Angulimaliya Sutra (Mahayana)

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The Aṅgulimālīya Sūtra is a Mahāyāna Buddhist scripture belonging to the Tathāgatagarbha class of sūtra,[1] which teach that the Buddha is eternal, that the non-Self and emptiness teachings only apply to the worldly sphere and not to Nirvāṇa, and that the Tathāgatagarbha is real and immanent within all beings and all phenomena.

The Mahāyāna Aṅgulimālīya Sūtra should not be confused with the Pāli Canon's Angulimala Sutta, which is a completely different work included in the Majjhima Nikaya.

Origins and history

According to Stephen Hodge, internal textual evidence in the Aṅgulimālīya Sūtra, Mahābherihāraka Parivarta Sūtra, and the Mahāyāna Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūtra, indicates that these texts were first circulated in southern India, and they then gradually propagated up to the northwest, with Kashmir being the other major center. The Aṅgulimālīya Sūtra gives a more detailed account by mentioning the points of distribution as including southern India, the Vindhya Range, Bharukaccha, and Kashmir.[2] Hodge summarizes his findings as follows:[2]

[T]here are strong grounds based on textual evidence that the MPNS (Mahāyāna Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūtra), or a major portion of it, together with related texts were compiled in the Deccan during the second half of the 2nd century CE, in a Mahāsāṃghika environment, probably in one of their centres along the western coastal region such as Karli, or perhaps, though less likely, the Amaravatī-Dhanyakaṭaka region.

In the 6th century CE, Paramārtha wrote that the Mahāsāṃghikas revere the sūtras which teach the Tathāgatagarbha.[2]

Central teachings

The Aṅgulimālīya Sūtra consists largely of teachings by Aṅgulimālīya on the correct understanding of Buddhist doctrine. According to Michael Radich,

The Aṅgulimālīyasūtra shares with the Mahāparinirvāṇamahāsūtra group tathāgatagarbha/buddha nature preached as explicitly connected with ātman (ātmadhātu [wojie(我界)]) and concealed by defilements, the eternity of the Tathāgata, the secret teachings, the promotion of faith (xin [信]) toward the teaching of tathāgatagarbha, and con-cern with the worst sinners, including the icchantika. [3]

The sutra is most insistent that the Tathāgatagarbha and the self (Ātman) are real and that to deny their existence is to lapse into a state of dangerous spiritual imbalance. Thus, to seek out the Tathāgatagarbha — which is equated with the true Self — is deemed of great value. The Buddha teaches the bodhisattva Mañjuśrī that practicing the spiritual life is meaningful only because there is a 'self principle' (the Tathāgatagarbha or 'atma-dhatu' - 'essence of Self') with which the quest can be rewarded. He states:[4]

Mañjuśrī, people churn milk because they understand that butter is present therein. Why do people not churn water ? Because that substance is not present there. Likewise, Mañjuśrī, people maintain moral discipline (śīla) and engage in the holy life (brahmacarya) because of the existence of the Tathāgata-garbha.

Moreover, Mañjuśrī, people who want gold and are endowed with discernment, dig in cliffs. Why do they not dig in trees? They dig in rocks where gold-ore (suvarna-dhātu) is present, but they do not dig in trees, where there is no gold. Likewise, Mañjuśrī, people who discern the presence of the dhātu [i.e., buddha-dhatu, which means buddha principle] think to themselves, "I shall become a buddha" and so maintain the moral discipline and engage in the holy life. Furthermore, Mañjuśrī, if there were no dhātu, the holy life would be pointless. Just as butter will never be produced from water even if one were to churn it for a billion years, similarly there would be no benefit for those attached to a self who engage in the holy life and the moral discipline if there were no self principle [ātma-dhātu].

The sutra is remarkable for the vigor and passion with which Aṅgulimālīya teaches the Dharma and for its doctrine that at the heart of all beings is one unified principle: the buddha-dhatu (Buddha-nature) or Tathāgatagarbha. The doctrines of this sutra are also strikingly congruent with those of the much longer Mahāyāna Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūtra.

See also


  1. Buswell, Robert E.; Lopez, Donald S. (2014). The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism, Princeton University Press, p. 46
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Hodge, Stephen (2006). "On the Eschatology of the Mahaparinirvana Sutra and Related Matters" (PDF). lecture delivered at the University of London, SOAS. Archived from the original (PDF) on July 19, 2011. 
  3. Radich, Michael (2015). "Tathāgatagarbha Scriptures." In Jonathan Silk, Oskar von Hinüber, Vincent Eltschinger (eds.): Brill's Encyclopedia of Buddhism, Volume 1: Literature and Languages. Leiden: Brill, p. 269
  4. Hodge, Stephen (year unknown).English translation of excerpts from the Aṅgulimālīya Sūtra

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