Maha Prajnaparamita Sastra

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

This page describes “superiority of the monastic vows over the lay vows” 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 1 - Superiority of the monastic vows over the lay vows

Question. – If the morality practiced by those who remain at home (gṛhasthaśīla) already allows rebirth in the heavens (svarga), of finding the Path [161a] of the bodhisattvas and of reaching nirvāṇa, why resort to the monastic discipline (pravrajitaśīla)?

Answer. – 1) Salvation is found by these two moralities, but with greater or lesser ease. Those who remain at home (gṛhastha) are overloaded with business during their lifetime; if they want to apply their minds to things of the Path (mārgadharma), their domestic affairs decline; if they want to busy themselves with their dometic affairs, the Dharma things suffer from it; observing the Dharma without adding anything and without subtracting anything is difficult. But for the monastic (pravrajita) who has renounced the world and made a break with all the causes of restlessness, practicing the Path by exclusive exertion (aikāntikodyama) is easy.

2) Besides, those who remain at home are troubled with many cares and preoccupations; [these are] a cause of fetters (saṃyojana) and an occasion for faults that constitute a problem. The monastic is like a person who has withawn into the forest (araṇya) beyond any human habitation; he can fix his mind one-pointedly (cittaikāgratā); when he has neither thought (cintanā) nor speculation (tarka), his inner consciousness (ādhyātmikasaṃjñā) vanishes and outer objects (bāhyavastu) disappear. Some stanzas say:

Withdrawn into the forest,
Alone, he wipes out his faults.
In calm and rest, he attains single-mindedness (ekacitta);
His happiness is greater than divine.

People seek wealth, nobility and profit,
Fame, garments and comfortable beds,
But their happiness is not peace (yogakṣema):
The search for profit is insatiable.

He who wears the robes (pāṃśukūlika) and begs his food
Does not know restlessness; his mind is always fixed.
With the eye of wisdom (prajñācakṣus)
He contemplates the True [nature] of dharmas.

Into all kinds of sermons (dharmaparyāya)
He penetrates with the view of sameness (saṃpaśyanā).
Wisdom (ājñāna) and peace of mind (cittaśānti)
Have no equal in the threefold world (traidhātuka).

From that we know that the morality observed by the monastic makes the practice of the Dharma easy.

3) Besides, the cultivation of morality by the monastic earns him an infinite discipline (apramāṇakuśalasaṃvara) and the fulfillment of all the equipment for salvation (sarvasaṃbhāraparipūri). This is why the lay person (avadātavasana) likewise should leave the world (pravraj-) in order to acquire perfect morality (paripūrṇaśila).

4) Besides, in the Buddhadharma, the monastic life (pravrajya) is extremely difficult to practice (paramaduṣkara).


This is why the religious life should be embraced.

5) Moreover, when a person becomes a monastic (pravrajati), king Māra, frightened and saddened, says: “The fetters (saṃyojana) will diminish in this person; they will certainly attain nirvāṇa and increase the ranks of the Jewel of the saṃgha (saṃgharatna).”

6) Moreover, in Buddhism, the monastic who violates the precepts and undergoes punishment will attain deliverance once this punishment has been undergone.

[Utpalavarnā Jātaka].

[Ordination of an intoxicated brāhman].

For all of these reasons, the religious life has many benefits and this is why the lay person (avadātavasana), even though he has the fivefold discipline (pañcaśīla) is not like a monastic (pravrajita).

The discipline (saṃvara) of the monastic is of four kinds, namely, the discipline of the śrāmaṇera (novice) and the śrāmṇerikā, that of the śikṣamāṇā (probationer), that of the bhikṣuṇī and, finally, that of the bhikṣu (monk).

Notes on the monastic and lay vows:

Can the upāsaka obtain the fruits of the religious life (śrāmaṇyaphala), reach arhathood and obtain nirvāṇa? Or are these benefits reserved for the monastic alone, for the bhikṣu? For this question, see Oldenberg, Bouddha, p. 358–359; Rh. D., Dialogues of the Buddha, III, p. 5; Oltramare, Théosophie, II, p. 131; L. de La Vallée Poussin, in Kośa, IV, p. 69, n. 2; Demiéville, Les versions chinoises de Milindapañha, BEFEO, XXIV, 1934; N. Dutt, Place of laity in Early Buddhism, IHQ, XXI, 1945, p. 180–183.

We are asked to distinguish between the Theravādin position and that of the Sarvāstivādins, but it seems that Buddhists never differed on this question; their thesis is very simple and can be summarized in two words: Theoretically, the upāsaka can gain all the perfections of the bhikṣu, but practically, his spiritual progress will be slower and less certain.

1) In theory, the upāsaka can obtain all the fruits of the religious life:

The saṃgha of lay upāsakas is based on the view of nirvāṇa, just like that of the bhikṣus: “Just as the Ganges river bends, inclines and flows down to the sea, so Gautama’s congregation, lay as well as monastic, bends, inclines and flows toward nirvāṇa” (cf. Majjhima, I, p.493, and T 99, k. 34, p. 247a16: Seyathā pi Gaṅgā nadī samuddaninnā samuddapoṇā samuddapabbhārā … evam evāyaṃ Gotamassa parisā sagahaṭṭhapabbajitā nibbānaninnā nibbānapoṇā nibbānapabbhāra.

It is a matter of course that the ordinary upāsaka, no different from the bhikṣu of middling virtue, will not attain nirvāṇa straight away. The majority of upāsakas, “not having broken the fetter of the lay life, will be reborn after death in the heavens” (Majjhima, I, p. 483: bhiyyo va ye gihī gihisaṃyojanaṃappahāya kāyassa bhedā saggūpagā ti); and we have seen above (p. 822F) that celestial bliss and particularly rebirth in the paradise of the Trāyastriṃśa gods are the usual rewards for lay morality.

Nevertheless, all the canonical scriptures, Pāli as well as Sanskrit, agree in saying that there are many especially worthy upāskas who have access to the first three fruits of the Path and who become srotaāpanna, sakṛdāgamin and anāgamin:

a. “Many are the upāsakas, disciples of the Buddha, householders, wearing the white robe and cultivating the sense-pleasures … who adapt their life to the teachings of the master (Majjhima, I, p. 491: bhiyyo va yeu upāsakā mama sāvakā gihī odātavasanā kāmabhogino … satthusāsane viharanti). Such a person “breaking the three fetters (kāyadṛṣṭi, vicikitsā and śīlavrataparāmarga) is a stream-enterer, is not subject to rebirth in the lower destinies, is assured of deliverance) and destined to obtain supreme enlightenment” (cf. Majjhima, I, p. 467, and T 99, k. 34, p. 247a5–7: tiṇṇaṃ saṃyojanānaṃ parikkhayā sotāpanno avinipātadhammo niyato sambodhiparāyano).

b. The same canonical sources also praise the upāsaka who “by breaking the three fetters and reducing passion, aggression and ignorance has become a once-returner; after having returned to this world once, he will attain the end of suffering” Majjhima, I, p. 467, and T 99, k. 34, p. 246c29–247a1: tiṇṇaṃ saṃyojanānaṃ parikkhayā rāgadosamohānaṃtanuttā sakadāgāmī sakid eva imaṃ lokaṃ āgantvā dukkhass’ antaṃ karissati).

c. Finally, many are the upāsakas, disciples of the Buddha, householders, wearing the white robe, but observing chastity who, by breaking the five coarse fetters (kāyadṛṣṭi, vicikitsā, śīlavrataparāmarśa, kāmacchanda and vyāpāda) have become beings who are reborn in the world of the gods and who attain nirvāṇa; they are not subject to returning to this world” (Majjhima, I, p. 490. and T 99, k. 34, p. 246c19–20: bhiyyo va ye upāsakā mama sāvakā gihī odātavasanā brahmacārino pañcannaṃ orambhāgiyānaṃ saṃyojanānaṃ parikkhayā opapātikā tatthaparinibbāyino anāvattidhammā tasmā lokā).

On the attainment of these three fruits by the upāsaka, see also Tchong a han, T 26, k. 18, p. 546b.

But can the upāsaka also obtain the fourth and last fruit of the Path, viz., arhathood and nirvāṇa? Yes, unhesitatingly say the Uttarāpathakas in the Kathāvatthu, I,p. 167: “The lay person can become arhat” (gihī ’ssa arahā ti).

But the Theravādins hesitate, quibble and disagree with a text of the Majjjima, I, p. 483, that says:

“Without having broken the fetter which binds the lay person, no lay person can, after death, put an end to suffering”

(N’atthi koci gihī gihisaṃyojanaṃ appahāya kāyassa bhedā dukkhass’ antaṃ karoti).

But that is not the question: the main thing is whether the lay person, while remaining a lay person, can break the fetter that binds and thus put an end to suffering. That it is possible if not easy is what the Theravādins themselves implicitly recognize; actually, in their Aṅguttara, II, p. 45, they list about twenty lay people, Trapuṣa and Bhallika at the head of the list, who have attained cesation (niṣṭha), immortality (amṛta), without ever having being ordained. In Saṃyutta, V, p. 410 and Tsa a han, T 99, no. 1128–1129, k. 41, p. 298c, they recognize that the reverence of honest people, the hearing of the holy Dharma, right reflection and conformity with the precepts of the Dharma – qualities that are within the reach of the upāsaka as well as of the bhikṣu – are sufficient to assure the obtaining of the four fruits of the Path including the state of arhat.

2) But if lay discipline correctly practiced leads to sainthood, what is the use of becoming a monastic?

This question was asked by Menander of Āyupāla who did not know how to answer (cf. Milinda, p. 19–21); it was Nāgasena who provided the solution for this difficulty to the king: the monastic attains sainthood more quickly and more assuredly than the lay person (cf. Tsa pao tsang king, T 203, no. 111, k. 9, p. 492c; tr. Chavannes, Contes, III, p. 120–123). This is the position of all the other Buddhist authors who never fail to underline the dangers of the lay life and the benefits of the monastic life. Although he is a disciple of the Buddha, the lay person is always troubled by passion, aggression and ignorance. This is because he is not yet free of depravity for, if he were fee of it, he would no longer stay at home and would not eat as he pleases (Majjhima, I, p. 91).

The wise man should renounce the world and leave his family:

“Let him leave his son and his wife, his father and mother, wealth and harvests, friends and all objects of desire, let him wander alone like the rhinoceros. Let him say: Family life is a bond; there is little happiness there, little joy, many problems; it is fish-hook; let him wander alone like a rhinoceros” (Suttanipāta, v. 60 seq).

The monastic life offers immense benefits to those who thirst for salvation; they are fully described in detail in the Sāmaññaphalasutta (Dīgha, I, p. 47–86). Very rare are the lay people who reach sainthood while remaining in the world. Besides, if they reach this sainthood, which is the aim of monastic life, they are not strictly speaking lay people but truly monastics: the Milinda (p. 264–265) claims that at the moment when the lay person attains arhathood, he enters into an ascetic brotherhood. The Mppś, which is here examining the respective values of the two moralities, monastic and lay, is of the opinion that “one finds salvation by these two moralities, but with greater or lesser ease.” In his journey to sainthood, the lay person encounters more difficulties than the monastic: he is loaded with material responsibilities and exposed to the committing of many faults. The monastic, on the other hand, is freed of any material worries; he dwells in concentration, is subject to a more complete discipline which requires sustained effort; the faults that he may commit are somewhat neutralized by his vows that he has professed; they delay but do not prevent his spiritual progress.

Footnotes and references:


This reading is vouched for in the Chinese version T 99, k. 18, p. 126a11; in the Pāli version there is the variant dhammānudhammapaṭipatti, meaning “conduct in harmony with the Dharma”. Cf. Geiger, Pāli Dhamma, p. 115.

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