The Sūtra on Having Moral Discipline
Degé Kangyur, vol. 72 (mdo sde, pa), folios 127.a–127.b.
Translated by the Kīrtimukha Translation Group
under the patronage and supervision of 84000: Translating the Words of the Buddha
At Prince Jeta’s Grove in Śrāvastī, the Buddha teaches his saṅgha about the benefits of having moral discipline and the importance of guarding it. It is difficult, he says, to obtain a human life and encounter the teachings of a buddha, let alone to then take monastic vows and maintain moral discipline. But unlike just losing that one human life, which comes and then inevitably is gone, the consequences of failing in moral discipline are grave and experienced over billions of lifetimes. The Buddha continues in verse, praising moral discipline and its necessity as a foundation for engaging in the Dharma and attaining nirvāṇa. He concludes his discourse with a reflection on the folly of pursuing fleeting worldly enjoyments.
This sūtra was translated by the Kīrtimukha Translation Group. Celso Wilkinson, Laura Goetz, and L.S. Summer translated the text from the Tibetan and Sanskrit. William Giddings provided comparisons to the Chinese versions of the text.
The translation was completed under the patronage and supervision of 84000: Translating the Words of the Buddha.
The Sūtra on Having Moral Discipline is set in Prince Jeta’s Grove in Śrāvastī, where the Buddha teaches his saṅgha of monks about the benefits of having moral discipline and the importance of guarding it. It is difficult, he says, to obtain a human life and encounter the teachings of a buddha, let alone to then take monastic vows and maintain moral discipline. But unlike just losing that one human life, which comes and then inevitably is gone, the consequences of failing in moral discipline are grave and experienced over billions of lifetimes. The Buddha continues in verse, praising moral discipline and its necessity as a foundation for engaging in the Dharma and attaining nirvāṇa. His teaching concludes with a reflection on the folly of pursuing fleeting worldly enjoyments.
It is noteworthy that this is not designated a Mahāyāna sūtra1 and does not address any explicitly Mahāyāna subjects. The Buddha is only in the presence of monks, and he only instructs them on how to attain nirvāṇa and the higher realms, rather than buddhahood. As the Buddha is addressing the monastic congregation, it can be assumed that the topic of moral discipline here pertains to maintaining the vows of a fully ordained monk, and indeed he refers to taking monastic vows as if it were a given for his audience.
In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, this sūtra is included in liturgical texts used in connection with the practice of the Vinaya. It is also cited and quoted in texts related to the Vinaya, and several topical outlines (sa bcad) of the sūtra were composed by Tibetan authors. Additionally, there are Tibetan commentaries on the sūtra itself, two of which we have consulted for this translation: one by the Rimé master Thupten Chökyi Drakpa (thub bstan chos kyi grags pa, 1823–1905) and one by the Geluk master Losang Palden Tenzin Nyendrak (blo bzang dpal ldan bstan ’dzin snyan grags, 1866–1928). This sūtra is also, though less commonly, called The Sūtra Praising Moral Discipline (tshul khrims rab bsngags kyi mdo).2
No information is given in the colophon as to the translator or editor of the Tibetan, nor is this sūtra found in any of the Tibetan imperial catalogs. In all, we know little about the history of the Tibetan translation.
There was no known Sanskrit original of Having Moral Discipline available until recently, when a manuscript containing a collection of twenty sūtras was found in the Potala Palace in Lhasa. Bhikṣuṇī Vinītā published a critical edition and English translation of this collection in the series Sanskrit Texts from the Autonomous Region (2010). Unfortunately, due to the inaccessibility of the manuscript collection and because it is missing a final colophon, its origin and date are currently unknown.3 There seems to be a thematic connection among these twenty sūtras: Vinītā notes that moral discipline (śīla) is a recurrent theme in the manuscript,4 and we also can identify themes of karmic cause and effect and the hierarchy of merit.
There are many details of the Tibetan versions that vary significantly from the Sanskrit manuscript, although the overall content is virtually the same. In the Sanskrit, the verses begin at the very start of the Buddha’s teaching (1.3), whereas in the Tibetan the verse structure begins later (1.6). Where the verses do begin in the Tibetan, there are some differences in the grouping of lines, and at times the Sanskrit is wordier or contains entirely different content, although not enough to significantly alter the meaning of the sūtra. We have attempted to group the lines of verse into stanzas by theme rather than into regular quatrains, and though this results in a few stanzas with an irregular number of lines, it matches with the Sanskrit at enough points to seem like a reasonable choice.
There is one Chinese translation (Taishō 1497) by Dānapāla (施護, b.?–d. 1017 ᴄᴇ). The Chinese translation is simply called Śīlasūtra (The Sūtra on Moral Discipline). This may be of interest as there are many texts called Sīlasutta in the Pali canon, but as far as we can tell none are similar enough in content for a clear relationship to be established. The Chinese text shows a significant degree of variation in the finer details as compared to both the Sanskrit and the Tibetan, but it shares the same basic structure and does not depart from the content found in the other texts.
There are several other English translations of this sūtra available, which we have consulted for our translation. One by Thubten Kalzang Rinpoche, Bhikkhu Nagasena, and Bhikkhu Khantipalo was made in 1973 and published by the Library of Tibetan Works & Archives; another was made in 1985 by the Nālandā Translation Committee as part of The Rites of Poṣadha, the translation of a liturgical text incorporating the sūtra by the fourteenth Karmapa, Thekchok Dorje (theg mchog rdo rje).5
We have based our translation primarily on the Degé edition of the Tibetan Kangyur, but we also consulted the Sanskrit, Chinese, and other Kangyur editions in the case of questionable terms or passages to establish the most plausible and accurate readings of the text. Citations of the Sanskrit in the notes are given using Vinītā’s emendations of the handwritten Potala manuscript. Any instance where we have diverged from the Degé has been noted, and any significant differences found in the various versions of the sūtra are recorded and explained in the notes.
Homage to the Omniscient One!
At that time, the Blessed One said to the monks, “Monks,6 since your consciousness will fade, your life force will cease, and the formations of life are certain to be destroyed, should you not practice with diligence and steadfast determination?
“This human life is extremely difficult to find. Thus, having obtained it, and having used it to find the Victor’s teachings and to go forth in them, if you are deceived by those who are opposed to the meaning of liberation, it is sure that you will suffer.
“Monks, it is easy to be separated from the life force and succumb to death, but the degeneration of moral discipline is not the same. Why is that?7 When you are separated from the life force, that particular lifetime comes to an end. But with the degeneration and destruction of moral discipline, for ten million lives you will be separated from your kin, abandon well-being, and experience downfalls.8
|C||Choné (co ne) Kangyur|
|Chinese||Tenth–eleventh century Chinese translation (Taishō 1497) by Dānapāla (施護)|
|D||Degé (sde dge) Kangyur|
|J||Lithang (’jang sa tham) Kangyur|
|K||Peking (pe cin) Kangxi Kangyur|
|Kʏ||Peking Yongle (g.yung lo) Kangyur|
|N||Narthang (snar thang) Kangyur|
|S||Stok Palace (stog pho brang bris ma) Kangyur|
|Sanskrit||Sanskrit manuscript found in the Potala Palace (see i.5)|
tshul khrims yang dag par ldan pa’i mdo (Śīlasaṃyuktasūtra). Toh 303, Degé Kangyur vol. 72 (mdo sde, pa), folios 127.a–127.b.
tshul khrims yang dag par ldan 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 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. 72, pp. 343–45.
tshul khrims yang dag par ldan pa’i mdo (Śīlasaṃyuktasūtra). Stok 209, Stok Palace Kangyur vol. 73 (mdo sde, za), folios 5.a.–6.b.
chos bzhi pa’i mdo (Caturdharmaka). Toh 250, Degé Kangyur vol. 66 (mdo sde, za), folios 59.b–60.a.
Vinītā, Bhikṣunī, 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.
Dānapāla, trans. 佛説大乘戒經 (fo shuo da cheng jie jing; Chinese translation of The Sūtra on Having Moral Discipline), Taishō 1497.
Losang Palden Tenzin Nyendrak. tshul khrims yang dag par ldan pa’i mdo’i ’grel pa nyon mongs gdung sel. N.p.: n.p., n.d. BDRC W1CZ889.
Jamgön Kongtrül. shes bya kun khyab mdzod. 4 vols. Delhi: Shechen Publications, 1997. English translation in Kalu Rinpoché Translation Group, trans. and ed. Buddhist Ethics. The Treasury of Knowledge 5. Ithaca: Snow Lion Publications, 1998.
Nalanda Translation Committee, trans. The Rites of Poshadha. 3rd ed. Halifax: Nālandā Translation Committee, 2001.
Thupten Chökyi Drakpa. 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. BDRC W15663.
“tshul khrims rab bsngags kyi mdo.” In The Collected Works (gsuṅ ’bum) of H.H. Eighth Rgyal-dbaṅ ’Brug-chen of the Northern ’Brug-pa, Kun-gzigs-chos-kyi-snaṅ-ba (1768–1822), 1:1071–74. Mandi: Zigar Brukpa Kargyud Institute, 1985.
Silk, Jonathan A. “Review Article: Buddhist Sūtras in Sanskrit from the Potala.” Indo-Iranian Journal 56 (2013): 61–87.
Thekchok Dorje (theg mchog rdo rje). “gso sbyong gi cho ga.” In karma pa sku phreng rim byon gyi gsung ’bum phyogs bsgrigs, 94:7–92. Lhasa: dpal brtsegs bod yig dpe rnying zhib ’jug khang, 2013. BDRC W3PD1288.
Thubten Kalzang Rinpoche, Bhikkhu Nagasena, and Bhikkhu Khantipalo, trans. “Silasamyukta-Sutra.” In Three Discourses of the Buddha. Dharamsala: Library of Tibetan Works & Archives, 1973.
- mgon med zas sbyin gyi kun dga’ ra ba
- Anāthapiṇḍadasya ārāmaḥ
A name of one of the first Buddhist monasteries, which is located outside of Śrāvastī. The monastery is also known as Prince Jeta’s Grove. Anāthapiṇḍada, a merchant and benefactor of the Buddha, bought the land from Prince Jeta and donated it to the saṅgha. It is said that both names are used to acknowledge their mutual efforts in building the monastery. It was there that the Buddha spent several rainy seasons and gave discourses that were later recorded as sūtras.
- brtson ’grus
The Sanskrit term vīrya may be understood as “energy” or “vigor.” In Buddhist contexts the term implies having enthusiasm toward a virtuous endeavor, which includes taking joy in such virtuous endeavor, and it is considered an antidote to laziness. It is included in many different lists of positive attributes, and later in the Mahāyāna context it is included as the forth of the six perfections (ṣaṭpāramitā).
- ’du byed
The Sanskrit term saṃskāra varies according to context. It literally means something that “causes aggregation” or “causes to be put together.” In a general sense it refers to any phenomenon that comes into being on the basis of causes and conditions. In more specific usage it is also the term describing the fourth of the five aggregates and the second of the twelve links of dependent origination. Although both of these latter uses have their own technical contexts, in both cases the term carries a more active and volitional aspect and refers to the formative factors, mental volitions, and other supporting factors that perpetuate birth in saṃsāra.
- rab tu byung ba
The Sanskrit pravrajyā literally means “to go forth,” with the sense of leaving the life of a householder and embracing the life of a renunciant. When the term is applied more technically, it refers to the act of becoming novice monk (śrāmaṇera; dge tshul) or nun (śrāmaṇerikā; dge tshul ma), this being a first stage leading to full ordination as a fully ordained monk or nun.
The life force present in all beings. Often this life force is associated with the breath (prāṇa).
- dge slong
A fully ordained monk of the Buddhist Saṅgha. In the Tibetan tradition, which follows the Mūlasarvāstivāda vinaya, a bhikṣu follows 253 vows as part of his moral discipline. A nun (bhikṣunī; dge slong ma) follows 263 rules. A novice monk (śrāmaṇera; dge tshul) or nun (śrāmaṇerikā; dge tshul ma) by contrast follows thirty-six rules of moral discipline (although in other vinaya traditions novices typically only follow ten).
- tshul khrims
Morally virtuous or disciplined conduct and the abandonment of morally undisciplined conduct of body, speech, and mind. The term is often used in reference to following precepts or rules according to one’s ordination or vows. It is foundational to Buddhist practice as one of the three trainings (triśikṣā). In the Mahāyāna, it is the second of the six perfections (ṣaṭpāramitā).
A supernatural being usually depicted as having the top half of a human and the bottom half of a snake. However, the nāga has a myriad of associations within Buddhism and Indian traditions in general; the term may be associated with deities, snakes (more specifically cobras), elephants, subterranean spirits, water spirits, or ethnic groups of people from the Indian subcontinent. In Tibet they became specifically associated with water spirits (klu), and in China they came to be associated with dragons (龍).
Prince Jeta’s Grove
- rgyal bu rgyal byed kyi tshal
One of the first Buddhist monasteries, it is located outside of Śrāvastī and is also known as Anāthapiṇḍada’s Park. Anāthapiṇḍada, a merchant and benefactor of the Buddha, bought the land from Prince Jeta and donated it to the saṅgha. It is said that both names are mentioned to acknowledge their mutual efforts in building the monastery. It was there that the Buddha spent several rainy seasons and gave discourses that were later recorded as sūtras.
- mnyan du yod pa
The capital of the ancient Indian kingdom of Kośala, where the Buddha spent many summers and gave numerous teachings. The city was ruled by King Prasenajit, who makes frequent appearances in the sūtras. It is also the site of Prince Jeta’s Grove, which was gifted to the Buddha by his patron Anāthapiṇḍada.