Maha Prajnaparamita Sastra

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

This page describes “tittiriyam brahmacariyam (the religious life of the pheasant)” 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 10 - Tittiriyaṃ brahmacariyaṃ (the religious life of the pheasant)

There was a time when the men of Jambudvīpa were unaware of the respect due to the venerable aged ones (vṛddhabhadanta); it was impossible to convert them by words. Then the Bodhisattva changed himself into a kia p’in chö lo bird (kapiñjala or francolin). This bird had two friends (mitra), a great elephant (mahāhastin) and a monkey (markaṭa); they lived together under a pi po la tree (pippala or Ficus religiosa).

One day they wondered: “We do not know who is the oldest of us.”

The elephant said:

“Earlier, when I saw this tree, it came to under my belly (udara) and today it is the size that you see. From that I conclude that I am the oldest.”

The monkey said:

“Once, when I was kneeling on the ground, my hand reached the top of this tree; from that I deduce that I am the oldest.”

The bird said:

“In a gig-tree forest, one day I was eating a pippala fruit; a seed sprouted from my droppings (varcas) and that produced the tree that you see; from that I deduce that I am by far the oldest.”

The bird also said:

“The antiquity of my previous births (pūrvajanmapauraṇa) gives me the right of respect (pūjā).”

At once the great elephant put the monkey on his back, the bird perched on the monkey and they went to walk about. All the birds and animals, seeing them, asked: “Why are you doing this?”

They answered:

“This is how we pay respect (satkāra) and homage (pūjā) to the elders.”

The birds and animals accepted the lesson and began to respect [their elders]; they stopped invading the fields of the people and destroying the lives of animals. People found it strange that all the birds and animals had stopped doing harm. Having entered the forest, a hunter (lubdhaka) saw the elephant carrying the monkey who was carrying the bird; he told the country people that the practice of [mutual] respect had transformed beings and that all of them were busy doing good.

The people rejoiced saying: “Today the great peace begins; the birds and animals are becoming civilized.”

In turn, the people imitated the animals and all practiced respect [toward their elders]. From that ancient event until today, the thousand lifetimes have elapsed; we should know that this [francolin] was the Dharmakāya Bodhisattva.

Notes on the Tittiriyaṃ brahmacariyaṃ:

This well-known apologue is entitled “Religious life of the Pheasant”, Tittiriyaṃ brahmacariyaṃ in Pāli, Tche fan hing in Chinese. The Buddha preached it to his monks to encourage them to practice respect towards their elders. The apologue has three or four animals, a bird, a monkey and an elephant, to which some sources add a hare. The bird is sometimes a pheasant (tittiriya in Pāli; tche (172 and 8) in Chinese), sometimes a francolin (?) (kapiñjala), sometimes also the To-bird (36 and 3, or 196 and 8), a kind of pigeon that lives in the Gobi desert. In order to determine their respective ages, these three animals went to a large tree, either a nyagrodha (Ficus indica) or a pippala (Ficus religiosa) which some sources locate on the side of the Himavat, others on the shore of the sea.

A comparative study of the various sources allows us to classify them as follows:

1st Three Vinayas, the Pāli Vin. (II, p. 161–162), the Mahīśasaka Vin. (T 1421, k. 17, p. 121a), the Dharmaguptaka Vin. (T 1421, k. 17, p. 121a) as well as the Tch’en yao king (T 212, k. 14, p. 686a) present the apologue in the form of a simple fable.

2nd The Mahāsāṃghika Vin. (T 1425, k. 27, p. 446a–b) presents the exploits of the pheasant and his friends in the form of a jātaka, in the sense that the parts played by the heroes of the fable are proposed as having been lived by the Buddha and his contemporaries in the course of a previous life. According to this Vimaya, the elephant was none other than the Buddha.

3rd The Sarvāstivādin Vin. (T 1435, k. 34, p. 242b–c) and the Mppś (T 1509, k. 12, p. 146c) both show the story in the form of a jātaka, but identify the pheasant as the Buddha this time. Moreover, they develop the apologue considerably, the three animals, perched on top of the other, go to preach to the other animals and to people.

4th The Tittirajātaka of the Pāli Vin. I, p. 218–219) reproduces, almost word for word the text of the Pāli Vin., but adopts the samodhāna of the Sarvāstivādin Vin. in identifying the elephant as Maudgalyāyana, the monkey as Śāriputra nd the pheasant as the Buddha.

5th The Mūlasarvāstivādin Vin. (original version in Gilgit Manuscripts, III, part 3, p. 125–131); Tibetan version in Schiefner-Ralston, Tibetan Tales, p. 302–307) has four animals: a francolin (kapiñjala), a hare (śaśa), a monkey (markaṭa) and an elephant (gaja), which it identifies (p. 131) with the Buddha, Śāriputra, Maudgalyāyana and Ānanda, respectively. This Vin. brings a new detail: it is the king and the people of Benares who are converted by the example of the four animals.

6th The oral traditions collected by Hiuan tsang also relate this jātaka with Benares. Acording to the Life (T 2053, k. 3, p. 235c) and the Memoirs (T 2087, k. 7, p. 906a) of this pilgrim, there was a stūpa built to commemorate the virtuous pheasant in the neighborhood of Benares.

See a comparative study of the various recensions in La conduite réligieuse du faisan dans les textes bouddhiques, Muséon, LIX, 1946, p. 641–653. See also Ecke-Demiéville, Twin Pagodas, p. 58 and pl. 39 (1).

Most of the Vinayas add that the elephant places the monkey on his head and the monkey placed the pheasant on his shoulder; they walked together from village to village preaching the Dharma. The Sarvāstivādin Vin. continues: Earlier, these three animals enjoyed killing living beings (prāṇātipāta), stealing (adattādāna), engaging in sex (kāmamithyācāra) and lying (mṛṣāvāda). They had this thought: “Why do we not renounce our bad actions?” Thinking thus, they renounced killing, stealing, sex and falsehood; among the animals they were unequalled in observing the four precepts. After their death, they were reborn in the heavens. At that time, the code of the pheasant was propagated and spread, it was manifested among gods and men People thought: “Why do the animals do good deeds and not pillage our crops to feed themselves?” And they also thought: “If the animals show so much respect, all the more reason we should show mutual respect.” From then on, people showed respect to one another, practiced the code of the pheasant widely and carefully observed the five precepts (pañcaśīla). After their death, they were reborn in the heavens.

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