Maha Prajnaparamita Sastra

by Gelongma Karma Migme Chödrön | 2001 | 940,961 words

This page describes “seven steps of the buddha and the doctrine of the pure lands” as written by Nagarjuna in his Maha-prajnaparamita-sastra (lit. “the treatise on the great virtue of wisdom”) in the 2nd century. This book, written in five volumes, represents an encyclopedia on Buddhism as well as a commentary on the Pancavimsatisahasrika Prajnaparamita.

Appendix 1 - The seven steps of the Buddha and the doctrine of the pure lands

Mus, Barabudur, p. 475–576, has a study on the ‘seven steps of the Buddha and the doctrine of the pure lands’ in which, with his usual skill, he attempts to untangle the symbolism of this legendary act. I [Lamotte] add some information drawn from the Chinese sources. In sequence, the Nikāya-āgamas, the Vinayas and finally the Lives of the Buddha are examined in turn.

1) Majjima, III, p. 123: Sampatijāto, Ānanda, bodhisatto … dāni punabbhavo ti. – Tr.: As soon as he was born, the Bodhisattva, placing his feet flat upon the earth, turned to the north, took seven strides (double steps), and with a white parasol behind him, pronounced: “I am the foremost in the world, I am the best in the world, I am the eldest in the world; this is my last birth; there will be no further need for a new existence for me.”

2) In Dīgha, II, p. 15, the same actions and the same words are attributed to all future Buddhas. By contrast, the corresponding passages of the Chinese Āgamas show significant differences.

3) Tchong a han, T 26 (no. 32), k. 8, p. 470b: I have heard it said that the Bhagavat, at the moment of his birth, took seven steps without any fear, terror or dread.

4) Tch’ang a han, T 1 (no. 1), k. 1, p. 4b–c: The Bodhisattva Vipaśyin, at birth, came out of his mother’s right side with untroubled mind. Having come out of her right side, he came down to the ground and took seven steps, without the support of anyone. He looked around in the four directions, raised his hand and said: “Alone, I am the eldest (jyeṣṭha) in heaven and on earth. I will enable beings to pass beyond birth (jāti), old age (jāra), sickness (vyādhi) and death (maraṇa).”

– ‘To pass beyond’ here means ‘to escape from’, ‘to save from’.

In the Vinayas, we include not only the Mūlasarvāstivāsdin Vinaya but also the Mahāvastu which appears to be the Vinaya of the Mahāsāṃghika Lokottaravada.

5) Ken pen chouo…p’o seng che, T 1450, k. 2, p. 108a: According to the usual rule, after his birth, the Bodhisattva stood on the earth and without anyone’s support, took seven steps. Gazing in the four directions, he spoke these words: “I am the first (agra) of all beings; this is the southern region: I am worthy of the offerings (pūjā) of beings; this is the region of the east: I am one of the elect (niyata); I will undergo no rebirth (punarbhava): this is the region of the north: I have now left the great ocean of saṃsāra.” – Cf. Rockhill, Life, p. 16.

6) Mahāvastu, II, p. 20: Bodhisattvo smṛto … sapta padāni kramati | jātammatro ca … ca ūhati ||

Tr.: The Bodhisattva, aware and thoughtful, without hurting his mother, appeared from her right side. Weary of abiding within his mother’s womb, he took seven steps. As soon as he was born, he took seven steps on the earth, looked in the directions and uttered a great laugh.

7) Two biographies of the Buddha, the Sieou hing pen k’i king, T 184, k. 1, p. 463, translated in 207 by Ta li, and the T’ai tseu jouei ying pen k’i king, T 185, k. 1, p. 473c, translated between 222–229 by Tche k’ien, tell the birth of the Buddha in almost the same words: He is born from the right side and comes down to the earth. He takes seven steps and, raising his hand, says: “I am the eldest in heaven and on earth. The threefold world (traidhātuka) is completely suffering. I will pacify it.”

By contrast, the various recensions of the Lalitavistara show notable differences. The oldest, that of Dharmarakṣa (T 186) dates from 308, the most recent, that of Divākara (T187) dates from 683 and is closest to the Sanskrit text.

8) P’ou yao king, T 186, k. 2, p. 494a: Then the Bodhisattva was born from the right side and at once came to life on a precious lotus (ratnapadma). He came down to earth and took seven steps. Making the sounds of Brahmā (brahmasvara) heard, he spoke in an extraordinary tone: “I will save heaven and earth. I am the eldest (jyeṣṭha) of gods and men. I will bring the sufferings of saṃsāra to an end. Without superior (anuttara) in the threefold world, I will bring the everlasting peace of the Unconditioned (asaṃskṛta = nirvāṇa) to all beings.”

9) Fang kouang ta tchouang yen king, T 187, k. 3, p. 553 compared with the Sanskrit text of the Lalitavistara, p. 84 (tr. Foucault, p. 78): At the end of ten months, the Bodhisattva came out of his mother’s right side, aware and thoughtful, without any stain from his mother’s womb. He looked at the universe and saw no-one like himself.

Sanskrit text: Atha tasmin samaye … bhaviṣyāmi sarvasattvānām.

T 187: Then the Bodhisattva, endowed with awareness, judgment and right mind, without support, took seven steps to the north by himself. Beneath his feet, lotuses sprang up. Then the Bodhisattva, fearless and without terror, spoke these words: “I have obtained all the good dharmas. I will preach them to beings.” Then facing the south, he took seven steps and said: “I am worthy of receiving the offerings of gods and men.” Then facing the west, he took seven steps and said: “I am the eldest in the world, I am the best. This is my last birth. I will put an end to birth and old age, to sickness and death.” Then facing the north, he took seven steps and said: “Among all beings, I will be without superior.” Then facing the lower regions, he took seven steps and said: “I will triumph over the hordes of Māra and, in order to destroy the sufferings of the hells, fire, etc., I will send the great cloud of the Dharma, I will make the great rain of the Dharma to fall, and thus beings will enjoy complete happiness.” Then facing the higher regions, he took seven steps and said: “I will be visible to all beings.”

10) Yi tch’ou p’ou sa pen k’i king, T 188, p. 618a: The prince was born on the eighth day of the fourth month at midnight. He came out of his mother’s right side and came down to earth. He took seven steps, his feet, four inches above the ground, did not tread upon the earth. Raising his right hand, he said: “I am the eldest in heaven and on earth; no-one can surpass me.”

11) Kouo k’iu hien tsai yin kouo king, T 189, k. 1, p. 627a: The royal prince was born from the right side, came down onto a lotus made of the seven jewels (saptaratnapadma) and took seven steps. Raising his right hand, he uttered the lion’s roar (siṃhanāda): “Among gods and men, I am the eldest, the best (śreṣṭha). Endless transmigration is henceforth ended [for me]. My [last] existence will be of use to all, gods and men.”

12) Fo pen hing tsi king T 190, k. 8, p. 687b: After his birth and without the support of anyone, the Bodhisattva took seven steps in each of the four directions. At each step, under his feet there arose a great lotus. When he had taken these seven steps, he looked in the four directions: his eyes did not blink, his mouth uttered words. First looking in the east, he expressed himself in a way completely unlike that of a child, in correct language based on regular stanzas: “In the world, I am the conqueror par excellence. From today on, my births are ended.” – Beal, Romantic Legend, p. 44.

13) Buddhacarita, I, v. 14–15: anākulānyubjasamudgatāni niṣpeṣavad … bhayārthakarīm uvāca ||

Tr. Johnston, p. 4: He who was like the constellation of the Seven Stars walked seven steps with such firmness that his feet were lifted up unwavering and straight, and the strides were long and set down firmly. And looking to the four quarters with the bearing of a lion, he uttered a speech proclaiming the truth: “I am born for enlightenment for the good of the world; this is my last birth in the world of phenomena”. – Cf. Fo so hing tsan, T 192, k. 1. p. 1b.

14) The legend of Aśoka relates the birth of the Bodhisattva quite briefly: cf. Divyāvadāna, p. 389: jātamātreka sa muniḥ … garbhāvāsaś ca paścimaḥ || Tr.: As soon as he was born, he took seven steps on the earth, looked in the four directions and uttered this speech: “This is my last birth and my last sojourn in the womb.” The identical passage in A yu wang tchouan, T 2042, k. 1, p. 103a; A yu wang king, T 2043, k. 2. p. 136c–137a. Cf. Przyluski, Aśoka, p. 251.

Later in appearance, the portion of the legend of Aśoka incorporated in the Chinese Saṃyuktāgama, Tsa a han, T 99 (no. 604), k. 23, p. 166b–c: The Tathāgata was born here. At his birth, he took seven steps. Looking in the four directions, he raised his hand and pointed to the sky: “This is my last existence. I will obtain the unexcelled path. Among gods and men, I am without superior and the eldest.”

15) The Nidānakathā, p. 53, follows the canonical version: Evaṃ catasso disā … nicchārento sīhanādaṃ nadi.

16) References to the more recent sources in Kern, Manual, p. 13–14.

Examination of these sources makes it clear that the Buddha’s first words are intimately linked to the walk of seven steps and the examination of the cardinal directions. The group constitutes a legendary theme the symbolism of which, I [Lamotte] am afraid, is closed to us, but the successive transformations of which may be seen at a glance.

The Bodhisattva took seven steps in one single direction, probably the north, (no. 1–4, 6–8), or in four directions (no. 5), or in six (no. 9), or in ten (no. 15). – He took these steps with his feet set flat on the ground (no. 1–8, 13–15), or resting on a lotus (no. 9, 11, 12), or raised above the ground to a height of four inches (no. 10). According to whether he directed himself in one or several directions, the Bodhisattva made a single declaration (no. 1–4, 7–8, 10–15), or four (no. 5), or six (no. 9). In only one text, he was content with laughing (no. 6). – The meaning of these words varies considerably: sometimes he proclaims himself to be the foremost in the world, the conqueror of transmigration (no. 1, 2, 5, 10, 12–15), sometimes he presents himself as the savior of the world (no. 7), sometimes he calls himself both master and savior at the same time (no. 8, 9, 11). These variations are very likely to be attributed to the influence of the schools, rationalist sects (Sthavira, Sarvāstivādin) on the one hand, suprarationalist (Mahāsāṃgika, Mahāyāna) on the other hand. But the representative moments have likewise had a repercussion on the settling of the legend of the Buddha. Cf. Foucher, Art Gréco-bouddhique, I, p. 305–308.