The Enlightenment Sutra


Buddhist Sutras – TRANSCEND Media Service

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In so far as the Buddha’s disciple, they should read day and night piously and earnestly the following eight precepts leading the followers of Mahayana Buddhism[2] to attain the state of enlightenment:

Impermanence[3] characterizes everything in the universe. Both dangerous and frail is the whole earth, subject to disintegration. The human body analyzed into four chief elements,[4] inhere in sorrow and emptiness. The combination of the five elements of life impulse [5] possesses no real ego. It is a law that all conditioned things arise and disappear. All is found to be in a state of change and decay. There is no control at all over the body and worldly objects. Consequently, the mind is the root of evil, while the attachment to worldly objects, the refuge of crimes or sins. Observing all phenomena from this angle, we shall bit by bit free ourselves from the suffering of birth and death.[6]

Excessive desire begets suffering. The suffering of birth and death as well as the leading of a weary life are all caused by greed.[7] Few desires along with no craving make our mind and body comfortable.

The insatiable ambitions seek only for acquisition, thus increasing sins. Those who practice the Bodhisattvaship will never do such things. They should bear contentment in mind, and endure poverty in following the Buddha’s doctrine.[8] They are looking for nothing but wisdom.

Laziness degrades a man. One should always go ahead with all one’s energy to acquire wisdom. Only by this means, one will destroy all evil of worries[9] and overcome the four devils[10] and put them under one’s control, in order to get out of the prison from the five aggregates of life impulses and the suffering world.

Ignorance[11] constitutes the suffering of birth and death. Followers of the Bodhisattvaship must remember to store up knowledge by learning or listening, in order to develop their wisdom and prepare their eloquence for the spread of Buddhist scriptures to all beings, conferring on them the great happiness.

The poor often foster hatred that keeps up everywhere bad term with others. In practicing charity,[12] followers of the Bodhisattvaship should treat friend and foe alike, with the same degree of love, without malice whatsoever nor repugnant feeling towards the wicked persons.[13]

The five passions fall into sins and woe though laymen should not taint with worldly pleasures,[14] yet they have always to think of the three kinds of robes[15] and tiled bowls[16] as well as other instruments used by monks or bhikkus. In case of the desire manifested by laymen to be bhikkhus, they must scrupulously observe the Buddhist scriptures and keep themselves pure from evil. Thus their perfect life may be known for a long time and far and wide. Besides, they will impart a deep compassion with every creature that suffers.

The wheel of birth and death are like the flame burning in the house. There are innumerable sufferings.[17] First we have to dedicate ourselves to the service of mankind, then to suffer for their sake and finally to let them attain Nibbana,[18] the ultimate state of supreme bliss.

These eight precepts are the way leading to the enlightenment for Buddhas, Bodhisattvas and followers of the Mahayana school. When one pursues the Buddhist scriptures with energy and perseverance, one can grow, for his own sake, in compassion and wisdom at the same time. Hence, one can get to the other side of the shore by taking the Buddha’s ferryboat. Out of compassion, one may come down again and revolve, as one likes, in the wheel of birth and death with one aim and object — the liberation of all beings.
These eight precepts give us the general idea to grasp the suffering of birth and death and abandon the five passions in order to cultivate our mind in attaining the Buddhist sainthood.
Should the Buddha’s disciple read unremittingly the eight precepts mentioned above, they could get rid of countless sins so as to acquire transcendental wisdom and would soon achieve enlightenment. Consequently, they would be exempt from the suffering of rebirth and could stay always in the state of happiness.[19]

Annotation 1
This sutra or scripture has been dedicated to laymen by our Master Gotama Buddha before his attainment of Nirvana. As a matter of fact, it is a resume of his fundamental doctrine preached during his life-time. So it may be considered as his last will. It has the same character as the Sutra of Forty-two Sections and the Testament Sutra which the Buddha has particularly consecrated to monks.
The written form of the Enlightenment Sutra differs some-what from that of other sutras. Usually in other sutras, we may find such wordings as ‘Thus have I heard” used at the very beginning and “All were very happy and retired with pleasure” at the end. But all these expressions are not found in this sutra.
Annotation 2
In China, all Buddhist texts are divided into two groups of “Maha” and “Hina.” The Enlightenment Sutra belongs to the Mahayana School of Buddhism which means the greater or the northern vehicle, performed by China., Tibet, Bhutan, Sikkim, Nepal, Mongolia, Japan, Korea, while the southern Buddhism is “Hina” which means the small or the southern vehicle, practiced by Ceylon, Burma, Thailand, and Cambodia.
The historical records of Fa-Hsien and Hsuan-Chuang, two famous Chinese monks, reported in their books of travel to India from 392 to 414 A.D. and from 629 to 645 A.D. respectively, that there existed two kinds of doctrines called Maha and Hina, and that there were temples where monks were learning either or both of them. However different the tenets of various sects may be, we can easily discover the beliefs common to all of them, if we profess true Buddhism. These beliefs are:
1. Body is impure;
2. Sensation and feeling are painful;
3. Mind is impermanent;
4. Things as being dependent and without a nature of their own;
5. Ever-rotating cycle of birth and death;
6. Cause-effect law;
7. Nirvana, the ultimate state of happiness.
Now, let us look into the differences between Mahayana School and that of Hinayana.
(1) Arahatship is the highest ideal to be attained by Buddhists. Mahayanists do not strive for Arahatship, they want to become, if not Buddhas, at least Bodhisattvas.
(2) An Arhat wants to save himself in a hurry, but a Bodhisattva who has the patience to wait, always tries to seek wisdom so as to bring salvation to all beings in this miserable world.
(3) In Theravada, there are no prayers, no rites and ceremonies. In Mahayana, those rites exist. The former considers prayers, rites and ceremonies a great obstacle to perfection, while the latter strives to attain the Bodhisattvaship by dependence upon the Buddha’s power.
Annotation 3
There is all movability in the universe from. the tiny electron to the most colossal sun. All is motion from form to form, like the bubbles on a river, sparkling, bursting, and being borne away. There is nothing constant in the universe. Constancy is an illusion. Many things appear constant because our lives are too short to witness the changes taking place, or because the changes are too subtle for undeveloped intelligence.
This is true in the material world as well as in the psychic life. In the spiritual life, there is an ever changing consciousness never the same for two consecutive moments. This can be ascertained experimentally in the various exercises of meditation. When we try, according to certain rules of meditation to stop the stream of our thoughts and obtain an absolute stillness, we shall notice how the day’s impressions and old reminiscences disturb and prevent concentration.
This is equally true even in our very lives; the change from the womb to childhood, from childhood to manhood and thence to old age, death and decay.
The doctrine of impermanence shows us how to control our selfish cravings and passions. Thus, we shall destroy the chains of fear and anxiety, grief and despair. It is of vital importance to enjoy bodily and mental bliss.
Annotation 4
The four chief elements are earth or body, water or liquid, fire or heat, wind or air.
The body elements are of 20 kinds, namely; (I) hair of the head (2) hair of the body (3) nails (4) teeth (5) skin (6) flesh (7) tendons (8) bones (9) marrow (10) kidneys (11) heart (12) liver (13) pleura (14) spleen (15) lungs (16) lower intestine (17) upper intestine (18) stomach (19) feces (20) brain.
The water element is of 12 kinds: (1) bile (2) phlegm (3) blood (4) pus (5) sweat (6) fat (7) tears (8) grease (9) saliva (to) snot (11) synovial fluid (12) urine.
The fire element means heat which is greater when digestion is going on.
The air element which we breath, is always going in and out.
All these chief elements constitute the human bodies. If the four elements are in harmony, we are strong enough to walk and to work. Otherwise, we are sick. When the four elements separate and leave our bodies, then we die. Therefore all these four elements in our bodies, are painful and empty. This is just like a dream of the various illusions shown by magicians, comparable to the shadows of men under lighted lamps, or the images of men in a big glass, or like bubbles of water. We have no control over our bodies. It is in a state of flux.
Annotation 5
Man is a combination of five factors which come from craving rooted in ignorance. The five factors are body, feeling, perception, tendencies and consciousness. It is nothing but a mixing of five aggregates. Nowhere an eternal self is to be found in the physical organism. As a house is nothing but a joint name given to the tiles of the roof and its different parts, the beam, clay, wall, door, window and so on, when taken together. But when these different parts of the house are separated, nothing but an abstract house remains.
While the mind is infiltrated by selfish ideas, we can only have distorted views of things; we think of my body, your body, whereas they do not really belong to you or me at all. They belong to the Universe. It is this idea of personal possessions or attachment which is at the root of all illusion and suffering, and while it occupies our minds, we can never hope to see things is they really are.
There is no real I or mine. It is like a flame produced by a combination of gases. For what is a flame but a phenomenon by rapid oxidation. If we are to live a perfect life, we should break the prejudice of the selfish petty ego which creates a barrier between ourselves and others.
Impermanence, unreality of ego, suffering and emptiness are the essential features of Buddhism.
Annotation 6
Why should rebirth not be desirable? Because it is the entrance gate of all forms of suffering, namely; old-age.. disease, death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair. Birth is preceded by death, and death is preceded by birth. Death, according to Buddhism, is the cessation of the psycho-physical life of any one individual existence. But it is not the complete annihilation of a being. So the mental force remains undisturbed by the disintegration of the physical body, and passing away of the present consciousness leads to the arising of a fresh one in another birth. Just as an electric light is the outward manifestation of invisible energy. The bulb may break, and the light may be extinguished, but the current remains and the light may he reproduced in another bulb. Here the bulb may he compared to parental cell and the electric energy to the mental force. (This illustration is extracted from the publication of “Buddhism” by R.V. Narada.)
What happens when a man dies? The dying man’s craving force remains just as electricity persists as a force. Whether it is mental force or physical force, a force is always a force. The craving force is the most potent force in the universe and that force at the time of death must follow the law of the conservation of energy, like all other forces. According to physics, a force once liberated will always go on as a force until it meets an opposite and equal force to neutralize. The same thing applies to the craving force. It is only when a human being by means of morality, concentration, and insight can develop an equal and an opposite non craving force to neutralize his craving force, then and then alone will there be no rebirth for him. (This explanation was given by Rev. Lokanatha in a talk at the Rangoon University, 1951.)
Another example given by Jinananda, Nayaka Thera, in his article entitled “The doctrine of reason” and published in the “Buddhist world, Ceylon, 14 April 1954, said:
“The process of Rebirth may be compared to the Succession of one wave form in the ocean by another, where, though the substance of one does not pass into the other, yet is wholly dependent on the nature of the former, each wave form represent-ing a life as we commonly term it.”
Annotation 7
The Buddha emphatically recommended the abstinence from greed, because greed is the curse of the age. Abstention from greed is awareness of the fact that both worldly pleasures (such as wealth, possessions, reputation, overindulgence in food and sleep) and worldly objects (such as experienced by the perception of form, sound, odor, taste or touch) are all unreal, transitory and impure. So it means to have no craving for any of them.
Greed which blinds the eyes arises through thinking that the body is lovely. When we realize that the body is excrementitious, greed dies forever.
Annotation 8
What is the Buddha’s doctrine? In a nutshell, it consists of the four noble Truths which lead to weed out craving and ignorance, to overcome rebirth, old-age, disease, death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair, to make an end of this whole mass of misery and to attain the Eternal Peace, liberation and salvation from the round of existences.
Our great Master surveyed the world and found only suffering. He analyzed the cause of suffering and has given us a prescription for eliminating the root cause of suffering by following the Eight steps or Eightfold Path.
Then, what is the Eightfold Path? It consists of:–
(1) Right Knowledge. It can be distinguished in three degrees:
(a) General right knowledge. It consists of compassion, loving-kindness, and equality, the cause-effect law by which we can determine our own future by our own deeds, and there is a doctrine of Rebirth.
(b) Right Knowledge in the Buddhist sense. It consists of;
(1) the understanding of what merit is and the root of merit, what demerit is and the root of demerit.
(2) the combination of five factors of form, feeling, perception, tendencies and consciousness as impermanent, miserable and not self;
(3) the law of conditional arising and cessation of all phenomena;
(4) the suffering and its cause, the cessation of the suffering and the Eightfold Path that leads to the cessation of suffering.
(c) Sublime Right knowledge. That is wisdom or penetration which can be obtained by meditation.
(2) Right Thoughts. That is to give up all thoughts of greed, hatred and ignorance, for these lead us to increase sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair.
(3) Right speech — That is to say, abstaining from lying, talebearing, harsh language and vain talk.
(4) Right action — That is abstinence from killing, stealing, misconduct in speech and sex relationship and also abstinence from drinking intoxicating beverage.
(5) Right occupation or livelihood — That means (a) not to be a butcher, hunter, fisherman, soldier, executioner, fortune–teller and astrologer (b) not to fabric and sell arms, poison and intoxicating drinks. In other words, we must take up a right occupation so that we will not cause suffering to any living being and earn a livelihood by right and honest means.
(6) Right Effort — This is fourfold, namely;
(a) overcoming evil and demeritorious states of mind that have already arisen, as though one strove to destroy a poisonous snake;
(b) avoiding the arising of evil and demeritorious states of mind that have not yet arisen, as though one strove to prevent the epidemic disease;
(c) maintaining meritorious states of mind that have already arisen, as though one sprayed one’s fruit trees.
(d) Developing meritorious states of mind that have not yet arisen, as though one sowed good seeds.
(7)Right attentiveness — There is fourfold, namely,
(a) contemplation of body as impure,
(b) contemplation of sensation as sorrowful,
(c) contemplation of various states of mind as impermanent,
(d) contemplation of phenomena as not self.
(8) Right concentration — The one and only object of concentration of mind is stillness which leads to clear, deep, true vision. Confucius has pointed out, in the “Great learning” that “contemplation can be attained when we concentrate. Stillness comes after the concentration of the mind. To that stillness, there may be a tranquil repose. In that repose, we can consider things thoughtfully. Success will certainly he attained when we consider things thoughtfully.”
That is all the fundamental parts of the whole Buddha’s doctrine.
Annotation 9
There are six fundamental evils of worries, ten minor ones, two major ones and eight chief ones. Altogether there are twenty six subsidiary evils of worries. Let us now first enumerate the six fundamental evils, such as: lust, hatred, ignorance, pride, doubt and erroneous views. They are fundamental ones, because they are as the roots of trees.
Secondly, ten minor evils of worries are: 1) anger, 2) enmity 3) vexation 4) hypocrisy 5) dishonesty 6) deceit 7) arrogance 8) harmfulness 9) envy 10) selfishness. They are called the minor ones, because they always take place individually or separately and are obvious and flagrant.
Thirdly, two major evils of worries are: a) shamelessness b) impudence. They are called major ones, because they have greater influence than the minor ones mentioned above.
Fourthly, eight chief evils of worries are (1)lack of faith (2)idleness (3)carelessness (4)indolence (5)recklessness (6)forgetfulness (7)wrong judgement (8)confusion. They are called chief ones, because they are not only the sources of demerit, but also a state of mind which is neither meritorious nor demeritorious.
Annotation 10
The four devils are: 1) devil from the five aggregates of form, feeling, perception, tendencies and consciousness 2) devil of death 3) devil of suffering 4) devil of the Samsara world, or the round of existences.
Annotation 11
Pondering on the origin of birth and death, our great Master Gotama Buddha recognized that ignorance was the root of all evil. Consequently, He particularly insisted upon those who practice the Bodhisattvaship that they should endeavor to acquire sufficient knowledge and eloquence before being able to lead the sentient beings to the Path of liberation and confer upon them the great happiness.
Annotation 12
The act of charity is renunciation and by charity, we destroy greed. Greed cannot be quenched. The more we grasp, the more we want to grasp. A miller with one mill tries to have two, and one with two strive for four and the process goes on without an end. The same applies to owners of mine, forests and oil-wells. They strive for more possessions since greed can never be satisfied. But there is satisfaction in performing the opposite experiment–renunciation. If greed is extinguished, we enjoy the peace of mind. One thing here we should remember is that when we practice alms-giving, we should not make any discrimination between friends and foes. By magnanimity, we should treat them on equal footing.
There are three kinds of charity; namely,
(1) alms-giving — Alms-giving is again divided into two types:
(a) the offerings of limb or life to confer benefit on others.
(b) the offerings of belongings such as money, clothing food, lodging, etc.
(2) The offerings of knowledge. Knowledge is again divided into two types;
(a) Worldly knowledge such as to teach people to read, to write, to sew, to repair bridges and roads, etc.
(b) Inconceivable and inexplicable knowledge to this world, such as to preach the Buddha’s doctrine, in order to guide all sentient beings to do meritorious deeds as well as to avoid harmful deeds.
(3) The offerings of help and assistance with great sacrifice and without fear, such as to relieve people who are persecuted by enemies, tortured by war, robbed by robbers, chased by fierce animals, drowning by flood or burning by fire etc.
Annotation 13
At the Buddha’s time, there were other religious leaders in India which were most embarrassed when many of their disciples left them and entered the Order of the Buddha. They tried to kill him with the help of the Buddha’s cousin Devadatta. In this connection, we admire the magnanimity of the Buddha towards the animosity of Devadatta and the hostilities of the other sects. In fact, the loving kindness He radiated to those enemies and to His favorite disciple Ananda was the same profound intensity, not one bit too much or too less.
Annotation 14
The five passions embrace excessive desire for wealth, women, reputation and over-indulgence in food and sleep. It is the passion which blinds the eyes. It is also the passion which leads us to go astray. Therefore, all evil is engendered by passion. When the eyes are opened, the absence of lust makes us see things as they really are. As a matter of fact, worldly pleasures are the bait, and the result is pain.
Annotation 15
Robes wearing, according to circumstances, by Buddhist monks, are of three kinds, namely;
(a) Overcoat with 9 stripes wearing only for great occasions.
(b) Clothes with 7 stripes wearing for monks meetings or classes.
(c) Clothes with 5 stripes wearing for daily works.
Annotation 16
In older time monks did not prepare themselves meals. They went around with their tiled howls, begging alms for their meals. This custom is still maintained in the Southeast Asian Nations. Why have laymen to think of three kinds of robes, tiled bowls and instruments used by Monks? The reason is quite simple. Mentally, they have to think how the monks observe the Buddhist doctrine and follow them strictly in order to he always on the alert not to commit sins.
Annotation 17
Our great Master Gotama Buddha surveyed the world and found only suffering. He analyzed the eight great sufferings, as follows:
(a) The suffering of birth.– A child cries bitterly when it is born, because it cannot stand the cold air. It feels worst of all when the nurse washes its tender body with hot water.
(b) The suffering of old age such as grey hair, bad eyesight,
dull ears, tooth decay, weakness of the limbs, and various kinds of suffering come one after another.
(c) The suffering of sickness — Our bodies are formed of solid, liquid, heat and air. If the four elements are quite balanced, then we are strong enough to do everything. On the contrary, we are getting sick for some time or for years.
(d) The suffering of death. — No matter how careful we protect ourselves from being hungry, cold, hot or ill, we cannot escape the inevitable state of death. The suffer-ing, at the point of death, is like a crab which is thrown into a burning pan.
(e) The suffering of separation from beloved ones. — Everybody loves the natural happiness, when husbands and wives, parents and children are assembled together joy-fully. Unfortunately, when unexpected things happen, we are forced to separate. Worst still when a sick person cannot be cured by any doctor or medicine, he has to die.
(f) The suffering of craving. — The suffering which hurts us greatly can easily be seen, when we are unsuccessful in our expectations of money, reputation, benefit, children, clothing, food or lodging.
(g) The suffering of being in the company of our enemies. — It is very sad to meet our enemies who have harmed us, or have put us to shame unreasonably. It is unspeakable suffering both physically and mentally when children are disobedient, brothers and sisters are unfriendly, husbands and wives are disagreeable, mothers-in-law, daughters-in law and sisters-in-law are quarrelsome.
(h) The suffering from the five aggregates of form, feeling, perception) tendencies and consciousness. — When the light of our wisdom is obscured or enveloped by a combination of these five factors, we feel as if a fire is raging furiously in our hearts.
Annotation 18
Nibbana, in Pali or Nirvana, in Sanskrit, has different significations:
(a) It may mean the extinction of the fires of greed, hatred and illusion and other elements of depravity and defilement.
(b) It may imply that the extinction of rebirth, thus suppressing all suffering.
(c) It may be interpreted as the attainment of an absolute realm of permanence, easiness, true self and purity.
(d) It may also signify abstention from covering the fire of lust with more fagots in order to let it burn out by itself.
(e) It may also be regarded as a state of supreme bliss of Enlightenment, beyond the conception of the intellect.
Annotation 19
This is the conclusion of the eight precepts. It emphasizes, by putting them into practice, one can get the benefit of Enlightenment. Only reading by heart is just like a parrot that imitates a man’s speaking, without knowing the real meaning.
When a man is sick, he has to go to see a doctor. For curing the disease, he has to take medicine, according to the prescription given by the doctor. Only by taking medicine, can the sick he healed. It is the same way for the practice of Buddhism. It is said by the ancients: “Without biting cold, how can one get fragrant plum blossoms.”


Translated from Lokottama’s Chinese version by Dr. Tetcheng Liao
Foreword (by Bhikkhu Upaya)

Buddhism Study and Practice Group (

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