Maha Prajnaparamita Sastra

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

This page describes “legend of madhuvasishtha (madhu-vasishtha)” 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.

Appendix 4 - The legend of Madhuvāsiṣṭha (Madhu-Vāsiṣṭha)

Note: This appendix is extracted from Chapter XLI part 1.2 (detailed commentary on the list of the eighteen special attributes):

“(13–15. Every physical, vocal or mental action of the Buddha accompanies knowledge) ...See also the Bhikṣu-arhat Mo-t’eou-po-sseu-tcho (Madhuvāsiṣṭha) who climbed onto scaffolding (gosāraka), walls (bhitti) and trees (vṛkṣa)”.

Unknown in the Pāli sources, the legend of Madhuvāsiṣṭha, ‘Excellent Honey’, appears in fragmentary state in the Chinese texts, but can easily be reconstituted:

  1. Tchong a han, T 26, k. 8, p. 471a16–29.
  2. Mahāsāṃghika Vin., T 1425, k. 29, p. 464a13–27.
  3. Mūlasarv. Vin., T 1450, k. 12, p. 163c8–164a12.
  4. Anavatapatagāthā (ed. Bechert, p. 188–191; transl. Hofinger, p. 275–278): Mūlasarv. Vin., Bhaiṣajavastu, T 1448, k. 18, p. 90a12–b27; Fo wou po ti tseu, T 199, p. 200b22–201a6.
  5. Hien yu king, T 202, no, 54, k. 12, p. 429c10–430c3; Dzan-lun, transl. I.J. Schmidt, Der Weise und der Thor, chap. XL.
  6. Mahāvastu, T 1545, k. 99, p. 514c29–515a14.
  7. Vibhāṣā, T 1546, k. 49, p. 372a13–27.
  8. Traité, T 1508, k. 26, p. 251b2–4; k. 38, p. 337a6–8; k. 84, p. 649c10–13.
  9. Si-yu-ki, T 2087, k. 4, p. 890b19–c3 (transl. Watters, I, p. 309).
  10. Ibid., T 2087, k. 7, p. 908b16–21 (transl. Watters, II, p. 65).

Once, at the time of the buddha Kāśyapa, a young bhikṣu, on seeing another śramaṇa leaping over a canal, shouted: “This man is as agile as a monkey!” Bad luck overtook him: this irreverent comment brought him rebirth in the form of a monkey for five hundred lifetimes (sources E, H).

It was only during his last lifetime as a monkey that he met the Buddha Śākyamuni. A Brahmin named Vasiṣṭha was grieving because he had no son and the heretical teachers whom he consulted held out no hope for him. On his wife’s advice, he went to find the Buddha and offered him a new robe. The Teacher consoled him and predicted that he would soon have a son called to high destinies. Full of gratitude, the brahmin Vasiṣṭha invited the Buddha and the Sangha to a meal. On their return, Śākyamuni and his monks stopped near a pool and set down their bowls on the ground. It was then that there took place the meeting between the Buddha and a monkey who was none other than the young monk who had been insolent in past times (source E).

The texts are not in agreement on the place where this meeting took place and have proposed, respectively:

Vaiśālī and more precisely, the Markaṭahradatīra ‘Edge of the Monkey Pool’ in the Kūṭāgāraśala ‘Hall of the Belvedere’ (sources A, D, F, J).

The shore of the Li-k’i-tcho river, not otherwise identified (source B).

Nādikā Kuñjikāvasatha (in Pāli, Nādika Giñjikāvasatha), i.e., ‘Nādikā, in the Tiled House’, a village in the land of the Vṛjis between Koṭigrāma and Vaiśālī (sources C, G).

Śrāvastī (source E).

A dried-up pool near Mathurā (source I).

Whatever the exact place, the monkey in question seized the Buddha’s bowl. The monks were afraid that he would break it and started off in pursuit, but the Buddha called them back. The monkey went off with the bowl, climbed up into a śāla tree (Vatica robusta), took some honey with which he filled the bowl, came back down carefully and gravely presented the pot of honey to the Buddha but the latter did not accept it. The monkey retreated several paces and, with a bamboo stem, took out the insects caught in the honey, came back again and presented the bowl anew, but again without any success. Not discouraged, he went to a clear spring, washed the honey with water and for the third time offered it to the Buddha who finally accepted it and shared it with his disciples (sources A, B, C, D, E, F, G, I).

Seeing his offering accepted, the monkey leapt with joy, but while he went away dancing, he lost his footing, fell into a ditch or hole where he died (sources B, C, E, F, G, I). One source (B) has it that he gained the Trāyastriṃśa heaven, but it is generally thought that he took birth directly into the world of humans (sources C, D, R, F, G, I).

He was incarnated in the womb of Vasiṣṭha’s wife and, as a reward for his merit, great wonders were realized: during the months of his gestation, a rain of madhu i.e., honey, fell from the sky (source C); on the day of his birth, all the utensils in the house were spontaneously filled with honey (source E). As honey seemed to follow him everywhere and his father was called Vasiṣṭha, he was given the name Madhu-Vāsiṣṭha (sources C, E).

At the required age, Madhuvavāsiṣṭha, triumphing over the resistance of his parents, entered the religious life, and the Buddha gave him ordination according to the quick procedure of ehibhikṣukā (source E). He practiced brahmacarya and became arhat (source B, C, D, E, F, G). But the miracle of honey followed him throughout his religious life: every day he was miraculously gratified by three pots of honey which he gave respectively to the Buddha, the Saṃgha and to his parents (source C); when he was walking with his colleagues and when he saw them faltering, it was enough for him to hold out his bowl and it became filled immediately by the gods (sources C, D).

Nevertheless, his great holiness had not liberated him from the traces of his passions (kleśavāsanā) and, retaining the habits of monkeys, he was often seen climbing on walls and in trees (source H).

It has long been noticed that, in the Si-yu-ki, Hiuan-tsang locates the monkey’s offering at a dried-up pool near Mathurā (source I) and locates farther east, at Vaiśalī, the place where the monkeys dug the pool that bears their name (markaṭahrada) and, not far from there, filled the Buddha’s bowl with honey (source J). The dividing up of the legend and the multiplying of the monkeys poses a twofold problem which has been resolved wisely by A. Foucher (AgbG, I, p. 512–515; La Vie du Bouddha, p. 291–293).

The offering of the monkey has been identified on the following monuments: 1) North gate of the great stūpa of Sañcī (Monuments of Sanchi, I, p. 219; II, pl. 36c2). 2) Stūpa of Sikrī (AgbG, I, p. 513, fig. 254; Lyons and Ingholt, Gandhāran Art in Pakistan, p. 82, fig. 115). 3) Stela in Gupta style at Benares (AgbG, II, p. 539, fig., 498; Majumdar, Guide to Sārnāth, pl. XIII). 4) Medieval sculpture at Magadha (AgbG, II, p. 545, fig. 500). 5) Nepalese miniatures (Foucher, Iconographie bouddhique, I, p. 168 and pl. VII 1 and X 4).