Maha Prajnaparamita Sastra

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

This page describes “what is the virtue of morality (shilaparamita)” 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 - What is the virtue of morality (śīlapāramitā)

[162a] Question. – Now that we know the characteristics of morality (śīlalakṣaṇa), what is the virtue of morality (śīlapāramitā)?

Answer. – 1) Some say that the virtue (pāramitā) of morality (śīla) is the morality of the bodhisattva who prefers to lose his life rather than break the smallest precept. As was said above in the Sou t’o sou mo wang king (Sutasomarājasūtra),[1] the bodhisattva sacrifices his life to keep the precpts.

[Jātaka of the flayed Nāga].

In order to keep the [precepts, the bodhisattva sacrifices his life; he is steadfast (niyata) and without regret. That is why it is called the virtue of morality.

2) In order to reach buddhahood, the bodhisattva who observes morality makes the following great vow (praṇidhāna): “I wish to save beings; I am not seeking the happiness of the present existence nor of future existence (ihaparatrasukha); I do not seek glory (yaśas) or fame (praśaṃsā). I do not seek to enter nirvāṇa later; I have in view only the beings fallen into the great stream (mahāsrotas) [of transmigration], deceived by desire (kāma) and bewildered by stupidity (moha); I wish to save them and lead them to the other shore (pāra). I will observe morality attentively (ekacittena) in order to be reborn in a good place (kuśalasthāna); being reborn in a good place, I will meet good people (satpuruṣa); meeting good people, I will give rise to wisdom (prajñā); giving rise to wisdom, I will come to practice the six virtues (ṣaṭpāramitā); practicing the six virtues, I will reach buddhahood.” Such morality is called the virtue of morality.

3) Furthermore, the mind of the bodhisattva who is observing morality is good (kuśala) and pure (pariśuddha); he is not afraid of the unfortunate destinies (durgati) and has no wish to be reborn among the gods; he seeks only goodness and purity and perfumes (vāsayati) his mind with the aid of morality so as to make it better. That is the virtue of morality.

4) Moreover, the bodhisattva who observes morality in the spirit of great compassion (mahākaruṇācitta) reaches buddhahood, and that is what is called the virtue of morality.

5) Moreover, by observing morality, the bodhisattva gives rise to six virtues and this fact constitutes the virtue of morality.

a. Why does morality give rise to morality? On leaving the fivefold morality [of the upāsaka], one reaches the tenfold morality of the śrāmaṇera. On leaving the morality of the śrāmaṇera, one takes up the morality of discipline (saṃvaraśīla) [that characterizes the bhikṣu]. On leaving the morality of discipline, one reaches the morality resulting from dhyāna. On leaving the morality of dhyāna, one reaches pure morality (anāsravaśīla). In this way morality gives birth to morality.

b. How does morality give rise to generosity (dāna)? There are three kinds of gifts: i) the material gift (āmiṣadāna), ii) the gift of the Dharma (dharmadāna), and iii) the gift of fearlessness (abhayadāna).

The morality that abstains from encroaching on the good of others constitutes the “material gift”. – Beings who witness this value this behavior. [By means of his example], the moral person preaches the Dharma to them and opens up their intellect. He says: “By carefully observing pure morality, I will be a venerable field of merit (puṇyakṣetra) for all beings; thus all beings, [being inspired by my example], will earn immense merit (apramāṇapuṇya).” All beings fear death; morality which forbids tormenting them constitutes the “gift of fearlessness.”

Moreover, the bodhisattva says: “I will observe morality and, as reward for this morality, for all beings I will be a noble cakravartin king or a king of Jambudvīpa. If I become a king of the gods (devarāja), I will load all beings with wealth and there will be no more poor people; later, seated under the Bodhi tree, I will conquer king Māra and destroy his armies; I will realize supreme buddhahood, I will preach the pure Dharma to all beings and will take [162c] innumerable beings across the ocean of old age (jatā), sickness (vyādhi) and death (maraṇa).” This is how morality gives rise to the virtue of generosity.

c. How does generosity give rise to patience (kṣānti)? The moral person says to himself: “Today I am observing morality to control my mind. If this morality is without patience, I will fall into hell. Even by not violating the precepts, if I have no patience, I will not escape the evil destinies. How then can I give myself up to anger and not control my thoughts since it is only because of the mind that one enters into the three evil destinies? This is why one must love individual effort, diligence and cultivate patience. Besides, the ascetic who wishes to affirm his moral virtue must exercise patience. Why? Because patience is the great power that consolidates morality and makes it immutable. “Also he says: “Today that I have abandoned the world (pravrajita) and my appearance distinguishes me from a worldly person, how could I give myself up to my emotions like people of the world? It is necessary to try to arm one’s mind with patience. By means of patience of body and speech (kāyavākkṣānti), the mind acquires patience. If the mind is not patient, the body and speech are not either. This is why the ascetic must use patience of body, speech and mind to break any movement of anger (krodha). Besides, in general (samāsataḥ), this morality involves eighty-four thousand items; in detail (vistararaḥ), an immense number (aprameya) of items. What should I do in order to observe the innumerable rules of morality at once? It is only by patience that I will have command over all morality.” When a person has committed a crime against the king, the king takes the guilty person and puts him into a cart armed with swords; on the six sides of the cart there are sharp points leaving no spaces; the cart goes off at a gallop without choosing a path. If the man succeeds in staying alive without being wounded by the swords, it will be as though he had been put to death but without dying. It is the same for the moral man: his morality is the sharp swords; patience keeps him alive. If his patience is not strong, morality will wound this man. An old man or a night-walker stumbles if he has no stick; patience is the stick of morality that helps that man reach the Path; being the cause and condition of happiness, it is immutable. This is how morality gives rise to the virtue of patience.

d. How does morality give rise to exertion (vīrya)? The moral person excludes all carelessness (pramāda); by personal effort, he cultivates the peerless Dharma (anuttaradharma); he renounces worldly happiness and penetrates into the holy Dharma; he makes the resolution to seek nirvāṇa and save all beings; with this great thought, he has no more laziness, for he seeks the Buddha above all. This is how morality can give rise to exertion.

Moreover, the moral person abhors the sorrows of the world (lokaduḥkha) and the sufferings of old age, sickness and death; he develops exertion to free himself and save beings.

[The exertion of the jackal].

It is the same for the ascetic who wants to escape from suffering: when old age (jarā) comes, he tries to reassure himself; he does not become saddened and applies exertion; also in the case of sickness (vyādhi), as long as there is hope, he does not worry; when death (maraṇa) comes and he knows there is no more hope, he exerts himself and, arming himself with courage and zeal, he redoubles his energy; from the sphere of death, he will finally reach nirvāṇa. The practice of morality is like drawing the bow. The archer first looks for even ground; once he is on even ground, he fixes his attention; having fixed his attention, he bends the bow fully; having bent the bow, he releases the bow-string. Here the level ground is morality; the bow is fixed attention; the bending of the bow is exertion; the arrow is wisdom; the enemy is ignorance. If one can use one’s strength and exertion thus, one will certainly reach the great Path and will save beings.

Finally thanks to exertion, the moral person controls his five instincts and does not feel the five objects of desire (pañcakāmaguṇa). When his mind escapes from him, he grabs hold of it and brings it back. Morality keeps guard over the senses (indriya); guarding the senses, it gives rise to rapture (dhyāna); producing rapture, it gives birth to wisdom (prajñā); creating wisdom, it leads to Buddhahood. This is how morality gives rise to the virtue of exertion.

e. How does morality give rise to rapture (dhyāna)? There are three actions (karman) by which a person does good; if the physical action (kāyakarman) or the vocal action (vākkarman) is good, the mental action (manaskarman) tends spontaneously (svataḥ) towards the good. A twining plant (kuṭilatṛṇa) growing in the midst of hemp is stunted in its growth; thus the power of morality can destroy all the fetters (saṃyojana). How does it destroy them? When one does not observe morality, as soon as a reason for hatred (dveṣavastu) arises, a thought of killing (atipātacitta) is produced; as soon as a reason for desire arises, a thought of lust is produced. On the other hand, even if he experiences a little anger, the moral man does not conceive any thought of killing; even if he experiences sensual attraction, he feels no lust. This is how morality leads all the fetters to destruction. When the fetters are destroyed, rapture (dhyāna) and concentration (samādhi) are easy to obtain. Just as death takes place easily for a sick person or an old person who has lost their strength, so rapture and concentration are easy to obtain when the fetters are destroyed.

Moreover, the human mind always and incessantly seeks for pleasure and debauchery; the ascetic who observes morality renounces the worldly joys and his mind is without carelessness (apramāda); this is why he obtains rapture [163b] and concentration easily.

Moreover, the moral person obtains rebirth among humans, then among the six classes of gods of the desire realm (kāmadeva), then in the form realm (rūpadhātu); if he breaks the characteristic marks of matter (rūpanimitta), he is reborn in the formless realm (ārūpyadhātu); if his morality is pure (pariśuddha) he breaks all the fetters (saṃyojana) and attains arhathood; if he observes morality with the great mind [of Bodhi] and has compassion for all beings, he is a bodhisattva.

Moreover, morality moderates coarse (sthula) appetites and rapture accommodates subtle (sūkṣma) appetites.

Moreover, morality governs body and speech while rapture stops distractions (vikṣiptacitta). Just as a man whose room is upstairs cannot get up to it without a staircase so, without the ladder of morality, one cannot reach rapture.

Finally, the wind of the fetters (saṃyojanavāyu) is violent and scatters the mind in the person who transgresses morality; his mind being scattered, he does not reach rapture. In the moral person, the wind of the passions (kleśavāyu) is weak and does not scatter the mind too much; rapture and concentration are easy to obtain.

For all these reasons, morality gives rise to rapture.

f. How does morality give rise to wisdom (prajñā)? The moral person sees the characteristics of morality and knows from where it derives its existence. He knows that it derives its origin from sins (āpatti) for, if there were no sins [killing, etc.], there would be no morality [abstention from killing, etc.]. Such is the nature of morality: it is the result of causes and conditions (hetupratyaya). Then why become attached (abhiniveśa) to it? It is like the lotus (utpala): it comes from the foul mud; beautiful as its colors may be, its place of origin is impure; from that we understand that one should not be attached to it. This is how morality gives rise to wisdom.

Moreover, the moral person says to himself: “We claim that morality is noble (praṇita) and that we should keep it, that immorality is vile (hīna) and that we should avoid it. Such an idea does not correspond to wisdom. According to the judgment of wisdom, the mind is not attached to morality; there is nothing there to grasp, nothing to let go of.” This is how morality gives birth to the virtue of wisdom.

Moreover, the person who does not observe morality, even though he has keen knowledge (tīkṣṇajñāna), seeks common occupations and keeps busy in every way finding means of livelihood; the organ of knowledge (jñānendriya) becomes dulled little by little, like a slicing blade, if used to cut clay becomes more and more chipped. The monastic who observes morality and is not occupied with the business of the world always contemplates (samanupaśyati) the absence of characteristics (animitta) which makes up the true nature of all dharmas. Even though originally he has only weak faculties (mṛdvindriya), [his knowledge] becomes sharper gradually. For all these reasons, one can say that morality gives rise to the virtue of wisdom. Thus the virtue of morality gives rise to the six virtues.

6) Furthermore, the bodhisattva who observes morality does not know fear (bhaya); he is free of confusion (moha), hesitation (kāṅkṣā) and doubt (saṃśaya); he does not aspire personally for nirvāṇa; he observes morality solely in the interests of all beings, in order to reach buddhahood and acquire all the Buddha attributes. This characteristic constitutes the virtue of morality.

7) Moreover, [in the words of the sūtra, above, p. 770F], the bodhisattva “is based on the non-existence of sin and its opposite” (āpattyanāpattyanadhyāpattitām upādāya), and this constitutes the virtue of morality.

Footnotes and references:


The Sutasomajātaka has been recounted fully above, Traité, I, p. 260–263F. In addition to the references already given, we may add Rāṣṭrapālaparipṛcchā, ed. Finot, p. 22; P’ou sa pen hing king, T 155, k. 2, p. 119b; Che teou sou t’o so king, T 164, p. 392.