Maha Prajnaparamita Sastra

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

This page describes “non-existence of time according to the mahayana” 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 Non-existence of Time According to the Mahāyāna

Question. – In the Prajñāpāramitā, in the Jou-siang p’in (Tathātālakṣaṇaparivarta), it is said: “The three times (tryadhvan) have but a single nature (ekalakṣaṇa), namely, the absence of nature (alakṣaṇa).”[1] Then why is it said here that the Buddha’s knowledge knows the three times with an unhindered penetration?

Answer. – The Buddhas have two ways of preaching the Dharma (dharmanirdeśa): i) first, analysis of the dharmas (dharmavibhaṅga); ii) then, the preaching of unlimited emptiness (atyantaśūnyatā).[2]

When the Buddha claims that he penetrates dharmas of the three times without any obstacle, this is an analytical teaching (vibhajya nirdeśa). When he says that the three times have but a single nature, namely, the absence of nature, he is teaching unlimited emptiness (atyantaśūnyatā).

Moreover, those who are not omniscient (sarvajñā) come up against obstacles (pratigha) in the consciousness of the three times. Thus saints such as [255b] Avalokiteśvara, Mañjuśrī, Maitreya, Śāriputra, etc., have all encountered obstacles in the consciousness of the three times.

Therefore when it is said that the Buddha cognizes the three times with an unhindered penetration, we are not referring to emptiness [but simply to the analysis of dharmas].

Finally, there are people who produce wrong views (mithyadṛṣṭi) in regard to the three times and who say: “Past (atīta) dharmas and beings (sattva) have a beginning (pūrvānta), do not have a beginning, etc.”

If they have a beginning, then there are new beings, and the dharmas also arise without cause or condition (hetupratyaya).[3]

If they do not have a beginning (pūrvānta), neither do they have an end (aparānta), they have neither end nor middle (madhyānta). Or else not having a beginning means having a middle and having an end; not having an end means having a beginning and a middle; not having a middle means having a beginning and an end.

But if beings (sattva) and things (dharma) are without beginning, they are also without middle and without end and, since the three times (tryadhvan) do not exist, there is nothing (akiṃcid).[4]

Furthermore, if there is no beginning, how can there be this Omniscient One (sarvajñā) who, in order to destroy all these wrong views, declares that “the dharmas of the three times (tryadvadharma) have but a single nature (ekalakṣaṇa), namely, the absence of nature (alakṣaṇa)” and who, in order not to destroy the threefold time, declares that “the Buddha knows it”?

Question. – But absence of nature (alakṣaṇa) is has limits (antavat)!

Answer. – No. Absence of nature is limitless (ananta), inexpressible (anabhilāpya) and unquestionable. Why do you say it is limited? If one grasps characteristics in the absence of characteristics, this would no longer be an absence of characteristics (yady alakṣaṇe nimittāny udgṛhṇīyād alakṣaṇaṃ na syāt). By absence of nature we mean the ungraspable emptiness (anupalambhaśūnyatā). Here, absence of nature is ungraspable and emptiness itself is ungraspable. This is why absence of characteristics is called ungraspable emptiness.

Furthermore, the Buddha has two kinds of paths (pratipad):[5]

1. The path of merit (puṇyapratipad), if a person, hearing about the ten powers (bala) of the Buddha, his four fearlessnesses (vaiśāradya), his four unhindered knowledges (pratisaṃvid) and his eighteen special attributes (āveṇikadharma), produces minds of veneration (satkāra) and faith (prasāda).

2. The path of wisdom (prajñāpratipad), if a person hearing that dharmas coming from the complex of causes and conditions (hetupratyayasāmagryutpanna) are without self-nature (niḥsvabhāva), abandons all these dharmas, but does not become attached in mind to emptiness.

Thus the moon (candra) moistens objects (vastu) and the sun (sūrya) ripens them, and thanks to this twofold action, everything prospers. The path of merit (puṇyapratipad) and the path of wisdom (prajñāpratipad) do the same: the path of merit gives rise to qualities (guṇa), and the path of wisdom, acting on the path of merit, expels attachment to wrong views (mithyādṛṣṭyabhiniveśa).

This is why, although he preaches the limitless emptiness (atyantaśūnyatā) of dharmas, the Buddha also speaks of his unhindered penetration of the three times; there is nothing wrong in this.

This is a brief explanation (saṃkṣepanirdeśa) of the meaning of the eighteen special attributes of the Buddhas.

Footnotes and references:


In agreement with the other Prajñāpāramitāsūtras, the Pañcaviṃśati speaks of the adhvaśūnyatā ‘emptiness of time’, excluding any beginning (pūrvānta), any end (āparānta) and any present (p. 49, l. 5–19): it proclaims the tryadhvasamatā ‘the identity of the three times’ (p. 242, l. 6, 10, 19) and concludes from it that all dharmas are without characteristics: Sarva ete dharmā na saṃyuktā ni visaṃyuktā arūpiṇo ’nidarśanā apratighā ekalakṣaṇā yadutālakṣaṇāḥ.


The ninth of the eighteen emptinesses. The Pañcaviṃśati, p. 196, l. 17–18, defines it thus: Tatra katamātyantaśūnyatā. yasya anto nopalabhyate tad atyantam atyantena śūnyam akūṭasthāvināśitām upādāya. tat kasya hetoḥ. prakṛtir asya eṣā. Kumārajīva translates (T 223, k. 5, p. 250c2–4): What is atyantaśūnyatā? Atyanta means that the limit of dharmas is ungraspable because they are neither eternal (akūṭasthā) nor destroyed (avināśita). Why? Because that is their nature.


An absurd consequence, for the transmigration of beings has had no beginning (anamataggāyaṃ bhikkave saṃsāro) and conditioned dharmas by definition are the result of causes and conditions (hetusaṃpanna, hetuppabhāva, idappaccayatāpaṭiccasamuppanna).


Cf. Pañcaviṃśati, p. 240: Nāsya yānasya pūrvānta upalabhyate nāparānta upalabhyate na madhya upalabhyate. tryadhvasamaṃ tad yānaṃ. tasmād mahāyānaṃ mahāyānam ity ucyate.


For this twofold path, see below, k. 29, p. 274a10.

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