The Questions of Dīrghanakha the Wandering Mendicant
Degé Kangyur, vol. 74 (mdo sde, a), folios 298.b–300.a
Translated by the Kīrtimukha Translation Group
under the patronage and supervision of 84000: Translating the Words of the Buddha
As the Buddha teaches the Dharma to the fourfold saṅgha on Vulture Peak Mountain, the brahmin and wandering mendicant Dīrghanakha approaches and questions the Buddha about his doctrine concerning the incontrovertible relationship between karma and its effects in the world. He then poses a series of ten questions regarding the karmic causes of certain attributes of the Buddha, from his vajra body to the raised uṣṇīṣa on his crown. The Buddha responds to each question with the cause for each attribute, roughly summing up the eight poṣadha vows and the ways he observed them in the past. Dīrghanakha drops his staff and bows to the Buddha, pledging to take refuge in the Three Jewels and maintain the eight poṣadha vows.
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 Questions of Dīrghanakha the Wandering Mendicant takes place on Vulture Peak Mountain in Rājagṛha. As the Buddha teaches the Dharma to the fourfold saṅgha, the brahmin and wandering mendicant Dīrghanakha approaches and interrogates the Buddha, in somewhat irreverent tones, about his teaching that actions dependably produce particular effects in the world. He then poses a series of ten questions regarding the karmic causes of certain attributes of the Buddha. These questions refer to the Buddha’s (1) vajra body, (2) long and webbed fingers, (3) complete faculties and fully developed body, (4) tongue that covers his face, (5) lion’s gait, (6) forty even and white teeth, (7) fragrance of moral discipline, (8) thirty-two signs, (9) three seats, and (10) raised uṣṇīṣa on his crown. The Buddha responds to each question by identifying the cause for each attribute, roughly summing up the eight poṣadha vows and the ways he observed them in the past. He also mentions his previous offerings and devotion to the Three Jewels and to his parents, preceptors, scholars, gurus, and other worthy ones. At this point, Dīrghanakha drops his staff and bows to the Buddha, pledging three times to take refuge in the Three Jewels and to maintain continuously and correctly the eight poṣadha vows in the manner of the arhats.
The term poṣadha (Tib. gso sbyong) refers to the ceremony performed every full and new moon day by monastics, in which they confess any faults or transgressions and recite the prātimokṣa vows. Although lay people are restricted from going to these ceremonies, they traditionally adopt what are called “the eight poṣadha vows,”1 which are observed by lay people on the same lunar day of the poṣadha ceremony or on other occasions, usually for a single day at a time. They are to refrain from (1) killing, (2) stealing, (3) sexual misconduct, (4) lying or divisive speech, (5) intoxication, (6) eating at inappropriate times, (7) entertainment such as singing, dancing, seeing shows, and beautifying themselves with adornments or cosmetics, and (8) using a high bed. These amount to not only an expansion of the standard list of five lay vows (which constitute the first five), but most of the ten vows of a novice monk or nun (with the seventh split in two as in this sūtra), which include the additional vow to not handle money. In a sense, the laity become monastics for a day, and the occasion is understood to be a period of abstinence that often involves fasting as a way to purify one’s conduct, often in conjunction with the monastic community.
Etymologically, poṣadha has its roots in an older Sanskrit term, upavasatha (Pali: uposatha), which literally means “to dwell near.”2 This can be traced back to Vedic India, where it was a day of rest and preparation preceding a ritual sacrifice.3 Sylvain Lévi notes that while one would expect the Pali uposatha to be translated into classical Sanskrit as upavasatha, the Buddhists ended up with the translation poṣadha, having as it does less of a brahmanical resonance. It means to nourish (poṣa) and cleanse (dha), which the Tibetans repeated in their rendering as gso sbyong.4 However, the older term upavasatha has not been entirely replaced by the term poṣadha; it is still used, usually with the alternate spelling upavāsa (Tib. bsnyen gnas, “abstinence”), in reference to the practice of abstinence with regard to the eight poṣadha vows or fasting, while only the term poṣadha is used as the name for the ceremony itself. Thus, at the end of the sūtra, Dīrghanakha vows to uphold the eight poṣadha vows in the context of the upavāsa, or abstinence. He does not merely vow to follow this for one day but pledges to make the special commitment of practicing them continuously for as long as he lives as “the instrument of my mind, and the accumulation of awakening.”
The story of Dīrghanakha (Pali: Dīghanakha) is found throughout the Mahāyāna and Pali corpora. In some accounts he is also known in Sanskrit as Koṣṭhila (Long Torso), which is the birth name by which he was known before he left home to wander, and which he later readopts when he becomes a monk under the Buddha Śākyamuni. The variants Kauṣṭhila, Mahākauṣṭhila, and Agnivaiśyāyana (Pali: Aggivessāna) are also found. Dīrghanakha is also known as the uncle of Śāriputra, the famous early disciple of Śākyamuni.
The Pali Majjhima Nikāya contains a sutta called Dīghanakhasutta in the Paribbājakavagga (The Division on Wanderers).5 This sutta relates the story of how Dīrghanakha became a lay disciple of the Buddha, who addresses him here as Aggivessāna. After Dīrghanakha approaches the Buddha and proclaims that he believes in nothing,6 there follows a conversation in which the Buddha teaches the reasons for abandoning wrong views and the method for attaining liberation by adopting the view of impermanence rooted in the observation of physical sensation. In the Mahāvastu of the Mahāsaṅghika-Lokottaravāda school, a sūtra called The Sūtra of the Wanderer Dīrghanakha is mentioned as a text to be inserted, but is not included.7
In the Pravrajyāvastu (The Chapter on Going Forth), the first chapter of the Vinayavastu (Toh 1) in the Kangyur, we find a lengthy biography of Dīrghanakha interwoven with that of his nephew Śāriputra.8 This narrative tells of Koṣṭhila (Dīrghanakha)’s upbringing as the son of the learned brahmin Māṭhara who, during the reign of King Bimbisāra, was awarded the entire village of Nālada by winning a debate. We see Koṣṭhila’s privileged upbringing before he is vanquished in debate by his own sister Śārikā and driven to a life of wandering. Finding himself in another country, he becomes a student of the brahmin Tiṣya, a follower of the materialist Lokāyata philosophy that rejected rebirth and the afterlife.
After bragging about his hometown and the wisdom of its philosophers, he begins to journey back along with his teacher and his fellow young brahmins. On reaching Rājagṛha, Tiṣya battles Māṭhara in debate before King Bimbisāra and is victorious, thus winning the village of Nālada from Māṭhara. Tiṣya offers to share with Māṭhara, who in gratitude gives him Śārikā, who will later become the mother of Śāriputra, to marry. This upsets Koṣṭhila, who is outraged that the enemy who has robbed his family is now being invited into it. Thinking that the insult is the result of his lack of learning, he goes off again to study the Lokāyata philosophy, vowing not to cut his fingernails as long as he upholds it, thus becoming Dīrghanakha (Long Fingernails).
Later in the text, Dīrghanakha, still a wandering tīrthika, meets with the Buddha (whom he seems to have met before), and engages in a conversation remarkably similar to that of the Pali sutta. In it Dīrghanakha states that “no self endures [after death],” to which the Buddha replies by summarizing the various views of ascetics and brahmins as they relate to the endurance or nonendurance of a self. He again teaches the way of contemplating impermanence rooted in the observation of physical sensation. Dīrghanakha immediately grasps the Dharma and, unlike in the Pali sutta, takes ordination as a monk. Here his story concludes with these words of the Buddha: “Monks, among my monk disciples who have gained the knowledge of perfect discernment, the monk Koṣṭhila is supreme.”9
The story of Dīrghanakha’s conversion is also told in the Sanskrit collection of Buddhist tales called the Avadānaśataka.10 This account also deals with the transitory nature of sensation. Here Dīrghanakha returns to Rājagṛha on learning that Śāriputra has come of age and driven the non-Buddhists from the area after coming under the influence of the Buddha. Dīrghanakha’s conversation with the Buddha, in which he is addressed as Agnivaiśyāyana (Descendent of Agnivaiśya, the name of an old brahmanical family),11 bears great resemblance to the exchange in the Pravrajyāvastu and the Pali sutta. As in the Pravrajyāvastu, the story ends in ordination.
Lastly, Dīrghanakha’s story is told in Nāgārjuna’s Mahāprajñāpāramitāśāstra, a commentary, only found in the Chinese canon, on the Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikāprajñāpāramitā (Perfection of Wisdom in Five Thousand Lines, Toh 9). Here he is depicted as a fierce and proud scholar, prevailing everywhere in debate like “an enraged mighty elephant,” until he encounters the Buddha while coming to meet with his newly ordained nephew Śāriputra. The exchange here resembles the accounts in other texts, but with the poignant addition of Dīrghanakha’s inner thoughts as he grapples with the Buddha’s interrogation before admitting defeat and becoming a monk.12
Dīrghanakha’s transformative encounter with the Buddha in this text has echoes in several similar stories of dialogues involving other wandering ascetics of fiercely independent bent. One is the story, in the Kangyur,13 of the ṛṣi Ulka, whose questions to the Buddha also seem to be founded in non-Buddhist cosmological views. Another is the story of Śreṇika Vatsagotra (Pali: Vacchagotta), mentioned in all the long Prajñāpāramitā sūtras as significant in passages discussing the Buddha’s omniscience, which Śreṇika Vatsagotra is said to have accepted through conviction alone.14 The Prajñāpāramitā sūtras themselves give little further detail, and Vatsagotra’s questioning of the Buddha does not seem to appear in full in any canonical text in Tibetan translation; it is, however, related in a number of Pali texts and āgamas in Chinese.15 In fact, the Buddha’s omniscience—directly or indirectly—can be seen as the principal focus of the questions put by all these individuals. Dīrganakha’s questions in the vinaya account seek to establish some sort of ultimate reality (although in the sūtra version translated here his questions are limited to the past causes of some of the Buddha’s unique physical marks). Śreṇika Vatsagotra’s questions directly address what have come to be called the twelve or fourteen “unanswerable points” (avyākṛtavastu). Ulka begins with the “unanswerable” question of where sentient beings originated from in the first place. In each case, the ways in which the Buddha responds bring about not only a complete resetting of the parameters of the questions, but also a fundamental change in how the questioners perceive him.16 The exchanges typify how the Buddha is said to have convinced even very mature seekers of the truth as to the authenticity of his teaching.
The Questions of Dīrghanakha the Wandering Mendicant is found in the General Sūtra section (mdo sde) of the Kangyur, and in Kangyurs of the Tshalpa line it is classified among predominantly narrative texts of the avadāna genre. No information is given in the colophon or in the different Kangyur indexes as to the translator or editor of the Tibetan. Both the Denkarma and Phangthangma imperial catalogs list the title among their inventories of sūtras.17 This indicates that it was translated into Tibetan in the early translation period at a date no later than that of the Denkarma, 812 ᴄᴇ.
There was no known Sanskrit witness of The Questions of Dīrghanakha the Wandering Mendicant 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.18
There is one translation of the sūtra found in the Chinese Tripiṭaka (Taishō 584) by Yijing (義淨, seventh–eighth century) with the title The Sūtra of the Questions of the Brahmin Dīrghanakha (chang zhao fan zha qang wan jang 長爪梵志請問經). There is also a complete extant Sogdian version of this sūtra, translated from the Chinese, called The Sūtra Spoken by the Buddha at the Question of a Religious Man Dīrghanakha (pwty prβʾyrtk βrznʾxʾn δynδʾry wpʾrs pwstk). The first study and (French) translation of this text was published by Robert Gauthiot in 1912 and later extensively commented on by Friedrich Weller (1934) and revised by Émile Benveniste (1940).19
We have based our translation primarily on the Degé edition of the Tibetan Kangyur, but we consulted the Sanskrit, Chinese, and other Kangyur editions in the case of questionable terms or passages in order to establish the most plausible and accurate readings of the text. 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. Citations in the notes of the Sanskrit are given using Vinītā’s emendations of the handwritten manuscript.
Homage to all buddhas and bodhisattvas!
Then the Blessed One taught the Dharma to the fourfold saṅgha. He taught the wholesome conduct that is virtuous in the beginning, virtuous in the middle, and virtuous in the end, and that is excellent in meaning, excellent in words, distinctive, perfect, completely pure, and completely refined.22
At that time Dīrghanakha the wandering mendicant journeyed to where the Blessed One was. Arriving in the presence of the Blessed One, he stood there resting on his staff, saying nothing at all. He then looked up and said to the Blessed One, “Hey, Gautama, you say that23 beings of the world take possession of actions, enjoy the legacy of actions, and are bound by the fetters of actions, and you say that these actions are reliable.24 If this is true, then (1) what previous actions has the renunciant Gautama performed and accumulated so that he has come to possess the vajra body?”
The Blessed One replied, “Great brahmin, this is the result of the action of abandoning false speech in my previous succession of lives.”
The Blessed One replied, “Great brahmin, this is the result of the action of abandoning the state of heedlessness induced from being intoxicated with beer or other alcohol29 in my previous succession of lives.”
The Blessed One replied, “Great brahmin, this is the result of the action of abandoning eating food at inappropriate times in my previous succession of lives.”
(7) “What previous actions did the renunciant Gautama perform and accumulate so that he manifested a body anointed with the fragrance of moral discipline?”32
The Blessed One replied, “Great brahmin, this is the result of the action of abandoning the wearing of garlands, perfumes, ointments, and cosmetics in my previous succession of lives.”
The Blessed One replied, “Great brahmin, this is the result of the action of abandoning high thrones and large beds in my previous succession of lives.”
The Blessed One replied, “Great brahmin, this is the result of the actions of placing my limbs and head upon the earth,36 prostrating, and making offerings to the Buddha, Dharma, Saṅgha, parents, preceptors, scholars,37 gurus, and those worthy of offering in my previous succession of lives.”38
At this point, Dīrghanakha the wandering mendicant set his staff39 on the ground and bowed his head to the feet of the Blessed One. Standing to the side of the Blessed One, he joined his palms together, bowed, and said,40 “Blessed One, for as long as I live, I go for refuge in the Buddha. For as long as I live, I go for refuge in the Dharma. For as long as I live, I go for refuge in the Saṅgha. For as long as I live, I will undertake abstinence relating to the eight poṣadha vows.41
“From now on I will abandon (1) killing any living creatures, (2) stealing another’s wealth, (3) engaging in sex, (4) lying or using divisive speech, (5) becoming intoxicated, (6) eating food at the inappropriate time, (7) garlands, cosmetics, song, dance, and entertainment, and (8) high beds. I will maintain these eight good qualities [F.300.a] in the manner of the arhats.”
In the same way, he repeated this vow a second and third time and said, “I will correctly maintain the vows of the discipline of the poṣadha. This will be the ornament of my mind, the instrument of my mind, and the accumulation of awakening. May I remain in the omniscient wisdom of the ultimate truth and the unsurpassable bliss of nirvāṇa.”42
The Blessed One said, “Great brahmin, you should do just that! Excellent! Excellent!”
|Chinese||Seventh–eighth-century Chinese translation (Taishō 584) by Yijing (義淨)|
|D||Degé (sde dge) Kangyur|
|H||Lhasa (zhol) Kangyur|
|K||Peking (pe cin) Kangxi Kangyur|
|KY||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 introduction)|
|U||Urga (ku re) Kangyur|
kun tu rgyu ba sen rings kyis zhus pa (Dīrghanakhaparivrājakaparipṛcchā). Toh 342, Degé Kangyur vol. 74 (mdo sde, a), folios 298.b–300.a.
kun tu rgyu ba sen rings kyis zhus pa (Dīrghanakhaparivrājakaparipṛcchā). 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. 74, pp. 996–1000.
kun tu rgyu ba sen rings kyis zhus pa (Dīrghanakhaparivrājakaparipṛcchā). Stok 54, Stok Palace Kangyur vol. 57 (mdo sde, cha), folios 136.a–138.a.
sher phyin stong phrag brgya pa (Śatasāhasrikāprajñāpāramitā). Toh 8, Degé Kangyur vol. 14–25 (’bum, ka–a), folios 1.b (ka)–395.a (a).
sher phyin stong phrag nyi shu lnga pa (Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikāprajñāpāramitā). Toh 9, Degé Kangyur vol. 26–28 (nyi khri, ka–ga), folios 1.b (ka)–381.a (ga). English translation in Padmakara Translation Group, trans. (2023).
sher phyin khri brgyad stong pa (Aṣṭādaśasāhasrikāprajñāpāramitā). Toh 10, Degé Kangyur vol. 29–31 (khri brgyad, ka–ga), folios 1.b (ka)–206.a (ga). English translation in Sparham (2022).
shes phyin khri pa (Daśasāhasrikāprajñāpāramitā). Toh 11, Degé Kangyur vol. 31 (shes phyin, ga), folios 1.b–91.a; vol. 32 (shes phyin, nga), folios 92.b–397.a. English translation in Padmakara Translation Group (2018).
sher phyin brgyad stong pa (Aṣṭasāhasrikāprajñāpāramitā). Toh 12, Degé Kangyur, vol. 33 (brgyad stong, ka), folios 1.a–286.a.
don dam pa’i chos kyis rnam par rgyal ba. (Paramārthadharmavijaya). Toh 246, Degé Kangyur vol. 66 (mdo sde, za), folios 33.a–42.b. English translation in UCSB Buddhist Studies Translation Group (2021).
Kawa Paltsek (ska ba dpal brtsegs) gsung rab rin po che’i gtam rgyud dang shAkya’i rabs rgyud (*Pravacanaratnākhyānaśākyavaṃśāvalī). Toh 4357, Degé Tengyur vol. 204 (sna tshogs, co), folios 238.b.1–377.a.7. Also in 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). 120 volumes. Beijing: krung go’i bod rig pa dpe skrun khang (China Tibetology Publishing House), 1994–2008, vol. 115, pp. 802–22.
Denkarma (pho brang stod thang ldan dkar gyi chos ’gyur ro cog gi dkar chag). Toh 4364, Degé Tengyur vol. 206 (sna tshogs, jo), folios 294.b–310.a.
Phangthangma (dkar chag ’phang thang ma). Beijing: mi rigs dpe skrun khang, 2003.
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.
Yijing, trans. chang zhao fan zhi qing wen jing 長爪梵志請問經 (Chinese translation of The Sūtra of the Questions of Dīrghanakha the Wandering Mendicant), Taishō 584.
Burnouf, Eugène. Introduction to the History of Indian Buddhism. Translated by Katia Buffetrille and Donald S. Lopez Jr. Buddhism and Modernity. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2010.
Buswell Jr., Robert E., and Donald S. Lopez Jr. The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014.
Chattopadhyaya, Debiprasad. Lokāyata: A Study in Ancient Indian Materialism. 7th ed. New Delhi: People’s Publishing House, 1992.
Dutt, Sukumar. Buddhist Monks and Monasteries of India: Their History and Their Contribution to Indian Culture. New Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1962.
Lamotte, Étienne, trans. The Treatise on the Great Virtue of Wisdom of Nāgārjuna (Mahāprajñāpāramitāśāstra) Vol. I, Chapters I–XV. Translated by Gelongma Karma Migme Chodron. N.p: n.p., 2001.
Lévi, Sylvain. “Observations sur une langue précanonique du bouddhisme.” Journal asiatique (November–December 1912): 501–14.
Miller, Robert, trans. The Chapter on Going Forth (Pravrajyāvastu, Toh 1-1). 84000: Translating the Words of the Buddha, 2018.
Ñāṇamoli, Bhikkhu and Bhikkhu Bodhi, trans. The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha: A New Translation of the Majjhima Nikāya. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 1995.
Padmakara Translation Group, trans. (2018). The Transcendent Perfection of Wisdom in Ten Thousand Lines (Daśasāhasrikāprajñāpāramitā, Toh 11). 84000: Translating the Words of the Buddha, 2018.
———(2023), trans. The Perfection of Wisdom in Twenty-Five Thousand Lines (Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikāprajñāpāramitā, Toh 9). 84000: Translating the Words of the Buddha, 2023.
Silk, Jonathan A. Review of Buddhist Sūtras in Sanskrit from the Potala, by Bhikṣunī Vinītā. Indo-Iranian Journal 56 (2013): 61–87.
Sparham, Gareth, trans. The Transcendent Perfection of Wisdom in Eighteen Thousand Lines (Aṣṭadaśasāhasrikāprajñāpāramitā, Toh 10). 84000: Translating the Words of the Buddha, 2022.
UCSB Buddhist Studies Translation Group, trans. Victory of the Ultimate Dharma (Paramārthadharmavijaya, Toh 246). 84000: Translating the Words of the Buddha, 2021.
Yoshida, Yutaka. “Dīrghanakha-sūtra.” Encyclopædia Iranica. Updated November 28, 2011.
- bsnyen gnas
- bcom ldan ’das
body anointed with the fragrance of moral discipline
- tshul khrims kyi spos kyis lus byugs pa
complete faculties and a fully developed body
- dbang po yongs su tshang zhing lus rab tu rgyas pa
- pūrṇendriyaḥ paripūrṇagātraḥ
- sen rings
eight poṣadha vows
- yan lag brgyad pa’i gso sbyong
- yan lag brgyad pa’i bsnyen gnas
fingers that are long and webbed
- sor mo ring zhing sor mo’i bar dra bas ’bral par
forty even and white teeth
- so bzhi bcu dang ldan zhing so mnyam la so dkar ba
- catvāriṃśaddantaḥ śukladantaḥ *samadantaḥ
- ’khor bzhi po
gait of a lion
- seng ge’i stabs su ’gro ba
- go’u ta ma
- ’jig rten rgyang phan pa
- gso sbyong
- gtsug tor ’phags pa
- rgyal po’i khab
- dge sbyong
- drang srong
- ’dod pa log par g.yem pa
- bzo sbyangs
- phreng ba can
- śreṇika vatsagotra
taking what is not given
- ma byin par len pa
thirty-two signs of a great being
- skyes bu chen po’i mtshan sum cu rtsa gnyis
- stan gsum
- trīṇy āsanāni
- mu stegs pa
tongue that covers the entire circle of his face
- lces gdong gi dkyil ’khor thams cad khebs
- jihvayā sarvamukhamaṇḍalam ācchādyati
- me sgron
- rdo rje’i lus
- ’od ma’i tshal bya ka lan da ka gnas pa
- veṇuvana kalandakanivāsa
Vulture Peak Mountain
- bya rgyod kyi phung po’i ri
- kun tu rgyu ba