Maha Prajnaparamita Sastra

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

This page describes “real longevity of the buddhas” 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.

The life-span (āyuḥpramāna) and radiance (prabhā) of the buddhas are each of two kinds: i) hidden (tiraṣkṛta), ii) apparent (āviṣkṛta). [Those that are hidden] are real (bhūta); [those that are apparent] are manifested for the benefit of beings.

The real life-span is limitless (aparimita); the apparent life-span is limited ad measured for the benefit of beings.

The real life-span of the buddhas cannot be short (alpa). Why? Because the buddhas are endowed with causes and conditions that lead to a long life (dīrghāyuḥsaṃvartanīya).

[Bako brahmā sutta]

All the more reason that the life of the Buddha should be long, the Buddha who, from lifetime to lifetime, has saved innumerable incalculable beings, either by helping them with material goods (āmiṣadravya) or by exchanging his life for theirs. Then why should not his lifespan surpass one hundred years?

Furthermore, the discipline of abstaining from taking life (prāṇātipātaprativirati) is the karmic cause and condition leading to a long life (dīrghāyuḥsaṃvartanīya). In his great loving-kindness (mahāmaitrī), the Buddha has an affection (preman) for beings which penetrates to the marrow of the bones (asthimajjan). He is constantly dying for beings: why then would he destroy life?

Answer. – Jambudvīpa being bad, the life of the Buddha there must be short. In other places that are good, the life of the Buddha would be long.

Question. – If that is so, the Bodhisattva who is born in the palace of king Śuddhodana in this Jambudvīpa, who leaves home (abhiniṣkrāmati) and who realizes enlightenment (abhisaṃbudhyate) is the real Buddha; and in other places, by his magical power (ṛddhibala), he creates by emanation (nirmite) fictive buddhas who save beings.

Answer. – That is not correct. Why? Because, in the Jambudvīpa of the other universes, each one says to himself: “The Buddha here is the real Buddha; the Buddhas elsewhere are the fictive (nirmite) Buddhas.” How do we know that? In the Jambudvīpas of the other universes, if they know that the Buddha is fictive, they would not accept his teachings (śāsana) or his rules (śikṣāpada) with faith.

Let us take a strange universe where the human life-span (āyuḥpramāṇa) is a kalpa; for these people, a buddha of one hundred years would not even have lived for a single one of their days; the people would merely scorn him (avamāna) and would not accept his teaching. The Buddha transforms the kalpa which these beings hold as real as he pleases.

[Śūraṃgamasamādhisūtra.][1] – This is what is said in the Cheou-leng-yen-king (Śūraṃgamasūtra): The life of the Buddha Chen-t’ong-pien-tchao (Vikurvaṇavairocana) is 700,000 incalculable periods (asaṃkhyeyakalpa). The Buddha [Śākyamuni] said to Mañjuśrī: “That buddha is myself”, and the Buddha [Vairocana] in turn said: “The Buddha Śākyamuni is myself.”

From that we know that the life-span (āyuḥpramāṇa) of the buddhas is [312b] truly limitless (aparimita). In order to save beings, the Buddhas manifest a long life (dīrgha) or a short life (alpa) [according to the circumstances]. As you said above (p. 2339F), the Buddha Śākyamuni who saves beings by his magical power (ṛddhibala) does not have an [apparent] life-span different from that of people; there is no need for him to live for a hundred years: in one single day he could perform his buddha activity (buddhakārya).

[Miracle of the multiplication of fictive Buddhas.][2] – Thus, one day Ānanda had the following thought: The bhagavat Jan-teng (Dīpaṃkara), the buddha Yi-ts’ie-cheng (Viśvabhū) and the buddha Pi-p’o-che (Vipaśyin) appeared during favorable ages; their life-spans (āyuḥpramāṇa) were very long and they were able to fulfill their buddha activity (buddhakārya). My Buddha Śākyamuni has appeared in a bad age (kalpakaṣāya) and his life-span will be very short. Soon there will be no more Bhagavat and he will not be able to complete fully (paripṛ-) his buddha activity.

At that very moment, the Bhagavat entered into the concentration of the rising sun (sūryadayasamādhi) and created innumerable buddhas, as many as the rays (raśmi) of the sun spreading in the ten directions, by emanation (nirmāṇa) from his body. Each of these fictive buddhas (nirmitabuddha) was in the universes and each one there fulfilled his buddha activity: some preached the Dharma, others manifested the superknowledges (abhijñā), others were in samādhi, others took their meals: in these many ways, they did the work of the Buddha and saved beings.

On emerging from this concentration, the Buddha asked Ānanda: Did you see and hear all these things? – Ānanda answered: Yes, I saw them.

The Buddha asked Ānanda: Does the Buddha fulfill his buddha activity by such magical power (ṛddhibala)? – Ānanda replied: Supposing that the Buddha lived only a single day, even the plants (tṛṇakāṣṭha) of the great earth would all be saved, and beings also; all the more reason when he lives for a hundred years.

From that we know that the life-span of the buddhas is limitless (aparimita) but that, in order to save beings, they manifest either a long life or a short life.

Thus, when the rising sun is reflected (pratibhāsate) in a body of water, it is regulated (anuvartate) by the size of the body of water; if it is large, the reflection lasts for a long time; if it is small, the reflection quickly disappears. When the sun lights up a mountain of lapis-lazuli (vaiḍūṛya), crystal (sphaṭika) or pearl (maṇi), its reflection (pratibimba) lasts for a long time. When fire burns plants, if the latter are not numerous, it is quickly extinguished but if they are numerous, it lasts for a long time. On the pretext that there is no more fire in the place where it is extinguished, we cannot say that there were places where it burns for a long time.

The interpretation is the same in regard to the dimensions of the Buddha’s radiance (buddhaprabhā).

Footnotes and references:


Cf. Śūraṃgamasamādhi, French transl., p. 267–270.


See p. 531–535F, 1352–1353F. The Traité returns here for the third time to this sūtra which I [Lamotte] have not been able to identify exactly.