The Questions of the Nāga King Sāgara (3)
- Yeshé Dé
Degé Kangyur, vol. 58 (mdo sde, pa), folios 205.a–205.b
Translated by the Sakya Pandita Translation Group (Tsechen Kunchab Ling Division)
under the patronage and supervision of 84000: Translating the Words of the Buddha
In this very short sūtra, the Buddha explains to a nāga king and an assembly of monks that reciting the four aphorisms of the Dharma is equivalent to recitation of all of the 84,000 articles of the Dharma. He urges them to make diligent efforts to engage in understanding the four aphorisms (also called the four seals), which are the defining philosophical tenets of the Buddhist doctrine: (1) all compounded phenomena are impermanent; (2) all contaminated phenomena are suffering; (3) all phenomena are without self; (4) nirvāṇa is peace.
In the Tibetan canon there are three sūtras entitled The Questions of the Nāga King Sāgara (Sāgaranāgarājaparipṛcchā): a long version (Toh 153),1 one of middle length (Toh 154),2 and a short sūtra (Toh 155).3 They have quite different contents and are all to be found in a group of sūtras in the Kangyur entitled “The Questions of…” (…paripṛcchā), including The Questions of Brahmā, The Questions of Mañjuśrī, The Questions of an Old Lady, and several others. There is also another nāga king whose questions were the occasion for a sūtra in this group, entitled The Questions of the Nāga King Anavatapta (Anavataptanāgarājaparipṛcchā), Toh 156.
The text translated here is the shortest of the three Sāgaranāgarājaparipṛcchā sūtras. The Buddha’s teaching of this very brief sūtra to an assembly of monks is presumed—from the title—to be in response to a question or questions put to him by a king of the supernatural beings known as nāgas, serpents who guard the Dharma, although in this sūtra the questions themselves are not explicitly stated. The Buddha explains that recitation of the four aphorisms of the Dharma is equivalent to recitation of all of the 84,000 articles of the Dharma, and that they constitute the inexhaustible doctrine of the bodhisattvas. The four are:
These four aphorisms, or tenets—also called the four seals—are central to Buddhist philosophy and characterize the Buddhist view of the nature of reality. The Buddha stated that any doctrine characterized by these four seals is genuinely in accord with the philosophical view of Buddhism, just as a document purportedly written by a king that has the proper seals is known as genuine. Because the concepts of anitya(tva), duḥkha, anātman, and nirvāṇa are central to the Buddhist philosophical view, over the centuries, countless commentaries and elaborations on these concepts have been written by scholars from every Buddhist tradition.4 Various sūtras and commentaries focus on one, two, three, or all four of the concepts.5
Indian texts speak of the four aphorisms of the Dharma as well as of the four seals. The Sanskrit of the four aphorisms can be extracted from Vasubandhu’s commentary to verse XVIII.80 of the Mahāyānasūtrālaṃkāra of Asaṅga (fifth century ᴄᴇ):
The same four aphorisms are listed and described in chapter 17 of Asaṅga’s Bodhisattvabhūmi.7 The only minor difference in these formulations of them, compared to the four aphorisms as set out in the present sūtra, is that here the second aphorism does not speak of “all contaminated phenomena,” but simply “all compounded phenomena.”8
Although this sūtra’s Sanskrit original is no longer extant, the colophon to the Tibetan translation of the sūtra tells us that it was translated from Sanskrit to Tibetan by the Indian preceptor Surendrabodhi and the Tibetan editor-translator Yeshé Dé (ye shes sde). We can thus infer that this sūtra was translated from Sanskrit to Tibetan sometime during the late eighth to early ninth century.
This sūtra is also included in the Chinese Buddhist canon (Taishō 599).9 Both the Tibetan and Chinese versions of the sūtra are very similar in their brevity, meaning, and story line, although there are a few minor differences between them.10 A twelfth-century fragment containing this sūtra in the Tangut, or Xixia,11 language was discovered, among other pieces of the Tangut canon, at Khara-khoto along the ancient Silk Road by the British explorer Sir Aurel Stein during his 1913–16 journey.12 Now in the British Museum, the Tangut version is very close to the Chinese version, indicating that it was likely translated from the Chinese.13
There are two other notable English translations from the Tibetan: one by Geshe Lhakdor in 2010 for a workshop presented at the India Habitat Centre in Delhi under the auspices of the Foundation for Universal Responsibility,14 and the most recent translation by Peter Skilling, along with helpful notes, in his 2021 anthology Questioning the Buddha: A Selection of Twenty-Five Sutras.15
The present translation from Tibetan is based on the version in the Degé (sde dge) Kangyur, with reference to the differences between this and various other versions noted in the Pedurma (dpe sdur ma) comparative edition of the Degé Kangyur.
Thus did I hear at one time. The Bhagavān [F.205.b] was dwelling at the place of the nāga king Sāgara together with a great assembly of 1,250 bhikṣus as well as a multitude of bodhisattvas and mahāsattvas. At that time the Bhagavān said to the nāga king Sāgara:
“Lord of the nāgas, if one utters these four aphorisms of the Dharma, in uttering them one is expressing all of the 84,000 articles of the Dharma. What are the four? They are as follows:
“To fully engage in understanding the inexhaustible doctrine of the bodhisattva mahāsattvas that all compounded phenomena are impermanent; to fully engage in understanding the inexhaustible doctrine of the bodhisattva mahāsattvas that all contaminated phenomena are suffering; to fully engage in understanding the inexhaustible doctrine of the bodhisattva mahāsattvas that all phenomena are without self; and to fully engage in understanding the inexhaustible doctrine of the bodhisattva mahāsattvas that nirvāṇa is peace.16
“Lord of the nāgas, if one utters these four aphorisms of the Dharma, in uttering them one is expressing all of the 84,000 articles of the Dharma.”
When the Bhagavān had spoken in this way, the bhikṣus and bodhisattvas rejoiced and greatly praised the teachings of the Bhagavān.
This completes The Noble Mahāyāna Sūtra, “The Questions of the Nāga King Sāgara.”
|T||Taishō Tripiṭaka (Chinese Buddhist canon)|
’phags pa klu’i rgyal po rgya mtshos zhus pa zhes bya ba theg pa chen po’i mdo (Āryasāgaranāgarājaparipṛcchānāmamahāyanasūtra), Toh 155, Degé Kangyur vol. 58 (mdo sde, pha), folios 205.a–205.b.
’phags pa klu’i rgyal po rgya mtshos zhus pa 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 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. 58, pp. 557–58.
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———, trans. The Questions of the Nāga King Sāgara (1) (Sāgaranāgarājaparipṛcchā, Toh 153). 84000: Translating the Words of the Buddha, 2021.
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- dge slong
- ’du byed
- zag pa dang bcas pa
four aphorisms of the Dharma
- chos kyi mdo bzhi
- phyag rgya bzhi
- mi rtag pa
Nāga King Sāgara
- klu’i rgyal po rgya mtsho
- mya ngan las ’das pa
- zhi ba
- sdug bsngal ba
- bdag med pa