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'phags pa sor mo'i phreng ba la phan pa zhes bya ba theg pa chen po'i mdo
yang jue mo luo jing
D213   ·  T120

The Mahāyāna version of this sūtra, like the earlier Pali sutta of the same name, recounts a sorted tale of jealousy and revenge that spirals out of control, in which a once promising disciple is set on the path to become a vicious murderer in search of a thousand victims in order to create a garland strung with their severed fingers. That is, of course, until he encounters the final victim needed to complete his task, the Buddha. (You can read the story here). The Mahāyāna version is routinely included among the lists of so-called tathāgatagarbha sūtras, the reason likely being the extensive discussion the protagonist has with Mañjuśrī on the proper view of emptiness. The position presented in the text has been taken by some to be an early precursor to the view of other-emptiness.

Relevance to Buddha-nature

This text is included among the class of tathāgatagarbha sūtras and features several important concepts related to buddha-nature, such as the singe vehicle and a universal element possessed by sentient beings that is equated with the ultimately pure nature of the mind. It also includes some proto-Zhentong explanations of emptiness as an absence of the extraneous, rather than an inherent quality of nothing-ness.

Scholarly notes

The Aṅgulimālīyasūtra (Scripture on Aṅgulimālīya) is extant in two versions:
  1. the Yangjuemoluo jing (央掘魔羅經; T. 120), translated by Guṇabhadra; and
  2. the Sor mo’i phreng ba la phan pa (D 213/Q 879), translated by Śākyaprabha, Dharmatāśīla, and Tong Ācārya (9th cent.).

The main studies on this text are by Takasaki Jikidō (1974, 191–233), Ogawa Ichijō (1999; 2001, 7–15), Kanō Kazuo (2006), Suzuki Takayasu (1999a; 1999b; 2000), and L. Schmithausen (2003). Suzuki Takayasu notes that the Aṅgulimālīyasūtra, like the *Mahābherīhārakasūtra, refers to its preachers as *hitopadeṣṭṛ (teachers for the benefit [of others]).
      Like the Mahāparinirvāṇamahāsūtra, the Aṅgulimālīyasūtra reworks a scenario from mainstream canonical scripture – this time, the conversion of the bandit and murderer Aṅgulimāl(īy)a (see Theragāthā vv. 866–891; Majjhimanikāya, 86). The Aṅgulimālīyasūtra thus betrays a concern with the power of the dharma to save even hopeless sinners, also seen in the Mahāparinirvāṇamahāsūtra (the portions found in the Dharmakṣema translation) on the salvation of Ajātaśatru (famed for killing his father, Bimbisāra, in order to usurp his throne), the Mahāmeghasūtra’s docetic reinterpretation of Devadatta, and icchantika doctrine.
      Aṅgulimālīya is originally a Brahman youth named *Sarvalokapriyadarśana, connecting him to the central protagonist of the Mahāparinirvāṇamahāsūtra group. He is accused by the wife of his teacher of sexually molesting her, and the teacher convinces Aṅgulimālīya to expiate his guilt by killing a thousand people and making a trophy garland of their severed fingers (the source of his grisly soubriquet – Aṅgulimālīya [“Finger Garland”]). Having killed 999 people, Aṅgulimālīya prepares to kill his mother. The Buddha intervenes, and Aṅgulimālīya wants to kill him, too. Instead, the Buddha manages to convert him. Various deities and advanced disciples express their admiration at the conversion, and Aṅgulimālīya defeats each in battles of Buddhist wit (often versified) and mastery of the dharma. Aṅgulimālīya takes precepts and is ordained by the Buddha. When Prasenajit comes to arrest Aṅgulimālīya, the Buddha declares that he has already become a tathāgata in a distant Buddha world, and that the teacher, the teacher’s wife, Aṅgulimālīya’s mother, and Aṅgulimālīya’s murders were all merely expedient phantoms to teach sentient beings.
      The Aṅgulimālīyasūtra is elaborately concerned with the Buddha’s body (or, more accurately, the various special bodies that buddhas have or appear to have). The Buddha dwells “at the limit of the unproduced” (zhu wusheng ji [住無生際]; T. 120 [II] 533b6) in this ordinary world of ours (the Sahāloka), without really entering parinirvāṇa, and simultaneously also dwells in other buddha worlds. This is possible because he “is born in an unborn body” (or “arises in an unproduced body”; sheng busheng shen [生不生身]; 533b15–16). All the tathāgatas in all quarters of the cosmos are in fact doppelgängers of Śākyamuni. The Buddha also has other types of extraordinary body (or his body is described using other extraordinary epithets): he is “born in a reality-limit body” (sheng shiji shen [生實際身]; 533b7–9), and he dwells in a “limitless body” (or “countless bodies”; shenwubian [身無邊]; c1). This body is the dharmakāya – unconditioned; free of old age, sickness, death, and defilements; permanent and quiescent; and so on. The Buddha has attained this body, paradoxically, by giving up his (physical) body in countless incarnations. This lengthy exposition is linked in part to the prophecy complex common to the Mahāparinirvāṇamahāsūtra group. The Aṅgulimālīyasūtra emphasizes the hardship to be endured by promulgators of tathāgatagarbha doctrine during the end-times; bodhisattvas have to be prepared to give up their bodies and their lives. Presumably, they too are promised the reward of the dharmakāya in exchange for such sacrifice.
      The Aṅgulimālīyasūtra emphasizes strenuous practice and incorporates long discussion to ward off interpretations of tathāgatagarbha doctrine leading to moral lassitude or even antinomianism. The text also contains an amusing story relating to naked tīrthaka ascetics, clearly satirizing Digambara Jaina practice. This story is juxtaposed with the ban on meat eating and with the use of “pure” (presumably strained) water for cooking, to avoid harming tiny bugs. This may suggest that these practices were instituted to “keep up with the Jainas” (Nattier, 1991, 21).
      The Aṅgulimālīyasūtra shares with the Mahāparinirvāṇamahāsūtra group tathāgatagarbha/buddha nature preached as explicitly connected with *ātman (*ātmadhātu [wojie (我界)]) and concealed by defilements, the eternity of the Tathāgata, the secret teachings, the promotion of faith (xin [信]) toward the teaching of tathāgatagarbha, and concern with the worst sinners, including the icchantika.

(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, 268-69. Leiden: Brill, 2015.)

Description from When the Clouds Part

Like the Mahāparinirvāṇasūtra, the Aṅgulimālīyasūtra[1] is a mahāyāna version of an earlier Nikāya sūtra with the same name,[2] and it also stresses the ethical and practical aspects of the tathāgatagarbha teachings. For example, the sūtra says that practitioners keep proper Buddhist discipline and so on because they possess buddha nature.

      The sūtra centers around the ex-serial killer Aṅgulimāla, whose guru had told him to kill one thousand people and collect a finger from each one, which he wore as a necklace (thus his name "Finger-Necklace"). After having murdered 999 persons, he met the Buddha and intended to make him his last victim. However, despite his running as fast as he could, he could not reach the Buddha, who kept walking at normal speed. After a brief conversation, he became the Buddha’s student and quickly attained arhathood. As one of its highlights, the sūtra contains a debate between the arhat Aṅgulimāla and Mañjuśrī (who defends the emptiness of the prajñāpāramitā sūtras) on the correct understanding of emptiness, nirvāṇa, tathāgatagarbha, and the dharmakāya, which clearly favors the superiority of emptiness as having the meaning of tathāgatagarbha and buddhahood’s being empty only of stains but not in every respect (of course, this is reminiscent of Tibetan debates about Rangtong and Shentong). The debate culminates in Mañjuśrī’s encouraging Aṅgulimāla to meditate on the great emptiness of all phenomena that is nothing whatsoever.[3] Aṅgulimāla asks Mañjuśrī what the meaning of always saying "empty, empty" is, which Mañjuśrī answers with a verse about all phenomena’s, including the kāyas and wisdoms of the Buddha, being like space, without characteristics, ungraspable, and formless. Aṅgulimāla replies as follows:

Childish beings may think of hailstones as being gems and take them home, but then they see them melt and think, "Oh, they are empty." Likewise, through reflecting and meditating on utter emptiness, you, Mañjuśrī, see all phenomena dissolve. You even think that liberation, which is not empty, is empty. Just as some people may meditate on gems as being empty due to their mistaking hailstones for gems and seeing those hailstones melt away, you even think of nonempty phenomena as being empty. Seeing phenomena as empty, you also destroy nonempty phenomena as being empty. However, empty phenomena are different from nonempty phenomena. Just like hailstones, the billions of afflictions are empty. Just like hailstones, nonvirtuous phenomena swiftly perish. But the Buddha and liberation are permanent, like a beryl. As for space, buddhas have form, while all śrāvakas and pratyekabuddhas lack form. The liberation of a buddha is also form, while the liberations of śrāvakas and pratyekabuddhas lack form, so how can you say that the characteristic of liberation is to be empty? Do not entertain this notion of there being no [such] divisions.
      If there are no people in a house, it is empty. If there is no water in a vase, it is empty. If no water flows in a river, it is empty. The house is not empty in all respects—it is called "empty" because there are no people in it. The vase is not empty in all respects—it is called "empty" because there is no water in it. The river is not empty in all respects—it is called "empty" because no water flows in it. Likewise, liberation is not empty in all respects—it is called "empty" because it is free from all flaws. The Buddha is not empty either—he is called empty because he is free from all flaws and lacks any human or divine existence entailing billions of afflictions. Alas, Mañjuśrī, you behave like a mosquito, not understanding the precise meaning of empty and nonempty. The Nirgranthas[4] also meditate on everything’s being empty, so you Nir- grantha mosquito, say no more![5]

      Prior to this debate, the Buddha answers the classical question why all sentient beings are not enlightened, if they all possess the tathāgata heart. He says that even if all buddhas searched with great effort, they would never find any stains in the tathāgata heart, and this stainless tathāgata heart adorned with infinite major and minor marks exists in all sentient beings.[6] The tathāgata heart is covered by billions of afflictions and thus is invisible, like oil in a thorough mix of oil and lots of water. However, just like oil and water, there is no chance for the buddha element and these afflictions ever becoming blended into one. Though the former abides within the latter, it is like a lamp in a vase—once the vase is broken, the lamp shines brightly and beautifully. Or, the śrāvakas of the buddha are like the vase and their lack of afflictions is like the lamp. Once the billions of afflictions break like the vase through engaging in the path to liberation, the entire dharmadhātu is eventually seen like a myrobalan fruit in the palm of one’s hand.[7] Also, when the sun and moon are covered by clouds, they do not shine on the earth, but they do shine once they are freed from clouds. Likewise, if the tathāgata heart is covered by the billions of afflictions, it does not shine, but the sun or moon of the buddha element shines once it is liberated from these afflictions. Anybody who teaches the tathāgata heart is called "a perfect buddha," no matter whether they possess afflictions or are free from them.

      Similar to the Anūnatvāpūrṇatvanirdeśaparivarta and also echoing the Śrīmālādevīsūtra, the Aṅgulimālīyasūtra says that the inconceivable pure dharmadhātu is the ultimate single refuge that is unborn, unceasing, permanent, eternal, everlasting, and peaceful, that there is only a single yāna (the one that leads to the realization of the tathāgata heart), and that the tathāgata heart is nothing but the natural purity of the mind. The afflictions are said to arise from not knowing this natural purity of the mind (just as the Anūnatvāpūrṇatvanirdeśaparivarta says that all wrong views, afflictions, and so on, arise from not knowing the single dhātu). The Aṅgulimālīyasūtra likewise identifies the dhātu (or basic element) of sentient beings with this single dhātu and, similar to the Mahāparinirvāṇasūtra, moreover equates both with the "dhātu that is the self" (ātmadhātu), which is in turn closely related to the pāramitā of self as found in both the Mahāparinirvāṇasūtra and the Śrīmālādevīsūtra. Also, the Aṅgulimālīyasūtra explicitly draws attention to the significance of the tathāgatagarbha sūtras and the need to appreciate them properly.

      The Aṅgulimālīyāsūtra even quotes the famous second verse of the Dhammapada and says that this verse intends the meaning of tathāgatagarbha to be nothing but the natural purity of the mind:

Mind precedes phenomena,
Mind is their chief, from mind they spring.
Those who speak or act with a pure mind
Happiness will follow like their shadow.

      What distinguishes the Aṅgulimālīyasūtra from other tathāgatagarbha sūtras are its detailed discussions (usually in the form of dialogues) of the correct and incorrect views on tathāgatagarbha, emptiness, nirvāṇa, and the dharmakāya, which progressively guide the reader up to the ultimate view through gradually clarifying different levels of misunderstanding.

      Given the obvious importance of the Aṅgulimālīyasūtra for the tathāgatagarbha teachings and its (in all probability) availability prior to the Uttaratantra and RGVV, it is very surprising that it is not mentioned in either the Uttaratantra or RGVV (or in any of the other commentaries in this volume except for a few references in GC and its merely being listed as a tathāgatagarbha sūtra in JKC). (pp. 20-23)

  1. D213 (eighty-one folios) and Taishō 527.
  2. Majjhima Nikāya 86.
  3. D213, fols. 159a.7–160b.2.
  4. This term ("the Naked Ones") refers to the ascetic branch of the Jainas.
  5. This is an abbreviated paraphrase of Aṅgulimāla’s answer.
  6. D213, fols. 157b.5–158a.4.
  7. As already mentioned, the example of a lamp in a vase for buddha nature’s being obscured by adventitious stains is also found in the Mahābherīsūtra (D222, fol. 110b.1) and Nāgārjuna’s Dharmadhātustava (verses 5–7).

Text Metadata

Other Titles ~ ārya-aṅgulimālīya-nāma-mahāyāna-sūtra
Text exists in ~ Tibetan
~ Sanskrit
~ Pali
~ Chinese
Canonical Genre ~ Kangyur · Sūtra · mdo sde · Sūtranta
Literary Genre ~ Sūtras - mdo

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About the text

The Aṅgulimālīyasūtra is an early tathāgatagarbha sūtra, which like the Mahāparinirvāṇasūtra examines earlier material through a Mahāyāna lens. Here is the story of the conversion of a bandit who has killed so many people and fashioned such an impressive necklace of their fingers that he has earned the epithet Aṅgulimāla, “Rosary of Fingers.” Like the Mahāparinirvāṇasūtra and the Mahābherīsūtra, the Aṅgulimālīyasūtra equates tathāgatagarbha with ātman, distinguishing it from non-Buddhist conceptions of the term. As Christopher Jones pointed out, referencing Kazuo Kano’s Japanese-language scholarship, the message of the scripture is not, as one might think, the universality of buddha-nature, even for those who commit heinous crimes. Aṅgulimāla is not actually converted in the Mahāyāna version of the Aṅgulimālīyasūtra; rather his killings are presented as illusory and the violence is justified as a defense of the dharma. [1]Buddha-nature is rather incidental to this message.

The Aṅgulimālīyasūtra was translated into Chinese by Guṇabhadra, between 435 and 453, as Yang jue mo luo jing 央掘魔羅經 (T120).[2] It was translated as ’Phags pa sor mo’i phreng ba la phan pa zhes bya ba theg pa chen po’i mdo (D213), in the late eighth or early ninth century by Dharmatāśīla, Śākyaprabha, and a monk named Tong Ācārya who was either Indian or Chinese.[3]Kazuo Kano noted that the colophon to the sūtra in the Tabo version of the Tibetan canon states that both Sanskrit and Chinese were used by the translators, and that while it refers to Tong Ācārya as an Indian paṇḍit (rgya gar gyi mkhan po), in other versions he is called a Chinese translator (rgya’i lo tsA ba), although this is ambiguous; rgya could here theoretically be an abbreviation for India (rgya gar) as well as for China (rgya nag).[4]

  1. Jones, “A Self-Aggrandizing Vehicle,” 137.
  2. Jones, “Beings, Non-Beings, and Buddhas,” 137.
  3. Jones, “A Self-Aggrandizing Vehicle,” 137.
  4. As cited in Radich, Mahāparinirvāṇa-mahāsūtra, 62, n127