Maha Prajnaparamita Sastra

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

This page describes “justification of the number of marks” 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.

VI. Justification of the number of marks

Question. – Why assume thirty-two marks, no more and no less?

Answer. – Assuming more or assuming less would provoke difficulties in either case.

Furthermore, the body of the Buddha is six arm-spans (vyāma) in height. If he had less than thirty-two marks, they would not extend on all sides and would insufficiently ornament him; if he had more than thirty-two marks, they would [274c] be disorderly in arrangement. It is like jewels adorning the body: even if a large quantity of pearls (maṇi) is used, it is not fitting to be overloaded with necklaces (keyūra, niṣka). This is why the target (lakṣya) is reached with exactly thirty-two marks.

Finally, if this small number of marks really adorned him imperfectly, the Buddha still has eighty minor marks (anuvyañjana): going beyond that would not be appropriate.

Question. – If eighty minor marks must be added, why not call them ‘marks’ and why give them the special name of ‘minor marks’?

Answer. – The marks adorn the body particularly, and to mention these major marks is to imply the minor ones.

Moreover, the major marks are coarse (sthūla) whereas the minor marks are fine (sūkṣma). When beings see the Buddha they see his major marks; the minor marks, on the other hand, are hard to see.

Finally, the major marks are commonly obtained by other men. The minor marks are sometimes shared (sāmānya) and sometimes special (āveṇika). This is why we speak of the major and minor marks separately.

Traditional opinion regarding the variety of the marks:

This subject has already been treated above, p. 280F. The author is faithfully following the Vibhāṣā, T 1545, k. 177, p. 889a12–19:

“Why are there precisely thirty-two lakṣaṇa, no more and no less (dvātriṃśad eva mādhikāni nālpatarāṇi)? The venerable Pārśva says: Adding or subtracting from them would in both cases be a difficulty: exactly thirty-two are necessary so as not to contradict the nature of things (dharmatā). Others say: The number thirty-two is generally considered in the world to be a favorable number and nothing should be added to it or subtracted from it. Others say: If thirty-two marks adorn the Buddha’s body, the latter enjoys incomparable superiority in the world: if he had fewer, he would be lacking; if he had more, he would be untidy; in both cases, it would not look good. Just as one can neither add nor subtract from the Buddha’s attributes, so it is for his lakṣaṇa: there is no deficiency to increase and surplus to decrease.”

This is the traditional opinion in regard to the variety of the marks and their number. It could convince only the Indians, and it left foreigners skeptical. Its subjective nature did not escape the author of the Traité, at least according to one of his Chinese or Serindian interpreters. In fact, he will comment in k. 88, p. 684a–b that the Buddha takes into consideration the preferences of beings to be converted and local customs to manifest one particular mark rather than another. There are countries, he says, where the Buddha manifested sometimes myriads of marks, sometimes an incalculable number of marks, and sometimes fifty-six or thirty-four marks. When he conforms to the taste of India, he manifests thirty-two major and eighty minor marks.

Footnotes and references:

1.

This subject has already been treated above, p. 280F. The author is faithfully following the Vibhāṣā, T 1545, k. 177, p. 889a12–19: Why are there precisely thirty-two lakṣaṇa, no more and no less (dvātriṃśad eva mādhikāni nālpatarāṇi)? The venerable Pārśva says: Adding or subtracting from them would in both cases be a difficulty: exactly thirty-two are necessary so as not to contradict the nature of things (dharmatā). Others say: The number thirty-two is generally considered in the world to be a favorable number and nothing should be added to it or subtracted from it. Others say: If thirty-two marks adorn the Buddha’s body, the latter enjoys incomparable superiority in the world: if he had fewer, he would be lacking; if he had more, he would be untidy; in both cases, it would not look good. Just as one can neither add nor subtract from the Buddha’s attributes, so it is for his lakṣaṇa: there is no deficiency to increase and surplus to decrease.”

This is the traditional opinion in regard to the variety of the marks and their number. It could convince only the Indians, and it left foreigners skeptical. Its subjective nature did not escape the author of the Traité, at least according to one of his Chinese or Serindian interpreters. In fact, he will comment in k. 88, p. 684a–b that the Buddha takes into consideration the preferences of beings to be converted and local customs to manifest one particular mark rather than another. There are countries, he says, where the Buddha manifested sometimes myriads of marks, sometimes an incalculable number of marks, and sometimes fifty-six or thirty-four marks. When he conforms to the taste of India, he manifests thirty-two major and eighty minor marks.

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