The dominant theme of many Mahayana Sutras — the Great Vehicle Teachings — is “benefiting others.” To Mahayana Buddhists, there are three principal paths, expressed wonderfully in the “King of all Sutras” the “Sutra of Golden Light”: Renunciation, Bodhichitta (loving kindness) and the Wisdom of Emptiness. [Download link below for pdf of the sutra, and the full Chapter 24 on “healing” below.]
The great vehicle Mahayana travels is like a massive bus, carrying all sentient beings to ultimate Enlightenment — not just a small bicycle for you alone. Mahayana is likened to the great vehicle for that reason — there is room for everyone.
Although the best-known sutra might be the Heart Sutra (or the greater Perfection of Wisdom sutras, Prajnaparamita), the one nearest to many practicing Buddhists hearts (pun intended) is actually the Golden Light Sutra, for many reasons: it includes key teachings on all of the “Three Principal Aspects of the Path: Renunciation, Bodhichitta, and Shunyata.”
Everything needed in one Sutra
Lama Zopa Rinpoche explains: “This “King of Glorious Sutras”, contains everything needed, from daily happiness to complete enlightenment. It contains a heart-rending practice of confession and rejoicing, profound teachings on dependent arising, reliable assurances of protection, guidelines for ideal government, and awe-inspiring stories of the Buddha’s previous lives, in which the Buddha shows how, even before he had completely eliminated the delusions, he liberated countless beings from the ocean of suffering through compassion and personal courage.”
“At the beginning of the Sutra of Golden Light, Buddha Shakyamuni, the Tathagata, the Arhat, the Fully Enlightened, calls to anyone experiencing misery and affliction, bad health, poverty, loss, abuse, ill will, fear, nightmares, or other harms. He says to make the mind virtuous and to come and listen.”
Benefits of recitation of the Sutra of Golden Light
Golden Light Sutra on tablets.In Asia, it has long been the “go to” Mahayana sutra for promoting peace and happiness. It is also considered to be the sutra source for Chod and also “animal release” practices. The benefits of recitation — even a page a day — have been explained by many teachers, and include, according to the great Lama Zopa Rinpoche:
“For the success of attaining the whole path to enlightenment, listen to the Golden Light Sutra. This sutra directs our lives towards enlightenment. It helps us not be reborn in the lower realms. The very first thing, the immediate danger that we need to stop immediately without delaying even one second, is rebirth in the lower realm. We need a higher rebirth so we can continue to practice Dharma. All negative karma is purified by listening to this sutra.”
All precious teachings in one Sutra
Why are the benefits so vast? In one relatively short Sutra, Buddha directly explains: Shunyata (emptiness), Dependent Arising, the importance of Confession, self sacrifice (often referred to as the Sutra transmission of Chod), overcoming fear, and even how to heal illnesses. Bodhichitta and Metta are strongly expressed in the engaging story of the merchant’s son who tried desperately to save ten-thousand fish. (Chapter 17):
“Without water, the ten thousand fish were dying and thrashing frantically about. Then, O noble goddess, Jalavahana the merchant’s son ran in the four directions. In whichever direction Jalavahana the merchant’s son ran, in that direction those ten thousand fish wretchedly looked. O noble goddess, although he ran in the four directions in search of water, Jalavahana the merchant’s son did not find water there. He looked in the four directions and saw many tall trees not far away. He climbed those trees and cut their branches. Taking the branches to the pool, he built cooling shade for those ten thousand fish…”
This sutra also famously contains one of the most famous stories of Buddha’s previous incarnations — Mahasattva, who fed himself to the starving tigress. This is considered by many to be the “sutra” transmission for Chod — the act of visualizing the offering one’s own body to benefit all sentient beings.
Sutra transmission of Chod?
One really fascinating aspect of this glorious sutra is it is the “sutra” transmission of Chod — as it contains the beautiful and meaningful story of the historical Buddha (in a previous life as a Bodhisattva) feeding his own body to the starving Tigress so she could feed her cubs. This is the famous story of Mahasattva, Buddha’s previous incarnation:
‘Then, as the princes strolled through the Dvadashavanagulma forest, they came upon a tigress who had given birth the previous week, surrounded by her offspring, hungry and thirsty, famished, her body extremely feeble. Seeing her, Mahapranada said: “Alas! It would be six or seven days since this wretch gave birth. She has not found food. Either she will die of starvation or devour her own cubs.”
“…Mahapranada said: “O good fellows, giving one’s body is a daunting
“‘Mahasattva said: “For people like us, feeble minded and greatly attached to the body, such an act is difficult indeed. However, great beings embark on giving their bodies completely and dauntlessly strive for others’ welfare.
Moreover, born of affectionate love and compassion, arya beings
Who consider their bodies as just obtained in heaven or on
Their joyous minds most agreeable to saving others’ lives,
Remaining steadfast, would have hundred-fold compassion
in this case.
“‘Feeling very sad, the young prince looked at the tigress for a length of time without blinking, then went on his way. Then Mahasattva had this thought: “Now the time has come for me to give this body away. Why?
Although I have long guarded this putrid body, subject
to death and decay,
Providing it with food and drink, clothing, vehicles and luxurious beds,
Ultimately it is doomed to crumble and end in woe.
This body has no purpose save to abandon its unknown nature.”
“Furthermore, since it is wholly impure, it will not endure. Now I should use it for a noble end. Thus it shall be for me like a boat crossing the ocean of death and rebirth.
… To benefit transmigrating beings, may I attain the peace of peerless enlightenment;
My mind compassionate and steadfast, I give this body which others find hard to give up;
May I achieve the flawless, priceless enlightenment that bodhisattvas so keenly seek.
I shall free beings in the triple worlds from the intense fear of the ocean of existence.
“‘Then Mahasattva lay in front of the tigress, but the tigress did nothing to the compassionate Bodhisattva. The Bodhisattva thought: “Alas! She is too weak and incapable!”
He rose up in search of a sharp weapon and did not find one. Taking hold of a strong branch of bamboo stick, one hundred years old, he cut his throat and fell down before the tigress. When the Bodhisattva fell down, the earth shook in six ways, like a boat pounded by winds amidst the sea.”
The secrets to long life
In chapter 1, the chapter titled “The Chapter on the Span of the Tathagata’s Lfe” the secrets to long life are expounded:
“There are two causes and two conditions which prolong life. What are the two? They are namely renouncing killing, and giving food wholly” — in other words, renunciation and generosity, which is beautifully expressed in the story of Mahasattva and the tigress.
Dealing with Fear
Another big topic in The great Sutra of Golden Light is “fear” and handling our fears:
“Here in the forest solitude acclaimed by seers,
I am not anxious nor have I fear.
This heart of mine is greatly overjoyed
In hope of finding opportunity for vast and great benefit.”
The opening chapter of the sublime Sutra explains the benefit of reciting the sutra to aleviate fears:
“Ridden with fear and stricken by poverty,
Troubled by stars, planetary bodies
And fierce demonic spirits,
Or who see excruciating nightmares
Following grief and fatigue,
They should bathe well to render themselves clean
And listen to this sublime sutra.”
Later, in chapter four, which focuses on “Confession”, the sutra explains:
“By the sound of this majestic drum,
May the ignorance of the world be dispelled.
With fears quelled, just as vanquishing sages are unafraid,
May sentient beings become fearless and brave.”
Teachings on Emptiness
The important subject of Shunyata — Emptiness — is a key teaching in chapter 6. In lyrical verse, the equal of the great Heart Sutra, the Sutra of Golden Light expresses, in the Tathagata’s words, the essence of Emptiness:
The body is like an empty village or house;
Senses are like soldiers and thieves.
Although they live in the same village,
They are unaware of each other.
The eye sense runs after forms;
The ear sense indulges in sounds;
The nose sense captures numerous smells;
The tongue sense always hunts tastes;
The body sense pursues tactile sensations;
And the mental sense grasps at phenomena.
These six individual senses
Are each absorbed in their objects.
The mind is capricious as an illusion –
Its six senses thoroughly engrossed –
Like a man who runs to an empty village
And resides there among soldiers and thieves…
Forms, sounds and likewise smells,
Tastes, tactiles and phenomena,
The mind in motion, like a bird in flight,
In all six, enters the sense faculties.
In whatever sense it abides,
It lends that sense its knowing nature.
The body, like a machine in an empty village,
Is without motion and completely without action.
Lacking core essence, it arises from conditions;
Arising from concepts, it lacks inherent nature.”
Not only does this chapter explain emptiness succinctly, Buddha goes on to explain karma, rebirth and what happens at death. He also explains “depending origination” in terms any one can comprehend:
“The six sources, contact, feeling,
Craving, grasping and existence too,
Birth, aging and death, sorrows and afflictions –
These comprise the twelve links of dependent origination.
“The inconceivable sufferings of cyclic existence
As they operate in the wheel of life
Have originated from the unoriginated;
Thus, they are without origination,
Free from discursive, conceptual thought.
“Cut the view of self-existence;
Sever the net of afflictions;
Brandish the sword of knowledge;
Behold the abode of aggregates as empty;
In this way, enlightenment shall be reached.”
Healing and medicine (Chapter 24)
The sublime Golden Light Sutra also has an entire chapter dedicated to healing (Chapter 24): Ned-rabtu-zhiwar-byedpa: healing illness, or the sutra to ‘pacify all diseases.’ — much of which expresses the basis of Tibetan medicine. [Normal health disclaimers: always seek advice of your medical practitioners!]
Although the glorious translation of the Golden Light Sutra contains 21 of the chapters, there are actually 29 — some still being tranlated. One important chapter includes teachings on healing. Since this is not included in the readily downloadable English sutra, we include part of it here:
“Countless eons ago, a Buddha called Rinchen Tsugphud-chen came to this world. During his time, there was a rich merchant with the name of Tshongpon Chuzin, who was also an expert in the eight medicine branches. He treated many patients and saved many lives in that country. He had a son called Chubeb (Jalavahana), who was handsome, good hearted, intelligent, well learned and an expert in script, art, astrology and grammar. He was much beloved by his people. At that time, an epidemic broke out and thousands of people died. The merchant’s son, Chubeb, was distressed and compassion for them arose in his heart. He thought that his elderly father was not able to perform many treatments because he was aged and weak. So he became determined to learn the art of healing from his father. He went to him and, prostrating before him, said in verse:
“To save the life of other beings
I’m keen to ask you, beloved father
With your loving-compassion
Please teach me the art of medicine”
The father replied in these verses:
“I shall teach you series by series
Based on the healing science
Derived from the essence of Cikitsa vidya of Rishi,
Listen carefully and learn to protect beings”.
Three months are called spring Three months are called summer,
Three months are called autumn and
Three months are called winter.
This is one year
The three months in each seasons are described,
Two months periods are called Dustshigs
So there are six dustshigs in one year.
The first two months are the time of flowering
Three and four are the hot season
Five and six are the rainy season
Seven and eight are autumn
Nine and ten are the cold season
The last two are the snow time
By knowing the different seasons
You will learn to administer medicine without mistake.
By prescribing food and beverage According to the law of seasons
Digestion will be smooth and
Will not produce diseases.
If the dustshigs become distorted
And the four elements are changed,
If the body remains without proper medication
It will suffer from disease.
Therefore the physician should know
The four seasons and the six dustshigs, too
And he should know the nature of the body
Then, he will be able to administer diet and medicine without mistake.
If disease has entered in through the nature of taste
Into the blood, muscles, bones, bone marrow and brain
The physician should know [according to] the signs and symptoms
If the disease is curable or not.
Diseases are of four different types
rLung, Tripa, Badken and
Totally combined in one.
One should know the manifestation time.
Phlegm manifests in spring
Summer increases Wind
Bile manifests in autumn
All three manifest in winter.
Admit pungent, rough, and warm taste and quality in the spring
Oily and warm quality and salty taste in the summer
Cooling, sweet and oily quality in the autumn and
Rough, oily quality and sour, sweet tastes in the winter.
During these four seasons
If medication, diet and beverages
Are followed according to the seasonal law
No disease will be produced.
Pain [manifesting] after meal indicates
Phlegm disorder And during the digestion, indicates Bile
After the food digestion, it is a Wind disorder
One should know the time and symptoms in parallel.
Knowing the root of the disease
Administer the medicine accordingly,
Despite the different disease characters and sub-types
One should reveal the origin of disease.
Administer oily medicine for Wind disorders
Purgatives are better for Bile.
For Phlegm, one should apply emetics
And Combined [disorders] need all three medicines.
Combined means that the three humors Equally manifest their symptoms.
One should know the time of diseases’ manifestation
But also the [patient’s] constitution
Thus, by learning through examination
By treating the patient at the right time
By medicine, therapy, diet and beverage
By [Giving] advice without being mistaken
We know he is a wise physician.
Knowing the eight branches of medicine
Is the synthesis of all medical sciences
Enrich your knowledge of medicine And cure the disease of the sentient beings.
(1.) Bloodletting and
(3.) Physical diseases and
(4.) Evil spirits
(5.) Poisons and
(7.) Rejuvenation and
Diagnose the person’s color before
And observe the [patient’s] words (symptoms)
Ask about his dreams after that
You will know the three humors and their differences.
Thin, skinny, poor hair
And having an unstable mind
Talkative and dreaming of flying
Indicates a Wind constitution.
Grey hair growing to the adult
Much sweating and diarrhea,
Intelligent and dreaming of fire
Indicates a Bile constitution.
Stable mind and a large straight body
Assiduous, with an oily and wet head and body,
Dreams of water and white objects
Indicates a Phlegm constitution.
The three humors produce all the combined constitutions
Some are double and triple constitutions
If there are more constitutional characters
One should understand the dominant constitution.
After knowing the right constitution
Administer the medicine for the disease.
If there are no dying prognostication signs
The patient is curable.
[Patient’s] Eye perceives wrongly
Humiliating the master and physician,
Being angry with the relatives
It is a prognostication of dying.
Left eye becoming white
Tongue becoming black and nose turning to one side
Ear becoming bluish
Falling lips are sign of dying.
The single Terminalia chebula
Possesses the six tastes
Cures all diseases It is harmless and the king of medicine.
Three fruits and three hot medicines
Easy to find among the medicines
Molasses, honey, milk and butter
Can cure many disorders.
The other medicines
Administer according to the disease
First cultivate love and compassion
And do not look to wealth and benefit.
Thus I’ve told you how to heal disease
This precious teaching is the synthesis of medicine.”
Then Chubeb became an expert in the art of the healing, and cured many people.”
Vast merit of recitation practice
Amongst all of the great Mahayana sutras, the Sutra of Golden Light, Arya Suvarṇa prabhā sottama sūtrendrarāja mahāyāna sūtra, is possibly the most embracing and comforting of all the great sutras. Teachers such as Lama Zopa Rinpoche, advocate daily recitation of even just one line of the sutra has “more merit” than almost any other practice. In his introduction to FPMT’s beautiful translation of the stura, he writes: “Memorizing or making offerings to this text is like making inconceivable offerings to Buddha.”
Lama Zopa Rinpoche has made it a mission to advocate for daily verbal recitations of the great Golden Light Sutra. “This text is very precious; it brings peace and happiness and is very powerful to stop violence. By hearing this text, one’s karma is purified.”
“This text increases success and, especially for leaders like kings or presidents, it brings success to their guiding in virtue, the path to happiness. If you have problems, for anyone dying or dead or if the devas have turned against you and nothing is working; or if merely by expressing yourself, your friends, loved ones, husband, wife, family members and even servants get angry with you, if your wealth declines or if you have harm from black magic or spirits, or if you have bad dreams or fearful things happening, then for all of these problems you should wash, put on clean clothes, and with a peaceful mind listen to the transmission of this text. Then all will be pacified. Anyone who hears it creates much merit and is highly admired by the buddhas…
“Anyone who keeps, memorizes, or contributes to this text ex-ceeds the eight worldly beings and all their wishes will be fulfilled. Buddha told the four guardians to make offerings and serve this text, and to always protect the people who memorize or even just read it. The four guardians acknowledged they would protect those who read it and would help and fulfill all their wishes.”
Watch Lama Zopa offering Oral Tranmission of the Golden Light Sutra:
Dedication of Merit
After reciting the glorious Sutra of Golden Light (even just one page), it is recommended by the Bodhisattva Ruchiraketu (from the Sutra) to dedicate the merit of the recitation:
“Swiftly and wholly consuming all karmic obstructions, by making confession through Sublime Golden Light, I shall abide on the ten bodhisattva grounds – those mines of supreme precious jewels – that I may shine with a tathagata’s marks and signs and free beings from the ocean of existence.”