The Absorption That Encapsulates All Merit
- Bandé Yeshé Dé
Degé Kangyur, vol. 56 (mdo sde, na), folios 70.b–121.b
Translated by the Dharmachakra Translation Committee
under the patronage and supervision of 84000: Translating the Words of the Buddha
The Absorption That Encapsulates All Merit tells the story of Vimalatejā, a strongman renowned for his physical prowess, who visits the Buddha in order to compare abilities and prove that he is the mightier of the two. He receives an unexpected, humbling riposte in the form of a teaching by the Buddha on the inconceivable magnitude of the powers of awakened beings, going well beyond mere physical strength. The discussions that then unfold—largely between the Buddha, Vimalatejā, and the bodhisattva Nārāyaṇa—touch on topics including the importance of creating merit, the centrality of learning and insight, and the question of whether renunciation entails monasticism. Above all, however, Vimalatejā is led to see that the entirety of the Great Vehicle path hinges on the practice that forms the name of the sūtra, which is nothing other than the mind of awakening (bodhicitta).
Translated by the Dharmachakra Translation Committee under the guidance of Chökyi Nyima Rinpoche. Zachary Beer produced the translation and wrote the introduction. Andreas Doctor compared the translation with the original Tibetan and edited the text. The translators are grateful to Khenpo Trokpa Tulku from Ka-Nying Shedrub Ling Monastery for his assistance in resolving several difficult passages.
This translation was sponsored by Shakya Dewa, and has been completed under the patronage and supervision of 84000: Translating the Words of the Buddha.
Like a number of other Great Vehicle sūtras, The Absorption That Encapsulates All Merit consists of a rich and at times disjointed amalgam of stories, teachings, and conversations. Although the sūtra begins in a seemingly historical setting in the vicinity of Vaiśālī, in the course of the narration we travel throughout our world system in times past, present, and future, as well as other world systems presided over by their respective awakened beings. Beginning in the voice of a general narrator who returns to describe supernatural events from a bird’s-eye view—earthquakes, cascading flowers, flashes of light, and the like—the text for the most part unfolds as a discussion, and thus emerges from the mouths of a cast of characters with whom we are gradually acquainted. Some of these characters are familiar: the Buddha, of course, and bodhisattvas like Mañjuśrī and Nārāyaṇa, as well as the śrāvakas Maudgalyāyana and Ānanda, who make brief guest appearances in what is largely a Great Vehicle ensemble.
The central plot surrounds the conversion and awakening of a newcomer, a “strongman” named Vimalatejā. The sūtra’s structure is framed loosely around an instruction by the Buddha that successfully converts Vimalatejā, and this instruction is the basis for the sūtra’s name.
The text commences in a typical way, with the description of a setting in India—a mansion in Āmrapālī’s grove in the area of Vaiśālī, where the Buddha is residing with his entourage of countless human and nonhuman beings. The Buddha gives a teaching that is not spelled out in the text, but which apparently is impressive enough to prompt Nārāyaṇa to rise up and praise its orator. Nārāyaṇa, who will serve as the major interlocutor for the remainder of the text, then exhorts the Buddha to expound further; first he presents a series of supplications to the Buddha, and subsequently a series of questions.
The supplications are noteworthy in that aside from purely soteriologically oriented prayers, they also include prayers for the preservation and sustained high reputation of the Buddhist community, indicating concerns from within the tradition about the place of Buddhists within society. The twenty-three questions that follow effectively span the entirety of what is involved in bodhisattva praxis. As a response to Nārāyaṇa’s extensive list of questions, the Buddha hints at a teaching that would constitute a complete answer to each and every one of Nārāyaṇa’s inquiries, and this teaching provides the sūtra’s name. Although the Buddha says nothing more about the teaching at this point, the exchange grounds the text thematically in the topic of merit, suggesting as it does that the entire bodhisattva spiritual path stands and falls with it.
The setting of the narrative then changes from Āmrapālī’s grove to a nearby place in the town of Vaiśālī, where the sūtra’s chief protagonist, Vimalatejā, is dwelling. Through the omnipresent narrator, we zoom in on this strongman as he is indulging in a bout of self-aggrandizement concerning his stature as a strong and powerful human being. He almost comes to the conclusion that there could be no one mightier than him in the world, before he remembers having heard of a special person named Gautama. Gautama is of course said to possess the ten strengths of an awakened being, which, if true, would certainly eclipse the merely physical and worldly might that Vimalatejā possesses. So he resolves to visit the Buddha to clear away his doubts. This sets up another major theme of the text, a playful inquiry into what it really means to be “strong.”
On this note, the story segues back to the Buddha’s encampment in Āmrapālī’s grove, where Vimalatejā arrives with his nose in the air. Noticing Vimalatejā’s presence and haughty attitude, the Buddha ventures into a lengthy, rather pertinent dialogue on the topic of power; although this discussion is carried out with Maudgalyāyana, it is directed entirely at Vimalatejā. The discussion consists of a set of progressively more astounding comparative descriptions that reveal the inimitable quality of the buddhas’ and bodhisattvas’ power which, as we—and Vimalatejā—come to see, is literally unrivalled in the world. Humbled and inspired to expand the scope of his own strength, which he had previously thought to be matchless, Vimalatejā then takes refuge in the Three Jewels and forms the resolve of a bodhisattva.
This leads us back to where the previous scene left off, before it was interrupted by the arrival of the self-inflated visitor. Nārāyaṇa, the interlocutor, returns to the questions he had asked the Buddha, and reminds him that he had not yet explained exactly what was referred to by the term the absorption that encapsulates all merit. The Buddha graciously bestows a reply, at which point we discover that the term refers to nothing other than the mind of awakening (bodhicitta).
The Buddha’s explanation then takes the form of four “introductions” to the topic at hand. These consist of another set of characteristically mind-boggling, evocative comparisons that build up to the conclusion that nothing—even within the powers of the gods Śakra and Brahma—could truly be more meritorious than engendering the mind of awakening. This effectively makes a link in very simple terms (it is fair to say that this sūtra is addressed to, and comprehended by, nonspecialists) between power, merit, and the bodhisattva endeavor. After a series of miracles, at which a huge portion of the audience forms the resolve set on awakening, an apparent first chapter comes to a close—apparent because, although all Kangyurs contain at this point the mention of a first chapter being concluded, some catalogues state that this may be an error of transcription with no thematic significance, corresponding as it does with a change of fascicles. No mention is made of subsequent chapters, as would usually be the case.1
Chapter 2, or the second fascicle, begins with a long dialogue between the Buddha and Vimalatejā, in which the Buddha sets out to elaborate further on the principle of merit and how it is accumulated. This discussion centers around three practices identified by the Buddha as being ideal for the accumulation of merit: generosity, discipline, and learning. These provide a systematic framework for the expression of numerous Buddhist ethical and soteriological principles, and thus this passage could be said to be the weightiest in terms of religious doctrine.
Although the ideas within this passage are presented in fairly straightforward terms and largely in the form of mnemonic lists, they also extend beyond mere ethical behavior and delve into the Great Vehicle notion of insight (prajñā) into the empty nature of things. Bodhisattvas are exhorted, for instance, to become free of dualism, and such a nonconceptual mind-state will allow them to practice generosity with their own bodies. This is compared, in an evocative simile, to the way a tree allows its parts to be taken for various uses. This emphasis on insight will later be reinforced by the Buddha’s categorical statement that learning is the most crucial of the three endeavors.
Prior to this, however, the section on the accumulation of learning in chapter 2 is noteworthy in that it provides another layer in both the plotline and thematic content of the sūtra. This occurs when the Buddha recounts a story from his past life as the great sage Uttara, who sacrificed his own body in order to receive spiritual instruction. The recitation of this selfless action is potent enough to summon Vimalakīrtirāja, a buddha from an entirely different world system, who proceeds to expound, coincidentally, on the teaching known as the absorption that encapsulates all merit. Thus is introduced another major theme of the text, namely the importance of undergoing hardship for the sake of the Dharma.
The remainder of the Buddha Vimalakīrtirāja’s sermon is made up of another short set of mnemonic lists. After recounting these, the Buddha then articulates the moral of the story regarding the importance of fortitude in pursuing the Dharma, while also making an interesting comment about the presence of “Dharma treasures” hidden in various “mountains, mountain caverns, and trees,” which are awaiting revelation.
The Buddha then concludes the general discussion on the three practices, identifying learning as the most crucial practice. The conversation between Vimalatejā and the Buddha, which is now firmly grounded in the topic of insight and its pursuit, then turns to the notion of “acceptance that phenomena are unborn” (anutpattikadharmakṣānti) and what leads to it. This could be said to be the buildup to the major turning point in the sūtra’s storyline: at the conclusion of the discussion, Vimalatejā has an epiphany that leads him to levitate high up in the air, which in turn induces the Buddha to display a cosmic smile that illuminates the universe. Afterward the Buddha, prompted by Ānanda, relates the key moments in Vimalatejā’s past lives that brought him to where he is now, and furthermore prophesies Vimalatejā’s future awakening.
The arc of the story then segues again as Vimalatejā makes his debut as a teacher in response to a series of questions by Nārāyaṇa. In his answers, Vimalatejā demonstrates a remarkable, sudden penetration of profound Buddhist ideas, carrying the course of the discussion into the nature of nonduality and the imminence of awakened qualities within all beings. He is even led by Nārāyaṇa to comment on several challenging statements from other sūtras, such as the line, “Rely on the true meaning; do not rely on the words.” Vimalatejā answers these questions with ease and is commended by the Buddha. A conversation between Nārāyaṇa and Mañjuśrī now follows, in which the latter expounds on similar themes.
The final section shifts into a loose, communal atmosphere of shared insights, as various characters, including several new ones, chime in whenever they are inspired to make comments. First a god named Free of Demons delivers an oration that is notable for its exhortation that bodhisattvas should engage in seemingly unethical practices as part of their spiritual endeavor—even “demonic” ones—if they can do so without being polluted by them. This sets the stage for a long string of abstract and often paradoxical statements regarding bodhisattva practice that come in turn from the mouths of the Buddha, Mañjuśrī, and others. Mañjuśrī later makes a comment on the irrelevance of monasticism to the bodhisattva endeavor, reiterating that true insight should be regarded as the decisive factor as to whether or not a bodhisattva is considered a “renunciant.” This would seem to suggest that the sūtra’s expected audience may indeed have consisted of—or at least included—laypeople. It also suggests that the sūtra emerged from a milieu in which lay spirituality was encouraged and considered respectable. Finally the text concludes with an explanation by the Buddha on the way in which merit creates what are known as the marks of one hundred merits, as well as his announcement that his life will soon end.
In this way, The Absorption That Encapsulates All Merit presents a relatively simplified sampling of the rich philosophy and atmosphere of Great Vehicle Buddhism, while at the same time constituting a literary work that functions on several levels. On the narrative level, it is the story of a seemingly uneducated outsider named Vimalatejā, who has a spiritual awakening and then impresses the Buddhist establishment. On another level, it is a commentary on the nature of human power and merit, which we progressively come to see are rooted in insight. It also displays evidence from within the Buddhist tradition that its adherents were concerned about the preservation and positive reputation of their cultural institution. All of this unfolds in Āmrapālī’s grove near Vaiśālī where the Buddha timelessly dwells, and the Great Vehicle teachings emerge in constant revelation.
The Absorption That Encapsulates All Merit is extant in Tibetan and in two Chinese translations. In Sanskrit no complete version is known to have survived, but a fragment in Gāndhārī Prakrit, written in the Kharoṣṭhī script, is among the scrolls found in the Bamiyan area of western Gandhāra (in present-day Afghanistan), most of which date approximately from the late second to mid third century CE.2 The Tibetan version was translated from Sanskrit by Prajñāvarman, Śīlendrabodhi, Yeshé Dé, “and others,” in the late eighth or early ninth centuries. Although it is not one of the best known sūtras, it is quoted in at least two Indian treatises in the Tengyur, and citations of several different passages appear in a number of Tibetan commentaries.
’phags pa bsod nams thams cad bsdus pa’i ting nge ’dzin ces bya ba theg pa chen po’i mdo (Āryasarvapuṇyasamuccayasamādhināmamahāyānasūtra). Toh 134, Degé Kangyur, vol. 56 (mdo sde, na), folios 70b–121b.
’phags pa bsod nams thams cad bsdus pa’i ting nge ’dzin ces 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), 2006–9, vol. 56, p. 196–317.
’phags pa bsod nams thams cad bsdus pa’i ting nge ’dzin ces bya ba theg pa chen po’i mdo (Āryasarvapuṇyasamuccayasamādhināmamahāyānasūtra). sTog 107, Stok Palace (stog pho brang bris ma) Kangyur, vol. 63 (mdo sde, na), folios 80b–161b.
Pekar Zangpo (pad dkar bzang po). mdo sde spyi’i rnam bzhag. Beijing: mi rigs dpe skrun khang [Minorities Publishing House], 2006.
Dharmachakra Translation Committee (tr.). The Illusory Absorption (Māyopamasamādhi, Toh 130). 84000: Translating the Words of the Buddha, 2016.
Edgerton, Franklin. Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit Grammar and Dictionary. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1953.
Harrison, Paul, Timothy Lenz, Qian Lin, and Richard Salomon. “A Gāndhārī Fragment of the Sarvapuṇyasamuccayasamādhisūtra”. In Braarvig, Jens (ed.), Buddhist Manuscripts, Volume IV. Manuscripts in the Schøyen Collection. Oslo: Hermes Publishing, 2016.
Saloman, Richard. “Gāndhārī Manuscripts in the British Library, Schøyen and Other Collections.” In Harrison, Paul, and Jens-Uwe Hartmann (eds.), From Birch Bark to Digital Data: Recent Advances in Buddhist Manuscript Research. Papers Presented at the Conference Indic Buddhist Manuscripts: The State of the Field. Standord, June 15–19, 2009. Vienna: Österreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften, 2014.