The White Lotus of Compassion
- Bendé Yeshé Dé
Degé Kangyur, vol. 50 (mdo sde, cha), folios 129.a–297.a
Translated by Peter Alan Roberts and team
under the patronage and supervision of 84000: Translating the Words of the Buddha
The Buddha Śākyamuni recounts one of his most significant previous lives, when he was a court priest to a king and made a detailed prayer to become a buddha, also causing the king and his princes, his own sons and disciples, and others to make their own prayers to become buddhas too. This is revealed to be not only the major event that is the origin of buddhas and bodhisattvas such as Amitābha, Akṣobhya, Avalokiteśvara, Mañjuśrī, and the thousand buddhas of our eon, but also the source and reason for Śākyamuni’s unsurpassed activity as a buddha.
The “white lotus of compassion” in the title of this sūtra refers to Śākyamuni himself, emphasizing his superiority over all other buddhas, like a fragrant, healing white lotus among a bed of ordinary flowers. Śākyamuni chose to be reborn in an impure realm during a degenerate age, and therefore his compassion was greater than that of other buddhas.
The sūtra was translated from the Tibetan with reference to the Sanskrit by Peter Alan Roberts. Tulku Yeshi Gyatso of the Sakya Monastery, Seattle, was the consulting lama who reviewed the translation. Guilaine Mala was the consultant for the Chinese versions. Emily Bower was the project manager, editor, and proofreader.
The translation was completed under the patronage and supervision of 84000: Translating the Words of the Buddha.
The translation of this text has been made possible through the generous sponsorship of an anonymous donor.
The White Lotus of Compassion describes the origin of many buddhas and bodhisattvas, focusing in particular on the Buddha Śākyamuni. The “white lotus of compassion” in the title refers to Śākyamuni himself, emphasizing his superiority over all other buddhas, like a fragrant, healing white lotus among a bed of ordinary flowers.
Most of the sūtra’s narrative, recounted by the Buddha on Vulture Peak Mountain, takes place in the distant past and concerns the cakravartin king Araṇemin, his thousand sons, his chief court priest Samudrareṇu, and Samudrareṇu’s followers and eighty-one sons, one of whom has sought enlightenment and become the Buddha Ratnagarbha. Samudrareṇu encourages people throughout the kingdom to aspire to attain enlightenment too, and eventually brings about the conditions for the king and many members of his court to make their own aspirations in the presence of the Buddha Ratnagarbha. On these occasions the Buddha Ratnagarbha prophesies the buddhahood of the individuals concerned. He prohesies that King Araṇemin will become the Buddha Amitābha; that 999 of Samudrareṇu’s disciples, together with five of his attendants, will become the 1,004 buddhas of our Fortunate Eon;1 and that Samudrareṇu himself will become the Buddha Śākyamuni. Origin stories for the Buddha Akṣobhya, for the Buddha Amitābha’s accompanying bodhisattvas Avalokiteśvara and Mahāsthāmaprāpta, and for the bodhisattvas Mañjuśrī and Samantabhadra are also told.
The text explains how Śākyamuni is a buddha whose compassionate activity surpasses that of other buddhas because of the exceptionally powerful aspirations he made as Samudrareṇu in the presence of the Buddha Ratnagarbha. It also recounts miracles he accomplishes beyond anything else described in Mahāyāna Buddhist literature—such as bringing trillions of bodhisattvas into his body—and narratives of other previous lifetimes in which his generosity and self-sacrifice are unparalleled.
It therefore counters the seemingly justifiable notion that buddhas such as Amitābha and Akṣobhya, who dwell for many eons in their pure buddhafields, have qualities greater than those of Śākyamuni, whose life was much shorter and whose buddhafield—this Sahā world—appears so rough and impure. That Śākyamuni deliberately vowed to attain enlightenment and teach the hard-to-train beings in such a difficult environment is the very measure of his extraordinary compassion and exceptional activity.
There are two other sūtras that have “white lotus” (puṇḍarīka) in the title. The most famous is The White Lotus of the Good Dharma Sūtra (Toh 113),2 usually referred to in English as The Lotus Sūtra. There is also The White Lotus of Great Compassion (Toh 111), which immediately precedes The White Lotus of Compassion in the same volume of the Kangyur. Understandably, these three texts, and especially the latter two, are sometimes confused with each other. However, their contents are quite different.
The narrative places great emphasis on how the aspiration for the attainment of complete enlightenment is made. Samudrareṇu’s vast aspirations serve as the ultimate model, but the many other examples in the narrative of how different individuals aspire to attain enlightenment establish, for comparison, a wide range of possibilities, with their consequences portrayed as demonstrating varying levels of excellence.
The vow to become a samyaksambuddha (“one who has attained complete buddhahood”) sets a bodhisattva’s course toward attaining buddhahood in a world where the Dharma does not already exist, or once existed but has disappeared, and then teaching there. This stands in contrast with pratyekabuddhas, who on attaining realization in a world without the Dharma remain in solitude and do not teach. While pratyekabuddhas complete the process leading to their realization independently, without necessarily having recourse to guidance from others, buddhas arise not as individuals in isolation but as the final outcome of a long process over lifetimes of being inspired, taught, and guided by previous buddhas. Indeed, the idea that buddhas have arisen and will arise one after another over time is the logical corollary of that notion of lineage.3
The process through which buddhas inspire ordinary beings to become first bodhisattvas, then buddhas themselves, is seen as being spread over very long periods spanning many eons. Its successive stages are defined in many different ways,4 but perhaps the most crucial stage of all is the moment when the bodhisattva takes a fully developed aspirational vow, in the presence of a buddha, to attain the state of samyaksambuddha in a particular way and under specified conditions. This text’s principal focus is how that stage was accomplished by the Buddha Śakyamuni in the previous life recounted here.
The expression “highest, most complete enlightenment” is repeated many times in the sūtra, and in one sense (the aspect of the wisdom realized) complete buddhahood is always the same. However, the extent of what a given buddha can achieve in terms of enlightened activity for beings (the aspect of the compassion deployed) varies widely, and is determined solely by the power and particularities of the aspirations made in previous lives while a bodhisattva. The sūtra’s main import is to explain how, because of his aspirations, the Buddha Śākyamuni is even greater than most of the many other buddhas and bodhisattvas who have previously appeared, despite their long lives and the pure realms in which they have manifested. Indeed, Śākyamuni’s short life and the impurity of his realm are the very signs of his superiority. The sūtra goes so far as to say that in comparison to him even famous bodhisattvas such as Avalokiteśvara are undeserving of the title mahāsattva (“great being”) because of their choice to eventually become buddhas in pure realms. In this sūtra, only eight bodhisattvas are said to make the vow to be buddhas with a short life in a kaliyuga—a time of the five degeneracies—one of whom is Śākyamuni. The identities of the other seven, along with those of a considerable number of other personages, are unique to this sūtra and are mentioned nowhere else.
As is the case for many Mahāyāna sūtras, it can be seen from the versions that have survived in different languages from different periods that The White Lotus of Compassion evolved over time. No early Sanskrit witnesses of its early stages in India, even fragmentary, have been found, but the earliest versions of the sūtra in a form close to the one translated here survive in the form of two Chinese translations made in the early fifth century. The eighth or ninth century Tibetan translation is the next oldest version, and the several Sanskrit manuscripts from Nepal are the most recent, being of much later date.
The earliest extant versions of The White Lotus of Compassion in its more or less complete form are thus the two fifth-century Chinese translations, one by an anonymous translator (Taishō 158), which the Japanese scholar Isshi Yamada believes predates the other, by Dharmakṣema (Taishō 157), made in 419 ᴄᴇ.5 However, it is possible that, like other Mahāyāna sūtras, The White Lotus of Compassion started as a compilation of earlier, shorter sūtras, or at least included elements found in other shorter texts.6 Indeed, Chinese bibliographies have listed about twenty texts that could have inspired the formation of this sūtra. These texts were translated by Zhi Qian (active 223–53 ᴄᴇ), Dharmarakṣa (230–316), Kumārajīva (334–413), and others, and had titles such as Ratnavairocana’s Questions about the Padmā Buddha Realm and Samudrareṇu’s Dream. None are now extant, but a bibliography by Seng Min, written in 508 and enlarged in 516, has six extracts from five of these short sūtras, each of which corresponds to a section of The White Lotus of Compassion.7
As for the Tibetan translation, we know that it was produced in the late eighth or early ninth century, since the text is included in the Denkarma (ldan dkar ma) catalog, usually dated to c. 812 ᴄᴇ.8 According to the colophon, it was produced by the Tibetan translator and chief editor Yeshé Dé, working with the Indian paṇḍitas Jinamitra, Surendrabodhi, and Prajñāvarman.
From a historical point of view, the fact that the sūtra contains origin stories for Amitābha, Avalokiteśvara, and Mahāsthāmaprāpta suggests that it came into being in a Buddhist milieu where the Buddha Amitābha—or Amitāyus, as he was then primarily known—and his Sukhāvatī realm were of great importance, and thus later than the Sukhāvatīvyūha (The Display of the Pure Land of Sukhāvatī, Toh 115)9 and the Saddharmapuṇḍarīka (The White Lotus of the Good Dharma, Toh 113).10 Conversely, because certain other prominent bodhisattvas, such as Sarvanīvaraṇaviṣkambhin, Ākāśagarbha, Kṣitigarbha, and Vajrapāṇi, do not appear in the text, it may have appeared in writing before these figures had risen to their full prominence in the Mahāyāna tradition. From the perspective of its wider cultural context, The White Lotus of Compassion also seems to have appeared after the emergence in India of Śaivism and Vaiṣṇavism and of Maheśvara and Nārāyaṇa (as Śiva and Viṣṇu are normally referred to in Buddhist texts) as prominent deities.11
As for the sūtra’s place of origin, there are references to the music and musical instruments of the Karṇāṭaka region of South India. Moreover, the long dhāraṇī, which is the main topic of the first part of the sūtra, is described in the text as a Dravidian mantra. Dravidian is the term used for the people, language, and culture of South India. Also, Samudrareṇu praises Ratnagarbha in a set of verses that have distinct South Indian linguistic features, such as devu and nāgu for deva and nāga.
These various kinds of evidence taken together point to a likely first appearance of the sūtra in India, in a form close to its present one, in the fourth century ᴄᴇ, probably incorporating earlier material.
The sūtra’s influence on commentarial Indian Buddhist literature seems to have been minimal. The only text that quotes from it is A Detailed Explanation of “Chanting the Names of Mañjuśrī,”12 which repeats the passage of Maitreya being commended for remaining in saṃsāra out of compassion.
In the Tibetan literature, however, it has been very widely quoted, from the eleventh century down to the present day, by a large number of authors from all traditions. Notably, the polymath scholar Ju Mipham Gyatso (’ju mi pham rgya mtsho, 1842–1912) included an abridged version of much of the text, filling much of the first volume in his two-volume anthology of significant past-life stories of the Buddha compiled as the supporting material (rgyab chos) for his sādhana centered on Śākyamuni.13
Both the versions of the Tibetan in different Kangyurs, and the Sanskrit manuscripts, contain numerous variants, particularly in the long dhāraṇīs. For some texts the most plausible variant in the Tibetan can be determined by comparison with the Sanskrit, but in this case the earliest Sanskrit manuscript now available to us dates from as late as the eighteenth century, making such assumptions risky. The successive copying of the Sanskrit manuscripts, many of which were augmented with additional material, has resulted in an accumulation of variations.
Since the Chinese translations represent the earliest recorded form of The White Lotus of Compassion, the Tibetan an intermediate stage, and the Sanskrit manuscripts its latest form, it is no surprise that the Tibetan translation sometimes agrees with the Chinese and sometimes with the Sanskrit. The introductory passage in the sūtra is significantly longer in present Sanskrit manuscripts, and the Sanskrit preserves an occasional word, or in one place an entire sentence, that appears to have been inadvertently omitted in the Tibetan version. These omissions have been restored in this translation when necessary for a clear narrative. There are a few places where an evident omission predates even the Chinese translation (as when four names are given for five deities, in which case a correction has not been possible). At times the Tibetan can be opaque in meaning compared to the Sanskrit because the specificities of Sanskrit grammar have been lost; the Sanskrit has therefore been invaluable in seeing what the Tibetan translator was attempting to reproduce. While the Sanskrit of this sūtra has probably been increasingly standardized over time, it still retains many features of hybrid Sanskrit, which is a Middle Indic language that has been converted in varying degrees to conform to classical Sanskrit. The result is that there are numerous words in the sūtra that do not appear in any Sanskrit dictionary, or, if they do, have a different meaning there. Franklin Edgerton’s Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit Dictionary (1953) is particularly helpful. With the exception of well-known persons and places, proper nouns in Middle Indic forms are given as they appear in the Sanskrit witness and have not been standardized according to the rules of classical Sanskrit.
One particular challenge has been the translation of the nomenclature of plants, trees, jewels, and so on. In the Tibetan translation many of these are simply transliterations of the Sanskrit. For instance, in a description common to a number of sūtras, the ground is said to be as soft as kācalindika. This was transliterated into Tibetan, and Sanskrit dictionaries offer only that it is a kind of bird. Fortunately, descriptions of the bird in other sources such as the Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūtra specify that kācalindika is the down made from the bar-headed goose, flocks of which are widespread throughout India and spend the monsoon in the Himalayas and Tibet, and which is said to have the most exceptional down of all geese. Nevertheless, in many other cases no outside sources could be found, and several terms remain mysteries.
There are numerous place and personal names in the sūtra, and fortunately in nearly every case there is a clear correspondence between the Tibetan and Sanskrit. Despite scribal corruptions and discrepancies between manuscripts, the Sanskrit texts were invaluable in supplying the numerous Sanskrit names of individuals. When the Sanskrit and Tibetan versions vary, the Chinese translations have been useful in determining which version was likely the original form. Isshi Yamada, who created a critical Sanskrit edition from five Sanskrit manuscripts, notes the differences between those Sanskrit manuscripts, the Tibetan, and the two Chinese translations, and his two-volume work, which also includes his research into the history of the sūtra, has been an invaluable aid.
In producing this English translation, we have based our work on the Degé xylograph while consulting the Comparative Edition (dpe bsdur ma) as well as the Stok Palace manuscript. We have also compared the Tibetan in detail against Yamada’s critical edition and occasionally consulted the two Chinese translations. In the notes, “the Tibetan” refers to the Degé xylograph and “the Sanskrit” refers to Yamada’s critical edition.
The Buddha is on Vulture Peak Mountain near the city of Rājagṛha, the capital of Magadha, with a vast assembly of monks, bodhisattvas, and various kinds of deities. Ten thousand of the bodhisattvas face the southeast and pay homage to the Buddha Padmottara, who is in a realm called Padmā in that direction. The bodhisattva Ratnavairocana asks the Buddha Śākyamuni why they did this, why he and others could not see that buddha’s realm, and wishes to learn about him. The Buddha describes the beauty of Padmottara’s realm and his miraculous powers, which enable bodhisattvas to see him.
In response to the bodhisattva Ratnavairocana’s questions, the Buddha gives further descriptions of Padmottara’s pure realm and its inhabitants, who are all bodhisattvas. He relates that previously Padmā was an impure realm called Candanā, in which there was the Buddha Candrottama, who had a lifespan of many eons. The Buddha Candrottama prophesied that after his passing, the Dharma would remain for a long time, but that on the very night it finally vanishes, his disciple, the bodhisattva Gaganamudra, would attain buddhahood and became the Buddha Padmottara. The Buddha Candrottama then gave the bodhisattva Gaganamudra the long dhāraṇī called the form of omniscience, which he said is given by every buddha to the one they choose to be their successor. When Śākyamuni repeats this dhāraṇī, the earth shakes, other worlds are illuminated, and bodhisattvas come from those worlds to Vulture Peak to receive the dhāraṇī. The Buddha describes the great benefits that come from reciting or even hearing it. The Buddha then continues his narrative, stating that when the Buddha Candrottama recited that dhāraṇī, his world also shook, other worlds were illuminated, and bodhisattvas came from those worlds to receive the dhāraṇī. Candrottama then prophesied the bodhisattva Gaganamudra’s buddhahood after ten intermediate eons. That night the Buddha Candrottama passed away, and the next day the bodhisattvas from other worlds returned to them, and those who remained entered samādhi for ten intermediate eons. The bodhisattva Gaganamudra continued teaching until his attainment of buddhahood, and as the Buddha Padmottara he also teaches the dhāraṇī.
Other bodhisattvas say they have already received this dhāraṇī from vast numbers of buddhas. The bodhisattva Maitreya states that he received it from a buddha named Sālendrarāja in a buddha realm called Sarvālaṅkāravibhūṣita. Through his prayers he has until this time remained in saṃsāra instead of becoming a buddha and entering nirvāṇa, but now he has become Śākyamuni’s regent.
The Buddha confirms this and repeats various mantras, each causing a specific kind of being to aspire to enlightenment—devas, nāgas, yakṣas, and asuras. He declares the rarity of the mantras and buddhas, and how all buddhas have previously engaged in bodhisattva conduct for trillions of eons. He then performs the miracle of his tongue radiating light rays throughout worlds and existences, including hells, bringing bliss to beings, and inspiring their devotion to him.
The bodhisattva Śāntimati asks the Buddha why the other realms are pure and why his is impure. The Buddha answers that bodhisattvas with great compassion pray to become buddhas in impure realms, and that is what he had done. In the distant past, within this same buddha realm there was a cakravartin king, Araṇemin, who ruled over all four continents. His court priest was a brahmin named Samudrareṇu. His son, Ratnagarbha, renounced worldly life, attained buddhahood, and became the Buddha Ratnagarbha. When the Buddha Ratnagarbha came to Jambūvana Park, which was near King Araṇemin’s residence, the king, his principal queen, princes, minor kings, and millions of people came and made vast offerings to the Buddha and his bhikṣus for three months. The king’s thousand sons each also made such offerings for three months, beginning with the crown prince Animiṣa.
Meanwhile, the Buddha Ratnagarbha’s father, the court priest Samudrareṇu, went throughout all Jambudvīpa so that everyone in the world became his disciple and followed the Mahāyāna path. When the thousand princes had completed their offerings, they prayed for 250 years, wishing for various results—to become deities, to become wealthy, or to follow the Śrāvakayāna.
The court priest Samudrareṇu wonders what they have prayed for and has a dream in which he is blessed by the buddhas and receives lotuses from them, but he sees the king and the princes with animal faces, eating animals and then being eaten themselves by other animals. He sees other princes in a carriage on a bad road leading south, which is an inauspicious direction. Śakra and Brahmā then tell him to give his lotuses to the king and princes. On waking he realizes that the king and princes must have had inferior aspirations when they prayed. He goes to the Buddha Ratnagarbha and describes his dream, and the Buddha explains its meaning, prophesying Samudrareṇu’s buddhahood and describing the inferior aspiration of the king and princes.
Samudrareṇu, aided by miraculous manifestations by the Buddha Ratnagarbha, persuades King Araṇemin to pray for buddhahood, and he goes into seclusion to contemplate what kind of realm he should pray for.
Similarly, Samudrareṇu inspires all the princes, minor kings, and millions of other beings to go into solitude for seven years to contemplate their aspiration for buddhahood.
Samudrareṇu also inspires the four mahārāja deities in each of the billion worlds of this world realm and the beings they rule over—yakṣas, kumbhāṇḍas, nāgas, and gandharvas—to aspire to enlightenment and make offerings to the Buddha Ratnagarbha. He does the same for a billion of the principal devas in the five paradises of the desire realm, the five principal asuras, the māra Pūrṇa, Brahmā, and all the beings who are their subjects. He prays that if his aspiration for enlightenment were to be fulfilled, the Buddha Ratnagarbha would perform a miracle to emanate a buddha to each animal, preta, and being in hell and relieve them of suffering. The Buddha Ratnagarbha, knowing his father’s thoughts, accomplishes this miracle.
King Araṇemin describes the pure realm in which he wishes to be a buddha, where beings can be reborn through faith in him. The Buddha Ratnagarbha states there is such a realm in the west where at that time lived the Buddha Indraghoṣeśvararāja. He will be followed by the Buddha Acintyamatiguṇarāja, the Buddha Raśmi, and the Buddha Ratneśvaraghoṣa. After him, King Araṇemin will be the buddha there, and he will be known by the names Amitāyus and Amitābha, and his realm will be called Sukhāvatī. King Araṇemin then asks for a miracle of innumerable worlds shaking if his aspiration is to come true, and the miracle occurs.
Each of the following people make their aspiration, giving in detail the nature of their buddha realms and requesting a miracle to confirm that their aspirations will be fulfilled:
Then a group of five hundred princes, and then four hundred princes, and another ninety princes, and then 920,000,000 beings make their prayers of aspirations and receive the Buddha Ratnagarbha’s prophecies.
Samudrareṇu then instructs his thirty million brahmin disciples, who were at that time giving refuge to other beings, to make an aspirational prayer. In response to questions from one of them named Radiant Bull, he teaches the accumulations that the bodhisattva should practice. Radiant Bull then prays to become a buddha in this same impure realm in which they are living, which is the realm in which Śākyamuni will appear. Radiant Bull is prophesied to become the Buddha Ratnacchatrābhyudgataraśmi.
A thousand young brahmins then receive their prophecies to become buddhas in that very realm, the last three of whom would be Vipaśyin, Śikhin, and Viśvabhu, who are the three buddhas immediately preceding the fortunate eon in which Śākyamuni emerges as the fourth. The most senior brahmin disciple, Vāyuviṣṇu, prays to be a buddha in a kaliyuga, and he is prophesied to become the Buddha Śālendrarāja in another realm. A young brahmin named Jyotipāla learns from Samudrareṇu that this is the act of a bodhisattva with great compassion, and he makes a prayer to be in a time when beings are equally good and bad and have a lifespan of forty thousand years, and he is prophesied to be the Buddha Krakucchanda, the first of our eon when our world realm is renamed Sahā. A second young brahmin, Tumburu, is prophesied to be the second buddha, Kanakamuni, when beings live for thirty thousand years. A third young brahmin, Viśvagupta, is prophesied to be the third buddha, Kāśyapa, when beings live for twenty thousand years. A fourth young brahmin, Vimalavaiśāyana, wishes to be a buddha only when the degenerate kaliyuga age is over.
The Buddha Ratnagarbha teaches him the qualities of a bodhisattva, and he is prophesied to become the fifth buddha, Maitreya, at a time when beings live for eighty thousand years. Śākyamuni is noticeably skipped over at this point in the sūtra as his identity among this assembly will be the last to be revealed.
The thousandth and youngest brahmin youth, Mahābalavegadhārin, asks Samudrareṇu for more time to contemplate his prayer, so in the meantime Samudrareṇu’s five youngest disciples make offerings to the Buddha Ratnagarbha and are prophesied to become the buddhas Dṛḍhasvara, Sukhendriyamati, Sārthavādi, Priyaprasanna, and Harimitracūḍa.
The Buddha Ratnagarbha tells Mahābalavegadhārin that 1,004 buddhas have now been prophesied for the fortunate eon. Mahābalavegadhārin prays to have the accumulated lifespan of all 1,004, and he is prophesied to be the Buddha Roca, the last buddha of the fortunate eon.
Samudrareṇu observes that only Vāyuviṣṇu has prayed to be a buddha during a kaliyuga, and thus in the presence of the Buddha Ratnagarbha he makes an extensive, detailed prayer to become a buddha during the kaliyuga after the Buddha Krakucchanda’s Dharma has vanished. The king and the princes praise Samudrareṇu, and the entire assembly bows down to him. When Samudrareṇu kneels before the Buddha Ratnagarbha, a vast number of other realms shake, and flowers rain down. Emissaries of the Buddha give him the name Mahākāruṇika, which means “The One With Great Compassion,” and this name resounds through all the worlds. The sūtra describes how in those realms the buddhas are asked about the cause of this miraculous event, and they are told that it is due to the prayer made by the bodhisattva Mahākāruṇika. They send their two principal bodhisattva disciples to the Buddha Ratnagarbha’s realm to pay homage and offer flowers to Samudrareṇu, telling him that he is now to be known as Mahākāruṇika:
Bodhisattvas also come from tens of millions of realms in that same way offering flowers to Mahākāruṇika, which is the name they now use for Samudrareṇu. When they are all seated, Samudrareṇu offers the flowers to the Buddha Ratnagarbha, requesting the prophecy of his buddhahood.
The Buddha Ratnagarbha enters into samādhi, manifests miraculous sights, and praises Samudrareṇu, saying only bodhisattvas who have prayed to be reborn in a kaliyuga deserve the title mahāsattva. He emanates light rays from his hand to reveal to the entire assembly the Buddha Jyotīrasa, who is one cubit tall in a kaliyuga realm where the people are the size of a thumb and live for only ten years. Ratnagarbha then describes the time when, among a buddha’s disciples, only Jyotīrasa wished for buddhahood in a kaliyuga. The Buddha Ratnagarbha states that bodhisattvas who pray for buddhahood in a pure realm are like flowers, but one who prays for buddhahood in a kaliyuga is like a white lotus. He states that everyone in the assembly apart from Vāyuviṣṇu had the four kinds of laziness of a bodhisattva because of their wish for a pure realm, while the four kinds of diligence involve praying for an impure realm. He declares Samudrareṇu to be a white lotus of compassion, which is the title of this sūtra, and states that the emissaries of the buddhas have given him the name Mahākāruṇika. He then prophesizes that he will be the Buddha Śākyamuni, who will teach for forty-five years.
The Brahmā present at the prophecy, Brahmā Ketapuri, prays to be Śākyamuni’s father (Śuddhodana), and the sea goddess Vinītabuddhi prays to be his mother (Māyādevī). The goddess Varuṇacāritranakṣatrā prays to be his wet nurse (Mahāprajāpatī). Two Śakra deities pray to be his principal disciples (Śāriputra and Maudgalyāyana), and another Śakra prays to be his son (Rāhula). A mountain goddess prays to be his wife (Yaśodharā), an asura lord prays to be his attendant (Ānanda), and numerous deities of various kinds pray to be his disciples. A member of the Ājīvika religion then prays to ask for his possessions, family, and body throughout his lifetimes to aid him in his perfection of generosity, and another 84,000 beings make the same prayer. Mahākāruṇika vows to always give whatever is asked of him.
The Buddha Ratnagarbha explains that there was also a bodhisattva Meruśikhariṃdhara who prayed to be a buddha when beings lived for a hundred years. He taught for forty-five years and became the Buddha Jñānakusumavirajasamucchrayabodhīśvara. After his passing, even those disciples—male and female, ordained and lay—who had poor conduct while his Dharma remained, irreversibly progressed to enlightenment because of perceiving him as their teacher. Mahākāruṇika thus makes a similar aspiration that all who have devotion to him will be similarly benefited. The Buddha Ratnagarbha places his hand on Mahākāruṇika’s head, and Mahākāruṇika transforms into a twenty-year-old, and the entire assembly praises him.
The Buddha Ratnagarbha teaches Mahākāruṇika a long list of samādhis that are practiced by bodhisattvas, and the qualities that they develop. A vast number attain realization on hearing this, and the king, the princes, 80,000 minor kings, and 920,000,000 other beings take ordination. Mahākāruṇika receives all the teachings from the Buddha Ratnagarbha and builds his stūpa when he has passes into nirvāṇa. Then, after one week, he and 84,000 beings take ordination, and he teaches the Dharma for a thousand years. When he passes away, Ratnagarbha’s Dharma comes to an end, and the bodhisattvas proceed to other lives they had prayed for. Mahākāruṇika is born in another world as a caṇḍāla, the lowest status of a human, and threatens to murder anyone who committed bad actions and to support those who did good. Eventually he becomes King Puṇyabala, ruling over all four continents and bringing everyone to the path of good actions. Then someone asks him for his skin and eyes to perform a rite. He gives them, dying without regret after seven days.
The narrative then returns to the present, and Śākyamuni explains that he was Mahākāruṇika and Puṇyabala and for many lifetimes practiced generosity as no one else has. He tells of six other worthy beings who have or will be buddhas in kaliyugas. There are four in the past and two in the future:
The Buddha says that he was the one who caused all six first to aspire to buddhahood. He then recounts that he prompted these aspirations when he was a cakravartin named Durdhana. These figures were his six sons who developed the aspiration for buddhahood. First, he had a thousand other sons whom he inspired to take ordination in the teachings of the Buddha Gandhapadma, which continued after his passing. Those other six sons refused to become bhikṣus, explaining that this was the age during which only the outer form of the Dharma survived and thus it would be pointless. However, they agreed that they would develop the aspiration for buddhahood if Durdhana gave them the kingdom. He gladly divided his kingdom among them and took ordination himself. Yet their conflicts caused all the plants, fruits, and harvests to fail, and the animals were in great distress. Therefore, the former king threw himself from a mountain with the prayer that his flesh and blood would satisfy beings. His body became vast with many heads, all inviting beings to come and feed on him. The beings who consumed him developed the aspiration for the Buddhist vehicles or a good rebirth. His body kept growing, and he fed beings for ten thousand years. Through the strength of his prayer he does the same in innumerable worlds.
Much later, in this world realm he was again a cakravartin who divided his kingdom among his five hundred sons and went to meditate in the forest. Through his clairvoyance he saw a merchant ship in distress and guided the merchants to safety by burning his own hand as a lamp for seven days. Then he prayed to become a merchant who finds a wish-fulfilling jewel and causes a rain of jewels to fall seven times on lands where there is no Dharma. Eons later in this realm, he became a brahmin teacher of the Vedas who arranged for the deities to create a medical treatise by which he was able to heal countless beings and bring them to the three Buddhist vehicles.
At a later time in another world, he was again a cakravartin king who gave away jewels and prayed to be reborn seven times as a nāga king in each continent to reveal treasures to beings. When he made this prayer, deities appeared in the sky and gave him the name Sarvaṃdada (“The One Who Gives Away Everything”), and upon hearing that, people came to him and asked for his family and parts of his body, and for his kingdom to give to a young brahmin who had asked for it. He gave away his hands, feet, eyes, ears, genitals, flesh, and blood. His still-living body was thrown into a charnel ground where animals ate it. Through his prayers his body became vast, and he was able to feed the animals for a thousand years. Then he was reborn seven times, as he had prayed, as a nāga king who bestowed trillions of treasures on people and brought them to the practice of the three Buddhist vehicles.
The Buddha next states that he can see countless buddhas in other worlds, all of whom he set upon the path. He lists the names of a number of those buddhas and their realms. The first buddha he mentions is Vimalatejaguṇarāja in the realm of Saṃpuṣpita in the east. At that moment, that buddha’s seat shakes, and he explains to his disciples that this is because of the Buddha Śākyamuni—the one who set him on the path to buddhahood— teaching in a realm far to the west of them.
Then hundreds of thousands of his bodhisattva disciples wish to go to see Śākyamuni, and Vimalatejaguṇarāja miraculously shows them where Śākyamuni is. They see so many bodhisattvas there that they think there will be no room for them, and they also realize that Śākyamuni is looking directly at them. Vimalatejaguṇarāja explains that Śākyamuni can see everywhere and can appear and teach in any form according to people who have faith in him. He also says that there will be room for them and recounts a time when Śakyamuni was meditating in a cave and filled it with his body. When millions of bodhisattvas came to see him, he made the cave large enough for them all. Another time Śakra came to the cave to have his life extended, and he brought with him the gandharva Pañcaśikha so that his music would prompt the Buddha to rise from his samādhi. Upon hearing the music, he entered a samādhi that caused many yakṣas and other beings to come to the cave, and the cave became vast enough so that they could all come inside. He also said that his body is so vast that its top cannot be seen, and even the dimensions of one of his body pores cannot be known by those who go in and out of them. His realm is also immeasurably vast. Then he sends his disciples with flowers as an offering to Śākyamuni. They arrive and state why they have come.
Śākyamuni then describes that the same has occurred in all the realms in the ten directions. When all the bodhisattvas arrive, Śākyamuni miraculously makes them a yojana in height, and they can see nothing but Śākyamuni. All the flowers that are offered enter Śākyamuni’s pores, and everyone in the world can see nothing but his pores, which are like parks, and they enter them. The bodhisattva Maitreya declares that they are all in the Buddha’s body. Then they all pay homage, and he teaches them the ways to develop dhyāna and realize fearlessness. Then they all come out of the Buddha’s pores and return to their own realms.
The bodhisattva Vaiśāradyasamuddhāraṇi asks what this sūtra should be called, and the Buddha gives ten alternate titles, the tenth being The White Lotus of Compassion. He then describes the vast merit that comes from reading it, hearing it, writing it, and so on. He asks who he should entrust the sūtra to, and Maitreya brings to him a yakṣa sage named Merupuṇya. The Buddha tells the yakṣa to keep the sūtra and recite it so that it can be heard during the final five hundred years of the Dharma. The yakṣa who has been practicing the path to enlightenment for eons vows to teach this sūtra to beings in the last five hundred years of the Dharma.
The entire assembly praises the Buddha’s words and the sūtra concludes.
’phags pa snying rje pad ma dkar po zhes bya ba theg pa chen po’i mdo (Karuṇāpuṇḍarīkanāmamahāyānasūtra). 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), 2006–9, vol. 50, pp. 345–736.
’phags pa snying rje pad ma dkar po zhes bya ba theg pa chen po’i mdo (Karuṇāpuṇḍarīkanāmamahāyānasūtra). Toh 112, Degé Kangyur vol. 50 (mdo sde, cha), folios 129a–297a.
’phags pa snying rje pad ma dkar po zhes bya ba theg pa chen po’i mdo (Karuṇāpuṇḍarīkanāmamahāyānasūtra). Lhasa 119, Lhasa (lha sa) Kangyur vol. 52 (mdo sde, cha), folios 209b–474b.
’phags pa snying rje pad ma dkar po zhes bya ba theg pa chen po’i mdo (Karuṇāpuṇḍarīkanāmamahāyānasūtra). Sheldrima 76, Sheldrima (shel mkhar bris ma) Kangyur vol. 51 (mdo sde, nga), folios 1b–243b.
’phags pa snying rje pad ma dkar po zhes bya ba theg pa chen po’i mdo (Karuṇāpuṇḍarīkanāmamahāyānasūtra). Stok 45, Stok Palace Kangyur vol. 55 (mdo sde, nga), folios 1a–243b.
’phags pa snying rje pad ma dkar po zhes bya ba theg pa chen po’i mdo (Karuṇāpuṇḍarīkanāmamahāyānasūtra). Urga 112, Urga Kangyur vol. 50 (mdo sde, cha), folios 128a–296a.
bcom ldan ’das kyi ye shes rgyas pa’i mdo sde rin po che mtha’ yas pa mthar phyin pa zhes bya ba theg pa chen po’i mdo (Niṣṭhāgatabhagavajjñānavaipulyasūtraratnānantanāmamahāyāna-sūtra). Toh 99, Degé Kangyur vol. 47 (mdo sde, ga), folios 1b–275b. English translation in Dharmachakra Translation Committee, 2019.
bde ba can gyi bkod pa zhes bya ba theg pa chen po’i mdo (Sukhāvatīvyūhanāmamahāyānasūtra). Toh 115, Degé Kangyur vol. 51 (mdo sde, ja), folios 195b–200a. English translation in Sakya Pandita Translation Group, 2011.
dam pa’i chos pad ma dkar po zhes bya ba theg pa chen po’i mdo (Saddharmapuṇḍarīkanāmamahāyānasūtra). Toh 113, Degé Kangyur vol. 51 (mdo sde, ja), folios 1b–180b. English translation in Roberts 2022.
kun nas sgo’i le’u zhes bya ba theg pa chen po’i mdo (Samantamukhaparivartanāmamahāyānasūtra). Toh 54, Degé Kangyur vol. 40 (dkon brtsegs, kha), folios 184a–195b. English translation in Dharmachakra Translation Committee, 2020.
nam mkha’i mdzod kyis zhus pa zhes bya ba theg pa chen po’i mdo (Gaganagañjaparipṛcchānāmamahāyānasūtra). Toh 148, Degé Kangyur vol. 57 (mdo sde, pa), folios 243a–330b.
shes rab kyi pha rol tu phyin pa brgyad stong pa (Aṣṭāsāhasrikāprajñāpāramitā). Toh 12, Degé Kangyur vol. 33 (sher phyin brgyad stong pa, ka), folios 1b–286b.
snying rje chen po’i pad ma dkar po zhes bya ba theg pa chen po’i mdo (Mahākaruṇāpuṇḍarīkanāmamahāyānasūtra). Toh 111, Degé Kangyur vol. 51 (mdo sde, cha), folios 56a–128b.
za ma tog bkod pa zhes bya ba theg pa chen po’i mdo (Karaṇḍavyūhanāmamahāyānasūtra). Toh 116, Degé Kangyur vol. 51 (mdo sde, ja), folios 200a–247b. English translation in Roberts 2013.
Denkarma (pho brang stod thang ldan [/lhan] dkar gyi chos kyi ’gyur ro cog gi dkar chag). Toh 4364, Degé Tengyur vol. 207 (sna tshogs, jo), folios 294b–310a.
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