Maha Prajnaparamita Sastra

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

This page describes “body of the dharma (dharmakaya)” 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.

Appendix 5 - The body of the Dharma (dharmakāya)

Note: this appendix belongs to certain stanzas extracted from Chapter XXVI, part 3:

“When he is on the point of entering Nirvāṇa, he entrusts the ‘body of the dharma’ (dharmakāya) to the Bodhisattva-mahāsattva Maitreya, to Kāśyapa, to Ānanda, etc., then he enters into the diamond concentration (vajropamasamādhi) and breaks the bones of his body into pieces the size of mustard seed (sarṣapa).

By “body of the Dharma”, here we should understand the body of the scriptures. The Mahāprajñāpāramitāśāstra seems to accept a twofold compilation of the Buddhist scriptures immediately after the Buddha’s death:

1) the Hīnayāna texts were recited by the śrāvakas at the council of Rājagṛha presided over by Mahākāśyapa (cf. Traité, I, p. 88–106F);

2) the Mahāyāna sūtras were compiled by an assembly of bodhisattvas assisted by Ānanda.

Is it to be concluded that these bodhisattvas actually existed and that Maitreya especially was an historic individual? This is the opinion of certain historians such as H. Ui, Maitreya as an Historical Personage, Mélanges Lanman, 1928, p. 95–102; ZII, 1928, p. 215; G. Tucci, Some aspects of the doctrines of Miatreya[nātha] and Āsaṅga, 1930. Actually, the compiling of the Mahāyānasūtras seems to be pure fiction invented entirely with a sectarian goal by adepts of the Mahāyāna.

When the Mahāyānasūtras began to spread in the Buddhist communities at the beginning of our era, some śrāvakas rejected them as apocryphal. Then, to establish their authenticity, the Mahāyānists had recourse to all kinds of arguments.

Some are of purely speculative and subjective order. Even more than those of the Hīnayānists, the Mahāyāna doctrines are in harmony with the dharmatā, constituting the true path of salvation and the only vehicle of nirvāṇa; they are thus the authentic words of the Buddha (for this line of reasoning, see Traité, I, p. 80–82F, note).

– Besides, continue the Mahāyānists, the main doctrines of the Mahāyāna are contained as a seed in the Hīnayāna sūtras and schools: the dharmanairātmya is already taught in the Saṃyuttanikāya, II, p. 17, III, p. 142 (Madh. avatāra, p. 22); the doctrine of the multiple teaching of the master, in conformity with current ideas (lokānuvartana) is already proposed by the Pūrvaśaila Hīnayānists (Madh. avatāra, p. 134); the Pūrvaśilas had the Prajñāpāramitāsūtra written in Prakrit, and the Mahāvastu, of Hīnayāna origin, already taught the stages in the career of the bodhisattva and the practice of the pāramitās (Grub mthaḥ of Mañjughoṣa in Wassilieff, Buddhismus, p. 264): the theory of the Ālayavijñāna, the central piece of the Idealist school, was already proposed in the Ekottarāgama, the āgamas of the Mahāsāṃghika and the Mahīśāsaka, and in the sūtras of the Ceylon school of the Tāmraparṇīya (Saṃgraha, p. 26–28; Karmasiddhiprakaraṇa, p. 106; Siddhi, p. 178–182). It may be assumed further that all the doctrines of the Greater Vehicle were explained in the innumerable sūtras, which have now disappeared, of the Lesser Vehicle (Karmasiddhiprakaraṇa, p. 108).

As these subjective arguments seemed too weak, the Mahāyānists had recourse to historical fictions in order to establish their scriptures.

a. The Māhayāna sūtras, they said, are as old as those of the Hīnayāna for the two vehicles co-exist: samapravṛttheḥ (Sūtrālaṃkāra, I, 7, ed. Lévi, p. 3; Siddhi, p. 177). Immediately after his enlightenment, the Buddha preached the Greater Vehicle to the deities of the Trāyastriṃśa heaven and to the bodhisattvas (Foucher, Iconographie bouddhique, I, p. 86). The Buddha turned the wheel of Dharma three times: in the sermon at Benares on the four noble truths. He taught the reality of the elements of existence; in the Prajñāpāramitāsūtra, he spoke implicitly of the non-reality of the elements of existence (lakṣaṇaniḥsvabhāvatā); finally, in other sūtras such s the Saṃdhinirmocana, he clearly and explicitly taught the non-reality of the elements from the absolute point of view (paramārthaniḥsvabhāvatā): cf. Saṃdhinirmocaṇa, VII, § 30, p. 206; Obermiller, Doctrine of P.P., p. 93, seq.

b. As we have seen at the beginning of this note, some Mahāyānists claim that the sūtras of the Greater Vehicle were compiled immediately after the death of the Buddha by an assembly of bodhisattvas. This council, a doublet of that of Rājagṛha, was held on the mythical mountain, unknown to geography, of Vimalasvabhāva, south of Rajgir; the compiling of the scriptures is attributed sometimes to the bodhisattva Vajrapāṇi, sometimes to Maitreya, assisted by Ānanda.

Mppś, k. 100, p. 756b:

“Some say that Mahākāśyapa, at the head of the bhikṣus, compiled the Tripiṭaka on Mount Gṛdhrakūṭa and that after the Buddha’s death, the great bodhisattvas Mañjuśrī and Maitreya, bringing in Ānanda, compiled the Greater Vehicle. Ānanda understood deeply the aspirations and behavior of beings; this is why he did not preach the Mahāyāna to the śrāvakas [of weak faculties].”

Tarkajvāla, Mdo XIX, 180a2–4:

“The scriptures of the Mahāyāna are the words of the Buddha. The main compilers were Samanatabhādra, Mañjuśrī, Guhyakādhipati [or Vajrapāṇi], Maitreya and others. The śrāvakas were not the principal compilers of our (Mahāyānist) canon since the latter is not accessible to them.”

The same fiction has been repeated by the Tibetan historians Bu-ston, II, p. 101, and Tāranātha, p. 62:

Traditions says that, on the mountain called Vimalasvabhāva, south of Rājagṛha, in an assembly of a million bodhisattvas, Mañjuśrī repeated the Abhidharma; Maitreya, the Vinaya; and Vajrapāṇi the sūtras” (Bu-ston).

– “At the time [of Kaniṣka], in different areas there appeared an innumerable crowd of holy individuals who taught the Mahāyāna; they had all heard the teaching from Āryāvalokiteśvara, Guhyādhipati, Mañjuśrī, Maitreya, etc.” (Tāranātha).

It is not hard to guess how this tradition was formed. In several sūtras of the Greater Vehicle, the Buddha entrusts his doctrine to one or another bodhisattva or to Ānanda. When the Mahāyānists wanted to hold their council, just like the śrāvakas, they called upon these sūtras in order to attribute to a given bodhisattva the compilation of their scriptures and the chairmanship of the alleged council. In this regard, a passage of Haribhadra in his Āloka, ed. Wogihara, p. 5, is especially instructive.

Here is the text and the translation:

Tathāgataguhyanirdeśādhikāreṇa sarvathā bhādrakalpikasarvatathāgānāṃ rūpakāyasaddharmakāyarakṣāyāṃ kṛtādhikāratvād, Vajrapāṇyabhiṣekādau pratyarpitaśāsanatvāc, cānyeṣāṃ viśeṣavacanābhāvād, Aḍakavatīnivāsī daśabhūmīśvaro Mahāvajradharaḥ sarvalokānugrahāya Prajñpāramitāsūtrasaṃgītiṃ pratyadhīṣṭavanatam āryaMāitreyādimahābodhisatvagaṇam “evam” ityādy āheti Pūrvācāryāḥ. Anye tv atraiva parīndanāparivarte “yatheyaṃ Jambudvīpe Prajñāpāramitā pracariṣyatī” tyādinā pratyarpitaprajñpārra,itatvād āryĀnandaḥ saṃgītikāra iti manyante:

“In a chapter of the Tathāgataguhyanirdeśa (T 312), responsibility is given [to Vajrapāṇi] to protect in every way the doctrinal Body [revealed by] the material body of all the Tathāgatas of the Blessed Era; at the beginning of the Vajrapāṇyabhiṣeka, the preaching [of this doctrine] was entrusted to him; finally, among the others adequate eloquence was absent; this is why the Elder masters say that it is [Vajrapāṇi], the great thunderbolt-bearer living in Aḍakavatī and master of the ten levels, recited, for the benefit of the entire world, beginning with the word evaṃ [mayā śrutam], the Prajñāpāramitāsūtras to the group of great bodhisattvas, Maitreya, etc., who requested him. However, others think that the noble Ānanda compiled [these sūtras] for, in the same text, in the chapter of dedication, the Prajñāpāramitā is entrusted to him by these words: ‘Cause this Prajñāpāramitā to spread in Jambudvīpa.’”

We may add, in order not to be incomplete, that according to a Japanese tradition of no historical value, Mañjuśrī and Maitreya released the Mahāyāna 116 years after the parinirvāṇa, and about 200 years after the parinirvāṇa, the edition of the Avataṃsaka had completed this revelation. All these events would have been prior to Nāgārjuna (cf. R. Fujishima, Le Bouddhisme japonais 1888, p. 54).

c. When the great Mahāyāna scholars brought out their treatises, they resorted to various subterfuges to give more weight to their teachings. Nāgārjuna passed as, or was considered to be, a reincarnation of Ānanda (Laṅkāvatāra, ed. Nanjio, p. 286, and his Chinese translations T 671, k. 9, p. 569a; T 672, k. 6, p. 627c; Mahāmeghasūtra, T 387, k. 5, p. 1099–1100, studied by P. Demiéville in BEFEO, XXIV, 1924, p. 227–228, and reproduced with variants in Madh. avatāra, p. 76, and Bu-ston, II, p. 120); he received the Prajñās or the Avataṃsaka from the Nāgas whom he visited in their subterranean palace (Harṣacarita, p. 250; Long chouo p’ou sa tchouan, T 2047, p. 184c, tr. M. Walleser, The Life of Nāgārjuna, Asia Major, Introd. Vol., p. 336–447).

According to Tāranatha, p. 58, the bodhisattva Mañjuśrī took the form of a bhikṣu and went to the palace of the king Candragupta in the land of Oḍiviśa; there he left a book thought to be the Aṣṭasāhasrikā or the Tattvasaṃgraha.

More widespread is the opinion according to which the great Mahāyāna teachers wrote under the inspiration of bodhisattvas. Asaṅga used the supernatural powers of the Lesser Vehicle to go to Tuṣita heaven where the bodhisattva Maitreya was dwelling; he questioned him and received from him the teaching on emptiness according to the Greater Vehicle (Paramātha, Vie de Vasubandhu, T 2049, p. 188c); Asaṅga taught in a monastery in the neighborhood of Ayodhyā during the night, he went to the palace of the Tuṣita gods and received from Maitreya the holy texts, notably the Yogacaryābhūmi, the Mahāyanasūtrālaṃkāra and the Madhyāntavibhaṅga (Hiuan tsang, Si yu ki, T 2087, k. 5, p. 896b; tr. Beal, I, p. 226; Watters, I, p. 355–356). The Tibetans, who have kept and developed this tradition (cf. Bu-ston, II, p. 137–139; Taranātha, p. 110–112) consider Maitreya to be the real author of the works composed by Asaṅga (Bu-ston, I, p. 53).

But the bodhisattvas who inspire the Mahāyāna scholars are nowhere presented as being historical individuals who actually existed. They do not leave the bhūmis where they dwell and are content to send, on some occasions, emanated bodies to teach their disciples.

Here too, Haribhadra puts things very precisely in his Āloka, ed. Wogihāra, p. 75:

“This is the interpretation given by masters, Asaṅga, etc.; it is authoritative. According to tradition, although he knew the meaning of all of scripture and had obtained experience of it, Asaṅga was unable to understand the meaning of the Prajñāpāramitā due to the large number of repetitions and, there where there are no repetitions, because he did not see how to separate the various members [of the compounds]. He was very sad about it. Then the bhagavat Maitreya commented on the Prajñāpāramitā for him and gave him the treatise called Abhisamayālaṃkāra. Having understood this treatise, ārya Asaṅga, master Vasubandhu, etc., made a commentary on it. But enough tedious passages!”

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