Maha Prajnaparamita Sastra

by Gelongma Karma Migme Chödrön | 2001 | 941,039 words

This page describes “liberated from the action-obstacle” 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.

Bodhisattva quality 13: liberated from the action-obstacle

13. karmāvaraṇapratiprasrabdha:

Sūtra: They were liberated from the action-obstacle (karmāvaraṇapratiprasrabdhaiḥ).

Śāstra: The person who is liberated from all evil actions (pāpakarman) is called karmāvaraṇapratiprasrabdha.

Question. – There are three kinds of obstacles (āvaraṇa): i) the obstacle consisting of the afflictions (kleśāvaraṇa), ii) the obstacle consisting of action (karmāvaraṇa), iii) the obstacle consisting of retribution (vipākāvaraṇa).[1] Why does the sūtra set aside two of these and speak only of the karmāvaraṇa here?

Answer. – Of these three obstacles, action is the greatest. Once accumulated (upacitta),[2] actions last for hundreds of koṭi of kalpas without being lost, changed or deteriorating; they produce their fruit of retribution (vipākaphala) without loss of time; when these long-lasting actions meet the favorable complex [of conditions] and time (sāmagrīṃ prāpya kālaṃ ca), they produce their fruit of retribution.[3]

They are like rice grains (śālibīja) that have fallen on the ground which, at the proper time, germinate without being lost or deteriorating. That is [the teaching] of the omniscient (sarvajñā) buddhas worthy of respect by all. If Sumeru, king of the mountains, cannot reverse his actions, what can be said about an ordinary person (pṛthagjana)? Some stanzas say:

The wheel of transmigration (saṃsāracakra) drags man along
With his afflictions (kleśa) and his fetters (saṃyojana).
Very powerful, it turns freely;
Nobody can stop it.

Actions carried out during previous lifetimes
Change into all kinds of forms.
The power of action is very strong;
It has no equal in the world.

The actions of previous lifetimes are the masters
Forcing a person to undergo their retribution.
The wheel turns by the power of actions,
It turns in the sea of saṃsāra.

The waters of the ocean can dry up,
The earth of Sumeru can be exhausted,
But the actions of previous lifetimes
Are never used up, never exhausted.

Actions accumulated (upacitta) for a long time
Follow their creator
Like a creditor
Relentlessly following his debtor.[4]

Nobody can escape
The fruit of the retribution of action;
There is no place to escape it;
One cannot escape it by asking for pardon.

Action relentlessly pursues [100b]
The beings of the threefold world.
It is like the K’o li lo tch’a.[5]
This action was defined by the Buddha.

Wind does not penetrate into solids,
The waves do not turn back in their course,
Space suffers no harm,
Neither does non-action.

Actions have tremendous power
Which is never ineffectual.
When the time of retribution has come
One cannot escape from it, one cannot avoid it.

From the earth [one can] rise up to the sky
From the sky, one can penetrate the Himavat,
From the Himavat, one can plunge into the ocean:
Nowhere will one escape from action.[6]

Action forever follows us,
Never does it leave us.
It goes straight on, it does not miss its time
Like the tide which follows the moon.

This is why, [in order to praise them], it is said that the bodhisattvas are liberated from every action-obstacle (sarvakarmāvaraṇapratiprasrabdha).

Footnotes and references:


A detailed study of these three obstacles may be found in Kośa, IV, p. 202–205.


Action accomplished (kṛta) and action accumulated (upacitta) must be distinguished. Action is said to be ‘accumulated’ because of its intentional nature (saṃcetanataḥ), its completion (samāptatva), absence of regret (kaukṛtya) and counteragent (pratipakṣa), its accompaniment (parivāra) and retribution (vipāka). See Kośa, IV, p. 243–244.


Paraphrase of a well-known stanza endlessly repeated in the Vinayas and the Avadānas, such as the Divya, the Avadānaśataka, etc.: na praṇaśyanti … khalu dehinām. “Actions do not perish, even after hundreds of millions of cosmic periods. Meeting the desired complex [of conditions] and time, they ripen for the spirit.”


An allusion to a theory of the Sāmittīyas on the mechanism of retribution: good or bad action perishes as soon as born, but it deposits in the series (saṃtāna) of the agent a certain entity called avipraṇaśa comparable to the page on which debts (ṛinapattra) are recorded. See Madh. vṛtti, p. 317–323 (tr. Lamotte, in MCB, IV, 1935–36, p. 276–280); Madh. avatāra, p. 126, l. 12 (tr. LAV. Muséon, 1910, p. 318); Karmasiddhiprakaraṇa, MCB, IV, 1935–36, p. 230, n. 37).


K’o li lo tch’a is the name of a tree according to the Bukkyo daijiten, p. 212a.


Cf. the stanza of Divyāvadāna, p. 532, 561, and the Sanskrit Udānavarga, p. 98:

naivāntarīkṣe na samudramadhye … yatra sthitaṃ na prasaheta karma ||

It has its Pāli correspondent in Dhammapada, no. 127:

na antalikkhe na samuddamajjhe … yatthaṭṭhito muñceyya pāpakammā ||

It is often quoted in the Vinayas: cf. Che song liu, T 1435, k. 36, p. 260b; Ken pen chouo … p’o seng che, T 1450, k. 18, p. 192c.

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