Maha Prajnaparamita Sastra

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

This page describes “the concept of suffering (duhkha-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.

II. The concept of suffering (duḥkha-saṃjñā)

In regard to the concept of suffering (duḥkhasaṃjñā), the yogin says to himself that all conditioned dharmas (saṃskṛtadharma), being impermanent (anitya), are painful (duḥkha).[1]

Question. – If conditioned dharmas, as impermanent, are painful, are the dharmas of holy persons (āryapudgala), conditioned but pure (saṃskṛtānāsravadharma), also painful?

Answer. – Although dharmas are impermanent, only those who become attached to them experience suffering; those who are not attached to them are without suffering.

Question. – There are saints who, without being attached to them, nevertheless undergo suffering. Thus Chö-li-fou (Śāriputra) suffered from sicknesses of wind and heat, Pi-ling-k’ie-p’o-ts’o (Pilindavatsa) suffered from eye disease, and Lo-p’o-na-po-t’i (Lavaṇabhadrika) [Note by Kumārajīva: ‘the foremost of the children who bawl a lot’: Rāvaṇabhadrika?] suffered from hemorrhoids. (also see Appendix 1) Why do you say that they have no suffering?

Answer. – There are two kinds of suffering: i) bodily suffering (kāyika [230a] duḥkha), ii) mental suffering (caitasika duḥkha). By the power of their wisdom (prajñābala), the holy individuals (āryapudgala) have no further mental suffering like sadness (daurmanasya), jealousy (īrṣyā), malice (vyāpāda), etc. On the other hand, because they have received a body composed of the four great elements (mahābhūtamaya) as a result of actions in their previous existences (pūrvajanmakarman), they still have bodily sufferings such as old age (jarā) and sickness (vyādhi), hunger and thirst (kṣutpipāsa), cold and heat (śītoṣṇa), etc., but these bodily sufferings are slight and quite rare.

The saint may be compared to a man who, knowing himself to be burdened with a debt (ṛṇa) with regard to a third party, does not consider it to be painful to discharge the debt. By contrast, the man who does not remember his debt and from whom the creditor demands it forcibly is furious, angry and full of suffering.

Question. – Painful sensation (duḥkhavedanā) is a mental event (caitasika dharma) co-existing with the mind (citta). The body, like grass or wood, is disjunct from the mind and without reasoning (vitarka). How can you say that the holy person feels (vedayati) only bodily suffering?

Answer. – When the worldly person (pṛthagjana) feels suffering (duḥkhaṃ vedayati), his mind creates a pang of grief (daurmanasya) stimulated by the anuśaya (negative propensity) of hostility (pratigha); his mind is turned only toward the five objects of enjoyment (pañcakāmaguṇa). As the Buddha said:

[Śalyatvena sūtra].

Furthermore, suffering is associated with the five consciousnesses (pañcavijñānaprayukta), and the sufferings of the whip and the stick, of cold and heat, etc., due to external causes, are bodily sufferings. The others are mental sufferings.

Furthermore, I have said that pure conditioned dharmas (saṃskṛtānāsravadharma) are not suffering because [the saints] are not attached to them. But the body of holy individuals is impure (sāsrava). Since impure dharmas (sāsravadharma) are painful, what is the mistake [in asserting that the saints feel bodily suffering]? But in fact, these sufferings felt by their bodies are faint and rare.

Question. – If all that is impermanent is suffering, the Path (mārga) too is suffering. How can you drive suffering away with suffering?[2]

Answer. – The aphorism “All that is impermanent is suffering” applies to the five aggregates of attachment (upādānaskandha), but the Path, although impermanent insofar as it is formation (saṃskāra), is not called suffering. Why? Because it destroys suffering and does not create attachment (abhiniveśa). United with the wisdoms of emptiness (śūnya) and non-self (anātman), it is impermanent but it is not suffering.

This is why the arhats, at the moment they obtain the Path, say the following stanza:

We do not rejoice in being reborn,
Neither do we rejoice in dying;
With mindfulness and awareness
We are waiting to leave when the time comes.[3]

When the Buddha entered nirvāṇa, Ānanda and the disciples not yet detached from passion (avītarāga), who had not yet cultivated the eightfold noble Path (āryāṣṭāṅgamārga), wept and lamented; the anāgāmins, detached from desire (vītarāga) were all frightened; the arhats whose impurities were destroyed (kṣīṇāsrava) remained impassive and only said: “The Eye of the world has disappeared too soon” (atikṣipraṃ cakṣur lokasyāntarhitam). (see Appendix 2)

[230b] It is because they possessed the power of the Path that these arhats who had received great favors from the Buddha and appreciated his immense qualities (apramāṇaguṇa) did not experience any suffering. This is why we know that the Path, although impermanent, is not a cause of suffering and therefore it is not called suffering. Only the five aggregates of attachment (upadānaskandha) are suffering. Why? Because one clings to them, because they are impermanent and insecure.

Here in regard to the meaning of suffering (duḥkhārtha), what has been said above (p. 1158F) concerning vedanāsmṛtyupasthāna should be fully repeated.

Furthermore, those who possess a body (dehin) are always suffering (sadā duḥkhita),[4] but out of stupidity (moha), they do not take it into account. Thus it is said:

Since it is very tiring to ride a horse,
One looks for a place to stand up.
Since standing up is very tiring,
One seeks a place to sit down.

Since sitting down too long is very tiring,
One looks for a place to lie down in peace.
Much fatigue results from these activities,
What at first was pleasant then becomes painful.

To look straight ahead or to the side, to breathe in and out
To bend down, to stretch out, to sit down, to get up,
To walk or to stand still, to go or to come:
Nothing can be done without suffering.

Question. – “The five aggregates of attachment are suffering” (pañcopādānaskandhā duḥkham),[5] but it is as a result of a [subjective] notion of suffering (duḥkhasaṃjñā) that they are suffering. Actually, if everything is suffering, why did the Buddha say: “There are three kinds of feeling: pleasant feeling (sukhavedanā), unpleasant feeling (duḥkhavedanā) and feeling that is neither unpleasant nor pleasant (aduḥkhāsukhavedanā)?”[6] And if suffering comes from a [subjective] notion of suffering, how can you say that the [holy] truth of suffering (duḥkhasatya) concerns a real suffering?

Answer. – Yes, the five aggregates of attachment are suffering, but ordinary people (pṛthagjana), under the influence of the fourfold error (viparyāsa) and urged on by desire (kāmapīḍita), consider the five objects of enjoyment as happiness (sukha). It is as though someone smeared ointment onto a man’s ulcer (gaṇḍa) and when his suffering has stopped, he thinks this ulcer, which itself is not happiness, is happiness.

The Buddha spoke of three kinds of feelings in accordance with the views of the world (loka), but in reality (tattvena) there is no happiness there.[7] If there were truly happiness in the five aggregates of attachment (upādānaskandha), why did the Buddha say: “The destruction of the five aggregates of attachment is happiness” (pañcopādānaskandhanirodhaḥ sukham)?”[8]

Furthermore, since the mind of happiness (sukhacitta) arises in relation to the loved object, happiness is not assured definitively (niyata). If happiness were assured, it would not depend on attachment of the mind (cittābhiniveśa) in the same way that if fire (agni) were really hot, it would not depend on kindling to heat up. But as happiness is not assured, here it is called suffering.

Furthermore, what the world wrongly considers to be happiness can create innumerable fruits of suffering (apramāṇaduḥikhaphala) in the present lifetime and in the future lifetime (ihaparatra): this is why it is called suffering. Just as a little bit of poison (viṣa) poured into the water of a big river cannot change the water,[9] so the poisonous plant that the world wrongly thinks [is happiness] is no longer visible in the great waters of suffering. Thus it is said:

When a being falls from the paradises and is reborn in hell
He remembers the former bliss of paradise:
The palace courtesans showed themselves to him in a crowd,
The parks and pools rejoiced his heart.

Now he sees the fires of hell coming to burn him [230c]
Like a great fire consuming a bamboo forest.
Then, while still seeing the pleasures of paradise,
He is alarmed in vain: that is useless.

The concept of suffering (duḥkhasaṃjñā) concerns the same objects as the concept of impermanence (anityasaṃjñā).[10] Analysis of suffering in these many different ways is called the concept of suffering.

Footnotes and references:


The notion of suffering must bear upon all formations without distinction (sabbasaṅkhāresu anodhiṃ karitvā): Anguttara, III, p. 443.


In the hypothesis imagined, how could one drive away the suffering of saṃsāra by the suffering of the Path?


A well-known stanza:

Nābhinandāmi maraṇaṃ, nābhisandāni jīvitaṃ |
kālañ ca paṭikaṅkhāmi sampajāno patissato ti ||

It is frequently repeated with the variant nibbisaṃ bhatako yathā at the end. The Theragāthā, v. 1002, the Milinda, p. 45 and the Comm. on the Dīgha put it in the mouth of Sāriputta, but it was also pronounced by the theras Nisabha (Theragāthā, v. 196), Saṃkicca (v. 607), Revata (v. 655) and Aññākoṇdañña (v. 686).


See above, p. 584F.


Saṃkṣiptena pañcopādānaskandhā duḥkham: aphorism taken from the Sermon at Benares: Nidānasaṃyuktam p. 194; Catuḥpariṣad, p. 158; Pāli Vinaya, p. I, 10; Dīgha, II, p. 307; Saṃyutta, V, p. 421.


Digha, III, p. 275; Saṃyutta, II, p. 53, 82; IV, p. 207; Anguttara, III, p. 400;Itivuttaka, p. 46: Tisso vedanā: sukā vedanā, duḥkhā vedanā, adukkhamasukhā vedanā.


In the Rahogatakasutta of Saṃyutta, IV, p. 216–217 (tsa a han, T 99, no. 476, k. 17, p. 121c), the Buddha explain to a bhikṣu: Tisso imā bhikkho vedanā vuttā mayā sukha vedanā dukkhā vedanā adukkhamasukhā vedanā, imā tisso vedanāvuttā mayā. Vuttaṃ kho pantaṃ bhikkho mayā: Yaṃ kiñci vedayitaṃ taṃ dukkhasmin ti. Taṃ kho panetaṃ bhikkhu mayā saṅkhārrānaṃ yeva aniccataṃ sandhāya bhāsitaṃ: Yaṃ kiñci vedayitaṃ taṃ dukkhasmin ti.

Transl. – I have spoken, O monk, of three feelings: pleasant feeling, unpleasant feeling, neither unpleasant nor pleasant feeling. Yes, I have spoken of these three feelings. But also, O monk, I said: All that is felt is felt in suffering.” It is in view of impermanence that I said “All that is felt is felt in suffering.”

An extract of the corresponding Sanskrit sūtra is cited in Kośavyākhyā, p. 519, l. 18–20: Saṃskārānityatām Ānanda saṃdhÂa mayā bhāṣitaṃ saṃskaravipariṇāmatāṃ: Yat kiṃcid veditam idam atra duḥkhasyeti: O Ānanda, it is in view of impermanence, it is in view of transformation of the formations, that I said: “All that is felt, there is suffering in it.”

The Kośa (VI, p. 129–130) concludes that all feeling, including pleasant feeling, is suffering. Pleasant feeling has as object not a real pleasure but sometimes a remedy for suffering (duḥkhapratikāra), sometimes a modification of the suffering (duḥkhavikalpa).


Upādānanirodhā… sokaparidevadukkhadomanassupāyāsā nirujjanti: Pāli Vin, I, p. 1; Saṃyutta, II, p. 7; III, p. 14;Anguttara, I, p. 177.


Cf. Anguttara, I, p. 250: Seyyathāpi bhikkhave puriso loṇaphalaṃ Gangāya nadiyā pakkhipeyya. Taṃ kiṃ maññatha bhikkhave. Api nu sā Gangā nadī amunā loṇaphalena loṇā assa apeyyā ti. – No h’etaṃ bhante.


Namely, the five upāsānaskandha.

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