Maha Prajnaparamita Sastra

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

This page describes “exertion (virya), fourth virtue” 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 - Exertion (vīrya), fourth virtue

Question. – Exertion is the root (mūla) of all good dharmas (kuśaladharma): it should be first; why is it here placed in fourth place?

Answer. – 1) Generosity (dāna). morality (śīla) and patience (kṣānti) always exist in the world (loka).

The householder, as a guiding principle, gratifies his guests (atithi) and examples of generosity are found even among animals. People give for various reasons: they give in view of the present lifetime (ihajanman), or in view of the future lifetime (aparamajanman), or in view of the Path (mārga). There is no need for exertion [to practice generosity].

Similarly in regard to morality. Seeing malefactors punished by the king or by laws, people themselves feel frightened and do not dare to violate [the rules of morality]. Also there are naturally good people (prakṛtikuśala) who do not commit sins. Some people, learning that the evil committed in the present lifetime finds its punishment in the future lifetime, feel fear and observe morality. Others, learning that it is possible by means of morality to escape from birth (jāti), old age (jāra), sickness (vyādhi) and death (maraṇa), take the vows at once and proclaim: “Starting from today onward, I will not kill (prāṇātipāta, etc.”

Is exertion needed to observe this morality?

[172b] Similarly with patience. Whether someone insults them, beats them or kills them, some people do not respond because they are afraid; others are quiet and do not respond because they are too weak, because they fear a punishment, because they follow the rules of honest people (satpuruṣadharma) or because they seek the path. There is no need for the virtue of exertion in order to endure all that.

But here, the bodhisattva who wishes to know the true nature of dharmas and to practice the virtue of wisdom must practice rapture (dhyāna), the rapture that is the gateway to true wisdom, Now, in order to practice rapture, diligence (ūrjā), exertion (vīrya) and one-pointedness (ekacitta) are necessary.

2) Furthermore, by means of generosity, morality and patience, great merit (mahāpuṇya), great peace (yogakṣema) and great joy (prīti) are obtained; great renown and the fulfillment of all one’s wishes are obtained. Having appreciated the flavor of these benefits, the bodhisattva now wishes to progress and obtain rapture and wisdom. Thus, when digging a well and finding dampness and mud, one increases one’s efforts with the firm hope of finding water. Or, while trying to produce fire by friction, when smoke appears, one increases the friction in the firm hope of having fire.

Commonly there are two gateways (dvāra) for arriving at buddhahood, namely, merit (puṇya) and wisdom (prajñā). The practice of generosity, morality and patience is the puṇyadvāra; the understanding of the true nature of dharmas, or the great virtue of wisdom, is the prajñādvāra. The bodhisattva who enters by the puṇyadvāra and avoids all the sins (āpatti) realizes all his aspirations (praṇidhāna). If he does not realize his aspirations because his faults (āpatti) and defilements (mala) counteract them, he enters into the prajñādvāra; then he has no distaste (nirveda) for saṃsāra or attraction (rati) for nirvāṇa, for both are but one thing. Now he wants to produce the great virtue of wisdom which depends on rapture (dhyāna); dhyāna [in turn] requires great exertion of effort (mahāvīryabala). Why? Because, if the mind is distracted (vikṣipta), it cannot see the true nature of dharmas. Thus, a lamp burning in the full wind cannot light up anything; but if the lamp is placed in a closed room, it will give off plenty of light. Rapture (dhyāna) and wisdom (prajñā) cannot be carried on by meritorious actions (puṇya), and cannot be obtained by means of gross considerations (sthūladarśana). In order to attain them, bodily and mental effort (kāyikacaitasikābhoga) and unrelaxing eagerness (asraṃsama) are needed. Thus the Buddha said: “May my blood, flesh, fat and marrow dry up, may I be reduced to skin, bone and tendons, but never will I abandon exertion.”[1] This is how one acquires rapture and wisdom; when one has these two, one possesses all. That is why exertion is in the fourth place; it is the root of rapture and true wisdom. In the first three virtues [generosity, morality and patience], there is indeed some exertion, but so little that we do not speak of it.

Question. – Some say that only by practicing generosity, morality and patience can one acquire great merit (mahāpuṇya), and that one’s aspirations (praṇidhāna) are realized by the power of these merits; as for rapture and wisdom, they will come by themselves (svataḥ) [without the help of exertion]. Then what use is the virtue of exertion?

Answer. – Buddhahood is profound (gambhīra) and difficult (durlabha) to [172c] attain. Even if one has generosity, morality and wisdom, it is still necessary to have profound rapture, true wisdom, as well as the innumerable attributes of the Buddhas (apramāṇabuddhadharma). If one does not practice exertion, one does not produce rapture; if rapture is not produced, it is not possible to be reborn in the Brahmādevarāja heaven and, a fortiori, to aspire to Buddhahood.

Thus,[2] the vaiśya Min ta (Meṇḍaka) who wanted to get innumerable precious substances (ratnadravya) obtained everything at will. (see Appendix on Meṇḍaka)

King Ting cheng (Mūrdhaja) reigned over the four continents (cāturdvīpaka); the heavens rained down [on him] the seven jewels (saptaratna) and the things he needed; Śakra devānām indra shared his seat with him and made him sit [beside him]; nevertheless, despite all his wealth, he was unable to obtain the Path. (see Appendix on Mūrdhaja)

The bhikṣu Lo p’in tchou (Losaka-tiṣya), although he was an arhat, begged for his food for seven days without receiving anything and returned with empty bowl (dhautapātrena); then he burned his own body in the fire of rapture (dhyānatejas) and attained parinirvāṇa. (see Appendix on Losaka-tiṣya)

This is how we know that only by the power of merits (puṇyabala) does one realize the Path and that, if one wishes to attain buddhahood, it is necessary to show great exertion.

Footnotes and references:


A stock phrase found in several sūtras: Majjhima, I, p. 481; Aṅguttara, I, p. 50; Tsa a han, T 99, no. 348, k. 14, p. 98a21: Kāmaṃ taco ca nahāru ca aṭṭhī avasissatu, sarīre upasussatumaṃsalohitaṃ, yan taṃ purisatthāmena purisaviriyrna purisaparakkamena pattabbaṃ na taṃ apāpuṇitvā viriyassa santhānaṃ bhavissatīti: “May my skin, nerves and bones alone remain (later variant: avasussatu: dry up), may the flesh and blood of my body dry up; as long as I have not obtained that which can be obtained by man’s courage, by man’s exertion and decisiveness, my exertion will persist.”

A similar sermon was given by Śākyamuni immediately before the enlightenment, as soon as he took his seat of Bodhi. See above, Traité, I, p. 228F, n. 1.


The examples that follow lead to two theses: Thanks to merits, one can attain the realization of all one’s wishes; but if exertion is lacking, one does not attain the Path: this was the case for Meṇḍaka and king Mūrdhaja. On the other hand, one could have the fruits of the path and even arhathood while being seen to refuse the most legitimate desires: his was the case for Losaka-tisya.

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