Maha Prajnaparamita Sastra

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

This page describes “emptiness according to the madhyamaka” 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.

III. Emptiness according to the Madhyamaka

As we have just seen, the early schools of the Theravādins and the Sarvāstivādins thought to interpret the canonical doctrines correctly by comparing the dharmas that exist only as designation (prajñaptisat, nāmamātra), such as an army, a forest, the pitcher, the ātman, with a series of dharmas that exist in reality (dravyasat, vastusat) some of which, the saṃskṛtas, arise due to causes and others, the asaṃskṛtas, are uncaused.

1. The saṃskṛtas (also called saṃskāras):

The canonical sūtras established three lists of saṃskṛtas each covering the same grouping: the five skandhas, the twelve āyatanas and the eighteen dhātus. While keeping these classifications, the Theravādins put next to them a list of 81 saṃskṛtadharmas (plus 1 asaṃskṛta), and the Sarvāstivādins, a list of 72 saṃskṛtadharmas (plus 3 asaṃskṛtas): see H. von Glasenapp, Die Philosophie der Inder, Stuttgart, 1949, p. 330 and 334.

The saṃskṛtas (also called saṃskāras) are characterized by three or four saṃskṛtalakṣaṇas: arising (utpāda), disappearance (vyaya) and duration-change (sthityanyathātva).

Although they do not exist in themselves, they are real (dravyasat, vastusat) insofar as they have a intrinsic nature or their own character (svabhāva = svalakṣaṇa: Kośa, VI, p. 159) and general characteristics (sāmānyalakṣaṇa): they are impermanent (anitya), painful (duḥkha), empty (śūnya) and non-self (anātman).

Basing themselves on the great majority of canonical sūtras, the Theravādins and the Sarvāstivādins, in their Abhidharmas, profess the non-self (nairātmya), the emptiness of the being or the person (sattvaśūnyatā, pudgalaśūnyatā). By self (ātman) is meant a permanent (nitya), stable (dhruva), eternal (śāśvata) and immutable (avipariṇāmadharman) entity. Now the saṃskṛtas (skandhas, āyatanas or dhātus) are impermanent, precarious, of very brief not to say instantaneous duration, and show perpetual changing in their own nature and their characteristics. Therefore they are not a self, do not belong to a self: they are ‘empty of me and mine’ (śūnyā ātmanā cātmīyena ca).

Being causes and coming from causes and conditions (hetupratyayasamutpanna), these saṃskṛtas are carried away in the round of a saṃsāra that has had no beginning. The skandhas forming series appear and disappear from moment to moment according to the immutable process of the ‘twelve-membered dependent origination’ (dvādaśāṅgapratītyasamutpāda) going from ignorance to old age-death: “This being, that is; from the production of this, that is produced, i.e., the formations have as condition ignorance, old age and death has as condition birth, and so this is the origin of the entire great mass of suffering. Conversely, this not being, that is not; by the destruction of this, that is destroyed, i.e., from the destruction of ignorance there results the destruction of the formations, from the destruction of birth results the destruction of old age and death, and such is the destruction of the entire great mass of suffering.” The arising and perishing skandhas are present in each of the twelve stages of the pratītyasamutpāda, for, as the Kośa, III, p. 60 and 66 comments, the series of the skandhas that develops in the existences is the twelve-membered pratītyasamutpāda and its members are called by the name of the dharma that is the most important therein.

The pratītyasamutpāda makes up the true nature (dharmatā) of conditioned dharmas: “Whether the Tathāgatas appear or whether the Tathāgatas do not appear, this dharma-nature of the dharmas (dharmāṇāṃ dharmatā) remains stable” (references in Traité, p. 157F; add Nidānasaṃyukta, p. 148, 164).

2. The asaṃskṛtas (unconditioned):

In contrast to the saṃskṛtas there are the asaṃskṛtas or unconditioned. The canonical texts and the Abhidharmas of the Theravādins know only one, namely, nirvāṇa; the Sarvāstivādins have three, namely, space (ākaṣa) and the two ‘types’ of nirvāṇa. Differing from the saṃskṛtas, they are without birth, without disappearance and without duration-change (A. I, p. 152) and completely escape the law of pratītyasamutpāda. One would like to think that nirvāṇa is an abode of eternal bliss, but it is in no way an ātman. In the words of the third seal of the Dharma, all dharmas, saṃskṛta as well as asaṃskṛta, are non-self (anātmānaḥ sarvadharmāḥ) and, what is more, there is no one to enter into nirvāṇa.

The Sarvāstivādin scholasticism:

The Sarvāstivādin scholasticism is a grandiose but fragile edifice. We saw above how it was attacked head on by the Sautrāntikas. The last blow was delivered by the Mahāyānists, particularly the Mādhyamikas. The author of the Traité has, to a great extent, contributed to this work of demolition by taking his inspiration from some canonical sūtras that profess the twofold emptiness, from a number of Mahāyānasūtras among which are primarily the Prajñāpāramitasūtras, and finally from the philosophical śāstras of the Madhyamaka school, signed by the great names of Nāgārjuna, Āryadeva and Rahulabhadra. Here I [Lamotte] will try to summarize his position with the aid of the works of L. de La Vallée Poussin, R Grousset, E. Conze and J. May which have been especially useful to me. In the pages that follow, the abbreviations used are:

P. = Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā; Ś. = Śatasāhasrikā; Madh. kār. = Madhyamakakārikā by Nāgārjuna; Madh. vṛtti = Prasannapadā by Candrakīrti; Madh. av. = Madhyamakāvatāra also by Candrakīrti.

In the search for the Mystery, the Thomist scholasticism uses the triple method of negation (via negationis), of causality (via causalitatis) and of transcendence (via eminentiae); the Mādhyamika scholasticism resorts to the first, evades the second and substitutes for the third a cautious silence (via silentii).

The system rests on the distinction between the two truths: i) the conventional truth or truth of worldly convention (saṃvṛtisatya) marred by realism, pluralism and determinism and built up on ignorance alone; ii) the absolute truth (paramārthasatya) which, while rejecting realism, keeps itself from falling into nihilism and thus takes a Middle Way (madhyamā pratipad) between negation and affirmation, a path leading to he stopping of the mind and of speech. – See Madh. vṛtti, p. 491–499 (J. May, Candrakīrti, p. 224–234); Traité, p. 27F, 1091F, 1101F, 1379F, etc.

1. Rejection of realism

Capable of being envisaged under various aspects, the doctrine of emptiness is applied to all dharmas (sarvadharmaśūnyatā) without exception (atyantaśūnyatā). Dharmas are empty of intrinsic nature (svabhāvaśūnyatā), essence (prakṛtiśūnyatā) and specific nature (svalakṣaṇaśūnyatā). They are also without general characteristics and elude causality. They do not truly exist: they are merely designations (prajñapti), simple names (nāmamātra). No longer are there distinctions between inner dharmas (adhyātmaśūnyatā), outer dharmas (bahirdhāśūnyatā) and both inner and outer dharmas (adhyātmabahirdhāśūnyatā), or between conditioned dharmas (saṃskṛtaśūnyatā) and unconditioned dharmas (asaṃskṛtadharmaśūnyatā).

Without pretending to be complete, the Ś. (p. 930–936) attempts to draw up the list of empty dharmas. Everything imagined by worldly persons (pṛthagjana) or by the saints (ārya) appears in it: the five skandhas, the twelve āyatanas, the eighteen dhātus, the twelve aṅgas of the pratītyasamutpāda, the six pāramitās, the eighteen śūnyatās, the thirty-seven bodhipākṣikadharmas and other dharmas supplementary to the Path (4 āryasatyas, 4 dhyānas, 4 apramāṇas, 4 ārūpyasamāpattis, 8 vimokṣas, 9 anupūrvasamāpattis, 3 vimokṣamukhas, 6 abhijñās, 112 samādhis, 43 dhāraṇīmukhas), finally, all the Buddhadharmas (10 tathāgatabalas, 4 vaiśāradyas, 4 pratisaṃvids, mahāmaitrī, mahākaruṇā, 18 āveṇikabuddhadharmas): in brief, all possible and imaginable dharmas, from rūpa up to the sarvākārajñatā of the Buddhas.

It is to be noted that the eighteen śūnyatās appear in the list. It is that they perform no action, and each time the sūtra adds: “It is not by means of the thing’s emptiness that this thing is empty; the thing itself is emptiness, the very emptiness is the thing (e.g., na rūpaśūnyatayā rūpaṃ śūnyaṃ rūpam eva śūnyatā śūnyataiva rūpam).

If one examines this universal emptiness, the following deductions are reached:

1) The saṃskṛtas are empty of intrinsic nature (svabhāva), essence (prakṛti) or self-character (svalakṣaṇa). Matter is devoid of materiality and all the rest in keeping (P., p. 128, ii; Ś. p. 554, 6: rūpaṃ rūpeṇa śūnyam). Matter is devoid of the character of matter (P., p. 137, 12; Ś., p. 653, 11: rūpaṃ virahitaṃ rūpalakṣaṇeṇa). The bodhisattva should consider all these dharmas as empty of essence (P., 132, 23; Ś., p. 613, 5: bodhisattvena prakṛtiśūnyāḥ sarvadharmāḥ pratyavekṣitavyāḥ).

If the intrinsic nature of dharmas were a real self-nature, a being in itself, it would be innate (nija), non-artificial (akṛtrima), independent of other (parānapekṣa), permanent (nitya) and immutable (avipariṇāmadhrman) (Madh. kāra., XIII, 1–3; Madh, vṛtti, p. 262–263). But the nature of dharmas seemed to be caused, manufactured, subject to conditions, permanent and changing. Thus water is cold, but if it is put near a pot of hot coals, it becomes hot and takes on the nature of the fire; once the embers are cold, it becomes cold (Traité, p. 2112F). Therefore the intrinsic nature of dharmas is a non-nature: the intrinsic nature of rūpa is a non-nature (P., p. 137, 2–3; Ś. p. 664, 17: abhāvo rūpasya svabhāvaḥ) and it is the same for all the skandhas, dhātus, āyatanas, pratītyasamutpāda, up to and including the pinnacle of the truth (bhūtakoṭi) which is empty of the nature of bhūtakoṭi (P., p. 137, 9–11).

2) The saṃskṛtas, empty of nature and self characteristics, are likewise devoid of general characteristics (sāmānyalakṣaṇa), impermanence, etc., because applied to natures that are not so, these general characteristics are without substratum. It would be futile to try to find impermanence (anityatā), suffering (duḥkhatā), non-self (anātmatā), calm (śantatā), emptiness (śūnyatā), absence of marks (animitta), insignificance (apraṇihitatā) and isolation (viviktatā) in them. Therefore the impermanence of rūpa is empty of the impermanence of rūpa, and it is the same for all the general characteristics applied to the skandhas (P., p. 131, 5–132, 2; Ś., p. 568, 8–580–16: rūpānityatā anityatāsvabhāvena śūnyā, etc., etc.). Dharmas have but one characteristic: the absence of characteristics (P., p. 164, 225, 244, 258, 261, 262: ekalakṣaṇā yadutālakusaṇāḥ; Traité, p. 1376F, 1382F, 1694F, 1703F, etc.).

3) The saṃskṛtas are the result of causes (pratītyasamutpanna) only in apparent truth. They are dharmas empty of self existence and of characteristics that arise from dharmas empty of self existence and of characteristics (Pratītyasamutpādahṛdayakārikā, no. 4, cited in Pañjikā, p. 355, 14; 532, 5: śūnebhya eva śūnyā dharmāḥ prabhavanti dharmebhyaḥ).

The early sources (Saṃyutta, II, p. 25; Nidānasaṃyukta, p. 147–149; Anguttara, I, p. 286) considered as ‘dharma-nature of the dharmas’ the twelve-membered pratītysamutpāda controlling the production and destruction of the saṃskṛtas throughout the cycle of existence (saṃsāra). This dharma-nature of the dharmas they called dhātu, dhammaṭṭhitatā, dhammaniyāmatā, idappacayatā (Pāli listing); dharmatā dharmasthititā, dharmaniyāmatā, dharmayathāthatā, avitathatā, ananyathā, bhūtakoṭi, satyatā, tattvā yathātathatā, avipaītatā, aviparyāsatathatā, idaṃpratyayatā (Sanskrit listing), but we should not be impressed by the accumulation of these abstract nouns.

Actually: “That which arises from conditions is in fact unborn; there is no real production for it. That which depends on conditions is declared to be empty. He who knows emptiness is not fooled.” (Madh. vṛtti, p. 239, 491, 500, 504; Pañjikā, p. 355: yaḥ pratyayair jāyati sa hy ajāto, na tasya utpādu sabhābato ‘eti; yaḥ pratyayādhīnu sa śūnya ukto, yaḥ śūṇyatāṃ jānati so ’pramattaḥ).

A dependent production which, if one may say so, functions in emptiness, is not that. It is inefficacious in itself and in its twelve members (aṅga). In fact, ignorance is empty of ignorance and so on up to old age and death, empty in turn of old age and death (P., p. 129, 17–130, 2; S., p. 558, 19–559, 22: avidyā avidyātvena śūnyā… yāvaj paramāraṇanaṃ jāramaraṇatvena śūnyam). And this alleged ‘dharma nature of dharmas’, that is called tathatā, dharmatā, dharmadhātu, dharmaniyamtatā, bhūtakoṭi, etc., is likewise empty of intrinsic nature (P., p. 132, 3–8; Ś., 580, 17–582, 3), does not exist and is not perceived (na vidyate nopalabhyate: P., p. 136, 7; Ś., p. 580, 17–582, 3).

Nāgārjuna also said: “Dependent production we call emptiness; it is a metaphorical designation; it is the Middle Way” (Madh. kār., XXIV, 18: Yaḥ pratītyasamutpādaḥ śūnyatāṃ tāṃ pracakṣmahe; sā prajñaptir upādāya pratipat saiva madhyamā. – Cf. J. May, Candrakīrti, p. 237 and note 840). Homage to the Teacher “who has taught that the pratītyasamutpāda is without destruction (anirodha), without production (anutpāda), without interruption (anuccheda), without permanence (aśāśvata), without identity (anekārtha), without multiplicity (anānārtha), without coming (anāgama), without going (anirgama)” (Madh. vṛtti, p. 3, 11). Those are the “eight non’s” of Nāgārjuna which the Traité cites twice (p. 326F, 1638F); for its author, to teach the pratītyasamutpāda conclusively is to reject the whole system for the experience only of the true nature that underlies it, namely, the absence of nature (p. 351F).

Pratītyasamutpāda being empty, saṃsāra, or the succession of births and deaths due to impassioned actions, has never begun. By that very fact, nirvāṇa, which marks the cessation of saṃsāra, is acquired at any time. Being the interruption of a process that has never begun, nirvāṇa is devoid of the nature of nirvāṇa. “There is the emptiness of the absolute. The absolute is nirvāṇa and this nirvāṇa is empty of nirvāṇa” (P., p. 196, 9; Ś., p. 1408, 20–21; Paramārthaśūnyatā; paramārtha ucyate nirvāṇaṃ, tac ca nirvāṇena śūnyam). Meeting in emptiness, saṃsāra and nirvāṇa are identical: there is not the slightest difference between saṃsāra and nirvāṇa (Madh. kāra., XXV, 19; Traité, p. 1142F: Na saṃsārasya nirvāṇāt kiṃcid asti viśeṣaṇam).

4) Devoid of the characteristics of saṃskṛta (production, duration and destruction), would not the saṃskṛtadharmas actually be asaṃskṛtas, defined precisely by the absence of these same characteristics? Without a doubt, but as we have just seen, the saṃskṛtas are simple designations (prajñaptisat) and, by virtue of the solidarity of opposites (pratidvandvisādharmya), wherever a given fact does not exist, its contrary does not exist either (Madh. vṛtti, p. 287, 15). But the saṃskṛtas, without production, duration and destruction, do not exist. Therefore their opposite, the asaṃskṛtas, do not exist either (Madh. kār., VII, 33; Traité, p. 2080F).

5) In conclusion, conditioned or unconditioned, dharmas do not exist and are not perceived (P., p. 135, 20; Ś., p. 642: dharmā na vidyante nopalabhyante); they are unborn and without beginning (P., p. 137, 19–138, 1;Ś., p. 675, 5: ajātā aniryātāḥ sarvadharmāḥ); they are in fact pacified from the very beginning, unproduced and nirvaṇized in essence (Ratnameghasūtra, cited in Madh. vṛtti, p. 225, 9: ādiśantā hy anutpannāḥ prakṛtyaiva ca nirvṛtāḥ).

Candrakīrti has summarized fully the Mādhyamika attitude in regard to dharmas and, since his final word scandalizes some of our thinkers, it must be cited here in the original text (Madh. vṛtti, p. 265, 6–8) and in the translation given to it by L. de La Vallée Poussin (Madhyamaka, p. 41):

Akṛtrimaḥ svabhāvo hi nirapekṣaḥ ca iti vyavasthāpayāmbabhūvur ācāryā iti vijñeyaṃ. Sa caiṣa bhāvānām anutpādātmakaḥ svabhāvo ‘kiṃcittvenābhāvamātratvād asvabhāva eveti kṛtvā bhāvasvabhāva iti vijñeyam. –

“This intrinsic nature the Teacher has defined as non-artificial, independent (or absolute). This intrinsic nature of things consists of their non-production; being none other than what is (akiṃcittvena), being merely non-existence (abhāvamātra), it is a non-self nature (asvabhāva); therefore the intrinsic nature of dharmas is not (nāsti bhāvasvabhāvaḥ).” (transl. L. de La Vallée Poussin, l.c.).

Whether one speaks of it in positive or negative terms does not change anything. The Prajñās call it non-arising (anutpāda), non-destruction (anirodha), non-defilement (asaṃkleśa), non-purification (avyavadāna), non-manifestation (aprādurbhāva), non-grasping (anupalambha), non-accomplishment (anabhisaṃskāra), but also purity (viśuddhi): cf. P., p. 146, 19–20; Ś., p. 842, 12–14.

The Traité prefers to designate it by the name of dharmatā, a term which Kumārajīva usually renders by the characters tshou-fa-che-siang, ‘true nature of dharmas’, but this true nature has as its sole nature the absence of characteristics.

As we have seen in the preceding chapters, the highest aspiration of the bodhisattvas is to accede to the knowledge of non-production (anutpādajñāna) or, according to the time-honored expression, to anutpattikadharmakṣānti, the conviction that dharmas do not arise, a conviction definitively acquired (pratilabdha) in the eighth bhūmi. By means of it and without either effort or change in the mind (cittānubhoga), the bodhisattva cognizes the true nature of dharmas (cf. above, p. 1788F).

2. Rejection of nihilism

Opponents of realism, the Mādhyamikas are also resistant to nihilism. Thus they are separated from the radical negativism of the Nāstikas and the semi-negativism of the Theravādins and the Sarvāstivādins.

The Nāstika is a heretic who denies production due to causes, falls into the pit of wrong view par excellence (mithyādṛṣṭi), the negation of the life to come, of cause and fruit, of action and retribution. He breaks the roots of good (kuśalamūla) that are innate in everyone and by virtue of which we are able to do good and avoid evil (Kośa, IV, p. 170). Thus he turns his back on nirvāṇa and is infallibly reborn in the hells (cf. L. de La Vallée Poussin, Madhyamaka, p. 25; Traité, p. 1091–1092F).

The Theravādin and, more so, the Sarvāstivādin who ‘professes the existence of everything’, acknowledge a reality and an ephemeral causality in the saṃskṛtadharmas, but deny to them a substantial self and proclaim them to be empty of ‘me’ and ‘mine’. They grasp an empty aspect in these dharmas (Kośa, VII, p. 31). They profess a qualified nihilism, but a nihilism just the same.

The Mādhyamikas want nothing to do with it. Rejecting respectively the views of existence and non-existence, they halt any subject of preaching and make negation and affirmation both impossible. The predicate assumes a subject and, in the absence of a subject, it loses any meaning. This is why the Mādhyamikas do not grasp, are unable to seize any part whatsoever of a characteristic mark (nimitta), empty or real (Traité, p.1093F).

In his Madh. kār., V, 8, Nāgārjuna says: “The fools who see the existence (astitva) and the non-existence (nāstitva) of essences do not see the beneficial pacification of the empirical world (draṣṭavyopaśamaṃ śivam).” And Candrakīrti, in his Madh. vṛtti (p. 135–136) rests this kārikā on a citation of the Samādhirājasūtra: To say “it is”, to say “it is not”, those are both extremes (anta). “Pure” (śuddhin) and “impure” (aśuddhin) are also extremes. This is why, having sidestepped the two extremes, the wise man keeps his place at the middle (madhya). “It is” and “it is not” give rise to controversy (vivāda); “pure” and “impure” also give rise to controversy. When there is controversy, suffering (duḥkha) is not appeased; beyond controversy, suffering ceases.

By prohibiting affirmation, negation and prevarication, the Mādhyamikas establish themselves on neutral ground where nobody can attack them.

3. Emptiness and the Middle Way

Prajñāpāmaritā is the non-grasping and the non-rejection of all dharmas (P., p.135, 2: yaḥ sarvadharmāṇām aparigraho ’nutsargaḥ sā prajñāpāramitā). In the same perspective, the śūnyatā that avoids the extremes of existence and non-existence is the rejection of all wrong views (Kāśyapaparivarta, § 65: sarvadṛṣṭikṛtānām hi śūnyatā niḥsaraṇam. – Madh. kār., XIII, 8: śūnyatā sarvadṛṣṭīnāṃ proktā niḥsaraṇaṃ jinaiḥ).

It is a tool by means of which the mind is purified, but a tool that must be used with care and rejected as soon as it has fulfilled its purpose, like the raft after the river has been crossed (Traité, p. 64F), a medicine after the cure (ibid., p. 1227F, 2066F), a magic spell after the miracle (Madh. kār., XXIV, 11).

“But the comparison that the Madhyamaka prefers, inherited from the Majjhima (I, p. 134), is the comparison of the snake (alagarda) that carries miraculous gems on its crest. The gems will make the fortune of the person who ‘captures’ the snake poperly, but the snake fatally stings the person who ‘captures’ it improperly” (L. de La Vallée Poussin, Madhyamaka, p. 32, summarizing the Madh. vṛtti, p. 497).

One captures śūnyatā improperly and is stung by the snake when one posits an emptiness in itself. The emptiness which is the means of escaping from wrong views does not posit an absolute that itself would become the object of a wrong view, a śūnyatādṛṣṭi. In a paragraph of the Kāśyapaparivarta often invoked by other sources (cf. Traité, p. 1227–1228F), the Buddha says to his disciple: “It is not by means of emptiness that one makes the dharmas empty, but the dharmas themselves are empty… It is this consideration indeed that is called the Middle Way. Actually, those who take refuge in emptiness by grasping an emptiness (śūnyatopamabhena), them I declare to be lost to my teaching (naṣṭapraṇaṣṭā itopravacanāt). A view of the individual (pudgaladṛṣṭi) as high as Sumeru is better than a view of emptiness (śūnyatādṛṣṭi) in the one who wrongly clings to it. Emptiness is the means of avoiding all kinds of wrong views; on the other hand, he who has this very emptiness as a belief, him I declare to be incurable (acikitsya).”

The danger is so great that, in order to prevent this sickness, the Prajñāpāramitāsūtras, apart from the emptinesses excluding the dharmas, distinguish an emptiness of emptiness (śūnyatāśūnyatā), excluding all the others. Thus, when brigands infest a country, it requires a strong man to destroy them; but when the latter has imposed his law, another strong man must be called upon to kill him (Traité, p. 2066F).

Moreover, as we have already seen, the absolute, which is called tathatā, dharmadhātu. fundamental element, etc., is devoid of absolute self nature: “Tathatā is empty of the intrinsic nature of tathatā, and this emptiness of tathatā is not tathatā; apart from tathatā, there is no emptiness; tathatā itself is emptiness; emptiness itself is tathatā” (P., p. 132, 4–5; Ś. P. 580, 18–20: Tathatā tathatāsvabhāvena śūnyā; yā ca tathatāyāḥ śūnyatā na sā tathatā, na cānyatra tathatāyāḥ śūnyatā; tathataiva śūnyatā, śūnyataiva tathatā).

If you look for emptiness, you will not find it anywhere. It is merged with the ‘dharma-nature’ of dharmas, and these exist and arise only in apparent truth. So little do they exist that in absolute truth it cannot be said that they are or that they are not. Do not say that if you do not find them it is because of the weakness of your knowledge: “It is because the dharmas do not truly exist that they are not perceived, and not because of weakness of knowledge… The Buddha himself acknowledged: ‘Since my first production of the mind of Bodhi to the moment I became Buddha, a Buddha with the ten powers, I have looked for a reality in dharmas without ever finding it.’ That is indeed anupalambhaśūnyatā, or emptiness consisting of non-perception” (Traité, p. 2145–2146F).

This kind of talk is difficult and who is able to hear it? Not, certainly, the śrāvakas and pratyekabuddhas. Only the bodhisattva skilled in skilful means (upāyakuśala), duly instructed by good friends (kalyānamitra) and practicing the Perfection of Wisdom will understand this talk without trembling, without shuddering, without shivering (nottrasyati na saṃtrasyati na saṃtrāsam āpadyate).

Ordinary people – of all eras – will be dizzied by emptiness and will desperately seek a reality (an absolute, a nirvāṇa) onto which they grab hold. And since the views of existence and non-existence are wrong, they will think that they find nirvāṇa in a higher synthesis of existence and non-existence. But here the way of transcendence (via eminentiae) leads to absurdity. The Buddha stated that existence (bhāva) and non-existence (abhāva) should be abandoned, but nirvāṇa, deliverance (mokṣa), should be kept. If nirvāṇa were both existence and non-existence, it should be both abandoned and kept; as nirvāṇa, it would be real, not produced by causes and non-conditioned, but as the synthesis of existence and non-existence, it would be unreal, produced by causes and conditioned (Madh. kār., XXV, 10–13). Thus worldly people, not utilizing emptiness at all, the sole tool that would appease their minds, turn their backs on the Middle Way and are engulfed in stupidity (moha).

The only efficacious absolute, which is not perceived (does not exist), is the emptiness of all dharmas.

In his Pañjikā (p. 427, 2–9) on the Bodhicaryāvatāra, Prajñākaramati writes:

Sarva eva bhāvā āropitam anāropitaṃ ceti rūpadvayam udvahanti | tatra tad avidyāpravāhitam āropitam rūpaṃ tat sarvajanasādhāraṇam iti na tadupalabdheḥ saṃkleśaprahāṇam upapadyate | anyathā sarve bālajanās tathāgatāḥ syur iti prācīnaprasaṅgaḥ | ity anāropitam eva tattvam anu[pa]lambhayoge[]dhigamyamānam ajñānasravakṣayāya sāmarthyavad upalabhyate | tac ca prajñayā vivecyamānaṃ sarvadharmānupalambhalakṣaṇam avasitam iti satvadharmaśūnyataiva sarvāvaraṇavibhramaprahāṇāya paṭiyasīty avagamyate ||

Translation. –

All things (bhāva) have two natures (rūpa): one (erroneously attributed) superimposed nature and one non-superimposed nature. The superimposed nature, carried by ignorance, is (a mistake) common to all humanity; and it is not by perceiving this nature that the destruction of the defilements is made possible. In the opposite case, the obvious result would be that all fools are tathāgatas. Thus only the non-superimposed absolute (tattva), attained by a method of non-perception, would seem to be capable of destroying the impurities of non-knowledge. And this absolute, discerned by wisdom, leads to the non-perception of any dharma: it is, purely and simply, the emptiness of all dharmas, and it is clear that it is perfectly capable of destroying all obstacles and mental problems.

– Now we must see how it is accessed.

4. Progression to silence

As we have seen above (p. 1796F), the career of the bodhisattva essentially involves four stages (avasthā) distributed over two levels (bhūmi), but it is already at the fourth stage and the eighth bhūmi when the bodhisattva has attained anutpattikadharmakṣānti that he accedes to the silence which is the philosophy of the sages (āryāṇāṃ tūṣṇiṃbhāva). Without going into these systematizations, the present note will attempt to show how the bodhisattva (or the Mahāyānist) arrives at the desired goal by textual studies, negation of the apparently real and spontaneous elimination of this negation.

1. Study of the texts.

In order to enter into the great concentrations (samādhi) on emptiness, it is necessary to pass through the lesser ‘gate of means’ (upāyamukha): to learn, recite, memorize, study and apply the Prajñāpāramitāsūtras (Traité, p. 2047F). Study of this voluminous literature is the condition for success.[1] And besides, the other Mahāyānasūtras invariably end with the same demand and promise their readers invaluable spiritual and material benefits.

2. Negation of the apparently real.

It must be understood that things (dharma) as they appear to the deluded minds of worldly people (pṛthagjana) and to the saints (ārya) exist only in relative provisional truth (saṃvṛtisatya) and that, in real truth (paramārthasatya), they are: i) impermanent (anitya), ii) empty of ‘me’ and ‘mine’ (śūnyā ātmanā cātmīyena ca), iii) empty of existence itself and of real characteristics and, consequently, without production (utpāda) or destruction (nirodha).

The starting point of this radical criticism is the observation of the impermanence of all phenomena. The canonical sūtras repeat incessantly that what is impermanent is not a self and does not belomg tp a self. And as the Traité will comment (p. 2138F), the emptiness of dharmas is the logical outcome of the teaching of non-self. In the same way, the sick baby is cured when the mother takes a remedy, for the baby forms a continuous series with her.

Like the pudgalaśūnyatā, the dharmaśūnyatā affects all dharmas without exception; it encompasses all the dharmas of the path of nirvāṇa, loved and practiced by the saints (ārya). Seen from this angle, the four noble truths preached in the sermon of Brenares take on a new coloration.

The Buddha revealed suffering (duḥkha), its origin (samudaya), its cessation (nirodha) and the path (mārga) of its cessation. He said:

a. Sarvaṃ duḥkham. Everything, namely, the skandhas, āyatanas and dhātus are suffering, and this suffering should be known completely.

b. Duhkhasamudayas tṛṣṇā. The origin of the suffering is desire. According to the immutable process of pratītyasamutpāda, birth (janman) is conditioned by action (karman), and action itself is conditioned by passion (kleśa). The desire which is the origin of this suffering must be abandoned (prahātavya).

c. Duḥkhanirodho nirvāṇam. The cessation of the suffering marking the stopping of pratītyasamutpāda is nirvāṇa. This cessation must be realized (sākṣātkartavya).

d. Duḥkhanirodhagāminī pratipan mārgaḥ. The path that leads to the cessation of suffering is the path of nirvāṇa, and this path must be cultivated (bhāvayitavya).

There is nothing to be changed in this formula, good in meaning as well as in letter; as the emperor Aśoka said: “Everything that the Buddha Bhagavat said is well said.”

Nevertheless, influenced by the teaching of non-self, the śrāvakas and pratyekabuddhas have modified the formula and, as expressed by the tongue of Buddhaghosa (Visuddhimagga, p. 436), they interpreted it in the following way:

a. Dukkham eva hi, na koci dukkhito. Yes, there is suffering, but nothing has been made to be painful.

b. Kārako na, kiriyā va vijjati. There is no agent, but activity exists. In other words, conditioned origination exists, but in the absence of any personal agent.

c. Atthi nibutti, na nibutto pumā. There is extinction, but nobody is extinct. Nirvāṇa exists, but the nirvanized one does not exist.

d. Maggam atthi, gamako na vijjati. There is a Path, but nobody to travel on it.

Finally, impressed by the twofold emptiness of beings and things, the bodhisattvas embarked on the Mahāyāna give their interpretation in turn (Dhyāyitasamuṣtisūtra, cited in Mad. vṛtti, p. 517, 13–15):

a. Yenānutpannāḥ sarvadharmā dṛṣṭās tena duḥkhaṃ parijñātam. He who sees that no dharma is produced knows suffering completely.

b. Yenāsamutthitāḥ sarvadharmā dṛṣṭās tasya samudayaḥ prahīṇaḥ. He who sees that no dharma arises, for him the origin is destroyed.

c. Yenātyantaparinirvṛtāḥ sarvadharmādṛṣṭās tena nirodhaḥ sākṣātkṛtaḥ. He who has seen that all dharmas without exception are parinirvanized has realized cessation.

d. Yenātyantaśūnyāḥ sarvadharmā dṛṣṭās tena mārgo bhāvitaḥ. He who sees that all dharmas are completely empty has cultivated the Path.

In other words, saṃsāra, or the world of suffering, has never existed (truth of suffering); the pratītyasamutpāda supposed to control its production and its destruction has never functioned (truth of the origin); nirvāṇa marking the end of suffering has always been acquired (truth of cessation) without the path leading to it having been traveled (truth of the path).

Therefore, of the three seals of the Dharma imprinted on the Buddhadharmasarvasaṃskārā anityāḥ, sarvadharmā anātmanaḥ, śāntaṃ nirvāṇam (references in Traité, p. 1369F) – only the Śāntaṃ nirvāṇam is valid, but the latter leads to a pure and simple absence of natures: “Thus, although it is said in the Mahāyāna that dharmas are not born, do not perish and have but one single nature, namely the absence of nature (ekalakṣaṇā yadutālakṣaṇāḥ), this absence of nature is precisely śāntaṃ nirvāṇam. It is the object of the concentration recollecting the Dharma (dharmānusmṛtisamādhi), the object of the knowledge (jñānālambana) that exhausts all the qualities of the bodhisattvas and pratyekabuddhas” (Traité, p. 1382F).

3. Spontaneous elimination of negation.

If the Mādhyamika were limited to destroying the idea of existence by the idea of non-existence, it would not be different from the fatal nihilism. But the idea of non-existence is not posed in opposition to the idea of existence and, when the latter has disappeared, the idea of non-existence, not being applied to anything, would disappear by itself without any need to combat it. All the Mādhyamika scholars agree on this reasoning.

In his Madh. kār., XVIII, 7 (cited by the Traité, p. 45F and 323F), Nāgārjuna says:

Nivṛttam abhidhātavyaṃ nivṛtte cittagocare |
anutpannāniruddhā hi nirvāṇām iva dharmatā ||

Translation. –

When the object of the mind has been destroyed, all preaching is put to an end. Actually, the nature of things is unborn, non-destroyed, like nirvāṇa.

Another stanza, but with a different import, is cited by the Traité, p. 1610F: “Eliminate the views of existence and of non-existence and the mind itself will be inwardly extinguished.”

Candrakīrti expanded at length on this topic (cf. La Vallée Poussin, Madhyamaka, p. 53–54), but as has already been noted (p. 1229F), the final word is left incontestably to that of Śāntideva in his Bodhicaryāvatāra, IX, § 33–35:

Śūnyatāvāsanādhānād dhīyate bhāvavāsanā |
kiṃcin nāstīti cābhyāsāt sāpi paścāt prahīyate ||

Yadā na labhyate bhāvo yo nāstīti prakalpyate |
tadā nirāśrayo ‘bhāvaḥ kathaṃ tiṣṭhen mateḥ puraḥ ||

Yadā na bhāvo nābhāvo mateḥ saṃtiṣṭhate puraḥ |
tadānyagatyabhāvena nirālambā praśamyati ||

Transl. L. de La Vallée Poussin. –

When one assumes the idea of the void, when one is impregnated by it, the idea of existence disappears; and later, by the habit of this thought that “nothing exists”, the idea of the void itself is eliminated.

Actually, when one no longer perceives [as a result of the elimination of the idea of existence] an existence that one is able to deny, how then would non-existence, already deprived of support, present itself to the mind?

And when neither existence nor non-existence present themselves to the mind, then, not having any more material [to affirm or deny], the two modes of action, the mind is pacified.

Thus this reality (tattva) imagined by worldly people (pṛthagjana), seen by the saints (ārya) and which the Buddha himself, out of pity for beings and not wanting to alarm them, sometimes pretended to accept (see, e.g., Udāna, p. 80–81; Itivuttaka, p. 37–38), vanishes into smoke. By having repudiated it and by using śūnyatā, the Mahāyānist inevitably ends up by no longer conceiving of it and still less talking about it. There is nothing to say about it, for that which is not an object of mind cannot be spoken of.

The wise see reality by not seeing it (adarśanayogena) and, not seeing it, they say nothing. This philosophical silence observed so completely by Vimalakīrti (cf. Vimalakīrtinirdeśa, French transl., p. 317–318) is the prerogative of the omniscient buddhas as well as the great bodhisattvas who, starting from the eighth bhūmi, have acceded to the full complete conviction that dharmas do not arise (anutpattikadharma-kṣāntipratilabdha); rather than the most eloquent discourses, silence is ‘buddha activity’ and converts beings (ibid., p. 342F). Evidently, this is true only in apparent truth, open to all the fantasies; in absolute truth, nothing comes and nothing has gone. Candrakīrti opportunely recalls it in his Madh. avatāra, p. 111, by citing an extract of the Āryasathadvayāvatāra: “O devaputra, the paramārthasatya cannot be taught. Why? He who teaches it, what is taught, and the person to whom it is taught, all these things do not truly arise (parmārthato na prabhavanti). Non-arisen things cannot be taught by non-arisen things, etc.” (Lhaḥi bu don dam paḥi bden pa ni bstan par mi nusa so || de ciḥi phyir zhe na | gaṅ gi ston pa daṅ ci ston pa daṅ | gaṅ la ston paḥi chos de dag thams cad ni don dam par rab tu ma skyes paḥo || rab tu ma skyes paḥi chos rnams bśad par mi nus rgya cher gsuṇs pa |).

In his Madh, vṛtti, p. 537–538, Candrakīrti uses the same reasoning in regard to nirvāṇa. It could have been taught if some dharma existed as existence in itself (yadi kaścid dharmo nāma svabhāvarūpataḥ syāt), if there were some beings to hear it (yadi kecit sttvās tasya dharmasya śrotāraḥ syuḥ) and if there were some Buddha to teach it (kaścid vā deśitā Buddhaḥ syāt). As this is not the case, nirvāṇa leads to the non-functioning of speech and mind (vācāṃ cittasyāpravṛttiḥ); and the absence of the object of cognition (jñeya) and of the cognition itself (jñāna) is bliss (śiva).

Philosophical wisdom is not a simple silence; it is closely joined to the abstention of practice, and the Mahāyāna is easily defined as the cutting off of all speech and all practice (cf. Vimalakīrti, transl. p. 358, n. 5: sarvavādacaryoccheda). It is true that a good part of the career of the bodhisattva is dedicated to the practice of the six pāramitās and nobody will think of blaming them. Nevertheless, if the bad practices are reprehensible, the good ones are hardly any better, for in the long run they appear to be fatal. But if they are empoisoned at all, foods, disgusting or appetizing, are to be avoided. And so the Buddha described abstention from practices as the noble practice (āryacarya), for it is the most in accord with the true nature of dharmas (Traité, p. 111F-1113F).

‘Non-speaking’ and ‘non-acting’, when all is said and done, rests on pacification of the mind.

4. Mental peace and bliss.

If any concept has played a major rôle in Buddhism, it is indeed that of the mind (citta), the mind (manas) or consciousness (vijñāna), a temporary phenomenon among all but one of prodigious dynamism.

The canonical sūtras and the early scholasticism have the vijñāna as the fifth skandha and the last six dhātus. The mind (citta) is a saṃskṛta, a conditioned dharma, since it too arises in dependence on dharmas as object and on the manas as organ (S. II, p. 72; IV, p. 87: Manañ ca paṭicca dhamme ca upajjati manoviññāṇaṃ). It is fleeting since, in the time of a finger-snap (acchaṭāmātreṇa) there are sixty moments (kṣaṇa) and, in each of these moments, the mind is born and perishes. Worldly people think it is eternal, but that is a fatal mistake (viparyāsa) that must be overcome by fixing the attention (smṛtyupasthāna) on the mind (Traité, p. 1162–1167F).

Nevertheless, and according to the same texts, the mind has immense power, for it is that which controls the destinies of beings. Saṃsāra is due to actions (karman) thought about and voluntary. Action is thinking (cetanā,), for it is by ‘thinking’ that one acts by body, speech and mind; action ripens as feelings in the five destinies, in the course of the present existence, in the future existence or even later (A. III, p. 415). The fortunate or unfortunate lifetimes that accumulate in the course of the long night of saṃsāra are the fruits of ripening (vipākaphala) of thoughts of actions, good or bad. The result is that “the world is led by the mind, is controlled by the mind: everything obeys this one dharma, the mind” (S. I, p. 39: Cittena nīyati loko cittena parikissati, cittassa ekadhammassa sabbeva vasaṃ anvagu). Nirvāṇa, the asaṃskṛta situated opposite to saṃsāra, is in no way a fruit of ripening, but presupposes the neutralization of actions and the pacification of the mind by means of destruction of lust (rāga), hatred (dveśa) and delusion (moha); rather, it is this destruction (S. IV, p. 251: Rāgakkhayo dosakkhayo mohakkhayo idaṃ vuccati nibbāṇaṃ).

All of that is well and good, replies the Mādhyamika, but it holds only in relative truth and, furthermore, you are searching for midday at 2 in the afternoon. When you devote yourself daily to the smṛtyupasthānas, you acknowledge that the mind is a saṃskṛtadharma due to causes and conditions, that it is impermanent and, as such, far from being a self in itself, eternal and immutable, is empty of ‘me’ and ‘mine’. For my part, I would have you note that a dharma empty of ‘me’ and ‘mine’ is devoid of intrinsic nature and of dharma characteristics and that, in real truth, it is without birth or destruction. The mind does not escape this verdict. The Prajñāpāramitāsūtras (P., p. 121, 12–122, 12; Ś., p. 495, 3–21) do indeed speak of a luminosity of the mind (cittasya prabhāsvaratā), but they tell us immediately that it is a ‘non-mind mind’ (cittam acittam) and that, in this absence of mind (acittatā), the existence or non-existence of the mind does not occur, is not perceived (astitā vā na vidyate nopalabhyate). When we as Mahāyānists practice the cittasmṛtyupasthāna, we will discover that the mind is only the fruit of mistakes (viparyāsa) and errors (bhrānti), and we will subscribe to this passage of the Traité (p. 1192F) that says: “The mind is empty (śūnya), without self (anātman), without ‘mine’ (anātmiya), impermanent (anitya) and non-existent (asat)…To know that the nature of the mind is without birth is to enter into the dharmas that do not arise. Why? Because this mind is without birth, without intrinsic nature and without characteristics. The wise person can know it, and, although he considers the characteristics of arising (utpāda) and destruction (nirodha) of this mind, he finds in it no real arising and no destruction. Not distinguishing in it any defilement (saṃkleśa) or purification (vyavadāna), he discovers this luminosity of the mind (cittasya prabhāsvaratā), a luminosity by virtue of which the mind is not defiled by the adventitious passions (na khalv āgantukair upakleśair upakliśyate).”

You śrāvakas have long before us practiced the saṃjñāvedayitanirodhasamāpatti, the absorption of the cessation of concept and feeling, a cessation that you realize bodily; you yourselves have dived into the śūnyatānimittapraṇihitasamādhi (cf. above, p. 1213F-1215F) and have thus crossed over what you yourselves call the doors of deliverance (vimokṣamukha) or nirvāṇa. We meet each other on this point, with the difference that the result to which you lean we ourselves consider as having been acquired from the very beginning. For us, nirvāṇa resides in the pacification of the mind (cittasopaśama) or, to express it more bluntly, in the fact that the mind does not think (acittatā). What is true for the mind is valid also for all dharmas: “The true nature of dharmas is the absence of nature”. Thus rid of this absolute, which is not so, we keep ourselves, sick as we are, from hypostatizing anew. But perhaps we are incurable (acikitsya).


We can only conclude this lengthy explanation by citing a passage from Candrakīrti (Vṛtti, p. 351, 4–11) in which L. de La Vallée Poussin (Madhyamaka, p. 53) has aroused interest and has translated as a summary:

Evaṃ yogino ’pi śūnyatādarśanāvasthā niravaśeṣaskandhadhātvāyatanāni svarūpato nopalabhante | na cānupalabhamānā vastusvarūpaṃ tadviṣayaṃ prapañcam avatārayanti | na cānavatārya tadvoṣayaṃ prapañcaṃ vikalpam avatārayanti | na cānavatārya vikalpam ahaṃ mamety abhiniveśāt satkāyadṛṣṭimūlakaṃ kleśagaṇam utpādayanti | na cānutpādya satkāyadṛṣṭyādikaṃ kleśagaṇaṃ karmāṇi kurvanti | na cākurvāṇāḥ jātijarāmaraṇākhyaṃ saṃsāram anubhavanti || tad evam aśeṣaprapañcośamaśivalakṣaṇāṃ śūnyatām āgamya yasmād aśeṣakalpanājālaprapañcavigamo bhavati | prapañcavigamāc ca vikalpanivṛttiḥ | vikalpanivṛttyā cāśeṣakarmakleśanivṛttiḥ | karmakleśanivṛttyā ca janmanivṛttiḥ | tasmāc śūnyataiva sarvaprapañcanivṛttilakṣaṇatvān nirvāṇam ity ucyate |

Transl. –

Thus, established in the vision of emptiness, the yogins no longer perceive the skandhas, dhātus and āyatanas as being things. Not perceiving them as things, they do not fall into futile proliferation about them. Not falling into futile proliferation about them, they do not fall into thought-constructions [fantasies]. Not falling into thought-constructions, they do not produce this jumble of passions having as root the belief in the individual resulting from a [blind] attachment to ‘me’ and ‘mine’. Not producing this jumble of passions beginning with the belief in the individual, they no longer perform actions. No longer performing actions, they do not experience the transmigrations called ‘birth, old age and death’. Thus, when they have reached emptiness the beneficial nature of which is the pacification of all futile chatter, there is for them the total disappearance of the string of thought-constructions or (and) futile proliferation; by the disappearance of futile proliferation, the abolition of thought-constructions, by the abolition of thought-construction, the abolition of all actions and passions; by the abolition of actions and passions, abolition of birth; thus emptiness itself, having as characteristic the abolition of all futile chatter, is called nirvāṇa.

Because it abolishes all prapañcahi louen in Chinese, spros pa in Tibetan – emptiness is nirvāṇa. It is indeed this Middle Way which the Buddha taught to his disciples in the Sermon of Benares:

“This Middle Way discovered by the Tathāgata, a path that opens one’s eyes, produces knowledge and leads to pacification, to enlightenment, to nirvāṇa”

(Vin. I, p.10; Catuṣpariṣad, p. 140: Majjhimā paṭipadā tathāgatena abhisambuddhā cakkhukaraṇī ñānakaraṇī upasamāya abhiññāya sambodhāya nibbānāya saṃvattati).

Of weak faculties, the śrāvakas believed that this Middle Way was still to be traveled; the bodhisattvas, deeply penetrating the profound meaning of the Buddha, know that it is already traveled, that nirvāṇa is acquired by all, forever, because there has never been a saṃsāra. Nirvāṇa is none other than the pacification of the mind in the seeing of emptiness. When this vision itself has vanished, pacification is complete.

Footnotes and references:


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