Maha Prajnaparamita Sastra

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

This page describes “story of vitashoka” 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.

The story of Vītaśoka

When Wei-t’o-chou (Vītaśoka), the younger brother of King Aśoka, was king of Jambudvīpa for seven days, he was permitted to indulge in the five objects of enjoyment (pañcakāmaguṇa) on a grand scale.

At the end of the seven days, king Aśoka asked him:

“As king of Jambudvīpa, did you experience happiness (sukha) and joy (muditā)?”

Vītaśoka answered:

“I saw nothing, heard nothing, noticed nothing. Why? Because each morning, some caṇḍālas rang a bell and shouted:

“Of the seven days [that you have been granted], so many have already gone by, and at the end of the seven days, you will die.”

Hearing this proclamation, although I was king of Jambudvīpa and loaded down with the five objects of enjoyment, my sorrow (daurmanasya) and my suffering (duḥkha) were so great that I heard nothing and saw nothing.”

From that, we know that the power of suffering is strong whereas that of happiness is weak. When a person who experiences happiness throughout his body is stabbed some place, all his happiness disappears and he feels nothing but the pain of his wound. The power of happiness (sukhabala) is so weak that two parts are needed to make it strong; that of suffering (duḥkhabala) is so strong that it needs only one part.

Notes on the story of Vītaśoka:

The story of Vītaśoka, also called Vigataśoka, Sudatta or Sugātra, is told fully in Aśokavadāna, T 2042, K. 2, p. 106a–107c (transl. Przyluski, Aśoka, p. 270–280); Aśokasūtra, T 2043, k. 3, p. 141b–44a; Divyāvadāna, p. 419–429 (transl. Burnouf, Introduction, p. 370–379); Tchou yao king, T 212, k. 6, p. 641a–c (transl. Chavannes, Contes, III, p. 297–302); Fen pie kong tö louen, T 1507, k. 3, p. 39c.–

Vītaśoka, the younger brother of king Aśoka, had faith in heretical doctrines and jeered at the disciples of the Buddha whose easy life he begrudged. In order to convert him to the Holy Dharma, Aśoka resorted to a trick. While the king was bathing, his ministers, in connivance with him, invited Vītaśoka to try on the royal crown which the chances of succession might someday lead him to wear. Vītaśoka was ready for the experiment and, mounting the throne, he donned the crown. Suddenly the king came out of his bathroom and, seeing his brother seated on the throne, pretended to be indignant. He treated him as an usurper and sent him to the caṇḍalas, ordering him to be put to death. However, in order to permit him to repent, he allowed Vītaśoka to reign effectively for seven days after which he would be executed. Thus Vītaśoka enjoyed all the royal prerogatives, but each morning, the caṇḍalas, counting off the days remaining to him, reminded him of his forthcoming death. When the seventh day had passed, Vītaśoka was led into the presence of his brother the king. Aśoka questioned him about his impressions during the days of his reign.

Vītaśoka answered:

“All the sense pleasures with which I was loaded were spoiled by the perspective of my imminent death. Tormented by the fever of death, I remained sleepless for the entire time.”

Embracing his brother, Aśoka said to him:

“I will not put you to death; I wanted you to have faith in the Buddha’s Dharma and explain how his disciples, while abstaining from the arduous practices imposed on the Brahmins, turn away from sense objects, the complete vanity of which they calculate.”

Convinced by this experience, Vītaśoka became a śramaṇa.

In the Ceylonese tradition, the hero of this story is Tissa-kumāra, brother of Aśoka and his vice-regent (Mahāvaṃśa, V, v. 151–60); for Hiuan-tsang, it was Mahendra (the Maninda of the Pāli sources), wrongly presented as the king’s brother, whereas he was his son (Si-yu-ki, T 2087, k. 8, p. 912a; transl. Watters, II, p. 93–94).

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