Maha Prajnaparamita Sastra

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

This page describes “the knowledge of former abodes (purvanivasa-jnanabala)” 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.

VIII. The knowledge of former abodes (pūrvanivāsa-jñānabala)

The power of the knowledge of former abodes (pūrvanivāsajñānabala).

Former abodes[1] are of three types: i) those of which one has the awareness (abhijñā), ii) those of which one has the knowledge (vidyā), iii) those that are the object of the power of knowledge (jñānabala).

The ordinary person has only the awareness of them. The śrāvaka has both the awareness and the knowledge of them. The Buddha has the awareness, the knowledge and the power [of the knowledge] of them. Why is that? The ordinary person knows only through which former abodes he has passed but does not know what sequence of karmic causes and conditions (karmahetupratyayabandha) provoked them. This is why the ordinary person has only awareness (abhijñā) of former abodes, but does not have knowledge (vidyā) of them.

Because he knows the truth of the origin of suffering [240b] (samudayasatya), the śrāvaka knows clearly the sequence of causes and conditions from which the previous abodes derived. This is why the śrāvaka has the awareness (abhijñā) and the knowledge (vidyā) of them.

If at the start, when he was still an ordinary person (pṛthagjana), the śrāvaka had awareness of his previous abodes and later, having entered into the path of seeing the truths (satyadarśanamārga), he recognized the causes and conditions of their origins, it is during the eighth pure mind (aṣṭamake ’nāsravacitte) that he succeeds in cutting off wrong views (dṛṣṭi) and from then on the [simple] awareness (abhijñā) [that he had of his previous existences] changes into knowledge (vidyā). Why? Because knowledge (vidyā) is the root of seeing (darśanamūla).

On the other hand, if the śrāvaka first obtains the noble path [of seeing the truths] and only later does the knowledge of former abodes arise in him, he has already recognized the power of the causes and conditions which are the origin [of suffering] and, from then on, the awareness (abhijñā) that he has of his former abodes changes into knowledge (vidyā).

Question. – But at the beginning, when he was still the Bodhisattva, the Buddha had awareness of his earlier abodes, then cut off the passions inherent in the sphere of nothingness (ākimcanyāyatana) and finally entered into the noble path [of seeing the truths].[2] [In these conditions], why did the Buddha say: “In the first watch of the night [of the enlightenment, when I was still a worldly person], I obtained the first knowledge (vidyā), [i.e., the knowledge of former abodes]”?[3]

[According to your reasoning, the Buddha should have said that he obtained the awareness (abhijñā) of former abodes and not their knowledge (vidyā).]

Answer. – At that time, [during the first watch of the night of enlightenment], it was not yet a knowledge (vidyā). But later, when the Buddha was in public, he said: “It was at that time that I attained this knowledge”, and he declared to people: “This knowledge was obtained by me during the first watch.”

He may be compared to the king who, before exerting his kingship, had fathered a son. Only later, when this king was exerting his kingship, people questioned him about his son and asked when he had been born. The king replied: “The king’s son was born at such and such a date.” However, at the time when his son had been born, the king was not yet exerting his kingship, but as now he is the king, he considers his son as son of the king and he affirms that ‘the king’s son’ was born at that particular date.

It is the same for the Buddha. At the time when he knowledge of former abodes (pūrvanivāsajñāna) arose in him, it was not yet a knowledge (vidyā) but was only an awareness (abhijñā). But in the course of the last watch [of enlightenment], the Buddha recognized the causes and conditions of the origin [of suffering] and from then on this ‘awareness’ [of former abodes] changed into ‘knowledge’. And later in public, the Buddha declared: “During the first watch, I obtained this knowledge.”

Question. – That is what should be understood by awareness (abhijñā) and knowledge (vidya) [of former abodes]. Then what is the power (bala) [consisting of awareness of these abodes]?

By using this knowledge (vidyā), for himself as well as for other people, the Buddha knows the former abodes occupied during innumerable and infinite generations as well as the many causes and conditions from which they derive. The Buddha knows this fully and completely (prajānati), and as this knowledge is intact (avyāhata) and invincible (ajeya)[4] in him, it is called the ‘eighth power’.

Footnotes and references:


We may recall that former abodes (pūrvanivāsa) form the object of the fifth abhijñā (within the range of the ordinary person as well as the saint), of the first vidyā (reserved for the śrāvaka) and the eighth jñānabala (belonging to the Buddha).


When he was seated under the Bodhi tree, Śākyamuni was still only a worldly person (pṛthagjana). He attained enlightenment in 34 moments of mind: 16 moments of the Path of seeing and 18 moments of the path of meditation. See above, p. 434F, 1036F; Kośa, II, p. 206; VI, p. 137, n. 3; J. May, Candrakīrti, p. 216–217 and notes.


Majjhima, I, p. 22, l. 23–25; 248, l. 13–15; Mahāvastu, II, p. 283, l. 13–14; Lalitavistara, p. 344, l. 5–8. Although at that very time the future Buddha was still an ordinary person, all the sources agree in saying that he had acquired the knowledge (vidyā) – not the awareness (abhijñā) – of former abodes (pūrvanivāsa), also called the divine eye (divyacakṣus).

On the acquisition of the three knowledges by the bodhisattva, see Majjhima, I, p. 22, l. 9–23, l. 28; p. 117; p. 247, l. 36–249, l. 22; Tchong a han, T 26, k. 25, p. 589c14–23; Tsaeng yi a han, T 125, k. 23, p. 666b22–666c20; Dharmagupataka Vin., T 1428, k. 31, p. 781b5–c11; Mūlasarv. Vin., T 1450, k. 5, p. 124a9–b7; Mahāvastu, II, p. 283, l. 13–285, l. 21: Lalitavistara, p. 344, l. 5–345, l. 22.


According to the variant no. 9 in the Taisho edition, p. 240.