The Tathagata's Ten Powers (or Five)

I was reminded by another topic about a discovery I made in the past month while translating parallels to MN 12 in Chinese sources. I doubt that this is a new find, but I’m not sure how well-known it is. I’ve not actually finished with all the versions of the Tathagata’s ten powers, but I thought it would be interesting, on a text critical level, to share the four versions that I’ve looked at so far (3 Agama + Pali).

Buddhists are well-known for their use of numerical lists as mnemonic devices for remembering doctrines and the structure of their oral tradition texts. Like the legends that circulated among Buddhist traditions over the centuries, the variations in these lists are a way we can notice the evolution of Buddhist concepts and doctrines. Two things are noticeable: 1) Later lists of the same idea sometimes vary in length and 2) the different traditions tended to adopt their own distinct versions of later lists, especially when shorter early lists appear to have been expanded. Taken together, these two things suggest traces of the evolution of ideas after the formation of the sectarian canonical traditions but before they were closed.

Something that I’ve come to suspect when comparing these types of commonalities and distinctions between parallel texts is that there must have been a large amount of sharing and universal adoption of new ideas between Buddhist traditions, but they tended to adopt their own versions of those new ideas. So, as an example besides the ten powers, we can see the paramitas begin as a stable list of six items in early Mahayana and Jataka texts, and then later they were expanded to ten by appending another four.

In that case, the Theravada tradition appears to have decided to adopt this idea of ten paramitas, but they chose a different set of ten to make it distinct from the Indian version associated with Mahayana texts like the Gandhavyuha sutra. Why? Well, it makes sense to a sectarian tradition. Adopting the new idea keeps your tradition in line with the larger Buddhist community, but if you copy it verbatim into your canon, people will think less of your canon, which is obviously copying from others. So, you compromise and make up a unique version of your own.

Let’s look at four versions of the Tathāgata’s ten powers to see how they appear to all share a common ancestor of five Tathāgata powers, which was later expanded to ten.

The three Chinese Agamas that I’ll use here are drawn from the Ekôttarika Agama, the Saṃyukta Agama, and a late Chinese translation that’s a direct parallel with MN 12, Taisho 757. While the EA and SA sutras were translated to around the same time (4-5th c. CE), the parallel to MN 12 was a much later translation from the 10th c. CE.

MN 12 EA 46.4 SA 11.41 (684) T757
1. What’s possible and impossible What’s possible What’s possible and impossible What’s possible and impossible
2.Results of deeds undertaken in past, future, and present What’s impossible Results of past, future, and present actions The destinations to which all actions go
3. Where all paths of practice lead Causes of the abodes and results beings experience Knowing meditation, concentration, and purification Various elements and numberless worlds
4. The world with its many and diverse elements Kinds of worlds, elements, and senses Various faculties of sentient beings Numberless inclinations of sentient beings
5. The diverse attitudes of sentient beings Kinds of liberations Various understandings of sentient beings Different faculties of sentient beings
6. The faculties of other sentient beings Whether a being has little or much wisdom Various realms (or elements) of sentient beings Accumulated actions and life spans of sentient beings
7. Corruption and cleansing regarding the absorptions, liberations, immersions, and attainments Knowing the thoughts in the minds of beings All the paths and the places they go Defilement and purity of meditations, liberations, concentrations, and attainments
8. Recollection of past lives Knowing past births Recollection of past lives Seeing beings reborn with the heavenly eye
9. Seeing beings being reborn with heavenly eye Knowing the destinies of beings with heavenly eye Seeing beings reborn with the heavenly eye Recollecting past lives
10. Realization of undefiled freedom Ending the contaminants and liberation Ending the contaminants and liberation Ending the contaminants and liberation

This summary of the four lists isn’t meant to detail the precise differences in ordering as much as to demonstrate that the first two and last three items in each are quite stable and almost verbatim to each other. The five in between, on the other hand, vary quite a bit.

The Sarvâstivāda version in SA 11.41 shows a great deal resemblance with the Pali list, but items 3-7 are in different orders. An interesting thing about this text to note is that it connects the Tathāgata’s ten powers to the five powers of training as a way of drawing a distinction between the Tathāgata and his arhat disciples. One can imagine perhaps that they were at some earlier time actually two parallel sets of five powers.

The Ekôttarika version found in EA 46.4 also has a notable point that hints that it may be an earlier version of the ten powers. It claims to present a list of ten, but actually only gives us nine. It’s ten only if we count the first item as two separate ones. Scholars strongly suspect EA is from the Mahāsāṃghika tradition.

The parallel to MN 12 is from an unknown tradition, but it doesn’t seem to match either SA or EA’s version, and it even transposes items 8 and 9 compared to the others.


The following article by Choong Mun-keat may be relevant to this topic:

“A comparison of the Chinese and Pali versions of the Bala Samyukta, a collection of early Buddhist discourses on “Powers” (Bala)”, in Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies, vol.2, May 2012, pp. 84-103.

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