On the occasion of the Lunar New Year, the global nonprofit 84000: Translating the Words of the Buddha is announcing publication of a new translation of an important sūtra known as The Application of Mindfulness of the Sacred Dharma. This scripture, one of the longest texts of the Tibetan Buddhist Canon, has never before been made fully available in English.
With its 2,158 Tibetan pages, The Application of Mindfulness of the Sacred Dharma is a rich presentation of the realms of saṃsāra, a vast treasury of Dharma, and a splendid piece of world literature that stands out as one of the greatest literary works of classical India.
“It is a captivating presentation of the world as perceived by Buddhists in early medieval India,” explained Dr. Andreas Doctor, editorial co-director at 84000. “Its poetic beauty, philosophical profundity, and gripping presentation of both the pleasures and miseries of life in saṃsāra certainly deserves the attention of the modern world. It is hard to read this sūtra without becoming deeply influenced by its message of how our personal thoughts and actions shape the world in which we find ourselves, and how shallow life can be without a contemplative element to calm our excited infatuation with the fleeting and insubstantial thoughts and perceptions that otherwise govern our lives.”
Incomplete draft translations from Sanskrit into Tibetan were produced as early as the eighth century, but the first complete Tibetan translation from Sanskrit was only produced during the reign of the Indian king Rāmapāla (c. 1072–1126). Within the subsequent Tibetan commentarial tradition, short references to The Application of Mindfulness of the Sacred Dharma, its teaching on impermanence, and its calls to renunciation, are quite frequent. And most notably, Karmapa III, Rangjung Dorje (1284–1339), produced a large compendium to the sūtra.
However, until today, much of its rich teachings have remained locked within the ancient Classical Tibetan language—one that is fast-fading in today’s world. So for a project that is in a race against time to translate and make available all 230,000-odd pages of the Canon—one of the world’s largest and oldest collections of writings—this publication marks a significant milestone.
“We are—for the first time in centuries on such a vast scale—bringing to life primary-source material that is invaluable for Buddhist practitioners, contributes to international scholarship on Buddhist history and philosophy, and provides insight into the transfer of wisdom cultures across Asia,” said Huang Jing Rui, executive director at 84000. “But it’s equally important for us to integrate new technologies with our digital library giving the general reader access to interactive comprehension tools and bridging that gap between the ancient authors and the modern world.”
The Tibetan translation of The Application of Mindfulness of the Sacred Dharma was produced by the Tibetan monk Tsultrim Gyaltsen, who mentions that he worked on the translation together with two assistant translators and a large team of Indian paṇḍitas, such as Śāntākaragupta, Abhayākaragupta, and Śakyarakṣita, among others. So, the translation of this extensive text was really a product of the collaboration of a large number of scholars present in 12th century Tibet. It seems quite possible that an earlier version of the sūtra might have been significantly longer than the manuscript on which the Tibetans based their translation. Even so, the missing material must have been lost at a very early point in the text’s Indian history, since the Chinese translation (Taishō 721), which was extant during the early sixth century, has the exact same topical structure.
This new English translation is likewise a product of many translators and editors—this time, around the world—collaborating over several years. First started by Dharmachakra Translation Committee in 2015, it took almost four years to translate. Subsequent editorial and technical work carried out at 84000 took another two years, with one particular challenge to its online publication being its enormous size. This complication necessitated rebuilding the entire Reading Room at 84000 to accommodate the variety of download options readers require today. Now, at long last, The Application of Mindfulness of the Sacred Dharma is published, marked up with interactive glossary features, and ready for free download by scholars, practitioners, historians, and interested readers around the world.
Quotes from the sūtra:
There are two kinds of wrong view: those that accept the existence of conditions and those that deny karmic actions and results. To accept conditions is to claim that all happiness and suffering is the result of actions carried out by oneself. To deny karmic actions and results is to deny the relevance of generosity, and so forth. — The Application of Mindfulness of the Sacred Dharma, 1. 77
As soon as we put on a new piece of clothing, it is already, from that very moment, in the process of deterioration. When that is understood, the momentary nature of things is understood. From the very moment one applies beautiful mindfulness, all the flaws are in the process of deterioration. — The Application of Mindfulness of the Sacred Dharma, 4.C.3056
Truth is the lamp of all lamps and the guide of all guides. . . . Truth is the force among all forces, the protector among all protectors, and the most exalted among all friends. — The Application of Mindfulness of the Sacred Dharma, 1.9
Among all forms of light, knowledge is supreme.
Among all forms of darkness, delusion is the worst.
Wise are those
Who take joy in the light. — The Application of Mindfulness of the Sacred Dharma, 2. 286
About the sūtra, The Application of Mindfulness of the Sacred Dharma:
The epic discourse of this sūtra unfolds as a single, sustained reply to a short question that is put to the Buddha Śākyamuni. A group of newly ordained monks have been challenged by members of another religious group, who suggest that the Buddha’s teachings are indistinguishable from those of their own teacher. Not knowing what to reply, the monks request that the Buddha explain how the path of the sacred Dharma is unlike any other. As the Buddha responds to the monks, he describes the path from the perspective of a meditating monk, who applies the Buddha’s teachings correctly and so discovers the truths of the Dharma. In an account that spans the full spectrum of life in saṃsāra, the Buddha explains how different kinds of physical, verbal, and mental behavior by humans lead to rebirth in such realms of existence.
The generic and unnamed monk, from whose perspective the Buddha explains the subject matter, witnesses the myriad realms of existence and in this way, comes to directly recognize the matrix of causes and effects that keeps the wheel of cyclic existence turning. He realizes with full clarity how, throughout all this, life and beings’ experiences are utterly impermanent and always determined by their own past actions.
However, in its account of the heavens and the actions that lead to rebirth there, the sūtra makes an abrupt end to its presentation of the divine realms. Instead, the remainder of the scripture consists of a teaching on mindfulness of the body, which really functions as an independent part of the sūtra. In this latter section of the sūtra, mindfulness of the body is presented within a framework of the “internal” human body and the “external” body of the outer world. This final chapter includes an elaborate description of the human realm according to Buddhist cosmology.