Translating Classical Buddhism to Modern English

The Long Discourses

(Skt. Dīrgha Āgama; Ch. 長阿含經)

The Chinese translation of The Long Discourses is a collection of important early Buddhist sutras that’s roughly equivalent to the Pali canon’s Dīgha Nikāya. Scholars believe from internal and other evidence that it represents a translation from the Indian Dharmaguptaka canon, which is closely related to the Pali canon in scriptural lineage. It would explain, among other things, the large amount of overlap that we see between the two collections.

Below is a list of the English translations currently available with brief synopses of their contents. Pali equivalents are listed in () and the source text is indicated in [].

DĀ 1 The Great Legend (∥ DN 14) [T 1.1b12]

A group of monks gather to discuss Dharma after their meal and discuss the Buddha’s knowledge of buddhas that have existed in the past. They wonder if he knows about them through his own knowledge or because gods tell him. The Buddha overhears their conversation and joins them, giving a lengthy discourse about six buddhas who proceeded him in the distant past. He also gives a second discourse outlining the life of the Buddha Vipaśyin, which is essentially the same as the tradition story of Gautama’s early life and awakening. Finally, the Buddha relates how the Śuddhāvāsa gods, being former disciples of buddhas, have also told him about the buddhas of the past.

DĀ 2 The Final Journey (∥ DN 16 & DN 17) [T 1.11a8]

The final teaching tour of the Buddha’s life is recounted in this sūtra. It begins with King Ajātaśatru seeking the Buddha’s advice about going to war with a neighboring republic and follows the Buddha’s travels until he fell ill and passed away near Kuśinagara. It then recounts the events leading to his funeral and the division of his remains among eight countries. This version of the Parinirvāṇa Sūtra also includes the story of the noble wheel-turning king Mahāsudarśana (DN 17).

DĀ 3 Govinda (∥ DN 19) [T 1.30b11]

A gandharva pays the Buddha a visit to relate to him some happenings in the Trāyastriṃśa Heaven, and he tells the legend of Govinda through Great Brahmā Kumāra, who told the story at a meeting of gods. Great Govinda, who left home to live the religious life with a huge entourage, is revealed to have been a past life of the Buddha.

DĀ 4 Janavṛṣabha (∥ DN 18) [T 1.34b5]

An episode from the Parinirvāṇa Sūtra (DĀ 2) is taken up in this sutra, giving more background story. Ānanda wonders why the Buddha hasn’t described the rebirths of devotees from Magadha who’ve passed away, especially the late King Bimbisāra. He urges the Buddha to do so. Afterward, the Buddha encounters a yakṣa spirit named Janavṛṣabha who claims to be have been a former disciple and a king. He tells the Buddha a series of stories about the gods, which the Buddha recounts to Ānanda later.

DĀ 5 Smaller Teaching on Origination (∥ DN 27) [T 1.36b29]

Two priests who converted to the Buddha’s teaching pay him a visit and detail the verbal abuse they’d endured from the other priests. The Buddha agrees that the priests as quite arrogant, then gives the two a teaching on the dependent origination of human civilization and the four castes of ancient India.

DĀ 6 The Noble Wheel-Turning King’s Cultivation (∥ DN 26) [T 1.39a22]

The Buddha tells the monks to light themselves with the Dharma and make it their refuge. He then relates an elaborate story describing the way the noble wheel-turning kings cultivate the correct teaching that allows them to conquer the world peacefully and maintain that peace in the way they rule. When that teaching is lost, the world descends into immorality and barbarism because the wheel-turning kings forget how to rule properly. After a cycle ending in a genocidal war, people reverse course and rediscover morality and civilization. The story ends with a brief description of the Buddha Maitreya arising. All of this is then revealed as a metaphor for a monk’s spiritual cultivation, which conquers Mara.

DĀ 7 Padāśva (∥ DN 23) [T 1.42b25]

The Buddha’s disciple Kaumāra (or Kumāra) Kāśyapa has an encounter with an unusual priest who holds nihilistic views and engages him in a colorful debate consisting of dueling stories. The priest at the end reveals that he was only testing Kāśyapa and becomes a layman. He assigns a subordinate to arrange for a large donation to the Saṃgha, but gets a dressing down by both Kāśyapa and his subordinate about relying on the merit of alms while still living an immoral life or giving low quality gifts. This sutra is unusual in admitting that it takes place after the Buddha’s Nirvāṇa and lacks the traditional “Thus I have heard” introduction.

DĀ 8 Sandhāna (∥ DN 25) [T 1.47a18]

The layman Sandhāna decides to visit the non-Buddhist wanderers at a nearby grove before paying a visit to the Buddha and asks them why they are so noisy and talk about non-spiritual topics. When their leader insults the Buddha, the Buddha overhears it with his heavenly ear and decides to intervene. He gives the wanderers an talk on the good and bad of their various ascetic practices. When they are about to be converted, Māra intervenes to prevent it.

DĀ 9 The Gathered Saṅgha (∥ DN 33) [T 1.49b27]

On a full moon day, the Saṅgha gathers around the Buddha after he tours the land of the Mallas and stops at a grove near Pāvā. He teaches this large gathering well into the night until he’s forced to retire because of a backache. The audience hasn’t become sleepy, though, so he asks Śāriputra to continue teaching them and lies down nearby. Śāriputra proceeds to recite a long collection of the Buddha’s teachings in numerical order.

DĀ 10 Going Up to Ten (∥ DN 34) [T 1.52c18]

In a similar vein to the previous sutra, the Buddha grows tired after teaching a large assembly of monks well into the night and asks Śāriputra to continue in his stead while he takes a break. What follows is a structured mātṛkā sutra that lists groups of teachings from one to ten items in ascending order. For each numerical group of lists, a set of ten questions are asked, for which the list is an answer.

DĀ 11 Increasing One by One [T 1.57b25]

This mātṛkā sutra is an abbreviated version of the Going Up to Ten Sutra (Skt. Daśottara, P. Dasuttara), listing five sets of items (instead of ten) that number from one to ten items each.

DĀ 12 Three Categories [T 1.59b14]

This is another mātṛkā sutra that lists three sets of items that ascend from one to ten items each. The three categories are things that lead to bad destinies, things that lead to good destinies, and things that lead to Nirvāṇa.

DĀ 13 The Great Method of Conditionality (∥ DN 15) [T 1.60a29]

Ānanda has an epiphany about the profundity of the Buddha’s teaching of dependent origination and asks the Buddha about it. The Buddha gives him a lengthy discourse that covers the classic chain of twelve dependent originations and also three other chains of dependent origination. Liberation by wisdom and in both ways is also discussed using the topics of views about self, the abodes of consciousness, and the eight liberations.

DĀ 14 Questions Asked by Śakra the Lord of Gods (∥ DN 21) [T 1.62b29]

The lord of the Trāyastriṃśa Heaven decides to pay a visit to the Buddha. He sends a gandharva named Pañcaśikha ahead of his host of gods to greet the Buddha and play music as an offering. After reminiscing about past memories, Śakra asks the Buddha a series of questions about the path to cessation and resolves to become a once-returner. This sutra has the distinction of including a love song sung by a gandharva with a crush on a goddess.

DĀ 15 Anomiya (∥ DN 24) [T 1.66a10]

At Anomiya (P. Anupiya), the Buddha decides to pay a visit to a wanderer, who tells him about an encounter he had with a former Buddhist monk. The Buddha recounts for him a number of stories about that monk, explaining his stubborn unwillingness to trust the Buddha’s instruction. The sutra develops from there into a dramatic comedy, culminating in a story of a wanderer who challenges the Buddha to a duel of miracle-working but can’t seem to show up for the event. At the end, the Buddha addresses a series of wrong views held by non-Buddhists about the origin of the world and sentient beings.

DĀ 16 Sujata (∥ DN 31) [T 1.70a20]

While heading into Rājagṛha to solicit alms, the Buddha encounters a man named Sujata performing a ritual of bowing to six different directions. He stops and asks him why he’s doing this, and the man explains that his father had asked him to do it from his deathbed. The Buddha proceeds to give him a teaching that uses the six directions to represent various relationships that a householder has in life, which amounts to a detailed outline of ethics for a lay person centered on reciprocal relationships.

DĀ 17 Purification (∥ DN 29) [T 1.72c13]

While staying at a town near Kapilavastu, a novice monk brings news to the Buddha about the death of the founder of the Jain ascetics and the schism among his disciples. The Buddha gives the monk a discourse on the conditions that lead to the success and failure of religious teachings and the difficulties disciples have after founders pass away. This leads to a general criticism of the unreasonable beliefs of other ascetic traditions and a summary of how such pitfalls are avoided by the Buddha’s teaching.

DĀ 18 Personal Gladness (∥ DN 28) [T 1.76b24]

While in contemplation, Śāriputra realizes that no other ascetic or priest has ever or will ever surpass the Buddha’s teaching. When he tells the Buddha about this, the Buddha questions him about how he knows this. Śāriputra gives the Buddha a long list of reasons he can surmise that the Buddha’s teaching is the best, which serves as a summary of the Dharma.

DĀ 19 The Great Congregation (∥ DN 20) [T 1.79b2]

This sūtra depicts an occasion when a large gathering of gods and spirits came to hear the Buddha teach and see the assembly of monks. As such, it appears to represent a who’s who of Buddhist mythology. This version of the sutra contains verses parallel to passages in both DN 20 and DN 32, suggesting that there was an older source for all of these related texts.

DĀ 20 Ambāṣṭha (∥ DN 3) [T 1.82a7]

A priest hears about the arrival of the Buddha near his town and sends a pupil to investigate whether he truly has the thirty-two signs of a great man. The pupil is arrogant towards the Buddha, who humbles him with a story about his family’s humble background. He then lays out a full description of the gradual path to awakening.

DĀ 21 Brahmā’s Shaking (∥ DN 1) [T 1.88b13]

A pair of ascetics disagree in their assessment of the Buddha, one praising him while the other criticizes him. When the Buddha overhears the monks discussing this, he joins them and gives them a teaching on why they shouldn’t react to criticism or praise. In the process, he outlines 62 wrong views that non-Buddhists create when they speculate about the past and future.

DĀ 22 Śroṇatāṇḍya (∥ DN 4) [T 1.94a18]

When the people of Campā hear that the Buddha and his disciples have arrived, they all decide to go and pay their respects to him. The local lord, a priest named Śroṇatāṇḍya decided to go with them. After a debate with a group of priests over the wisdom of doing this, Śroṇatāṇḍya talks with the Buddha, who questions him about which qualities are essential to being a priest. They agree that precepts and wisdom are essential to being a priest or a monk.

DĀ 23 Kūṭatāṇḍya (∥ DN 5) [T 1.96c17]

In a similar story as the previous sutra, the Buddha’s arrives at a town whose lord was a priest named Kūṭatāṇḍya inspires. As with Śroṇatāṇḍya, a group of priests argue that it’s beneath Kūṭatāṇḍya to visit the Buddha. However, Kūṭatāṇḍya was planning a large sacrifice but was unsure how to proceed. He decides to ask the Buddha, who tells him a story of his previous birth as a warrior king who arranged a similar sacrifice. Kūṭatāṇḍya convert to the Buddha’s teaching and attains Nirvāṇa.

DĀ 24 Dhruva (∥ DN 11) [T 1.101b15]

A layman named Dhruva encourages the Buddha to instruct the monks to impress people with displays of miraculous abilities, but the Buddha demurs, saying that it would be unwise. He then tells Dhruva the story of Asvajit’s search throughout the heavens for a god who knows how to cease the four elements of the body forever. Failing to find any answers, he returns to the Buddha, who likens him to a mariner’s bird used to spot land when out to sea. Asvajit gets his answer in the form of a pair of famous verses.

DĀ 25 The Naked Wanderer (∥ DN 8) [T 1.102c25]

A Non-Buddhist wandering ascetic from the Kāśyapa clan pays the Buddha a visit and asks about the allegation that the Buddha had denounced all the traditional practices of self-mortification and those who practiced them. The Buddha gives him a teaching about the difference between his method and that of self-mortifying ascetics.

DĀ 26 Knowledge of the Three Vedas (∥ DN 13) [T 1.104c17]

A pair of priests have an argument about which of their teachers has the correct teaching that’s the way to Brahmā’s Heaven. They decide to get the Buddha’s opinion on the matter. He explains why priests who study the three Vedas aren’t able to achieve this goal, then teaches them the practice of the four immeasurables (also known as the four abodes of Brahmā).

DĀ 27 The Fruits of the Ascetics (∥ DN 2) [T 1.107a20]

King Ajātaśatru decides to visit the Buddha on an auspicious full moon night with his brother Jīvaka. He asks the Buddha what the fruits of the ascetic life are in the present and relates the various responses he received from the six heretical teachers.

DĀ 28 [Poṭṭhapāda] (∥ DN 9) [T 1.109c23]

The Buddha sets out early one morning to solicit alms and decides to visit a grove where wanderers stayed to visit [Poṭṭhapāda]. When he arrives, the wanderer tells him about the kinds of philosophical controversies that the wanderers and priests had recently about the nature of perception. The Buddha gives him a practical explanation using meditative attainments. On another occasion, Poṭṭhapāda and Hasthika visit the Buddha and report the reaction the other wanderers had to the Buddha’s teaching. Further discussion leads both wanderers to convert to the Buddha, and Poṭṭhapāda becomes an arhat.

DĀ 29 Lohitya (∥ DN 12) [T 1.112c20]

A priestly lord named Lohitya hears that the famous mendicant teacher Gautama has stopped nearby. He decides to meet the Buddha, so he invites him to share a meal at his residence. When the Buddha gives him an unrequested Dharma teaching, however, Lothitya is offended and forms a wrong view that religious teachers shouldn’t teach others for their own gain.

DĀ 30 Description of the World [T 1.114b8]

This sutra is an early version of a cosmological text very similar to one that was incorporated into the Sarvāstivāda Abhidharma and translated to Tibetan and Pali later in history. It circulated as a sutra before this, judging by the four Chinese translations that still exist (including this one). It collects Buddhist mythology about geography, sentient beings, heaven and hell, catastrophes, and the cycle of creation and destruction. Below is a list of its chapters.