Lalitavistara Sutra

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Buddha's birth (Bharhut) Brahmi text: bhagavato rukdanta
Translations of
Lalitavistara Sūtra
English: The Extensive Play
Sanskrit: Lalitavistara Sūtra
Chinese: 普曜經
(pinyinPǔyào Jīng)
Tibetan: རྒྱ་ཆེར་རོལ་པ་
(Wylie: rgya cher rol pa
THL: gyacher rolpa
)
Glossary of Buddhism

The Lalitavistara Sūtra (Sanskrit) is a Buddhist sutra of the Mahayana tradition that tells the story of the Buddha from the time of his descent from the Tushita heaven until his first sermon in the Deer Park near Benares. The title Lalitavistara has been translated as "The Play in Full" or "Extensive Play," referring to the Mahayana view that the Buddha’s last incarnation was a "display" or "performance" given for the benefit of the beings in this world.

Outline of the text[edit]

The sutra consists of twenty-seven chapters:[1]

Chapter 1
In the first chapter of the sutra, the Buddha is staying at Jetavana grove with a large gathering of disciples. One evening, a group of divine beings visit the Buddha and request him to tell the story of his awakening for the benefit of all beings. The Buddha consents.
Chapter 2
The following morning, the Buddha tells his story to the gathered disciples. He begins the story by telling of his previous life, in which the future Buddha was living in the heavenly realms surrounded by divine pleasures. In this previous life, he was known as the Bodhisattva. The Bodhisattva is enjoying the immense pleasures of his heavenly life, but due to his past aspirations, one day the musical instruments of the heavenly palace call out to him, reminding him of his prior commitment to attain awakening.
Chapter 3
Upon being reminded of his previous commitments, the Bodhisattva announces, to the despair of the gods in this realm, that he will abandon his divine pleasures in order take birth in the human realm and there attain complete awakening.
Chapter 4
Before leaving the heavenly realms, the Bodhisattva delivers one final teaching to the gods.
Chapter 5
The Bodhisattva installs the bodhisattva Maitreya as his regent in the heavenly realms, and then sets out for the human realm accompanied by great displays of divine offerings and auspicious signs.
Chapter 6
The Bodhisattva enters into the human world via the womb of Queen Māyā, where he resides for the duration of the pregnancy within a beautiful temple, enjoying the happiness of absorption.
Chapter 7
The Bodhisattva takes birth at the Lumbinī Grove and declares his intention to attain complete awakening.
Chapter 8
The infant Bodhisattva visits a temple where the stone statues rise up to greet him.
Chapter 9
His father, King Śuddhodana, commissions marvelous jewelry for him.
Chapter 10
The Bodhisattva attends his first day at school, where he far surpasses even the most senior tutors.
Chapter 11
On a visit to the countryside as a young boy, he attains of the highest levels of meditative concentration.
Chapter 12
As a young man, he demonstrates his incredible prowess in the traditional worldly arts, and wins the hand of Gopā, a Śākya girl whose father requires proof of the Bodhisattva’s qualities as a proper husband.
Chapter 13
The Bodhisattva reaches maturity and is able enjoy life in the palace, where he is surrounded by all types of pleasure, including a large harem to entertain him. Seeing this, the gods gently remind him of his vows to awaken.
Chapter 14
The Bodhisattva takes a trip outside of the palace walls to visit the royal parks. On this trip, he encounters a sick person, an old man, a corpse, and a religious mendicant. Deeply affected by these sights, the Bodhisattva renounces his royal pleasures.
Chapter 15
The Bodhisattva departs from the palace to begin the life of a religious seeker on a spiritual journey.
Chapter 16
The Bodhisattva seeks out the foremost spiritual teachers of his day, and he quickly surpasses each of his teachers in understanding and meditative concentration. His extraordinary charisma also attracts many beings, such as the king of Magadha, who requests the Bodhisattva to take up residence in his kingdom, but without success.
Chapter 17
The Bodhisattva follows Rudraka, a renowned spiritual teacher. He quickly masters the prescribed trainings, but once again he is disappointed with the teachings. The Bodhisattva concludes that he must discover awakening on his own, and he sets out on a six-year journey of extremely austere practices. These practices take him to the brink of death.
Chapter 18
The Bodhisattva concludes that the austere practices do not lead to awakening and, encouraged by some protective gods, he begins to eat a normal diet once again, and regains his health.
Chapter 19
Sensing that he is on the verge of attaining his goal, the Bodhisattva sets out for the seat of awakening (bodhimaṇḍa), the sacred place where all bodhisattvas in their last existence attain full and complete awakening.
Chapter 20
He arrives at the seat of awakening, and the gods perform a variety of miraculous displays, transforming the area so that it resembles a divine realm, fit for the epic achievement that awaits the Bodhisattva.
Chapter 21
Māra, the most powerful demon in the desire realm, arrives with the aim of preventing the Bodhisattva from attaining his goal. Māra attempts to terrify the Bodhisattva with his powerful army, and to seduce him with his seductive daughters, but he is unable to divert the Bodhisattva from his goal. Māra gives up, defeated.
Chapter 22
Now the stage is finally set for the Bodhisattva to attain awakening under the Bodhi tree, a gradual process that unfolds throughout the night until he fully and perfectly awakens at dawn to become the Awakened One (Buddha), or Thus-Gone One (Tathāgata), as he is known subsequent to his awakening.
Chapter 23
Recognizing his epic achievement, the entire pantheon of divine beings visits the Thus-Gone One, making offerings and singing his praise.
Chapter 24
For seven weeks following his awakening, the Buddha remains alone in the forest and does not teach. He is concerned that the truth he has discovered might be too profound for others to comprehend. Sensing this dilemma, the demon Māra tries to trick the Buddha one last time. Māra visits the Buddha and suggests that perhaps this would be a suitable time to pass into parinirvāṇa! The Buddha rejects Māra’s advice, and finally Māra retreats. During these first seven weeks, the Buddha also encounters some local passersby, but no teaching is given.
Chapter 25
The gods Brahmā, Śakra, and the other gods also sense the Buddha’s hesitation. They visit the Buddha and formally request him to teach the Dharma. They repeat the request four times before the Buddha eventually consents. Upon his consent to teach, the Buddha says, “O Brahmā, the gates of nectar are opened”.
Chapter 26
The Buddha determines that the most suitable students for his first teaching are his five former companions from the days when he was practicing austerities. The Buddha travels to Deer Park, outside of Varanasi, to meet his former companions. Initially, the companions are suspicious of the Buddha for having given up their austerity practices, but they are soon rendered helpless by his majestic presence and request teachings from him. The five companions instantly receive ordination and, in a seminal moment, the Buddha teaches them the Four Noble Truths: suffering, the origin of suffering, the cessation of suffering, and the path that leads to the cessation of suffering. Thus this occasion constitutes the birth of the Three Jewels: the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Saṅgha.
Chapter 27
This marks the end of the teaching proper. Finally, in the epilogue, the Buddha encourages his retinue of gods and humans to take this sūtra as their practice and propagate it to the best of their abilities.

Thus, the story ends at the very moment when the Buddha has finally manifested all the qualities of awakening and is fully equipped to influence the world, as he did over the next forty-five years by continuously teaching the Dharma and establishing his community of followers.

The Borobodur reliefs[edit]

Overview[edit]

The Borobodur reliefs contain a series of panels depicting the life of the Buddha as described in the Lalitavistara Sutra.[2] In these reliefs, the story starts from the glorious descent of the Buddha from the Tushita heaven, and ends with his first sermon in the Deer Park near Benares.

As an example of how widely the sutra was disseminated, it is said that the Lalitavistara Sutra was known to the Mantranaya[a] stonemasons of Borobodur.

Episode 1: The Prelude to the Birth of Buddha (panels 1-15)[edit]

The Bodhisattva in Tushita Heaven before his birth as Siddhartha Gautama. Borobudur
Queen Maya reclining. Borobudur

The Buddha lives among the clouds above Indra’s palace on the peak of Mount Sumeru. The future Buddha tells the gods he has decided to be reborn on earth. Around his waist there is wrapped a cord that supports his right knee. This is a convention used in Borobudur to denote people of high status. In honor of his upcoming birth, a few gods go to earth to teach Brahmans. The Buddha teaches the “Introduction of the Law” to the gods, and gives his crown to a bodhisattva named Maitreya, who is his successor-designate. The Buddha then asks the gods what form he should take in his mother’s womb. Some recommend the figure of a human, but others tell him that in the Brahmans’ books, the Buddha is described as an elephant with six tusks, brightly shining, with a red head oozing sap.

Queen Maya and King Suddodana live in a palace in the city of Kapilavastu. The king grants her request to undertake a vow of self-denial. Queen Maya is seated in her quarters awaiting the Buddha’s descent. During the “Great Descent”, the Buddha sits on a throne in a pavilion, accompanied by an uncountable number of gods, nymphs, and other supernatural beings. While Queen Maya sleeps, the Buddha enters her womb in the shape of the elephant. That night a lotus grows from the oceans to Brahma’s heaven. The lotus contains the essence of all creation. Brahma collects the essence in a bowl, and gives the Buddha the essence to drink as a mark of honor. This is one of the most popular scenes in ancient Buddhist art. Queen Maya decides to go to a forest of ashoka trees. She arrives and sends a servant to ask the king to meet her there.

Episode 2: The Birth and Early Life of Buddha (panels 16-45)[edit]

Queen Maya leaves to go to Lumbini to give birth. Borobudur

The king arrives at the edge of the forest but is not allowed to go any further. The queen tells him of her dream, in which an elephant enters her womb. She asks him to get brahmans to interpret the dream. The brahmans tell the couple that the queen will bear a son who will become either a universal ruler or a buddha. Indra and other gods offer for the queen to stay in their palace during her pregnancy. The unborn Buddha creates the illusion that the queen is in all palaces to prevent any of the gods or kings to be disappointed. During her pregnancy, the queen acquires certain powers, such as the ability to restore people possessed by supernatural beings to their normal state by letting them view her, and also the power to heal diseases. The king lives as a hermit during her pregnancy. Queen Maya asks the king to be allowed to give birth in the Lumbini Pleasure Garden. The queen sets out for the garden in a carriage. When she arrives, she walks until she comes to an ashoka tree which magically bends down for her. She grasps the limb, and the Buddha emerges from her right side. The baby takes seven steps in each of the four compass directions, and at each step a lotus springs up. After Sakyamuni’s birth, Indra and Brahma disguise themselves as brahmans to congratulate King Suddhodhana along with many other gods. A week after the Buddha is born, Queen Maya dies and becomes a goddess. Her sister, Gautami, becomes the baby prince’s guardian. Some members of the Sakya tribe suggest the child should be taken to the temple. When the prince arrives, the statues in the temple come to life and kneel before him.

Sakyamuni is sent to school when he is old enough. The schoolmaster is Visvamitra, and a god named Subhangga is also there. The story skips a few years and then describes a visit to a rural village. This is where the scene of the first meditation takes place. The prince sits down under a guava tree to meditate.

The king wishes Sakyamuni to marry because he remembers the prophecy that his son is to become a buddha or a great ruler. The prince tells him he will give his answer in seven days. The prince consents and chooses Gopa as his wife. Only she can bear to look at him without being blinded by his radiance. Gopa’s father is not certain the prince is suitable for his daughter, so he requires the prince undergo some tests to prove his mental and physical abilities.

Episode 3: Buddha’s Marriage and Renunciation of His Earlier Life (panels 46-75)[edit]

The prince Siddhartha Gautama cuts his hair and becomes and renunciant. Borobudur

Sakyamuni and 500 other princes go out to the city to demonstrate his powers. He sets a problem that only he can solve. The next test is an archery competition. Sakyamuni used an ancient bow which had been preserved in a temple since his grandfather’s time. He shot an arrow through seven trees, and through other various targets including an iron boar. Gopa’s father agrees to the marriage. Various gods including Indra and Brahma congratulate him on his marriage and ask when he will begin his quest for enlightenment.

The king dreams of the prince’s departure and tries to attract him to remain by building three more palaces to amuse him. The king posts guards around the prince’s palace and sends young women to entertain him. This is one of the most successful compositions on the monument.

One day the prince decides to go to a royal pleasure garden. Suddenly an old man appears to him, and the prince goes back to the palace. This is the first of the Four Encounters which motivate the prince to begin his quest for enlightenment. The second encounter the prince again sets out for the pleasure garden, but sees a sick man. Another occasion occurs where the prince sees a dead man surrounded by grieving relatives. The last encounter is again created by the gods, and involves a monk. He is at peace compared to the grief and suffering felt by the others. The prince meditates based on the example of the monk and on the path of salvation from suffering.

Sakyamuni comforts Gopa that night who had a bad dream, then the next day went to the king and asked permission to leave. After the prince says goodbye to gods and other supernatural beings, he cuts off his hair. Then he discards his royal robes and puts on orange robes of a passing hunter. The prince goes to two places where brahman female hermits offer him food. Sakyamuni embarks on a life as a wandering monk.

Eventually he reaches a kingdom called Vaisali where he asks permission to become a pupil of a brahman named Arada Kalapa. After some time Arada acknowledges the prince as his equal, and Sakyamuni also becomes a teacher. Later Sakyamuni decides to resume his travels, and comes to the city of Rajagrha to beg. The people are in awe of his appearance and think Brahma himself has come to beg. The next day a bright shining light comes from Mount Pandava where Sakyamuni is staying. The king asks him to stay and take half the kingdom. Sakyamuni later visits a teacher in Rajagrha named Rudraka and is invited to join him.

Episode 4: Buddha’s Enlightenment (panels 76-105)[edit]

After a while the prince goes to Magadha. Five men from Rudraka’s group decide to follow him, and they meditate on Gayasirsa Mountain. Then the prince and his new disciples go to meditate beside the Nairanjana River. This is where Sakyamuni practices such harshness that he nearly starves himself. Because he is near death, Queen Maya comes to see him and begins to cry. The gods offer to provide him with magical strength so he will not have to eat, but he is scared the people will believe he can live without food. He abandoned his fast, and the five disappointed disciples leave him.

The prince then goes to a place called Uruvila. Sakyamuni decides to put on a new robe, and takes a shroud from a dead woman named Radha. He washes it on a stone by a pond. When Sakyamuni tries to leave the pond, the demon Mara makes the banks rise enormously high. The goddess of a tree beside the pond bends her branch and saves Sakyamuni. Another god gives the prince a reddish robe.

The village chief’s daughter, Sujata, invites the prince to her house and feeds him. Sakyamuni returns to the Nairanjana River to bathe, and takes a golden bowl which Sujata gave him. Gods come to him and attend him. The prince sits down and finishes the food Sujata gave him. When he is finished, Sakyamuni throws the bowl into the river. Indra desired it, and turned into a garuda to take it from the naga king who saved the bowl. The prince then sets out for the enlightenment tree.

Brahma and a group of gods go to pay homage to the prince. It is now time for Sakyamuni to seek a tree to meditate under. The demon Mara attacks the prince in a final effort of preventing him to seek enlightenment. Mara failed to defeat Sakyamuni by force, so he sends his beautiful daughters to try to arouse him, but this fails also.

Sakyamuni reaches Supreme Enlightenment, and becomes Buddha, the “Enlightened One.” Buddha remained in the same position for seven days, but arises to walk twice to far distances. Both times however, he returned to the sacred Bodhimanda.

Four weeks after enlightenment, Buddha goes to stay with a naga king named Mucilinda. The weather was poor so the naga king protects Buddha while he meditates. After five weeks, Buddha leaves Mucilinda’s palace to walk to a banyan tree. On the way he meets frugals who ask him how he has borne such a week of bad weather. Buddha goes to meditate under another tree, and merchants pass by who are frightened by the portents, but a goddess reassures them. The merchants offer Buddha food. He would like a bowl to put it in, and the four gods, “Great Kings,” each offer him bowls. Afraid to offend them he takes them all and combines them into one.

Episode 5: The Preaching of the First Sermon (panels 106-120)[edit]

Gautama Buddha after his enlightenment, along with the five ascetics. Borobudur

That same night, the gods including Brahma and Indra, ask Buddha to preach the Law. By morning he agrees to preach, and asks to whom he should first preach the Law. He asks for Rudraka, but he has been dead for a week. Next he asks for Arada Kalapa, but he is also dead. Buddha then asks for the five disciples he had earlier, and he sees they are in the Deer Park at Benares. Buddha sets off for Benares, and on the way he meets a monk who asks where he is going. He goes through several cities, and is honored in each of them. Buddha comes to the River Ganges, and the ferryman refuses to row him across without payment. Buddha flies across the river, and the boatman faints.

Buddha arrives in Benares, and begs for food. He finds the five former disciples, and they are awed by his radiance and arise to serve him. The disciples ceremonially bathe Buddha. Then Buddha preaches his first sermon, which sets the “Wheel of the Law” in motion.[4]

Historical context[edit]

In the early 20th century, P. L. Vaidya believed that the finished Sanskrit text dated to the 3rd century.[5]

The text is also said to be a compilation of various works by no single author and includes materials from the Sarvastivada and the Mahayana traditions.

Concerning the origins of the text, the Dharmachakra Translation Committee states:[6]

This scripture is an obvious compilation of various early sources, which have been strung together and elaborated on according to the Mahāyāna worldview. As such this text is a fascinating example of the ways in which the Mahāyāna rests firmly on the earlier tradition, yet reinterprets the very foundations of Buddhism in a way that fit its own vast perspective. The fact that the text is a compilation is initially evident from the mixture of prose and verse that, in some cases, contains strata from the very earliest Buddhist teachings and, in other cases, presents later Buddhist themes that do not emerge until the first centuries of the common era. Previous scholarship on The Play in Full (mostly published in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries) devoted much time to determining the text’s potential sources and their respective time periods, although without much success. [...] Although this topic clearly deserves further study, it is interesting to note that hardly any new research on this sūtra has been published during the last sixty years. As such the only thing we can currently say concerning the sources and origin of The Play in Full is that it was based on several early and, for the most part, unidentified sources that belong to the very early days of the Buddhist tradition.

Translations into English[edit]

  • The Play in Full: Lalitavistara (2013), translated by the Dharmachakra Translation Committee. Translated from Tibetan into English and checked against the Sanskrit version.[web 1]
  • Voice of the Buddha: The Beauty of Compassion (1983), translated by Gwendolyn Bays, Dharma Publishing (two-volume set). This translation has been made from French into English and then checked with the original in Tibetan and Sanskrit.

Numerals[edit]

In the Lalitavistara, the Buddha explains to a mathematician named Arjuna the system of numerals in multiples of 100, starting from a koti (in later literature 10^7 but this is uncertain) to a tallakshana (10^53 then).

See also[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ Note that Mantranaya is not a corruption or misspelling of mantrayana, although it is largely synonymous. Mantranaya is the earlier term for the esoteric Mahayana teachings emphasizing mantras. The clearly Sanskrit sounding Mantranaya is evident in Old Javanese tantric literature, particularly as documented in the oldest esoteric Buddhist tantric text in Old Javanese, the Sang Kyang Kamahayanan Mantranaya see Kazuko Ishii (1992).[3]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Dharmachakra Translation Committee 2013, p. iii-x.
  2. ^ Soekmono (1976), pp 21-22.
  3. ^ Ishii Kazuko. "The Correlation of Verses of the 'Sang Kyang Kamahayanan Mantranaya' with Vajrabodhi's 'Japa-sutra'". Area and Culture Studies. 44 (1992). Retrieved 2010-12-13. 
  4. ^ Miksic, J. (1990). Borobudur: Golden Tales of the Buddhas. Singapore: Periplus Editions Ltd.
  5. ^ L. A. Waddell. "The So-Called "Mahapadana" Suttanta and the Date of the Pali Canon". The Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland: 661–680. Retrieved 2011-06-29. 
  6. ^ Dharmachakra Translation Committee 2013, p. xii.

Web references[edit]

Sources[edit]

External links[edit]