The Teaching on the Aids to Enlightenment
Degé Kangyur, vol. 60 (mdo sde, ma), folios 240.b–244.b
Translated by the Sarasvatī Translation Team
under the patronage and supervision of 84000: Translating the Words of the Buddha
First published 2019
Current version v 1.1.17 (2022)
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In response to a series of queries from Mañjuśrī, Buddha Śākyamuni first exposes the error that prevents sentient beings in general from transcending saṃsāra, and then focuses more particularly on errors that result from understanding the four truths of the noble ones based on conceptual notions of phenomena. He then goes on to explain how someone wishing to attain liberation should skillfully view the following five sets of qualities: (1) the four truths, (2) the four applications of mindfulness, (3) the eightfold path, (4) the five faculties, and (5) the seven branches of enlightenment.
This translation was produced by the Sarasvatī Translation Team. We would like to acknowledge the support from the American Council of Learned Societies, which has allowed a member of our team to devote time to this project. With love and gratitude, we dedicate this work to the editor of our team, Steven Rhodes, who passed away in 2017.
The translation was completed under the patronage and supervision of 84000: Translating the Words of the Buddha.
The doctrinal term “aids to enlightenment” (bodhipakṣa), referring to a set of essential Buddhist practices, represents a perennial theme in Buddhist scriptures. While its role is particularly prominent in non-Mahāyāna texts, it also occupies an important place in Mahāyāna sūtras. Even in Buddhist tantric texts, certain attributes of deities and features of maṇḍalas are explained as symbolizing items included in the aids to enlightenment.1
The Teaching on the Aids to Enlightenment, the sūtra translated here, has a distinctive Mahāyāna tone. It comprises a conversation between Buddha Śākyamuni and Mañjuśrī that begins with a discussion of how one comes to be trapped in saṃsāra and how, with the aim of extricating oneself from this undesirable state, one should relate to various phenomena. Within this framework, the topic of the dialogue moves from the four truths to some of the sets of qualities included among the aids to enlightenment. In conclusion, the Buddha himself conveniently provides the following summary of the content of his teaching:
Mañjuśrī, I proclaim that those who see the four truths of the noble ones, the four applications of mindfulness, the eightfold path of the noble ones, the five faculties, and the seven branches of enlightenment in such a manner have crossed over. (1.61)
Leaving aside the four truths of the noble ones, it is noteworthy that the sets of qualities discussed here comprise only four of the seven categories into which the thirty-seven aids to enlightenment are usually grouped. The Mahāvyutpatti gives the seven categories as follows: (1) the four applications of mindfulness (smṛtyupasthāna, dran pa nye bar bzhag pa, nos. 952–956); (2) the four kinds of effort (prahāṇa, yang dag par spong ba, nos. 957–965); (3) the four bases of supernatural power (ṛddhipāda, rdzu ’phrul gyi rkang pa, nos. 966–975); (4) the five faculties (indriya, dbang po, nos. 976–981); (5) the five powers (bala, stobs, nos. 982–987); (6) the seven branches of enlightenment (bodhyaṅga, byang chub kyi yan lag, nos. 988–995); and (7) the eightfold path of the noble ones (aṣṭāṅgamārga, ’phags pa’i lam yan lag, nos. 996–1004).2 The second, third, and fifth categories in this list are not explicitly discussed in this sūtra.
As mentioned above, the aids to enlightenment are frequently mentioned in the Pali canon,3 and The Teaching on the Aids to Enlightenment does indeed make references to these foundational Buddhist teachings. In connection with the four truths of the noble ones, for instance, it cites the common formula, “suffering is to be known, its origin is to be abandoned, its cessation is to be realized, the path is to be cultivated.” Similarly, in the context of the four applications of mindfulness, the Buddha tells Mañjuśrī that he will teach the meditation on the body as “ugly,” feeling and mind as “arising and ceasing,” and phenomena as devoid of “notions of them as wholes.” However, the sūtra uses these early Buddhist teachings only as a starting point on which to build those of its own. For example, in reference to the application of mindfulness of feelings, the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta states:
He lives in this way observing feelings internally, . . . or externally, or . . . internally and externally.4
On the other hand, The Teaching on the Aids to Enlightenment shows that there is more to such foundational Buddhist teachings and points beyond them by saying what appears to be the opposite:
Mañjuśrī, whoever does not perceive feelings—which, being neither inside, nor outside, are non-existent in both—is applying mindfulness that carefully considers feelings. (1.31)
In the initial part of its discourse, this sūtra also places an emphasis on conceptualization as a source of unenlightened existence. It sets out the traditional description of how beliefs in notions of the self and what belongs to the self are the origin of karma and saṃsāra, but then also discusses in detail a variety of other kinds of mental constructions and conceptual ideas that cause problems on the path. This move calls to mind Nāgārjuna’s exposition in the eighteenth chapter of the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā, where, after deconstructing the self and what belongs to the self, the pioneer Mahāyāna thinker writes that “karma and afflictions arise from conceptualization, and those [conceptual thoughts] come from conceptual elaboration.”5 In other words, conceptual elaboration (prapañca), with its dualistic tendency to construct pairs of ideas—agent and action, or man and woman—conditions conceptualization, which leads to emotions, actions, and finally our ordinary existence.6
What is valuable about The Teaching on the Aids to Enlightenment is not the fact that it speaks about traditional Buddhist subjects in a different way, but how it does so. The sūtra’s exposition is for the most part based on the Mahāyāna Buddhist doctrine of emptiness, but what it offers on some of the individual aids to enlightenment is highly varied in terms of how each Buddhist practice is to be viewed in light of its empty nature. It is in these detailed descriptions that the reader will find fresh resources for approaching these traditional Buddhist topics from a distinctive Mahāyāna Buddhist perspective.
In the year 984,7 the Indian monk *Devaśāntika (Tianxizai 天息災) translated this sūtra into Chinese, with the title Foshuo dacheng shanjian bianhua wenshushili wenfa jing (佛說大乘善見變化文殊師利問法經, Taishō 472). The Tibetan and Chinese translations diverge quite considerably in certain details, as can be seen, for instance, in the presentations of the individual aids to enlightenment. The two translations generally follow the same structure, although here too there are a few differences. While the Chinese takes the seven categories of the aids to enlightenment in their usual order, the Tibetan presents the eightfold path immediately after the applications of mindfulness. Moreover, the Chinese translation has the Buddha teaching the four kinds of effort and five powers, two of the three categories that are missing in the Tibetan. It also makes mention of the bases of supernatural power as a category, although without discussing the four bases individually.
There is no extant Sanskrit text of The Teaching on the Aids to Enlightenment. The present translation from the Tibetan is based on the Degé Kangyur, with reference to the Stok Palace manuscript Kangyur and the variant readings recorded in the Comparative Edition (dpe bsdur ma) of the Kangyur.
The Teaching on the Aids to Enlightenment
Homage to all buddhas and bodhisattvas!
Thus did I hear at one time. The Bhagavān was residing on Vulture Peak Mountain in Rājagṛha accompanied by a great bhikṣu saṅgha of five hundred bhikṣus, and by bodhisattva mahāsattvas such as Maitreya and Mañjuśrī.
At that time, the Bhagavān said to Youthful Mañjuśrī, “Mañjuśrī, having minds that are misguided by the four errors, sentient beings do not see the four truths of the noble ones [F.241.a] as they really are, and therefore they do not transcend saṃsāra, which is actually unreal.”
When the Bhagavān had said this, Youthful Mañjuśrī requested the Bhagavān, “Bhagavān, please explain how sentient beings perceive things and therefore do not transcend saṃsāra.”
The Bhagavān replied, “Mañjuśrī, it is because they assume a self and something that belongs to a self that sentient beings do not transcend saṃsāra. Why is that so? Mañjuśrī, it is because anyone who considers things in terms of self and other will bring about karma. Mañjuśrī, unlearned and ignorant ordinary beings, not knowing that all phenomena have completely passed into nirvāṇa, perceive them in terms of self and other. With that perception, they bring about the three types of karma: corporeal, verbal, and mental. Reifying what does not exist, they think, ‘I am attached,’ ‘I am averse,’ ‘I am perplexed.’
“If they go forth under the dispensation of the Tathāgata, they think to themselves, ‘I possess ethics,’ ‘I practice the spiritual life,’ ‘I shall transcend saṃsāra,’ ‘I shall attain complete nirvāṇa,’ ‘I shall become liberated from suffering.’
“They think, ‘These phenomena are virtuous,’ ‘Those phenomena are nonvirtuous.’
“They think, ‘These phenomena are to be abandoned,’ ‘Those phenomena are to be brought about,’ ‘Suffering is to be known,’ ‘Its origin is to be abandoned,’ ‘Its cessation is to be realized,’ ‘The path is to be cultivated.’
“They think, ‘Conditioned states are impermanent,’ ‘Conditioned states are miserable,’ ‘Conditioned states are burning,’ ‘I shall escape from conditioned states.’
“Through concepts of this kind, they acquire a disenchantment induced by phenomenal characteristics, [F.241.b] and they bring to mind notions induced by phenomenal characteristics. With such thoughts, they think to themselves, ‘One who knows those phenomena is someone who knows suffering.’
“With that thought, they then think, ‘I must abandon the origin.’ They are disturbed by all those phenomena, and do not understand them; they are afraid, terrified, and will be further terrified. With such thoughts, they then think, ‘The bringing about of these phenomena, and being disturbed by those phenomena—these things are the origin that is abandoned.’
“With that thought, they then think, ‘I must actualize cessation,’ and they think, having investigated those phenomena, that they understand what cessation is. With those thoughts, they then think, ‘These are the things that actualize cessation.’
“With that thought, they then think, ‘I must cultivate the path.’ They go alone to an isolated place, and, by holding those phenomena in mind, they attain tranquility. Holding that disenchantment in mind and having attained tranquility, they disapprove of all phenomena, part from them, turn away from them, and, having withdrawn from them, they produce a mind of dislike.
“They think, ‘I am liberated from all suffering; what more is there for me to do? I am an arhat.’ Based on this presumption, when at the time of death they see their coming rebirth they become apprehensive, uncertain, and doubtful about the Buddha’s enlightenment. Having died with a mind mired in doubt, they are born in the great hells.
“Why is that so? It is because they conceive of all those phenomena, which are actually unproduced.”
Youthful Mañjuśrī then asked the Bhagavān, “Bhagavān, how should one view the four truths of the noble ones?”
The Bhagavān replied, “Mañjuśrī, whoever sees all conditioned states as unproduced has understood suffering. Whoever sees all phenomena as unarisen has abandoned its origin. [F.242.a] Whoever sees all phenomena as having completely passed into nirvāṇa has realized cessation. Whoever sees all phenomena as having no existence has cultivated the path.
“Mañjuśrī, whoever sees the four truths of the noble ones in this way does not mentally construct and conceptualize, thinking, ‘These phenomena are virtuous,’ ‘Those phenomena are nonvirtuous,’ ‘These phenomena are to be abandoned,’ ‘Those phenomena are to be realized,’ ‘Suffering is to be known,’ ‘Its origin is to be abandoned,’ ‘Its cessation is to be realized,’ ‘The path is to be cultivated.’
“Why is that so? It is because they see those phenomena to which ignorant ordinary beings become attached, averse, and perplexed as unproduced, and because they see them as falsely imagined and fabricated. So they do not adopt those phenomena at all, nor do they reject them.
“Mentally unattached to the three realms, they see all three realms as unproduced, like an illusion, a dream, an echo, and a visual aberration.
“By seeing the nature of all phenomena in that way, they will become free from attachment and aversion toward all sentient beings.
“Why is that so? They do not perceive the phenomena toward which they would have attachment or aversion. With minds equal to space, they do not perceive even the Buddha, nor do they perceive even the Dharma or the Saṅgha. They do not perceive all phenomena as empty, nor do they harbor doubt regarding any phenomenon. Because they do not harbor doubt, they will not appropriate. Because they do not appropriate, they will attain complete nirvāṇa without further appropriation.
“Mañjuśrī, bhikṣu Subhūti understands all phenomena in such a way, and therefore he does not come to prostrate at the feet of the Tathāgata. [F.242.b]
“Why is that so? It is because it would be impossible—if he does not perceive even himself, how would he perceive the Tathāgata?”
Then, Youthful Mañjuśrī asked the Bhagavān, “Bhagavān, how should one view the four applications of mindfulness?”
The Bhagavān replied, “Mañjuśrī, in the future I will teach the bhikṣus the application of mindfulness that carefully considers the body in its ugly aspect. I will teach the application of mindfulness that carefully considers feelings as arising and ceasing. I will teach the application of mindfulness that carefully considers the mind in this way: ‘Regard the mind as having the quality of arising and the quality of ceasing.’ I will teach the application of mindfulness that carefully considers phenomena in such a way that there will be no notion of them as wholes. These teachings will take place.”
When the Bhagavān had said this, Youthful Mañjuśrī asked the Bhagavān, “Bhagavān, how should one view the four applications of mindfulness?”
The Bhagavān replied, “Mañjuśrī, regard8 them in terms of the allusive speech of the Tathāgata, which is difficult to understand.”
“Bhagavān, please explain how to cultivate the four applications of mindfulness,” requested Mañjuśrī.
“Mañjuśrī,” replied the Bhagavān, “regarding the body to be like space is the application of mindfulness that carefully considers the body.
“Mañjuśrī, whoever does not perceive feelings—which, being neither inside, nor outside, are non-existent in both—is applying mindfulness that carefully considers feelings.
“Mañjuśrī, whoever understands mind to be no more than a mere name is applying mindfulness that carefully considers the mind. [F.243.a]
“Mañjuśrī, whoever does not perceive virtuous, nonvirtuous, or neutral phenomena is applying mindfulness that carefully considers phenomena.
“Mañjuśrī, this is how the four applications of mindfulness are to be viewed.”
Mañjuśrī asked, “Bhagavān, how should one view the eightfold path of the noble ones?”
The Bhagavān replied, “Mañjuśrī, whoever sees all phenomena as not unequal, nondual, and not dualistically distinguishable has right view.
“Mañjuśrī, whoever sees by way of not seeing—without conceptualizing, mentally constructing, or falsely imagining any phenomenon—has right intention.
“Mañjuśrī, whoever sees all phenomena as inexpressible due to having meditated on the sameness of all expressions has right speech.
“Mañjuśrī, whoever sees all phenomena as free from action and instrument due to not perceiving an agent has right action.
“Mañjuśrī, whoever does not act to increase or decrease any phenomenon due to abiding in the sameness of all livelihoods has right livelihood.
“Mañjuśrī, whoever, by way of applying9 themselves without exertion,10 does not initiate anything has right effort.
“Mañjuśrī, whoever is not mindful of any phenomenon due to being devoid of the act of mindfulness has right mindfulness.
“Mañjuśrī, whoever sees all phenomena as naturally meditatively concentrated and undisturbed due to not perceiving any object of perception has right meditative concentration.
“Mañjuśrī, this is how the eightfold path of the noble ones is to be viewed.”
Mañjuśrī asked, “Bhagavān, how should one view the five faculties?”
The Bhagavān replied, “Mañjuśrī, whoever has the confidence to see all phenomena as unproduced by virtue of their being intrinsically unproduced has the faculty of faith.
“Mañjuśrī, whoever does not mentally let go of any phenomenon due to being free from notions of far or near has the faculty of effort. [F.243.b]
“Mañjuśrī, whoever does not seek to bring to mind or to be mindful of any phenomenon due to being disengaged from objects of perception has the faculty of mindfulness.
“Mañjuśrī, whoever sees11 all phenomena as nondual on account of not perceiving dualistically has the faculty of meditative concentration.
“Mañjuśrī, whoever sees all phenomena as intrinsically empty due to being devoid of being produced and being devoid of not being known has the faculty of wisdom.
“Mañjuśrī, this is how the five faculties should be viewed.”
Mañjuśrī asked, “Bhagavān, how should one view the seven branches of enlightenment?”
The Bhagavān replied, “Mañjuśrī, whoever sees all phenomena as devoid of existence because there is neither mindfulness nor attention has the branch of enlightenment of right mindfulness.
“Mañjuśrī, whoever is disengaged from and does not perceive any phenomenon by not creating virtuous, nonvirtuous, or neutral states has the branch of enlightenment of right discernment of phenomena.
“Mañjuśrī, whoever neither adopts nor rejects the three realms due to having destroyed the notion of realms has the branch of enlightenment of right effort.
“Mañjuśrī, whoever does not become joyous about any conditioned state due to having done away with joy and sorrow has the branch of enlightenment of right joy.
“Mañjuśrī, whoever is mentally supple with respect to all phenomena because of not perceiving objects of perception has the branch of enlightenment of right mental suppleness.
“Mañjuśrī, whoever does not perceive mind because of realizing that all phenomena have come to an end has the branch of enlightenment of right meditative concentration.
“Mañjuśrī, whoever does not rely on, depend on, or cleave to any phenomenon, and, acquiring the impartiality of not seeing any phenomenon, attains joy has the branch of enlightenment of right impartiality. [F.244.a]
“Mañjuśrī, this is how the seven branches of enlightenment should be viewed.
“Mañjuśrī, I proclaim that those who see the four truths of the noble ones, the four applications of mindfulness, the eightfold path of the noble ones, the five faculties, and the seven branches of enlightenment in such a manner have crossed over. I proclaim that they have gone to the other shore, stand on dry land, have reached happiness, have obtained fearlessness, have laid down their burden, are free from dust, have nothing whatsoever, are free of afflictions, have no further appropriation, are arhats, are śramaṇas, are brahmins, are cleansed, are knowers, are those who have gone afar, are pure, are heirs of the Buddha, are Śākya heirs, have extracted the thorns, have crossed the pit, are completely steady, are free from fever, are bhikṣus, are noble ones, and are perfect banners.
“Mañjuśrī, those with such forbearance are deserving of offerings from the world with its gods—they are worthy of gifts and reverence.
“Therefore, Mañjuśrī, those bhikṣus who seek to partake of the country’s alms in a beneficial way, who seek to subdue Māra, who seek to transcend saṃsāra, who seek to attain nirvāṇa, and who seek to become liberated from suffering should work diligently on these Dharmas.”
When this Dharma discourse was taught, thirty-two thousand gods realized the Dharma. They sprinkled mandārava flowers upon the Bhagavān and uttered these words:
“If those who just happen to hear this Dharma teaching by the Bhagavān will successfully go forth under the Tathāgata’s dispensation and do well, [F.244.b] what more needs to be said of those who, having listened to it, have confidence and faith in it, and uphold it accordingly? Indeed, those who happen to hear this Dharma teaching by the Bhagavān will not become conceited.”
After the Bhagavān had spoken this teaching, Youthful Mañjuśrī, the great śrāvakas, and the world with its gods, humans, demigods, and gandharvas rejoiced, and they praised what the Bhagavān had said.
This concludes the Noble Mahāyāna Sūtra, “The Teaching on the Aids to Enlightenment.”
’phags pa byang chub kyi phyogs bstan pa zhes bya ba theg pa chen po’i mdo. Toh 178, Degé Kangyur vol. 60 (mdo sde, ma), folios 240.b–244.b.
’phags pa byang chub kyi phyogs bstan 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), 2006–2009, vol. 60, pp. 640–649.
’phags byang chub gyi phyogs bstan pa zhes bya ba thegs pa chen po’i mdo. Stok no. 88, Stok Palace Kangyur (stog pho brang bris ma), vol. 60 (mdo sde, chi), folios 358.b–364.a.
Foshuo dacheng shanjian bianhua wenshushili wenfa jing (佛説大乘善見變化文殊師利問法經). Translated by Tianxizai. In Taishō shinshū Daizōkyō, edited by Junjirō Takakusu and Kaigyoku Watanabe, vol. 14, no. 472, 514c–516b. Tokyo: Taishō issaikyō kankōkai, 1924–1932.
Reference Works in Tibetan
Mahāvyutpatti (bye brag tu rtogs par byed pa). Degé Tengyur, vol. 204 (sna tshogs, co), folios 1.1–131.a. See also Sakaki; and Braarvig.
Tsanlha Ngawang Tsultrim (btsan lha ngag dbang tshul khrims). brda dkrol gser gyi me long. Beijing: mi rigs dpe skrun khang, 1997.
Braarvig, Jens, et al., eds. Mahāvyutpatti with sGra sbyor bam po gñis pa. Oslo: Thesaurus Literaturae Buddhicae.
Dayal, Har. The Bodhisattva Doctrine in Buddhist Sanskrit Literature. 1932. Reprint, Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1970.
La Vallée Poussin, Louis de, ed. Mūlamadhyamakakārikā (Mādhyamikasūtras) de Nāgārjuna avec la [Madhyamakavṛtti-] Prasannapadā, commentaire de Candrakīrti. St. Petersburg: Académie Impériale des Sciences, 1903–13.
Lancaster, Lewis R. and Sung-bae Park. The Korean Buddhist Canon: A Descriptive Catalogue. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979.
Rahula, Walpola. What the Buddha Taught. Revised Edition. London: Gordon Fraser, 1978.
Sakaki, Ryōzaburō. [Mahāvyutpatti] Honyaku myōgi taishū: Bon-Zō-Kan-Wa yonyaku taikō. Kyoto: Shingonshū Kyōto Daigaku, 1916–1925.
Thanissaro Bhikkhu (Geoffrey DeGraff). The Wings to Awakening: An Anthology from the Pali Canon. 4th Edition. Dhamma Dana Publications, 2004.
Ye, Shaoyong. Mūlamadhyamakakārikā: Dbu ma rtsa ba’i tshig le’ur byas pa shes rab ces bya ba; Zhonglun song; Fanzanghan hejiao, daodu, yizhu. Shanghai: Zhongxi shuju, 2011.
- nyon mongs
Aid to enlightenment
- byang chub kyi phyogs
- ldem po ngag
Application of mindfulness
- dran pa nye bar gzhag pa
- nye bar len pa
- dgra bcom pa
- yid la byed pa
- bcom ldan ’das
- dge slong
- rjes su lta ba
- rnam par rtog pa
- ’du byed
Discernment of phenomena
- chos rnam par ’byed pa
- brtson ’grus
Eightfold path of the noble ones
- ’phags pa’i lam yan lag brgyad
- phyin ci log
- dad pa
- yang dag pa ma yin pa kun brtags pa
- kun tu rtog pa
- dbang po lnga
Four applications of mindfulness
- dran pa nye bar gzhag pa bzhi
Four bases of supernatural power
- rdzu ’phrul gyi rkang pa bzhi
- catvāra ṛddhipādā
- phyin ci log bzhi
- catvāraḥ viparyāsāḥ
Four kinds of effort
- yang dag par spong ba bzhi
- catvāri prahāṇāni
Four truths of the noble ones
- ’phags pa’i bden pa bzhi
Free from fever
- rims nad med pa
- rab tu ’byung ba
Ignorant ordinary being
- byis pa so so’i skye bo
- btang snyoms
- dzi na mi tra
- dz+nyA na sid+dhi
- dga’ ba
- byams pa
- ’jam dpal
- ting nge ’dzin
- mnyam par bzhag pa
- rtog pa
- dran pa
- lung du ma bstan pa
- ’du shes
Objects of perception
- dmigs pa
- rgyal po’i khab
- yang dag pa’i las kyi mtha’
- yang dag pa’i rtsol ba
- yang dag pa’i rtog pa
- yang dag pa’i ’tsho ba
Right meditative concentration
- yang dag pa’i ting nge ’dzin
- yang dag pa’i dran pa
- yang dag pa’i ngag
- yang dag pa’i lta ba
Seven branches of enlightenment
- byang chub kyi yan lag bdun
- tshangs par spyod pa
- dge sbyong
- rab ’byor
- shin tu sbyangs pa
- de bzhin gshegs pa
- zhi gnas
- mig yor
Vulture Peak Mountain
- bya rgod kyi phung po’i ri
- shes rab
- ye shes sde
- ’jam dpal gzhon nur gyur pa