Maha Prajnaparamita Sastra

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

This page describes “preliminary note” 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.

Part 4 - Conclusion (1): Preliminary Note

In the course of chapters XLII to LII covering volumes IV and V of the present work, the bodhisattva presented by the Pañcaviṃśati has formulated a series of sixty-two wishes (praṇidhāna). The latter are in accord with the twofold aim assigned to the bodhisattva at the moment when he produced the mind of enlightenment (bodhicittotpāda): realizing abhisaṃbodhi, saving innumerable beings and by this fact, assuring his own benefit (svārtha) and that of others (parārtha).

Most of these vows are realizable by current practices: thus a non-Buddhist can indeed conquer the first five abhijñās by judicious practice of the mental concentrations. Other vows are not realizable: it is impossible to bring all beings to abhisaṃbodhi by merely making them hear the name of the Buddhas.

The six virtues assigned to the bodhisattva (generosity, morality, patience, exertion, concentration and wisdom) are within the range of any person of good will but, since they are still sullied by errors and desires, they produce only worldly fruits and at best lead only to rebirths in the good destinies, among gods or humans.

To be truly efficacious, these virtues must be practiced in the view of the Prajñāpāramitā which transforms the virtues into ‘perfections’ (pāramitā): thus, a gift is perfect when its author sees neither donor nor beneficiary nor thing given. It is the same for the other virtues: for a wisdom to be perfect it must have overturned the barriers separating the true from the false. Whether they appear to us to be realizable or not, all the vows of the bodhisattva are actually already realized if they are conceived in the perfection of wisdom. This Prajñāpāramitā, also called ‘knowledge of all the aspects’ (sarvākārajñāna), is the knowledge of the true nature (dharmatā, dharmadhātu) of things, whose ‘sole characteristic is the absence of characteristics’ (ekalakṣaṇam yaduta alakṣaṇam). All beings (sattva), including the bodhisattvas and the buddhas, are empty of ‘me’ and ‘mine’ (ātmātmīyaśūnyatā), all phenomena (dharma) are empty of inherent nature and specific nature and, consequently, without origination or cessation. The Prajñāpāramitā that sees them thus does not see them; this wisdom is a non-wisdom. It itself is without inherent nature and character: it is the absence of wrong views. In this capacity, it holds the force of truth: “There is nothing that it does not penetrate, nothing that it does not realize” since there is nothing to penetrate, nothing to realize. In their body of truth (dharmakāya) or, using the words of the Traité, in their body born of the fundamental element (dharmadhātujakāya), the Buddhas and great bodhisattvas who are the replica of it, are themselves also all-powerful.

The non-seeing of beings and phenomena logically involves the destruction of all speech and all practice (sarvavādacaryoccheda) and, even better, the non-functioning (apravṛtti), the pacification (upaśama) of the mind, which is none other than nirvāṇa. But with the example of the Buddha, the bodhisattva is not only a great sage, he is also a great compassionate one (mahākāruṇika): “When the bodhisattva cultivates the Prajñāpāramitā, he sees that all dharmas are empty and that this emptiness itself is empty; from then on, he abolishes all seeing and acquires the Prajñāpāramitā free of obstacles. Then, by the power of his great compassion (mahākāruṇā) and skillful means (upāya), he returns [to saṃsāra] to accomplish meritorious actions (puṇyakarman) and, as a result of these meritorious actions, there is no wish that he does not fulfill.” As Vimalakīrti says (French transl., p. 233), wisdom without skillful means is bondage (upāyarahitā prajñā bandhaḥ), but wisdom associated with means is deliverance (upāyasahitā prajñā mokṣaḥ). The bodhisattva combines the two.

The methods put into use by the bodhisattva must suit the dispositions and capacities of the beings to be converted and are, like the latter, innumerable. The most direct and most efficient method is samādhi which purifies and clarifies the mind. Especially to be recommended is the pratyutpannasamādhi which has been fully discussed above (p. 2273–75F). In contrast to prajñā, it does not penetrate the true nature of things, but by fixing the mind on the Buddhas of the present, “it concentrates it in such a way that prajñā is produced.”

The large Perfection of Wisdom sūtras dedicate a chapter to Prajñā “Mother of the Buddhas” but remain silent on “the Father of the Buddhas”. The Traité repairs this omission by making the pratyutpannasamādhi the father of the Buddhas. The two parents are indispensable but, in the birth, the role of the mother is more painful and more meritorious than that of the father.

A bird needs two wings to soar in space; samādhi and prajñā are required to accede to bodhisattvaniyāma (cf. p. 1797–98F) and to abhisaṃbodhi. In the Mahāyāna they continue to hold the major place that they already occupied in the śrāvaka system as integral parts of the Path to nirvāṇa. A canonical stock phrase (Dīgha, II, p. 81, 84, 91; cf. Sanskrit Mahāparinirvāna, p. 160, 228) emphasizes their importance:

Sīlaparibhāvito samādhi mahapphalo hoti mahānisaṃso, samādhiparibhaḥavitā paññā mahapphalā hoti mahānisaṃsā, paññāparibhāvitaṃ cittaṃ sammad eva āsavehi vimuccati. – Cultivated by śīla, samādhi bears great fruits, brings great benefits. Cultivated by samādhi, prajñā bears great fruits, brings great benefits; indeed, the mind cultivated by prajñā is completely freed from impurities. [And the destruction of the impurities is nirvaṇa].

Buddhism has evolved over the course of time but along the lines drawn by the Buddha at the beginning and without ever re-assessing its premises.