Yesterday, during the second day of Aspirations to End Adversity, the 17th Karmapa recited ‘King of Aspiration Prayers for Excellent Conduct’ and the ‘Sutra of Three Sections’ (or Heaps). Here as a humble offering of thanks and respect is a transcript of his teachings on the two texts, combined with some information on their origin.
First, the Karmapa explained that:
“These two texts are important for Mahayana practitioners. This is because the main aim of Mahayana practice is achieving Buddhahood. Buddhahood is the result of gathering vast accumulations and abandoning the obscurations and their imprints. Thus everyone who wishes to achieve Buddhahood must definitely strive to gather the accumulations and purify the obscurations.”
The King of Aspiration Prayers for Excellent Conduct
The King of Aspiration Prayers (ārya bhadracaryā praṇidhāna rāja: འཕགས་པ་བཟང་པོ་སྤྱོད་པའི་སྨོན་ལམ་གྱི་རྒྱལ་པོ།) comes from the Gaṇḍavyūha, or “Supreme Array,” chapter of the Avataṃsaka sūtra. The Gaṇḍavyūha chapter tells the story of Sudhana. This disciple performs a long pilgrimage seeking spiritual advice. During his travels, he receives teachings from over 50 spiritual friends. At the end of his quest after many experiences, Sudhana meets with the bodhisattva Samantabhadra. Finally, Samantabhadra recites a poetic aspiration prayer to buddhahood. There are numerous artistic depictions of the prayer. For example, the fourth gallery of the 9th century Javanese monument at Borobodur contains narrative panels depicting Samantabhadra’s teachings to Sudhana (see below).
Furthermore, this prayer inspired the 11th-century Indian master Atiśa, who included a portion of the teaching in his famous text, the Bodhipathapradīpa (A Lamp for the Path to Awakening). The 17th Karmapa explained that:
“There are many different ways to do this [gather the accumulations and purify the obscurations], but in the Aspiration for Excellent Conduct it is divided into seven branches, or parts, of prostrations, offerings and so forth. Doing this has distinct qualities: it covers all the main points, is easy to remember and so forth. Thus no matter what practice we do, whether sutra or tantra, the seven branches almost always come up. It is not only Tibetan Buddhists who consider the Aspiration for Excellent Conduct extremely important, all of the Northern Buddhist traditions, including the Chinese, Japanese and Korean hold it in very high esteem. its source is the Avatamsaka Sutra[i] in the Kangyur, it is one chapter of a section of that. But this Aspiration for Excellent Conduct is so important and well-known, that a tradition for reciting it separately developed. In brief, this aspiration is not merely a text we recite orally, or just the words of a prayer. It is profound guidance and pith instructions, on all the main points of practicing the Mahayana Path.”
The Sutra in Three Sections
Sutra of the Three Sections (or Heaps) (Skt. Trīskhandhadharmasūtra; phung po gsum pa’i mdo), also known as The Bodhisattva’s Confession of Downfalls (byang chub sems dpa’i ltung ba bshags pa) or simply Confession of Downfalls (. ltung bshags) — an excerpt from Ascertaining the Discipline: the Sutra of Upali’s Questions (Toh 68 Vinayaviniścayopāliparipṛcchāsūtra; ‘dul ba rnam par gtan la dbab pa nye bar ‘khor gyis zhus pa’i mdo). The relevant section is cited in Shantideva’s Compendium of Training (Toh 3940, Śikṣāsamuccaya; bslab pa kun btus) as a method of purifying transgressions of vows and downfalls of the bodhisattva vow by invoking thirty-five buddhas of confession. The section in later commentarial literature was referred to as the Sutra of the Three Heaps, because of the three heaps or factors that reinforce the confession. These are: 1) homage, 2) confession, and 3) rejoicing or dedication.
The Sutra teaching was given by the Buddha after a group of thirty-five monks who had taken the bodhisattva vow and accidentally caused the death of a child while they were out begging for alms. The group went to Upali[ii], one of the closest disciples of the Buddha, and asked him to request from the Buddha a method of confessing and purifying what they had done. The Buddha then spoke this sutra, and as he did so, light radiated from his body and thirty-four other buddhas appeared in the space all around him. The thirty-five monks prostrated before these buddhas, made offerings, confessed their misdeed, took refuge and re-awakened bodhichitta.
The 17th Karmapa explained that:
“The Sutra in Three Sections, which is commonly called the Confession of Downfalls, is widely known in Tibet. It is called the Sutra in Three Sections because it has three parts – confession, rejoicing and dedication. Many Mahayana sutras and treatises teach that bodhisattvas must definitely recite this sutra to confess and purify their wrongs and downfalls. In Tibet, this sutra is recited primarily to confess downfalls. Chinese Buddhism does not really have a tradition of reciting this sutra, but there is a tradition of reciting the names of and making confessions to 88 Buddhas, including all 35 mentioned in the Sutra in Three Sections. Among Tibetan traditions, there are slightly different ways of reciting this sutra. For example, in the Gelug tradition, they add the word ‘tathagata’ before the name of each Buddha. It says in one work of Karmapa Mikyo Dorje that adding the word ‘tathagata’ was a pith instruction of Tilopa and Naropa but these are merely differences in the style of recitation, and I do not think there is any great difference in meaning.”
According to Himlayan Art Resources:
“There are two traditions of Mahayana Buddhism that include the Thirty-five Confession Buddhas as a key element in ritual and visualization practice. The two are the Madyamaka and Yogachara philosophical systems of Mahayana Buddhism founded by Arya Nagarjuna and Arya Asanga. Two distinct ritual systems for bestowing the Bodhisattva Vows have developed from the two traditions and both incorporate the visualization of the Thirty-five Confession Buddhas along with the recitation of the Confession Sutra.
In Himalayan and Tibetan art there are at least three different iconographic systems for depicting the individual Thirty-five Confession Buddhas: 1. Gestures Only System, 2. Nagarjuna System, and 3. Tsongkapa System. The principal authors of commentaries and ritual texts were Nagarjuna (not necessarily the famous Nagarjuna), Sakya Pandita and Je Tsongkapa along with a number of others. The TBRC website lists approximately sixty texts associated with the practice of the Confession Buddhas.”
The Avatamsaka Sutra (the Flower Adornment Sutra) with explanation
Introducing the Avatamsaka Sutra – an outline of the sutra by a disciple of Master Hsuan Hua
大方廣佛華嚴經 Avataṃsakasūtra Chinese text with matching English vocabulary at NTI Reader digital library
Ngawang Dhargye, The Confession of Downfalls, translated by Brian Beresford, LTWA
Padmakara Translation Group, The Sutra in Three Parts, 2004
[i] The Avataṃsaka Sūtra (आवतंसक सूत्र); or the Mahāvaipulya Buddhāvataṃsaka Sūtra (महावैपुल्य बुद्धावतंसक सूत्र), is one of the most influential Mahāyāna sutras of East Asian Buddhism. The title is rendered in English as Flower Garland Sutra, Flower Adornment Sutra, or Flower Ornament Scripture. The Avataṃsaka Sūtra describes a cosmos of infinite realms upon realms, mutually containing one another. This sutra was especially influential in East Asian Buddhism.The vision expressed in this work was the foundation for the creation of the Huayan school of Chinese Buddhism, which was characterized by a philosophy of interpenetration. The Huayan school is known as Hwaeom in Korea and Kegon in Japan. The sutra is also influential in Chan Buddhism. The sutra, among the longest Buddhist sutras, is a compilation of disparate texts on various topics such as the Bodhisattva path, the interpenetration of phenomena (dharmas), the visionary powers of meditation and the equality of things in emptiness. For more see: Avatamsaka Sutra – Wikipedia
[ii] Upali (Skt. Upāli; nye bar ‘khor) was one of the principal disciples of the Buddha. It is said that ‘since he was a barber by trade before joining the Sangha, he was asked to shave the hair of all those who later entered the community. He was asked by Mahakashyapa during the First Council to state by heart all of the rules of Vinaya discipline.’