Maha Prajnaparamita Sastra

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

This page describes “asivishopamasutra” 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.

In the Fo chouo tou che yu king (Āsīviṣopamasūtra), it is said:

A man who had committed an offence against the king was commanded by the latter to take a chest containing four venomous snakes and to guard them and take care of them.

The man said:

“It is dangerous to come near these four snakes; they kill anyone who approaches them. It is impossible to feed even one of these snakes, let alone four at once.”

Then he threw away the chest and fled. The king ordered five men to take their swords and pursue him.

Thereupon, an individual, of attractive speech but inwardly hostile, said to the man:

“It would be reasonable to feed these snakes; that would not cause any harm.”

Smelling a rat, our man went his own way and saved his life by fleeing. He came to an empty village where an honest man skillfully (upāyena) said to him:

“Although this village is empty, it serves as a stopping-place for thieves. If you stay here, you should watch out for the robbers. So don’t stay here.”

Then our man came to a great river; on the other shore of the river (pāra), there was a foreign land, a very happy country (sukhāvatī), peaceful, pure and free of torment. Immediately, our man gathered materials and ropes and built himself a raft. Using his hands and feet, he paddled across the river and reached the other shore, Sukhāvatī, free of torment.

The king is king Māra; the chest is the human body; the four poisonous snakes are the four great elements (caturmahābhūta); the five solders with drawn swords are the five aggregates (pañcaskandha); the individual with fine words but bad intentions is attachment (saṅga); the empty village is the six attractions (ruci); the thieves are the six sense objects (ṣaḍbāhyāyatana); the honest man who addresses him with compassion is the good teacher; the great river is thirst (tṛṣṇā); the raft is the Noble eightfold Path (āṣṭāṅgikāryamārga); paddling with hands and feet is exertion (vīrya); this shore is the world (loka); the other shore is nirvāṇa; the man who crosses over is the arhat who has destroyed the defilements (kṣīṇāsrava).

It is the same for the bodhisattva. If his generosity comes up against three obstacles (āvarāṇa) [which consist of saying]: “It is I who am giving such and such a thing to this recipient”, he falls under Māra’s power and he does not escape from difficulties. But if the bodhisattva’s gift is triply pure (trimaṇḍalapariśuddha) and free of these three obstacles (āvaraṇa),[1] he reaches the other shore and is praised [145c] by the Buddha: this is called Dānapāramitā, this is arriving at the other shore [of generosity]. The six Pāramitās allow people to cross the great ocean of the afflictions (kleśa) – greed (mātsarya), etc. – and attachment (saṅga) and lead them to the other shore.

Notes on the Āsīviṣopamasūtra:

The Āsīviṣopamasūtra is taken from the Saṃyutta, IV, p. 172–174 (tr. Woodward, Kindred Sayings, IV, p. 107–110). It also occurs in the Saṃyukta and the Chinese Ekottara: Tsa a han, T 99, n0. 1172, k. 43, p. 313b–315a; Tsing yi a han, T 125, k. 23, p. 669c–670. These two versions correspond in essence to the Pāli text.

The Pāli Saṃyutta and the Tseng yi a han place the Āsīviṣopamasūtra in Śrāvastī, in the Jetavana in the Anāthapiṇḍadārāma, while the Tsa a han places it at Kauśāmbī in the Ghositārāma.

The Chinese versions have some details lacking in the Pāli text but which appear in the Mppś. The Tsa a han and the Tseng yi a han note that the four venomous snakes are in a trunk (k’ie) or a chest (han), symbolizing the human body, the receptacle of the four great elements. Moreover, the Tseng yi a han, like the Mppś, has a king ordering the hero of the story to feed and bathe the snakes at a certain time.

In the Pāli Saṃyutta and the two Chinese versions, the hero, in his flight, successively meets five deadly enemies (pañcavadhakā paccatthikā), a sixth individual the burglar assassin (chaṭṭha antaracaravadhaka), an empty village (suñña gāma), robber pillagers of villages (corā gāmaghārakā), a vast expanse of water (mahā udakaṇṇava). In the Mppś, the adventures are slightly different: the hero successively meets five hired assassins sent by the king to catch him, a false friend, an empty village, a good counsellor, a great river.

– Moreover, the interpretation of the parable varies from one source to the other: the Pāli Saṃyutta and the two Chinese versions see in the vast expanse of water an allegory symbolizing the four streams of desire (kāma), existence (bhava), wrong view (diṭṭhi) and ignorance (avidyā), whereas the Mppś sees, in the great river, a figure indicating thirst (tṛṣṇā).

These significant differences show that the Mppś instead of being directly inspired by the canonical texts of the Pāli Saṃyutta, the Tsa a han or the Tseng yi a han, has borrowed its parable from other sources. In fact, the Āsīviṣopamasūtra, as told here by the Mppś, is taken almost textually from a chapter of the Mahāparinirvāṇasūtra (T 374, k. 23, p. 499a–b; T 375, k. 21, p. 742c–743a), of which here is the translation:

A king filled a trunk with four venomous (āsīviṣa) snakes and commanded a man to feed them, put them to sleep and wake them, rub their bodies.

He ordered:

“If anybody infuriates one of these snakes, I will takes steps to have him put to death and his body exposed in a public place.”

Then on hearing the royal decree, our man became frightened, abandoned the trunk and fled. At once the king ordered five caṇḍālas to draw their swords and pursue him. Looking back, our man saw them and fled even more quickly.

Then the five men, resorting to a trick, hid their swords which they were carrying and sent after him an individual who, pretending to be his friend, said to him: “You can turn back.”

But our man did not believe them and took refuge in a village (grāma) where he tried to hide. Coming into the village he furtively inspected all the houses, but saw no one; he took some containers (bhājana) but they were empty, without contents. Seeing nobody and not finding any provisions, he sat down on the ground. In the sky he heard a voice that said:

“Hey, man! This village is empty and without inhabitants, but tonight six great thieves (mahācaura) will come; If you ever encounter them, your life will not be spared. How then will you escape them?”

Then our man, his fear increasing, took flight. On his road he found a river with choppy water, but he had no boat [to cross it].; feverishly, he gathered all kinds of material and built a boat (kaula).

He thought:

“If I stay here, I will be the victim of the four poisonous snakes, the five caṇḍālas, the false friend and the six great thieves; if I cross the river and my boat does not hold, I will fall in the water and drown. I prefer to fall in the water and die rather than be the victim of the snakes and the robbers.”

At once, he pushed his straw raft into the water, seated himself on it and paddling with his hands and feet, he reached the other shore [where he found] peace (kṣema) and safety; his mind (citta) was calmed and his fears disappeared.

The Mahāparinirvāṇasūtra follows this apologue with a long interpretation that can be summarized as follows: the body is like the trunk; earth, water, fire and wind the four venomous snakes; the five caṇḍālas, the five skandhas; the false friend, rāgatṛṣṇā; the empty cillage, the six ādhyātmikāyatanas; the river, the kleśas; the raft, vimukti, jñāna-darśana, the six pāramitās and the thirty-seven bodhipākṣikadharmas; the other shore, nityasukhanirvāṇa.

The Āsīviṣopamasūtra seems to have been particularly well-known in north-west India, a region with which the Mppś shows so much acquaintance. According to the Samantapāsādikā, I, p. 66, the Chan ken liu p’i p’o cha, T 1462, k. 2, p. 685b; and the Mahāvaṃsa, XII, v. 26, the sthavira Madhyānyika (thera Majjhantika) preached it to the nāga king Aravāla and the people of Kaśmīra-Gandhāra; eighty-four thousand listeners were converted to Buddhism and a hundred thousand received ordination.

It should be noted, however, that this preaching of the Āsīviṣipamasūtra is not mentioned in the Sarvāstivādin texts dealing with the conversion of Kaśmir by Madhyāntika: Ken pen chou… tsa che, T 1451, k. 49, p. 410c–411b (tr. Przyluski, Le Nord-Ouest de l’Inde, JA, 1914, p. 533–537); A yu wang tchouan, T 2042, k. 4, p. 116b–c (tr. Przyluski, Aśoka, p. 340–342); A yu wang king, T 2043, k. 7, p. 156a–b.

The Āsīviṣopamasūtra should not be confused with the Āsīvisasutta of the Aṅguttara, II, p. 110–111 ) tr. Woodward, Gradual Sayings, II, p. 115–116) another important sūtra, which has no parallel in the Chinese Tripiṭaka, but which is often cited in the Pāli sources; cf. Puggalapaññatti, p. 48; Suttanipāta, comm., p. 458.

Finally, we note that the four great elements entering into the bodily composition are often compared to poisonous snakes; cf. Traité, I, p. 8iF; Sūtrālaṃkāra, tr. Huber, p. 153, 387; Vimalakīrtinirdeśasūtra, T475, k. 1, p. 539b28. Gold, particularly deadly, recalls the same comparison: Sūtrālaṃkāra, tr. Huber, p. 171.

The apologue of the four poisonous snakes, contained in the Āsīviṣopamasūtra, shows traits in common with the parable of “the man in the well”, which has four snakes (i.e., the four elements) threatening to bite a man clinging to a root on the edge of a well; cf. Chavannes, Contes, II, p. 83–84; III, p. 257; IV, p. 158, 235–238; J. Ph. Vogel, The Man in the Well, RAA, XI, 1937, p. 109–115.

Footnotes and references:


See above, p. 676F, n. 2.