Maha Prajnaparamita Sastra

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

This page describes “by the successive practice of the five virtues” 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.

1. By the successive practice of the five virtues

Question. – Now we know that the essential nature of Prajñā consists of the absence of nature (animitta) and non-perception (anupalabdhi); how does the ascetic (yogin) acquire it?

Answer. – The Buddha preaches the Dharma by skillful means (upāya), and the ascetic who acts in accordance with this sermon ends up by acquiring the Dharma. It is as if he borrowed a ladder to climb a steep cliff, or he took a boat to cross the great sea. From his first resolution (prathamacittotpāda), the bodhisattva hears it said by the Buddha, by a disciple or in a sūtra that all dharmas are absolutely empty (atyantaśūnya), that they have no defined nature (aniyatasvabhāva) to which one can adhere or in which one can believe, that the absolute (paramārtha) Dharma destroys all futile proliferation (prapañca) and that nirvāṇa is safety par excellence. [Then the bodhisattva says to himself]: “Can I, who want to save all beings, alone take possession of nirvāṇa? At this time, my merits (puṇya), my qualities (guṇa), my knowledge and the power of my superknowledges (abhijñābala) are still imperfect (aparipūrṇa); thus I am unable to lead beings; first I should complete the causes and conditions.” Then he practices the five virtues (pāramitā), beginning with generosity:

1. By material gifts (āmiṣadāna), he gains great wealth; by the gift of the Dharma, he acquires great wisdom (mahāprajñā). By practicing these two generosities, he can guide poor people (daridrā) and introduce them into the Triple Vehicle.

2. By observing morality (śīla), he takes birth in a noble state among gods or men; he himself avoids the three unfortunate destinies (durgati) and he makes beings avoid them in their turn.

3. By patience (kṣānti), he avoids the poison of anger (krodhaviṣa), he obtains physical beauty and supreme distinction. Those who see him are joyful, respect him, esteem him and venerate him, all the more so when they hear him preach the Dharma.

4. By means of exertion (vīrya) he destroys all laziness (kausīdya) now and in the future in acquiring the merits of the Path; thus he obtains a vajra body and an unshakeable mind (acalacitta). With this body and mind, he destroys the pride (abhimāna) of worldly people and makes them obtain nirvāṇa.

5. By means of dhyāna, he destroys distraction (vikṣiptacitta). He escapes from the five desires (kāma) and guilty pleasures and teaches others to avoid them.

[196b] Dhyāna is the basis of Prajñāpāramitā; the latter arises spontaneously when the virtue of dhyāna is relied upon. A sūtra says: “The one-pointed (ekacitta) and concentrated (samāhita) bhikṣu is able to contemplate the true nature of dharmas.”

Furthermore, the bodhisattva knows that the world of desire (kāmadhātu) abounds in sins of avarice (mātsarya) and greed (chanda) that keep shut the doors of good. By practicing the virtue of generosity he destroys these two faults and opens the doors of good. – Wishing to keep the doors open always, he practices the ten good paths of action (kuśalakarmapatha). – But, by the virtue of morality (śīla), he does not obtain dhyāna and wisdom, because, not having eliminated the desires (kāma), he is violating the virtue of morality; this is why he practices patience (kṣānti). He knows that, by the first three virtues [generosity, morality and patience], he can open the gates of merit (puṇya).

Besides, he knows that the fruit of retribution (vipākaphala) is not eternal and that after enjoying bliss among the gods and humans, one will fall back down into suffering. Disgusted with these transitory merits, the bodhisattva seeks the true nature or Prajñāpāramitā. How will he obtain it? He will certainly succeed in obtaining it by mind concentration (ekacitta). To lay hold of the precious pearls (ratnamaṇi) of the nāga kings, one must watch attentively not to disturb the nāga: thus one will obtain a Jambudvīpa of value. [In the same way], by attentiveness (ekacitta) and dhyāna, the bodhisattva avoids the five desires (kāma) and the five obstacles (nīvaraṇa); to obtain spiritual joy, he makes use of great exertion (vīrya). This is why we talk about exertion immediately after patience. The sūtra actually says: “Sitting with body upright and having fixed his attention in front of him, the ascetic energetically seeks absorption and, even though his flesh and bones rot, he will never desist.”[1] Thus exertion prepares dhyāna.

When one has wealth, giving it is not difficult; if one is afraid of falling into the three unfortunate destinies (durgati), or of losing one’s good reputation, to keep morality (śīla) and patience (kṣānti) is not difficult: this is why the first three virtues do not need any exertion. But here, to calm the mind and seek absorption in view of the true nature of Prajñāpāramitā is a difficult thing that requires exertion. This is how one will attain Prajñāpāramitā by exertion.

Footnotes and references:


Cf. the well-known phrase (Majjhima, I, p. 425, etc.): Idha bhikkhu araññagato, vā rukkhamūlagato vā suññāgārato vā nisīdati pallaṅkaṃ ābhujitvā ujuṃ kāyaṃ paṇidhāya parimukhaṃ satiṃ ipaṭṭhapetvā. – For the sermon on the ascetic who took it upon himself to keep this position until the final result, see above, p. 929F, n. 1.