Maha Prajnaparamita Sastra

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

This page describes “pretas (hungry ghosts) and water” 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.

Appendix 1 - Pretas (hungry ghosts) and water

Note: This appendix is extracted from Chapter XLVI part 2.2 (do the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas fulfill wishes without exception?):

“Also when the Nāgarāja impartially (samacittena) makes it rain, the rain is water for humans, but for the Pretas, it is burning embers.”

The example of the pretas and water is often evoked by the Mādhyamikas and the Vijñānavādins to prove, respectively, the non-existence of the object or its reduction to mere-mind.

For the former, see Candrakīrti’s Madhyamakāvatāra, p. 164 (transl, Muséon, 1910, p. 348): Like someone who has an organ afflicted by ophthalmia, pretas take water to be blood.

For the latter, see Viṃśatika, p. 3, l. 23–4, l. 6.

Saṃtanāniyāmaḥ siddha iti vartate prĪtānām iva pretavat kathaṃ siddhaḥ saman | sarvaiḥ pūyanadyādidarśane | tulyakarmavipākāvasthā hi pretaḥ sarve ’pi pūyapūrṇām nadīṃ paśyanti naika eva | yathā pūyapūrṇām mūtrapurīṣādipūrṇāṃ daṇdāsidharaiś ca puruṣair adhiṣṭhitām ity ādigrahaṇena | eva saṃtānāniyamo vijñaptīnaÎ apy arthe siddhaḥ |


‘The indetermination of the mental series’ is demonstrated ‘as in the pretas’, similarly to the pretas. How is that demonstrated? Because all see rivers at the same time as full of pus. Actually, all pretas who are in the same condition of retribution of actions equally see the river full of pus and not just one single one. Similarly to pus, also full of urine, excrement, etc., guarded by men carrying sticks and swords: that is the meaning of ‘etc.’ Thus, even if ideas have no object, the indetermination of the mental series is demonstrated.

The same example is repeated in a paracanonical sūtra, the Jñānacatuṣkasūtra, cited by Asaṅga and his school in the Saṃgraha, p. 103–107; the Abhidharmasamuccayavyākhyā, T 1606, k. 5, p. 715b13–c1; and the Siddhi, p. 421–423. The bodhisattva needs four knowledges in order to be convinced of the absolute absence of object (artha). The first is the viruddhavijñānanimittatvajñāna noticing that one single thing, or supposedly such, is the object of contradictory cognitions. Thus, hungry ghosts (preta), animals (tiryañc), humans (manuṣya) and gods (deva) have differing concepts (bhinnavijñapti) of one and the same thing (ekadravya).

Commenting on this passage, Asvabhāva states:

Where the pretas, by the power of the retribution of their actions (vipākabala), see a river full of pus (nadī pūyapūrṇā), animals (tiryañc), fish (matsya), etc., see something to drink (pāna), a home, and settle there. Humans (manuṣya) see in it delicious pure clear water: they use it to bathe, to quench their thirst. As for the gods gathered (samāhitadeva) in the sphere of infinite space (ākāśanantyāyatana), they see in it only space (ākāśa), for they no longer have any notion of substance (rūpasaṃjñā). But it is impossible to have so many different cognitions of one and the same thing [if the latter is real]. How could this same river filled with pus (pūya), urine (mūtra) and excrement (purīṣa), guarded by men carrying sticks and swords (daṇḍāsidharaiś ca puruṣair adhiṣṭhitā) play the role of sweet-smelling (sugandha), fresh (śītala) water, of a dwelling place and a beverage? How could it be identified with space? But if it is accepted that the outer object does not exist, that is all explained.

Asvabhāva ends his commentary by citing a stanza of which the original Sanskrit appears in the Sarvadarśanasaṃgraha (Ānandāśrama edition, p. 12, l. 3–4):

Parivrāṭkāmukaśunām ekasyāṃ pramadātanau |
kuṇapaḥ kāminī bhakṣya iti tisro vikalpanāḥ ||

“The monk, the lover and the dog have three different concepts of one and the same female body, namely, a rotting carcass, a mistress, or food.”

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