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The Avalambana Sûtra by Samuel Beal

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Mr. Eitel, in his very useful Handbook for the Student of Chinese Buddhism, arranges under the heading Ulamba the particulars which relate to the "sacrifice for the dead" common among Buddhists, at least in China and Japan, (and in Ceylon also, according to Spence Hardy;

Manual of Buddhism p. 59), made on the 15th day of the 7th month.

This title Ulamba should doubtless be restored to Avalambana, as Julien gives it in his Méthode (1315), and as the Encyclopoodia Yi-tsi-kîng-yin-i fully explains (Kiwen xiv., fol. 25).

This title Avalambana seems to be derived from the idea of the suspension, head downwards, of the unhappy occupants of the Limbus patrum.

This idea is not a new one in Hindu fancy.

We all know how the "Baital" or "Vetal," in the tale is suspended head downwards from a tree, and how Vikram repeatedly cuts him loose and carries him away on his back.

We may remember also in the Mahâbhârata (Vana Parvan) how Agastya sees his ancestors suspended by their heels in a pit, and was told by them that they could only be extricated by his begetting a son (Theatre of the Indus, vol. I., p. 322 n.).

These instances are sufficient to show that the term Avalambana is intended to signify literally the condition of those unredeemed souls who suffer in purgatory (we have no other word) by being suspended head downwards, till the sacrifice made by their offspring on earth compensates to rescue them from their sufferings.

How nearly this idea of the Buddhists approaches to that of the condition of souls in Limbus and their rescue by the offerings or sacrifices of their friends on earth is too plain to need comment. Mr. Eitel,

however, would assign the origin of this custom of "sacrificing for the dead" among the Buddhists to the time of the Yogachâra school,

introduced into China about A.D. 733. But we have, in fact, a Sûtra translated into Chinese in the time of the Western Tsin p. 86 dynasty (i.e. circ. 265 A.D.), by the famous priest Dharmaraksha, relating to this very subject.

It occurs in the 5th chapter of the collection called King-tsong-yo-shwo, and is called Fo-shwo-u-lam-pwan-king, i.e. the Sûtra Avalambana spoken by Buddha. We shall proceed to give a translation of this short sermon, and so leave the matter in the hands of the student.

The Avalambana Sûtra.
Thus have I heard. Buddha at one time was residing in the country of Šrâvasti, in the garden of Jeta the friend of the orphans.

At this time Mugalan having begun to acquire the six supernatural powers (irrdhi), desiring above all things, from a motive of piety, to deliver his father and mother, forthwith called into use his power of supernatural sight,

and looking throughout the world he beheld his unhappy mother existing without food or drink in the world of Prêtas (hungry ghosts) nothing but skin and bone.

Mugalan, moved with filial pity, immediatety presented to her his alms-bowl filled with rice.

His mother, then taking the bowl in her left hand, endeavoured with her right to convey the rice to her mouth, but before it came near to her lips, lo! the rice was converted into fiery ashes, so that she could not eat thereof.

At the sight of this, Mugalan uttered a piteous cry, and wept many tears as he bent his way to the place where Buddha was located. Arrived there, he explained what had happened, and awaited Buddha's instruction.

On this the master opened his mouth, and said, "The sin which binds your mother to this unhappy fate is a very grievous one; from it you can never by your own strength rescue her, no!

nor yet all the powers of earth or heaven, men or divine beings: not all these are equal to the task of deliverance. But by assembling the priests of the ten quarters, through their spiritual energy deliverance may be had.

I will now recount to you the method of rescue from this and all similar calamities."

Then Buddha continued:--"On the 15th day of the 7th month the priests of the ten quarters being gathered together ought to present an offering for the rescue of ancestors during seven generations past,

as well as those of the present generation, every kind of choice food and drink, as well as sleeping materials and beds.

These should be offered up by the assembled priesthood as though the ancestors themselves were present, by which they shall obtain deliverance from the pains, and be born at once in a condition of happiness in Heaven."

And, moreover, the World-honoured One taught his followers certain words to be repeated at the offering of the sacrifices, by which the virtue thereof would be certainly secured.

On this Mugalan with joy accepted the instruction, and by means of this institution rescued his mother from her sufferings.
And so for all future time this means of deliverance shall be effectual for the purpose designed, as year by year the offerings are presented according to the form delivered by Buddha.
Having heard these words, Mugalan and the rest departed to their several places, with joyous hearts and glad thoughts.[1]
[1. From The Oriental, Nov. 6, 1875.]