An Explanation of The Noble Sūtra on the Four Factors
Degé Tengyur, vol. 113 (mdo ’grel, ngi), folios 66.a–66.b
Translated by Adam Pearcey
under the patronage and supervision of 84000: Translating the Words of the Buddha
This short commentary, ascribed to Vasubandhu, explains The Noble Mahāyāna Sūtra on the Four Factors (Āryacaturdharmakanāmamahāyānasūtra, Toh 251), a discourse on a set of four factors of the path of a bodhisattva: the thought of awakening, the spiritual friend, the twin qualities of tolerance and lenience, and dwelling in the forest. The commentary proposes various reasons for the sūtra’s composition and explains why it refers to bodhisattvas as followers of the Great Vehicle. It also specifies the four factors, which obstructive elements these factors overcome, which beneficial elements they support, and why śrāvakas and pratyekabuddhas are not called bodhisattvas.
An Explanation of The Noble Sūtra on the Four Factors (Toh 3990), attributed in the text itself to the famed Indian scholar Vasubandhu,1 is a commentary on The Noble Mahāyāna Sūtra on the Four Factors (Āryacaturdharmakanāmamahāyānasūtra, Toh 251).2 In this short sūtra, the Buddha lists the thought of awakening, the spiritual friend, the twin qualities of tolerance and lenience, and dwelling in the forest, as four factors that bodhisattvas should not abandon even at the cost of their lives. Vasubandhu’s commentary is one of two commentaries related to that sūtra preserved in Tibetan in the Tengyur. The other, A Commentary on An Explanation of The Noble Sūtra on the Four Factors (*Āryacaturdharmakavyākhyānaṭīkā; ’phags pa chos bzhi pa’i rgya cher bshad pa’i rgya cher ’grel pa, Toh 3990a), is attributed to Jñānadatta,3 and is a commentary on Vasubandhu’s text rather than on the sūtra itself.4
Vasubandhu’s commentary begins with a discussion of the sūtra’s purpose. The author then proceeds to discuss why the sūtra focuses specifically on four factors. Several different reasons are given, including simplicity and ease of memorization. The commentary also notes that the sūtra refers to followers of the Great Vehicle as bodhisattvas, great beings, and it offers some interesting explanations for the use of these terms.
The longest portion of the commentary pairs the four factors from the sūtra with other sets of four factors, such as four factors conducive to the accumulation of the supplies for awakening. It describes the set of four factors from the sūtra either as providing the basis for these other factors, or as the antidote to them. Jñānadatta unpacks the specifics of these correlations at greater length in the subcommentary. The main commentary concludes with a brief comment on why those who strive for the awakening of śrāvakas and pratyekabuddhas are not also called bodhisattvas and reiterates the main purpose of the sūtra. The commentary makes no mention of the sūtra’s two concluding verses.5
There is no translator’s colophon to Vasubandhu’s commentary and therefore no clear information as to who translated it. Jñānadatta’s commentary does have a colophon, stating that the translators were Dānaśīla, Prajñāvarman, and Yeshé De. It is possible that both commentaries were translated at the same time and that the colophon applies to them both. The two commentaries are also listed together in the Denkarma catalog of translated works,6 and both texts also appear among the Dunhuang documents (IOL Tib J 71–74).
The following translation was primarily based on the Degé block print with reference to the Comparative Edition (dpe bsdur ma) and the commentary ascribed to Jñānadatta.
Homage to the youthful Mañjuśrī!
This sūtra explains that for as long as they live, bodhisattvas, great beings, should not abandon four factors even at the cost of their lives.T251 For what purpose was it undertaken? It was undertaken for the purpose of giving an explanation to those who have embarked upon the Great Vehicle and might be confused regarding how unsurpassable awakening should be attained. It was also undertaken for the purpose of encouraging the heedless to take proper care, motivating those who are thoroughly discouraged, and delighting those who have set out on the Great Vehicle.
The number four is used so that anyone who is intimidated by vastness will abandon any resistance to listening to the teaching. Using a number also facilitates memorization. Tolerance and gentleness, which appear toward the end, are not counted separately because they both have a single purpose.7
There are many ways of referring to those who have set out on the Great Vehicle, but here two names are specified.8 There are three reasons for this, related to interest, practice, and comprehension. Because of their interest in profound objects of knowledge, they are referred to as bodhisattvas, and because of their interest in great power, they are referred to as great beings. How do these names relate to practice? Such beings strive intensely toward complete, perfect, and unsurpassable awakening for themselves, and they fully protect all sentient beings from suffering. How do these names relate to understanding? Awakening is realized through the two powers. What are these two? They are the power of intelligence and the power of diligence. Awakening cannot be realized where there is a lack of knowledge or through minimal effort.
The statement that these factors should not be relinquished for as long [F.66.b] as one lives is an indication that they should be continuously present. “Even at the cost of their lives” shows just how highly these factors are to be regarded.
What is the reason that there are said to be four factors? Is this not too few or too many? There are four factors that obstruct the accumulation of the supplies necessary for awakening, and these are four remedies for them. What are these four obstructive factors? They are (1) not seeking the goal, (2) not knowing the methods, (3) a lack of concern for sentient beings, and (4) concern for sense objects. The alternative set of four is (1) not getting started, (2) getting started in the wrong way, (3) quitting what one has started, and (4) becoming distracted after getting started.
Alternatively, there are four factors conducive to the accumulation of the supplies necessary for awakening, and these four factors constitute their foundation. What are the four factors conducive to the accumulation of the supplies necessary for awakening? They are (1) longing for instructions and guidance, (2) acquiring them, (3) being a worthy recipient of them, and (4) having accomplished them. The alternative set of four is (1) seeking the goal, (2) knowing the methods and then accomplishing them, with subdivision into (3) bringing sentient beings to maturity, and (4) developing the qualities of a buddha.
Another set of four is (1) not abandoning saṃsāra, (2) remaining wholly undefiled by it, (3) attracting sentient beings, and (4) becoming purified through diligence.
Alternatively, four reasons one would travel a difficult path to traverse are (1) the wish to go, (2) knowledge of the path, (3) setting aside discouragement, and (4) heedfulness. It is through these that the path of samsara is traversed, and the four factors constitute their foundation.
Why are those who strive for the awakening of the śrāvakas and pratyekabuddhas not called bodhisattvas? It is because the name applies only to the preeminent case, just as in the case of “the light-maker.”9
Put briefly, in this sūtra the Blessed One explains the actions that are appropriate for those who have embarked upon the Great Vehicle and how these actions will not fail to bear fruit.
This concludes “An Explanation of The Noble Sūtra of the Four Factors” by the Master Vasubandhu.
Vasubandhu.’phags pa chos bzhi pa’i rnam par bshad pa (*Āryacaturdharmakavyākhyāna). Toh 3990. Degé Tengyur vol. 113 (mdo ’grel, ngi), folios 66.a–66.b.
Vasubandhu. ’phags pa chos bzhi pa’i rnam par bshad pa. bstan ’gyur (dpe bsdur ma) [Comparative Edition of the Tengyur], krung go’i bod rig pa zhib ’jug ste gnas kyi bka’ bstan dpe sdur khang (The Tibetan Tripiṭaka 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. 65, pp. 914–17.
’phags pa chos bzhi pa zhes bya ba theg pa chen po’i mdo (Āryacaturdharmakanāmamahāyānasūtra). Toh 251, Degé Kangyur vol. 66 (mdo sde, za), folios 60.b–61.a. English translation in Pearcey 2023.
’phags pa chos bzhi pa zhes bya ba theg pa chen po’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 Tripiṭaka 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. 66, pp. 169–70.
’phags pa chos bzhi pa zhes bya ba theg pa chen po’i mdo. Stok Palace Kangyur vol. 65 (stog pho brang bris ma bka’ ’gyur), folios 417.a–418.a.
pho brang stod thang ldan dkar gyi chos kyi ’gyur ro cog gi dkar chag [Denkarma]. Toh 4364, Degé Tengyur vol. 206 (sna tshogs, jo), folios 294.b–310.a.
Jñānadatta. ’phags pa chos bzhi pa’i rgya cher bshad pa’i rgya cher ’grel pa (*Āryacaturdharmakavyākhyānaṭīkā). Toh 3990b. Degé Tengyur vol. 113 (mdo ’grel, ngi), folios 67.a–71.b.
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———— (2021). Questioning the Buddha: A Selection of Twenty-Five Sutras. Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2021.
- des pa
- dge ba’i bshes gnyen
thought of awakening
- byang chub sems
- bzod pa
- dbyig gnyen