Maha Prajnaparamita Sastra

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

This page describes “preliminary note (6)” 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.

In 383 at the capture of Kushā by the armies of the barbarian king Fou Kien of the dynasty of the Later Ts’in (350–394), Kumārajīva was captured by the cavalry general Liu Kouang and forcibly taken to Leang-tcheou in the Kan-sou. There he pined away for 19 years (383–401) and kept his profound doctrine to himself, without preaching or converting. Finally in 401, another barbarian emperor who was, however, a warm partisan of Buddhism, summoned him. This was Yao Hing of the dynasty of the Later Ts’in (384–417) who reigned from 394 to 416.

Kumārajīva, then 57 years of age, arrived at Tch’ang-ngan, the great metropolis of the empire, on February 8, 402. Welcomed warmly by the emperor who put at his disposal hundreds of learned Chinese, Kumārajīva showed unprecedented activity, as much in the translations that he made as in the works that he composed himself.

On February 1, 406, the date on which the Chinese version of the Traité appeared, Kumārajīva had worked on:

1) A new translation of the Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā (T 223),

2) The abridged translation of the Traité which is its commentary (T 1509). Kumārajīva had brought to Tch’ang-ngan the original Indian of this treatise, entitled in Sanskrit Mahāprajñāpāramitopadeśa. According to the account of his disciple Seng-jouei,”he always depended on this Upadeśa”. The work was so voluminous that he was unable to render it in its entirety: he translated fully the first chapter (parivarta), but considerably abridged the 89 following chapters.

3) Two original works dealing with the Kaśmirian dhyāna as it was practiced in the 4th century of our era: Tso tch’an san-mei king ‘Sūtra on the practice of dhyāna and samādhi’ (T614), and Tch’en fa yao kiai ‘Brief explanation of the method of dhyāna’ (T 616). These two works have been analyzed by P. Demiéville, Yogācārabhūmi, p. 354–357. The Mo-ho-yen louen (Mahāyānopadeśa), i.e., the Mahāprajñāpāramitopadeśa (see T 614, k. 2, p. 278b27; T 616, k. 1, p. 291b10) has already been cited.

The knowledge of Kumārajīva extended to the Greater as well as to the Lesser Vehicle; not only was it encyclopedic, but it was also ordered and systematized according to the scholastic procedures of the Abhidharmas to which the Traité grants such an important place. And so, as soon as he received Houei-yuan’s letter, shortly after 406, Kumārajīva had no trouble in answering him.

He wrote: “It is necessary to distinguish three kinds of samādhi where one sees the Buddha. 1) Some bodhisattvas see him by the divine eye, hear him by the divine ear or fly to the Buddhas of the ten directions. 2) Others succeed in this vision without being endowed with the abhijñās by constantly concentrating their mind on Amita and on all the Buddhas of the present. 3) Finally, there are some who cultivate the buddhānusmṛti proper; some are liberated from desire, others not, and, as a result they see the Buddha either in the form of an icon or in his ‘body of birth’ or also under all the types of all the Buddhas past, future and present. These three kinds of concentration are all three correctly called buddhānusmṛtisamādhi, but the first, that which consists of seeing the Buddhas by means of the abhijñās, is better than the others” (Ta tch’eng ta yi tchang, T 1856, k. 2, p. 124b22–28; transl. P. Demiéville, Yogācārabhūmi, p. 358, note).

Here Kumārajīva condenses ad usum Delphini the theories of the Traité concerning the vision of the Buddhas and the controversy in which, in India, the rationalists and the mystics were opposed. Nevertheless, he does not go so far as to claim, as does the Traité, that the practice of the divyackaṣus is easier than the Pratyutpannasamādhi. Apart from that, the arguments developed are the same and, in Kumārajīva’s letter, the same technical terms are used as those he had already used in his version of the Upadeśa: this is particularly the case for the expression yi-siang-fen-pie, used to render the Sanskrit word saṃkalpa.

The profound idea of the Pañcaviṃśati, of the Traité and of Kumārajīva is that the true vision of the Buddhas is that which is practiced in the view of the Prajñāpāramitā, i.e., the one that does not see.

This why Kumārajīva ends his reply to Houei-yuan with the following conclusion:

“The Buddha taught the yogācārin what he should think: ‘I have not gone there and that Buddha has not come here to me; however, I have been able to see the Buddha and hear his Dharma.’ All of that is only conceptualizing (saṃkalpa). The things of the threefold world exist as a result of saṃkalpa; either they are fruits of retribution of thinking of the previous life or products of the thinking of the present life. Having heard this teaching, the yogācārin becomes disgusted with the threefold world and increases his faith and respect, saying: ‘The Buddha has enunciated this subtle and admirable system well.’ – Then he eliminates the desires of the threefold world, deeply penetrates into samādhi and realizes the [true] Pratyutpanna-samādhi.” (Ta tch’eng ta yi tchang, T 1856, k. 2, p. 135a6–11).