Maha Prajnaparamita Sastra

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

This page describes “space (akasha)” 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.

Fourth comparison or upamāna: Space (ākāśa)

Space is just a name (nāmamātra) and not a real dharma.[1] Space is invisible (adrśya) but, looking at it from afar, the eye perceives a light blue color. In the same way, dharmas are empty (śūnya) and non-existent (asat): the person who is still far away from pure true wisdom (anāsravasatyaprajñā) does not discover its true nature (satyalakṣaṇa) but sees in it ātman, men (puṃs) and women (strī), houses (gṛha) and cities (nagara), all kinds of different things (dravya), and his mind clings (abhiniviśate) to them. When a little child (bālaka) looks at the blue sky, he says that he sees a real color (varṇa); but those who fly up very high and come closer [to the sky] see nothing; it is when we look at it from a distance that we [102c] assert that we see a blue color. It is the same for dharmas. This is why the sūtra says that they are like space.

Moreover, space is always pure by nature (svabhāvaviśuddha), but when it is overcast and covered [by clouds], people say that it is impure (aviśuddha). In the same way, the dharmas are always pure by nature, but when they are obscured by desire (rāga), hatred (dveṣa) and delusion (moha), people declare them to be impure. Some stanzas say:

During the summer months (grīṣma), there is thunder, lightning and rain,
Dark clouds cover the sky, the weather is not calm;
In the same way, in ignorant ordinary people (pṛthagjana),
All sorts of afflictions (kleśa) cover over the mind.

In a wintry (hemanta) sky, sometimes the sun shines,
But usually it is dark and clouds cover it over.
In the same way, the person who has acquired the first or second fruit[2]
Is still darkened by the defilements of desire.

In a spring (vasanta) sky, the sun is about to shine forth,
But is still covered by dark clouds.
In the same say, in the person who has renounced desire (vītarāga) and has acquired the third fruit,[3]
Residues of ignorance and pride still hide the mind.

In autumn (śarad), the sun is not covered by clouds,
The sky is pure like the water of the oceans.
Having accomplished what had to be done (kṛtakṛtya), being of an immaculate mind,[4]
The arhat also is completely pure.

Moreover, space is without beginning, middle or end (apūrvamadhyacarama). It is the same for dharmas. In the Mahāyāna, the Buddha said to Siu p’ou t’i (Subhūti): “Space is beginningless, without middle and without end; and it is the same with dharmas.” This text should be cited in full. This is why it is said that dharmas are like space.

Question. – Space is a truly existent dharma. Why? If space were not a real dharma, it would not have the activity (kāritra) of rising up or lowering, going or coming, bending or spreading out, leaving or entering, etc., since it would not have the room in which to move.

Answer. – i) If space were a truly existent dharma, it should have an abode (adhiṣṭhāna, āspada). Why? Because without an abode, there are no dharmas. If space resides in holes (chidra),[5]space would reside in space; therefore space does not reside in cavities. If it resided in any reality whatsoever, this abode would be real (bhūta) and not empty (śūnya) and thus space would be unable to reside there and would have nothing to accommodate it.

ii) Moreover, you say that space is the place of abiding (adhiṣṭhāna), but in a stone wall (śailabhitti) which truly exists, there is no place of abiding. If there is no place of abiding, there is no space. Since space has no abode, there is no space.

iii) Finally, space does not exist because it has no specific characteristic (lakṣaṇa).[6] Each dharma has its own characteristic and it is because of this characteristic that we recognize its existence. Thus earth (pṛthivī) has solidity (khakkhaṭatva) as its characteristic; water (ap-), humidity (dravatva); fire (tejas), heat (uṣṇatva); wind (vāyu), movement (īraṇatva);[7] consciousness (vijñāna), intellection (vijñaptitva); wisdom (prajñā), insight (bodhana); nirvāṇa, cessation (uccheda). Not having such a characteristic, space does not exist.

Question. – Space has a characteristic, but as you do not cognize it, you say [103a] that it does not exist. The characteristic of space is absence of rūpa (matter).

Answer. – That is not correct. Absence of rūpa means elimination of matter, but that is not a separate dharma any more than the extinguishing of a lamp (dīpa) is not a distinct dharma. This is why space has no self-nature.

Moreover, space does not exist. Why? You speak of rūpa by saying that the absence of rūpa is the self-nature of space; if that were so, insofar as rūpa does not arise, the specific nature of space does not exist.

Finally, you say that rūpa is an impermanent dharma (anitya), but that space is a permanent (nitya) dharma. Before rūpa existed, there should have therefore been a dharma called space, since it is eternal. If rūpa is not absent, the self-nature of space does not exist, and if this nature does not exist, space does not exist either. This is why space is a mere name without any reality. The dharmas are also like space; they are mere names without any reality. Consequently, the bodhisattvas believe that dharmas are like space.

Footnotes and references:


Cf. the refutation of space in Madh. vṛtti. p. 129–130.


The srotaāpattiphala and the sakṛdāgāmiphala.


The anāgāmiphala.


The arhatphala.


For the Sarvāsivādin-Vaibhāṣikas, space is the hole, opening, or the void (chidram ākāṣadhātvākhyam); it is light (āloka) and darkness (tamas). For the Sautrāntikas, it is just the absence of a resisting body (sapratighadravyābhāvamātra). See references in Kośa, I, p. 49–50.


This paragraph and the following one are according to the commentary of the Madh. kārikās, V, 1–2, p. 129–130: nākāśaṃ vidyate kiṃcit pūrvam … bhāve kramatāṃ kuha lakṣaṇam. “Space does not exist prior to the nature of space (namely, the absence of an obstacle: anāvaraṇa), for it would be without nature if it existed prior to its nature. – A substance without nature does not exist anywhere. Since a substance without nature does not exist, to what would this nature apply?”


For the nature of the four elements, cf. Majjhima, III, p. 240–241; Pitṛputrasamāgamasūtra, cited in Śikṣāsamuccaya, p. 245; Mahāvyutpatti, no, 1842–1843; Kośa, I, p. 22.

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