The Sutra of Forty-Two Sections
Translated by the Monks Kasyapamatanga and Dharmaratna of the Later Han from the Western Regions
This preface tells of Emperor Ming of Han having a dream of a divine being with a golden body and features emitting light flying in front of the palace. The Emperor asked his minsters who this figure was. One minister said that he had heard of an enlightened being in India that might be the being that he had seen. His name was the Buddha and he could fly. Thereupon the Emperor sent a party, including Qing Jing, Wang Zun, and others to the state of Tokhara to fetch the Sutra of Forty-Two Sections.
Buddha said: The man who leaves his family, quits his house, enters on the study of supreme reason, searches out the deepest principle of his intelligent mind, (so as to) understand the law which adroits of no active exertion,–this man is called a Shaman. Such an one, ever practising the 250 rules (viz. those contained in the book of the “four divisions”), following in the four paths, aspiring to and attaining a state of perfect rest and purity, completes in himself the condition of an Arhat.
The Arhat is able to fly, change his appearance, fix the years of his life, shake heaven and earth. The successive steps (towards this condition) are: A-na-hom (Anagami), which is the condition that allows a man at the end of his life to mount in soul above the nineteen heavens, and in that region of bliss to attain the condition of Arhat; next (is the condition) of Sz’-to-hom (Sakradagami), in which after one birth and death more, a man becomes an Arhat: next (is the condition of) Sü-to-hun (i.e. Sowan), in which, after seven births and deaths more, a man may obtain the state of a Arhat. These are they who have entirely cut off their passions of love and desire, which like severed branches of the tree are now useless (and dead).
Buddha said: He who shaves his head and beard in order to become a Shaman and receive the law of Buddha, (must) forego all worldly wealth, and beg a sufficiency of food for his support, eating one meal in the middle of the day, and occupying one abode beneath a tree, and desire nothing more! That which causes a man to become foolish and blind, is nothing more than lust and desire!
Buddha said: Living creatures by ten things attain virtue and by ten things become vile; what are these ten things? There are three pertaining to the body, four to the mouth, three to the thoughts; the three pertaining to the body are the slaughter of living creatures, theft, lust; the four belonging to the mouth are double-tongueness, slandering, lying, hypocrisy (or glozy conversation); the three evils of the thought are envy, anger, and wandering thoughts (chi). Disbelief in the three precious ones is the true source of all this evil. But the yan-po-sat (upasamandi) who observes the five rules untiringly, and advances to the ten, he must obtain reason.
Buddha said: A man guilty of many crimes, not repenting himself, does but confirm the sinful principle within his heart, and necessitate his return to the world in a bodily form, just as the water returns to the sea. But when he has personally fulfilled, as far as possible in his circumstances, the destruction and relinquishment of evil, understanding the character of sin, avoiding crime, doing what is right,–this man, the power of guilt destroyed, may obtain reason.
Buddha said: A man foolishly stating or considering that I do that which is not right, will obtain no other refutation from me but that which proceeds from the exercise of my four qualities of love (?), so the more evil he brings against me, the more good will proceed from me; the influence of this resting on me, the effect of that returning to him.
A foolish man once hearing Buddha explaining this doctrine came and blamed him on account of it. Buddha was silent and answered not, pitying the folly of the man which caused him to act thus. At length, when he ceased, Buddha asked, saying, When one man (an inferior) visits another as a matter of politeness, and finds him away from home, what is the expression used to him who pays the visit? They say “chi kwai.” [This passage is very difficult, perhaps a better translation would be this: “What is the polite expression to use to an inferior who, in paying a visit or making a present to another, has not observed the rules of propriety? They say ‘keep–return’ (i.e. do not trouble yourself, allow me to return you your own).”] So now this follower of mine abusing me, I decline also to receive his abuse, and so it will return to himself, a source of misery. For as sound belongs to the drum, and shadow to the substance, so does misery attach itself to the evil doer.
Buddha said: A wicked man who abuses the good one, is like one looking upwards and spitting against heaven; his spittle does not soil the heavens, but returns on himself. Or, when the wind is contrary, like one who aims dust at another, the dust does but return against him who threw it. You cannot injure the good man, the misery will devolve on yourself.
Buddha said: A man who distributes alms from a principle of private affection or violent pity, has not much merit; but he who bestows alms with no private end, but from fealty to the principle of supreme reason, his merit is great indeed! So he who beholds another engaged in almsgiving, and from a principle of reason approves of what he does, and rejoices at it, this man shall also share in the merit of the action itself. It may be asked if the merit of the first is hereby decreased? Buddha (in answer to this) says, Like as many men lighting a fire for cooking rice from one torch, diminish not the light of that one, so is it in this case of merit.
Buddha said: To feed a hundred learned men is not equal in point of merit to feeding one virtuous man; feeding a thousand virtuous men is not equal in merit to feeding one man who keeps the five precepts; feeding ten thousand such is not equal in merit to feeding one Sz’-to-hom (Sakradagami); feeding ten million such is not equal to feeding one Oh-na-hom (anagami); the merit of feeding one hundred million such is not equal to the merit of feeding one Arahat; the merit of feeding ten thousand million such is not equal to the merit of feeding one Pi-chi [Pasé, (Pratyeka)] Buddha; and the merit of feeding one hundred thousand million such is not equal to the merit of feeding one Buddha, and learning to pray to Buddha, desiring him to save mankind. The merit of feeding virtuous men is much greater indeed than the matters which occupy the attention of mere worldly wise men; and the matters of heaven and earth, spirits and demons, are not equal in point of importance to the reverence due to parents; our parents are indeed the most divine of all the gods.
Buddha said: There are five difficult things in the world, viz.: being poor to be charitable; being rich and noble, to learn supreme wisdom; to risk one’s life and yet escape death; to gain sight of the Buddhist scriptures; to be born in the age of a Buddha (or, in the world of a Buddha).
There was a Shaman who asked Buddha “By what influences is supreme reason engendered, and what are its characteristics?” Buddha replied: “Supreme wisdom has no form or qualities; so that to seek a knowledge of it is profitless. If you desire to possess it, guard well your mind (or active powers of will) and conduct. It may be compared to the polishing of a mirror; the dust and dirt disappearing, the brightness of the mirror is at once produced; so it embraces in itself, as it were, the power of beholding that which has form; so separate (yourself) from lust, guard well the passionless (empty) nature of your mind, then you will perceive reason and understand its characteristics.”
Buddha said: What is active virtue but to practise the dictates of reason? What is morality (or virtue), but the highest agreement of the will with the requirements of reason? What is magnanimity, but the untiring exercise of patience under injury? He who bravely bears injury undeserved is a man indeed! And what is a sage (or the wisdom of a sage) but a man whose heart is enlightened and free from stain, all evil conduct destroyed, calm and pure within, without blemish? To combine a complete knowledge of what was before either heaven or earth existed with what happens to-day, a knowledge of the universe when as yet nothing existed, so that there is nothing unknown, unseen, unheard,–to possess this transcendant knowledge is true enlightenment.
Buddha said: A man who cherishes his passions, unable to discern (the beauty of) supreme reason is like (a vase of) impure water in which objects of variegated colours are placed; (such a vase) being shaken up with violence, men coming and looking over the water can perceive none of the objects which ought to be reflected in it. So in the heart lust and passion cause obscurity, so that supreme reason is darkened and hid. But if a man gradually understands and repents of his sins, growing in knowledge, the foul water, losing its obscurity, will become pure, and calm, and clear, reflecting in itself the forms around. So fire placed under a pot, the water in it boiling and bubbling, nothing within it below the surface can be perceived;–so the three moral evils which naturally rage in the heart, causing the five chenk (skandha) to combine with that which is without, in the end p. 344 reason is obscured. It is by the banishment, therefore, of these influences that our spiritual nature is perceived; we leave the trammels of life and death, and ascend up to the land of all the Buddhas, where virtue and reason abide.
Buddha said: A man who cultivates supreme reason is like one who takes a burning torch and enters a dark house; the darkness which dwelt within is immediately dissipated, and lo! light ensues! He who still continues the pursuit of wisdom, and fathoms the systems of true philosophy,–his follies and mistakes all destroyed, there must be perfect illumination!
Buddha said: How can you study the path? How can you practice the way? How can you teach the way? How can you know the true path? You can do all this in a single instant.
Buddha said: To behold heaven and earth, and reflect on their impermanency, so also the mountains and rivers, and all created things, the changes and productions of nature, all fleeting and impermanent; but the heart, relying on this as constant, how quickly reason may be attained!
Buddha said: During an entire day to reflect and act according to the dictates of supreme reason, and in the end to obtain the root of firm faith,–this happiness is indeed immeasurable!
Buddha said: Never tire of reflecting on that which is yourself! Remember that the four elements composing your body, which are sometimes considered as real existences, are, in fact, all mere names, without personality, and that the so-called “I” is but a passing guest, a thing of a moment; all things around us are only illusions!
Buddha said: A man following the dictates of his passions, seeking those so-called sweets of indulgence (flowers), is just like the burning incense, the fragrance of which men may perceive, but the incense itself in those very fumes is self-consumed! So the foolish man, exalting the character of the vulgar enjoyments found in selfish pleasures, and not guarding the treasure of his reason,–the only true source of happiness,–endures both the misery of his past gratification (i.e., of its being passed) and also the bitterness of after repentance!
Buddha said: The man who rudely grasps after wealth or pleasure, is like a child seizing a knife (to cut honey),–the sweet delight of the first taste of the honey is scarcely lost before he perceives the pain of his tongue cut with the knife!
Buddha said: The man enthralled by the deceitful pleasures of concupiscence (marriage), suffers misery greater than the collars p. 345 and chains which bind the inmates of the infernal regions; for from these pains there is remittance, but the desire for the indulgence of sensual passion (wifeage), though it have the misery of the tiger’s mouth, still, by its sweetness of appearance, fascinates the heart. The guilt of such indulgence, how can it be remitted?
Buddha said: Of all the passions (lit., lusts and desires) the greatest is love of women. Besides this,–so great is it,–there is no other. Were there two of the same sort, no mortal would be able to attain supreme reason.
Buddha said: Passion governing a man is like one seizing a torch and rushing with it alight against the wind. The foolish man who does not drop it must have the pain of a burnt hand. So the poisonous root of covetousness, lust, anger, envy, planted in the body of the foolish man, and not early overpowered by the exercise of reason, must necessarily bring calamity and woe, as the hand of this foolish man who desires to carry the torch is burnt.
On a certain occasion a Deva presented a woman of pleasure to Buddha, desiring to tempt him. Buddha thought, I will display the wisdom of Buddha (to this being.) So he said, “For weeds and filth there is a receptacle! What then would you do? Why talk to me of such foolish vulgar things (as sensual desires)? Surely it would be difficult to excite passion in one who has for ever banished the means (tung) by which these things are gratified.” The Deva, overpowered with awe, reverently desired Buddha to explain the subject of supreme reason, which doing, he immediately became a Srotapanna.
Buddha said: Those who practise the acquirement of supreme reason are like a piece of wood which floats down with the tide of a stream, neither touching the left bank nor the right, not detained by any worldly scheme nor misled by spiritual theories (that which concerns spirits, i.e., hope of attaining the condition of a Deva), nor caught in the whirl of the tide to stop and rot;–I will secure that this man enters the sea! So the man who practises reason, not held by the hallucinations of passion, nor the false notions which distinguish the wicked,–this man progressing and banishing doubt, shall under my protection arrive at supreme wisdom.
Buddha said to a Shaman: Beware of placing trust in your thoughts, or they in the end will destroy the groundwork of all belief. Beware of mixing yourself up in worldly matters (? shik), for what are these but the cause of all misery? But the Arhat may trust his thoughts.
Buddha thus addressed all the Shamans: Beware of looking on a woman! if you see one, let it be as seeing her not! Beware of words with a woman; but if you speak with one, with pure heart and upright intention say, “I am a Shaman, necessarily in this impure world; but let me be as a lotus, which grows pure though in the mud.” Is she old? Regard her as your mother. Is she honourable? Consider her as your elder sister. Is she of small account? Consider her as a younger sister. Is she a child? Treat her politely according to the usages of society. Above all, consider in your reasoning that what you see is only the external appearance, within that body what vileness and corruption! So, thinking thus, your evil thoughts will be all banished!
Buddha said: A man practising reason, and (wishful to) expel his lusts, ought to behold himself (or them ?) as stubble awaiting the fire which will come at the end of the world (Kalpa). He would then certainly be earnest in removing these desires and lusts.
Buddha said: There was a man (or there being a man) who, afflicted with sensual lusts which he could not repress, was sitting on sharp knives in order to destroy the members which ministered to his passion (or in order to eradicate his passions or senses); on which Buddha addressed him thus:–“If you should succeed in removing those lustful members, what is this in comparison with the removal of the (lustful) heart? It is the heart which is the workman (at the bottom of all); if you rightly compose this, then all these evil thoughts will be dissipated. But the heart not composed, what profit can arise from removing the member? What is this but mere bodily death?” Buddha said: So it is the world commonly mistakes on these matters.
There was a certain lewd woman who had made an engagement to meet a certain man. When she came not he began to repent himself (of his wickedness), and said: “Lust is but the offspring of my own thought. There being no thought, lust cannot be born.” Buddha passing by and hearing this, said to the Shaman: “I recollect this as a saying of Kasyapa Buddha, and it now has become common in the world.” Buddha said: “Man by lustful desires engenders sorrow; from sorrow springs apprehension (of evil); there being no lust, then there is no sorrow and no apprehension.”
Buddha said: A man practising reason (aiming at the attainment of supreme reason) may be compared to a single warrior fighting against ten thousand. Whilst other soldiers, armed for the battle, rush from the gate, desirous to fight, he yet fears in p. 347 his exhausted state that victory would be difficult, and so retreats from the field. When half way he returns to the conflict resolved to fight and die. This man, having attained the victory, and returning to his country, will (deservedly) be raised to high rank. So the man who is able to hold to the same mind, and, persevering against all obstacles, advances in his work (or profession), uninfluenced by any worldly follies or enticements, his evil desires destroyed, his wicked acts at an end, he must attain perfect wisdom.
There was a Shaman who during a night kept reciting his prayers (the Sutra, or book containing the words of Buddha), the sound of his voice piteous, and worn with fatigue, desiring (by so doing) to bring himself to repent of his sinful thoughts (of returning to the world). Buddha addressing the Shaman, said: “When you were living in the world as a member of a household, what was your particular pursuit?” He replied: “I was constantly practising the lute.” Buddha said: “The strings being slack, what then?” He replied: “There would be no musical sound.” “And the strings too tight, what then?” He said: “The sound would be over-sharp.” “But if they were tuned to a just medium between the slack and over-tight, what then?” He replied: “All the sounds would be concordant and harmonious.” Buddha addressed the Shaman: “The way of supreme learning is even so. Only keep your heart in harmony and union, so you will attain perfect knowledge.”
Buddha said: A man practising the attainment of reason is as the place where (or the mode in which) they found metals, gradually dropping down and separating from the dross; the vessel made from this will be good. The way of wisdom (in like manner, is) by gradually ridding away the corruption of the heart, with earnest perseverance to go on, and thus complete perfect knowledge. If any other way be tried, it is only the cause of weariness to the body, this causes vexation of mind, this transgression in life, and this is only to practise the way of the wicked (or, and this the accumulation of guilt).
Buddha said: A man who is aiming to attain supreme reason has many sorrows, like him that is not engaged in this pursuit; for, considering a man’s experience from the time of his birth to his old age, from this period to the time of his sickness, and from this to his death,–what countless sorrows does he endure! But the heart laden with regrets, guilt stored up, endless life and death,–these sorrows how difficult to speak of!
Buddha said: For a man to avoid the three evil ways of birth (viz., beast, demon, or in hell), and to be born a human being, is difficult; being so, to be born a man and not a woman, is difficult; being so, to have the six passions all well arranged (? to have perfect mind and body, “mens sana in corpora sano”), is difficult; being so, to be born in the middle country (India ?) is difficult; being so, to attain to the knowledge of Buddha’s doctrine is difficult; being so, to become eminent in the knowledge of Buddha is difficult; being so, to be born in the family of a Bosat is difficult; being so, to be born in the age of a Buddha, and heartily to believe in the three precious ones (Buddha, the Law, and the Community) is difficult.
Buddha asked all the Shamans, “What is the time of a man’s life (or in what does a man’s life consist)?” One replied, “(in) a few days (only).” Buddha said, “Son, you are not yet able to attain supreme wisdom.” Again he asked a single Shaman the same question, who answered, “The time of a meal (or of taking a meal).” Buddha answered, “Son, you are not yet capable of attaining supreme reason.” Again he asked the same question of another Shaman, who replied, “Man’s life is but a breath, a sigh!” Buddha answered, “Well said, son! you are able to speak of attaining supreme wisdom.”
Buddha said: A disciple removed from me by a distance of several thousand lis, yet thinking on me and keeping my commandments (nim = observing by recollection), must in the end obtain supreme wisdom. Whilst another who dwells with me, and yet allows rebellious thoughts and does wickedly, he shall in the end not attain supreme reason. Truth of profession resides (or is exhibited) in correct conduct. If a man consorting with me does still not conform to my commandments in his conduct, what benefit will ten thousand precepts be to him?
Buddha said: A man who is practising the attainment of reason, is like one eating honey, which is sweet throughout. So my Scriptures (Sutras) are likewise sweet: the system advocated in them is altogether a source of pleasure. Those who practise it shall attain supreme knowledge.
Buddha said: A man practising the attainment of supreme wisdom, and able to extirpate the root of his lusts and desires, is like one who strikes the suspended gem. (The allusion is either to striking a temple bell, for the assembly or dispersion of the congregation, or it may be to the act of striking or grinding a substance in a mortar, ex. gr.). At every stroke the collection of people, (or the compact substance), is broken up (i.e., for the purpose of resorting to worship). So when all a man’s wicked desires are broken up and dispersed, he will attain supreme wisdom.
Buddha said: All the Shamans who are engaged in the practice of religion ought to regard themselves as oxen carrying loads, and going through the mud; tired with their burdens, they dare not look (or wander) an inch (the least portion) to the right or the left; desiring above all things to get out of the mud, they go straight on, in order that they may obtain some ease and repose themselves. So a Shaman, regarding his lusts and passions as more troublesome than that mud, with a steadfast purpose bending his mind to (the attainment of) reason, will be able to avoid all sorrow.
Buddha said: I regard kings, princes, as to their dignities, only as patches of dust; gold, jewels, as to their value, only as clay fragments; dresses of silk and sarsnet, only as playthings (? pai-pak); the great chiliocosm as the letter ‘a’; the four barren or weedy seas (? nan-shui) only as a miry road (?); the system of complete deliverance, only as a boat for carrying treasure; the highest vehicle (referring, probably, to the Mahayana), only as the gilt sheen of a dream; seeking the wisdom of Buddha only as a flower (which appears in fancy) before the eye; seeking any inferior standing ground, only as (su-ni-chiio ?); seeking Nirvana, as a dead sleep; arriving at rest, as the dancing of the six dragons (?); the state of perfect equanimity, as the one true standing point; the power of endless transformation, as the trees and flowers of the four seasons;–all these things are thus great in comparison only. To hear the law of Buddha is the chief source of joy.
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