Maha Prajnaparamita Sastra

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

This is the English translation of the Maha-prajnaparamita-sastra (“the treatise on the great virtue of wisdom”) by Nagarjuna (c. 2nd century A.D.). The book, in the form of an encyclopedia on Buddhism, is a commentary on the Pancavimsatisahasrika Prajnaparamita (“the perfection of wisdom in five thousand lines”). Volume I describes the conditions...

Chapter VII - The Four Assemblies

Sūtra: The Buddha was also accompanied by five hundred bhikṣuṇis (nuns), five hundred upāsakas (lay men) and five hundred upāsikās (lay women); all had seen the holy truths (pañcamātrair bhikṣuṇīśatair upāsakair upāsikābhiś ca sārdhaṃ sarvair dṛṣṭāryasatyaiḥ).

Śāstra: Question. – There were five thousand bhikṣus; why did the other assemblies each consist of five hundred members?

[84b] Answer. – In women (strī), wisdom (prajñā) is often deficient (hrasva) while the afflictions (kleśa) and defilements (mala) are serious (guru). Almost always seeking happiness and pleasure (nandīrāga), they are rarely capable of breaking their fetters (saṃyojana) and obtaining deliverance (vimokṣa). And so the Buddha said: “This teaching of dependent origination (pratītyasamutpāda) is supreme (parama), profound (gambhīra) and difficult to grasp (durlabha), but the destruction of all the afflictions (sarvakleśakṣaya), renunciation (vairāgya) and the attainment of nirvāṇa (nirvāṇādhigama) are even more difficult to find (durdṛśa). That is why women attain it more rarely than the bhikṣus.”

Having families, the upāsakas and the upasīkās have impure (aśuddha) minds; unable to destroy their impurities (āsrava), they are content with understanding the four noble truths (āryasatya) and acting as aspirants (śaikṣa). Thus a stanza says:

Despite its splendid body, the peacock (barhin, mayūra)
Cannot fly as far as the swan (haṃsa).
In the same way, the layman (avadātavasana), despite his wealth and nobility,
Is not the equal of the monk (pravrajita) whose qualities are eminent.

Thus, although the bhikṣuṇīs have gone forth from home (pravrajita) and renounced worldly activities (lokakarman), their wisdom is deficient. This is why there are only five hundred bhikṣuṇīs who have attained arhathood (arhatī). – In the two lay assemblies, [upāsakas and upāsikās] who live at home and are busy there, those who have found the Path are rare (cf. the variant: tö tao tchö chao). Each of them consists also of five hundred members.

Question. – Why does the sūtra not praise these three communities as it has the five thousand arhats?

Answer. – Because the praise of the great assembly [of bhikṣus] is also valid for the others. Moreover, if the three communities were praised separately, the heretics (tīrthika) would ask why the bhikṣuṇīs [in particular] were praised and would slander them. If the lay people were praised, they would say it was to flatter them. That is why the sūtra does not praise them.

Question. – In other Mahāyānasūtras, the Buddha is accompanied by a great assembly of bhikṣus numbering eight thousand, sixty thousand or a hundred thousand. Yet this Mahāprajñāpāramitāsūtra is the most important of the sūtras. Thus it is said in the Tchou lei p’in (Parīndanāparivarta):[1] “Losing the other sūtras as a whole is a light sin (āpatti), but losing a single word (pada) of the Prajñāpāramitā is a very grave sin.” From this, we know that the Prajñāpāramitā is the most important sūtra. A very numerous assembly would be needed at this most important sūtra; why is the number of its auditors (śrāvaka) restricted to five thousand bhikṣus and to the groups of five hundred each of bhikṣuṇīs, upāsakas and upāsikās?

Answer. – 1. If the size of the crowd of listeners is restricted, it is because the sūtra is very profound (gambhīra) and hard to fathom (durvigāhya). In the same way, when a king (rājan) possesses real jewels (ratna), he does not tell this to ordinary people (pṛthagjana), but he does announce it to great individuals, his confidants. When a king holds council, he deliberates with his ministers, his confidants, his experts, but he does not admit the lesser officials.

2. Furthermore, 6500 individuals [who make up the audience of the Prajñāpāramitāsūtra][2] have all attained the Path; although they do not understand all of the profound Prajñāpāramitā, nevertheless they believe in it and are able to acquire the fourfold faith of pure knowledge (anāsrava avetyaprasāda).[3] In other sūtras, the auditors (śrāvaka) are more numerous, but not all have obtained the Path.

[84c] Finally, we have praised the ten million arhats amongst whom the five thousand best were selected. It was the same for the bhikṣuṇīs, the upāsakas, and upāsīkās. Being difficult to find (durlabha), these ‘victorious ones’ (jina) are not numerous.

Footnotes and references:


The Parīndanāparivarta or ‘Chapter of the Final Will’ is the 90th and last chapter of the Pañcaviṃśati, T 221, k. 20, p. 146b–c; T 223. k. 27, p. 423c–424a.


Namely, 5000 bhikṣus plus the three groups of 500 people in the other assemblies.


Faith relating to the Buddha, the Dharma, the Saṃgha and the moralities dear to the saints (cf. Kośa, VI, p.292).