Maha Prajnaparamita Sastra

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

This page describes “appearance of the buddha and the flower of an udumbara” 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 14 - The appearance of the Buddha and the flower of an Udumbara

Note: this appendix is extracted from Chapter VIII part 5.

“It is said in the sūtra that the Buddha appears from age to age after a number of years as immense as the flower of the Ngeou t’an p’o lo (Udumbara) tree which appears once at regular times.”

The post-canonical texts repeat ad nauseam that the appearance of a Buddha is as rare as the appearance of a flower on the Udumbara tree (Ficus glomerata) which bears fruit but does not have visible flowers:

– Lalitavistara, p. 105: tadyathā audumbarapuṣpaṃ …. loke utpadyante. Tr.

“Just as the Udumbara flower very rarely appears in the world, in the same way very rarely, in the course of many nayutas of koṭis of kalpas, do the Buddha Bhagavats appear in the world.”

– Sukhāvatīvyuha, v. 2: tadyathaudumbarapuṣpāṇāṃ loke … sudurlabhaḥ prādurbhāvaḥ. Tr.

“Just as, in the world, the appearance of the Udumbara flowers is very rare, in the same way the appearance of the Tathāgatas who desire the interest, who desire the good, who are full of compassion, is very rare.”

– Saddharmapuṇḍarikā, p. 39: tadyathāpi nāma udumbārapuṣpaṃ … dharmadeśanāṃ kathayati. Tr.

“Just as the Udumbara flower appears only at certain times and in certain places, so are the times and places rare where the Tathāgata teaches the Dharma.”

– Sūtrālaṃkāra, tr. Huber, p. 396:

“The Buddha is like the Udumbara flower which is very hard to find.”

– The Mppś will return twice to this comparison at k. 9, p. 125c.

By glancing at these post-canonical and late works, many other examples of this comparison may be found. On the other hand, it does not occur in the Pāli suttas. Moreover, the Mppś is explicit: “It is said, in the sūtra, that the Buddha appears from age to age like the Udumbara flower.” Having found nothing comparable in the Pāli canon, I [Lamotte] have turned my search towards the fragments of Sanskrit sūtras discovered in central Asia where the Sarvāstivādin influence was dominant. Here the comparison in question has been found in a fragment of the Mahāparinirvāṇasūtra, published by E. Waldschmidt, in his Beitrage zur Textgeschichte des Mahāparinirvāṇasūtra, Nachrichten v. d. Gesell. der Wissens. zu Göttingen, Philol. Hist. Klasse, Band II, Nr. 3, 1939, p. 58 as note. In the Pāli Mahāparinibbanasuttānta (Dīgha, II, p. 155–156), the last moments of the Buddha are described in the following way: The Buddha asked the monks if they have any doubts concerning the Buddha, the Dharma and the Saṃgha; on Ānanda’s negative reply, he answered: Now, O monks, I have just this to say: All that is composite will decay; work tirelessly. These were the last words of the Tathāgata.

– But the fragment of the Mahāparinirvāṇasūtra in Sanskrit is more detailed. Having reported the negative reponse of Ānanda, the text continues: atha bhagavān uttarāsaṅgam ekānte vivṛtya … tatra tathāgatasya paścimā vācā, Tr.

“Then the Bhagavat lifted his undergarment on one side and said to the monks: Look, O monks, at the body of the Tathāgata. Look well, O monks, at the body of the Tathāgata. Why? The Tathāgatas, saints, the perfectly enlightened ones, are as rarely seen as an Udumbara flower. Well then, O monks, be tranquil! Everything compounded is perishable. Those were the last words of the Tathāgata.”

The Mppś is therefore quite right when it tells us that the comparison with the Udumbara flower occurs ‘in a sūtra’. As E. Waldschmidt comments, it also occurs in the Chinese versions of the Mahāparinirvāṇasūtra:

T 1, k. 4, p. 26b:

“The Tathāgatas appear in the world from age to age like the Udumbara flower which appears once in an epoch.”

T 6, k. 2, p. 188b:

“Usually it is difficult to meet a Buddha. There is on earth an Udumbara tree which does not flower but which bears fruit; if it produces a flower, then there is a Buddha in the world.”

T 5, k. 2, p. 172c:

“In Jambudvīpa there is a venerable king of the trees called Udumbara; it has fruits but no flowers. When it has flowers, then there is a Buddha in the world.”

Previously we have seen that the flower of the Udumbara that grew north of Lake Mandākinī blossomed at the same time as the Buddha Śākyamuni and died at the same time he did.