Maha Prajnaparamita Sastra

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

This page describes “surpassing the stage of shravaka and pratyekabuddha” 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. Surpassing the stage of Śrāvaka and Pratyekabuddha

Question. – At the moment when the bodhisattva acceded to dharmaniyāma, he had already surpassed the stage of the śrāvakas and pratyekabuddhas and was settled in the irreversible ground. Why return to that here?

Answer. – Although these three events are simultaneous and linked one to the other, they must be praised in order (krameṇa). Similarly, when in a single moment of mind, the ascetic simultaneously acquires the five pure faculties (anāsravendriya),[1] it is necessary to distinguish them and describe their characteristics each in turn.

When the bodhisattva accedes to dharmaniyāma, he destroys such and such fetters (saṃyojana), acquires such and such qualities (guṇa), surpasses such and such stages and becomes established on such and such a ground, but only the Buddha knows it. It is in order to guide (upanayana) the bodhisattvas that the Buddha celebrates all of that in many ways. Similarly, at the beginning of the present sūtra[2] it was said: “The Buddha was on the Gṛdhrakūṭaparvata with an assembly of five thousand bhikṣus: all were ārhat, had destroyed their impurities (kṣīṇāsrava), were accomplished and perfect (kṛtakṛtya),[3] etc. It was in [263b] order to guide other men and purify their minds that the Buddha multiplied these praises and there was no fault (doṣa) there. It is the same here: if the bodhisattva has acceded to dharmaniyāma, by that very fact he has “surpassed the stage of śrāvaka and pratyekabuddha” and has “become established on the irreversible ground”. Furthermore, it is because he has acceded to the dharmaniyāma that the bodhisattva has surpassed the stage of the śrāvaka and pratyekabuddha and is established on the irreversible ground.

Question. – But in acceding to the dharmaniyāma, the bodhisattva also bypasses old age (jarā), sickness (vyādhi) and death (maraṇa), he cuts through the fetters (saṃyojana) and suppresses the three evil destinies (durgati) as has been said above (p. 1790F). Why then does [the Prajñāpāramitāsūtra] limit itself to saying that “he surpasses the stage of śrāvaka and prateykabuddha”? [By acceding to the dharmaniyāma] the bodhisattva is also established in many qualities (guṇa). Why does [the sūtra] say only that he ‘is established on the irreversible ground’?

Answer. – The bodhisattva abandons bad things and acquires the qualities. Later, the sūtra will describe successively the qualities in which he is established. When the Dharma is explained, it is necessary to proceed in an orderly fashion (krama); it is impossible to speak of everything at the same time.

Furthermore, when the bodhisattva produces the mind of bodhi (cittotpāda) for the first time, he is afraid above all of not bypassing the stage of śrāvaka and pratyekabuddha. For him, to fall directly into hell (niraya) would be less formidable, for [such a fall] would not definitively cut the path of the Mahāyāna. On the other hand, [to remain at the stage] of śrāvaka or pratyekabuddha consitutes a definitive loss for the Mahāyāna.[4]

[The caution of the cotton-tree.] – Thus there once was a cotton-tree (śalmalī) in a desert land. Its fruits and its branches were great and broad and birds in large numbers would gather there to pass the night. There came a day when one single pigeon (kapota) sat on a branch; the branch and the fruits broke off instantaneously.

The deity of the marsh (kacchadevatā) asked the deity of the tree (vṛkṣadevatā): When there are large numbers of birds, eagles (garutmat) or vultures (gṛdhra), you were able to sustain them; why could you not resist a little bird?

The deity of the tree answered: This bird was lately sitting on an enemy of mine, the banyan tree (nyagrodha) and, having eaten a seed of that tree, it came to perch on me. It will certainly let fall droppings and, from the seed that has fallen to the ground, there will grow another evil tree that will certainly do me a great wrong. Thus, with anger and fearful of this pigeon, I preferred to sacrifice one branch: that was better.

– The bodhisattva-mahāsattva does the same. He feels less afraid of the heretics (tīrthika), Māra’s troops, the fetters (saṃyojana) and evil actions (pāpakarman) than of the arhats and pratyekabuddhas. Why? For the bodhisattva, the arhats and pratyekabuddhas are like the pigeon of the story for they destroy the spirit of the Mahāyāna and definitively ruin the work of the Buddha (buddhakārya).

This is why [the Prajñāpāramitāsūtra] mentions, as the most important here, only the fact of “bypassing the stage of śrāvaka and pratyekabuddha and becoming established on the irreversible ground”. [263c]

Footnotes and references:


Śraddhā, vīrya, smṛti and prajñā: see p. 1125–1127F.


Cf. p. 198F.


Since Burnouf, kṛtakṛtya has been translated as ‘having accomplished what they had to do’, but see above, p. 213–215F.


The Vimalakīrtinirdeśa, transl. p. 292, puts the following thought into the mouth of the arhat Mahākāśyapa: “It would be better to become guilty of the five sins of immediate retribution (ānantarya) than to be completely liberated as arhat as we are. Why? Because those who are guilty of the five ānantaryas still have the power to destroy these ānantaryas, to produce the mind of supreme complete enlightenment and to gradually realize all the dharmas of the Buddha. Whereas we, the arhats, who have destroyed our impurities, we will never be capable of that.”