Maha Prajnaparamita Sastra

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

This page describes “spread of the prajna in the four cardinal directions” 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 3 - The spread of the Prajñā in the four cardinal directions

Quotation from the Pañcaviṃśati according to Kumārajīva’s translation, T 223, k. 13, p. 317b:

Śāriputra, after the parinirvāṇa of the Buddha, this profound Prajñāpāramitā will go to the lands in the southern region; there the bhikṣus, bhikṣuṇīs, upāsakas and upāsikās will write this profound Prajñāpāramitā; they will want to keep it, study it, think about it, teach it, meditate on it and practice it. As a result of these roots of good (kuśalamūla), they will not fall into the bad destinies (durgati) but they will enjoy the happiness of gods and men; they will make progress in the six virtues (pāramitā); they will venerate, respect and celebrate the Buddhas. Gradually, by the vehicles of the śrāvakas, pratyekabuddhas and buddhas, they will attain nirvāṇa. – Śāriputra, from the region of the south, this profound Prajñāpāramitā will go to the west; there the bhikṣus, etc. – From the region of the west, it will go to the north; there the bhikṣus, etc. – Śāriputra, at this time this profound Prajñāpāramitā will do the work of the Buddha in the region of the north.”

The same itinerary of the Prajñā, south, west, north, occurs in three versions of the Aṣṭasāhasrikā due to the Tche tch’an (T 224, k. 4, p. 446b), to Kumārajīva (T 227, k. 5, p. 555a) and to Dānapāla (T228, k. 10, p. 623b).

Some writers call upon this so-called itinerary to assign a southern origin to the Prajñā: these are mainly G. Tucci, Il Buddhismo, Foligno, 1926, p. 116; N. Dutt, Mahāyāna, p. 41, L. de La Vallée Poussin, in Siddhi, p. 752; S. Paranavitana, Mahāyānism in Ceylon, Ceylon Jour. of Science, Section G, II, 1928, p. 35; T. Matsumoto, Die P.P. Literatur, p. 31.

But if there are good reasons to think that the Mahāyānasūtras in general and the Prajñās in particular originate in the south (land of Andhra), it is doubtful that the argument can be based on the cited itinerary. Three comments actually present themselves.

Before going to the south, the Prajñāpāramitā left the east, more precisely the region of Magadha, where it had been preached by the Buddha on Gṛdhrakūtaparvata (Mppś, k. 67, p. 531b):

“The Buddha appeared in the region of the west; there he preached the Prajñāpāramitā, destroyed Māra and his people, the heretics (tīrthika), and saved innumerable beings. Following that, between two sāla trees at Kuśinagara, he entered into nirvāṇa. Then the Prajñāpāramitā went from the region of the east to the south.”

Secondly, the spread of the Prajñā in the four cardinal directions is but an allegory meant to symbolize its success. In the same place (k. 67, p. 531b), the Mppś makes this quite clear:

“Then the Prajñāpāramitā went from the region of the west to the region of the south. It is like the sun, the moon, the five stars and the twenty-eight constellations (nakṣatra) which consistently go from west to south. From the region of the south, the Prajñāpāramitā will go to the region of the west and, from the west, to the region of the north: thus it makes a circuit around Mount Sumeru. According to the usual customs of pūjā, it makes circumambulation towards the right (pradakṣiṇa) around the inhabitants of Jambudvīpa; that is why it goes from east to south and from south to west. Just as the Buddha, out of detachment (asaktachittatā), did not stay in one fixed abode, so the Prajñā does not stay definitively in one single place.”

– What is said here about the Prajñā is true in general about the Buddhadharma. The journey of the Prajñā recalls that of the wheel of king Sudarśana which, establishing the Buddhist pentalogue wherever it rolled, rolled to the east, dove into the sea, emerged, rolled to the south, to the west and to the north. Cf. Mahāsudassananasutta, Dīgha, II, p. 172–173 (tr. Rh. D., II, p. 202–203); Tch’ang a han, T 1 (no. 2), k. 3, p. 21c–22a; Tchong a han, T 26 (no. 68), k. 14, p. 515; Ta tcheng kiu wang king, T 45.

Lastly, we may note that the itinerary south-west-north is not the only one attributed to the Prajñā. Others are also mentioned in the sources:

a. South-north itinerary, in the oldest version of the Pañcaviṃśati due to Mokṣala, T 221, k. 10, p. 72a.

b. South (dakṣiṇāapatha) – east (vartani = pūrvadeśa) – north (uttarapatha) itinerary in the original Sanskrit of the Aṣṭasāhasrikā, ed. R. Mitra, p. 225. Here is this text: ime khalu punaḥ Śāriputra ṣaṭpāramitāsaṃyuktāḥ…tathāgatena buddhacakṣuṣā.

c. Itinerary of the land of the Śākya clan (Che che:165 and 13; 83) – east (Houei to ni: 73 and 9; 36 and 3; 44 and 2 = vartani) – north (Yu tan yue: 75 and 22; 30 and 9; 73 = uttaravatī), according to the version of the Aṣṭasāhasrikā due to the Tche k’ien, T 225, k. 3, p. 490a.

d. Itinerary southeast-south-southeast-northwest-north-northeast, in the latest Pañcaviṃśati and the Aṣṭasāhasrikā by Hiuan tsang, T 220, k. 439, p. 212c–213c; k. 326, p. 808b–c.

It is very likely that the authentic and earliest of these passages has been modified in the course of time.

For the success of the Prajñā in the north, a passage of the Mppś (k. 67, p. 531b) is of interest for the following reason. When the Buddha was in the world, he was able to cut through the doubts of the saṃgha: the Buddha’s doctrine was prospering and there could be no fear of its disappearance. But five centuries passed after the Buddha’s nirvāṇa; the good law was disappearing little by little, the work of the Buddha was threatened. Then beings of sharp faculties (tīkṣnendriya) will study and meditate [on the Prajñāpāramitā]; they will make offerings of flowers and perfumes. Beings of weak faculties (mṛdvindriya) will transcribe it and also make offerings of flowers and perfumes. These two classes of beings will, in the long run, find salvation… This profound Prajñāpāramitā will spread through the region of the north. Indeed, of all the regions of Jambudvīpa, that of the north is the most vast. Moreover, there are the Snowy Mountains (Himālaya) and, since it is cold there, its plants are able to detroy the poisons [of desire, hatred and delusion]. Because of the grains eaten there, the three poisons do not have such great strength. For this reason, the number of those who practice the Prajñāpāramitā in the north are many.”]