Featured Translation: “The Questions of an Old Lady”

The featured translation in the reading room is “The Questions of an Old Lady”. This sutra contains teachings given by the Buddha to a 120-year-old woman in the city of Vaiśali. Upon meeting the Buddha, she asks him questions concerning the four stages of life, the aggregates, the elements and the faculties. In response, the Buddha gives her a profound teaching on emptiness, using beautifully crafted examples to illustrate his point.

Considering the cultural norms of the time, the fact that the teaching contained in this sutra was given entirely to a lay woman and, moreover, to a very old and impoverished lay woman, makes it stand apart. The setting of this text is the ancient capital city of Vaiśali. The old lady, whose name we are never told, asks the Buddha such profound questions that Ananda realizes she is not an ordinary woman, but one whose wisdom comes from merit collected in past lifetimes. As it turns out, the Buddha reveals that she has been his mother for five hundred lifetimes.

The main body of the text, which consists of the Buddha’s teachings in answer to the old lady’s questions, is an explanation of emptiness. To put it briefly, the Buddha says no phenomenon arises of its own accord. Neither does any phenomenon give rise to any other phenomenon. All phenomena arise owing to their dependence upon collections of causes and conditions. Hence, there is no independent phenomenon, though we may use terms to indicate various phenomena as if they were independent. After the Buddha’s teaching, the old lady realizes this profound truth. The Buddha prophesies that she herself will one day become a buddha. In earlier lifetimes he had planted roots of virtue and made strong aspirations for her to do so.

The featured sutra was translated from Tibetan into English under the supervision of Khenpo Ngawang Jorden by the Venerable Jampa Losal and the laywoman YangDol Tsatultsang, members of the Sakya Pandita Translation Group – International Buddhist Academy Division in Kathmandu, Nepal. 84000 provided a grant in support of the translation effort.

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