The Soapberry Sutra
Spoken by the Buddha
This short and easy-to-understand sutra is believed to be one of the earliest canonical sources where the Buddha made a direct reference to the use of the rosary beads (or mala) as a physical aid to the practice of seeking refuge and maintaining mindfulness in the Three Jewels.
Thus I have heard: At one time, the Buddha was travelling through Rajagriha, and came to Vulture Peak Mountain, together with a great assembly of bhiksus, one thousand two hundred and twenty-five individuals in total, and uncountable bodhisattvas whose fame spread far and wide, well-respected by devas and humans. At that time, a troubled king, whose name was Vaidurya, sent his messenger to the abode of the Buddha. He prostrated at the Buddha’s feet, and relayed this message to the Buddha, “Blessed One! The borders of my country are small, frequently plundered by bandits over the years, the five kinds of grains are scarce and expensive, and infectious diseases circulate, oppressing my people with much suffering. I have never been able to sleep in peace. The Dharma treasury of the Tathagatha is profound and vast, but as I am burdened by worrisome duties, I am unable to practise. May the Blessed One specially regard me with loving-kindness, and grant me the essential Dharma that is easy to cultivate whether in the daytime or at night, so that I can be separated from the masses of suffering in the future.”
The Buddha said to the king, “If you wish to extinguish the obstacles of afflictions, and the obstacles of karmic fruition, you should string together one hundred and eight beads of soapberry, and keep it with you at all times. Whether walking, sitting or reclining, always maintain a focused mind, without dissipating your attention elsewhere, and call upon the names of the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha while counting one soapberry bead. You count the soapberry beads consecutively in this way, up to ten times, twenty times, a hundred times, a thousand times or even until one billion times. If you are able to complete two hundred thousand times, without distraction in body and mind, and without any sense of hypocrisy, at the end of your life, you will be born in the third heaven (of the desire realm) called Yama, where food and garments come naturally, and where there is always peace and bliss. Moreover, if you are able to complete one million times, you will cut through the one hundred and eight types of afflictions, and begin to turn away from the stream of samsara, and head towards nirvana. By permanently cutting through the root of afflictions, you shall attain the highest fruition.”
The messenger relayed this message to the king, and he was greatly overjoyed. Turning towards the direction of the Blessed One, he bowed his head to the Buddha from afar, and said, “What virtue! I shall obey it!” Then, he ordered his minor officials to produce one thousand sets of soapberry rosary, and distributed one set to each of the six relations of the royal household. The king was constant in his recitation and mindfulness, and though he might be personally involved in military expeditions, he did not forsake his practice.
The king thought, “The Blessed One with his great kindness responds to everyone. If the goodness that I have fostered will indeed help me to avert the long-lasting sea of suffering, may the Tathagatha appear before me to speak the Dharma.” Overwhelmed by this joyful aspiration, he did not eat for three days. The Buddha manifested himself, together with his retinue. Coming into the palace, he said to the king, “Previously the bhiksu Shadou recited the names of the Three Jewels for ten years, and attained the fruition of sakadagami (once-returner). By gradually progressing in his practice, he has become a pratyekabuddha (solitary realiser) in the world called Universal Fragrance.” Upon hearing this, the king doubled up in his practice. The Buddha said to Ananda, “What more so if someone could recite the names of the Three Jewels for multiples of ten thousand times? Even to merely hear the name of such a person, and to generate a single thought of rejoicing brings about future rebirth in places where the ten virtues are always heard.”
When this teaching had been spoken, the great assembly was overjoyed and vowed to uphold it.