Maha Prajnaparamita Sastra

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

This page describes “emptiness in the hinayanist sects” 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.

II. Emptiness in the Hinayānist sects

The Traité (p. 106–108F), in a few lines, has summarized the history of the first centuries of Buddhism: “When the Buddha was in this world, the Dharma encountered no obstacles. After the Buddha died, when the Dharma was recited for the first time, it was still as it was at the time when the Buddha lived. One hundred years later, king Aśoka made a grand five-yearly assembly and the great Dharma teachers debated. As a result of their differences, there were distinct sects (nikāya) each having a name, and they subsequently developed.” Each sect, or rather, each school explained their particular views in scholastic manuals (abhidharma) to which they attributed canonical value and in treatises (śāstra) signed with the names of illustrious authors.

Comparing the doctrines of the Sūtrapiṭaka, recognized broadly by all the schools, to the teachings consigned to the Abhidharmas and the Śāstras, the Traité (p. 1095F) comments as follows: “Whoever has not grasped the Prajñāpāramitā system [will come up against innumerable contradictions]: if he tackles the teaching of the Abhidharma, he falls into realism; if he tackles the teaching of emptiness, he falls into nihilism; if he tackles the teaching of the Piṭaka (= Sūtrapiṭaka), he falls [sometimes] into realism and [sometimes] into nihilssm.”

Although this comment concerns especially the Sarvāstivādin Abhidharma, it also has a more general range. As we have seen in the preceding section, the canonical sūtras teach mainly the sattvaśūnyatā, but sometimes also the dharmaśūnyatā, and those who read them fall sometimes into realism and sometimes into nihilism. Generally – there are some exceptions – the Abhidharmas insist on sattvaśūnyatā, but remain silent on dharmaśūnyatā; thus they risk their readers falling into realism. The Mahāyānasūtras that teach both the sattva- and the dharmaśūnyatā are difficult to interpret, and a superficial exegesis frequently ends up in nihilism.

In regard to the problem of emptiness, the Hīnayānist sects, traditionally eighteen in number, may be divided into three classes: the personalists, the realists and the nominalists.

1. The Personalists (pudgalavādin).

Among the sects believing in the individual, in the person, the best known is that of the Vātsīputrīya-SaÎmittīya. We know their theories roughly by the criticisms their adversaries addressed to them and from an original work, the Sāṃmitīyanikāyaśāstra, translated into Chinese (T 1649). Other authentic sources, notably the Kārikās, have been found by G. Tucci and are presently being studied.

The sect accepts a pudgala, i.e., an individual, a person, acknowledging, nevertheless, that it is neither identical with nor different from the skandhas. It is not identical with the skandhas for it would be condemned to annihilation (uccheda); it is not other than the skandhas for it would be eternal (śāśvata) and thus unconditioned (asaṃskṛta). It behaves towards the elements like fire in regard to fuel: fire is not identical with the fuel for “that which is being consumed” would be confused with “that which is consuming”; it is not different from the fuel for the fuel would not be hot (Kośa, IX, p. 234). For the sect, the pudgala is the only dharma to transmigrate (saṃkrāmati) from this world to the other world: at death, it abandons the skandhas of the present existence to assume those of the future existence and, at the cessation of its transmigration, it remains in a nirvāṇa of which we cannot say that it does not truly exist.

These theories provoked a lively reaction in the orthodox circles and one wonders if the Pudgalavādins were still Buddhists (cf. Kośa, preliminary note to chap. IX, p. 228). At any rate, the notion of emptiness, whether that of beings or that of things, remained foreign to them.

The Traité makes some allusions to the Vatsīputrīyas (p. 43F, 112F, 424F, 616F) and attests the existence of a Vatsīputrīyābhidharma (p. 43F, 424F).

2. The Realists.

The epithet renders only imperfectly the basic doctrinal position adopted both by the Theravādins of Ceylon and the Sarvāstivādin-Vaibhāṣika of the Indian continent. Worried about rendering faithfully and clearly the mind of the Buddha, the two schools have elaborated, in parallel but independently of each other, a scholasticism voluminous in size. For the record, we may cite, on the Theravādin side, the seven books of the Abhidhamma and the Pāli Visuddhimagga; on the Sarvāstivādin side, the Śaṭpādābhidharma gathering six works around the Jñānaprasthāna of Kātyāyanīputra and the Mahāvibhāṣā of the Kashmirian arhats. E. Frauwallner’s Abhidharma-Studien (see WZKSA, VII (1963), p. 20–36; VIII (1964), p. 59–99; XV (1971, p.69–102; 103–121; XVI (1972), p. 95–152); XVII (1973), p. 97–121) has thrown new light on this literature.

The two schools may be described as realists because, while rejecting the existence of an eternal and immutable ātman, they recognize a certain reality in dharmas. In a word, they combine skandhamātravāda, the affirmation of the existence of the five skandhas only (as well as the asaṃskṛta), with nairātmyavāda, the negation of the person.

The author of the Traité seems to be unaware of the existence of the Theravādins of Ceylon; by contrast, he has at his fingertips the works of the Sarvāstivādin-Vaibhāṣikas to which he often refers (see, e.g., p. 109–110F, 11F, 245F, 285F, 424F, 614F, 786F, 787F, 1697F, 1715F, etc.). He was broadly dependent on this school; one could say that it is to it that he addresses his work. Here we must say a few words about this.

To begin with, the Sarvāstivādins distinguish two classes of things: i) those that exist by designation only (prajñaptisat), truly conventional (saṃvṛtisatya), and ii) those that really exist (dravyasat, vastusat), truly absolute (paramārthasatya): cf. Kośa, II, p. 186, 214.

The first are names only serving, out of convention, to designate groups, groups that are valid only insofar as their parts are not in turn subdivisible. Thus an army is reduced to the soldiers that compose it, a forest to its trees, cloth to its threads. The chariot does not in itself exist, merely as a designation of the parts that enter into its manufacture: caisson, shaft, wheels, etc. In the same way, the ātman, the soul, the self, is a simple label applied to the groupings of skandhas, āyatanas or dhātus; there is no substantial entity there, no one to be, to act or to feel.

Nevertheless there do exist – and it is in this that the Sarvāstivādins show themselves as realists – simple facts, recalcitrant to analysis, which truly exist, brief though their duration may be, with a specific intrinsic nature or character (svabhāva = svalakṣaṇa) and some general characteristics (sāmānyalakṣaṇa). These are, for example, the atom of color which cannot be broken, feeling, concept, mental activity and consciousness, each of which forms in itself an indivisible entity.

The Sarvāstivādins have carefully analyzed these realities and, without necessarily forgetting the classification already proposed by the canonical scriptures, have drawn up a new list, the Pañcavastuka. The dharmas are sixty-six in number and are divided into five classes:

a. the three asaṃskṛtas or unconditioned: space (ākāśa) which does not obstruct matter and is not obstructed by it; the two kinds of nirvāṇa: the cessation of suffering by means of the awareness (pratisaṃkhyanirodha) that consists of the understanding of the truths and the disjunction from impure dharmas; the cessation of suffering not due to the awareness (apratisaṃkhyanirodha) that consists of the absolute prevention of the arising of future dharmas.

The dharmas that follow in the list are sixty-two in number and are all saṃskṛṭa, conditioned or the results of causes. They are divided into four groups:

  1. the 11 rūpa, material dharmas, namely: the 5 indriya, sense organs, the 6 viṣaya, objects, and avijñapti.
  2. the citta, also called manas, mind, or vijñāna, consciousness. It is pure and simple awareness, without any content.
  3. the 46 caitta, mental or psychic factors, concomitant with the mind and cooperating with it.
  4. the 14 cittaviprayuktasaṃskāra, dissociated from the mind which are neither matter nor mind.

Among these are the four ‘characteristics of conditioned dharmas’ (saṃskṛtalakṣaṇa): birth (jāti), old age (jāra), duration (sthiti) and impermanence (anityatā), by virtue of which conditioned dharmas arise, endure for a brief instant, decay and disappear.

Like the skandhas, āyatanas and dhātus listed by the canonical sūtras, the 72 saṃskṛtadharmas of the Sarvāstivādins make up the whole lot (sarvam), suffering (duḥkha), the world (loka) of suffering. Causes and caused, impermanent, painful, empty of ‘me’ and ‘mine’, they form a series (saṃtāna) that transmigrates through the existences of the three times, is defiled or is purified due to the delusions and passions (kleśa), as a result of actions (karman). These dharmas are true, but under the action of their general characteristics, the characteristis of the conditioned, their manifestation last only a very short time, so short that they perish there where they are born, which renders movement impossible..

By acknowledging a true nature and true characteristics in dharmas, the Sarvāstivādins show themselves to be realists; by limiting their duration to a strict minimum and refusing to them any ātman worthy of the name, they lapse into phenomenalism and thus endanger their own system.

Attacked of the Sautrāntikas:

The Sarvāstivādins were to be attacked head on by one of their subsects, that of the Sautrāntikas, so called because they rejected the Abhidharmas and recognized no other authority than the canonical sūtras. Their most qualified spokesperson was Vasubandhu, the author of the Abhidharmakośa, who lived, according to E. Frauwallner, between 400 and 480 AD. He was certainly later than the author of the Traité, but, although the latter makes no mention of the Kośa, he was perfectly aware of the Sautrāntika doctrines, even if this was only by consulting the Mahāvibhāṣā. In the criticisms that he raises against the Sarvāstivādins, in regard to, for example, the three times (p. 1690–1694F), he meets and uses the Sautrāntika argumentation. However, in the actual state of the information, it is not possible to know with any certitude who was the borrower and who was the lender.

Be that as it may, without lapsing into eternalism or nihilism, the Sautrāntikas seriously gave the realism of the Sarvāstivādins a heavy pounding. The latter, as their name indicates, based their system on the existence of the dharmas of the three times, past, present and future “because the Bhagavat said, it, because the mental consciousness proceeds from the organ and the object and because the past bears a fruit.” The Sautrāntikas reject any temporal distinction “because if past and future things really exist, the dharmas coming from causes (saṃskṛta) would always exist and would thus be eternal. And yet scripture and reasoning declare that they are impermanent.” On this subject, see Kośa, V, p. 50–65, and Documents d’Abhidharma, published by L. de La Vallée Poussin in MCB, V, 1936–1937, p. 7–158.

In addition, the Sautrāntkas noticeably reduced the list of 75 dharmas recognized as real by the Sarvāstivādins. For them, the three asaṃskṛtas are false, for space (ākāśa) is the simple absence of matter, and nirvāṇa is, after the destruction of the passions and the dharmas of existence, the absence of their renewal. Nirvāṇa is the culmination, negative and unreal, of a dependent origination which was positive and real; it is a paścad abhāva, non-existence following after existence, a nirodha, none other than cessation (Kośa, II, p. 282–284). – The Sautrāntikas accept the non-existence of the mind, but reject the caittas completely or partially (Kośa, II, p. 150, n.). – Finally they consider the 14 dissociated dharmas (viprayuktasaṃskāra) as purely inventions of the mind. In particular, birth, duration, old age and impermanence of the conditioned dharmas are not things in themselves, distinct from the dharmas that arise and that perish, but simple modifications of the series which begins, is prolonged, is modified and perishes (Kośa, II, p. 226–238). Destruction is spontaneous (ākasmika): the dharma perishes incessantly by itself, is incessantly reborn from itself under normal conditions. The dharma-cause produces the dharma-effect in the same way that one balance-pan rises when the other descends (Kośa, IV, p. 4–8).

Thus, not content with eliminating a number of dharmas, the Sautrāntikas reduced the duration of those that it wanted to spare practically to zero. The dharmas are instantaneous (kṣaṇika), for it is in their nature to perish as soon as they are born.

In order to bring about these somber cuts in the Sarvāstivādin forest, the Sautrāntikas claimed to follow, among other sources, a sūtra where the Buddha said: “Here, O monks, are five things that are only names, designations, conventions, manners of speaking, namely: the past, the future, space, nirvāṇa and pudgala” (cf. Madh. vṛtti, p. 389; Kośa, IV, p. 5, n. 2). However, their nominalism was not complete, for by maintaining a number, however restricted, of real entities like rūpa and citta, and above all, by accepting the mechanism of dependent origination as the nature of things, these relentless critics remain ‘realists’ on the philosophical level.

3. The Nominalists.

In terms of the old canonical sūtras, the group of the saṃskṛtadharmas limited by the five skandhas, the twelve āyatanas, the twelve dhātus constituted a reality called sarvam, the all (S. IV, p. 15), loka, the world (S. IV, p. 52, 54) or, as well, duḥkha, suffering (S. IV, p. 28). It is on this realist basis that the Sarvāstivādins and the Sautrāntikas elaborated their respective theories. In contrast, a Hināyānist sect derived from the Mahāsāṃghikas saw in the skandhas, the āyatanas and the dhātus simple nominal beings only, without the least reality. The practitioners of this sect were designated by the name Prajñaptivādins, i.e., ‘Nominalists’.

In his syllabus of the sects, the Samayabhedaoparacanacakra (transl. Hiuan-tsang, T 2013, p. 16a17–18), the historian Vasumitra, who lived in the 4th century after the Nirvāṇa, attributes the following three theses to the Prajñaptivādins: 1) duḥkha is not the skandhas; 2) the twelve āyatanas are not really true; 3) the saṃskāras that combine in interdependence and succession are metaphorically (prajñapyante) called duḥkha.” To express oneself thus is to deny any reality to conditioned things and their dependent origination; it is complete Madhyamaka.

Moreover, the Prajñaptivādins had inaugurated the Śūnyavāda by drawing up a list of ten emptinesses. In the Mahāvibhāṣā, T 1545, k. 104, p. 540a20, we read: “The Prajñaptivādins (Che-chö-louen) say that there are many śūnyatās: 1) adhyātma., 2) bahirdhā., 3) adhyātmabahirdha-ś., 4) saṃskṛta-ś., 5) asaṃskṛta-ś, 6) atyanta., 7) prakṛti., 8) apravṛtti-ś., 9) paramārtha. 10) śūnyatā. These ten types of śūnyatā are examined in other places (cf. Vibhāṣā, T 1545,k. 8, p. 37a12–15; T 1546, k. 4, p. 27a17–19). Why distinguish so many emptinesses? Because their practice serves as antidote (pratipakṣa) to twenty kinds of belief in personality, [in viṃśatiśikharasamudgata satkāyadṛṣṭiśaila]. These twenty kinds of belief in the person, roots of all the passions (sarvakleśamūla), persist in saṃsāra and do not end up in nirvāṇa: they are serious faults and this is why the emptinesses which are their close counteragents are often spoken of.”

Were the Prajñaptivādins the inventors of these ten śūnyatās or were they borrowed from the Mahāyānists? These are questions that cannot be answered at the moment because of the absence of any information. But it will be noted that in the opinion of the Vibhāṣā, the ten śūnyatās of the Prajñaptivādins were directed solely against belief in the ātman whereas they perhaps also countered the reality of things.

Be that as it may, and as the Traité would have it, it should be recognized that, taken altogether, the study of the Abhidharmas and the Hīnayānist śāstras leads to a qualified realism rather than a complete nihilism.