Maha Prajnaparamita Sastra

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

This page describes “why the bodhisattva avalokiteshvara is so named” 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 3 - Why the Bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara is so named

Note: This Appendix is extracted from the Mahāprajñāpāramitāśāstra chapter LII (the two kinds of Buddha):

People who commemorate (anusmaranti) the name of the bodhisattva Kouan-che-yin (Avalokiteśvara) are freed from all danger; all the more so if they commemorate the dharmadhātujakāya Buddha.

The Traité is referring here to the Saddharmapuṇḍarīka, chap. XXIV, p. 438, l. 5–439, l. 2. The bodhisattva Akṣayamati asks the Buddha the reasons why the bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara is so named.

The Buddha replies in these words:

Iha kulaputra yāvanti sattvakoṭinayutaśatasahasrāṇi yāni duḥkhāni pratyanubhavanti tāni saced avalokiteśvarasya bodhisattvasya mahāsattvasya nāmadheyaṃ śṛṇuyus te sarve tasmād duḥkhaskandhāt parimucyeran | ye ca kulaputra sattvā avalokiteśvarasya bodhisattvasya mahāsattvasya nāmadheyaṃ dhārayiṣyanti sacet te mahaty agniskandhe prapateyuḥ sarve te ‘valokiteśvarasya bodhisattvasya mahāsattvasya tejasā tasmān mahato ‘gniskandhāt parimucyeran | sacet punaḥ kulaputra sattvā nadībhir uhyamānā avalokiteśvarasya bodhisattvasya mahāsattvasyākrandaṃ kuryuḥ sarvās tā nadyas teṣāṃ sattvānāṃ gādhaṃ dadyuḥ |

Burnouf’s translation. –

O son of noble family, everything that exists in this world of hundreds of thousands of myriads of creatures that suffer pain, all these creatures have only to hear the name of the bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara to be freed from this great mass of suffering. If those who happen to fall into a great mass of fire recall the name of this bodhisattva-mahāsattva, they will be delivered from this great mass of fire by the splendor of the bodhisattva-mahāsattva Avalokiteśvara. If, O son of noble family, these beings happen to be carried away by the current of the rivers, if they invoke the bodhisattva-mahāsattva Avalokiteśvara, all the rivers will provide a ford for these beings immediately.

– Aside from slight grammatical differences, such as parimucyeyuḥ in place of parimucyeran, the Gilgit version, ed. S. Watanabe, p. 304, l. 6–14, presents the same text.

According to this passage faithfully rendered in Chinese by Dharmarakṣa in 286AD (T 263, k. 10, p. 128c22–129a2) and by Kumārajīva in 406 (T 262, k. 7, p. 56c6–11), a distinction must be made between hearing the name (nāmadheyaśravaṇa, wen-ming) which liberates from the mass of suffering, its memorization (dhāraṇa, tch’e) which protects from fire, and its invocation by loud cries (ākranda, tch’eng) which saves from water.

Here the Traité speaks only of those who ‘commemorate’ (anusmaranti, nien) the name of Avalokiteśvara. In the main meaning of the word, anusmṛti is a mental act and not a vocal act. The Traité recognizes that those who commemorate the name of the great bodhisattva escape from dangers but, different from the Lotus, it does not say that they are liberated from the mass of suffering (duḥkhaskanda), a liberation which is none other than nirvāṇa, vimukti. Rather, it notes that recourse to Avalokiteśvara, profitable though it may be, is less efficacious than calling upon these depersonalized buddhas that are the dharmadhātujakāya.