Maha Prajnaparamita Sastra

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

This page describes “the teaching of emptiness (shunyata)” 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.

3. The teaching of Emptiness (śūnyatā)

The teaching of emptiness is the emptiness of beings (pudgalaśūnyatā) and the emptiness of dharmas (dharmaśūnyatā).[1]

1. Emptiness of beings in the Lesser Vehicle.

Thus, in the P’in p’o so lo wang ying king (Bimbasārarājapratyudgamanasūṭra),[2] the Buddha said to the great king: “When matter (rūpa) arises, it arises from emptiness (śūnya / śūnyatā) alone; when matter perishes, it perishes into emptiness alone. When the formations (saṃskāra) arise, they arise from emptiness alone; when the formations perish, they perish into emptiness alone. There is no soul (ātman) there, no individual (pudgala), no spirit (jīva). There is no individual who goes from the present existence (ihajanman) to the future existence (aparajanman); there is only a nominal and conventional being (nāmasaṃketasattva) resulting from a complex of causes and conditions (hetupratyayasāmagrī). Worldly people (pṛthagjana) and fools (mohapuruṣa) pursue a name (nāman) in the search for reality.”[3] The Buddha proclaimed the emptiness of beings in sūtras of this type.

2. Emptiness of dharmas in the Lesser Vehicle.

Let us move on to the emptiness of dharmas:

a. In the Ta k’ong king (Mahāśūnyatāsūtra), the Buddha said: “The twelve causes (dvādaśa nidāna) go from ignorance (avidyā) to old age and death (jarāmaraṇa). The person who asks what is old age and death or to whom does old age and death belong has erroneous view (mithyādṛṣṭi). And it is the same [for the other causes, namely]: birth (jāti), the act of becoming (bhava), attachment (upādāna), thirst (tṛṣṇā), sensation (vedanā), contact (sparśa), the six internal bases of consciousness (ṣaḍāyatana), name and form (nāmarūpa), consciousness (vijñāna), the formations (saṃskāra) and ignorance (avidyā). If someone thinks that the vital principle is the same thing as the body (sa jīvas tac [193a] charīram) or if someone thinks that the vital principle is different from the body (anyo jīvo ’nyac charīram), the two opinions, although different, are both wrong view. The Buddha said: “That the vital principle is the same as the body, that is wrong view, unworthy of my disciples; that the vital principle is different from the body, that also is wrong view, unworthy of my disciples.” In this sūtra, the Buddha proclaims the emptiness of dharmas (dharmaśūnyatā). If someone asks “To whom does old age and death belong?”, they should know that this question is wrong (mithyā) and that there is ‘emptiness of beings’ (pudgalaśūnyatā). If someone asks “What is old age and death?”, they should know that this question is wrong and that there is ‘emptiness of dharmas’ (dharmaśūnyatā). And it is the same for the other [members of the causal chain] up to and including ignorance (avidyā).

b. Furthermore, in the Fan wang king (Brahmajālasūtra),[4] the Buddha defined the sixty-two wrong views (dṛṣṭigata): “To say that the self and the world are eternal (śāśvato lokaś cātma ca) is wrong view; to say that the self and the world are non-eternal (aśāśvato lokaś cātma ca) is wrong view; to say that the self and the world are both eternal and non-eternal (śāśvataś cāśāśvataś ca lokaś chātmā ca) or that the self and the world are neither eternal nor non-eternal (naiva śāśvato nāśāśvataś ca lokaś cātmā ca), all of that is wrong view.” This is why we know that all dharmas are empty and that this is the truth.

Question. – To affirm the eternity of the self is wrong view. Why? Because the self does not exist in its own nature (svabhāva). – To affirm the eternity of the world is also wrong view. Why? Because the world is certainly non-eternal and it is erroneously (viparyāsa) claimed to be eternal. – To affirm the non-eternity of the self is also wrong view. Why? As the self does not exist in self-nature, it cannot be proclaimed to be non-eternal. – [On the other hand], to affirm the non-eternity of the world is not a wrong view. Why? Because all conditioned dharmas (saṃskṛtadharma) are non-eternal in their true nature.

Answer. – If all dharmas are truly non-eternal, why does the Buddha say that the non-eternity of the world is wrong? By that, we can understand that the world is not non-eternal.

Question. – However, the Buddha said, in several places,[5] that the contemplation (samanupaśyanā) of the non-eternal (anitya), painful (duḥkha) empty (śūnya) and non-self (anātman) nature of conditioned dharmas (saṃskṛta) allows a person to obtain the Path. Why do you claim that the non-eternity [of the world] is to be ranged among the wrong views?

Answer. – If the Buddha spoke of the non-eternity in several places, he also spoke elsewhere about the indestructibility (anirodha).


If, [as you say], all dharmas, arising and perishing from moment to moment (kṣaṇakṣaṇotpannaniruddha), are non-eternal, why does the Buddha say that by perfuming the mind with all the virtues (guṇa), one will certainly obtain high rebirths? This is why we know that [dharmas or the world] are not non-eternal in nature (aśāśvatasvabhāva).

[193b] Question. – If non-eternity does not exist, why did the Buddha speak about it?

Answer. – The Buddha preached the Dharma according to the needs of beings;[6] In order to destroy the error that assumes an eternal principle (nityaviparyāsa), he preached non-eternity. [On the other hand], to people who do not know or who do not accept rebirth (punarbhava), he taught that: “The mind goes to new existences and is reborn above in the heavens”[7] or that: “Guilty or meritorious, actions do not perish even after millions of cosmic periods.”[8] The true nature of dharmas is neither eternal nor non-eternal, and in many places, the Buddha has spoken of the emptiness of dharmas (dharmaśūnyatā). In the emptiness of dharmas, there is no non-eternity; this is why affirming the non-eternity of the world is wrong view. Therefore there is ‘emptiness of dharmas’.

c. [Parūrasutta].

[193c] Thus, in many places, in the sūtras of the śrāvakas, the Buddha taught the emptiness of dharmas.

3. The teaching of emptiness according to the Mahāyāna.

Note: This paragraph takes us right to the very heart of the Mādhyamika philosophy: the way of conceiving emptiness. The modern exegetists have brooded over the problem: see especially L. de La Vallée Poussin, Madhyamaka, ERE, VIII, p. 235–237; Dogme et Philosophie, p. 113–118; Madhyamaka, MCB, II, 1932–33,, p. 1–59; Buddhica, HJAS, III, 1938, p. 146–158; R, Grousset, Les Philosophies indiennes, I, p. 236–238; T. Stcherbatsky, Conception of Buddhist Nirvāṇa, p. 35–39; Die drei Richtungen in der Philosphie der Buddhismus, Rocznik Orjentalistyczny, X, 1934, p. 1–37; Madhyanta-Vibhaṅga, p. vi-viii.

By nature and eternally, all dharmas are empty in self nature (svabhāvaśūnya); it is not by virtue of an artificial philosophical point of view (prajñopāyadarśana) that they are empty. Thus the Buddha, speaking to Subhūti about form, said: “Form (rūpa) is empty in self nature; feeling (vedanā), perception (saṃjñā), formations (saṃskāra) and consciousnesses (vijñāna) are empty by self nature. The twelve doors of consciousness (āyatana), the eighteen elements (dhātu), the twelve causes (nidāna) the thirty-seven wings of enlightenment (bodhipakṣika), the ten powers (bala), the four fearlessnesses (vaiśāradya), the eighteen special qualities (āveṇikadharma), great loving-kindness (mahāmaitrī), great compassion (mahākaruṇā), omniscience (sarvajñāna) and even supreme complete enlightenment (anuttarasamyaksaṃbodhi), all are empty in self nature.” (see Appendix on svabhāvaśūnya)

Question. – [To claim] that all dharmas by nature are eternally empty of self nature, empty of reality, non-existent (anupalabdha), is that not falling into wrong view (mithyādṛṣṭi)? Wrong view is denying sin (āpatti), denying merit (puṇya), denying the present life (ihajanman) and the future life (aparajanman). Your position is no different than these [heresies].

Answer. – The person who denies sin and denies merit does not deny the present lifetime but only the future lifetime. [According to him], man is born and disappears in the same way that plants and trees grow spontaneously and perish spontaneously; everything is limited to the present (pratyutpanna) and there is no rebirth (punarbhava). However, [this nihilist philosopher] does not know and does not see that everything that exists within him and outside him is empty of self-nature (svalakṣaṇa). He is different from us in that respect.

Furthermore, the person of wrong view commits many sins and omits all good actions; on the other hand, the supporter of emptiness (śūnyatā), even if he does not wish to do good, wishes still less to commit evil.

Question. – There are two kinds of wrong views (mithyādṛṣṭi):

i) Denying cause (hetu) and denying result (phala); ii) Denying result without denying cause. – [The nihilist philosopher] of whom you have just spoken denied the result, [namely, the retribution of actions], but did not deny the cause, [namely, meritorious and demeritorious actions]. There are philosophers who deny result and deny cause: on the one hand, they claim that there is neither cause (hetu) nor condition (pratyaya), neither sin (āpatti) nor merit (puṇya): that is denying cause; on the other hand, they claim that there is neither present existence (ihajanman) nor future existence (aparajanman) where sins and merits will be retributed: that is denying result. How are you different from these philosophers, you who are a supporter of emptiness, you who posits universal emptiness and for whom sin and merit, cause and effect do not exist?

Answer. – The person with wrong view ends up in emptiness by suppressing all dharmas, whereas I, a practitioner of the Mahāyāna, hold dharmas as empty of any reality, indestructible (apraheya) and unchangeable (avikāra).

Question. – There are three kinds of wrong view: i) Denying the retribution of sins and merits without denying sin and merit, denying the fruit of retribution of causes and conditions without denying causes and conditions, denying the future existence without denying the present existence; ii) Denying the retribution of sins and merits and also sin and merit, denying the fruit of retribution of causes and conditions and also denying the causes and conditions, denying the future lifetime and also denying the present lifetime; avoiding, however, the denial of all dharmas; iii) Denying all dharmas to the extent of rendering them non-existent (asat). [You], supporter of emptiness, who proclaim [all dharmas] to be empty of reality and non-existence, how are you different from this third wrong view?

Answer. – 1) The person of wrong view ends up at emptiness by suppressing all dharmas, whereas the supporter of emptiness considers dharmas as empty of any reality, indestructible and unchangeable.

2) The person of wrong view declares all dharmas to be empty and non-existent, but grasps the empty nature of these dharmas (dharmāṇaṃ śūnyalakṣaṇam udgṛhṇāti) and talks about it. The supporter of emptiness knows the emptiness of dharmas but does not grasp the characteristic and does not talk [194a] about it.[9]

3) Furthermore, the person of wrong view, although he verbally professes universal emptiness, loves when he has the occasion to love, is angry when he has the occasion to be angry, is proud when he has the occasion to be proud, makes a mistake when he has the occasion to make a mistake; thus he is lying to himself. For the disciple of the Buddha, who truly knows emptiness, the mind is unshakeable (āniñjya, akṣobhya), the fetters (saṃyojana) do not arise where normally they would arise. In the same way that space (ākāśa) cannot be tarnished by fire nor soaked by a shower, so no kinds of passions (kleśa) can become attached to the mind of the supporter of emptiness.

4) Furthermore, the person of wrong view talks about the non-existence [of dharmas], but the latter does not originate so much from desire (tṛṣṇā) as from cause and condition (hetupratyaya); on the other hand, true emptiness comes from desire, and that is a difference. If the four boundless ones (apramāṇacitta) and pure dharmas (viśuddhadharma), because their object (ālambana) is unreal, are thus unable to produce the true knowledge of emptiness, what can be said then of wrong view?

5) Furthermore, these (imperfect) views are called wrong views (mithyādiṣṭi); the correct seeing of emptiness is called right view (samyagdṛṣṭi). The person who practices wrong views, in the present lifetime, passes as an evil person; later he will fall into the hells. The person who practices the true knowledge of emptiness acquires fame in the present lifetime, later he will become a Buddha. These two people differ from one another like water and fire, ambrosia (amṛta) and a poisonous drug (viṣauṣadhi), nectar (sudhā), the food of the gods, and rotten garbage.

6) Furthermore, in true emptiness there is the concentration of the emptiness of emptiness (śūnyatāśūnyatāsamādhi).[10] In emptiness wrongly perceived, there is indeed emptiness but not the concentration of the emptiness of emptiness.

7) Furthermore, the person who contemplates true emptiness possesses, from the beginning, immense [qualities] by way of generosity (dāna), morality (śīla), and dhyāna; his mind is soft and gentle (mṛdutarauṇacitta) and his fetters (saṃyojana) are light; later he will obtain true emptiness. These advantages are absent in [the person] of wrong view: he wants to grasp (grahaṇa) emptiness only by means of speculation, analysis and wrong concepts.

[The fool who swallowed pure salt].

In the same way, the ignorant person who hears speak of the door of liberation called emptiness (śūnyatāvimokṣamukha) does not develop the qualities (guṇa) but wants only to obtain emptiness (śūnyatā): that is a wrong view that destroys all the roots of good (kuśalamūla). This is what should be understood by the ‘teaching on emptiness’.

The person who enters into the three teaching [of the Piṭaka, the Abhidharma and Emptiness] knows that the teachings of the Buddha do not contradict one another. Understanding that is the power of the Prajñāpāramitā which encounters no obstacles (āvaraṇa) to any of the Buddha’s teachings. Whoever has not understood the Prajñāpāramitā [will come up against innumerable contradictions in interpreting the Dharma]: if he approaches the Abhidharma teaching, he falls into realism. If he approaches the teaching on emptiness, he falls into nihilism; if he approaches the Piṭaka teaching,

[194b] [sometimes] he falls into realism and [sometimes] into nihilism.

Footnotes and references:


We may recall that the emptinesses or śūnyatā both refer to dharmas: 1) no dharma is in any way pudgala or ātman, none belongs to an ātman = pudgalaśūnyatā; 2) no dharma is absolutely a dharma = dharmaśūnyatā. Both Vehicles agree on the pudgalaśūnyatā, but the Greater Vehicle alone formulates the dharmaśūnyatā clearly. However, the Mādhyamikas are of the opinion that the dharmaśūnyatā is already taught in the sūtras of the Lesser Vehicle; cf. Madh, avatāra, p. 19 (tr. LAV., Muséon, 1907, p. 268; Madh. vṛtti, p. 41; Bodhicaryāvarāra, IX, 49; Pañjikā, p. 442; Traité, I, p. 370–371F. The Vijñānavādins, on the other hand, think that the saints of the Lesser Vehicle did not rise up to the level of knowing the emptiness of dharmas: cf. Siddhi, p. 590.


The Bimbasārarājapratyudgamanasūtra was spoken on the occasion of the second meeting between the Buddha and the king of Magadha. To the references given above (Traité, I, p. 30F) add Tseng yi a han, T 125, k. 26, p. 694a–696a; P’in p’i so lo wang ti fo kongyang king, T 133, p. 855c–857a.


Cf. Tchong a han, T 26, no. 62, k. 11, p. 498b: “The bālapṛthagjanas who have understood nothing take the Self for their self and become attached to the self. But there is no Self (ātman) and there is no ‘mine’ (ātmīya). The Self is empty and ‘mine’ is empty. Dharmas arise as soon as they arise, perish as soon as they perish, all as a result of causes (hetupratyaya). Union produces suffering, If there were no causes, all suffering would cease. All arising depends on causes. When they enter into contact with one another, dharmas arise from the union.” – For other versions, see Waldschmidt, Bruchstücke, p. 126–128.


Cf. Brahmajālasutta in Dīgha, I, p. 22–24. – See references to the fourteen avyākṛtavastu in Traité, I, p. 154F, 423F.


E.g., Saṃyutta, V, p. 345: Idha tvaṃ, Dīghāvu, sabbesaṅkhāresu aniccānupassī viharāhi, anicce dukkhasaññī, dukhe snattasaññī pahānasaññī virāgasaññī nirodhasaññī.


On this subject, cf. Traité, I, p. 32F, n. 3: above, p. 1074F.


Phrase repeated in the previous sūtta, Saṃyutta, V, p.370: Yañca khvassa cittaṃ… paribhāvitaṃ, tam uddhagāmi hoti visesagāmi.


This is the stanza: Na praṇaśyanti karmāṇi kalpakoṭiśatair api. endlessly repeated in the texts: ten times in the Dīvyāvādana, more than fifty times in the Avadānaśataka. See also Traité, I, p. 347F.


The grasping of characteristics (nimittodgrahaṇa) is the attribute of perception (by trying to imagine emptiness, the nihilist hypostatizes it. The Śūnyavādin knows emptiness but does not imagine it.


Śūnyatāśūnyatāsamādhi is the absorption by means of which one is protected from the dangers of the absorption that has emptiness as object: cf. Kośa, p. 184, 188.

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