Maha Prajnaparamita Sastra

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

This page describes “prajna of the heretics” 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.

4. Prajñā of the heretics

Question. – As you say, Prajñāpāramitā must penetrate deeply all the wisdoms, mundane (laukika) as well as supramundane (lokottara). Among all the wisdoms that it fully exhausts, why do you mention only the wisdoms of the three Vehicles (wisdoms of the śrāvakas, pratyekabuddha and Buddhas) and say nothing of other wisdoms?

Answer. – In the three Vehicles, it is a matter of true wisdoms. Elsewhere, it is false wisdom. Even though the bodhisattva has cognizance of the latter, he does not particularly cultivate them. Just as sandalwood (candana) is found only on Mount Mo li (Malaya), so every good expression (subhāṣita) that is found elsewhere than [in the three Vehicles] all come from the Buddhadharma,[1] but they are not the Buddhadharma. When first heard, they seem excellent, but long [191c] afterwards they are revealed as harmful. It is like the milk of the cow (gokṣīra) and that of the ass (aśvatarīkṣīra): they both have the same color, but the cow’s milk when churned gives butter (sarpis) whereas the ass’s milk when churned gives urine (mūtra). It is the same for the words of the Buddha and the words of the heretics (tīrthika): insofar as they teach non-killing, non-stealing, having loving-kindness and compassion for beings, concentrating the mind (cittasaṃgrahaṇa), renouncing desires (vairāgya) and contemplating emptiness (śūnyasamanupaśyanā), they are similar; but the heretics’ words, seemingly excellent at the beginning, reveal themselves at the end to be completely false.

1. Falsity of heretical morality.

All the heretical systems are attached (sakta) to the view of self (ātmadṛṣṭi). If the ātman really existed, one would come up with the following alternatives: it should be either destructible or indestructible. If it were destructible, it would be like ox-hide (gocarman); if it were indestructible, it would be like space (ākāśa); in both cases, there would be no fault in killing it and no merit in sparing it.

a. If it were [indestructible] like space, rain and dew would not wet it, wind and heat would not dry it out; it would be eternal (nitya). If it were eternal, suffering (duḥkha) would not torment it and happiness (sukha) would not delight it. The ātman being insensitive to suffering and happiness, one would neither avoid suffering nor procure happiness.

b. If it were destructible like ox-hide, it would be destroyed by wind and rain; destructible, it would be transitory (anitya); transitory, it would escape from sin (āpatti) and merit (puṇya).

The teaching of the heretics being like that, what merit would there be in non-killing? What fault would be committed by killing living beings?

2. Falsity of the heretics’ concentrations.

So be it! The moral prescriptions of the heretics show the defects that you say. But what about their dhyānas and their wisdom (prajñā)?

Answer. – The heretics who pursue dhyāna with the notion of self (ātmacitta) and who are full of desire (tṛṣṇā), wrong views and pride (abhimāna), do not reject all the dharmas; consequently they do not have true wisdom.

Question. – You said that heretics contemplate emptiness. In contemplating emptiness, they do reject all dharmas; why do you say then that they do not reject all dharmas and consequently do not have true wisdom?

Answer. – In contemplating emptiness, heretics grasp at the characteristic of emptiness (dharmaśūnyatā); they do not accept the emptiness of self (ātmaśūnyatā) for they are attached to the wisdom contemplating emptiness.

Question. – The heretics (like the Buddhists) possess the absorption of non-discrimination (asaṃjñisamāpatti) where mind (citta) and mental events (caitta) are destroyed. By reason of this destruction, they can no longer commit the fault of grasping at characteristics (nimittodgrahaṇa) or being attached to wisdom (prajñāsaṅga).

Answer. – The absorption of non-discrimination has enough power to destroy the mind, but it does not have the power of true wisdom. Moreover, the heretics identify this absorption of non-discrimination with nirvāṇa and do not know that it is a composite state: this is why they fall into error (viparyāsa). In this absorption, even though the mind is temporarily destroyed, it reappears when it encounters (favorable) causes and conditions. Thus, when a person is in deep dreamless sleep, his mind and his awareness (saṃjñā) are not functioning, but they reappear after sleep.

Question. – We accept that the absorption of non-discrimination [as the heretics conceive it] presents the defects that you say. Nevertheless, they still possess the absorption of neither discrimination nor non-discrimination (naivasaṃjñānāsaṃjñāsamāpatti) in which there is no longer any false notion allowing, as did the preceding absorption, the confusion between non-discrimination and nirvāṇa, for, in this case every concept (saṃjñā) has disappeared by the power of wisdom.

Answer. – No! In this absorption there is still concept;[2] but, as it is subtle (sūkṣma), it is not considered. If there is no more concept, why do the Buddha’s disciples still seek the true wisdom [instead of this absorption]? In the Buddha’s system, the consciousness that subsists during the absorption of neither discrimination nor non-discrimination rests on the four aggregates [inherent in [192a] every ārūpyasamāpatti].[3] These four skandhas, which depend on causes and conditions (hetupratyaya), are transitory (anitya); being transitory, they are painful (duḥkha); being transitory and painful, they are empty (śūnya); being empty, they are without self (anātmaka); being empty and selfless, they should be rejected (heya). By becoming attached to this wisdom, you will not obtain nirvāṇa.

The caterpillar (tṛṇajalāyukā) puts out its front foot before pulling back its hind foot; when it comes to the edge of the leaf on which it is creeping and there is no further place it can go on to, it moves back.[4] In the same way, these heretics, depending on the first dhyāna, reject the desires of the lower level (the desires of kāmadhātu) and so on; finally, depending on the naivasaṃjñānāsaṃjñāsamāpatti, they reject the ākiṃcanyāyatana; but, as there is nothing above the naivasaṃjñānāsaṃmapatti, no level on which they can depend, they are unable to leave the naivasaṃjñānāsaṃapatti for, having no further support (āśraya), they are afraid of being lost or falling into nothingness.[5]

Furthermore, there are sūtras of the heretics that allow killing (prāṇātipāta), theft (adattādana), sexual misconduct (kāmamithyācāra), lying (mṛṣāvāda) and the use of wine. They say: 1) In sacrifices to the gods (devayajña), killing is not wrong because it is the practice of religion; if one is in difficulties, it is not wrong to kill an ordinary person to save one’s life, for in difficulties, it is to follow the right path. – 2) Except for gold, it is permitted to steal in order to save one’s life. Later, the heretics will suppress this residue of fault. – 3) Except for the consort of one’s teacher (guru), the wife of the king, the wife or daughter of a spiritual friend (kalyāṇamitra), it is permitted to violate other women and to have sex with them. – 4) It is permitted to lie in the interest of one’s teacher, one’s parents, one’s own life, one’s cattle, or in the rôle of a middleman. – 5) When it is cold, it is permitted to drink liquor made from crystallized honey and, in the sacrifices to the gods, it is permitted to take one or two drops of wine. – In the Buddha’s Dharma, this is not permitted. 1) Out of loving-kindness (maitrīcitta) and equanimity (samacitta) towards all beings, it is forbidden to take the life of even an ant, the more so a man. – 2) It is forbidden to take a needle (sūci) and thread (tantu), even more so, a valuable object. – 3) It is forbidden to touch a courtesan (veśya), the more so another man’s wife (parakalatra). – 4) It is forbidden to lie as a jest, the more so to make a (real) lie. –5. It is forbidden to drink any wine at any time, the more so when it is cold and during sacrifices to the gods. The distance between the heretics and the Buddha’s Dharma is like the distance between heaven and earth. The law of the heretics is a generating source for passions (kleśamautthāpaka); the Buddha’s Dharma is the place of destruction of all the passions: this is the great difference.

Footnotes and references:


This idea has already been developed above, Traité, I, p. 84F.


See above, p. 1034F.


Namely, the four non-material skandhas, vedanā, saṃjñā, saṃskāra and vijñāna. See above, p. 1032F, n. 2.


Cf. Bṛihadār, Up. IV, 3: Tad yathā tṛiṇajalāyukā tṛiṇasyāntaṃ gatvā, anyam ākramam ākramya, ātmānam upasaṃharati: “Just as a caterpillar coming to the end of a blade of grass, draws back for a new advance… “(noted by P. Demiéville”.


The mundane or impure path (sāsravamārga), followed by the heretics, does not let them go beyond the naivasaṃjñānāsaṃjñāsamāpatti to attain the saṃjñāvedayitanirodhasamāpatti and nirvāṇa. See above, p. 1036F.

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