Maha Prajnaparamita Sastra

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

This page describes “a city of the gandharvas” 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.

Sixth comparison or upamāna: A city of the Gandharvas

When the sun rises, we see a city (nagara) of buildings with stories[1] (kūṭāgāra), palaces (rājakula), with people coming in and going out. The higher the sun rises, the more indistinct this city becomes; it is just an optical illusion without any reality. This is what is called a city of the gandharvas. People who have never before seen it and who discover it some morning in the east believe in its reality and hurry towards it; but the closer they come, the more unclear it becomes and when the sun is high, it disappears. Tormented by hunger and thirst (kṣutpipāsā), the people who perceive a haze like a herd of gazelles (ghoṭakamṛga) believe in the presence of water and hasten towards it, but the closer they come, the more the illusion becomes blurred. Exhausted, worn out, they come to a high mountain or a narrow valley; they utter cries and groans and the echo replies to them; they believe in the presence of inhabitants and try to find them, but they tire themselves out in vain and find nothing. Finally, when they have reflected and understood, their illusion disappears. In the same way, the ignorant man thinks he sees an ātman and dharmas in the aggregates (skandha), the elements (dhātu) and the bases of consciousness (āyatana) which are empty (śūnya) of any reality. Prey to desire (rāga), anger (dveśa) and obstinacy (cittābhiniveśa), they wander in the four directions to satisfy their desire. Lost and deceived, they are plunged into poverty and misery. But when they have recognized the non-existence of the ātman and real dharmas by means of wisdom (prajñā), their mistake (viparyāsa) disappears.

Furthermore, the city of the gandharvas is not a city; it is the mind of the person who sees it as such. In the same way, fools (bāla) conceive of that which is not a body as a body (kāya) and as a mind (citta) that which is not a mind.

Question. – A single example would suffice in understanding; why multiply the comparisons (upamāna) in this way?

Answer. – i) We have already answered this question [by saying] that the Mahāyāna is like the waters of the ocean and it contains absolutely all dharmas. Since the Mahāyāna multiplies the arguments (hetupratyaya), the large number of comparisons is not a fault.

ii) Moreover, the bodhisattvas have profound and sharp knowledge (jñāna); it is by means of all kinds of teachings (dharmaparyāya), reasonings (hetuprayāya) and comparisons (upamāna) that they eliminate dharmas. In order that people should understand, it is necessary to multiply the examples.

iii) Finally, in the texts of the śrāvakas, we never find the example of the city of the gandharvas,[2] but there are all kinds of other comparisons to illustrate impermanence (anityatā). [For example, a sūtra says]: “Form (rūpa) is like a ball of foam (phenapiṇḍa); feeling (vedanā) like a water bubble (budbudha); perception (saṃjñā) like a mirage (marīci), volition (saṃskāra) like the trunk of a banana tree (kadalīskandha); consciousness (vijñāna) like a magic show (māyā) and a magic net (māyājāla).”[3] In the sūtras, these are the comparisons used to illustrate emptiness. Since the city of the gandharvas is a different comparison, it is mentioned here.

Question. – In the śrāvaka texts, the body (kāya) is compared to a city [see Appendix 1]; why is the example of the city of the gandharvas given here?

Answer. – In the example of the city used by the śrāvakas, the subject of comparison exists as such (dravyasat), whereas the city has merely nominal existence (prajñaptisat). But in the city of the gandharvas, the subject of comparison itself is non-existent; it is like the burning brand flourished in a circle (alātacakra)[4] that deceives the human eye. In the śrāvaka texts, the example of the city is used only to refute the ātman. Here we use the example of the city of the gandharvas so that the bodhisattvas of keen faculties (tīkṣnendriya) penetrate the emptiness of dharmas deeply, which is why these are compared to a city of the gandharvas.

Footnotes and references:


Lamotte translates kūṭāgāra as ‘étage’. Monier-Williams gives ‘an upper room, apartment on the top of a house’.


Actually, the word gandhabbanagara does not appear in the Pāli-English Dictionary of Rhys Davids-Stede.


Stanza from the Pheṇasutta:

a. In Pāli, in Saṃyutta, III, p. 142; Cullaniddesa, p. 680: pheṇapiṇḍūpamaṃ rūpaṃ vedanā bubbuḷupamā … māyūpamañca viññāṇaṃ dīpitādiccabandhunā.

It is commented on in the Visuddhimagga, p. 479 as follows: pheṇapiṇḍo viya rūpaṃ … māyā viya viññāṇaṃ, vañcakato.

b. In Sanskrit, in Madh. vṛtti, p. 41: phenapiṇḍopamaṃ rūpaṃ vedanā budbudopamā … vijñānam uktam ādityabandhanā.

c. In Tibetan, in Madh. avātāra, p. 22: gzugs ni sbu ba rdos pa ḥdra … ñi maḥi gñen gyis nkaḥ stsal to.

d. In Chinese, in Tsa a han, T 99 (no. 265), k. 10, p. 69a18–20; Wou yin p’i yu king, T 105, p. 501b18–20; Chouei mo so p’iao king, T 106, p. 502a16–18.


The example of the burning brand flourished in a circle which gives the illusion of a ring of fire (alātacakra) is not found in the Pāli scriptures but is used by the Madhyamaka: cf. Madh. vṛitti, p. 173, 219, 238, 49; Catuḥśataka, v. 325. – It is also found in the Laṅkāvatāra, p. 9, 42, 9, 106, 287, and the Kośa, I, p. 93,; III, p. 212; V, p. 23. The Kośavyākhyā defines it as follows: alāte śīghrasaṃcārāt tatra tatrotpadyamāne ‘lātacakrabuddhir bhavati. – The brahmanical texts also use this comparison.