Maha Prajnaparamita Sastra

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

This page describes “jataka of the king who set fire to his body so as to hear a buddhist stanza” 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 8 - Jātaka of the king who set fire to his body so as to hear a Buddhist stanza

The Buddha Śākyamuni was once a bodhisattva. At one time when he was [143c] the king of a great country, there was neither Buddha nor Dharma nor Saṃgha of monks (bhikṣusaṃgha). Having gone forth four times to seek the Buddhist Dharma, this king understood that he would not find it.

A brahmin said to the king:

“I know a stanza of the Buddha (buddhagāthā); if you pay homage (pūjā) to me, I will give it to you.”

The king asked: “What homage do you want?”

The brahmin replied:

“If you give the upper part of your body (pūrvakāya) and cut the flesh into the shape of a wick (dīpavarti) and pay homage to me with it, I will surely give you [the stanza].”

The king said to himself:

“My body is fragile and impure; from one lifetime to the next, it experiences innumerable sufferings. On the other hand, the Buddhist Dharma is a rare thing (adbhuta); today when I am beginning to be able to use it, why should I regret its loss?”

Having thought thus, he called on outcaste (caṇḍāla) who cut the upper part of his body, made a wick out of it, bound his flesh with white cotton and poured oil (taila) over it. At once the [king’s] body burst into flame and [the brahmin] gave him the stanza.

Notes on this Jātaka:

Condensation of a long jātaka told in detail by the Ta feng pien fo pao ngen king, T 156, k. 2, p. 131c–132b: A cakravartin king, whose name is not given, met a brahmin in a small frontier kingdom who knew the well-known stanza summarizing the Buddha’s teaching:

anityā bata saṃskārā utpādavyayadharmiṇaḥ, utpadya hi nirudhyante teṣāṃ vyutpaśamaḥ sukham

(cf. Dīgha, II, p. 157; Saṃyutta, I, p. 6, 158, 200; II, p. 193; Theragāthā, no. 1159; Jātaka, I, p. 392; Visuddhimagga, p. 527; a stanza endlessly reproduced in Buddhist inscriptions: cf. E.I., IV, p. 64).

To obtain this stanza from the brahmin, the king had the upper part of his body cut in a thousand places by a caṇdāla, the wounds filled with oil with cotton wicks inserted in them. When the brahmin had revealed the second part of the stanza, the king set fire to these wicks. Then, in the presence of Indra, he testified that his sacrifice had no other purpose than to obtain supreme complete enlightenment.

He said: “If I speak the truth, may my blood turn into milk and may my wounds be healed.”

Immediately, the desired miracle was accomplished and Indra announced to the king that before long he would be Buddha.

– The same jātaka with a few variations occurs in the P’ou sa pen hing king, T 155, k. 1, p. 112c–113c; Hien yu king, T 202, k. 1, p. 349b–350a (repeated in King liu yi siang, T 2121, k. 25, p. 136b–c): The king called Tou chö na sie li (in T 155), or K’ien chö ni p’o li (in T 202) – perhaps Kāñcanaśrī – cut a thousand lamps into his own body in order to obtain from the brahmin Lao tou tch’a (Raudrākṣa) another famous stanza: sarve kṣayāntā nicayāḥ patanānatāḥ samucchrayāḥ, saṃyogā viprayogāntā maraṇāntaṃ hi jīvitam (cf. Sanskrit Udānavarga, I, 22, ed. Chakravarti, p. 4; Nettip., p. 146; Mahāvastu, III, p. 152, 183; Divya, p. 27, 100, 486; JA, Jan.-Mar. 1932, p. 29).

Buddhists have always loved the stanzas: in the Greater Vehicle, the greatest rewards have been promised to the sons and daughters of good family who learn, repeat, understand or explain to others even one four-lined stanza taken from the Prajñāpāramitā (Vajracchedikā, p. 46: itaḥ Prajñāpāramitāyā dharmaparyāyād antaśaś catuṣpādikām api gāthām udgṛhya dhārayed uddeśayed vacayet paryavāpnuyāt parebhyaś ca vistareṇa saṃprakāśayet).

A whole series of exploits accomplished by the future Buddha in order to obtain one stanza could be cited: we limit ourselves to mention several: -Ta tch’eng pen cheng sin ti kouan king, T 159, k. 1, p. 194a; Ta pan nie p’an king, T 374, k. 14, p. 449b–451b; T 375, k. 13, p. 691b–693b; King liu yi siang, t 2121, k. 9, p. 43a–c: A young brahmin, practicing austerities on Mount Himavat, strongly wished to know the Buddhist doctrine. Wanting to test the sincerity of his wish, Indra appeared to him in the form of a hideous rākṣasa and recited the first part of the stanza to him: anityā bata saṃskārāḥ. The brahmin, enchanted, requested the second part, but the rākṣasa, before continuing, demanded that the brahmin give him his body as food. The brahmin agreed and after the second part of the stanza had been recited to him, he climbed up into a tree and threw himself down at the feet of the rākṣasa, but the latter, resuming his form as Indra, caught him in his fall and paid homage to him. Hiuan Tsang who summarizes this exploit (T 2087, k. 3, p. 882c24) locates it 400 li south of Mong kie li (Maṅgalapura), on the mountain Hi lo (Ham, 2500 m. high, in Buner. The jātaka is depicted on the Formosan pagodas (cf. Ecke-Demiéville, Twin Pagodas, p. 42 and pl. 32. 1) and on the Tamamushi altar.

– P’ou sa pen hing king, T 155, k. 2, p. 119b15–16; Hien yu king, T 202, k. 1, p. 350a–b; King liu yi siang, T 2121, k. 25, p. 136c–137a: King P’i leng kie li drove a thousand nails into his body to obtain from the brahmin Raudrāka the Buddhist stanza: anityā bata saṃskārāḥ.

– Avadānaśataka, no. 35, I, p. 187–193 (tr. Feer, p. 128–131); Siuan tsi po yuan king, T 200, no. 34, k. 4, p. 218c–219b; Dvāviṃśatyavadāna, ch. 23; Hien yu king, T 202, k. 1, p. 349a–b; King liu yi siang, T 2121, k. 25p. 140a–b: The king of Benares, Surūpa (variant) Kurūpa) offered his son, his wife and his own body as food to Śakra transformed into a yakṣa, in order to hear the stanza: priyebhyo jāyate śokaḥ, priyebhyo jāyate bhayam; priyebhyo vipramuktānāṃ nāsti śokaḥ, kuto bhayam (cf. Dhammapada, v. 212; Av. śataka, I, p. 191).

– According to the Mahāvastu, II, p. 225–257, the same (?) Surūpa, head of a herd of antelope, gave up his own body to Śakra disguised as a hunter for the price of the gāthā: sataṃ pādarajaḥ śreyo na giri kāñcanāmayaṃ; so rajo śokahānāya sa giri śokavardhanaḥ.

– Avadānaśataka, no. 38, I, p. 213–222 (tr. Feer, p. 142–138); Siuan tsi po yuan king, T 200, no. 35, k. 4, p. 219b–220b: The son of Brahmadatta, king of Benares, Dharmagaveṣin or Subhaṣitagavasin, threw himself into blazing coals to hear from the mouth of Śakra, disguised as Guhyaka, the stanza: dharmaṃ caret sucaritaṃ nainaṃ duścaritaṃ caret; dharmācārī sukhaṃ śete asmiṃ loke paratra ca (cf. Dhammapada, v. 169; Av. śataka, I, p. 220).

– King liu yi siang, T 2121, k. 8, p. 41b–c, which refers to P’ou sa kiue ting king, ch. 1: The bodhisattva Chan sin learned that a woman from the east kept the memory of half of a Buddhist stanza once preached by a Buddha. He went out to seek her and having miraculously crossed a vast morass, he discovered at the back of a cave near the city of Chan tchou (Supratistita) an ugly woman who agreed to recite the beginning of the stanza: sabbapāpassa akaraṇaṃ kusalassa upasampadā, sacittapariyodapanaṃ eta Buddhāna sāsasaṃ (cf. Digha, II, p. 49; Dhammapada, v. 183; Nettipakaraṇa, p. 43, etc.)

– Ling liu yi siang, T 2121, k. 3, p. 42c–43a: A man living at the foot of a precipice knew a Buddhist stanza. The bodhisattva Lo fa (Dharmatrata), in exchange for this stanza, promised him his golden cloak and his pearl necklace and, to prove the sincerity of his intention, had no hesitation in throwing himself over the precipice. The Cāturmahārājika devas caught him in his fall.

– Below, T 1509, k. 16, p. 178c: A bodhisattva, whose name varies according to the sources, used his skin as parchment, one of his bones as brush and his blood as ink to write the stanza: dharmaṃ caret sucaritam.

– Tsa pao tsang king, T 203, no. 49, k. 4, p. 469c–470a (tr. Chavannes, Contes, III, p. 43–46): The Buddha himself shows how much he appreciated the value of one stanza: four brothers having given him offerings, he teaches each of them a phrase incomplete in itself; but by joining these four phrases, the brothers succeeded in reconstructing the Buddhist creed: anityā bata saṃskarā.

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