The Questions of an Old Lady
Degé Kangyur, vol. 59 (mdo sde, ba), folios 310.b–314.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
This sūtra contains teachings given by the Buddha to a 120-year-old woman in the city of Vaiśalī. Upon meeting the Buddha, she asks him questions concerning the four stages of life, the aggregates, the elements and the faculties. In response, the Buddha gives her a profound teaching on emptiness, using beautifully crafted examples to illustrate his point.
After hearing these teachings her doubts are dispelled and she is freed from clinging to the perception of a self. Ānanda asks the Buddha why he has given such profound teachings to this woman. The Buddha reveals that the woman has been his mother five hundred times in previous lifetimes and that he had generated the root of virtue for her to become enlightened. Because of her own strong aspirations, after dying, she would be born in the buddha field of Sukhāvatī; and after sixty-eight thousand eons she would finally become the buddha Bodhyaṅgapuṣpakara.
This sūtra was translated from Tibetan into English under the supervision of Khenpo Ngawang Jorden by the Venerable Jampa Losal and the laywoman YangDol Tsatultsang, 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.
Considering the cultural norms of the time, the fact that the teaching contained in this sūtra was given entirely to a laywoman and, moreover, to a very old and impoverished laywoman, makes it stand apart.
The setting of this text is Vaiśalī, the ancient capital of the Licchavis and of the Vṛji confederacy of which the Licchavi republic was a member. The old lady, whose name we are never told, asks the Buddha such profound questions that Ānanda realizes this is no ordinary woman but one whose wisdom comes from merit collected in past lifetimes. As it turns out, the Buddha reveals that she has been his mother for five hundred lifetimes.
The main body of the text, which consists of the Buddha’s teachings in answer to the old lady’s questions, is an explanation of emptiness. To put it briefly, the Buddha says no phenomenon arises of its own accord. Neither does any phenomenon give rise to any other phenomenon. All phenomena arise owing to their dependence upon collections of causes and conditions. Hence, there is no independent phenomenon, though we may use terms to indicate various phenomena as if they were independent. After the Buddha’s teaching the old lady realizes this profound truth. The Buddha prophesies that she herself will one day become a buddha. In earlier lifetimes he had planted roots of virtue and made strong aspirations for her to do so.
The following modern works should be mentioned. Frye (1979) provides us with an English translation from the Mongolian version of the sūtra. Research on the date and translator attributions of the Chinese versions is to be found in Nattier (2007). Durt (2005) discusses the theme of the mahallikā (“old lady”) and the three Chinese versions (Taishō 559, 560, 561) of the Mahallikāparipṛcchā. Most recently, Peter Skilling (2021) has included a translation of the sūtra and some helpful notes on it in his collection Questioning the Buddha: A Selection of Twenty-Five Sutras.
There is no Sanskrit version extant. The primary Tibetan text used for the present translation was the version in the Degé (sde dge) Kangyur, versions in the other Kangyurs being also compared. The colophon of the sūtra states that it was translated under the guidance of the abbots Jinamitra and Dānaśīla by the Tibetan translator Yeshé Dé (ye shes sde), from which we can conclude that this text must have been translated from Sanskrit to Tibetan in the early ninth century ᴄᴇ during the first major phase of the translation of Buddhist texts into Tibetan.
Homage to all buddhas and bodhisattvas.
Thus did I hear at one time. When the Bhagavān was traveling in the land of Vṛji, he went to the great city of Vaiśālī, together with a large saṅgha of one thousand two hundred and fifty bhikṣus and a vast number of bodhisattva mahāsattvas. At that time, he came across an old woman from the city gathering grass in the countryside. She was decrepit and had reached the end of her life-span, being one hundred and twenty years old.
The woman saw the Bhagavān coming from afar—handsome, inspiring, with senses tamed, mind tamed, endowed with supreme discipline and serenity, guarded, faultless, senses controlled, pure and clear like the sea, unclouded, upright like a golden sacrificial post, radiant with splendor clear and distinct, wonderfully adorned with the thirty-two signs of a great being. When she saw him, faith grew in her mind. Then full of devotion she approached [F.311.a] the Bhagavān, bowed her head at his feet, circumambulated the Bhagavān three times and sat to one side.
Bowing with her palms together in the direction of the Bhagavān, the woman then asked him, “O Bhagavān, where does birth come from? Where does aging come from? Where do they go? O Bhagavān, where does sickness come from? Where does death come from? Where do they go? O Bhagavān, where does form come from? Where do sensation, notions, formative factors and consciousness come from? Where do they go? O Bhagavān, where does the earth element come from? Where do the water element, the fire element, the wind element, the space element and the element of consciousness come from? Where do they go? O Bhagavān, where does the eye come from? Where do the ear, the nose, the tongue, the body and the mind come from? Where do they go?”
The Bhagavān replied, “Sister, birth does not come from anywhere. Aging does not come from anywhere. They do not go anywhere. Sister, sickness does not come from anywhere. Death does not come from anywhere. They do not go anywhere. Sister, form does not come from anywhere. Sensation, notions, formative factors and consciousness do not come from anywhere. They do not go anywhere. Sister, the earth element does not come from anywhere. The water element, the fire element, the wind element, the space element and the element of consciousness do not come from anywhere. They do not go anywhere. Sister, the eye does not come from anywhere. The ear, the nose, the tongue, the body and the mind do not come from anywhere. They do not go anywhere.
“Sister, it is as follows: as an analogy, a fire arises based on a stick to rub with, a stick to rub on, and and also a person’s effort to generate it. That fire, moreover, once it has burnt the grass and wood, will have no more causes and will die. Sister, where do you think the fire comes from and where does it go?”
The Bhagavān said, “Sister, likewise, all phenomena [F.311.b] come into being owing to the power of a collection. They cease and die when they lack the collection. Whatever the phenomena, they do not come from anywhere, nor do they go anywhere. Sister, it is as follows: although the eye consciousness arises based upon the eye and form, the eye consciousness does not have a producer, nor anything that makes it cease. Nowhere is it brought together at all. The aggregates do not come from anywhere, nor do they go anywhere. When one has accumulated karma through the conditions of the consciousnesses, the fruits manifest as the results of three types1 in the three realms. That fruit is empty too. It has no coming. It has no going. No one makes it arise. It is not stopped by anybody. Sister, all phenomena have stopped due to their very natures.
“Likewise, although the mental consciousness arises based upon the ear and sound, the nose and smell, the tongue and taste, the body and touch, and the mind and phenomena, the mental consciousness2 does not have a producer nor has it anything that makes it cease. Nowhere is it brought together at all.3 The aggregates do not come from anywhere, nor do they go anywhere either. When one has accumulated karma through the condition of mental consciousness, the fruits manifest as the results of three types in the three realms. That fruit is empty too. It has no coming. It has no going. No one makes it arise. It is not stopped by anybody. Sister, all phenomena are inherently stopped.
“Sister, it is as follows: as an analogy, the sound of a drum arises based on wood, hide and a stick, and also on a person’s effort to make it arise. The past sound of that drum was empty, the future sound will be empty and the sound that arises at present is empty. The sound does not dwell in the wood, neither does it dwell in the hide, nor does it dwell in the stick, nor does it dwell in the person’s hand. However, because of these conditions, it is termed sound. That which is termed sound is also empty. It has no coming. It has no going. No one makes it arise. It is not stopped by anybody. Sister, all phenomena are inherently stopped.
“Sister, likewise, all phenomena depend solely on conditions, i.e., ones such as ignorance, craving, karma and consciousness. When these latter phenomena are present, the terms death and birth are designated. [F.312.a] That which is designated death and birth is also empty. It has no coming. It has no going. No one makes it arise. It is not stopped by anybody. Sister, all phenomena are inherently stopped.
“Sister, in this way, whoever understands the nature of a drum’s sound well also understands emptiness well. Whoever understands emptiness well, understands nirvāṇa well. Whoever understands nirvāṇa well has no attachment to any entity, and despite designating conventional things with all sorts of terms—‘this is mine,’ or ‘that is me,’ or ‘sentient being,’ or ‘life force,’ or ‘living being,’ or ‘man,’ or ‘person,’ or ‘born of Manu,’ or ‘son of Manu,’ or ‘agent,’ or ‘inciter of action,’ or ‘appropriator,’ or ‘discarder’—he teaches Dharma without attachment to these. He teaches Dharma well. He teaches the final reality. He teaches the final reality well.
“Sister, it is as follows: an artist or an artist’s apprentice spreads various paints on a canvas that has been thoroughly cleaned or on a flat piece of wood or on the surface of a wall that has been wiped clean. He paints with ease whatever bodily shape he might wish, such as the features of a man’s physical form, the features of a woman’s physical form, the features of an elephant’s physical form, the features of a horse’s physical form or the features of a donkey’s physical form, with complete limbs, parts of limbs and all the sense faculties. Well executed though the painting may be, it does not involve any phenomenon at all being transferred from the artist’s hand or mind to the physical form depicted; and yet we designate that form as a result of those conditions. That which is designated form is also empty. It has no coming. It has no going. No one makes it arise. It is not stopped by anybody. Sister, all phenomena are inherently stopped.
“Sister, it is likewise when there are meritorious formative factors. That is to say, although bodies conducive to merit might result among gods and humans, in that case not even an atom is transferred from this world to the world beyond. However, due to the formative factors, [F.312.b] there are various kinds of rebirths. They are represented as physical bodies with their bases of cognition.
“It is likewise when there are demeritorious formative factors. That is to say, although bodies that are not meritorious result among hell beings, or in the animal state, or in the world of the Lord of Death, or among the demigods, not even an atom is transferred in such a case from this world to the world beyond. However, due to the formative factors there are various kinds of rebirths. They are understood to be physical forms with their bases of cognition.
“Sister, it is as follows: as an analogy, a vast gathering of clouds arises because of the nāga-power of the nāgas, and when those huge nets of clouds cover the earth they let fall a heavy deluge of rain. After the heavy deluge of rain has fallen, the hills and the valleys are quenched. When the hills and valleys are quenched, the rain later subsides. But these things do not originate from the nāgas’ bodies or minds. The nāgas produced the vast gathering of clouds by virtue of the nāga-powers of nāgas alone.
“Sister, it is likewise when there are meritorious formative factors, that is to say, when meritorious bodies result among gods or humans. It is likewise, too, when there are demeritorious formative factors. That is to say, although bodies that are not meritorious result among hells beings or in the animal state or the world of the Lord of Death or among the demigods, in such cases the activity of the formative factor is empty, the agent of the formative factor is empty and the fruits of the formative factor are also empty. Sister, when there are formative factors for remaining static, consciousness will reincarnate among the beings of the formless realms. That on account of which the consciousness reincarnates among beings of the formless realms is empty, and the consciousness which reincarnates among the beings of the formless realms is empty too. Why is this so? Sister, it is because all phenomena are empty of essence. Even so phenomena are designated. The learned are not attached to them. As they have no attachment they do not dispute. Having no disputes is the supreme quality of the religious mendicant.”
The woman said, [F.313.a] “Since the Bhagavān has taught the profound Dharma in this way, O Bhagavān, I, too, have penetrated these teachings with the eye of wisdom and will never be of two minds about them again. I have no doubts. O Bhagavān, earlier, as I hadn’t yet heard these teachings I did have doubts. Now I am old, I am decrepit, I suffer, I am poor, I have no protector, I have no life and yet I do not die. O Bhagavān, after hearing these teachings I realize that there is no aging, no poverty, no happiness, no sickness, nor is anyone ever ill, wealthy or poor at all. I am freed from the notion of a self.”
Then the Venerable Ānanda inquired of the Bhagavān, “Bhagavān, why have you taught such a profound Dharma discourse as this? I wonder whether it is because this woman, who has investigated so well in this way, is meritorious, learned and naturally wise.”
The Bhagavān replied, “Ānanda, so it is. Ānanda, it is indeed just as you say. This woman is meritorious, learned and naturally wise. Ānanda, this woman was my mother for five hundred lifetimes. Ānanda, in each of those lifetimes I also generated the roots of virtue so she could attain unsurpassable and perfectly complete enlightenment. Ānanda, I cherished, revered and respected this woman greatly. She, too, thought, ‘I will engage in whatever conduct my son engages in and attain the unsurpassable and perfectly complete enlightenment of the vehicle of happiness.’ ”
The Bhagavān answered, “Ānanda, when I took up the conduct of a bodhisattva, I became a renunciate in the doctrine of the Bhagavān, the tathāgata, arhat, perfectly complete Buddha Krakucchanda. At that time, Ānanda, this woman was my mother. Because of her attachment she did not want to let me go, so I stopped eating my one meal per day. Later, she agreed to let me go. Ānanda, it is because of the ripening [F.313.b] of that karma that she is as poor as she is. Ānanda, this is the last time she will be poor. Ānanda, after death, this woman, who no longer craves a woman’s faculties, will obtain a man’s faculties in the Sukhāvatī buddhafield of the bhagavān, the perfectly complete buddha Amitābha. Once born there, she will make offerings to an innumerable, immeasurable, inconceivable number of buddhas; guide an innumerable, immeasurable, inconceivable number of sentient beings to enlightenment; make an innumerable, immeasurable, inconceivable number of sentient beings ripe for enlightenment; bring an innumerable, immeasurable, inconceivable number of sentient beings to enlightenment, and having brought an innumerable, immeasurable, inconceivable number of sentient beings to enlightenment, in six million eight hundred thousand kalpas she will become the Tathāgata, arhat, perfectly complete Buddha named Bodhyaṅgapuṣpakara in this trichiliocosm. Ānanda, the wealth and enjoyments of sentient beings of this buddha field will be like those of the gods of the Thirty-Three.”
Thus did the Bhagavān announce, and having spoken these words, the Sugata, the Teacher, added the following verses:
When the Bhagavān had spoken, the venerable Ānanda and the old lady, the bodhisattvas and bhikṣus, and the world with its gods, humans, demigods and gandharvas all rejoiced, and praised highly what the Bhagavān had taught.
This completes the Noble Mahāyāna Sūtra, “The Questions of an Old Lady.”
The translation was made, edited, and approved by the Indian preceptors Jinamitra and Dānaśīla and the chief editor and translator Bandé Yeshé Dé.
’phags pa bgres mos zhus pa zhes bya theg pa chen po’i mdo (Āryamahallikāparipṛcchānāmamahāyānasūtra). Toh. 171, Degé Kangyur vol. 59 (mdo sde, ba), folios 310.b–314.a.
’phags pa bgres mos zhus pa zhes bya 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), 2006-2009, vol. 59, pp 883-893.
Dharmachakra Translation Group, trans. The Play in Full (Lalitavistara). 84000: Translating the Words of the Buddha, 2013.
Durt, Hubert. “Kajaṅgalā, Who Could Have Been the Last Mother of the Buddha.” Journal of the International College for Advanced Buddhist Studies 9, 2005, pp 65-87.
Edgerton, F. Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit Dictionary. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1985.
Frye, Stanley. “The Sūtra Requested by the Old Women.” Tibet Journal. 4/1, 1979, pp 28-33.
Nattier, Jan. “A Reassessment of the Dates and Translator Attributions of the Laonüren jing (T. 559) and the Laomu jing (T. 561).” Annual Report of the International Research Institute for Advanced Buddhology at Soka University 10, 2007, pp 529-532. http://iriab.soka.ac.jp/orc/Publications/ARIRIAB/index_ARIRIAB.html
Rotman, Andy. Divine Stories: Divyāvadāna, Part I. Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2008.
Skilling, Peter. Questioning the Buddha: A Selection of Twenty-Five Sutras. Somerville: Wisdom Publications, 2021, pp. 315–330.
- phung po
Five collections or “heaps” of impersonal mental and physical elements (dharma).
- kun dga’ bo
The personal attendant and cousin of the Buddha.
- dgra bcom pa
Sometimes translated “worthy one,” a term for one who is liberated and who has extirpated the passions (kleśa, nyon mongs).
Bases of cognition
- skye mched
There are twelve bases of cognition in all: the five physical sense organs plus the mind and their respective six sorts of objects. The six inner bases from eye to mind are what apprehend; and the six outer bases from form to mental objects are the objects that are apprehended.
- bcom ldan ’das
“Illustrious One,” an epithet of a buddha.
- byang chub kyi yan lag gi me tog byed
Name of a buddha.
Born of Manu
- shed las skyes
Manu being the archetypal human, the progenitor of mankind, in the Mahābhārata, the Purāṇas, and other Indian texts, “born of Manu” is a synonym of “human being” or mankind in general. Also rendered “son of Manu.”
The primary cause.
The concomitant circumstances and influences in a causal process.
- lha ma yin
The titans who inhabit one of the six types of “worlds” (loka) that make up saṃsāra.
- yang dag pa’i mtha’
The ultimate state that can be experienced in the realization of reality, and a near-synonym of nirvāṇa; sometimes also translated as “the reality limit” in contexts describing a partial nirvāṇa that needs to be transcended.
- mngon par ’du byed
The term is used in this text in the same way as saṃskāra (formative factors, q.v. second entry).
- ’du byed
The various conditioning factors and circumstances that affect rebirth, including primarily (but not only) karma. Formative factors also constitute one of the five aggregates and figure as one of the links in the twelve links of dependent arising to account for how karma eventually leads to rebirth.
- dri za
Lit. “smell eater.” Gandharvas are a class of spirits and minor gods (deva) in both Hindu and Buddhist cosmologies. They are supposedly messengers, singers and skilled musicians and dancers. Often closely associated with various nature-spirits (yakṣa), they are on occasion depicted as disturbing to monks practicing meditation.
- drang song chen po
Epithet of the Buddha.
- ’khor ba ’jig
The first buddha of our eon; the fifth buddha of the “seven generations of buddhas” (sangs rgyas rab bdun). Also found as Kakutsanda, Kakutsunda, etc. See Edgerton (1985), s.v. Krakucchanda, for the various spellings.
Lord of Death
- gshin rje
God of the lower realms.
- yid kyi rnam par shes pa
The Abhidharma speaks of five consciousnesses that grasp physical objects (form, sound, smells, tastes, bodily sensations) and are correlated with their respective physical sense faculties (indriya, dbang po), i.e. the eye, ear, etc. The mental consciousness, on the other hand, is said to have as its faculty simply the mind (manas, yid). It grasps all that exists, including what is presented by the physical consciousnesses as well as mental and abstract objects. These six consciousnesses, added to the twelve bases of cognition, constitute the Abhidharma schema of eighteen domains or spheres (dhātu, khams).
Nāgas are associated with springs, streams, rivers, and water in general, and among their many magical powers are the ability to produce rain.
- klu’i mthu
Among the many magical powers of the nāgas are the ability to produce rain. Presumably this ability is what is meant here by “nāga-power,” although this appears to be the only mention of the term in the Kangyur in connection with clouds and rain.
- ’du shes
One of the five aggregates. It is also one of the five mental omnipresent (sarvatraga, kun ’gro) mental factors that necessarily accompany any cognition.
- mchod sdong
A post set up as a marker to which offerings may be presented. Described in the Maitreyāvadāna (“The Story of Maitreya”), which in the Kangyur is found within the Bhaiṣajyavastu (in Vinayavastu, Toh 1, Degé Kangyur, vol. kha, folios 29a-32b); a matching passage from the Divyāvadāna is translated in Rotman, 2008, pp 121-124.
Son of Manu
- shed bu
Manu being the archetypal human, the progenitor of mankind, in the Mahābhārata, the Purāṇas, and other Indian texts, “son of Manu” is a synonym of “human being” or mankind in general. Also rendered “born of Manu.”
- de bzhin gshegs pa
Epithet of the Buddhas.
Here used as a specific epithet of Buddha Śākyamuni.
- sum cu rtsa gsum
Indra’s paradise on the summit of Sumeru.
- mtshan sum cu rtsa gnyis
- dvātriṃśan mahāpuruṣalakṣaṇāni
The distinctive physical attributes of the Buddha. These are the “signs of a great man” (Skt. mahāpuruṣalakṣaṇa, Tib. skye bu chen po’i mtshan bzang) that following Indian tradition characterize cakravartin kings (world sovereigns) as well as buddhas. For a descriptive list, see Dharmachakra (2013), 26.145-173.
- khams gsum
The three realms are the desire realm (kāmadhātu, ’dod khams), form realm (rūpadhātu, gzugs khams) and the formless realm (ārūpyadhātu, gzugs med khams), i.e., the three worlds that make up saṃsāra. The first is composed of the six sorts of beings (gods, demigods, humans, animals, hungry ghosts and hell beings), whereas the latter two are only realms of gods and are thus higher, more ethereal states of saṃsāra.
- stong gsum gyi stong chen po’i ’jig rten
This term in Abhidharma cosmology refers to 1,000³ world systems, i.e., 1,000 “dichiliocosms,” or “two thousand great thousand world realms” (dvisāhasramahāsāhasralokadhātu), which are in turn made up of 1,000 first-order world systems each with its own Mt. Meru, continents, sun, moon, as well as desire, form and formless realms, heavens of gods, etc.
- yangs pa can
The ancient capital of the Vṛji (q.v.) confederacy and Licchavi republic.
- bri dzi na
The land and people of Vṛji or Vaji (Pāli Vajji), a country situated on the north eastern Gangetic plain, and one of the 16 mahājanapada of Ancient India. It was run by a confederacy of eight or nine clans, including the Vṛji, Licchavi, and Videha, who sent representatives to an administrative council led by an elected ruler. Its capital was Vaiśālī. See Edgerton, s.v. Vṛji and Vaji.