The Question of Kṣemaṅkara
Degé Kangyur, vol. 59 (mdo sde, ba), folios 167.b–171.b.
Translated by the Dharmachakra Translation Committee
under the patronage and supervision of 84000: Translating the Words of the Buddha.
The Question of Kṣemaṅkara contains a teaching given by Buddha Śākyamuni to the Śākya youth Kṣemaṅkara, in response to a question he poses about the qualities of bodhisattvas and how to develop such qualities. The Buddha teaches him about bodhisattvas’ qualities, first in prose and later reiterated in verse, and then equates the teaching of this sūtra with the perfection of insight, stating that even if one practices the first five perfections for many eons, one will not make much progress without knowing what is taught in this sūtra.
Translated by the Dharmachakra Translation Committee under the supervision of Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche. Ani Jinpa Palmo produced the translation and wrote the introduction. Andreas Doctor checked the translation against the Tibetan and edited the text.
The translation was completed under the patronage and supervision of 84000: Translating the Words of the Buddha.
The setting of this short sūtra, The Question of Kṣemaṅkara, is Nyagrodha Park near Kapilavastu, the city in the ancient Śākya kingdom that contained the family home where Prince Siddhārtha grew up. Kapilavastu is assumed to be some ten kilometers to the west of his birthplace, Lumbini, which is in present-day Nepal, but it is not certain which of two possible sites today might be its exact location.
The sūtra describes a conversation between Buddha Śākyamuni and the Śākya youth Kṣemaṅkara, who asks the Buddha a lengthy question about the qualities good bodhisattvas should have and how to develop such qualities. The Buddha’s response unfolds as a teaching on how to practice the bodhisattva path—an uncomplicated instruction given to a layperson. The teaching is without the specialized vocabulary of Buddhist philosophy and does not place strong emphasis on monastic discipline, although it does admonish against involvement with women. For the modern reader it should be kept in mind that such comments regarding women are primarily meant for men as advice in support of celibacy.
In this teaching the Buddha offers Kṣemaṅkara a set of ethical instructions, such as not retaliating when attacked, combined with teachings aimed at liberation, such as how to realize emptiness in order to successfully complete the bodhisattva path. Delighted by the Buddha’s response, Kṣemaṅkara makes an offering of his jewelry. The Buddha transforms the jewelry into a multitude of magically created beings, who in turn become the basis for a further teaching on the illusory character of phenomena. Unlike many longer sūtras, The Question of Kṣemaṅkara does not develop an elaborate storyline, nor are we given much information regarding the setting or the characters. Instead, this is a brief teaching that responds to a simple question. The only other participant in the conversation is Ānanda, in his usual role as witness to the Buddha’s teaching.
Near the end of the sūtra, the evil Māra also makes an appearance and inquires about the benefit of the Buddha’s discourse. The Buddha then equates the teaching of this sūtra with the perfection of insight, stating that no matter how long one practices the first five perfections, unless one knows this teaching, one will be unable to make much progress on the bodhisattva path.
Unfortunately, no Sanskrit version of this sūtra remains extant, but the text was translated into both Chinese and Tibetan. The Chinese translation (T 533) was produced by the prolific translator Chih-ch’ien (third century ᴄᴇ) sometime between 223–53 ᴄᴇ. As such, this sūtra can be dated to the formative period of India’s Mahāyāna scriptural tradition.
In producing this 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. The colophon of the sūtra states that it was translated from Sanskrit by the Indian preceptor Prajñāvarman and the prolific Tibetan translator Yeshé Dé. So, we can date the Tibetan translation to the late eighth to the early ninth century, a dating that is also attested by the text’s inclusion in the early ninth century Denkarma (ldan dkar ma) catalog.1
Homage to all buddhas and bodhisattvas!
Thus did I hear at one time. The Blessed One was staying in the Nyagrodha Park of the Śākyas, near Kapilavastu in the Śākya country, together with a great saṅgha of five hundred monks. At that time a Śākya youth2 named Kṣemaṅkara set out from the city of Kapilavastu for Nyagrodha Park, where the Blessed One was staying. As soon as he arrived there, he touched his head to the feet of the Blessed One and sat down to one side.
With folded palms the Śākya youth Kṣemaṅkara bowed down to the Blessed One and asked him, “Blessed One, what attributes should bodhisattvas possess in order to progress irreversibly toward unsurpassed and perfect awakening, so that even with just a little effort they will obtain the thirty-two marks of a great being, proceed from buddha realm to buddha realm, pass away free from delusion, possess the five types of superknowledge as soon as they are born, discard all unfree states, obtain leisure and advantages, gain retention, possess unobstructed eloquence, [F.168.a] possess the quality of not regressing, gain interest in emptiness, always delight in going forth, and always delight in pure conduct, even when staying in a household?”
In answer to this question, the Blessed One replied to the young Śākya Kṣemaṅkara, “Noble son, you have asked the Thus-Gone One about this topic for the sake of benefiting and bringing happiness to a multitude of beings, out of love for the world, for the welfare of numerous people, and in order to benefit and bring happiness to gods and humans. Excellent, excellent! Therefore, noble son, listen carefully and keep the following in mind, as I shall now explain.
“Bodhisattvas who possess four attributes will attain the qualities you have described. What are those four attributes? Noble son, they are as follows: bodhisattvas who possess the strength of patience and practice patience (1) do not retaliate though others revile them, (2) do not strike back though others beat them, (3) do not quarrel though others quarrel with them, and (4) do not get angry though others are hostile to them. Noble son, bodhisattvas who possess those four attributes will progress irreversibly toward unsurpassed and perfect awakening and will obtain the perfect qualities you have described.”
When the Blissful One had said this, the Teacher also spoke these words:
“Noble son, bodhisattvas who possess four additional attributes will progress irreversibly toward unsurpassed and perfect awakening, and they will achieve the perfect qualities you have described. What are those four attributes? Noble son, they are (1) pursuing the Dharma, yearning for the Dharma, and rejoicing, delighting in, and being inspired by the Dharma, as well as holding the Dharma and teaching the Dharma; (2) renouncing women and not indulging in women; (3) rejoicing in benefactors, in their giving nature, and in their giving,6 as well as renouncing dullness and sleep; and (4) feeling inspired by emptiness and abiding in emptiness. Noble son, bodhisattvas who possess those four attributes will progress irreversibly toward unsurpassed and perfect awakening and they will achieve the qualities you have described.” [F.169.a]
When the Blissful One had said this, the Teacher also spoke these words:
Upon hearing these teachings, the Śākya youth Kṣemaṅkara felt satisfied, delighted, and thrilled. Feeling joyful and happy, he unfastened the ornaments on his body and scattered them before the Blessed One. Through the Blessed One’s power these ornaments now transformed into a mansion made of precious substances, hovering directly above the Blessed One’s crown. From that mansion emanated five hundred people decorated with all manner of ornaments, who scattered their own ornaments in the direction of the Blessed One. In addition, they aroused the mind set on unsurpassed and perfect awakening and said, “Blessed One, we are sharing our roots of virtue with all beings, and we dedicate them toward unsurpassed and perfect awakening.”
The Śākya youth Kṣemaṅkara also perceived these emanated people. Seeing them, the hairs on his body stood on end, so he asked the Blessed One, “Blessed One, where are these people from? Are they from the east, from the south, from the west, from the north, from below, or from above? [F.169.b] From which cardinal or intermediate direction did they come?”
“Noble son,” replied the Blessed One, “these people are from neither the east, south, west, or north; nor from below or above; nor are they from any cardinal or intermediate direction. They are not gods, they are not nāgas, they are not yakṣas, they are not gandharvas, they are not demigods, they are not garuḍas, they are not kinnaras, they are not mahoragas, they are not humans, and they are not non-humans—they do not abide in the earth element, they do not abide in the water element, they do not abide in the fire element, they do not abide in the wind element, and they do not abide in the space element. They have no form, no feeling, no perception, no formation, no thinking, no mind, no consciousness, no karma, no ripening of karma, no present world, no other world, no coming, no going, no dwelling, no death, and no birth. However, noble son, they are known as magical emanations. They are called groundless, they are called lifeless, they are called beingless, they are called personless, they are called characteristicless, they are called void, they are called empty, and they are called essenceless.
“Kṣemaṅkara, those noble sons and daughters who hold all phenomena to be like magical creations—who accept, understand, and have faith and confidence in them as such, and who are not led astray by others—such noble sons and daughters, Kṣemaṅkara, are called my children. They are known as my descendants, they are known to possess illumination, they are known to be illuminating, they are known to clear away darkness, they are known to abandon afflictions. They are known as teachers, they are known as fields of merit, they are known as worthy of veneration,8 they are known as mendicants, they are known as brahmins, they are known as learned, they are known as elephants, they are known as those who accept that phenomena are unborn, [F.170.a] they are known as bodhisattvas, they are known as great beings, they are known as having the quality of non-regressing, they are known as having the qualities of bodhisattvas, and they are known as having been prophesied.
“However, noble children who do not agree that all phenomena are like magical creations, and who do not accept this, do not engage with it, have no faith in it, and lack trust in it—who feel frightened and scared upon hearing about it and start to panic, turn away from it, and challenge it—such noble children are known as not being mendicants. They are known as not being brahmins, they are known as non-Buddhists, they are known as those who apprehend things, they are known as depraved, they are known as unwholesome companions, they are known as people to avoid, they are known as deceitful bodhisattvas, they are known as immoral bodhisattvas, they are known as fake bodhisattvas, they are known as worthless bodhisattvas, they are known as corrupted bodhisattvas, and they are known as savage bodhisattvas.”
At this point the evil Māra, feeling frustrated and unhappy, went to the location where the Blessed One was staying and asked, “Blessed One, by delivering this Dharma teaching, how many beings’ welfare are you accomplishing?”
“Evil one,” replied the Blessed One, “through the delivery of this Dharma teaching, eighty-four thousand deities in the realms of desire and form will attain the acceptance that phenomena are unborn. The minds of five hundred monks will become free of defilements with no further appropriation. Seventy-five nuns will also attain the acceptance that phenomena are unborn. The bodhisattva Kṣemaṅkara and five hundred other laymen will also attain the acceptance that phenomena are unborn. Twenty-five female lay practitioners will purify the eye of Dharma, making it free from dust and dirt with regard to all phenomena, and all of them will attain the acceptance that phenomena are unborn. [F.170.b] When passing away, all of them will be reborn in Sukhāvatī, the buddha realm of the thus-gone, worthy, perfect buddha Amitābha. Once born there, they will all jointly uphold the awakening of the buddhahood of9 infinite blessed buddhas. They will express it, teach it, and authentically expound it. In the future, after as many eons as there are grains of sand in the Ganges River, during the so-called Good Eon of this trichiliocosm, they will fully awaken to unsurpassed and perfect buddhahood.”
The evil Māra felt frustrated and unhappy. With regret, he began to weep. As he was leaving, he said, “Blessed One, please do not deliver this Dharma teaching again!”
“Evil one, you should not speak like that!” replied the Blessed One. “And why not? Because the turning of the Dharma wheel of all the blessed buddhas is unimpeded.”
Then venerable Ānanda asked the Blessed One, “Blessed One, what is this Dharma teaching called, and how should it be identified?”
The Blessed One responded, “Ānanda, you may call this Dharma discourse The Bodhisattva’s Renunciation, or you should call it The Question of Kṣemaṅkara. Ānanda, I entrust you with this Dharma discourse. I entrust it to you in order that you retain it, read it aloud, explain it, and accurately teach it to others in great detail. Why? Ānanda, noble sons and noble daughters who have genuinely entered the Great Vehicle [F.171.a] might practice the five perfections without the perfection of insight for ten eons. Yet those noble sons and noble daughters who retain this Dharma discourse, hold it, read it aloud, understand it, accurately teach it to others in detail, or even make it into a book and carry it, will create much more merit.”
Then the Blessed One spoke these verses:
When the Blessed One had spoken, venerable Ānanda, the Śākya youth Kṣemaṅkara, the entire retinue, and the world including its gods, humans, demigods, and gandharvas rejoiced and praised what the Blessed One had said.
This concludes the noble Great Vehicle sūtra “The Question of Kṣemaṅkara.”
’phags pa bde byed kyis zhus pa zhes bya ba theg pa chen po’i mdo. Toh 165, Degé Kangyur vol. 59 (mdo sde, ba), folios 167b.2–171b.3.
’phags pa bde byed kyis zhus pa ces bya ba thegs pa chen po’i mdo. Stok no. 308, stog pho brang bris ma, vol. 87 (mdo sde, chi), folios 218b.1–224b.1.
’phags pa bde byed kyis 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. 59, 455–65.
Denkarma (pho brang stod thang ldan [/ lhan] dkar gyi chos ’gyur ro cog gi dkar chag). Degé Tengyur, vol. 206 (sna tshogs, jo), folios 294.b–310.a.
Herrmann-Pfandt, Adelheid. Die lHan kar ma: ein früher Katalog der ins Tibetische übersetzten buddhistischen Texte. Wien: Verlag der österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 2008.
- kun dga’ bo
Attendant of the Buddha and the one who is said to have memorized the sūtras.
- lha ma yin
The traditional adversaries of the devas (gods) who are frequently portrayed in Brahmanical mythology as having a disruptive effect on cosmological and social harmony.
- phar phyin lnga
The five perfections of generosity, discipline, patience, diligence, and concentration.
- dri za
Lower class of divine being, under the control of the Guardian King of the East. Capable of flight, they are often described as “celestial musicians.”
- gang gA
The sacred river of North India.
- nam mkha’ lding
Lower class of divine being, described as an eagle-type bird with a gigantic wingspan. They are traditionally enemies of the nāgas. In the Vedas, they are thought to have brought nectar from the heavens to earth.
- bskal pa bzang po
An epithet of our current eon, so-called because one thousand buddhas are prophesied to appear during this time.
- ser skya’i gnas
The capital city of the Śākya kingdom, where the Buddha had grown up as Prince Siddhārtha.
- mi’am ci
A class of semidivine beings that resemble humans to the degree that their very name—which means “Is that a human?”—suggests some confusion as to their divine status.
- lto ’phye chen po
A class of serpentine non-human beings.
Demon or demonic influence that creates obstacles for spiritual practice and awakening.
- dge sbyong
A term used broadly to denote a spiritual practitioner.
A semidivine class of beings that live in subterranean aquatic environments and that are known to hoard wealth and esoteric teachings. They are associated with snakes and serpents.
- mu stegs can
A non-Buddhist religious practitioner who relies on sacred fords (tīrtha).
- shing nya gro dha’i kun dga’ ra ba
A grove of banyan trees (Skt. nyagrodha) near Kapilavastu where the Buddha sometimes took residence. It was a gift to the Buddhist community by King Śuddhodana, the father of the Buddha.
- pradz+ny+A barma
An Indian Bengali paṇḍita resident in Tibet during the late eighth and early ninth centuries. Arriving in Tibet on an invitation from the Tibetan king, he assisted in the translation of numerous canonical scriptures. He is also the author of a few philosophical commentaries contained in the Tibetan Tengyur (bstan ’gyur) collection.
The name of the family clan into which Buddha Śākyamuni was born.
- bde ba can
The pure land of Buddha Amitābha in which a practitioner can take rebirth through a combination of pure faith, sufficient merit, and one-pointed determination.
Those who apprehend things
- dmigs pa can
Those who apprehend things conceptually.
- stong gsum gi ’jigs rten gyi khams
A universe containing one billion worlds.
Unsurpassed and perfect awakening
- bla na med pa yang dag par rdzogs pa’i byang chub
Manifesting the complete enlightenment of a buddha.
- gnod sbyin
A class of semidivine beings said to dwell in the north, under the jurisdiction of the Great King Vaiśravaṇa, otherwise known as Kubera.
- ye shes sde
Tibetan translator who was active during the late eighth and early ninth centuries. He participated in the translation of more than two hundred texts.