Maha Prajnaparamita Sastra

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

This page describes “jataka of the flayed naga” 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.

Jātaka of the flayed Nāga

In a previous lifetime, the Bodhisattva was a very powerful poisonous dragon (viṣanāga). All beings perished before him, the weak merely at the sight of him, the strong, at his breath.

Having undertaken the discipline of one day (rātridivasaśīla), this nāga started to look for a retreat and entered the forest. Having remained in meditation (manasikāra) for a long time, he tired himself out and fell asleep. Now it is the rule among the nāgas, when they sleep, to take the form (saṃsthāna) of a snake. The body of he nāga bore an inscription in which the seven jewels (saptaratna) mingled their brilliance.

Some hunters (vyādha, lubdhaka), seeing him, were astonished and said:

“Such a skin (tvac-) is extraordinary (adbhuta) and rare (durlabha); should we not offer it to the king as an adornment?”

Immediately they crushed the snake’s head with a stick and cut off his skin with a knife.

The nāga said to himself:

“My strength is miraculous (ṛddhika); if I spread out over this land, it would be turned over like one’s hand. How can these men, tiny things, engage me? But today when I am observing the discipline, I have no care for my life; I will follow the teachings of he Buddha (buddhavacana).”

Thereupon, fortifying himself with patience, he closed his eyes and did not look; he held his breath and did not breathe for, out of compassion (anukampā) for these men, [he wanted to spare them]. To keep the discipline, he resolutely (ekacittena) suffered the torture of flaying, without feeling any regret. Thus he lost his skin and his bloody flesh was scattered on the ground. When the hot sun started its journey around the earth, the nāga wanted to get to a large expanse of water [to cool off]; he then saw that small insects (kṛmi) were coming to eat him; to keep the discipline, he dared not move [out of fear that he would crush them].

He said to himself:

“Today I give the gift of my body to the insects; it is in order to reach buddhahood that I give my flesh and sacrifice my life; later, when I am a Buddha, I will follow this [good] resolution by practicing the generosity of the Dharma (dharmadāna).”

After taking this oath (praṇidhāna), his body dried up and he died. He was then reborn in the second heaven (svarga), that of the Trāyastriṃśa.

The poisonous dragon of that time was the Buddha Śākyamuni; the hunters were Devadatta and the six heretic masters; the little insects were the [162b] 80,000 devas who found the Path when the Buddha Śākyamuni turned the wheel of Dharma the first time.

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.

Notes on this Jātaka:

This jātaka shows some resemblance to the Campeyya (no. 506) and especially to the Bhūridattajātaka (no. 543): there too the nāgas are practicing the uposathakamma and offer to those who want them their skin, their muscles, their bones and their blood (cf. Pāli Jātaka, VI, p. 169); their deeds are presented as illustrations of śīlapāramitā (cf. Cariyāpiṭaka, p. 85–86; tr. Law, p. 108–109). However, the present tale seems to evoke a famous site near Bāmyān, well- known from descriptions given by Foucher, Notes sur l’itineraire de Hiuan tsang en Afghanistan, Études Asiatiques, I, p. 261–262: La vielle route de l’Inde de Bactres à Taxila, I, 1942, p. 130–132, pl. 28.

To the west of the city, below the confluence of two streams, there is a rocky cliff three hundred meters long and facing north-south; red lichens cover its sides; a long fissure splits the rock in two; the southern end is whitened by many deposits of coarse mineral. With the help of imagination, the Buddhists of the 1st century were able to see, in the rocky cliff, the giant snake of the present jātaka or another analogous to it; the fault in the rock evoked for them the knife that will begin his torture; the red lichens recalled “his bloody flesh scattered about on the ground”; wanting to get the mineral deposit to plunge his body into it to the quick, the snake, attacked by insects, immobilized himself so as not to crush them.

– It is true that at the time of Hiuan tsang, this rocky cliff, to Buddhists, evoked rather the gigantic image of a Buddha in nirvāṇa:

“Two or three li to the east (correction?, to the west) of the royal city, in a saṃghārāma, there is a recumbent statue of the Buddha in nirvāṇa, more than a thousand feet long” (Si yu ki, T 2087, k. 1, p. 873b).

But the old jātaka of the flayed nāga has passed into Muslim legend as the dragon Ajdahā, a legend which archeologists have collected on the spot from the natives of Bāmyān: the rocky crest is none other than the corpse of Ajdahā, the great dragon that desolated the country and which Hazrat Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet, had already slain.