Maha Prajnaparamita Sastra

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

This page describes “story of the gift of the flesh of king shibi” 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.

Story of the gift of the flesh of king Śibi

Summary: King Che p’i (Śibi) who gave his body to the pigeon (kapota).

[88a] In one of his previous lives, the Buddha Śākyamuni was a king named Śibi; this king was reverent (namas), had received refuge (śaraṇa) and was very energetic (vīryavat) and full of loving-kindness (maitrī) and compassion (karuṇā); he considered all beings with the love of a mother for her child.

At that time there was no Buddha. The life of Che t’i houan yin (Śakradevendra) was exhausted and about to end. Śakra said to himself: “Where is there an omniscient Buddha? I have some problems in various subjects and I have not been able to cut through my doubts (saṃśaya).” He knew there was no Buddha and, returning to the heavens, he sat down sadly. A skillful magician (dakṣa nirmātṛ),[1] the god P’i cheou kie mo (Viśvakarman) asked him: “Devendra, why are you so sad?” Śakra answered: “I was looking for someone who is omniscient and I have been unable to find him. That is why I am sad.” Viśvakarman said to him: “There is a great bodhisattva endowed (samanvāgata) with generosity (dāna), discipline (śīla) meditation (dhyāna) and wisdom (prajñā). Before long, he will be Buddha.” Śakra replied with this stanza:

Bodhisattvas who produce the Great Mind,
Eggs of fish and flowers of the mango tree:
These three things are rather common,
But it is rare that they bear fruit.

Viśvakarman replied: “This king Śibi of the Yeou che na clan is disciplined, very kind, very compassionate, meditative and wise; before long he will be Buddha.” Śakradevendra then said to Viśvakarman: “Let us go to examine him to see if he possesses the marks (lakṣaṇa) of a bodhisattva. You will change yourself into a pigeon (kapota) and I will be a falcon (śyena). You will pretend to be afraid and will take refuge in the king’s armpit; I will chase you.” Viśvakarman answered: “Why torment the great Bodhisattva in this way?” Śakradevendra replied with this stanza:

I no longer have any bad intentions.
In the same way that real gold must be tested,
It is necessary to test this bodhisattva in this way
And find out if his resolve is strong.

When Śakra had spoken this stanza, Viśvakarman changed himself into a pigeon with red eyes and red feet, while Śakradevendra changed himself into a falcon. The falcon pursued the pigeon swiftly; the latter flew directly to take refuge in the king’s armpit: trembling with fear, with troubled eyes, it uttered moans.

Then a numerous crowd
Declared at this sight:
‘This king is very kind
All beings trust him.

This pigeon, this little bird,
Has taken refuge in him as in its nest.
That is the mark of a bodhisattva.
He will be Buddha before long.

Then the falcon, perched on a nearby tree, said to king Śibi: “Give me my pigeon.” [88b] The king answered: “It is I who took it first, it is not yours. Since I have produced the Great Mind, I welcome all beings (sattva) and I wish to save all beings.” The falcon said: “O king, you want to save all beings; am I not part of them? Why should I be the only one not to enjoy your compassion? Would you deprive me of my daily food?” The king replied: “What do you eat?

I have made the vow to protect every being that takes refuge in me. What food do you need? I will give it to you.” The falcon answered: “I need fresh meat.” The king began to think: “That is difficult to find without killing animals. Must I then kill something to give it to him?” Reflecting thus, his decision remained firm and he spoke this stanza:

The flesh of my own body
Subject to old age, sickness and death,
Will start to rot before long.
I will give it to him.

Having had this thought, he called a servant to bring a knife, cut the flesh of his thigh and gave it to the falcon. The falcon said to the king: “O king, you are giving me fresh meat, but in all fairness, you should give me a weight of flesh equal to the weight of the pigeon. Make no mistake!” The king said: “I will use my scales (tulā).” He placed [the piece] of flesh on one side and the pigeon on the other, but the pigeon was heavier than the flesh of the king. Then he ordered the servant to cut his other thigh, but that too was still too light. In turn he cut his two feet, his rump, his two breasts, his neck and his back. He sacrificed his whole body, but the pigeon was still heavier than the flesh of the king. Then his ministers and his family put up a curtain (vitāna) and sent away those who were present, because the king could not be seen in that state. But king Śibi said to them: “Do not send the people away, let them come in and watch”, and he added these stanzas:

May the gods, men and asuras
Come and contemplate me.
A great mind, an extreme resolve is necessary
To attain Buddhahood.

Whoever is seeking Buddhahood
Must bear great suffering.
If one cannot maintain one’s resolution
One should give up the vow [of bodhi].

Then the Bodhisattva, with bloody hands, took the scales and wanted to climb up on them: he maintained his resolve to balance the weight of the pigeon with his whole body. The falcon said to him: “Great king, that is very difficult. Why are you doing that? Rather give me the pigeon.” The king answered: “The pigeon has taken refuge in me, I will never give it to you. If I sacrifice my whole body, it is not to gain treasure or out of concern. At the price of my body, I want to attain Buddhahood.” With his hands, he took the scales, but as his flesh was exhausted and his muscles torn, he could not make his way there and, trying to climb up [onto the scales], [88c] he fell down. Reprimanding his own heart, he said: “You must be strong and not anxious. All beings are plunged into an ocean of suffering. You yourself have sworn to save them all. Why be discouraged? The pain [that you are suffering] is small; the sufferings of hell (naraka) are great. If they are compared, yours do not make up a sixteenth part. If I who am wise, full of energy, disciplined and meditative, if I suffer such pain, what about people without wisdom who are plunged into hell?” Then the Bodhisattva, resolutely trying to climb up, took the scales and gave the order to his servant to help him. At that moment, his resolve was strong and he regretted nothing.

The devas, nāgas, asuras, piśacas, manuṣyas praised him greatly. They said: “To act in this way for a little pigeon is extraordinary (adbhuta).” Then the great earth (pṛthivī) trembled six times, the great sea (samudra) swelled its waves (taraṅga), the dead trees began to blossom, the gods caused a perfumed rain to fall and threw flowers. The goddesses sang his praises: “He will surely become Buddha.” Then the devarṣi came from the four directions [to praise him], saying: “This is a true Bodhisattva who will soon become Buddha.”

The falcon said to the pigeon: “The test is finished; he has not spared his own life. He is a true Bodhisattva” and added this stanza:

In the garden of compassion,
He has planted the tree of omniscience.
We must pay homage to him;
He should not be caused any more pain.

Then Viśvakarman said to Śakradevendra: “Devendra, you who possess miraculous power, you should make this king whole in body again.” Śakradevendra replied: “It need not be me. The king himself is going to swear that his great heart was joyful [when] he sacrificed his life and gave it so that all beings could seek Buddhahood.”

Śakra then said to the king: “When you cut off your flesh and you were suffering so cruelly, did you feel any regret?” The king answered: “My heart was joyful (ānanda). I felt no irritation or regret.” Śakra said to him: “Who could believe that you did not feel anger or irritation?” Then the Bodhisattva made this vow: “When I cut my flesh and when my blood flowed, I felt neither anger nor irritation. I was resolved (ekacitta) and without regret, for I was heading to Buddhahood. If I am speaking the truth, may my body become as it was before.” Hardly had he pronounced these words than his body became as it was before.

At this sight, men and gods became very joyful and cried out at this miracle: “This great Bodhisattva will surely become Buddha. We must honor him whole-heartedly and wish that he will become Buddha soon. He will protect us.” Then Śakradevendra and Viśvakarman returned to the heavens.

Notes for the story of king Śibi:

The ‘gift of the flesh’ for the ransoming of a pigeon [along with the ‘gift of the eyes’ and the ‘gift of the flesh to receive a teaching’] is one of the deeds of the famous king Śibi.

Sanskrit sources: It has been wrongly claimed that we have no Indian Buddhist version of this ransoming of the pigeon.

– The Kalpanāmaṇḍitikā, p. 181, contains fragments, unfortunately very mutilated, of this episode.

– The Avadānakalpalatā, II, v. 109 (vol. I, p. 49) alludes to the gift of the eyes, but also to the ransom of the pigeon: śivijanmani cāndhāya dattam… kapotaḥ śyenakād. Its chap. LV (vol. II, p. 119–135) tells how king Sarvaṃdada (Śibi’s surname?), at the price of his flesh bought a pigeon claimed by Indra who was disguised as a hunter.

– Finally, the Laṅkāvatāra, p. 251, contains a faithful summary of the episode in its traditional form: Indreṇāpi ca devādhiptyaṃ…. duḥkena mahatālambhitaḥ. “Even Indra, who has acquired sovereignty over all the gods, had to take the form of a vulture because of his evil habit of eating meat in his past existences. Pursued by this vulture, Viśvakarman, who had assumed the form of a pigeon, got up onto the scales. In order [to save him], king Śibi, who had compassion for the innocent, had to suffer great sorrow.”

[Note: Chavannes (Contes, IV, p. 85), in error, attaches the Jātaka no. 2 and the Pāli Jātaka no. 499 to ‘the gift of the flesh’. These texts deal only with ‘the gift of the eyes.’

Chinese sources: Lieou tou king, T 152 (no. 2), k. 1, p. 1b (tr. Chavannes, Contes, I, p. 7–11); P’ou sa pen hing king, T 155, k. 3, p. 119a24–25; Pen cheng man louen, T 160 (no. 2), k. 1, p. 333b–334a; Ta tchouang yen louen king, T 201 (no. 64), k. 12, p. 321–323 (tr. Huber, Sūtrālaṃkāra, p. 330–341); Hien yu king, T 202, K. 1, P. 351c (cf. Schmidt, Der Weise und der Thor, p. 16–20); Tchong king, T 208 (no. 2), k. 1, p. 531c (tr. Chavannes, Contes, II, p. 70–72); King liu yi siang, T 2121, k. 25, p. 137c–138a.

Brahmanical sources: S. Lévi, in JA, 2908, p. 246 refers to the Mahābhārata, III, 139–131; III, 195; XIII, 32 (where the hero is Vṛṣadarbha); Kathāsaritsāgara, I, 7: Bṛhatkathāmañjarī, I, 3, v. 81.

Jain sources: Karuṇāvajrāyudha, where the name of the hero is Vajrāyudha (cf. Winternitz, Literature, II, p. 548.

The stūpa of ‘the gift of the flesh’, situated near the village of Girārai on the boundary between the district of Peshawar and Bouner, was visited by Fa hien T 2085, k. 5, p. 1021c15 (tr. Chavannes, BEFEO, III, p. 427) and by Hiuan tsang, T 2087, k. 3, p. 883a14–18 (tr. Beal, I, p. 125; Watters, I, p. 234).

Iconography: Gandhāra (L. D. Barnett, Antiquities of India, London, 1913, pl XXII); Mathurā (Vogel, Mathurā, pl. XXc); Amarāvatī (A. Foucher, Les sculptures d’Amarāvatī, RAA, V, 1928, p. 15, pl VIII, fig 1); Nāgārjunikoṇḍa (J. Ph. Vogel, Excavations at Nāgārjunikoṇḍa, An. Bibl., V, 1930 and pl. IIb); Central Asia (Grünwedel, Buddh. Kultstätten, fig, 130 and 251); Barabudur (Foucher, Beginnings of b. Art, pl. XXXVI, 2).

Footnotes and references:


Monier-Williams: nirmātṛ, ‘creator, artist’.