The Sūtra of Jñānaka
Degé Kangyur, vol. 75 (mdo sde, aṃ), folios 287.a–289.b.
Translated by the Subhashita Translation Group
under the patronage and supervision of 84000: Translating the Words of the Buddha
In the Heaven of the Thirty-Three, a god has reached the end of his life. He foresees his rebirth as a pig and calls out to the Buddha to save him. The Buddha prompts him to seek refuge in the Three Jewels and, as a result, the god finds himself reborn into a wealthy family in Vaiśālī. In this life as a child named Jñānaka, he encounters the Buddha once more and invites him and his monks for a midday meal. The Buddha prophesies to Ānanda that the meritorious offering made by Jñānaka will eventually lead the child to awaken as the buddha known as King of Foremost Knowing.
Translated by the Subhashita Translation Group. The translation was produced by Lowell Cook who also wrote the introduction. Benjamin Ewing and Ryan Damron checked the translation against the Tibetan and edited the text and introduction.
The translation was completed under the patronage and supervision of 84000: Translating the Words of the Buddha.
The Noble Sūtra of Jñānaka: An Account of the Noble Deeds of the Buddha is one of a number of avadānas (Tib. rtogs pa brjod pa), or accounts of noble deeds, preserved in the Kangyur. Avadāna is a narrative genre of Buddhist literature that describes how virtuous actions play out across lifetimes. True to the avadāna genre, The Sūtra of Jñānaka relates the otherwise unimaginable workings of karma across several lifetimes, beginning with a god in the Heaven of the Thirty-Three. This god has reached the end of his life and foresees his rebirth in the womb of a pig in Vaiśālī, the Licchavi capital at the time of the Buddha. Another god overhears his cries of agony and encourages him to call upon the Buddha, who is staying in the Heaven of the Thirty-Three to give teachings to his mother, who had passed away not long after his birth. The Buddha prompts the dying god to seek refuge in the Three Jewels, and, instead of being reborn to the sow, the god finds himself born into a merchant family in Vaiśālī. Immediately after his birth, he praises the Three Jewels, leading his astounded parents to name him Jñānaka, “He Who Possesses Knowledge.” At the age of eight, Jñānaka encounters the Buddha on an alms round. Recollecting his past life, he offers alms to the Buddha and invites him and his monks to a midday meal at his parents’ home. Jñānaka’s parents make elaborate preparations to receive the Buddha and his monks, which prompts the Buddha to prophesy that Jñānaka’s offerings will act as the cause for his eventual awakening as the buddha known as King of Foremost Knowing.
The basic narrative of The Sūtra of Jñānaka is similar to that of the text that immediately follows it in the Kangyur, The Magnificent Account About a Sow (Toh 345: Sūkarikāvadāna; phag mo’i rtogs pa brjod pa),1 wherein another god similarly laments his imminent rebirth as a pig in Rājagṛha. His tearful laments prompt Śakra, lord of the gods, to instruct him to take refuge in the Three Jewels as a means to prevent such an unwelcome event. In this sūtra, the god does not take rebirth in the human realm as Jñānaka does, but rather in the Tuṣita heaven.
The Sūtra of Jñānaka survives only in Tibetan translation; there are no extant Sanskrit witnesses, and it does not appear to have been translated into Chinese. The Sūtra of Jñānaka is listed in the Denkarma (Tib. ldan/lhan dkar ma) and Phanthangma (Tib. ’phang thang ma) catalogs,2 the two extant indexes of translations from the Imperial Period (629–841 ᴄᴇ). The sūtra’s colophon states that the sūtra was translated by the Tibetan monk and prolific translator Kawa Paltsek (ca. eighth century) together with the Indian preceptors Vidyākarasiṃha and Sarvajñādeva. This evidence allows us to date the Tibetan translation of The Sūtra of Jñānaka to approximately the eighth century.
This English translation is based on the Tibetan edition found in the Degé Kangyur, which was read alongside the Comparative Edition (Tib. dpe bsdur ma) and Stok Palace (Tib. stog pho brang) Kangyurs. The Sūtra of Jñānaka has not previously been translated into any Western languages nor has it received substantial scholarly treatment.
Homage to all buddhas and bodhisattvas.
Thus did I hear at one time. The Blessed One was staying among the gods of the Heaven of the Thirty-Three for the benefit of his mother. He was seated in front of the Pāriyātra tree upon the Pāṇḍukambala rock. There was a god there experiencing the five ominous signs of death: his garlands had withered, his clothes had started to deteriorate, his body had started to smell, sweat dripped from his armpits, and he felt unhappy on his seat. This god foresaw his rebirth in the womb of a pig in Vaiśālī, causing him to be overcome with misery and cry out in woe. He beat his chest as he wept uncontrollably.
“Indeed, fellow deva,” he responded, “it is death that I fear. Why? Well, fellow deva, I have eaten divine foods, imbibed divine drinks, and worn divine garments here among the gods of the Heaven of the Thirty-Three. Thus, as I behold my rebirth in the womb of a pig in Vaiśālī, I see that I will eat excrement and be killed by a blade. These are the reasons, fellow deva, that I fear death.”
“Do not be afraid of death, my fellow deva! Why? Well, fellow deva, the Blessed One—the thus-gone, worthy, perfect Buddha—is residing here in the Heaven of the Thirty-Three for the benefit of his mother. He is seated in front of the Pāriyātra tree upon the Pāṇḍukambala rock. Deva, you should by all means pay homage to the Blessed One. He will come here to save you from the lower realms. Why? Fellow deva, the blessed Buddha has great compassion and never forsakes beings.” [F.287.b]
The god then rose from his seat, draped his upper robe over one shoulder, and knelt on his right knee. With his palms joined, he bowed in the direction of the Blessed One and repeated this entreaty three times:
Aware of the sincere intent of that god, the Blessed One went to him and sat upon a seat that had been prepared. After taking his seat, the Blessed One asked that god, “Deva, is it death that you fear?”
“Indeed, Blessed One,” the god responded, “I am afraid to die. Why? Because I foresaw my rebirth in the wretched womb of a pig in Vaiśālī. Once reborn there, I will eat excrement and be killed by a blade. That is why, Blessed One, I am afraid to die.”
The Blessed One said, “Deva, do not be afraid of death! Why? Well, deva, it is not the earth and water elements that transmigrate here and there, but rather your own actions. Come here, deva. Take refuge in the Buddha. Take refuge in the Dharma and in the Saṅgha.”
The Blessed One then delivered a discourse on the Dharma to the god and ensured that the god retained it. Having inspired the god and filled him with delight, the Blessed One rose from his seat and departed.
Not long thereafter, the god passed away. He was immediately reborn in the womb of a noble merchant’s wife in Vaiśālī. After nine months had come to pass, an adorable child with a charming appearance and the most exquisite complexion was born. The moment he was born he exclaimed, “Homage to the Buddha! Homage to the Dharma! Homage to the Saṅgha!”
At that moment, his parents thought, “This child knows of the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Saṅgha. He possesses knowledge.”3
Once, when this child Jñānaka was around eight years old, he and a group of Licchavi youths, who were in his company, arrived at a crossroads in a park. At that time the Blessed One was staying at a mansion in the great grove of Vaiśālī. At dawn, the Blessed One donned his lower garment, dressed in his robes, picked up his alms bowl, and went to Vaiśālī on an alms round. The child Jñānaka caught sight of the Blessed One, who was handsome, and so forth, up until shining.4 Filled with joy at seeing the Blessed One, he happily went before the Blessed One and bowed his head to his feet, circled him three times, and sat to one side. Seated to one side, the child Jñānaka spoke to the Blessed One in verse:
The Blessed One remained silent, signaling his acceptance of the child Jñānaka’s request. Aware that the Blessed One had accepted by not speaking, the child Jñānaka went before his parents and announced, “Dear father and mother, I offered alms to the Blessed One and have invited him tomorrow for a midday meal.”
The parents of the child Jñānaka were pleased and rejoiced, full of happiness and delight. Filled with joy and elation, they arranged a spread of delicious foods and tasty delicacies that very night. They had the entire city of Vaiśālī swept clean and strung with silk tassels. They lit incense in incense burners, sprinkled fragrant water, and elegantly scattered flowers. When the night had passed and the appropriate time had come, they went to the Blessed One and said, “Honorable One, Blessed One, it is time for the midday meal. The food is ready.”
At dawn, the Blessed One donned his lower garment, dressed in his robes, and picked up his alms bowl. Escorted and encircled by an assembly of monks, he went to the home of Jñānaka’s parents where they sat upon seats that had been prepared for them. Noticing that the Blessed One and the saṅgha of monks were seated, the child Jñānaka brought forth many delicious foods and tasty delicacies, offering them carefully with his own hands. Seeing that the Blessed One had finished his midday meal, he presented a set of cotton robes and a pair of sandals to each member of the saṅgha, and three new robes and a pair of new shoes to the Blessed One. [F.289.a] He scattered gold and silver flowers that, through the power of the Buddha, immediately transformed above the Blessed One’s head into a glistening, elegant mansion with four corners and four rooms. Within this mansion, the child Jñānaka beheld the figure of the Thus-Gone One sitting cross-legged and teaching the Dharma.
As he observed the Blessed One’s inconceivable form, miracles, and supernatural powers, the child Jñānaka was joyful, elated, and filled with happiness. He said to the Blessed One, “Blessed One, I dedicate my roots of virtue to unsurpassed and completely perfect awakening. May these roots of virtue lead me to awaken, teach the Dharma, and sustain the saṅgha just like the present Blessed One.”
Aware of the intent of the child Jñānaka, the Blessed One smiled, and so forth, up until the light dissolved into the crown of his head.5 The venerable Ānanda saw this and thought to himself, “There is nothing that the Blessed One does without purpose,” and so forth, up until “What is the reason?”6
This completes “The Sūtra of Jñānaka: An Account of the Noble Deeds of the Buddha.”
’phags pa sangs rgyas kyi rtogs pa brjod pa shes ldan gyi mdo (ārya jñānaka sūtra buddha avadāna). Toh 344, Degé Kangyur vol. 75 (mdo sde, aṃ), folios 287.a–289.b.
’phags pa sangs rgyas kyi rtogs pa brjod pa shes ldan gyi mdo (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. 75, pp. 781–89.
’phags pa sangs rgyas kyi rtogs pa brjod pa shes ldan gyi mdo. Stog 158. Stok Palace Kangyur (stog pho brang bris ma). Leh: smanrtsis shesrig dpemzod, 1975–80, vol. 68 (mdo sde, tsa), folios 366.a–370.a.
Bodhinidhi Translation Group, trans. The Magnificent Account About a Sow (Sūkarikāvadāna, Toh 345). 84000: Translating the Words of the Buddha, 2022.
Phangthangma (dkar chag ’phang thang ma). Beijing: mi rigs dpe skrun khang, 2003.
Herrmann-Pfandt, Adelheid. Die lHan kar ma: ein früher Katalog der ins Tibetische übersetzten buddhistischen Texte. Vienna: Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 2008.
- kun dga’
- bcom ldan ’das
- lha’i bu
This term, meaning “god,” was often used as an honorific term of address for divine beings and royalty. In such contexts, it has been rendered here with the Sanskrit deva.
- lha’i bu
Heaven of the Thirty-Three
- sum cu rtsa gsum
The second heaven of the desire realm, located above Mount Meru and reigned over by Śakra (also known as Indra or Kauśika). This heaven receives its name because it encompasses thirty-three distinct divine locations.
- btsun pa
One of the standard epithets of the Buddha Śākyamuni, and also a term of respect used for Buddhist monks, akin to the modern address, bhante.
- shes ldan
Name of a child born into a merchant family in Vaiśālī, whose story is told in this sūtra. In his previous life, he was a god who foresaw his own rebirth as a pig. Seeking help from the Buddha, he goes for refuge in the Three Jewels, and succeeds to be reborn as a human. According to the Buddha’s prophecy, he will become the buddha known as King of Foremost Knowing.
King of Foremost Knowing
- mkhyen gtso rgyal po
Name that the child Jñānaka will bear when he becomes a buddha in future.
- li tsa+tsha b+I
The name of a northern Indian and royal dynasty based in Vaiśālī, the capital of the Vṛji confederacy.
Lord of the World
- ’jig rten mgon po
An epithet of the Buddha.
- dpal brtsegs
Paltsek, from the village of Kawa north of Lhasa, was one of Tibet’s preeminent translators. He was active during the early ninth century, and was one of the first seven Tibetans to be ordained by Śāntarakṣita. He translated works from a wide variety of genres, including sūtra, śāstra, vinaya, and tantra, and was an author himself. Paltsek was also one of the most important editors of the early period, one of nine translators installed by King Trisong Detsen (khri srong lde btsan; 756–800 ᴄᴇ) to supervise the translation of the Tripiṭaka and help catalog translated works for the first two of three imperial catalogs (the ldan kar ma and bsam yas mchims phu ma catalogs).
- la ba dkar po lta bu’i rdo leb
- yongs ’dus brtol
- yongs ’du sa brtol
A large, majestic tree located in the Heaven of the Thirty-Three.
- rgyal po khab kyi grong mkhyer
- sarba dz+nyA de ba
- kun mkhyen lha
Sarvajñādeva was a Kashmiri paṇḍita among the “one hundred” paṇḍitas invited by King Trisong Detsen (r. 756–800 ᴄᴇ) to assist with the translation of the Buddhist scriptures into Tibetan. Sarvajñādeva assisted in the translation of more than twenty-three works, including numerous sūtras and the first translations of Śāntideva’s Bodhicaryāvatāra and Nāgārjuna’s Suhṛllekha.
- de bzhin gshegs pa
- dga’ ldan
The fourth level of the heavens of the realm of desire, and the last stopping place of a buddha before his descent and reincarnation on Earth. According to Buddhist cosmology, it is presently the abode of the future Buddha Maitreya.
- yangs pa
The capital of the Licchavīs and part of the Vṛji republic, this was an important city during the Buddha’s time. The Buddha visited it many times and taught a number of sūtras there.
- bid+yA ka ra sing ha
An Indian paṇḍita active in Tibet during the early ninth century.