Maha Prajnaparamita Sastra

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

This page describes “on the eternality and non-existence of the dharmas” 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 4 - On the eternality and non-existence of the dharmas

Furthermore, by considering the impermanence of karman, we understand the eternity of akarman. If this is so, we now see that karman is existence (bhāva) that akarman is non-existence (abhāva). Consequently an eternal dharma does not exist (nopalabhyate).

Furthermore, among the eternal dharmas of which the heretics (tīrthika) and the disciples of the Buddha speak, some are the same whereas others are different. The ones that are the same are space (ākāśa) and nirvāṇa. The heretics accept a soul (ātman), time (kāla), direction (diś), the subtle atom (paramāṇu), darkness (tamas) and other categories of the same type, different [from those of the Buddhists].[1] Moreover, the disciples of the Buddha say that cessation not due to knowledge (apratisaṃkhyānirodha) is eternal; they also say that uncaused dharmas (apratītyasamutpanna) are eternal, whereas dharmas resulting from causes and conditions (pratītyasamutpanna) are transitory. In the Mahāyāna, permanence (nityatā), the nature of things (dharmatā), the true nature (tathatā), the summit of existence (bhūtakoṭi) and other [synonyms] of this type are called eternal dharmas, space (ākāśa) and nirvāṇa, as was said before in the chapter dedicated to the praise of the Bodhisattva (cf. Traité, I, p. 38F, 39F n. 1, 45F). In regard to the soul, time, direction and the subtle atom [of the heretics], see also what has been said above (above, p. 725F seq.). This is why we cannot speak of the existence of dharmas.

If dharmas are non-existent, they are of two categories: i) permanently non-existent, ii) non-existent following a cessation (vibhaṅga):

a. If, having previously existed they no longer exist now or, if presently existing, they will not exist later, there is cessation. If that is so. then there is no [171c] longer cause (hetu) or condition (pratyaya). If there is no longer any cause or condition, then anything can come from anything, or also, nothing comes from anything. And it is the same in the future. But if causes and conditions for sins (āpatti) and merits (puṇya) being suppressed, and if there is no longer any difference between the poor (daridra) and the rich (dhanya), between the noble (praṇīta) and the humble (hīna), then one ends up in the unfortunate destinies (durgati) and in the animal (tiryagyoni) realms.

b. If one claims [that the dharmas are] permanently non-existent, one misunderstands [the four noble Truths] of suffering (duḥkha), its origin (samudaya), its cessation (nirodha) and the path to its cessation (mārga). If one suppresses the four Truths (satya), the Jewel of the Dharma (dharmaratna) no longer exists. If the Jewel of the Dharma no longer exists, the eightfold noble Path (aṣṭāṅgāryamārga) disappears. If the Jewel of the Dharma (dharmaratna) and the Jewel of the Saṃgha (saṃgharatna) disappear, there is no longer the Jewel of the Buddha (buddharatna). If that is so, the Three Jewels are destroyed. Besides, if all dharmas are really empty (śūnya), there would be no sin (āpatti) or merit (puṇya), no father or mother, no world or rituals, no good or evil; good and evil would be confounded with a multiple succession [of consequences]; everything would vanish, like visions in a dream (svapnadarśana). These are the faults to which one is exposed if one claims that [dharmas] are really non-existent. Who would believe that statement? If one claims that one sees [dharmas] to exist because of a mistake (viparyāsa), then, when one sees one person, perhaps one is seeing two or three persons? For, if dharmas are truly non-existent, by seeing them, one is committing a mistake. By not falling into views of existence and non-existence (bhāvābhābadṛṣṭi), one gains the middle Path (madhyamā pratipad), the true nature [of things].

How can one know the truth?

By complying with what has been identified (jñāta) and said (ukta) by the Buddhas and bodhisattvas of the past (ātīta) numerous as the sands of the Ganges (gaṅgānadīvālukāsama), with what will be identified and said by the Buddhas and bodhisattvas of the future (anāgata) numerous as the sands of the Ganges, with what is identified and said by the Buddhas and bodhisattvas of the present (pratyutpanna) numerous as the sands of the Ganges. If the mind of faith (prasādacitta) is great, one escapes from doubt (saṃśaya) and regret (vipratisāra); if the power of the faith (prasādabala) is great, one can grasp and adopt the Dharma: that is called dharmakṣānti.

Furthermore, by the power of rapture (dhyānabala) one hears speak of the true nature of the dharmas with a gentle (mṛdu), tender (taruṇa) and pure (viśuddha) mind, and one incorporates the Dharma into one’s mind. By the adhesion of faith (prasādhābhiniveśa), the mind penetrates deeply in the absence of doubt and regret. Why is that? Doubt and regret are the bonds of the desire realm (kāmadhātubandhana); if they are heavy (sthūla) there is no access to this gentleness and tenderness of the mind (mṛdutaruṇacittatā) which is called dharmakṣānti.

Finally, by the power of wisdom (prajñācitta), one discovers in many ways that, in the face of all the dharmas, there is no dharma that can exist. Being able to endure and adopt this doctrine with no hesitation or regret constitutes dharmakṣānti.

The bodhisattva also says to himself: Under the virulent action of ignorance (avidyaviṣa), worldly people (pṛthagjana) attribute a contrary characteristic (lakṣaṇa, nimitta) to all the dharmas in particular: they take what is impermanent (anitya) to be permanent (nitya); that which is painful (duḥkha) to be happy (sukha); that which is not a self (anātman) to be a self (ātman); that which is empty (śūnya) to be real (satya); that which is non-existent (asat) to be existent (sat); that which is existent to be non-existent.[2] In this way, they attribute contrary characteristics to all kinds of dharmas. To obtain the noble true wisdom (āryabhūtaprajñā), to destroy the poison of ignorance (avidyāviṣa), to understand the true nature of dharmas (dharmasatyasatyalakṣaṇa), to acquire the wisdom of impermanence (anitya), suffering, emptiness (śūnya) and the non-self (anātman), [then] to reject it without being attached to it (abhiniveśa), and finally being able to endure such a doctrine, this is what is called dharmakṣānti. Finally, the bodhisattva considers all dharmas as eternally empty (śūnya) from the very beginning (āditaḥ) and also actually empty. To believe and accept this doctrine is dharmakṣānti.

Question. – [Believing] in original and eternal emptiness as well as actual emptiness is a wrong view (mityādṛṣṭi)! Why do you call that dharmakṣānti?

Answer. – If the bodhisattva had in mind the absolute emptiness (atyantaśūnyatā) of dharmas, by grasping at the nature (nimittodgahaṇa) and [172a] adhering to it in his mind (chttābhiniveśa), that would be a wrong view; but if he considers emptiness without subscribing to it or producing wrong view, that is dharmakṣānti.[3] A stanza says:

By nature, dharmas are eternally empty,
But the mind does not become attached to emptiness.
To support such a doctrine
Is the major characteristic of the Buddhist Path.

The bodhisattva crosses over the threshold of wisdom (prajñādvāra) in many ways. He considers the true nature of the dharmas; his mind experiences no pulling back or regret; he does not [blindly] follow the considerations [he has made] and they cause him no grief; he assures his own benefit (svārtha) and that of others (parārtha): this is what is called dharmakṣānti.

This dharmakṣānti is of three kinds. When he practices it in its pure form, the bodhisattva does not see the properties of patience, does not see himself, does not see those who are insulting him, does not play with the dharmas. Then this is pure dharmakṣānti. For this reason, the sūtra says (below, p. 865F) that “the bodhisattva who dwells in the virtue of wisdom must fulfill the virtue of patience by not swaying in the wind and not withdrawing” (bodhisattvena prajñāpāramitāyāṃ sthitvā kusāntipāramitā paripūrayitavyā akṣobhaṇatāmupādāya). What is this immobility (akṣobhaṇatā) and this absence of withdrawing (avivartana)? Not feeling hatred (dveṣa, pratigha), not speaking wicked words; physically, not doing evil; mentally, not having doubt. The bodhisattva who understands the true nature of the virtue of wisdom does not see dharmas, for his mind is without opinions (abhiniveśa) about them. When a man comes to insult him, torment him, poison him or strike him, he can endure it all. This is why he is said to dwell in the virtue of wisdom; he can fulfill the virtue of patience.

Footnotes and references:


Here the Mppś is attacking the Vaiśeṣikas who accept the ātman, kāla, and diś among their nine substances and establish the existence of the paramāṇu; the mention of tamas refers probably to the Sāṃkhyas who make darkness one of the three guṇas of the Prakṛti.


For these mistakes (viparyāsa), cf. Aṅguttara, II, p. 52; Kośa, V, p. 21; Śikṣasamuccaya, p. 198.


For the correct way of taking emptiness, by using it without adhering to it, see below, k. 18, p. 193c.

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