Maha Prajnaparamita Sastra

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

This page describes “the concept of impermanence (anitya-samjna)” 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.

I. The concept of impermanence (anitya-saṃjñā)

Question. – Why are all the practices sometimes called knowledges (jñāna), sometimes recollections (anusmṛti) and sometimes concepts (saṃjñā)?

Answer. – When one begins to practice the good dharmas so as not to lose them, they are called recollections (anusmṛti); when one develops the object (nimitta) and develops the mind (citta), they are called concepts (saṃjñā); when one understands precisely (niyata) without feeling any doubts (vicikitsā), they are called knowledges (jñāna).

The concept associated with the wisdom (prajñāsaṃprayuktasaṃjñā) that considers all conditioned dharmas (saṃskṛtadharma) to be impermanent (anitya) is called the concept of impermanence (anityasaṃjñā).[1]

All conditioned dharmas (saṃskṛtadharma) are impermanent because they arise and perish incessantly, because they depend on causes and conditions (hetupratyayāpekṣa) and because they do not entail any accumulation (upacaya). Furthermore, at the moment of their arising, they come from nowhere and, at the moment of their cessation, do not go anywhere: this is why they are said to be impermanent.

Furthermore, they are said to be impermanent because the two kinds of worlds (loka) are impermanent: beings (sattva) are impermanent and the universe (lokadhātu) is impermanent. Thus it is said:

The great earth and its plants and trees disappear.
Mount Sumeru crumbles and the ocean dries up,
The abodes of the gods are entirely consumed:
Is there anything then in the universe that is eternal?

The Venerable One with the ten strengths had physical splendor,
The light of his wisdom was immense;
He saved all beings,
His renown filled the ten directions.
But today when he has been wiped out, where is he?
Who is the sage who would not be grieved by it?[2]

In the same way, Śāriputra, Maudgalyāyana, Subhuti and other holy individuals (āryapudgala), noble cakravartin kings, sovereigns of nations, the kings of the ever-happy gods, the deities, saints, great virtuous people, noblemen, they too all perish. The flame and the brilliance of the great fire[3] disappears suddenly and the world is reduced to nothing, like a lamp exposed to the wind, like the tree growing on a dangerous shore, like the filter filled with water that empties immediately. Therefore there is ‘impermanence’, because all beings and all the abodes of beings are transitory.

Question. – Why does the bodhisattva practice this concept of impermanence?

Answer. – Because beings who are victim to the mistake of taking what is impermanent to be eternal (anitye nitya iti viparyāsaḥ) undergo the mass of suffering and do not succeed in escaping from saṃsāra. [229b]

The yogin who possesses this concept of impermanence converts (paripācayati) beings, saying to them: “All dharmas are impermanent; do not become attached to the notion of eternalism; you will then lose the opportunity to practice the Path.”

The four noble Truths (āryasatya) are the supreme and wondrous teaching of the Buddha; of these Truths, the first is the truth of suffering (duḥkhasatya), and the aspect of impermanence (anityākāra) is the first aspect [of the truth of suffering].[4] This is why the bodhisattva practices the notion of impermanence.

Question. – But there are people who still feel attached to impermanent things when they are present.

[The king who was attached to his wife because old age would make her ugly]. – There was a king who had a wonderful wife who had been born from the womb of the earth. In the form of a ten-headed rākṣasa, she was about to cross the great ocean. The king was very sad. A wise minister consoled him: “The king is endowed with the power of knowledge (jñānabala) and he [knows well] that the queen will return very soon. Why does he feel sad?” The king replied: “What saddens me is not to think that my wife cannot return; I am only afraid [that on her return] her youth will already have passed.”

In the same way, seeing beautiful flowers or lovely fruits about to fade, people are even more attached to them. Thus, when one knows that things are impermanent, one develops even more fetters (saṃyojana). How can you say that impermanence calls forth disgust (udvega) and breaks the fetters?

Answer. – Seeing impermanence in that way is to understand only a small part of it (kaṃcid eva pradeśam) and not to realize it completely. You will be no different than the animals that see impermanence in this way. This is why, [here in the Prajñāpāramitasūtra], the Buddha tells Śāriputra that ‘the concept of impermanence must be completely perfected’ (anityasaṃjñā paripūrayitavyā).

Question. – Then what is this ‘perfect’ concept of impermanence?

Answer. – It is observing that conditioned dharmas (saṃskṛtadharma) arise and perish from moment to moment like dust blown by the wind, like water rushing down from the mountain, like the flame that is extinguished. Conditioned dharmas are without solidity or vigor; they cannot be grasped or retained; like magical fabrications (nirmāṇa), they deceive worldlings (pṛthagjana).

Thanks to this impermanence, the yogin succeeds in breaking through the threshold of emptiness (śūnya) and, since no dharma exists in emptiness, it too is nonexistent. How is that? Birth (utpāda), duration (sthiti) and destruction (bhaṅga) do not co-exist in one and the same moment (kṣaṇa); at the moment of birth, duration and destruction cannot exist; at the moment of duration, birth and destruction cannot exist; at the moment of destruction, birth and duration cannot exist.[5] Birth, duration and destruction are mutually opposed (virodha) to one another in their characteristics (lakṣaṇa) and their nature (svadbhāva); they do not exist together. Since they do not exist, neither does impermanence (anitya) exist.

Question. – If there is no impermanence, why did the Buddha speak of impermanence in regard to the truth of suffering (duḥkhasatya)?

Answer. – Worldly people (pṛthagjana) who produce wrong views (mithyādṛṣṭi) have claimed that the world is eternal (nitya). The Buddha spoke of impermanence in order to destroy this eternalistic view (śāśvatadṛṣṭi) and not because he considered impermanence to be real (bhūta).

Furthermore, before the Buddha appeared in the world, ordinary people used only conventional means to remove the disturbing emotions (kleśa). But today, when it is a question of uprooting the roots of the disturbing emotions (kleśamūla), the Buddha speaks of impermanence.

Furthermore, heretical systems (tīrthikadharma) speak of deliverance (vimukti) when one is only apparently liberated from the five objects of enjoyment (pañca kāmaguṇa), but the Buddha has said: “It is on account of wrong concepts that one is bound up, and it is by considering the correct concept of impermanence that one is liberated (vimukta).”

Furthermore, there are two ways of thinking about the notion of [229c] impermanence: i) that which entails a residue, ii) that which does not entail a residue. Thus the Buddha said: “When all the beings and all the things have disappeared and only their names remain, impermanence ‘involves a residue’; when all the beings and all the things have disappeared and their names have also disappeared, impermanence ‘does not involve a residue’.

There are also two other ways of thinking about impermanence: i) the death of the body and its destruction; ii) births and deaths without continual renewal.

Furthermore, some say that morality (śīla) is the most important. Why? Because in dependence on morality one obtains the cessation of the impurities (āsravakṣaya). – Others say that learning (bahuśruta) is the most important. Why? Because in dependence on wisdom (prajñā) the result is obtained. – Others say that meditative stabilization (samādhi) is the most important, for the Buddha said: “Concentration can attain Bodhi.”[6] – Others say that the twelve strict observances (dhūtaguṇa)[7] are the most important. Why? Because they purify the practice of morality.

This is how each one, maintaining his own practice as the most important, does not seek nirvāṇa diligently. But the Buddha said: “These qualities (guṇa) all lead to fractions of nirvāṇa; however, the consideration of the impermanence of dharmas (anityānupaśyanā) is the true path to nirvāṇa.”[8]

For all these reasons and even though dharmas are empty, the Buddha preached the concept of impermanence.

Finally, the concept of impermanence is synonymous with the noble Path (āryamārga). The Buddha designated the Path by all kinds of different names: sometimes he called it the four foundations of mindfulness (catvari smṛtyupasthānāni), sometimes he called it the four Truths (catvāri satyāni), sometimes the notion of impermanence.

[Anityatāsūtra]. – This is what is said in a sūtra:

“If the notion of impermanence is properly cultivated, it destroys all attachment to desire (kāmarāga), all attachment to subtle matter (rūparāga), all attachment to the formless (ārūpyarāga), all pride (asmimāna) and all ignorance (avidyā).”[9]

Thus it eliminates the fetters of the threefold world (traidhātukasaṃyojana). This is why it is synonymous with Path.

This concept of impermanence is sometimes impure (sāsrava) and sometimes pure (anāsrava). When it understands impermanence correctly, it is pure; when it begins to study impermanence, it is impure.

In the Mahāyāna, the bodhisattvas with vast mind convert beings in many ways: this is why their notion of impermanence is both impure and pure.

If it is pure, it occurs in nine levels (bhūmi); if it is impure, it occurs in eleven levels.[10]

It has as object (ālambate) the five aggregates of attachment (upādānaskandha) of the threefold world. It is associated with four dominant organs (indriya), except that of unpleasantness (duḥkendriya).[11]

For all the reasons given here, worldly people (pṛthagjana) and the saints (ārya) extol the qualities (guṇa) of the concept of impermanence.

Footnotes and references:


Cf. Anguttara, V, p. 109: Idho bhikkhu araññagato… pañcasu upādānakkhandhesu aniccānupasī viharati.


Variations on the stanzas of lamentation uttred by the disciples at the death of the Buddha (above, p. 88–89F, Cf. the stanza of Brahmā in the Sanskrit Mahāparinirvāṇa, p. 400:

Sarvabhūtani loke ’smin
nikṣepsyanti samucchrayam |
evaṃvidho yatra śāstā
lokeṣv apratipudgaḥ |
cakṣuṣmān parinivṛtaḥ ||


The fire at the end of the kalpa.


Anitya is the first of the sixteen aspects (ākāra) characterizing the noble truths: see above, p., 641F.


Reasoning borrowed from Madh. kārikā, VIII, 2, p. 146; see above, p. 37F and note.


Cf. Anguttara, II, p. 45: Samādhibhāvanā bhāvitā bahulīkatā diṭṭhadhammasukhavihārāryañāṇadassanapaṭilābhāya saṃvattati.


Twelve dhūtaguṇa according to the Sanskrit sources (Mahāvyut., no. 1127–1139); thirteen dhūtanga according to the Pāli sources (Vinaya, V, p. 131, 193; Visuddhimagga, p. 48–67).


Cf. Anguttara, IV, p. 46: Satt’ imā saññā bhāvitā bahulīkatā mahapphalā honti mahānisaṃsā amatogadhā amatapariyosānā.


Literal citation from a sūtra in Saṃyukta (T 99, no. 270, k. 10, p. 70c6–7) entitled Chou king ‘Sūtra of the Tree’. Its correspondent is the Aniccatāsutta of Saṃyutta, III, p. 156, the wording of which is only slightly different: Aniccasañnnā bhikkhave bhāvita bahulīkatā sabbaṃ kāmarāgaṃ pariyādiyati sabbaṃ rūparāgaṃ pariyadiyati sabbaṃ bhavarāgaṃ pariyādiyati sabbaṃ avijjaṃ pariyādiyati sabbaṃ asmimānaṃ pariyādiyati samāhanti.


The term kāma-, rūpa- and ārūpya-rāga designates attachment in regard to the threefold world. According to Kośa, V, p. 8, kāmarāga means attachment to kāmadhātu; bhavarāga, attachment to the two higher realms, rūpa- and ārūpyadhātu.


See Kośa, I, p. 101.