Maha Prajnaparamita Sastra

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

This page describes “hearing of the name 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.

Preliminary note: Hearing of the name of the Buddhas

This is the last wish formulated by the bodhisattva presented here by the Prajñāpāramitāsūtra.

This is a bodhisattva who has made the resolution (cittotpāda) to attain abhisaṃbodhi some day and, by virtue of that, to become fully and completely enlightened. The sūtra gives neither the name of this bodhisattva nor the name he will take once he becomes buddha.

The bodhisattva formulates the following wish:

“When I shall have attained abhisaṃbodhi, may beings living in each of the ten directions in universes as numerous as the sands of the Ganges also be settled into abhisaṃbodhi as soon as they hear my name.”

Only the hearing of the name (nāmadheya) is required; there is no question of meditation or of recollection (anusmṛti) of the name or of vocal invocation.

In order to realize this wish, the bodhisattva must “practice the perfection of wisdom” (prajñāpāramitāyāṃ śikṣitavyam), i.e., conceive it and practice it in the spirit of the prajñāpāramitā.

From the point of view of relative truth, this wish is unrealizable. No buddha has ever saved all beings at one time, whether by the hearing of his name or by any other means. The proof of this is that in the innumerable universes distributed throughout the ten directions, buddhas have appeared, now appear, and will appear forever in order to save beings from old age, sickness and death. If the whole world had been saved once and for all, the appearance of buddhas would be useless.

On the other hand, from the point of view of absolute truth, the wish formulated here by the bodhisattva is completely realizable; furthermore, it has already been realized. How does the bodhisattva practice it? By practicing the prajñāpāramitā. What is there to say?

The answer is given to us by the sūtra itself (Pañcaviṃśati, p. 38, l. 16–39, l. 1; Śatasāhastikā, p. 119, l. 18–120, l. 5):

Tathā hi kṛtrimaṃ nāma pratidharmam | te ca kalpitāḥ | āgantukena nāmadheyena vyavahrīyante | tāni bodhisattvaḥ prajñāpāramitāyāṃ caran sarvanāmāni na samanupaśyaty asamanupaśyan nābhiviśate | punar aparaṃ Śāriputra bodhisattvaḥ prajñāpāramitāyāṃ carann evam upaparīkṣate nāmamātram idaṃ yaduta bodhisattva iti | nāmamātram idaṃ yaduta bodhi iti | nāmamātram idaṃ yaduta prajñāpāramiteti | nāmamātram idaṃ yaduta prajñāpāramiāyāṃ caryeti |

“Actually the name is fictive; it is an anti-dharma; the things [which it designates] are imaginary and expressed by a sound which is foreign to them. The bodhisattva engaged in the perfection of wisdom does not consider all these names and, not considering them, does not become attached to them. Furthermore, O Śāriputra, the bodhisattva engaged in the perfection of wisdom determines this: bodhisattva is only a name, bodhi is only a name, buddha is only a name, prajñāpāramitā is only a name and the practice of prajñāpāramitā is only a name.”

That being so, the bodhisattva who wishes to lead all beings to abhisaṃbodhi and buddhahood by the simple hearing of his name is the victim of an illusion, since beings, the buddha, abhisaṃbodhi and the bodhisattva himself are purely imaginary. The prajñāpāramitā, itself only a name, is the absence of all illusion, or in other words, the destruction of wrong views. That is the truth!

Empty of content though it may be and precisely because it is empty of content, the Truth is liberating: Veritas liberabit vos. It is omnipotent and there is no wish that it cannot realize, for the good reason that there is no wish to be realized.

The buddhas and the great bodhisattvas of the tenth bhūmi who have the Prajñāpāramitā as mother and the Dharmadhātu as body are mingled with the Truth and, like it, are all-powerful.

The hearing of the name of the buddhas (nāmadheyaśravaṇa) naturally is followed by a reflection (manasikāra), more or less prolonged, on these same buddhas, and this reflection is often followed by an oral invocation (ākranda), “Namo buddhāya”.

The spiritual practice of buddhānusmṛti commonly practiced by monks and lay people begins with a settling of the mind (samādhi) on the ten names (adhivacana) of the buddhas (cf. p. 124–144F; 1340–1342F): it is placed among the dharmas of the Path leading to nirvāṇa.

Pure Land Buddhism has been the subject of much research recently. The Japanese production has reached unimaginable proportions and H. Nakamura has reported on it in Survey of Mahāyāna Buddhism, Journal of Intercultural Studies, no. 3, 1976, p. 112–120. The primordial aim of this religious movement has been to assure its adherents a rebirth in the paradise of the buddhas without, nevertheless, excluding access to complete perfect enlightenment at a much later date. The method proposed to realize these objectives is presented as being easy and the names of the buddhas plays a major role in it. In order to take rebirth in Sukhāvatī, the Western Paradise, it is necessary first to hear the name of the Buddha Amitabhā or Amitayus, but this is only a prior condition. Next, it is necessary – and this is essential – to dedicate to it a mind free of any distraction (avikṣipta). Opinions differ on the length of this reflection (manasikāra) or this commemoration (anusmṛti): for some, one single thought (ekacitta), i.e., a single mind-moment, is enough; others say that it should continue for ten thoughts, for one day and one night, for ten days and ten nights, or even that it should be prolonged indefinitely. This commemoration sees its efficacy increase if it takes place at the moment of death (see above, p. 1534–1539F) and if the ascetic formulates the vow (praṇidhāṇa) to be reborn in Sukhāvatī. In return for this, the dying person will see, coming to him, the Buddha Amitābha surrounded by a saṃgha of bhikṣus and bodhisattvas and, after his death, will accede to the Western Paradise. However, this favor will be denied to those who have committed the five sins of immediate retribution (ānantarya) or who have rejected the Holy Dharma (saddharmapratikṣepa): cf. the Small Sukhāvatīvyūha, ed. U. Wogihara, p. 202, l. 11–19; Large Sukhāvatīvyūha, ed. A. Ashikaga, p. 13, l. 22–14, l. 8.

The Amida soteriology is complex; in it, the hearing of the name and commemoration of the buddhas, the wish to be reborn in the Pure Land, the mind at death, the personal intervention of Amitābha, and the exclusion of the biggest wrong-doings occur in turn. The two Sukhāvatīvyūhas, both in their original Indian form as well as in the numerous Chinese and Tibetan versions, have, in time, undergone important revisions, mainly in regard to the number of vows formulated by the bodhisattva Dharmākara when he ‘adorned’ his future buddha-field. This composite character in Amidism poses a mass of delicate questions the description of and often the solution to which may be found in K. Fujita, Genshi Jōdo Shisō na Kenkyū (Studies on Early Pure Land Buddhism), 1979.

In the Chinese and Japanese extensions of Amidism, a growing importance is attached to the oral invocation of Amita. See P. Demiéville, Sur la pensée unique, in BEFEO, XXIV, 1924, p. 231–246; G. Renondeau, Le Bouddhisme japonais, in Encyclopédie de la Pléiade, History of Religions, I, p. 1337–1340: the articles devoted to Amita in Encyclopedia of Buddhism of Ceylon, I, p. 434–463. – In the 10th century, Kōya (903–972) traveled through Japan proclaiming the name of the Buddha of the West. Incessantly repeated according to Hōnen (1133–1212), piously pronounced only once according to Shinran (1173–1262), accompanied by dance according to Ippen (1239–1289), the nembutsu became, solely by the power of Amita and in the absence of any merit, the main if not the only means of salvation. The adept who pronounces it is assured of being reborn after death in the Western Paradise. The nembutsu works its effects ipso facto and infallibly, like a sacrament.

The bodhisattva whom the Prajñāpāramitāsūtra presents here formulates a wish both more simple and more ambitious, more simple in method – for it is a matter of only the hearing of the name (nāmadheyaśravaṇa) – and also more ambitious in method – for the goal is not to be reborn collectively in the Pure Land, but to establish all beings in the abhisaṃbodhi of the buddhas. This goal is attained only in the perspective of the perfection of wisdom, the view of emptiness.

Is the hearing of the name, like ‘the adoration of the Buddha Amita’ (Nan-wou-a-mi-t’o-fo, namo-amidabutsu) the only means of salvation, infallible and producing its effect immediately by the sole fact of being pronounced? Is it not, amongst many others, an adjuvant to bodhi, useful certainly, but not indispensable, the practice the success of which is not necessarily guaranteed and producing its result only after the event?

The question arose for those who had access to sutras of tendencies as different as, on the one hand, the Prajñāpāramitās and, on the other hand, the Sukhāvatīvyūhas. This was the case for the author of the Traité who, throughout his commentary, cites these texts abundantly. Forced to take a position, he refuses to recognize the unconditional value of a nembutsu in the hearing of the name.

Here is what his reasoning will be:

1) The hearing of the name is not the unique means of realizing abhisaṃbodhi. The buddhas save beings by various means, the most common of which is preaching the Dharma (dharmadeśana). But there are others: emitting rays, performing miracles, spreading perfumes, producing sounds, etc.

2) None of these means is infallible, for the capacities and dispositions of beings to be converted must be taken into account. Thus, Śākyamuni who appeared in an impure land and at a bad age, increased his preaching but did not always convince his auditors. The inhabitants of Magadha criticized him and his cousin Devadatta accused him of charlatanism.

3) It is not enough to hear the word ‘buddha’ in order to obtain bodhi: in order to come to this final outcome, Sudatta and Śaila had to receive in addition the admonitions and instructions of Śākyamuni.

4) The hearing of the name and access to abhisaṃbodhi are not mingled in one single moment of mind: at the best, the hearing will be the immediate antecedent (anantarapratyaya) to abhisaṃbodhi.

In conclusion, the hearing of the name does not act as a talisman or a magical formula; it is not the unique and infallible means to realize great enlightenment instantaneously. It may be compared to the slight cleavage that makes an already ripe fruit to fall, to the drop of water that makes a vase that is already full to overflow.

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