A Less Traveled Path: Meditation and Textual Practice in the Saddharmasmrtyupasthana(sutra)

This dissertation is a study of a third/fourth-century Buddhist Sanskrit text, the Saddharmasmrtyupasthana(sutra) , which reveals a unique literary culture at an important transitional moment in the religious and philosophical life of early Northwest Indian Buddhists. The study argues that meditative practice, rhetoric, and philosophy were intimately tied to one another when the Saddharmasmrtyupasthana(sutra) was redacted, and that the text serves as an important yet unnoticed historical touchstone for an understanding of the development of a Buddhist mind-centered metaphysics. The study suggests that such philosophical developments grew organically out of specific meditation practices rooted in the early canonical Buddhist tradition, and that the Saddharmasmrtyupasthana(sutra) offers perhaps the clearest evidence available attesting to this process. Further, the text evidences an emergent historical ideology of cosmic power, one that ties ethical conduct, contemplative knowledge, and literary practice to a spiritual goal of selfless cosmographical sovereignty. This development is historically significant because it marks a major shift in Indian Buddhist religious practice, which conditioned the emergence of fully developed Mahayana path schemes and power-oriented tantric ritual traditions in the centuries that followed the text’s compilation. As part of this study, the second chapter of the Saddharmasmrtyupasthana(sutra) is critically edited and translated based on a recently discovered codex unicus .


Thanks for sharing this, Javier. I’ve been a little fascinated with this text over the years. The Chinese translation is quite large and has one of the most elaborate descriptions of the Buddhist heavens and hells taking up the bulk of it.


Thanks indeed. I read about this text in warder, and tried to research when writing A History of Mindfulness.

Fun fact, the text had been in the Aust national library for several decades, but when I went there to read it, it turned out the pages were not cut properly, so you couldn’t open it. In all that time, no-one had ever even asked to read it! The staff took it to fix, but I never got back. Anyhoo, if anyone in the future does borrow it, you’re welcome.


I spent a day reading this dissertation and scanning parts of this sutra over the weekend because I’m currently working on DA 30, which is also a cosmological text. It’s a fascinating literary work, albeit too large to properly digest in a day or two, something akin to a Buddhist Divine Comedy that went unfinished. It stops suddenly in the middle of describing the Yama Heaven (which is further than most cosmological texts go in any detail - they generally stop after describing the Trayastrimsa Heaven). Perhaps the original author passed away, or the latter half was lost.

Then, it seems that someone wrote a chapter on the mindfulness of the body practice to create a proper finale. The topic is given a spin inspired by the original sutra’s trek through the karmic stages of samsara. As an example of this, the meditations on the external body involve visualizing the different types of existence and experiences that the previous chapters had detailed. This addendum seems the likely source of the sutra’s received title. The original work revolved around a contemplation of topics found in the Dhātuvibhaṅga sutta (MN 140/MA 162) before launching into a tour de force of samsara that, like Dante’s early Renaissance work, begins in hell and works its way up the karmic ladder into the heavens. Also like Dante, it has a decidedly moralistic voice, getting quite specific about which acts result in which punishments or rewards.

It’s a good example of the kinds of literary treasures that are sitting in ancient Buddhist languages collecting cobwebs because they don’t figure prominently in today’s Buddhism or are just too large to devote enough time to read, much less study. It seems to have been part of the “write the largest scripture possible” trend that took place in later times, which resulted in more popular works like the Avatamsaka and large Prajnaparamita sutras. it’s not, however, a Mahayana work, per se. It seems a mixture of meditation manual and avadana text written by a Sarvastivadin well versed in EBTs and Abhidharma.


Not sure if you’ve also seen the translation recently published from the Tibetan at 84000.


Wow, the Tibetan’s been translated! Thanks for pointed that out, @Javier. It may come in handy for transliterations here and there in DA 30.


Just started reading the 84000 translation and was struck by the definition of sexual misconduct - was defined as oral or anal sex with one’s wife or another’s wife! This struck me as surprising as one would have thought that even vaginal sex with another man’s wife was sexual misconduct.

Does anyone know if this view of sexual misconduct has antecedents in the Buddhist literature? Or really any good source for a history of what constitutes sexual misconduct in Buddhism?

It’s an area I am quite fascinated by, along with any histories or examples of “right livelihood” which is almost always defined in SN as not making a living by “wrong livelihood” which I never found very helpful :slight_smile:

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I believe this is a Sarvastivada development


There is an overview about Buddhist Sexual Ethics by Alexander Berzin, google it.
The main conclusion I draw from it, is that what constitute as misconduct is largely based on specific culture in local place/ time.

About the sutra itself, I have been meaning to read it, but the sheer size. . . The translator team spent 5 years on it.

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