The Great Cloud (1)
Degé Kangyur, vol. 64 (mdo sde, wa), folios 113.a–214.b
Translated by the Mahamegha Translation Team
under the patronage and supervision of 84000: Translating the Words of the Buddha
First published 2022
Current version v 1.1.11 (2023)
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The Great Cloud features a long dialogue between the Buddha Śākyamuni and a bodhisattva named Great Cloud Essence, who are periodically joined by various additional interlocutors from the vast audience of human and divine beings who have assembled to hear the Buddha’s teaching. The topics of their conversation are diverse and wide-ranging, but a central theme is the vast conduct of bodhisattvas, which is illustrated through the enumeration of the various meditative states and liberative techniques that bodhisattvas must master in order to minister to all sentient beings. This is followed by a conversation with the brahmin Kauṇḍinya concerning the Buddha’s cousin Devadatta, who is revealed to be a bodhisattva displaying the highest level of skillful means. Kauṇḍinya then inquires about the possibility of obtaining a relic from the Buddha, and another member of the audience responds with an explanation of how truly rare it is for a buddha relic to appear within the world. Finally, the discourse ends with the Buddha delivering a series of detailed prophecies describing the principal interlocutor’s future attainment of buddhahood, and he further explains the benefits and powers that can be obtained through the practice of this sūtra itself.
This translation was produced by Joshua Capitanio for the Mahamegha Translation Team. The translator is grateful to Christopher Jones (University of Cambridge) and Susan Roach for offering several helpful suggestions.
The translation was completed under the patronage and supervision of 84000: Translating the Words of the Buddha.
The translation of this text has been made possible through the generous sponsorship of an anonymous donor, who would like to dedicate it in memory of Lin, Zai-He and Lin Lee, Wan-Zhi.
The Great Cloud is an important Mahāyāna sūtra, known particularly as one source of the idea that a tathāgata is permanent and does not really pass into parinirvāṇa, but strategically displays an illusory body. To exemplify religious attainment for sentient beings, this emanated body seems to take birth, strive for awakening, and eventually pass into parinirvāṇa.1 In this sūtra this view is not merely implied or stated without comment, as it is in many sūtras, but is set out along with the claim that orthodox Buddhist doctrines of impermanence and selflessness are merely provisional teachings imparted by the Buddha for the sake of śrāvakas and pratyekabuddhas who were too trepidatious and spiritually immature to accept the realities of permanence and true selfhood.
These themes are shared with the famous Mahāparinirvāṇa-mahāsūtra, which exerted a tremendous influence on doctrinal developments in Chinese and East Asian Buddhism in the fifth and sixth centuries. Indeed, Chinese bibliographers classified The Great Cloud with a handful of other sūtras that they considered to be related to the Mahāparinirvāṇa-mahāsūtra, arguably the earliest extant work on buddha nature (tathāgatagarbha).2 Several Tibetan authors, too, beginning in the fourteenth century with Dolpopa Sherab Gyaltsen, listed the sūtra among those related to buddha nature or those of definitive meaning.3
The Great Cloud is also thematically related to The Golden Light (Suvarṇaprabhāsa, Toh 555–557), and a dialogue that occurs in chapter 37 between the brahmin Kauṇḍinya and a Licchavi youth is also found in the various Tibetan and Chinese recensions of that discourse.4
The Great Cloud opens with a long introduction that enumerates the various assemblies of human and nonhuman beings who were in attendance when the discourse was spoken. This section, which takes up the entirety of the first fascicle and continues into the second fascicle, is one of the longest and most detailed introductions to be found in any Mahāyāna sūtra. The scripture goes on to introduce the primary interlocutor, a bodhisattva named Great Cloud Essence, who emerges from the assembly to ask the Buddha a long series of questions on a variety of topics related to the conduct of bodhisattvas. The Buddha praises the bodhisattva’s questions and responds by introducing The Great Cloud, which is described as the “steadfast treasury of the sacred Dharma.” Great Cloud Essence asks for more teachings on this topic, and the Buddha grants his request, which prompts a great display of miraculous signs, eliciting praise for the Buddha’s qualities from the entire assembly.
In the second chapter, the Buddha explains that The Great Cloud contains four hundred “samādhi gateways” that all bodhisattvas should master, and he gives an extensive explanation of the first samādhi and its qualities. These qualities correspond to the questions asked by Great Cloud Essence in the first chapter. The Buddha then proceeds to enumerate the remaining samādhis and repeats all the qualities enumerated for the first samādhi, explaining that they apply likewise to all the other samādhi gateways.
These two long chapters are followed by a series of short sections. Chapters 3 through 36 each follow the same general structure: Great Cloud Essence asks the Bhagavān to enumerate a series of techniques or “gateways”—dhāraṇī gateways, liberation gateways, Dharma gateways, etc.—related to a single theme. The Buddha then lists those gateways, and a member of the audience steps forth, makes offerings, and offers a short praise of the Buddha’s teachings.
In the penultimate chapter, chapter 37, Great Cloud Essence asks again about the four hundred samādhi gateways, and the Buddha responds with a long discussion of the various practices to be performed by bodhisattvas who cultivate the teachings of The Great Cloud. An important theme of this section is that bodhisattvas must engage harmoniously with the world. As in The Teaching of Vimalakīrti,5 the Buddha recommends that bodhisattvas gather disciples by using skillful means to give the appearance of engaging in all manner of activities that might be considered contrary to the Dharma, such as having a family, accumulating wealth, and associating with non-Buddhists and people of questionable ethics.
Following this discussion, we are introduced to another interlocutor, the brahmin Kauṇḍinya, who steps forth to question the Buddha specifically about the Buddha’s cousin Devadatta. Kauṇḍinya condemns the conduct of Devadatta and the so-called “group of six monks,” who are always finding ways to break the rules of pure conduct set forth by the Buddha. However, Great Cloud Essence, speaking on behalf of the Buddha, chides Kauṇḍinya for his views and explains that Devadatta and the group of six are really bodhisattvas displaying skillful means. Following this, Kauṇḍinya requests the Buddha to grant him the boon of a relic that he can venerate. A Licchavi youth steps forward from the audience and explains to Kauṇḍinya just how rare it is for a buddha relic to appear in the world. Then, a goddess named Stainless Light steps forth and asks the Buddha about the brahmin and the Licchavi. The Buddha proceeds to explain that these two beings have been karmically connected for many eons, describe their former activities, and give a prophecy of their future attainment of buddhahood. The Buddha then gives further prophecies for these two individuals and for the goddess Stainless Light and the bodhisattva Great Cloud Essence. Most notably, Kauṇḍinya is to be reborn as the Mauryan king Aśoka.
The final chapter, chapter 38, continues this theme of prophecies, as a host of gods questions the Buddha about the future fate of this discourse. The Buddha explains that in the future there will be many people who will question the authenticity and legitimacy of this discourse and its teachings. However, there will arise one monk who will defend the sūtra and spread its teachings, and due to his dedication, the teachings will not disappear. The Buddha goes on to describe the merits that will come from practicing the teachings of this discourse. A series of marvels then occurs, including the appearance of a great light from the western region, and, when questioned by Great Cloud Essence, the Buddha describes all the altruistic magical acts that bodhisattvas who cultivate these teachings will display to engage with ordinary beings in accordance with their individual dispositions and guide them to take up the Buddhist teachings. Finally, the Buddha smiles and gives a prophecy for the goddess Stainless Light, explaining that she will be born as a princess who will rule her kingdom as a queen who will carry out many awakened activities before being reborn in the pure land of the buddha Amitābha, where she will finally attain buddhahood. In China, this prophecy came to be connected to the reign of Empress Wu in the seventh and early eighth centuries.6
The Great Cloud is classified within the “General Sūtra” section of the Tibetan Kangyur. The Tibetan translation is attributed to the Indian translator Surendrabodhi and the Tibetan translator and editor Yeshe Dé. The Great Cloud is listed in the ninth-century Denkarma catalog, in which it is included among the “Various Great Vehicle Sūtras.”7 It is also recorded in the ninth-century Phangthangma catalog, in the category of “Great Sūtras.”8
The Dégé Kangyur contains three additional sūtras (Toh 233–235) that are all related somehow through content and intertextual reference to The Great Cloud (Toh 232) that we have translated here. These three texts all present themselves as individual chapters that belong to The Great Cloud. This may perhaps be a reference to Toh 232, but the exact relationship and history of the four texts nevertheless remains unclear.
Toh. 233 presents itself as the “thirty-seventh chapter” of The Great Cloud, even though Toh 232 as contained in the Dégé Kangyur already contains a chapter 37 that is altogether different. While Toh 233 contains thematic elements that connect it to Toh. 232, such as the presence of the bodhisattva Great Cloud Essence and references to the Dharma gateways contained within The Great Cloud, it largely consists of original material.
Toh 234 is entitled The Great Cloud Chapter on the Array of Winds, The Essence of All Nāgas and also presents itself as (an unnumbered) chapter of The Great Cloud. This text is quite close in content to Toh 235 and both texts appear to have been intended largely for ritual and recitation purposes to achieve timely and appropriate rains. Toh 235 is simply titled The Great Cloud, but in the colophon a more specific title is given, as From “The Great Cloud,” the Sixty-Fourth Chapter “The Array of Winds That Send Down Rainfall” Together With its Ritual Manual. Despite this supplementary text being presented as the “sixty-fourth chapter” of The Great Cloud, Toh 232 itself in all its extant versions only contains thirty-eight chapters. Further research is therefore required to establish the relationship and shared history of these four interrelated texts.
This scripture was also translated into Chinese (Taishō 387) in the early fifth century by Dharmakṣema (385–433), who also translated the Mahāparinirvāṇa-mahāsūtra. The title of the Chinese translation is given as The Great Vaipulya Discourse on Nonconceptuality 大方等無想經, but the text refers to itself internally as The Great Cloud 大雲經. Scholars have debated whether all or part of the Tibetan translation of this sūtra was made on the basis of a later version of the Chinese translation.9 The Chinese and Tibetan versions follow the same overall structure and generally contain the same content, but there are several discrepancies, and the Tibetan version is much more detailed in certain sections, particularly in the opening description of the audience that was present when the discourse was spoken. There is to our knowledge no extant Sanskrit version of this sūtra. The English translation presented here was based primarily on the Tibetan Degé edition, in consultation with the Comparative Edition (dpe bsdur ma) and the Stok Palace manuscript edition. Dharmakṣema’s Chinese translation was also consulted throughout.
sprin chen po’i mdo (Mahāmeghasūtra). Toh 232, Degé Kangyur vol. 64 (mdo sde, wa), folios 113.a–214.b.
dri med grags pa’i bstan (Vimalakīrtinirdeśa). Toh 176, Degé Kangyur vol. 60 (mdo sde, ma), folios 175.a–239.a. English translation in Thurman 2017.
yongs su mya ngan las ’das pa chen po (Mahāparinirvāṇa). Toh 120, Degé Kangyur vol. 54 (mdo sde, tha), folios 1.b–151.b.
gser ’od dam pa mdo sde’i dbang po’i rgyal po (Suvarṇaprabhāsottamasūtrendrarāja). Toh 556, Degé Kangyur vol. 89 (rgyud, pa), folios 151.b–273.a; Toh 557, vol. 90 (rgyud, pha), folios 1.b–62.a.
Denkarma (pho brang stod thang ldan[/lhan] dkar gyi chos ’gyur ro cog gi dkar chag). Toh 4364, Degé Tengyur vol. 206 (sna tshogs, jo), folios 294.b–310.a.
Phangthangma (dkar chag ’phang thang ma). Beijing: mi rigs dpe skrun khang, 2003.
Anesaki, Masaharu. “Docetism (Buddhist),” in Hastings, J. (ed.) Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, pp. 835–840. (Available on Internet Archive). Edinburgh: Clark, 1911.
Brunnhölzl, Karl. When the Clouds Part: The Uttaratantra and its Meditative Tradition as a Bridge Between Sūtra and Tantra. Hamburg: Hamburg University Press, 2015.
Forte, Antonino. Political Propaganda and Ideology in China at the End of the Seventh Century: Inquiry into the Nature, Authors, and Function of the Tunhuang Document S. 6502 Followed by an Annotated Translation. Naples: Instituto Universitario Orientale, Seminario di Studi Asiatici, 1976.
Radich, Michael (2015). The Mahāparinirvāṇa-mahāsūtra and the Emergence of Tathāgatagarbha Doctrine. Hamburg Buddhist Studies 5. Hamburg: Hamburg University Press, 2015.
Seyfort-Ruegg, David. “Docetism in Mahāyāna Sūtras,” in The symbiosis of Buddhism with Brahmanism/Hinduism in South Asia and of Buddhism with “local cults” in Tibet and the Himalayan region, pp. 31–34. Vienna: Austrian Academy of Sciences Press, 2008.
———(2017). “Problems of Attribution, Style, and Dating Relating to the ‘Great Cloud Sutras’ in the Chinese Buddhist Canon (T 387, T 388/S. 6916).” In Buddhist Transformations and Interactions: Essays in Honor of Antonino Forte, edited by Victor H. Mair, 235–89. Amherst, NY: Cambria Press, 2017.
Suzuki Takayasu. “The Mahāmeghasūtra as an Origin of an Interpolated Part of the Present Suvarṇaprabhāsa.” Journal of Indian and Buddhist Studies 45, no. 1 (1996): 28–30.
Thurman, Robert A. F., trans. The Teaching of Vimalakīrti (Vimalakīrtinirdeśa, Toh 176). 84000: Translating the Words of the Buddha, 2017.
Yoshimura Shuki. The Denkar-ma: An Oldest Catalogue of the Tibetan Buddhist Canons. Kyoto: Ryukoku University, 1950.