Maha Prajnaparamita Sastra

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

This page describes “story of the complete gift of the painter karna” 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 4 - Story of the complete gift of the painter Karṇa

Note: The story of Karṇa is told in the following sources: A very mutilated fragment of the Kalpanāmaṇḍitikā, ed. Lüders, p. 148–149; Ta tchouang yen louen king, T 201, no. 21, k. 4, p. 279a–280a (tr. Huber, Sūtrālaṃkāra, p. 117–119); Tsa pao tsang king, T 203, no. 42, k. 4, p. 468a–b (tr. summarized in Chavannes, Contes, III, p. 40); Ling liu yi siang, T 2121, k. 44, p. 228c (reproducing the present passage of the Mppś).

Thus in the city of Fou kai lo (Puṣkarāvatī) (also see Notes on Karṇa) of the Ta Yue tche, there was a painter (citrakāra) named Ts’ien na (read Kie na = Karṇa)[1] who went to the kingdom of To tch’a che lo (Takṣaśilā) (also see Notes on Takṣaśilā) of the eastern region (pūrvadeśa). Having painted there abroad for thirty years, he received thirty ounces of gold. Returning with it to his own native land, Puṣkarāvatī, he heard the drum being beaten to announce a great gathering (mahāpariṣad).

He went to see the assembly (saṃgha) and in the purity of his faith (śraddhācittaviśuddhi) he asked the karmadāna:[2] “What is needed to feed this assembly for a day?”

The karmadāna answered:“Thirty ounces of gold is enough to feed them for a day.”

Then the painter gave his thirty ounces of gold to the karmadāna, saying:

“Furnish the assembly with food for me for one day; as for myself, I will go away tomorrow.”

And he went home empty-handed. His wife asked: “During these twelve years, what did you earn?”

He replied: “I earned thirty ounces of gold.”

His wife said: “Where is this gold?”

He answered: “I have planted it in a field of merit (puṇyakṣetra).”

His wife asked what was this field of merit. He replied: “I gave it to the Assembly (saṃgha).”

Then his wife bound him in chains and brought him before the judge to punish him [142a] and decide the matter. The great judge asked what was the problem.

The woman said:

“My husband is a madman: in twelve years abroad he earned thirty ounces of gold and, having no compassion for his wife and children, he gave it all away to strangers. Basing myself on the law, I immediately bound him up and brought him here.”

The judge asked the husband: “Why did you give to strangers instead of bringing it back to your wife and children?”

He answered:

“During my previous lifetimes (pūrvajanman), I had never practiced virtue (guṇa) and that is why, in the present lifetime (ihajanman), I am poor (daridra) and suffer all the hardships (ārta). In the course of this lifetime, I have come across a field of merit (puṇyakṣetra): if I had planted nothing in it, I would still be poor during my future lifetimes and my successive poverty (dāridryaprabandha) would never come to an end. Wanting to escape poverty, I have given all my gold to the Assembly.”

The great judge was an upāsaka and his faith in the Buddha was pure; having heard the painter’s reply, he congratulated him:

“That was the deed of a hero: the small sum that you so painfully earned, you have given it all to the Assembly, You are an honest man.”

Then the judge removed his necklace (mukuta) and gave it to the poor man along with the horse that he rode and a village (grāma).

Then he said to him:

“You have just made a gift to the Assembly; the Assembly has not yet eaten; the seeds have not yet been sown; but when the shoots come forth, you will have a great fruition in future lifetimes.”[3]

This is why it is said that to dedicate completely the goods that one has earned with hardship constitutes very great merit.

Notes on the story of Karṇa:

Karṇa was a native of Puṣkarāvati (T 201), “of the country of Gandhāra and the city of Puṣkarāvati” (T 203). Here the Mppś is more precise: Karṇa is a native of the city of Puṣkarāvati ‘of the Ta Yue-tche’; he came to the kingdom of Takṣaśilā ‘in the eastern direction’; there, ‘abroad’, he painted for twelve years. This passage sheds some light on the place of origin and the date of the Mppś. A text that situates Takṣaśilā in the eastern direction can hardly have been composed anywhere but in Kapiśa or in Gandhāra. According to the Chinese custom, Kumārajīva, the translator of the Mppś, here means, by Ta Yuen-tche, the Kuṣāṇa monarch. Actually, whereas “various countries all call [this land] the country of the king of Kouei chouang (Kuṣāṇa), the Chinese, departing from the old name, [continue to] say the Ta Yue-tche” (Heou-Han chou, tr. P. Pelliot, Tokharien et Koutchéen, JA, Jan.-Mar. 1934, p. 38).

The story of Karṇa takes place at a time when the Kuṣāṇa already reigned in Gandhāra but did not yet extend their sovereignty over Takṣaśilā. Thus we are in the reign of the Kuṣāṇa monarch Kujula Kadphises. Actually, K’ieou tsieou k’io (Kujula Kadphises) is the sovereign who “invaded the Ngan-si (Parthia), seized the territory of Kao-fou (Kapiśa) and conquered P’ou-ta and Ki-pin (Kaśmir)” (cf. E. Chavannes, Les pays d’Occident d’après le Heou-Han chou, T’oung pao, series II, VIII, p. 190 seq.). A little later, the same monarch added Gandhāra and probably also Takṣaśilā to his crown; the inscription of Panjtār (south of Mahāban, in eastern Gandhāra) tells us that: “In the year 122, the first day of the month of Śrāvaṇa, under the reign of the great king Guṣaṇa, the eastern region of [Ka ?]sua was made propitious ground by Moïka, son of Urumuja” (Sten Konow, CII, II, p. 70). Although this inscription uses the era of Azes I (57 B.C.), it establishes that in the year 122–57, i.e., the year 65 A.D., Gandhāra belonged to the great Kuṣaṇa king Kujula Kadphises (cf. R. Ghirshman, Bégram, Cairo, 1946, p. 106, 124).

Notes on Takṣaśilā:

The Tsa pao tsang king (l.c.) does not mention Takṣaśilā; it says only that Karṇa worked abroad for three years. According to the Ta tchouang yen louen king (l.c.), Karṇa had decorated a vihāra in the kingdom of Che che (112; 40 and 6); in these two characters which mean ‘House of stones’, Huber (Sūtrālaṃkāra, index, p. 473) sees Aśmaka or Aśmaparānta; others see Tashkent (Foucher, Art Gréco-bouddhique, II, p. 644; Ghirshman, Bégram, p. 149), but comparison with the Fa tch’a che lo transcription of the Mppś indicates that Che che, the first character of which means ‘stone’ (in Sanskrit, śilā) conceals an original Takṣaśilā.

Here Kumārajīva renders Takṣaśilā by To tch’a che lo (36 and 3; 18 and 6; 70 and 5; 122 and 14), whereas in his translations of other works (e.g., T 201, k. 5, p. 282c19–20), he uses the more usual transcription Tö tch’a che lo (60 and 8; 20 and 1; 44; 122 and 14) which also occurs in the Chinese Ekottara (T 99, k. 23, p. 162c29) and in the legend of Aśoka (T 2042, k. 1, p. 100c2; T 2043, k. 1, p. 133a6). Hiuan tsang (T 2087, k. 3, p. 884b28) uses the characters Ta tch’a ch lo (30 and 5; 29 and 1; 38 and 5; 122 and 14). Besides these transcriptions, there are also Tso che (167 and 19; 112) ‘Dressed stone’ in T 2043, k. 10, p. 166c7; T’ou che (32, 112) ‘Earth and stone’, i.e., construction materials (takṣaṇa) in T 2043, k. 10, p. 166c12; Sio che (18 and 7; 112) ‘Cut stone’ in T 190, k. 38, p. 831b11.

Takṣaśilā (the Greek Taxila, the actual Saraïkala, 26 miles northwest of Rawalpindi), was the capital of eastern Punjab. Its long history is mixed up with that of all of India. Sir John Marshall who excavated there for about thirty years, has recorded his results in a work of three volumes (cf. JRAS, 1947, p. 3). See also Marshall’s Guide to Taxila, Delhi 1936; Cumming, India’s past, p. 142–146.

Footnotes and references:


The name of the painter was indeed Karṇa, as the fragment of the Kalpanāmaṇḍitikā, p. 148 (ahaṃ Karṇa iti) and the transcriptions Ki na (122 and 12; 163 and 4) and Kie na (123 and 9; 163 and 4) of the T 203 and 201 say, l.c.


The karmadāna is the monk who ‘assigns the jobs’. The Pāli sources do not mention him, but the Sanskrit sources do so (cf. Mahāvyutapatti, no. 9362) and also the Chinese sources, where this word is transcribed by Kie mo t’o na, or translated by Tche che (111 and 3; 6 and 7) ‘director of business’. Here the Mppś designates him by the characters Wei na (120 and 8; 163 and 4), a hybrid expression consisting of wei which means ‘law, rule’, and the Sanskrit ending na. Cf. Yi tsing in Chavannes, Religieux éminents, p. 89, and Takakusu, Record of Buddhist Religion, p. 148; S. Lévi, Quelques titres énigmatiques dans la hiérarchie ecclésiastique, JA, 1915, p. 202, 204, 210.


According to the Mppś and the Tsa pao tsang king, Karṇa was acquitted by the judge and richly rewarded; the Kalpanāmaṇḍitikā and the Ta tchouang yen louen king (l.c.) add that he went home clothed in rich garments and riding a horse. His wife and his relatives did not recognize him, but he explained that his generosity had borne fruit in this life, and that the wealth the judge had bestowed on him was the reward of his generosity towards the Assembly. His wife was won over and she acknowledged that “as soon as one has decided to give alms, the reward is already imminent.”

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