The Inquiry of Lokadhara
Degé Kangyur, vol. 60 (mdo sde, ma), folios 7.b–78.b
Translated by the Dharmachakra Translation Committee
under the patronage and supervision of 84000: Translating the Words of the Buddha.
First published 2020
Current version v 1.1.25 (2023)
Generated by 84000 Reading Room v2.21.1
84000: Translating the Words of the Buddha is a global non-profit initiative to translate all the Buddha’s words into modern languages, and to make them available to everyone.
This work is provided under the protection of a Creative Commons CC BY-NC-ND (Attribution - Non-commercial - No-derivatives) 3.0 copyright. It may be copied or printed for fair use, but only with full attribution, and not for commercial advantage or personal compensation. For full details, see the Creative Commons license.
In The Inquiry of Lokadhara, the bodhisattva Lokadhara asks the Buddha to explain the proper way for bodhisattvas to discern the characteristics of phenomena and employ that knowledge to attain awakening. In reply, the Buddha teaches at length how to understand the lack of inherent existence of phenomena. As part of the teaching, the Buddha explains in detail the nonexistence of the aggregates, the elements, the sense sources, dependently originated phenomena, the four applications of mindfulness, the five powers, the eightfold path of the noble ones, and mundane and transcendent phenomena, as well as conditioned and unconditioned phenomena.
The sūtra was translated by the Dharmachakra Translation Committee under the guidance of Chökyi Nyima Rinpoche. The translation from the Tibetan was produced by Timothy Hinkle. Andreas Doctor checked the translation against the Tibetan, edited the text, and wrote the introduction. James Gentry subsequently compared the translation against Kumārajīva’s Chinese translation and made further edits.
The translation was completed under the patronage and supervision of 84000: Translating the Words of the Buddha.
The Inquiry of Lokadhara is a scripture that belongs to the general sūtra section of the Degé Kangyur. As far as we are aware, no Sanskrit version of this text remains. However, in addition to the Tibetan translation, which we have translated here, the sūtra is also present in two Chinese translations (Taishō 481 and Taishō 482). The first of these was translated by Dharmarakṣa (233–311 ᴄᴇ), the famed and prolific translator of The Lotus Sūtra. The second translation was completed between 402 and 412 ᴄᴇ, by the equally renowned translator Kumārajīva (344–413 ᴄᴇ), as one of his last translations. We therefore know that the text has been in existence since at least the third century ᴄᴇ. Unfortunately, however, we know little else of the history of this sūtra. We do not even know when, or by whom, it was translated into Tibetan; the translation does not identify a translator, and the text is not listed in the ninth-century Denkarma (Tib. ldan dkar ma) or Phangthangma (Tib. ’phang thang ma) imperial catalogues of Tibetan translations.1 It does, however, appear in Buton’s (Tib. bu ston) History of the Dharma (Tib. chos ’byung), thus suggesting that it was translated after the fall of the Yarlung dynasty (846 ᴄᴇ) (or at least outside official circles of imperial influence), and only became known in Tibet sometime prior to the fourteenth century ᴄᴇ. A cursory search of the Dunhuang manuscript catalogues did not yield any further information, although future studies of these resources may shed new light on this issue. In this regard, it is worth mentioning that Cornelius Chang (1976, p. 22) reports that a fragment of the sūtra was discovered in Turfan (in modern day Xinjiang). The sūtra is therefore likely to have been present in the Dunhuang region as well, as the Tibetan Yarlung Dynasty controlled Turfan during the same period that it controlled Dunhuang, until roughly 846 ᴄᴇ.
For this translation, we took as our basis the Tibetan Degé xylograph version and compared it to the Stok Palace manuscript and the variant readings recorded in the Comparative Edition (Tib. dpe bsdur ma). Furthermore, we compared the Tibetan with the Chinese translations. This comparison revealed strong affinities between the Tibetan translation and the Chinese translations, specifically that of Kumārajīva. Indeed, the similarities in structure and content between the Tibetan translation and Kumārajīva’s translation (Taishō 482) are so striking that this Chinese translation, or a related copy thereof, was likely the source text for the Tibetan. The minor variations between it and the Tibetan can mostly be attributed to the several centuries of editorial work that both the source text and the target text underwent since the time of the translation. There are also further indications that this text was translated into Tibetan from the Chinese. For example, the recensions in the Yongle Peking, Lithang, Kangxi Peking, Narthang, and Choné Kangyurs are all missing a Sanskrit title, which is otherwise a customary element for texts translated from Sanskrit. Only the Stok Palace and Degé Kangyurs include a Sanskrit title, but this might have been back-translated from the Tibetan and subsequently included by later editors. This and the absence of a translation colophon (another prevalent feature of some of the Tibetan translations from Chinese) suggest that the history of the text might be traced to China.2
In comparing the Tibetan to Kumārajīva’s Chinese translation as it appears in Taishō 482, we did not note all minor differences. Rather, we edited the translation in favor of the Chinese wherever it was obvious (or could reasonably be argued) that the Tibetan was an unclear attempt at rendering the Chinese, or was once a clearer rendering prior to subsequent editorial interventions. In cases that were less clear to us, but where the Chinese provided a better reading, we generally adopted the Chinese reading and recorded the Tibetan in annotations.
Despite the obscurity of the textual history of this sūtra and its infrequent mention in classical and modern writings, the teachings presented herein are certain to be of value to those interested in the world view of the Great Vehicle. Whereas in some sūtras a great number of miracles and visitations from celestial bodhisattvas occur as part of the teaching, this sūtra consists of a lengthy discourse by the Buddha centered on a presentation of traditional Abhidharma categories from the perspective of the Great Vehicle. Unlike the classical presentation of Buddhist ontology, however, this teaching is not concerned with the relative nature and categorization of phenomena, but rather with the inherent emptiness of the categories described and their ultimate lack of inherent existence. In this way, the sūtra presents the topic of metaphysics from a distinctly Great Vehicle perspective that distances itself from traditional Buddhist dharma theory. Rather than emphasizing the unique characteristics and properties of phenomena, the Buddha unifies them all within the single category of emptiness. Throughout the text the terms Dharma and phenomena are translations of the same Tibetan term chos (Skt. dharma), which carries both of these meanings in addition to several other meanings that are also implied in this text, such as “awakened qualities,” “truths,” and “trainings.” This text, like much of Buddhist literature in fact, plays repeatedly with the multivalence of dharma(s) to impart a sense of the circularity and mutual implications of the “truths” that buddhas realize about the nature of “phenomena,” the “qualities” achieved through this realization, the “teachings” they give to enable others to realize it, and the “trainings” that these teachings stipulate, leading back, once again, to the discovery of such “truths.” In this regard it is also helpful to keep in mind that the dharmas in Abhidharma theory represent the “bare facts” or ontological building blocks of existence—phenomena the existence of which this text heavily critiques and questions.
Over the course of the sūtra, which is divided into twelve chapters, the Buddha presents the following topics: the five aggregates, the eighteen elements, the twelve sense sources, the twelve links of dependent origination, the four applications of mindfulness, the five powers, the eightfold path of the noble ones, the phenomena of the world and transcendence, and conditioned and unconditioned phenomena. These subjects provide an important explanatory framework for the functioning of existence and the path to awakening from the Abhidharma point of view. Although some explanation of each topic is given, the sūtra clearly assumes the reader’s familiarity with Abhidharma theory. Moreover, rather than offering a traditional explanation of these topics, the Buddha consistently explains their lack of identifying marks (Skt. animitta), meaning that despite their conventional designations, the phenomena in question do not in actuality have any true or real referents. The Buddha states that these topics are normally taught purely for the expedient purpose of guiding childish ordinary beings (i.e., not the followers of the Great Vehicle) along the path; however, on the ultimate level, the individual characteristics that these phenomena seem to possess due to the interdependent process of causation cannot be found. These subjects are taught merely to provide students with useful classifications that ultimately must lead them beyond such ontological categories. By contrast, this sūtra’s theme is the absence of marks of all phenomena, one of the three gateways of liberation, which also include emptiness and the absence of wishes. As such, the sūtra represents a clear critique of the traditional vehicle of the hearers and a forceful affirmation of the superiority of the perspective of the Great Vehicle.
The Inquiry of Lokadhara
’phags pa ’jig rten ’dzin gyis yongs su dris pa zhes bya ba’i mdo (Āryālokadharaparipṛcchānāmasūtra). Toh 174, Degé Kangyur vol. 60 (mdo sde, ma), folios 7b.4–78b.7.
’phags pa ’jig rten ’dzin gyis yongs su dris pa zhes bya ba’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. 60, pp. 22–206.
’phags pa ’jig rten ’dzin gyis yongs su dris pa zhes bya ba’i mdo (Āryālokadharaparipṛcchānāmasūtra). In bka’ ’gyur (stog pho brang bris ma). Vol. 72 (mdo sde, zha), folios 1r–110v.
Chang, Cornelius P. “A Re-evaluation of the Development of Hsing-su Style in the Fourth Century AD.” National Palace Museum Quarterly, 11/2 (Winter 1976): 19–44.
Digital Dictionary of Buddhism. http://www.buddhism-dict.net/ddb/.
Herrmann-Pfandt, Adelheid. Die lHan kar ma: ein früher Katalog der ins Tibetische übersetzten buddhistischen Texte. Wien: Verlag der österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 2008.
Lokadharaparipṛcchā; Chishi jing 持世經 (Taishō 482). Translated by Kumārajīva. In Taishō Shinshū Daizōkyō 大正新脩大藏經, ed. Junjirō Takakusu, Kaikyoku Watanabe, 100 vols., Tokyo: Taishō Shinshū Daizōkyō Kankōkai, 1924–34.
Stein, R. A. “The Two Vocabularies of Indo-Tibetan and Sino-Tibetan Translations in the Dunhuang Manuscripts.” In Rolf Stein’s Tibetica Antiqua with Additional Materials, trans. and ed. Arthur P. McKeown. Leiden: Brill, 2010, pp. 1–96.