One of the tathāgatagarbha sūtras, this text is based around a narrative in which the Buddha is questioned by the bodhisattva Mahāmeghagarbha. According to Radich (see scholarly notes below) the exposition of tathāgatagarbha doctrine in the Mahāmeghasūtra echoes that of the Mahāparinirvāṇamahāsūtra. It preaches the theme of secret teachings, the idea that tathāgatagarbha/buddha nature is to be “seen,” and the fact that sentient beings have tathāgatagarbha within them like a separate entity.
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Recensions of This Text
- 1. the Dafangdeng wuxiang jing (大方等無想 經; T. 387; *Mahāvaipulyāsaṃjñikasūtra in the Korean; but Dafangdeng dayun jing [大方等大雲 經] = *Mahāvaipulyamahāmeghasūtra in the Song, Yuan, Ming, and “Palace” editions), translated circa 421–433 ce by Dharmakṣema; and
- 2. the Sprin chen po (D 232/Q 898), translated by Jinamitra, Śīlendrabodhi, and Ye shes sde (9th cent. ce).
No full translation of the Mahāmeghasūtra exists in a Western language, but a detailed English summary is given by A. Forte (1976, app. A). Western scholarship has mainly focused on a peculiar prophecy contained in the text (see below), which was used by the Chinese Empress Wu Zetian (武則天; r. 690–705 ce) to legitimate the rule of her Zhou (周) dynasty (Chavannes, 1902, 235–236; Demiéville, 1924, 218–230; Tucci, 1930, 217; Forte, 1976). Apart from Takasaki Jikidō (1974, 276–301), the most important studies are by Suzuki Takayasu (1996b; 1998a; 1998b; 1998c; 1999a; 2001; 2003a; 2003b).
The title reflects a conceit of the dharma as rain from the cloud of a Tathāgatagarbha sūtra, in the drought of the end-times (comp. also the Mahāparinirvāṇamahāsūtra and Mahābherīhārakasūtra). In both versions, the structure of the Mahāmeghasūtra is odd: of the 37 chapters, only chapters 1, 2, 36, and 37 are fully elaborated. Chapters 3 to 35, by contrast, seem merely to be skeletal outlines of topics. The following summary focuses on chapters 1, 2, 36, and 37.
In keeping with Mahāyāna convention, the frame narrative describes a vast congregation assembled to listen to the Buddha’s sermon, and various wonders performed by the Buddha, or occurring spontaneously, to mark the occasion. The bodhisattva *Mahāmeghagarbha (大雲密藏) asks the Buddha a hundred questions. The Buddha responds by teaching on themes already encountered above – the docetic parinirvāṇa, the four inversions, the fact that sentient beings are in truth not distinct from dharmadhātu (the realm/element of the dharma; comp. the Anūnatvāpūrṇatvanirdeśaparivarta teaching of ekadhātu [the one realm/element]), the inferior merits of śrāvakas and pratyekabuddhas, and tathāgatagarbha/buddha nature. Chapter 2 is largely taken up with four hundred samādhis, which secure for the practitioner a long list of benefits.
Chapter 36 picks out a couple of samādhis for special discussion. In answer to the Brahman Shande (善德; later identified with the Indian emperor Aśoka), the Buddha explains that the Buddha’scousin and “rival” Devadatta was not as evil as he appeared. Rather, he was a mahāpuruṣa (great being), acting as part of the Buddha’s salvific plan. A person called *Sarvasattvapriyadarśana (一切眾生樂見) then begins speaking in the Buddha’s stead. Shande declares the doctrines of the Mahāmeghasūtra to be beyond him; instead, he says, he would like to venerate a relic of the Buddha. *Sarvasattvapriyadarśana proclaims a series of verses declaring that there is in fact no such thing as a Buddha relic (echoing similar ideas in the Suvarṇabhāsottama). A goddess (*devī) called *Vimalaprabhā (淨光) asks the Buddha how Shande and *Sarvasattvapriyadarśana can have such insight. The Buddha explains that in a past life, they had a similar exchange, in the presence of a buddha who also preached the Mahāmeghasūtra. He also explains that in a future life, Shande will be Aśoka. The devī *Vimalaprabhā, moreover, was the queen in the past narrative, and will reign in the future over a kingdom of her own as a kind of “one-quarter cakravartin.” The Buddha also gives another prophecy of an end-times scenario in which the Mahāmeghasūtra will circulate. The chapter closes with another iteration of the docetic parinirvāṇa.
Chapter 37 returns to the end-times prophecy. During the end-times, another person who also goes by the name of *Sarvasattvapriyadarśana (一切眾生樂見) will be the guardian of the true dharma. The chapter expounds at length the virtues of one specific samādhi – that is, the ability of bodhisattvas to manifest themselves in many different apparent bodies to save sentient beings. This exposition is interwoven with a reprise of the eternity of the dharmakāya and the docetic parinirvāṇa. *Vimalaprabhā again comes to the fore, and bests *Mahāmeghagarbha in her grasp of doctrine. The Buddha then prophesies an illustrious future for her. *Mahāmeghagarbha foolishly assumes that this future must involve changing into a male, as traditional Buddhist doctrine all but universally asserts, but the Buddha scolds *Mahāmeghagarbha for making this assumption; in fact, he reveals, *Vimalaprabhā deliberately assumes the body of a woman through countless aeons for the sake of sentient beings (although the female body that she assumes is apparently not real but merely a body of skillful means [*upāyakāya; 方便之身]). A further very detailed prophecy expands on the promise of the previous chapter that the devī will become a powerful queen – this being the prophecy so useful to Wu Zetian. This queen will be a powerful sponsor of the cult of Buddha relics in stūpas (seemingly contradicting the earlier denigration and docetic denial of relics). Many lifetimes later, the devī will preside over her own buddha world. This theme of spiritually powerful women prophesied to buddhahood echoes the Śrīmālādevīsiṃhanādasūtra.
The exposition of tathāgatagarbha doctrine in the Mahāmeghasūtra echoes that of the Mahāparinirvāṇamahāsūtra (especially the hypothesized second layer, mentioned above). It preaches the theme of secret teachings, the idea that tathāgatagarbha/buddha nature is to be “seen,” and the fact that sentient beings have tathāgatagarbha within them like a separate entity. The Mahāmeghasūtra is also concerned with docetism, and, indeed, one of its samādhis converts the notion of conformity to the [expectations of the] world (lokānuvartanā) into a practice of meditation on the production of the docetic appearance of all the typical acts of a buddha (dwelling in Tuṣita heaven, conception and birth attended by a set of stock miracles, etc.). The Mahāmeghasūtra also preaches a docetic parinirvāṇa; and it discusses the danger that people will accuse its proponents of peddling fake teachings (buddhavacana). Both texts teach the four inversions, the ban on meat eating, and the dharmakāya/vajrakāya. Suzuki Takayasu (1998b; 2001) has proposed that Shimoda Masahiro’s second layer in the Mahāparinirvāṇamahāsūtra bears the mark of recomposition under the influence of the Mahāmeghasūtra.
(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, 266-67. Leiden: Brill, 2015.)
|Other Titles||~ ārya-mahāmegha-nāma-mahāyāna-sūtra|
|Text exists in||~ Tibetan|
|Canonical Genre||~ Kangyur · Sūtra · mdo sde · Sūtranta|
|Literary Genre||~ Sūtras - mdo|
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- D232, D235, D657, D1063 (all thirteen folios) and Taishō 387–88, 989 (990), and 993.