The Sūtra on the Ringing Staff
Degé Kangyur, vol. 72 (mdo sde, sa), folios 271.a–274.a
Translated by the Sarasvatī Translation Team
under the patronage and supervision of 84000: Translating the Words of the Buddha
In this short sūtra, the Buddha first instructs the monks to carry the ringing staff and then provides a brief introduction to its significance. In response to Venerable Mahākāśyapa’s queries, the Buddha gives a more detailed explanation of the attributes of the staff and the benefits that can be derived from holding it. In the course of his exposition, he also elucidates the rich symbolism of its parts, such as the four prongs and the twelve rings. Finally, the Buddha explains that while the ringing staff is carried by all buddhas of the past, present, and future, the number of prongs on the staff might vary.
The sūtra was translated by the Sarasvatī Translation Team, whose members thank Peter Skilling for having kindly provided several publications and his unpublished article related to the ringing staff. They acknowledge with love and gratitude the privilege of having had, as team editor, Steven Rhodes, who passed away in 2017. They are also grateful to Eleanor Brunnen who stepped in to help with the editing.
This translation has been completed under the patronage and supervision of 84000: Translating the Words of the Buddha.
Buddhism is replete with symbolic objects, ranging from the well-known eight-spoked wheel representing the eightfold path of noble beings to esoteric maṇḍalas that represent entire pure universes. The subject matter of this sūtra is one such article known as “the ringing staff” (Skt. khakkhara,1 Tib. ’khar gsil, Ch. xizhang), which is one of the requisites of a fully ordained monastic.2 Though textual sources report the existence of the renunciant’s staff in India prior to the time of the Buddha, the staff used by Buddhist monastics is unique. Buddhist texts associate the ringing staff and teachings on its symbolic significance with the Buddha himself. In South Asian Buddhism, Vinaya texts as well as pilgrims’ accounts furnish references to the ringing staff, and its representations can be found in visual art. In Central, East, and Southeast Asia as well as in Tibet, an even wider range of evidence attests to its presence in Buddhist cultures.3
When a monastic shakes the staff during alms rounds, the ringing sounds produced by its rings alert householders to the presence of a monastic collecting alms. Beyond its practical usage, the staff reminds a monastic of salient points that pertain to the spiritual path leading to awakening. In addition, the components, combined in intricate ways, are themselves laden with symbolic significance.
Underscoring its great importance as an emblem of Buddhist renunciation, Atiśa Dīpaṃkara Śrījñāna spoke the following lines in a teaching entitled “The Riches of the Noble Ones and the Khakkhara Staff,” which was delivered to the saṇgha at Nyethang Or, his retreat near Lhasa:
“Wherever this [staff] is upheld is a central region;In the borderlands, none uphold it,Nor is it the domain of householders.Householders are [drowning] in suffering,Whereas the upholders of [the staff] dwell in happiness.So, depart from your home and uphold it.”4
Vinaya texts preserve scattered accounts of traditions related to the ringing staff’s origin, structure, material, and uses.5 Two sūtras in the General Sūtra section of the Kangyur are focused on the subject of the ringing staff. The first (Toh 335), which is translated in the following pages, is the longer of the two. It discusses the religious significance and symbolism of the ringing staff. The Rite for the Protocols Associated with Carrying the Ringing Staff (Toh 336), on the other hand, presents a simple ritual for a monk to receive a ringing staff as well as an elaborate set of twenty-five rules stipulating how a ringing staff is to be properly used.
A single text in the Taishō edition of the Chinese Tripiṭaka includes material found in both Toh 335 and Toh 336. The De daoti cheng xizhang jing (得道梯橙錫杖經, Taishō 785), the translation of which is dated to the Jin Dynasty (317–420 ᴄᴇ), contains a version of The Sūtra on the Ringing Staff, which enumerates two sets of twenty-five rules for how to use the staff.6 A short intervening section, which has no Tibetan parallel that we are aware of, provides further instructions on handling the staff. Writing in 1643 or 1644, the Chinese Buddhist monk Hongzan, following an earlier Chinese tradition, declared Taishō 785 to be an apocryphal text.7
Regardless of whether the De daoti cheng xizhang jing was wholly or partially composed in China,8 there are several factors that support the case that The Sūtra on the Ringing Staff (Toh 335) is a Tibetan translation of the corresponding section within it. First of all, the Tibetan sūtra is close to the relevant section of the Chinese, with differences being found generally in specific short phrases. The Tibetan sūtra lacks the customary Sanskrit title, and most versions lack a translator’s colophon.9 Moreover, the Dunhuang manuscript of The Sūtra on the Ringing Staff and The Rite for the Protocols Associated with Carrying the Ringing Staff contains a colophon that states that both the sūtra and the rite were translated from the Chinese by the well-known translator Chödrup.10
On the other hand, the thirteenth century Tibetan scholar Chomden Rikpai Raltri (bcom ldan rig pa’i ral gri, 1227–1305), lists this text and Toh 336, which he calls “the longer and shorter ringing staff sūtras” (’khar sil gyi mdo che chung gnyis) among twenty-one canonical texts translated from Khotanese.11 This seems to contradict the evidence from the Dunhuang colophon, and may possibly be a reference to alternative translations that have not been preserved. Whatever the case, the general notion that these texts evolved in Khotan from earlier material brought from India, before being transmitted to both China and Tibet, seems by no means unlikely.
The present translation is based on the Degé Kangyur, with reference to variants in other versions noted in the Comparative Edition (dpe bsdur ma) and to the Dunhuang manuscript, as well as a comparison with the relevant sections of the Chinese in the Taishō edition of De daoti cheng xizhang jing. Only significant differences between the Chinese and the Tibetan versions of the sūtra have been noted.12
Homage to all buddhas and bodhisattvas!
Once, the Blessed One said to the monks, “You shall carry this ringing staff. Why? Because past buddhas have carried this ringing staff and future buddhas will carry this ringing staff. Present buddhas also carry this ringing staff; having now attained awakening, I carry the ringing staff. [F.271.b] In a similar manner, past, future, and present buddhas instruct the listeners, ‘You shall carry the ringing staff.’ So now, having attained awakening, I also teach you in accordance with the Dharma of the buddhas, and you too shall carry the ringing staff. Why?
“The ringing staff is also called the staff of gnosis. It is also called the staff of excellent qualities. Because it signifies the gnosis of noble beings, it is called the staff of gnosis. Because it builds the foundation of excellent qualities, it is called the staff of excellent qualities.
“This ringing staff signifies that the holder is a sublime being belonging to the lineage of noble beings, it is an emblem that points to the Dharma of the path, and it is a practice that facilitates recollection. Therefore, you should carry it according to the Dharma.”
Then Venerable Mahākāśyapa rose from his seat, adjusted his robes, draped his upper robe over one shoulder, joined his palms, and knelt on the ground. He inquired of the Blessed One, “Blessed One, why is it called a ‘ringing staff’? How should it be carried? May the Blessed One explain. We will practice as instructed.”
The Blessed One said to Kāśyapa, “Listen well, keep it in mind, and I shall explain.
“The ringing staff brings about irreversibility. [F.272.a] Those who hold the ringing staff will emerge from the three realms of existence and also be unattached. Therefore, it is said to bring about irreversibility of spiritual progress.
“The ringing staff causes understanding. What does the ringing staff cause one to comprehend? One will understand suffering, emptiness, and the fetters that are afflictions of the three realms, and one will clearly realize the four truths and the twelve links of dependent origination. Therefore, it is said to cause understanding.
“The ringing staff keeps others at a distance. Those who hold this ringing staff will distance themselves from the five sensual objects. Therefore, they will give up the fetters of craving for sensual objects, discard the five aggregates, give up the five states of existence, approach nirvāṇa, and also expel conditioning karma far away. Therefore, it is said to keep others at a distance.
“The ringing staff adopts. By adopting the precious discipline, meditative stabilization, and wisdom of the buddhas, those who hold the ringing staff will attain freedom. Therefore, it is said to adopt.
“The ringing staff brings accomplishment. By becoming accomplished in the collections of the Buddha’s teachings and practicing them as taught,13 those who hold the ringing staff will not fall back but become excellent. Therefore, it is said that it brings accomplishment.”
“Kāśyapa,” the Blessed One concluded, “since the meanings of the term ringing staff are vast and multifarious, they cannot be described fully, but for the time being you should comprehend them in that way.” [F.272.b]
Kāśyapa then asked the Blessed One, “Blessed One, if the meanings of the ringing staff are so, what are the reasons for this whole range of meanings, from ‘staff of gnosis’ to ‘it is a practice aimed at the application of recollection’?14 Could the Blessed One explain?”
The Blessed One replied, “The ringing staff causes the accomplishment of the practice of gnosis; causes the accomplishment of vast learning; engenders an unhindered understanding of worldly and transcendent wisdom, virtue and nonvirtue, the conditioned and unconditioned, and the contaminated and uncontaminated; and it causes the accomplishment of wisdom. Therefore, it is called the staff of gnosis.
“Practicing the strict observance of discipline, patience, the cultivation of meditative concentration with a single-pointed mind devoid of distraction,15 and constant meritorious actions, as if their head or turban had caught fire, those who hold the ringing staff do not forsake these practices even for an instant. Therefore, it is called the staff of excellent qualities.
“Those who hold this ringing staff will become perfect in the sixteen kinds of practice: (1–4) the four truths of suffering, origin, cessation, and the path; (5–8) the four immeasurable states of love, compassion, joy, and equanimity; (9–12) the four meditative concentrations: the first meditative concentration, second meditative concentration, third meditative concentration, and fourth meditative concentration; and (13–16) the four formless states of meditative attainment: the sphere of infinite space, the sphere of infinite consciousness, the sphere of nothingness, and the sphere of neither perception nor absence of perception. [F.273.a] In addition, they will become perfect in the thirty-seven practices—namely, the thirty-seven aids to awakening—and they will discern these dharmas with clarity.16 Because they actualize them physically, they do not pursue words. They frolic in these dharmas and are free to enter the gateways to liberation of emptiness, signlessness, and wishlessness at will and without difficulty.17 Such persons are called noble beings.
“Possessing such qualities internally, they hold the ringing staff externally. Because of this, it is beyond doubt that such persons are perfect in the excellent qualities of noble beings: discipline, patience, meditative concentration, wisdom, the threefold knowledge, the six types of supernatural knowledge, and the eight kinds of liberation. Because the ringing staff engenders respect by signifying that such persons are noble beings, it is called the sign of a noble being.
“As for the expression ‘that which signifies that the holder is a sublime being,’ because of possessing the nature of gnosis within, a person is said to be ‘sublime.’ The ringing staff engenders respect by signifying that the person is a noble being.18 It thereby shows that, because of possessing the nature of gnosis that is present within a noble being, the holder accomplishes the foundation of excellent qualities, strives for increasingly higher qualities, and accomplishes them well. Therefore, it is called that which signifies that the holder is a sublime being.
“It makes known that ‘this clear-minded person, having practiced by means of wisdom, will enter before long the path leading to a peaceful and secluded state beyond conditioning, namely the bliss of nirvāṇa, the ultimate place.’ Therefore, the ringing staff is called the emblem that points to the Dharma of the path.
“As for the expression ‘it is a practice that facilitates recollection,’ this ringing staff has three levels. Just by seeing the structure of the three segments, having recollected the suffering of the three lower states of existence, [F.273.b] one will cultivate discipline, meditative stabilization, and wisdom; having recollected the three misfortunes—aging, sickness, and death—one will dispel the three poisons: attachment, hatred, and ignorance; and having recollected the three realms as impermanent, one will generate belief in and respect for the Three Jewels, eliminate the three realms of existence, discard the three contaminations,19 purify the three kinds of karma, wish to possess the threefold knowledge, enter the three liberations, obtain the three states of the six recollections,20 and realize the three gnoses that take one far. Hence, it is presented in its structure of three segments.
“Furthermore, it is made with four prongs. For the purpose of severing the four types of birth, recollecting the four truths, cultivating the four immeasurable states, entering the four meditative concentrations, purifying the four states of meditative attainment, revealing the four applications of mindfulness, teaching the four kinds of exertion,21 and obtaining the four bases of supernatural power, it is made with four prongs.
“With the central wooden shaft included, it is shown to have five aspects. For the purpose of forsaking the five views,22 discarding the disturbances of the suffering of saṃsāra of the five states of existence, cultivating the five faculties, possessing the five powers, eliminating the five hindrances, dismantling the five aggregates, and attaining the Dharma body having five parts, it is shown to have five aspects.
“It is taught that there are twelve rings so that one will recall the twelve links of dependent origination and will do so without being impeded, one will cultivate the meditative concentrations of the twelve doors, and one will recollect with a flawless mind. [F.274.a]
“It is taught to have seven parts—the combination of the three levels and the four prongs—so that one will recollect the Dharma of the seven branches of the awakening of the Tathāgata and accomplish the seven treasures of noble beings.
“With the lower tip included, it is shown to have eight parts. It is for the purpose of teaching the eight branches of the path, attaining the eight kinds of liberation, and dispelling the eight inopportune states that the eight parts are shown.
Mahākāśyapa then inquired again of the Blessed One, “Blessed One, are all the teachings of the tathāgatas of the three times the same?”
The Blessed One replied, “For some, the staff is the same but the usage is different. On account of that, during the time of some, it is made with four prongs, and during the time of others, it is made with two prongs. The number of rings does not vary. As for me, I have taught that it should be made with four prongs and twelve rings.
’khar gsil gyi mdo. Toh 335, Degé Kangyur vol. 72 (mdo sde, sa), folios 271.a–274.a.
’khar gsil ’chang ba’i kun spyod pa’i cho ga. Toh 336, Degé Kangyur vol. 72 (mdo sde, sa), folios 274.a–275.a.
’khar gsil gyi 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. 779–87.
Chomden Rikpai Raltri (bcom ldan rig pa’i ral gri). bstan pa rgyas pa rgyan gyi nyi ’od. (1) In bkaʼ gdams gsung ʼbum phyogs bsgrigs thengs gsum pa / par gzhi dang po, vol. 1, pp. 191–266. si khron dpe skrun tshogs pa si khron mi rigs dpe skrun khang, 2009. Scans on Buddhist Digital Resource Center (BDRC). (2) In gsung ʼbum bcom ldan rig paʼi ral gri, vol. 1, pp. 99–260. Khams Sprul Bsod Nams Don Grub, 2006. Scans on Buddhist Digital Resource Center (BDRC).
dge slong ma’i ’dul ba rnam par ’byed pa. Toh 5, Degé Kangyur vol. 9 (’dul ba, ta), folios 25.b-328.a.
dge slong ma’i ’dul ba rnam par ’byed pa. Toh 5, Degé Kangyur vol. 9 (’dul ba, ta), folios 25.b-328.a.
Takakusu Junjirō, and Kaigyoku Watanabe, eds. Taishō shinshū Daizōkyō. 85 vols. Tokyo: Taishō Issaikyō Kankōkai, 1924–32.
De daoti cheng xizhang jing 得道梯橙錫杖經. Taishō 785. Appendix of Taishō 785: Chi xizhang fa 持錫杖法. Translator unknown.
Genbenshuoyiqieyoubu biqiuni pinaiye 根本說一切有部苾芻尼毘奈耶. Taishō 1443. Translated by Yijing.
Nanhai jigui neifa zhuang 南海寄歸內法傳. Taishō 2125. Written by Yijing.
A Concordance to the Taishō Canon and Dunhuang Buddhist Manuscripts: Third (Provisional) Edition. Tokyo: International College for Postgraduate Buddhist Studies Library, 2015.
Atiśa, ’Brom-ston Rgyal-ba’i-’byuṅ-gnas, and Thupten Jinpa. “The Riches of the Noble Ones and the Khakkhara Staff.” Chap. 8 in The Book of Kadam: The Core Texts. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2008.
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Digital Dictionary of Buddhism. http://www.buddhism-dict.net/ddb/.
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- nyon mongs pa
- phung po
aids to awakening
- byang chub kyi phyogs
applications of mindfulness
- dran pa nye bar gzhag pa
Atiśa Dīpaṃkara Śrījñāna
- dpal mar me mdzad
- atīśa dīpaṃkaraśrījñāna
bases of supernatural power
- rdzu ’phrul gyi rkang pa
- skye ba
branches of awakening
- byang chub kyi yan lag
Chomden Rikpai Raltri
- bcom ldan rigs pa’i ral gri
- sde snod
- snying rje
- ’dus byas
- zag pa dang bcas pa
- kun rdzob kyi bden pa
- sred pa
- rten cing ’brel par ’byung ba
- tshul khrims
- g.yeng ba
eight branches of the path
- lam yan lag brgyad
- nges par ’byung ba
- stong pa nyid
- btang snyoms
- yang dag pa’i spong ba
- srid pa
- dbang po
- kun nas dkris pa
- bden pa bzhi
gateways to liberation
- rnam par thar pa’i sgo
- ye shes
- sgrib pa
- tshad med pa
- mi khom pa
irreversibility of spiritual progress
- phyir mi ldog pa
- dga’ ba
- ’od srung
- rig pa
- rnam par thar pa
- nyan thos
- byams pa
lower states of existence
- ngan song
- ’od srung chen po
- bsam gtan
- ting nge ’dzin
- dge slong
- ’phags pa
- gsung rab
- bzod pa
- nga rgyal
- rjes su dran pa
- ’khar gsil
- dben pa
seven treasures of noble beings
- ’phags pa’i nor bdun
- saptāryāṇi dhanāni
- mtshan ma med pa
- sems rtse gcig
sphere of infinite consciousness
- rnam shes mtha’ yas skye mched
sphere of infinite space
- nam mkha’ mtha’ yas skye mched
sphere of neither perception nor absence of perception
- ’du shes med ’du shes med min gyi skye mched
sphere of nothingness
- ci yang med pa’i skye mched
- ’khar ba
states of existence
- srid pa
- ’gro ba
states of meditative attainment
- snyoms par ’jug pa
- mngon par shes pa
- khams gsum
- srid pa gsum
- ’jig rten las ’das pa
- don dam pa’i bden pa
- ’dus ma byas
- zag pa med pa
- tshe dang ldan pa
- shes rab
- smon pa med pa