The Buddha – Chapter 20: How the Buddha Became a Bodhisattva

The Buddha brought the dharma to our world, for our age. But, as is clear from preceding chapters, he was not the first buddha, and he was not (at least according to some) the only buddha present in the universe at the time. Yet, he is our buddha and thus is regarded with especial respect and devotion. He could not have become a buddha and taught the dharma if he had not first become a bodhisattva, and he could not have become a bodhisattva had he not been inspired to set out on the long path to buddhahood for the sake of liberating all beings in the universe from suffering. Thus, the occasion, in the far distant past, when the person who would eventually become our buddha made the vow to achieve buddhahood, is an event of momentous importance, and hence the subject of considerable attention.

The story of the yogin Sumedha, who vowed to become a buddha in the presence of the past buddha Dipamkara, is well known (see Chapter 15). But there are many other stories, one of which is told here. It occurs in a Mahayana sutra called The Dispelling of Ajatasatru’s Remorse (Ajatasatru, king of Magadha, had murdered his father, Bimbisara, a patron of the Buddha, but later repented). The Mahayana character of the text is clear from the opening paragraphs in which some gods decide that the path of the bodhisattva is too long and difficult and thus decide to follow the shorter path to the nirvana of the sravaka or pratyekabuddha. Reading their thoughts, the Buddha devises a stratagem to inspire them to seek buddhahood.

When a layman presents a bowl of food to the Buddha, the bodhisattva Mahjusri demands some of it, causing the monk Sariputra to wonder what event in the past could be the cause of this apparently rude request. The Buddha takes the bowl and throws it to the ground. The bowl does not stop there, however, but passes through myriad worlds until it stops in the buddha-field of a buddha named Rasmiraja. The Buddha then asks various of his disciples, first his chief monks and then the future buddha Maitreya, to locate the bowl, but none is able to do so. The task falls to the bodhisattva of wisdom, Mahjusri, who, with a gesture reminiscent of the comic book superhero Plastic Man, stretches his right arm down into the ground and through the various world-systems below until it grasps the bowl. The bodhisattvas in the retinue of the buddha Rasmiraja inquire about the presence of the elongated but resplendent arm that has suddenly appeared in their midst. Rasmiraja explains its source, and, using his miraculous powers, allows his disciples to see our world, causing one bodhisattva to observe, with a certain repugnance, ‘Lord, just like priceless beryl gemstones thrown in the mud, Lord, so are those bodhisattvas and mahas-attvas who are reborn in the world-system Saha to be regarded. ’ This is not an untypical response from those in other universes, who find our world less opulent than theirs. The bodhisattva is admonished for his remark.

Manjusri retrieves the bowl, his arm emitting blessings as it moves back up through the universe. The Buddha then tells a story set in a time long ago in a universe far away. A small child saw a monk returning from his begging round and asked for something to eat, which the monk gladly provided. The child followed the monk back to where the buddha of that time was staying. The monk then gave the child some more food and instructed him to place it in the buddha’s bowl.

The child did so, and the food became magically inexhaustible, feeding thousands of monks and bodhisattvas for seven days. The monk then convinced the child to take refuge in the three jewels and to vow to achieve enlightenment for the sake of all beings. The child’s parents arrived shortly thereafter and gave their approval for their son to become a monk. The Buddha, as in a jataka story, then returns to the present to identify the characters in the story in their present form. One might imagine that the Buddha had been the monk and that the bodhisattva Manjusri had been the young child. But the opposite was true. The monk was Manjusri, and it was he who had inspired our buddha to embark on the path to buddhahood. The Buddha then reveals that Manjusri had done this not only for him, but for countless other buddhas of the past, that Manjusri, who appears in the form of a youthful prince, is, in fact, the father of all buddhas. It is fitting then, that Manjusri receive some food from the Buddha’s bowl, for he had caused the Buddha, long ago, to place food in the bowl of a previous buddha, and it was that meritorious deed that had set him on the path to enlightenment.

Scholars sometimes make reference to the ‘cult of the bodhisattva’, of tendencies in certain Mahayana sutras to exalt a particular bodhisattva above all others, and even above the Buddha himself. This text would seem to be an example of this tendency.

[The Buddha is on Mount Grdhrakuta (‘Vulture Peak’) near Rajagrha with a massive assembly of monks, bodhisattvas and other mythical beings of various types. The manifold subtleties of the dharma and the arduous requirements of the bodhisattva path are being expounded.]

This thought occurred to 200 deities from that assembly who had previously practised but had lost the aspiration to awakening, ‘If the dharmas [teachings or qualities] of a buddha are so limitless, if the course of training of a bodhisattva is so very hard to follow, and if supreme and perfect awakening is that difficult to realize, then we cannot follow this training, so let us achieve parinirvana [final liberation] by means of the way of the sravakas or the way of the pratyekabuddhas! ’

Thereupon the Lord, reading the minds of those gods, and thinking, ‘Oh! These gods are destined to awaken to supreme and perfect awakening’, for the purpose of guiding those gods conjured up a householder outside that assembly, a householder who was holding in his right hand a bowl filled with food which had a hundred different flavours. Then that householder came to the Lord, prostrated himself at the Lord’s feet, and presented the bowl of food to the Lord, saying, ‘May the Lord deign to receive this food out of compassion for me’, at which the Lord accepted the bowl full of food.

Thereupon Prince Manjusri rose from his seat, arranged his outer robe on one shoulder, placed his palms together and said to the Lord, ‘If the Lord does not deign to give me some of this food, the Lord will be guilty of ingratitude.’ Then the venerable Sariputra thought to himself, ‘Oh! In what way was Prince Manjusri formerly of service to the Lord that he should now accuse the Lord of ingratitude?’ Then the Lord, reading the venerable Sariputra’s mind, said to the venerable Sariputra, ‘Sariputra, as a tathagata I know the right time, so wait and I shall tell you.’

Thereupon the Lord threw the bowl to the ground, and as soon as he had done so that bowl passed before the eyes of those perfectly awakened ones in all the buddha-fields down below in which buddhas and lords lived, dwelt and resided. Then, after passing through as many buddha-fields down below as there are grains of sand in the River Ganges, that bowl came to rest, hovering unsupported in mid-air, in the world-system called Avabhasa, in the buddha-field occupied by the realized, worthy and perfectly awakened one named Rasmiraja. Those who were in personal attendance on those buddhas and lords asked, ‘Lord, where has this bowl come from?’ to which those buddhas and lords replied, ‘It has come from a world-system up above known as Saha, from the presence of the Lord, the realized, worthy and perfectly

A awakened one Sakyamuni, and it has been thrown in order to guide other bodhisattvas. ’

Thereupon the Lord said to the venerable Sariputra, ‘Sariputra, fetch that bowl and find out where and in what place it is.’ Then the venerable Sariputra entered 10,000 samadhis [meditative trances] and passed through 10,000 buddha-fields by means of the power of his own wisdom and the power of the Buddha, but still failed to see the whereabouts or location of that bowl, after which he sat down once again in the presence of the Lord. Having sat down he said to the Lord, ‘Lord, I did not see the whereabouts or location of that bowl.’ Then the Lord said to the venerable Mahamaudgalyayana, ‘Maudgalyayana, you look for that bowl.’ Then the venerable Mahamaudgalyayana, after entering 10,000 samadhis, passed through 10,000 buddha-fields down below by means of the power of the Buddha and the power of his own magic, but still failed to see the whereabouts or location of that bowl, after which he sat down once again in the presence of the Lord. Having sat down he said to the Lord, ‘Lord, I did not see the whereabouts or location of that bowl.’ Thereupon the Lord said to the venerable Subhuti, ‘Subhuti, you look for that bowl.’ Then the venerable Subhuti, after entering 12,000 samadhis, went through 12,000 buddha-fields down below by means of the power of the Buddha and the power of his own magic, but still failed to see that bowl, after which he sat down once again in the presence of the Lord. Having sat down he said to the Lord, ‘Lord, I did not see the whereabouts or location of that bowl.’ In that way 500 great aravakas failed to find that bowl, even though they looked for it using their particular magical powers and their divine vision.

Thereupon the venerable Subhuti said to the bodhisattva Maitreya, ‘Maitreya, the Lord has declared you to be one rebirth away from supreme and perfect awakening, so you find out where and in what place that bowl is.’ The bodhisattva and mahasattva Maitreya said to the venerable Subhuti, ‘Reverend Subhuti, although the Tathagata has declared me to be one rebirth away from supreme and perfect awakening, I do not know even the names of the samadhis which Prince Manjusri can sink into and rise out of. Yet, reverend Subhuti, when I attain awakening the time will come when bodhisattvas and mahasattvas of the likes of Prince Manjusri will wonder “How does the Tathagata lift up his foot, and how does he place it down?” and will not even comprehend how he takes a single step. Therefore, reverend Subhuti, ask Manjusri himself. He is able to find and fetch the bowl.’ Thereupon the elder Subhuti said to the Lord, ‘Lord, please command Prince Manjusri to fetch that bowl and present it before the Lord.’ Then the Lord said to Prince Manjusri, ‘Manjusri, fetch that bowl, and find out where and in what place it is.’

Then Prince Manjusri thought to himself, ‘Let me produce that bowl without getting up from my seat and without disappearing from this assembly.’ Thereupon Prince Manjusri became absorbed in the samadhi called ‘all-pervasive’, and reached down with his right hand into the earth. Then the hand of Prince Manjusri saluted as it went those buddhas and lords in all those buddha-fields in which buddhas and lords had appeared, and from that hand a voice was heard which said to the lords ‘The Lord, the realized, worthy and perfectly awakened one Sakyamuni hopes that you are keeping well, in good health, in good shape physically, getting along all right, feeling strong and in good spirits.’ Then a hundred thousand million rays of light blazed forth from each and every hair pore of the arm, a hundred thousand lotus flowers sprang forth from each and every ray of light, and the forms of tathagatas appeared sitting in the heart of each lotus. And all those tathagatas were singing the praises of the lord and tathagata Sakyamuni. All the buddha-fields through which the hand passed also quaked in six different ways. All those buddha-fields were also filled with a great radiance. All those buddha-fields also became adorned with parasols, flags and banners.

Then the right hand of Prince Manjusri, after passing through all those buddha-fields equivalent in number to the grains of sand in seventy-two Ganges rivers, and after making obeisance to the feet of all those buddhas and lords and asking after their health, arrived in the world-system Avabhasa, the buddha-field of that lord and tathagata Rasmiraja. Then, when it had made obeisance to the feet of that lord and tathagata Rasmiraja, it uttered the words, ‘The physically, getting along all right, feeling strong and in good spirits.’ From that hand a hundred thousand rays of light blazed forth, and a hundred thousand lotus flowers also sprang up, but those rays of light did not clash with the tathagata’s [i.e., Rasmiraja’s] rays of light.

Thereupon, a bodhisattva and mahasattva by the name of Prabhasri, who was in attendance upon the tathagata Rasmiraja, said to that tathagata, ‘Lord, this arm from which these hundred thousand rays of light are being emitted, from which a hundred thousand lotus flowers have also sprung forth, on all of which the forms of tathagatas are sitting and singing the praises of the Lord Sakyamuni, this arm, which is so beautiful to look at and which causes so much joy, to whom does it belong?’ When this was said the lord replied to the bodhisattva Prabhasri, ‘Prabhasri, if you should pass through as many buddha-flelds up above this buddha- fleld as there are grains of sand in seventy-two Ganges rivers, you will find the world-system known as Saha in which the realized, worthy and perfectly awakened one called Sakyamuni lives, dwells and resides. There there is a bodhisattva and mahasattva by the name of Manjusri who is armed with the inconceivable armour, and who has acquired all the supernormal faculties, powers and perfections. That Manjusri has sent down this hand, without rising from his seat, for the purpose of getting this bowl.’

Then those bodhisattvas from that buddha-fleld of the tathagata Rasmiraja became very curious and said, ‘Lord, we would like to see that world-system Saha, that tathagata Sakyamuni, and that prince ManjusrL’

Then the tathagata Rasmiraja emitted a light from the circle of hair between his eyebrows, and that light penetrated all those buddha-fields equal in number to the grains of sand in seventy-two Ganges rivers, so that all the world-systems there were filled with a great radiance. All the sentient beings whose bodies that light touched became possessed of the happiness of a universal monarch. All the practitioners of yoga whose bodies that light touched obtained the fruit [of their respective practices]. All those in training whose bodies that light touched became arhats absorbed in meditation on the eight stages of liberation. All the bodhisattvas whose bodies that light touched attained the samadhi called ‘sun­like lamp’. And so it was that the bodhisattvas from the buddha-field of that tathagata Rasmiraja came to see this world-system Saha, the Lord Sakyamuni, Prince Manjusri, and the entire assembly of sravakas. Thereupon the bodhisattva and mahasattva Prabhasri, seeing this world-system Saha, wept and shed tears, saying, ‘Lord, just like priceless beryl gemstones thrown in the mud, Lord, so are those bodhisattvas and mahasattvas who are reborn in the world- system Saha to be regarded.’ The tathagata Rasmiraja said, ‘Son of good family, do not say that. Why? Because if someone were to generate thoughts of friendliness towards all beings for a single morning in the world-system Saha, their merit would increase much more than that of someone who continued to practise dhyana for ten aeons in this world-system. Why is that? Because, son of good family, those bodhisattvas and mahasattvas who uphold the true dharma in the Saha world-system are purified of all karmic hindrances and defilements.’

Thereupon all the bodhisattvas in this world-system Saha whom that light had touched said to the Lord, ‘Lord, whose is this light which is so delightful and pleasurable and which removes all the defilements?’ When this was said, the Lord said to those bodhisattvas, ‘Sons of good family, if one passes from here in the direction of the nadir through as many buddha-fields as there are grains of sand in seventy-two Ganges rivers, there is a world- system called Avabhasa, in which a realized, worthy and perfectly awakened one known as Rasmiraja presently lives, dwells and resides, and that tathagata has emitted light from the circle of hair between his eyebrows, and that light has illuminated this world- system Saha.’ Then those bodhisattvas said to the Lord, ‘We would like to see that world-system Avabhasa and that tathagata Rasmiraja.’ Thereupon the Lord and tathagata Sakyamuni sent downwards from the soles of his two feet, which were marked with thousand-spoked wheels, such a ray of light as to pass through and penetrate all those buddha-fields equal in number to the grains of sand in seventy-two Ganges rivers and fill with light the whole of that world-system Avabhasa, after which all the bodhisattvas whose bodies that ray of light touched obtained the samadhi known as ‘Sumeru-like lamp’. That buddha-field also became visible from this buddha-field, and this buddha-field also became visible from that buddha-field. Just as, for example, the sun and the moon are visible from here in Jam-budvipa, so too those bodhisattvas saw the tathagata Sakyamuni, and these bodhisattvas saw that lord and tathagata Rasmiraja. Just as, for example, the gods living on the summit of Sumeru look down on Jambudvipa, so too the bodhisattvas saw from this world-system the lord and tathagata Rasmiraja and those bodhisattvas and mahasattvas armed with the great armour.

Thereupon, having grasped the bowl, the right hand of Prince Manjusri was raised aloft, preceded and accompanied by many hundred thousand millions of billions of bodhisattvas, through the upper atmosphere and out of the world-system Avabhasa, the buddha-field of the tathagata Rasmiraj a. As that hand passed upwards, in each and every buddha-field the rays of light disappeared, and the lotus flowers also disappeared from view, and so it was that the right hand of Prince Manjusri, holding the bowl, arrived in this world-system Saha. And after he had thrown the bowl into the air before the Lord Sakyamuni, Prince Manjusri prostrated himself at the Lord’s feet, and said to the Lord, ‘Lord, here is the bowl which I have fetched, so will the Tathagata please accept it.’ And the lord accepted the bowl. Thereupon the bodhisattvas who had arrived in this world-system Saha along with Prince Manjusri’s arm prostrated themselves at the lord’s feet, announced the names of their respective tathagatas, said, ‘Lord, the tathagata So-and-so hopes that you are keeping well, in good health, in good shape physically, getting along all right, feeling strong and in good spirits,’ and then sat down on their respective seats at the behest of the Buddha.

Then the Lord said to the venerable Sariputra, ‘Therefore, Sariputra, listen and I shall tell you what service Prince Manjusri once rendered me that he should have charged me with ingratitude. Once long ago, Sariputra, in an age and at a time incalculable hundred thousand millions of billions of aeons ago, and even more besides, a realized, worthy and perfectly awakened one by the name of Aparajitadhvaja arose in the world, in the world-system called Anindya. Sariputra, that tathagata’s assembly of sravakas numbered 84,000, and his bodhisattvas numbered 12,000, and that tathagata taught the dhartna concerning the three vehicles [the eravaka, pratyekabuddha and bodhisattva paths], having been born to expound the three vehicles and to expound the six perfections [giving, ethics, patience, effort, concentration and wisdom] and the creative use of stratagems.

‘Furthermore, Sariputra, at that time and on that occasion a certain monk and preacher of dharma by the name of Jnanaraja appeared, who, after donning his inner robe and taking up his outer robe and bowl, went into the royal capital called Vistarika in order to beg for almsfood, after which he came out with much food having a hundred flavours. Furthermore, on that occasion, a merchant’s son by the name of Vimalabahu was sitting in his wet- nurse’s lap, and that child saw that monk coming from afar. Seeing him, he jumped down from his nurse’s lap, ran to that monk and begged him for food, at which the monk gave him a sweet. Excited by that food he followed the monk until he eventually came to the place where the tathagata Aparajitadhvaja was, and, having arrived there, he prostrated himself at the feet of the tathagata and sat down in his presence. Then the monk Jnanaraja gave what almsfood he had received to the child, and said, ‘Boy, give this almsfood to the tathagata.’ Then the child took the almsfood and filled the bowl of that lord with it, and yet that almsfood was still not used up. And so it was, Sariputra, that from that one portion of almsfood that child fed and provided for those 84,000 sravakas, those 12,000 bodhisattvas, and that lord and tathagata Aparajitadhvaja, and yet that almsfood did not run out.

‘Then that child, delighted, overjoyed, feeling joy and exultation, sat down in the presence of the lord and uttered these verses:

Those who are fitting recipients of gifts and fields of merit

Have been worshipped by me

With a bowl which never ran out

Even after feeding the assembly of monks.

Because the cooked rice did not run out Even after feeding

the lord of the world There can be no doubt that a gift is

inexhaustible If it is given to the Buddha.

Just as the cooked rice does not get used up But increases still more,

So too shall the merit increase Of those who honour the buddhas.

‘And so it was, Sariputra, that that child fed the tathagata and his assembly of monks for seven days with that single portion of almsfood, yet by virtue of the power of the buddha and the faith in that child’s heart, that food did not run out. Then the monk Jnanaraja induced that child to take refuge in the buddha, to take refuge in the dharma, and to take refuge in the sahgha, he imparted the precepts to him and had him confess his faults, had him make an act of rejoicing at that which was to be rejoiced over, had him make a request for those things one should request, and finally had him conceive the aspiration for supreme and perfect awakening.

‘So it was, Sariputra, that the child’s father and mother came to the tathagata Aparajitadhvaja looking for the child, and when they arrived they prostrated themselves at the lord’s feet and sat down in his presence. Then the child prostrated himself at his parents’ feet and uttered these verses:

Since I have set out for awakening For the happiness of all embodied beings,

May you too abide in happiness:

Favourable conditions [for spiritual progress] are truly rare.

Behold the shining Buddha’s body,

Adorned with its marks!

Who would not aspire to that awakening,

Brought to perfection by cognition?

The Tathagata is truly rare.

In this very place I have gone forth From the

home into the homeless life. You two give

me your approval.

The parents said:

Since we both love you,

We vow to attain excellent awakening

And will imitate you, our son,

In order to go forth [into the religious life].

‘And so it was, Sariputra, that that child, and that child’s parents and those 500 beings who conceived the aspiration for awakening all went forth [into the religious life].

‘Sariputra, if you should be doubtful, puzzled or uncertain as to the identity of the monk and preacher of dharma called Jnanaraja on that occasion and at that time, then, Sariputra, you should not be that way. Why is that? Because on that occasion and at that time Manjusri here was the monk and preacher of dharma called Jnanaraja. Sariputra, if you should be doubtful, puzzled or uncertain as to the identity of the merchant’s son called Vimalabahu on that occasion and at that time, then, Sariputra, you should not be that way. Why is that? Because on that occasion and at that time I was the merchant’s son called Vimalabahu. Sariputra,

Prince Manjusri caused me to conceive the aspiration for awakening after giving me the almsfood, which was my first aspiration to awakening, and that is the way, Sariputra, in which this is to be known. One should see that the greatness of a buddha, the ten powers, the [four types of] assurance, the unhindered cognition and anything else belonging to the Tathagata have all come from the instigation of Prince Manjusri. Why is that? Because omniscience has been attained on the basis of that moment of aspiration. Sariputra, I see in the ten directions innumerable and incalculable tathagatas who have been established in awakening by Prince Manjusri and who are called Sakyamuni, just like me, as well as those who are called Tisya, Pusya, Sikhin and Dipamkara, and I could go on reciting for an aeon or more than an aeon the names of all those tathagatas who, after being established in awakening by Prince Manjusri, are now turning the wheel of the dharma, and still not come to the end of them – to say nothing of those who are pursuing the course of a bodhisattva, residing in the Tusita Realm, taking rebirth, going forth from the household life, practising austerities, or sitting on the terrace of awakening! That is the way, Sariputra, in which this is to be known, that it is about Prince Manjusri himself that they speak and teach who rightly say and teach that he is the mother of the bodhisattvas, their father, the one who shows compassion to them and their instigator. And that, Sariputra, is the reason and the cause, why, on account of a former favour, Prince Manjusri charged me with ingratitude.’

Thereupon the 2oo gods thought to themselves, ‘All things follow from causes, depend upon conditions, have their roots in desires and are determined by vows. If even the Lord here was instigated by another person, it is not fitting that we should aspire to what is inferior while a tathagata is right in front of us.’ Thereupon those zoo gods conceived wholeheartedly the aspiration for supreme and perfect awakening.

When Prince Manjusri displayed here the miracle by which he stretched out his hand and exhibited his magical powers, when the bowl was retrieved and the teaching relating to previous events was given here, incalculable sentient beings from the buddha-fields down below and from this one conceived the aspiration for awakening. Further, from countless buddha-fields in the ten directions, the buddhas and lords sent jewelled parasols as offerings for Prince Manjusri and as coverings for the dharma, and those jewelled parasols filled this world-system. And from those jewelled parasols came voices saying, ‘It is true, it is just as the tathagata Sakyamuni has said – we too were all established in awakening by Prince Manjusri!’

Translated by Paul Harrison from Tibetan blockprint and manuscript editions (including the Tabo manuscript) of the Ajatasatru-kaukrtya-vinodana-sutra. The passage appears in the Derge edition of the Tibetan canon (Toh. 216), Mdo sde, vol. tsha, 223b1-230a1, Tibetan Tripitaka, Taipei Edition, vol. 13 (Taipei: SMC Publishing, 1991), pp. 152/446(1)-154/459(1)

Source: Lopez Donald S. (2004), Buddhist Scriptures, Penguin Classics; First Edition.

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