The Four Factors
Degé Kangyur, vol. 66 (mdo sde, za), folios 59.b–60.a
Translated by Adam Pearcey
under the patronage and supervision of 84000: Translating the Words of the Buddha
In this short sūtra the Buddha explains that throughout one’s life there are four beliefs one should not hold: (1) that there is pleasure to be found among women, (2) or at the royal court; (3) that happiness can be ensured by depending on health and attractiveness, (4) or on wealth and material possessions.
The Sūtra of the Four Factors (Caturdharmakasūtra, Toh 250) is the second of three short sūtras with similar titles, all referring to sets of four factors (Skt. dharma), that contribute to accomplishing the goal of the path. In many Kangyurs (predominantly those of Tshalpa origin, including the Degé Kangyur) these sūtras are found grouped together.
Of the other sūtras in this set, The Sūtra Teaching the Four Factors (Toh 249)1 is concerned with the four factors necessary for the practice of confession, while The Noble Mahāyāna Sūtra on the Four Factors (Toh 251)2 identifies four factors of the path that bodhisattvas must not abandon under any circumstance. Two further works, The Accomplishment of the Sets of Four Qualities: The Bodhisattvas’ Prātimokṣa (Toh 248) and The Fourfold Accomplishment (Toh 252)3 also concern themselves with “sets of four” (catuṣka, bzhi pa), thereby forming a larger group of five sūtras in the Degé Kangyur that lay out key elements of the practice of the path in discrete sets of four factors.
In the present sūtra, the Buddha addresses an audience of 1,250 monks in Jeta Grove in Śrāvastī. He tells them about four beliefs (which, interestingly, are not explicitly called “factors” in the text), describing them as beliefs that a “wise son of good family” should not accept as true: (1) that there is pleasure to be had in consorting with women, (2) or in attending the royal court, (3) that one can depend on health and attractiveness, (4) or on material wealth. The sūtra concludes with two verses in which the Buddha reiterates the inappropriateness of such beliefs and stresses the fragility and transience of wealth, home, and beauty—and, indeed, of life itself.
As with the majority of Buddhist sūtras, the original recipients of this teaching were monks, and it is thus presented from a male perspective. Yet, despite its androcentrism, the sūtra touches upon universal themes. Is it meaningful to seek pleasure in physical attractions or prestigious connections, to rely on present good health or ephemeral stores of wealth? The Buddha tells us that the wise never do so.
The main prose section of the sūtra employs the rhetorical device of anaphora, the repetition of phrases or opening lines for effect. Successive lines repeat the same opening formula: “Monks, for as long as he lives, a wise son of good family does not hold the belief that…” Such repetition is common throughout Buddhist canonical literature; it has a clear mnemonic advantage and may point to the oral origins of the sūtras.
The sūtra’s two concluding verses also appear among the concluding verses of the Śīlasaṃyuktasūtra (tshul khrims yang dag par ldan pa’i mdo, Toh 303).4 This is of particular interest since there is a Sanskrit version of that sūtra,5 whereas there is no known Sanskrit version of The Sūtra of the Four Factors.
As Peter Skilling has noted, The Sūtra of the Four Factors is not called a Mahāyāna text in its Sanskrit or Tibetan titles, and there is nothing in its content that is indicative of a uniquely Mahāyāna viewpoint. In fact, the Stok Palace Kangyur version concludes with a line stating that the sūtra belongs to the teachings of the first turning of the Dharma wheel,6 which is to say, the tradition of the śrāvakas.
A text by the name of Sūtra of the Four Factors (chos bzhi’i mdo or chos bzhi pa’i mdo) is listed in the Denkarma7 and Phangthangma8 catalogs of translated works. This very likely refers to the current sūtra, which is also summarized in Kawa Paltsek’s An Account of the Precious Teachings together with a Lineage of the Śākya Clan (gsung rab rin po che’i gtam rgyud dang shA kya’i rabs rgyud, Toh 4357), suggesting that it was translated during the imperial period. Even so, since it lacks a translator’s colophon, we cannot say precisely who translated it or when.
The sūtra does not appear to have been cited in any Indian treatise contained in the Tengyur. Nor was it commonly cited by later Tibetan authors. There is no Chinese version. A French translation of it was first published by Léon Feer in 1866 (and reprinted in 1883).9 Peter Skilling has also published a translation along with helpful introductory notes in his book, Questioning the Buddha: A Selection of Twenty-Five Sutras.10
The following translation was made based on the Degé block print with reference to the Comparative Edition (dpe bsdur ma) and the Stok Palace Kangyur.
At that time, the Blessed One addressed the monks in a voice that was steady, deep, harmonious, and far-reaching, saying, “Monks, there are four beliefs that a wise son of good family does not hold for as long as he lives. What are these four?
“Monks, for as long as he lives, a wise son of good family does not hold the belief that there is pleasure to be found in women.
“Monks, for as long as he lives, a wise son of good family does not hold the belief that there is pleasure to be found at the court of the royal palace.
“Monks, for as long as he lives, a wise son of good family does not hold the belief that he is attractive, handsome, good looking, and in good health.
“Monks, for as long as he lives, a wise son of good family does not hold the belief that he is rich, wealthy, and has abundant resources.”
The Blessed One spoke these words. Once the Sugata had spoken in this way, he, the Teacher, also said the following:
When the Blessed One had said this, the monks, together with the world of devas, humans, asuras, and gandharvas, rejoiced and praised the words of the Blessed One.
chos bzhi pa’i mdo (Caturdharmakasūtra). Toh 250, Degé Kangyur vol. 66 (mdo sde, za), folios 59.b–60.a.
chos bzhi pa’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 Tripiṭaka 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. 66, pp. 166–67.
chos bzhi pai mdo. Stok Palace Kangyur vol. 64 (stog pho brang bris ma bka gyur), folios 354.b–355.b.
tshul khrims yang dag par ldan pa’i mdo (Śīlasaṃyuktasūtra). Toh 303, Degé Kangyur vol. 72 (mdo sde, pa), folios 127.a–127.b.
Kawa Paltsek (ska ba dpal brtsegs). *Pravacanaratnākhyānaśākyavaṃśāvalī, gsung rab rin po che’i gtam rgyud dang shA kya’i rabs rgyud. Toh 4357, Degé Tengyur vol. 204 (sna tshogs, co), folios 238.b–377.a.
Thupten Chökyi Drakpa (thub bstan chos kyi grags pa). tshul khrims yang dag par ldan pa’i mdo’i tshig don legs par bshad pa chos kyi gaN Da’i sgra dbyangs. Gangtok: Sherab Gyaltsen Lama, 1983.
Bhikṣunī Vinītā, ed. and trans. A Unique Collection of Twenty Sūtras in a Sanskrit Manuscript from the Potala. Sanskrit Texts from the Tibetan Autonomous Region 7/1. Beijing: China Tibetology Publishing House; Vienna: Austrian Academy of Sciences Press, 2010.
Dharmachakra Translation Committee, trans. The Fourfold Accomplishment (Catuṣkanirhāra, Toh 252). 84000: Translating the Words of the Buddha, 2020.
Feer, Henri Léon. “Le Sūtra des Quatre Préceptes.” Journal Asiatique, sér. 6, tome 8 (1866): 269–357.
Kīrtimukha Translation Group, trans. The Sūtra on Having Moral Discipline (Śīlasaṃyuktasūtra, Toh 303). 84000: Translating the Words of the Buddha, 2021.
Pearcey, Adam, trans. The Noble Mahāyāna Sūtra on the Four Factors (Āryacaturdharmakanāmamahāyānasūtra, Toh 251). 84000: Translating the Words of the Buddha, 2023.
Skilling, Peter. Questioning the Buddha: A Selection of Twenty-Five Sutras. Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2021.
Thubten Kalzang Rinpoche, Bhikkhu Nagasena, and Bhikkhu Khantipalo, trans. “Silasamyukta-Sutra.” In Three Discourses of the Buddha. Dharamsala: Library of Tibetan Works & Archives, 1973.