Distinguishing Phenomena and What Is Meaningful
Degé Kangyur, vol. 66 (mdo sde, za), folios 42.b–46.a.
Translated by the Dharmachakra Translation Committee
under the patronage and supervision of 84000: Translating the Words of the Buddha
There are two main themes in Distinguishing Phenomena and What Is Meaningful. One is in the narrative structure: The Buddha Śākyamuni tells how, countless eons ago, in a world called Flower Origin, a buddha named Arisen from Flowers gave instructions to a royal family, and prophesied the awakening of the prince Ratnākara. Arisen from Flowers, the Buddha Śākyamuni then relates, has since become the buddha Amitābha, and the prince Ratnākara the bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara. The other theme is doctrinal, and lies in the content of the teaching given by Arisen from Flowers: it explains the four mistakes made by ordinary beings in the way they perceive the five aggregates, and how bodhisattvas teach them how to clear away these misconceptions, so that they may be free of the sufferings that result.
Translated by the Dharmachakra Translation Committee under the guidance of Chökyi Nyima Rinpoche. The translation was produced by Anna Zilman and Timothy Hinkle. Andreas Doctor compared the translation with the Tibetan and edited the text.
The translation was completed under the patronage and supervision of 84000: Translating the Words of the Buddha.
Distinguishing Phenomena and What Is Meaningful is a scripture that in the Degé Kangyur belongs to the General Sūtra section. The sūtra is set in Anāthapiṇḍada’s park at Śrāvastī, where the Buddha Śākyamuni is residing with a gathering of monks and bodhisattvas. In delivering his teaching, Śākyamuni describes an ancient world known as Flower Origin,1 in which lived a buddha called Arisen from Flowers.2 That world was governed by a king known as Attainment of Victory, under whose rule everyone practiced the Great Vehicle. Prompted by the prince Ratnākara, the royal family goes to meet Arisen from Flowers. That buddha then teaches the audience about the insubstantial and unsatisfactory nature of the aggregates, and describes beings’ tendency to perceive the aggregates in a flawed manner: while the aggregates are actually impermanent, repulsive, unclean, and unreal, sentient beings conceive of them as lasting, beautiful, pure, and true. The Buddha Śākyamuni further explains how beings are themselves a product of their actions, and that the five aggregates (the components that together constitute a sentient being) are not purposely created by anyone.
The sūtra thus presents a version of the well–known “four errors” (catvāro viparyāsāḥ, phyin ci log pa bzhi), often described in Buddhist canonical literature as the main underpinnings of sentient beings’ mistaken view of the world: erroneously perceiving (1) the impermanent to be permanent, (2) the painful to be pleasant, (3) the dirty to be clean, and (4) what has no self to have a self.3 The four errors are discussed extensively not only in the Abhidharma, but also in the Catuḥśataka of Āryadeva (fl. third century), where each is treated in a separate chapter (chapters 6–9).4 The present sūtra invokes the four errors, but instead of presenting the illusion that the painful is pleasant, it speaks of the illusion that the repulsive (mi sdug pa) is beautiful (sdug pa). Aside from this minor twist, the context remains that of the usual four errors.
Once the Buddha Arisen from Flowers has taught the audience, the king, queen, prince, and the entire retinue all take ordination. The thus-gone one then prophesies Prince Ratnākara’s awakening, revealing his future name, world, lifespan, and the nature of his teachings. Toward the end of the sūtra, the Buddha Śākyamuni reveals the current identity of the main characters of his narrative. Arisen from Flowers has now become the buddha Amitābha, and Ratnākara has become the bodhisattva known as Avalokiteśvara. In the remainder of the sūtra, Śākyamuni reveals that anyone who faithfully receives this Dharma teaching will be reborn in Sukhāvatī (the buddha realm of Amitābha) and that all women who touch or read this sūtra will be able to exchange their female bodies for male forms and never again take rebirth in a female body.5
The title of the sūtra could be interpreted in a number of different ways, some of which would require translations other than the one we have chosen. Chos (dharma) could refer to qualities, factors, practices, states, phenomena, or the teachings, while don (artha), too, has a wide range of meanings including object, referent, goal, purpose, worth, use, meaning, and cause. We have inevitably had to narrow the possibilities down to produce a rendering in English.6
There is no extant Sanskrit version of this scripture, and the sūtra does not appear to have been translated into Chinese. In producing this translation, we have based our work on the Degé xylograph Kangyur while consulting the Comparative Edition (dpe bsdur ma), as well as the Stok Palace manuscript Kangyur. The colophon of the sūtra states that it was translated by the Indian preceptors Jinamitra and Dānaśīla, as well as the prolific Tibetan translator Yeshé Dé. We can therefore date the Tibetan translation to the late eighth or early ninth century, and this is confirmed by the text’s inclusion in the early ninth century Denkarma (ldan dkar ma) and Phangthangma (’phang thang ma) catalogues.7
Homage to all buddhas and bodhisattvas!
Thus did I hear at one time. The Blessed One was staying in the Jeta Grove, Anāthapiṇḍada’s park in Śrāvastī. He was there together with a great saṅgha of monks, as well as a great saṅgha of bodhisattvas.
“Noble son, at a past time countless, limitless, immeasurably many eons ago, there was a world called Flower Origin. It was abundantly prosperous and happy, had good crops, and was delightful. It was filled with many people, and was as even as the palm of a hand. Noble son, in the world Flower Origin dwelled the thus-gone, worthy, perfect buddha Arisen from Flowers. He still abides there, alive and well, teaching the Dharma to the fourfold assembly, as well as to gods, nāgas, yakṣas, gandharvas, demigods, garuḍas, kinnaras, mahoragas, humans, and non-humans.
“Noble son, in the world Flower Origin lived the ruler Attainment of Victory. He was a universal emperor, who had as his dominion the entire trichiliocosm. Noble son, under the king’s rule8 beings had found happiness and well-being, followed the path of the ten virtuous deeds, and were satisfied with their spouses. Everyone there had entered but a single vehicle: they had entered the Great Vehicle. They had entered the supreme vehicle. They had entered the main vehicle. They had entered the true vehicle. They had entered the foremost vehicle—the best, the finest, and the highest vehicle. The vehicle they had entered was higher than the highest: the unsurpassed vehicle. They had entered the unequaled vehicle. They had entered the matchless vehicle. They had entered the inconceivable vehicle. They had entered the unfathomable vehicle. [F.43.b] Noble son, under the rule of that king Attainment of Victory, vehicles other than the Great Vehicle were unheard of.
“Noble son, in his retinue of queens King Attainment of Victory had ninety-nine thousand wives, none of whom had entered any other vehicle. They all belonged solely to the Great Vehicle, longed for the Dharma day and night, and took delight in the Dharma. Noble son, that king’s primary wife Ratnaśrī, who was a beloved9 bodhisattva, followed the Buddha, the Dharma,10 and the Saṅgha. She belonged to the Great Vehicle, longed for the Dharma at all times, and found delight only in the joy of the Dharma.
“Noble son, once, while Ratnaśrī was seated upon a splendid lion throne, her son Ratnākara got down from her lap where he had been sitting in the cross-legged posture. He was adorned with divine ornaments, attired with divine fabrics, and his body was adorned with the excellent major and minor marks. As soon as he got down, the child asked his mother, ‘Mother, is the thus-gone Arisen from Flowers still alive?’
“The prince Ratnākara then said to his parents, ‘Father and Mother, come here! We must go to the thus-gone, worthy, perfect buddha Arisen from Flowers in order to behold him, to pay homage and make offerings, to serve him, and to receive Dharma teachings from him. If you wonder why we need to do so, Father and Mother, it is because the Thus-Gone One performs hardships in the world of gods and humans.
“King Attainment of Victory and Queen Ratnaśrī then brought their son and the retinue of queens and servants and went before that blessed one. They circumambulated that blessed one seven times and offered him extremely valuable pearl necklaces, after which they all sat down among the assembly. Noble son, the prince then rose up into the sky to the height of seven palm trees by means of his miraculous ability, and showered upon the blessed Arisen from Flowers a rain of jewels, flowers, and incense. He then proclaimed to that blessed one:
“The young prince praised that blessed one in this manner, then circumambulated him and sat before him.
“The Blessed One looked in all directions with his broad eyes, which resembled the petals of a lotus flower. Knowing the minds and mental states of the fourfold assembly, he said to King Attainment of Victory:
“ ‘Great King, although the five aggregates are insubstantial, childish ordinary beings think of them as being substantial. [F.44.b] Great King, the aggregates look awful; they smell terrible; they ooze pus and blood; they are like wood, clods of dirt, or roads; and they are insubstantial, inert, and interlinked with joy and sorrow. They are linked to each other by chains of craving, are full of affliction, and are vile. Still, ordinary beings think that such insubstantial things are substantial; they think that impermanent things are permanent, repulsive things are beautiful, unclean things are clean, and unreal things are real. Great King, the five aggregates are “painted” by one’s own karma. As an analogy, O Great King, there is no painter who paints the peacock’s five-colored tail, and neither is there any paint involved. Rather, it is painted by the peacock’s own karma. Great King, in the same way, childish ordinary beings arise from reciprocal conditions, painted by their own karma.’
“At this point the bodhisattva great being Invincible Lord11 stood up among the assembly, circumambulated the Blessed One, draped his shawl over one shoulder, knelt down on his right knee, and bowed with joined palms.
“He said to the Blessed One, ‘Blessed One, these aggregates do look awful and smell terrible; they ooze blood and pus; they are like wood, clods of dirt, walls, or roads; they are insubstantial and inert. Childish ordinary beings think that these things have substance, but these beings are like the mistaken, the blind, and the confused. They have fallen into bewilderment. They are completely enveloped in darkness, obscurity, and veils. They are lost in the dense thicket of all their wrong views. Blessed One, these four collections of the Dharma are all profound; they are like space. [F.45.a] Blessed One, will any beings ever come to understand correctly the statements that are spoken in discourses such as this?’
“The blessed Arisen from Flowers answered that bodhisattva great being, ‘Noble son, whenever bodhisattva great beings manifest, it will be in order to purify beings. They teach them the Dharma in accordance with their inclinations. They cut through the cravings of those who are tormented by craving. They clear away the suffering of those tormented by pain. Knowing all phenomena to be insubstantial and knowing them to be like space, they direct sentient beings to the nature of phenomena. Bodhisattvas are then known as purifiers of beings.’
“When that blessed, thus-gone, worthy, perfect buddha Arisen from Flowers had delivered this teaching concerning sentient beings, King Attainment of Victory cut off his hair and beard. His son, as well as Queen Ratnaśrī and the retinue of queens and servants, likewise all cut off their hair and they all took ordination with the Blessed One.
“The Blessed One now spoke to the assembly: ‘Noble children, look at the young prince. Noble children, this sublime being has produced roots of virtue in the company of ninety-nine trillion buddhas. On all of these occasions he has become a Dharma preacher. And this person here has always been the father of that sublime being. This sublime being has always ripened beings to unsurpassed and perfect awakening. Noble children, as soon as I pass into parinirvāṇa, the young prince Ratnākara will become a buddha. He will be seated in front of the tree of awakening, which will be bedecked with various precious stones. When he attains awakening, he will become a thus-gone, worthy, perfect buddha. [F.45.b] He will be someone learned and virtuous, a blissful one, a knower of the world, a charioteer who guides beings, an unsurpassed being, a teacher of gods and humans, a blessed buddha known as Splendorous King of Shining Light. His world will be known as Painted with Many Jewels. He will have an immeasurable saṅgha of hearers. He will have a lifespan of ninety-six trillion eons. The appearance of his sacred Dharma will remain for seven million five hundred thousand years.’
“Noble son, at that time, when the prophecy concerning that bodhisattva great being was made, eighty-four thousand beings gained acceptance that phenomena are unborn. Noble son, should you wonder, question, or have doubts regarding the identity of the thus-gone one of that time, there is no need. Why so? Noble son, it is the thus-gone, worthy, perfect buddha Amitābha who was known at that time as the thus-gone Arisen from Flowers and who taught the Dharma in that world. Noble son, should you wonder, question, or have doubts regarding the identity of the prince known as Ratnākara at that time, there is no need. Why so? Noble son, it is the bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara who was at that time the son of King Attainment of Victory. That thus-gone one prophesied, ‘He will gain awakening from me.’ ”
The bodhisattva great being Delighted by Victory, who was among the retinue, now joined his palms and asked the Blessed One, “Blessed One, will beings who have not produced roots of virtue ever even hear this Dharma teaching, [F.46.a] let alone commit it to writing, commission it to be written, retain it, recite it, or offer flowers, incense, and incense powder to it?”
The Blessed One replied to the bodhisattva great being Delighted by Victory, “Noble son, only those who have served as many buddhas as there are grains of sand in the Ganges River will come across this discourse. Noble son, those sentient beings who hear this Dharma teaching and do not doubt it will be reborn in the realm of Sukhāvatī after they die and pass from this world. Noble son, any place where this discourse is kept will become worthy of homage. Noble son, later, in the future, any woman who holds or reads aloud this Dharma teaching will exchange her female body and be reborn in the realm of Sukhāvatī. That will be her last birth as a female.12 She will, moreover, behold the thus-gone Amitābha at the moment of death.”
Once the Blessed One had spoken, the bodhisattva great being Delighted by Victory, the other bodhisattvas, the monks, and the rest of the assembly, along with the world with its gods, humans, demigods, and gandharvas, all rejoiced and praised what the Blessed One had said.
This concludes the noble Great Vehicle sūtra “Distinguishing Phenomena and What Is Meaningful.”
’phags pa chos dang don rnam par ’byed pa zhes bya ba theg pa chen po’i mdo (Āryadharmārthavibhāganāmamahāyānasūtra). Toh 247, Degé Kangyur vol. 66 (mdo sde, za), folios 42.b–46.a.
’phags pa chos dang don rnam par ’byed pa ces bya ba thegs pa chen po’i mdo. Stok no. 116, stog pho brang bris ma, vol. 64 (mdo sde, pa), folios 349.a–354.b.
’phags pa chos dang don rnam par ’byed 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. 66, pp. 117–27.
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.
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Acceptance that phenomena are unborn
- mi skye ba’i chos la bzod pa
The realization that all phenomena are beyond birth.
- ’od dpag med
The buddha residing in the western buddha realm Sukhāvatī.
- mgon med zas sbyin
An important benefactor of the Buddha Śākyamuni.
Arisen from Flowers
- me tog las byung ba
A former buddha who is presently the Buddha Amitābha.
- spyan ras gzigs dbang phyug
One of the main bodhisattva disciples of the Buddha Śākyamuni, praised for his compassion.
- dA na shI la
An Indian paṇḍita who was resident in Tibet during the late eighth and early ninth centuries.
Delighted by Victory
- rgyal bas dga’
The bodhisattva to whom this sūtra is spoken.
- lha ma yin
The traditional adversaries of the devas (gods) who are frequently portrayed in the Brahmanical mythology as having a disruptive effect on cosmological and social harmony.
- phung po lnga
The constituents of a human being: form, feeling, perception, formation, and consciousness.
- me tog gi ’byung gnas
The buddha realm of the Buddha Arisen from Flowers.
- phyin ci log bzhi
- caturo viparyāsā
Taking what is impermanent to be permanent, what is painful to be delightful, what is unclean to be clean, and what is no self to be a self.
- dri za
Lower class of divine being, under the control of the Guardian King of the East. Capable of flight, they are often described as “celestial musicians.”
- nam mkha’ lding
Lower class of divine being,described as an eagle-type bird with a gigantic wingspan. They were traditionally enemies of the nāgas. In the Vedas, they were thought to have brought nectar from the heavens to earth.
- mi pham dbang phyug
A bodhisattva in the assembly of the buddha Arisen from Flowers.
- rgyal bu rgyal byed kyi tshal
The park donated to the Buddha by Anāthapiṇḍada.
- dzi na mi tra
An Indian Kashmiri paṇḍita who was resident in Tibet during the late eighth and early ninth centuries. He worked with several Tibetan translators on the translation of a number of sūtras.
- mi’am ci
A class of semidivine beings that resemble humans to the degree that their very name—which means “Is that a man?”—suggests some confusion as to their divine status.
- lto ’phye chen po
A class of serpentine nonhuman beings.
A semidivine class of beings who live in subterranean aquatic environments and who are known to hoard wealth and esoteric teachings. They are associated with snakes and serpents.
Painted with Many Jewels
- kun nas rin po ches yang dag par bris pa
The buddha realm in which Prince Ratnākara will attain awakening.
- yongs su mya ngan las ’das pa
The final stage of passing into nirvāṇa, which occurs when a worthy one or a buddha passes away.
- rin chen ’byung gnas
The son of King Attainment of Victory, who will become the bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara.
- shAkya thub pa
The buddha of this age; the historical buddha.
Splendorous King of Shining Light
- ’od zer kun nas mngon ’phags dpal brtsegs rgyal po
The name of Prince Ratnākara once he attains awakening.
- mnyan yod
The capital of the ancient Kosala kingdom in India during the sixth–fifth centuries ʙᴄᴇ.
- bde ba can
The buddha realm, located in the western direction, in which Buddha Amitābha resides.
- stong gsum
A universe containing one billion worlds.
- gnod sbyin
A class of beings belonging to the realm of Kubera, the god of wealth.
- ye shes sde
A prolific Tibetan translator active during the late eighth and early ninth centuries.