Maha Prajnaparamita Sastra

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

This page describes “sattvashunyata or pudgalanairatmya” 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.

A. Sattvaśūnyatā or Pudgalanairātmya

Sattvaśūnyatā is the non-existence of the being (sattva), of the soul, of the self (ātman), of the living being (jīva), of the man (puruṣa), of the individual (pudgala): all these words are only designations (prajñapti) of the group of fragmentary entities.

On the evidence of the Brahmajālasatta (D., I, p. 31–34), the first Buddhists were fully informed about the animistic and spiritualistic concepts current in their time among the śramaṇas and brāmaṇas: persistence after death of a conscious self (saṃjñī ātmā), in sixteen forms; or of an unconscious self (asaṃjñāī ātmā), in eight forms; or of a neither conscious nor unconscious self (naivasaṃjñīsāsaṃjñī ātmā), in eight forms; annihilation in seven forms of the existent being (sato sattvasya uccheda) or its deliverance, in five forms, in the present lifetime (dṛṣṭadharmanirvāṇa). All these theories were condemned by the Buddha.

More precisely, the notion of ātman against which the Buddhists struggled is that of a permanent (nitya), stable (dhruva), eternal (śāśvata), immutable (avipariṇāmadharman) entity which the ignorant attribute to the great Brahman (D. I, p. 18–19), to some deities (D. I, p. 19–20) to themselves or to others (M. I, p. 8, 135, 137; S. III, p. 98–99, 183): this notion is closely related to that of the Brahman-Ātman of the Upaniṣads and the Vedānta.

The Buddha resolutely moved away from it and declared: Natthi nicco dhuvo sassato avipariṇāmadhammo (S. III, p. 144).

In order to designate this substantial soul, the Indian language uses an extensive vocabulary and a broad range of synonyms: ātman, but also sattva, jīva, poṣa, puruṣa, pudgala, manuja, mānava, kartṛ, kāraka, jānaka, saṃjanaka, paśyaka, vedaka, pratisaṃvedaka, utthāpaka, samutthāpaka, etc. But all these terms do not express what it is, even if only metaphorically.

Nothing is outside of sattvaśūnyatā.

In order to be convinced of that, it is necessary to recall some elementary notions.

Dharmas or things occur in two main categories: unconditioned (asaṃskṛta) dharmas and conditioned (saṃskṛta) dharmas.

The asaṃskṛtas, not formed by causes, are unproduced (utpāda), without extinction (vyaya), and without duration-change (sthityanyathātva): cf. A. I, p. 152. The schools debate their number: from one to nine (L. de La Vallée Poussin, Nirvāṇa, p. 180–187).

The saṃskṛtas, also called saṃskāras, formations, are dependently originated (pratītyasamutpanna) from causes and conditions (hetupratyaya) and furnished with three (or four) conditioned characteristics: birth (utpāda), extinction (vyaya) and duration-change (sthityanyathātva) as a function of which they arise, endure and disappear: cf. A. I, p. 152; S. III, p. 37; Nidānasaṃyukta, p. 139; and above p. 36–37F, 921F, 1163F.

The canonical texts arrange the saṃskṛtas into three classes, all three covering one single grouping:

I. The five skandhas or aggregates: 1) matter or corporeality (rūpa). 2) sensation (vedanā), 3) concept (saṃjñā), 4) volition (saṃskāra), 5) consciousness (vijñāna). – See, e.g., S. III, p. 47–48, 100; V, p. 60–61.

II. The twelve āyatanas or bases of consciousness, namely, the six inner bases (ādhyātmika āyatana): 1) eye (cakṣus), 2) ear (śrotra). 3) nose (ghrāṇa), 4) tongue (jihvā), 5) body (kāya), 6) mind (manas); and the six outer bases (bāhya āyatana): 7) matter (rūpa), 8) sound (śabda), 9) odor (gandha), 10) taste (rasa), 11) touch (sparṣṭavya), 12) dharma. – See, e.g., D. II, p. 302; III, p. 102, 243; M. I, p. 61.

III. The eighteen dhātus or elements, namely the six organs and the six objects in the previous list, plus: 13) eye consciousness (cakṣurvijñāna). 14) ear consciousness (śrotravijñāna). 15) nose consciousness (grāṇavijñāna), 16) tongue consciousness (jihvāvijñāna), 17) body consciousness (kāyavijñāna), 18) mental consciousness (manovijñāna). See, e.g., S. II p. 140.

The grouping of conditioned dharmas defined by each of the three classes is called sarvam, ‘everything’ (S. IV, p. 15; Mahāniddesa, I, p. 133; Kośabhāṣya, p. 301, 7–8), loka, ‘the world’ (S. IV, p. 52, 54) or also duḥkha, ‘suffering’ (S. IV, p. 28).

In order to pass valid judgment on all these dharmas, it is necessary always to refer to the four seals of the Dharma (dharmamudra) mentioned above (p. 1369F): Sarvasaṃskārā anityāḥ, sarvasaṃskārā duḥkhāḥ, sarvasaṃskārā anātmānaḥ, śāntaṃ virvāṇam “All the saṃskāras (= saṃkṛtadharma) are impermanent; all the saṃskāras are painful; all the dharmas (whether saṃskṛta or asaṃskṛta) are non-self; nirvāṇa is peace.”

The asaṃskṛtas and especially nirvāṇa also are just as impersonal as the saṃskṛtas (Vin. V, p. 86: Nibbānañ c’eva paññatti anattā iti nicchayā). Nirvāṇa is the cessation of desire (rāga), hatred (dveṣa) and delusion (moha): cf. S. IV, p. 251, 261. In that capacity, it is necessary to be aware of the non-existence of the self in order to attain nirvāna in this life, which abolishes the pride of “I am” (A. IV, p. 353: Anattasaññī asmimānasamugghātaṃ pāpunāti diṭṭh’ eva dhamme nibbānaṃ).

Neither are the samskrtas a self (anātman) nor do they belong to a self (anātmīya). This truth must be repeated again and again for it is at the time of the five aggregates of attachment (upādānaskandha) that the concept of “I am” (asmīti) arises: cf. S. III, p. 126-132.

Thus the Buddha so often lectured his monks about the list of the five skandhas (Vin. I, p. 14; M. I, p. 138–139; III, p. 19–20; S. II. p. 124–125; III, p. 88–89. 94, 111, 138, 148–149; Catuṣpariṣad, p. 164–168), the twelve āyatanas (S. II, p. 244–246) and the eighteen dhātus (M. III, p. 271–272). Pausing after each skandha, āyatana and dhātu, he has the following conversation with his monks:

– “What do you think, O monks. Is rūpa permanent (nitya) or impermanent (anitya)?

– Impermanent, Lord.

– But that which is impermanent, is it painful (duḥkha) or pleasant (sukha)?

– Painful. Lord.

– Now, that which is impermanent, painful and subject to change, when one thinks about it, can one say: That is mine, I am that, that is my self (etan mama, eṣo ‘ham asmi, eṣa ma ātmā)?

– One cannot, Lord.”            

And the Buddha concludes: Consequently, O monks, every past, future or present (rūpa), internal or external, coarse or subtle, lower or higher, distant or close, all this rūpa is not mine, I am not it, it is not my self: this is what must be truly seen according to the right cognition.

The same dialogue and the same conclusion are repeated in regard to the other four skandhas, the twelve āyatanas and the eighteen dhātus.

The saṃskāṛas are impermanent and painful:

If the saṃskāṛas are not a self and do not belong to a self, it is because they are impermanent and painful: “Short and brief is the life of humans; it abounds in suffering and torments. It is like a mountain river that goes afar, runs rapidly, carries everything in its passing. There is no second, no minute, no hour that it stops; it forges ahead, whirls about and rushes on. For the one who is born here below, there is no immortality.” (A IV, p. 136–137).

Then why look for a self in these saṃskāras “so transitory (anitya), so fragile (adhruva), so untrustworthy (anāśvāsya)”? (S. II, p. 191, 193). – Does somebody say: “In the mind”? “But it would be better to take as the self the body (kāya) that can last one year, two years or even a hundred or more years, rather than the mind. For what is called mind (citta, manas) or consciousness (vijñāna) arises and disappears in perpetual change, day and night. The mind is like a monkey frolicking in the forest that grasps one branch, then lets it go to grasp another branch.” (S. II, p. 94–95; Traité, p. 1165F).

There are three types of suffering: suffering as suffering (duḥkhaduḥkhatā), suffering as the fact of being conditioned (saṃkāraduḥkhata) and the suffering resulting from change (vipariṇāmaduḥkhatā): cf. D. III, p. 216; S. IV, p. 259; V, p. 56. All the psychophysical phenomena of existence are the result of causes and must disappear. The result is that everything is suffering (Sarvaṃ duḥkham: S. IV, p. 28); all that is experienced is experienced as suffering (yaṃ kiñci vedayitaṃ taṃ duḥkhasmiṃ: S. IV, p. 216; Traité, p. 1159F, 1446F) and nothing arises but suffering, nothing is destroyed but suffering (nāññatra dukkā sambhoti, nāññaṃ dukkhā nirujjhati: S. I, p. 135; Catuṣpariṣad, p. 354).

The whole process of becoming takes place outside of a self and there is no self to control it: “Form (rūpa) is not a self. If it were a self, this form would not be subject to torments (ābādha) and one would be able to say in regard to the form: ‘My body is thus, thus is not my body.’ But that is not the case. And it is the same for the other skandhas, sensations, concepts, volitions and consciousnesses.” (Vin. I, p. 13–14; S. III, p. 66–67; Catuṣpariṣad, p. 162–164; Mahāvastu, III, p. 335–336).

The twelve-membered dependent origination (dvādaśāṅga-pratītyasamutpāda):

As conditioned dharmas (saṃskṛṭa), the skandhas, arising, enduring a very short time and ceasing, evolve ceaselessly in the cycle of existence (bhavacakra) according to the immutable mechanism of the twelve-membered dependent origination (dvādaśāṅgapratītyasamutpāda, detailed above, p. 349F seq). Pratītyasamutpāda was discovered by the Buddhas but was not created by them nor by any agent (kāraka) whatsoever: “This pratītyasamutpāda has not been made by me nor by anyone else; but whether the Tathāgatas appear in this world or not, this nature of the dharmas is stable.” (Nidānasaṃyukta, p. 164, cited in the Traité above, p. 157F and later, k. 32, p. 298a: Na bhikṣo mayā pratītyasamutpādaḥ kṛto nāpy anyaiḥ, api tūtpādād vā tathāgatānām anutpādād vā sthitā eveyaṃ dharmatā). Dependent origination is inherent in conditioned dharmas. As Kośa III, p. 60, says: “The series of skandhas that develops in three lifetimes [taken at random in the infinite series of lifetimes] is the twelve-membered pratītyasamutpāda. Each of its members is a complex of the five skandhas, although it takes the name of the dharma that is the most important one (Kośa, III, p. 66). Each of its members, including ignorance (avidyā) which opens the list, prevails over its neighbor; all are equally impermanent (anitya), conditioned (saṃskṛta), result from dependency (pratītyasamutpanna), given to destruction, to disappearance, to detachment, to suppression (S. II, p. 26).

One would search in vain in the pratītyasamutpāda for a substantial self or an autonomous agent. The Paramārthaśūnyatāsūtra of the Saṃyuktāgama which the Traité will cite in full below (p. 2136F) is categorical in this regard: “There is action (karman), there is retribution (vipāka) but there is no agent (kāraka) that, [at death], puts aside these skandhas and takes up other skandhas, unless that is a question of a conventional (saṃketa) metaphor to designate the law of dependent origination” (T 99, k. 13, p. 92c12–26; Bimbisārasūtra in E. Waldschmidt, Bruchstūcke buddh. Sūtras, p. 131; Catuṣpariṣad, p. 358; Mahāvastu, III, p. 448, 4–6; Kośavyākhyā, p. 707, 13–16).

The non-existence of the self involves or assumes the non-existence of the ‘mine’ and vice versa: “If the ‘me’ existed, there would be a ‘mine’; if the ‘mine’ existed, there would be a ‘me’. But since the ‘me’ and the ‘mine’ do not truly exist certainly (attaini ca attaniye ca saccato thetato anupalabbhmāne), is it not complete folly to think: This world (loka here designating the twelve āyatanas, according to Saṃyutta, p. 87), this world is ‘me’; after my death, I will be permanent (nicca), stable (dhuva), eternal (sassata), immutable (avipariṇamadhamma), and I will remain so for ever (sassatisamaṃ tath’ eva ṭhassāmi)?” (M. I, p. 138).

The group of the saṃskṛtadharmas (skandhas, āyatanas and dhātus) designated by the demonstrative pronoun idam or by the noun loka is proclaimed to be empty of ‘me’ and ‘mine’: Suññām idaṃ attena vā attaniyena vā (M. I, p. 297, 37; II, p. 263, 26–27; S. IV, p. 296, 33): Yasmā ca kho suññam attena vā attaniyena vā tasmā suñño loko ti vuccati (S., IV, p. 54, 5–6). It is not just in the twofold aspect of ‘me’ and ‘mine’ that emptiness is presented. It can also be envisaged in a number of other aspects (ākāra): the canonical texts distinguish four, six, eight, ten, twelve, and even forty-two (cf. Cullaniddesa, p. 278–280; Visuddhimagga, ed. Warren, p. 561–562). To speak plainly, it is a question there of synonyms rather than distinct realities: the emptiness is the same, the expressions alone are different (M. I, p. 297: dhammā ekaṭṭhā, byañjanam eva nānaṃ).

Satkāyadṛṣṭi (belief in an individual):

The emptiness of beings (sattvaśūnyatā) serves as antidote to the fatal satkāyadṛṣṭi or belief in an individual. This is a wrong view (dṛṣṭi) mistakenly attributing a self to the five aggregates of attachment (upādānaskandha). Indeed, Śāriputra said that the five upādānaskandha are called satkāya by the Buddha (S. IV, p. 259): Pañcime upādānakkhandā sakkāyo vutto Bhagavatā), and the Teacher himself stated that the five skandhas, rūpa, etc., must be present in order that satkāyadṛṣṭi be produced (S. III, p. 185).

Led astray by this wrong view, the ignorant worldly person considers the rūpa as the ātman (rūpaṃ attato samanupassati), or the ātman as possessing the rūpa (rūpavantaṃ vā attānaṃ), or the rūpa as present in the ātman (attani vā rūpaṃ), or the ātman as present in the rūpa (rūpasmiṃ vā attānaṃ). And it is the same for the other skandhas: vedanā, saṃjñā, saṃskāra and vijñāna (M. I, p. 300; III, p. 17; S. III, p. 3–4, 15–17, 42–43, 46, 56, 102, 113–14, 138, 150, 164–165; S. IV, p. 287, 395; A. II, p. 214–215; Mahāvyut., no 4685–4704). The worldly person thus nourishing four prejudices (abhiniveśa) in regard to each of the four skandhas, we speak of the vimśatiśikharasamudgataḥ satkāyadṛṣṭiśailaḥ: the twenty-peaked mountain of the satkāyadṛṣṭi (Gilgit Manuscripts.III, 1, p. 21, 7–8; Divyāvadāna, p. 46, 25; 52, 24–25; 549, 16; 554, 20; Avadānaśataka, I, p. 385, 12).

Satkāyadṛṣṭi is not a defiled view in the sense that it is not directly the cause of sin and hell. Actually, the person who believes in the self wishes to be happy after his death and, to this end, practices generosity, observes morality: all good actions assuring a rebirth in the world of men or in the heavens (cf. Kośa, V, p. 40).

But belief in an ‘I’ is incompatible with the spiritual Buddhist life, the uprooting of desire, access to nirvāṇa.

Taking a small pellet of dung in his fingers, the Buddha said to his bhikṣus: “Belief in the existence of a permanent, stable, eternal and immutable self, be it as small as this pellet, will ruin the religious life that leads to the complete destruction of suffering (brahmacariyavāso sammādukkhakkhayāya: S. III, p. 144).

“On this account,” the Buddha again said, “I do not see any adhesion to this view that does not engender, in the person who holds it, sorrow, lamentation, unhappiness and torment (M. I, p. 137–138).” Furthermore, satkāyadṛṣṭi is followed by the sixty-two wrong views of which the Brahmajālasūtra speaks (S. IV, p. 287).

Mithyādṛṣṭi, satkāyadṛṣṭi and ātmānudṛṣṭi are closely linked: in order to overcome them, it is necessary to consider all the conditioned factors as impermanent (anityatas), painful (duḥkhatas) and without self (anātmatas); cf. S IV, p. 147–148.

However, both in the canonical and the paracanonical scriptures, there are passages where the Buddha expressed himself in a more qualified way. Under diverse names (ātman, sattva, jīva, pruṣa, pudgala, kāraka, etc.), he spoke of the ‘soul’ as an obvious reality the existence of which is unquestionable; to some disciples he affirmed the existence of a soul whereas to others he denied it; sometimes, also, questioned about the existence or non-existence of the soul, he refused to answer. How can these apparently contradictory texts be reconciled? The problem has occupied the old and the modern exegesis and many solutions ranging from categorical affirmation to complete negation have been proposed. The most interesting date from the end of the 19th century to the beginning of the 20th century. The description and critique may be found in L. de La Vallée Poussin, Nirvāṇa, Paris, 1925, p. 85–129. Awkwardly without bias, I [Lamotte] will avoid intervening in the debate and will limit myself to summarizing here, as briefly as possible, the position adopted by the author of the Traité.

1. The worldly point of view (laukika siddhanta)

When the Buddha speaks of the ātman as an obvious thing, he is, naturally, coming from a worldly point of view and is adopting the current language. It is hard to think of a language not having recourse to any process (e.g., pronouns or conjugations) to distinguish the one who speaks (first person), the one who is being addressed (second person) and the one who is being spoken about (third person); confusion between the ‘I’, the ‘you’ and the ‘he’ would make speech incomprehensible. It happens a hundred times each day that we pronounce the word ‘I’ without, however, considering it as a spiritual factor, separable from the body and immortal. Moreover, coming from the Sanskrit, the word ātman is not unequivocal: sometimes it can be a noun designating the spiritual soul, but it is also most often a simple reflexive pronoun which, commonly used in oblique singular cases, applies to the three persons no matter what of kind or of what number (cf. H. von Glasenapp, Vedānta und Buddhismus, Ak. Der Wissens. und der Literatur, II (1950), p. 1020; W. Rahula, L’enseignement du Bouddha, Paris, 1961, p. 87).

In some scriptural passages, ātman and its synonyms are taken in a sense that has nothing philosophical about it and they should be translated, accordingly, without giving them meaningful value:

1. Dhammapāda, v. 160, Udānavarga, XXIII, v. 11 foll. (Traité, p. 29F); Attā hi attano nātho – Each one (and not ‘the self’) is his own refuge.

2. D. II, p. 100; III, p. 58, 77; S. III, p. 42; V, P. 154, 163; Sanskrit Mahāparinirvāṇa,p. 200: Attadīpā viharathā attasaraṇā anaññasaraṇā. – Remain by taking yourselves (and not ‘the self’) as island, by taking yourselves as refuge and not another; Nehmt euch selbst als Insel, nehmt euch selbst als Zuflucht, habt keine andere Zuflucht (E. Waldschmidt).

3. D. I, p. 82; M. I, p. 23, 348; II, p. 21; Mahāvastu, II, p. 283; Lalita, p. 344 (Traité, p. 28–29): So dibbena cakkhunā… satte passati cavamāne upapajjamāne…- With the divine eye, he sees people (and not ‘beings’) being born and perishing…

4. A. I, p. 22 (Traité, p. 29F): Ekapuggalo loke uppajjamāno uppajjati bahujanajitāya… Katamo ekapuggalo? Tathāgato arahaṃ sammāsambuddho. – One alone (and not one single ‘individual’), being born into the world, is born for the benefit of many people. Who is that? The Tathāgata, the holy completely enlightened one. – Same interpretation in Kośa, IX, p. 259.

5. The samodhānas that end the Jātaka tales and by means of which the Buddha establishes the connection between individuals of the present story (paccuppannavatthu) and those of the story of the past (atītavatthu), these samodhānas do not constitute any confirmation of a self. “Perhaps you are wondering if, at that time and that epoch, such a one was not another than myself. Well then, no, you should not imagine that. Why? Because at that time and that epoch, I was indeed that one (aham eva sa tena kālena tena aamayena asāv abhūvam).” By means of this formula, comments the Kośa, IX, p. 272, the Bhagavat tells us that the skandhas that constitute his ‘self’ actually make up part of the same series (ekasaṃtāna) as the skandhas that constitute the individual in question, in the way that one says: “The fire came here by burning” (sa evānir dahann āgata iti).

Other canonical passages where the term ātman and its synonyms have no metaphysical intent may be found in chapter IX of the Kośa and in the L’enseignement du Buddha, p. 81–96, by W. Rahula. And we think it is wrong that good minds have seen in the Bhārasutta and the Natumhāka “the affirmation of an ātman distinct from the skandhas.”

Bhārasutta in Saṃyutta, III, p. 25026 (other references above, p. 215F, n. 1). – O monks, I will explain to you the burden (bhāra), the taking up of the burden (bhāradāna), the setting down of the burden (bhāranikṣepaṇa), the bearer of the burden (bhārahāra). The burden is the five aggregates of attachment (upādānaskandha); the taking up of the burden is the thirst that produces rebirth (tṛṣṇā paunarbhavikī); the setting down of the burden is the extinction of the thirst (tṛṣṇāyāḥ prahāṇam); the bearer of the burden is such and such an individual (pudgala), the venerable one who bears such and such a name who is of such and such a family and such and such a clan, who takes such and such food, who takes part in such and such happiness and suffering, who lives for so and so many years, who dwells for such and such a time.” The Vātsīputrīyas use this sūtra as an excuse to speak about an ineffable pudgala. But in his Kośa, IX, p. 267, Vasubandhu retorts: “It is only in order to conform with worldly usage that one says: ‘This venerable one of such and such a name, of such and such a clan’ and the rest, in order that one may know that the pudgala is utterable, impermanent, without self nature… Therefore the pudgala is not an entity.”

Natumhākasutta and parable of the Jeta Grove, S. III, p. 33–34; IV, p. 81–82, 128–129; Majjhima, I, p. 140, 33–141, 19; Saṃyukta, T 99, no. 269, k. 10, p. 70b; no. 274, k. 11, p. 73a). – “Monks, reject that which is not yours (na tumhākaṃ): form, feeling, concept, volition and consciousness are not yours, reject them and, doing this, you will derive benefit and happiness. But if someone came into this Jeta Grove where we are and took the grass, the wood, the branches and the leaves to burn them, would you say that he takes and burns you? – No, Lord. – Why? – Because, Lord, these things are not ‘me’ and not ‘mine’. – In the same way, monks, reject what is not yours.”

The rejection of skandhas which are not a self and not ‘mine’ does not in any way imply that one will find a self or ‘mine’ or that the self and ‘mine’ exist. The Mahāniddesa, II, p. 438–439 quite rightly compares the parable of the chariot that does not exist apart from its parts (S. I, p. 135) and the well-known saying: Suñño loko attena vā attaniyena vā (S. IV, p. 54).

If the Buddha orders his monks to “reject the skandhas”, it is not only because they are empty of self and ‘mine’, but perhaps also because they are empty of intrinsic nature and characteristic. Such is the opinion of the Traité (p. 2108F) which sees in the Buddha’s injunction to Rādha “These skandhas, O Radha, destroy them, crush them, reduce them to nothing” (S. III, p. 190) an affirmation of dharmaśūnyatā.

In summary, for ease and conciseness of language, the Buddha did not hesitate to use the terms ātman, sattva, jīva, puruṣa, pudgala which were current in his time: “Those are”, he said, “names, expressions, phrases, popular designations which the Tathāgata uses, but without being fooled by them (D. I, p. 202: Itimā kho Citta, lokasamaññā lokaniruttiyo lokavohārā lokapaññattiyo yāhi Tathāgato voharati aparāmasan).” They do not imply the existence of a permanent, stable, eternal, immutable entity; they are simple labels to designate conveniently a complex of impermanent, painful and impersonal saṃskṛtas.

To Māra who spoke to her about the self, the nun Vajirā answered: “What do you mean, O Māra? That there is a sattva? Your doctrine is false. It is but a mass of changing formations (saṅkhāra). Just as there where the parts of the chariot are assembled, the word ‘chariot’ is used, so also, there where the five skandhas are, it is appropriate to speak of sattva” (S. I, p. 135).

2. The individual (prātipauruṣika) and therapeutic (prātipakṣika) point of view

According to the Traité (p. 31–38F), the Buddha always varied his teaching according to the aspirations (āśaya) and needs of his listeners: to some he taught the existence of the self, to others, the non-existence of the self.

Influenced by nihilistic views (ucchedadṛṣṭi), some of his disciples doubted that there is an afterlife, the reward for the good and punishment for the wicked throughout lifetimes, removing in this way any sanctions on morality. The Buddha therefore taught them that “wherever a self is produced (ātmabhāva), that is where its action ripens, and when this action is ripe it undergoes retribution in the present life, in the next life or in future lives (A. I, p. 134: yatth’ assa attabhāvo nibbattati tattha taṃ kammaṃ vipaccati, yattha taṃ kammaṃ vipaccati, tattha tassa kammassa vipākaṃ paṭisaṃvedeti diṭṭh’ eva dhamme uppajje apare vā ariyāye).

On the other hand, drawn to eternalistic views (śāśvatadṛṣṭi), others imagine that they go from existence to existence, that they abandon one body to take up another and undergo, from age to age, the consequences of their own actions. They do not endanger the norms of morality but, nonetheless, they fall into the fatal belief in the self (satkāyadṛṣti), the root of desire and the source of wrong views. To them the Buddha explains that the mechanism of retribution functions perfectly in the absence of any agent or any transmigrating entity. In the Paramārthaśūnyatāsūtra (see below, p. 2136F), he states that there is action and retribution, but that there is no agent to reject these skandhas and to assume others. To Phalguna who asks him: “Then who touches (phussati), who feels (vedayati)?”, the Teacher answers: “I deny that anyone touches or that anyone feels. Your question is badly put. You should have asked me what is the condition (paccaya) of touching and what is the condition of feeling, and I would have answered [that, in terms of dependent origination], touching has, as condition, the six internal āyatanas and that feeling has, as condition, touching” (S. II, p. 13; cited by the Traité, p. 32F, 1683–84F).

In affirming the respective existence and non-existence of the substantial self, the Buddha is obviously contradicting himself but, nevertheless, the two answers are valid. As the Traité will comment (p. 2102F), the Buddha denies the ātman more often than he affirms it, for the good reason that people, moved by the instinct of conservation, aspire to eternal survival rather than to a total annihilation. If people had opted for annihilation, the Teacher would not have omitted insisting on survival. Both being true, the opposing theses do not, however, have the same true potential. From the Hīnayānist point of view at least, the Anātmavāda holds in absolute truth (paramārthasatya) for the skandhas alone exist. The Ātmavada itself fits into the category of conventional and provisional truth (saṃvṛtisatya) in that it corrects the errors of the nihilists. Now, the Traité will tell us (p. 2101F), a useful opinion is never false.

3. The refused questions

The Buddha often remained silent (tūṣṇīṃbhāva) on the questions under consideration here, and for him, this silence is an answer, a sthāpanīyavyākaraṇa, an answer by not responding (cf. p. 156F). He refuses to say anything not only about the existence of the ātman but also about the various modalities of the latter.

Ānandasutta (S. IV, p. 400–401; Saṃyukta, T 99, no. 961. k. 34, p. 245b; T 100, no. 195, k. 10. p. 444c). – One day the wandering mendicant Vatsagotra came to the Buddha and asked: “Does the ātman exist (atth’ attā)?” but the Teacher remained silent; thereupon Vatsagotra asked: “Does the ātman not exist (natth’ attā)?” and again the Buddha remained silent. The mendicant having gone, the Buddha justified his silence to Ānanda: “If I had answered that the ātman exists, I would have been siding with the eternalists (śāśvatavāda) and I would have been preventing Vatsagotra from reaching the knowledge (jñāna) that the dharmas are without self (Sarve dharmā anātmānaḥ). On the other hand, if I had answered that the ātman does not exist, I would have been siding with the nihilists (ucchedvāda) and poor Vatsagotra would have asked himself: ‘But did I not previously exist? And now I no longer exist!’ “

Here, and despite his reluctance, the Buddha allows us to imply that he is intimately persuaded of the non-self nature of all things.

In regard to the modalities of this ātman in the case that it would exist, the Teacher is even more careful. He declares the fourteen reserved points (avyākṛtavastu), ‘difficult questions’ which his disciples always asked him: eternity and infinity of the world (loka) and of the self (ātman), survival of the Tathāgata (or the saint liberated from desire) after death, connection between the life force (jīva) and the body (references above, p. 154F seq.). Here the Buddha makes no effort to justify his silence, and the reasons that he invokes are not lacking. Two especially should be remembered: the first practical in nature, and the second logical in nature

a. If the Buddha was silent, it is because knowledge of these things does not make for progress in the holy life since they are of no use to peace and enlightenment (D. I, p. 188–189; III, p. 136; M. I, p. 431; S. II, p. 223).

b. Since everything is empty of ‘me’ and ‘mine’, there is no ātman and, since there is no ātman, it is absurd to wonder if it is eternal or transitory, finite or infinite, the same as the body or different from it. One does not go on and on about the height of the son of a sterile woman and a eunuch, on the length of the hair of a tortoise, on the color of a sky-flower, on the shape of the sixth finger of one’s hand, on the number of liters of milk produced by a cow’s horn. The author of the Traité returns to this subject a number of times (e.g., p. 155–158F, 423F, 913–919F) and he concludes (p. 1684F): “It is the anātman that is true”, not without immediately adding, like a good Mādhyamikan, that one cannot grasp its characteristic.

That said, the Buddha is perfectly aware of the outcry that his teachings were to provoke. The theory of dependent origination which explains, without the intervention of a substantial entity, the mechanism of action and retribution, is a profound truth, difficult to see, difficult to understand, pacifying, sublime, surpassing any dialectic, abstruse, comprehensible only to the wise (Vin., I, p. 4; Catuṣpariṣad, p. 108; Mahāvastu, III, p. 314; Lalitavistara, p. 392). As for emptiness – if it is a question only of the self and ‘mine’ – “the entire world is averse to it” (sarvalokavipratyanīka).

The Buddha foresaw that, in future centuries, some bhikṣus would not listen to it, would not lend an ear to it and would not want to understand ‘the sūtras expounded by the Tathāgata, profound sūtras, deep in meaning, superhuman and dealing with emptiness’ (S. II, p. 267; V, p. 407; A. I, p. 72; III, p. 107: suttantā tathāgatabhāsitā gambhīrā gambhīratthā lokottarā suññatāpaṭisaṃyuttā).

If any prediction is realized, that one certainly was. In the early centuries of Buddhism, some schools, in any case, those of the Vātsīputrīyas and the Sāṃmitīyas (cf. p. 43, F, n. 4) professed personalist views (pudgalavāda) in such an insidious way that one wonders if they were still indeed Buddhist (cf. preliminary note of L. de La Vallée Poussin to chap. IX of the Kośa, p. 228). Throughout history, efforts were made to introduce into the holy Dharma the ātman of the Upaniṣads and the Vedānta. Even in our times, some critics maintain the following reasoning: The Buddha denied that the saṃskṛtas are a self or belong to a self, but he did not formally combat an ātman transcending the world of contingencies. E. Frauwallner, in his Philosophie des Buddhismus, Berlin, 1956, expressed himself thus: Der Buddha wird nicht müde, immer wieder zu betonen, dass keine der fünf Gruppen (skandha), aus denen die irdische Persönlichkeit zusammensetzt, für das Ich gehalten werden darf. Ihm selbst lag es zwar fern, damit das Vorhandensein einer Seels überhaupt zu leugnen.

But this argumentum ex silentio bears no weight in face of the similar dialogues, exchanges between Śāriputra and Yamaka (S. III, p. 111–112), between the Buddha and Anurādha (S. IV, p. 383–384) on the existence of the tathāgata, a word that here means not the Buddha but more generally the saint delivered from desire. There it is said that the tathāgata is not any of the five skandhas (rūpa, vedanā, saṃjñā, saṃskāra, vijñāna), is not found in them “nor elsewhere” (anyatra), is not the group of the five skandhas and yet is not separate from them. In conclusion: Ettha ca te, āvuso Yamaka, diṭṭh’ eva dhamme saccato thetato tathāgato anupalabbhiyamāno.

– This finale has been translated and understood differently by H. Oldenberg (Buddha, sein Leben, 13th ed., 1959, p. 296: “So ist also, Freund Yamaka, schon hier in der sichtbaren Welt der Vollendete für dich nicht in Wahrheit und Wesenhaftigkeit zu erfassen”, and L. de La Vallée Poussin who understands: “Donc, mon ami, même maintenant, tu ne perçois pas le Bouddha comme existant réellement, vraiment” (Le bouddhisme, 3rd ed., 1925, p. 172), or “Donc, Yamaka, dans ce monde mĪme, le tathāgata n’est pas percu, constaté, comme vrai, réel” (Nirvāṇa, 1925, p. 104). Oldenberg sees in this phrase the affirmation of a transcendent ātman, the ātman of the Upaniṣads; de La Vallée Poussin finds in it the same negation of the tathāgata of which one cannot say that it perishes at death for the good reason that in order to perish, it is necessary to exist.

In his fine work, L’Ātman-Brahman dans le bouddhisme ancien, Paris, 1973, p. 67, K. Bhattacharya writes: “The controversy between Oldenberg and de La Vallée Poussin seems senseless, for it is placed on two distinct levels. In fact, however, the learned Indian scholar sides with Oldenberg and Frauwallner by adding: ‘What this text and others similar to it mean is this: ‘The ātman, the Absolute, cannot be the object of ‘grasping’… But that which escapes ‘grasping’ is not ‘non-existent’; its objective ‘non-existence’ is, on the other hand, its metaphysical ‘existence’ par excellence; its ‘non-grasping’ is its ‘grasping’ par excellence’ “.

But the Omniscient One knew very well what he needed to say and what he needed to be silent about, and one would seek in vain in the canonical sūtras of exact and definitive meaning (nītārthasūtra) any support for an ātman both immanent and transcendent, permanent (nitya), stable (dhruva), eternal (śāśvata) and immutable (avipariṇāmadharma), whereas they endlessly say and repeat that all things without exception, conditioned or unconditioned, are not an ātman (sarve dharmā anātmānaḥ) and that the most fatal ignorance, whatever the forms they may borrow, is the satkāyadṛṣṭi.

Under these conditions and until proof of the contrary, it is best to stick to the recommendation of the Teacher: “What I have not declared, hold that as non-declared, and what I have declared, hold that as having been declared” (M. I, p. 431: Abyākatañ ca me abyākatato dhāretha, byākatañ ca me byākatato dhāretha). By conforming to this golden rule and by endeavoring to realize by themselves the profound meaning of the teachings of the Blessed One, for over twenty-five centuries numerous bhikṣus have found in the doctrine of non-self the pacifying of the mind and joyful hearts. On this subject, see W. Rahula, L’enseignement fondamental du bouddhisme in Présence du bouddhisme, Saigon, 1959, p. 265–266; L’enseignement du Buddha, Paris, 1961, p. 77–96.

“In conclusion,” writes the author of the Traité (p. 747F), “look for the ātman in heaven or on earth, inside (adhyātman) or outside (bahirdhā), in the three times (tryadhvan) or in the ten directions (daśadiś), nowhere will you find it. Only the meeting of the twelve bases of consciousness [dvādaśāyatana, i.e., the six sense organs and their respective objects] produces the six consciousnesses (ṣaḍvijñāna). The meeting of the three [trikasaṃnipāta, or the meeting of the organs, the objects and the consciousnesses] is called contact (sparśa). Contact produces feeling (vedanā), concept (saṃjñā), the act of intention (cetanā) and other mental dharmas (caitasikadharma). According to the Buddhist system, it is by the power of ignorance (avidyā) that belief in the self (satkāyadṛṣṭi) arises. As a result of satkāyadṛṣṭi, one affirms the existence of the ātman. This satkāyadṛṣṭi is destroyed by the vision of the truth of suffering (duḥkhasatyadarśana): the knowledge of the truth of suffering (duḥkhe dharmajñāna) and the consecutive knowledge of suffering (duḥkhe ’nvyajñāna). When satkāyadṛṣṭi is destroyed, one no longer sees that there is an ātman.”