The Bequeathed Teaching Sūtra

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The Bequeathed Teaching Sūtra

1. Introduction

This text, the Bequeathed Teaching Sūtra, was translated into Chinese around 400 C.E. by Kumārajīva and became an influential text often cited and commented on among Chinese Buddhists.

In Chan (Zen) communities in particular, it was considered a basic reference, taught and studied through the ages.

The brief Bequeathed Teaching Sūtra is a lesson on monastic discipline presented as Buddha’s last teaching just before his demise:

After his Parinirvāṇa, the Buddha teaches, the monks should rely on thorough discipline to guide them. The technical term for this is Pratimokṣa, literally “liberation in all respects,” because thorough discipline frees the monks from all potential entanglements.

The Buddha warns the monks not to seek wealth and property, social position, or political power, nor to play on the credulity of the people as fortune-tellers and healers.

He teaches monks to avoid anger and pride, sophistry and trivial argument.

Monks should reduce their desires and learn how to be satisfied with little. They should feel shame for their shortcomings and work diligently for Enlightenment all the time.

The Buddha teaches here from the perspective of cause and effect: pure discipline is a basic necessity because it allows good qualities to develop.

The Bequeathed Teaching Sūtra is also sometimes described as the Sūtra of Admonitions Imparted in Brief by the Buddha at His Final Decease.

2. The Bequeathed Teaching Sūtra

When Śākyamuni Buddha first turned the wheel of the Dharma, he delivered Ājñāta-kauṇḍinya. At the end [of his teaching career] he explained the Dharma to save Subhadra.

Having already delivered those whom he should deliver, the Buddha was [reclining] between the twin Śāla-trees, about to enter Nirvāṇa.

The time was the middle of the night, still and soundless. For the sake of his disciples, the Buddha gave a brief account of the essentials of the Dharma.

The Buddha said:

“You monks, after I am gone, you should honour and respect Pratimokṣa, [the discipline that liberates,] as if you have found a light in the darkness, as if you were poor men finding a jewel.

You must realize that this will be your great teacher.
It will be no different than when I was in the world.

“Those who maintain pure discipline must not engage in commerce and trade. They must not own fields and houses, or keep slaves or domestic animals. They must stay far away from all forms of wealth and property, as if avoiding a fiery pit.

They must not cut down plants or till the soil. They must not engage in compounding medicines or doing prognostication and augury.

They must not engage in gazing at the constellations or plotting the movements [of the stars] through the sky.

“They should regulate their bodies and eat only at the prescribed time, so that they lead a pure and independent life. They must not get involved in worldly affairs or serve in government posts.

They should not use spells or magic or drugs. They should not curry favour with high-ranking people or be on intimate terms with the dissolute and vain.

“[Those who maintain pure discipline] should seek salvation with a proper mentality and correct mindfulness. They should not hide their flaws, or come out with divergent views that confuse the people.

Toward the 4 offerings they should know moderation and be satisfied. When they happen to receive offerings, they must not accumulate anything.

“This then is a brief account of the forms of maintaining discipline.

Discipline is the basis of the Liberation that comes from correct obedience [to the Dharma]. Thus it is called Prati-mokṣa, [complete liberation].

Based on this discipline (Śīla), you can engender all forms of meditative concentration (Samādhi) and the wisdom (Prajñā) that ends suffering. Therefore, you monks should maintain pure spotless discipline and not let yourselves break the precepts.

If people are able to uphold pure discipline, then they will be capable of having good qualities. Without pure discipline, good qualities and virtues will not be born.

Thus you must realize that discipline is the principal secure abode of virtuous qualities.

“All you monks are already capable of abiding in discipline:

You must control the 5 senses. Do not let them stray into the 5 desires.

It is like a person herding an ox—holding his staff, he watches over it and does not let it get away and trespass on other people’s crops.

If you indulge the 5 senses, the 5 desires will become boundless and uncontrollable, like a bad horse which cannot be reined in but instead pulls the person down into a pit.

If you are robbed and injured the pain is only for a lifetime, but if the 5 senses are rebellious the disaster reaches into many lifetimes. The harm done is very serious: you must be careful.

This is why the wise control [the 5 senses] and do not follow them. They hold them fast like potential rebels and do not let them loose. If people do indulge them, they always meet with destruction before long.

Mind is the ruler of these 5 senses. Therefore you must be good at controlling the mind properly.

There is more to be feared from [misuse of] the mind than from poisonous snakes or wild beasts or vengeful rebels or great conflagrations or indulging in excess: no metaphor will suffice.

Moving around back and forth, superficial and impulsive, it sees only the honey but not the deep pit. It is like a mad elephant without a [mahout’s] hook [to control it]. It is like a monkey in a tree leaping and frolicking about, impossible to curb or control.

You must be quick to take control of it and not let it run loose. Those who indulge this mind lose all the good things of humanity.

Those who control it in one place can accomplish all tasks. Therefore, you monks should work scrupulously and make progress in taming and subduing the mind.

“When you monks consume food and drink, it should be like taking medicine. Do not take more of what you like or less of what you dislike.

Take [food and drink only] to support your physical existence and ward off hunger and thirst.

As bees gather from flowers, taking only the flavour but not harming the colour or scent, so should monks be:

When they receive offerings from people, they accept them to remove affliction; they should not ask for a lot and damage their good state of mind.

It is like an intelligent person who calculates how much the strength of an ox will bear, and does not exhaust it by overloading it.

“During the day you monks should scrupulously cultivate good things and not let time slip away.

Let there be no slacking off in the early evening or in the predawn hours. In the middle of the night recite Sūtras aloud to keep yourself alert. Do not let your whole life pass in vain without attainment on account of sleep.

You should be mindful that the fire of impermanence burns through all worlds. Seek salvation soon—do not sleep.

The thieves of affliction are always waiting to slaughter people; they are worse than enemies. How can you stay asleep and not alert and arouse yourselves?

The poisonous snakes of affliction are sleeping in your mind. It is like a black cobra sleeping in your room—you must use the hook of discipline to get rid of it right away.

Only when the sleeping snake has been removed can you rest secure. One who goes to sleep without removing the snake is a shameless person.

“Obedience to the sense of shame is number one among all the adornments:

Shame is like an iron hook that can control a person’s transgressions against the Dharma. Therefore, you monks should feel shame at all times, without slacking off for a moment.

If you lose your sense of shame, you have lost all the virtues. People with shame have good qualities. Those without shame are no different from animals.

“If someone comes along who is totally undisciplined, you monks must gather in your own minds and not let yourselves get angry; guard your mouths and do not utter any maledictions.

If you indulge in feelings of anger you are blocking the Way for yourself and losing the advantages of your virtues.

Forbearance (kṣānti) is a virtue that upholding discipline and practicing austerities cannot match.

“Only those who are capable of practicing forbearance can be called great and powerful people:

If you cannot gladly bear the poison of insults as if you were sipping sweet dew, you cannot be called a person of wisdom who has entered the Way. Why?

The harm done by anger can destroy all good qualities and ruin a good reputation, so that no one in the present or future will be happy to see you.

You must realize that anger is worse than a raging fire. Guard against it always and do not let it enter. Of the thieves that carry off virtue, none is worse than anger.

People in lay life are subject to desires and, not being people who practice the Way, they have no way to control themselves, so their anger can still be forgiven.

But for those who have left home to practice the Way and have no desires, to harbour anger is very wrong. It is like a flash of lightning from a pure cool cloud that ignites a fire. It is not something that should be.

“You monks should remind yourselves: You have already abandoned all finery and put on shabby clothes. You carry alms-bowls and beg for a living.

Seeing yourselves like this, if you feel any pride you must quickly do away with it:

Even worldly conventional people do not think it proper to foster pride and arrogance. This is even truer for people who have left home to enter the Way. For the sake of liberation they subdue their minds and practice alms-begging.

Monks, a devious flattering mentality is antithetical to the Way.

Therefore you must make your minds honest and straightforward. You should realize that deceit and flattery are just deceptions and lies:

Such behaviour is impossible for people who have entered the Way. Therefore all of you must adjust your minds with honesty and straightforwardness as the basis.

“You monks should realize that people with many desires seek much gratification, so that they also have many vexations. People with few desires are free from seeking and free from desire, so they do not have this trouble.

You must still cultivate practice to lessen your desires. What’s more, lessening desire can engender the various virtues. People with few desires do not use flattery and deceit to seek other people’s favour. Nor are they dragged around by the senses.

Those who practice the lessening of desires have minds that are calm and free from anxiety and fear. When they come in contact with things, there is more than enough—they are never unsatisfied.

Where there is the lessening of desire, there is Nirvāṇa. This is called having few desires.

“You monks who want to escape from all the various afflictions must contemplate [what it means to] know satisfaction:

The method of knowing satisfaction is the locus of prosperity, of bliss, of peace and security. Even if they are lying on the ground, the people who know satisfaction are happy and at peace.

For the people who do not know satisfaction, it does not suit their fancy even if they are in heaven. The people who do not know satisfaction are poor even if they are rich.

The people who do know satisfaction are rich even if they are poor.

Those who do not know satisfaction are forever dragged around by the 5 desires and are pitied by those who do know satisfaction.

This is called knowing satisfaction.

“If you seek the peaceful and still, secure bliss of non-action, you monks must distance yourselves from the hustle and bustle and dwell at ease wherever you are.

People who dwell in peace are honoured by Indra and all Devas (gods):

Thus you must abandon your own group and all other groups and live alone in peace, contemplating the annihilation of the root of suffering.

If you take joy in groups, you are subject to the afflictions of those groups.

It is like a great tree: if too many birds gather in it, there is the danger that the tree will weaken and break.

Worldly bonds and attachments sink you down into the multitude of sufferings. It is like an old elephant sinking into the mud, which cannot get itself out. This is called detachment.

“Nothing will be difficult for you monks if you work hard and make energetic progress. Therefore, you must work hard and make energetic progress. It is like a small stream flowing against a rock all the time, so that [eventually] it can bore through the rock.

If the practitioner’s mind often slacks off, it is like drilling for fire but stopping before it gets hot. Even if you want to get fire, it is impossible. This is called energetic practice.

“You monks should seek out Enlightened Teachers and good protectors and aids, and do not forget to be mindful [of the Dharma].

If you do not forget this mindfulness, then the thieves of affliction cannot enter. Therefore, you must always gather in your attention on the mind. If you lose mindfulness, then you lose all virtues.

If the power of your mindfulness is strong, even if you enter among the thieves of the 5 desires you will not be harmed by them. It is like wearing armour into battle—you have no fear.

This is called not forgetting mindfulness.

“If you monks collect the mind, your mind is in meditative concentration (Samādhi).

Because your mind is in meditative concentration, you know all the characteristics of the worldly phenomena of birth and annihilation.

Therefore all of you must always diligently cultivate and assemble all the various states of meditative concentration. If you attain meditative concentration, then your mind is not in confusion.

It is like a family concerned with water control that takes good care of the dams. Practitioners are also like this:

For the sake of the water of wisdom they constantly cultivate meditative concentration and do not let [the water of wisdom] leak away.

This is called meditative concentration.

“If you monks have wisdom then you have no craving or attachment. You are constantly self-aware and do not allow any mistakes:

If so, then you can achieve liberation by my teaching. If not, then you are not a person of the Way, nor are you a layperson; there is no name for you.

Real wisdom is the solid and secure ship for crossing the sea of old age, sickness, and death.

It is also the great bright lamp amid the darkness of ignorance, the good medicine for all diseases, the sharp axe that cuts down the trees of affliction.

Therefore all of you should always use hearing [the Dharma], contemplating [the Dharma], cultivating [the Dharma], and the wisdom [of the Dharma] to increase the benefit.

If people have the perception of wisdom, even without the eye of Devas, they are clear-eyed people. This is wisdom.

“If you monks engage in all kinds of sophistry and trivial argument, then your minds will become confused. Even though you have left home you still will not be liberated.

Therefore monks should quickly abandon the trivial arguments of confused minds. If you want to attain the bliss of Nirvāṇa, you must know well how to put an end to this problem of sophistry and trivial argument.

This is called not engaging in trivial argument.

“In regard to all the virtues, you monks must always abandon all indulgence, as you would shun a robber full of hate.

The benefits propounded by [the Buddha,] the Great Compassionate World Honoured One, are all in terms of the Ultimate Truth. You simply must work hard and practice what he taught.

[Wherever you are], whether in the mountains or valleys or dwelling at ease in a quiet place under the trees, be mindful of the Dharma you have received and do not let yourselves forget it or lose it.

You must always exert yourself to make energetic progress cultivating it. Do not bring upon yourselves the worries and regrets of dying in vain.

“I am like a good doctor who diagnoses the disease and prescribes the medicine. It is not the doctor’s fault if [the patient] does not take [the medicine and thus is not cured].

I am also like a good guide who gives people good directions. If the people hear but do not follow them, it is not the guide’s mistake.

If you have any doubts about the Four Noble Truths, you should ask me about them quickly. Do not harbour doubts without seeking to get them resolved.”

Then the World Honoured One called on [the monks] 3 times like this [to voice their doubts] but no one asked questions. Why? Because those in the assembly had no doubts!

At this time Aniruddha observed the minds of those assembled there and said to the Buddha,

“World Honoured One, the moon could become hot and the sun could become cold but the Four Noble Truths could never be any different:

The Buddha taught the truth of suffering, and it really is suffering: it cannot be made into happiness. The accumulation [of ignorance and craving] is really the causal basis [of suffering], and there is no other causal basis.

For suffering to be extinguished, the causal basis is extinguished—the cause is ended, so the result is ended. The path for the ending of suffering is the true path, there is no other path.

O World Honoured One, all these monks are certain of the Four Noble Truths and have no doubts about them.

“In this assembly, those who have not yet accomplished the work will have feelings of sadness when they see the Buddha die.

Those who have newly entered the Dharma hear what the Buddha says and all find deliverance, but for them it is like seeing a flash of lightning in the night so that they may see the path.

Those who have already accomplished the work and crossed over the ocean of suffering will think, ‘Alas! How quick was the World Honoured One’s Parinirvāṇa!’”

Though Aniruddha spoke like this, and all in the assembly did indeed completely comprehend the meaning of the Four Noble Truths,

the World Honoured One wanted to enable the whole congregation to find strength and solidity, so with the mind of great compassion, he again explained for them:

“You monks should not harbour worries and vexations within yourselves.

Even if I were to stay in the world for an entire eon, our time together would still have to end. Being together without parting will always be unattainable.

For benefiting self and others, the Dharma is fully equipped and sufficient. If I stayed longer there would be no further gain.

Those whom I can and should deliver within the realm of devas and human beings have all already been delivered. Those who have not yet found deliverance have all already formed the causal conditions for finding deliverance.

If after this my disciples continue to carry on [the teaching], then this will be the Tathāgata’s Dharmakāya (Dharma body) being present forever without end.

“Thus you must realize that all worldly things are impermanent. Every meeting must have a parting. Do not be anxious about this. This is a characteristic of worldly things.

You should work hard, make energetic progress, and seek liberation as soon as possible:

Use the light of wisdom to put an end to the darkness of all forms of ignorance. The world really is perilous and fragile and insecure.

Today I am dying—it is like getting rid of a noxious disease:

This is an evil thing we must abandon, temporarily called the body, sunk in the great ocean of birth, old age, sickness, and death. What person with wisdom would not be glad to get rid of it, this deadly robber?

“You monks must constantly, single-mindedly, earnestly seek a way out. Everything in the world, moving or static, is marked by decay and insecurity.

Stop for now; let’s have no more talk. Now I am about to go. I am about to die, to enter Parinirvāṇa. This is the last lesson I will teach.”