Maha Prajnaparamita Sastra

by Gelongma Karma Migme Chödrön | 2001 | 941,039 words

This page describes “explanation of the word ‘shrutam’ (shruta)” 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 3 - Explanation of the word ‘śrutam’ (śruta)

Let us now speak about the word Śrutam.

Note: In his commentaries on the Nikāyas (Sumaṅgala, I, p. 28; Papañca, I, p. 4–5; Sārattha, I, p. 6; Manoratha, I, p. 7), Buddhaghosa enumerates all the possible meanings of sutaṃ; but, he adds, in the expression evaṃ me sutaṃ, sutaṃ designates a perception relating to the auricular orifice (sotadvārānusārena upadhāraṇaṃ)…, it indicates the perception (gahaṇa), the activity of the individual (puggalakicca) and, by extension, the thing (dhamma), the perceived object (visaya). According to him, the phrase evaṃ me sutaṃ means: By me, an individual endowed with auditory consciousness, this was heard by virtue of a consciousness commonly called auditory activity (mayā savanakicca viññāṇasamaṅginā puggalena viññāṇavasena laddhasavanakiccavohārena sutaṃ).

Question. – What does the word śrutam signify? Does it mean by means of the ear-organ (śrotrendriya), or by means of the auditory consciousness (śrotravijñāna), or by means of the mental consciousness (manovijñāna)?[1] If it is the ear-organ that hears, [the objection will be made] that, being without intellect (avabodha), the ear-organ cannot hear. – If it is the auditory consciousness that hears, [the objection will be made] that, lasting but a moment (ekakṣaṇika), the auditory consciousness is incapable of concept (vikalpa) and cannot hear.[2] – If it is the mental consciousness that hears, [the objection will be made] that the mental consciousness, in turn, cannot hear. Why? The first five consciousnesses [visual, auditory, olfactory, gustatory and tactile consciousnesses] recognize the five gross (sthūla) objects, [i.e., color, sound, odor, taste and tangible]; it is only afterwards that the mental consciousness recognizes (vijānāti).[3] The mental consciousness is unable to cognize the five gross objects actually present (pratyutpanna); it cognizes only those that are past (atīta) or future (anāgata).[4] If the mental consciousness could cognize the five gross objects actually present, blind people (andha) and deaf people (badhira) could cognize colors (rūpa) and sounds (śabda). Why? Because their mental consciousness is not destroyed.

Answer. – Neither the ear-organ (śrotrendriya), nor the auditory consciousness (śrotravijñāna), nor the mental consciousness (manovijñāna) are able to hear sounds. The coming together of many causes and conditions (hetuprayayasaṃnipāta) is necessary to be able to hear sounds. It cannot be said that one single dharma hears sounds. Why? The ear-organ, lacking intellect (avabodha), cannot hear sounds; the [64c] consciousnesses, both auditory consciousness as well as mental [consciousness], being non-material (arūpin), offering no resistance (apratigha) and outside of space (adeśastha),[5] are not able to hear sounds. Sound (śabda) itself, lacking intellect (avabodha) and lacking the organ (indriya), cannot hear sounds. But if the ear-organ (śrotrendriya) is intact, when the sound reaches the auditory field and when the manas wants to hear, the coming together of the object [i.e., sound] and the manas (sthūlamanaḥsaṃnipāta) determines the arising of an auditory consciousness (śrotravijñāna).[6] Following this auditory consciousness, there arises a mental consciousness (manovijñāna) that can analyze (vikalpana) all types of causes and conditions (hetupratyaya) and succeeds in hearing sounds.[7] This is why the objection cannot be made: “Who hears sound?” In the Buddha’s doctrine no dharma is agent (kāraka), perceiver (draṣṭṛ) or cognizer (jñānin). Some stanzas say:

If there is an action (karman), there are also fruits (phala).
The non-existence of the agent (kāraka), of the action and of the fruit
Is the absolute (parama) and profound (gambhīra) law
That the Buddha was able to discover.[8]

There is emptiness (śūnya) but not annihilation (uccheda),
Continuity (prabandha), but not eternity (śaśvata),[9]
Sin (āpatti) and merit (puṇya), and not destruction (vipraṇaśa):
Such is the law which the Buddha preaches.

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

Footnotes and references:


In order to understand the discussion that follows, it is necessary to recall the division of the elements into eighteen dhātus: 1) the six organs (indriya): eye, ear, nose, tongue, touch, mind;

2) the six objects (viṣaya): color, sound, odor, taste, tangible, non-perceptible object (dharma);

3) the six consciousnesses (vijñāna): visual, auditory, olfactory, gustatory, tactile and mental consciousness. – This division is found in all the manuals, e.g., Stcherbatsky, Central Conception, p. 97:

Six indriyas Six viṣayas Six vijñānas

1. cakṣus 7. rūpa 13. cakṣurvijñāna

2. śrotra 8. śabda 14. śrotravijñāna

3. ghrāṇa 9. gandha 15. ghrāṇavijñāna

4. jihvā 10. rasa 16. jihvāvijñāna

5. kāya 11. spraṣṭavya 17. kāyavijñāna

6. manas 12. dharma 18. manovijñāna


According to the Vaibhāṣikas, the first five vijñānas – therefore, the auditory consciousness – possess svabhāvavikalpa (vikalpa by definition, i.e., vitarka), but do not permit the vikalpa consisting of examination (nirūpaṇa) nor the vikalpa consisting of memory (anusmaraṇa); that is why it is said that they are without vikalpa, just as it is said about a horse that has only one foot that it has no feet. Kośa, I, p. 60–61.


The mental consciousness (manovijñāna) always follows the manas which serves it as support (āśraya) and organ (indriya). This manas is that one of the six consciousnesses (vijñāna) that has just gone past (ṣaṇṇām anantarātītaṃ vijñānaṃ yad dhi tan manaḥ, Kośa, I, p. 31). This is the canonical doctrine formulated by the Sarvāstivādin-Vaibhāṣikas. For other theories, see Saṃgraha, Notes and References, p. 5F.


According to Kośa, I, p. 44, 94, the object of the first five consciousnesses is simultaneous with them, the object of the sixth consciousness is earlier, or simultaneous, or later than it; in other words, it is past, present or future.


The vijñāna is arūpin, adeśastha, sendriyakakāyāśraya, Kośa, III, p. 135. It is in contrast to the organs and objects that constitute the rūpaskandha. See Kośa, I, p. 27.


With some modifications, this is the canonical theory on the origin of the consciousness: “By virtue of the ear and sound, the auditory consciousness is produced; the coming together of the three is contact” (sotañca paṭicca sadde ca uppajjati sotaviññānam, tiṇṇaṃ saṅgati phasso. Saṃyutta, II, p. 72; IV, p. 68, 86, etc.). – On the problem of contact (sparśa), see Kośa, III, p. 95–101.


Equipped with the vikalpas of examination (nirūpaṇā) and memory (anusmaraṇa), the mental consciousness, by itself, has a clear notion (saṃjñā) of the object. The other consciousnesses have only a very vague notion. The visual consciousness cognizes blue (nīlaṃ jānāti), but does not know “It is blue” (no tu nīlam iti). In the same way, the auditory consciousness is insufficient to identify a sound; it must be complemented by a mental consciousness. See Kośa, I, p. 28, n. 1, on this subject.


This stanza is quite in the Madhyamaka spirit. Cf. Madh, vṛtti, p. 328–329: na pratyayasamut-pannaṃ nāpratyayasamutthitaṃ… kuta eva bhaviṣyati. “Since action is neither produced by virtue of conditions nor non-produced for the same reason, the agent itself does not exist either. – If the action does not exist, how would the agent and the fruit of the action exist? There not being any fruit, how would the enjoyer of the fruit exist?”


The views of eternity and annihilation (śaśvatocchedadṛṣṭi) are two extreme views (antadvaya) to be avoided carefully. Cf. Saṃyutta, II, p. 17; III, p. 135; Madh. vṛtti, p. 269; Madh. avatāra, p. 22: Mahāvastu, III, p. 448; P. Vaidya, Études sur Āryadeva, Paris, 1923, p. 35–37; Dutt, Mahāyāna, p. 46, 54; LAV., Madhyamaka, p. 10.

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