The Sutra of Forty-two Chapters (also called the Sutra of Forty-two Sections, Chinese: 四十二章經) is the earliest surviving Buddhist sutra translated into Chinese. It was translated by two ordained Yuezhi monks, Kasyapa-Matanga (迦葉摩騰) and Dharmaraksha (also called Gobharana, 竺法蘭), in 67 CE. Because of its early date, it is regarded as "the First Sutra" or first formula, and is accorded a very significant status.[1]

Story of translation

In the Book of Later Han history, Emperor Ming of Han was said to have dreamed of a "golden man," which his advisors connected with the Buddha. Because of his dream and a thousand-year-old prediction from the Book of Zhou, the emperor ordered a delegation to go west looking for the Buddha's teachings, which encountered Kasyapa-Matanga and Dharmaraksha in ancient Bharatam India, who they brought back to China as well as many sutras and relics from the Buddha, reportedly on the back of a white horse. When they reached the Chinese capital of Luoyang, the emperor had the White Horse Temple built for them.

They translated six texts, the Sutra of Dharmic-Sea Repertory (法海藏經), Sutra of the Buddha's Deeds in His Reincarnations (佛本行經), Sutra of Terminating Knots in the Ten Holy Terras (十地斷結經), Sutra of the Buddha's Reincarnated Manifestations (佛本生經), Compilation of the Divergent Versions of the Two Hundred and Sixty Precepts (二百六十戒合異), and the Sutra of Forty-two Chapters. Only the last one has survived.[2]

Structure and comparison with other works

The Sutra of Forty-two Chapters consists of a brief prologue and 42 short chapters (mostly under 100 Chinese characters), composed largely of quotations from the Buddha. Most chapters begin "The Buddha said..." (佛言...), but several provide the context of a situation or a question asked of the Buddha.

It is unclear whether the sutra existed in Sanskrit in this form, or was a compilation of a series of passages extracted from other canonical works in the manner of the Analects of Confucius. This latter hypothesis also explains the similarity of the repeated "The Buddha said..." and "The Master said," familiar from Confucian texts, and may have been the most natural inclination of the Buddhist translators in the Confucian environment, and more likely to be accepted than a lengthy treatise.[3] Among those who consider it based on a corresponding Sanskrit work, it is in style considered to be older than other Mahayana Sutras, because of its simplicity of style and naturalness of method.[4]

The similarity of the Buddha described in the text with the Eight Immortals of Chinese legend, in terms of longevity and supernatural abilities, is perhaps to make the religion more familiar to Taoists.[5]

Popular Fiction

In Jin Yong's The Deer and the Cauldron, the Sutra of Forty-two Chapters is rumoured to be the key to the Manchu's treasures and is sought after by many Wulin pugilists. The novel's main protagonist, Wei Xiaobao, manages to get hold of all the eight books at the end of the novel.


  1. Kuan, 12.
  2. Kuan, 19-24.
  3. Soyen Shaku. "The Sutra of Forty Chapters". Zen for Americans. Retrieved 2007-03-21. , in footnotes
  4. Reverend S. Beal (1862). "The Sutra of Forty-two Sections". Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society. Retrieved 2007-03-21. 
  5. Jiahe Liu and Dongfang Shao (1992). "Early Buddhism and Taoism in China (A.D. 65-420)". Buddhist-Christian Studies, Vol. 12. pp. 35–41. Retrieved 2007-03-21. 


  • Cheng Kuan, tr. and annotater. The Sutra of Forty-two Chapters Divulged by the Buddha: An Annotated Edition. Taipei and Howell, MI: Vairocana Publishing Co., 2005.

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