The Sutra of Queen Śrīmālā of the Lion’s Roar

15,590 words

The Sutra of Queen Śrīmālā of the Lion’s Roar (Śrīmālādevī Siṃhanāda Sūtra) is a Mahayana text no longer extant in Sanskrit but preserved in both the Chinese and Tibetan Buddhist canons. It teaches the doctrines of Tathāgatagarbha and the One Vehicle (Skt. ekayāna), through the words of the Indian queen Śrīmālā....

Translator’s Introduction

The Sutra of Queen Śrīmālā of the Lion’s Roar (Śrmālādevīsiṃhanāda-sūtra) is a Mahayana text no longer extant in Sanskrit but preserved in both the Chinese and Tibetan Buddhist canons. This text is a unique development within the Buddhist tradition because of its egalitarian and generous view concerning women, portraying, on the one hand, the dignity and wisdom of a laywoman and her concern for all beings, and, on the other, the role of woman as philosopher and teacher. The major philosophical emphases of the text are the theories of the “womb of the Buddha” (tathāgatagarbha) and the One Vehicle (ekayāna).

Because of the number of citations and references that are retained in Sanskrit Buddhist texts, the Śrmālādevīsiṃhanāda-sūtra seems to have been widely circulated at one time throughout India. The Chinese Buddhist canon has preserved two versions of the text: an earlier translation by Guṇabhadra (394-468), from which this English translation has been made, and a later translation by Bodhiruci (672-727).

The story of Queen Śrīmālā has a simple and beautiful theme, full of lush imagery and metaphors. The bodhisattva is the essential agent through whom living beings are instructed in the profound teaching of the tathāgatagarbha (“womb of the Buddha”). A future buddha who is still embracing the teachings and instructing others, Queen Śrīmālā becomes a bodhisattva who explains the doctrine of the tathāgatagarbha in the presence of the Buddha, after her parents send her a letter requesting that she study the teaching (Dharma). Awakening to the thought of enlightenment (bodhicitta), meditating upon the Buddha, she visualizes him and expresses the wish to follow the bodhisattva path. Receiving the prediction of her future buddhahood from the Buddha, she enters the path of the True Dharma and thus begins her bodhisattva practice.

Queen Śrīmālā, who had the “lion’s roar”—or eloquence—of a buddha, first converts the women of her kingdom, then her husband, a non-Buddhist, and finally the men. Śrīmālā is praised for her intelligence and compassion, not for her beauty or wealth, which are implicit. She is proficient in explaining the Dharma and is charismatic, as are all the bodhisattvas throughout Buddhist literature. Queen Śrīmālā describes the True Dharma using four metaphors:

  1. the great cloud, which is the source of all good merits pouring forth on living beings;
  2. the great waters, which are the source for creating all good meritorious acts;
  3. the great earth, which carries all things just as the True Dharma supports all living things;
  4. and the four jewel storehouses, which are the four types of instructions that living beings accept and embrace.

The text raises the question of the possibility of female buddhas. This question had continually vexed Buddhist scholars and commentators, who attempted to come to terms with the possibility of a relationship between the notion of the ultimate spiritual perfection or buddhahood and the feminine. Such a relationship was viewed with ambivalence. This question was raised only by Mahayana Buddhists, particularly those who proclaimed the one path to universal buddha-hood. For these Buddhists, all men and women equally had the nature of the Buddha. If women were truly capable of having buddha-nature in this lifetime without denying their female gender, this would implicitly indicate that women were not biologically determined as religiously, psychologically, and physically inferior to men.

One popular theme in Mahayana Buddhist texts had been the teaching of transformation from female to male, providing a means, both literary and spiritual, for women to become bodhisattvas and buddhas. Other texts and commentaries suggest that there is no need to undergo a gender change through either vowing to despise the female nature or through rebirth as a male after death as a female.

The controversy that arose among scholars concerning Queen Śrīmālā’s level of spiritual attainment may reflect continual controversy among Buddhists with regard to the bodhisattva ideal and the image of buddhahood as female.

The entire tone of the text, in which the bodhisattva is the supporter, acceptor, and compassionate Dharma mother, suggests female imagery. The question of whether or not women were ever recognized as potential or imminent buddhas remains unanswered.



A comprehensive text that teaches the skillful means
of the One Vehicle. Translated from the Sanskrit by the
Central Indian Tripiṭaka Master Guṇabhadra in 435 C.E.

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