Maha Prajnaparamita Sastra

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

This page describes “difference between omniscience and the knowledge of all the aspects” 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.

I. Difference between omniscience and the knowledge of all the aspects

Question. – What are the differences between sarvajñatā ‘knowledge of everything’ and sarvakārajñatā[1] ‘knowledge of all the aspects’?

Answer. – Some say there is no difference and that [either] sarvajñatā or sarvākārajñatā is said. [259a]

Others say that sarvajñatā is the knowledge of the general characteristics (sāmānyalakṣaṇa) and sarvākārajñatā is the knowledge of the specific characteristics (svalakṣaṇa).

Sarvajñatā is cause (hetu); sarvākārajñatā is effect (phala).

Sarvajñatā is a concise expression (saṃkṣepeṇokti); sarvākārajñatā is a verbose expression (vistareṇokti).

Sarvajñatā generally destroys the ignorances (avidyā) about all the dharmas; in regard to multiple statements of the Dharma (dharmaparyāya), sarvākārajñatā destroys the ignorances.      Thus for example, there is sarvajñatā when one preaches the four truths (catuḥsatya); there is sarvākārajñatā when one preaches the implications (artha) of the four truths.

There is sarvajñatā when one preaches the truth of suffering (duḥkhasatya); there is sarvākārajñatā when one preaches the eight characteristics of suffering (duḥkhalakṣaṇa).

There is sarvajñatā when one preaches the suffering of birth (jātiduḥkha); there is sarvākārajñatā when one preaches the various places of the birth (jātisthāna) of beings.

Furthermore, by ‘all dharmas’, [the twelve bases of consciousness (āyatana)] from eye (cakṣus) and colors (rūpa) up to mind (manas) and things (dharma) is understood.

The arhats and pratyekabuddhas know the general characteristics (sāmānyalakṣaṇa):[2] impermanence (anityatā), suffering (duhḥkha), emptiness (śūnya) and selflessness (anātman), and, since they know these twelve bases (āyatana), they are said to be ‘omniscient’.

The śrāvakas and pratyekabuddhas do not know the specific characteristics (svalakṣaṇa) in an exhaustive manner; they do not know the place of birth (jātisthāna) of a given being, his beauties and his uglinesses, the exact number of his actions, [not only in the past] but also in the future (anāgata) and the present (pratyutpanna). How then would they not be ignorant of those of all beings?

They do not know the names used to designate gold (suvarṇa) in a single Jambudvīpa. How then would they know the many sounds used to designate a single thing in the trisāhasramahāsāhasralokadhātu, and in the languages of the gods, in the language of the nāgas, etc.? Not knowing the many sounds used to designate gold, how then would they know the causes and conditions (hetupratyaya) of the various aspects] of gold, the various deposits of gold, their qualities or their respective values? How would they know the causes required to gain merit (puṇya), commit sin (āpatti) or find the Path? Not being able to cognize things that are so obvious, how then would they cognize the minds (citta) and mental events (caitasikadharma), such as the trances (dhyāna), absorptions (samāpatti), wisdom (prajñā) and the other [invisible] dharmas?

The Buddha, on the other hand, cognizes the general characteristics (sāmānyalakṣaṇa) and the specific characteristics (svalakṣaṇa) of all the dharmas in an exhaustive manner. This is why he is called ‘knower of all the aspects’ (sarvākārajñatā).

Finally, in a later chapter [of the Prajñāpāramitāsūtra], the Buddha himself says: “Omniscience (sarvājñatā) is the concern of śrāvakas and pratyekabuddhas; knowledge of the paths (mārgajñatā) is the concern of bodhisattvas; knowledge of all the aspects (sarvākārajñatā) is the concern of the Buddhas.”[3]

The śrāvakas and pratyekabuddhas have general omniscience (sāmānyasarvajñatā) only and do not have the knowledge of all the aspects (sarvākārajñatā).

Moreover, although they have a partial knowledge of specific characteristics (svalakṣaṇa), śrāvakas and pratyekabuddhas do not know them fully. It is because of their knowledge of the general characteristics (sāmānyalakṣaṇa) that they are called omniscient (sarvajña). In the Buddhas, sarvajñatā and sarvākārajñatā are real knowledges, whereas in the śrāvakas and pratyekabuddhas they are just the name. Their omniscience is like a lamp drawn[4] [on the wall]: it has the name only of a lamp but does not fulfill the function of a lamp. So it is for the śrāvakas and pratyekabuddhas.

When objections are put to them, often they are unable to reply and cannot cut through doubts. Thus, when the Buddha questioned Śāriputra three times, the latter was unable to answer.[5] If he had had real omniscience, why did [259b] he not reply? It is because he had only the name of omniscient, as he did not surpass ordinary people (pṛthagjana),[6] but he did not have true omniscience. Thus the Buddha [alone] has true omniscience and knowledge of all the aspects. He has innumerable epithets of this kind: sometimes he is called sarvajña and sometimes sarvākārajña,

In summary (saṃkṣepeṇa), this sets forth sarvajñatā, sarvākārajñatā and their many differences.

Footnotes and references:


Sarvākārajñatā has already been defined above, p. 640–642F.


The śrāvakas and pratyekabuddhas know all the general characteristics plus some specific characteristics; only the Buddha knows all the specific characteristics.


Pañcaviṃśati, San-houei-p’in, T 223, p. 375b25–27.


Adopting the variant houa teng.


Śāriputra was unable to reply to the Buddha’s question about the past and future existences of a pigeon found at the edge of a road: see above, p. 647–649F, the Avadāna of the pigeon.


Actually, in knowledge Śāriputra surpassed not only ordinary people but also all the arhats; only the Buddha was superior to him. Cf. Comm. on the Dhammapda, III, p. 228 seq., and Comm. on the Suttanipāta, II, p. 570 seq.