version of this sūtra in the Degé Kangyur was compared to those in the Narthang, Peking and Lhasa Kangyurs. However there were no differences that required changing a word in the English translation.
A French translation of this sūtra from Tibetan by Léon Feer was published in the Journal Asiatique in 1866.
The terms virtuous spiritual friend and non-virtuous spiritual friend are used in the translation to render the Tibetan terms dge ba’i bshes gnyen and sdig pa’i bshes gnyen. While the terms dge ba and sdig pa are not literal opposites (as opposed to virtuous and non-virtuous), we chose this rendering because in this sūtra, the Buddha makes the broad distinction between two types of teachers: those worthy of being relied upon, and those who are not. To express this opposition clearly, we therefore opted to translate sdig pa as non-virtuous. Strictly speaking, too, the word “spiritual” is an addition to the basic meaning of both the Tibetan and Sanskrit terms. It seems, however, justified by the connotations in this context—good and bad teachers or spiritual guides are implied, not simply ordinary friends and companions.
Homage to all buddhas and bodhisattvas.
Thus did I hear at one time. The Bhagavān was dwelling in the Grove of Twin Sāl-Trees in the vicinity3 of the Malla town of Kuśinagara,4 together with a retinue of śrāvakas. Then, when the Bhagavān was about to pass into parinirvāṇa, he addressed the bhikṣus, “Bhikṣus, you should train in this way. Bhikṣus, you should train thinking, ‘One should live with a virtuous spiritual friend, a virtuous companion, a virtuous support. One should not, however, live with a non-virtuous spiritual friend, a non-virtuous companion, a non-virtuous support.’ ”
Then, the venerable Ānanda spoke to the Bhagavān, “Honorable One, having come here alone to a secluded place, I had gone into meditative retreat5 when the following thought arose in my mind: ‘A virtuous spiritual friend, a virtuous companion, a virtuous support is half the holy life. A non-virtuous spiritual friend, a non-virtuous companion, a non-virtuous support, however, is not.’ ”
The Bhagavān replied, “Ānanda, [F.305.a] do not say that a virtuous spiritual friend, a virtuous companion, a virtuous support is half the holy life, but that a non-virtuous spiritual friend, a non-virtuous companion, a non-virtuous support is not.
“Why? Ānanda, the point is that a virtuous spiritual friend, a virtuous companion, a virtuous support is the whole, the unadulterated, the complete, the pure, the totally purified holy life, but a non-virtuous spiritual friend, a non-virtuous companion, a non-virtuous support is not.
“Why is that? Ānanda, it is because, by relying on me as their spiritual friend,6 sentient beings subject to birth will be completely released from being subject to birth, and sentient beings subject to aging, sickness, death, sorrow, lamentation, suffering, distress, and agitation will be completely released from being subject to aging, sickness, death, sorrow, lamentation, suffering, distress, and agitation.
“Therefore, Ānanda, you should understand this in the following way alone. A virtuous spiritual friend, a virtuous companion, a virtuous support is the whole, the unadulterated, the complete, the pure, the totally purified holy life, but a non-virtuous spiritual friend, a non-virtuous companion, a non-virtuous support is not. Ānanda, you should train thinking in this way.”
When the Bhagavān had spoken these words, the bhikṣus rejoiced and highly praised what the Blessed One had taught.
|KQ||Peking (Qianlong) Kangyur|
’phags pa dge ba’i bshes gnyen bsten pa’i mdo (Āryakalyāṇamitrasevanasūtra). Toh 300, Degé Kangyur, vol 71 (mdo sde, sha), folios 304.b-305.a.
’phags pa dge ba’i bshes gnyen bsten pa’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 71, pp 829-831.
’phags pa dge ba’i bshes gnyen bsten pa’i mdo. rKTs-K300, Q 966, Peking Qianlong (KQ), vol. 38 (mdo sna tshogs, lu), folios 334a-335a.
Alsdorf, Ludwig. Śaśa-Jātaka und Śaśa-Avadāna. In: Wiener Zeitschrift für die Kunde Süd-und Ostasiens, 5, 1-17, 1961. Reprinted in: Wezler, Albrecht (ed.). Ludwig Alsdorf, Kleine Schriften. Wiesbaden: F. Steiner, 1974.
Bhikkhu Bodhi. The Connected Discourses of the Buddha: A New Translation of the Samyutta Nikāya. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2000.
- kun dga’ bo
The Buddha’s cousin and attendant.
- dge slong
A fully ordained monk of the Buddhist saṅgha.
- tshangs par spyod pa
Lit. “brahma conduct,” this denotes the conduct of those who have renounced worldly life and entered the ordained Buddhist Sangha to devote themselves to spiritual study and practice.
A kingdom of ancient India situated to the North of Magadha.
- yongs su mya ngan las ’das pa
The name given to the display of the Buddha’s passing away in Kuśinagara.
Virtuous spiritual friend
- dge ba’i bshes gnyen
A general term to denote a qualified spiritual teacher.