Maha Prajnaparamita Sastra

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

This page describes “the concept of non-self (anatman-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.

III. The concept of non-self (anātman-saṃjñā)

Concept of non-self (anātmansaṃjñā). – “That which is suffering is non-self” (yad duḥkhaṃ tad anātmā).[1] Why? The five aggregates of attachment (pañcopādānaskandha) are all suffering and have no independence (aiśvarya, vibhitba). If they have no independence, they are non-self (anātman). If they had an independent self, “it would be impossible for the body to feel suffering” (na kāyo vyābādhāya saṃvarteta).[2] Thus it is said:

There are fools
Who consider their body or their mind as their self.
Gradually they become strongly attached to them:
They do not understand the law of impermanence.

There is no agent (kāraka) in this body
Neither is there any perceiver (vedaka).
This body is without a master,[3]
And, nevertheless, it does all kinds of things.

From the six organs (indriya) and the six objects (viṣaya)
Arise the six kinds of consciousnesses (vijñāna);
From the coming together of the three (trikasaṃnipāta)
Contact (sparśa) arises.[4]

From contact as condition
There arise feeling, memory and action,
In the same way as fire arises
When the lens, kindling and the sun come together.

Organs, objects and consciousnesses having come together,
The action to be accomplished is realized.
There is continuity (saṃtanaśādṛśya)
As in the seed, the sprout and the stem.[5]

Furthermore, there is no ātman because the characteristics (lakṣaṇa) of the ātman do not exist. Dharmas must have a characteristic so that we may know that they exist. Thus, if we see smoke (dhūma) and we feel heat (uṣṇa), we know there is a fire (vahni). Because there are differences [in characteristics] between the five sense objects (viṣaya), we know they exist. Because beings of various sorts conceive and compute things in different ways, we know that there are minds (citta) and mental events (caitasikadharma). But since the ātman has no characteristic, we know it does not exist.

Question. – However, there is breathing (ānāpāna) which is a characteristic of the ātman, and also the looking straight ahead and sideways (ālokitavilokita), life (āyus), mind (citta), suffering or happiness (duḥkhasukha), affection or aversion (icchādveṣa), the will (prayatna), etc., which are characteristics of the ātman. If there were no ātman, then who would have this breathing, this looking straight ahead or sideways, this life, this mind, this suffering or this happiness, this affection or this aversion, this will, etc.? Thus we know that there is an ātman moving internally and that the life (āyus) and mind (citta) are properties of the ātman.[6]

If there were no ātman, one would be like an ox (go) without an oxherd (sārthvāha). But since there is an ātman, it can govern the mind, penetrate things without any loss of attentiveness (pramāda).

If there were no ātman, who would direct the mind and experience unhappiness or happiness? If there were no ātman, one would be like a piece of wood (kāṣṭha), unable to distinguish between suffering and happiness, and it would be the same for affection or aversion, effort, etc.

Nevertheless, since the ātman is subtle (sūkṣma), it cannot be cognized by the five sense organs (indriya), and it is by these characteristics that we know it exists. [231a]

Answer. – But all these characteristics are characteristics of the consciousness (vijñānalakṣaṇa)! It is because there is consciousness that there is breathing, looking straight ahead or sideways, life, etc., and when the consciousness leaves the body, all of that disappears.[7] According to your concept of an eternal (anitya) and omnipresent (vyāpin) ātman, the corpse (kuṇapa) itself should still possess respiration, the ability to look straight ahead and sideways, life, etc.

Furthermore, breathing (ānāpāna), etc., are material dharmas (rūpidharma) moving on the wind of the mind: these are characteristics of consciousness (vijñāna) and not characteristics of the ātman. As for life (āyus) which is a formation dissociated from mind (cittaviprayuktasaṃskāra), this also is a characteristic of consciousness.

Question. – When one enters into the absorption without mind (acittakasamāpatti)[8] and possibly one sleeps without dreaming, the breathing (ānāpāna) continues and life (āyus) continues. How can you say that [breathing and life] are characteristics of consciousness?

Answer. – Although consciousness is temporarily suspended in the absorption without mind, shortly thereafter it must necessarily recur, for it does not leave the body; the time of duration of consciousness is long; the time when it disappears is short. This is why [breathing and life] are characteristics of consciousness. When a man goes out for a walk, we cannot say that his house is without an owner!

Sadness and happiness (duḥkhasukha), affection and aversion (icchādveṣa), will (prayatna), etc., are associated with the mind (cittasaṃprayukta), mutual conditions (sahabhūpratyaya) and accompanying the mind (cittānuparivartin): when mind exists, they exist; when mind does not exist, they do not exist. This is why these are characteristics of consciousness and not characteristics of the ātman.

Furthermore, supposing the ātman did exist, it would be either eternal (nitya) or non-eternal (anitya). But, as is said:

If the ātman were eternal
There would be no new existence (punarbhava).
Eternal and without birth,
It would also be without deliverance.

It would also be infallible and inactive:
This is why we should know
That there would be neither sinner nor saint
Nor any object to be sensed (vedaka).

To abandon the ‘me’ (ātman) and the ‘mine’ (ātmīya)
Is then to attain nirvāṇa.
But if there really were an ātman,
We would be unable to reject the idea of ‘me’.

If the ātman were non-eternal
It ought to perish with the body,
Like water rushing down from a high cliff.
There would no longer be either sin or merit.[9]

See [above, p. 735F] what has been said in the chapter on Dānapāramitā about the ātman, the cognizing (jānaka) or non-cognizing subject, and the active (kāraka) or non-active subject.

Since we cannot discover the characteristics of the ātman, we know that the ātman is absent in all dharmas. Since we know that there is no ātman in the dharmas, we cannot conceive the idea of ātman. Since there is no ātman, there cannot be an idea of ātmiya, ‘the idea of things belonging to the ātman’. When the ātman and the ātmiya have disappeared, there is no longer any bondage, and when there is no longer any bondage, that is nirvāṇa. This is why the yogin should cultivate the concept of non-self (anātmasaṃjñā).

Footnotes and references:


The entire explanation that follows turns upon the canonical formula: Yad aniccaṃ taṃ dukkhaṃ, yaṃ dukkhaṃ tad anattā, yad anattā taṃ netaṃ mama neso haṃ asmi na meso attā ti: “That which is impermanent is suffering; that which is suffering is non-self; that which is non-self is not mine, I am not that and that is not me.” Cf. Saṃyutta, II, p. 22, 82, 84,; IV, p. 1.


Implicit reference to the Sūtra on the non-self which follows the sūtra on the four noble Truths (cf. Pāli Vin, I, p. 13–14; Saṃyutta, III, p. 66–68; Catuṣpariṣad, p. 162–164; Mahāvastu, III, p. 335–337: Rūpañ ced ātmabhaviṣyad rūpaṃ na vyābādhāya duḥkhāya saṃvarteta, labhyeta ca rūpasya: evaṃ me rūpaṃ bhavate evaṃ mā bhād iti.


Adopting the variant tchou in place of cheng.


According to the Pāli Abhidamma (Atthasālinī, p. 109) and the Sarvāstivādins (Kośa, III, p. 96), contact (sparśa), the sixth link in the pratītyasamutpāda chain (above, p. 350F), are six in number and arise from the coming together of the three (trikasaṃnipāta), namely, organ, object and consciousness. For the Sautrāntikas, sparśa is only the meeting itself (Kośa, III, p. 96–97).


Cf. Kośa, IX, p. 296–299.


The objector here is the spokesman for the Vaiśeṣikas who assume nine substances (dravya), including the ātman, endowed with qualities (guṇa): cf. Vaiśeṣikasūtra (I, I, 5–6).


The Buddha indeed said:

Āyur uṣmātha vijñanāṃ yadā kāyaṃ jahaty amī |
apaviddhaḥ tadā śete yathā kāṣṭham acetanaḥ ||

“When life, heat and consciousness leave the body, the body lies abandoned, like a piece of wood, without any feeling.”

For this stanza, which shows variations, see Kośavyākhyā, p. 668, l. 16–17, and for the canonical sources, Majjhima, I, p. 206, l. 9–11; Saṃyutta, III, p. 13=43, l. 4–5.


Absorption without mind, also called absorption of non-discrimination (asaṃjñisamāpatti), during which mind and mental events are arrested: see Kośa, II, p. 201.


In an inaugural dissertation at Munich, M. Saigura has identified these three stanzas as Mūlamadhyamakārikā VIII, 12; XVIII, 2: XVIII, 4, of which here are the text and translation:

Evaṃ vidyād upādÌaṃ vutsargād iti karmaṇaḥ |
kartuś ca karmakartṛbhyāṃ śeṣān bhāvān vibhāvayet ||

Ātmany asati cātmīyaṃ kuta eva bhaviṣyati |
nirmamo nirahaṃāraḥ śamād ātmātmanīnayoḥ ||

Mamety aham iti kusīṇe bahirdhādhyātmam eva ca |
Nirudhyata upādānaṃ tatkusayāj janmanaḥ kṣayaḥ ||

Transl.- One should understand appropriation as the ‘rejection’ of action and agent. By means of action and agent, one will be able to recognize the other essences.

As the ‘me’ does not exist, how could the ‘mine’ exist? The [yogin] is freed from [the idea] of ‘me’ and [the idea] of ‘mine’ by means of the suppression of ‘me’ and what is profitable to the ‘me.’

What is called ‘me’ and ‘mine’ being suppressed both externally as well as internally, the appropriation is destroyed and the destruction of the latter [results] in the destruction of birth.

These kārikās have nothing in common with the stanzas presented here by the Traité. Many other fanciful comparisons may also be found in the dissertation in question

Let's grow together!

I humbly request your help to keep doing what I do best: provide the world with unbiased sources, definitions and images. Your donation direclty influences the quality and quantity of knowledge, wisdom and spiritual insight the world is exposed to.

Let's make the world a better place together!

Like what you read? Consider supporting this website: