Maha Prajnaparamita Sastra

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

This page describes “definitions of prajnaparamita” 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 1 - Definitions of Prajñāpāramitā

Note: These definitions are continued and developed below in chapters XXIX and XXX.

Śāstra: Question. – What is Prajñāpāramitā?

Answer. – 1. Some say: The root (mūla) of pure wisdom (anāsravaprajñā) is the distinctive characteristic of Prajñāpāramitā. Why? Because the foremost of all the wisdoms (prajñā) is called Prajñāpāramitā. The root of pure wisdom is the [139b] foremost wisdom. This is why the root of pure wisdom is called Prajñāpāramitā.

Question. – How can the bodhisattva who has not cut the bonds (bandhana) practice a pure wisdom (anāsravaprajñā)?

Answer. – a. Although the bodhisattva has not cut the bonds, he practices a semblance of pure Prajñāpāramitā; this is why it is said that he practices pure Prajñāpāramitā. It is like the śrāvaka who practices [the four nirvedhabhāghīyas] called heat (uṣman), summit (mūrdhan), patience (kṣānti) and supreme mundane dharma (laukikāgradharma): at the beginning, he practices a semblance of the pure dharmas (anāsravadharma) and later it is easy for him to produce the acquiescence that gives rise to the knowledge relating to suffering (duḥkhe darmajñānakṣānti).[1]

b. Furthermore, some say that there are two kinds of bodhisattvas: the one who has cut the fetters (saṃyojana) and is pure (viśuddha), and the one who has not cut the fetters and is impure. Only the bodhisattva who has cut the fetters and is pure can practice the pure Prajñāpāramitā.

Question. – But if the bodhisattva has cut the bonds and is pure, why does he still practice the Prajñāpāramitā?

Answer. – a. Although he has cut the bonds, he has not yet perfected the ten bhūmis (daśabhūmi) [which constitute the great bodhisattva’s career], nor has he adorned (viśayana) the buddhafields (buddhakṣetra), nor converted (vinayana) beings; this is why he still practices the Prajñāpāramitā.

b. Furthermore, there are two ways of cutting the bonds: 1) cutting the three poisons (triviṣa) [of passion, aggression and ignorance] and detaching one’s mind from the five objects of enjoyment (pañca kāmaguṇa) favored by men and gods; 2) while being detached from the five objects of enjoyment favored by men and gods, not being detached from the five objects of enjoyment that are the fruits of retribution (vipākaphala) of the bodhisattva qualities (gūṇa). This is why the bodhisattva must still practice the Prajñāpāramitā.

[The temptation of Anuruddha]. – Thus, when the āyuṣmat A ni lou teou (Anuruddha) was sitting in absorption (dhyāna) in a forest, some goddesses (devatā), the beautiful Ngai (Tṛṣṇā), etc., with their beautiful and wonderful pure bodies, came to tempt him. Anuruddha said: “Let these sisters (bhaginī) become blue (nīlavarṇa) and not show any mixed colors (miśravarṇa).” He wanted to contemplate the impurities (aśubha) [of their bodies] in this way, but he did not succeed in seeing any. And it was the same when, at his request, they took on a yellow (pīta), red (lohita) and white (avadāta) color. Then Anuruddha closed his eyes and did not look at them. He said: “May these sisters go away.” At that moment, the goddesses disappeared. – If their celestial shapes (divyasaṃsthāna), the reward of their merits (puṇyavipāka) intruded [on Anuruddha] in this way, what could be said about the five objects of enjoyment (pañca kāmaguṇa) that are the fruit of retribution (vipākaphala) of the immense qualities (apramāṇaguṇa) of the bodhisattvas, [except that they solicit the bodhisattva even more]?

[The Dance of Mahākāśyapa].[2] – When [Druma], king of the Kiṃnaras along with 84,000 Kiṃnaras came to the Buddha to play the lute, sing verses and pay homage to the Buddha, Sumeru, king of the mountains, all the trees on the mountains, the people and animals all started to dance. The assembly surrounding the Buddha, including Mahākaśyapa, could not sit still on their seats. Then the bodhisattva T’ien siu asked the āyuṣmat Mahākāśyapa: “Old man, previously you were foremost among those who observe the twelve dhutas; why can you not sit still on your seat?” Mahākāśyapa answered: “The five objects of enjoyment of the threefold world (traidhātuka) cannot make me agitated, but the superknowledges (abhijñā) of the bodhisattva [Druma], by virtue of the fruit of retribution of qualities (guṇavipākabalāt), put me in such a state that I am no longer myself and I cannot stay still.”

[139c]    The winds that arise from the four cardinal directions cannot shake mount Sumeru, but, at the end of the great kalpa, the P’i lan (Vairambha) winds[3] arise and blow on mount Sumeru like a pile of straw.

This is why we know that [in the bodhisattva] one of the two categories of bonds has not been broken. The bodhisattva must therefore still practice the Prajñāpāramitā. This is what the A p’i t’an (Abhidharma) explains.

2. Others also say: The Prajñāpāramitā is an impure wisdom (sāsravaprajñā). Why? Before the Bodhisattva cut his bonds under the bodhi tree, he already had great wisdom (mahāprajñā) and immense qualities (apramāṇaguṇa), but his passions (kleśa) were not yet cut. This is why they say that the Bodhisattva’s Prajñāpāramitā is an impure wisdom (sāsravaprajñā).

3. Others also say: During the interval of time between the first production of the mind of bodhi (prathamacittotpāda) until his [enlightenment] under the bodhi tree, the wisdom possessed by the Bodhisattva is called Prajñāpāramitā; but once the Bodhisattva becomes Buddha, this Prajñāpāramitā changes its name and is called Sa p’o ja (sarvajñā or omniscience).

4. Yet others say: Impure wisdom (sāsravaprajñā) and pure wisdom (anāsravaprajñā) are together called Prajñājñaramitā. Why? The bodhisattva contemplates nirvāṇa and travels the Path of the Buddhas; this is why his wisdom (prajñā) is necessarily pure (anāsrava). On the other hand, as he has not yet cut the fetters (saṃyojana) and thus has not yet done what has to be done (akṛtakṛtya), his wisdom must have the quality of being impure (sāsrava).

5. Others also say: The bodhisattva’s Prajñāpāramitā is pure (anāsarava), unconditioned (asaṃskṛta), invisible (anidarśana) and free of opposition (apratigha).

6. Others also say: This Prajñāpāramitā does not have a nature that is perceptible (anupalabhalakṣaṇa): [it cannot be said to be] existent (sat) or nonexistent (asat), eternal (nitya) or transitory (anitya), empty (śūnya) or real (bhūta, satya). This Prajñāpāramitā is not included in the list of aggregates (skandha), elements (dhātu) and bases of consciousness (āyatana). It is neither conditioned (saṃskṛta) nor unconditioned (asaṃskṛta), neither a dharma nor a non-dharma; it is neither grasped (gṛhīta) nor abandoned (hāta), neither arisen (utpanna) nor ceased (niruddha); it eludes the four alternatives (cātuḥkoṭika) of existence; it encounters no attachment. Just as the flame of a fire (agnijvāla) cannot be touched (spṛṣṭa) anywhere because it burns the hand, so the Prajñāpāramitā cannot be touched because the fire of false views (mithyādṛṣṭi) would burn [the person who would want to grasp it].

Question. – Among all those who have just defined the Prajñāpāramitā, who are correct?

Answer. – a. Some say that each of them is right and that they are all true. This is like in the sūtra where five hundred bhikṣus are debating, each in turn, on the two extremes (antadvaya) and the Middle Way (madhyamā pratipad) and where the Buddha declares: “All are right.”

b. Others say that it is those who have answered last who are right. Why? Because they can be neither contradicted nor refuted. If it concerned some dharma, no matter how trifling, those who would admit its existence would be making a mistake and could be contradicted; those who denied its existence could also be contradicted. But in this Prajñā, there is neither existence nor nonexistence, neither nonexistence nor not-nonexistence. In this way, speech (vyavahāra) is no longer valid; it is called tranquility (śānti), immensity (apramāṇa), dharma eluding vain proliferation (niṣprapañca). This is why it can [140a] be neither contradicted nor refuted; it is called the true Prajñāpāramitā. It is faultless excellence (pravara). Just as a noble cakravartin king subdues his enemies without ever boasting, so the Prajñāpāramitā can contradict all speech (abhilāpa) and vain proliferation (prapañca) without itself ever being contradicted.

c. Finally, in the following chapters, all kinds of explanations (arthamukha) will deal with the Prajñāpāramitā and its true nature.

Footnotes and references:


The four nirvedhabhāgīyas are the preparatory path (prayogamārga) leading to ‘understanding of the truths’ (satyābhisamaya). This understanding is a pure (anāsrava) prajñā involving sixteen thoughts; the first is duḥkhe dharmajñānakṣānti by means of which the practitioner destroys any doubt that may remain relative to the suffering of Kāmadhātu. Cf. Kośa, V, p. iv-v; VI, p. 179; above, Treatise, I, p. 214F, 395F.


On Kāśyapa’s dance to the music of Druma, see above, Treatise, I, p. 615F, n. 2. – On Druma, ibid., p. 609F, n. 4.


These winds have already been mentioned above, Treatise, I, p. 559F, n. 1.