Maha Prajnaparamita Sastra

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

This page describes “nine torments or sufferings of the buddha” 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 12 - The nine torments or sufferings of the Buddha

Note: This Appendix is extracted from Chapter XIV part 6.

“If the miraculous power of the Buddha is immense, if his beauty and grandeur are ineffable, why would he have to undergo the retribution of the nine sins (navāppativipāka)”.

1) The brahmacārinī Sundarī slandered the Buddha, and five hundred arhats wiped out the slander.

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

3) Devadatta pushed down a rock to crush the Buddha and wounded him on his big toe.

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

5) When king Virūdhaka and his army massacred the Śākyas, the Buddha had a headache.

6) Having accepted the invitation of the brahmin Agnidatta, the Buddha had to eat horse feed.

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

8) For six months, he practiced austerities.

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

First, here is a series of references to these nine torments of the Buddha of which the majority were illnesses:

1) Sundarī’s slander.

At the instigation of the heretics, Sundarī went to the Jetavana in the evening, announcing to those who questioned her that she was going to spend the night in the Buddha’s cell. Actually, she went to stay in the parivrājakas’ monastery, but the next day she made it appear as if she was coming back from the Jetavana. After a few days, the heretics had her killed and hid her body under a heap of rubbish near the Jetavana; then they announced her disappearance to king Prasenajit. A search was carried out and the corpse of Sundarī was found near the Gandhakuṭi cell of the Buddha. The heretics placed her body on a litter and carried it about in the city of Śrāvastī, crying: “See the work of the Śākya monks!” The bhikṣus were all insulted, but the Buddha announced to them that the public uprising would end in seven days. The murderers were found by the king and confessed having been hired by the heretics who were forced to retract their accusation against the Buddha and his monks.

Pāli sources: Udāna. p | 43–45 (tr. Seidenstücker, p. 66–69); Apadāna, p. 229, v. 6; Jātaka, II, p. 415–417 (tr. Burlingame, Legends, III, p. 189–191); Udāna Comm., p. 256; Suttanipāta Comm., II, p. 528.

Chinese sources: Hing k’i hing king, T 197 (no. 1), k. 1, p. 164b–165c; Yi tsou king, T 198 (no. 3), k. 1, p. 176b–177c; Ta pao tsi king, T 310, k. 28, p. 54c18; P’ou sa chou t’ai king, T 384, k. 7, p. 1056b, (where Sundarī is called Sundaranandī); Po king tch’ao, T 790, p. 729b1; Ken pen chouo… yao che, T 1448, k. 18, p. 95a5 (where Sundarī is called Mei yong); Hiuan tsang, Si yu ki, T 2087, k. 6, p. 899c (re. Beal, II, p. 7–8; tr. Watters, I, p. 389).

2) Slander by Ciñcā.

See above.

3) Rock thrown by Devadatta.

Pāli sources: Vinaya, II, p. 193 (tr. Rh. D.- Oldenberg, III, p. 243): atha kho Devadatto Gijjhakūṭaṃ abhirūhitvāmahantaṃ … bhagavato pāde ruhiraṃ uppādesi. – Apadāna, I, p. 300, v. 136 (tr. Rhys Davids, I, p. 193).

Chinese sources: Hing k’i hing king, T 197 (no. 7), k. 2, p. 170b–c; P’ou sa chou t’ai king, T 384, k. 7, p. 1055c; Ken pen chouo… yao che T 1448, k. 18, p. 94a13; Fa hien, tr. Legge p. 83; Hiuan tsang in Watters, Travels, II, p. 152; Yi tsing in Chavannes, Religieux éminents, p. 155.

4) Wound caused by khadira thorn.

Daśabala Kāśyapa took care of the Buddha’s foot wounded by an acacia thorn. Sanskrit sources: Ṣaḍdarśanasamuccaya, ed. Suall, p. 26: Sugataḥ kadācid bhikṣam atāṭyamānaḥ … pāde viddho ’smi bhikṣavaḥ.

Pāli source: Apadāna, I,p. 300, v. 22.

Chinese sources: Hing k’i hing king, T 107 (no. 6), k. 1, p. 168a–170b; Tsa pao tsang king, T. 203 (no. 80), k. 7, p. 481a–b (tr. Chavannes, Contes, III, p. 78); Ta pao tsi king, T 310, k. 28, p. 154c14; P’ou sa chou t’ai king, T 384, k. 7, p. 1056b; Ken pen chou… yao che, T 1448, k. 18, p. 94b14.

5) Headache.

The Buddha suffered a headache at the time of the massacre of the Śākyas by Virūḍhaka, in Pāli Viḍūḍabha. The Pāli sources, which essentially are confirmed by the Sanskrit and Chinese sources, tell that Pasenadi, king of Kosala, had a son, Viḍūḍabha, whose mother was a young slave named Vāsabhakhattiya, the natural daughter of Mahānāman, the successor to Suddhodana at Kapilavastu. Vāsabhakhattiyā had been fraudulently affianced by the Śākyas. When the trick was subsequently discovered and Viḍūḍabha was treated as ‘the son of a slave’ by the Śākyas, he vowed to avenge himself. With the help of his general Dīgha Kārāyana, he dethroned his father Pasenadi, who fled from Śrāvastī to take refuge with his former enemy Ajātasattu. Viḍūḍabha marched against Kapilavastu and, despite the intervention of the Buddha who three times succeeded in stopping the operations, he finally took the city and massacred the entire Śākya clan. But he himself perished miserably as a result. In the Sanskrit sources, Viḍūḍabha, his mother Vāsabhakhattīya and his minister Dīgha Kārāyana, appear under the names of Viruṣaka, Mālikā (or Mallikā) and Dīrgha Cārāyana respectively.

The story of the massacre of the Śākyas may be found: in Pāli, in Jātaka, IV, p. 144–153, and Dhammapadaṭṭha, I, p.337–361 (tr. Burlingame, Legends, II, p. 30–46; – in Sanskrit, in Avadānakalpalayā: ch. XI, Virūḍhakāvadāna (vol. I, p. 352–393); in Chinese, in Tseng yi a han, T 125, k. 26, p. 690a–693c; Lieou tou tsi king, T 152 (no. 54), k. 5, p. 30b–32a (tr. Chavannes, Contes, I, p. 202–212); Fa kiu p’i yu king, T 211, k. 1, p. 583b; Tch’ou yao king, T 212, k. 3, p. 624b–625a; Liaou li wang king, T 513, vol. XIV, p. 783b–785b; Wou fen liu, T 1421, k. 21, p. 141; Ken pen chouo… tsa che, T 1451, k. 8–9, p. 239b–242a; Fa hien, tr. Legge, p. 67; Hiuan tsang, Si yu ki, T 2087, k. 6, p. 900b and p. 901b–c (tr. Watters, Travels, I, p. 395–396; II, p. 8–9); – in Tibetan in Rockhill, Life, p. 112–122.

The headache from which the Buddha suffered on this occasion is mentioned in Apadāna, I, p. 300, v. 24; Udāna Comm., p. 264; Lieou tou tsi king, T 152, k. 5, p. 31b3–4; Hing k’i hing king, T 197 (no. 3), k. 1, p. 166c–167a; P’ou sa chou t’ai king, T 384, k. 7, p. 1056b; Ken pen chouo… yao che, T 1448, k. 18,p. 96c9.

6) Eating horse feed.

See above.

7) Backache.

The brahmin Devahita had to heal the Buddha when he suffered from a backache caused by a disturbance of the wind element. He had Upavāsa massage him with warm water.

Sources: Saṃyutta, I, p. 174–175 (tr. Geiger, I, p. 173–274); Tsa a han, T 99 (no. 1181), k. 44, p. 4319b; T 100 (no. 95), k. 5, p. 407b; Hing k’i hing king, T 197 (no. 3), k. 1, p. 167c–168a; Ken pen chouo… yao che, T 1448, k. 18, p. 96c23 (tr. Chavannes, Contes, II, p. 423–424); Ta tche tou louen, T 1509, k. 26, p. 249c; Dīgha, III, p. 209; Majjhima, I, p. 354; Saṃyutta, IV, p. 184.

8) Six years of austerities.

A well-known period in the Buddha’s life; see the fine study of the sources by J. Dutoit, Die Duṣkaracaryā des Bodhisattva, Strassburg, 1905.

9) Return with empty bowl.

See above.

The Mppś will return to these sufferings endured by the Buddha at k. 27, p. 261a.

Attempted answers as to how Buddha got subjected to suffering:

From this brief summary of the sources, we see that the most authentic texts attribute a series of sufferings and illnesses to the Buddha. How can such a perfect being be subject to suffering? This is a problem which scholasticism has attempted to answer.

First explanation:

The first explanation, and the one most conforming to the theory of retribution of actions, is that by these torments and sicknesses, the Buddha was expiating the faults of his previous existences. This is the explanation given in various texts:

The Mūlasarvāstivādin Vinaya, T 1448, k. 18, p. 94–96, tells a series of misdeeds of which the Buddha was guilty in his earlier lifetimes and which, in the course of his last lifetime, earned him the following inconveniences:

  1. Rock thrown by Devadatta (p. 94a);
  2. Wound caused by a thorn (p. 94b);
  3. Return with empty bowl (p. 94c);
  4. Slander by Sundarī (p. 95a);
  5. Slander by Ciñcā (p. 95b);
  6. Eating horse feed (p. 96a);
  7. Six years of austerities (p. 96b);
  8. Illnesses (p. 96b);
  9. Headache (p. 96c);
  10. Backache (p. 96c).

Same list of misdeeds in the Pāli Apadāna; I, p. 299–301, section no. 387, entitled Pubbakammapiloto. They earned the Buddha the following punishments:

  1. Slander by Sundarī (v. 6);
  2. Slander by Ciñcā (v. 9);
  3. Rock thrown by Devadatta (v. 16);
  4. Hired assassins sent by Devadatta to kill the Buddha (v. 18; cf. Vinaya, II, p. 191–193);
  5. Nālāgiri, the elephant, sent against the Buddha by Devadatta (v. 20; a famous often-told episode, e.g., Vinaya, II, p. 194–196; Jatakā, V, p. 333–337; Avadānaśataka, I, p. 177–181;
  6. Wound caused by thorn (v. 22);
  7. Headache (v. 24);
  8. Eating horse feed (v. 26);
  9. Backache (v. 27);
  10. Dysentery (v. 28);
  11. Six years of austerities (v. 30).

K’ang Mong siang, a monk of Sogdian birth who went to China to Lo Yang in 194 A.D., translated into Chinese a sūtra entitled Hing k’i hing king (T 197) which, according to some catalogues, is a text of the Saṃyuktapiṭaka. This work contains ten stories telling the earlier actions which the Buddha had to expiate in the course of his last lifetime by ten sufferings:

  1. Sundarī’s slander (T 197, p. 164);
  2. Slander by Chö mi po (p. 166);
  3. Headache (p. 166);
  4. Rheumatism (p. 167);
  5. Backache (p. 167);
  6. Wound by thorn (p. 168);
  7. Rock thrown by Devadatta (p. 170);
  8. Ciñcā’s slander (p. 170);
  9. Eating horse feed (p. 170);
  10. Six years of austerities (p. 172).

It was most certainly from these works or other similar works that the objections raised in the Mppś were borrowed for the “List of nine sins” of the Buddha.

All these texts agree that the Buddha, despite his perfection, remained subject to retribution for his past actions or, as the Divyāvadāna expresses it, “The Victorious Ones themselves are not freed from their actions” (karmabhis te ’pi Jinā muktāḥ).

Second explanation:

But it was not long before such a radical application of the law of karma to the case of the Buddha was shocking. Two compromises have been found:

The first consists of saying that, whatever his experiences may be, the Buddha feels only pleasant feelings. Cf. the Devadahasutta (Majjhima, II, p. 227; Tchong a han, T 25 (no. 19): “If beings feel pleasure or pain as a result of their past actions, then, O monks, the Tathāgata has done good actions since, at the moment, he is experiencing pure and pleasant feelings” (sace, bhikkhave, sattā pubbekatahetu sukhadukhaṃ … anāsavā sukhā vedanā vedeti).

Another compromise comments that, besides the torments and illnesses resulting from past actions, there are others that are simply due to the present physical conditions. This is what the Buddha himself explained to Sīvaka in Saṃyutta, IV, p. 230–231 (cf. Tsa a han, T 99 (no. 977), k. 35, p. 252c–253a; T 100 (no. 211), k. 11, p. 432b–c). Without saying it explicitly, this sūtra seems to mean that the Buddha is subject only to illnesses reulting from physical conditions (cf. P. Demiéville in Hôbôgirin, Byô, p. 234. This, indeed, is the thesis of the Milinda, p. 134–136, which recalls the Buddha’s illnesses – wounding of the foot, dysentery (Dīgha, II, p. 128, body problems (Vinaya, I, p. 178–180), wind sickness (Saṃyutta, I, p. 174) – only to affirm immediately that none of the feelings experienced by the Buddha come from action (na -tthi Bhagavato kammavipākajā vedana).

Third explanation:

For the Greater Vehicle whose ideas the Mppś is expressing here the Buddha’s illnesses are simulated illnesses. Superior to the world (lokattara), the Buddha conforms to the world (lokānuvaratana) and simulates illness in order to console suffering humanity and assure its conversion by this soteriological artifice (upāya).

A text of the Ratnakūta, T 310, k. 28, p. 134c is especially clear:

“How do the bodhisattva mahāsattvas understand the intentional teaching (saṃdhāyabhāṣita) of the Tathāgata? The bodhisattva mahāsattvas are skillful in precisely understanding the profound and secret meaning hidden in the sūtras. O son of noble family, when I prophecy the attainment of supreme perfect enlightenment to the śrāvakas, that is not correct; when I say to Ānanda that I have a backache, that is not correct; when I say to the bhikṣus: ‘I am old, you should find an assistant (upasthāyaka) for me’, that is not correct. O son of noble family, it is not correct that in several places the Tathāgata triumphed over the tīrthikas and their systems one after another; it is not correct that an acacia thorn (khadirakaṇṭaka) wounded the Tathāgata in the foot.

When the Tathāgata says: ‘Devadatta was my hereditary enemy, he pursued me ceaselessly and tried to deceive me’, that is not correct. It is not correct that the Tathāgata, entering Śrāvastī, made a begging-round in Chö li ye (Śālā), the village of the brahmins, and returned with empty bowl. It is not correct that Ciñcamāṇavikā and Sundarī, attaching a wooden bowl to her belly [pretending to be pregnant] slandered the Buddha. It is not correct that the Tathāgata, once dwelling in the land of Verañjā where he had accepted the invitation of the brahmin Verañja, spent the three months of varṣa eating only barley (yava).”

Ibid., k. 108, p. 604b (tr. in Hôbôgirin, Byô, p. 235:

“Just as when a pharmacist, able to cure all the sicknesses but who himself is free of them, takes a bitter drug to persuade sick people to take it following his example, so the Tathāgata, although he has destroyed in himself all the sicknesses of the afflictions and has the sovereign mastery of all the dharmas, carries out such and such a bad action to obtain such and such a retribution and actualize such and such a factor, in order that beings avoid every obstacle of action and cultivate the practices of purity.”

– The same ideas are expressed in the Vimalakīrtinirdeśasūtra, T 475, of which the Mppś will give a lengthy extract.