Maha Prajnaparamita Sastra

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

This page describes “beings to be established in the six 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. Beings to be established in the six perfections

1. Their number

Question. – The bodhisattva wants all the beings of the ten directions to become established in the six perfections. Why then does the Prajñāpāramitāsūtra here speak only of the beings populating universes as numerous as the sands of the Ganges?

Answer. – For the auditors of the Dharma, the expression ‘as numerous as the sands of the Ganges’ (gaṅgānadīvālukopama) is familiar. Moreover, for a bodhisattva who has just produced the mind of bodhi (prathamacittotpāda), to speak of beings ‘infinite and innumerable’ would be too much and would throw [279c] him into confusion; on the contrary, for a great bodhisattva, the expression ‘numerous as the sands of the Ganges’ is not used by way of computation. Moreover, the expression ‘numerous as the sands of the Ganges’ also means an infinite immense number, as will be said in a later chapter. Finally, the expression ‘numerous as the sands of the Ganges’ has already been used to designate the universes of the ten directions and, as here we are not speaking of one single Ganges, there is no objection to be raised. As a result, to speak of universes as numerous as the sands of the Ganges is not wrong.

On the meaning of the expression ‘universes as numerous as the sands of the Ganges’, see what has been said above (p. 449–452F).

2. The various categories of beings

Beings (sattva). – The name (prajñapti) of ‘being’ is given to the five skandhas (skandha), to the eighteen elements (dhātu), to the twelve bases of consciousness (āyatana), to the six elements (dhātu) [of the human body],[1] to the twelve causes (nidāna) and to a quantity of dharmas; they are gods (deva), humans (manuṣya), cows (go), horses (aśva), etc.

There are two kinds of beings: mobile (cala) or still (śānta): the mobile ones produce physical and mental actions (kāyavākkarman), the still ones are unable to do so; material (rūpin) or immaterial (arūpin); with two feet or without feet; four-footed or multi-footed; worldly (laukika) or supraworldly (lokottara); big (mahat) or small (alpa); noble (bhadrārya) or ordinary (pṛthagjana).

There are beings predestined to damnation (mithyātvaniyata), predestined to salvation (samyaktvaniyata) or without predestination (aniyata); unhappy (duḥkha), happy (sukha) or neither unhappy nor happy (aduḥkhāsukha); higher (agra), middling (madhya) or lower (avara); still practicing (śaikṣa), no longer practicing (aśaikṣa) or neither one nor the other (naivaśaikṣanāśaikṣa); conscious (saṃjñā), unconscious (asaṃjñā), or neither conscious nor unconscious (naivasaṃjñināsaṃjñin); belonging to the desire realm (kāmadhātu), to the form realm (rūpadhātu) or to the formless realm (ārūpyadhātu).

Beings belonging to the desire realm are of three kinds: as a result of their roots of good (kuśalamūla), they are higher (agra), middling (madhya) or lower (avara). The higher ones are the six classes of the gods of desire (kāmadeva); the middling ones are those among humans who are wealthy and noble; the lower ones are those among humans who are vile. The four continents (dvīpaka) are distinguished by differences in face.

Bad beings are also of three categories: the higher are the damned (naraka); the middling ones are the animals (tiryañc), the lower are the pretas.

Moreover, the beings of the desire realm are of ten types [as they are arranged] in the three bad destinies (durgati), the world of humans and the six classes of gods [of karmadhātu].[2]

There are three kinds of hells (niraya): the hot hells (uṣṇaniraya), the cold hells (śītaniraya) and the dark hells (lokāntarikaniraya).[3]

There are three types of animals: aerial, terrestrial, or aquatic; diurnal, nocturnal or both diurnal and nocturnal; and other differences of the same kind.[4]

There are two kinds of pretas:[5] lecherous pretas and emaciated pretas (kṣutkṣāma). The lecherous pretas enjoy happiness like the gods but they live with the starving pretas of whom they are the leaders. The starving pretas have an enormous belly (sthūlodara) like a mountain, a mouth like the eye of a needle (sūcimukha) and consist of three things: a black skin (kṛṣṇatvac), tendons (snāyu) and bones (asthi). For innumerable hundreds of years, they have not even heard the words “food and drink” (annapāna), still less have they seen their shapes.

There are also pretas who emit fire from their mouth (ulkāmukha): flying butterflies throw themselves into this fire, and the pretas eat them. There are also pretas who eat excrement (gūtha), spit (śleṣman), pus and blood (pūyaśoṇita), the water from laundry, who feed on oblations (śraddhabhoktṛ) or who devour the afterbirth (garbhamalāhāra). There are all kinds of starving pretas of this kind.

The six classes of the desire gods (kāmadeva) are the Caturmahārajadevas, etc. Besides these six classes of gods, there are yet other gods, for example, the Wearers of necklaces, the Corrupted by Joy (krīdāpramoṣaka), the Corrupted by Mind (manaḥpradūsika),[6] the Gods with birds’ feet, the Gods of pleasant looks [280a] (priyadarśin?). These gods are included in the six classes of desire gods.

Some say that the beings of the desire realm (kāmadhātu) are of eleven types.[7] Sometimes five destinies (gati) are spoken of; actually the destiny of asuras is added to that.

3. The destiny of the asuras


Question. – No! The asuras are included in the five destinies; they are not gods (deva); they are not humans (manuṣya), [neither are they] the damned (nāraka) whose sufferings abound, nor animals (tiryañc) differing in shape (saṃsthāna): therefore these asuras should be included in the destiny of the pretas.[9]

Answer. – That is not so. The power of the asuras is equal to that of the devas. Why? Because sometimes they are vanquished by the devas and sometimes they vanquish the devas. Thus it is said in the sūtras: Śakra Devendra was vanquished by the asuras and his four armies (caturaṅginī senā) went into the hollows of lotus roots (bisamūla) to hide.” (see Appendix 3 note A)

The asuras who enjoy the five pleasurable objects (pañcakāmaguṇa) are like the devas and were disciples of the Buddha as well.[10] If such is their strength (prabhāva), why would they be included among the pretas? Therefore there must be a sixth destiny (gati) [reserved specially for the asuras].

Great gods such as the asuras, kiṃnaras, gandharvas, kumbhāndas, yakṣas, rakṣasas, bhūtas, etc., are asuras, and when their troops increase, those of the devas decrease. (see Appendix 3 note B) Their power (anubhāva) and their transformations (nirmāṇa) were exercised at will (yathaccham).

This is why people who are in doubt wonder: “Are these suras or are these not suras?” Sura, in the Ts’in language, indicates ‘deity’.[11] But the time-honored expression is asura and not sura. The asura destiny is called thus because the asuras appear at the head [of a list]; the others, [namely, the kiṃnaras, gandharvas, kuṃbhāṇḍas, yakṣas, bhūtas, etc.] constitute one and the same destiny with them.

Question. -But the sūtras say that there are five destinies (pañcagati).[12] Then why are you speaking of six destinies (ṣaḍgati)?

Answer. – Once the Buddha disappeared, the old sūtras were broadly disseminated; having been propagated for five hundred years, today they present many differences (viśeṣa) and the various schools do not agree; some assert five destinies, others assert six. (see Appendix 4 note A) Those who accept five destinies are modifying the Buddhist sūtras as a result, and they assume five destinies; those who accept six destinies are modifying the text of the Buddhist sūtras as a result and are accepting six destinies. Moreover, in the Mahāyāna, the Fa-houa king (Saddharmapuṇḍarīkasūtra) speaks of “beings distributed in the six destinies”, (see Appendix 4 note B) and from the viewpoint of the real meaning (abhiprāya) of the texts, there must be six destinies.

Furthermore, since the good is distinguished from the bad, there must be six destinies. The good being of superior (agra), middling (madhya) and inferior (avara) categories, there are three good destinies, Namely, the deva ‘gods’, the manuṣya ‘humans’ and the asuras. The bad being of higher, middling and lower categories, there are three bad destinies (durgati), namely the naraka, ‘damned’, the tiryañc ‘animals’ and the pretas. If it were not so – [i.e., if there were only five destinies] – there would be three fruits of retribution (vipākaphala) for the bad and only two fruits for the good. This would be conflicting (virodha). On the other hand, if there are six, the sense of equality is not violated.

Question. – But the good dharmas involve three fruits (phala) as well: the lower fruit is a human destiny, the middling fruit is that of deva and the higher fruit that of nirvāṇa.

Answer. – In the present subject, nirvāṇa is not included: only the abodes (avasthā) constituting fruits of retribution (vipākaphala) for beings are being distinguished. Nirvāṇa is not a fruit of retribution.[13]

The good dharmas (kuśaladharma) are of two kinds: i) the thirty-seven auxiliaries of enlightenment (bodhipākṣika) that lead to nirvāṇa; ii) the dharmas producing happiness (sukha) in the course of rebirths (punarbhava). Here we are speaking only of the good dharmas occurring in the reincarnations [280b] (ātmabhāvapratilambha); we are not talking about the good dharmas leading to nirvāṇa.

The good of the mundane order (laukikakuśala) is of three categories: i) the superior category gives as fruit of retribution a deva destiny; ii) the middling category gives as fruit of retribution a human destiny; iii) the inferior category gives as fruit of retribution an asura destiny.

Question. – But you yourself just said (p. 1954F) that the asuras are equal in power to the devas and that their bliss does not differ from that of the devas. Why do you now say that the good of the lower category gives as fruit of retribution an asura destiny?

Answer. – Among humans (manuṣya), it is possible to go forth from home, take up the precepts (śīla) and thus arrive at bodhi; in the destiny of the asuras, the fetters (saṃyojana) cover the mind and it is very difficult to arrive at bodhi. Although they are inclined towards the fetters, the devas have right mind and believe in bodhi; the asuras, whose minds, however, are bad and twisted, seldom come near to bodhi. This is why, although they are similar to the devas, it is hard for the asuras to come near to bodhi and this is why they are also inferior to humans. Just as the nāga kings (nāgarāja) and the birds with golden wings (garuḍa), despite their great power (anubhāva) and their power of transformation, belong to the animal destiny (tiryaggati), so the asuras [belong to a good destiny, but one which is of lower order].

Question. – If the nāga kings and the birds with golden wings, despite their great power, are ranked in the animal destiny, the asuras in turn should be ranked in the preta destiny. Why are you still making a sixth destiny?

Answer. – The nāga kings and the birds with golden wings, even though they too enjoy bliss, walk horizontally[14] and resemble animals in shape; this is why they are classed in the animal destiny. Although they are shaped like humans, the damned (nāraka) undergo great suffering; this is why they are not placed in the human destiny. As for the asuras, their power is great and their shape is like that of humans and gods; this is why they are placed separately in a sixth destiny.

All this is said in summary. For the beings of the desire realm (kāmadhātu), the form realm (rūpadhātu) and the formless realm (ārūpyadhātu), see the following chapters.[15]

Footnotes and references:


Cf. p. 1217F, n. 1.


This is the Sarvāstivādin-Vaibhāṣika doctrine: Kośa, III, p. 1: Narakapretatiryañco mānuṣā ṣaḍ divaukasaḥ | kāmadhātuḥ.


The hells have been the topic of a long discussion above, p. 955–968F. For further details, see the analysis of the Smṛtyupasthānasūtra in Lin, Aide-Mémoire.

As for the ‘dark hells’ of which the Traité speaks here, they are certainly lokantarikā aghā asaṃvutā andhakārā andhakāratimisā “intermediate spaces between the worlds, miserable spaces full of miseries, shadows and the darkness of the shades” where the light of the sun or the moon does not penetrate. See Dīgha, II, p. 12, 15; Majjhima, III, p. 120; Saṃyutta, V, p. 454; Anguttara, II, p. 130; Divya, p. 204; Mahāvastu, I, p. 41; Lalita, p. 51, 410; Saddharmapuṇḍ., p. 163. – Various translations have been proposed (see Edgerton, Dictionary, p. 464, under lokāntarikā).


Above, p. 951–952; J. May, in Hōbōgirin, IV, p. 309–319, under Chikushō


Above, p. 954–955F; Lin, Aide-Mémoire, p. 16–23. – In the present passage, the Traité is very close to the Ṣaḍgatikārikās, ed. P. Mus, Six Voies, p. 248–261.


These are the Khiḍḍāpadosikas and the Manopadosikas of the Pāli sources: cf. Brahmajāla (Dīgha, I, p. 19–21), and the Pāṭikasuttanta (Dīgha, III, p. 31–33). They appear also in the Saṃgītiparyāya, T 1536, k. 9, p. 403c22–24; Vibhāṣā, T 1545, k. 37, p. 190c18 and 22; k. 151, p. 771c1–4; Kośa, II, p. 219, and Yogācārabhūmi, part 1, p. 103. These gods destroy their own lives by their excessive joy or anger.


Eleven classes by adding the category (pradeśa) of the asuras to the traditional ten classes. This is the opinion of the Traité and also of Buddhaghosa in Atthasālini, p. 62..


Here the author returns to an opinion dear to him: the separate existence of the asura destiny. To the references gathered on p. 613F, n. 1, we should add Lin, Aide-Mémoire, p. 24–29 and the article Asura in Ceylon Encyclopedia, II, p. 286–291.


Limiting the destinies to the number of five, the objector places the asuras with the pretas, and the Vibhāṣā (T1545, k. 172, p. 868c16) agrees with this opinion, but as we have seen above (p. 613F, n. 1) there are other divisions.


Above, p. 614–615F, the Traité has given, as examples of converted asuras, Punarvasu’s mother, the yakṣa Vajrapāṇi and the kiṃnara Druma.


Read t’ien instead of ta. – Other interpretations of the word in Vibhāṣā, T 1545, k. 172, p. 868b3–8; Hōbōgirin, p. 41b.


For example, Majjhima, I, p. 73: Pañca kho imā Sāriputta gatiyo, katamā pañca: nirayo tiracchānayoni pittivisayo manussā devā.

The Vibhāṣā (T 1545, k. 172, p. 868b2–3) on the basis of these sūtras, says: “There are schools that make the asuras into a sixth gāti: they should not say that because the sūtras speak only of five gati.”

The opinion of the Traité is diametrically opposed and has declared above (p. 616F): “The Buddha never spoke explicitly of five gatis. The five gatis are an invention of the Sarvāstivādins.”


Nirvāna, being asaṃskṛta by definition, unconditioned or uncreated.


According to etymology tiriyaṃ añchitā tiracchānā (Comm. of Majjhima, II, p. 37). Hence the Tibetan translation dud ḥgro “that which walks bending over; opposite to man who walks upright” (S. C. Das) and the Chinese translation p’ang hing or, more often, tch’ou cheng. See also Hōbōgirin, IV, p. 310.


Especially Pañcaviṃśati, p. 64 seq.