On January 23, 2013, the featured translation “Purification of Karmic Obscurations” was published in our online reading room.
We interviewed Ina Bieler, main translator of the Garchen Institute Translation Group, to find out more about this text.
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Please give a synopsis of this text.
The theme of the sutra is to show how the Buddha deals with violation of moral ethics in this particular case, or from this level.
It begins with a monk who is going around begging for alms, and not knowing that one of those houses is the house of a prostitute. She invites him in, and he enters and requests for some alms. She was overcome with desire for the monk and wanted to seduce him, and the monk rejected and he said he would rather die than to break his vows. She then pretended that she would consent to that and she would never ask him to break his vows.
But then she poisoned him. She put some intoxicants into his meal that she offered to him, and he became intoxicated, and he broke his vows with this prostitute. After he became sober again, he had very strong regret, and he felt he would go to the hell realms, and there is no other solution for him than to go to the hell realm. So he was lamenting and crying, and he broke down on the way to the temple.
Manjushri, the youthful Manjushri, came and lifted him up. He shared his story with him, and Manjushri brought him to the Buddha, knowing that the Buddha could help him. He went to the Buddha, and he was so embarrassed that he couldn’t even tell his story, so Manjushri told it for him.
So the Buddha gave a historical account. He said many, many years in the past, there was this merchant’s family, and there was this really beautiful daughter. One day a monk came to ask for alms, and the beautiful daughter fell in love with him. He was very virtuous, so he left.
Then she was heartbroken, and she couldn’t tell anyone. She knew she couldn’t have this monk, because this is not correct. So she suffered herself, and she stopped eating. She wanted to die. So finally, just on the verge of death of starving, that dying from starvation, then she told her girlfriends that she had fallen in love with this monk. Then the girlfriends couldn’t bear it, they had to tell her mother.
So then the mother actually also didn’t want to bring her together with the monk, but she didn’t want her daughter to die, so she had to trick the monk. So she told the monk, “My daughter wants to learn the Dharma, would you kindly teach her the Dharma?”
“Of course I would agree to do that.”
So he came, and he saw this girl being sick, and he asked, “Why is she sick?”
The mother said, “It’s my fault. It’s because I didn’t allow her to learn the Dharma. But now she is almost dying, so I have to bring you, you have to teach her.”
It is like an act of bodhisattva, and of course he wanted to teach her. So he came regularly to teach the Dharma, and slowly they fell in love, and he broke his vows, and they had this relation.
But then, this girl had a suitor that wanted to marry her. He was very jealous, and he wanted to kill the monk. Rumors were going around and the monk heard about it, that this suitor wanted to kill him. He was so afraid that he thought: “I should kill the suitor.” So he gave her some yoghurt with poison and said, “You have to kill the suitor.”
She said, “I can’t kill the suitor.”
And he said, “If you love me, then you will kill the suitor.”
Of course she loved him. Then she gave this yoghurt to the maid, and the maid offered to the suitor. He ate it, and he died.
Then after he died, the monk was overcome with regret: “Not only did I break my vows, for the sake of doing that, I even killed a person. There’s nothing worse than that. I have to go to the hell realms.”
Again the Buddha came to lift him up. He gave him teachings, explaining to him by means of asking him questions, like “What is the mind of desire that arose in you?” The Buddha tried to make him understand by asking him questions. He finally realized that the mind is emptiness. Based on this realization, he gained this level of patient acceptance that all phenomena are unborn, which is apparently an accomplishment that one attains at the 8th bodhisattva bhumi. So that was the story.
And then we come back to the present time of the Buddha when he was teaching this monk. The Buddha said that, if you study this sutra, then even if you have done things like this monk, you can attain this patient forbearance that realizes the unborn nature of phenomena, so therefore practice this sutra.
What did you find interesting about this text?
It was interesting how he handled the violation of monastic vows. Because monastic vows comes from the Vinaya system, so if it comes from there, you would think that you also observe it according to the Vinaya system. And when it is broken, it is dealt with the Vinaya system. That is not the impression I got from the sutra. Although he had this Vinaya vow, the monastic vow, the Buddha didn’t deal with it in that way. The Buddha dealt with it from the mahayana perspective, the Six Paramitas, and the real nature of desire, emptiness. This I found really interesting, and actually even more effective.
I was quite impressed that the Buddha’s method always seems to be asking questions back to the student who made a mistake. And then they give the Buddha an answer, their understanding. And then he asked them back, and then defined their thought. They figured it out themselves by being asked so many questions.
So the Buddha teaches by means of having them see it for themselves. It’s very effective. Because then it’s not some kind of punishment that you don’t understand. Then you may go back to it without realizing anything. But actually he realized something there. That is why he probably became completely free of any kind of vow-breaking, and that is completely purified, and will never happen again, because now he is a bodhisattva.
And also, I found it very nice how the Buddha was teaching the Six Paramitas. Very interesting perspective actually. Because he said that, if you have love or bodhicitta, then you have the Six Paramitas. And that’s actually something that Garchen Rinpoche always teaches. It’s not that you practice this and this and this, because the Buddha actually said that there is those monks who practice patience, and then they scold everyone else who doesn’t practice patience. Because they have really no compassion. They just are very proud about their own discipline, their own practice, their own samadhi, or their own moral ethics, their vows, and then they look down on those monks who break their vows. There’s just no compassion. So the Buddha said this is not the way to practice the Six Paramitas. This is not the way to keep moral ethics, with a rigid mind that looks down on everyone who doesn’t, but rather with a compassionate mind that feels very sorry for those who don’t. So for this, I found really nice too. It’s really beautiful to see, because I see that also our teachers are actually teaching the words of the Buddha. It’s the actual words of the Buddha.