Maha Prajnaparamita Sastra

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

This page describes “debate with the atomist” 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.

The Atomist. – It is impossible that every object (drvaya) exists indiscriminately only by virtue of the complex of causes and conditions (hetupratyayasāmagrī). Thus, the ultimate atoms, because of their extreme subtlety (paramaśukṣmatvāt), have no parts (bhāga, avayava) and, having no parts, have no complex (samāgrī). Being coarse (sthūla, audārika), cloth is susceptible to being torn (rūpaṇa), but how could the ultimate atom, that has no parts, be broken?


1. The extremely tiny does not exist; this is said mistakenly. Why? Because coarseness (sthūlatva) and subtleness (sūkṣmatva) are relative concepts (parasparāpekṣika). The subtle exists in contrast with the coarse and this subtle always has something more subtle than itself.

2. Moreover, if there existed a substance (rūpa) in the state of ultimate atom (paramāṇu), it would entail tenfold spatial division (daśadighbhāgabheda);[1] but if it entailed the tenfold sparial division, it would not be a question of the ultimate atom. On the other hand, if there is not tenfold spatial division, it is not a question of matter. (see Appendix 2: material atom)

3. Furthermore, if the ultimate atom existed, it would have spatial subdivision (ākāśapariccheda);[2] but if there is subdivision, it cannot be a question of the ultimate atom.

[148a] 4. If the ultimate atom existed, color (rūpa), smell (gandha), taste (rasa) and touchable (sparṣṭavya) would occur as a function of the parts (bhāga); but it cannot be a question of the ultimate atom there where color, smell, taste and touchable function as parts.[3]

Try as one may to argue about the ultimate atom, this is why it cannot be established. The sūtra says: “All matter (rūpa), whether coarse (audārika) or subtle (sūkṣma), inner (adhyātman) or outer (bahirdhā), if considered generally, is transitory (anityā) and non-substantial (anātmaka)”,[4] but it does not say that ultimate atoms exist. This is called the emptiness of the division into parts.

Footnotes and references:


In his Wei che eul che louen (T 1599, p. 76a15), Hiuan tsang renders the expression digbhāgabheda of the Viṃśika (ed. Lévi, p. 7, l. 19) as Fang fen (70; 18 and 2). Here the Mppś speaks of daśadigbhāgabheda, tenfold spatial division in reference to the four cardinal directions, the four intermediate directions, the zenith and the nadir (cf. Traité, I, p. 446F, note). – We have just seen that, according to the Sautrāntikas (cf. Kośa, I, p. 92), the atom entails spatial division or “extension”


There is ākāśa-fen-ts’i (18 and 2; 210), i.e., ākāhaparihcheda or ākāśapravibhāga, according to Suzuki, Index to the Laṅkāvatāra, p. 238.


One can reply to that, along with the Kośa, II, p. 148–149, note) that an atom never exists in isolation, but that there is a minimum of seven atoms. The molecule of derived matter (atom of color, or atom of smell, etc.) entails 1379 atoms, and as all derived matter has color, smell, taste and touchable, this number must be multiplied by four to obtain the smallest part of matter existing in the isolated state.


Cf. Vinaya, I, p. 14; Saṃyutta, II, p. 252, 253: III, p. 47, 68, 80, 89; IV, p. 332: Yaṃ kiñci rūpaṃ atītānāgatapaccuppannam ajjhattaṃ vā bahiddhā vā oḷārikaṃ vā sukhumaṃ vā hīnaṃ vā paṇītaṃ vā yaṃ dūre santike vā, sabbaṃ rūpaṃ n’ etaṃ mama, n’ eso ‘ham asmi, na so attā ‘ti.