Karmic Purification Via the ‘Four Powers’ in Mahāyāna Buddhist Scripture:

A New Translation of the ‘Sūtra of the Teaching on the Four Dharmas’

By Erick Tsiknopoulos, 2014

 

INTRODUCTION

What follows is a new translation of the ‘Sūtra of the Teaching on the Four Dharmas’ (Sanskrit: ārya-catu[h]-dharma-nirdhesha-nāma-mahāyāna-sūtra, Tibetan: ‘phags pa chos bzhi stan pa zhes bya ba theg pa chen po’i mdo) from Tibetan into English, preceded by a short introductory essay.

The ‘Four Dharmas’ (Tib: chos bzhi) of the title refer to the Four Powers (Tib. stobs bzhi), that is, the four powers of karmic purification. These same Four Powers later became extremely important for the Mahāyāna tradition in general and the Tantric Mahāyāna (or Vajrayāna) Buddhist tradition in particular, largely due to the popular purification practice of the deity Vajrasattva (Tib. rdo rje sems dpa’), in which the Four Powers play a central role as the main methodology of praxis. The Sūtra thus gives us a unique view into the early scriptural origins of an influential practice of ‘confession’ and ‘karmic purification’ in Mahāyāna and Tantric Mahāyāna Buddhism, one of the most wide-spread of its type.

The Four Powers as given in the Sūtra are as follows:

  1. rnam par sun ‘byin pa’i stobs: the power of strong remorse (or regret)
  2. gnyen po kun tu spyod pa’i stobs: the power of full application of the antidote (or counteracting force) 
  3. sor chus par byed pa’i stobs: the power of restoration (or renewal)
  4. rten gyi stobs: the power of support (or fortification)

Differences between lists of the Four Powers (of Karmic Purification)

There are some significant differences between the list given in the Sūtra and the one that is more commonly known in the Tibetan tradition, listed in dictionaries as follows:

1. rten gyi stobs: the power of support

2.  rnam par sun ‘byin pa’i stobs: the power of strong remorse

3. nyes pa las slar ldog pa’i stobs: the power of not repeating the mistake

4. gnyen po kun tu spyod pa’i stobs: the power of full application of the antidote

Sequence: The order of the Powers is different, as can be seen from a comparison of them above. It is however unclear if the Four Powers are meant to be practiced in the sequence as given in the Sūtra, since there is no instruction as such: a fact which would allow interpretation as to the preferred or ideal order for their practice. That such sequential formulations of the Four Powers did occur in other influential texts, many of them probably later than this Sūtra, is evident from the prevalence of the popular second list given above. This variance of order probably arose from the need for a practical, step-by-step implementation of the Four Powers; it is however possible that various sequences were practiced. The most obvious difference in the two lists is that the Power of Support is at the very end of the list in the Sūtra, while at the very beginning of the more common Tibetan list; this has implications for its practice.

Names: The names for the Powers as given in the Sūtra are also somewhat different from the more common list, namely, the term for the third power has been changed from the ‘Power of Restoration’ (Tib. sor chus par byed pa’i stobs) to the ‘Power of Not Repeating the Mistake’ (Tib. nyes pa las slar ldog pa’i stobs). Upon superficial examination here, however, their meaning is very similar if not the same.

It is clear that both lists correspond to the same set of practices, and share the same origin as a consistent and distinct teaching, despite the differences in wording and order.

It is also worth noting that another very common name for the Four Powers is the ‘four opponent powers’ or ‘antidotal powers’ (Skt: catvāri-balāni, Tib. gnyen po stobs bzhi), although this term is not used in the Sūtra.

The Four Powers and the Mahāyāna

One could perhaps argue that there is nothing particularly ‘Mahāyana’ about the Four Powers, in and of themselves. Certainly their principles could be practiced by almost any Buddhist and perhaps with minor modifications even by non-Buddhists. The only characteristically Mahāyāna references in the Sūtra are two, namely:

1) The Four Powers are referred to as being a practice ‘for’ or ‘of’ ‘Bodhisattva Mahāsattvas’ (Tib. byang chub sems dpa’ sems pa chen po), although this definitely could be (and is certainly meant to be) extended by broad implication to anyone following the Mahāyāna path, debatably to all Buddhists, and maybe, in the broadest sense, to anyone at all.

2) The practice of bodhicitta (Tib. byang chub kyi sems, ‘the Spirit of Awakening’) is recommended as one of the main methods for the Power of Support (Tib. rten gyi stobs).

Thus within the context of the Four Powers themselves, as principles and a praxis for the purification of misdeeds or negative karmas, there is nothing that is specifically Mahāyāna about their practice. However, the way that they are taught in the Sūtra is certainly framed in a Mahāyāna ‘doctrinal’ context, by the references accounted for above.

Although practices of karmic purification are not exclusively confined to Mahāyāna, they were and are emphasized more in Mahāyāna than in Theravada, of which this Sūtra is reflective.

The Origin of the Sūtra   

It is reasonable to conclude that the Four Powers are a practice which originated in the Sūtra of the Teaching on the Four Dharmas and other Mahāyāna Sūtras and scriptures. It does not seem to have a direct correlate in the non-Mahāyāna traditions as we know them. In the Pāli and Theravada sources there seems to be no mention of a list of four powers, or factors, for purifying non-virtuous actions. It is, however, quite possible that certain teachings from the Theravada tradition do resemble the Four Powers of Karmic Purification. This would not be surprising in the least, since the teachings on the Four Powers not only reflect standard Buddhist concerns which are not specific to the Mahāyāna (such as how to deal with past and ongoing destructive or counterproductive actions), but are also quite in accord with basic Buddhist principles and theory.

The Purpose of the Sūtra

The purpose of the Sūtra of the Teaching on the Four Dharmas, as the Buddha says in his spontaneous introduction to the Sūtra, is to ‘overcome harmful actions that have been perpetrated and accrued’ (Tib. sdig pa byas shing bsags pa zil gyis non par ‘gyur ro).

‘Overcome’ is one choice in English for the Tibetan zil gyis non pa, which could also be rendered ‘overwhelm’, ‘outshine’, or colloquially even ‘outdo’. The point here is that we should be the ones who are victorious over our own actions and their ensuing karmas (or causal forces) and the fruition of their unwanted effect, rather than them being victorious over us; in other words, we need to make sure that we are in control of our bad karma, and not the other way around.

sDig-pa is a term which deserves some special attention, because it is hard to capture its full meaning in one English phrase, and its implications are often not well-understood.  The Great Chinese-Tibetan Dictionary (Tib. bod rgya tshig mdzod chen mo), one of the most esteemed and popular dictionaries for the Tibetan language, gives two main definitions for sDig-pa, and the second one, which mainly concerns us here, is as follows:

mi dge ba dang/ ngan pa/ […] ming gi rnam grangs la dge ba’i ‘gal zla dang/ ngan ‘gro’i lam/ ngan lhung/ nyes pa/ nyes spyod/ sdig blta/ nongs pa/ spang bya/ dams byed/ mtsher ‘gro/ bzang las byol bcas so/

‘Non-virtue, evil. […] For synonyms it has: the antithesis of virtue, the path of the miserable destinies, falling into negativity, damage, damaging conduct, destructive views, fault, that which is to be abandoned, that which degrades [or lowers], that which brings shame, and straying from goodness.’

I have rendered sDig-pa three different ways in the translation of the Sūtra, in an attempt to suit each usage according to its context, and they are, in order of their usage in the text, as follows:

1)      ‘harmful actions’

2)      ‘destructive power’ (as in ‘destructive karmic power’ or the power of destructive actions)

3)      ‘detrimental actions’

“Damaging conduct”, which appears towards the end of the Sūtra, is a translation of nyes par spyad pa.

Analysis of the Four Powers and their Functions

1) The Power of Strong Remorse (Tib. rnam par sun ‘byin pa’i stobs) serves to perform the function of the mental intention or inclination to address, and then undermine, the destructive karmic causal force, or bad potential, of harmful actions that one has committed. First one brings to mind the non-virtuous, negative, harmful, destructive, and detrimental actions that one has committed (‘perpetrated’) and thereby ‘accrued’ (or ‘accumulated’, Tib. bsags), and then one generates the mental factor or state of ‘remorse’ (regret) about having committed those actions, that is, non-virtuous deeds (Tib. mi dge ba) which are destructive, harmful, and detrimental to oneself and others. This has sometimes been rendered as ‘repentance’, but this may not only have misleading correlations but also distract from the psychological aspect of this Power.

2) The Power of Full Application of the Antidote (or full antidotal application, Tib.  gnyen po kun tu spyod pa’i stobs) serves to perform the function of the actual reversing agent itself, the counteracting force which acts as the ‘antidote’ (Tib. gnyen po) to the destructive causal influence of the harmful actions that one has committed, which is the ‘object to be eliminated’ (spang bya, as in the definition of sDig-pa above) here in this context. The opposite of non-virtue is virtue, and thus is the antidote for negative karma; that is, by performing virtuous actions which bring about benefit, and are thereby constructive, one thereby directly counteracts the destructive force of harmful actions, as the Sūtra states when it defines the Power of the Antidotes as “strong vigorous diligence in virtuous actions immediately after having engaged in non-virtuous actions” (Tib. mi dge ba’i las byas nas kyang dge ba’i las la shin tu brtson pa’o)’. By implication and inference, many other kinds of practices could variously be used as methods or ‘skillful means’ for the ‘application of the antidote’ of virtuous or constructive actions (thus Guenther rendered this term as ‘healthy’ rather than ‘virtuous’), and indeed such has often been done in the context of the Four Powers, as in the aforementioned case of Vajrasattva practice and elsewhere.

3) The Power of Restoration (or Renewal, Tib. sor chus par byed pa’i stobs) serves to perform the function of ‘restoring’ or ‘renewing’ one’s virtue and positive actions in the form of making commitments and vows to not commit destructive actions and in their stead perform constructive ones, such as in the various kinds of Buddhist ethical precepts. As the Sūtra says, “Restoration is gaining unbreakable restraint, by means of taking up vows authentically (Tib. sdom pa yang dag par blangs pas mi phyed pa’i sdom pa thob pa’o).” Further indication of this Power’s nature can be evinced from its aforementioned alternative version, the ‘Power of Not Repeating the Mistake’ (Tib. nyes pa las slar ldog pa’i stobs).

4) The Power of Support (or Fortification, Tib. rten gyi stobs) serves to perform the function of utilizing a support, or ‘reinforcement’, conducive to the practice of karmic purification. In this Sūtra the practices of going for refuge in the Three Jewels and the cultivation of Bodhicitta are recommended as the Support; elsewhere, other supports for karmic purification are used, such as Vajrasattva and other deities associated with purification.

 

TRANSLATION OF THE SŪTRA

 

The Sūtra of the Teaching on the Four Dharmas

 

In the Indian Language [Sanskrit]: Ārya Chatu Dharma Nirdhesha Nāma Mahāyāna Sūtra

(ārya-catu[h]-dharma-nirdhesha-nāma-mahāyāna-sūtra)

In the Tibetan Language: P’akpa Ch’ö Zhi Tenpa Zheyjawa Thekpach’enpo’i Do

(‘phags pa chos bzhi stan pa zhes bya ba theg pa chen po’i mdo)

In the English Language: The Mahāyāna Sūtra known as ‘The Exalted Teaching on the Four Dharmas’

(The Exalted Teaching on the Four Dharmas Mahāyāna Sūtra)

 

ADORATION TO ALL BUDDHAS AND BODHISATTVAS.

Thus have I heard: At one time, the Bhagavān was residing in the assembly place of gods known as ‘Excellent Dharma’ within the Heaven of the Thirty-Three Gods, in company with a great Saṅgha of a full five hundred fully-ordained monks, and an immensely great many Bodhisattva Mahāsattvas, including Maitreya and Mañjuśrī; and thereupon, the Bhagavān granted teaching to the Bodhisattva Mahāsattva, Maitreya:

“Maitreya, if a Bodhisattva Mahāsattva has four Dharmas, he or she will overcome harmful actions that have been perpetrated and accrued. What are these four? They are as follows:

1] The Power of Full Application of Strong Remorse

2] The Power of Full Application of the Antidote

3] The Power of Restoration

4] The Power of Support

“Now then, Full Application of Strong Remorse is much regret for having engaged in non-virtuous actions.

“Now then, the Full Application of the Antidote is strong vigorous diligence in virtuous actions immediately after having engaged in non-virtuous actions.

“Now then, the Power of Restoration is gaining unbreakable restraint, by means of taking up vows authentically.

“Now then, the Power of Support is going for refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Saṅgha, and not giving up Bodhicitta, the Spirit of Awakening.

“And thus when such Powers are held, destructive power cannot prevail.

“Maitreya, if a Bodhisattva Mahāsattva has these Four Dharmas, he or she will overcome detrimental actions that have been perpetrated and accrued.

“Bodhisattva Mahāsattvas must always read this Sūtra, must recite it, must think about it, must meditate on it, and must practice it abundantly. By that means, the fruit of damaging conduct will not be capable of emerging forth.”

The Bhagavān gave teaching with those expressions, and forthwith the Bodhisattva Mahāsattva Maitreya, those fully-ordained monks, those Bodhisattvas, the divine progeny such as Indra, and those wide-ranging assemblies rejoiced, and deeply praised what had been spoken by the Bhagavān.

THE MAHĀYĀNA SŪTRA KNOWN AS ‘THE EXALTED TEACHING ON THE FOUR DHARMAS’ IS COMPLETE.

 

Translated from the Tibetan by Erick Tsiknopoulos. The translation was completed during late March-early April 2014, in McLeod Ganj, Dharamsala, India.

The text of the ‘phags pa chos bzhi stan pa zhes bya ba theg pa chen po’i mdo used for this translation was from the mdo tshan lam sgrig, in English ‘A Collection of Sūtras Arranged for the Path’, compiled by dGe bshes Thub bsten dPal bZang (Geshe Thubten Palsang {Géshé Thubten Pëlzang}), and published by the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives in 2007. Its description is officially listed as lam gyi rim pa dang sbyar ba’i mdo tshan, or “a sūtra collection [that is] linked to the stages of the Path”, that is, the order of the sūtras within the volume was arranged according to the stages of the lam rim or ‘stages of the path’ literature of Tibetan Buddhism, and each sūtra therein was chosen for its particular relevance to key points in the Stages of the Path or Lamrim teachings, going, for example, from certain sūtras dealing with the Four Noble Truths, impermanence, and death, to those discussing dependent origination, the three higher trainings, and ethical discipline, to those teaching aspects of refuge in the Triple Gem, confession and purification, and the generation of the Spirit of Awakening or Bodhicitta, to those on Void Nature or Emptiness, the Tathāgatha Heart-Matrix or Buddha Nature, and the Three Dimensions of Buddhahood (trikāya).

GLOSSARY OF SELECTED TERMS:

bcom ldan ‘das (Skt: bhagavān): the Buddha, Shākyamuni. Literally it means something like, roughly, ‘Sublime Lord’ in Sanskrit and ‘Subduing and Accomplished Transcendent One’ in Tibetan, although these etymological interpretations prove to be quite varied and complex, and therefore difficult. With this term I currently prefer to use ‘Sublime Master’ in English because 1) I think that a functional rather than literal rendition of this term works better, given the differing Indian and Tibetan meanings and the difficulty of finding a terminological selection that fulfills both, 2) of the fact that relying on a literal Tibetan etymological translation of a Sanskrit term, especially in the context of an originally Indian document, seems inaccurate, and 3) the word is only three syllables in Sanskrit and Tibetan, and so I tend to think that using more than four syllables is a bit wordy. Here in this translation, however, I have just used the Sanskrit.

byang chub kyi sems: Sanskrit bodhicitta, usually known in Western Buddhist circles by the Sanskrit term or the Anglicized ‘bodhichitta’ due to its popularity and the difficulty in rendering it into precise English, although the literal translation is ‘Awakening Mind’ or even more literally ‘Mind of Awakening’. Here I have rendered it as ‘the Spirit of Awakening’, mostly following the English translation of Tsongkhapa’s Lam rim chen mo by the Lamrim Chenmo Translation Committee, re: “spirit of enlightenment”.

byang chub sems dpa: Bodhisattva, that is, a being who aims to attain the full Awakening of a Buddha, the word literally means ‘awakening-being’ or ‘being of awakening’ in Sanskrit (although there is some debate about the original meaning of –sattva), and one interpretation of the Tibetan rendering could be ‘hero aspiring for awakening’, or perhaps ‘heroic being of awakening’. However, this term is common enough to almost anyone who takes the time to read a Mahāyāna Sūtra to warrant retaining the Sanskrit, especially since the Sanskrit is the term almost always used in English discourse, and has arguably become an English word now.

sems dpa’ chen po, as in byang chub sems dpa’ sems dpa’ chen po: Mahāsattva, as in ‘Bodhisattva Mahāsattva’. The term literally means ‘great being’ in Sanskrit and ‘great aspiring hero’, or simply ‘great heroic being’. Mainly an appellation used to describe Bodhisattvas, by emphasizing their greatness (and to a lesser extent in Tibetan, re-emphasizing their bravery and aspiration).

References:

bod rgya tshig mdzod chen mo, Mi-rigs dPe-skrun Khang, 1998

mdo tshan lam sgrig, published by the Library of Tibetan Archives, 2007

 

 

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