Maha Prajnaparamita Sastra

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

This page describes “introduction to fifth volume” 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.

Introduction to fifth volume

The Mahāprajñāpāramitopadeśa (in short, Upadeśa) is an Indian commentary on the Pañcavimśatisāhasrikāprajñāpāramitā-sūtra (in short, PPS). The original text has not come down to us, but it is known by a partially abridged Chinese version, the Ta tche tou louen (T 1509), executed between 402 and 406 AD at Tch’ang-ngan by the Serindian master Kumārajiva. This version comprises two series of chapters:

1. A first series of fifty-two chapters (T 1509, p. 57c–314b), gathered into an initial chapter bearing the numeral I.

2. A second series of eighty-nine chapters (T 1509, p. 314b–756c), numbered from II to XC.

The first series appears to be an integral version of the Indian original, the second series as an abridged version.

My [Lamotte] work, the Traité de la Grande Vertu de Sagesse, which presently consists of five volumes, published at Louvain between 1944 and 1980, is a French translation of the fifty-two chapters of the first series and chapter XX of the second series.

In the course of chapters XLIX to LII of the present volume, volume V, the bodhisattva of the PPS continues to adorn his future buddha-field by formulating a series of vows, the success of which absolutely requires the practice of the Prajñāpāramitā. To the twenty-four vows already formulated in chapters XLII to XLVII of volume IV, thirty-eight further vows are about to be added here.

The great aspiration (adhyāśaya) of the bodhisattva knows no limits and. if all his wishes were realized, some least expected consequences would result. Thus, if a single sermon would suffice to establish all beings in Buddhahood, what would still be the need for innumerable Tathāgatas who follow one another in the world in order to put an end to universal suffering? To want to establish all beings in Buddhahood all at once would result in the interruption of the lineage of the Buddhas (buddhavaṃśasamuccheda), something no-one would want.

But such considerations are valid only in relative truth. From the point of view of absolute truth, the vows of the bodhisattva are fully justified and completely realizable. Even more so, they have already been realized. In the view of the Prajñā, beings are empty of ‘me’ and of ‘mine’, dharmas are without intrinsic nature and specific characteristic. Their true nature is absence of characteristic. The Prajñāpāramitā alone penetrates it and penetrates it by not cognizing it, for it is free of any opinion. Since there is nothing to hope for, the wise man wishes for nothing and, in this sense, all his wishes are realized before being formulated. Furthermore, the wise man, having no substantial reality, is nothing but a name.

To these wishes the Upadeśa dedicates commentaries that have the precision and technique of an Abhidharma treatise; it multiplies references to the sūtras of the Lesser Vehicle as well as to those of the Greater Vehicle. In its eyes, both the Tripiṭaka and the Mahāyānasūtras are the Words of the Buddha, but it is in the PPS that the Buddha spoke most clearly of the true nature of dharmas (p. 2189F).

The problem of causality is tackled in chapter XLIX where it is said that the bodhisattva wishes to understand the four conditions (p. 2170F). There the Upadeśa sees an allusion to a system of causality where four conditions (pratyaya) and six causes (hetu) play a part in the production and cessation of conditioned dharmas. The canonical sūtras had already placed the bases for them; the Abhidharmas and the Sarvāstivādin school had formulated them in their definitive form. Nāgārjuna was familiar with them and struggled with them energetically in the first chapter of his Mūlamadhyamakakārikas where he showed the absurdity of the four conditions. The author of the Upadeśa adopts a more balanced position: he refrains from any futile proliferation about causes and conditions, but determines that they produce nothing. Thus they are neither to be taken up nor rejected.

The Upadeśa will return twice (p. 2186F, 2232F) to the problem of dharmatā and its synonyms. For the śrāvakas, it was pratityasamutpāda, the conditioned production and cessation of the five skandhas. For the Mādhyamikas, it is exactly the opposite, the true nature of things excluding all production and all cessation. We will notice (p. 2198–99F) the distinction established between the lower, middling and higher tathatā, as the pṛthagjana, the śrāvaka and the bodhisattva, respectively, understood it.

A problem which was scarcely of any interest to the early masters but which subsequently gained importance is that of the vision of the Buddhas, treated in chapter L. Śākyamuni’s contemporaries saw the Buddha with their fleshly eye (māṃsacakṣus), the range of which is very limited. More ambitious, the bodhisattvas of the PPS wanted to see, with the divine eye (divyacakṣus), the innumerable Buddhas reigning in the ten directions (p. 2272F). The divyacakṣus obtained by practice of the superknowledges consists of a subtle matter derived from the ten great elements; it enjoys a perfect luminosity to the four directions of the horizon.

Other Mahāyānasūtras, contemporary with the PPS but seeming not to have been influenced by them, propose another process of seeing: the pratyutpannasamādhi, a technique of mental concentration by means of which an ascetic, even without using the divyacakṣus, is able to contemplate, as in a dream, the Buddhas of the present, mainly Amitābha, and to converse with them.

A controversy on the efficacy of these two processes arose in India, probably in Kaśmir, at the time of the Upadeśa. Brought to expressing a position, its author does not hide his preferences for the divyackṣus (p. 2273–2274F), the more traditional process fitting into the frame of the Abhijñās. But the Buddhas are but names (nāmamātra) and it is by eliminating wrong views that one is able to see them in their “body of the doctrine” (p. 2265F).

The controversy which, in India, set the partisans of the divyacakṣus in opposition to those of the pratyutpannasamādhi was triggered off again in China in the first quarter of the 5th century. It provoked an interesting exchange of correspondence between Houei-yuan, the master of Mount Lou, and Kumārajīva, the translator of the Upadeśa (p. 2270–72F).


In the canonical sources, there is frequent mention of the kinds of literary composition borrowed by the Words of the Buddha – these are nine or twelve in number, sūtras, etc.; the early sources enumerate them without defining them. In chapter LI, the bodhisattvas of the PPS wish to hear and retain the twelve-membered Word of the Buddha (p. 2286F). Along with the Mahāvibhāṣa of the arhats of Kaśmir, the Upadeśa is among the first exegetical treatises that attempt to give an explanation of them. It tries to introduce into it the entire group of Buddhist scriptures existing at its time (p. 2389F) in order to establish its canonicity. But Buddhist literature had expanded so much that it lent itself poorly to this kind of distribution. The explanations furnished in regard to certain aṅgas, such as the Udāna and especially the Itivṛttaka, must have perplexed the Chinese readers, and we do not pride ourselves in having dissipated all the obscurities here.


In early times, hearing the name of the Buddhas (buddhanāmadheyaśravaṇa) was not included among the auxiliary dharmas of bodhi (bodhipākṣikadharma). Some disciples of Śākyamuni, such as the notable Sudatta or the brāhmaṇa Śaila, were overcome by joy on hearing the word ‘Buddha’ pronounced, but nevertheless did not progress along the path of salvation. In the centuries that followed, the Name unceasingly gained in importance. In chapter LII of the PPS, the bodhisattva formulates the following vow: “When I have attained supreme complete enlightenment, may innumerable beings, as soon as they hear my name, be established in abhisaṃbodhi” (p. 2352F). At the same time, other Mahāyānasūtras, such as the Sukhāvātivyūha and the Lotus, say that merely hearing the name of buddha Amitabhā or bodhisattva Avalakiteśvara assured, ipso facto, rebirth in Sukhāvatī, or puts an end to suffering. In the Chinese and Japanese extensions of Amidism, the invocation to Amitābhā (the Nan wou pou k’o sseu yi kouang jou lai, Namo-amida-butsu) constitutes the easiest and most efficacious means of salvation for the devotee.

The author of the Upadeśa is not of this opinion. According to him, the hearing of the name is not the single means of realizing salvation, is not infallible, and does not immediately produce its effects like a cintamāni or a magical spell (p. 2358–63F). Without condemning the mystics, it rather sides with the rationalists, that category of disciples “who see the profound reality (arthapada) by penetrating it by means of prajñā, by means of the intellect” (Anguttara, III, p. 355).

Rationalism can go hand in hand with traditionalism. Concerned about dealing carefully with the old beliefs, the author on occasion rises up against the excessiveness of the Prajñā or rather against the erroneous interpretations that might be proposed of it. Thus the Mahāyānists believe in the transfer of merit (puṇyapariṇāmanā): according to them, it would be possible to apply the merits that one has gained oneself to others (p. 1879–80F), and the bodhisattva of the PPS wishes, “by means of his own power”, to assure good rebirths to beings (p. 2312F). But at first sight, the notion of transfer of merit seems to contradict the law of karma universally accepted by the Indians. How can the transfer of merit be accepted when, according to the earliest texts, actions are declared to be strictly personal and incommunicable? Good and bad actions ripen for their doer, and no one else can bear their consequences. That being so, how could beings benefit from an action carried out by the bodhisattva? The Upadeśa tries to reconcile the two opposing doctrines with the following reasoning: “By the power of his knowledge, wondrous deeds and sermons, the bodhisattva makes beings themselves carry out the good actions that will win them good rebirths” (p. 2312F). Thus, far from being useless, the intervention of the bodhisattva is eminently beneficial.

The Upadeśa ends the last chapter (LII) of the first series with a vibrant eulogy of the Prajñāpāramitā. The PPS’s, long before, had proclaimed her to be Mother of the Buddhas because she reveals the true nature of the loka (lokadharmatāsaṃdarśayaitrī). By loka we should understand the five skandhas or psycho-physical aggregates of existence. Why are they called loka? Because of the etymology. But two distinct etymologies have been proposed. The canonical sūtras (Saṃyutta, IV, p. 52) attaching loka to the root luji ‘to break’ say that the skandhas are loka insofar as they are broken or disaggregated (lujyante vā pralujyante ) and their true nature (dharmatā) is their dependent production and cessation (pratītyasamutpāda). The PPS’s propose another etymology involving a diametrically opposite interpretation. Loka, according to them, is derived from the root loki ‘to shine’, and the skandhas are loka insofar as they do not break and do not disaggregate (na lujyante na pralujyante); consequently, their true nature is non-production (anutpāda) and non-cessation (anirodha), quite the contrary of pratītyasamutpāda. One would hardly know how better to mark the doctrinal rift separating the two Vehicles: the śrāvakas recognized the noble truths of the origin and cessation of suffering (samudaya- and nirodha-satya), whereas the bodhisattvas are established in the conviction that things do not arise (anutpattikadharmakṣānti). But for both of them, “peace is nirvāṇa” (śāntam nirvāṇam).

To the metaphor of Mother of the Buddhas, frequent in the PPS’s, the Upadeśa adds that of Father of the Buddhas, the latter being inspired by other Mahāyānasūtras. The Father of the Buddhas would be the pratyutapannasamādhi, the visualization of the Buddhas of the present, which has already been mentioned above. In the fathering of infants, the mother has a more important rôle than the father; similarly, in regard to the formation of the Buddhas, the pratyutpannasamādhi is overshadowed by prajñā: “This samādhi can only concentrate the distracted mind in such a way that prajñā is produced, but it cannot see the true nature (dharmatā) of things. The Prajñāpāramitā alone is able to see all the dharmas completely and to discern their true nature: there is nothing it does not penetrate, nothing it does not realize; its qualities are so great that it is called Mother”(p. 2369F).

* * *

Chapter XX of the Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā (ed. N. Dutt, p. 214, l. 6 to 225, l. 19; T 223, k. 6, p. 256c–259c) entitled Mahāyānasaṃprasthāna ‘Setting out for the Mahāyāna’ deals with the ten bhūmis, stages in the bodhisattva career. It consists of two parts: the first is a simple list enumerating the things the bodhisattva must do and avoid in order to pass from bhūmi to bhūmi; the second part is a gloss repeating each of the things and adding brief explanations. In the French translation that follows, these two parts are put together into a single one and the explanations are incorporated directly into the list, in order to give a more synthetic view of the materials and avoid tedious repetitions.

Although Kumārajīva translated it only as a summary, the commentary of the Upadeśa on this chapter is not lacking in interest. Its author interprets the doctrines of the Prajñāpāramitāsūtra in the light of the Avataṃsaka and, more particularly, of the Daśabhūmikasūtra. The bodhisattva should fulfill his career in two ways, either by traveling the ten “bhūmis proper” reserved for him, Pramuditā, etc., or by borrowing the ten “shared bhūmis”, Śuklavidarśana, etc., shared by the śrāvakas, pratyekabuddhas, the bodhisattvas and the Buddhas.

Finally, the Upadeśa was one of the first treatises to establish a parallel between the bhūmis of the bodhisattva and the conquest of the four fruits of religious life (śrāmaṇyaphala), srotaāpattiphala, etc., mentioned by the canonical sources.

* * *

The five volumes of the Traité represent only a third of the Upadeśa which Kumārajīva translated completely into Chinese. With the chapter on the bhūmis, they give a sufficiently complete idea of Buddhist gnosis at the beginning of the 4th century of our era.

It is my [Lamotte] pleasure to express publicly my deep appreciation to colleagues and friends who have helped me in the present work and without whose aid the latter could not have been brought to term. The interest which Japan has always held for the Daichidoron (Upadeśa) has been extended to the French translation of the Traité de la Grande Vertu de Sagesse: the encouragements to me, which have been lavish, from the East as well as from the West, sustained me in my work which was greatly facilitated by the progress in Buddhist studies in the course of the recent years. Volumes IV and V have benefited from working tools (editions of texts, dictionaries, concordances, indexes and encyclopedias) made specially for the use of researchers. But all the secrets of the Upadeśa, however, have not been elucidated, far from it; and the enrichment of our documentations only sets new problems.

The final editing of volume V has been sensibly eased thanks to the devotion and ability of many of my friends. Prof. Dr. Heinz Bechert (Göttingen) gave it attentive reading; Robert Shih (Louvain-la-Neuve), Hubert Durt (Kyoto) and Marcel Van Velthem (Brussels) assisted me efficiently in the correction of the proofs. I give them my deepest thanks.

My appreciation is also expressed to the Fondation Universitaire de Belgique and to the Insitut Orientaliste de Louvain who generously helped with the expense of printing.


                                                                                Brussels, December 8, 1979.