Maha Prajnaparamita Sastra

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

This page describes “are the beings to be known infinite in number?” 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.

III. Are the beings to be known infinite in number?

Question. – But can all the minds of beings (sattva) be known completely? If they can all be known completely, then beings are limited in number (antavat). If they [266a] cannot be known completely, why does the Prajñāpāramitāsūtra speak here about “the bodhisattva wishing to know the movements of the mind of all beings” and how would the Buddha really have the knowledge of all the aspects (sarvākārajñatā)?

Answer. – All the minds (citta) and mental events (caitasika dharma) of beings can be known completely. Why is that?

1. Because [the Buddha claims to know them completely] and it is said in the sūtras that, among all those who speak truthfully (satyavādin), the Buddha is foremost.[1] If it were impossible to know completely all the minds of beings and if one came up against the limits, how could the Buddha say that he knows them completely and how could he call himself omniscient (sarvajña)? But since the words of the Buddha are truthful, there must necessarily be an omniscient one.

2. Furthermore, although beings may be infinite in number (ananta), omniscience (sarvajñatā) itself is infinite. When a letter (lekha) is big, the envelope containing it is also big.[2] If the wisdom of the Buddha were limited (antavat) and if the number of beings were limitless (ananta), the objection [that you have raised against the omniscience of the Buddha] would be pertinent. But in the present case, the wisdom of the Buddha and the number of beings are both limitless: therefore your objection does not hold.

3. Finally, when it is a question of finite (antavat) and infinite (ananta), it is customary in the Buddhadharma to reply by not responding (sthāpanīya vyākaraṇam). The fourteen difficult questions [among which are the finite and the infinite] being unreal (abhūta), false (asat) and useless (vyartha),[3] you cannot make any objection [to the omniscience of the Buddha].

Question. – If the finite and the infinite are both false, why did the Buddha speak of ‘infinities’ in several places? Thus he said: “Beings who, full of error (moha) and desire (tṛṣṇā), have come [into saṃsāra] have neither beginning nor end”,[4] and also: “The ten directions (daśadiś) also are limitless.”[5]

Answer. – Beings are infinite in number (ananta) and the wisdom of the Buddha is infinite: that is the truth. But if a person is attached to infinity (anantam abhiniviśate), grasps at the characteristic (nimittam udgṛhṇāti) and gives himself over to idle discursiveness (prapañca), the Buddha says that infinity is wrong view (mithyādṛṣṭi).[6]

It is the same [with infinity] as for the eternity (śāśvata) and non-eternity (aśāśvata) of the world (loka): both are deceptions and come within the fourteen difficult questions. However, the Buddha has often spoken of non-eternity in order to save beings, whereas he did not speak much of eternity. If someone is attached to non-eternity (aśāśvatam abhiniviśate), grasps at the characteristic (nimittam udgṛḥṇāti) and gives himself up to futile discursiveness, the Buddha says that he acts from wrong view (mithyādṛṣṭi) and error. But if someone, without being attached to non-eternity, simply recognizes: “That which is non-eternal is suffering; that which is suffering is non-self; that which is non-self is empty,”[7] this person, thus being based on the vision of non-eternity (aśāśvatavipasyanāśrita), enters into the emptiness of things (dharmaśūnyatā) and is in the truth. This is why we know that non-eternity introduces one into the real truth, but also makes up part of the fourteen difficult questions for, by [hypostatizing it], by becoming attached to its causes and conditions (hetupratyayābhinviśāt), that is a wrong view (mithyādṛṣṭi).

Here I have spoken about non-eternity (aśāśvata) in order to clarify [the question] of infinity (ananta): it is as a result of the infinity [of suffering] that beings conceive distaste (nirveda) for the length of saṃsāra, [but the infinity of suffering is not a thing in itself: suffering is simply very long].

[Lohita or Tiṃsamattā sutta].

For these reasons, the beings of all the universes should pay homage (pūja) to the bodhisattva who produces the mind of bodhi for the first time (prathamacittotpādika). Why? Because, in order to save the beings of universes infinite in number, he himself uses infinite qualities (anantaguṇa). As they present such benefits, they are called ‘infinite’.

This is why the Prajñāpāramitāsūtra says here that the bodhisattva ‘knows the movements of mind of all beings completely’. Thus, when the sun illumines a continent (dvīpaka), it goes everywhere simultaneously and there is no place that is not illumined.

Notes on the question of wether beings are of infinite number:

This problem has already been studied (p. 146–161F, 529–530F, 1682F): how to reconcile the omniscience of the Buddha with the existence of an infinite number of beings? Infinity is unknowable for, by definition, one never finishes traveling through it (p. 153F). Therefore the Buddha cannot know all the minds of an infinite number of beings and he is not omniscient.

Encountering this objection, the Traité first shows its faithfulness to the canonical texts and states: ”Beings are infinite in number and the wisdom (knowledge) of the Buddha is infinite: that is the truth.”

On the one hand, the Buddha is proclaimed to be omniscient, and the Buddha cannot lie; on the other hand, the canonical texts seem to accept the existence of infinite realities, in space as well as in time:

1. In the Anamataggasutta (Saṃyutta, II, p. 178–193), the Buddha himself spoke of beings the beginning of which is unknown and that are led into a saṃsāra without beginning or end.

2. Atthasālinī, p. 160, l. 26–28, posits four infinities (cattāri anantāni):

  1. space (ākāśa),
  2. the circles around the world (cakkavāḷa),
  3. the world of beings (sattakāya),
  4. the knowledge of the Buddha (buddhañāṇa).

3. Kośabhāṣya (p. 113, l. 21–22) will in turn recognize: “There is no production of new beings. Although [innumerable] Buddhas appear and incalculable beings reach parinirvāṇa, there is no final exhaustion of beings” (nāsty apūrvasattvaprādurbhāvaḥ. pratibuddhotpāde cāsaṃkhyeyasattvaparinirvāṇe ’pi nāsti sattvānāṃ parikṣayaḥ).

But this does not answer the objection in the words of which, infinite realities not being knowable to the very end, there is no omniscience to cognize them, and the Buddha himself does not know them.

Thus, examining the problem more deeply, the Traité finally adopts a more radical position. While the sūtras and the śāstras tell us about infinite beings and universes, those are statements of a practical order (upāyokti) and not true doctrine (cf. p. 529F). If the Buddha teaches us about the infinity of suffering, the eternity of saṃsāra, it is in order to detach us from the world and to save us. He forbids speculation on the finite and the infinite, the eternal and the transitory, the grasping of characteristics and freeing oneself from vain proliferation. These metaphysical problems are absurd and dangerous. Why debate on the infinite number of beings when the being (sattva) does not exist? Why discuss the eternity of saṃsāra when the latter is, from the beginning, confused with nirvāṇa?

Thus the Buddha declined to pronounce on the question of whether the world and the self are eternal or non-eternal, finite or infinite, etc. (cf. p. 155F); those are unanswerable questions (avyākṛtavastu), because any answer, affirmative or negative, would be a wrong view (p. 423F). Far from being a confession of ignorance, the Buddha’s silence on this subject indicates his complete wisdom (p. 1682F).

Footnotes and references:


Cf. Dīgha, I, p. 4; III, p. 170; Anguttara, II, p. 209; IV, p. 249. 389: Musāvādaṃ pahāya musāvādā paṭivirato samano Gotamo saccavādī saccasandho theto paccayiko avisaṃvādakpo lokassa. – He avoids falsehood, he abstains from lying, the monk Gotama; he speaks the truth, he has set off bound for the truth; worthy of faith, he is certain of not betraying his word towards people.

We have seen above (p. 146–152F) how the Buddha’s contemporaries down to the most humble cowherds recognized his omniscience.


The comparison of the letter and the envelope has already been used above (p. 153F, 530F, 646F).


Once again the Traité returns to the fourteen difficult questions on which the Buddha declined to comment (cf. P. 154–158F, 421F, 423F, 529–530F, 1589F, 1682F). In the questions about the infinity and eternity of he world and of beings, the four envisaged alternatives are incorrect and no categorical response is acceptable. Cf. Kośa, IX, p. 267.


A free citation of a well-known stock phrase which has given its name to a section of the Saṃyutta, the Anamataggasaṃyutta. At first sight, it concerns the eternity of saṃsāra rather than the infinity of the world of beings, but the two notions are connected.

The Pāli wording appears in Saṃyutta, II, p. 178–193; III, p. 149–151; V, p. 226, 441; Cullaniddesa, p. 273; Kathāvatthu, I, p. 29: Anamatagg ‘āyaṃ bhikkhave saṃsāro pubbakoṭi na paññāyati avijjānīvaraṇānaṃ sattānaṃ taṇhāsamyojanānaṃ sandhāvataṃ saṃsāratam. – Of unknown beginning, O monks, is this saṃsāra: one does not know the beginning of beings who, obstructed by ignorance and fettered by desire, run about and wander [from birth to birth].

For this ‘logion’ which shows many variations, see below, p. 2096F.


The Mahāyānasūtras endlessly speak of universes as numerous as the sands of the Ganges and of innumerable and incalculable buddhafields.


Brahmajālasutta of Dīgha, I, p. 23–24: Ye pi te samaṇabrāhmaṇā evam āhaṃsu anato ayaṃ loko apariyanto ti, tesaṃ pi musā. – “The monks and brāhmaṇas who say that this world is infinite, that it is without limit, they too are in error.”


Saṃyutta, III, p. 22, 82, 84; IV, p. 1: yad aniccaṃ taṃ dukkhaṃ, yaṃ dukkhaṃ tad anattā