Maha Prajnaparamita Sastra

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

This page describes “a magic show (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.

First comparison or upamāna: A magic show (māyā)

Śāstra: These ten comparisons serve to explain empty dharmas (śūnyadharma).

Question. – If all dharmas are empty (śūnya) like a magic show (māyā), why are they seen (dṛṣṭa), heard (śruta), felt (ghrāta), tasted (āsvadita), touched (spṛṣṭa) and known (vijñāta)? If they truly did not exist, how could one see them … and know them? – Furthermore, if they are seen out of error although they do not exist, why do we not see sounds (śabda) and hear colors (rūpa)? – If all dharmas are equally empty (śūnya) and non-existent (asat), why are some of them visible (sanidarśana) and others invisible (anidarśana)? Being empty, dharmas are like a finger (aṅguli) of which the first nail (nakha) is non-existent and likewise the second. Why is it that we do not see the second nail and we see only the first?[1] Therefore we know that the first nail, which really exists, is visible, whereas the second, which does not really exist, is invisible.

Answer. – Although the nature of dharmas (dharmalakṣaṇa) is empty, we can distinguish visible dharmas (sanidarśana) and invisible dharmas (anidarśana). Take, for example, magical elephants (hastin) and horses (aśva) and other things of this kind: we know very well that they are not real and yet we see their color, we hear their sounds; they correspond to the six sense-objects and they are not mixed up one with the other. In the same way, although dharmas are empty, we can see them, we can hear them, and they are not confused one with the other.

Thus, in the Tö niu king (Therīsūtra) the therī asks the Buddha: “O Bhagavat, is [102a] ignorance (avidyā) internal (ādhyātmika)?”


“Is it external (bahirdhā)?”


“Is it both internal and external?”


“O Bhagavat, does this ignorance come from the previous lifetime (pūrvajanma)?”


“Does it come from the present lifetime (ihajanma) and does it pass to the next one (punarjanma)?”


“Does this ignorance have an arising (utpāda) and a cessation (nirodha)?”


“Is there a truly existent dharma that could be called ignorance?”


Then the therī said to the Buddha: “If ignorance is not internal, not external, neither internal nor external, if it does not pass from the previous lifetime to the present lifetime and from the present lifetime to the following lifetime, if it does not have a true nature, how can ignorance be the condition (pratyaya) for the formations (saṃskāra) and so on [for the twelve members of [pratītyasamutpāda] up to this accumulation of this mass of suffering (duḥkhaskandhasyotpādaḥ)? O Bhagavat, it is as if a tree has no root (mūla): how could it produce a trunk (skandha), knots (granthi), branches (śākhā), leaves (dala), flowers (puṣpa) and fruit (phala)?”

The Buddha replied: “The nature of dharmas is emptiness (śūnya). However, worldly people (pṛthagjana), ignorant (aśrutavat) and without knowledge (ajñānavat), produce all kinds of afflictions (kleśa) in regard to dharmas, [of which the main one is ignorance]. This affliction is the cause and condition (pratyaya) for actions of body, speech and mind (kāyavāgmanaskarman) which are the cause of a new existence (punarjanma). As a result of this existence we experience suffering (duḥkha) or pleasure (sukha). Thus, if the affliction (i.e., ignorance) did not truly exist, there would be no actions of body, speech and mind, and we would not experience suffering or pleasure. When a magician (māyākāra) creates all kinds of objects by magic, are these magical products internal (ādhyātmika) according to you?”


“Are they external?”


“Are they both internal and external?”


“Do they pass from the previous lifetime to the present lifetime and from the present lifetime to the next lifetime?”


“Do the products of magic have a birth (utpāda) and a cessation (nirodha)?”


“Is there really a dharma that is the product of magic?”


Then the Buddha said:

“Do you not see, do you not hear, the musical instruments (vādya, tūrya) produced by magic?”

“Yes, I see them and I hear them.”

“Then”, continued the Buddha, “if the magic show is empty (śūnya), deceptive (vañcaka) and without reality, how can one get musical instruments by magic?

“Bhagavat, although the magic show has no basis, one can hear it and see it.”

“Well,” said the Buddha, “it is the same for ignorance. It is not internal, it is not external, it is not both, neither is it neither internal nor external. It does not pass from the past lifetime to the present lifetime nor from the present lifetime to the next lifetime; it has no true nature, it has neither birth nor cessation. However, ignorance (avidyā) is the cause and condition (hetupratyaya) for the formations (saṃskāra) and so on up to the accumulation of this mass of suffering (duḥkha-skandhasyotpādaḥ). When the magic show is over, the products of magic vanish. In the same way, when ignorance is destroyed (kṣīṇa), the formations also are destroyed and so on [for the twelve members of pratītyasamutpāda] up to the complete disappearance of the mass of suffering.”

* * *

Moreover, this example of the magic show demonstrates that, among beings, all conditioned dharmas (saṃskṛtadharma) are empty (śūnya) and without solidity (adhruva). And so it is said that all the formations (saṃskāra) are like a magic show that deceives little children; they depend on causes and conditions (hetupratyayāpekṣa), they are powerless and do not last for a long time

[102b] (acirasthitika). This is why the bodhisattvas regard dharmas as a magic show.

Footnotes and references:


Lamotte says: “The meaning of this comparison escapes me.”