Sūtras in the Clouds: Making it Rain with Dharma
Landscapes of the Four Seasons, Kano Tan’yū, Edo period (1615–1868), metmuseum.org
“It’s in the cloud.” Though it has been less than twenty years since that metaphorical expression was first coined (by Eric Schmidt of Google at a conference in 2006), many of us are now as accustomed to understanding “the cloud” to mean a huge store of digital data, somewhere up there in cyberspace that we can access from anywhere, as we are to the real clouds up there in the sky. But Buddhist tradition has been using clouds in a similar metaphor for at least two thousand years.
Clouds—the ones in the sky—are ideal as images. First, they look so real and massive but in fact are ephemeral and insubstantial, ideal as metaphors and similes for Buddhist teachings on the transient nature of phenomena. Second, they hide from us the vast blue sky, or the light of the sun and moon, and that aspect of clouds as similes for obscurations will be very familiar to many Buddhists. Like obscurations, clouds may get in the way, but they can be dispersed, and the sky is always there, whether or not there are clouds in it.
But in many sūtras, there is a third metaphor—perhaps the oldest—in which clouds symbolize something more positive. They gather in the sky and shower down the refreshing, life-giving rain that fills springs, streams, rivers, and lakes, allows crops and fruit to grow, washes away dust and grime, and nourishes the land. Particularly in Asia with its seasonal
patterns of rainfall, the monsoon clouds that build up over the oceans and sweep across the land every year are a vital part of the rhythm of life.
The life-sustaining miracle of how water cycles, from the sea to clouds and rainfall over the land, naturally lends itself to an image of how the Dharma itself gathers and multiplies like a great cloud in the vastness of space, stirred up by the winds of the buddhas’ compassion, and showers down upon us all the vital, nurturing teachings and instructions we need. Indeed, the very highest of the ten successive grounds that describe the path of bodhisattvas toward buddhahood is called “the cloud of Dharma.” Clouds are everywhere in Buddhist literature.
Grouped together in the Kangyur are five sūtras whose very titles mention clouds. The first, The Jewel Cloud
(Toh 231) is a magnificent and much quoted work, one of the first sūtras translated into Tibetan in the seventh century. The first English translation was published by 84000 four years ago, in 2019. It contains several mentions of the great cloud of Dharma that bodhisattvas can access as a resource, and themselves contribute to; it also mentions clouds of offerings made to the Buddha by bodhisattvas from other worlds. Clouds, however, do not seem to be a persistent theme throughout the text, and apart from its being a great mass of important teachings, it is not entirely clear why the sūtra has that title.
In contrast, the centrality of the cloud theme is in no doubt for the second sūtra in this group, The Great Cloud (1)
(Toh 232). All sixty-seven of the bodhisattvas present when the Buddha gives this discourse have names including the word “cloud,” and one of them, Great Cloud Essence, is the main interlocutor. In answer to his questions, the Buddha describes the discourse he is about to give as a great treasury of nectar-like rain of the Tathāgata’s qualities, wisdom, and activity, that will nourish the bodhisattvas’ virtuous roots, and ripen their own activity as they mature into tathāgatas themselves. It is, he says, a great ocean of Dharma that—
“During times of drought, … miraculously emanates a great cloud with virtuous qualities that fills the treasury of samādhi of the constant sacred Dharma with a rain of inexhaustible nectar.” (1.105)
Among the miraculous events that occur as he announces the teaching, the first is the arising of a great mass of clouds—
“… black like obsidian, and filled with water possessing the four aspects of
that then crash and reverberate with thunder, sending down a great torrent of jewels and sweet water, that fills all the streams and rivers so that they babble and rush with life, replenishes lakes and ponds, and causes the whole joyful earth to produce wealth and happiness.
The long teaching that follows covers a multitude of different topics, but among them is the recurring theme that the Buddha’s presence is eternal, like the sky itself, even if the clouds of teaching and benefit that appear to gather, rain down, and then disappear might seem to be evanescent.
The way clouds, and the life-sustaining rain they produce, is used in this sūtra as an image to illustrate the nurturing power of the Buddha’s teachings appears to have resonated beyond the purely metaphorical and was linked, in Buddhist communities all over Asia, with very real concerns about rainfall and the earth’s sustenance of life. Two of the three remaining sūtras in this group, all three of which are said to have originally been parts of this same Great Cloud Sūtra or a longer version of it, are centrally concerned with rituals for summoning actual rain.
The Great Cloud (2)
(Toh 235) is one of these two rainmaking texts. In it, a large group of nāgas receive the Buddha in their own domain. Nāgas in Indian tradition are, of course, closely associated with water, clouds, and rain, and are seen elsewhere in Asia as dragons with their role in thunderstorms. They frequently appear in sūtras and other Buddhist narratives, both as recipients of the Buddha’s teaching and as a category of living being with great importance in the earth’s water-sustained abundance—which they can obstruct if they are offended or not at peace with each other.
In this text, the nāgas start by promising to fill the sky with immeasurable, emanated clouds of offerings to the Buddha, all beautifully described (1.5–1.18
). In response to their request, the Buddha teaches them a dhāraṇī that will dispel both the suffering of the nāgas themselves and also ensure the wellbeing of other living creatures (1.22–1.26
). He also lists the names of a large number of tathāgatas, all associated with clouds, that they should remember and uphold for the same purposes (1.27–1.31
They then ask the Buddha for instructions on how to produce rainfall at times of drought and famine, and in response the Buddha gives them a long dhāraṇī, the recitation of which will ensure the right amount of rain will fall in all situations (1.34–1.60
The sūtra ends with some specifications on how a rainmaking ritual is to be performed. The ritual recitation of this sūtra itself, in accordance with the instructions it contains in this final section, has been used over the centuries in many Asian Buddhist traditions.
Might it even be that the presence of these new translations in “the cloud”—accessible to all, from anywhere, to be enjoyed at any time—could itself contribute in some way to our addressing the increasingly disturbed weather patterns and problems of rainfall and water resources that we all face?
We hope this brief introduction to these magnificent texts will inspire you to read them in full.
Posted: 28 Apr 2023