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Buddhist Suttas

Translated from Pāli by T. W. Rhys Davids

Oxford, the Clarendon Press
Vol. XI of The Sacred Books of the East
translated by various Oriental scholars and edited by F. Max Müller

Public Domain
This work has been reformatted for presentation on BuddhaDust
Thanks to J.B. Hare's Internet Sacred Text Archives for originally posting this material
Digitized and formatted for Internet Sacred Text Archives by Cristopher M. Weimer

Mahā-Sudassana Sutta
Legend of the Great King of Glory



THE following translation is made from a text based on three MSS. from the same sources as those referred to at the commencement of the Tevijja Sutta, and referred to in my notes by the same letters.

This Sutta follows in the Dīgha Nikāya immediately after the Book of the Great Decease, and is based on the same legend as the Mahā-Sudassana Jātaka, No. 95 in Mr. Fausböll's edition. As the latter differs in several important particulars from our Sutta, it is probably not taken directly from it, but is merely derived from the same source. To facilitate comparison between the two I add here a translation of the Jātaka, which has not been reached as yet in my 'Buddhist Birth Stories,' and which is very short.

The part enclosed in brackets is the comment, which was probably written in Ceylon in the fifth century of our era, and I have included that part of the comment which is explanatory of the words in the verse, as it is of more than usual interest. There is every reason to believe, for the reasons given in the Introduction to the 'Buddhist Birth Stories,' that the stories themselves belong to a very early period in the history of Buddhism; and we may be sure that if this particular story had been abstracted by the author of the commentary from our Sutta, he would not have ventured to introduce such serious changes into what he regarded as sacred writ.

[238] The word translated 'component things' or 'compounds' in this Jātaka is saŋkhārā, literally confections, from kar, 'to do,' and saŋ, 'together.' It is a word very frequently used in Buddhist writings, and a word consequently of many different connotations; and there is, of course, no exactly corresponding word in English. 'Production' would often be very nearly correct, although it fails entirely to give the force of the preposition sam; but a greater objection to that word is the fact that it is generally used, not of things that have come into being of themselves, but of things that have been produced by some one else. It suggests, if it does not imply, a producer; which is contrary to the whole spirit of the Buddhist passages in which the word saŋkhārā occurs. In this important respect the word 'compound' is a much more accurate translation, though it lays somewhat too much stress on the saŋ.

The term Confections (to coin a rendering) is sometimes used, as in the first line of these verses (as used in this connection), to denote all things which have been brought together, made up, by pre-existing causes; and in this sense it includes, as the commentator here points out, all those material or mental qualities which unite to form an individual, a separate thing or being, whether conscious or unconscious.

It is more usually used, with special reference to their origin from pre-existing causes, and with allusion to the wider class denoted by the same word, of the mental confections only, of all sentient beings generally, or of man alone. In this sense it forms by itself one of the five classes or aggregates (khandhā) into which the material and mental qualities of each separate individual are divided in Buddhist writings — the class of dispositions, capabilities, and all that goes together to make what we call character. This class has naturally enough been again divided and subdivided; and a full list of the Confections in this sense, as now acknowledged by orthodox Buddhists, will be found in my manual 'Buddhism.' At the time when the Pāli Piṭakas reached their present form, no such elaborate list of Confections in detail seems to have been made; but the [243] general sense of the word was, as is quite clear from the passages in which it occurs, the idea which these details together convey. It is this second and more usual meaning of the term which is more especially emphasised in the concluding verse of the above stanza.



I have ventured to dwell so far on the word Confections, because the commentator here says that the cessation of these Confections is the same thing as Nirvāṇa; and the question of Nirvāṇa engrosses so large a share of the attention of those who are interested in Buddhism.

Whether it is entitled to do so is open to serious question. The Buddhist salvation was held to consist in a change of heart, a modification of personal character, to be attained to in this world, and forming the subject of Gotama's first discourse, 'The Foundation of the Kingdom of Righteousness[1].' When looked at from different points of view this state of mind was denoted, in the very numerous passages in which it is mentioned or referred to, under a great variety of different names or epithets, suggestive of the different points of view from which it could be regarded. The term Nibbāna, or Nirvāṇa, is only one of those epithets; and it is a most significant fact, to which I would invite especial attention, that it is an epithet comparatively very seldom employed in the Pāli Piṭakas themselves. It is to the state of mind itself, the salvation which every Arahat has reached while yet alive, in a word, to Arahatship, that importance ought to be attached, rather than to that particular connotation of it suggested by the word Nirvāṇa.

One of the many ideas involved in Arahatship was the absolute dissolution of individuality.[edfnVI.1] Gotama, whether rightly or wrongly is here of no importance, held that freedom from pain, absolute ease, happiness, was incompatible with existence as a distinct individual (whether animal, god, or man). The cessation of the Confections, so far from being a thing to be dreaded, was the inevitable result of the emancipation of heart and mind in Arahatship. [244] But it was not a thing to be desired, and could not, in fact, be brought about apart from all the other things involved in Arahatship. The formation of these Confections ceases in Nirvāṇa, and in Nirvāṇa alone; and when the poet declares that their cessation is blessed, he is saying the same thing as if he had said 'Nirvāṇa is blessed[2].'



Turning now to the Sutta itself, we find that the portion of the legend omitted in the Jātaka throws an unexpected light upon the tale; for it commences with a long description of the riches and glory of Mahā Sudassana, and reveals in its details the instructive fact that the legend is nothing more nor less than a spiritualist's sun-myth.

It cannot be disputed that the sun-myth theory has become greatly discredited, and with reason, by having been used too carelessly and freely as an explanation of religious legends of different times and countries which have really no historical connection with the earlier awe and reverence inspired by the sun. The very mention of the word sun-myth is apt to call forth a smile of incredulity, and the indubitable truth which is the basis of the theory has not sufficed to protect it from the shafts of ridicule. The 'Book of the Great King of Glory' seems to afford a useful example both of the extent to which the theory may be accepted, and of the limitations under which it should always be applied.

It must at once be admitted that whether the whole story is based on a sun-story, or whether certain parts or details of it are derived from things first spoken about the sun, or not, it is still essentially Buddhistic. A large proportion of its contents has nothing at all to do with the worship of the sun; and even that which has, had not, in[245] the mind of the author, when the book was put together. Whether indebted to a sun-myth or not, it is therefore perfectly true and valid evidence of the religious belief of the people among whom it was current; and no more shows that the Buddhists were unconscious sun worshippers than the story of Samson, under any theory of its possible origin, would prove the same of the Jews.

What we really have is a kind of wonderful fairy tale, a gorgeous poem, in which an attempt is made to describe in set terms the greatest possible glory and majesty of the greatest possible king, in order to show that all is vanity, save only righteousness-just such a poem as a Jewish prophet might have written of Solomon in all his glory. It would have been most strange, perhaps impossible, for the author to refrain from using the language of the only poets he knew, who had used their boldly figurative language in an attempt to describe the appearance of the sun.

To trace back all the rhetorical phrases of our Sutta to their earliest appearance in the Vedic hymns would be an interesting task of historical philology, though it would throw more light upon Buddhist forms of speech than upon Buddhist forms of belief. In M. Senart's valuable work, 'La Legende du Bouddha,' he has already done this with regard to the seven treasures (mentioned in the early part of the Sutta) on the basis of the corresponding passage in the later Buddhist Sanskrit poem called the Lalita Vistara. The descriptions of the royal city and of its wondrous Palace of Righteousness have been probably originated by the author, though on the same lines; and it reminds one irresistibly, in many of its expressions, of the similar, but simpler and more beautiful poem in which a Jewish author, some three centuries afterwards, described the heavenly Jerusalem.

When the Northern Buddhists, long afterwards, had smothered the simple teaching of the founder of their religion under the subtleties of theological and metaphysical speculation, and had forgotten all about the Noble Path, their goal was no longer a change of heart in the Arahatship to be reached on earth, but a life of happiness, under a change of outward condition, in a heaven of bliss [246] beyond the skies. One of the most popular books among the Buddhists of China and Japan is a description of this heavenly paradise of theirs, called the Sukhāvatī-vyūha, the 'Book of the Happy Country,' the Sanskrit text of which has been just published by Professor Max Müller in the volume of the journal of the Royal Asiatic Society for the present year. It is instructive to find that several of the expressions used are word for word the same as the corresponding phrases in the 'Book of the Great King of Glory.'






[1]The Dhamma-cakka-ppavattana Sutta, translated below.]

[2]In this respect it should be noticed that the very word here used for cessation, upasamo, is used as one among a string of epithets of Arahatship at Dhamma-cakka-ppavattana Sutta, Ī 3, = Jātaka I, 97, and again in Dhammapada, verses 368, 381. In this last passage the whole of the phrase in the last verse in our stanza recurs in the accusative case as an equivalent to Arahatship, and the comma inserted by Mr. Fausböll between saŋkhārūpasamaṃ and sukhaṃ is, in both verses, unnecessary.]


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