Biographies of the First Buddhist Patriarchs in Modern Tibetan Renditions of Early Indian Buddhist History:
A Partial Translation and Introductory Essay to the ‘Seven Successors’ (gTad-rabs bDun) Chapter of ‘The Consolidated Heart of Excellent Chronicles: One Hundred Questions and Answers on Buddhist History’ (Chos-‘byung Dris-len brGya-pa Legs-bshad sNying-bsdus) by Namdra Tubten Yarpel (rnam grwa thub bstan yar ‘phel)
By Erick Tsiknopoulos, 2014
What follows is an introductory essay to and partial translation of the ‘Seven Successors’ [or ‘Patriarchs’, Tibetan: gtad rabs (bdun)] section of a work on Buddhist history [Tibetan: chos ‘byung, literally ‘Dharma origins’] from the Tibetan perspective entitled The Consolidated Heart of Excellent Chronicles: One Hundred Questions and Answers on Buddhist History [Tib: chos ‘byung dris len brgya pa legs bshad snying bsdus], written by a modern Tibetan Buddhist scholar in the Géluk [T: dge lugs] sect named Namdrā T’upten Yarp’ël [T: rnam grwa thub bstan yar ‘phel] of Namgyël Monastery [T: rnam rgyal grwa tshang], which is the main monastery associated with His Holiness the Dalai Lama and located in McLeod Ganj, Dharamsala, Himachal Pradesh, India. The book was published in 2004 by Namgyël Monastery’s publishing division, and is obtainable by the contacting the monastery in person or through their website, http://www.namgyalmonastery.org.
The Seven Patriarchs or Successors of the Teaching [T: bstan pa’i gtad rabs bdun] are held in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition to be the first seven high-ranking monks who were put in charge of the maintenance and preservation of the Buddhist teachings after the death of the Buddha. They are all held to have been Arhats, those who had achieved spiritual liberation from birth-and-death, or Nirvāṇa. They were ‘patriarchs’ insofar as they maintained a position of leadership and inspiration for the Saṃgha, but not in that they were ‘supreme heads’ or replacements of the Buddha himself.
It is held in many Buddhist traditions that before his Parinirvāṇa (final Nirvāṇa upon death), the Buddha entrusted the care and preservation of his Dharma and its order, the Saṃgha, to Mahākāśyapa, and then predicted that there would be a line of successors (with Mahākāśyapa as the first) who would serve to maintain the purity of the Dharma, act as reminders of the Buddha’s presence (in this sense being figureheads), continue the lineage, and uphold the organization and activity of the monastic Saṃgha. The list, numbers, and names vary in different Buddhist traditions: seven in the Tibetan, twenty-three or in the Chinese and East Asian, and so on.
The Tibetan tradition states the (first) seven successors to be the following monks:
1) Ārya Mahākāśyapa [T: ‘phags pa ‘od srung]
2) Ānanda [T: kun dga’ bo]
3) Śāṇavāsika [T: sha na’i gos can]
4) Upagupta [T: nyer sbas]
5) Dhītika [T: dhii ti ka]
6) Kṛṣṇa [T: nag po]
7) Sudarśana [T: legs mthong]
The Great Tibetan-Chinese Dictionary [T: bod rgya tshig mdzod chen mo], a famous Tibetan dictionary frequently referenced by scholars of Tibetan, contains the following definition for the Seven Successors or gtad rabs bdun:
sngar rgyal bstan dgra bcom pa gcig nas gcig tu sprad pa’i byung rim ‘od srung dang/ kun dga’ bo/ sha na’i gos can/ nye sbas/ dhI ti ka/ nag po/ legs mthong chen po ste bdun
“The progressive line [of succession] which long ago passed on the Teaching of the Victorious from one Arhat to another, namely, Ārya Mahākāśyapa, Ānanda, Śāṇavāsika, Upagupta, Dhītika, Kṛṣṇa, and Sudarśana, making seven.”
The East Asian traditions (Chinese, Japanese, and other countries which follow the Chinese Buddhist canon such Vietnam and Korea) feature a list of either twenty-three or twenty-four people who succeeded the Buddha in the role of upholding the Dharma. This list is known as the ‘twenty-three-’ or ‘twenty-four people who upheld the Dharma’ [Chinese: 付法蔵之二十四人fù fǎzāng zhi èrshísì rén, Japanese: 付法蔵の二十四人fuhōzo-no-nijūyo-nin].
The main source of this list seems to be a scripture known as History of the Buddha’s Successors, also referred to as The Buddha’s Successors Sūtra [付法蔵因縁伝, Chin: fù fǎzāng yīnyuán zhuán, Jpn: fuhōzō in’nen-den]. The list of twenty-three successors in the Sinic-derived Buddhist traditions is as follows:
- Śāṇavāsika (or Śāṇavāsa)
- Dhītaka (or Dhrītaka)
- Mikkaka (or Miccaka)
- Rāhulabhadra (or Rāhulata)
- Saṃghānandi (or Saṃghānanda)
- Jayata (or Śayata)
- Āryasiṃha (or Siṃhabodhi)
The History of the Buddha’s Successors states that Ānanda transferred the Buddha’s teachings and the responsibility for their preservation to both Madhyāntika and Śāṇavāsa (or Śāṇavāsika). Madhyāntika spread the Teaching in Kashmir in northwest India, but he had no known successor. Śāṇavāsa transferred the position to Upagupta, from whom it was finally passed on to Āryasiṃha without interruption. Based on this view, the Chinese priest Chang-an (561-632), the successor of the founder of the T’ien-t’ai school [which in Japan became the Tendai school], while listing the twenty-three successors in his preface to the voluminous work Great Concentration and Insight [摩訶止観, Chn:Mó-hē zhǐguān, Jpn: maka-shikan) by the founder of the T’ien-tai school, Zhiyi, went on to state that Madhyāntika and Śāṇavāsa were contemporaries, who both inherited the Buddha’s teachings from Ānanda. Therefore, if both are included among the Buddha’s successors, he pointed out, there are twenty-four. In the list of twenty-four successors, Madhyāntika is regarded as the third and Śāṇavāsa as the fourth. Chang-an’s statement led the T’ien-t’ai school to adopt this view of twenty-four successors, in addition to the traditional view of twenty-three. This view later became popular or even standard in East Asian Buddhism, in particular in Japan.
In a similar vein, Nichiren, the thirteenth century founder of the Nichiren school of Japanese Buddhism, who also followed the Tendai interpretation, had the following to say about the twenty-four successors in his work entitled Listing the Successors of the Buddha’s Teaching, citing the History of the Buddha’s Successors (under its ‘Sūtra’ title):
From the first day after the Buddha’s passing through the two thousand years of the Former and Middle Days of the Law there have been twenty-four envoys of the Buddha. The first was Mahākāśyapa; the second, Ānanda; the third, Madhyāntika; the fourth, Śāṇavāsa; the fifth, Upagupta; the sixth, Dhrītaka; the seventh, Mikkaka; the eighth, Buddhānanda; the ninth, Buddhamitrā; the tenth, Pārśva; the eleventh, Punyayaśas; the twelfth, Aśvaghoṣa; the thirteenth, Kapimala; the fourteenth, Nāgārjuna; the fifteenth, Āryadeva; the sixteenth, Rāhulabhadra; the seventeenth, Saṃghānandi; the eighteenth, Saṃghayaśas; the nineteenth, Kumārata; the twentieth, Jayata; the twenty-first, Vasubandhu; the twenty-second, Manorhita; the twenty-third, Haklenayaśas; and the twenty-fourth, the Venerable Āryasiṃha. These twenty-four men are described in the Buddha’s Successors Sūtra, which records the golden words of the Buddha. They were envoys entrusted with the mission of propagating the Hinayāna and provisional Mahāyāna sūtras, however. They were not envoys entrusted with the task of propagating the Lotus Sūtra.
It would also seem that this Chinese list is probably connected with the lineage of Ch’an/Zen Buddhism in accordance with how it had been recorded in China, a list which is disputed and often accused of being a later Chinese forgery. Although the exact names in the two lists vary slightly, with the exception of obvious pseudonyms the names are essentially the same, with the exception of there being an additional five names in the list from the History of the Buddha’s Successors. Thus the list in both cases may be particularly Chinese in origin, and in particular related to Ch’an, and may or may not reflect other sources which record a lineage of succession from the Buddha. The line of successors as recorded in the Ch’an/Zen tradition is as follows:
- Śānavāsa (or Śāṇavāsika)
- Dhrtaka (or Dhītaka or Dhrītaka)
- Miccaka (or Mikkaka)
- Buddhānandi (or Buddhānanda)
- Kānadeva (or Āryadeva)
- Rāhulata (or Rāhulabhadra)
- Śayata (or Jayata)
- Simhabodhi (or Āryasimha)
As can be seen from a comparison of these two lists of successors, Tibetan and Chinese, the first five are the same in both traditions, while the sixth and seventh differ, in the Tibetan account being Kṛṣṇa and Sudarśana, and in the Chinese account being Mikkaka (or Miccaka) and Buddhānanda (or Buddhānandi). This would seem to indicate that the first are more-or-less universally recognized as being the successors in the Buddhist tradition (at least in Mahāyāna sources), while there is disagreement and perhaps uncertainty about the rest, in addition to the discrepancy in their respective numbers of seven and twenty-four. Thus from a historical perspective, the first five monks could be considered as more likely to have actually held the position of ‘successor’ or head of the Buddhist Saṃgha, while the rest may be more questionable as to their historical fact, although this is a topic which would require further research.
Translation of the Text
The gTad-rabs bDun (‘Seven Successors’)Section of Chos-‘byung Dris-len brGya-pa Legs-bshad sNying-bsdus (The Consolidated Heart of Excellent Chronicles: One Hundred Questions and Answers on Buddhist History), by Namdrā T’upten Yarp’ël (rnam grwa thub bstan yar ‘phel)
The Seven Successors of the Teacher
The First Successor: Arya Mahākāśyapa
In this regard, the Minor Precepts of the Vinaya [lung phran tshegs] says:
The likes of Mahākāśyapa, Ānanda, and Śāṇavāsika,
Upagupta, Dhītika, Kṛṣṇa,
And Sudarśana were the Seven Successors of the Teacher.
And from the Universal Praise of the Seven Successors [gtad rabs bdun gyi spyi bstod]:
For the dragon-like lamp of the Bliss-Gone’s Teaching,
Accordingly carrying out your promise, to act as the sublime regent
For the Master Sage, Lord of Dharma, and imbued with the deeds of the Teacher:
I bow down at the feet of the great Mahākāśyapa.
As it says there [and indicated in those quotations], the progressive order [or chronology, byung rim] in which the source of benefit and happiness from the supreme Teacher [the Buddha], the precious Teaching of the Victorious itself, was in the past entrusted from one Arhat to another is as follows:
1] Ārya Mahākāśyapa [‘phags pa ‘od srung],
2] Ānanda [kun dga’ bo],
3] Śāṇavāsika [sha na’i gos can],
4] Upagupta [nyer sbas],
5] Dhītika [dhii ti ka],
6] Kṛṣṇa [nag po],
7] and Sudarśana [legs mthong].
Thus they are renowned as ‘the Seven Great Successors of the Teacher’.
And the way in which they succeeded the Teaching of the Victorious from one to another is as follows:
Our Teacher, the one imbued with great compassion himself, after arriving in this world accomplished the joining of innumerable trainees of the Three Types [the Śrāvaka Type, the Pratyekabuddha Type, and the Bodhisattva Type] to the temporary and ultimate Levels [of Awakening or Enlightenment], and thus the Bhagavān [bcom ldan ‘das, the ‘Sublime Master’, that is, the Buddha], upon reaching the age of eighty, at the time that he was about to pass his Awakened Mind into [final] Nirvāṇa, appointed Mahākāśyapa as his very own regent for preservation of the Teaching, and at the same time said:
“Until Ānanda attains the level of Arhatship, and until you pass into Nirvāṇa, sustain my Teaching, Ānanda, and the congregation of monks, along with its fellowships! After Ānanda achieves Arhatship, pass the Teaching on to him, and then pass into Nirvāṇa!”
Thus did he decree, and then transferred his Awakened Mind for the benefit of others.
In this way the great Śrāvaka foretold to be supreme in the good qualities of training, Ārya Mahākāśyapa, was entrusted with the Teaching of the Victorious, and thereby conferred empowerment as the regent of the Conqueror [Buddha].
Then, Ārya Mahākāśyapa, for the sake of the forgetful monks of later times, gathered the Śrāvakas such as Ānanda and the assembly of Saṃgha, and there endeavored to sustain [the Teaching], with vast deeds such as progressively compiling the [canonical] Instructions of the Teacher, the Three Baskets [Tripiṭaka], without omission or addition.
Then, Mahākāśyapa thought:
“Although I have done a tiny bit of work for the Teaching of the Victorious, now, the time for passing into Nirvāṇa has befallen.”
Considering thus, he entrusted the Teaching to Ānanda, and thereupon said [to him]:
“You too must in the end entrust the Teaching to Śāṇavāsika!”
Having ordered thus, he then left for the center of a complex of three mountains called ‘Bird-Footed Mountain’ in the southern region [of India], and displayed various miracles. There, upon a grass seat in the crossed-leg position, he put on a patched monastic upper garment [culled] from a rubbish heap, consecrated his corpse with the blessing of fearlessness, and thereby demonstrated the achievement of Nirvāṇa.
The Second Successor: Ānanda
In this regard, as it is said:
By accomplishing great undertakings, the Two Collections, aspirations, and miraculous powers,
The eighty-four thousand corpuses of Dharma
Were retained and gathered in instantaneously
In the Treasury of Dharma, Ānanda, to whom I bow down.
Ānanda was a supreme personal attendant to the Teacher. He was the son of Amṛtadana [bdud rtsi zas], who was one of the three younger brothers of Śuddhodana, the father of the Buddha. When the Buddha had reached the age of forty-one, his father Śuddhodana invited him to his palace, and when he went, Ānanda had reached the age of six. When the Buddha-Bhagavān went back to his country of birth, Śrāvastī, he escorted him [Ānanda] along as he followed behind, subsequently entrusted him to Mahākāśyapa, and gave him novice ordination.
When Ānanda reached the age of forty-five, the Bhagavān had reached the age of eighty and was about to pass his Awakened Mind into Nirvāṇa. At that time he appointed Mahākāśyapa as his own regent for the maintenance of the Teaching, and later granted a prediction for the need to entrust the Teaching to Ānanda.
Later on, while Ārya Ānanda was residing at Jetavana [Grove Monastery], the householder Śāṇavāsika, upon returning back from the ocean to retrieve precious substances, said to the people:
“Where is the Bhagavān staying? I will put on a five-year celebration!”
And upon hearing:
“He has passed into Nirvāṇa…”
He fainted. After fainting, he once again inquired as follows:
‘Do Ārya Śāriputra, Maudalyāyana, and Mahākāśyapa remain?’
And upon hearing:
“They too have passed into Nirvāṇa…”
He fainted once more. After waking up, he asked:
“Well then, who survives now?”
And upon hearing:
He straightaway invited Ānanda along with the Saṃgha, and put on a five-year celebration.
Thereafter, Ānanda gave Śāṇavāsika novice and full ordination. He also studied the Three Baskets [of Buddhist teachings, the Tripiṭaka] and thereby became extremely learned, and became an Arhat.
It is well-known that Ānanda served as the personal attendant of the Bhagavān for twenty-five years, and, when the Bhagavān had reached the age of fifty-five and Ānanda the age of twenty, Ānanda made a promise as follows:
“If the preconditions are provided, I will gladly serve as the personal attendant for the Bhagavān.”
When the monks told the Bhagavān about this accordingly, the Bhagavān was delighted, and said:
“Ānanda is one of far-sighted sophistication, and brilliant.”
He then gave him [a set of] three preconditions, and appointed him as his personal attendant. The three preconditions which Ānanda had to recite at that time were the following:
1) To never use the uneaten food and leftover garments of the Bhagavān
2) To never at any time allow direct contact with his physical form
3) To never teach the Dharma himself when not in the physical presence of the Bhagavān
The first two preconditions were for the sake of there not coming about those who would criticize saying ‘Ānanda is serving as the personal attendant just for attention and clothes from other people’, and the third precondition was due to the existence of the extraordinary phenomenon of Ānanda being able to stably ascertain in his mind whatever [and everything] he himself had heard one time with his ears without ever forgetting it; it would seem [this may have been on account of the fact] that there was the need for him to compile the entirety of the spoken teachings [bka’] after the Bhagavān had passed his Awakened Mind into Nirvāṇa, by being certain in his mind about all of the Dharmas spoken by the Bhagavān [and not by himself which could have created confusion].
On the occasion of the Bhagavān’s [final] Nirvāṇa, due to Ānanda having only attained the fruit of Stream-Entry [rgyun bzhugs] and being without the attainment of the Arhat’s fruition, he was expelled from the ranks of the Saṃgha, and when publicly condemned, he saw with clairvoyance that he could quickly attain the fruit of the Arhat, and therefore enumerated eight great offenses before the assembly of the Saṃgha, and was then banished.
Thereafter, not a single one of the fully-ordained monks, novice monks, or teachers spoke a word to him, and since he had no one with whom to enjoy the Dharma or material things, immeasurable sadness arose in his heart…
Due to constraints of word limitations, I will not be able to include further translation of this text here.
In conclusion, the subject of the Buddha’s Successors is one which is highly relevant to the field of Buddhist history in general, and which is important or even crucial for the study of the history of Buddhism in India in particular.
chos ‘byung dris len brgya pa legs bshad snying bsdus, by Namdrā T’upten Yarp’ël (rnam grwa thub bstan yar ‘phel), published by Namgyël Monastery (rnam rgyal grwa tshang), McLeod Ganj, Dharamsala, India
The Great Tibetan-Chinese Dictionary (bod rgya tshig mdzod chen mo)
The Rigpa Shedra Wiki: http://www.rigpawiki.org
Listing the Successors of the Buddha’s Teaching, by Nichiren (Daishonin), from the Nichiren Library: http://www.nichirenlibrary.org
The Soka Gakkai Dictionary of Buddhism: http://www.sgilibrary.org
Erick Tsiknopoulos (b. 1981) is an American translator of Tibetan, a scholar, researcher and postgraduate student in Buddhist Studies, a teacher and tutor of Tibetan language, a writer and editor, a voracious reader in various subjects, and an experienced world traveler. He is the founder and primary Tibetan translator of the Sugatagarbha Translation Group, and the creator of their main website, Tibetan-Translations.com, which currently features English translations of over 400 Tibetan texts. Many of his translations have been published in various forms, including as books.
He has been a student of Buddhism since 1999, a student of Tibetan Buddhism since 2003, and a student of Tibetan language since 2005. He has been translating Tibetan texts into English since 2007, has been based in India and Nepal studying Tibetan language and Buddhism intensively and translating Tibetan texts since 2008, and has been working professionally as a Tibetan-English translator and interpreter since 2009.
He is available for contact via email at: EmptyElephant@yahoo.com and SugatagarbhaTranslations@gmail.com