The Application of Mindfulness of the Sacred Dharma
Degé Kangyur, vol. 68 (mdo sde, ya), folios 82.a–318.a; vol. 69 (mdo sde, ra), folios 1.b–307.a; vol. 70 (mdo sde, la), folios 1.b–312.a; and vol. 71 (mdo sde, sha), folios 1.b–229.b
Translated by the Dharmachakra Translation Committee
under the patronage and supervision of 84000: Translating the Words of the Buddha
First published 2021
Current version v 1.0.24 (2023)
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While on the way to Rājagṛha to collect alms, a group of newly ordained monks are approached by some non-Buddhists, who suggest that their doctrine is identical to that of the Buddha, since everyone agrees that misdeeds of body, speech, and mind are to be given up. The monks do not know how to reply, and when they later return to the brahmin town of Nālati, where the Buddha is residing, Śāradvatīputra therefore encourages them to seek clarification from the Blessed One himself. In response to the monks’ request, the Buddha delivers a comprehensive discourse on the effects of virtuous and unvirtuous actions, explaining these matters from the perspective of an adept practitioner of his teachings, who sees and understands all this through a process of personal discovery. As the teaching progresses, the Buddha presents an epic tour of the realm of desire—from the Hell of Ultimate Torment to the Heaven Free from Strife—all the while introducing the specific human actions and attitudes that cause the experience of such worlds and outlining the ways to remedy and transcend them. In the final section of the sūtra, which is presented as an individual scripture on its own, the focus is on mindfulness of the body and the ripening of karmic actions that is experienced among humans in particular.
Translated by the Dharmachakra Translation Committee under the supervision of Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche. The translation was produced by Thomas Doctor with help from Benjamin Collet-Cassart and Timothy Hinkle. Thomas also wrote the introduction. Andreas Doctor checked the translation against the Tibetan and edited the text. The 84000 editorial team subsequently reviewed the translation and made further edits. Wiesiek Mical assisted by reviewing numerous passages against the available Sanskrit sources. Robert Kritzer generously shared several unpublished articles on the text with us, and Vesna Wallace and Mitsuyo Demoto kindly gave us access to drafts of their critical Sanskrit editions of chapters 1 and 3, respectively.
The translation was completed under the patronage and supervision of 84000: Translating the Words of the Buddha.
The generous sponsorship of Sun Ping, Tian Xingwen, and Sun Fanglin, which helped make the work on this translation possible, is most gratefully acknowledged.
The epic discourse of The Application of Mindfulness of the Sacred Dharma (AMSD) unfolds as a single, sustained reply to a short question that is put to the Buddha Śākyamuni as the sūtra opens. A group of newly ordained monks have been challenged by the members of another religious group, who suggest that the Buddha’s teachings are indistinguishable from those of their own teacher. Not knowing how to reply, the monks request that the Buddha explain how the path of the sacred Dharma is unlike any other. As the Buddha responds to the monks, he describes the path from the perspective of an adept meditating monk, who applies the Dharma teachings correctly and so discovers the truths of the Dharma. In an account that spans the full spectrum of life in saṃsāra, from the horrifying misery and intense pain of the lower realms to the enrapturing beauty and bliss in the heavens, the Buddha explains how different kinds of physical, verbal, and mental behavior of humans lead to rebirth in such realms of existence.
The generic and unnamed monk, from whose perspective the Buddha explains the subject matter, witnesses the myriad realms of existence from the Hell of Ultimate Torment to the Heaven Free from Strife, sometimes by means of the divine eye that is accomplished through meditation, and at other times through the eye of insight that is acquired through hearing the teachings. In this way, the monk comes to directly recognize the matrix of causes and effects that keeps the wheel of cyclic existence turning, and he realizes with full clarity how, throughout all this, life and beings’ experiences are utterly impermanent and always determined by their own past actions. A very substantial part of the sūtra describes the ravishing sceneries and amazing events that take place in the heavens. In the midst of these breathtaking descriptions, the sūtra frequently presents pithy teachings of the Dharma, typically given in verses that may be spoken by gods, such as Śakra, or by divine birds, such as the king of swans or the peacock king.1
The account of the heavens and the actions that lead to rebirth there comes to an abrupt end in the midst of the descriptions of the Heaven Free from Strife. Instead follows, for the remainder of the scripture, a teaching on mindfulness of the body. This latter teaching, which functions mostly as an independent part of the sūtra, presents mindfulness of the body within the framework of the “internal” human body and the “external” body of the outer world. This latter section includes an elaborate description of the human realm according to Buddhist cosmology.2 Given the sūtra’s sudden stop in the middle of the presentation of the Heaven Free from Strife, it seems quite likely that an earlier version of the sūtra might have been significantly longer than the present version and that only a partial version was available to the Tibetan translators. If so, the missing material must, however, have been lost at a very early point in the text’s history, since the Chinese translation,3 which was produced earlier, during the early sixth century,4 features the same disjointed topical transition. In spite of this awkward end to the sūtra’s description of the heavenly realms, the discourse of the AMSD as it remains today is a vast treasury of Dharma, a rich presentation of the realms of saṃsāra, and a splendid piece of world literature that stands out as one of the greatest literary works of classical India.
With its 2158 Tibetan pages, the AMSD is the largest scripture within the general sūtra section of the Degé Kangyur,5 where the text is placed as the first scripture within the collection of Hīnayāna scriptures. This placement among the Hīnayāna sūtras has been a topic of some debate among Tibetans, since one finds frequent occurrences of the term “Mahāyāna” within the sūtra’s later sections. Notably, however, the term is only found in the Tibetan translation of the sūtra, not in the Chinese translation.6 Moreover, the Tibetan translator of the sūtra, Patshap Tsultrim Gyaltsen (eleventh–twelfth c.), himself classified the text as a Mahāyāna scripture in his colophon to the sūtra. Still, the editor of the Degé Kangyur, Situ Paṇchen Chökyi Jungné (1700–1774) classified the sūtra as belonging to the Hīnayāna, basing himself on the earlier classification of Butön Rinchen Drup (1290–1364), the famous compiler of the Kangyur. Butön in turn seems to have relied on the Denkarma inventory (compiled in 812), which likewise classifies the sūtra as a Hīnayāna scripture.7
According to its lengthy and very informative colophon, the Tibetan translation of the sūtra that is preserved in the Degé Kangyur was produced during the reign of the Indian king Rāmapāla (ca. 1077–1120). In his colophon, the Tibetan translator Tsultrim Gyaltsen mentions that the translation is based on several earlier incomplete draft translations. At least some of these had been produced already, during the earlier Tibetan translation efforts of the eighth and ninth centuries, as attested by the text’s inclusion in the Denkarma inventory. Tsultrim Gyaltsen further mentions that he worked on the translation together with a large team of Indian paṇḍitas, among whom he makes specific mention of Śāntākaragupta, Abhayākaragupta, Śakyarakṣita, Vīryākaraśānti, Subhūticandra, and Aḍitacandra. He also says that he was further assisted by two other Tibetan scholars, Shang Buchikpa and Sherap Ö. In spite of his prominent role in producing this translation of the AMSD, Patshap Tsultrim Gyaltsen does not appear to have translated any other texts contained in the Kangyur. We do, however, find a Tsultrim Gyaltsen, who may very likely be the same person, listed as the translator of a number of tantric practice manuals contained in the Tengyur, at times working with the paṇḍita named Abhayākaragupta (who we just saw was involved in the translation of the AMSD). Apart from such brief listings of his name, however, we sadly have no other information available about this important figure in the history of Tibetan Buddhism.
The single extant Sanskrit manuscript of the AMSD is supposedly kept today at the Norbulingka in Lhasa, although no official information is available about this and physical access to the manuscript appears to be highly restricted. Photographs of the manuscript have recently been shared among a small group of scholars in the West, but these photos are also not freely accessible at present. According to Daniel Stuart, the date of composition of the sūtra in India can be established to be somewhere between 150 and 400 ᴄᴇ, whereas the dating of the only extant Sanskrit manuscript in Tibet has been suggested, by Stuart, to a much later period: circa the eleventh to thirteenth centuries ᴄᴇ.8 The extant Sanskrit manuscript largely parallels the Degé Tibetan edition up to the discussion of the Heaven Free from Strife (near the end of the second Tibetan volume), at which point the text ends. The Sanskrit manuscript is a partial copy that only covers approximately half of the text as contained in the Chinese and Tibetan translations. Notably, as Stuart has shown, the surviving Sanskrit manuscript and the Chinese and Tibetan translations all transmit the same recension.9
A critical edition and English translation of the Sanskrit text pertaining to the first part of chapter 2 (according to the Tibetan chapter structure) has been published by Stuart.10 Critical editions of chapter 1 and the section on the hell realms in the latter part of chapter 2 are currently being prepared by Vesna Wallace and Mitsuyo Demoto, respectively.11 As we prepared this English translation we consulted Stuart’s critical Sanskrit edition and English translation of that section of the text, which proved to be very beneficial for our translation. Wallace and Demoto also both kindly shared their draft Sanskrit editions with us, which likewise was very helpful for our work. For a detailed discussion of the sūtra’s textual history and the Sanskrit, Chinese, and Tibetan manuscripts, we refer the interested reader to Stuart’s doctoral thesis on the AMSD (2012) and his later published version of his thesis (2015a).
Short references to the AMSD, its teaching on impermanence, and its calls to renunciation are quite frequent in the Tibetan scholarly tradition. Most notably, Karmapa III, Rangjung Dorjé (1284–1339), produced a large compendium to the sūtra.12 Modern scholarship on the AMSD was first undertaken by Lin and Demiéville (1949) but has recently been greatly advanced through the publications of Stuart (2012, 2015a, 2015b, 2017a). Stuart’s recent work provides a wealth of information regarding the available textual witnesses and analysis of some of the heterogeneous doctrinal developments that find expression in the AMSD. In addition to her forthcoming critical Sanskrit edition of chapter 3, Demoto (2009) has also published a study of the names of the various hell realms that occur in this chapter. Robert Kritzer is currently preparing a Tibetan critical edition and English translation of the final (autonomous) section of the AMSD, which concerns mindfulness of the body (chapter 7 according to the Chinese chapter division). Kritzer also kindly shared his unpublished paper (forthcoming) on the AMSD’s complex presentation of “worms” that are described in the sūtra as inhabiting the human body.13 Recently, in his book on sexuality in Indian Buddhism, José Cabezón has also discussed the lengthy presentation of the hells that we find in the AMSD, where several hells are described as the ripened results of various forms of sexual misconduct.14
In producing this English translation, we have based our work on the Degé xylograph while consulting the Comparative Edition (dpe bsdur ma), as well as the Stok Palace manuscript. It goes without saying that we do not see our translation as definitive, or final, in any way. As the publications of Stuart, Kritzer, and Demoto have clearly demonstrated, there is a dizzying amount of philological detail to consider in the Sanskrit, Chinese, and Tibetan witnesses of the AMSD. As our aim has been to produce a complete English translation of the more than 2100 pages contained in the Tibetan text, we have unfortunately not been able to study these textual details of the sūtra to the degree that learned scholars would otherwise expect. We therefore sincerely apologize for any errors and shortcomings this English translation may contain. We nevertheless hope that, in spite of its imperfections, this publication may prove useful for scholars, as well as members of the general public, who wish to explore and study this amazing discourse. As further studies on this sūtra are published in the future, the present translation surely also stands to benefit. With its poetic beauty, philosophical profundity, and gripping presentation of the world as perceived by Buddhists in early medieval India, the AMSD certainly deserves the attention of the contemporary world.
Detailed Outline of the Text
India is the origin of all that is good and possesses all things excellent, both in terms of her soil and her sciences, for which she is the universal source. This is the land of the cultured and the learned and all her inhabitants are wise. Seeing India to be the eyes of Jambudvīpa, the perfect Buddha achieved full awakening within this land, with its magnificent cities through which the great river Gaṅgā descends.
In the eastern part of India’s central lands lies the great monastery of Nālanda.639 The sovereign of the land is the splendid prince Rāmapāla,640 whose glory outshines others and whose reign reaches far and wide. This prince has established the temple known as Jagaddala to support the pure and the gentle, holy beings who are experts regarding the staircase leading to the higher realms and liberation. From here appeared numerous exceptionally learned paṇḍitas, such that people of the world speak of “the five hundred omniscient ones,” who are praised by all paṇḍitas as being equal to the masters of the past.
Among them is someone whom kings and ministers, who take pride in their mundane wealth, carry on their shoulders as if he were their head—someone whom paṇḍitas, who take pride in their scholarship, and worldly folk regard as their crown jewel. He is regarded as a guide by those who have relinquished concern for this life and who endeavor to accomplish liberation, allowing them to clearly distinguish good qualities from flaws. All the people of the land see him as beautiful and endearing, as if he were their only child. He enraptures even the vicious and ungrateful with his great goodwill. [F.228.b] Due to his love for others, he suffers agony and pain as he beholds the miseries of all wandering beings, yet he skillfully extends his compassionate care to them. He is foretold in the prophetic discourse of Tiger Ear Star as an individual endowed with numerous qualities and a great instigator who upon exchanging his body would be born in the higher realms. He yearns to meet Maitreya and has tremendous yearning for the Dharma. He has also weakened all emotions such as desire and anger. Who could properly extol such a person’s qualities? In short, his knowledge of mundane human customs is great, and his benevolence is like a golden ground. With respect for the sacred Dharma, he is endowed with perfect learning and he is pure, serene, gentle, accommodating, noble, truthful, undeceiving, honest, and successful in terms of accomplishment. Like a majestic wish-fulfilling tree that grows from a turquoise ground, he is adorned with the blooming flowers and ripe fruits of a bounty of temporary and ultimate virtues in this and all other lives. Thus, perfectly accomplishing what benefits both oneself and all others, there is nothing that he does that is not meaningful. Such is this master endowed with the shining beauty of unimpeded mastery of the five fields of learning, the great paṇḍita known as Śāntākaragupta. Explanations based on five Indian volumes were received from that master, as well as the great scholar and holy man, the supreme Vinaya holder known as Abhayākaragupta; the one whose learning is comparable to Mañjuśrī, the supreme paṇḍita endowed with perfect eloquence and insight, Śakyarakṣita; and also the great paṇḍita Vīryākaraśānti, and others. [F.229.a]
Likewise, in the lower reaches of the central land of Magadha—where the shrines of the thus-gone ones are numerous, and the land is full of Buddhists who have faith in the Three Jewels—lies the great monastic complex of Vikramaśīla. It was established by the bodhisattva king, Devapāla, and serves as the eyes of the Dharma teachings. Among its numerous learned scholars there are Śakyarakṣita himself; the great paṇḍita Subhūticandra, who is expert in linguistics, poetry, and the syntactic structures of Sanskrit; the Abhidharma expert known as Aḍitacandra; and other such masters. It is from all those masters that the explanations based on five Indian volumes were received.
The translators listened carefully to the sūtra and with veneration they sought careful explanation in order to comprehend all the scripture’s words and meanings, thoroughly investigating the most difficult points with the appropriate methods for understanding their significance. In the process of translation, they were guided by the light of insight that comes from mastering four languages—Sanskrit, the Indian vernaculars, Tibetan Dharma language, and the Tibetan vernaculars.
Nevertheless, the topics of the sūtras are numerous and the subjects are profound. In particular, the statements in this sūtra carry numerous implicit messages and convey their meaning by means of beautiful verbal adornments that evince an unparalleled mastery of poetry. Hence, their meanings are not easily accessible to those of weak learning. Especially, brief scriptural passages that convey numerous meanings have been translated in that same fashion. This approach allows those endowed with the jewels of understanding to ascertain numerous meanings, but if any one of those were to be singled out as the sole implied meaning, that would be a mistake. Rather, translation should convey just as much meaning as the words imply. Therefore, in short, without violating the way the Indian and Tibetan languages convey the same meaning by means of different expressions, and without breaking with the tradition established by the decrees of the scholars of the past, this translation has been made in veneration of the sacred Dharma by the northerner, the monk Tsultrim Gyaltsen, who was born into the family of Patshap. This was undertaken during the reign of the Indian king Rāmapāla, whose banner of perfect glory and majesty flies higher than any other. In this manner, those segments that had previously been translated of this Great Vehicle discourse known as The Application of Mindfulness of the Sacred Dharma were completed. [F.229.b]
The subsequent editing and revision of the text was undertaken by the monk Tsultrim Gyaltsen himself, with the assistance of two others. The first is the spiritual teacher known as Shang Buchikpa, who everyone calls by this name because he benefits them and is auspicious for them, caring for all sentient beings as if they were his “only child.”641 Accordingly, his name reveals that he is endowed with great compassion. The second editor is known as Sherap Ö, because he is a veritable “light of insight” for all who follow the Dharma.642 With knowledge of the way the vehicles progress, he summarizes the teachings by means of principles such as the two realities, and thus—with insight developed gradually through conviction, ascertainment, and realization—he spreads the light that overcomes the darkness of afflictive and cognitive obscurations in both oneself and others. Thus, his name shows that this master is endowed with great insight and that he accomplishes his own and others’ objectives perfectly. In this way, the translation was corrected, refined, and properly finalized through the fivefold process of drafting, primary editing, testing the relations between word and meaning, secondary editing, and secondary testing of the relations.
May the stainless virtues that ensue from translating and assisting in the translation of this sacred Dharma teaching—this precious discourse on mindfulness in the Great Vehicle, which is the foundation, root, and vital essence of all the vehicles—reach all beings extending to the end of space, so that they may find happiness while in existence. And may a lush canopy spread over them from the tree that offers refuge, awakening, and fruition. As soon as we leave this life behind, may we be reborn in realms of the buddhas, and in all other lives of cyclic existence, may we exclusively do what benefits others.
The number of sections has not been determined. In accord with the Indian text the length of the scripture amounts to thirty-six thousand ślokas. There appear to be a few unique archaic elements of writing. When dividing The Application of Mindfulness into sections of three hundred ślokas, there are one hundred and twenty sections.
’phags pa dam pa’i chos dran pa nye bar gzhag pa. Toh 287, Degé Kangyur vol. 68 (mdo sde, ya), folios 82a–318a; vol. 69 (mdo sde, ra), folios 1.b–307.a; vol. 70 (mdo sde, la), folios 1.b–312.a; and vol. 71 (mdo sde, sha), folios 1.b–229.b.
’phags pa dam pa’i chos dran pa nye bar gzhag pa. 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), vol. 68, 238–842; vol. 69, 3–828; vol. 70, 3–821; and vol. 71, 3–603.
’phags pa dam pa’i chos dran pa nye bar gzhag pa. Stok Palace Kangyur, vol. 82 (mdo sde, ki), folios 1.b–378; vol. 83 (mdo sde, khi), folios 1.b–370.b; vol. 84 (mdo sde, gi), folios 1.b–383.b; and vol. 85 (mdo sde, ghi), folios 1.b–419.b.
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