Sūtra of Forty-Two Sections


1. Introduction

The Sūtra of Forty-two Sections (also called the Sūtra of Forty-two Chapters is often regarded as the first Indian Buddhist Sūtra translated into Chinese.

However, according to some opinions, this collection of aphorisms may have appeared some time after the first attested translations, and may even have been compiled in Central Asia or China.

According to tradition, it was translated by 2 Yuezhi monks, Kāśyapa Mātaṇga and Dharmarātna in 67 CE.

Because of its association with the entrance of Buddhism to China, it is accorded a very significant status in East Asia.

According to ancient Chinese historiographical scrolls, Emperor Ming of Han (r. 58-75 C.E.) had seen a yogi in a dream, who had a "golden body" and emitted rays of light".

His advisers identified the spirit as Buddha, who was supposed to have the power of flight.

The Emperor then ordered a delegation to go to Western lands, in search for the Buddha's teachings.

The envoys returned, bringing with them the 2 Indian monks Kāśyapa Mātaṇga and Dharmarātna, and brought them back to China along with the Sūtra.

When they reached the Chinese capital of Luoyang, the Emperor had the White Horse Temple built for them.

The Sūtra of Forty-two Chapters consists of a brief prologue and 42 short chapters, composed largely of quotations from the Buddha.

Most chapters begin "The Buddha said...", but several provide the context of a situation or a question asked of the Buddha.

The scripture itself is not considered a formal Sūtra, and early scriptures refer to the work as "Forty-two Sections from Buddhist Scriptures" or "The Forty-two Sections of Emperor Xiao Ming."

It is unclear whether the scripture existed in Sanskrit in this form, or was a compilation of a series of passages extracted from other canonical works in the manner of the Analects of Confucius:

This latter hypothesis also explains the similarity of the repeated "The Buddha said..." and "The Master said," familiar from Confucian texts,

and may have been the most natural inclination of the Buddhist translators in the Confucian environment, and more likely to be accepted than a lengthy treatise.

Among those who consider it based on a corresponding Sanskrit work, it is considered to be older than other Mahāyāna Sūtras, because of its simplicity of style and naturalness of method.

Scholars have also been able to find the aphorisms present in this scripture in various other Buddhist works such as Dīgha, Majjhima, Samyutta, Aṅguttara Nikāyas, and Mahāvagga.

2. Sūtra of Forty-Two Sections


When the World Honoured One had attained the Path, he thought, "To leave desire behind and to gain calmness and tranquillity is supreme."

He abided in deep meditative concentration and subdued every demon and spirit.

In the Deer Park he turned the Dharma-wheel of the 4 Noble Truths and took across Ājñātakauṇḍinya and the other 4 disciples, who all realized the fruition of the Path.

Then the Bhikṣus expressed their doubts and asked the Buddha how to resolve them.

The World Honoured One taught and exhorted them, until one by one they awakened and gained Enlightenment. After that, they each put their palms together, respectfully gave their assent, and followed the Buddha's instructions.

Section 1

The Buddha said,

"Those who leave their parents, go out of the home, understand the mind, reach the source and comprehend the immaterial, are called Śramaṇa.

"Those who observe the 250 precepts of morality, who are pure and spotless in their behaviour, and who exert themselves for the attainment of the 4 fruits of saintship are called Arhats.

"The Arhat is able to fly through space and assume different forms; his life is eternal, and there are times when he causes heaven and earth to quake.

"Next is the Anāgāmin. At the end of his life, the spirit of the Anāgāmin ascends to the 19th heaven and obtains Arhatship.

"Next is the Sakadāgāmin. The Sakadāgāmin ascends to the heavens after his death, comes back to the earth once more and then attains Arhatship.

"Next is the Sotāpanna. The Sotāpanna dies 7 times and is born 7 times, when he finally attains Arhatship.

"By the severance of the passions is meant that like limbs severed they are never again made use of."

Section 2

The Buddha said, "Those who have left the home-life and become Śramaṇas cut off desire, renounce love, and recognize the source of their minds.

They penetrate the Buddha's profound principles and awaken to the unconditioned Dharma. Internally they have nothing to attain, and externally they seek nothing.

They are not mentally bound to the Path, nor are they tied to karma:

They are free of thought and action; they neither cultivate nor attain certification; they do not pass through the various stages, and yet they are highly revered. This is the meaning of the Path."

Section 3

The Buddha said,

"Shaving their hair and beards, they become Śramaṇas who accept the Dharmas of the Path. They renounce worldly wealth and riches. In receiving alms, they accept only what's enough.

They take only 1 meal a day at noon, pass the night beneath trees, and are careful not to seek more than that. Craving and desire are what cause people to be stupid and dull."

Section 4

The Buddha said, "Living beings may perform 10 Good Deeds or 10 Evil Deeds.

What are the 10?

1) 3 are done with the body,
2) 4 are done with the mouth,
3) and 3 are done with the mind.

The 3 done with the body are:

1) killing,
2) stealing,
3) and lust.

The 4 done with the mouth are:

1) hypocrisy,
2) harsh speech,
3) lies,
4) and frivolous speech.

The 3 done with the mind are:

1) jealousy,
2) hatred,
3) and stupidity.

Thus these 10 are not in accord with the Path of Sages and are called the 10 Evil Deeds. To put a stop to these evils is to perform the 10 Good Deeds."

Section 5

The Buddha said, "If a person has many offenses and does not repent of them, but cuts off all thought of repentance, the offenses will engulf him, just as water returning to the sea will gradually become deeper and wider.

If a person has offenses and, realizing they are wrong, reforms and does good, the offenses will dissolve by themselves, just as a sick person who begins to perspire will gradually be cured."

Section 6

The Buddha said, "When an evil person hears about your goodness and intentionally comes to cause trouble, you should restrain yourself and not become angry or blame him.

Then the one who has come to do evil will do evil to himself."

Section 7

The Buddha said, "There was a person who, upon hearing that I observe the Path and practice great humane kindness, intentionally came to berate me. I was silent and did not reply.

When he finished abusing me, I asked, If you are courteous to people and they do not accept your courtesy, the courtesy returns to you, does it not?'

"It does,' he replied.

I said, Now you are scolding me, but I do not receive it, so the misfortune returns to you and must remain with you.

It is as inevitable as an echo that follows a sound, or as a shadow that follows a form. In the end you cannot avoid it. Therefore, be careful not to do evil.' "

Section 8

The Buddha said, "An evil person who harms a sage is like one who raises his head and spits at heaven. Instead of reaching heaven, the spittle falls back on him.

It is the same with someone who throws dust against the wind. Instead of going somewhere else, the dust returns to defile his own body.

The sage cannot be harmed. Misdeeds will inevitably destroy the doer."

Section 9

The Buddha said, "Deep learning and a love of the Path make the Path difficult to attain. When you guard your mind and revere the Path, the Path is truly great!"

Section 10

The Buddha said, "When you see someone who is practicing giving, aid him joyfully, and you will obtain vast and great blessings."

A Śramaṇa asked, "Is there an end to those blessings?"

The Buddha said, "Consider the flame of a single torch:

Though hundreds and thousands of people come to light their own torches from it so that they can cook their food and ward off darkness, the first torch remains the same.

Blessings, too, are like this."

Section 11

The Buddha said,

"Giving food to a 100 bad people is not as good as giving food to a 1 good person. Giving food to a 1000 good people is not as good as giving food to 1 person who holds the 5 Precepts.

Giving food to 10 thousand people who hold the 5 Precepts is not as good as giving food to a 1 Sotāpanna. Giving food to a million Sotāpannas is not as good as giving food to a 1 Sakadāgāmin.

Giving food to 10 million Sakadāgāmins is not as good as giving food to a 1 Anāgāmin. Giving food to a 100 million Anāgāmins is not as good as giving food to a 1 Arhat.

Giving food to 1 billion Arhats is not as good as giving food to a 1 Pratyekabuddha. Giving food to 10 billion Pratyekabuddhas is not as good as giving food to a Buddha of the 3 periods of time.

Giving food to a 100 billion Buddhas of the 3 periods of time is not as good as giving food to a 1 person who is without thoughts, without dwelling, without cultivation, and without accomplishment."

Section 12

The Buddha said,

"People encounter 20 different kinds of difficulties:

1) It is difficult to give when one is poor.
2) It is difficult to study the Path when one has wealth and status.
3) It is difficult to abandon life and face the certainty of death.
4) It is difficult to encounter the Buddhist Sūtras.
5) It is difficult to be born at the time of a Buddha.
6) It is difficult to be patient with lust and desire.
7) It is difficult to see fine things and not seek them.
8) It is difficult to be insulted and not become angry.
9) It is difficult to have power and not abuse it.
10) It is difficult to come in contact with things and have no thought of them.
11) It is difficult to be vastly learned and well-read.
12) It is difficult to get rid of pride.
13) It is difficult not to slight those who have not yet studied.
14) It is difficult to practice equanimity of mind.
15) It is difficult not to gossip.
16) It is difficult to meet a Good and Wise Advisor.
17) It is difficult to see one's own nature and study the Path.
18) It is difficult to teach and save people according to their potentials.
19) It is difficult to see a state and not be moved by it.
20) It is difficult to have a good understanding of skill-in-means."

Section 13

A Śramaṇa asked the Buddha,
"By what causes and conditions can I know my past lives and understand the Ultimate Path?"

The Buddha said,
"By purifying your mind and preserving your resolve, you can understand the Ultimate Path.

Just as when you polish a mirror, the dust vanishes and brightness remains, so too, if you cut off desire and do not seek, you then can know past lives."

Section 14

A Śramaṇa asked the Buddha,
"What is goodness?
What is the foremost greatness?"

The Buddha said,
"To practice the Path and uphold the truth is goodness.
To unite your will with the Path is greatness."

Section 15

A Śramaṇa asked the Buddha, "What is the greatest strength? What is the utmost brilliance?"

The Buddha said, "Patience under insult is the greatest strength, because people who are patient do not harbour hatred, and they gradually grow more peaceful and strong.

Patient people, since they are not evil, will surely gain the respect of others.

"When the mind's defilements are gone completely, so that it is pure and untainted, that is the utmost brilliance.

When there is nothing, from before the formation of the heavens and the earth until now, in any of the 10 directions that you do not see, know, or hear; when you have attained omniscience, that may be called brilliance."

Section 16

The Buddha said, "People who cherish love and desire do not see the Path:

Just as when you stir clear water with your hand, those who stand beside it cannot see their reflections, so, too, people who are entangled in love and desire have turbidity in their minds, and therefore they cannot see the Path.

You Śramaṇas should cast aside love and desire. When the stains of love and desire disappear, you will be able to see the Path."

Section 17

The Buddha said, "Those who see the Path are like someone holding a torch that enters a dark room, dispelling the darkness so that only light remains.

When you study the Path and see the truth, ignorance vanishes and light remains forever."

Section 18

The Buddha said,

"My Dharma is the mindfulness that is both mindfulness and non-mindfulness. It is the practice that is both practice and non-practice. It is words that are words and non-words, and cultivation that is cultivation and non-cultivation.

Those who understand are near to it; those who are confused are far a Path, indeed.

It is not accessible by the path of language. It is not hindered by physical objects. If you are off by a hairsbreadth, you will lose it in an instant."

Section 19

The Buddha said, "Contemplate heaven and earth, and be mindful of their impermanence. Contemplate the world, and be mindful of its impermanence.

Contemplate the efficacious, Enlightened Nature: it is the Bodhi nature.

With this awareness, one quickly attains the Path."

Section 20

The Buddha said, "You should be mindful of the 4 elements within the body. Though each has a name, none of them is the self. Since they are not the self, they are like an illusion."

Section 21

The Buddha said, "There are people who follow emotion and desire and seek to be famous. By the time their reputation is established, they are already dead.

Those who are greedy for worldly fame and do not study the Path simply waste their effort and wear themselves out.

By Path of analogy, although burning incense gives off fragrance, when it has burned down, the remaining embers bring the danger of a fire that can burn one up."

Section 22

The Buddha said, "People who are unable to renounce wealth and sex are just like a child who cannot resist honey on the blade of a knife:

Even though the amount is not even enough for a single meal's serving, he will lick it and risk cutting his tongue in the process."

Section 23

The Buddha said,

"People are bound to their families and homes to such an extent that these are worse than a prison.

Eventually one is released from prison, but people never think of leaving their families. Don't they fear the control that emotion, love, and sex have over them?

Although they are in a tiger's jaws, their hearts are blissfully oblivious. Because they throw themselves into a swamp and drown, they are known as ordinary people.

Pass through the gateway! Get out of the defilement and become an Arhat!"

Section 24

The Buddha said, "Of all longings and desires, there is none as strong as sex:

Sexual desire has no equal. Fortunately, it is one of a kind. If there were something else like it, no one in the entire world would be able to cultivate the Path."

Section 25

The Buddha said, "A person with love and desire is like one who carries a torch while walking against the wind: he is certain to burn his hand."

Section 26

The heaven spirit offered beautiful maidens to the Buddha, hoping to destroy his resolve.

The Buddha said,
"What have you skin-bags full of filth come here for?
Go away, I've got no use for you."

Then the heaven spirit became very respectful and asked about the meaning of the Path. The Buddha explained it for him, and he immediately attained the fruition of Sotāpanna.

Section 27

The Buddha said, "A person who follows the Path is like a floating piece of wood that courses along with the current:

If it does not touch either shore; if people do not pluck it out; if ghosts and spirits do not intercept it; if it is not trapped in whirlpools; and if it does not rot, I guarantee that the piece of wood will reach the sea!

If students of the Path are not deluded by emotion and desire, and if they are not caught up in the many crooked views, but are vigorous in their cultivation of the unconditioned, I guarantee that they will certainly attain the Path!"

Section 28

The Buddha said, "Be careful not to believe your own mind; your mind is not to be believed! Be careful not to get involved with sex; involvement with sex leads to disaster.

After you have attained Arhatship, you can believe your own mind."

Section 29

The Buddha said, "Be careful not to look at women, and do not talk with them.

If you must speak with them, be properly mindful and think,

I am a Śramaṇa living in a turbid world.
I should be like the lotus flower, which is not stained by the mud.'

Think of elderly women as your mothers, of those who are older than you as your elder sisters, of those who are younger as your younger sisters, and of very young girls as your daughters.

Bring forth thoughts to rescue them, and put an end to bad thoughts."

Section 30

The Buddha said,

"People who cultivate the Path are like dry grass: it is essential to keep it away from an oncoming fire. People who cultivate the Path look upon desire as something they must stay far away from."

Section 31

The Buddha said, "There was once someone who was plagued by ceaseless sexual desire and wished to castrate himself.

The Buddha said to him,

'To cut off your sexual organ would not be as good as to cut off your mind. Your mind is like a supervisor: if the supervisor stops, his employees will also quit.

If the deviant mind is not stopped, what good does it do to cut off the organ?'"

The Buddha spoke a verse for him:

Desire is born from your intentions.
Intentions are born from thoughts.
When both aspects of the mind are still,
There is neither form nor activity.

The Buddha said, "This verse was spoken by the Buddha Kāśyapa."

Section 32

The Buddha said, "People worry because of love and desire. That worry then leads to fear. If you transcend love, what worries will there be? What will be left to fear?"

Section 33

The Buddha said, "People who cultivate the Path are like a soldier who goes into battle alone against 10 thousand enemies:

He dons his armour and goes out the gate. He may prove to be a coward; he may get halfway to the battlefield and retreat; he may be killed in combat; or he may return victorious.

"Śramaṇas who study the Path must make their minds resolute and be vigorous, courageous, and valiant. Not fearing what lies ahead, they should defeat the hordes of demons and obtain the fruition of the Path."

Section 34

One evening a Śramaṇa was reciting the Sūtra of the Teaching Bequeathed by the Buddha Kāśyapa. The sound of his voice was mournful as he reflected remorsefully on his wish to retreat in cultivation.

The Buddha asked him, "In the past when you were a householder, what did you do?"
He replied, "I was fond of playing the lute."
The Buddha said, "What happened when the strings were slack?"
He replied, "They didn't sound."
"What happened when they were too tight?"
He replied, "The sounds were cut short."
"What happened when they were tuned just right between slack and tight?"
He replied, "The sounds carried."

The Buddha said, "It is the same with a Śramaṇa who studies the Path:

If his mind is harmonious, he can attain the Path. If he is impetuous about the Path, his impetuousness will tire out his body; and if his body is tired, his mind will become afflicted.

If his mind becomes afflicted, then he will retreat from his practice. If he retreats from his practice, his offenses will certainly increase. You need only be pure, peaceful, and happy, and you will not lose the Path."

Section 35

The Buddha said,

"People smelt metal by burning the dross out of it in order to make high quality implements.

It is the same with people who study the Path: first they must get rid of the defilements in their minds; then their practice becomes pure."

Section 36

The Buddha said, "It is difficult for one to leave the evil destinies and become a human being.

"Even if one does become a human being, it is still difficult to become a man rather than a woman.

"Even if one does become a man, it is still difficult to have the 6 sense organs complete and perfect.

"Even if the 6 sense organs are complete and perfect, it is still difficult for one to be born in a central country.

"Even if one is born in a central country, it is still difficult to be born at a time when there is a Buddha in the world.

"Even if one is born at a time when there is a Buddha in the world, it is still difficult to encounter the Path.

"Even if one does encounter the Path, it is still difficult to bring forth faith.

"Even if one brings forth faith, it is still difficult to resolve one's mind on Bodhi.

"Even if one does resolve one's mind on Bodhi, it is still difficult to be beyond cultivation and attainment."

Section 37

The Buddha said, "My disciples may be several thousand miles away from me, but if they remember my moral precepts, they will certainly attain the fruition of the Path.

"If those who are by my side do not follow my moral precepts, they may see me constantly, but in the end they will not attain the Path."

Section 38

The Buddha asked a Śramaṇa,
"How do you measure the length of a man’s life?"
He replied, "By days."
The Buddha said, "You have not yet understood the Path."

He asked another Śramaṇa,
"How do you measure the length of a man’s life?"
The reply was, "By the time that passes during a meal."
The Buddha said, "You have not yet understood the Path."

He asked another Śramaṇa,
"How do you measure the length of a man’s life?"
He replied, "The length of a single breath."
The Buddha said, "Excellent. You have understood the Path."

Section 39

The Buddha said, "Students of the Buddha's Path should believe in and accord with everything that the Buddha teaches. When you eat honey, it is sweet on the surface and sweet in the centre; it is the same with my Sūtras."

Section 40

The Buddha said, "A Śramaṇa who practices the Path should not be like an ox turning a millstone: Such a one walks the Path with his body, but his mind is not on the Path.

If the mind is concentrated on the Path, what further need is there to practice?"

Section 41

The Buddha said,
"One who practices the Path is like an ox pulling a heavy load through deep mud:

The ox is so extremely exhausted that it dares not glance to the left or right. Only when it gets out of the mud can it rest.

The Śramaṇa should regard emotion and desire as being worse than deep mud; and with an undeviating mind, he should be mindful of the Path. Then he can avoid suffering."

Section 42

The Buddha said,

"I look upon royalty and high positions as upon the dust that floats through a crack.
I look upon treasures of gold and jade as upon broken tiles.
I look upon fine silk clothing as upon cheap cotton.
I look upon a great thousand-world universe as upon a small nut kernel.
I look upon the waters of the Anavatapta Lake as upon oil used to anoint the feet."