Maha Prajnaparamita Sastra

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

This page describes “notes on the buddha’s omniscience (sarvajnata)” 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 2 - Notes on the Buddha’s omniscience (sarvajñatā)

The question of the Buddha’s omniscience (sarvajñatā) is quite complex. At the time of the Buddha, some individuals claimed to know everything, to understand everything, to have nothing further to know or to understand. They said:

“Whether I walk or stand still, whether I sleep or am awake, I have always knowledge and awareness at my disposition” (sabbaññū sabbadassāvīpaccupaṭṭhitan ti).

Such were, e.g., the claims of Nigaṇṭha Nāthaputta, Pūraṇa Kassapa, etc. (Majjhima, I, p. 92; II, p. 31; Aṅguttara, IV, p. 428). The Buddha is more modest: “Those who affirm”, he says to Vacchagotta,

“that the monk Gotama is omniscient (sabbaññū), clairvoyant (sabbadassāvī), do not speak the truth about me… They would be correct to say that the monk Gotama possesses the three knowledges” (tevijjo samano Gotamo).

These three knowledges are the knowledge of past existences, the knowledge of the death and birth of beings and the knowledge of the destruction of the impurities (Majjhima, I, p. 482).

The Sarvāstivādin-Vaibhāṣika doctrine is based on the canonical line. The Mahāniddesa, p. 178–178, says that the Buddha is omniscient, not by virtue of his knowing everything but by virtue of the fact that he is able to know whatever he wishes. Describing the perfection of wisdom belonging to the Buddha, Koṣa, VII, p. 832, identifies a fourfold knowledge: 1) untaught knowledge (anupadiṣṭa jñāna), 2) universal knowledge (sarvatra jñāna), i.e., knowledge of all natures, 3) omniform knowledge (sarvathā jñāna), i.e., knowledge of every way of being, 4) spontaneous knowledge (ayatnajñāna) knowledge by the simple wish to know.

On the other hand, the Greater Vehicle attributes to the Buddha pure and simple omniscience. The Mppś asserts below, k. 2, p. 74c, that the Buddha knows all the sciences and that, if he does not teach them, it is because nobody asks him. The explanatory literature on the Prajñās, such as the Abhisamayālaṃkāra, p. 1–2, and its commentary, the Āloka, p. 5, attribute a threefold knowledge to the Buddha: 1) sarvākārajñatā. omniscience peculiar to the Buddha, ultimate and direct knowledge in one singlr moment of all aspects of existence, absolute and empirical; 2) mārgajñatā, omniscience relating to the paths of salvation, Hīnayāna and Mahāyāna; it belongs to the Buddha and the bodhisattvas on the bhūmis; 3) sarvajñatā, omniscience relating to things of the empirical world; it represents the knowledge of all the elements from the non-ego point of view; it belongs to the Buddhas and bodhisattvas and is accessible to the Hīnayāna saints. (cf. E. Obermiller, Doctrine of PP, p. 62; Analysis, 3–6).

The Bodh. bhūmi, p. 404–405, defines the sarvākārajñāna, the omniform knowledge, as follows: tatra yat tathāgatasyānarthopasaṃhiteṣu…ity ucyate. The sarvākārajñatā allows the Buddha to cut through the doubts of all beings. – This comes from a stanza of the Mahāyānasūtrālaṃkāra, XXI, 58, p. 188.

tribhiḥ kāyair…namo ’stu te ||

“By means of the trikāya thou hast attained the great omniform enlightenment. Thou cuttest through the doubts of all beings! Homage to thee!”

This stanza is repeated and commented upon in the Saṃgraha, p. 303; the commentary proposes four interpretations of the epithet sarvākāra applied to the Buddha’s knowledge; it concludes by saying:

“As for myself, I see the suppression of all obstacles (sarvāvaraṇaprahāṇa) in this omniform knowledge: it cuts through all the obstacles to knowledge (jñeyāvaraṇa) and suppresses all the impregnations (vāsanā). It is a precise knowledge bearing on all the doubts of others.”

– The question of omniscience is linked with that of knowledge which, in turn, has some complications; see J. Rahder in Hôbôgirin, Chi, p. 283–297.