Maha Prajnaparamita Sastra

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

This page describes “bodily and mental exertion” 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 4 - Bodily and mental exertion

Question. – Exertion is a mental event (caitasikadharma). Does the sūtra speak of bodily exertion (kāyikavīrya)?

Answer. – Although exertion is a mental event, it is called bodily exertion when it makes use of physical strength. It is like sensation (vedanā); although it is a mental event, it is called ‘bodily sensation’ (kāyikavedanā) when it is associated with the [first] five consciousnesses (pañcavijñānasaṃprayogāt), ‘mental sensation’ (caitasikavedanā) when it is associated with the mental consciousness (manovijñānasaṃprayogāt).[1] It is the same for exertion: when one expends physical force either by giving with the hand or vocally reciting religious texts and preaching the Dharma, it is a question of bodily or vocal exertion (kāyikavācikavīrya).

Moreover, exertion is bodily when it is practicing generosity (dāna) or morality (śīla); it is mental when it is practicing patience (kṣānti), meditation (dhyāna) and wisdom (prajñā).

Moreover, exertion is bodily when it is practiced on outer things (bāhyavastu); it is mental when there is effort special to oneself (ādhyātmikaprayoga).

Finally, gross exertion (sthūlavīrya) is bodily; subtle exertion (sūkṣmavīrya) is mental; exertion that has merit in mind is bodily; exertion that has wisdom (prajñā) in mind is mental. In the bodhisattva, there is bodily exertion during the time from the first cittotpāda (resolution) until the attainment of anutpattikakṣānti (acceptance of non-production) for, until then, he has not yet given up his body of birth (janmakāya). [Starting from the moment when], obtaining the anutpattikadharma, he rejects his body of flesh (māṃsakāya) and attains the essential body (dharmadhātukāya) up until the moment he becomes Buddha, it is a matter of mental exertion.[2]

When the bodhisattva is in his first resolution (prathamacittotpāda), his qualities (guṇa) are not complete; he is then planting the causes and conditions of the threefold merit (tripuṇyahetupratyaya). When his generosity (dāna), morality (śīla) and good intention (kuśalacitta) have finally been rewarded, he uses the latter to give gifts to beings. But as beings are not satisfied, he cultivates merit on a grander scale and makes a resolution for great compassion (mahākaruṇā utpādayati): He says: “Beings have insufficient wealth and many are bad. I am incapable of satisfying their desires with my small wealth. If their desires are not satisfied, they will not willingly accept my teaching; if they do not accept my teaching, they will not be liberated from birth (jāti), old age (jarā), sickness (vyādhi) and death (maraṇā). Therefore I will use great skillful means (mahopāya) to load them with riches until they are satisfied.” Then the bodhisattva goes to the great sea to look for various treasures; he climbs mountains and faces dangers in the search for marvelous medicines; he penetrates into deep caves in search of various objects, stalactites or precious gems (maṇiratna) and he gives them to beings. Or else, he becomes the leader of a caravan (sārthavāha) and he daringly crosses mountain trails, facing robbers, lions, tigers, wolves and madmen. In order to make gifts to beings, he carefully seeks the most precious materials, and he considers nothing too difficult. With medicinal herbs (oṣadhi) and magical spells (mantra), he can transform copper into gold; by means of these many transformations (pariṇāma), he produces all kinds of precious substances; and when he is successful [in fabricating] things that are not native in the four directions, he gives them to beings. That is bodily exertion. But, when he has acquired the five [178b] superknowledges (abhijñā), he can transform himself and create exquisite tastes; or else he goes to the heavens (svarga) to gather the food [that grows] there spontaneously. That is mental exertion.

When the bodhisattva collects riches and gives them away, this is bodily exertion; when he uses his qualities of donor to reach buddhahood, this is mental exertion. When the bodhisattva of birth body (janmakāya) practices the six virtues, this is bodily exertion; when he bodhisattva of essential body (dharmadhātukāya) practices the six virtues, this is mental energy. [Note by Kumārajīva: when one has not acquired the Dharma-body, the mind follows the body; but when one has acquired the dharmakāya, the mind does not follow the body and the body does not hinder the mind.]

Furthermore, not to spare one’s life in order to realize the qualities is bodily energy; never to relax (asraṃasanatā) in seeking dhyāna and wisdom (prajñā) is mental exertion.

Finally, bodily exertion consists of not drawing back in the difficult efforts that one undertakes.


[Dharmarakta sacrifices himself for a stanza].

[The pheasant extinguishing a jungle fire].

These are the various exploits that the Bodhisattva accomplished in his previous lives: he carried out what was hard to do; he sacrificed his life, his kingdom, his wealth, his wife, his children, his elephants and horses, his seven pearls, his head, his eyes, his bones and his marrow; he gave everything eagerly and without regret. It is said that, for beings, in the space of a single day, the Bodhisattva would undergo a thousand deaths and a thousand births. Such are the exploits that he accomplishes in his virtue of generosity, morality, patience, trance and wisdom. All the nidānas told in the Jātakasūtras are derived from bodily exertion.

Cultivation of the good dharmas (kuśaladharmabhāvana), confident faith ignoring doubt (niḥsamśāyaprasāda), absence of laziness (akausīdya), insatiability in searching for the Dharma (dharmaparyeṣaṇasaṃtuṣṭi) conducted among the saints and up to worldly people – insatiability like that of the ocean that engulfs the waves – that is what characterizes the mental exertion of the bodhisattva.

Question. – The mention of insatiability (saṃtuṣṭi) is not correct. Why? When one has found what one has been looking for, one should be satisfied; but when something cannot be pursued or arranged, one ought to give it up. Why this perpetual dissatisfaction? When someone is digging a well looking for a spring and has worked hard, if there is no water, he should stop. It is the same for the practice of the Path: having reached a certain point, it is not necessary to practice further. Why this perpetual dissatisfaction?

Answer. –The exertion of the bodhisattva cannot be the object of an ordinary comparison (laukikapamāna). If the person digging the well does not succeed in finding water, this is as a result of his small efforts and not because there is no water. If there is no water in that place, there is some elsewhere, to be sure, and he should go where it is. The bodhisattva must go to buddhahood, go there insatiably, and teach people relentlessly [to go there]. This is why we spoke of insatiability (asaṃtuṣṭi).

Furthermore, the exertion and the aspirations (praṇidhāna) of the bodhisattva are vast; he has sworn to save all beings. Now beings are inexhaustible in number.[3] This is why his exertion also [179b] must be inexhaustible. You said that once something has been arranged, one should stop, but that is not correct. Although the bodhisattva may have come to buddhahood, beings have not all arrived there; therefore he cannot stop. Just as the nature of fire, even though it is not extinct, is to combat cold, so the exertion of the bodhisattva, even though he has not entered into nirvāṇa, never stops. This is why, of the eighteen special attributes (āveṇikadharma), zealousness (chanda) and exertion (vīrya) are two things to be practiced unceasingly.

Furthermore, the bodhisattva abides in the virtue of wisdom (prajñāpāramitā) by the method of non-abiding (asthānayogena):[4] he never abandons exertion. The exertion of the bodhisattva is not that of the Buddha.

Furthermore, as long as the bodhisattva has not attained the state of Bodhisattva, his body of birth and death (cyutupapattikāya, saṃskārakāya) fills living beings with wonderful things. In turn, beings respond to praises (varṇana) with malicious gossip (paiśunyavāda), to signs of respect (satkāra, arcanā) with scorn (avamāna), to friendly feelings (maitrīcitta) with looking for faults; they even plan to wound him. Deprived of power (sthāma), these beings come to torment the bodhisattva, who makes vast aspirations (praṇidhāna) for these beings: “When I have attained buddhahood, I will save these beings, even the most wicked.” His mind unrelentingly feels great compassion (mahākaruṇā) for these evil beings. Like a loving mother who laments the sickness of her son, he does not cease to worry about them. These are the characteristics of the exertion of the bodhisattva.

Furthermore, when the bodhisattva practices the virtue of generosity, all kinds of beggars come from the ten directions to ask him for things they should not be asking for, things to which the bodhisattva is attached and which are hard for him to give; they say to the bodhisattva: “Give me your two eyes; give me your head, your brain, your bones, your marrow, your wife and your dear children, your pearls and priceless jewels.” These things that are difficult to give, the beggars insistently demand them; but the bodhisattva’s mind is not moved; he feels neither miserliness (mātsarya) nor anger (krodha). Without hesitation, wholeheartedly (ekacittena), he gives [what they ask for] in order to realize the state of buddhahood. He is like mount Meru which is not shaken by the winds of the four directions. These are the characteristics of the virtue of exertion.

Finally, the bodhisattva’s exertion is the virtue of exertion when it practices the [other] five virtues on all occasions (sarvatra).

Question. – If the bodhisattva practices the virtue of discipline (śīlapāramitā) and somebody comes to ask for his three robes (tricīvara) or his bowl (pātra), he is violating a precept if he gives them, for the Buddha has forbidden [making a gift of them].[5] On the other hand, if he refuses, he is lacking the virtue of generosity (dānapāramitā). Therefore how can exertion practice the five virtues “on all occasions”?

Answer. – The beginning bodhisattva (ādikārmikabodhisattva) is unable to practice the five virtues everywhere at the same time.

When the Bodhisattva was practicing the virtue of generosity, he saw a starving tigress, beset by hunger, about to devour her cubs; immediately the Bodhisattva felt great compassion (mahākaruṇā) and gave her his body.[6] The Bodhisattva’s father and mother, grieved for their son’s death, lost their sight, and the tigress, for having killed the Bodhisattva, had to undergo punishment.[7]

[179c] However, the bodhisattva does not take into account either his parents’ sadness or the punishment reserved for the tigress: he wants only to accomplish a gift and gain merit (puṇya).

The bhikṣu who is observing the precepts conforms to the rules (niyama), small or large, and repulses those who violate the rules. The person who meets with his refusal is angry and vexed, but the bhikṣu only wants to observe the precepts and pays no heed to his anger.

Sometimes the bodhisattva practices ordinary wisdom (saṃvṛtaprajñā) and withholds his kindly and compassionate feelings (maitrīkaruṇācitta).

[The impostor bramacārin exposed by the Bodhisattva].

Thus, when he used ordinary wisdom (saṃvṛtaprajñā), the Bodhisattva was trying only to fulfill wisdom, suspend his kindness and compassion (maitrīkaruṇācitta) and does not fear people’s anger.

* * *

When the bodhisattva, on some occasions (syātkāla) practices supramundane wisdom (lokottaraprajñā), he has neither the desire (rāga) nor concern (abhiniveśa) to observe morality (śīla) or to practice generosity (dāna). Why? Because the donor (dāyaka), the recipient (pratigrāhaka) and the thing given (deya) do not exist; because sin (āpatti) and merit (anāpatti), anger (krodha) and gentleness (akrodha), exertion (vīrya) and laziness (kausīdya), concentratedness of mind (cittasaṃgraha) and distraction (cittavikṣepa) do not exist (nopalabhyante).

Moreover, when the bodhisattva practices the virtue of exertion, he is faced with unborn (anutpanna) and unceasing (aniruddha), non-eternal (anitya) and non-transitory (ananitya), non-suffering (aduḥkha) and non-happy (asukha), non-empty (aśūnya) and non-real (asatya), non-ātman and non-anātman, non-unique (aneka) and non-different (ananya), non-existent (asat) and not [180a] nonexistent (anasat) dharmas. He knows perfectly well that all these dharmas [are derived] from the complex of causes and conditions (hetupratyayasāmagri), that they are only names and conventions (nāmasaṃketa) and have no real nature (satyalakṣaṇa). The bodhisattva who has made this examination knows that everything conditioned is deceptive (mṛṣā) and his mind rests in the unconditioned (asṃskṛta); he wants to destroy (nirudh-) his mind and holds only nirvāṇa to be [true] salvation (yogakṣema). But then he remembers his original vow (mūlapraṇidhāna) and, out of compassion (karuṇā) for beings, he returns to the practice of the dharmas of the bodhisattva and accumulates all the qualities (guṇa). He says to himself: “Although I know that all dharmas are deceptive, beings do not know this and suffer all the sufferings of the five destinies; therefore I will practice the six virtues (pāramitā) completely.” As reward, he also acquires the thirty-two marks (lakṣaṇa) and the eighty minor (anuvyañjana) marks of the Buddhist path, omniscience (sarvajñāna), great loving-kindness (mahāmaitrī), great compassion (mahākaruṇā), the [four] unhindered knowledges (pratisaṃvid), the [eight] liberations (vimokṣa), the ten powers (bala), the four fearlessnesses (vaiśāradya), the eighteen special attributes (āveṇikadharma), the three sciences (trividya) and the innumerable attributes of the Buddhas. As soon as he has attained these attributes, all beings find purity of faith (śraddhāviśuddhi); they can taste the practices, are pleased with the Buddhadharma and accomplish their task. All of that is due to the virtue of exertion and constitutes the virtue of exertion.

The Buddha said: The bodhisattva’s exertion does not consider either the body or the mind, or that which is done by the body or that which is meditated on by the mind. For him, the body and mind are identical (eka), equal (sama), without any difference (nirvikalpa). He uses the state of buddhahood sought by him to save beings. He does not think of beings as ‘this shore’ (apara), or the state of buddhahood as ‘the other shore’ (pāra). He rejects everything done by body and mind; he considers it to be the fiction of a dream (svapna), as not done. That is called nirvāṇa, and all these forms of exertion are called virtues. Why? Because he knows that all exertions are false. He holds all dharmas to be deceptive and unreal, like a dream (svapna) or a magic show (māyā). The equality of all dharmas (sarvadharmasamatā) is reality; there is nothing to be sought for in equalized dharmas; this is why he knows that all exertions are deceptive. But, even though he knows that all exertions are false, he maintains them unflinchingly and that is the true exertion of the bodhisattva.

The Buddha said: For innumerable kalpas, I gave my head, my eyes, my marrow and my brain to beings to satisfy their desires. When I was observing discipline (śīla), patience (kṣānti) and meditation, I lived in the mountains and forests and my body dried up; sometimes I observed fasting (upavāna); sometimes I broke away from the tastes of pleasure; sometimes I underwent the torment of curses, dishonor, the knife and the stick; this is how my body wasted away. Always in meditation, exposed to the sun and the morning dew, I painfully sought wisdom (prajñā); I recited [the sūtras], meditated, questioned and discoursed; by my knowledge, I divided dharmas into good and bad, coarse (sthūla) and subtle (sūkṣma), false and true, frequent and rare; I paid reverence (pūjā) to innumerable Buddhas. With zeal and exertion, I sought the qualities [180b] (guṇa); I wanted to perfect (paripūrṇa) the five virtues. But at that time I attained nothing and I did not acquire the virtues of generosity, morality, patience, exertion, trance, and wisdom. I then met the Buddha Jan teng (Dīpaṃkara); I cast five lotuses at him and spread out my hair on top of the mud [as a carpet for him];[8] then I attained the patience of dharmas free of arising (anutpattikadharmakṣānti) and at once the six virtues were completed (paripūrṇa) by me; rising up into the air,[9] I praised the Buddha Dīpaṃkara in verse. I saw the innumerable Buddhas of the ten directions and then I obtained the real exertions; exertions being equal, I found the equality of mind (cittasamatā) and, as a result of this equality of mind, I found the equality of all dharmas (sarvadharmasamatā).

These various causes and characteristics constitute the virtue of exertion.

Footnotes and references:


See in Milinda, p. 253, the distinction between kāyika and cetasikavedanā.


In other words, it is in the eighth bhūmi (acalā bhūmi) that the bodhisattva attains anutpattikadharmakṣānti (patience that consists of accepting and understanding that dharmas do not arise), the nyāma (predestination for Bodhi), the avivartana (assurance of not regressing); then he exchanges his body of birth (janmakāya) or body of flesh (māṃsakāya) for the body of the Dharma (dharmakāya), and his exertion, bodily (kāyika) as it was before, becomes mental (caitasika). See above, p. 711F, n. 1.


According to an early theory, the number of beings is infinite; cf. Siddhi, Appendix, p. 807–808.


This method has been defined above, p. 656F.


The three robes and the alms-bowl were ceremonially given to the bhikṣu in the ordination ritual and were an integral part of the monk’s equipment: Vinaya, I, p. 94.


Vyāghrījātaka or the “gift of the body” to the starving tigress; see references in Traité, I, p. 143F, and above, p. 723F.


This epilogue of the Vyāghrījātaka is missing in the recensions of the jātaka, but it is commonplace for parents to become blind as a result of mourning for their son (cf. Chavannes, Contes, IV, p. 91).


For the offering to Dīpaṃkara, see above, Traité, I, p. 248F, 410F n.


For this phenomenon of levitation, see Traité, I, p. 284F, note 2.