Maha Prajnaparamita Sastra

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

This page describes “explanation of the word ‘maya’” 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.

Part 2 - Explanation of the word ‘mayā’

Let us now speak about the word Mayā.

Note: Mayā in the expression evaṃ mayā śrutam corresponds to me in the Pāli phrase evam me sutaṃ. Me is the enclitic form of the personal pronoun of the first person singular; it replaces the genitive, dative or instrumental singular. Buddhaghosa, in his commentaries on the Nikāya (Sumaṅgala, I, p. 28; Papañca, I, p. 4; Sārattha, I, p. 6; Manoratha, I, p. 6). explains that me, in the phrase evaṃ me sutaṃ, replaces both the instrumental and the dative: idha pana mayā sutan ti ca sutan ti ca atthadvayaṃ yujjati. Continuing his explanation, he comments that me designates the ‘me’ (atta), the individual (puggala), the person endowed with auditory consciousness (sotaviññāṇasamaṅgi-puggala).

Question. – In the Buddha’s doctrine, it is said that all dharmas are empty (śūnya) and without a substantial self (anātmaka).[1] Why do the Buddhist sūtras begin with the words: “Thus have I heard”?

Answer. – 1. Although the disciples of the Buddha understood the non-existence of self (anātman), they conform to current usage (saṃvṛtidharma) and speak of a self (ātman). But this ātman is not a true ātman. Thus there is nothing ridiculous in exchanging copper coins (tāmrakārṣāpaṇa) for gold coins (suvarṇakārṣāpaṇa). Why? Because the rules of commerce (krayavikrayadharma) demand it. It is the same when we speak of ātman. In a system [that sets up the thesis of] the anātman, we can talk about the ātman; by conforming to current usage (lokasaṃvṛti), we do not incur any blame. Thus a stanza of the T’ien wen king (Devaparipṛcchāsūtra) says:

If he is an arhat bhikṣu
Whose impurities have been destroyed,
And who is in his very last existence,
Can he say: It is I?

The Buddha replies:

An arhat bhikṣu
Whose impurities have been destroyed
And who is in his very last existence
Can say: It is I.[2]

In current usage (lokadharma), we speak of the ātman, but not from the absolute (paramārtha), true point of view, for all dharmas are empty (śūnya) and devoid of substantial self (anātmaka). In current usage there is nothing wrong in speaking of ātman.

2. Furthermore, current language (lokābhilāpa) has three roots (mūla): (1) wrong views (mithyādṛṣṭi), (2) pride (māna), (3) convention (saṃketa). The first two are [64b] impure (aśubha), the third is pure (śubha). In all worldly people (pṛthagjana), the three types of language, wrong views, pride and convention, exist. In the śaikṣas on the path of seeing (darśanamārga), there are two types of language, that of pride and that of convention. In the āryas, only the conventional language exists. Without inwardly condemning the true doctrine (saddharma), they imitate ordinary people and borrow their language. Rejecting the wrong views of the world (lokamithyāsdṛṣṭi), they conform to usage (saṃvṛti) and avoid quarrels (vivāda); thus they reject the other two impure roots of language. By conforming to the world, they use only one kind of language, i.e., conventional language. The Buddha’s disciples who speak about the ātman, by conforming to usage, are not committing a fault.

3. Furthermore, the objection may be made to people who cling (abhiniviṣṭa) to the doctrine of ātman and who claim that it is true and the rest is false (etad eva satyam moham anyat) in this way: “If, according to you, all dharmas are truly without substantial self (anātmaka), how can you say: ‘Thus have I heard’?” But here the disciples of the Buddha do not cling to emptiness (śūnya) and the non-existence (ākiṃcanya) of all dharmas. Neither do they cling to the real nature (bhūtalakṣaṇa) of dharmas, nor a fortiori to the doctrine of anātman. That is why they cannot be reproached or asked why they speak of self. Thus, in the Tching louen (Madhyamakaśāstra), some stanzas[3] say:

If there were something non-empty,
There should be something empty;
But if the non-empty does not exist,
How would the empty exist?.[4]

The fool (bāla) who sees the non-empty
Then sees the empty as well.
Not having positive views (dṛṣṭi) or negative views (adṛṣṭi)
Is truly ‘nirvāṇa’.

Non-duality (advaya), the gates of security (yogakṣema),[5]
The destruction of wrong views,
The domain surveyed by the Buddhas,
That is the ‘doctrine of anātman’.

The meaning of Mayā has been explained in brief (samāsataḥ).

Footnotes and references:


Sarve dharmā anātmānaḥ, in Pāli sabbe dhammā anattā, i.e., according to the explanation of the Kośavyākhyā: na caita ātmasvabhāvāḥ na caiteṣu ātmā vidyata iti anātmānaḥ. This phrase is found in, e.g., Saṃyutta, III, p. 133; IV, p. 28, 401; Vinaya, V, p. 86; Sūtrālaṃkāra, XVIII, 101, p. 158; Tsa a han, T 99 (no. 262), k. 10, p. 66b16, etc.


Sutta, entitled Arahaṃ, of the Saṃyutta, I, p. 14; Tsa a han, T 99 (no. 581), k 22, p. 154b–c; T 100 (no. 166), k. 9, p. 435c: yo hoti bhikkhu arahaṃ… pi so vadeyya (iti devata). yo hoti bhikkhu katāvī…

vohāramattena so vohareyya (iti Bhagavā).

Buddhaghosa interprets this sutta in the same way in the Sārattha, I, p. 51.


Of the three stanzas cited here, I [Lamotte] have been able to find only the first in Madhyamakakārikā, XIII, 7; Madh. vṛtti, p. 245; the Chinese versions of the Madhyamakaśāstra: Tchong louen, T 1564, k. 2, p. 18c; Pan jo teng louen che, T 1566, k. 8, p. 91b. It is possible that the author of the Mppś had at his disposal an augmented edition of the Madhyamakaśāstra.


Madh. vṛitti, p. 245: See Candrakirti’s commentary in the same place and Grousset, Philosophies indiennes, I, p. 237.


The Chinese characters Ngan yin (170 and 14) or Ngan wen (115 and 14) render the Sanskrit word yogakṣema (cf. Rosenberg, Vocabulary, p. 139). In Tibetan it is always translated as grub pa daṅ bde ba, ‘perfection-happiness’.

According to Buddhaghosa (Sārattha, I, p. 255; II, p. 164) yogakkhema is catūhi yogehi khemaṃ, the fact of being free from the four yogas (kāma-, bhava-, diṭṭhi- and avijjāyoga), a synonym for nibbāna or sainthood (arahatta). This expression which has already occurred in the Vedas is frequent in Buddhist texts. See references in Rhys Davids-Stede, s.v., and Saṃgraha, notes and references, p. 4). The translators render it as ‘security’ (Lévi), ‘safety (C. Rhys Davids), ‘innere Frieden’ (Weller). See R.B.A. Ray, Yogakṣema, BSOS, VII, 1934, p. 133–136 and H. Jacobi, Triṃśikāvijñapti des Vasubandhu, Stuttgart, 1932, p. 54.