Maha Prajnaparamita Sastra

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

This page describes “lives of mahatyagavat” 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.

The lives of Mahātyāgavat

The Buddha Śākyamuni in one of his previous existences (pūrvajanman) was a great physician-king (mahāvaidyarāja) who healed all the sick people (vyādhi), not with pride (śloka) or self-interest (lābha) but with compassion (anukampā) for all beings. But as the sick were too numerous, he was unable to heal them all. He worried about the whole world and worry did not leave his mind. He died of sadness and was reborn in the heaven of the Tao li gods (Trāyastriṃśa). Then he thought: “Here I have become a god; but by enjoying the reward of my merits (puṇyavipāka) alone, I have not advanced.” By his own means, he chose to die and renounced the divine longevity (devāyus).

He was reborn in the palace of the Nāga king P’o kia t’o (correct So k’ie lo = Sāgaranāgarāja; cf. Traité, I, p. 294F, 288F) as nāga-prince (nāgakumāra). When he was grown up, his parents loved him very much, but he resolved to die and gave himself up to the king of the golden-winged birds (garuḍa). The bird carried him away and devoured him at the top of a cottonwood tree (śālmalī). His parents wept, moaned and lamented.

After his death, the nāga-prince took rebirth in Jambudvīpa as the crown prince of a great king (mahārājakumāra). He was called Neng che (Tyāgavat) and was able to speak as soon as he was born. He asked everywhere what wealth there actually was in the land so as to take it and distribute it as gifts. Frightened, the people avoided him and fled from him. Out of compassion and affection, his mother alone stayed to care for him. He said to his mother: “I am not a demon (rākṣasa); why do people run away from me? In my previous existences (pūrvanivāsa), I always loved to give and I surpassed everyone by my gifts.” Hearing these words, his mother repeated them to peopple, and everyone returned. His mother raised him with love. When he had grown up, he gave [151b] away everything he possessed; then he went to find his father and asked him for riches to distribute. His father gave him a portion, and he spent it also in liberality. Seeing how many people in Jambudvīpa were poor (daridra) and unfortunate (ārta), he still wished to give to them, but his wealth was not enough. He began to weep and asked people: “By what means (upāya) could one get enough wealth for everyone?” The astrologers answered: “We have heard at one time that there is a cintāmaṇi (philosopher’s stone); if one could get it, one could obtain all that one desires.” Having heard these words, the bodhisattva said to his parents: “I want to go to sea to look for this cintāmaṇi on the head of the Nāga king.” His parents replied: “You are our only son; if you go down to the bottom of the sea, it will be hard for you to escape dangers;[1] if we ever lose you, what is the use for us to live on? You must not go. In our treasury (kośa) there is still some wealth; we will give it to you.” The son replied: “Your treasury is limited, but my aspirations are limitless: I want to satisfy the whole world so that there will be no more needs. I would like to have your permission (anujñā). If I can follow my original intention, I will satisfy everyone in Jambudvīpa.” Seeing the gravity of his resolve, his parents dared not hold him back and allowed him to depart.

At this moment, out of respect for his great qualities, five hundred merchants were very happy to follow him. Knowing the date of his departure, they assembled in the port. The bodhisattva, who had heard that there was a cintāmaṇi in the head of the Nāga king Sāgara (read So k’ie lo), asked the crowd: “Does anyone know the way leading to this Nāga’s palace?” A blind man (andhapuruṣa)[2] named T’o chö (Dāsa), who seven times previously had been on the high seas[3] knew the sea route in question. The bodhisattva asked him to accompany him. He answered: “I am old and my eyes have lost their light; although formerly I went several times, today I can no longer go.” The bodhisattva said: “If I am undertaking this journey now, it is not for myself; it is in the interests of all that I am going to look for the cimtāmaṇi. I wish to satisfy people so that their bodies have no more suffering.” Then by means of a sermon on the Path (mārgadharmaparyāya), [the bodhisattva] converted the [old pilot]: “You are a wise man, how could you deny that? How could my vow be accomplished without your help?” Dāsa heard his appeal, warmly embraced the bodhisattva and said: “I will accompany you and set sail with you on the great ocean. As for myself, I will surely not return. You must gather my ashes and leave them on the island of golden sand (suvarṇavālukādvīpa) that is in the middle of the great ocean.”[4]

When the gear for the voyage had been gathered together, they cut the seventh anchor;[5] the ship set forth, pitching and heeling and arrived at the island of precious stones. The merchants argued about the seven kinds of jewels (saptaratna) and, when each had had enough, they asked the bodhisattva why he did not take any. The bodhisattva answered: “What I want is the cintāmaṇi; these jewels are impermanent things and I don’t want them. But each of you should [151c] limit yourselves so as not to weigh down the ship which cannot withstand it.” But the merchants said: “Bhadanta, make some wishes for us so that we will be safe (yogakṣema).” Then they went away. Dāsa said to the bodhisattva: “Let us keep the dinghy separately and we will go another route. Let us wait seven days for the wind.[6] We will sail along the southern coast; we will reach a dangerous place; there will be a craggy shore with a forest of jujube trees the branches of which extend down to the water. A heavy wind will blow our boat and it will break up. You must try to grab a branch and you will be able to save yourself. As for me who have no eyes, I will perish. Beyond the reef there is an island with golden sand and you must bury my body in the sand; this golden sand is pure and that is my wish.”

As he had said, the wind arose and they sailed off. They came to the craggy shore and according to Dāsa’s advice, the bodhisattva tried to grab a branch and succeeded in saving himself. He took Dāsa’s body and buried it in the Golden Island (Suvarṇabhūmi). Then he went on alone according to the instructions previously given. For seven days he swam in deep water; for seven days he waded in water up to his neck (kaṇṭha); for seven days he waded in water up to his thighs (kaṭi); for seven days he waded in water up to his knees (jānu); for seven days he walked in mud (kardama). Then he saw beautiful lotuses (utpala), fresh and delicate, and he said to himself: “These lotuses are too fragile; it is necessary to enter into the meditative stabilization of space (ākāśasamādhi).” Having made his body light [by means of this meditative stabilization], he walked on these lotuses for seven days. Then he saw venomous snakes (āsīviṣa) and he said: “These poisonous snakes are very formidable”; he entered into the meditative stabilization of loving-kindness (maitrīcittasamādhi) and he walked on the heads of these venomous serpents for seven days: all the snakes raised their heads and presented them to the bodhisattva so that he could walk thereon.[7] When he had overcome these obstacles, he found a city made of the seven kinds of jewels (saptaratnamayanagara) fortified by seven moats; three great nāgas guarded the gates. Seeing this handsome (abhirūpa), graceful (prāsādika) bodhisattva adorned with the major and minor marks (lakṣaṇānuvyañjan-ālaṃkṛta) who had overcome all the obstacles to come to them, these nāgas thought: “This is not an ordinary man (pṛthagjana); this must be a bodhisattva, a man of great merit (mahāguṇapuruṣa).” They allowed him to enter into the palace.

The nāga king and queen had recently lost their son and were still mourning him in their hearts. Seeing the bodhisattva coming, the nāga queen, who possessed the superknowledges (abhijñā), recognized that this was her son, and the milk spurted from her breasts.[8] She asked him to be seated and said to him: “You are my son; when you left me, where did you take rebirth?” The bodhisattva who, for his part, kept the memory of his previous existences (pūrvanivāsānismṛti), recognized that these were his parents and answered his mother: “I took birth in Jambudvīpa as the crown prince of a great king (mahārājakumāra). Out of compassion (anukampā) for the poor (daridrā) who are unable to overcome the suffering of hunger (bubhukṣā) and cold (śita), I have come here to look for the cintāmaṇi.” His mother said to him: “There is a [152a] cintāmaṇi on your father’s head as an ornament (cūḍāmaṇi), but it will be difficult to get it. Your father will certainly take you to the treasure-house where he keeps his jewels and will certainly give you them at will; you must answer: ‘I do not need these assorted jewels (miśraratna); I want only the presious jewel on the head of the great king; if he understands my compassion [for beings], he will consent to giving it to me.’ This is how you will be able to get it.”

The bodhisattva went to his father who was deeply moved and whose joy was boundless. Full of pity for his son who had endured so many dangers to come to him, he showed him magnificent jewels and said: “I give you anything you wish; take what you want.” The bodhisattva answered: “I have come from afar to visit the great king in order to look for the cintāmaṇi which is on his head. If he understands my compassion [for beings], he will give it to me; if he does not want to give it to me, I have no need of anything else.” The nāga king replied: “I have only this single stone which always serves me as head-adornment (cūḍāmaṇi); the inhabitants of Jambudvīpa are unfortunate and miserable; you should not go back to them.” The bodhisattva replied: “But that is why I endured so many dangers and braved death to come so far. The inhabitants of Jambudvīpa are unfortunate and miserable and I want to fulfill their desires with the cintāmaṇi.” Then with a sermon on the Buddhist path (buddhamārgaparyāya), the bodhisattva converted his father. The nāga king, giving him the stone, formulated one condition: “Here, I give you the stone; but when you are dead, you will return to me.” The bodhisattva answered: “I will conform with the king’s words with respect.”

Taking the stone, the bodhisattva flew up into the sky (ākāśa) and in the time it takes to stretch out one’s arm, he returned to Jambudvīpa. His human parents, the king and queen, seeing their son retum safe and sound, joyfully embraced him and asked: “What have you found?” He ansered: “I have found the cintāmaṇi.” – “Where is it?” – “In the lining of this garment.” – “How big is it?” – “Because of its marvelous qualities, it does not take up much space.” And the bodhisattva said to his parents: “Command that the inside and outside of the city be cleaned and that incense be burned, that banners (patākā) be hung, that the fast (poṣadhavāsa) and the vows be observed (śīlasādāna).” The next day, early in the morning, he set up a great pole as a monstrance and attached the pearl to its summit. Then the bodhisattva made the following vow (praṇidhāna): “If I attain buddhahood and save all beings, may this stone obey my wishes and make all precious things (ratnadravya) appear; may it fulfill all the needs of people.” Immediately a dark cloud spread and rained down all kinds of precious objects, garments (cīvara), food (āhāra), beds and seats (śayāsana), medicines (bhaiṣajya) and all the materials (pariṣkāra) that people need. And to the end of the [bodhisattva’s] life, this rain never stopped.

This is how generosity gives rise to the virtue of exertion in the bodhisattva.

Notes on these stories:

The bodhisattva Neng-che (Capable of giving) definitely is the bodhisattva Ta che (Great liberality) whom the Mppś has already praised (cf. Traité, I, p. 265) as a hero of vigor. The same individual also appears, under the name P’ou che (Universal liberality) in the Lieou tou tai king and, under the transcription Mo ho chö kia fan (Mahātyāgavat), in the Hien yu king.

The acts of the bodhisattva Mahātyāgavat are well-known in the following sources: Mahāvastu, II, p. 89–91; Lieou tou tsi king, T 152 (no. 9), k. 1, p. 4a–5a (tr. Chavannes, Contes, I, p. 30–38); Hien you king, T 202 (no. 40), k. 8, p. 404b–409c (cf. Chavannes, Contes, IV, p. 90–91; Schmidt, Der Weise u. d. Thor, p. 227–252); King liu yi siang, T 2121, k. 9, p. 47b–48a.

– In summary, Mahātyāgavat, the son of the brahmin Nyagrodha, is a kind of hero of generosity. As his fortune and that of his father were insufficient, he undertakes a sea journey. On the way, he meets first the brahmin Kia p’i who promises him his daughter in marriage. Having come to the sea-shore, he joins some travelling companions, and on the seventh day, the last anchor holding the ship was cut. They came to the land of jewels; his companions, having made their fortunes, leave Mahātyāgavat who alone sets out to look for the cintāmaṇi pearl in the palace of the nāgas. Having triumphed over the poisonous serpents and the rākṣasas, Mahātyāgavat comes in turn to cities of silver, lapis-lazuli and gold where he gathers wondrous pearls. On his way back, they are stolen from him while he sleeps by the nāgas. To get them back, he undertakes to empty the water of the ocean; his pearls are returned to him. Having come back to his homeland, he finds his aged parents and marries his fiancée.

The deeds of Mahātyāgavat as they appear in the aforementioned sources are reproduced here incompletely by the Mppś which is silent about the marriage of Mahātyāgavat and about his courageous action of emptying the water of the ocean with a gourd. The latter detail, however, is not unknown to the Mppś because it mentions it in another place (Traité, I, p. 265F). On the other hand, here it introduces a series of episodes as the deeds of Mahātyāgavat that earlier are foreign to him; thus, after a shipwreck, during a period of seven weeks, Mahātyāgavat has to overcome a whole series of obstacles in order to reach the nāga palace.

These new episodes are borrowed partially from another cycle of legends closely related to that of Mahātyāgavat, the legend of the two brothers Kalyāṇakārin and Pāpakārin, of which the following is a summary: The king of Vārāṇasī had two sons, Kalyāṇakārin and Pāpakārin. The king of another land, Li che Po (Ṛṣabha) promised his daughter in marriage to Kalyāṇakārin who was a hero of generosity and who, in order to satisfy his leanings, went to seek his fortune beyond the seas; his brother Pāpakārin accompanied him. He came in turn to the cities of gold, of silver, of lapis-lazuli, and finally, after a thousand obstacles, the palace of the nāga king. Kalyāṇakārin obtained from the nāga the cintāmaṇi pearl, but his brother stole it from him after having put out his eyes. The brother returned first and made pretensions to the throne. The blind Kalyāṇakārin returned to the court of the king who had promised him his daughter, and the latter, although not recognizing him, declared that she wanted to marry only him; Kalyāṇakārin regained his sight and, having driven away his borther, the usurper, mounted the throne.

– The story of the two brothers is found in the following sources, collated by Chavannes: Hien yu king, T 202 (no. 42), k. 9, p. 410a–415b (cf. Schmidt, Der Weise u. d. Thor, p. 261–282); Ta fang pien fo pao ngen king, T 156, k. 3, p. 142c–147a; Dharmagupta Vin., Sseu fen liu, T 1428, k. 46, p. 910c–913a; Mūlasarvāstivādin Vin. in T 1450, k. 15, p. 178c–180a (tr. Chavannes, Contes, II, p. 389–397), and Schiefner-Ralston, Tibetan Tales, p. 279–285; C. Huart, Le conte bouddhique des deux frères, en langue turque et en caractères ouïgours, JA, Jan.-Feb. 1914, p. 5–58; P. Pelliot, La version ouïgours de l’histoire des princes Kalyānāṃkara et Pāpaṃkara, T’oung Pao, 1914, p. 225–272. – See also the Mahājanakajātaka, Pāli Jātaka, VI, p. 30–68.

But the cycles of Mahātyāgavat and that of the two brothers are not enough to account for all the episodes told by the Mppś which, from borrowed bits and pieces, succeeds in giving its own tale the aspect of an original story. Indeed, all the tales of sea voyages use the same themes; only the choice and arrangement of the anecdotes differ a little. Another story of travel, built up with the same action, is that of Maitrakanyaka, otherwise Maitrāyajña, in Pāli Mittavindaka, to which S. Lévi has brought abundant documentation in his edition of the Karmavibhaṅga, p. 51.

Footnotes and references:


Parents always try to discourage their children from the business of the sea; cf. Mahājanakajātaka, Pāli Jātaka, VI, p. 34


Supāraga, the master mariner from Bharakaccha, had also himself become blind; but his services being revealed as indispensable, he agreed to lead an expedition on the high seas; cf. Pāli Jātaka, IV, p. 138–139; Jātakamālā, p. 88.


Seven voyages on the high seas are a record, since, as Pūrṇa comments in the Divyāvadāna, p. 34: “Has anyone ever seen or heard of a man who has returned from the great ocean six times bringing his ship back safe and sound and who goes to sea again for the seventh time?”


This is evidently Suvarṇadvīpa or Suvarṇabhūmi, cf. above, p. 628F.


The ship had been anchored to the quai by seven anchors; once the departure was decided on, one anchor per day was cut; cf. Chavannes, Contes, II, p. 243; IV, p. 90, 129.


The favorable wind was known by the name irā, the propeller; cf. Chavannes, Contes, II, p. 243.


Usually it is at the end of seven days and after sailing seven hundred leagues that the ship is shipwrecked (cf. Pāli Jātaka, IV, p. 16; VI, p. 34). To reach the marvelous city, the castaway must still struggle against all kinds of obstacles for seven weeks: one week of swimming, etc. See a development of very similar points in Sseu fen liu, T 1428, k. 46, p. 912a14.


This is the theme of The Mother’s Milk; cf. Chavannes, Contes, I, p. 83; III, p. 12; IV, p. 98.