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...

Introduction to second volume

In Volume II, the reader will find an attempted translation of chapters XVI to XXX of the Mahāprajñāpāramitāśāstra. These fifteen chapters, which make up a consistent whole, comment at great length on a short paragraph of the Prajñāpāramitāsūtra (Pañcaviṃśati, p. 17–18; Śatasāhasrikā, p. 55–56), of which the following is a translation:

“Then the Blessed One addressed the venerable Śāriputra: ‘O Śāriputra, the Bodhisattva-mahāsattva who wishes to know all dharmas in all their aspects completely should exert himself in the Prajñāpāramitā.’ Then the venerable Śāriputra asked the Blessed One: ‘O Blessed One, how should the Bodhisattva-mahāsattva who wishes to know all dharmas in all their aspects exert himself in the Prajñāpāramitā?’ At these words, the Blessed One said to the venerable Śāriputra: ‘The Bodhisattva-mahāsattva who abides in the Prajñāpāramitā by the method of non-abiding should fulfill the virtue of generosity by the method of refraining, by abstaining from distinguishing the thing given, the donor and the recipient; he should fulfill the virtue of morality by being based on the non-existence of evil deeds and their contrary; he should fulfill the virtue of patience by being based on non-agitation [of the mind]; he should fulfill the virtue of exertion by being based on the non-slackening of physical and mental energy; he should fulfill the virtue of rapture by being based on the non-existence of distraction and rapture; he should fulfill the virtue of wisdom by being based on the non-existence of good and bad knowledges (variant: by not adhering to any system).”[1]

The main interlocutors of the Buddha in the Prajñāpāramitāsūtra are Śāriputra and Subhūti; chapter XVI of the Treatise is dedicated to their story: it contains a detailed biography of Śāriputra and a short note on Subhūti (p. 634F). But it may seem strange that the Prajñāpāramitāsūtra, which belongs to the literature of the Greater Vehicle, should be preached, not by the bodhisattvas affiliated with the Mahāyāna, but by śrāvakas, adepts of the Lesser Vehicle. The reason for this is simple, as the Treatise explains (p. 636F): the bodhisattvas, called upon to dwell among beings whose conversion is their mission, have not entirely eliminated their passions and do not enjoy indisputable authority among men; if they were responsible for teaching the Prajñā, their word could be open to doubt. On the contrary, śrāvakas like Śāriputra and Subhūti who have attained arhathood and destroyed every impurity (kṣīṇāsrava) are assured of an unequalled prestige and their testimony cannot be disputed: therefore it is to them that the Buddha entrusted the task of preaching the Prajñā. Among all the śrāvakas, the Buddhas chose Śāriputra and Subhūti who excelled over all the others, the first by the extent of his wisdom, the second by his acute vision of universal emptiness.

The religious ideal of the śrāvaka is the destruction of the passions, the arrival at arhathood and the attainment of nirvāṇa; to this end, he practices the Noble Path in its threefold aspect: morality (śīla) which keeps him from any wrong-doing, concentration (samādhi) which purifies his mind, wisdom (prajñā) by means of which he understands the general characteristics (sāmānyalakṣaṇa) of dharmas, impermanence, suffering, emptiness and lack of self. The practice of the virtues occupies only a subsidiary place in the career of the śrāvaka; his excellent qualities are, however, contaminated at the base by the essentially individualistic and egocentric character of his effort. The religious ideal of the bodhisattva is quite different: renouncing entry into nirvana for the moment, he seeks to obtain the supreme and perfect enlightenment (anuttarasamyaksaṃbodhi) which characterizes the Buddhas, to conquer the knowledge of all things in all their aspects (sarvadharmāṇāṃ sarvākārajñānam), knowledge that permits him to dedicate himself entirely to the benefit and welfare of all creatures. In order to attain this omniscience, the bodhisattva must exert himself throughout his career in the six perfect virtues (pāramitā) which liken him to the Buddha. Among the heretics and śrāvakas, the practice of the natural virtues is marred by errors and egotism; among the bodhisattvas, on the other hand, the practice of the virtues attains perfection because it is disinterested and based on Prajñāpāramitā.

Chapter XVII explains what this Prajñāpāramitā means and how to use it. The Prajñāpāramitā is not an entity of metaphysical order, an absolute existent to which one could become attached; rather, it is a state of mind, a mental turning of mind which assures a radical neutrality to the person who adopts it. Transcending the categories of existence and non-existence, lacking any characteristic, the Prajñāpāramitā can be neither affirmed nor denied: it is faultless excellence. The bodhisattva adheres to it by not grasping it or, to use the time-honored expression, “he adheres to it by not adhering to it” (tiṣṭaty asthānayogena). Confident in this point of view which is equally distant from affirmation and negation, he suspends judgment on everything and says nothing whatsoever. Practiced in this spirit, the virtues which, among the religious heretics and śrāvakas, are of ordinary and mundane (laukika) order, become supramundane perfections (lokottarapāramitā) in the bodhisattva. Besides, since the bodhisattva refuses to conceive of the said virtues and to establish distinctions amongst them, to practice one pāramitā is to practice them all; not to practice them is also to practice them.

However, as the bodhisattva resides of choice in the world where he daily rubs shoulders with beings intoxicated by the three poisons of passion, hatred and ignorance, it is important to explain to people what distinguishes the pāramitās from the profane virtues. This is the subject of chapters XVIII to XXX.

Chapter XVIII-XX. – Generosity (dāna), for which great rewards are promised, consists of giving, in a spirit of faith, a material object or a spiritual advice to ‘a field of merit’, i.e., to a beneficiary worthy of receiving it. The pāramitā of generosity makes no distinction between donor, recipient and gift because, from the point of view of the Prajñā, there is no person to give or to receive, there is nothing that is given. To understand that is “to give everything at all times and in every way.”

Chapters XXI-XXIII. – Morality (śīla) makes one avoid the wrong-doings of body and speech that are capable of harming others. Apart from the general morality making up the rules of innate honesty essential to everyone, it is appropriate to distinguish the morality of commitment by means of which lay people and monastics of all classes solemnly undertake to follow a certain number of rules proper to their condition. The pāramitā of morality singularly surpasses this restricted framework: is it based on the non-existence of wrong-doing and its opposite. The sinner not existing, the sin does not exist either; in the absence of all sins, the prohibitions forbidding it have no meaning. The sinner does not incur our contempt; the saint has no right to our esteem.

Chapters XXIV-XXV. – Although early Buddhism condemned anger, it did not attach great importance to patience (kṣānti). On the other hand, the bodhisattva raises it to the rank of pāramitā. Nothing moves him, neither people nor things: he keeps a cool indifference towards the people who flatter him, the benefactors who cover him with their gifts, the women who seek to seduce him, the enemies who persecute him. He endures with equal facility the external sufferings caused by cold or heat, wind or rain, and the internal sufferings coming from old age, sickness and death. It is the same insofar as his own passions are concerned: although he does not give himself up to them unreservedly, he avoids cutting them so as not to be hemmed in like an arhat in an egotistic complete quietude; whatever the case, his mind stays open to movements of great pity and great compassion. But it is by means of dharmakṣānti that he attains the pinnacle of patience: he tirelessly investigates the Buddhadharma which teaches him not to adopt any definite philosophical position, which shows him universal emptiness but forbids him to conceptualize it.

Chapter XXVI-XXVII. – Throughout the entire Buddhist Path, the adept of the Lesser Vehicle displays a growing exertion (vīrya) in order to ensure himself the conquest of the ‘good dharmas’ or, if you wish, spiritual benefits. But the bodhisattva is much less preoccupied with the paths of salvation; in his pāramitā of exertion, he ceaselessly travels the world of transmigration in order to bring help to beings plunged in the unfortunate destinies. As long as he has not assured the safety of an infinite number of unfortunate beings, he will never relax his bodily and mental exertion.

Chapter XXVIII. – For the purification of the mind, the śrāvaka had built up a discipline of rapture (dhyāna), a grandiose but complicated monument of religious psychology in which India excelled. The de-intoxication of the mind is a long-winded job: the candidate for sainthood must resolutely turn away from the five sense pleasures and triumph over the five faults which constitute an obstacle to concentrating the mind by means of an appropriate method. Then he must ascend one after the other the nine successive absorptions (navānupūrvasamāpatti) which lead to the destruction of consciousness and sensation (saṃjñāvedayitanirodha), a state which constitutes nirvāṇa on earth. In addition, a large number of secondary absorptions become grafted onto these main concentrations. In the pāramitā of dhyāna, the bodhisattva manifests a virtuosity much superior to that of the śrāvaka; he enters at will and whenever he wishes into the concentration of his choice, but his complete disinterestedness prevents him from enjoying its flavor. The principal aim of his mental form of asceticism is to introduce ignorant and unfortunate beings to the purity of mystical states. Personally, he is disinterested because, from the point of view of the Prajñā, distraction and concentration of the mind are equal; the sole motive that guides him is his great pity and great compassion for beings.

Chapter XXIX-XXX. – Religious heretics, śrāvakas and pratyekabuddhas all boast of possessing wisdom and they actually hold bits and pieces of it, but their wisdoms contradict one another and their partisans accuse one another of madness. If the wisdom of the śrāvakas and the pratyekabuddhas has an advantage over that of the heretics – the advantage of being free of false views – nevertheless it has the error of defining the general characteristics of dharmas and thus laying itself open to debate and criticism. In his Prajñāpāramitā, the bodhisattva knows these wisdoms fully but adopts none of them; his own wisdom is the knowledge of the true nature of dharmas which is indestructible, unchangeable and uncreated. Seen from this angle, the dharmas are revealed as unborn (anutpanna), unceasing (aniruddha), like nirvāṇa; or more precisely, they do not appear at all. Not seeing any dharma, the bodhisattva thinks nothing of them and says nothing of them. Not recognizing any evidence, not adopting any system, he makes no distinction between truth and falsehood; he does not debate with anyone. The Buddha’s teaching presents no obstacle, no difficulty, to the bodhisattva. And yet, what forms this teaching has taken over the course of time! The Abhidharma sets out to define the dharmas and to specify their characteristics; the teaching on emptiness insists on the inconsistency of the atman and dharmas; the Piṭaka defends a point of view sometimes realistic and sometimes nihilistic. Pursued into successive retrenchments, the śrāvaka no longer knows what to believe and goes from one contradiction to another. Penetrating deeply into the threefold teaching of the Piṭaka, the Abhidharma and emptiness, the bodhisattva, free of opinions (abhiniveśa), knows that the Buddha’s word never contradicts itself. Cognizing the identical and multiple characteristics of all dharmas, he confronts them with the emptiness of their self nature, but this very emptiness he refuses to consider. In order to acquire this Prajñāpāramitā, the bodhisattva is not bound to any practice. The noble practice consists of practicing all the pāramitās together or separately, provided that this is done with a detached mind; better yet, the noble practice is the absence of any practice, for to acquire the Prajñāpāramitā is to acquire nothing.

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This brief summary far from exhausts the doctrinal and religious wealth contained in this second volume, but that would go beyond the framework of this introduction which merely summarizes it. It is sufficient to draw the reader’s attention to several particularly interesting passages: the attempts to define the Prajñāpāramitā (p. 650–656F), a well-conducted refutation of the realist doctrine (p. 724–733F) and of the personalist doctrine (p. 734–750F), a comparison of the different prajñās of the śrāvaka, the pratyekabuddha, the bodhisattva and the heretics (p. 1066–1074F), a very thorough analysis of the threefold teaching of the Buddhadharma (p. 1074–1095F), a detailed description of the transmigratory world and, in particular, the Buddhist hells (p. 952–968F).

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Although the Treatise comes under the literature of the Greater Vehicle, the reader will see all the major individuals of early Buddhism pass in front of him. In unedited detail, the Treatise tells the twofold assault against Śākyamuni by Māra and his daughters (p. 880–884F; 986–987F), the return of the Buddha to Kapilavastu and the efforts of Yaśodharā to win him back (p. 1001–1008F), the Devāvatāra and the culmination at Sāṃkāśyā (p. 634–636F), the schism of Kauśāmbī (p. 896–898F) and the various attempts perpetrated by Devadatta to supplant the Buddha and to take his life (p. 868–878F). The Treatise dedicates a whole chapter to the story of Śāriputra and Maudgalyāyana (p. 621–633F); it tells the slander of which these two great disciples were the victims on the part of Kokālikā (p. 806–813F); it gives the reasons that determined Śāriputra to renounce the Greater Vehicle (p. 701F). It narrates several episodes marking the life of the disciples and contemporaries of Śākyamuni; the temptation of Aniruddha by the goddesses of charming body (p. 651–653F), the involuntary dance of Kāśyapa (p. 654F, 1046–1047F), the ostentatious charity of Velāma (p. 677–688F), the punishment of Devadatta and Udraka (p. 693-694F), Rahula’s lies (p. 813-815F), the trickery of the nun Utpalavarṇā, the strange propaganda she carried out for the order of bhikṣuṇīs and her cruel death (p. 634F, 844–846F, 875F; the inquisitive and futile questions of Mālunkyāputra (p. 913-915F0, the fabulous wealth of Meṇḍaka and of king Māndhātar (p. 930–931F), the misadventures of the arhat Losaka-tiṣya (p. 931–932F), the laziness and frivolousness of the bhikṣu Aśvaka and Punarvasuka (p. 937F), the visit of king Bimbisāra to the courtesan Āmrapālī (p. 990–992F), the cruelty of king Udayana towards the five hundred ṛṣis (p. 993F), the punishment incurred by Udraka Ramāputra, immoderately attached to his absorption (p. 1050–1052F), the anxieties of the Śākya Mahānāman (p. 1082–1083F), the humiliating defeat of the brahmacārin Vivādabala reduced to silence by the Buddha (p. 1084–1090F), the entry into the religious life of the brahmacārin Mṛgaśiras (p. 1085–1088). By contrast, the present volume is strangely reticent on the lofty individuals of the Mahāyāna: it mentions only in passing the name of the bodhisattvas Sarvasattvapriyadarśana (p. 751F), Mañjuśrī (p. 754, 903F), Vajrapāṇi (p. 882F), Vimalakīrti (p. 902, 1044F), Dharmasthiti (p. 902F) and Maitreya (p. 930F); it is to the latter and to Mañjuśrī that it attributes, without firmly believing it, the compilation of the Mahāyānasūtras (p. 940F).

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The Treatise cites, at length or in extracts, about a hundred sūtras of the Lesser Vehicle; the majority are borrowed from the Āgama collections; when the Sanskrit version departs from the Pāli version, it is always the former that is adopted; furthermore, the Treatise often refers to unknown Pāli sūtras, such as the Nandikasūtra (p. 792–793F, 798F, 803F, 815–816F, 817–818F) and the sūtra on Cosmogony (p. 835–837F). Several sūtras are cited in the elaborated form which they have received in the post-canonical scriptures: this is notably the case for the Velāmasūtra (p. 677–688F) taken from a certain Avadānasūtra, for the Āsīviṣopamasūtra (p. 702–707F) taken from the Ta pan nie p’an king (see note, p. 705F), and for the Kośambaka (p. 896–898F), probably borrowed from the versified account in the Ta tchouang yen louen king.

Although it abundantly cites the sūtras of the Lesser Vehicle, the Treatise occasionally calls upon the Mahāyanasūtras of which it is the interpreter. We will note only a loan from the Saddharmapuṇḍarīka (p. 752F), two quotations from the Vimalakīrtinirdeśasūtra (p. 902, 1044F) and a few vague references to the Pañcaviṃśati (p. 1060F, 1091F, 1112F). However, the Treatise reproduces fully (p. 1060–1065F) the well-known Prajñāpāramitāstotra of Rāhulabhadra, teacher or disciple of Nāgārjuna. As P. Demiéville has noted, the original Sanskrit of this stotra is reproduced at the head of many manuscripts of the Prajñā. Otherwise, the author of the Treatise is by no means sectarian: he understands that many fragments of truth may be found outside works properly Buddhist; free of contradicting them, he does not hesitate to cite the Upaniṣads (p. 744F, 1073F) and other sūtras of the heretics (p. 1073F).

In the course of Volume I (see, for example, p. 104F, n. 1), we have noted that the Treatise uses the Sarvāstivādin and Mūlasarvāstivādin Vinayas in preference over all the others. The present volume has frequent recourse to the second; it borrows from it the essence of the teachings on Śāriputra (p. 621–633F), Devadatta (p. 868–878F) and Yaśodharā (p. 1001–1012F). On the other hand, the author of the Treatise undoubtedly has never had the Pāli Vinaya in his own hands.

This volume also contains a good sixty jātakas, avadānas, fables and apologues. The author has drawn heavily from collections such as the Kalpanāmaṇḍitikā, the Aśokāvadāna, the Vibhāṣā, the Tsa p’i yu king, the Tchong king, etc. Although most of these stories are already familiar to us from the works of Chavannes, the version of the Treatise claims the reader’s attention by means of important variants. Among the tales which, under various titles, are most interesting, we may mention the story of the painter of Puṣkarāvatī (p. 672–675F), the Velāmāvadāna (p. 678–688F), the Tittiryitaṃ brahmacariyaṃ (p. 718–721F), the successive lives of Mahātyāgavat (p. 755–762F), the Utpalavarṇājātaka (p. 844–846F), the jātaka of the flayed Nāga (p. 853-855F), the ruse of the Kaśmir arhat (p. 879F) and the story of the impostor brahmcārin confounded by the bodhisattva (p. 980–981F).

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To facilitate references, the pagination of Volume I has been continued here. The division into chapters adopted by Kumārajīva in his Chinese translation has been retained despite their arbitrary nature. To keep track of the content of the chapters, the reader is advised to refer to the table of contents.

The present volume has been greatly benefited by help and support which, as a result of circumstances, was cruelly missing from the previous volume. New tools of research have been used; the list may be found in the supplement to the abbreviations. P. Demiéville has been kind enough to review several passages that gave me difficulty and has given me precious references; my colleagues, Professor A. Monin and J. Mogenet, have corrected the proofs; the Fondation Universitaire of Belgium has generously continued its financial support. To all my devoted friends I give my deepest thanks.


Louvain, 25 January, 1949.                                                      Ét. Lamotte.

Footnotes and references:


Tatra khalu Bhagavān āyuṣmantaṃ Śāriputram āmantrayām āsa: Sarvākāraṃ Śāriputra sarvādharmān abhisaṃboddhukāmena bodhisattvena mahāsattvena prajñāpāramitāyāṃ yogaḥ karaṇīyaḥ. Evam ukta āyuṣmān Śāriputro Bhagavantam etad avocat: Kathaṃ Bhagavan bodhisattvena mahāsattvena sarvākāraṃ sarvadharmān abhisaṃboddhukāmena prajñāpāramitāyāṃ yogaḥ karaṇīyaḥ. Evam ukte Bhagavān āyuṣmantaṃ Śāriputram etad avocat: Iha Śāripuitra bodhisattvena mahāsattvena prajñāpāramitāyāṃ sthitvāsthānayogena dānapāramitā parpūrayitavyāparityāgayogena deyadāyakapratigrāhakānupalabdhitām upādāya, śīlapāramitā paripūrayitavyāpattyanāpattyanadhyāpattitām upādāya, kṣaṇtipāramitā paripūrayitavyākṣobhaṇatām upādāya, vīryapāramitā paripūrayitvayā kāyikacaitasikavīryāsraṃsasnatām upādāya, dhyānapāramitā paripūrayitavyānāsvādanatām upādāya, prajñāpāramitā paripūrayitavya prajñādauṣprajñānupalabdhitām (variant: sarvadharmānabhiniveśam) upādāya.