The Noble Mahāyāna Sūtra on the Four Factors
Degé Kangyur, vol. 66 (mdo sde, za), folios 60.b–61.a
Translated by Adam Pearcey
under the patronage and supervision of 84000: Translating the Words of the Buddha
While residing in the Jeta Grove in Śrāvastī, the Buddha explains to an assembly of monks and bodhisattvas four factors of the path that bodhisattvas must not abandon even at the cost of their lives: (1) the thought of awakening, (2) the spiritual friend, (3) tolerance and lenience (which are here counted as one), and (4) dwelling in the wilderness. The sūtra concludes with two verses in which the Buddha restates the four factors and asserts that those who do not relinquish them will attain complete awakening.
The Noble Mahāyāna Sūtra on the Four Factors (Āryacaturdharmakanāmamahāyāna sūtra) is the third of three short sūtras with similar titles (all referring to sets of four dharmas or factors 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 Four Factors (Toh 250)2 identifies four beliefs that a wise son of a good family should not accept as true. 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, dharma is a flexible term used to refer to a specific set or category of four important components or factors of the path that a bodhisattva, someone who aspires to achieve the perfect awakening of a buddha, should not abandon under any circumstances. These four factors are (1) the thought of awakening, (2) the spiritual friend or companion and guide in virtue, (3) tolerance and lenience, considered here as a pair, and (4) dwelling in the wilderness, that is, in a place suitably removed from the social world of the town so as to enable spiritual practice.
The Buddha presents these four factors using this formula: “For as long as they live, bodhisattvas, great beings, should not abandon x even at the cost of their lives.” This is repeated in six successive lines, first to introduce all four factors together, then for each one in turn, and finally to refer to all four by way of recapitulation. The sūtra thus employs the rhetorical device of repetition—combining anaphora and epistrophe, repetition of the beginning and end phrases of a line—that is such a common feature of Buddhist canonical literature.
The text concludes with two stanzas, also spoken by the Buddha, that summarize the sūtra’s message and explain the benefit of maintaining the four factors. These verses present the factors in a slightly different sequence, with tolerance and lenience preceding the factor of the spiritual friend. They also exhort the wise bodhisattva to be as fearless as a lion, “the king of beasts,” while dwelling in the wilderness.
The Chinese Tripiṭaka contains two translations of the sūtra (Taishō 7724 & Taishō 7735), both by Divākara and dated to 680 ᴄᴇ and 681 ᴄᴇ.6 The sūtra and commentaries also appear in several manuscripts of the Dunhuang collection. Among those manuscripts is an annotated translation of the sūtra (IOL Tib J 69) that identifies the translators as Surendrabodhi and Yeshe Dé. This manuscript is significant not only because of the annotations to the translation itself but also because the Kangyur versions lack a translator’s colophon (’gyur byang). The sūtra is listed in both the Denkarma7 and Phangthangma8 catalogs of translated works, indicating that the first Tibetan translation of the text was complete by the early ninth century.
There is a short commentary on this sūtra attributed to Vasubandhu and preserved in Tibetan in the Tengyur, (*Āryacaturdharmakavyākhyāna, ’phags pa chos bzhi pa’i rnam par bshad pa, Toh 3990), which we have also translated,9 as well as a slightly longer commentary on this commentary, attributed to Jñānadatta (: *Āryacaturdharmakavyākhyānaṭīkā, ’phags pa chos bzhi pa’i rgya cher bshad pa’i rgya cher ’grel pa, Toh 3990a).
Several independent treatises found within the Tengyur also make reference to this sūtra. Śāntideva’s Compendium of Training (Śikṣāsamuccaya, Toh 3940), for instance, refers to the second of the four factors when discussing the importance of the teacher.10 Prajñākaramati also cites the same line in his Commentary on the Difficult Points of the Bodhicaryāvatāra (Bodhicaryāvatārapañjikā; byang chub kyi spyod pa la ’jug pa’i dka’ ’grel, Toh 3872).11 Vimalamitra refers to the fourth factor on the importance of dwelling in the wilderness in The Meaning of the Gradual Cultivation (rim gyis ’jug pa’i sgom don, Toh 3938).12 The sūtra has also been cited in works by Tibetan authors. To give just one example, the celebrated Nyingma master Longchen Rabjam (1308–64) quotes the sūtra’s line about the importance of the spiritual friend in the eighth chapter of The White Lotus Autocommentary on the Wish-Fulfilling Treasury (yid bzhin mdzod kyi ’grel pa pad ma dkar po).13
A French translation of the sūtra by Léon Feer was first published in 1866 (and reprinted in 1883).14 Peter Skilling has included a fine English translation along with some helpful notes under the title “Four Dharmas Never to Be Abandoned” in his recent collection Questioning the Buddha: A Selection of Twenty-Five Sutras.15
The following translation was made primarily on the basis of the Degé block print with reference to the Comparative Edition (dpe bsdur ma), the Stok Palace Kangyur, IOL Tib J 69, and the commentaries ascribed to Vasubandhu and Jñānadatta.
Homage to all the buddhas and bodhisattvas!
Thus did I hear at one time. The Buddha was residing in Śrāvastī at Jeta’s Grove, Anāthapiṇḍada’s park, together with a great community of monks, consisting of 1,250 monks, and a great assembly of bodhisattvas. At that time, the Blessed One addressed the monks:
“Monks, for as long as they live, bodhisattvas, great beings, should not abandon four factors even at the cost of their lives. What are these four?
“Monks, for as long as they live, bodhisattvas, great beings, should not abandon these four factors even at the cost of their lives.”
The Blessed One spoke these words, and once the Sugata had spoken in this way, he, the Teacher, also said the following:
When the Blessed One had said this, the monks and bodhisattvas, together with the entire assembly, rejoiced and praised the words of the Blessed One.
This concludes “The Noble Mahāyāna Sūtra on the Four Factors.”
’phags pa chos bzhi pa zhes bya ba theg pa chen po’i mdo (Āryacaturdharmakanāmamahāyānasūtra). Toh 251, Degé Kangyur vol. 66 (mdo sde, za), folios 60.b–61.a.
’phags pa chos bzhi 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 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. 169–70.
’phags pa chos bzhi pa zhes bya ba theg pa chen po’i mdo. Stok Palace Kangyur vol. 65 (stog pho brang bris ma bka’ ’gyur), folios 417.a–418.a.
dkar chag ’phang thang ma. Beijing: mi rigs dpe skrun khang, 2003.
pho brang stod thang ldan dkar gyi chos kyi ’gyur ro cog gi dkar chag [Denkarma]. Toh 4364, Degé Tengyur vol. 206 (sna tshogs, jo), folios 294.b–310.a.
Jñānadatta. ’phags pa chos bzhi pa’i rgya cher bshad pa’i rgya cher ’grel pa (*Āryacaturdharmakavyākhyānaṭīkā). Toh 3990a, Degé Tengyur vol. 113 (mdo ’grel, ngi), folios 67.a–71.b.
Longchen Rabjam (klong chen rab ’byams). yid bzhin mdzod kyi ’grel pa pad ma dkar po stod cha in kun mkhyen klong chen rab ’byams kyi gsung ’bum. 26 vols. Beijing: krung go’i bod rig pa dpe skrun khang, 2009. Vol. 13: 68–467. BDRC W1KG4884.
Prajñākaramati. byang chub kyi spyod pa la ’jug pa’i dka’ ’grel (Bodhicaryāvatārapañjikā) Toh 3872, Degé Tengyur vol. 105 (dbu ma, la), folios 41.b–288.a.
Śāntideva. bslab pa kun las btus pa (Śikṣāsamuccaya). Toh 3940, Degé Tengyur vol. 111 (dbu ma, khi), folios 3.a–194.b.
Vasubandhu. ’phags pa chos bzhi pa’i rnam par bshad pa (*Āryacaturdharmakavyākhyāna). Toh 3990, Degé Tengyur vol. 113 (mdo ’grel, ngi), folios 66.a–66.b.
Vimalamitra. rim gyis ’jug pa’i sgom don. Toh 3938, Degé Tengyur vol. 110 (dbu ma, ki), folios 340.b–358.a.
IOL Tib J 69. British Library, London. Accessed through The International Dunhuang Project: The Silk Road Online.
Bendall, Cecil and W.H.D. Rouse, trans. Śikshā-Samuccaya: A Compendium of Buddhist Doctrine Compiled by Śāntideva. London: John Murray, 1922.
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.
Goodman, Charles. The Training Anthology of Śāntideva: A Translation of the Śikṣā-samuccaya. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.
Herrmann-Pfandt, Adelheid. Die lHan kar ma: ein früher Katalog der ins Tibetische übersetzten buddhistischen Texte. Wien: Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 2008.
Pearcey, Adam, trans. (2019). The Sūtra Teaching the Four Factors (Caturdharmanirdeśasūtra, Toh 249). 84000: Translating the Words of the Buddha, 2019.
————, trans. (2023a). The Four Factors (Caturdharmakasūtra, Toh 250). 84000: Translating the Words of the Buddha, 2023.
————, trans. (2023b). An Explanation of The Noble Sūtra on the Four Factors (*Āryacaturdharmakavyākhyāna, Toh 3990). 84000: Translating the Words of the Buddha, 2023.
Skilling, Peter. Questioning the Buddha: A Selection of Twenty-Five Sutras. Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2021.
- sems dpa’ chen po
- rgyal bu rgyal byed kyi tshal
- des pa
- dge ba’i bshes gnyen
- mnyan yod
thought of awakening
- byang chub sems
- bzod pa