Maha Prajnaparamita Sastra

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

This page describes “dharma of unhindered penetration” 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.

II.6. Dharma of unhindered penetration

The Dharma is of unhindered penetration. Utilizing the seals of the Dharma (dharmamudrā) of the Buddha, (see Appendix 7) his penetration is unhindered in the same way that the holder of the royal seal (rājamudrā) is never delayed or restricted [in his movements].

Question. – What are the seals of the Buddha’s Dharma?

Answer. – There are three kinds of seals of the Buddha’s Dharma: i) All conditioned dharmas (saṃskṛtadharma) arising and perishing from moment to moment are impermanent (anitya); ii) All dharmas are without self (anātman); [222b] iii) Peaceful is nirvāṇa (śāntaṃ nirvāṇam).

[1. Sarvasaṃskārā anityāḥ]. – The yogin knows that the threefold world (traidhātu) is entirely composed of arisings and ceasings governed by causes (saṃskṛtā utpādanirodhāḥ). The formations (saṃskāra) that previously existed no longer exist; those that exist now will not exist later. These instantaneous arisings and cessations (kṣaṇikā utpādanirodhāḥ) coming forth like a series (saṃtānasādṛśya) may be seen and cognized in the way that one cognizes and sees a series of similar [moments] (sadṛśasaṃtāna) in the water of a river (nadījala), the flame of a lamp (dīpajvāla) or a storm. This is why people consider them to be a living being (sattva) and, by a mistake consisting of taking what is impermanent to be permanent (anitye iti viparyāsaḥ), people speak about a changeable (gantṛ) [entity] lasting forever.[1] That is the seal confirming the impermanence of all formations (saṃkārānityatā).

[2. Sarvadharmā anātmānaḥ]. – All dharmas are without self. In dharmas there is neither lord (īśvara, svāmin), nor agent (kāraka), knower (jānaka), seeing subject (paśyaka), living object (jīva), or doer of actions. All dharmas depend on causes and conditions (hetupratyayāpekṣa); depending on causes and conditions, they are not autonomous (svatantra); since they are not autonomous, they are not self, and the nature of self is non-existent (ātmalakṣaṇaṃ nopalabhyate), as is said in the P’o-wo-p’in (Ātmapratiṣedhaprahraṇa) ‘Chapter on the refutation of the self’. (See Appendix 8 and Appendix 9) This is the seal of non-self (anātmamudrā).

Question. – How is it that only the conditioned dharmas (saṃskṛtadharma or saṃskāra) are impermanent (anitya) whereas ‘all’ dharmas are non-self (anātman)?

Answer. – Unconditioned dharmas (asaṃskṛtadharma), being without causes (ahetuka) or conditions (apratyaya), do not arise and do not cease. As they do not arise and do not cease, they are not said to be impermanent.

Furthermore, one cannot produce attachment of mind (cittābhiniveśa) or error (viparyasa) toward unconditioned dharmas; this is why they are not said to be impermanent (anitya) but they can be said to be non-self (anātman). People say that the ātman is eternal (nitya), universally extended (vyāpin) and endowed with knowledge (jñānin); this is why [the sūtra] speaks of non-self in regard to ‘all’ dharmas,.

[3. Śāntaṃ nirvāṇam]. – Peacefulness is nirvāṇa because the fire of the three poisons (triviṣa) and the threefold degeneration is destroyed in it. This is the seal of peace (śāntamudrā).

Question. – Why does the seal of peace apply to only one dharma [namely, nirvāṇa] and not to several?

Answer. – In the first seal, it is a matter of the five aggregates (pañcaskandha); in the second seal, it is a question of all dharmas, qualified as non-self; in the third seal it is a question of the fruit (phala) of the first two, [namely, nirvāṇa]: it is called the seal of peace.

[By saying] that all the formations are impermanent (sarvasaṃskāra anityāḥ), the five outer objects of enjoyment (bāhyakāmaguṇa) considered as belonging to a self (ātmīya) are destroyed. [By saying] that all dharmas are without self (sarvadharmā anātmānaḥ), the inner self (adhyātman) is destroyed. The ‘I’ and the ‘mine’ being destroyed, there is śāntaṃ nirvāṇam.

Considering the impermanence of the formations (saṃskārānityatā), the yogin experiences disgust (nirveda) for the suffering of the world but, while knowing this disgust and this suffering, he remains attached to the view of the svāmin, the sovereign entity “capable”, he says, “of having this thought”. – This is why there is a second seal of the Dharma (dharmamudrā): the yogin knows that all dharmas are without self (sarvadharmā anātmānaḥ). Analyzing the five aggregates (skandha), the twelve bases of consciousness (āyatana), the eighteen elements (dhātu) and the twelve causes (nidāna) inwardly and outwardly (adhyātmabahirdhā) to look for a svāmin, he does not find any. And as the latter does not exist, all dharmas are without self and are inactive. – Recognizing this, the yogin stops his futile proliferation (prapañca) and, having no other refuge (niśraya), he takes refuge only in cessation (nirodha): hence the seal of śāntam nirvāṇam.

Question. – In the Mahāyāna it is said: “Dharmas do not arise, are not destroyed and have but one single nature (ekalakṣaṇa), viz., the absence of nature (alakṣaṇa).”[2] Why is it said here that all conditioned dharmas are impermanent and that that is a seal of the Dharma? Are these two teachings not contradictory (virodha)? [222c]

Answer. – To consider impermanence (anityatā) is to consider emptiness (śūnyatā). If one considers form (rūpa) as momentary (kṣaṇika) and impermanent (anitya), one knows that it is empty (śūnya). The past substance (atītaṃ rūpam), being destroyed, it is invisible (adrśya) and thus without the nature of substance. The future substance (anāgataṃ rūpam), not yet being born, is without activity, without function and invisible, thus without the nature of substance. The present substance (pratyutpanna rūpam) also is without duration, invisible and non-discernible, thus without the nature of substance. Absence of substance is emptiness; emptiness is non-arising and non-cessation. Non-arising (anutpāda) and non-cessation (anirodha), arising (utpāda) and cessation (nirodha) are in reality (tattvena) one and the same thing. The explanation can be both developed (vistara) and summarized (saṃkṣepa).

Question. – We accept that past and future substances, being invisible, do not have the nature of substance. But present substance is visible as long as it lasts. Why do you say that it does not have the nature of substance?

Answer. – Present substance also does not have any duration (sthiti). As I have said in regard to the four smṛtyupasthānas (p. 1163F), every dharma, the nature of cessation of which we see after the event (paścāt), must clearly possess this nature of cessation from its birth (utpāda) but, as it is subtle (sūkṣma), we do not recognize it.

[If the duration of conditioned dharmas were a stable duration, there would never be cessation.] Let us suppose there is a man who is wearing sandals (pādukā): if these were new from the very first day, they would never wear out; afterwards (paścat), they would always be new and there would be no ageing. Having no ageing, they would be eternal (nitya). From the fact of this eternity, there would be no sin (āpatti) and no merit (puṇya):[3] and, as there would be no more sin or merit, the usual rules of the Buddhist Path (mārga) would be overturned (vikṣipta).

Furthermore, since the natures of arising and cessation (utpādabhaṅgalakṣaṇa) always go along with the formations (saṃskāra), there is no period of duration. If there were a period of duration, there would be neither arising nor cessation.

This is why present substance has no duration and, in duration, there is no arising or cessation, for duration reduced to a single moment (ekakṣaṇe sthitiḥ) is characteristic of the formations (saṃskāra).

This is the Dharma ‘of unhindered penetration’. This is how the Dharma is to be recollected.

Footnotes and references:


This is fully explained in Kośa, IX, p. 279–281.


Pañcaviṃśati, p. 164, l. 8–9 (T 223, k. 4, p. 242c2–4; k. 8, p. 278c1–2): Sarva ete dharmā… ekalakṣaṇā yadutālakṣaṇāḥ.


Cf. Madh. vṛtti, p. 324: If action did not exist in itself (svabhāvata), it would certainly be eternal because existence in itself is not susceptible to modification. Thus action would never be accomplished. Action is what necessarily requires the activity of a free agent. But [if you presuppose eternity], it is not explained. Why? Because an eternal entity cannot be accomplished (yasmāt kriyate na hi śāśvatam). That which possesses a real existence is ‘eternal’. That which is real eludes accomplishment (karaṇa) and consequently does not depend on a cause. Even without having accomplished good or bad action, every person would be rewarded.

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