Maha Prajnaparamita Sastra

by Gelongma Karma Migme Chödrön | 2001 | 941,039 words

This page describes “the practice of the ‘minor’ perfections” 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.

II. The practice of the ‘minor’ perfections

1. Lesser practice of generosity

Question. – Why does the bodhisattva [sometimes] practice minor generosity (alpaṃ dānam)?

Answer. – There are many reasons for minor generosity:

1. There are some bodhisattvas who have just produced the bodhi mind for the first time (prathamacittotpāda) and who, not yet having accumulated merit (puṇya), are poor and can give only a little.

2. There also are some bodhisattvas who have learned that generosity is not measured by the amount of things given but that its virtue (guṇa) resides in the mind. This is why they do not seek to give a lot of things but seek only for good intention.

3. There are some bodhisattvas who have the following thought: “If I seek to accumulate a lot of wealth (vasu), I will violate the discipline (śīla), I will lose my good intention, I will be distracted (vikṣiptacitta) and I will torment many beings. Tormenting beings in order to pay homage to the Buddha has been condemned by the Buddha, for that is to violate the Dharma and seek wealth. If by giving to one worldly person I dispossess another, that is not equanimity (samatā). For a bodhisattva, it is the rule to love all beings equally like one’s own child.” That is why these bodhisattvas give only a little.

4. Furthermore, there are two kinds of bodhisattvas: i) the debased bodhisattva (vinaṣṭa); ii) the accomplished bodhisattva (saṃpanna).

The debased bodhisattva had at first produced the mind of complete perfect [271b] enlightenment (anuttarasamyaksaṃbodhi); then, not coming upon favorable conditions and his mind being clouded by the five obstacles (nīvaraṇa), he lived a life of mixed conduct (miśracarita) and has been reborn into a wealthy noble family (kṣatriyamahāśālakula) or has even become the king of a country or a great yakṣa king, etc., As a result of the bad physical, vocal or mental actions that he previously committed, he is not pure and consequently, he is not reborn in the presence of the Buddhas (buddhānām antike) or among gods and men in faultless places (anavadyasthāna). This bodhisattva is called a debased bodhisattva. Although he has lost the bodhi mind, by virtue of [his actions] in previous existences (pūrvajanman), this person still likes to give. [To this end], he torments many people, he pillages, he robs and unjustly takes over wealth which he uses, nevertheless, to gain merit (puṇya).

The accomplished (saṃpanna) bodhisattvas do not lose the mind of complete perfect enlightenment. Out of loving kindness and compassion for beings, some remain at home and take on the fivefold discipline (pañcaśīla); others go forth from home and take up the [tenfold] discipline (daśaśīla).

a. The lay bodhisattva (gṛhastha) is actually of perfect conduct (saṃpannakarmānta), but as a result of actions of his previous lives (pūrvajanman), he is poor (daridra). Learning that there are two kinds of generosity in the Buddhadharma, the gift of the Dharma (dharmadāna) and the material gift (āmiṣadāna), that the monastic (pravrajita) practices especially the gift of the Dharma and that the lay person (gṛhasta) practices especially the material gift, the bodhisattva says to himself: “As for myself, because of my previous actions, I do not belong to a wealthy family.” Then, determining that debased (vinaṣṭa) bodhisattvas commit wrongdoing (āpatti) in order to give gifts, this pleases him not at all. He finally learns that the Buddha has not praised copious material gifts but praises only the gift given out of purity of mind (cittaviśuddhi). This is why the bodhisattva gives only according to his means.

b. As for the monastic (pravrajita) bodhisattva, wanting above all to protect discipline (śīla), he does not pursue material goods (vasu). He thinks only of the virtues of the one single discipline that surpasses all gifts. This is why he gives only according to his means.

5. Furthermore, the bodhisattva has learned from the Jātakas and Nidānas of the Buddhist literature that a small gift gives a large fruit of ripening (vipākaphala).

[Avadāna of Bakkula] – Thus the arhat Po-kiu-lo (Bakkula), who had given a single a-li-lö fruit (harītakī), did not fall into the lower realms (durgati) for ninety-one kalpas; he enjoyed happiness among gods and men; he was never sick and, in his last lifetimes (paścime janmani), he obtained the bodhi of the arhat.

[Avadāna of Koṭīviṃśa] – Thus the śrāmaṇa Eul-che-yi (Koṭīviṃṣa), at the time of the Buddha Vipaśyin, built a house (layana) and gave it to the community of bhikṣus; he laid down a sheepskin for the community to walk on. For this reason, for ninety-one kalpas, his feet did not touch the ground; among gods and men, he enjoyed immense happiness; in his last lifetime, he was born into the house of a great man (śreṣṭhin), had a splendid body (abhirūpakāya), and, on the soles of his feet (pādatala), there grew hair two inches long, the color of pure beryl and curling toward the right (romāṇi dvyaṅgulani vaiḍūryasadṛśāni pradakṣiṇāvartāni). When he was born, his father gave him twenty koṭi ounces of gold. Later, disenchanted with the five objects of worldly enjoyment (pañcakāmaguṇa), he went forth from home and obtained bodhi. The Buddha proclaimed him as the foremost of the energetic bhikṣus (ārabdhavīryāṇāṃ agryaḥ).

[Avadāna of Sumana]

With the example of these Jātakas and Nidānas, the bodhisattva who gives only a small amount obtains a great reward (vipāka). Therefore, according to his means, he gives a lot or a little.

6. Moreover, the bodhisattva is not compelled (niyata) always to give only a small gift. According to his fortune, he gives a lot when he has a lot, and he gives a little when he has but little.

7. Finally, it is in order to praise virtues and the greatness of the Prajñāpāramitā that the Buddha said that a small gift gives a big reward and that its qualities are immense.

2. Efficacy of the application of merit

Question. – But the arhats, Bakkula, etc., they too, by giving only small gifts, obtained a great reward (mahāvipāka). Why then introduce the Prajñāpāramitā here?

Answer. – Bakkula and others indeed obtained a fruit of retribution, but it was limited to a certain number of kalpas and, having found the lesser bodhi (hīnabodhi), they entered into nirvāṇa. By contrast, the bodhisattva, ‘by skilful application of merit’ (upāyakauśalyapariṇāmanayā)[1] as a result of Prajñāpāramitā, by giving only a little, wins immense, infinite, incalculable merit (aprameyam anantam asaṃkhyeyaṃ puṇyam).

Question. – What is this skilful application by means of which, by giving only a little, he wins an immense infinite qualification?

Answer. – 1. Although it is a matter of small gifts, all are applied (pariṇata) to supreme perfect enlightenment. The bodhisattva thinks as follows: “As for myself, by means of this merit (puṇya), I have no ambition for royalty among gods or men or for happiness in this world; I seek only supreme complete enlightenment. And since this supreme complete enlightenment is immense and infinite, my merit also will be immense and infinite. Furthermore, by means of this merit, I wish to save all beings and, as beings are immense and infinite in number, my merit also will be immense and infinite. Finally, this merit utilizes great loving-kindness (mahāmaitrī) and great compassion (mahākaruṇā) and, as this great loving-kindness and great compassion are immense and infinite, my merit too will be immense and infinite.”

2. Moreover, since it is associated with the true nature (bhūtalakṣaṇa) of dharmas, the merit of the bodhisattva is triply pure (trimaṇḍalapariśuddha) because the beneficiary (pratigrāhaka), the donor (dāyaka) and the thing given (deya) do not exist (nopalabhyante). Thus, at the beginning of the present Prajñāpāramitāsūtra (cf. p. 650F), the Buddha said to Śāriputra: “When the bodhisattva gives without distinguishing donor or beneficiary or thing given, he fulfils the Prajñāpāramitā fully.” The bodhisattva gains immense and infinite merit by implementing the knowledge of the true nature of dharmas and the gift.

3. Finally, the bodhisattva thinks that the merits he possesses have as their nature (lakṣaṇa) suchness (tathatā), the fundamental element (dharmadhātu), the limit of the truth (bhūtakoṭi); and since suchness, the fundamental element and the limit of the truth are immense and infinite, his merits also are immense and infinite.

Question. – The bodhisattva-mahāsattva who considers the true nature (bhūtalakṣaṇa) of dharmas knows that suchness, the fundamental element, the limit of the truth are in their nature unconditioned (asaṃskṛta) and cessation (nirodha).[2] How can he still have a mind and create merit? [272a]

Answer. – The bodhisattva has, for a long time, practiced the mind of great compassion (mahākaruṇācitta). At the very moment when this mind of great compassion arises, he says to himself: “Beings do not know this true nature of dharmas and I must help them find it.” By the power of the perfection of exertion (vīryapāramitā), he returns to practicing the causes and conditions of meritorious action (puṇyakarman) and, by means of this perfection of exertion, he maintains the mind of great compassion. Thus when a fire (agni) on the point of being extinguished encounters the support of wind (anila) and fuel (indhana), it is revived.

Moreover, the bodhisattva recalls his previous vows (pūrvapraṇidhāna) and, as well, the Buddhas of the ten directions come and say to him: “Remember the moment when you first produced the mind of bodhi (prathamacittotpāda). You had at that time received only a single talk on the Dharma (dharmaparyāya) but there are still innumerable sermons of the same kind that you have not yet heard. Therefore go back and accumulate the qualities (guṇa).” On this account, see what is said in the Tsien-pei king (Daśabhūmikasūtra) on the seventh bhūmi.[3]

3. Minor practice of the other perfections

Question. – That generosity has degrees is correct; that morality (śīla), of which the fivefold discipline (pañcaśīla), the discipline of one day and one night (rātridivaśīla) and the tenfold discipline (daśaśīla) make up a part,[4] also is composed of degrees is evident. These are material things (rūpidharma) where it is possible to establish differences. But as for the other perfections [patience (kṣānti), exertion (vīrya), meditation (dhyāna) and wisdom (prajñā)], how can degrees be distinguished there?

Answer. – We may know that all involve degrees.

a. Minor practice of patience.

Thus, patience (kṣānti) is of two types: i) physical patience (kāyikī kṣānti); ii) mental patience (caitāsikī kṣānti).[5]

Even though the body (kāya) and the voice (vāc) remain motionless (acala), physical patience cannot prevent the mind (citta) from becoming agitated, for it is a minor patience, incapable of controlling the mind. In mental patience, on the other hand, body and mind both remain ‘patient’ like a piece of wood.

Furthermore, an individual who has minor patience does not react if someone strikes him or insults him. An individual who has major patience makes no distinction between the insulter, the one who is being insulted and the thing to endure.

Finally, patience with regard to beings (sattvakṣānti) is minor patience; patience with regard to things (dharmakṣānti) is major patience.[6]

These are the distinctions to be made concerning patience.

b. Minor practice of exertion.

Exertion is of two types: i) physical exertion (kāyika vīrya) and ii) mental exertion (caitasika vīrya).[7] Physical exertion is minor; mental exertion is major. External (bāhya) exertion is minor; internal (ādhyatmika) is major. Exertion of the body (kāya) and voice (vāc) is minor; exertion of the mind (manas) is major. Thus the Buddha said that mental action (manaskarman) is very strong and this is how the angry great ṛṣis were able to destroy entire kingdoms [by a mental act].[8]

Furthermore, it is by means of the body (kāya) and the voice (vāc) that the five sins of immediate retribution (pañcānantarya) involving a very serious fruit of retribution (vipākaphala), viz., remaining in Avicī hell for a kalpa.[9] Mental action is even more powerful for by it one succeeds in being reborn in the sphere of neither conception nor non-conception (naivasaṃjñānāsaṃjñāyatana) with a lifespan of eighty-four great kalpas[10] or also in remaining in the buddhafields (buddhakṣetra) of the ten directions with an unlimited lifespan. This is why we know that physical and vocal exertion are minor whereas mental exertion is major.

Finally, a sūtra says:[11] “Destruction of physical, vocal and mental actions (kāyavācmanaskarmanirodha), the unmovable (aniñjita)” is the major exertion, whereas the movable (iñjita) is the minor exertion.”

This is what is called minor exertion.

c. Practice of minor trance.

The concentrations of the desire realm (kāmadhātusamādhi) and those of the ānantarya ‘preliminary absorption of the first dhyāna’, not being liberated from desire (avirakta), are described as minor. Compared with the second dhyāna, the first dhyāna is minor and so on up to the absorption of cessation (nirodhasamāpatti). The impure (sāsrava) dhyānas are lesser whereas the pure (anāsrava) dhyānas are greater.

While the bodhisattva has not become irreversible (avaivartika) and has not obtained the acquiescence that dharmas do not arise (anutpattikadharmakṣānti), his dhyānas are minor; when he has become irreversible and has obtained the acquiescence that dharmas do not arise, his dhyānas are major. [272b]

When the Bodhisattva was sitting on the seat of enlightenment (bodhimaṇḍa), the concentrations associated with the first sixteen liberations (vimukti) were minor but, at the seventeenth moment, the diamond-like concentration (vajropamasamādhi) was major.[12]

Finally, when the bodhisattva considers (samanupaśyati) all the dharmas as being eternally concentrated (satatasamāhita) and free of distraction (avikṣipta), when he does not rely on them and does not distinguish them, it is a matter of major considerations. The others are minor.

d. Lesser practice of wisdom.

Wisdom is of two kinds: i) mundane (laukikī); ii) supramundane (lokottara). The mundane wisdom is lesser; the supramundane wisdom is greater.

In the same way [contrasting in the order of greatness] pure (viśuddha) wisdom and mixed (miśra) wisdom, characterized (sanimitta) wisdom and non-characterized (nirnimitta) wisdom, speculative wisdom and non-speculative wisdom, the wisdom in accordance with the Dharma and the wisdom contrary to the Dharma, the wisdom turned toward samsāra and the wisdom turned toward nirvāṇa, the wisdom directed toward one’s own good (svārtha) and the wisdom directed toward the good of all beings (sarvasattvārtha), etc.

Furthermore, the wisdom coming from hearing (śrutamayī) is lesser in comparison to the wisdom coming from reflection (cintamayī) which is greater. The wisdom coming from reflection is lesser in comparison to the wisdom coming from meditation (bhāvanāmayī) which is greater.

The wisdom which produces the mind of supreme complete enlightenment (anuttarasamyaksaṃbodhi) is lesser in comparison to the wisdom utilizing the six perfections (pāramitā) which is greater. The wisdom of practice (bhāvanāprajñā) is lesser in comparison to the wisdom of skillful means (upāyaprajñā) which is greater. In the course of the ten bodhisattva bhūmis, skillful means is always being developed up to the tenth bhūmi.

These are the degrees to be distinguished [in the various pāramitās]. The Buddha praises the deeds of the bodhisattva who, by accomplishing lesser things, “obtains an immense and infinite qualification”. What then can be said (kaḥ punarvādaḥ) when the bodhisattva accomplishes greater things? Other people who give up their wealth (vasu) and try very hard by means of their body (kāya), speech (vāc) and mind (manas), painfully gain a small amount of merit (puṇya). It is the same when they practice discipline, patience, exertion, meditation and wisdom: they do not reach the bodhisattva who, by means of lesser efforts, gains a great retribution, as we have said above.

The air that escapes from the mouth produces an articulated sound (ghoṣa) but this sound does not reach very far; by contrast, the sound that comes from a horn (śṛṇga) has a long range. It is the same for [the perfections] of generosity, etc., practiced to a lesser degree [by the bodhisattva]. Whereas among other people who practice these virtues, the merits gained are little rewarded, the bodhisattva-mahāsattva, by means of Prajñāpāramitā and skillful application of his merits (upāyakauśalapariṇāmanā), obtains an immense and infinite merit.

This is why the Prajñāpāramitāsūtra speaks here of the bodhisattva “who wishes to practice a lesser generosity, a lesser discipline, a lesser patience, a lesser exertion, a lesser trance and a lesser wisdom.”

Footnotes and references:


[Translator’s note (Migme)]: Parinānamanā = ripening, maturing: Monier-Williams Dictionary.]


Tathatā, dharmadhātu, bhūtakoṭi are synonyms of asaṃskṛtadharma: cf. Pañcaviṃśati, p. 168, l. 14–17, and the explanations in the Traité, k. 44, p. 380c20 seq.


Section of the Avataṃsaka, the Daśabhūmikasūtra designated here under the abridged title of the Chinese version (T 285) composed at Tch’ang-ngan by Dharmarakṣa, on the 21st day of the 11th month of the 7th year of the yuan-k’ang, or December 21, 297 (K’ai-yuan, T 2154, k. 2, p. 494a3). Later (k. 49, p. 411a29;, k. 93, p. 712c17), it will be cited under the name of Che-ti king ‘The ten bhūmis’ or again (k. 33, p. 308a6; k. 100, p. 756b8) under the name of Fa yun king (Dharmameghasūtra), the name of the tenth bhūmi.

In the early references, the eighth bhūmi overlaps the seventh. In going back here to the seventh bhūmi, the Traité undoubtedly has in mind a short passage of the eighth bhūmi, ed. J. Rahder, p. 66: Api tu khalu punaḥ kulaputraikas tavaiṣa āloko yo ‘yaṃ sarvadhamanirvikapālokaḥ | īdṛśās tu kulaputra dharmālokās tathāgatānām paryantagatā aparyantakṛtā aparyantabaddhā yeṣaṃ saṃkhyā nāsti gaṇanā pramāṇam upaniṣad aupamyaṃ nāsti | teṣām adhigamāyābhinirhāram utpādaya |


These three kinds of discipline have been studied in chapter XXII, p. 818–852F.


Cf. p. 903–904F.


Patience with regard to beings has been defined, p. 867–898F; patience with regard to things, p. 902–926F.


Cf. p. 870–972F


Allusion to the Upālisutta of Majjhima, I, p. 371–387, where the Buddha said to the Nigaṇṭha Dīghatapassin that, of the three actions, bodily (kāyikakamma), vocal (vacīkamma) and mental (manokamma), mental action is by far the most formidable when it is a matter of doing or accomplishing a bad action (mahāsāvajjataraṃ pāpassa kammassa kiriyāya pāpassa kammassa pavattiyā). The Buddha wanted to show (ibid., p. 378) the vengeance of the ṛṣis who, without making any motion or pronouncing any word, with a mental act of malice (manopadosa) alone, destroyed entire forests. The episode has already been told above, p. 894F seq. To the references listed there, we should add Milindapañha, p. 130; Vibhāṣā, T 1545, k. 118, p. 617c28; Kośabhāṣya, p. 246, l. 12.


See Kośa, III, p. 41.


See Kośa, III, p. 174; IV, p. 218.


In the Laṭukikopamasutta of Majjhima, I, p. 454–455, the Buddha explains to Upāli that the first three jhānas are in restlessness (iñjitasmiṃ): in the first, examination and analysis have not been destroyed (vitakkavicārā aniruddhā honti); in the second, joy and happiness have not been destroyed (pītisukkhaṃ aniruddhā honti); in the third, equanimity and happiness have not been destroyed (upekhāsukhaṃ aniruddhaṃ hoti). – On the other hand, the fourth jhāna is in the non-restlessness (aniñjitasmiṃ) due to the destruction of happiness, the destruction of suffering, etc. (sukhassa ca pahānā dukkhassa ca pajāna –pe-).

Dīgha, III, p. 217 and Saṃyutta, II, p. 82 distinguish three kinds of activities (abhisaṃkhāra): meritorious (puñña), demeritorious (apuñña) and unmoving (āneñja). For Kośa, IV, p. 107, meritorious action is good (śubha) action of the desire realm; unmoving action is good action of the two higher (ūrdhvaja) realms.

That being the case, I [Lamotte) do not see how the Traité presents the aniñjita here as being the pacification and stopping (tsi-mie) of physical, vocal and mental actions. For this difficult problem, see notes of L. de La Vallée Poussin in Kośa, IV, p. 106–107.


When the Bodhisattva was sitting under the bodhi tree, he was still tied to the bhavāgra by nine categories of passions (kleśa). He became detached from them by eighteen mind moments: nine moments of abandoning or expulsion (prahāṇa or ānantaryamārga) and nine moments of deliverance (vimuktimārga). At the seventeenth moment, he abandons the ninth category of passion by a path of abandoning called Vajropamasamādhi; the eighteenth moment is a path of deliverance in which the ascetic takes possession of the cessation of all the passions (kleśa) or impurities (āsrava).

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