From Encyclopedia of Buddhism
Jump to navigation Jump to search
Jeweled pagoda mandala from a copy of the Golden Light Sutra. Japan, 12th century.

Suvarṇaprabhāsottamasūtra (T. gser 'od dam pa'i mdo གསེར་འོད་དམ་པའི་མདོ; C. jin-guangming zuishenwang jing 金光明最勝王經), in English Sutra of the Supreme Golden Light, a.k.a. Golden Light Sutra, is a Mahayana sutra that is influential in East Asian and Tibetan Buddhism.[1][2]

Peter Alan Roberts states:

The Sūtra of the Sublime Golden Light has held great importance in Buddhism for its instructions on the purification of karma. In particular, much of the sūtra is specifically addressed to monarchs and thus has been significant for rulers—not only in India but also in China, Japan, Mongolia, and elsewhere—who wished to ensure the well-being of their nations through such purification. Reciting and internalizing this sūtra is understood to be efficacious for personal purification and also for the welfare of a state and the world.
In this sūtra, the bodhisattva Ruciraketu has a dream in which a prayer of confession emanates from a shining golden drum. He relates the prayer to the Buddha, and a number of deities then vow to protect it and its adherents. The ruler’s devotion to the sūtra is emphasized as important if the nation is to benefit. Toward the end of the sūtra are two well-known narratives of the Buddha’s previous lives: the account of the physician Jalavāhana, who saves and blesses numerous fish, and that of Prince Mahāsattva, who gives his body to a hungry tigress and her cubs.[2]


Yiengpruksawan (1999) states:

The name of the sutra derives from its fourth chapter, "The dream of the golden drum of penitence," where in the bodhisattva Myōdō ( Skt. Ruciraketu) dreams one night of a golden drum that lights up the sky "like the circle of the sun." A holy man materializes to beat the drum, and it sounds the need for confession and repentance as articles of faith. The theme of repentance, linked to penitence and the accumulation of merit, is pivotal teaching of the sutra and subtends its imagery of golden light.[3]


Peter Alan Roberts states:

This sūtra’s principal chapter is the fourth, which describes the lay bodhisattva Ruciraketu having a dream in which he sees a brightly shining golden drum, hence the title of the sūtra. When a brahmin beats the drum, Ruciraketu hears in the drumbeats a hundred-verse prayer, and he subsequently recites that prayer to the Buddha.
Most of the following chapters are concerned with encouraging the recitation of this prayer and of the sūtra itself. They describe how various divine beings in this world revere the sūtra and promise to protect it and its adherents. These include the Four Mahārājas; Sthāvarā, who is the goddess of the earth; Sarasvatī, the goddess of wisdom, learning, and music; Śrī, the goddess of good fortune, better known in the present time as Lakṣmī; and the yakṣa general Saṃjñeya.
This sūtra emphasizes its importance for kings. It states that if they honor the reciters of this sūtra and arrange for its recitation and teaching, then their reign and their kingdom will prosper. They will avoid such calamities as invasion, famine, and so on. In addition, the sūtra also warns that if they fail to show such devotion, there will be disastrous results for both them and their kingdoms. Chapter 20 is dedicated to the subject of how to be a good king.
There are also chapters that deal with doctrine. Chapter 2 presents the view that a buddha never dies and so never passes into nirvāṇa. Therefore, there is no body and no physical relics of his body after his cremation, and so the Dharma never ceases to be taught. The passing of a buddha and the extinction of the Dharma are solely illusory manifestations, skillful methods to inspire beings to practice and to provide them with relics as objects for their devotion. The longer versions of the sūtra also contain chapter 3 (not present in Toh 557), which describes the nature of the three kāyas, and chapter 6 (also not present in Toh 557), which describes the ten bodhisattva bhūmis. Chapters 9 and 10 teach the view of emptiness.
Toward the end there are two narratives describing previous lives of the Buddha. Chapters 24 and 25 describe the physician Jalavāhana, who, as a result of performing Dharma recitations while standing in a lake, ensured the rebirth of ten thousand fish into the paradise of Trāyastriṃśa. In the preceding chapter, these same ten thousand devas receive the prophecy of their buddhahood. When the goddess of the Bodhi tree objects that they have not accomplished the necessary bodhisattva conduct in past lives to receive such a prophecy, the Buddha explains that this was unnecessary because they had devotion to this Sūtra of the Sublime Golden Light.
The other past-life narrative, which is given in chapter 26, is one of the most famous in Buddhist literature‍—that of the prince who gives his body to a hungry tigress and her cubs. An interesting feature of the story in this sūtra is that much of the narrative is dedicated to an evocative description of the intense grief of parents who have lost their child, emphasizing the sorrow that the prince’s action has brought them.[4]

Tantric rituals

Peter Alan Roberts states:

As with other late Mahāyāna sūtras in which there is an emphasis on ritual, this text is classified in the Kangyur as a tantra, specifically as a Kriyā tantra, a class of tantras in which there is an emphasis on external ritual. The sūtra contains a description of how such rituals should be performed, and there are also passages that include lists of ingredients to place in a bath along with mantras to recite while bathing in order to achieve purification. This and the twenty-nine-chapter version also supply a number of dhāraṇīs to be recited in order to gain specific results.
One might also see the seed of the later maṇḍalas of the five buddha families in this sūtra, for in chapters 2 and 3, buddhas of the four directions appear to a layman who has a visionary dream. They include Akṣobhya from the east and Amitābha from the west, both buddhas and their realms already established in the Buddhist tradition with specific sūtras dedicated to them. There also appear the buddhas Ratnaketu from the south and Dundubhisvara from the north, directions that are usually occupied by Ratnasaṃbhava and Amoghasiddhi in tantric sources. In this sūtra, the central buddha in terms of these directions would be Śākyamuni himself.[4]


In India

Peter Alan Roberts states:

A version of The Sūtra of the Sublime Golden Light existed in India by the early fifth century ᴄᴇ, when it was translated into Chinese by Dharmakṣema (385–433) in 420, in a form that corresponds to the fragments of its translation into old Khotanese. The sixth-century Bhavya, also known as Bhāviveka, mentions in his commentary on the philosophy of the Middle Way that The Sūtra of the Sublime Golden Light contains profound teachings in the section on the absence of relics, this passage being within the chapter on the lifespan of the Buddha.
The sūtra’s significance in later Indian Buddhism is evident from the three tantras and ten commentaries that specify that it should be the text recited in one of the four directions when performing a maṇḍala rite. There are also five other texts in the Tengyur that emphasize the importance and status of The Sūtra of the Sublime Golden Light and its recitation, including Śāntideva’s eighth-century Compendium of Training in which he provides two extracts from the sūtra that should be recited. There are also two recitation texts composed of extracts from the sūtra.
In addition to its importance for rites and recitations, the text is quoted on doctrinal points in Indian commentaries. Passages indicating that the Buddha never dies, that he leaves no relics, and that the Dharma never ceases are quoted in six texts, two of which cite the verse that describes the impossibility of there being buddha relics, stating that there will be a buddha relic only when a ladder to the moon is built from rabbit horns.
The descriptions of buddha nature and the nature of the kāyas, which are only in the twenty-nine- and thirty-one-chapter versions of the sūtra, are quoted in two texts in the Tengyur, one written in Tibetan and one translated from Sanskrit by Rinchen Zangpo, although nothing is known about the author.
In Newar Buddhism this sūtra became and remains one of the nine principal sūtras called “the nine Dharmas,” which are considered the most important lengthy sūtras to be recited and offered to.
Sanskrit manuscripts of this sūtra survived as fragments discovered in Chinese Central Asia (Xinjiang) and as entire texts in Nepal, often with the alternate but synonymous title Suvarṇa-prabhāsottama.
The Sanskrit text of the sūtra was first edited in 1898, in Calcutta, India, by S. C. Das and S. C. Shastri. That was followed by the edition by B. Nanjio and H. Idzumi in Japan in 1931, and by the edition by Johannes Nobel (1887–1960) in 1937.[4]

Outside of India

Peter Alan Roberts states:

The widespread popularity of this sūtra outside India is also evident from its translation not only into Tibetan and Chinese but also from Sanskrit into Khotanese, from Chinese into Tibetan, Sogdian, Uighur, Tangut, and Manchu, and from Tibetan into Mongolian. Its importance continues in recent times as is evident from new translations directly from Sanskrit into Mongolian, Oirat, and Japanese.
There are three surviving translations of The Sūtra of the Sublime Golden Light in Chinese. The earliest of these was translated by Dharmakṣema (385–433). He was an Indian who came to China in 414, living first in Dunhuang. Then in 420 he went to Guzang, the capital of Northern Liang, one of the sixteen independent states of that time, situated in what is now the Gansu region in China’s northwest. There he studied Chinese and engaged in translation under the patronage of Juqu Mengxun (368–433), the ruler of Northern Liang. He also had the reputation of being “a master of spells,” and as a result of that reputation, toward the end of his reign, Juqu Mengxun became afraid that Dharmakṣema might be used against him by his adversaries and so he had him assassinated. Nobel believed that the Sanskrit in its present form is not earlier than the mid-fifth century and that Dharmakṣema translated from an earlier version. This opinion appears to be supported by the Sanskrit manuscript fragments discovered in Khotan.
The second surviving translation into Chinese is that by Bao Gui in 597. It is an amalgam of earlier translations that no longer exist and four chapters that were translated by Paramārtha (499–569). As there is no surviving Sanskrit for the additional chapters in the Chinese and Tibetan, Michael Radich has examined the evidence as to whether they are Indian or Chinese in origin.
The third translation was by Yijing (635–713), which was published in 703. Because of its clarity and literary style, this version became popular in China and was itself translated into Tibetan in the early ninth century. Yijing’s translation, compared to the Sanskrit and the Tibetan translation from Sanskrit, is freer, to the extent that Emmerick has stated it could not be used to reconstruct the original Sanskrit. Yijing spent thirty years in India and Sumatra and returned to China in 695. He brought with him four hundred Sanskrit texts, including The Sūtra of the Sublime Golden Light, and spent the first decade of the seventh century translating them.
The Mogao caves of Dunhuang, which were sealed from the eleventh century, contained a great number of manuscripts of the sūtra, particularly those of Yijing’s translation into Chinese. The sūtra became popular for its teachings on freeing oneself from the effects of bad karma. For example, Yijing’s Chinese translation (and the Uighur and Tangut versions derived from it) has a preface that states how the sūtra saved Zhang Judao, ruler of Tangut, from going to hell because he had slaughtered cattle for a big feast. This narrative is illustrated in a twelfth-century Tangut woodcut that is preserved in St. Petersburg.
The sūtra was of particular importance to monarchs, and starting in seventh-century Japan, the ritual of reciting this sūtra was considered important to perform for the benefit of the state.[4]

In 12th century Japan, for example, this sutra was believed to provide spiritual protection from attacks by enemies.[5] Yiengpruksawan (1999) states: "According to the sutra, four heavenly kings, one in each of the four quadrants, would materialize to defend and protect righteous rulers in times of crisis."[5] Delmer (1993) also noted the importance placed in Japan on the promise of protection by "four heavenly kings" for rulers who govern properly.[6]

According to Emmerick (2001), during the Sui dynasty in China, the monk Zhiyi of the Tiantai tradition initiated a ritual ceremony known as "Gōngfó Zhāitiān" (供佛齋天) or just "Zhāitiān" (齋天), meaning "Puja of Offering to the Buddhas and the Devas", according to the rites prescribed in the Golden Light Sutra.[7]

In Tibet

There are three versions of this text in the Tibetan language: one having 21 chapters, one with 29 chapters and one with 31 chapters.

Peter Alan Roberts states:

The twenty-one-chapter version does not list its translators in the colophon. The twenty-nine-chapter version was translated by Jinamitra, Śilendrabodhi, and Yeshé Dé in the early ninth century. Almost the entirety of the shorter version is present word for word in the twenty-nine-chapter version, so they either incorporated an earlier translation or extracted the shorter version from the longer.
[The] thirty-one-chapter version is a translation of Yijing’s Chinese version made by Gö Chödrup in the early ninth century. The Tibetan is clearer and more readable than in the other two versions, perhaps because it is less constrained by conforming to the Sanskrit, but also because the Chinese was a freer translation from the Sanskrit, which was done purposely to enhance its readability.
There are some Tibetan texts in the Tengyur that were authored by Tibetans translators active in the ninth century. The translator Kawa Paltsek quotes from the passages describing the Dharma body and the Buddha not leaving any relics because he has no body with bones and blood. Yeshé Dé wrote a text that has a number of references to this sūtra’s teachings on the kāyas and buddha nature, and to its description of the bhūmis.
Dīpaṁkaraśrījñāna, also known as Atiśa, whose pupils founded the influential Kadampa tradition in Tibet, is the author of three of the texts in the Tengyur that refer to this sūtra, including his most famous work, A Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment, which contains an encouragement to use the sūtra’s prayer both for purification and as a dedication prayer.
The commentary in the Tengyur that quotes from the sūtra more than any other—twenty times in all—is the translation by Gö Chödrup of An Extensive Commentary on the Sūtra that Elucidates the Profound Intention by the Korean monk Wŏnch’ŭk (613–96), who had migrated to China. This commentary by Wŏnch’ŭk in Tibetan translation became a particular influence on the thought of Tsongkhapa, the founder of the Gelukpa school. The sūtra has been quoted by great masters in all the schools of Tibetan Buddhism and extracts from it were published in Tibet as numerous standalone texts—not only the confession prayer but also other chapters, such as the treatise on kingship. Its significance is indicated by Pema Karpo (1527–92), the hierarch of the Drukpa Kagyü school, composing a confession prayer extracted from The Sūtra of the Sublime Golden Light at the request of Döndrup Dorjé, the ruler of Shigatsé.
An example of the way the sūtra was recited in Tibet is found in a version compiled by Ngawang Lobsang Chöden (1642–1714), the second Changkya Rinpoché.[4]


Page from manuscript of Tangut version of sutra, 11th~13th century
Jeweled pagoda mandala from a copy of the Golden Light Sutra. Japan, Heian period, 12th century


Three canonical Chinese translations have survived:[8]

  • Jin guangming jin T663 translated by Dharmakṣema (385-433)
  • the synoptic Hebu jin guangming T664, by Baogui, written in 597
  • Jin guangming zuisheng wang jin T665, by Yijing (635-713)

An extracanonical version, ascribed to Paramārtha (499-569) is extant in a Japanese manuscript.


In 1933, Izumi published the first complete Japanese translation directly from Sanskrit, followed by another translation by Ama a year later.[9]


In Tibetan, there are three versions of the Sutra: the 21, 29, and 31 chapter versions.

The twenty-one-chapter version does not list its translators in the colophon.
The twenty-nine-chapter version was translated by Jinamitra, Śilendrabodhi, and Yeshé Dé in the early ninth century. Almost the entirety of the shorter version is present word for word in the twenty-nine-chapter version, so they either incorporated an earlier translation or extracted the shorter version from the longer.
[The] thirty-one-chapter version is a translation of Yijing’s Chinese version made by Gö Chödrup in the early ninth century. The Tibetan is clearer and more readable than in the other two versions, perhaps because it is less constrained by conforming to the Sanskrit, but also because the Chinese was a freer translation from the Sanskrit, which was done purposely to enhance its readability.[4]

Western languages

  • Nobel (1958) published a German translation based on Yijing´s Chinese text.[4]
  • Emmerick, R. E. (1970). The Sūtra of Golden Light: Being a Translation of the Suvarṇabhāsottamasūtra. London: Luzac and Company Ltd. - a translation of the Sanskrit version
  • Losang Dawa (2006), The Golden Light Sutra, Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition (FMPT)  - a translation from of the 21 chapter Tibetan version.
  • 84000.png Roberts, Peter Alan (2023), Sūtra of the Sublime Golden Light , 84000 Reading Room - a translation of the 31 chapter Tibetan version


  1. Buswell & Lopez 2014, s.v. Suvarṇaprabhāsottamasūtra.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Roberts 2023, Summary
  3. Yiengpruksawan 1999, p. 167.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 4.5 4.6 Roberts 2023, Introduction
  5. 5.0 5.1 Yiengpruksawan 1999, p. 24.
  6. Brown 1993, p. 393.
  7. Emmerick 2001.
  8. Radich 2014, p. 209.
  9. Ama 1934.


Further reading