Maha Prajnaparamita Sastra

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

This page describes “all dharmas are empty in self nature (svabhavashunya)” 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.

Appendix 5 - All dharmas are empty in self nature (svabhāvaśūnya)

Note: this appendix is extracted from Chapter XXX part 3.3 (the teaching of emptiness):

By nature and eternally, all dharmas are empty in self nature (svabhāvaśūnya); it is not by virtue of an artificial philosophical point of view 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.”

Notes on the wrong views of eternalism or nihilism:

Pañcaviṃśati, p. 138:

Rūpaṃ śūnyaṃ rūpasvabhāvena, tasya nāpi jātir nāpi niryāṇam upalabhyate,
and the same for
saṃjñā, saṃskārāḥ, vijñānam. evaṃ vistareṇavyastasamasteṣu skandhadhātvāyatanapratītyasamutpādeṣu kartavyaṃ yāvad bhūtakoṭiḥ bhūtakoṭisvabhāvena, tasyā nāpi jātir nāpi niryāṇam upalabhyate.

The author wants to show that the Śūnyavādin does not fall into the wrong views (dṛṣṭi) of eternalism (śāśvatavāda) or nihilism (ucchedavāda) condemned by the Buddha. By denying these things, he avoids the view of existence (bhāva) and escapes any blame of eternalism. On the other hand, by denying things inasmuch as he does not perceive them, he denies nothing as it is; he has nothing in common with the nihilist whose negation pertains to things previously perceived; thus he escapes any blame of nihilism. Emptiness is equidistant from these two extremes.

This is all explained in technical terms in Madh. vṛtti, p. 272–273:

“To talk about existence is to accept eternalism; to talk about non-existence is to accept nihilism; this is why the sage does not adhere to either existence or non-existence. Actually, that which exists in itself (asti yad svabhāvena) cannot not exist, and from that, one must conclude that it is eternal (śāśvata); if something no longer exists now but did exist previously (nāstidanīm abhūt pūrvam), from that one must conclude that it has been annihilated (uccheda). But the person who considers existence-in-itself as impossible will never fall into the views of eternalism or nihilism since existence-in-itself exists only as a way of speaking (yasya tu bhāvasvabhāvānupalambhāt).”

However, the author keeps from hypostatizing emptiness, from assuming a śūnyatā in itself by virtue of which there are empty things. Cf. Madh, kārikā, p. 245: If something of non-emptiness existed, there would indeed be an emptiness (by virtue of the law of interdependence of opposites); but since there is nothing that is non-empty, how could emptiness exist? Śūnyatā thus does not exist: it is valid only as a method of argumentation and not as a philosophical principle: cf. Mad. kārikā, p. 247: “The Buddhas have said that śūnyatā is the exit (niḥsaraṇa) of all views, but those who believe in śūnyatā are incurable (asādhya).”

Before Nāgārjuna, the literature of the Prajñā and the Ratnakūṭa (Kāśyapaparivarta) had already refused to make an absolute out of śūnyatā. See references gathered by LAV., Madhyamaka, p. 32.