Maha Prajnaparamita Sastra

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

This page describes “a shadow (chaya)” 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.

Eighth comparison or upamāna: A shadow (chāyā)

A shadow is visible but cannot be grasped. It is the same for dharmas: the organs (indriya) and the sense objects are seen (dṛṣṭa), heard (śruta), cognized (vijñāta) and felt (mata), but their reality is ungraspable. A stanza says:

True wisdom,
Ungraspable on all four sides,
Cannot be touched
Like a blazing inferno.
Dharmas are impregnable,
They must not be grasped.

Moreover, it is necessary that light be intercepted so that the shadow appears: without this interception, the shadow would be absent. In the same way, it is necessary that the fetters (saṃyojana) and the afflictions (kleśa) hide the light of correct seeing (saṃyagdṛṣṭi) so that the shadow of the ātman and of dharmas appear.

Moreover, the shadow walks when the person walks, the shadow moves when the person moves, the shadow stops when the person stops. In the same way, the shadow of good or bad actions (kuśalākuśalakarman) moves when the past existence (pūrvajanma) moves, but it remains stationary when the present existence (ihajanma) is stationary because the retribution of actions (karmavipaka) has not been cut. When the sins (āpatti) and merits (puṇya) are ripe (paripakva), the shadow disappears. Some stanzas say:

Action follows [its perpetrator] through the air,
It pursues him among the rocks,
It accompanies him in the depths of the earth,
It enters the waters of the ocean with him,
It pursues him always and everywhere:
The shadow of actions is indissoluble.

This is why dharmas are like a shadow.

Finally, the shadow is empty (śūnya), non-existent (asat); one may search hard for its reality but one can never find it. Similarly, all dharmas are empty and without reality.

Question. – It is not true that the shadow is empty and without reality. Why? It is said in the A p’i t’an (Abhidharma): “What is called ‘visible’? Blue (nīla), yellow (pīta), red (lohita), white (avadāta), black (kṛṣṇa), deep red, light blue, light (āloka) and shadow (chāyā). Moreover, bodily action (kāyakarman) and the three kinds of derived matter (upādāyarūpa) are called ‘visible’ or rūpāyatana.” Why do you say that the shadow does not exist? Furthermore, the shadow truly exists because it has causes and conditions (hetupratyaya): its cause is the tree (vṛkṣa); its condition is light (āloka); when these two principal [factors] come together, the shadow is produced. Why do you say that it does not exist? If there is no shadow, the other dharmas that also possess causes and conditions would not exist either. – Finally, [104b] this shadow has a visible color. Long (dīrgha) or short (krasva), big (mahat) or small (alpa), thick (sthūla) or thin (sūkṣma), crooked (kuṭīla) or straight (ṛju); when the shape (saṃsthāna) moves, the shadow also moves. All of that is visible. This is why the shadow must exist.

Answer. – The shadow is empty (śūnya) and non-existent (asat). You quote a passage from the Abhidharma, but the interpretation that you give it is that of a person. People often mistreat the meaning of scriptural texts (dharmaprayāya) and take their inventions as reality. Thus it is said in the P’i p’o cha (Vibhāṣā): “The atoms (paramāṇu) are subtle, indestructible and incombustible; therefore they are eternal.”[1] And again, “The dharmas of the three times pass from the future (anāgata) to the present (pratyutpanna), and from the present to the past (atīta) without deteriorating”:[2] these texts favor eternalism (śāśvata). On the other hand, it is also said:

“Conditioned dharmas (saṃskṛtadharma), arising and perishing ever anew, do not last (asthitika).”[3] This text favors nihilism (uccheda). Why? Because [that which is conditioned] no longer exists after having existed. Thus in the Abhidharma, there are all sorts of statements that contradict the words of the Buddha. We cannot resort to it to establish that the shadow is a type of material dharma (rūpadharma).

When a rūpadharma arises, it necessarily has a smell (gandha), a taste (rasa), tangibility (spraṣtavya), etc. This is not the case for the shadow. Therefore it does not exist. The jug (ghaṭa), for example, is cognized by two organs (indriya), the eye organ (cakṣurindriya) and the organ of touch (kāyendriya). If the shadow existed, it should be cognized by these two organs. But that is not the case and, consequently, the shadow has no true substance. It is but a ‘trompe-oeuil’ (cakṣurvañcana). If one takes a burning brand and flourishes it rapidly in a circle, one draws a circle in the air with it, but this circle has no reality. Similarly, the shadow has no real substance. If it were a true substance, it could be destroyed or made to disappear, hut as long as its screen (saṃsthāna) is intact, the shadow is indestructible. This is why it is empty. Finally, since it depends on a screen (saṃsthānam apekṣate) and has no independence (aiśvarya), the shadow is empty. But even though it is empty, its notion exists and the eye sees it. This is why dharmas are compared to a shadow.

Footnotes and references:


P’i p’o cha, T 1545, k. 75, p. 389c26.


Ibid., k. 76, p. 303a14–15, referring so as to criticize the opinion of the Dārṣtāntikas and Vibhajyavādins: “The saṃskāras enter from the future into the present and from the present they enter into the past.”


Ibid., k. 76, p. 394a29–394b2 (tr. Poussin, La controverse du temps, MCG, V, 1936–37, p. 14): “True dharmas (saddharma), arisen (jāta), existent (bhūta), created (kṛta ?), conditioned (saṃskṛta), having an effect (sakaraṇīya), produced in dependence (pratītyasamutpanna), are by their nature perishable (kṣayadharman), doomed to disappear (vyayadharman), objects of detachment (virāgadharman), doomed to destruction (nirodhadharman), doomed to deterioration (naśyanadharmaka). That these dharmas do not deteriorate is out of the question.”