The word of the Buddha is said to possess extraordinary power, and there are many stories told of miracles that occurred when a sutra, or even the title of a sutra, was recited. The efficacy of scripture in Buddhism, therefore, does not derive simply from the ideas and doctrines it contains. Its more immediate qualities – the sound of its words and the pages that record them – are a source of power and blessing. Knowledge of these extraordinary qualities is not derived merely from the testimony of the faithful. A common element in Buddhist sutras, especially Mahayana sutras, is an entire section or chapter in which the Buddha extols the special powers of that very sutra itself and explains the wondrous benefits that will accrue to anyone who reads it, copies it, recites it, preaches it, bows down before it, places it on an altar, offers it a flower and so on. In some cases, these benefits are described by someone in the Buddha’s audience (as in the passage below), with the Buddha certifying the truth of their claims. Scholars speculate that many of these chapters, often occurring at or near the end of the text, are interpolations into an earlier text, providing a kind of advertisement for the text from the Buddha himself. For the rewards promised by the Buddha are many, including, as in the text below, protection provided by the world itself, here in the form of the kings of the four directions.
The passage is from the Sutra of Golden Light (Suvarnaprabhasottama Sutra), an Indian Mahayana sutra that was especially important in East Asia. In the chapter translated below, the four divine kings praise the Sutra of Golden Light and describe its powers. The four kings preside over the four cardinal directions – Vaisravana in the north, Dhrtarastra in the east, Virudhaka in the south and Virupaksa in the west – from their heavens on the four slopes of Mount Meru. In the passage here, the four kings offer their protection to any monk who will travel to another land to preach the Sutra of Golden Light. Any monk who does so will also gain the support and protection of the king of that land. And any king who upholds the Sutra of Golden Light and protects a monk who preaches it will gain the protection of the four kings (and their armies) for himself and for his realm.
Throughout the history of Buddhism, the sangha has depended on the support of the state, and the king, for its survival. The Buddha himself counted kings among his most loyal disciples. These relations would be repeated throughout Asia, as monks carried texts and technologies to foreign courts, where they sometimes became the teachers and advisers of monarchs. In China, despite periods of persecution, a symbiotic relationship developed between imperial rule and the sangha, between state law and Buddhist law. The ruler was responsible for protecting and maintaining the sangha. The sangha was responsible for maintaining moral rectitude, thus creating the merit that would sustain the state, and for instructing the populace in the virtuous behaviour that would promote social order. In addition, the sangha had in its possession texts with special powers that could protect the king’s realm from natural disasters and invading armies, as the four divine kings explain below.
The Chapter on the Four Divine Kings
At that time, the Divine King Vaisravana, the Divine King Dhrtarastra, the Divine King Virudhaka, and the Divine King Virupaksa, having arisen together from their seats, bared their right shoulders, kneeled with right knee to the ground, and faced the Buddha reverently with palms joined. Having prostrated to the Buddha’s feet in obeisance, they addressed him, saying, ‘World- Honoured One, this Sutra of Golden Light, peerless king among sutras, is borne in mind and watched over constantly by all the buddhas and world-honoured ones. It is revered by all the bodhisattvas; it is worshipped by the sovereign gods, bringing joy to all the heavenly hosts; it is praised in eulogy by all the divine protectors of the world; and it is constantly received and upheld by sravakas and pratyekabuddhas, alike. [The radiance of this sutra] is able to illuminate the palaces of all the gods; it is able to give animate beings the most sublime happiness; it is able to put an end to the sufferings in the destinies of the hells, hungry ghosts and animal [realms]; it is able to expel all fear and to cause all malicious enemies to instantly flee in retreat. It is able to supply more than one needs in times of famine and want; it is able to cure the pains of every imaginable illness. [In its presence] the hundred thousand afflictions that arise from natural anomaly and disaster will all disappear. World-Honoured One, this Sutra of Golden Light, the peerless king among scriptures, is able in this way to bring security, benefit, happiness and succour to us all. Our sole wish is that the World-Honoured One will proclaim and expound it widely to the grand assembly [of the sangha]. Whenever we four divine kings and our retinues detect the ambrosial flavour of this unsurpassed dharma, we experience a surge in our vital energy, an increase in our majestic aura, and a redoubling of our vigour, our boldness and our supernatural powers.
‘World-Honoured One. We four divine kings ourselves cultivate the true dharma; constantly we are expounding the true dharma, and by means of this dharma we transform [and bring] the world [to order]. We cause all gods, dragons, yaksas, gandharvas, asuras, garudas, kimnaras and mahoragas, demons and spirits, as well as all human kings to govern the world by means of this true dharma and to expel and keep in check all the evils. All those demons and spirits, devoid of compassion, that suck and feed off the vital energy of human beings we cause to move far away. We four divine kings and our various yaksa generals of the twenty-eight divisions, together with their hundreds of thousands of yaksas, demons and spirits, survey and watch over this continent of Jambudvipa with a pure and divine eye that far surpasses that of ordinary humans. World-Honoured One, it is for this reason we divine kings are called “protectors of the world”.
‘Moreover, if in this continent there is a king who suffers invasion by malicious brigands from other regions, or who suffers the rampages of famine and plague and countless hundreds of thousands of other sorts of crisis and disaster [then he should realize], O World-Honoured One, that we four divine kings venerate and make offering to this supremely sovereign Sutra of Golden Light. Should there be a bhiksu dharma-master who receives and upholds this sutra, we four kings will collectively go to that individual to enlighten and encourage him. That dharma-master will thereupon, by dint of the power of our supernormal abilities and our enlightenment, [be made to] travel to that realm and widely proclaim and distribute this most sublime Sutra of Golden Light. By the power of that sutra, those hundreds of thousands of tribulations, calamities and crises will all be removed completely.
‘World-Honoured One, if a bhiksu dharma-master who upholds this sutra should reside among the realms of the various kings, you should realize that when the bhiksu arrived in that land, this sutra arrived in that land along with him. World-Honoured One, the king of that land should then go to that dharma-master’s abode and listen to what he preaches. Upon hearing it, he will be overjoyed. He will revere and make offerings to that dharma-master; and with profound heart he will protect [that bhiksu] and keep him from trouble. He will publicly expound this sutra, [thereby] bringing benefit to all. World-Honoured One, because of this sutra, we four divine kings, united in our singular purpose, will protect that human king and the people of his realm, ensuring that they remain free of calamity and that they are always secure. World-Honoured One, whenever there is a bhiksu [monk], a bhiksuni [nun], an upasaka [male lay disciple], or an upasika [female lay disciple] who upholds this sutra, and that king of men provides for and offers whatever he needs, so that he lacks nothing, then we four divine kings will cause that sovereign and the populace of his realm to all experience security and be far removed from calamity and misfortune. World-Honoured One, if there is a person who receives, upholds, reads and recites this sutra, and a king should make offering to, venerate, honour and praise it, we will cause that king to be revered and honoured as the foremost among all kings, and to be praised together by the kings of all these other lands.’ Upon hearing this, the grand assembly was overjoyed, and all resolved to receive and keep this sutra.
At that point, having heard the four divine kings revere and [pledge] to make offerings to the Sutra of Golden Light, as well as to support and protect those individuals who uphold the sutra, the World-Honoured One praised them, saying, ‘Excellent! Well done! In times past you four kings have already venerated, made offering, esteemed and sung praises before countless hundreds of thousands of tens of thousands of millions of buddhas. You have planted roots of goodness, cultivated the true dharma, preached the true dharma, and by means of the dharma you [rule over and] transform the world. In the course of the long enduring night, you constantly think of the benefit of other living beings; and arousing a heart of great loving-kindness and compassion, you vow to bring them peace and happiness. It is causes and conditions such as these that have enabled you to receive in this current incarnation such an excellent [karmic] retribution as this. If a human king makes offering to and venerates this marvellous and sublime Sutra of Golden Light, you should strive to extend to him your protection so that he may know peace and security. If you four kings and your retinues, with your countless and boundless hundreds of thousands of yaksss protect this sutra, then it is tantamount to protecting the true dharma of all the buddhas of the past, future and present. Whenever you four kings, together with your hosts of gods and the yaksas do battle with the asuras, you will always gain the victory. If you are able to protect and uphold this sutra, you will be able through the power of this sutra to eliminate malicious brigands, famine, illness and a host of other miseries. If among the fourfold sangha you find persons who receive, uphold, read and recite this king among sutras, you should also energetically extend your protection to them, eliminating their afflictions and bestowing on them peace and happiness.’
Thereupon, the four kings got up from their seats, bared their right shoulders, and with right knee placed on the ground and palms joined [in supplication], they addressed the Buddha, saying, ‘To whatever place this Sutra of Golden Light, king among sutras, should in the future happen to find its way or be distributed, whether sovereign country, city, hamlet, mountain forest, or wilderness, if the kings of those lands reverently listen to, receive, praise and make offering to this sutra, and if, moreover, they provide support for those persons of the fourfold sangha who receive and uphold this sutra, protecting them with solemn purpose and ensuring that they are free of disturbance, then by dint of these causes and conditions we will watch over those kings and their peoples, making certain that they are all secure and free from suffering, extending their lives, and perfecting their awe-inspiring virtue. World-Honoured One, if a king of those lands should come upon a member of the fourfold sangha who keeps this sutra, and should he choose to revere and protect that person as if it were his own parent, providing for his or her each and every need, then we four kings will constantly protect him, ensuring that there is no living being that does not esteem and revere him. It is for this reason that we [divine kings] and our countless yaksa spirits will conceal our bodies and provide protection wherever that sutra happens to circulate, ensuring that it suffers no harm. Moreover, we will guard and listen intently to this sutra and the human sovereign, etc. [who receives it], expelling their troubles and ensuring their security. Whatever malevolent brigands may approach from other lands, we will cause them all to flee.
Thereupon the four divine kings addressed the Buddha saying, ‘World-Honoured One, if a human sovereign will revere the true dharma and listen to this king of sutras, and if he will, likewise, revere, make offering to, esteem and extol persons from the fourfold sangha who uphold this sutra, then should he truly wish to please us, he should sprinkle and purify with perfumed water a spot to one side of the [main] altar. He should strew fine flowers around it, and having prepared this site, set up altar-seats for [we] four divine kings so that we may come to join that [human] king in listening to the true dharma. Whatever wholesome roots that king may [come to] possess by way of personal benefit, he also should donate a portion of those blessings to us. World-Honoured
One, when that king invites the person designated to preach the dharma to ascend the high seat [and begin recitation of the sutra], he should thereupon burn all manner of famous incenses and make offering to the sutra on our behalf. World-Honoured One, the very instant that that incense begins to [send up its] smoke, in a flicker of thought it will rise through the empyrean and reach our heavenly palaces. Suffusing through the air, it will form [a vast] canopy of fragrance, and we heavenly hosts will all smell its sublime fragrance. This cloud of incense will also emit a golden light, the radiance of which will illuminate the palaces in which we dwell, even up to the palace of Brahma and the abodes of Indra, Sarasvati, the goddess Sri [and the other great gods].’
The Buddha told the four divine kings, ‘Not only will the golden radiance of this incense reach our heavenly palaces, but as soon as the human sovereign takes censer in hand and lights the incense in offering to this sutra, the smoke of that incense will immediately spread through the entire universe… its fragrant vapours turning into cloud-like canopies of golden hue that universally illuminate heavenly palaces [everywhere]. All of these cloud canopies of incense that thereby fill the universe are [produced by] the awesome spiritual power of this Sutra of Golden Light.
‘When this human king takes in hand the incense censer to make offering to this sutra, that cloud of incense will not only pervade the universe of this world-realm, but in a flicker of thought, it will spread through countless and inestimable hundreds of thousands of tens of thousands of millions of buddha-lands as numerous as the sands of countless and illimitable numbers of Ganges rivers. As it fills the air above those buddhas, it will transform into canopies of incense, the golden light of which will shine everywhere, just as it did [for the gods of our realm]. Upon smelling this sublime fragrance and seeing these cloud canopies and their golden lights produce supernatural manifestations in the presence of buddhas throughout the ten directions as countless in number as sands of the Ganges, they will together look into [this phenomenon] and, with a single unified voice, they will extol that dharma-master, saying, “Well done! Excellent! You are [truly] a great spiritual hero. To be able to disseminate such an exceedingly profound and marvellous sutra as this, then you have succeeded in [acquiring] an inestimable, illimitable and inconceivable mass of meritorious blessings. Should someone listen to this sutra, the amount of the merit that he or she receives will be truly numerous. How much the more so if he or she should copy [this sutra], receive and uphold [it], expound [it] for others and practise as [it] instructs. Why is that? Good son, if a being should hear this Sutra of Golden Light, a king among sutras, then he will never again slide back from supreme perfect enlightenment.” ’
Thereupon the four divine kings again addressed the Buddha, saying, ‘World-Honoured One, this Sutra of Golden Light, the most excellent king among all the sutras, is able to perfect such countless merits as this, both in the present and in the future. Thus, if a human king is able to obtain the hearing of this sublime sutra, then it is due to the meritorious roots that he has already planted in the presence of countless hundreds of thousands of tens of thousands of millions of buddhas. We will protect such a sovereign. Moreover, because we see that he enjoys the benefit of countless blessings and virtues, we four kings, together with the hundreds of thousands of tens of thousands of millions of [yakss] spirits who make up our retinues, upon spying the myriad spiritual transformations produced by this cloud of incense, will conceal our physical forms, and in order to hear the dharma, we will come to that place in the royal palace for preaching the dharma that has been duly purified and adorned by the king. And so will [such gods as] Brahma, Indra, Sarasvati, Sri, Drdha the Earth Goddess [and so forth].’
Translated by Daniel Stevenson from Jinguangming zuishengwang jing, trans. Yijing, T 665, vol. 16, pp. 426C-429C (abridged).
Source: Lopez Donald S. (2004), Buddhist Scriptures, Penguin Classics; First Edition.