Maha Prajnaparamita Sastra

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

This page describes “the emptiness of nonexistence (anupalambha-shunyata)” 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 emptiness of nonexistence (anupalambha-śūnyatā)

Question. – In the Prajñāpāramitā it is said that [the dharmas], from the five aggregates (skandha) up to the ten balas, the four vaiśāradyas and the eighteen [245c] āveṇikadharmas, are all empty (śūnya).[1] Why then do you distinguish the characteristics here?

Answer. – In the Buddhadharma, the emptiness of non-existence (anupalambha-śūnyatā) is not an obstacle to any dharma. It is precisely because of the emptiness of non-existence that one can speak of the teachings of the Buddha or of the twelve classes of texts (dvādaśāṅgabuddhavacana). In the same way, it is because space (ākāśa) is nothing at all that everything depends on it and develops.

Furthermore, if here we distinguish powers (bala) and fearlessnesses (vaiśāradya), it is not that we are grasping characteristics (nimittodgrahaṇa) or that we are attaching our mind (cittābhiniveśa) to them; we want only to save beings, for knowing that the being comes from causes and conditions (hetupratyayotpanna) [and is not independent] is to obtain deliverance (vimukti). In the same way, the medicinal plant (oṣadhi) is used only to cure the sickness and not at all to investigate the characteristics (nimitta) of the medicinal plant.

See what is said by the Tchong-louen (Madhyamakaśāstra):

If you believe in the emptiness of dharmas
You are in agreement with logic.
If you do not believe in the emptiness of dharmas,
Everything becomes contradictory.[2]

If one rejected emptiness,
There would be nothing more to do.
Activity would exist without being undertaken,
One would be agent without being active.[3]

This [true] nature of dharmas,
Who then would be able to conceive of it?
Only the pure and straight mind.
Here words have no foundation.[4]

Eliminate the views of existence and non-existence
And the mind will be exhausted inwardly by itself.[5]

Question. – This is how the śrāvaka system speaks of the ten powers (bala) and the four fearlessnesses (vaiśāradya). How does the Mahāyāna distinguish them in its turn?

Answer. – An exhaustive knowledge, a universal knowledge, is contained in these ten balas and four vaiśāradyas, and it is in this regard that the ten balas and four vaiśāradyas are spoken of in the Mahāyāna.

Question. – But in the śrāvaka system it is also a question of this exhaustive knowledge, this universal knowledge.[6] Why does the Mahāyāna return to it?

Answer. – The scholars (upadeśācārya) say the following: That the Buddha cognizes in an exhaustive way, a universal way, was not said by the Buddha himself; it is here in the Mahāyāna and in regard to the ten balas and the four vaiśāradyas that the Buddha himself declares that he cognizes in an exhaustive way, in a universal way.

Furthermore, when he preaches the ten balas and four vaiśāradyas to the śrāvakas, it is in connection with the four truths (catuḥsatya), the twelve causes (dvādaśasnidāna) and other śrāvaka theories all serving to arrive at nirvāṇa. But here in the Mahāyāna, when he preaches the ten balas and four vaiśāradyas, it is in connection with great compassion (mahākaruṇā), the true nature (bhūtalakṣaṇa) of dharmas and the doctrine of non-arising (anutpāda) and non-cessation (anirodha).

Footnotes and references:


Pañcaviṃśati, p. 146, l. 9–20: Śatasahāsrikā, p. 839, l. 13–842, l. 17; passage cited above, p. 1605F.


Madh. kārikā, XXIV, 14, p. 55; Tchong louen, T 1564, k. 4, p. 33a22–23:

Sarvaṃ ca yujyate tasya śūnyatā yasya yujyate |
sarvaṃ na yujyate tasya śūnyaṃ na yujyate ||

Transl. J. May, Candrakīrti, p. 234: “If emptiness is logical, everything is logical; if it is absurd, everything is absurd.”

The translator compares this stanza of the Vigrahavyāvartanī, ed. Johnston and Kunst, p. 150:

Prabhavati ca śūnyateyaṃ yasya prabhavanti tasya sarvārthāḥ |
prabhavati na tasya kiṃcinna prabhavati śūnyatā yasya ||

S. Yamaguchi, Pour écarter les vaines discussions, JA, 1929, p. 60. translates: “Where non-substantiality is possible, everything is possible. Where non-substantiality is not possible, nothing is possible.”

For the Madhyamaka, dependent origination (pratītyasamutpāda) equals emptiness (śūnyatā) and, in this regard, Candrakīrti, in his Madh. vṛtti, p. 500, cites the well-known stanza:

Yaḥ pratyayair jāyati sa hy ajāto na tasya utpāda svabhāvato ’sti |
yaḥ pratyayādhinu sa śūnya ukto yaḥ śūnaytaṃ jānmati so ’pramattaḥ ||

“That which arises from conditions is not born really; its production does not exist as intrinsic nature. That which depends on conditions is called empty. He who knows emptiness is free of mistakes.”


Madh. kārikā, XXIV, 37, p. 513; Tchong louen, T 1564, k. 4, p. 34b18–19:

Na kartavyaṃ bhavet kiṃcid anārabdhā bhavet kriyā |
kārakaḥ syād akurvāṇaḥ śūnyatāṃ pratibādhatas ||

“There would be nothing to do; activity would exist without being undertaken; one could be agent without doing anything if one rejects emptiness.”

In other words, denying emptiness is to condemn oneself to imputing a sin that he has not committed (akṛtābhyāgama) to an innocent person and to considering as nothing and non-existent every accomplished action (kṛtavupraṇāśa): cf. Madh. vṛtti, p. 325,. l. 3, and note; Pañjikā, p. 469, l. 9; Mahāvyut., no. 7529–7530.


Madh. kārikā, XVIII, 7, p. 365; Tchong louen, T 1564, k. 3, p. 24a3–4:

Nivṛttam abhidhātavyaṃ nivṛtte cittagocare |
anutpannāniruddhā hi nirvāṇam iva dharmatā ||

“All that can be named is destroyed if the object of the mind is destroyed. Indeed the [true] nature of things in unborn, not destroyed, like nirvāṇa.”


Unidentified stanza, but several centuries later, Śāntideva expressed himself in almost the same terms (Bodhicaryāvatāra, IX, st. 35):

Yadā na bhāvo nābhāvo mateḥ saṃtiṣṭhate puraḥ |
tadānayagatyabhāvena nirālambā praśāmyati ||

“When existence or non-existence no longer arise to the mind, then without any other alternative, the mind, deprived of object, is exhausted.”

It is said that after having pronounced this stanza, Śāntideva rose up into the sky and disappeared.


Actually, in the definition of the ten balas, the canonical texts cited above, p. 1506F, each time use the word pratijānati to insist on the exhaustive and universal nature of these knowledges.

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