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One of the more prominent sūtra sources for the Ratnagotravibhāga, this text tells of the story of Śrīmālādevī taking up the Buddhist path at the behest of her royal parents based on a prophecy of the Buddha. It includes mention of important concepts related to the teachings on buddha-nature, such as the single vehicle and the four perfections, or transcendent characteristics, of the dharmakāya. It also mentions the notion that buddha-nature, which is equated with mind's luminous nature, is empty of adventitious stains but not empty of its limitless inseparable qualities. In his commentary on the Ratnagotravibhāga, Asaṅga quotes this sūtra more than any other source text. In particular, it is considered a source for the fifth of the seven vajra topics, enlightenment.
Relevance to Buddha-nature
This sūtra is quoted by Asaṅga twenty-eight times in his Mahāyānottaratantraśāstravyākhyā, making it the most frequently referenced work in the entire commentary. Though it is primarily considered a source for the fifth vajrapada, enlightenment, it is notable for its discussion of several key concepts related to tathāgatagarbha theory. These include teachings on a single vehicle and it's description of the four perfections (pāramitā) of the dharmakāya, i.e. that it is permanent, blissful, pure, and a self. As well as the notion that buddha-nature is empty of adventitious stains but not empty of its limitless inseparable qualities, which would become the cornerstone of the Shentong position.
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Tsukinowa Kenryū (1940) published an edition of both Chinese versions and the Tibetan translation (with Japanese translation, not containing the Sanskrit materials, which were unknown in his day). English translations are found in A. and H. Wayman (1974), G.C.C. Chang (1983, 363–383), and D. Paul (2004). Key studies are those by Kagawa Takao (1957), Watanabe Shōkō (1968), Tsurumi Ryōdō (1974), Takasaki Jikidō (1974, 97–126), and Matsumoto Shirō (1983). Takasaki Jikidō places the Śrīmālādevīsiṃhanādasūtra after the Tathāgatagarbhasūtra and the Anūnatvāpūrṇatvanirdeśaparivarta.
In the frame narrative of the Śrīmālādevīsiṃhanādasūtra, young Queen Śrīmālā receives a miraculous visitation from the Buddha, who prophesies that she will attain unexcelled perfect awakening (anuttarasaṃyaksaṃbodhi) and preside over her own Buddha land (a perfect heavenlike world created by the power of a Buddha to provide a perfect environment for sentient beings to attain liberation). Śrīmālā makes ten vows to practice various perfections. On the basis of those vows she performs an act of truth, in which the very truth of her words causes physical manifestations in the visible world, and this causes several miracles (flowers from the sky, heavenly sounds, etc.). Śrīmālā expresses three times the aspiration to teach the dharma in numerous lifetimes. The Buddha bestows on her the eloquence to teach, and she preaches the Śrīmālādevīsiṃhanādasūtra. The Buddha approves and levitates back to Śrāvastī (present-day Saheth-Maheth). Śrīmālā returns to Ayodhyā and converts the entire populace.
The doctrinal burden of the Śrīmālādevīsiṃhanādasūtra centers on several main themes. Accepting and safeguarding the true doctrine (saddharma; typically the doctrine of the Śrīmālādevīsiṃhanādasūtra itself, but also that of the Mahāyāna) are of unsurpassed benefit and identical to the six perfections, and all alike aim to promote acceptance of the doctrine of this text by sentient beings. One should renounce even the “body” (life and limb) for the sake of promoting the text, and as a result attain the dharmakāya of the Buddha (comp. the Aṅgulimālīyasūtra below). The achievements of the arhat and the pratyekabuddha of the “Hīnayāna” are paltry in comparison to those of the Mahāyāna, and the text subsumes those other vehicles into the Mahāyāna (it advocates ekayāna, “one vehicle”). Among other things, Mahāyāna is distinguished by the type of nirvāṇa particular to it, which is a docetic illusion for the benefit of sentient beings as upāya (a skillful expedient used by the Buddha to edify sentient beings) and an “inconceivable metamorphosis” (*acintyapariṇāmikī [cyuti]; T. 353 [XII] 219c20–220a2).
Like the Anūnatvāpūrṇatvanirdeśaparivarta, the Śrīmālādevīsiṃhanādasūtra contains an idiosyncratic, technical, shastric doctrinal exposition. The two types of nirvāṇa and death differ because of a subtle level of defilement. Arhats and pratyekabuddhas overcome only *paryutthānakleśa (active defilements; see Tsukinowa, 1940, 85 n1) but not the deeper āvāsakleśas (defilements as habitation; zhudifannao [住地煩惱]), which produce all active defilements. The most fundamental type of defilement is avidyāvāsabhūmi (ignorance as the [fundamental] ground of habitation), which exists from time immemorial and is dissociated from thought (*cittaviprayukta). Only the tathāgatas can destroy this defilement. Because of this, arhats, pratyekabuddhas, and “bodhisattvas who have attained mastery” engender three kinds of “body made of mind” and do not entirely escape saṃsāra; thus, true liberation is possible only for full-fledged tathāgatas and more generally, for adherents of the Mahāyāna.
The tathāgatagarbha doctrine is the domain of the tathāgatas alone; for common people, it is an object of faith. It is the equivalent of the dharmakāya, but whereas tathāgatagarbha is enclosed in the defilements, dharmakāya is free of them. The dharmakāya is originally pure (prakṛtipariśuddha), unconditioned (asaṃskṛta), unborn (ajāta), unarisen (anutpanna), eternal (nitya), changeless (dhruva), and permanent (śāśvata), and it is characterized by eternity, bliss, (true) self, and purity (nitya, sukha, ātman, and śuddha). The mind is also intrinsically pure (*prakṛtipariśuddhacitta, *prakṛtiprabhāsvaracitta) but obscured by adventitious defilements (āgantukakleśa).
(Source: Radich, Michael. "Tathāgatagarbha Scriptures." In Vol. 1, Brill's Encyclopedia of Buddhism: Literature and Languages, edited by Jonathan A. Silk, Oskar von Hinüber, and Vincent Eltschinger, 263. Leiden: Brill, 2015.))
Further crucial notions in the tathāgatagarbha teachings found in the Śrīmālādevīsūtra include linking tathāgatagarbha with emptiness in a particular twofold way—the tathāgata heart (or naturally luminous mind) is empty of adventitious stains but not empty of its limitless inseparable qualities. This is said to be the correct understanding of emptiness, and to understand tathāgatagarbha means to understand emptiness. Those who cling to everything’s being purely empty are those whose minds are distracted from emptiness’s being understood in a proper manner (śūnyatāvikṣiptacitta). Also, the sūtra speaks of the fruition of tathāgatagarbha being the dharmakāya that consists of the four pāramitās of purity, self, bliss, and permanence. Furthermore, the crucial notion of "the ground of the latent tendencies of ignorance" as the basis and sum of all obscurations of the tathāgata heart is used several times in the sūtra. Besides all these elements also being found in the Uttaratantra and RGVV, the general outstanding significance of the Śrīmālādevīsūtra for the teachings on buddha nature is highlighted by the fact that it is the sūtra with by far the greatest number of quotes and references in RGVV (cited twenty-eight times). (pp. 14-15)
- Sanskrit fragments of this sūtra (three folios of the final section and two folios related to other sections) were recently discovered as part of a Buddhist manuscript collection in Afghanistan, somewhat ironically in a cave where Taliban forces had sought shelter. This collection was bought by the Norwegian collector Martin Schøyen, and the fragments of the Śrīmālādevīsūtra were edited by M. Kazunobu in Buddhist Manuscripts I (Oslo: Hermes Publishing, 2000), 65–76. The sūtra also exists in one Tibetan (D45.48, twenty-three folios) and two Chinese translations (Taishō 310 and 353). For English translations and studies, see Wayman and Wayman 1974 as well as Diana M. Paul 1979 and 1980.
- Note that, in Tibetan texts, this term is often understood as, or equated with, "those whose disposition is cut-off" (rigs chad), in the sense of people who do not possess any disposition for nirvāṇa or buddhahood (agotraka) and thus will never attain it. However, if "disposition" (got) is understood as an equivalent of buddha nature, many sūtras, RGVV, and other texts explain that there is nobody who does not possess it. On the other hand, if "disposition" is understood as roots of virtue (as in some other sūtras and Yogācāra texts such as the Mahāyānasūtrālaṃkāra), one speaks of beings who have no disposition for nirvāṇa because they lack any roots of virtue. Still, there are different opinions as to whether this means that these beings will never attain nirvāṇa or are eventually able to attain it through accumulating virtue at some point in the future. For details on this issue, see the note on the potential verse from the Abhidharmamahāyānasūtra in the translation of RGVV (J37).
- As elaborated in a note on RGVV’s explanation of this term (J75), it entails some ambiguity because it can be understood as being distracted by or from emptiness. To be distracted by emptiness refers to being distracted by a wrong understanding of emptiness (such as taking it to be nihilism or clinging to emptiness as an entity). To be distracted from emptiness means to be distracted from the correct understanding of emptiness, which RGVV identifies as the principle of what emptiness means in the case of the tathāgata heart.
- According to K. Takao (see Shiu 2006, 79), based on his research on the development of the four characteristics of the dharmakāya as being permanent, blissful, pure, and a self, the Bodhisattvagocaropāyaviṣayavikurvāṇanirdeśasūtra was the third-earliest sūtra on tathāgatagarbha. However, I could not even find any mention of the dharmakāya, let alone its having these four characteristics, in the Tibetan version of this sūtra (D146).
Philosophical positions of this text
|Other Titles||~ Śrīmālādevīsūtra|
|Text exists in||~ Tibetan|
|Canonical Genre||~ Kangyur · Sūtra · dkon brtsegs · Ratnakūṭa|
|Literary Genre||~ Sūtras - mdo|
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About the text
Perhaps one of the most influential of the early tathāgatagarbha scriptures was the Śrīmālādevīsiṃhanādanirdeśa, known in English as The Lion’s Roar of Queen Śrīmālā. Although it is no longer extant in Sanskrit, it was evidently highly influential in India, judging by the many references to it in other scripture. Diana Paul argues that it was composed at least by the year 350, to give it time to gain popularity in India and be brought to China, where it was translated in 435. In the sūtra Queen Śrīmālā of Ayodhyā is prompted by a letter from her parents to supplicate the Buddha, who appears before her and inspires her to teach. The main topics of her discourse are tathāgatagarbha, the single vehicle, and the Four Noble Truths. Although the sūtra affirms that all beings share the same buddha-nature, the Śrīmālā asserts that śrāvakas and pratyekabuddhas (that is, non-Mahāyāna Buddhists) cannot comprehend the steps needed to shed adventitious stains and reveal the intrinsic purity of mind; only bodhisattvas can. Thus while the sūtra proclaims a single vehicle and universal buddha-nature, it does so with some reservation, suggesting a Yogācāra influence. This inequality is probably an indication of the scripture’s early date: Mahāyāna communities were still in competition with the earlier Buddhist orders, and bodhisattvas and śrāvakas could not be depicted as equals.
In When the Clouds Part Karl Brunnhölzl draws attention to a novel conception of emptiness in the Śrīmālā: tathāgatagarbha “is empty of adventitious stains but not empty of its limitless inseparable qualities.” With this the sūtra seems to be addressing the question of how tathāgatagarbha theory is to be addressed by Madhyamikas. If tathāgatagarbha is another name for emptiness, as some Madhyamaka theorists would argue, then buddha-nature ought to conform with Madhyamaka definitions of emptiness and lack its own qualities. Instead, buddha-nature is described as empty of all but its own characteristics, an early suggestion of a philosophical view that came to be known in Tibet as “other-emptiness.”
The Śrīmālādevīsiṃhanādanirdeśa was translated twice, first in 435 by Guṇabhadra as the Shengman shizi hou yicheng da fangbian fangguang jing 勝鬘師子吼一乘大方便方廣經 (T353). Guṇabhadra worked with a disciple of the great Central Asian translator Kumārajīva named Baoyun 寶雲, who was also a companion to Faxian. The second is Shengman furen hui (T310), done by Bodhiruci (of the Tang) (572–727) between 706 and 713 as part of his translation of the Ratnakūṭa scriptural collection. Paul mentions that Chinese catalogs record two translations made prior to Guṇabhadra’s, one by and Dharmakṣema and the other done in 320 by a monk named Seng Fani 僧法尼. She suspects that the records may in fact point to the presence of Sanskrit manuscripts circulating in the region and several failed attempts at translations. Paul lists six commentaries to the Śrīmālādevī, the first being done before the year 500 and the last in 722, which attest to its popularity.
The Tibetan canon has only one translation of the Śrīmālādevīsiṃhanādanirdeśa, the 'Phags pa lha mo dpal phreng seng ge'i sgra shes bya ba theg pa chen po'i mdo (D92), which is part of the Ratnakūṭa collection translated by Jinamitra, Surendrabodhi, and Yeshe De.
- Paul, The Buddhist Feminine Ideal, 1.
- Paul, The Buddhist Feminine Ideal, 25.
- Brunnhölzl, When the Clouds Part, 14.
- Radich, The Mahāparinirvāṇa-mahāsūtra, 97.
- Paul, Buddhist Feminine Ideal, 16.
- Paul, Buddhist Feminine Ideal, 2.
- Paul, Buddhist Feminine Ideal, 18.
- Paul, Buddhist Feminine Ideal, 2; 200, n4.
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