The Aspiration Prayer from “Destroyer of the Great Trichiliocosm”
Degé Kangyur vol. 96 (rgyud ’bum, wa), folios 253.a–254.a
Translated by the Dharmachakra Translation Committee
under the patronage and supervision of 84000: Translating the Words of the Buddha.
This short text contains a set of verses spoken by the Buddha as he put an end to the epidemic of Vaiśālī, extracted from one of the two main accounts of that episode. The verses call for well-being, especially by invoking the qualities of the Three Jewels and a range of realized beings and eminent gods. The text comprises two passages from the parent work, and of these the first and longest corresponds closely to a well-known Pali text, the Ratana-sutta, widely recited for protection and blessings.
The translation of this text was extracted from Destroyer of the Great Trichiliocosm, Toh 558, translated by James Gentry for the Dharmachakra Translation Committee. This extract was adapted to the present source text and introduced by the editorial team of 84000: Translating the Words of the Buddha.
The translation was completed under the patronage and supervision of 84000: Translating the Words of the Buddha.
This evocative and inspiring short text in verse is one of several works in the Kangyur related to the Buddha’s restoring the city of Vaiśālī to health after a major epidemic. As might be expected for a text whose origins lie in that much-related episode, it has a wealth of parallels in other texts. A substantial portion of it is very similar to a passage in the Sanskrit Mahāvastu, and to a well-known Pali text, the Ratana-sutta.
The work in the form it takes here—a text containing just these verses—is found in Kangyurs of predominantly Tshalpa (tshal pa) or mixed lineages, but not in those with purely Thempangma (them spangs ma) origins. In the Degé Kangyur it is found in two places. The first occurrence (Toh 813) is as one of a series of nineteen texts (Toh 809–827) at the end of the final volume of the Tantra Collection described in the eighteenth century catalog of the Degé Kangyur as a subsection containing prayers of dedication and auspiciousness. The second (Toh 1098)1 is in a series of fifteen texts (Toh 1094–1108) with a similar function in concluding the Compendium of Dhāraṇīs.
In neither of these occurrences does the text have an opening title; it simply starts with the line “Homage to the Three Jewels.” Only in the trailer at the end do we learn that the text is “the aspiration prayer from the words spoken in Destroyer of the Great Trichiliocosm,” and thus that, like most of the texts in these two sections, it is an extract from a longer text found in full elsewhere in the Kangyur. The parent text in question, Destroyer of the Great Trichiliocosm (Toh 558),2 is itself one of the texts that belong to the Pañcarakṣā group, a set of works centered on five protector goddesses each of whom both personifies and is invoked by a specific dhāraṇī, and is found in the Action Tantra (kriyā) section of the Degé Kangyur’s Tantra Collection. Since the longer text also exists in Sanskrit and Chinese,3 the verses extracted here can be found in both those languages, although not in the form of separate, standalone texts analogous to this one.
The text contains two extracted sets of verses. The first set comprises sixteen stanzas that are found as a continuous passage (1.250–1.265) about two thirds of the way through Destroyer of the Great Trichiliocosm; these are followed by the second set, four and a half stanzas that come from another, separate passage (1.310–1.314) a little later in the parent work compared to the first set. There is no indication within the extracted text itself of the break between these two groups of verses.
The first set of verses (1.2–1.17) invokes the Three Jewels and enumerates their principal qualities as truths by which the bestowal of well-being is prayed for in a repeated refrain. The first verse invokes the Buddha, the next two the Dharma in its aspects of realization and path respectively, and the following seven various aspects and qualities of the Saṅgha. Three shorter stanzas then recapitulate the theme of the Three Jewels by wishing that all beings might pay homage to them and thus obtain well-being, and the final three verses repeat the prayer and invocation of truth for well-being and express the wish that all bhūtas act in accordance with the Dharma.
The second, shorter set of verses (1.18–1.22) invokes the predominant qualities respectively of buddhas, pratyekabuddhas, arhats, and mantra holders, then six named śrāvaka disciples of the Buddha, and finally a small selection of gods, in a prayer that poison be removed from the person reciting them.
There is no mention in this extracted text that its original context was the story of the Buddha’s arrival in Vaiśālī to quell a terrible famine and epidemic that had been ravaging the city and its environs. In the narrative of Destroyer of the Great Trichiliocosm from which it is extracted, however, this is very clearly the case. The parent text starts with the suffering of the citizens of Vaiśālī, in response to which the Buddha summons to Rājagṛha the important gods and particularly the Four Guardian Kings, who promise to bring back under their control the various kinds of nonhuman beings and spirits that have brought about the epidemic and other calamities. Each king in turn proposes ritual steps and controlling mantras for the purpose of restoring well-being.
It is at this point that the Buddha decides to travel to Vaiśālī himself. Arriving at the gates of the city, he steps across the threshold, raises his arm, teaches Brahmā on the dhāraṇī that is itself Destroyer of the Great Trichiliocosm, and then recites the verses that make up the first set in this extract.4 In the original text, the verses are followed by another dhāraṇī and teaching on it, and the yakṣas, rākṣasas, and other harmful spirits are overcome and either run away or volunteer to take up the Dharma and change their ways; the epidemic ends and well-being is restored. This first set of verses reproduced here therefore represents a central element in the episode—part of its very climax—and it is no great surprise that it features prominently in this extract.
The reason for the inclusion of the second set of verses is less obvious. After the episode of the quelling of the epidemic and the vanquishing or conversion of the spirits responsible for it, the text of Destroyer of the Great Trichiliocosm continues with a variety of explanations, ritual instructions, and exchanges with the Four Guardian Kings focused on different physical and spiritual ailments and the importance of the dhāraṇī in treating them. The passage that constitutes the second set of verses extracted here is part of a ritual instruction for the removal of poisons, and its invocation for that purpose of the qualities of the Buddha’s principal disciples is just one of several similar passages invoking other forces. From the source text context, its mention of poison seems to refer to physical poisons, but perhaps intended here for the purposes of this extracted text is a metaphorical interpretation in the overall theme of well-being. Alternatively, it may have been included to round off the invocation of the qualities of the Saṅgha by mentioning some of the qualities of its individual members.
The longest, initial set of verses has parallels in a number of other passages in the Buddhist canonical literature that relate the story of how the Buddha’s arrival in Vaiśālī put an end to the epidemic that was afflicting the city and its region. The overall narrative of the events in the Buddha’s life has been preserved most fully in the Vinaya literature, and the different accounts of this episode, like those of other events, can be divided approximately into two groups, both by their content and also according to the bodies of Vinaya literature in which they have been preserved.
In this case, one near parallel is in the account of the episode that is spread over several chapters of the Mahāvastu,5 a text that has survived in Sanskrit and is related to the Vinaya of the Mahāsāṃghika-Lokottaravādin school. According to that account, the Buddha’s arrival near the city is enough by itself to expel the harmful spirits that have caused the epidemic, and culminates in his reciting, still outside the city, a set of seventeen verses of auspiciousness (svastigāthā), thirteen of which extol the Three Jewels as the source of blessings and well-being. Of these, although the wording of the two texts in Sanskrit is significantly different, ten stanzas recognizably match the ten initial stanzas of the present work. The Mahāvastu version includes a longer initial homage, a verse immediately afterwards invoking the spirits, and an extra stanza on the jewel of the Saṅgha (eleventh of the long stanzas). The two texts differ most noticeably in their concluding verses.
In the Pali Canon, a similar set of seventeen verses makes up the Ratana-sutta,6 a very well-known text that is widely recited as a protection or paritta. The Ratana-sutta itself consists only of the seventeen verses, without any narrative setting, and in Pali sources what is recorded of the background episode comes only from later commentaries:7 the Buddha teaches the verses to Ānanda at the city gate, Ānanda goes around inside the city reciting them, and finally the Buddha himself enters the city and recites them again. The text begins with an invocation and exhortation of the nonhuman spirits present, similar to that of the Mahāvastu version but more detailed. Again, there is one stanza on the Buddha, two on the Dharma, and six on the Saṅgha. The Pali version then adds two more stanzas on the Buddha and an additional one on the Saṅgha, before invoking all Three Jewels at the end in three stanzas said to have been spoken by Sakka (Skt. Śakra).
One intriguing difference between the Mahāvastu version and the Ratana-sutta on the one hand, and these verses from Destroyer of the Great Trichiliocosm on the other, comes in the second of the two stanzas on the Dharma (1.4, where the term ānantariya (“immediate,” “uninterrupted”) applied to meditative absorption in the first two texts is rendered in the present text not by a linguistic equivalent but by vajropama (“vajra-like”), a term that is functionally equivalent in that it, like ānantariya but in different systems (especially in Mahāyāna texts), applies to the stage of the path where the practitioner transitions to the state beyond learning.
A second loose group of texts, less closely similar but derived from the same episode—the Buddha’s quelling of the epidemic in Vaiśālī—are those from the Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya corpus. The long Chapter on Medicines (Bhaiṣajyavastu, sixth chapter of the Vinayavastu, Toh 1)8 contains the episode as just one of a great many other narrative elements, and a verbatim extract from it, The Mahāsūtra “On Entering the City of Vaiśālī” (Vaiśālīpraveśamahāsūtra), containing the Buddha’s full proclamation, mantra, and verses of well-being as taught on the occasion to Ānanda, is found in three different sections of the Degé Kangyur.9 A Sanskrit text closely related to the latter (though with significant differences), the Mahāmantrānusāriṇī, has survived as another part of the Pañcarakṣā group.10 An even shorter extract in Tibetan called The Verses for Well-Being Extracted from the Noble Sūtra “On Entering the City of Vaiśālī” contains only the nineteen verses of well-being, and is found as a standalone text once in the Kangyur and once in the Tengyur.11
The verses of well-being in the Mahāsūtra version (and in the other texts of the second loose group just described) are quite different from the verses in the present text. Instead of invoking all Three Jewels and then focusing particularly on the Saṅgha, as here, the Mahāsūtra stanzas focus more on the Buddha. The general theme is nevertheless similar, and the concluding verses share the same appeal made to the bhūta spirits to change their ways and protect beings instead of harming them.
The text as it is in this extracted form is not mentioned in the imperial early text inventories, but it does appear in the early fourteenth century list of translated texts appended to Butön’s History of the Dharma.12 It was not included in the Thempangma Kangyurs, but it appears in the Tshalpa Kangyurs as early as 1410 in the first printed Kangyur, the Yongle. It was probably not translated from a separate text in Sanskrit but was extracted from the Tibetan translation of its source work, Destroyer of the Great Trichiliocosm, which itself had been translated into Tibetan during the early ninth century by the translator-editor Bandé Yeshé Dé and the Indian scholars Śīlendrabodhi, Jñānasiddhi, and Śākyaprabha.13
This extract could reasonably be described—if approximately, given the differences—as the Tibetan version of the Pali Ratana-sutta, yet it is far from being as well known and as widely used as the Ratana-sutta itself is in Pali Buddhist traditions. In terms of ritual function, the Tibetan Buddhist equivalent is rather the more extensive Mūlasarvāstivādin Mahāsūtra “On Entering the City of Vaiśālī.”
Some intriguing questions remain. Why was the set of verses that happen to match the Ratana-sutta selected from a wide-ranging original text to be reproduced in this extracted form at all? Did the tradition of using texts like this related to the Vaiśālī epidemic as blessings, protections, or dedications go far enough back in history to have predated the differentiation of the various early schools and Vinaya lineages, and to have subsequently survived in more than one? Or did these traditions arise independently in different places? Or were the editors, compilers, and keepers of the canonical texts in fourteenth century Tibet more aware of the significance that this particular set of verses had acquired in other Buddhist cultures than geographical separation might lead us to think? These questions are compounded, moreover, by the addition to the extract of the final four and a half stanzas, which seem to refer to a quite different application.
That answers to these questions may remain elusive in no way diminishes the pleasure we take in introducing to English readers this eloquent, ancient text for well-being.
Homage to the Three Jewels!
✦ ✦ ✦
This completes the aspiration prayer from the words spoken in “Destroyer of the Great Trichiliocosm.”
Note that there is a discrepancy among various databases for cataloging the Toh 1098 version of this text within vol. 101 or 102 of the Degé Kangyur. See Toh 1098 note 1 for details.
stong chen mo rab tu ’joms pa las gsungs pa’i smon lam. Toh 813, Degé Kangyur vol. 96 (rgyud ’bum, wa), folios 253.a–254.a; Toh 1098, Degé Kangyur vol. 101 (gzungs ’du, waM), folios 268.b–269.b.
stong chen mo rab tu ’joms pa las gsungs pa’i smon lam. 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, Toh 813, vol. 96, pp. 830–34; Toh 1098, vol. 98, pp. 939–43.
stong chen mo rab tu ’joms pa’i mdo (Mahāsāhasrapramardanī). Toh 558, Degé Kangyur vol. 90 (rgyud ’bum, pha), folios 63.a–87.b. For translation, see Dharmachakra Translation Committee (2016).
Mahāsāhasrapramardanī. GRETIL edition input by Klaus Wille (Göttingen), based on the edition by Yutaka Iwamoto: Mahāsāhasrapramardanī, Pañcarakṣā I. Beiträge zur Indologie 1. Kyoto, 1937. The verses corresponding to [first set of stanzas 1.2–1.17] are at Msp 24–26, and those corresponding to [final 4.5 stanzas 1.18–1.22] are at Msp 32–33.
Mahāmantrānusāriṇī. For Sanskrit edition, see Skilling (1994–97), pp. 608–22.
Mahāvastu. Sanskrit text online in GRETIL. Based on Émile Senart, ed. Mahāvastu-Avadāna. 3 vols. Paris, 1882–97. Chapter 29 starts at Mvu_1.290.
Ānandajoti, Bhikkhu, trans. The Discourse on the Treasures (English translation of Ratana-sutta). SuttaCentral.
Bhaiṣajyavastu Translation Team, trans. The Chapter on Medicines (Bhaiṣajyavastu, Toh 1, ch. 6). 84000: Translating the Words of the Buddha, 2021.
———(2020). The Mahāsūtra “On Entering the City of Vaiśālī” (Vaiśālīpraveśamahāsūtra, Toh 312, 628, 1093). 84000: Translating the Words of the Buddha, 2020.
Bodhi, Bhikkhu, trans. “Gems” (English translation of Ratana-sutta). In The Suttanipāta: An Ancient Collection of the Buddha’s Discourses Together with its Commentaries, pp. 193–5. Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2017.
Butön (bu ston rin chen grub). bde bar gshegs pa’i bstan pa’i gsal byed chos kyi ’byung gnas gsung rab rin po che’i mdzod. In gsung ’bum/_rin chen grub/ (zhol par ma/ ldi lir bskyar par brgyab pa/) [The Collected Works of Bu-ston: Edited by Lokesh Chandra from the Collections of Raghu Vira], vol. 24, pp. 633–1056. New Delhi: International Academy of Indian Culture, 1965–71.
Dharmachakra Translation Committee. Destroyer of the Great Trichiliocosm (Mahāsāhasrapramardanī, Toh 558). 84000: Translating the Words of the Buddha, 2016.
Jones, J. J., trans. The Mahāvastu, Vol. 1. Sacred Books of the Buddhists. London: Luzac & co., 1949.
Pemaloka, Kotawila Sri Nayaka Thera. The Great Book of Protection: The Text of the Four Recitals (Catubhāṇavārapāli): Sinhala – Maha Pirit Pota, with Translation into English. Colombo: Samayawardhana, 2018.
Piyadassi Thera, trans. The Jewel Discourse (English translation of Ratana-sutta). SuttaCentral. First published 1999.
Skilling, Peter. Mahāsūtras: Great Discourses of the Buddha. 2 vols. Bristol: Pali Text Society, 1994–97.
- kun dga’ bo
- bar chad med pa
- ma ’gags pa
belief in the transitory collection
- ’jig tshogs la lta ba
- ’byung po
- tshangs pa
- bu ston
- ’jigs pa brgyad
- aṣṭa bhayāni
Four Guardian Kings
- rgyal po chen po bzhi
- gang zag zung bzhi
- catvāri yugāni
- gau ta ma
Guardian of the world
- ’jig rten skyong ba
- ’phrog ma
- ’od srung
- kauN+Di n+ya
- dbang phyug chen po
- maud gal gyi bu
- gzungs chen grwa lnga
- yongs su skyob pa
- rgyal po’i khab
- srin po
- brgya byin
- sha ri’i bu
- brgya byin
secret mantra holder
- gsang sngags ’dzin pa
- nyan thos
- them spangs ma
- dbang po’i sdong po
- tshal pa
- yangs pa can
- rdo rje lta bu
- gnod sbyin