Maha Prajnaparamita Sastra

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

This page describes “jataka of the deer who sacrificed himself” 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.

Once, innumerable and incalculable periods (asaṃkhyeyakalpa) ago, there was a great tree in the forest that sheltered many birds and animals. A forest fire (dāva) broke out which blazed on three sides at once: only one direction was saved, but it was blocked off by a river (nadī). All the animals crowded in there miserably without finding a way to save their lives by flight.

At that time there was a deer (mṛga) who was big and strong. With my forefeet I leaned on one bank, with my hind feet I crouched on the other bank. I ordered the animals to cross over by walking on my back (pṛṣṭha). My skin (tvac) and my flesh (māṃsa) were completely torn, but by the power of my compassion (karuṇā), I supported them up to my death.

At the end, there was one hare (śaśaka) left. My strength was exhausted, but at the price of a supreme effort, I let him cross. When he had crossed over, my back broke and I fell into the river and died.

This happened a long time ago and it is not just today [that I have saved someone when I was at the end of my strength]. Those who at that time were the first to cross are my present disciples; the hare who crossed last is today Subhadra.

Therefore it is from lifetime to lifetime that the Buddha likes to use exertion, and it is not just today that he never stops. This is why it is said that he has no loss of exertion.

Notes on this Jātaka:

This Jātaka exists in three different versions: The first appears in the Tibetan version and the Chinese version of the Mūlasarv. Vinaya (T 1451, k. 38, p. 397b21–c13), the one edited and the other translated by E. Waldschmidt in the Sanskrit Mahāparinirvāṇasūtra (p. 476–478). The original Sanskrit occurs in the Avadānaśataka, I, p. 235–236 (tr. Feer, p. 157–158):

Bhūtapūrvaṃ bhikṣavo ‘tīte ’dhvani anyatarasyāṃ parvatadaryāṃ m rgayūthapaḥ prativasati … kauśināgarā Mallā mṛgataśavako ‘yaṃ Subhadraḥ.

The second version is that of the Traité. It differs slightly from the preceding. The herd of deer is not controlled by the king, but is forced to flee by a fire. The last animal to pass on the deer-king’s back is not a baby deer but a hare. Finally the first animals to cross are not the actual Mallas of Kuśinagara but the actual disciples of the Buddha.

The third version, even more aberrant, is in the Lieou tou tsi king, T 152, no. 57, k. 6, p. 32c11–33a5 (transl. Chavannes, Contes, I, p. 218–220). Here a herd of five hundred deer is encircled; the deer-king stands on the rope that encircles them and lets all the other deer escape by passing over on his back. There is no fire and no little animal that is the last.

Also, the deer is one of the favorite animals of Buddhist folklore and often appears in other Jātaka tales such as the Ruru and the Nigrodhamiga Jātaka (see above, p. 972–975F).