Maha Prajnaparamita Sastra

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

This page describes “prajna or prajnaparamita as ‘the mother 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.

Appendix 6 - Prajñā or Prajñāpāramitā as ‘the Mother of the Buddhas’

Note: This Appendix is extracted from the Mahāprajñāpāramitāśāstra chapter LII:

... Moreover, the prajñāpāramitā is the mother of the Buddhas (buddhamātṛ). The task (yatna, śrama) of the mother is greater than that of the father. This is why the Buddha considers prajñā as his mother, and the Pratyutpannasamādhi as his father.

A characteristic trait of the Prajñā literature is to present Prajñāpāramitā as ‘the Mother of the Buddhas’. This figure already appears in the mixed Sanskrit stanzas of the Ratnaguṇasaṃsaya, XII, v. 1 (ed. Yuyama, p. 49):

Mātāya putra ‘bahu santi gilānikāya
te sarvi durmanasa tatra prayujyayeyuḥ |
em eva buddha pi daśaddiśi lokadhātau
imu prajñāpāramita mātu samanvāharanti ||

“If a mother of many sons falls sick, all these sons are saddened and busy themselves around her to tend her. In the same way also, the Buddhas in universes of the ten directions busy themselves around the perfection of wisdom, their mother.”

The medium and the large Prajñās dedicate a chapter to the Mother of the Buddhas, sometimes under the title of Lokasaṃdarśanaparivarta, sometimes under that of Buddhamātṛ-parivarta:

Aṣṭasāh., ed. Wohihara, XII, p. 529: Lokasaṃdarśana. – T VII, no. 220, XII, p. 814b: Lokasaṃdarśana.

Aṣṭadaśadāh.,T VII, no. 220, XV, p. 601c: Lokasaṃdarśana.

Pañcaviṃśatisāh., T VIII, no. 223, XLVIII, p. 323a: Buddhamātṛ. – T VII, no. 220, XLVI, p. 224c: Buddhamatṛ.

Śatasāh., T VI, no. 220; XLI, p. 552c: Buddhamātṛ.

The following are some extracts of the Aṣṭasāh., ed. Wogihara, p. 529 et seq.:

Atha khalu Bhagavān punar apy āyuṣmantaṃ Subhūtim āmantrayate sma | tadyathāpi nāma Subhūte stryā bahavaḥ putrā bhāveyus …. pralujyate vā | evam iyaṃ Subhūte prajñapāramitā tathāgatānām …. asya lokaasya saṃdarśayatrī |

Transl. –

Then the Blessed One said to venerable Subhūti: O Subhūti, it is like a woman who has many sons; if she falls sick, all her sons expend great effort to remove all danger of death from their mother. Why? Because, they say, we have been brought up by her; she has accomplished difficult tasks for us; for us she is the giver of life and the revealer of the Loka (taken here in the sense of ‘world’). Similarly, O Subhūti, the Tathāgatas have the same regard for this Prajñāpāramitā. Why? Because she is the mother, the parent of the Tathāgatas; for us she is the indicator of Omniscience and the revealer of the Loka (a designation here of the five skandhas). <2368>

Subhūti. – How, O Blessed One, is the Prajñāpāramitā the revealer of this Loka for the Tathāgatas, and what is this Loka mentioned here by the Tathāgatas?

The Blessed One. – What is called Loka here by the Tathāgata is the five skandhas, namely, form, feeling, conception, formations and consciousness.

Subhūti. – How, O Blessed One, are the five skandhas designated here by the Prajñāpāramitā of the Tathāgatas, or what is it that is designated by the Prajñāpāramitā?

The Blessed One. – The five skandhas, as long as they are not broken or disintegrated, are designated here by the Prajñāpāramitā by the name of Loka. What does that say? They are designated as not breaking up and not disintegrating. Indeed, O Subhūti, since the five skandhas do not exist in inherent nature, they have emptiness as nature, and this very emptiness does not break up, does not disintegrate. Thus the Prajñāpāramitā of the Tathāgatas is the revealer of the Loka [understood in this way]. And the signlessness, the wishlessness, the inactivity, the non-arising, the non-existing, the fundamental element, they also, do not break up, do not disintegrate. Therefore, O Subhūti, the Prajñāpāramitā of the Tathāgatas is the revealer of the Loka [understood in this way].

Loving sons watch over their mother who has given birth to them and brought them up into the Loka; in the same way, the Buddhas consider their mother to be the Prajñāpāramitā from whom they derive and who reveals to them the Loka (lokasaṃdarśayitrī).

The word Loka, which means free space, the world, people, etc., is derived from the root loki, which means a light, a lamp (loki bhāṣāyāṃ diptau ca), to which are related the Latin lux, the Greek leukos, etc.

In contrast, an imaginary etymology of ancient date derives Loka from the root luji or ruci, meaning to break into pieces or, in the passive, breaking up (ruci bhaṅga). Thus in some Buddhist texts, Loka, meaning breakage, has become synonymous with skandha, the five psychophysical aggregates of existence: form, feeling, conception, formations and consciousness.

In the Kośabhāṣya, ed. Pradhan, p. 5, l. 15–16, we read that the skandhas are also suffering (duḥkha), origin (samudaya), Loka, subjects of false views (dṛṣṭhāna) and existence (bhava). …”They are Loka insofar as they break up” (lujyata iti lokaḥ).

On this subject, Hīnayānists and Mahāyānists are diametrically opposed.

1) The former, with rigorous orthodoxy, believe that the skandhas break up. The Buddha has repeated again and again in the sūtras: That which is impermanent (anitya), suffering (duḥkha), subject to change (vipariṇāmadharman) cannot be said to be ‘mine’, cannot be said to be ‘me’. (see references, p. 19197F).

He also said: Yan taṃ jātaṃ bhūtaṃ saṃkhataṃ palokadhammaṃ taṃ vata mā palujjīti, n’etaṃ ṭhānaṃ vijjati: It is impossible that everything that is born, that has become, that is conditioned and subject to be broken, does not break up. Cf. Vin. II, p. 118, 144, 158, 163; Sanskrit Mahāparinirvāṇa, p. 402, 408.

He also said that the Loka. i.e., the skandhas, are called thus because it breaks up (Saṃyutta, IV, p. 52: Lujjatīti kho tasmā Loko ti vuddati) and that this Loka (rūpa, etc.) is an an empty Loka, empty of ‘me’ and ‘mine’ (Saṃyutta, IV, p. 54; Suñño loko … attena vā attaniyena vā).

In a word, starting from impermanence, the ‘breakage’ of the skandhas, the Hīnayānists arrived at their Emptiness (śūnyatā).

2) On the other hand, the Mahāyānists affirm that the skandhas are called Loka “inasmuch as they do not break up and do not disintegrate”. Not that these skandhas are eternal, far from it. These conditioned skandhas do not break up because they never existed, existing only in the imagination of fools. Without intrinsic nature, they have as nature emptiness (śūnyatā), and this emptiness, just like the other unconditioneds, ānimitta, apraṇihita, etc., does not exist at all. <2369>

Also when the Prajñāpāramitā, the mother of the Buddhas, is presented as the ‘revealer of the Loka’ (lokasaṃdarśayitrī), it should be understood as the revealer of the true nature of the skandhas which is none other than the absence of any nature. The expression lokasaṃdarśayitrī is translated literally by Kumārajīva (T 223, p. 323b4): neng-che-che-kien; Hiuan-tsang (T VII, no. 220, p. 224c13) renders it by a periphrasis neng che che kien tchou fa che siang, which gives in Sanskrit, lokadharmatāsaṃdarśayitrī ‘revealer of the true nature of the Loka’.

Commenting on this passage, the Traité (T 1509, k. 69, p. 544a19–28) comments as follows:

Question. – Other sūtras [than those of the Prajñāpāramitā] say that the five skandhas are called ‘loka’ because they break up (lujyante) and disintegrate (pralujyante); Why then is it said here that the Prajñāpāramitā reveals (saṃdarśayati) the non-breakage, non-disintegration, non-arising (anutpāda), non-cessation (anirodha), etc., of the five skandhas?

Answer. – The other sūtras come under the Hīnayāna system whereas this one comes under the Mahāyāna system. The Hīnayāna speaks mainly about impermanence (anityatā) and then about the emptiness of dharmas whereas the Mahāyāna speaks particularly about emptiness (śūnyatā) of dharmas. The Hīnayāna speaks of impermanence so that beings fear saṃsāra, but in the Mahāyāna, it is not like that, and that is why it speaks of non-breakage, non-disintegration, etc. Here the Buddha himself gives us the same reason: emptiness (śūnyatā), signlessness (ānimitta), wishlessness (apraṇihita) themselves “do not break up and do not disintegrate” (na lujyante vā na pralujyante vā), and the Prajñāpāramitā states that that indeed is the [true] nature of the loka [i.e., the skandhas].