Maha Prajnaparamita Sastra

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

This page describes “place of the bodhisattvas in the assembly” 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.

Part 1 - The place of the Bodhisattvas in the assembly

Sūtra: The Buddha was also accompanied by bodhisattva-mahāsattvas (bodhisattvair mahāsattvaś ca).

Śāstra: Question. – If the order of seniority is followed, the bodhisattvas come first, then the bhikṣus, the bhikṣuṇīs, the upāsakas and the upāsīkās, for the bodhisattvas come right after the Buddha. If the reverse order were followed, first would be placed the upasīkās, then the upāsakas, the bhikṣuṇīs, the bhikṣus and finally the bodhisattvas. Why are the bhikṣus mentioned first here, then the three assemblies [bhikṣuṇī, upāsaka, upāsīkā] and then, last, the bodhisattvas?

Answer. – 1. Although the bodhisattvas come right after the Buddha, they have not destroyed all their afflictions (kleśa); this is why the arhats are spoken of first. In the arhats, wisdom (prajñā) is small, but they are already ripened (paripakva); in the bodhisattvas, wisdom is rich, but they have not destroyed their afflictions. That is why the arhats are spoken of first.

There are two kinds of Buddhist doctrine, the esoteric (abhisaṃdhidharma) and the exoteric (prakāśitadharma). In the exoteric, the Buddhas, pratyekabuddhas and [85a] arhats are all fields of merit (puṇyakṣetra) because their afflictions (kleśa) have been destroyed without residue. In the esoteric, it is said that the bodhisattvas have obtained acquiescence in the teaching of the non-arising of dharmas (anutpattikadharmakṣānti), that their defilements are destroyed, that they possess the six superknowledges (abhijñā) and that they work for the benefit of beings. It is from the exoteric point of view that the sūtra places the arhats before the bodhisattvas.

2. Furthermore, by the power of skillful means (upāya), the bodhisattvas appear, enter into the five destinies (gati), experience the five passions (pañca kāmaguṇa) with the view of influencing beings.[1] If they were placed above the arhats, gods and men would be worried and have doubts. This is why they are mentioned after the arhats.

Question. – That is the reason they are placed after the arhats. But why are they placed after the upāsakas and upāsīkās?

Answer. – 1. Although the four assemblies have not completely destroyed their impurities (kṣiṇāsrava), they will destroy them without further delay; this is why they are presented under the name of auditors (śrāvakasaṃgha).

To place the bodhisattvas among these four assemblies would be unsuitable. Thus the bhikṣuṇīs, who have received innumerable disciplinary rules (saṃvara),[2] should come after the bhikṣus but before the novices (śrāmaṇera); however, as the Buddha did not bestow any ceremonial on them, they come after the novices. It is the same for the bodhisattvas: they should be placed at the head of the three classes of śaikṣas, but as that would not be suitable, they are placed at the tail end.

2. Furthermore, some claim that, because of their wisdom (prajñā) and their qualities (guṇa), the bodhisattvas surpass the arhats and pratyekabuddhas and for this reason they are mentioned separately.

Question. – In the sūtras of the śrāvakas [i.e., the Lesser Vehicle], four assemblies only are spoken of. Why is an assembly of bodhisattvas added here separately?

Answer. – There are two types of Path (mārga): that of the śrāvakas [Lesser Vehicle] and that of the bodhisattvas [Greater Vehicle]. The four assemblies, bhikṣu, bhikṣuṇī, upāsaka, upāsīkā, form the path of the śrāvakas; the bodhisattva-mahāsattvas form the path of the bodhisattvas. For this reason, in the texts of the śrāvakas, the beginning of the sūtra does not say that the Buddha was dwelling in such and such a place with such and such bodhisattvas; it simply says that the Buddha was dwelling in such and such a place with such and such bhikṣus: for example: “The Buddha was dwelling in Vārāṇasī with five hundred bhikṣus”, “The Buddha was dwelling in the land of Gayā with a thousand bhikṣus”, “The Buddha was dwelling in Śrāvastī with five hundred bhikṣus”. This is the way all their sūtras begin; they never say that the Buddha is accompanied by any number of bodhisattvas whatsoever.

Question. – There are two kinds of bodhisattvas: those who have gone forth from the world (pravrajita) and those who stay in the world (gṛhastha). The gṛhastha bodhisattvas are usually cited among the bhikṣus and bhikṣuṇīs. Why does the sūtra cite them separately here?

Answer. – 1. Although they are usually ranked in the four assemblies, it is fitting to cite them separately. Why? Because if the bodhisattvas are necessarily included in the four assemblies, the four assemblies do not necessarily include the bodhisattvas. Why is that? They include the śrāvakas, the pratyekabuddhas, people who seek to be reborn among the gods, others who seek to enjoy their life: these four kinds of people are not ranked among the bodhisattvas. Why? [85b] Because they have not produced the mind [of bodhi] nor do they wish some day to be Buddha.

2. Furthermore, the bodhisattvas, having obtained faith in the doctrine of non-arising of dharmas (anutpattikadharmakṣānti), have suppressed all these names and conventions (sarvanāmasaṃketa) that characterize saṃsāra and have left the three worlds; [thus] they are not ranked in the number of beings (sattva). If the śrāvakas who have become arhats and are nirvāṇized are not counted in the number of living beings, what can be said about the bodhisattvas? Thus in the Po lo yen (pārāyaṇa) to the Question of Yeou po che (Upasīvaparipṛcchā), a stanza says:[3]

After cessation (nirodha), is it impossible to reappear?
He who has disappeared is not reborn?
Having entered into nirvāṇa, does one remain there always?
May the great Sage tell me the truth!

The Buddha answered:

He who has disappeared cannot be defined;
He escapes from causes and conditions (hetupratyaya), from names and characteristics (nāmalakṣaṇa).
He has gone beyond the way of all speech (sarvavādapatha);
In one moment he disappears like an extinguished fire.

If the arhats have destroyed all names and conventions (saṃketa), all the more so are the bodhisattvas able to destroy all dharmas. Do they not destroy them by knowing their true nature (bhūtalakṣaṇa) and by attaining the dharmakāya? This is why the Mahāyāna mentions the bodhisattvas separately from the four assemblies.

Question. – At the beginning of the Mahāyāna sūtras, why are two assemblies mentioned, bodhisattvas and śrāvakas, whereas at the beginning of the sūtras of the śrāvakas, only the assembly of bhikṣus is mentioned and not that of the bodhisattvas?

Answer. – 1. It is in order to distinguish the two Vehicles, the Vehicle of the Buddhas (buddhayāna) and the Vehicle of the listeners (śrāvakāyana). The Śrāvakayāna is narrow (hīna), the Buddhayāna is broad (vipula); the Śrāvakayāna is that of personal interest (svakārtha), action for oneself; the Buddhayāna is that of benefit for all.

2. Furthermore, the Śrāvakayāna teaches in particular the emptiness of the individual (sattvaśūnyatā), whereas the Buddhayāna teaches both the emptiness of the individual and the emptiness of dharmas (dharmaśūnyatā).

These are the differences that distinguish the two Vehicles. The Mahāyāna sūtras speak of the two assemblies, śrāvaka and bodhisattva. Thus it is said in the Tsan mo ho yen kie (Mahāyānastotragātha):

The practitioners of the Mahāyāna
Are able to bring joy to all;
They bring benefit by means of the true Dharma
And cause the supreme Path to be found.

The practitioners of the Mahāyāna
Have compassion for all.
They give their head and their eyes
And sacrifice them like a wisp of straw.

The practitioners of the Mahāyāna
Observe the pure precepts (śīla).
Like the plow-ox that loves its tail
But has no cares about its own life.

The practitioners of the Mahāyāna
Have attained supreme patience (kṣānti).
To slash their body
To their eyes is like cutting grass.

The practitioners of the Mahāyāna
[85c] Are zealous and untiring.
Their effort (prayoga) is ceaseless
Like sailors on the high seas.

The practitioners of the Mahāyāna
Cultivate innumerable samādhis.
Abhijñās, the āryamārga and balas.
They have acquired the pure vaśitās.

The practitioners of the Mahāyāna
Discern the characteristics of dharmas;
They do not destroy true wisdom
When they are endowed with it.

Their knowledge is inconceivable,
The power of their compassion is immense.
Without entering into distinctions,
They consider all dharmas in the same way.

The carts of the ass, horse, camel and elephant
Although similar, are not comparable;
In the same way, the bodhisattva Vehicle differs from that of the śrāvaka:
The one is great, the other is small.

Great loving-kindness (maitrī) is its axle-tree’
[86a] Wisdom (prajñā) is its two wheels,
Energy (vīrya) is its steed,
Discipline (śīla) and the samādhis are its nails.

Patience (kṣānti) and shame (lajjā) are its timbering,
The dhāraṇīs are its reins.
The Vehicle of the Mahāyāna
Can cross over anything.

Question. – At the beginning of the sūtras of the śrāvakas, only the assembly of the bhikṣus is spoken of. In the sūtras of the Mahāyāna, why is not the assembly of bodhisattvas the only assembly spoken of?

Anawer. – It is because the Mahāyāna is broad (vipulya) and all the Vehicles enter into it, whereas the Vehicle of the śrāvakas is narrow and does not contain the Mahāyāna. Thus the Ganges does not contain the great ocean because it is narrow, whereas the great ocean can receive all the rivers because it is vast. It is the same for the Mahāyāna. A stanza says:

The Mahāyāna is like the sea,
The Hīnayāna is like the water contained in the hoof print of an ox (gopada udakam).
The small cannot contain the great:
This comparison is applicable here.[4]

Footnotes and references:


For the salvation of beings, the bodhisattvas assume diverse forms of existence; they assume emanation bodies (nirmāṇakāya) to work for the benefit of all. See references in Saṃgraha, p. 42.


For the monastic precepts, see Kern, Histoire, II, p. 121–125; Oldenberg, Bouddha, p. 415–419, and above all the comparative study of E. Waldschmidt, Bruchstücke des Bhikṣuṇīprātimokṣa, Leipzig, 1926.


Suttanipāta, V, 6; Upasīvamāṇavapucchā, v. 1075–1076:

Upasīva: Atthangato so uda vā so vā so na ‘tthi … tathā hi te vidito esa dhammo.

Bhagavā: Atthangatassa na pamāṇam atthi; … smūhatā vādopathā pi sabbe ti.

“When the saint has disappeared, can one say that he is no longer, can one say that he is free of pain forever? Please explain this to me, O Sage, because you know. – About the one who has disappeared, there is no means of knowing him; there is nothing more of him by means of which one would speak about him; all the facts that constituted him are abolished; abolished are all the ways of speech.”

The same idea is expressed by the Saṃyutta, IV, p. 376–377: “The saint cannot be described as form, feeling, perception, volition, consciousness; in him, all the elements have been suppressed (pahīna), uprooted (ucchinnamūla), reduced to the state of a palm tree stump (tālāvatthukata), reduced to nothing (anabhāvakata), rendered incapable of later rebirth (āyatim anuppādakata). He is profound (gaṃbhīra), unmeasurable (appameyya), unfathomable (duppariyagāha) like the great ocean. One cannot say: he is, he is not, he both is and is not, or he neither is or is not.”


The water contained in the hoof print of an ox (gopadam udakam) is compared to the immense waters of the ocean (mahāsamudro ’parimitajaladharaḥ) in the same way that the smallest is compared with the greatest. Cf. Aṅguttara, IV, p. 102; Milinda, p. 287; Saṃdhinirmocana, p. 207–208, Divyāvadāna, p. 397.