A Historic Publication: One of the Kangyur’s Longest Sūtras
Last month we were thrilled to announce the translation and publication of an important sūtra known as The Application of Mindfulness of the Sacred Dharma. This scripture, one of the longest texts of the Tibetan Buddhist Canon, has never before been made fully available in English.
With its 2,158 Tibetan pages, The Application of Mindfulness of the Sacred Dharma is a vast treasury of Dharma and a splendid piece of world literature that stands out as one of the greatest literary works of classical India. It is notable for its vivid and exceedingly detailed depiction of the various realms of saṃsāra, from the hells below to the divine realms above. Short references to the sūtra, its teaching on impermanence, and its calls to renunciation are encountered quite frequently in the Tibetan scholarly tradition, most notably in the Third Karmapa, Rangjung Dorje’s (1284–1339) lengthy compendium to the sūtra, that remains untranslated.
“It is a captivating presentation of the world as perceived by Buddhists in early medieval India,” explains Dr. Andreas Doctor, editorial co-director at 84000. “Its poetic beauty, philosophical profundity and gripping presentation of both the pleasures and miseries of life in saṃsāra certainly deserves the attention of the modern world. It is hard to read this sūtra without becoming deeply influenced by its message of how our personal thoughts and actions shape the world in which we find ourselves, and how shallow life can be without a contemplative element to calm our excited infatuation with the fleeting and insubstantial thoughts and perceptions that otherwise govern our lives.”
In the Degé Kangyur, The Application of Mindfulness of the Sacred Dharma can be found in the general sūtra section where it is placed as the first text in the collection of Śrāvakayāna scriptures. However, this placement among the Śrāvakayāna sūtras has been a topic of some debate among Tibetans, as one finds frequent occurrences of the term “Mahāyāna” within the sūtra’s later sections, and interestingly, the Tibetan translator of the sūtra, Patsap Tsultrim Gyaltsen (eleventh-twelfth cent.), himself classified the text as a Mahāyāna scripture. Still, the later editor of the Degé Kangyur, Situ Panchen Chökyi Jungne (1700–74) classified the sūtra as belonging to the Śrāvakayāna, basing himself on the earlier classification by Butön Rinchen Drub (1290–1364), the famous compiler of the Kangyur. It seems that Butön had himself adopted the Śrāvakayāna classification from the earlier Tibetan inventory of translations, known as the Denkarma, which was compiled in 812.
The epic storyline of The Application of Mindfulness of the Sacred Dharma unfolds as a single, sustained reply to a short question that is put to the Buddha Śākyamuni as the sūtra opens. A group of newly ordained monks have been challenged by the members of another religious group, who suggest that the Buddha’s teachings are indistinguishable from those of their own teacher. Not knowing what to reply, the monks request that the Buddha explain how the path of the sacred Dharma is unlike any other. As the Buddha responds to the monks, he describes the path from the perspective of an adept meditating monk, who applies the Dharma teachings correctly and so discovers the truths of the Dharma. In an account that spans the full spectrum of life in saṃsāra, from the horrifying misery and intense pain of the lower realms to the enrapturing beauty and bliss in the heavens, the Buddha explains how different kinds of physical, verbal, and mental behavior by humans lead to rebirth in such realms of existence.
The generic and unnamed monk, from whose perspective the Buddha explains the subject matter, witnesses the myriad realms of existence from the Hell of Ultimate Torment to the Heaven Free from Strife sometimes by means of the divine eye that is accomplished through meditation, and at other times through the eye of insight that is acquired through hearing the teachings. In this way, the monk comes to directly recognize the matrix of causes and effects that keeps the wheel of cyclic existence turning, and he realizes with clarity how, throughout all this, life and beings’ experiences are utterly impermanent and always determined by their own past actions.
A very substantial part of the sūtra describes the ravishing vistas and amazing events that take place in the heavens. In the midst of these breathtaking descriptions, the sūtra frequently presents pithy teachings of the Dharma, typically given in verses that may be spoken by gods such as Śakra, or by divine birds, such as the king of swans or the peacock king.
However, the accounts of the heavens and the actions that lead to rebirth there come to an abrupt end in the midst of the descriptions of the Heaven Free from Strife. Such accounts give way, for the remainder of the scripture, to a teaching on mindfulness of the body. This latter teaching, which functions mostly as an independent part of the sūtra, presents mindfulness of the body within the framework of the “internal” human body and the “external” body of the outer world. This latter section includes an elaborate description of the human realm according to Buddhist cosmology.
Given the sūtra’s abrupt halt in the middle of the presentation of the Heaven Free from Strife, it seems quite likely that an earlier version of the sūtra might have been significantly longer than the present version and that only a partial version was available to the Tibetan translators. If so, the missing material must, however, have been lost at a very early point in the text’s history, since the Chinese translation (Taishō 721), which was produced during the early sixth century CE, follows exactly the same topical structure.
The Tibetan translation from the Sanskrit was produced during the reign of the Indian king Rāmapāla (ca. 1072–1126), and the Tibetan translator Tsultrim Gyaltsen mentions that their translation was based on several incomplete draft translations that had been produced during the earlier Tibetan translation efforts of the eighth and ninth centuries. Tsultrim Gyaltsen, a monk from Central Tibet, is also known as Patsap Lotsāwa (but is not the same as the later Patsap Lotsāwa Nyima Drakpa famous as a translator of Madhyamaka texts). He further mentions that he worked on the translation together with a large team of Indian paṇḍitas, such as Śāntākaragupta, Abhayākaragupta, Śakyarakṣita, Vīryākaraśānti, Subhūticandra, and Aḍitacandra, and although not a great deal is known about him Tsultrim Gyaltsen seems to have traveled to the great university monastery of Vikramaśīla in Magadha (modern Bihar) to study and work with these masters. He is also responsible for bringing back to Tibet a collection of sādhanas known as The Hundred Sādhanas of Patsap, found in the Tengyur (Toh 3143-3305), which he translated under the direction of the great Abhayākaragupta of Vikramaśīla.
This new English translation is likewise a product of many translators and editors—this time, around the world—collaborating over several years. First started by Dharmachakra Translation Committee in 2015, it took almost four years to translate. Subsequent editorial and technical work carried out at 84000 took another two years, with one particular challenge to its online publication being its enormous size. This complication necessitated rebuilding the entire Reading Room at 84000 to accommodate the variety of download options readers require today.
“We are—for the first time in centuries on such a vast scale—bringing to life primary-source material that is invaluable for Buddhist practitioners, contributes to international scholarship on Buddhist history and philosophy, and provides insight into the transfer of wisdom cultures across Asia,” says Huang Jing Rui, executive director at 84000. “But it’s equally important for us to integrate new technologies with our digital library giving the general reader access to interactive comprehension tools and bridging that gap between the ancient authors and the modern world.”
Now, at long last, The Application of Mindfulness of the Sacred Dharma is published, marked up with interactive glossary features, and ready for free download by scholars, practitioners, historians, and interested readers around the world.
Posted: 30 Mar 2021