The Prophecy of Kṣemavatī
Degé Kangyur, vol. 61 (mdo sde, tsa), folios 243.b–246.a
Translated by the Subhashita Translation Group
under the patronage and supervision of 84000: Translating the Words of the Buddha
On their morning alms round, the Buddha and Maitreya meet Queen Kṣemavatī who is bedecked in all her royal jewelry. When the Buddha asks her about the source of such fine jewelry, referring to it metaphorically as fruit, Queen Kṣemavatī explains that her worldly position is the fruit of the tree of her previous good deeds. The remainder of the sūtra describes how one’s good actions can eventually lead to buddhahood, and it concludes with a prophecy of the queen’s future awakening.
Translated by the Subhashita Translation Group. The translation was produced by Benjamin Ewing, who also contributed to the introduction (later completed by the 84000 editors). Lowell Cook 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 Prophecy of Kṣemavatī begins with the Buddha and his disciple, the bodhisattva Maitreya, walking through the city of Rājagṛha on their morning alms round. As they near King Bimbisāra’s palace, they are met by Queen Kṣemavatī, who is adorned with a dazzling display of royal jewelry. The Buddha asks the queen, in a seemingly playful way, for the name of the tree that produced the magnificent fruit that she is wearing. Kṣemavatī continues the analogy by describing her jewelry and her current station in life as the “fruit” borne by the “tree” of her past good deeds accumulated over lifetimes.
This exchange emphasizes one of the main themes of the text: one’s current situation is the result of previous actions, so if we desire a good future we should persevere in meritorious behavior. This applies not just to ordinary happiness but to spiritual pursuits as well. While Kṣemavatī’s “fruit” might at first seem worldly, she firmly sets the “tree” of her own past and present actions within the framework of the bodhisattva path, with her aspiration to awakening and her practice of the six perfections. The fruit and tree analogy continues throughout the sūtra, with the Buddha describing his own station, that of complete awakening and all its excellent qualities, as also being the result of his past good deeds. His account of his own path reflects that of Kṣemavatī, similar to his even if much less advanced in time.
The text concludes with Kṣemavatī declaring that she will dedicate all her future good deeds toward reaching buddhahood and thereby be of benefit to all beings. The Buddha responds to this prayer by prophesying the queen’s eventual awakening to buddhahood.
Kṣemavatī is mentioned in at least one other sūtra in the Kangyur1 as one of Bimbisāra’s queens. She may well represent the same person as the Khemā who appears in the Pali literature as Bimbisāra’s consort, at first infatuated by her own beauty but later, on meeting the Buddha, becoming an arhat and bhikṣuṇī.2 Here, however, she is described as a bodhisattva who has already embarked on accumulating merit on the initial stage of her “natural career” (prakṛticaryā) and has vowed to attain awakening on the subsequent stage of her “resolution” (praṇidhānacaryā), as implied in 1.10. In the present narrative she reinforces her previous vow and receives her “prophecy” (vyākaraṇa) of future buddhahood from the Buddha himself.3
Twice in this sūtra, Queen Kṣemavatī aspires to be reborn as a man so that she may continue to progress on her path to awakening. It may be jarring to modern readers to hear the queen lamenting her womanhood, but such attitudes are not uncommon in Mahāyāna sūtras, in some of which it seems to be assumed without question that not only buddhas but bodhisattvas, too, are male.4 This sūtra, in which the focus is on a bodhisattva who is a woman, can therefore be seen as belonging to a distinct but quite large genre of texts that counter such assumptions. The genre includes other Kangyur sūtras featuring women bodhisattvas who are also queens or princesses and who, like Kṣemavatī, receive their predictions of future awakening, such as The Sūtra of Aśokadattā’s Prophecy (Toh 76), The Questions of Vimalaprabhā (Toh 168), The Questions of the Girl Vimalaśraddhā (Toh 84),5 The Questions of Vimaladattā (Toh 77), and The Lion’s Roar of Śrīmālādevī (Toh 92), as well as those in which nonroyal laywomen are the main interlocutors, like The Questions of the Girl Sumati (Toh 74), The Questions of Gaṅgottara (Toh 75), The Questions of an Old Lady (Toh 171),6 The Miraculous Play of Mañjuśrī (Toh 96),7 The Sūtra of the Girl Candrottarā’s Prophecy (Toh 191), and, notably, The Prophecy Concerning Strīvivarta (Toh 190).8 In some of these sūtras gender is dismissed as irrelevant or merely notional, yet all these accounts—even those of Strīvivarta and Vimalaprabhā, the most advanced bodhisattvas in their abilities to manifest in different forms—culminate in the prediction that the female protagonist will ultimately become male, at least for the final stages of the path to buddhahood.9 So while this sūtra, like the others mentioned, imposes the traditional stance of male primacy, it is perhaps in countering texts that make no mention of women bodhisattvas at all that it is framed as an inspiration to women, and ends with many thousands of women developing the intent to reach buddhahood.
While the text does not include a colophon that identifies its translators, The Prophecy of Kṣemavatī is listed in the earliest Tibetan textual catalog, the Denkarma, so we can say with certainty that it appeared in Tibet at some point during or before the early ninth century ᴄᴇ.10 Despite being among the main body of sūtras translated in the early period, The Prophecy of Kṣemavatī does not seem to have been the subject of any scholarly attention in Tibet. It was translated into Chinese (Taishō 573, Chamopo di shouji jing, 差摩婆帝授記經) in the year 525 ᴄᴇ by the Indian monk Bodhiruci, who translated some thirty-nine Buddhist texts in the early sixth century. The Prophecy of Kṣemavatī was translated into Mongolian and Korean and is included in the Buddhist canons in those languages. It was translated into French in 1866 by Henri Léon Feer as part of his collection of Kangyur excerpts, and an English translation by Peter Skilling was published in 2021.
The English translation presented here was prepared based on the Degé Kangyur version of the text in consultation with the Stok Palace manuscript and the Comparative Edition (dpe bsdur ma).
Homage to all buddhas and bodhisattvas.
Thus did I hear at one time. The Blessed One was residing in Rājagṛha on Vulture Peak together with a large monastic congregation of twenty thousand monks and many bodhisattva great beings including Maitreya and Mañjuśrī. [F.244.a] At dawn, the Blessed One donned his robes, picked up his alms bowl, and, together with the bodhisattva great being Maitreya, went to the city of Rājagṛha for alms. As they progressed through their rounds in the city of Rājagṛha, they neared the palace of King Bimbisāra. From atop the royal residence, King Bimbisāra’s queen, Kṣemavatī, could see the Blessed One approaching from a distance. Filled with joy at the sight of the Blessed One, Kṣemavatī descended from the palace and laid out ornate cushions made of white silk for the Blessed One and the bodhisattva great being Maitreya. The Blessed One and the bodhisattva great being Maitreya seated themselves on the seats that had been prepared for them, and Kṣemavatī, bedecked in all her jewelry, bowed her head at their feet. So that she might hear teachings on the Dharma, she sat before the Blessed One with great respect and reverence for him.
The Blessed One saw Queen Kṣemavatī bedecked in all her jewelry and, although he knew the answer, addressed her in order to benefit all beings. He asked, “Kṣemavatī, what is the name of the tree that bears the kind of brilliant, dazzling, shining fruit that adorns your body?”
The Blessed One responded, “Kṣemavatī, [F.245.a] you have acted to bring benefit and happiness to many people and have compassion for the world. You have acted for the sake of the vast assembly of beings, for the happiness and benefit of gods and humans alike. Excellent, excellent indeed!”
“Blessed One,” Queen Kṣemavatī replied, “the Blessed One has the thirty-two major and eighty minor bodily marks of a great being, the ten powers of the thus-gone ones, the four fearlessnesses, the four special modes of knowledge, the eighteen unique qualities of a buddha, great loving-kindness, great compassion, great joy, and great equanimity. Where do all of your qualities come from? And, furthermore, where do the unfathomable, inconceivable, immeasurable, ineffable, incalculable qualities of the Buddha come from?”
After hearing of the qualities of the Blessed One, Queen Kṣemavatī praised the Blessed One’s well-spoken teaching and rejoiced, offering these verses:
Queen Kṣemavatī was joyful, elated, and jubilant. Filled with joy and delight, she offered the Blessed One and the bodhisattva great being Maitreya plenty of food and drink until they were satisfied. After the Blessed One put away his bowl and washed his hands, he gave Queen Kṣemavatī extensive Dharma teachings, encouraged her to uphold them, inspired her, delighted her, and then made this prophecy:
“In the future, Kṣemavatī, many eons from now, you will become a thus-gone, worthy, perfected buddha, a teacher for gods and humans. You will be a blessed buddha known as Guṇaratnaśrī, and your buddha field will be supremely pure. It will be free of the suffering of descending to lower rebirths and the lower realms. It will be an abode of beautiful, pleasant, and supremely pure bodhisattvas. Such will be your buddha field.”
As this teaching was given, many thousands of laywomen developed the intent to reach unexcelled, perfect awakening. Thousands of beings and many gods and humans obtained the light of the Dharma.
This concludes the noble Mahāyāna sūtra “The Prophecy of Kṣemavatī.”
’phags pa bde ldan ma lung bstan pa zhes bya ba theg pa chen po’i mdo. Toh 154, Degé Kangyur vol. 61 (mdo sde, tsa), folios 243.b–246.a.
’phags pa bde ldan ma lung 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), 2006–9, vol. 61, pp. 660–66.
’phags pa bde ldan ma lung bstan pa zhes bya ba theg pa chen po’i mdo. Stok Palace Kangyur vol. 74 (mdo sde, ’a), folios 55.a–58.b.
Denkarma (pho brang stod thang ldan dkar gyi chos kyi ’gyur ro cog gi dkar chag). Toh 4364, Degé Tengyur vol. 206 (sna tshogs, jo), folios 294.b–310.a.
sgra sbyor bam po gnyis pa (Nighaṇṭu). Toh 4347, Degé Tengyur vol. 204 (bstan bcos sna tshogs, co), folios 131.b–160.a.
Braarvig, Jens Erland, trans. The Miraculous Play of Mañjuśrī (Mañjuśrīvikrīḍita, Toh 96). 84000: Translating the Words of the Buddha, 2020.
Dharmachakra Translation Committee, trans. The Prophecy Concerning Strīvivarta (Strīvivartavyākaraṇa, Toh 190). 84000: Translating the Words of the Buddha, 2021.
————, trans. The Good Eon (Bhadrakalpika, Toh 94). 84000: Translating the Words of the Buddha, 2022.
Edgerton, Franklin. Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit Grammar and Dictionary. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1953.
Feer, Léon. “Deux vyākaraṇas bouddhiques.” Revue Orientale 60 (1866): 341f. Reprinted in Fragments extraits du Kandjour, 376–381. Paris: E. Leroux, 1883.
Karma Gyaltsen Ling Translation Group, trans. The Questions of the Girl Vimalaśraddhā (Dārikāvimalaśraddhāparipṛcchāsūtra, Toh 84). 84000: Translating the Words of the Buddha, 2021.
Herrmann-Pfandt, Adelheid. Die lHan kar ma: ein früher Katalog der ins Tibetische übersetzten buddhistischen Texte. Vienna: Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 2008.
Sakya Pandita Translation Group (International Buddhist Academy Division), trans. The Questions of an Old Lady (Mahallikāparipṛcchā, Toh 171). 84000: Translating the Words of the Buddha, 2011.
Malalasekera, G.P. Dictionary of Pāli Proper Names. 2 vols. London: Pali Text Society, 1937.
Monier-Williams, M. A Sanskrit-English Dictionary. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1899.
Paul, Diana Y. Women in Buddhism: Images of the Feminine in the Mahāyāna Tradition. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979.
Roberts, Peter, trans. The King of Samādhis Sūtra (Samādhirājasūtra, Toh 127). 84000: Translating the Words of the Buddha, 2018.
————, trans. The Stem Array (Gaṇḍavyūha, Toh 44, ch. 45). 84000: Translating the Words of the Buddha, 2021.
Skilling, Peter. Questioning the Buddha: A Collection of Twenty-five Sūtras. New York: Wisdom Publications, 2021.
Yoshimura, Shyuki. The Denkar-Ma: An Oldest Catalogue of the Tibetan Buddhist Canons. Kyoto: Ryukoku University, 1950.
- lha ma yin
A class of nonhuman beings who are engaged in a mythic war with the gods (deva) for possession of the nectar of immortality. In Buddhist cosmology, they inhabit the realm neighboring that of the gods, from which they observe the gods with intense jealousy.
- gzugs can snying po
King of Magadha who lived at the time of the Buddha Śākyamuni.
- tshangs pa
A high-ranking deity who presides over a divine world where other beings consider him the creator; he is also considered to be the lord of the Sahā world (our universe).
Eighteen unique qualities of a buddha
- sangs rgyas kyi chos ma ’dres pa bco brgyad
Eighteen special features of a buddha’s behavior, realization, activity, and wisdom that are not shared by other beings.
Eighty minor marks
- dpe byad bzang po brgyad cu
A set of eighty bodily characteristics borne by buddhas and universal emperors. They are considered “minor” in terms of being secondary to the thirty-two major marks of a great being.
- mi ’jigs pa bzhi
The four types of fearlessness possessed by buddhas: They have full confidence that (1) they are fully awakened, (2) they have removed all defilements, (3) they have taught about the obstacles to liberation, and (4) they have shown the path to liberation.
Four special modes of knowledge
- so so yang dag par rig pa bzhi
The four correct and unhindered discriminating knowledges of (1) the doctrine or Dharma, (2) meaning, (3) language, and (4) brilliance or eloquence. These are the essential means by which the buddhas impart their teachings.
- dri za
A class of generally benevolent nonhuman beings who inhabit the sky and are most renowned as celestial musicians.
- yon tan rin chen dpal
The name of a future buddha.
- bde ldan ma
One of the wives of King Bimbisāra. May possibly be the Khemā of Pali literature.
- dbang phyug chen po
An epithet for the god Śiva.
- byams pa
A bodhisattva destined to be the buddha of the next epoch.
- ’jam dpal
A great bodhisattva. As one of the eight “close sons” of the Buddha, he is the embodiment of wisdom.
- rgyal po’i khab
The capital of the ancient kingdom of Magadha.
- brgya byin
Alternate name for Indra, the lord who rules the Heaven of the Thirty-Three.
Ten powers of the thus-gone ones
- de bzhin gshegs pa’i stobs bcu
A category of qualities that are distinctive of a thus-gone one. They are as follows: knowing what is possible and what is impossible; knowing the results of actions or the ripening of karma; knowing the various inclinations of sentient beings; knowing the various elements; knowing the supreme and lesser faculties of sentient beings; knowing the paths that lead to all destinations of rebirth; knowing the concentrations, liberations, absorptions, equilibriums, afflictions, purifications, and abidings; knowing previous lives; knowing the death and rebirth of sentient beings; and knowing the cessation of the defilements.
Thirty-two major marks of a great being
- skyes bu chen po’i mtshan sum cu rtsa gnyis
The thirty-two major signs of a buddha that manifest as specific physical attributes to indicate the perfection of the awakened state of buddhahood.
- ’khor los sgyur
Literally “wheel wielder,” this denotes a powerful being who has control over vast regions.
- bya rgod phung po’i ri
Name of a hill close to Rājagṛha. It is famous as the place where the Buddha is said to have taught the Prajñāpāramitā and other teachings.