Maha Prajnaparamita Sastra

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

This page describes “identical characteristics in every dharma” 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.

1. Identical characteristics in every Dharma

1. Existence.

The bodhisattva finds in every dharma an identical (read: yi siang) characteristic, namely, the characteristic of existence (bhāvalakṣaṇa). As a result of this existence, a concept arises in regard to each dharma. It is the same for everything that exists.

Question. – Then how does a concept in regard to a non-existent dharma arise?

Answer. – If it is declared to be non-existent, it is because the thing exists in some manner.

2. Non-existence.

Furthermore, the bodhisattva sees an identical characteristic in every dharma, namely, a characteristic of non-existence (abhāvalakṣaṇa). Thus, the nature of sheep does not exist in the ox and the nature of ox does not exist in the sheep. This is so in every dharma: each one is without the nature of its neighbor. As we have said above, it is because of existence that there is the arising of a concept. The quality [of deprivation, of which we are speaking here], is different from existence; insofar as it is different, it is non-existent. If existence were mixed up with the fact of being ox, the sheep also would be an ox. Why? Because existence would not differ from the fact of being an ox. Since there is a difference, there is non-existence. And so, in this way, all dharmas are non-existent [from a certain point of view].

3. Unity.

Furthermore, the bodhisattva sees a unity (ekatva) in each dharma. Because of this uniqueness, the idea of unity arises in respect to all dharmas, and each dharma in particular has this characteristic of unity. The coming together of unities gives the number two or the number three. Unity alone is real; the numbers two, three, etc., are false.

4. The fact of being caused or non-caused.

Furthermore, the bodhisattva sees that dharmas exist insofar as they have a cause (sahetuka). They are impermanent (anitya) like the human body. How is that? By virtue of the characteristics of birth (utpāda) and destruction (bhaṅga). All dharmas exist inasmuch as they have a cause. – Furthermore, all dharmas exist without cause (ahetuka). They are impermanent like the human body by reason of birth and destruction. Because of this birth and destruction, we know they are impermanent. The cause, in turn, must have a cause, and so on to infinity. If there is regressus ad infinitum, there is no cause. Whether they are caused or non-caused, dharmas are impermanent, and the cause is not just one. Thus all dharmas are non-caused.

5. The fact of being endowed with a specific characteristic.

Furthermore, the bodhisattva who sees that all dharmas are endowed with a nature (salakṣaṇa), for there is no dharma without nature. Thus earth (pṛthivī) has solidity (khakkhaṭatva) and heaviness (gurutva) as nature; water (ap-) has coldness (śīta) and wetness (dravatva) as nature; fire (tejas) has heat (uṣṇatva) and light (avabhāsa) as nature; wind (vāyu) has lightness (laghutva) and movement (samudḥiraṇatva) as nature;[1] space (ākāśa) has the fact of not impeding (anāvṛti) as nature;[2] consciousness (vijñāna) has the imprint relating to each object (prativijñapti) as nature;[3] direction has [the difference] between here and there as nature; time (kāla) has as nature [the difference] between now and previously;[4] sin (āpatti) has a stupid and evil disposition toward beings as nature; merit (puṇya) has a pure and good disposition in favor of beings as nature; bondage (bandhana) has attachment to dharmas (dharmābhiniveśa) as nature; liberation (vimokṣa) has detachment from [194c] dharmas as nature; the Buddha has as nature the actual unimpeded knowledge of all dharmas. Thus all dharmas each has its own nature.

6. The fact of being without a specific nature.

Furthermore, the bodhisattva sees that all dharmas are without nature (alakṣaṇa). Actually, all the characteristics are coming from a complex of causes and conditions (hetupratyayasāmagrī) and, as they have no self nature (svabhāva), they do not exist. Thus, although there is earth (pṛthivī), the coming together is needed of four dharmas, color (rūpa), smell (gandha), taste (rasa) and touchable (spraṣṭavya);[5] it is not solely due to odor or taste or touchable that there is earth. Why? If color alone constituted the earth, the other three dharmas would not be the earth and the earth would be without smell, taste and touchable, and it is the same for smell, taste or touchable [if each of them were enough to constitute earth].

Furthermore, how could the other four dharmas [color, smell, taste and touchable] make only one earth? And how could this single dharma make four? This is why it is not possible that the four dharmas are the earth or that the earth exists outside of the four dharmas.

Question. – I say it is not true that the four dharmas are earth, but that it is only because of the four dharmas that earth exists, and that earth resides in these four dharmas.

Answer. – If earth is the result of the four dharmas, earth is different from the four dharmas in the same way that a son, the result of his parents, is different from his parents. Now the eye (cakṣus) perceives color (rūpa), the nose (ghrāṇa) smells odors (gandha), the tongue (jihvā) tastes flavors (rasa) and the body (kāya) feels tangibles (spraṣṭavya). If earth were different from the four dharmas [color, etc.]. there must be a special organ (indriya) and a special consciousness (vijñāna) to cognize it. Since there is neither special organ or special consciousness to cognize it, there is no earth.

Question. – Then the specific characteristic of earth, [namely, solidity and heaviness] of which you spoke above, should define the nature of earth in conformity with the Abhidharma: “Earth (pṛthivī) is a substance derived (upadāyarūpa) from the four great elements (mahābhūta); just the element-earth (pṛthivīdhātu) has solidity as nature (khakkhaṭvalakṣaṇa); earth, in the ordinary sense of the word, is a visible color (sanidarśanarūpa).”[6]

Answer. – Above, we stated the flaws that oppose earth being just color. Earth has solidity as nature. If it were only color perceived by the eye, it would be like the moon reflected in water (udakacandra), a reflection in a mirror (ādarśabimba), a piece of straw; thus it would have no solidity. Being solid, it is known to the touch (sparśa) by the organ of the body (kāyendriya).

Furthermore, if the visibility of earth were confused with its solidity, the visibility of the element-earth (pṛthivīdhātu) would also be confused with the wetness (dravatva) of water and the heat (uṣṇatva) of fire, and would constitute the element-water (abdhātu) and the element-fire (tejodhātu). In that case, there would be no distinction between wind (vāyu) and the element-wind (vāyudhātu) which, however, it is appropriate to distinguish.[7]

If you say: “What is wind in relation to the element-wind; what is the element-wind in relation to wind? If they are identical, two distinct principles should not be asserted”, we would reply that, if they are without any difference, earth and the element-earth also are without difference.

Question. – The four great elements are inseparable from one another; in earth there are the four elements (dhātu); in water, in fire and in wind, likewise; but as in earth, it is the element-earth that predominates, therefore it is called earth; and it is the same for water, fire and wind.[8]

Answer. – That is not correct. Why? The four great elements present in fire should all be hot, for there is no fire without heat. If the three great elements (earth, water and wind] that are found in fire were not hot, they would not be called fire; if they were hot, they would lose their own nature (svabhāva) and would all be called fire.

If you say that this heat is not perceived because of its subtlety (saukṣmya), we would say that it would be no different from [pure and simple] non-existence. It is necessary that a coarse (sthūla) element be perceived in order that one could thereby deduce a subtle (sukṣma) element; but without coarse element, [195a] there is no subtle element.

For these various reasons, the specific nature of earth is non-existent (nopalabhate) and if the nature of earth does not exist, neither does that of the other dharmas. Therefore all dharmas have [this absence of nature] as their identical nature.

Question. – You cannot say that they are without nature. Why? Because the absence of nature in every dharma is a nature. Without this absence of nature, you could not deny all nature to dharmas. Why? Because there would not be absence of nature. But if this absence of nature does exist, you could not say that all dharmas are without nature.

Answer. – [We refuse to hypostatize this “absence of nature”]. It is because they are without nature that we deny any nature to dharmas, [including absence of nature]. If they had as nature this absence of nature, that would be to return to attributing natures to dharmas. Since we do not recognize any nature in dharmas, no objection can be made to the lack of nature [that we are assuming as our thesis: purely negative lack] which, after having destroyed any nature of dharma, also destroys itself, like the smoldering ember which, having used up all the kindling (indhana), then burns itself up. This is why the saint (ārya) practices the ānimittānimittasamādhi[9] which [after having destroyed all the characteristics] destroys the without-characteristics itself.

7. Other identical natures in all dharmas.

Finally, the bodhisattva sees all dharmas as being without cohesion or dispersion, without color (rūpa) or shape (saṃsthāna), non-resistant (apratigha), ineffable and unspeakable, of unique nature (ekalakṣaṇa), i.e., without nature.

These are the identical natures (ekalakṣaṇa) found in every dharma; now how does the bodhisattva see the multiple natures?

Footnotes and references:


See this definition of the four great elements in the Garbhāvakrāntisūtra cited by the Śikṣāsamuccaya, p. 244; cf. also Kośa, I, p. 22–23; Mahāvyupatti, no. 1842–1844.


The Vaibhāṣikas believe in the reality of space or anāvṛti “which does not hinder” (Kośa, I, p. 8); but the existence of this principle is denied by the Sautrāntikas (Kośa, II, p. 279) and the Madhyamika (Catuḥśataka, no. 205; Madh, vṛtti, p. 505).


The definition vijñānaṃ prativijñaptiḥ is in Kośa, I, p. 30.


Direction and time are categories of the Nyāya-Vaiśeṣikas.


In common usage, “earth” – to be carefully distinguished from the element earth (pṛthivīdhātu) --, is color and shape (cf. Kośa, I, p. 23): now it is accepted that in every visible material, color is inseparable from odor, taste and tangible (ibid., I, p. 147).


Here the objector is defending the Vaibhāṣika thesis which carefully distinguishes the element earth (pṛthivīdhātu, rendered here by ti chong “seminal earth”) from earth in the common sense of the word. As great element (mahābhūta), the element earth has both its own nature, solidity (khakkhaṭatva), and derived matter (bhautika), which depends on it (upādāyarūpa). In ordinary usage, what is designated by the word “earth” is the color and shape (Kośa, I, p. 22–23). But the great elements never exist in the isolated state; all four manifest their presence in every material object by means of their own activity: support (dhṛti), cohesion (saṃgraha), burning (pakti) and expansion (vyūhana) (Kośa, I, p. 22; II, p. 146). On the other hand, as we shall see, color, derived matter, supported by the great elements, is inseparable from smell, taste and tangible. It follows that the smallest molecule (saṃghātāṇu) of matter existing in the isolated state entails at least eight substances, namely, the four great elements (mahābhūta) and four derived substances (bhautika): color, odor, taste, tangible, Kośa, II, p. 145). The Mppś makes a point here of refuting this theory.


For example, the element earth, which has solidity as nature, exists in water, since water supports ships; etc.


According to Kośa, I, p. 23–24, the element wind (vāyudhātu) is the dharma that has as its nature movement (īraṇa); that which is called ‘wind’ is either the element wind or else color and shape; we talk about ‘a black wind’, a ‘circular wind’, etc.


The ānimittānimittasamādhi has as object the apratisaṃkhyānirodha of the ānimittasamādhi; cf. Kośa, VIII, p. 189.

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