Maha Prajnaparamita Sastra

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

This page describes “emptiness of dharmas (dharmashunyata)” 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 Emptiness of Dharmas (dharmaśūnyatā)

The emptiness of dharmas (dharmaśūnya or dharmaśūnyatā) is the fact that all dharmas are empty of intrinsic nature (svalakṣaṇaśūnyatā), as the Buddha said to Subhūti:

“Form (rūpa) is empty of the nature of form (rūpatvā), and feelings (vedanā), concepts (saṃjñā), volitional formations (saṃskāra) and consciousnesses (vijñāna) are empty of the natures of [feeling, concept, volitional formation] and consciousness.”[1]

Question. – One can think about the emptiness of beings (sattvaśūnyatā) and the non-emptiness of things (dharmāṇām aśūnyatā). It is inconceivable that dharmas are empty of intrinsic nature (svalakṣaṇaśūnya). Why? If dharmas were empty of intrinsic nature, they would be without arising (anutpanna) or cessation (aniruddha). Since there would be neither arising nor cessation, there would be no sin (āpatti) or merit (puṇya). If there is no sin or merit, why still practice on the Path?

Answer. – It is as a result of the emptiness of dharmas (dharmaśūnyatā) that there is sin and merit. Without this emptiness of dharmas, there would be neither sin nor merit. Why? If dharmas really had an intrinsic nature (svabhāva), they would be indestructible (avināśa), their intrinsic nature and their characteristic (lakṣaṇa) not coming from causes and conditions (hetupratyayaja). If they do come from causes and conditions, then it is only that they are formations (saṃskāra) [i.e., conditioned dharmas, saṃskṛtadharma]. It is essential that the intrinsic nature of dharmas be conditioned (saṃskṛta) in order to be capable of being destroyed.

You will say that the intrinsic nature of dharmas is capable of being created (kṛta) and destroyed (niruddha) but that is not correct (ayukta). [By definition], the intrinsic nature is an unconditioned dharma (asaṃskṛtadharma) and exists independently of causes and conditions. Dharmas existing by themselves (svabhāvena) are without arising (anutpāda) since they exist in themselves before arising.[2] Being without arising (utpāda), they are without cessation (nirodha). Since arising and cessation do not take place, there is neither sin (āpatti) nor merit (puṇya). If there is no sin or merit, why still practice on the Path?

If beings had a true intrinsic nature (bhūtasvabhāva), they would be incapable of doing evil and incapable of doing good since they would be fixed (niyata) in their intrinsic nature. Such people would misunderstand the value of merit and would ruin [the law] of retribution of action (karmavipāka).

There is no nature of emptiness (śūnyatālakṣaṇa) in the emptiness of dharmas (dharmaśūnyatā). (see notes below) It is because you assume an emptiness of dharmas and you become attached to it that you raise these objections. The emptiness of dharmas was preached by the Buddha with the feeling of compassion (karuṇācitta) in order to cut through the fetters of thirst (tṛṣṇāsaṃyojana) and destroy wrong views (mithyādṛṣṭi).

Furthermore, the true nature (bhūtalakṣaṇa) of dharmas destroys suffering (duḥkha): it is the true domain (bhūtāvacara) of holy individuals (āryapudgala). If the emptiness of dharmas (dharmaśūnyatā) had an intrinsic nature (svabhāva), [i.e., existed by itself], how could we say, in speaking of the emptiness of dharmas, that they are substantially empty? But if the emptiness of dharmas is without intrinsic nature, what objection do you have?

When we contemplate the emptiness of dharmas in the light of the twofold emptiness [of beings and of dharmas], the mind is separated from all the dharmas: we know that the world (loka) is false and deceptive like a magic show (māyā). That is the contemplation on emptiness.

Notes on the emptiness of dharmas (dharmaśūnyatā):

All dharmas are empty, but emptiness does not exist: it is valid only as a method of argumentation and not at all as a philosophical principle. Here the Traité returns to a view already explained above (p. 925F, 1091F and n.) which nullifies the recent imaginings about the presence in the Madhyamaka of a negative Absolute resting on purely mystical concepts. To the bibliography on this subject, we may add J. May, Candrakīrti, Introduction, p. 18–21, and my [Lamotte’s] Introduction to Vimalakīrti, p. 94–97: “Emptiness is not an entity.”

In the present passage, the Traité seems to draw inspiration from the Ratnakūṭa in the Kāśyapaparivarta, § 63–65, p. 94–97 (transl. F. Weller, p. 101 and n.) cited in the original Sanskrit with some variants in Madh. vṛtti, p. 248–249; Ratnagotravibhāga, p. 28, l. 11–13; Laṅkāvatāra, p. 146, l. 12–13:

Yan na śūnyatayā dharmān śūnyān karoti; api tu dharmā … yasya khalu punaḥ śūnyatataiva dṛṣṭis tam aham acikitsyam iti vadāmi.

Transl. –

It is not by means of emptiness that dharmas are made to be empty, but dharmas are by themselves empty. It is not by means of signlessness that dharmas are made to be without characteristics, but dharmas are by themselves without characteristics. It is not by means of wishlessness that dharmas are made to be not taken into consideration, but dharmas by themselves are not to be taken into consideration. That very consideration, O Kāśyapa, is called the Middle Way, the real consideration of dharmas. Indeed, O Kāśyapa, those who, by grasping an emptiness, take refuge in emptiness, I declare them to be completely lost for my teaching. Moreover, O Kāśyapa, a view of the self as high as Sumeru is worth more than a view of emptiness in those who adhere to it wrongly. Why? Emptiness, O Kaśyapa, is the way to escape from all kinds of false views; on the other hand, the person who has this very emptiness as a belief, I declare him to be incurable. Suppose, O Kaśyapa, there is a sick man and a physician gives him medicine, but this medicine, after having eliminated all the guilty humors of this illness, penetrates into his belly and does not come out. What do you think, O Kāśyapa; will this man be freed of his illness? – Certainly not, O Blessed One; his sickness will become greater if this medicine, having eliminated all the guilty humors, should penetrate into his belly and not come out.

– The Blessed One said: In the same way, O Kaśyapa, emptiness is the means of escaping from all the wrong views; on the other hand, the person who holds this very emptiness as a belief, I declare him to be incurable.

The image of wrong view of the self ‘high as Sumeru’ and the example of the medicine not eliminated are used again in Vimalakīrti, p. 291, 339.

In the Wou chang yi king, T 669, k. 1, p. 471b8–10, the Buddha says to Ānanda:

“He who produces the view of emptiness (śūnyatādṛṣṭi), I declare him to be incurable (acikitsya). If a person is attached to a view of the self (pudgaladṛṣṭi) as high as Sumeru, I am not surprised by that and I do not condemn him. But if a fool (abhimānika) is attached to a view of emptiness (śūnyatādṛṣṭi) as minute as the sixtieth part of a single hair, that I cannot allow.”

In this regard, a passage from the Bodh. bhūmi, p. 46–47, should be cited, hostile as it is toward the Mādhyamika doctrines:

Idaṃ ca saṃdhyāyoktaṃ Bhagavatā. Varam ihaikatyasya pudgaladṛṣṭir na tv evaikatyasya durgṛhītā …. evaṃbhūtaṃ vastu apavadamānaḥ pranaṣṭo bhavaty asmād dharmavinayāt.

Transl. –

“It is with this intention that the Bhagavat said: ‘The view of the self in an absolute individualist is better than emptiness wrongly understood in an absolute nihilist [in this case, a Mādhyamika]. Why? A person who believes in the self is mistaken only on [the nature of] the knowable, but does not deny the [existence] of the knowable. This is why he will not be reborn in the bad destinies; he does not criticize and does not deceive his neighbor, the believer, who is seeking to free himself from suffering, but to establish him [on the other hand] in the Dharma and the Truth; furthermore, he does not slacken in observing the rules. On the contrary, by means of emptiness completely misunderstood, the person is mistaken about the reality of the knowable and even rejects it entirely. This is why he will be reborn in the bad destinies; he destroys his neighbor, the believer, who is seeking to free himself from suffering and, further, he slackens in his observation of the rules. By rejecting reality as it is, he separates himself from our teachings.”

By thus attacking the person who misunderstands emptiness, the Bodh. bhūmi manifestly quarrels with the Mādhyamikan whom it wrongly confuses with the nihilist. But the Traité has already given the answer (p. 1090–1094F):

“The nihilist denies the things that he sees; the Mādhyamika-Śūnyavādin denies nothing because there is nothing and he sees nothing.”

See also Madh. vṛtti, p. 159–160, with the translation and note of J. May, Candrakīrti, p. 122–124. The Bodhisaṃbhāraśāstra (T 1660, k. 6, 539c25–28), the author of which may have been Nāgārjuna and commentator the bhikṣu Iśvara, continues the Mādhyamika position in the following way:

“We resort to emptiness in order to stamp out the great mass of ignorance (mahāvidyāskandha), but the wise man does not act by basing himself on emptiness. If he acts by basing himself on emptiness, it is in order to combat ands refute those who are difficult to convert and who profess the wrong view of the self (satkāyadṛṣṭi), for those who are prey to wrong views (dṛṣṭicarita) can escape from them only by emptiness. But those who are attached to the view of emptiness (śūnyatādṛṣtyabhiniviṣṭa) are incurable.”

The last word in this matter remains with Śāntideva whose three well-known stanzas, IX, v. 33–35) cut through the problem:

Śūnyatāvāsanādhānād dhīyate bhāvavāsanā |
kiṃcin nāstīti cābhyāsāt sāpi paścāt prahīyate || 33 ||
Yadā na labhyate bhāvo yo nāstīti prakalpyate |
tadā nirāśrayo ‘bhāvaḥ kathaṃ tiṣṭhen mateḥ puraḥ || 34 ||
Yadā na bhāvo nābhāvo mateḥ saṃtiṣṭhate puraḥ |
tadānyagatyabhāvena nirālambā praśāmyati || 35 ||

Transl. by L. de La Vallée Poussin. –

When one assumes the idea of emptiness, when one is saturated with it, the idea of existence disappears; and later, by the habit of this mind that ‘nothing exists’, the idea of emptiness itself is eliminated.

Indeed, when one no longer perceives [as a consequence of the elimination of the idea of existence] an existence that one is able to deny, how then would the non-existence henceforth deprived of support arise to the mind?

And when neither existence nor non-existence present themselves to the mind, then the mind is pacified, no longer having any form [to affirm or deny], which are these two modes of action.

– According to Tāranātha (p. 165), Śāntideva, in the middle of stanza 35, rose up into the air and disappeared, but these words came to the ears of the monks who were able to concentrate until the end of the Bodhicaryāvatāra.

Footnotes and references:


Pañcaviṃśati, p. 128, l. 10–12 (T 123, k. 3, p. 235a11–12; k. 9., p. 288b10; k. 16, p. 337b4; k. 21, p. 372c11–12, 3373c3–4), Śatasāhasrikā, p. 554, l. 6–18: Rūpaṃ rūpatvena śūnyaṃ, vedanā yāvād vijñānaṃ vijñānatvena śūnyam.


Dharmas existing in themselves and by themselves would be unchanging, without arising and without cessation by definition.