What Mendicants Hold Most Dear
Toh 302, vol. 72 (mdo sde, sa), folios 125.a–127.a
Translated by the Achi Translation Group under the patronage and supervision of 84000: Translating the Words of the Buddha
What Mendicants Hold Most Dear contains the Buddha’s answer to a question by Upāli, the Buddha’s foremost disciple in knowledge and mastery of the Vinaya. Upāli asks the Buddha to teach about the nature, types, and obligations of mendicants and about the meaning of this term. For the benefit of the assembled mendicants and mendicants in general, the Buddha explains that their nature is restraint, their obligations consist of disciplined conduct, and their types are the genuine mendicants who abide by disciplined conduct and those who are not genuine and thus do not so abide. When one of the Buddha’s answers given in similes seems obscure, he offers further clarification upon Upāli’s request. The Buddha explains the advantages of maintaining disciplined conduct, thus urging the mendicants to treasure it, and he warns against disregarding it while wearing the mendicant’s robes.
This sūtra was translated from Tibetan by the Achi Translation Group under the guidance of Khenchen Nyima Gyaltsen from Kagyu College in Dehradun, India, who provided many detailed explanations. Konchog Tenzin (Mark Riege) served as the main translator, and Yeshe Metog (Claudia Jürgens) and Virginia Blum as the main reviewers. Meghan Howard contributed valuable research and additional review.
The translation was completed under the patronage and supervision of 84000: Translating the Words of the Buddha.
What Mendicants Hold Most Dear contains the Buddha’s response to a question from Upāli. It is set in a monastery called Blooming Lotus in Śrāvastī, where Upāli supplicates the Buddha in front of a large assembly of mendicants (Skt. bhikṣu; Tib. dge slong) and asks him about the nature, types, and obligations of mendicants, as well as the meaning of the term itself. To benefit mendicants generally, the Buddha addresses Upāli’s questions by praising disciplined conduct, emphasizing its importance, and encouraging the listeners to maintain it. When one of the Buddha’s answers given in similes seems obscure, he offers further clarification upon Upāli’s request. The Buddha explains the advantages of maintaining disciplined conduct, thus urging the mendicants to treasure it, and he warns against disregarding it while wearing the mendicant’s robes.
The monk Upāli is remembered as one of the “ten close disciples” (Tib. nyan thos nye ’khor bcu) of the Buddha and foremost in his mastery of the monastic discipline, or Vinaya. Before becoming a monk, Upāli was a low-caste barber attending the Śākya princes, and he received ordination together with them. Many conversations about the Vinaya between the Buddha and Upāli are recorded in the various Vinaya collections,1 and, according to early Buddhist texts, Upāli was often consulted by others about matters of monastic discipline, even during the Buddha’s lifetime. Following the Buddha’s passing, Upāli was chosen to recite the Vinaya at the First Buddhist Council.2
Very little is known about the sūtra’s history. There do not appear to be any translations into Chinese, and no Sanskrit version is extant.3 However, as we discuss below, one verse of the sūtra is cited in a commentary in the Tengyur.4 Just as we know very little about the sūtra’s Indic origins, we know even less about the origins of the Tibetan translation. The text’s colophon is rudimentary and does not offer any information on the translator. Additionally, two Kangyur catalogs list the translator as unknown.5 In terms of the date of its translation, the sūtra is not listed in the Denkarma (ldan/lhan dkar ma) or Phangthangma (’phang thang ma) catalogs, the earliest available lists of Buddhist texts translated into Tibetan, which were prepared in the ninth century. We do, however, find a reference to the sūtra in Butön’s (1290–1364) extensive catalog of scriptures and treatises, but he does not list the translator either.6
The sūtra is included in many of the Kangyurs. For example, Resources for Kanjur & Tanjur Studies at the University of Vienna7 lists twenty-nine different Kangyurs that contain the sūtra, including representatives from all the important groups, such as the Tshalpa, Thempangma, Ladhaki/Mustang, Independent/Mixed groups, and Bhutan Kangyurs. Except for the Namgyal Kangyur—which lists it as The Noble Sūtra of Upāli’s Questions (’phags pa nye bar ’khor gyis zhus pa zhes bya ba’i mdo)—all the titles and colophons are similar. While the Sanskrit title was originally specified by Tibetans as Bhikṣuprarejusūtra, modern scholars have reconstructed it as Bhikṣupriyasūtra, possibly due to the obscure meaning of prareju.8 Our translation is based on the version of the text contained in the Degé Kangyur. When comparing the Tibetan versions in the different Kangyurs (including the Lhasa, Stok Palace, Choné, Narthang, and Lithang Kangyurs), we found only minor differences beyond questions of spelling. The text has previously been translated several times: by W. W. Rockhill in 1883, by Bhikkhu Thubten Kalsang and Bhikkhu Pāsādika in 1970, and in two recent translations into English and Spanish, respectively, which have been published on the internet.9 We are not aware of any modern research dedicated to this text.
Throughout the centuries, Buddhists have turned to this sūtra for its explanation of the value of disciplined conduct. The example from the Tengyur is a citation of a verse from the sūtra in the Śīlakathāvṛtti, a commentary on Vasubandhu’s Śīlaparikathā (Sermons on Disciplined Conduct), to explain the harmful results of a loss of disciplined conduct:10
“It is explained that like branches that growFor a long time from a strong trunk,If that person has only the outer attributes for a long time,Reprehensible talk will increase,And misdeeds too will increase.”
Several Tibetan masters quote verses from the sūtra to emphasize the importance of keeping monastic discipline. For example, Jé Tsongkhapa (1357–1419) says in his Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path:11
“There are very grave consequences for you if you undertake an ethical discipline and then fail to keep it. The Sūtra Beloved of Monks (Bhikṣuprarejusūtra) says that, once you undertake a training, it will proceed in either an advantageous or disadvantageous direction:“ ‘The ethical discipline of some leads to pleasure;The ethical discipline of others leads to pain.Those who possess ethical discipline are happy,Whereas those who break ethical discipline suffer.’
“Therefore, you should also think about the drawbacks of not keeping to ethical discipline and thereby generate great respect for the training.”
Another example is the Fifth Dalai Lama, Ngawang Losang Gyatso (1617–82), who quotes a verse in his regulations for Drepung monastery:12
“If, due to a specific condition, one cannot keep the vows, it is more beneficial to give them up than to keep them hypocritically. For [the Bhikṣupriyasūtra] says:
The verse cited by the Fifth Dalai Lama embodies one of the sūtra’s key points—the importance of disciplined conduct, which the Buddha urges mendicants to treasure, warning them of careless discipline. The Buddha also affirms the value and benefit of monastic vows, urging those who have gone forth to protect their discipline and to hold it dear. For example, he eloquently likens discipline to an unparalleled balm, monastic robes to unparalleled garments, and disciplined conduct to supreme happiness. He says, moreover, that the merit accumulated through it brings forth the result of buddhahood.
Lastly, it should be noted that in the title and throughout the translation, we have rendered the term bhikṣu (Tib. dge slong) as “mendicant.” The Sanskrit term technically refers to a fully ordained monk, but in the plural, it may also implicitly include fully ordained nuns (Skt. bhikṣuṇī) and sometimes even practicing lay people.13 Moreover, we know that the Buddha’s disciples in Śrāvastī included nuns. He addresses them explicitly in the Bhikṣuṇīvinayavibhaṅga,14 and several Pali suttas of the Saṃyutta Nikāya also mention the presence of nuns in Śrāvastī.15 While of course we cannot know whether the sūtra’s original audience included nuns, its subject matter clearly concerns monks and nuns equally, so we felt it was desirable to render the term bhikṣu with the more inclusive “mendicant,” rather than just “monk.” This choice is also supported by the original meaning of the term bhikṣu, which, in its most literal sense, simply means “one who begs (Skt. bhikṣati) for a living.”
Thus did I hear at one time. The Blessed One was residing in the Blooming Lotus Monastery in the great city of Śrāvastī together with a retinue that consisted of a saṅgha of 12,500 mendicants. At that time, among the assembled retinue of the Blessed One, there was a noble one called Upāli, whose senses were disciplined, who was well learned, and who had profound wisdom. He was devoted to the Dharma and Vinaya excellently taught by the Blessed One, and he held them in the highest esteem. Upāli rose from his seat, draped his upper robe over one shoulder, and, kneeling on his right knee with palms joined at his heart, he smiled and supplicated the Blessed One with these words:
This completes “The Sūtra on What Mendicants Hold Most Dear.”
dge slong la rab tu gces pa’i mdo (Bhikṣuprarejusūtra). Toh 302, Degé Kangyur vol. 72 (mdo sde, sa), folios 125.a–127.a.
dge slong la rab tu gces pa’i mdo (Bhikṣuprarejusūtra). 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), 2006–9, vol. 72, pp. 337–41.
dge slong la rab tu gces pa'i mdo. Stok Palace Kangyur vol. 54 (mdo sde, ga), folios 357.a–358.b.
dge slong ma’i ’dul ba rnam par ’byed pa (Bhikṣuṇīvinayavibhaṅga). Toh 5, Degé Kangyur vol. 9 (’dul ba, ta), folios 25.b–328.a.
tshul khrims kyi gtam gyi ’grel pa (Śīlaparikathāvṛtti). Toh 4165, Degé Tengyur vol. 172 (spring yig, ge), folios 169.b–173.b.
’dul ba gzhung bla ma (Vinayottaragrantha). Toh 7, Degé Kangyur vol. 12 (’dul ba, na), folios 1.b–92.a.
’dul ba gzhung dam pa (Vinayottaragrantha). Toh 7a, Degé Kangyur vol. 12–13 (’dul ba, na–pa), folios 92.b (na)–313.a (pa).
Bodhi, Bhikkhu. The Connected Discourses of the Buddha. A New Translation of the Saṃyutta Nikāya. Vol. 1. Somerville: Wisdom Publications, 2000.
Collett, Alice, and Bhikkhu Anālayo. “Bhikkhave and Bhikkhu as Gender-inclusive Terminology in Early Buddhist Texts.” Journal of Buddhist Ethics 21 (2014): 760–797.
Eimer, Helmut, ed. The Brief Catalogues to the Lhasa and the Narthang Kanjurs: A Synoptic Edition of the Bka’ ’gyur rin po che’i mtshan tho and the Rgyal ba’i bka’ ’gyur rin po che’i chos tshan so so’i mtshan byang dkar chag bsdus pa. Wiener Studien zur Tibetologie und Buddhismuskunde 40. Vienna: Arbeitskreis für Tibetische und Buddhistische Studien, 1998.
Gyatso, Upasaka Losang, trans. Sūtra llamado Lo que es lo Más Precioso para un Monje. 2015. Accessed January 15, 2021.
Hahn, Michael, and Naoki Saito. “Vasubandhus Mahnrede über die Sittlichkeit mit dem Kommentar des Prakāśakīrti.” In Pāsādikadānaṃ: Festschrift für Bhikkhu Pāsādika, edited by Martin Straube et al, 177–204. Marburg: Indica et Tibetica Verlag, 2009.
Jansen, Berthe. “How to Tame a Wild Monastic Elephant: Drepung Monastery According to the Great Fifth.” In Tibetans Who Escaped the Historian’s Net: Studies in the Social History of Tibetan Societies, edited by Peter Schwieger and Alice Travers, 111–139. Kathmandu: Vajra Books, 2013.
Kalsang, Bhikkhu Thubten, and Bhikkhu Pāsādika. Bhikshu-Prateju-Sutra: The Discourse Named “The Bhikshu’s Predilection.” Bangkok: Visakha Puja, Annual Publication of the Buddhist Association of Thailand, 1970.
Lekden, Gyalten, trans. The Sūtra on What is Most Precious to a Monk. Sera Je, India: The Union of Teaching and Accomplishment Publishing Group, 2013.
Mohr, Thea, and Jampa Tshedroen, ed. Dignity and Discipline: Reviving Full Ordination for Buddhist Nuns. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2010.
Negi, J. S. Tibetan-Sanskrit Dictionary (bod skad dang legs sbyar gyi tshig mdzod chen mo). Sarnath, Varanasi: Dictionary Unit, Central Institute of Higher Tibetan Studies, 1993.
Ngawang Lobzang Gyatso (ngag dbang blo bzang rgya mtsho, 1617–82). ’bras spungs bca’ yig. chos sde chen po dpal ldan ’bras dkar spungs pa’i dgon gyi bca’ yig tshul ’chal sa srung ’dul ba’i lcags kyo kun gsal me long. In bod kyi snga rabs khrims srol yig cha bdams bsgrigs, edited by tshe ring dpal ’byor et al, 275–323. Lhasa: bod yig dpe rnying dpe skrun khang, 1989.
Nishioka, Soshū. “Index to the Catalogue Section of Bu-ston’s ‘History of Buddhism’ (III).” Annual Report of the Institute for the Study of Cultural Exchange, The University of Tokyo 6 (1983): 47–201.
Prebish, Charles S. Buddhist Monastic Discipline. The Sanskrit Prātimokṣa Sūtras of the Mahāsāṃghikas and Mūlasarvāstivādins. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, 2002.
Rockhill, W. W. “Translation of Two Brief Buddhist Sūtras from the Tibetan.” Journal of the American Oriental Society 11 (1885): clxxi–clxxiv.
Situ Panchen Chökyi Jungné (si tu paN chen chos kyi ’byung gnas). rgyal ba’i bka’ ’gyur rin po che’i bzhugs byang dkar chag ces bya ba bzhugs so. Chengdu: si khron mi rigs dpe skrun khang, 2008.
Skilling, Peter. “Theravādin Literature in Tibetan Translation.” Journal of the Pali Text Society 19 (1993): 69–201. Oxford: Pali Text Society, 1993.
Resources for Kanjur & Tanjur Studies. Universität Wien. Accessed April 23, 2019.
Thera, Nyanaponika, and Hellmuth Hecker. Great Disciples of the Buddha: Their Lives, Their Works, Their Legacy. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 1997.
Thiṭṭila (Seṭṭhila), Paṭhamakyaw Ashin, Aggamahāpaṇḍita. The Book of Analysis (Vibhaṅga): The Second Book of the Abhidhamma Piṭaka. Bristol: Pali Text Society, 2010.
Tsong-kha-pa. The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment. Vol. 1. Translated by Lamrim Chenmo Translation Committee. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications, 2000.
Ui, Hakuju et al, eds. A Complete Catalogue of Tibetan Buddhist Canons (Degé Edition of Kangyur and Tengyur). Japan: Tohoku Imperial University, 1934.
- brtul zhugs
Refers to the twelve ascetic virtues (sbyang pa’i yon tan bcu gnyis) concerning food, clothing, and residence, such as begging for alms, wearing castoff clothing, and living in seclusion.
- bcom ldan ’das
Epithet of a buddha, who has subdued (Tib. bcom) all afflictions, possesses (Tib. ldan) all awakened qualities, and transcended (Tib. ’das) saṃsāra and passed into nirvāṇa. This is how the Skt. bhagavat is translated in Tibetan.
- skad byings
Literally, “verbal root,” with “root” (Tib. byings) being a grammatical term for the word stem that forms the basis of a word. Here it refers to the Buddha’s derivation of the word bhikṣu from the term for “ornament.”
- tshul khrims
Conduct based on abandoning lack of discipline in body, speech, and mind.
Five accompanying implements
- ’khor lnga
These may refer to the traditional possessions of mendicants, which Prebish 2002, p. 4, lists as “begging bowl, razor, needle, girding for the robes, and water strainer” in addition to the three robes.
Four root downfalls
- rtsa ba bzhi
The four root downfalls (Tib. rtsa ba’i ltung ba bzhi, here shortened to Tib. rtsa ba bzhi) are killing, taking what is not given, sexual activity, and lying about one’s spiritual attainments.
- srog shing
Central inner pillar or tree trunk that is said to give life to a stūpa or sacred statue.
- dge slong
Although the Tib. (dge slong) and Skt. (bhikṣu) terms usually refer to fully ordained monks, in the plural they may encompass nuns as well. Rendering it as “mendicant” in English remains faithful to the original meaning of bhikṣu as “one who begs for alms.”
- ’phags pa
Honorific term for someone who has gained the realization of the path of seeing.
- thams cad mkhyen pa
An epithet of the buddhas. The homage to the Omniscient One at the beginning of a Buddhist scripture usually indicates that it belongs to the Vinaya Piṭaka.
Overly sour liquids
- skyur rtsi
Among other things, this term is applied to the sour fermented remainder from beer brewing, certain types of lemons, and the sour part of yogurt. Here it refers to overly sour liquids in general, such as overly fermented vinegar.
- ’bras chan
A dish of rice cooked in milk that the Buddha was offered to break his fast after six years of austerities.
- thub pa
An epithet of the Buddha Śākyamuni. The Sanskrit term connotes “silence” or “quiescence,” which is regarded as a central quality of sages. The Tibetan thub pa means “capable one.”
- ’khor ba
“Cyclic existence,” the cycle of birth and death driven by mental afflictions and karmic actions.
- mnyan yod
Ancient capital of the kingdom of Kosala, where the Buddha gave many teachings, spent most of his summer retreats, and defeated the six heretical teachers by performing fifteen miracles. Located in present-day Uttar Pradesh in northern India.
Three main robes
- gtso bo gsum
The three robes (Skt. tricīvara, Tib. chos gos gsum) of the fully ordained are the lower robe (Skt. antarvāsa, Tib. mthang gos) wrapped around the waist, the outer or upper robe (Skt. uttarāsaṅga, Tib. bla gos) covering the upper body, and the ceremonial robe (Skt. saṃghāṭī, Tib. snam sbyar).
- ’dul ba
One of the three piṭakas, or “baskets,” of the Buddhist canon. It codifies the disciplined conduct and training of monks and nuns.
- bde bar gshegs pa
An epithet of the buddhas. According to Buddhaghosa, the term means that the way the Buddha went (Skt. gata) is good (Skt. su), and where he went (gata) is good (su).
Well-Gone One’s victory banner
- bde bar gshegs pa’i rgyal mtshan
This refers to the three monastic robes, which are the outer signs of being a monastic follower of the Buddha.