Maha Prajnaparamita Sastra

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

This page describes “dharmashunyata” 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 canonical scriptures do not teach the emptiness of beings alone; occasionally they also talk about the emptiness of things (dharmaśūnyatā): dharmas are empty of self-nature (svabhāva) and also of characteristics (lakṣaṇa) and are like a magic show. This Madhyamaka, long before the term existed, shows up in some sūtras of the Tripiṭaka, in theories attributing to samādhi a complete control over things and especially in the philosophical interpretation given to the Middle Way (madhyamā pratipad).

1. Sūtra concerning the emptiness of things

Early Buddhism considered conditioned dharmas, coming from causes, to be impermanent, painful and without self, but as a general rule, did not doubt their reality; it acknowledged their intrinsic nature and definite characteristics. Some sūtras, however, seem to have wandered away from this realism and lean toward nihilism: they would have taught the twofold emptiness of beings and things or only the emptiness of things. Twice, without pretending to be complete, the Traité has tried to set up the list of them: Mahāśūnyatāsūtra, Brahmajālasūtra, Pasūrasutta (p. 1079–1090F), Śreṇikaparivrājakasūtra, Dīrghanakhasūtra, Sattvasūtra, Kolopamasūtra, and a few sūtras of the Pārāyaṇa and the Arthavarga(p. 2141–2144F). The reader who is interested is referred to the indicated pages.

Candrakīrti likewise thinks that the world deprived of reality has been taught in the sūtras dealing with the śrāvaka path and gives as sample the Pheṇasutta (S. III, p. 140–143) and the Kātyāyanāvavāda (S. II, p. 17): see Madh. avatāra, p. 22 (transl. Muséon, 1907, p. 271).

2. Supremacy of samādhi

The Path of nirvāṇa is a path of deliverance, of detachment in regard to the threefold world, of renunciation of the five objects of sensory enjoyment, of the taste of the trances and absorptions felt in the material world, the world of form and the formless world. This detachment follows a pure wisdom (prajñā anāsrava) which cannot be acquired without the support of samādhi. The practices of the Path described in preceding chapters (chap. XXXI-XXXVIII) are samādhi insofar as they are practiced in a state of concentrated mind. They are aimed at detaching the mind from contingencies. The practitioner who is concentrated obtains a mastery of mind (cetovaśita), a mental aptitude (cittakarmaṇyate) that makes him capable of seeing things as he wishes and even of transforming them at will. The power of conviction (adhimuktibala) is manifested particularly in the meditation on ugliness (aśubhabhāvana), the four immeasurables (apramāna), the eight liberations (vimokṣa), the eight spheres of mastery (abhivyāyatana) and the ten spheres of totality (kṛtsnāyatana).

By the strength of twisting and kneading the object at will, the practitioner ends up by finding the emptiness ofintrinsic nature (svalakṣaṇa), specific mark (nimitta), and wishlessness (apraṇihita). Those are the three doors of deliverance (vimokṣamukha) opening directly onto destruction of the three poisons and nirvāṇa. Having reached this stage, the ascetic śrāvaka practically catches up with the bodhisattva in the awareness of the true nature of things which is none other than the absence of nature. For all of this, see Traité, p. 1213–1232F.

A disciple of the Buddha, well-known in the Pāli tradition as well as the Sanskrit, without being burdened by preliminary considerations, had instinctively found the formula for good meditation. The Saṃthakātyāyanasūtra (see references above, p. 86F, n. 2) tells us that he had destroyed all notions whatsoever (sarvatra sarvasaṃjñā) and that he meditated by not meditating on anything (na sarvaṃ sarvam iti dhyāyati). And the gods congratulated him saying: “Praise to you, excellent man, for we do not know on what you are meditating (yasya te nābhijānīmaḥ kiṃ tvaṃ niśritya dhyāyasi).” This precursor of Nāgārjuna, Bhāvaviveka, Candrakīrti and Śāntideva had undoubtedly found the truth by not seeing it.

3. Interpretation of the Middle Way

Śrāvakas and bodhisattvas are also in agreement on the philosophical interpretation given to the Madhyamā pratipad, with the difference that the latter have attributed to it an absolutely unlimited extension.

In the Sermon at Benares (Vin. I, p. 10; M. I, p. 15–16; III, p. 231; S. IV, p. 330; V, p. 421; Catuṣpariṣad, p. 140; Mahāvastu, III, p. 331; Lalitavistara, p. 416), Śākyamuni revealed to his first disciples the Middle Way which “opens the eyes and the mind, which leads to rest, to knowledge, to enlightenment, to nirvāṇa”: this is the noble eightfold Path.

In the sources cited, this Path is a middle way insofar as it is equally distant from hedonism and rigorism, between a life of pleasure (kāmasukhallikānuyoga) and a life of mortification (ātmaklamathānuyoga).

However, other canonical passages see in it a middle way insofar as it reflects, back to back, a series of extreme and opposing philosophical views: “By not adopting these paired groups of extremes, the Tathāgata expounds the Dharma by means of the Middle Way” (etāv ubhāv antāv anupagamyā madhyamayā pratipadā tathāgato dharmaṃ deśayati).

Here are some of the extremes to which the Buddha objects:

1. To say “Everything exists” is one extreme, to say “Everything does not exist” is another (sabbaṃ atthīti ayaṃ eko anto, sabbaṃ natthīti ayāṃ dutiyo anto): S. II, p. 17, 21–23; 76, 23–27; III, p. 135, 12–13.

2. For the one who sees precisely with right wisdom the origin of the world, that which in the world is called ‘non-existence” does not exist; for the one who sees precisely with right wisdom the cessation of the world, that which in the world is called ‘existence’ does not exist (lokasamudayaṃ yathābhūtaṃ samyakprajñayā paśyato yā loke nāstitā sā na bhavati, lokanirodhaṃ yathābhūtaṃ samyakprajñayā paśyato yā loke ‘sthitā sā na bhavati); Nidānasaṃyukta, p. 169 = S. II, p. 17, 10–13.

The false view of existence, the eternalist view, is not found in the person who sees precisely, by right wisdom, the causal origin of formations. The false view of non-existence, the nihilist view, is not found in the person who sees precisely, with right wisdom, the causal cessation of the formations sahetusaṃskārasamudayaṃ yathābhūtaṃ samyakprajñayā paśyato yā bhavadṛṣṭi śāśvatadṛṣṭi sā na bhavati, sahetusaṃskāranirodhaṃ ca yathābhūtaṃ samyakprajñayā paśyato yā vibhavadṛṣṭi ucchedadṛṣṭi sāpi na bhavati): Mahāvastu, III, p. 448, 8–10.

3. The Acelasūtra has come down to us in its Pāli recension (S. II, p. 19–22) and its Sanskrit recension (Nidānasaṃyukta, p. 170–178), with some differences between them. The Buddha denies that suffering – meaning the world of suffering – is made by oneself (svayaṃkṛta) or made by another (parakṛta). Those who claim that it is made by oneself fall into the eternalist heresy (śāśvatadṛṣṭi); those who believe that it is made by another fall into the nihilist heresy (ucchedadṛṣṭi). For the same reasons, one cannot say that the person who acts is identical with the person who suffers (so karoti so paṭisaṃvediyati) or that the person who acts is other than the person who suffers (añño karoti añño paṭisaṃvediyati); one cannot say that feeling is identical with the one who feels (vedanā so vediyati) or that feeling is other than the one who feels (aññā vedanā añño vedayati). Avoiding these groups of extremes, the Buddha expounds the dependent origination of phenomena.

4. According to the Avijjāpaccayā (S. II, p. 61; Nidānasaṃyukta, p. 154, 155), to think that the living being is identical to the body (taj jīvaṃ tac charīram) and to think that the living being is different from the body (anyaj jīvam anyac charīram) are two extreme views that make the religious life (brahmacaryavāsa) impossible.

Avoiding all these extremes, the Buddha preaches the Dharma (particularly the pratītyasamutpāda) by means of the Middle Way.

It is true that in these old canonical sūtras the refusal of the extremes is especially directed against belief in a self, but the simultaneous rejection of the asti and the nāsti, of the astitā and the nāstitā, confines the philosophy to a neutral position where it is impossible for it to affirm or deny what is. This is the position adopted by the Madhyamaka, and later (l. 43, p. 370a25–b10), the Traité will comment that it does not go against any limit. To practice the Madhyamā pratipad in the spirit of the Prajñāpāramitā is to reject all extremes: eternity (śāśvata) and annihilation (uccheda), suffering (duḥkha) and happiness (sukha), empty (śūnya) and real (tattva), self (ātman) and non-self (anātman), material things (rūpin) and non-material things (arūpin), visible (sanidarśana) and invisible (anidarśana), resistant (sapratigha) and non-resistant (apratigha), conditioned (saṃskṛta) and unconditioned (sasṃskṛta), impure (sāsrava) and pure (anāsrava), mundane (laukika) and supramundane (lokottara), ignorance (avidyā) and destruction of ignorance (avidyākṣaya), old age and death (jarāmaraṇa) and cessation of old age and death (jarāmaraṇanirodha), existence (astitā) and non-existence (nāstitā) of things, bodhisattva and six pāramitās, buddha and bodhi, the six inner organs (indriya) and the six outer objects (viṣaya), the perfection of wisdom and the non-perfection of wisdom. – The old canonical sūtras are not there yet but they are on the way.

Why does the Tripiṭaka go on at length about the emptiness of beings and pass rapidly over the emptiness of things? In the words of the Traité, there are several reasons. First, because the Tripiṭaka is addressed to the śrāvakas who, being weak in their faculties, understand the first more easily than the second. The bodhisattvas, on the other hand, are better prepared to understand the doctrines of the Prajñāpāramitās (cf. p. 2061F). Secondly, because beings cling especially to eternity and happiness and much less to impermanence and suffering. The worldly person is more attracted to the eternal happiness of the afterlife than to annihilation on death (p. 2102F). Thirdly and finally, for pedagogical reasons: the doctrine of the non-self serves as introduction to that of the emptiness of things and it is appropriate to speak of it first (p. 2138F).