Maha Prajnaparamita Sastra

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

This page describes “sarvastivadin-sautrantika debate on time” 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.

The Sautrāntika.

Past dharmas, already destroyed, no longer exist; future dharmas, not yet come, are not formed; the present which lasts but an instant (ekakṣaṇika) has no period of duration (sthitikāla). Then how can the Buddha know the three times with an unhindered penetration?

The Sarvāstivādin.

The Buddha affirms unobstructed penetration of the past, the future and the present. How can his word be wrong?

Moreover, if there were no past or future and if there was only an instant of the present, the Buddha would never realize his innumerable qualities (apramāṇguṇa) such as the ten knowledges (daśajñāna) or the ten [powers (daśabala). There cannot be ten simultaneous knowledges in one single mind. If that were the case, the Buddha would never fulfill the ten powers. This is how we know that there is a past and a future.

The Sautrāntika.

If the past, the future and the present existed, what could there not be? But the Buddha preached the four truths (catuḥsatya) and, in the truth of suffering (duḥkhasatya), he saw the aspects of impermanence, etc. (anityādyākāra). Impermanence (anityatā) is death after birth, ruin (vipariṇāma), vanishing (anupalabdhi). If past dharmas existed actually in truth, there would no longer be impermanence, ruin, vanishing.

Moreover, [to claim] that the past, future and present exist is to fall into eternalism (śāśvatadṛṣṭi). Why? If the dharma exists in the future, it necessarily exists in the present and from the present it goes into the past. If a man were to leave one house to enter another, we would not say that he has disappeared.

The Sarvāstivādin.

What is wrong in saying that he has not disappeared?

The Sautrāntika.

If there were no impermanence (anityatā), there would be neither sin (āpatti) nor merit (puṇya), neither birth (jāti) nor death (maraṇa), neither bondage (bandhana) nor liberation (mokṣa).

Sins (āpatti) are the ten bad paths of action (daśākuśalakarmapatha), killing (prāṇātipāta), etc. If there were no impermanence [in other words, if the victim of the killing were eternal], there would be no sin of killing, etc., and, as is said in the Fen-pie-sie-kien (Mithyādṛṣṭīvibhaṅga): “A knife driven into the body and impaling the seven places would do no harm.”

Merits (puṇya) are the ten good paths of action (daśakuśalakarmapatha), abstaining from killing (prāṇātipātavirati), etc.

Impermanence (anityatā) is the distinct births and deaths. If there were no [255a] impermanence, there would be neither birth nor death, there would be neither bondage (bandhana) nor deliverance (mokṣa). These are the innumerable errors (apramāṇadoṣa) [resulting from the eternalist system].

The Sarvāstivādin.

The dharmas of the three times each have their own characteristic (lakṣaṇa): the past dharma has the characteristic of the past, the future dharma has the characteristic of the future, the present dharma has the characteristic of the present. If the past and the future had the characteristic of the present, there would be the difficulties [that you have raised], but here past, future and present each have their own characteristic.

Furthermore, if there really was neither past nor future, the condition of being a monastic (pravrajitasaṃvara) would not exist either. Why? As soon as he would be in a bad state of mind (duṣṭacitta) and would break his earlier commitments (śīla), this monk would no longer be a bhikṣu. And as soon as a saint (āryapudgala) would return in mind to worldly things (lokasaṃvṛti), he would be just an ordinary person (pṛthagjana) since, [according to your hypothesis], there is neither past nor future nor present.

In the same way, sins (āpatti) also, beginning with the five ānantarya ‘sins of immediate retribution’, would not exist. Why? It is necessary for the five ānantaryas to be actions already past (atītakarman) and for their doer to be dead, for the latter to enter into hell (naraka). Now if these five ānantaryas are still to come (anāgata), there is no action (karman) and, as a result, no retribution (vipāka); and, in the present existence (pratyutpannātmabhāva), they are not ‘of immediate retribution’ [since the death of their perpetrator has not yet occurred]. Therefore, if the past did not exist, there would be no ānantarya sins and, still less, any other sins. The same reasoning holds for merits (puṇya).[1] To deny the existence of sin and of merit is a bad view (mithyādṛṣṭi) and those who hold it are no different from birds and beasts.

Moreover, I do not say that past and future exist like the present. I say that the past, although vanished, is capable of producing a memory (smṛti) and of giving birth to a mind (citta) and mental events (caitasikadharma).

Thus, the fire that was extinguished yesterday can today give rise to a memory, but it is impossible that this fire be revived by virtue of this memory. If I see that someone is gathering kindling (indhana), I know that they will light the fire and I say to myself that today’s fire is like yesterday’s fire, but it is not possible for the fire to be re-kindled by virtue of this memory that I have of the fire. It is the same for that which is things of the future. Although the present mind (pratyutpannacitta) is instantaneous (kṣaṇika) and without duration (asthitika), it re-arises in series (saṃtāna) and is able to recognize dharmas. Inwardly (adhyātmam) using the actual mind (manas) as cause (hetu) and outwardly (using the dharmas as object (ālambana), a mental consciousness (manovijñāna) takes up its job.[2] This mental consciousness, which is sovereign (adhipati), cognizes (vijānāti) past, future and present dharmas. There is only the mind and the actual mental (pratyutpanna) events that it does not cognize;[3] it cognizes all the rest.

Footnotes and references:


Kośabhāṣya, p. 295, summarizes the debate thus: Yadi cātītaṃ na syāt śubhāśubhasya karmaṇaḥ phalam āyatyāṃ kathaṃ syāt. na hi phalotpattikāle vartamāno vipākahetur astīti, tasmād asty evātitānāgatam iti Vaibhāṣikāḥ. – “If the past does not exist, how would the retribution in the future of a good or bad action exist? Actually, at the moment when the fruit of retribution is produced, the cause of the retribution is no longer present. This is why the Vaibhāṣikas say that the past and the future exist.”


Kośabhāṣya, p. 295, presents the argument thus: Dvayaṃ pratītya vijñānasyotpāda ity uktam. dvayaṃ katamat. cakṣū rūpaṇi yāvan mano dharmā iti. asati vātītānmagate tadālambanam vijñānaṃ dvayaṃ pratītya na syāt. – Paraphrased translation: It is said by the Buddha (Saṃyutta, II, p. 72) that it is because of two things, [organ and object], that consciousnesses arise. What are these two things? The eye and colors for the eye consciousness, and so on up to: the mind (manas) and things (dharma) for the mental consciousness (manovijñāna). If past and future things did not exist, the mental consciousness, which has them as object and which arises as a result of two things – as the Buddha has it – would not arise.


For the Sarvāstivādin, the present mind does not cognize itself: it is the manas that is just past that is cognized by the immediately following manovijñāna; cf. Kośa, I, p. 31; IX, p. 231 and note.