Maha Prajnaparamita Sastra

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

This page describes “the buddha manifests his supernatural qualities in the trichiliocosm” 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.

Act 6: The Buddha manifests his supernatural qualities in the trichiliocosm

Sūtra: Then the Bhagavat, seated on the lion-seat, mastered the trisāhasramahāsāhasralokadhātu by his brilliance, his color, his beauty and his splendor, and extended [his domination] as far as universes of the ten directions as numerous as the sands of the Ganges, in the same way that Sumeru, king of the mountains, surpasses all the mountains by its brilliance, its color, its beauty and its splendor (Atha khalu Bhagavāṃs tasminn eva siṃhāsane niṣaṇṇaḥ imaṃ trisāhasramahāsāhasraṃ lokadhātum abhibhūya tiṣṭhati … ābhayā varṇena śriyā tejasā ca, yāvad daśadikṣu gaṅgānadīvālukopamān lokadhātūn abhibhūya tiṣṭhati. tadyathāpi nāma Sumeruḥ parvatarājaḥ sarvaparvatān abhibhūya tiṣṭhati … ābhāyā varṇenaśriyā tejasā ca).

Śāstra: Question.- By means of what power (bala) does he thus dominate all beings with his brilliance, beauty and splendor? The cakravartin kings, the devas and the āryas also have power, brilliance and beauty; why speak only of the Buddha’s superiority here?

Answer. – Although these āryas have brilliance and beauty, theirs are limited like the stars that are dimmed and disappear at sunrise (sūryodaya). For numberless [121c] asaṃkhyeyakalpas the Buddha has accumulated great qualities and all the accumulations (saṃbhāra); and because his merits (hetupratyaya) are great, his retribution (vipākaphala) also is great. This is not the case for other men.

Moreover, from age to age the Buddha has practiced the austerities (duṣkaracaryā) beyond measure or limit; unceasingly he has sacrificed his head, his eyes, his marrow and a fortiori, his kingdom, his wealth, his wife and his children. Having, from age to age, cultivated all types of morality (śīla), patience (kṣānti), energy (vīrya), dhyāna, and acquired incomparable (anupama), pure (viśuddha), unchangeable (avikāta) and inexhaustible (akṣaya) wisdom (prajñā), his accumulations (saṃbhāra) were complete. By the power of retribution, he has obtained [as result] an incalculable powerful superiority. This is why we have said that when the merits are large, the reward also is large.

Question. – If the miraculous power (ṛddhibala) of the Buddha is immense, if his beauty and grandeur are ineffable (avāchaya), why would he have to undergo the retribution of the nine sins (navāppativipāka)? (see Appendix 12: on the sufferings of the Buddha)

1) The brahmacārinī Souen t’o li (Sundarī) slandered (abhyākhyati) the Buddha, and five hundred arhats wiped out the slander.

2) The brāhmaṇī Tchan chö (Ciñcā) attached [to her belly] a wooden bowl (dārumaṇḍalika) pretending she was pregnant, and slandered the Buddha.

3) T’i p’o ta (Devadatta) pushed down a rock (śilā) to crush the Buddha and wounded him on his big toe (pādmaṃguṣṭa).

4) While walking in the woods, the Buddha hurt his foot.

5) When king P’i leou li (Virūdhaka) and his army massacred the Śākyas, the Buddha had a headache (śīrṣadukha).

6) Having accepted the invitation of the brahmin A k’i ta to (Agnidatta), the Buddha had to eat horse feed (yava).

7) As a result of a cold wind, the Buddha had a backache (pṛṣṭhaduhkha).

8) For six months, he practiced austerities (duṣkaracaryā).

9) Having gone to a brahmin village (brāhmaṇagrāma) to beg for food, he received nothing and returned with an empty bowl (dhautapātreṇa).

Moreover, in winter (hemanta), in the eight nights that precede and follow [the full moon],[1] a cold wind (śīlavāyu) smashed the bamboos (veṇu). The Buddha took three robes (tricīvara) to protect himself against the cold.[2] During the oppressive heat, Ānanda was behind him and fanned (vījati) the Buddha.[3] The Buddha therefore underwent the small sufferings of this world. If the Buddha has immense miraculous power (ṛddhibala), if he dominates the trisāshramahāsāhasralokadhātu and universes as numerous as the sands of the Ganges in the ten directions (diś-), the east, south, west and north, in the four intermediate directions (vidiś-) and in the zenith and the nadir thus by his brilliance (ābhā), his color (varṇa), his beauty (śrī) and his splendor (tejas-), why does he submit to the retribution for his sins (āpattivipāka)?

Answer. – 1) Dwelling among men, born from human parents, the Buddha has so much strength that one of his fingers (aṅgulisaṃdhi) surpasses the strength of a hundred thousand prabedakoṭi of white elephants (pāṇḍaragaja); the power of his superknowledges (abhijñā) is immense (apramāṇa), incalculable (asamkyeya) and inconceivable (acintya). The son of king Śuddhodana was repulsed by old age (jarā), sickness (vyādhi) and death (maraṇa), left home (pravrajita) and attained Buddhahood. Can we say that such a man will undergo the retribution of sins and be tormented by cold (śīta), heat (uṣṇa), etc? If the miraculous power of the Buddha is immense, if he possesses such miraculous qualities (acintyadharma), how could he suffer from cold, heat, etc?

2) Furthermore, the Buddha has two bodies (kāya): a body of essence (dharmatākāya) and a body born from father and mother (pitṛmātṛjakāya). The essential body fills the ten directions of space; it is immense (apramāṇa), infinite (ananta), handsome (abhirūpa), charming (prasādika), adorned with the major and minor marks (lakṣaṇānuvyañjanālaṃkṛta), with immense rays (apramāṇaraśmi) and with immense voice (apramāṇasvara); the assembly (saṃgha) that listens to his preaching also fills space (this assembly is also his essential body and is not [122a] visible to saṃsāric people. Ceaselessly he emits various bodies (kāya) with various names (nāman), of various births (janmasthāna), with various skillful means (upāya) to save beings. He is always seeking to save everybody, never stopping for a moment. It is by means of this essential body that the Buddha saves beings of the universes of the ten directions. To undergo the retribution of sins is the business of the Buddha’s body of birth (janmakāyabuddha). The Buddha of birth body preaches the Dharma in stages as if it were a human body. Since there are two sorts of Buddha, it is not a mistake that the Buddha experiences the retribution for wrongdoings.

3) Furthermore, when the Buddha attains Buddhahood, he eliminates all the bad dharmas (akuśaladharma) within himself and acquires all the good dharmas (kuśaladharma). How then could he really suffer the punishment of the bad dharmas? It is only out of compassion (anukampā) for the beings of future generations (anāgatajanmasattva) that he resorts to this means (upāya) by pretending to suffer the retribution of sins.

4) Furthermore, A ni lou teou (Aniruddha) received an immense reward for having given food to a pratyekabuddha;[4] whatever food he thought of he found at will.[5] How then could the Buddha, who from one lifetime to the next has cut off his flesh (māṃsa), dug into his marrow (majjā) to make a gift of it to others, find nothing when he begged for his food and returned with an empty bowl (dhautapātreṇa)? This is why we know that it is the skillful means of the Buddha who [pretends] to undergo retribution for sins in order to save beings.

What is this skillful means (upāya)? In the future, in the fivefold assembly, there will be Buddhists (Śākyaputra) who, having acquired but little merit by their lack of generosity (dānapuṇyahīnatvāt), will get nothing when they go to beg for their means of livelihood (ājīva); the lay people (avadātavasana) will say to them: “You who cannot obtain robes (āvara) and food (āhāra), you cannot cure your own sicknesses (vyādhi)! How will you be able to find the Path (mārga) and care for the welfare of beings?” [Thanks to this skillful means of the Buddha], the fivefold assembly will be able to answer: “We have no means of existence, but that is of little importance; we have the meritorious qualities inherent in the practice of the Path (mārgacaryā). Our actual suffering is the punishment for sins of our past lifetimes, but the reward for our actual virtues will come later. Our great teacher, the Buddha himself, went into a brahmin village (brāhmaṇagrāma) to beg his food, got nothing, and returned with an empty bowl (dhautapātreṇa); he also was sick; at the massacre of the Śākyas, he suffered a headache. All the more reason that we, lesser people with little merit (alpapuṇya), [are exposed to the same inconveniences].” Hearing this answer, the lay people will not have any further bad feelings and will grant the bhikṣus the fourfold offering (caturvidhā pūjā); the bhikṣus will then enjoy peace (yogakṣema) and, seated in dhyāna, will find the Path. It is therefore by skillful means and not in actuality that [the Buddha] undergoes [the retribution] for wrongdoings.

Thus it is said in the P’i mo lo k’i king (Vimalakīrtinirdeśasūtra)[6] that the Buddha, dwelling in the land of Vaiśalī, said to Ānanda:

“ My body feels a little feverish; I would like to have some cow’s milk. Take my bowl (pātra) and go to beg for some milk.”

Ānanda took the bowl and went to the door of a vaiśya. Vimalakīrti himself was there and seeing Ānanda appear with a bowl, he asked: “Why are you standing there since morning with a bowl?”

Ānanda answered: “The Buddha is a little sick; he needs some cow’s milk. That is why I have come here.”

“Wait a moment!” cried Vimalakīrti, “Don’t slander the Tathāgata. The Buddha, as [122b] Bhagavat, has gone beyond all bad dharmas (sarvākuśaladharmasamatikrānta). What sickness might he have? Take care that the heretics (tīrthika) do not hear such rude words; they would scorn the Buddha and say: ‘This Buddha, who is unable to cure his own illness, cannot save beings’.”

Ānanda replied: “That is not my intention. Personally, I have received a request from the Buddha and I must get him some milk.”

Vimalakīrti answered: “Despite the Buddha’s order, it is a skillful means (upāya). If he does use the world of the five corruptions (pañcakaṣāya), it is in order to deliver all beings through this fiction. In future generations, when sick bhikṣus will go to ask the lay people (avadātavasana) for broths and medicines (bhaiṣajya) and the lay people will say to them: ‘You cannot cure yourselves, how could you cure others?’, the bhikṣus will be able to say: ‘If our great teacher himself was subject to sickness, then why should we not be sick, we whose bodies are like the black mustard plant (arṣapa)?’ And so the lay people will offer the bhikṣus broths and medicines and the bhikṣus will enjoy peace (yogakṣema) and tranquility, will practice the Path. If heretic ṛṣis can cure the illnesses of other people by medicinal herbs (oṣadhi) and spells (mantra), then why would the Tathāgata who is omniscient (sarvajñā) be unable to cure his own sickness? Then take this milk in your bowl in silence and be careful lest the unbelievers (pāṣaṇḍa) should learn about it.”

This is why we know that the sicknesses of the Buddha are pretenses coming from skillful means and are not real sicknesses; it is the same for the [pretended] sins that are their cause. This is why the sūtra says that the Buddha dominates everything by his brilliance, his color, his beauty and his splendor.

Footnotes and references:


The characters ts’ien heou pa ye ‘the eight nights that precede and follow’ translate, without a doubt, the Pāli expression rattīsu anta’ aṭṭhakāsu which is found, e.g., in Vinaya, I, p. 31, 288; Majjhima, I, p. 79; Aṅguttara, I, p. 136, and which means ‘during the nights that extend between the eight (aṣṭakā), i.e., between the eighth day before and the eighth day after the full moon. (Cf. Rhys Davids-Stede, s.v. aṭṭaka).


An allusion to an episode told in the Vinayas. According to its custom, the Mppś follows the Sarvāstivādin Vinaya, Che song liu, T 1435, k. 27, p. 195a: Knowing that the bhikṣus had many robes and that these numerous garments hindered their travel, the Buddha wanted to place a limit (maryādā) on them. He said to Ānanda: “I would like to travel to the land of Vaiśalī.” Ānanda obeyed and followed the Buddha. It was in winter, during the nights [that precede and follow] the aṣṭakā; a cold wind was smashing the bamboos. Then the Buddha put on one robe (cīvara). During the first watch of the night (yāma), the Buddha walked in the desert. In the second watch, the Buddha was cold and said to Ānanda: “Give me a second robe.” Ānanda gave a second robe to the Buddha who put it on and continued to walk in the desert. When the third watch came, the Buddha was cold and said to Ānanda: “Give me a third robe.” Ānanda gave him a third robe which he put on and continued to walk in the desert. Then he thought: “The bhikṣus should have enough robes.” When the saṃgha came together, he said to the bhikṣus: “Starting from today, I allow you to use three robes (tricīvara), no more and no less. In having less, that will be a duṣkita transgression; in having more, that will be a niḥsargika pātayantika transgression.”

The agreement in the details (cold wind smashing the bamboo, etc.) reveals the close interconnection between the Mppś and the Sarvāstivādin Vinaya. The other Vinayas tell the story in somewhat the same way:

In the Mahīśāsaka Vinaya (Wou fen liu, T 1421, k. 20, p. 136a), the Buddha was travelling between Vaiśālī and the Cāpāla cetiya; in the Dharmagupta Vinaya (Sseu fen liu, T 1428, k. 49, p. 856c–857a), he was spending the night in the open air in a retreat, the name of which is not given. The Pāli Vinaya, I, p. 288 (tr. Rh.D. – Oldenberg, II, p. 210–212) tells that the Buddha, who had gone from Rājagṛha to Vaiśālī, spent the night in the Gotamaka cetiya, seated in the open air. Feeling cold, he put on four robes successively and not three as in the other sources. Nevertheless, he allowed the monks only three robes (ticīvara): the saṃghāti. the uttarāsaṅga and the antaravāsaka. Here are extracts from this Vinaya:

Atha kho bhagavā anupubbena cārikṃ caramāno yena Vesālī tad avasari, tatra suḍaṃ … ekacciyaṃ uttarāsṅgaṃ ekacciyaṃ antaravāsakan ti.


The Buddha was often fanned by his disciples; the scene is always described in the following words: for example, Avadānaśataka, II, p. 194: tena khalu amayenāyuṣmāñ Śāriputro bhagavataḥ pṛṣṭhataḥ shito ‘bhūd vyajanaṃ gṛhītvā bhagavantaṃ vījayan. Corresponding Pāli phrase, e.g., Majjhima, I, p. 501: tena kho pana samayena āyasmā Sāriputto bhagavato piṭṭhito ṭhito oti bhaganataṃ vījamāno.


In a previous lifetime, Aniruddha had been a poor man named Annabhāra (in the Pāli sources); one day when he was cutting grass for his master Sumana (Pāli sources) or gathering dead wood to earn his living (Chinese sources), he saw a pratyekabuddha who was returning with an empty bowl and gave him some coarse broth. As a retribution for this generosity, he was reborn seven times among the Trāyastriṃśa gods, was a cakravartin king seven times, and was finally reborn in his last lifetime in a wealthy Śakya family.

Pāli sources: Theragāthā, v. 910–911 (tr. Rh. D., Brethren, p.329–330); Theragāthā Comm., II, p. 65; Dhammapadaṭha, IV, p. 120–121 (tr. Burlingame, Legends, III, p. 264–265).

Sanskrit sources: Karmavibhaṅga, p. 66–67; Kośavyākhyā, p. 424, l. 29. Chinese sources: Tchong a han, T 26 (no. 66), k. 13, p. 508c–509a (cf. P. Demiéville in BEFEO, XXX, 1920, p. 161); Kou lai che che king, T 44, p. 829b; Tsa pao tang king, T 203 (no. 50, p. 470c–471a (tr. Chavannes, Contes, III, p. 51); Kośa, IV, p. 190; P’i p’o cha, T 1545, k. 20, p. 99b; King liu yi siang, T 2121, k. 13, p. 68a–b.

These various texts do not agree on the name of the pratyekabuddha: he is called Tagaraśikhin in the Kośavyākhyā, Upariṣṭha in the Karmavibhaṅga, Upariṭṭha in the Threragāthā and the Dhammapadaṭṭha, Wou houan ‘Without misfortune’ (Ariṣṭa) in the Kou lai che che king, P’i li tch’a (64 and 5; 75 and 6; 30 and 3) giving a possible Sanskrit Prekṣa) in the King liu yi siang. – According to the Tsa pao tsang king, this pratyekabuddha was the elder brother of the future Aniruddha.


In this regard, see the following story told by the Dhammapadaṭṭha, I, p. 134 (tr. Burlingame, Legends, I, p. 231): Aniruddha was raised in such luxury that he never heard the word: “There is no more” (n’atthi). One day when he was playing ball (guḷa) with six Śākya youths, he lost the game and had to pay for the cakes (pūva). He asked his mother to send him some. As he continued to lose, his mother’s supply was exhausted and his mother had to say to him: “There are no more cakes” (pūvaṃ n’atthi). Aniruddha, who did not know the phrase “There are no more”, thought that it meant a type of cake and he answered his mother: “Send me some ‘there are no more’ cakes.” To make him understand, his mother then sent him an empty golden bowl (tuccha suvaṇṇapāti), but the protector deities of the city, wanting to spare Aniruddha any deception, filled it with celestial cakes. After that, each time that Aniruddha asked for cakes, his mother sent him an empty bowl which the gods filled up in passing.

There is a pale reflection of this charming little story in the Tsa pao tsang king, T 203, k. 4, p. 471a.


Vimalakīrtinirdeśa, tr. by Tche k’ien, T 474, k. 1, p. 523b–c; tr. Kumārajīva,T 475, k. 1, p. 542a; Tr. by Hiuan tsang, T 476, k. 2, p. 564a–b. – This Vimalakīrtinirdeśa is also known in a Tibetan translation entitled: Dri ma med par grags pas bstan pa, Mdo, XIV, 5 (cf. Csoma-Feer, p. 256; OKC, no. 843, p. 323) and some Sogdian fragments (ed. H. Reichelt, Die soghdischen Handschriftenreste des Britischen Museums, I, Heidelberg, 1928, p. 1–13; annotated by F. Weller, Zum soghdischen Vimalakīrtinirdeśasūtra, Leipzig, 1937). Some metrical versions of the chapter on illnesses have been found at Touen houang and even in our times the sūtra has undergone some theatrical adaptations. See summary by P. Demiéville in Hôbôgirin, p. 324.

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