Maha Prajnaparamita Sastra

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

This page describes “why does shariputra question?” 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.

Part 7 - Why does Śāriputra question?

Sūtra: Śāriputra said to the Buddha: Bhagavat, how must the bodhisattva-mahāsattva who wishes to know all the dharmas in all the aspects exert himself in practicing the Prajñāpāramitā? (Evam ukte āyuṣmān Śāriputra bhagavantam etad avocat: Kathaṃ bhagavan bodhisattvena mahāsattvena sarvākāraṃ sarvadharmān abhisaṃboddhukāmena prajñāpāramitayāṃ yogaḥ karaṇīyaḥ).

Śāstra: Question. – The Buddha, who wanted to preach the Prajñāpāramitā, manifested all kinds of miracles (prātihārya). Having manifested them, he ought to speak. Why was he questioned by Śāriputra first and then speaks?

Answer. – 1) Because the answer comes after the question; it must be so in the Buddhist texts [as everywhere else].

2) Furthermore, Śāriputra knows that the Prajñāpāramitā is profound (gambhīra) and subtle (sūkṣma), and that this doctrine without characteristics (alakṣaṇadharma) is difficult to understand (dūrvigāhya) and difficult to know (durjñeya). By the power of his knowledge (jñānabala), he meditates on it (bhāvayati) in various ways; he wonders if contemplating impermanence (anityatā) of dharmas is indeed Prajñāpāramitā; but he is unable to decide by himself. This is why he asks.

3) Finally, Śāriputra is not omniscient (sarvavjñā); in wisdom he is but a little child compared to the Buddha.

[Avadāna of the pigeon].[1] – Thus it is told in the A p’o t’an na king (Avadānasūtra): The Buddha was in the Jetavana; towards evening (sāyāhnasamayam), he started out with Śāriputra walking behind him. At that moment a hawk (śyena) was chasing a pigeon (kapota); the pigeon fell in front of the Buddha; when the Buddha, continuing his walk, came abreast of it and his shadow covered the pigeon, the bird became calm (śanta), its fears disappeared and it stopped crying. Later, when Śāriputra’s shadow covered the pigeon, it began to cry and tremble again.

Śāriputra asked the Buddha:

“The Buddha and myself are both free of the three poisons (triviṣa). Why does the pigeon stop its fear and crying when the Buddha’s shadow covers it and begin to tremble and cry when my shadow covers it?”

The Buddha said:

“In you the impregnations (vāsanā) of the threefold poison (trivisa) are not yet destroyed (kṣīṇa); that is why, when your shadow covers it, the pigeon’s fears do not disappear. Examine the avadānas of the pigeon in its previous existences (pūrvanivāsa); for how many lifetimes has it been a pigeon?”

Then Śāriputra entered into the concentration of knowledge [which has as its object] previous existences (pūrvanivāsajñānasamādhi) and saw that the pigeon had always been a pigeon for one, two, three lifetimes and so on, for 80,000 [139a] great kalpas; but beyond that, he stopped and could see no further. Having come out (vyutthāya) of the concentration, Śāriputra said to the Buddha:

“This pigeon has always been a pigeon for 80,000 great kalpas, but beyond that, I do not know.”

The Buddha continued:

“If you cannot know to the very end of past existences (atītajanman), try then to see after how many future existences (anāgatajanman) the pigeon will escape [from its animal destiny].”

Śāriputra then entered into the concentration of the knowledge [that has as its object] aspirations (praṇidhānajñānasamādhi) and he saw that this pigeon would not escape its destiny as a pigeon for one, two, three existences, and so on for 80,000 great kalpas; but beyond that, he stopped and could see no further. Having come out of the concentration, he said to the Buddha:

“I see that this pigeon will not escape from its destiny as a pigeon for one, two, three existences, and so on for 80,000 great kalpas; but beyond that I know no further. I do not know the limits (maryādā) of the past and the future, I do not know when this pigeon will escape [from its animal destiny].”

The Buddha said to Śāriputra:

“The [existences] of this pigeon surpass the limits knowable by śrāvakas and pratyekabuddhas. This [pigeon will constantly have pigeon existences for great kalpas as numerous as the grains of sand of the Ganges (gaṅgānadīvālukopama). When its sin (āpatti) has been expiated, it will come out and will transmigrate (saṃsāriṣyati) in the five destinies (pañcagati); then it will be a human (manuṣya) and, at the end of five hundred [human] existences, it will acquire keen faculties (tīkṣṇendriya). At that time there will be a Buddha who, having saved innumerable (apramāṇa) and incalculable (asaṃkhyeya) beings, will enter into nirvāṇa without residue (nirupadhiśeṣanirvāṇa), but his spiritual legacy will remain in the world and our man will become a lay adherent observing the five precepts (pañcaśikṣaparigrāhakopāsaka); hearing a bhikṣu praise the qualities of the Buddha, he will first produce the mind of bodhicitta (prathamacittotpāda), then make the aspiration (praṇidhāna) to become a Buddha; then for three incalculable periods (asaṃkhyayakalpa), he will practice the six virtues (ṣaṭpāramitā); finally, when he has attained the tenth bhūmi, he will become Buddha and, after having saved innumerable beings (apramāṇasattva), he will enter into nirvāṇa without residue (nirupadhiśeṣanirvāṇa).”

Then Śāriputra made his confession (deśanākaraṇa) before the Buddha and said:

“If I do not succeed in understanding the avadānas of a bird, how could I understand all the dharmas? Now I know how far the knowledge of the Buddha extends. In order to possess such knowledge, I would be willing to fall into the Avīci hell and suffer torments for innumerable kalpas, and I would not consider that to be difficult.”

It is because he does not understand the dharmas of this kind that Śāriputra asks questions.

Footnotes and references:


The avadāna of the pigeon is reproduced in the King liu yi siang, T 2121, k. 48, p. 254b–c; Kośa, VII, p. 72 makes a brief allusion to it.